Actions

Work Header

The Woes of Growing Pains

Work Text:

In his defense, Shen Yuan didn’t even know that he had transmigrated into Proud Immortal Demon Way at first. Dying and reincarnating into a web series you hate (it’s hate, a smidge of loathing, but it’s hate and he will fight anyone who says otherwise) is a seriously wild ride okay? For one, he came back as a fucking teenager, and for another, there wasn’t exactly a handy guide or pamphlet for him to read that goes— “Welcome to your new world~” or something.

All he knew is that one minute he was cursing out Airplane-Shooting-Towards-The-Sky, only feeling a yank in his navel— when everything went black, then white, and when he opened his eyes he was getting pulled out of a hole in the ground by some kid in xianxia cosplay. In a fucking forest.

It was very disorienting, okay?

So when the elegantly dressed man towering before him asked who he was, he told him the truth. His name was Shen Yuan, had a brief internal crisis at how high his voice was, and promptly snapped his mouth shut. Then the man asked him to come with him and well, not really knowing what else to do, he followed.

Hey, it was either that or probably climbing back in the hole that they dragged him out of to have a mental breakdown. Really, it was the better option even if the whole situation screamed ‘stranger danger’.

It’s only that evening, after getting spoken to for an absurd amount of time, then shoved off to some springs to go bathe that something happens.

A digital start-up noise chimes, a pixel blue screen appearing before him.

[Welcome, Welcome, Welcome! Important things must be said three times!]

What.

[User: Peerless Cucumber, congratulations on your successful transmigration into Proud Immortal Demon Way! Activation code: ‘Stupid Author, Stupid Novel’ successfully redeemed. There are no refunds.]

What?

[Error detected. Error detected. Error detected. An incorrect name was given during Initiation. Aborting Character Override. User, please standby.]

Shen Yuan stares at the loading screen. Character override?

[ 20%]

[ 36%]

[ 49%]

[ 78%]

[ ... ]

The screen pixelates. [Error, cannot complete override. Error, cannot halt override. Error in save files. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please standby as we attempt to fix the problem. The override is being refiled as an Alias file for the host to prevent continuity errors.]

This novel has tons of continuity errors, what’s one fucking more!?

[ Alias ‘Shen Yuan’ created for the host to use as a disciple. The name ‘Shen Jiu’ will be archived.]

Shen Jiu? Who was that??

[Shen Jiu, later known as Shen Qingqiu. That is your new body, Dear User.]

...what?

Flickers cause the pixelation of the screen to get worse.

[Error, Error, Error! File corrupted, Character File Shen 9 cORR-corrUpr---] Binary Code starts appearing in glitches. [System reboot neces̵s̵a̸r̶y̷.̸ ̸U̶s̷e̷r̵ ̶d̸o̶e̸s̴ ̷n̴o̸t̷ ̶h̶a̸v̵e̵ ̶a̷c̸c̸e̴s̷s̴ ̵t̷o̵ ̸A̷d̸m̴i̴n̸i̵s̷t̶r̵a̶t̵o̶r̴ ̴f̶u̵n̴c̴t̶i̷o̸n̴s̸.] The screen goes blue.

What the actual fuck.

[Ṣ̷͊͝y̶̹s̷̭̈̆ť̷͉͍ȩ̴́m̵͉̲̆ ̶̠̒R̷̈́̄ḛ̷͗̒b̶̹̚o̶̪͐ơ̷̜͚͛t ̶̺̅I̷̙̫̔̋m̴̳̅͝p̶̱͌ó̴̱̺ș̵͖̋̀s̸͖̈́̄ḯ̸͔͙b̶̮l̸͍̺͂̈́ȩ̵͘.]

[St̴͍̽a̷̯͂n̶̥̅ď̷̪b̵̰̊y̶̰̎ ̵͍̄m̵̗͐o̸͇͝d̶̳̆e̴̝͝ ̴͈ì̸͔n̸̥͐ỉ̵̲t̴̳͐i̵̼a̴̗͂ṫ̴̹e̴̻̎d̷̨͠.]

Shen Yuan stares at the glitching screen. It violently shutters back to a pale blue.

[We hope you enjoy your transmigration!]

The screen goes black, then winks out of existence.

Somewhere, a bird chirps in the distance. Shen Yuan stares at the space where the screen once was.

“... what just happened?”

___

That had been months ago.

There was no word from the System after it’s half hazard... sleep mode? Maybe shut down. So it’s safe to assume he’s on his own. Probably for the best, the stupid thing sounded like it would have made him act like Shen Qingqiu, the shittiest villain ever, which would be counter-productive to not ending up like human stick anyway.

Now, Shen Yuan had gotten used to his life as a run of the mill disciple at Qing Jing Peak. The food was bland, there was no internet, but there was at least always something to do aside from lessons. The current peak lord, the tall man from his first day, is known as Fai Renqiu. He is a portly, yet towering man with long dark brown hair and crescent glasses. As peak lord, he is often seen overseeing classes led by older disciples, whom he teaches personally.

He doesn’t run into the peak lord a lot, which is wonderful. Some disciples make noise about him being too old to start cultivating— but Shen Yuan is too excited about actually being able to get spiritual powers to care. The comments stop once they get bored and realize they can’t get more than a shrug out of him. Because really, he’s an adult reliving his teens, who cares what NPC children think? He gets to learn magic!

There are also more pressing concerns to address. Like getting used to his new face, adapting to puberty part two is a nightmare, and don’t get him started on learning calligraphy. The most important issue of all though is avoiding his death flags.

Sure, he’s not Shen Qingqiu— Jiu? Whatever, he’s not him and no one here knew him before becoming a disciple. All he has to do is fade into the background while performing nothing noteworthy! No one can call him out for not behaving like the original goods might have, thank god. Or is it gods now? Does God with a capital G even exist in this setting??

... Not important.

As for ‘The Plan’ when dealing with Luo Binghe: Don’t!

Forget hugging the protagonist’s thighs, once he can properly cultivate Shen Yuan plans on leaving the peaks. Hell, he’ll leave the continent and be the protagonist of his own life, thank you very much! Peak Lord Shen? Nope, Fai Renqiu can keep his peak!

However, there is the fact that he’s now stuck in Xianxia fantasyland. Where it was entirely possible to die of infections from even a paper cut because antibiotics aren’t a thing anymore (and let’s be real, that’s legitimately terrifying).

So the first plan of attack to avoid a stupid death? Set out to befriend the most well-known healer from the novel, Mu Qingfang.

It’s a sound enough idea. Trying to seek out any future wives with healing abilities is just asking for the protagonist to rip off all his limbs. Mu Qingfang is neutral territory, who also survived the worlds merging at the end of the novel. There are some scenes where he appears to help the first few wives with childbirth but that’s all he gets.

Shen Yuan has tried reading the medical texts housed on the peak and while the Qi circulation portions make sense-- the acupuncture, herbal poultice, and tonics are just going in one ear and out the other. Shen Yuan gets so sidetracked one evening that he goes from looking at a standard stamina tonic’s ingredients to reading facts about the cheetah tailed lizards used in them, to reading the bestiary for reptiles until 2 am.

Sooo, not a healer. Those lizard facts are totally worth the punishment essay he has to write about them for breaking curfew though.

There’s only one glaring issue with the whole ‘befriend-the-healer’ plan: Mu Qingfang is not a peak lord yet.

‘Qing’ is the name bestowed to Shen Qingqiu’s generations of Peak Lords, under Yue Qingyuan. So ‘Qingfang’ isn’t even his name, which means he has no idea how to look for the guy or if he’s even on the peaks yet, given immortality and what not. The stupid author didn’t even bother to describe the peak lord in the main plot of the novel! Wife number 36 is famous for getting five whole pages dedicated to her appearance, but the best healer in the realms? Not a single sentence! Such bullshit!!

It’s a good thing that Qing Jing and Qian Cao peaks are close enough in proximity and relation that there is always intermingling among disciples. Apparently, while some older disciples of Qing Jing are scholars of the arts, there are also ones of the sciences. This means that there are typically groups of researchers going about, and it’s not unusual to see older Qian Cao students on lone to Qing Jing to utilize their famous library— or even teaming up together to tackle projects together.

It’s nice that the soft greens and muted browns of their peak's colors go well together too.

As a junior disciple, Shen Yuan doesn’t get much interaction with other peaks, he’s still training. Which is why he makes it a point to use his free periods to help direct Qian Cao disciples around the peak. Hey, if you don’t know which one is the guy you wanna cozy up to, better off playing nice with all of them.

One of the older Qian Cao disciples, a tonics specialist by the name of Quin Yan, has taken up waving at Shen Yuan whenever he sees the other or asks him for spare ink stones when they are in the library together. Once that happens, others begin stopping Shen Yuan for directions and random questions.

It’s not out of the ordinary when one day, he’s drawn out of another bestiary scroll by a lanky boy in brown robes. He’s got sleepy, but intelligent eyes, and a calming presence.

“Hello, do I have the pleasure of speaking to Disciple Shen?” Even his voice is soothing, no wonder he’s on Qian Cao.

Placing a ribbon in his spot, Shen Yuan stands. “That is correct, how may I be of assistance?”

“Disciple Quin informed this one that you would be able to direct me to where the botany texts are located.”

“Of course, this way please.” As they walk Shen Yuan looks at the guy beside him, “May I ask, how is Quin-shixiong’s newest tonic going?”

“I assume Disciple Shen means the one to help with lethargy?”

“That is correct.”

“Well, the test tonic worked. However, Quin-shixiong hasn’t been to sleep in over two days.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes, he calls the brew a ‘mixed success’.” Shen Yuan has to fight the urge to laugh because really, that’s a horrible pun. Given the amused look that the Qian Cao disciple gives him, he’s not doing a very good job of it.

“This humble one was asked to verify the common plants used in a Sleeping draught. It would be unwise for Shixiong to take one without cross-referencing any potential side effects to the ingredients to his tonic.”

“At least our Shixiong is cautious.” The flat look he gets in response causes a snort to escape. Quin Yan is widely known for his brews blowing up in his face, and self-induced poisoning. The man is brilliant, if not slightly unhinged, but Shen Yuan respects him for it.

It’s late enough in the day that the Library is bustling with activity. There isn’t a ‘quiet’ rule in effect because Fai Renqiu strives to encourage academic discussions and questions. This happens to be one of the few days the library is overflowing though. Shen Yuan weaves him past various low tables of students arguing over theories and formations of talismans, one group, in particular, is discussing if placement enhances potency. They keep walking and eventually reach the shelving with the Botany scrolls.

“Here you are Disciple-- Ah, my apologies I never asked for your name.”

“That’s quite alright, this one is called Mu Shao.”

Shen Yuan freezes.

Mu Qingfang?! Maybe?? Possibly? He’s the only ‘Mu’ from Qian Cao that he knows of and this is following the vague pre-novel timeline, but Mu Qingfang would have been a disciple as well since Yue Qingyuan is still not a sect leader yet. The chances of it being him are high.

Thankfully, Mu Shao is too absorbed in looking for the correct scroll to notice his silence.

Shouting startles Shen Yuan out of his thoughts. One of the girls at the talismans group is loudly complaining, “Your angles are an insult to mathematicians everywhere-”, “It’s just numbers-”, “Numbers hold power, you simpleton!”

Mu Shao is looking rather uncomfortable with all the noise. Unfortunately, texts are not allowed off-peak, no matter the circumstances.

Well, might as well make a good impression.

“Assuming Disciple Mu isn’t opposed, the classrooms are typically empty at this time of day. Would you like to reference the scroll there?” Shen Yuan knows that they’re empty because he often goes back to them to get quiet studying done.

Mu Shao’s shoulders slump with relief, “many thanks.”

The room is empty when they arrive, the only sound being the breeze that rustles leaves of bamboo stalks from the open-air window.

Personally, while he would love to interrogate the crap out of Mu Shao to confirm his identity, he can’t. There isn’t anything to ask. What will happen only happens in the future, and the teen before him can’t answer anything. Not to mention that going ‘hey, you’re the future peak lord right?’ sounds insane.

Shen Yuan internally resigns himself to accepting this kid is his best bet, and if not hopefully he’ll still make a healer friend in the process. While Mu Shao copies his notes in peace Shen Yuan wanders off to acquire some tea to drink, which is graciously accepted, then settles in across the table to continue his own readings on winged snakes— which he’s pretty sure is a reference to Aztec mythology, given how they harness light from the sun to fly. But also it’s just really fucking cool.

Some time passes this way, as Shen Yuan reads while Mu Shao compares the effects of lavender vs eucalyptus as a relaxant. He takes a moment, glancing at Mu Shao's notes, granted they're upside down, and it’s interesting... but not as interesting as this breed of Boulder Wombats, a half rock half mammal creature that can be found rolling down cliff tops to either escape predators or smash prey.

But now that he is distracted, Shen Yuan can’t help but think of other stuff modern people use to relax. Sound therapy was a big thing, but that may get him looks for being a bit of a loon here. He vaguely remembers his sister having a prescription for THC oil for her anxiety.

Then a thought occurs to him that marijuana could exist here and that opens up a whole other can of worms that he is completely unprepared to deal with— when Mu Shao leans back, stretching his arms about his head.

“Disciple Shen is a gracious host.”

“Disciple Mu is an equally courteous guest.”

He gets a rueful smile, “Not many would let one take their time with a scroll from a library as renown as Qing Jing’s. This one has witnessed others being berated for looking at some for too long.”

“That’s bullshit.” Both boys blink at Shen Yuan’s words. Right, shit, manners. “Um, ah, what I mean is—”

“It is rather stupid isn’t it?” Mu Shao is smiling again, this time it reaches his eyes.

Shen Yuan returns it, “It’s completely stupid, the books are there for us to learn from. Not watch collecting dust.”

Mu Shao nods, “That wastes the potential of knowledge in those scrolls.”

“Speaking of, have you heard about former Disciple Zan?”

“I knew the fool didn’t study, but any healer worth their stuff can identify Boyesen berries from poison berries.”

“But he ate them to prove a point!”

“His dismissal from the peaks was lovely to watch.”

Shen Yuan snorts, encouraging Mu Shao’s laughter.

“I think I’m looking forward to my next visit, Shen-shidi.”

“Likewise Mu-Shidi.”

__

Time continues to pass in more of the same fashion. On the occasion Mu Shao is granted leave to visit the peak, Shen Yuan makes time to have tea and chat with him again. The same is said for him when it is Shen Yuan’s turn to be a courier to Qian Cao for restocking emergency tonics or acquiring herbs for the older disciples.

Calligraphy has gone from being a pain to an art; Shen Yuan is becoming more adept at using a brush but there are still days he misses ballpoint pens. As for laying low, there was a blunder when he was given the spotlight for aimlessly writing out lyrics from a breakup song on a poetry assignment he didn’t feel like doing. Which, of course, caused the older disciples to go absolutely bat-shit. The words ‘genius’ and prodigy’ were thrown around. Especially over the line, ‘For, you are nothing but a cold heart covered in gold.’

Listen, it’s not plagiarism if the source doesn’t exist in the first place.

One disciple who was going through a particularly sour courting process was spotted throwing the line at her former suitor in a tea shop. Which, you know, good for her. But then everyone was using it. Peak Lord Fai Renqiu even gave him praise, so yeah, never doing that again.

Music is not much of a struggle either. Posh parents meant lessons growing up. For the first time, he’s grateful that his grandmother made him take erhu lessons instead of violin. Of course, there is mathematics, but it seems that the ancient world has only gone as far as algebra at this point so that isn’t too bad either.

Spiritual awareness is by far his favorite subject. Peak Lord Fai Renqiu says he’s a little behind in core development but honestly, that’s not much of a bother. The fact that he can even get a golden core is amazing in itself. The original goods was written to be good at this sort of thing, so his body’s natural adaptation coupled with his enthusiasm is quickly helping to make up for lost ground.

Sword training is good fun— right up until it isn’t. There’s so much to wielding one, while Shen Yuan is decent at drills... actual combat training is another story. Everything aches. There are bruises on top of his bruises; this qualifies for child abuse and, if he wasn’t being properly educated otherwise, he would sue.

It’s early in the morning, almost a year into his transmigration when something out of the ordinary happens.

Shen Yuan is dragging his aching body to Qian Cao to badger more bruise balm out of Mu Shao, whose only free time is fucking pre-dawn early. No one else is usually up at this time, because anyone sane is usually still sleeping, so his half-asleep brain doesn’t register another person on the path to hear his irritating grumblings.

“It’s too fucking early for this shit. ‘Come early,’ he said. ‘Dawn is lovely.’ My bed is lovely and I could be in it right now but noo—”

A yelp of pain squeaks out at a sudden hand grabbing his forearm, right over a bruise. Shen Yuan yanks his arm out of the grip with a glare. “Do you mind?”

A guy is intently staring at him, face pale and jaw slack with shock. He’s wearing peak robes but in the uncommon Xuan Duan style. When he keeps staring, Shen Yuan’s half-asleep brain decides it’s best to fill the silence.

“You do realize that grabbing at people on their way to Qian Cao is a stupid thing to do right? Most people visiting the peak are injured, if not obviously— but be more considerate.”

“X-xiao Jiu?”

The endearment throws Shen Yuan and his tired brain for such a loop help can’t help but blurt— “Who?”

The look of utter loss on the guy’s face makes him more worried. “This.. do you not...Qi-ge...”

“Um, okay, Shixiong? This one thinks you need to see a healer.”

“But—”

“I think you’re mistaking this disciple for someone else Shixiong.” To be frank, he really doesn’t want to be anywhere near this strange guy, but he can’t exactly let this handsy disciple run amok on Qian Cao of all places. “If you’ll kindly follow this one.”

The poor guy is so shaken up that he lets himself be guided by Shen Yuan to one of the practice nursing rooms. Mu Shao is already there, a fire going in the hearth to the far side of the room, jotting down notes beside a steeping pot of tea and two cups.

“Disciple Mu?”

Mu Shao looks up with a blink, then blinks again and is immediately by Shen Yuan’s side.

“What happened to Head Disciple Yue?”

“I’m not sure, he grabbed me on my way here and has been confusing me for someone else.”

Wait- head disciple?

The man in question speaks up. “A-apologies, if I may sit?”

Mu Shao guides him to the nurse bed swiftly, then proceeds to give Disciple Yue a quick examination. He’s a little nervous but otherwise conducts the whole thing professionally. Shen Yuan checks the tea, then finds another cup, pours it out for the three of them. He can feel Disciples Yue’s eyes on him the whole time, even as he answers Mu-Shidi’s questions.

He walks over with a steaming cup of tea in his hands, and at Mu Shao’s nod holds it out for Disciple Yue with a friendly smile.

“For Head Disciple Yue, I don’t believe we have met before. This one is Shen Yuan of Qing Jing Peak.”

The cup is accepted as Disciple Yue shuts his eyes. “My apologies for accosting you in the early morning Disciple Shen.”

“That’s quite alright.” It’s not, but he’s not going to tell a head disciple that.

Mu-Shidi is still frowning, “Shixiong, you seem to be perfectly healthy other than some slight shock. Could you impart to me what rattled you so?”

There’s a hollow laugh before sigh. “This one is ashamed to admit it, but... Disciple Shen your mannerisms and appearance this morning... I thought you to be the spirit of a long-deceased friend.”

...Yep, that’s not awkward at all.

“I’m sorry for your loss Shixiong.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” He opens his eyes and there’s something profoundly sad in them. “You look so much like an older version of him...”

Mu Shao, the angel he is clears his throat, stepping in Disciples Yue’s line of sight. “If you don’t mind, head disciple Yue Qi, I’ll finish conducting the standard check-up.”

“Ah, yes, of course...”

Shen Yuan goes to the low table Mu-shidi had previously occupied to drink his tea. After another minute of poking and prodding, Mu Shao declares nothing to be wrong with Yue Qi.

“There seems to be some stress, thankfully your Qi has settled again. My only advice would be for you to find some time to meditate.”

“You have my thanks, Disciple Mu, was it? You are certainly a healer of caliber.”

“Your praise is encouraging Shixiong.” Mu Shao bows and Shen Yuan stands as well as Yue Qi turns to him. The sadness and grief that was once there is no longer in his eyes.

“Once more I must apologize to you, Disciple Shen. Thank you for your fast thinking and concern.”

“This humble one is happy to have helped.” Yue Qi stares for a second more before a faint smile appears on his lips. His expression reminding Shen Yuan of—

“My brother...”

The room is silent.

He can feel the heat blush that covers his entire face. “That is, um, you reminded me of my older brother. Just now. Er, he’s gone too--”

The look on Mu Shao’s face is what finally makes his mouth snap shut.

Oh god, kill me now.

Yue Qi is staring again. Then his smile turns into something much more alive. “That is very kind of you. I hope to see you both around.” Not trusting his mouth, Shen Yuan just nods as Yue Qi takes his leave.

A moment passes after the door closes.

“Well—”

“Shut up.”

“It’s okay, you can call me ‘gege’ too.”

“You dick--” Mu Shao bursts out laughing. With a huff, Shen Yuan sits back down.

“I’m so embarrassed. Talk about awkward.”

“You were handling it remarkably well, until the end of his stay”

“I compared him to my own brother. That’s so embarrassing.”

Mu Shao sits across from him, “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

Shen Yuan swallows some tea, “I had two, actually. And a younger sister.”

It doesn’t occur to him that there was anything odd to his statement until the lack of response.

There’s a blank look on Mu Shao’s face, his voice hardly above a whisper as he asks, “Had?”

Ah.

Shen Yuan nods, his expression becoming neutral. “I lost my family... sometime before coming to the peak. I’ve had time to adjust.”

“... I made a rather crude joke, I’m so sorry Shen-shidi.”

“Nonono, no, Mu-shidi, you were not aware. It’s not something I disclosed prior either.”

“Still, please forgive me.”

“Oh honestly, there’s nothing to forgive.” Mu Shao’s guilt is written on his face, so Shen Yuan swallows some of his pride and whines. “Mu-geeee.”

Mu Shao’s lip curls, the guilt instantly replaced by an utterly horrified look that sends Shen Yuan into a fit of laughter.

“Oh, heavens.”

“Ahahah, y-your face! Haha-”

“You were one of those siblings.”

Shen yuan wheezes, “holy shit.”

Mu-shidi playfully shoves a jar at him, “Just take your bruise balm and scram.”

__

Head disciple Yue Qi begins to drop by Qing Jing peak. It’s not too often, but frequent enough. At first, they didn’t speak much, but clearly, Shen Yuan was right about the doting brother trope because this man was acting like one.

He had tried to give Shen Yuan gifts, and it was weird but they were all useful items like a callus shaver, ink, and a very nice whetstone. Most of the time he just asks Shen Yuan how his day was going. Once he had accidentally spent the better part of an hour spouting off facts about snap jawed raccoons, which had been a rather embarrassing realization. But Yue Qi only smiled and asked a question about their diet— ‘If they can digest metals does that include precious stones?’ and off he went again.

It was all very nice, but truthfully, the best gift he was given was Yue Qi’s advice.

Shen Yuan is struggling in the athletics department. Academics and spiritual powers were progressing just fine, but strength was not his forte. A real shame considering you had to train both body and mind for a golden core. Yue Qi helped him develop a better training regimen and some standard core exercises. It’s tedious, his muscles still ache, but it becomes clear that he is gaining more muscle than before. With the improved strength comes endurance as well, soon he’s able to continue to actually wield a sword through practice drills.

It’s only after one of these friendly visits that it is made known to him by a starry-eyed Shimei that Yue Qi is one of the top contenders for the next seat as sec master. Because, of course, he was Yue Qingyuan— the second strongest person in the whole novel. The legend that made Luo Binghe, the fucking protagonist, hesitate.

And he’s accidentally befriended the guy by giving him a brother complex.

Holy fucking shit— score one in the staying-alive box.

Of course, there’s always a downside to everything.

Said ‘downside’ shows up out of the blue one day when Shen Yuan is tuning his erhu. There’s a commotion outside of his usual empty classroom door, which doesn’t concern him... except it’s getting louder, and people are yelling—

The door is thrown open in a show of huge force.

Shen Yuan’s breath catches in his throat.

A very, very, pretty boy is standing in the middle of the entryway. His ponytail sways in the air gracefully as it settles back down, his side bangs gently caressing his face, a beauty mark just below his eye. He’s dressed in the white and navy colors of Bai Zhan peak.

Wow. Talk about a looker.

Oh, wait, why is he glaring this way—

“Shen Yuan!” The guy barks, and it’s only now that he can see he’s practically radiating waves of ‘righteous fury.’

“Hello-?”

“I, Liu Zihao of Bai Zhan Peak, hereby challenge you to a duel!” She Yuan’s eyebrows fly high. Several people behind the guy gasp.

Ahahah... this is a joke, right?

Except... the guy, Liu Zihao, is very clearly not joking. Oh crap, he even has a sword. A real, legit, metal-that-will-slice-through-flesh sword; not one of those wooden sticks Shen Yuan is still using.

Murmurs are breaking out, some look scared, others are... trading coins. Which, rude, but also he has better things to do then be someone’s betting entertainment!

Liu Zihao rears up, “Fight me!”

Lmao, you’re fucking funny kid.

“No.”

It goes so quiet you can hear a pin drop. Liu Zihao’s eyes narrow, “I challenged you--”

“And now I’m declining.”

Kid, you really think I’m fighting a Bai Zhan disciple?

“Coward!” Wow, he has a prettier face when he’s not snarling. People are murmuring again and now Shen Yuan is just getting annoyed. He just wanted to play his instrument.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever met before. What are your grounds for attempting to challenge me?”

“You disrespect the head disciple of the peaks by wasting his time!”

Disrespect? Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.

Shen Yuan stands, leveling the boy with the most uninterested look he can muster. “So, just to clarify: you’re challenging me for actions that are not my own?” The murmuring picks up again. “You, Liu Zihao, are challenging Shen Yuan... for how Disciple Yue Qi chooses to spend his time.” Shen Yuan can see the exact moment the teenager starts to lose steam. He purses his lips, clearly trying to think of something to say.

He doesn’t give him the chance.

“You may be a Bai Zhan Disciple, but since you are on Qing Jing peak allow this one to impart some wisdom to you.” He looks him dead in the eye, “Violence for the sake of violence is the law of beasts, Not man. Consider the reason for your actions before doing something you’ll regret.”

This impact of his words lingers in the air.

Liu Zihao takes a sharp breath, anger coloring his face. “You—”

“Someone write that down!” comes the shout of an older Shixiong from the back of the crowd. There’s a flurry of the movement again as several Qing Jing disciples instantly shift from observers to the nerdy scholars they are, parchment and charcoal dipped sticks appearing out of nowhere.

“‘Violence for the sake of violence’-”, “Oh that’s so good-”, “I knew he was a prodigy-”, “Wait, you, Bai Zhen disciple, what was the second part he said-”, “Oh, actually, what was your name again? We need that for the record too.”

“What?” The sheer indignity in the guy’s voice makes a few other bystanders snicker. Between the sudden intensity of his fellow peers to the red-faced boy glaring at them all, Shen Yuan promptly decides he’s had enough.

He escapes out the back window.

__

“Shen Yuan! I’m here to challenge you--”

“... while I’m eating lunch?”

“Um...”

“Do you even have permission to be here midday? Doesn’t Bai Zhen prohibit ditching?”

“...”

“...”

“I’ll return.”

“Please, don’t.”

__

“I, Liu Zihao, am here to challenge Shen Yuan!”

“Oh! Greetings, I’m Disciple Quin. Apologies but Disciple Shen is assisting me with this tonic-- Wait, this is perfect! Here, Disciple Liu, drink this.”

“I’m not here for a tonic--”

“Yes, yes, but this is a perfect opportunity to test it. Please, drink it.”

“I will not.”

“Do it for science.”

“I don’t care about science.”

“...”

“... Where did Shen Yuan go-?”

“YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT SCIENCE?”

“Urk--”

“Oh, I’ll give you that fight pretty boy!”

__

“Hey!”

“Please leave me alone.”

“Fight me!”

“I’d rather not.”

“You will fight me!”

“I will not!”

__

“Shen Yuan!”

Mu Shao jumps at the sudden shout, tea spilling out of his cup as Shen Yuan closes his eyes for patience.

“Go away, I’m studying.”

“I challenge you—!”

“On what grounds?”

“You publicly humiliated me!”

“Ah, this one was under the impression you did that to yourself, Liu-shidi. You were the one who barged into the sister’s bathing area last time.”

Liu Zihao goes red so fast that it has to be a new record for the guy. Mu Shao covers his smile with a polite cough. The whole incident had gotten the brute in so much trouble that all the punishments meant he couldn’t come to harass Shen Yuan for a solid week. It was so nice.

“You tricked me!”

“This one did no such thing.” He did, but that secret will go with him to the grave. Perks of having long hair and being friends with enough of the older Jiejies to help him pull off pretending to be a sister for a few seconds in the baths then smuggle him out.

“Fight me like a man!”

“You call this abhorrent behavior manly?”

Wow, you can practically hear the guy grinding his molars.

“Now, Liu-shidi,” begins Mu Shao. “This one is currently in need of Shen-shidi’s assistance with his writing. If you could wait to continue this until after, I would be very grateful.”

Liu Zihao stares at Mu Shao.

“I’ll also treat you to a jar of my own concoction of bruise balm.”

That seems to be the deciding factor. Liu Zihao stalks up to their table before sitting at the far end of it. Shen Yuan glances at Mu Shao, who shrugs then goes right back to writing his rough draft of his essay on blood clots. Shen Yuan is incredibly skeptical of Liu Zihao’s ability to sit still but the guy settles into the lotus position and starts to meditate.

Huh, who knew.

Shen Yuan shrugs it off then, continues with his own independent study.

His course work for the week is long finished. As much as he hates working, it’s beneficial to get everything done the day it’s assigned. This method frees up the rest of his week to do absolutely nothing, it’s lovely. The instructors can't say anything about it either so long as he makes an effort to look busy when there are prying eyes.

At the moment, Shen Yuan is working on his pet project: a field compendium. There are many animals out and about in the world of PIDW, demonic and feral, that a useful guidebook would be incredibly helpful once he is actually assigned to night hunts. Let’s be honest, he has no idea how to react in a situation where something is actively trying to kill him. If there is a chance that his brain will go all ‘404 error’, then it’s better to be prepared.

He and Mu Shao have a trade-off, where he will provide Shen Yuan with pages of his own notes on flora in exchange for help with drafting academic papers and essays. Some people just don’t like writing. Mu Shao is one of them.

Time passes, the afternoon light creeping along the floor from the window.

“Alright, I hope this is sufficient Shen-Shidi.” Mu Shao slides the parchment across the table to him. Out of the corner of Shen Yuan’s eye, Liu Zihao finally stirs. Each time Shen Yuan brings his brush to make a mark, Mu Shao’s shoulders sink a bit. Funnily enough, Liu Zhao steadily gets tenser and tenser.

“Apologies, Mu-Shidi. Your introduction fails to address the actual topic of blood clotting. Furthermore, you spend an unnecessary amount of time on the dangers of clots. I think this could be halved, or substituted with preventative measures in its place.” Mu Shao sighs, his sleepy eyes making him look exhausted. “Every time we meet, I’m surprised by how good Shen-Shidi is at this.”

“I’ve had practice,” he slides the marked-up parchment back to Mu Shao. “My younger sister used to... er, get tutored. She would ask me to double-check her work to avoid a failing mark.”

There’s a scoff at the far end of the table. “Children need to learn from their mistakes.”

Shen Yuan shrugs, “That’s true, but they can also learn from other’s mistakes too. Not just their own.”

“Tch, you’re too soft.”

The door to the room slides open. “Kindness is not a weakness, young one.” Peak Lord Fai Renqiu stands in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back. In the blink of an eye, all three boys are standing, bowing as one in reverence to the lord.

“Disciple Shen.”

“Yes, Shizun.”

“I do not recall you submitting a permission slip to utilize this room after hours.”

Ahaha- fuck. That’s a thing? That’s a thing that I need to do???

Shen Yuan bows deeper, “Many apologies Shizun. This one did not think that it was necessary. I find a quiet environment to be much more beneficial for my own learning and did not want to risk damaging the library’s text by taking them outside into the elements. I have disrespected Shizun’s rules by inviting others as well.”

There is a hum in response. “And these ‘others’ would be...?”

“This humble one is Mu Shao of Qian Cao peak.”

“Liu Zihao of Bai Zhen Peak.”

Another hum, “Your two are dismissed, return to your peaks.” There’s a rapid pair of footsteps quickly leaving the room. Shen Yuan stands straight in time to see the two leave. Liu Zihao is pouting for a lack of a better term, probably because he couldn’t get his fight. Mu Shao shoots him a sympathetic glance over Fai Renqiu’s shoulder.

Fai Renqiu watches him for a moment, it’s creepy and terrifying-- like an all-seeing grandfather, before turning back around. “Gather your belongings and follow me.” Shen Yuan is led back through the compound to the peak lord’s office. It’s a large room, with a larger desk in the middle of it, shelves filled with scrolls and various items fill the back wall. An orchid sits closer to the desk. Shen Yuan comes to a stop in front of the desk, a few feet away from it.

Fai Renqiu walks around to the other side before settling onto his chair. From a drawer, he pulls out a piece of parchment. “You are to write a proposal to Ah Ding peak requesting the construction of private study rooms onto the wings of the library.”

Shen Yuan blinks as the paper is pushed towards him then at the peak lord.

“I will not have any disciple of mine be hindered by improper learning environments. You have an hour to complete it.” His tone and the time constraints don’t leave room for argument. Shen Yuan quickly makes use of the brush set before him and gets to work.

As far as punishments go, it isn’t the worse one he’s had. He finishes the draft with what is probably mere minutes to spare, hand cramping from the prolonged use of the brush, feet aching from standing for over an hour. Fai Renqiu picks up the parchment before he even sets the brush down.

From his half lenses, Shen Yuan nervously watches the peak lord skim the document.

“From reading this over, it is my understanding that the louder groups will be in the private rooms. Why is that?”

“Answering Shizun, it is to maintain peace in the library. If the louder groups are in secluded areas then it is easier to navigate the shelving and tables.”

Plus his University library was organized like that.

“The one-way silencing talismans?”

“To prevent the main room from hearing what is going on in the rooms, but not to prevent the groups from hearing any emergency summons.”

“What of the ‘near sheer’ paper walls?”

At that, Shen Yuan can’t help the faint blush on his cheeks. “To discourage other disciples from using the rooms for... other activities.” This was something the protagonist would take full advantage of during his disciple days. Private soundproof rooms? No one would be stupid enough to not try... you know, something more in there. The voyeuristic nature of paper walls would discourage most, probably not the protagonist, but still worth a shot.

Fai Renqiu stares some more before the corner of his mouth twitches up. “Very interesting.”

Before Shen Yuan can question just what is so interesting, Fai Renqiu gestures to the orchid. “It’s a lovely flower is it not?”

“It looks to be very delicate.”

“It is, orchids themselves are hard to maintain. Truth be told, I’ve been given much advice for its care from the Peak Lord of Qian Cao, Lord Wai Renshi. She and I have collaborated on many projects together. It is part of the reason why the two of us encourage the mingling of disciples. We first learned our own limitations and strengths by working together. This teacher never imagined that a young disciple such as yourself could rope in a Bai Zhen student as well. Well done.”

Shen Yuan looks to his feet. Damn, it’s probably safer not to lie about this one. “Begging shizun’s forgiveness, Disciple Liu is present to challenge this disciple in a contest of strength. Not expand his knowledge.”

“I am aware of that. But even so, do you not think he is learning lessons while he is here?”

“This disciple is unsure of what Shizun means by that.”

“Hmm, I’ll let you think about it.” Of course, the scholar peak has to talk in riddles and can’t give straight forward answers. “In the meantime, I expect you to accept his challenge in a month.”

Wait-

“What? I mean, Shizun, that is not a fight I can win. No matter how hard I train.”

Fai Renqiu leans back in his chair. “The answer to that, disciple Shen, is to fight smarter. Not harder.”

“Shizun, I don’t understand.” Would it kill you to not speak in riddles?!

“You will.” He hates this guy sometimes. “Now about your punishment for breaking the rules. No, writing that proposal wasn’t it; I never said it was, now did I? Hmm... I believe grading your peers' essays tonight is a fitting task.” There's a smirk in the peak lord’s eyes.

Yeah, he really hates this guy sometimes.

It’s once again too early for this shit as Shen Yuan sulks across the table from Mu Shao on Qian Cao peak.

“I legitimately do not understand what he’s trying to tell me.”

“And you were under the impression I would?”

“Well, I had a theory.” Shen Yuan sits up from his slouch, “we had been talking about collaborations between the two peaks before right?”

Mu Shao blows on his tea, “yes?”

“Well, following that line of thought; I wondered if he was trying to insinuate you might hold the answer. To ‘fight smarter, not harder’.”

Mu Shao’s expression turns contemplative, “I’m hardly one for strategic thinking. I still believe your best bet would be to use spiritual energy attacks rather than physical ones. However, Liu Zihao might call that cheating. It wouldn’t surprise me if he would challenge you again just for that.” At that, Shen Yuan lets out a deep sigh. “You’re already improving your basic strength but... I’m not sure what I could tell you that you don’t already know Shen-shidi. Aside from—“ He cuts off, staring into space. “Ah.”

“Ah? What’s Ah? Is that an ‘a-ha’ Ah or just a ‘my friend is going to get the shit beat out of him’ Ah?”

“Pressure points.”

“Pressure points?”

“Yes, yes!” A grin grows on Mu Shao’s face. “You see, there are pressure points that we are taught to help numb parts of the human body. It’s essentially a crude way to numb the pain of injuries but applied to combat—”

“—you’re stopping your opponent’s attacks—”

“— while preventing a counter in the process—”

“—so it can render a fight over without actually trading blows.” Shen Yuan finishes.

Holy shit, this might work.

“Of course there’s the matter of learning to hit those pressure points.”

“We have a month and you can train me in the meantime!”

“As much as I would like to, I don’t know how to apply that to actual combat. Besides, where would we find an older disciple that’s equipped with that unconventional knowledge and be willing to teach it to children anyway?”

“Sure,” Disciple Quin Yan grins, full teeth— the white shine contrasting the dark bags under his eyes. It's still early morning, he’s probably been up all night. Again. “I have to wait a full month for an Eternal Night tonic to absorb the light from the phases of the moon anyway. When do you wanna start?”

Mu Shao looks faintly alarmed.

Shen Yuan can’t help but smile back. “As soon as possible.”

“You gotcha! Follow me, boys.”

Quin Yan swiftly leads them out of his own personal medical bay, really it’s more of a laboratory, leading them on a path that continues out of the Qian Cao grounds.

“Wait, we are leaving now?” Mu Shao speeds up his steps to match pace with Quin Yan. “What about lessons?”

“We’ll be back before then! And if not, I’ll send a message saying I hijacked you both for my own project later.”

“Shouldn't you ask for permission first?”

Shen Huan clears his throat, “sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”

Mu Shao glares at him, to which he shrugs off while Quin Yan bursts out laughing. “Oh, that’s good! I’ve been following that motto for most of my life and look where it’s gotten me!”

Neither of them really have anything to say to that.

The walk progresses to a trail that leads up to the peak of the mountain. They keep going for a good fifteen minutes before Quin suddenly veers off the path.

“This way boys!” They have time to exchange a look before following. “I found this little place a few months into my time at Qian Cao! It’s my little oasis, so I’d rather we just keep it between us!”

He leads them up to a towering sheer cliff-side. The terrain clears up from thickets to grass, a few rocks litter the ground on what appears to be a small game trail. After a bit, Quin turns and waves a hand to a wall of ivy growing up the rocky slope.

“In we go!” He walks right into the plant only to fade from sight. Mu Shao and Shen Yuan once more exchange a look before following suit. The tunnel they enter is dark but only for a moment before their eyes register a soft blue glow. Round gems litter the walls and floor illuminating their path forward

“Whoa...”

“These are luminous topaz, not worth much but they sure are pretty, huh? They’re how I found the cave in the first place. I think the stones glow from absorbing the spiritual energy on the peaks, but I’m not too sure about that theory. Anyway, we’re almost to the grotto!” Sure enough, a bright white light is ahead at the end of their path.

When they step into the clearing both boys gasp.

A huge circular grotto is enclosed by the towering cliff walls. Enormous translucent crystals accompanied by the soft glowing topaz grow up the faces of it, enclosing the space from the sky above. Dawn's light shines through the A-line crystal roof, reflecting off the surface of a beautifully clear water pool nestled at the back end of the area. Smaller crystals grow within the pool and along the ground alongside some grass, a few lean stalks of bamboo and jasmine ivy growing up the rocky walls. An old tree towers on the far right of the grotto, while the log of a long-deceased one has been rolled near the edge of the pool.

Closer to the entryway is a rough-looking pergola constructed out of bamboo— a cloth hanging on one of the open rafters. There is a large enough area underneath it that houses a woven grass mat, a low table, and a cloth fold up chair. A few books are stacked up on the mat, alongside a wicker basket and a clay jug.

Shen Yuan instantly recognizes the location.

This is it!! The famous cave from the scene when Ning Yingying and Lou Binghe get caught together in the rain! The two desperately look for a place to wait out the storm, only to stumble in on this little slice of heaven. Right there, on the fallen log is where Ning Yingying confesses to the still white-lotus protagonist after he heals her twisted ankle. It’s where the protagonist shares his first kiss!!!

“Wow...”

“Truly, you can say that again Shen-shidi.”

“Well boys, welcome to my little hideaway! I’ll train you here, during your afternoon free period, away from prying eyes.”

Mu Shao frowns, “Shixiong, are you sure it is okay for us to be here? This is your sanctuary after all.”

“Well, I don’t advertise the location, but it’s not like I own the mountain.” Quin Yan rubs his neck, “Besides, if all goes well, then I get to pass this place onto you two.”

Shen Yuan blinks at that, “Pass it on?”

“Yes! Once I become a recognized cultivator and graduate from discipleship, I qualify to take the exams at the Royal Academy in the capital!”

“Oh, wow, this one had no idea your goals were so lofty Shixiong.”

A shrug, “Well, other cultivators think it's a waste of time. But really, the only reason I’m aiming for immortality is to learn as much as I can.” Quin Yan’s eyes sparkle, “There’s a whole world out there to explore and learn from. I want to learn everything that there is to learn here, then move on to the next place. If we can make repelling talismans and tonics that replicate the night sky, just imagine what other cultures and societies are capable of!”

The two stare at him for a moment, before smiles grow on both of their faces.

“You truly are admirable Shixiong.”

“I concur with Mu-shidi, and wish you nothing but the best.”

“Aw, thanks you two. Meet me back here when you're done with lessons, I’ll start teaching you how to kill a man this afternoon!”

“...Right.”

__

A life-sized paperman stands before Shen Yuan.

“Now look, the red points on the body are where nerve endings are more exposed. Of course, you’ll still need to jab hard at those points to go ahead and make that connection. Remember to use your middle and pointer finger as I showed you.” Shen Yuan nods to Quin Yan, then widens his stance.

A paper hand slaps him across the face.

Quin Yan bursts out laughing from his fold-out chair. Mu Shao chokes on the grape in his mouth.

Shen Yuan staggers backward from the force of it, it’s fucking paper, what the-- “Fucking Hell Quin!?”

Disciple Quin wheezes, slamming a hand on Mu Shao’s back in a lazy effort to dislodge the grape he’s choking on.

“Oh heavens, your face--”

“Why did it slap me!?”

Mu Shao coughs. Quin Yuan passes him a waterskin, still chuckling. “You're going to fight a Bai Zhen Disciple. Your first lesson: get close enough to even hit them.”

Mu Shao clears his thought, “Best of luck Shen-Shidi.”

“Fuck off.”

“Don’t worry Disciple Mu, you’ll get a turn!” The sound of another slap cracks through the air. “Probably soon!”

“...Wonderful.”

__

“I hit it! I actually hit- mhrgh-”

“The rest of the body is still moving Disciple Shen!”

“... I think Shen-Shidi is unconscious.”

“... hmm. It’s a good thing I brought smelling salts.”

__

“Disciple Mu, you have to actually hit it, not dodge all the time!”

“I feel like this thing is fighting much faster with me— shit, shit, shit!”

“That’s because you’re so tall, there’s more of you to hit!”

“Stop laughing at me Shen Shidi!”

“Karma is a bitch Shidi.”

“That’s insulting to women-! Ow, fuck.”

“Wow, he actually stopped to scold you.”

Fai Renqiu stares at the mark on Shen Yuan's face. “What on earth happened to you?”

“... This disciple took your advice.”

The peak lord hesitates, “did you now?”

“Yes.”

“So, what has my disciple learned?”

“That paper is lethal.”

“... Get some rest.”

“Thank you Shizun.”

“Excuse me, disciple Shen?”

“Ah, yes Shimei?”

“Forgive my rudeness, but I have to say it. If whoever you’re courting is resorting to violence, then you should leave her be.”

“Huh, oh no no no, this is a training mishap.”

“... training.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“... please consider what I’ve said.”

“Disciple Quin, please stop hitting my face. My peers think I’m in an abusive relationship.”

“If you want it to stop, then stop getting hit. Now go again.”

“But—!”

“You’re right! We should give the dummy a sword to mimic the actual fight!”

“Please no.”

“I regret everything.”

“Me too Shen-Shidi.”

“Quit moping you two, you only have 2 weeks left.”

“Ughhh”

__

The day of the fight arrives without much fanfare. It begins like any other: lessons are had in the morning, lunch is coupled with grumblings of said lessons, afternoon lectures and combat training follows-- then the evening is available for free use.

Shen Yuan has wandered to the outskirts of the Qing Jing peak’s limits, near a shallow pond with lotus flowers and roots blooming within. With the library currently being worked on due to his complaints, most of the disciples have taken to commandeering the unused classrooms for their study sessions. So, he’s left the buildings instead, having brought his field guide with him, and is attempting to sketch out some of the plants' Mu Shao has written out for him.

Unfortunately, his lotus root picture looks more like a demented frog on a lily-pad.

A shadow suddenly looms over his paper. Liu Zihao stands before him, hand on his sword. “Fight me.”

Shen Yuan closes his book and stands, “What are your conditions?” At this point, he’s as ready as he’ll ever be. Quin Yan finally gave him a thumbs up the other day, citing ‘Well I think you can last against a junior disciple now!’. Which wasn't a confidence boost, but Liu Zihao is only a junior like himself.

Liu Zihao looks surprised for a moment before going back to a neutral expression. “You don’t have a sword.”

“I do not.”

“Hand-to-hand combat, no Qi.”

“Very well.”

The two of them walk some distance from the lotus pond before pausing some distance from one another. Per custom, they bow in respect before each assuming a stance.

Shen Yuan has only a moment to blink before he’s forced to sidestep out of the way of a vicious flying kick. Liu Zihao doesn’t even hesitate, only one foot makes back down to the ground before he’s launching himself again in Shen Yuan’s direction in another kick.

Shen Yuan swerves to avoid a fist that comes flying in out of the corner of his eye. Then jumps to dodge a sweeping kick. He lashes out with a kick of his own, but Liu Zihao quickly guards by bringing up his arms. Shen Yuan uses the kick to propel himself back, putting some distance between the two of them.

Holy shit, it’s like I’m in some donghua.

He only has a second to frown at himself for thinking that now at all times, before he has to dodge again. The fight continues this way, with Liu Zihao directing all his energy on attacking while Shen Yuan focuses on evasion, but also making an attempt to strike back at openings. He needs to buy some time to study Liu Zihao’s attack pattern. Once he feels confident enough to guess the moves, Shen Yuan braces himself to time an opening.

Right when Liu Zihao jump-kicks, he’s vulnerable in the air for a second. That’s his chance. The two dance around each other for a bit longer, Shen Yuan waiting it out when Liu Zihao’s impatience shows on his face for a split second. It gives him enough warning that when his opponent jumps, Shen Yuan is ready.

He sidesteps from the kick, then delivers two swift jabs to Liu Zihao’s dominant arm while he’s still in motion. When Liu Zihao lands, he stops, staring down at his limp arm with wide eyes.

Shen Yuan has only a moment to grin-- holy shit, I actually did it-- before Liu Zihao glares his way, dashing forward with a left hook punch. It’s sloppy enough that Shen Yuan doesn’t hesitate to deliver another two jabs to this arm as well. He quickly drops down, delivering his own sweeping kick that knocks Liu Zihao’s feet out from underneath him.

The only reason it works is that his opponent is probably too stunned at his arms being rendered useless. Still, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Shen Yuan quickly plants a knee to Liu Zihao’s chest, raising his arm in a mock punch.

“Yield.”

A conflicted expression crosses Liu Zihao’s face. His eyes flit from his arm to Shen Yuan’s first, then to his face. He closes his eyes in grimace.

“I... concede.”

Holy shit.

Shen Yuan gets off of Liu Zihao, who brings his legs up to his chest, rolls up a bit further, then springs back up onto his feet in an impressive show of core strength. His beautiful face is scrunched up in a very unflattering look, but really, who gives a shit because he won.

Yes, yes yes!!

Finally, this stupid thing is over!

“Next time, I won’t lose.”

All of Shen Yuan’s joy screeches to a halt. “Excuse me?”

“I’ll be back.”

“No!”

Liu Zihao rolls his eyes.

“No, there will be no next time! I fought you, this, this is over!”

He turns around, “I’ll win next time--”

“Don’t you fucking dare run off when I’m talking to you,” Shen Yuan snaps.

Liu Zihao stops, looking back in surprise.

Shen Yuan is over this.

“I’ve done nothing to you! We have never interacted before any of this. And yet, every goddamn week you show up to fight me! You stalk me around the grounds and do nothing but disturb my only free time to study-- do you have any idea how long I got slapped around for just to train for this shit!? I’m not good at combat, I’ve had to rearrange my whole schedule and spend all of my extra availability training just so I would stand a chance against you.

And! News flash! I hate fighting! I’m not suited for it, I never want to fight, and yet you show up harping about it like it’s the only way to solve this problem-- and I don’t even know what the problem is!

So, no! No there’s not going to be a fucking next time. Just, just...” he trails off, swallowing around the lump in his throat.

Liu Zihao is frozen, staring in muted surprise.

Shen Yuan brings his hand up to rub at his face. He’s always been a frustrated crier, it’s so stupid, and rubbing away the tears isn’t making him seem threatening at all. He takes a deep breath, to reign it in.

“Just leave me alone.”

He doesn’t bother waiting for a response, veering to the pond to grab his book, then marches off. He keeps walking, doesn’t stop walking either, not until he gets to the cave.

No one is there today, and it's soothing atmosphere does nothing to hamper Shen Yuan’s mounting frustration. He hates this, he hates everything that’s happened today, he’s not even happy about winning this goddamn fight if it means it’s going to happen again, and again, and again—

He wants to break something. To take out his anger in a satisfying burst of energy.

But...

This place isn’t his. It was offered up to help him, it’s not right to take that and trash it just because he’s upset.

He’s still angry, but that thought is sobering enough to make that immediate need for a burst of— something slightly withdraws. In the end, he settles for pacing while grumbling. Only a few loops in does he hear footsteps echoing down the cave.

“You would not believe the shit I’ve been though— oh you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Liu Zihao is standing at the mouth of the tunnel, his arms still hanging limp at his sides.

Seriously!? What part of ‘leave me alone’ do you not understand dude!?

Shen Yuan takes a deep breath, still ready and willing to verbally rip this kid a new one.

“I’m sorry.”

He blinks twice, “huh?”

Liu Zihao looks at his feet, face pinched. “I... I’m not very good with my words.” He pauses, looking back up to Shen Yuan then down at the floor again. He speaks again, going slowly. “I did not consider the repercussions of my actions. I’m sorry.”

He bows as best he can with two dangling arms, which is rather comical, then turns back around to leave.

“Wait-”

Liu Zihao turns halfway back, looking vaguely confused. Shen Yuan rubs the back of his neck, “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. I was frustrated by everything, yes, but that doesn’t mean I needed to say what I did.”

“I wouldn’t have known.”

“Still, there are better ways to communicate how one is feeling. Like having a conversation, similar to how we are currently talking. I’m also sorry.” Liu Zihao nods in acceptance.

“Well, uh—” Oh I don’t want to keep this going, but I’d rather not have to worry about someone else trying to kill me before Luo Binghe is even in the picture. “Why don’t you come sit down with me on this log over here? I might be able to get movement back in your arms faster.”

Liu Zihao’s expression pinches again, “you don’t want me here.”

“What?" Oh shit wait- "I only meant to leave me alone when it comes to the challenges and fighting.” Nice save! “Not forever, I’m sorry.”

There’s a moment of hesitation before Liu Zihao starts walking into the grotto. Shen Yuan makes it to the log first, settling on it as Liu Zihao sits down to straddle it with a ‘thump’.

“Pardon me...” Shen Yuan grabs one of his limp arms and begins massaging just below the bend of his elbow. Unfortunately, there’s no way to magically pinch the nerves and muscles to reactivate them. The only way to make it ‘wake up’ faster is to stimulate it again. In an effort to not make things weirder than it already is (seriously, he’s massaging a guy’s arm on the ‘first kiss’ log, it’s weird okay), Shen Yuan clears his throat, keeping his gaze on the arm he’s holding. “How did you find me anyway?”

“Tracking.”

“Tracking? Are you a hunter’s son or something?”

There’s a pause before he gets an answer. “No, Bai Zhen teaches it.”

“Wait, Bai Zhen teaches hunting?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I never knew that before. I always assumed the curriculum was more combat-focused.”

“There are also survival tests.”

Shen Yuan looks up now, “Really? That’s amazing, so it’s not just fighting but also wilderness survival and hunting.”

A nod.

“How much do you know already?”

“I am top of my class.”

Shen Yuan blinks again, “No shit? That’s incredible.”

Liu Zihao tenses a bit, his ears turning a little pink. Shen Yuan’s gaze is torn back down to a twitch in his hand. “Ah, it looks like this is helping already Shidi. Try to flex your hand as I continue please.”

“Mn.”

The silence doesn’t feel as awkward as before now. That conversation from before confirms what Liu Zihao has already said, that he doesn’t like to waste his words. He says enough though to get his point across. It’s more of a companionable silence, still, Shen Yuan keeps talking.

“It’s funny, you’d think after learning that Qian Cao doesn’t only teach healing, that one would stop assuming all the other peaks are one-trick ponies.”

“They aren’t?”

“No, you see, that’s where I learned this style of, well, I don’t know that name of it but it’s more of Qi blocking isn’t it? Halts your muscles and your energy. Not to mention tonics, the disciple that instructed me in Qi blocking is actually a tonics specialist.”

“Qing Jing focuses on knowledge.”

“Yes, but a majority of disciples are more so focused on Qi development. Ways to create and enhance those skills when applied to weapons, items, and talismans. A lot of older disciples have actually formed partnerships with Qian Cao disciples to advance their research.”

“Oh.”

“Right? I don’t think it’s very common knowledge either. Personally, I like to study beasts. They’re incredible, some can even utilize Qi like humans and demons. Though it’s unknown if that’s intentional or not. I’d love to study some in person one day. Perhaps when I’m allowed on night hunts, I’ll be able to observe them in their natural habits. Although, I don’t foresee any Qian Cao disciples agreeing to partner up on that. Mu Shao already told me he would ‘rather not’ which is his most polite way of telling me no.” Liu Zihao’s hand closes in a fist. “Oh, there we go! May I see your other arm please?”

“I can’t move it.”

“Oh, right, my apologies.”

They lapse into silence again as Shen Yuan grabs his other arm.

“... Your book.”

“Hmm?”

“You write your notes on beasts in there.”

“Ah, well that’s actually a personal project of mine. I’m creating a field compendium of Flora and Fauna. I don’t know if I can rely solely on the knowledge in my head or not if I’m in danger, so perhaps having a guide on hand will help if I accidentally panic.”

“You won’t.”

“Huh,” Shen Yuan looks up again. Liu Zihao is gazing off into the waters of the large pond.

“You did not panic when we fought.”

“You were not seriously trying to kill me though.”

“Bai Zhen teaches it’s disciples to never hold back.”

Shen Yuan stops massaging the arm.

Liu Zihao won't meet his eye.

Shen Yuan smacks his arm, jolting him. “You could have killed me!”

“I didn’t.”

Shen Yuan smacks his arm again, “That doesn’t make me feel any better!” The corner of Liu Zihao’s mouth twitches. “Oh heavens, you’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

Liu Zihao shrugs his shoulders, a boyish smirk on his face. “Perhaps.”

God, as if he couldn’t get any prettier— he’s got dimples.

Shen Yuan closes his eyes to reign in his thoughts, because Woah there— that’s a little gay. Then goes back to massaging Liu Zihao’s arm.

“Well,” a new voice starts. “There’s a sight I never thought I’d see.” Shen Yuan and Liu Zihao both look to the entrance of the grotto. Mu Shao smiles their way and begins walking forward.

“Did you two finally talk about how Liu-shidi was jealous over the attention Yue-shixiong was giving Shen-shidi.”

Shen Yuan smacks Liu Zihao’s shoulder again, “That’s why you were trying to fight me?”

Liu Zihao blushes, glaring Mu Shao’s way in lieu of answering.

“Wait,” Shen Yuan looks back to Mu Shao. “How did you know this?”

“I’m old friends with Liu-shidi.”

Shen Yuan looks back to Liu Zihao, who nods, then back to Mu Shao. “Since when!? Also, why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”

“Since we were both picked at the same initiation ceremony. I don’t give out my bruise balm to just any disciple. And I didn’t tell you because I wanted to learn the advanced Qi blocking style earlier than the others to give me an edge in classes.”

Shen Yuan stares at him, “I feel very betrayed by this knowledge.”

Mu Shao shrugs again, “and?”

Shen Yuan leans over, just enough to put a fingertip to the surface of the water. Then, circulating his Qi into it throws a jet stream of water right at Mu Shao.

Liu Zihao snorts, then turns away to muffle the sounds of his laughter. Shen Yuan watches Mu Shao sputter and cough before he nods.

“Okay, I forgive you.”

“I hate you.”

“You love me.”

__

Life is much smoother after that.

Granted, life as a disciple is never particularly smooth. The lessons gradually increase in difficulty, to the point where Shen Yuan actually needs to set aside time to refine the skills he is being trained for. His swordsmanship is basic at best, however his Qi development is faster than the others in his group.

Fai Renqiu does eventually check in on him to see how the fight went. After conveying the details of his win to his teacher, the peak lord gives him a rather special look— which, rude, but also completely understandable. Which is convenient when the Bai Zhen Peak lord barges into his office holding Liu Zihao in the air by the back of his robes— the scene is like a lioness holding a kitten by its scruff.

“Where’s the disciple who beat the Liu boy?”

Fai Renqiu’s eyes go wide and Shen Yuan immediately starts sweating bullets. Liu Zihao is a little black and blue. He clearly took a bit of a beating.

“Lord Rendai, I wasn’t aware of such a fight taking place.”

Bless you, you bullshitting master.

Peak Lord Rendai shakes Liu Zihao again, she’s snarling. “I have an eyewitness saying he was beaten by a disciple, using Qi blocking techniques.”

“Hmm, Qi blocking you say? Are you sure that it wasn’t a Qian Cao disciple he fought? That’s a highly advanced and secret skill set that’s developed and taught by only Lord Wai Renshi.”

Oh holy fucking shit, no wonder Mu Shao wanted to learn it so badly.

Then Shen Yuan really processes what was just said.

Disciple Quin!! Don’t share your peak secrets with random kids!!!

She glares at Liu Zihao, whose lips are pressed in a firm line. “What color were the robes?” He glares right back at her.

“If you are done interrogating me about who beat your top-ranking junior disciple; This one was in a meeting with his own top-ranked junior disciple.”

Top what now?

Lord Rendai sighs, but it sounds more aggravated than necessary. “Fine.” Then strides out of the room.

Lord Renqiu waits a beat then looks to Shen Yuan, “You’re grading essays for the rest of the month.”

“Yes, Shizun.” Still completely understandable.

__

Shen Yuan is sitting in the newly renovated, quiet, library when someone sits down across from him.

Liu Zihao has his arms crossed, a frown on his face, and a scroll tucked into his belt. He looks better than the last time Shen Yuan saw him, although the black-eye is new. Liu Zihao silently pulls out the scroll then slides it across the table to him.

Other disciples are staring their way, probably because the last time a Bai Zhen Disciple was known to be in the Qing Jing library was, hmm, never.

Regardless, Shen Yuan picks up the scroll and unfurls it, his eyebrows go high while looking over the contents. It’s an essay on survival tactics in extreme heat conditions. Titled by Liu Zihao.

Shen Yuan glances down at the essay then back up at the boy across the table from him. After a moment's deliberation, he picks up his brush and begins to make grammatical changes to the essay.

I guess I do owe him for not ratting me out.

Liu Zihao sits quietly across the table from him the entire time. He does not look at the essay as it is getting marked up; instead, he does what he did last time, sits in the lotus position and meditates quietly. It does not take long for Shen Yuan to finish going over the paper. It's rather short, but not knowing how it compares to his peaks standards versus the other peaks it should be adequate.

Hopefully.

Shen Yuan slides the parchment across the table back to Liu Zihao, who picks it up and scans over it. From his sleeve, he pulls out another scroll and immediately begins to make the corrections that were applied to his essay.

Once he’s done, Liu Zihao stands up, bows, and leaves the library.

Okayyy?

This pattern continues about once a week. Sometimes it is Mu Shao but at others, it is Liu Zihao. Every now and then the two of them come at the same time which ends up with the trio getting a room in the library to study together and converse. Somehow, Shen Yuan ends up becoming the unofficial tutor of the group.

Another ritual that the three of them begin is a meeting up every other evening at their hideout. Quin Yan Still shows up, however more of his time is being spent studying for the royal academy examination and his final exam as a disciple— both of which are approaching fast.

It’s one such evening when Shen Yuan enters their hideaway and finds Quin Yan bemoaning his life to the other two.

“Disciple Shen, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about the sky-sun snakes would you?”

“Er, yeah actually.” Quin Yan freezes. “What did you want to know? I think I’ve memorized their sleeping habits and abilities just fine. But, if you want to be sure; I wrote down everything in my personal guidebook.”

All three of them stare at him.

“What?”

He flinches when Quin Yan grabs him by the shoulders. He looks a little crazed. “Tell me everything you know, my life depends on it.”

Shen Yuan looks over his shoulder to Mu Shao.

“His final exam as a disciple is to capture one.”

“Ah, okay." His future really does depend on it. "Sure, let's sit down.”

The two settle down on the mat as Shen Yuan launches into an explanation. The Sky-Sun snakes in PIDW are totally a rip off of Aztec religion but the new lore he's uncovered while in this world is incredibly interesting.

He goes over how they are one of the few Qi- using beasts who absorb the light from the sun to temporarily blind prey and enemies alike. The reptiles are only active during the day and have been known to burrow in the abandoned dens of Wolf-Spiders for protection at night. Because they have wings, they generally fly around in the sky and prey on birds rather than rodents like their land counterparts. The venom from the snakes isn’t lethal, however, it is so painful that many victims have taken their own lives to make the pain stop. The scales of a Sky-Sun snake, and it’s shed skin, can be ground up and used as a cure-all for any snake venom in the world. However, they can only be found on the tallest peaks of the mountains-- where the air is thin.

“Also,” Shen Yuan continues. “They have an even rarer sister breed, the Sky-Moonlight Snakes. Did you need to know about them too?”

Everyone is staring at him again, well Quin Yan is crying now actually. “Oh heaven’s, I might pass this exam now.”

Liu Zihao stares the hardest, “How did you know this?”

“What Liu-Shidi means,” Mu Shao interjects. “Is that this is an impressive amount of information on an incredibly rare beast... that there are no credible texts on. How do you know all of this?”

Honestly, he remembers a good portion of things from the novel itself. Right now though, it’s all things that will come to pass in the future. But he’s also got another source.

“I read it in a scroll.”

Quin Yan looks a little like he’s about to have a meltdown. “Are you kidding me? I've raided that library to hell and back! In what section?”

“Uh, well it’s not in a public section.”

Liu Zihao frowns, “Public?”

“Yeah, I accidentally found a hidden part of the library behind a bookcase a while back. Some stairs lead underground to a huge chamber of books. A few older disciples were down there, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing— I mean, a few of them waved to me. There are all sorts of interesting scrolls and tomes down there.”

It wasn’t an accident. He’s been looking for the hidden library since coming to the peak because the protagonist found all sorts of cheat codes and power-ups down there in the novel. What he wasn’t expecting was the number of people that already knew about it or how it was free reign.

Bummer.

Mu Shao hums, “Your knowledge frightens me Shidi.”

“I share because I care. Now, would you kindly pass me those lychees?”

Quin Yan’s departure from the peaks is a quiet affair between Mu Shao, Shen Yuan, and the man himself. As the only Disciple who passed the exam, other senior disciples have treated Quin Yan with some disdain, but he is blinded by happiness. When he announced his plan to leave the peak, the seniors all too hurriedly agreed to help him pack.

Which leaves the three of them in Quin Yan’s now empty medical hut just before dawn.

Shen Yuan speaks through a yawn, “You two are lucky I like you.”

Quin Yan laughs and ruffles Shen Yuan’s bed head, “Early bird catches the worm kid.” His smile turns soft, “I’m gonna miss you two. Thanks for keeping me company on my last days on the peak.”

Shen Yuan blushes a bit, “You made things fun. It’s going to be weird without you here.”

“Hey, as they say on your peak, life goes on. I’ll be sure to write to you both, okay?”

Shen Yuan takes a step back, and bows to Cultivator Quin. “See that you do, I look forward to hearing how you take the capital by storm.”

Quin Yan laughs again, and bows back. “It’s a promise.” Then he looks to Mu Shao. He tosses the keys to his hut up straight up into the air, catches them, then throws them to Mu Shao, who fumbles for a second.

“Per Qian Cao custom, I, former disciple Quin Yan, hereby leave my extra equipment and belongings to Disciple Mu Shao.” Mu Shao's jaw drops.

It’s a very big deal in Qian Cao to have a personal workspace. The only way to obtain one is to be passed on one via dibs (aka: interning for life) from a senior disciple or to be outstanding enough to petition the Peak Lord to have a hut built for you. The latter being rarer than the former. As A junior Disciple, Mu Shao would have spent another five to ten years working on his skills or interning just to get a personal medical room.

Quin Yan’s smile goes soft again, “You’re gonna do great things, kid.”

Mu Shao, who’s been on the verge of crying this whole morning, sniffles once, then throws away all property and runs into Quin Yan, tackling him in a hug.

Shen Yuan, deciding, fuck it, also runs over and hugs Quin Yan.

“B-boys” Quin Yan’s voice breaks. The one-armed hug he gets is still crushingly tight.

When Quin Yan leaves the peak, he flies off on his sword with a huge grin and tear-stained cheeks.

__

After Quin Yan’s gift of a private practice to Mu Shao, his friend doubles down on his studies to prove to himself and jealous juniors that he is worthy of the place. Liu Zihao is also quite busy, having never ratted Shen Yuan out, Lord Rendai has assigned him double training for the next few months as punishment. He still gets company; Yue Qi drops by once in a while to chat and have tea, but his presence isn't too frequent. Some Qian Cao disciples still stop him every now and then asking for directions, which he provides. His peers, the ones who aren’t calling him a ‘prodigy’, and he get along well enough— but more so like coworkers who respect each other. Not really as friends.

This leaves Shen Yuan at the mercy of Lord Renqui. It's almost as if his shizun has taken a special interest in Shen Yuan. He starts appearing for a few minutes during most of his lessons and is there watching him constantly during his spiritual training instruction. Even after his punishment of grading essays is over, Fai Renqiu finds other reasons to summon him to his office. One time was to talk about the positive effects the new library expansion had. Another time was to discuss how to convey the effects of Yin and Yang energy in a lesson Shen Yuan had troubles with. Once, it was just to have tea and talk over the holidays. He isn't ordered, but now asked to grade essays from other juniors, occasionally even those written by his seniors. It’s become such a common occurrence that Shen Yuan finds he doesn’t mind it anymore.

It’s one evening before dinner that Lord Renqiu is talking to him about spiritual energy that he brings up Qi imbued elements.

“Many people, according to the stars, have alignments with the elements and their own yin and yang energies. Your energies are more aligned with Yin. However, you are compatible enough with yang energy that you have been able to inject your Qi into the other elements as well. I’ve seen as much in your lessons.”

Fai Renqiu takes a sip of his tea, “This teacher believes that you are ready to move one to the next phase of your studies, Disciple Shen. In a week, you will be moved to seclusion in the spirit caves to progress your cultivation. Please take your time to prepare yourself adequately.”

__

Shen Yuan spends a whole season in seclusion.

In all honesty, it was incredibly boring, but time passed so fast that he didn’t notice a few months had gone by. He’s obtained the ability of inertia so meditation was all that was done to progress his development. By the time Shen Yuan emerges from the caves, his Qi is humming with new strength in his veins.

It’s so fucking cool.

Fall has colored the grounds when he comes back to the peak. After properly cleaning and redressing, a senior disciple leads him to Fai Renqiu’s office, who checks his meridians and seems pleased with the progress.

“You are progressing along nicely Disciple Shen. Do you remember our last conversation before your seclusion?”

“Yes Shizun.” Shen Yuan's voice is a little deeper now— not so much bass-ey but less like a child’s tone. His hair has gotten to a length where it is falling in front of his face. Thankfully, a Shejie who ran into him out of the baths fixed it into a presentable half-up, half-down style with his hair tie. “Shizun had been telling this one about the ability to infuse Qi into elements.”

“That is correct. This master recalls you are an air sign. Then we will have you hone in your training on the winds.” He waves a hand to the disciple who led him into the room. “Senior Qi Jia will be instructing you how to do so.”

Shen Yuan bows to her, “This one will be in senior’s care.”

She bows back in turn, “I look forward to teaching Disciple Shen.”

They talk for a little longer, catching up Shen Yuan on some details and new improvements over the peaks.

The Sec master of Qiong Ding has announced his intentions of stepping down within a few years, citing that he would like to spend his remaining days in the peace of seclusion. This was followed by an announcement that head disciple Yue Qi would be the new sec master. It was an appointment that no one could refute. Apparently, he performed heroically in some war that Shen Yuan just barely missed pre-transmigration.

When he’s finally dismissed, Shen Yuan decides to see if anyone is at their secret spot. He isn’t disappointed, seeing two familiar figures chatting beside a fire pit, a pot of tea resting on a metal grating above the flames.

He smiles, “I hope you have another cup.”

They booth look up, Mu Shao's calm smile growing wider- Liu Zihao's eyes widening with surprise, perhaps a little slack jawed too. The two of them are growing into men as well. Even without standing, one can see that Mu Shao has grown into his height. The healer no longer looking gangly but merely tall and broad. Liu Zihao's shoulders have gained more width too, no longer lean but also toned with muscle. The baby fat has melted off both of their faces as well.

I wonder what changes they see in me?

Mu Shao laughs, “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes, Shen Shidi.”

“All I see is tired eyes.”

“Your humor is as impeccable as always.” It’s true though, Mu Shao’s naturally sleepy eyes look even more tired with the bags underneath them. “I’ve been pulling some late nights after a few Ah Ding disciples blew up a building.”

Shen Yuan sits down with them, “they blew up a building?”

“Yes, apparently one of them had the bright idea to improperly store gun powder near some candles.”

“Oh no.”

“Yes, fortunately, no one was killed in the blast. Just injured.”

Shen Yuan looks at Liu Zihao who is glaring into the fire— his face looks a little warm, perhaps he’s sitting too close to it. “And how has Liu-Shidi been? It's been quite some time.”

He gets a shrug, “fine.” Liu Zihao glances up from the fire. “You look lean.”

Shen Yuan glances down at himself, “You think so? I’m able to practice inertia now, so I didn’t think I lost any weight.” His wrists have always been thin, but they do look a little smaller than before, even with the new bracers he was given that go up to dainty hands. Hmm, whatever. “I see that you have put on more muscle.”

Liu Zihao hastily looks back to the fire, “I've gotten stronger.”

“I think we all have,” Mu Shao starts, passing Shen Yuan a cup of tea. “None of us are wearing the Junior Disciple robes anymore. I’m excited to see how much we all grow.”

“Yes, Senior.”

“Shut up Liu-Shidi.”

__

Shen Yuan leaves predawn the next morning to visit Mu Shao. Last night his friend had mentioned that the muscle relaxers and balms that he’s previously given him may not be as potent as they were pre-seclusion. Just in case, they agreed that some new ones would be in order.

Once at the hut, he knocks on the door twice.

Mu Shao looks frazzled as he throws open the door, his appearance is vividly reminiscent of Quin— it immediately worries Shen Yuan. “Are you okay?”

“Shen shidi-” there’s a high whine from the patient’s bed- “I’m out of frozen frost flowers, can you watch my patient while I get some?’

“I— ”

“Thank you!” Mu Shao all but sprints past him, out the door. Shen Yuan sighs as he enters the room. The patient in question is an Ah Ding disciple with a rather nasty burn on his left arm and leg, who is looking at him fearfully.

“Uh,” Shen Yuan closes the door behind him. “This one is Disciple Shen Yuan of Qing Jing peak. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” A frantic nod is all he gets, wide eyes watching him as he comes to the bed, sitting down on a wooden stool next to the disciple.

Weird.

“You're in good hands, Mu-shidi is one of the best healers I know.”

The disciple starts picking at the blanket, “I know.” He’s still staring at Shen Yuan like he’s searching for something. “That’s why I asked for him.”

The room falls quiet again. Shen Yuan tolerates his staring for another second before he sighs, “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Uh, er...”

“Spit it out.”

“Well, uh, does the term Airplane mean anything to you?” Shen Yuan stares at him. The guy stares right back for a second before awkwardly laughing, “aha, I guess not—”

“You transmigrated too!?”

The guy on the bed blinks then breaks out into a huge grin, “I fucking knew it! I fucking knew it!!" He jabs a bandaged finger at Shen Yuan. "I was totally waiting for Shen Jiu to show up at the peaks!! Like 'oh no here comes the villain better stay out his path'- but nothing ever happened! And then!! Qian Cao disciples were talking about a Shen, but it wasn't the right one! So I was like, 'Huh that's not right.' but like Ah Ding doesn't talk much with Qing Jing and even then I was still like 'mmm, better not' but-"

"Dude."

"Right, right sorry- I'm just so excited bro, like transmigrator solidarity. I didn't think there would be another one though! It was so scary when the system just broke- which don't get me wrong, thank fuck, I mean, I finally got to act like me and not Shang Qinghua, but still! How did you do that??”

Shen Yuan hisses in sympathy, “Ohhh, you got stuck in the spy?”

A nod, “my life sucks bro. I transmigrated early- had to relive infancy. Not fun, 0/10 recommend.”

“Oh shit, and I thought being a teenager was bad enough.”

“Try being a grown man in a baby bro. So, Shen Yuan, is that your real name?”

“Yeah, I had no idea I had transmigrated when I woke up here, so I gave the peak lord my real name. When someone asks you, ‘hey what’s your name’ you just tell them because that’s the normal fucking thing to do right? Anyway, uh, to answer your question, doing that kinda broke the system thing? It was super delayed in starting up anyway, but it totally freaked me out with overrides and corrupted files then 404'd on me.”

“Bro, bless you and your blunders.” The guy before him grins, “progressing through the novel is going to me so much easier."

Shen Yuan blinks, "What?"

"What?"

"Why the hell do you want to follow the plot?"

"We are in a novel, it's gonna happen. Well, okay, things aren't actually happening like how I- wr--re-remember it. Like, Quin Yan was supposed to be Lou Binghe's first real enemy after Shen Qingqiu right? The poison flower arc? He had a tragic backstory of ruthless, friendless time on the peaks, then failed out of his sec which led to him getting rejected from the Royal Academy. He was supposed to go onto poisoning people left and right then kidnapping all of these noble men's daughters— the real beginning of the harem."

"But," Shen Yuan starts; shoving aside the growing horror at the news. "He passed the exam. He's happily studying at the academy." Thank fuck too, who knew that Quin Yan had it in him to go full serial killer!? He’s such a nice guy under his moral instability and ambitions.

Wait, fuck.

Shen Yuan blanches, “He totally was supposed to be a villain.”

“That’s what I’m saying!”

“But then I became his friend... and he’s happy. He never has to do any of that.”

"I know!" The guy makes a motion to throw his arms in the air but stops, hissing in pain. "That's my point bro. The novel is changing, who knows what's going to happen now!"

Shen Yuan stares at him a little longer, "Is that a bad thing?"

"How is it not?"

"Because, following the novel, we both die. The sec, our homes, our classmates- they all get killed."

"...Oh." He looks down, "but if we don't, then we won't know what's going to happen!?"

Shen Yuan hums, "well, Quin Yan's exam still happened. We both still joined the peaks. I think key events will come to pass... but it's up to us to determine what those are and change the outcome."

The guy stares at him a little longer, then his breathing noticeably changes. It gets a little faster, eyes shining. "You don't think it's too late? The protag- Lou Binghe is already an orphan now, we can't change that."

Shen Yuan nods, "We can't change the past, but together, we can still mold the future." Shen Yuan looks him in the eye, "we can stop him from blackening, then the sec won't be wiped-out."

The guy lets out a watery laugh, "You really think so huh?" He sniffs, but still smiles. "Alright, we'll work together." He holds out his hand "Transmigrator solidarity?"

Shen Yuan shakes it, "Transmigrator solidarity."

He laughs again, "I never thought- I’m actually able to live a normal life now, aren't I? Hopefully, I can avoid all the weird spy stuff from the novel plot lines.”

“Speaking of, what’s your name?”

“Ah, well I’ve been going by Shang Jianguo for all of this life, might as well stick with it.”

“Did you read the PIDW too?”

“Er, yeah, big fan!”

Shen Yuan scrunches up his nose, “Really? Even though the plot got trashed in the first 30 chapters and the author whored out his main character for money?”

Shang Jianguo sputters quite a bit as Mu Shao runs back into the room. “Oh no, he’s dying.”

Shen Yuan glances at Shang Jianguo, “Nah, just stupid.”

“Hey!!”

Mu Shao glances between the two of them, “do you two know each other?”

“We grew up in the same village,” Shen Yuan says as Shang Jianguo nods.

“Oh, well, any friend of Shen shidi’s a friend of mine.”

Shang Jianguo turns all stary-eye’d as Shen Yuan rolls his eyes.

__

He doesn’t get any of the balms that morning, but seeing how tired Mu Shao is, Shen Yuan is sure to stress that there’s no rush to make them.

Later that evening, after more theory lessons from Qi Jia, Shang Jianguo joins Mu Shao as they enter the grotto. He clearly recognizes the place, but just looks around with awe and takes to talking to either Mu Shao or Shen Yuan. His fellow transmigrator doesn’t have much of a concept for personal space, so he keeps getting in Shen Yuan’s space. Liu Zihao arrives later than usual when the two of them are showing Mu Shao a famous hand game that children used to play in modern-day.

Shang Jianguo balks at Liu Zihao, who only stares at him, then plants himself firmly on Shen Yuan’s other side. The two of them don’t talk much, but Shen Yuan starts to cox a few more words out of Liu Zihao who eventually becomes less tense around Shang Jianguo. That doesn’t stop him from glaring at the guy though.

Weird.

__

More time continues to pass as they all get older. Fall fades into winter, and the meetups shift from every other night to once a week to avoid the cold and the snow.

Shang Jianguo and him have started meeting up often, in one of the sound-proof library rooms to draft out plot points they think are fixed. They've already hit a bump in the road when Shang Jianguo saves Mobei Jun on accident- ('he's my favorite, what was I supposed to do? Just let him die?', 'Yes!', 'Bro', 'Okay, no, ugh... now we really need to think this through') but they're working on it.

His side lessons with Qi Jia have progressed to the point where she suggests combining his spiritual energy into an item that will help him manipulate the air around him.

A folding fan is the obvious choice. In the novel, the original scum villain had one. While Shen Yuan is wary of following in those footsteps, he can't deny the advantages of having a spiritual item. So, he and Qi Jia go into town one winter’s day after gaining permission and some money from their Shizun. She also utilizes a fan but would like to get another one just for variety.

Together they stop at a shop selling some good quality fans. He ends up purchasing one made of birch-wood and a bamboo motif printed on it. It matches the peak aesthetic well enough. With Qi Jia’s seal of approval she tells him to meet her at a tea shop in an hour, then wanders off.

Shen Yuan goes off in his own search for other stores. It’s better to take advantage of being in town to do some shopping for the Winter Solstice festivities. It’s basically Airplane’s really shitty way of incorporating Christmas into the world of PIDW, but hey, it’s a modern comfort that he’s missed.

With his own savings that he’s gathered, Shen Yuan makes a few extra purchases for his friends to give them gifts. His last stop is at an apothecary’s shop to look at some nice mortar and pestles for Mu Shao. He had said something about quartz stone amplifying healing herbs, when he sees a familiar figure in navy robes.

Shen Yuan smiles, flicking open his newly purchased fan and slides up beside Liu Zihao, who is staring intently at a stall.

“Hi Stranger.”

Liu Zihao flinches but relaxes back again when he sees who it is. “Shen Yuan.”

“Hmm, I didn’t know Shidi was fond of jewelry.”

“It is a gift.”

Shen Yuan glances back down at the display. It’s all filled with pieces meant for young couples to give to one another for long-lasting relationships. Huh, for some reason his chest feels tight. Probably the winter air. “Oh, I wasn’t aware Shidi was courting anyone. Who’s the lucky girl?”

Liu Zihao frowns hard, “It’s for my sister.”

Shen Yuan flutters his fan. Hmm, that’s not... good. “Um, Shidi, I’m not quite sure how to tell you this, but all of these pieces are ones for young lovers. Not family.”

Liu Zihao’s face goes pale, horror in his eyes. Being a good friend, Shen Yuan does not laugh. He's tempted, but he won't.

“It’s okay, this one happened to see another jewelry stall with some nice silver bracelets. Is your sister fond of amethyst? It is said to be a protecting crystal.” Shen Yuan continues talking as he loops his arm through Liu Zihao’s, leading him away from what could have been a horrible purchase.

At the other stall Liu Zihao is quick to purchase a simple band with amethyst inlaid in it. He also buys a tassel with a navy colored sodalite bead on it, which he holds out to Shen Yuan.

Liu Zihao’s face is somewhat flushed from the cold, “For you.”

“Oh, Liu-shidi it’s lovely. But I don’t have a sword yet.”

“Your fan.”

“Ah, that’s a wonderful idea.” Shen Yuan runs it through a hole on the end of the wood, then after securing it looks it over. “Oh, it really is lovely.” He looks to Liu Zihao and smiles, “Thank you Liu-Shidi.”

A stiff nod is all he gets before his friend blurts out, “I have to go.” Quickly, he stalks off down the street.

Shen Yuan shakes his head at the antics, but can feel himself smiling. As he turns around to leave though, he feels a pair of eyes on him. Shen Yuan looks for the source and spots a child, watching with glittery gray eyes. He's holding hands with an older woman shopping at a nearby stall for food.

His gaze is torn from the boy, when the shop keeper of the food stall starts yelling. "That's not enough money you old hag-!" The man's hand lashes out from behind the counter, grabbing at the older woman. Two things stop him from moving any further. Shen Yuan's hand grabbing the man's wrist, and Liu Zihao's sword at his throat.

The entire street is silent.

The shopkeeper yells, spit flying, "She's a thief-!" Shen Yuan pinches a nerve in his wrist. The offending man yelps, and when Shen Yuan releases his hand as though he was handling a muck covered cloth-- it limply flops back to his sweat-stained side.

Shen Yuan sighs, glancing at the change on the counter tops then looking disinterested at the produce on display. "If anything, I do believe you are the crook."

The shopkeep snarls, "What-" Liu Zihao presses his sword a little closer to his throat.

The woman looks at Shen Yuan wide-eyed as he says, "Ma'dam, I have never heard of anyone charging two silver pieces for a head cabbage. An appropriate price would be three coppers."

Liu Zihao glares harder at the man, "disgraceful."

Shen Yuan sighs again, gathering the woman's money and placing it back into her hand. "Please Madam, this one knows of another merchant down the street- One who doesn't taint his own food by rotting it's worth. This way please."

It's only after Shen Yuan has successfully gotten the little family away from the stall that Liu Zihao relaxes putting away his sword. People begin to murmur in the streets, giving the grocer-stall a wide berth.

The two quietly go along with the disciples until they reach the stall Shen Yuan spoke of.

"Please young cultivators," she starts, looking tearfully down. "This humble one cannot thank you enough for your wisdom and help. You are both too kind to ones such as us." Li Zihao respectfully bows back to her, causing her and her child to go red.

"Kindness is it's own strength."

Shen Yuan smiles at Liu Zihao, "Oh, Liu-shidi does listen."

Liu Zihao slightly flushes, looking away. "I always do."

"Your mathematics score says otherwise." The blush stays but the look shifts to a glare.

The boy giggles, before realizing he shouldn't quickly putting his hands over his mouth. Shen Yuan shares a smile with him and the little boy freezes immediately, blushing in turn. The mother tuts, patting the back of her boy's head.

Liu Zihao huffs before turning back to the stall and slamming money down on the counter-top, startling everyone- including the confused looking girl at the counter. "I'm paying for them."

The mother balks at the three gold pieces, "Young master, that's much too much."

Liu Zihao nods in farewell, then leaves.

Shen Yuan sighs fondly,"He means well." Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Qi Jia beckon to him from the tea house nearby. Shen Yuan nods, then picks up one of two gold pieces off the counter, handing them to the mother. "That seems a little more accurate, I wish you two safe travels home."

As he approaches his shijie, she raises a brow at him.

"What's all that about?"

"Oh," Shen Yuan glanced back at the family. The little boy is looking his way once more. Shen Yuan waves, and he turns to hide his face in his mother's skirt. Cute. "Nothing, just helping out." He looks back to Qi Jia, "so, what tea do you recommend?"

__

On the eve of the solstice, the four disciples meet at their hideout to exchange gifts. Fortunately, the cliff walls do a good job of keeping out the cold and the crystal roofing is buried in by snow. The entire cavern is lit solely by the glow of the orange fire and the teal of the luminous topaz.

Seasonal greetings are exchanged, and Shang Jianguo surprises everyone with new, hand-made furniture for their little area. More cloth folding chairs, metal skewers for roasting food over the fire, and a little shelving unit for storage of their various items.

“This is my gift to all of you because your boy is a broke bitch.”

Liu Zihao nods, “It’s good.”

Shen Yuan passes his gifts around next. Mu Shao is delighted by his quartz mortar and pestle, Shang Jianguo melts into his new fleece blanket- ‘the nights are so cold bro’-, and Liu Zihao nods in approval to his new trapping wires.

In turn, he was given a book on aquatic beasts from Mu Shao and a nice set of calligraphy brushes from Liu Zihao.

They don’t stay too long, considering that it is winter and it’s still cold out. As they all split off at the main path though, Shen Yuan holds Liu Zihao back.

It starts to snow so he tries to make it quick.

“I have another gift for Liu-shidi.” He holds out a small paper-wrapped pouch to him. Liu Zihao looks surprised but still takes it, pulling out a white tassel with a white crystal bead that has ribbons of green streaking through it. “It’s called Moss Agate, it’s supposed to help keep one’s energy stable and ward off Qi deviations.”

Shen Yuan holds up his fan, the tassel he was gifted still dangling off of it. “Now we match.”

Liu Zihao looks between the two tassels, as his face slowly turns redder from the cold. “Thank you.”

“Of course, I won’t keep you any longer. Until next time Liu-shidi.”

He turns back, a warm feeling of accomplishment following him home.

__

Time continues to flow.

The months drift into years, and soon Shen Yuan has been living as a Qing Jing disciple for over three years. Mu Shao is the first among them to be sent to the caves on Wan Jian peak to accept his spirit sword. Shang Jianguo is sent another three months later. Then it’s Shen Yuan’s turn not long after. To his surprise, Xiu Ya appears before him. It’s a beautiful blade, thin and crafted with elegance. Its presence alone terrifies him.

Shang Jianguo and him spend an hour in one of the library rooms yelling about it. In the end, they figure it’s probably the sword reacting to Shen Jiu’s body, not Shen Yuan’s soul. Still, it’s agreed that he should sparingly use it, just to avoid any death flags that may appear.

Which is fine by Shen Yuan, considering that he is mainly using his spiritual fan for combat anyway. The object has been tempered by his own Qi, making it as hard as steel now. His mastery over the air has left him Qi Jia’s equal now, no longer her student.

On his last day of lessons with her, as she is due to take her final examination soon and leave the peaks, she holds him back.

“I have a favor to ask of Disciple Shen.”

“Of course Shijie. Tell me how I can help.”

She smiles his way, “You can turn me down--”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

She laughs now, “Well, you still may. You see, this humble one has a younger sister on Xian Shu Peak, Qi Meifeng. I was wondering if you wouldn’t be against helping her out after I am gone. She is rather... blunt and needs much help with her words. I would be eternally grateful if you wouldn’t mind, um, tutoring her much like with your other friends from the other peaks.” She sighs, “I’m afraid once I leave she will begin to fall behind in her studies.”

“Of course Shijie, I was once an older brother. I am well aware of the, hmm, difficulties younger sisters can often bring.”

She laughs again, “You have my thanks, Disciple Shen. I shall arrange for her to come and visit before my exam. I don’t see her being unamendable to the situation.”

“I am happy to be of assistance.”

A little while later, in the library group room, Shang Jianguo balks at him.

“Dude! Are you seriously not doing this on purpose?”

“Doing what?”

“Befriending all the main future peak lords of the novel!!”

Shen Yuan frowns, “Yue Qi is purely on accident, the only one I specifically sought out was Mu Shao. Who is Qi Meifeng supposed to be?”

“Dude, she’s Qi Qingqi! The lesbian lord who sides with Luo Binghe because of Shen Qinqqiu’s creepy attention on women.”

“Well, I don’t do that.”

“True, I mean, you don’t. But still, stay on her good side. As long as you can help Liu Zihao avoid his death flag, I think you have a good chance.”

Cold sweeps over Shen Yuan.

A- what?

“What death flag?.”

“You didn’t figure that out? Liu Zihao, he’s the future peak lord of Bai Zhen, Liu Qingge. Who dies early in the novel from a qi deviation.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, he’s got a death flag on him. When the original Shen Qingqiu runs into him in the caves, he kills him.”

Shen Yuan feels himself getting colder.

W-what?

“Of course that’s an accident— Bro? Uh, you’re kinda pale, you okay?”

Liu Zihao is going to die.

“Bro?”

He’s going to die because of me.

“I killed him?” His voice is small.

Hands slap down on the table hard. Shen Yuan starts, looking up to Shang Jianguo glaring at him.

“No. You didn’t kill him, Shen Jiu did. You’re not going to kill him, you two are close friends at this point and frankly, I'm not sure how you even did that.” He waves a hand in the air. “My point is: it’s going to be okay!! Liu Zihao’s qi deviation was a combination of stress from Shen Jiu’s antagonisms and his family pressures. You’re not doing anything to him as you, so if anything, you’re already dropping his chances of the event. Plus, you’re much more skilled with Qi right now than Shen Jiu was in the novel.”

Shang Jianguo takes a deep breath, “at this point, with the timeline being all weird... I think you’re the only one who can save him if he does go into a qi deviation.”

“What?”

“Well, Shen Jiu and Liu Zihao are foils of each other. Bad vs. Good, Knowledge vs. Strength, and Yin vs. Yang. The two of you are opposites in every sense but are also the most compatible for each other, in the sense of spiritual energy that is; Shen Qingqiu’s cold, soothing Yin energy to Liu Qingge’s firey, passionate Yang. If it does happen, you would be the best choice to circulate qi through him.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah bro, just stay close to him and you’ll be able to make sure he outlives the original.”

Shen Yuan rubs his hands on his face, “Yeah, yeah no, you’re absolutely right.” He looks up, “thanks, bro.”

“Hey, what are friends for?”

Shen Yuan smiles.

“Now, about my ice demon problem—”

“You’re screwed.”

“Bro!”

__

Liu Zihao is the last of them to get his spiritual sword. Cheng Luan is a broad sword that’s as strong and sturdy as it’s wielder. Their friends are fawning over the blade around the campfire, but really Shen Yuan is studying Liu Zihao.

So, he’s the War God.

Now that he knows Liu Zihao is Liu Qingge, Shen Yuan can't help but make comparisons to the man he imagined him to be. For some reason, he had always imagined the Bai Zhen lord as a body-builder type of man, with lots of facial hair. Not this slender, princely looking one. Not that he isn't attractive as is!

Liu Zihao smiles at something Mu Shao says, and the dimples come back.

Damn he’s pretty.

There’s a smack on his arm that draws him back into the conversation. All three boys are staring at him.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“Well, "Mu Shao smiles. "We were talking of night hunts. But now I'm curious as to what Shen shidi found so interesting.”

A blush warms his cheeks, “Oh, um, nothing. Anyway, night hunts yeah?”

Shang Jianguo, his one and only friend, nods. “The peak lords of Qing Jing and Qian Cao are pushing hard for it to be an inter-peak collaboration. It sounds like there’s going to be a petition for groups of five- a disciple from one peak only per group!”

Liu Zihao nods, “Head Disciple Yue Qi has agreed to it.”

“Right the sec master finally stepped down.”

Mu Shao sighs, “I guess we will see what happens then.”

Shen Yuan turns the cup of tea he’s holding in his hands, “When do you think his appointment will take place?”

“Oh, late this summer. I’ve already finalized the budget.” They all turn to stare at Shang Jianguo. “What?”

“Bro,” Shen Yuan starts. “No offense, but why are they leaving the budget of an important event to you?”

“Because I'm the head disciple of Ah Ding peak?”

The fire cracks in the cold air. The chaos of yelling follows.

__

He totally forgot that Shang Jianguo became a peak lord too. Whoops.

Speaking of peak lords, Qi Meifeng already hates him. She hasn’t responded to a single word he’s said this entire conversation and at this rate, he’s already downed half the tea in the pot.

Qi Jia had shown up with her sister, then promptly left to who the fuck knows where. This left Shen Yuan with an increasingly hostile Qi Meifeng.

He wants to die.

Finally after his umpteenth attempt to start a conversation, she sighs.

“Look, you.”

“I have a name-”

“I really don’t care.”

Ugh, this really isn’t going well.

“The only reason my sister did this is because our parents think I need some guy who’s skilled like her. I’m not interested.”

Shen Yuan blinks twice. What? No, she doesn't!?

"I really don't care about you, or your fancy words."

Shen Yuan pales a bit as she stands.

"Go choke."

Fuck, fuck, fuck I needs to salvage this conversation.

“I’m not interested in girls.”

She freezes. He freezes, because, why the fuck did I just say that?

Really though it’s a truth that both he and Shang Jianguo know. Neither of them will ever end up with a woman. The protagonist literally has dibs on every female in this world with his huge harem. Trying to get with one is asking for certain death, even if they manage to keep him from going to the darkside. Still, to play it safe, Shen Yuan has always kept his distance from any female-identifying figures in terms of romance.

I guess it’s not wrong to say that then.

Qi Meifeng actually looks at him. “So... you like men then?”

He feels a little cornered into this answer, but he nods. It's not lying, he likes guys! All his friends are guys!

She stares at him a bit longer before breaking into a grin, “Well, why didn’t you say so?" She sits back down with little-to-no grace and, yeah okay, he sees what her sister means. "Gay and gay solidarity my friend!"

Wait- fucking what?

Qi Meifeng smiles, "So, I actually do need some help with poetry; can we start there?”

Feeling a bit faint, Shen Yuan nods.

Oh heavens...

__

Qi Meifeng starts coming by regularly to be tutored. Really, her sister wasn’t wrong, she desperately needs it. Shang Jianguo gets the pleasure of dealing with her glare first hand before he weakly tells Shen Yuan about ‘his handsome suitor’, their code word for Mobei Jun, and she begins treating him decently too. ‘I’m not fond of straight men’ is all they get as an explanation. Mu Shao is spared all hostility due to his calming presence in general. As is Liu Zihao because apparently the two of them have a cousin who’s married to the other’s cousin and they spared at the wedding just for fun.

After the awkward getting-to-know-you phase passes, spring starts to blend into early summer, and they invite her to the hideout.

She looks around, expression somewhat impressed before asking, “So, where’s your booze?” and the four boys choke.

“You mean to tell me,” Qi Meifeng speaks slowly. “That the four of you have a secret hiding spot... and don’t use it to get away with breaking the rules?”

Liu Zihao crosses his arms as Shang Jianguo laughs nervously, “Well, uh, you see, it never occurred to us?”

“You’re teenage boys. You can’t tell me you haven’t brought anyone here to fool around.”

Liu Zihao glances at Shen Yuan then shrugs, offering nothing more.

Mu Shao shrugs, “I have no interests in trysts.”

Shang Jianguo and Shen Yuan exchange a look, “Why would we want to tell others about this place?”

“Yeah bruh, we come here to get away from people. Once word got out, everyone and their brother would come use it.”

Qi Meifeng stares at them all. “You are the saddest group of nerds I’ve ever met.” A humiliating few seconds of silence pass before she sighs. “But, you’re my nerds now. We’re fixing this. No one leaves alright?” Then she runs off.

Mu Shao runs a hand through his hair, “we really are goody-two-shoes, aren’t we?”

Shen Yuan slumps in his chair, “We’ve been too busy training to be teens.” He glares at Shang Jianguo, “I’m catching up to you Head Disciple, I swear to god.” He gets a shit-eating grin, “good luck with that bro.”

Liu Zihao is still silent.

She’s back in half an hour, two wooden crates under either arm. “Okay boys, you guys have snackage right?"

Mu Shao's jaw drops, "Where on earth did you get all of this?"

She grins, "I've got a connection on Zui Xian Peak."

Shang Jianguo whistles low. "Damn girl, color me impressed."

"Well boys," she sets the crates down a bit away from the fire. "I hope you don't have plans this evening, because tomorrow is a rest day across the peak.” Qi Meifeng pulls out a comically large bottle of wine grinning— wicked and sharp.

“Let’s get drunk.”

__

As it turns out, Mu Shao is a loud drunk. Qi Meifeng is too and they two of them are having a blast by the fire, Shang Jianguo sloppily clapping along to their drunken singing.

Shen Yuan, feeling warm from the alcohol, is sitting on the log near the pond. His feet kicking in the cool water. Everything feels soft. Even the water feels soft. Like floating. It's so nice.

A thump jolts him out of his head.

Liu Zihao’s sitting on the log too. He yanks off his own boots, dunking his feet- and pants into the water.

Shen Yuan laughs, “Shidi water you doing- wait, wait, that’s not right- what are you doing? There we go. What are you doing, hmm?”

Liu Zihao’s entire face is beet red, the only indication that he’s been affected by the alcohol. “You looked lonely.”

“Aww, Shidi is so sweet. You're so nice, so nice to me.”

He stares at Shen Yuan for a full minute before blurting, “You’re drunk.”

Shen Yuan laughs, “No shit! So are you.”

“Mm not.”

“Are too.”

“Mm not.”

“Are toooooo.” Shen Yuan laughs again as Liu Zihao grumbles ‘mm not’ under his breath. “I bet everything feels really, really, reeaaalllyyy, hazey right now.”

Liu Zihao nods.

Shen Yuan leans closer, “And your head is a little fuzzy.” Another nod. “And,” his voice drops to a whisper “you feel kinda impulsive huh?”

Liu Zihao swallows hard, and nods.

Shen Yuan boops him on the nose with a finger, “Then you’re drunk silly!” He leans away, laughing hard.

Liu Zihao is still staring at him.

"Do that again."

Shen Yuan leans in again, smiling. "Do what again?"

Liu Zihao stares some more.

Shen Yuan laughs, patting Liu Zihao's thigh. "Shidi?"

"Mn."

"Shidi?"

"Mn."

Shen Yuan stares back at Liu Zihao. The moonlight from above highlights his cheekbones, shining on smooth black hair of his ponytail. His sidebang framing his face perfectly, drawing attention to his eyes— which seem a little darker.

Liu Zihao's breath catches.

"What is it Shidi?”

He seems to blink twice, before blurting, “You're pretty.”

Shen Yuan laughs again, “no, you’re the pretty one!”

“No. You.”

“No, you.”

“No. You.”

“No, youuuu.”

“You're both pretty,” Qi Meifeng groans.

The two of them jolt, Shen Yuan starts laughing again but Liu Zihao is completely frozen. She shoves two water-skins at them. “Drink this, you’ll thank me tomorrow morning.”

Shen Yuan sighs, it sounds more like a whine, but he does as he’s told. Liu Zihao looks at his throat as he drinks.

“You too Liu-shidi.” Qi Meifeng stands there, hands-on-hips. She doesn’t take her eyes off him, watching as he slowly drinks the whole thing.

“Good.” She takes the skins back once they are empty, then walks back to the fire. Liu Zihao stands up in the shallow waters.

Shen Yuan stands on the log, “Hey!"

Qi Meifeng yells over her shoulder, "What?"

"How come you’re not drunk anymore?”

“Because I'm a professional, dipshit!”

Shen Yuan bursts out laughing again, leaning back as he does. His wet foot slips from the log, laugh catching in his throat.

Ah-

Before he collides with that water, strong arms catch him bridal style in the air.

“Ah,” is all Shen Yuan can say. He feels the muscles flexing and traces their source to the owner’s face. Liu Zihao’s very pretty face. Shen Yuan can’t hold back the tipsy giggle that escapes, he turns towards Liu Zihao’s chest and laughs. “My hero.”

Liu Zihao starts to say something, but Shen Yuan doesn’t hear it. He falls asleep just like that, in his arms.

__

They all get in so much trouble for staying out past curfew. Shen Yuan isn’t sure it was worth it considering he can’t remember anything past Qi Meifeng’s and Mu Shao’s drunken singing contest. One thing does stand out though.

Liu Zihao is avoiding him.

He stops coming to tutoring, stops showing up to their hideout and all but runs away when Shen Yuan tries to corner him- even with someone else.

Mu Shao is at a loss too. “I’ve never seen him act like this before.” He confides early one morning. The two of them are once more having tea in his hut, and frankly, it isn’t as soothing as Shen Yuan needs it to be right now.

“I don’t know what happened. Maybe I said something rude to him?”

“Hmm, I don’t think it was that. I’ve tried asking him about what's going on... but he only told me it wasn’t my concern.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, I wasn’t very happy about that.” Mu Shao sighs, “I may have suggested that he was hurting your feelings and called him something rude in response.”

“Oh, Mu-shidi no.”

“I know, I regret that.”

Shen Yuan sighs, this is bothering him more than it should be. Maybe his family troubles are starting already? Or maybe he regrets ever getting involved with him in the first place after that drunk fiasco. He’s trying to make sure Liu Zihao avoids his death flag, not run headfirst into it!

“Maybe...” Mu Shao starts.

“Maybe?”

“Maybe, you should fight him.”

Huh?

“... excuse me?”

“He never runs away from a fight! Perhaps challenge him, and while you’re fighting, asking what's going on. I think he’ll listen to you.”

“He won't even be in the same room as me right now.”

“So don’t wait for him to come to you. You go to him.”

“I’ll... I’ll give him some time. Maybe in a few days, he’ll come around.”

__

A week passes and Shen Yuan is over it.

__

“Liu Zihao!!” Shen Yuan yells, charging onto the empty Bai Zhen training grounds late one night.

Liu Zihao, it’s sole occupant, goes as rigged as ice.

“Fight me!”

He immediately turns around to flee. Shen Yuan throws a blast of Qi at the ground preventing him from running off. He doesn’t hesitate, drawing Xiu Ya and swinging down hard. His sword meets Cheng Luan, the steel clashing— sparks flying.

He’s forced back by a strong shove and Liu Zihao immediately hops on his sword to fly off. Shen Yuan draws his fan, drawing his qi into the air, and blows him off— sending Liu Zihau back to the ground.

“Stop running away!”

He dashes forward, but the next swing is easily intercepted by a hand on his wrist. In the blink of an eye, Shen Yuan is being thrown over Liu Zihao’s shoulder and collides hard with the dirt. Shen Yuan latches onto Liu Zihao’s arm instead. Funnily enough, that’s what makes him finally stop.

Liu Zihao stares down at him and Shen Yuan struggles to get back the breath that was knocked out of him.

“Stop-”, He gasps, “running-”, another one, “from me.”

A pained expression crosses Liu Zihao’s face, but instead of yanking his arm out of Shen Yuan’s hold, he just sits down on the ground next to him, looking thoroughly defeated.

Ironic considering who got fucking slammed to the ground here.

“I’m... I'm sorry.”

He sits there though, as Shen Yuan lays there until he can breathe easily again. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” Liu Zihao is still not looking at him.

“But you were avoiding me.”

“I... yes.”

“So, it was me.”

“No. The problem was me. I just, I needed time to think.”

“A dangerous task.”

There’s a scoff followed by a slight smile.

“You know you can talk to me right?” Shen Yuan slowly sits up. “If there’s anything wrong, Even if you don’t want help with it, I’m always willing to listen. I care about you, Liu Zihao.” If the family issues that Shang-shidi mentioned before are happening, he needs to try and help out Liu Zihao as best he can. Anything to help reduce the stressors that might build over time and result in a deadly qi deviation.

Finally, Liu Zihao looks at him, then looks away again.

Shen Yuan takes a deep breath, "Your more than just 'a friend' to me."

It’s embarrassing to admit but Shen Yuan has never had a ride-or-die best friend before. Mu Shao is definitely a good friend but, well, Liu Zihao is definitely best friend material. Not to mention, he’d rather stay off the enemy track record that was supposed to have happened between the two of them. Plus, this may be based on a novel, but he really cares about the people in this world he’s living in. He doesn’t want Liu Zihao to die, and for that to happen he needs to stay by his side.

A blush erupts from Liu Zihao’s face. His breath catches and eyes go wide.

Oh, he’s probably never had a best friend before either.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to overwhelm you.”

“It's fine.” He sounds a little faint, so Shen Yuan holds onto him a little tighter, just in case he topples over.

“You do get what I’m saying though, right?”

A nod is all he gets. “I... I care about you just as much.”

Shen Yuan smiles, “that makes me happy to hear.”

The sound of a gong rings in the air- a warning for curfew. The two of them stand, but, for some reason, Shen Yuan hesitates to leave.

Liu Zihao shuffles his feet, “I need to go.”

"Me too."

Neither of them move. Crickets sing out into the air, the stars of the clear night sky shining down on them.

"Well-" Shen Yuan starts.

“I won’t avoid you!” Liu Zihao declares. He looks Shen Yuan in the eye, "not anymore.”

“That’s all I ask.”

Liu Zihao's gaze flicks down, then back up. “I’ll be sure to treat you right.”

Er, um, okay?

“Just treat me like you always have. I want things to be normal between us.”

Another nod, “I understand. Until next time.”

Liu Zihao makes to leave. Then turns back around. “I’m sorry. For avoiding you.”

“I understand,” I really don’t, “Just don’t do it again.”

He nods, “well,” his blush deepens. “Accept this apology.”

Liu Zihao gets closer to him.

“Oh, um okay?”

He leans in, and before Shen Yuan can fully process what’s happening, soft lips brush his cheek.

Liu Zihao leans back. “Until next time.”

...

An owl hoots in the distance.

...

HUH!?

__

“Friends kiss each other, right? I mean, Europeans do.”

“Bro, this is ancient china.”

“So?”

“It’s a kiss bro.”

Shen Yuan slams his head down on the library room table. Shang Jianguo, the fucking traitor, is being his voice of reason (hahaha, fuck) during the ensuing meltdown that Shen Yuan is having post-first kiss.

“It was a peck on the cheek bro, not a real kiss anyway.”

“It’s still a kiss!”

The flat look he gets isn’t very encouraging either, “So now you're validating that it’s a real kiss?”

“Well...”

“You make me sad for Liu Zihao, bro.”

Okay, okay, so maybe this entire thing is his fault for making it sound like he was confessing to Liu Zihao. Maybe he should have specified, ‘best friends’, instead of ‘I care about you’. And maybe if would have helped to know that Liu Zihao was gay.

Shang Jianguo shrugs again, “I mean it was never written, but he is his own person.”

“You’re not helping,” Shen Yuan grumbles into the table.

There’s another sigh, “look, bro, I don’t see what the big deal is. You clearly do care about the guy. Maybe you should just bite the bullet and go along with it.”

“Why?”

“Because, ‘oh hey I don’t have a crush on you, my mistake’ is a really shit thing to do.” he pauses, “and Mu Shao will kill you for messing with his heart.”

“Uugghhhh,”

“Bro, it’s not the end of the world.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not. You asked for things to stay the same right? Liu Zihao is a good dude, he’ll respect that. Just, hang around him a bit more. Keep things normal.” Shen Yuan nods. “And see if you don’t mind the thought of frenching him.”

Shen Yuan throws a book at him.

__

True to his word, things do stay the same between the two of them. Well, their relationship looks like it goes back to normal, much to the relief of their friends. Around the others, it's easy. They all talk together again, study together again, laugh at each other's stupid jokes.

When it's just the two of them, it's different.

It doesn't look different but it feels different. Like the air is charged with something, it's not qi but it is a restless energy. It's slowly driving Shen Yuan insane.

Today it’s just the two of them at the library and while usually the quiet in the room is companionable— the silence is deafening. There’s nothing but the sound of charcoal sticks scratching at the page. Shen Yuan is doing his best to ignore all of that and just focus on his paper, it’s incredibly important as it’s his rough draft for his thesis. All Qing Jing disciples at his rank are required to create a draft paper detailing the specialization they would like to pursue as senior disciples. It is a prerequisite before evening taking the tests to be promoted to a senior disciple.

Shen Yuan is sure that he could get approved, beasts who use qi is an incredibly interesting topic. The only issue with it is that... well the odds are against him. These proposals are supposed to include a team that will help out with collecting data and testing. However, literally no one else on Qing Jing sees the interest or long term payoff in qi beasts. Mu Shao has already declined, saying the Qian Cao would not be interested in anything that’s not medically related to healing. So Shen Yuan is on his own.

Liu Zihao clears his throat.

Shen Yuan glances up from his paper, “What is it, Shidi?”

There’s a flush on Liu Zihao’s cheeks that makes Shen Yuan a little nervous. Oh no, does he want to hold hands or something? The thought makes his heart race a little faster.

“Mu Shao,” Liu Zihao haultingly begins. “Mentioned your thesis to me.”

Shen Yuan blinks twice. Huh, that’s not what I expected. “He did?” He perks up a little bit, “Did Mu-shidi change his mind? Oh that would be wonderful if he did.”

Liu Zihao shakes his head, and Shen Yuan can’t help but deflate a bit.

“Oh, I see. That’s a shame really. I had been hoping to work with someone I knew well enough. You see, Liu-shidi, my thesis details out my plan of observing these rare beasts in the wild— but that would mean camping out for perhaps weeks and months at a time away from the peak.” Shen Yuan flicks his fan open, fluttering the air on himself. “This one had hoped he wouldn’t have to spend all the time alone, but not even my own peers are interested.”

“I am,” Liu Zihao is glaring down at the paper.

“...You are?” Surprised bleeds into Shen Yuan's voice. Enough that Liu Zihao looks up at him when he nods.

“When you speak of these beasts... it would be helpful to have someone who knows how to track animals. And survive in the wild.”

Oooh, Bai Zhen’s curriculum covers that!

“Really!?” Shen Yuan leans halfway over the table in excitement, an overwhelmed expression appearing on Liu Zihao’s face. “Liu-shidi, you’d be okay with working with me? We’d be studying the beasts for long periods of time, what about your own training?”

“It’s fine. Bai Zhen requires disciples to spend time off peak, to see if they maintain their strength while gone.”

Glee surges through Shen Yuan, “Oh my— this is perfect then! We can help each other out in the process.” On pure impulse, he grabs Liu Zihao’s hands. “You’re my hero Liu-shidi. Thank you!”

Liu Zihao turns cherry red, floundering for a second. Shen Yuan glances down at their hands. Oh, fuck. He can feel his own face burning as he quickly lets go, leaning back to his side of the table. “Sorry! Sorry, that was very improper—”

Liu Zihao leans back over, quickly catching his hands. Shen Yuan’s heart rate speeds up as he looks at their hands back to Liu Zihao’s intense expression. It’s less intimidating because he’s still blushing.

“I can keep you safe. Should any beasts deem us a threat, I will make sure no harm ever comes to you.”

...

So Smooth!? Hot damn, Liu Shidi, those are powerful words!

Shen Yuan tries his best not to swoon like a maiden as he nods, “then... this one will be in your care—”

The door to the room slides open with a slam. Qi Meifeng’s eyes flicker down to their hands, then to two matching mortified expressions. Mu Shao quickly runs up right behind her, glaring daggers at her head.

“Ooh... Sorry, I’ll just, uh, come back?”

The slow slide of the door closing makes its occupants crave death.

__

That little stint puts Shen Yuan’s imagination in overdrive. Him and Liu Zihao! Alone! Camping together! For months at a time!

If this was a novel, that would be when the two characters fall in love with each other. Getting closer and closer together as the two of them let their walls down around one another. Then something happens where one gets injured and slowly each person realizes their feelings are something more for one another. One evening by a campfire under the stars the two sit close, and then Liu-shidi would lean closer—

Shen Yuan slaps his cheeks.

The sound echoes in Fai Renqiu’s office, luckily the peak lord is too absorbed by his thesis paper draft to even notice the sound.

Get it together! It’s not like you actually have a crush on the guy!!

“I must say,” Shen Yuan stands straighter listening to his shizun’s words. “This is incredibly well put together Disciple Shen. Your choice of partnering with a Bai Zhen disciple is equally well thought out. I look forward to seeing the fruit of your labor.”

Shen Yuan preens.

“When you are both strong enough.”

Excuse me?

Fai Renqiu looks up, “I don’t believe you have enough experience just yet to advance to the next stage of your core formation. Perhaps in a few years time. Until then, I am marking this topic as reserved for you and you alone.”

“Of course Shizun.”

The corners of Fai Renqiu’s eyes turn up behind his glasses. “Don’t look so disappointed my disciple. When you are ready for it, the world will be waiting for you.”

Shen Yuan nods.

Guess it was too much to expect so soon. After all, cultivators are immortals; so he does have all the time in the world. At least until the protagonist arrives. Still it does sting a little, but what really sucks is that Shen Yuan was hoping for a distraction to this whole Liu Zihao problem.

The problem being that his mind has decided to hyper focus on everything about the guy. The way he glares, his huffs of laughter, those rare smiles— it’s becoming a bit of a problem.

Not to mention, his brain is helpfully pointing out how pretty Liu Zihao is all the goddamn time. Like when he shows up at the hideout- sweaty from the summer heat training, sleeves rolled up- showcasing his arms. Shen Yuan wakes up sticky in the middle of the night, the fading dream of Liu Zihao's body seared into his brain.

Fuck.

Fuck.

That's a little gay. I might be a little gay.

The good news! He's already kinda-sorta pre-confessed to the guy he's now having wet dreams of. Yup. That doesn't make things even weirder at all.

Somewhere in the middle of summer, Liu Zihao asks him to stay behind when everyone else leaves their hideout for the evening.

They're standing a few feet apart, but it feels like something is going to happen if they don't. Shen Yuan is instantly nervous, heart pounding hard.

But... Liu Zihao doesn't seem to be fairing any better. He's so tense, face burning, shoulders hunched up to his ears, hands in fists at his sides, lips pursed in a straight line. Taking a deep breath, he licks his lips— only for no words to come out. His eyes screw shut.

Shen Yuan blinks.

Liu Zihao is nervous. He is blushing, incredibly tense, and edgy... just trying to talk to him.

Shen Yuan doesn't remember doing it, but the next thing he knows is that he is in front of Liu Zihao. "Hey," he hears himself murmur. Liu Zihao opens his eyes, looking at him. The expression on his face isn't one Shen Yuan has seen before... it makes his own chest feel tight. Still, Shen Yuan smiles at him softly, "It's just me."

Liu Zihao looks to the ground, his words strained. "It's because it's you."

Oh.

Shen Yuan hears the meaning. It makes his heart speed up even faster, but most of all, it makes him feel so happy. He reaches towards Liu Zihao's hand, so grateful he decided to forego the metal bracers on his wrists today. His thumb strokes the back of Liu Zihao's palm, and slowly he un-clenches his fist. Taking advantage of that, Shen Yuan directs Liu Zihao's hand to his other wrist placing his fingers right over an artery— measuring his racing heartbeat.

Shen Yuan hears Liu Zihao's sharp inhale. "You see," he starts, blushing. Great now he's the one who can't look the other in the eye— oh god. "Liu-shidi isn't the only one who's nervous."

There's a pause, then a chuckle. Shen Yuan looks up to see a bashful smile on Liu Zihao's face— and wow. His heart skips a beat. Then Liu Zihao's eyes light up because he felt it- oh god that’s embarrassing.

Liu Zihao smiles, "On our next free day... would you... like to go to the tea house with me?"

Shen Yuan smiles back, "I'd like nothing more."

“Ooooh!!” They both freeze. Qi Meifeng has her hands over her mouth at the entrance to the cave- stars in her eyes. Shang Jiangou looks like he’s furiously scribbling something on his notepad. Only, Mu Shao looks properly ashamed.

Liu Zihao immediately tenses up.

Shen Yuan feels equal parts embarrassment and rage, “You guys were there the whole time!?”

Shang Jianguo distractedly nods, “that was cute shit bro. Great material for my next novel.”

Qi Meifeng whirls to him, “Oh can I read it?”

“Of course Bruh.”

Shen Yuan doesn’t even have to ask, Liu Zihao draws Chen Luan and charges.

Somewhere in the screams and the yelling, Mu Shao appears beside Shen Yuan. He smiles at him, happiness dancing in the light of his sleepy eyes.

“I’m happy for you two.”

Shen Yuan flicks open his fan, hiding his blush behind it. “It’s thanks to your help this happened.”

“I’m glad you realize that.”

Shen Yuan laughs behind his fan as Mu Shao continues to smile. “The two of you are dear friends to me. I knew you would get along well together. I feel privileged as your friend to watch your relationship grow and evolve.” His smile turns sly, “That said, I expect some years from now to be front and center to the wedding.”

Shen Yuan smacks his shoulder with his closed fan, a laugh bursting from Mu Shao as Shang Jianguo screams for mercy in the distance.

__

At the end of summer, the first inner-peak night hunt finally arrives.

The instructions said to arrive near the fork in the river of the Luo River and a birch wood forest. Only a few of the disciples from other peaks have decided to give it a shot. There’s just this awkward mingling of people sticking to their own peak groups though.

Excluding the five of them, of course.

Their group immediately gravitates to each other and signs up on the check-in roster together. Shen Yuan’s hand touches Liu Zihao’s as he hands him the brush and there’s no helping the blush that takes over his face. Thankfully, Liu Zihao is just as awkward about it. He fumbles with the brush then messily writes his name on the board.

Shen Yuan really hates the knowing looks their friends are giving them right now.

Another Bai Zhen disciple stalks up between the two groups of Wan Jian and Zui Xian disciples, randomly grabs one from each with either hand, then she yells “I need two more!” A girl from Xian Shu runs over, snatching a meek-looking boy from Qian Cao as she goes. “Here!”

People start walking around, introducing themselves to one another, and about ten minutes later all of them are in perfect groups of five. The presiding peak lords watch it all with attentive expressions, excluding Head Disciple Yue Qi, who walks over to their group with his trademarked gentle smile.

“I see you five have made fast work of your assignment. As a reward for taking initiative, I will personally lead you to the hunting grounds and explain your mission.”

Instead of mounting his sword, Yue Qi turns around and begins walking away from them. They all move forward to keep up with his pace.

“This area is being plagued by an infestation of squirrel-mites. Squirrel-sized termites if you will. Our main goal is to eradicate these pests before they lure a bigger problem to the area.”

Qi Meifeng squints, “A bigger problem than deforestation?”

“Yes,” Yue Qi answers. “Would anyone happen to know what I’m referring to?”

Collectively they all look towards Shen Yuan, who, of course, knows the answer, excuse you. “The demonic Kookaburra.”

“That is correct, unlike the normal counterparts, the demonic Kookaburra grows with size for each termite they ingest. Should one happen to mistake a human for a squirrel-mite, they will start stalking human settlements and raze the villages to the ground.”

Yue Qi turns around as they reach a string of talismans hanging from the towering trees. “Here is the entryway. Remember, the squirrel-mites will try to bury themselves into your flesh, be swift with your sword if one happens to drop on you. You all have your emergency talismans?”

The group nods.

“Good,” Yue Qi looks over their group and nods in return. “May your hunt be successful.” Then he walks back to the main gathering of disciples, back at the outskirts of the forest.

When he seems to be out of sight, Shang Jianguo whirls on Shen Yuan. “Please tell me you know how to kill these bugs.”

“They don’t like smoke—”

“So we burn the forest down, got it.”

Qi Meifeng smacks him up the head, “No you dumb of ass.” Mu Shao snorts. “Thank you. We just light torches and once they get a whiff of the smoke we burn them.”

Liu Zihao crosses his arms, “how will we aim the fire?”

Mu Shao hums, “if a tree is fully infested, it may be safer to burn it to a husk.”

The others start up debates, discussing what they should do as their group walks deeper into the forest. Shen Yuan is lost in thought and stays that way until something fleshy jumps towards his head.

A squirrel-mite squeals as Cheng Luan slices it directly in half; each piece of the body falling to the forest floor with a splat.

They all fall quite.

“Bro, that almost ate your face.”

“Burrowed, actually” Mu Shao corrects, but he looks a little green. Qi Meifeng is disgusted.

Shen Yuan blinks twice at the green blood dripping off of the sword in front of his face then looks to Liu Zihao. “Many thanks, Liu-Shidi.”

“Hm,” he swings his sword with a strong swipe. It sings through the air, blood flying off of it, then re-sheaths the weapon.

Shen Yuan stares at him longer.

“What?”

“Nothing." Then, "that was hot.”

Liu Zihao immediately goes full red, “You!”

Qi Meifeng actually gags now.

Shen Yuan’s attention is pulled away by a movement in the trees. He pulls out from his pouch a luminous topaz that he picked up from their hideout out- tossing it straight up into the air. The soft blue light shines up like a star, letting them see in the dark.

Hundreds of squirrel-mites coat the branches of the trees, each one silently crunching away at the bark or skittering over one another. Qi Meifeng gags again.

The group quickly backtracks to a safer area.

Mu Shao still looks a little green, “we need a new plan.” Qi Meifeng shudders, “I’m not touching them with my sword or my daggers.”

Shen Yuan blinks at her, “You have daggers?”

She grins, all teeth, “Xian Shu trains all ladies in stealth, poisons, knives.”

“You’re all assassins??”

Shang Jianguo cuts in. “Look, that’s not the most important thing right now. What is important is that we make it through the night without dying.”

“He is right,” though Liu Zihao doesn’t look happy to be saying it.

Shen Yuan hums again, thinking. “Shang-shidi? How much gunpowder did you bring with you?”

“Um, about 10 grams or so.”

“Qi-shimei, any fire talismans?”

“I’ve always got two on me at all times, tonight I brought five.”

“Excellent. Liu-shidi how proficient are you in dual-wielding swords?”

“I’m good.”

“Wonderful, Mu-shidi, you have no problems with your qi correct? How about combining elements with it?”

“I’m fairly decent with earth and air.

“Prefect,” Shen Yuan grins. “My friends, I have a plan.”

It takes a few minutes to explain, but soon they are ready.

Shen Yuan braces himself as he and Mu Shao stand side-by-side. Liu Zihao stands a few feet in front of them, holding Xiu Ya in one hand and Cheng Luan in the other. Shang Jianguo and Qi Meifeng stand on their swords in the air above the tree canopy, each of them holding a fire talisman at the ready. Mu Shao holds some of the gunpowder in his bare palms.

“Whenever you’re ready Shen-shidi.”

Liu Zihao doesn't take his eyes off the trees but nods to indicate he’s also ready.

“Well,” Shen Yuan pulls out his fan. “Let’s light them up!”

Summoning his Qi into his fan, he flicks open his fan then performs a full body twirl. The air starts to respond in kind, agitating the leaves in the trees. With the full force of the wind, Shen Yuan aims two quick shots of air into the trees knocking the squirrel-mites prone, then loose from their branches.

Quickly he performs a complicated twist of his wrist, the fan manipulating the air from a stream to a cyclone. A few stray bugs fly towards them, but Liu Zihao immediately intercepts them all mid-air. Mu Shao blows the gunpowder into the air, then holds his own palms up and out, channeling his qi into the air alongside Shen Yuan’s. Once it blends, together, the two of them slowly force the tornado of screaming bugs above the treetops.

Once it clears the canopy, Liu Zihao yells out the order. “Fire!”

Qi Meifeng and Shang Jianguo quickly activate their talismans, suddenly glowing with qi, and throw them into the tornado. Two small flames spark once, coming into contact with the gunpowder within the air.The roar of the wind suddenly doubles in volume as the entire tornado becomes entirely fire.

Shen Yuan keeps the inferno steady, focusing his Qi into the air that feeds the flames. Mu Shao takes steadying breath then, lowering his palms back down, directs a column of smoke to the trees. Any remaining squirrel-mites that were not swept away immediately try to flee, but Liu Zihao shows no mercy killing every last bug on the ground. When he’s done slaying them all, Liu Zihao performs a roundabout scout with Shang Jianguo and Qi Meifeng, each of them slicing up a few more stragglers.

Still, Shen Yuan is immensely relieved when he finally hears three calls of ‘all clear’. Mu Shao channels the smoke back above the trees, and Shen Yuan pulls the air out of the fire to stop feeding it.

The forest becomes enveloped in darkness once more.

The five of the regroup, smiling all around until they all realize something.

It's quiet.

Too quiet.

There are no sounds of the other disciple groups. With a collective nod and a groan from Shang Jianguo, the five of them mount upon their swords and shoot up into the air once more— only to immediately dive back down as a demonic bird screeches their way.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Shang Jianguo shouts as they all gather on the ground again.

Qi Meifeng and Liu Zihao have identical worried expressions. “They must have ambushed the others,” She starts. “We are the only ones that made it into the forest.”

Mu Shao and Shen Yuan immediately start sprinting towards the entryway of the forest only for the two of them to stagger after a few feet.

“Shit,” Mu Shao hisses.

“Yup,” gasps back Shen Yuan. They've expanded way too much energy to be of much use in a demonic fight.

“We cut off their food supply-” Liu Zihao starts.

“Doesn’t matter,” Shen Yuan wheezes. “Once they get a taste for human flesh they won’t stop.”

Qi Meifeng and Liu Zihao exchange another look before each of them pick up Mu Shao and Shen Yuan respectively. Then the five of them run towards the entrance of the forest.

“Shang-Shidi,” Shen Yuan wraps his arms around Liu Zihao’s neck as he runs, looking behind him to Shang Jianguo’s running figure. “Keep an eye on the trees for the Kookaburra, we don’t need it dive-bombing us.”

That gets him a fearful look and a frantic nod in response.

Shen Yuan sighs and rests his head against Liu Zihao’s shoulder, “I’ll be in your care-shidi.”

The arms holding him tighten, “I’ve got you.”

The sounds of screaming and birds screeching get louder the closer they get to the forest's edge. Injured disciples meet them in the trees, some bleeding, others are crying. The sounds of a battle ring out in the plains before them. As Qi Meifeng and Liu Zihao set them down Shen Yuan immediately grabs both their arms.

“Kookaburra rely on their ears. They use echolocation to see what's around them. Make them deaf by slicing at their ear holes, creating a loud enough boom, or cut off their jaws to prevent them from yelling.”

Together they nod and he lets them both go, charging into the fray.

Shen Yuan staggers once, but Shang Jianguo catches him.

“Come on,” Shen Yuan grits. “Let’s help Mu Shao patch up the others.”

__

It turns into another three long hours before there is finally an all clear. All of the disciples are whisked off to Qian Cao for an examination, some are kept overnight just in case. Shen Yuan and Mu Shao are immediately put to bed thanks to their Qi exhaustion. Mu Shao is sent back to his own rooms, but Shen Yuan stays in Mu Shao’s medical hut.

He remembers thinking that it would take some time to fall asleep, but when Shen Yuan awakens, two days have already passed.

He’s cleared by another Qian Cao disciple, who tells him that Mu Shao is still in restorative sleep, then is promptly sent home.

Shen Yuan doesn’t go home though, he goes to the hideout to see if any of his friends are there. Everyone is fine, everyone should be fine, but he didn't see Qi Meifeng after the battle. Or Liu Zihao either. They weren't on Qian Cao, but that doesn't mean they weren't injured.

What if the advice wasn't enough? What if he forgot it? What if the death flag finally caught Liu Zihao—

Shen Yuan's body goes numb.

Liu Zihao is there. He’s sitting on the log, their log, fiddling with the sword tassel that Shen Yuan had given him.

“Liu-Shidi.”

Liu Zihao’s head snaps up, relief flooding his face. His arm is bandaged up along the left forearm. But he looks so damn happy to see him, standing there with the daylight shining behind him through the crystal, a hopeful expression on his face.

He’s beautiful.

It’s Shen Yuan’s last coherent thought as he sprints towards him, Liu Zihao catches him in his arms with a pained grunt.

“Sorry, sorry-” Shen Yuan murmurs before Liu Zihao pulls back a bit to cradle his face in his hands. Then he kisses him— Shen Yuan's heart skips a beat and he just melts into it.

Their lips part against each other, hot air intermingling, once-twice— a few times before Shen Yuan mentally goes ‘fuck it’. He takes Shang Jianguo’s advice and starts to really kiss him, sliding his tongue into Liu Zihao’s mouth when it next parts.

Things get a little heated from there.

The kisses go from soft to heated to frantic, desperation clawing inside of Shen Yuan to touch Liu Zihao, to confirm that he’s still alive, standing before him at this moment. That his skin is still warm, that his heart is still beating, that he is still breathing— the breath being shared into his mouth only confirming one of those things.

Liu Zihao backs up a bit until he falls back to sit on the log. Shen Yuan doesn't stop, climbing into his lap— straddling him, peppering Liu Zihao’s beautiful face with kisses as he does. He presses a kiss to that one lovely beauty mark when the man under him wiggles, and Shen Yuan feels his hard cock press against his own inner thigh.

The both stop for a breath now. Shen Yuan is cradling Liu Zihao’s face, who has a lovely blush gracing his cheeks. He also has his eyes closed in embarrassment.

Shen Yuan leans back a bit, “It’s not just you.” He murmurs, then rolls his own hips forward on Liu Zihao’s lap.

Liu Zihao’s eyes fly wide open as he feels Shen Yuan’s own dick glide near his. He looks down at their lap then back to Shen Yuan, eyes dark.

“Can I...?” He starts, swallowing hard.

Shen Yuan nods, closing his own eyes in embarrassment now. “Please,” he starts. “Touch me Liu-shidi.”

There’s a bit of much less sexy and awkward fumbling, but Shen Yuan’s robes are parted and the two of them have pulled down their pants enough for their erect dicks to come out.

“God,” Shen Yuan groans. “Even your dick is pretty.”

Liu Zihao snorts, leaning back enough to get his hand wet with the spring water behind them. He looks back at Shen Yuan, for confirmation. When he nods again Liu Zihao looks back down then wraps his fist around both of their cocks.

Shen Yuan bites back a moan, teeth digging into his bottom lip as Liu Zihao works up a rhythm. Once he gets comfortable enough with it, he leans in and starts mouthing at Liu Zihao's bare- perfect nape. His cock keeps leaking, his rough calloused hand feeling so good on his dick. The slick sounds of Liu Zihao stroking their leaking cocks filling the air in the grotto.

They continue like this until Shen Yuan is done sucking a bruise into Liu Zihao’s neck; when suddenly the jerking picks up speed.

“A-aahh... Ahn... Mngh-ph!” Shen Yuan wraps his arms around Liu Zihao’s neck, letting go of all modesty, and holds on tight. He can hear Liu Zihao panting in his ear; grunts, and groans and Shen Yuan whines against him. The pace gets faster and faster, until Liu Zihao’s fist tightness as he twists up—

Shen Yuan see’s stars.

He’s gasping for air, arms still curled around Liu Zihao’s neck, as the guy in question buries his face in Shen Yuan’s shoulder.

“That- that was...”

“Mmm.”

They stay like that for a little longer. It's sticky, a little uncomfortable, but Shen Yuan can't bring himself to move— not just yet. After a bit Shen Yuan leans back, pushing Liu Zihao away so he can look him in the eye.

“I really really like you.”

Liu Zihao swallows hard, “I do too.”

“I don’t like seeing you hurt.”

“Neither do I.”

Shen Yuan nods, “So then... we will look out for each other.”

Liu Zihao nods in return, “Always.”

Shen Yuan smiles now, “I like that you agree with me.”

Liu Zihao kisses his smile, but he’s smiling too.

“Always.”

__

“We are here today,” Yue Qingyuan announces to the crowd on Qiong Ding Peak. “Not only to celebrate my own appointment as Sec Leader but to recognize the bravery and heart of five disciples across the peaks. Who’s teamwork and quick thinking not only saved the Forest of Soul Trees--”,

“Holy shit what— ” hisses Shang Jianguo.

Qi Meifeng kicks him.

“— But also saved the lives of their peers. To Liu Zihao and Qi Meifeng. For their rapid assist in the fight against the demonic Kookaburra. Their strategic blows that helped change the tide of the battle.” Clapping erupts all around. “And to Mu Shao, Shen Yuan, and Shang Jianguo, who’s strategy against the squirrel-mite infestation was a resounding success, and who also stayed to help with medical attention despite their Qi exhaustion afterward.”

Another round of polite clapping.

Shen Yuan leans a little closer to Shang Jianguo, “but you didn’t do anything.”

“Ahahah, shut up bro.

Yue Qingyuan keeps talking, citing unity among peaks and teamwork as a goal for the peaks to all work towards as one.

Shen Yuan looks to all his friends standing with him in the line. Together, they will all make the status of peak lord. It may not be tomorrow, or for some years, but it will happen. The plot from the novel will catch up with them. But when it does, they will all be stronger for it. They will all be ready.

Liu Zihao’s foot nudges him, and Shen Yuan can’t help the feeling of affection that comes with it. Because he knows that when the time does come to help the protagonist, he won’t be alone. They will all be there to make sure that he can grow up, just and right.

Liu Zihao’s foot nudges him again. Shen Yuan’s lips tilt up at the corners as he nudges back.

He feels ready for anything.

Yue Qingyuan’s words ring out for all to hear, “The future of Cang Qiong is bright!”