The first time Yue Qingyuan starts to think that Shen Qingqiu's relationship with Liu Qingge might have developed in unforeseen ways, he doesn't have much to justify his suspicions with.
So maybe he has been keeping an eye on Shen Qingqiu a little too closely. Has been since his old friend came to the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect decades ago, really, but he's been anxious ever since Shen Qingqiu's sudden illness and startling personality change four years ago.
They proved that he wasn't possessed, and he hasn't been replaced by some short of shape-changing demon either, and most of the Peak Lords, not to mention Shen Qingqiu's disciples, have decided to simply stop questioning it and be grateful for his change for the better. Yue Qingyuan is doing his very best to do the same, but it's hard not be worried. He failed in his duty to protect Xiao Jiu once and the thought that he might have done it again has cursed him with many a sleepless night.
But Shen Qingqiu seems happier, and that, if nothing else, soothes Yue Qingyuan's heart. He smiles so much more these days, always has a kind word to spare for his disciples, even after how hard the death of his favorite during the Immortal Alliance Conference hit him. Yue Qingyuan didn't even realize how much he'd missed his laugh until he got to hear it again for the first time in many years.
He's happier, yes, and perhaps... a little strangely close to their shidi.
Yue Qingyuan remembers all too well how Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge used to constantly be at each other's throats. They never got along, not even when they were still disciples on neighboring peaks, and even less later when they both became Peak Lords. No one remained suspicious of Shen Qingqiu after his change of heart longer than Liu Qingge.
So suffice to say that it comes as a surprise when it becomes evident that their relationship is no longer what it used to be. Not only are they civil with each other, they seem to actively seek out each other's company. Even Liu Qingge's old grudge seems to have been abandoned, which should've been enough of an indicator by itself, but what really tips Yue Qingyuan off is something he happens to overhear one day after a Peak Lord meeting.
He's in the process of putting some scrolls away when he hears Liu Qingge's voice outside the door, which is still slightly ajar.
"You left this at your seat again." He sounds somewhat gruff, like always, but there's no real annoyance in his tone.
"Oh, did I?" That's Shen Qingqiu's voice, mellow and lilting, often warm now where it used to be hard and cold like ice most days. "Thank you, Liu-shidi."
There's the sound of a fan opening and Yue Qingyuan can just see the way he's probably covering the lower half of his face with it, hiding his expression.
"Qingqiu should be more careful."
Yue Qingyuan frowns. Since when are they on such familiar terms? And since when does Liu Qingge's chiding sound so oddly gentle and not at all like there will be consequences if his words aren't heeded?
There's a soft, almost bashful tinkling laugh from Shen Qingqiu. "I know, I know. What would I do without you, hm?"
Yue Qingyuan takes a few soundless steps towards the door and sneaks a glance out, just in time to see Liu Qingge blushing furiously as he and Shen Qingqiu start to walk away, side by side and perhaps a little too close together to be polite.
When they're gone, Yue Qingyuan closes the door properly and turns back to the scrolls, shaking his head. How strange. He supposes he should be glad to see his shidi getting along better, but there's a part of him that still wishes Shen Qingqiu would look at him like that instead.
He sighs and starts placing the scrolls back on their designated shelf. What's the use dwelling on it?
The next time Yue Qingyuan's suspicions are aroused is a month later.
This morning, he descended the mountain to run some personal errands unrelated to sect business. He donned inconspicuous robes and forewent his usual elaborate sect leader's crown, not wanting anyone to recognize him lest they get ideas. Like stopping him and expecting him to solve their problems, which happens every day of his life regardless of how he's dressed. After several decades, he's used to it.
For half a shichen or so, he remains undisturbed, and he almost dares to hope that this outing will go without a hitch, a true rarity. He makes his purchases and makes sure to pay just a little more than the named price every time. He visits the bookstore and is almost completely sure that no one he knows sees him enter or leave, which makes him believe the gods may be having mercy on him today and infuses him with the boldness to, regardless of the fact that he can survive perfectly well without food, make his way to a noodle stall.
How long has it been since he had hand pulled noodles? Too long, certainly. His duties as sect leader frequently leave him with little free time and it's easier to practice inedia than spend time on cooking and eating. That doesn't mean he doesn't sometimes miss it, though, and he feels his mood lift as he approaches the stall.
Before he can even order his noodles, though, he sees a familiar shade of green next to white from the corner of his eye. A feeling of dread settling in his stomach, he turns his head, and there they are.
Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge are walking down the street together, both in full Peak Lord attire and drawing looks from plenty of people. They hardly seem to notice, though, because Shen Qingqiu is talking animatedly about something Yue Qingyuan can't quite hear over the noise of the street, lazily fanning himself, and Liu Qingge's eyes are glued to his face, not looking where he's going at all.
Yue Qingyuan's gaze drifts lower.
They are holding hands.
It takes a moment for him to properly register it. Liu Qingge? Holding Shen Qingqiu's hand? In public, no less? Is this a hallucination? A particularly strange nightmare?
Yue Qingyuan can only stare, noodles forgotten. What happened to the times when a vein on Liu Qingge's forerhead would start to jump at so much as the mention of Shen Qingqiu? When they would spend every Peak Lord meeting taking every chance to hurl thinly veiled insults at each other until Yue Qingyuan had to exasperated tell them to behave themselves?
And yet, here they are, walking right past Yue Qingyuan with their fingers firmly intertwined, arms swinging slightly with their movement, like it's nothing special at all.
They don't seem to notice Yue Qingyuan's presence, or if they do, they ignore him, for which he is grateful, but his appetite for noodles has vanished as he stares at their disappearing backs. Shen Qingqiu's hair has a beautiful sheen to it in the midday sun.
Yue Qingyuan swallows and tries not to sulk over the fact that Liu Qingge probably knows how soft it is.
The third time it happens, Yue Qingyuan's suspicions aren't even suspicions anymore, they're just knowledge he wishes he didn't possess.
He flies over Bai Zhan Peak to discuss a mission that's come up with Liu Qingge. That's nothing unusual. The Bai Zhan disciples, all of which sport some type of bruise in varying stages of healing, inform him that their shizun is at the training grounds. That, too, is nothing unusual; in fact, Yue Qingyuan would have been greatly surprised to find him anywhere else. Liu Qingge never has been very interested in anything except fighting and killing monsters.
At least until recently, Yue Qingyuan thinks to himself, not without a hint of bitterness.
He makes his way to the training grounds. There's yelling that he can hear hear long before the source comes into view, not of the angry, but the pained and somewhat frustrated sort. He rounds a corner and is met with the sight of Liu Qingge in just a thin set of training robes, in the process of wiping the floor with some poor disciple who can barely dodge the worst of his attacks, let alone get in any hits himself. The fact that he's still standing is impressive enough.
Standing off to the side is none other than Shen Qingqiu, robes in his usual teals, greens and whites, fluttering his painted fan in front of his face and watching the sparring match with obvious amusement.
"Shen-shidi," Yue Qingyuan says as he approaches. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
Shen Qingqiu, who clearly hadn't noticed him, jumps a little. "Ah, Zhangmen-shixiong!"
"Do you not have duties on Qing Jing Peak to fulfill?" Yue Qingyuan asks mildly. Shen Qingqiu fans himself a little more quickly.
Yue Qingyuan stares at him. He does not elaborate.
They're still standing there staring at each other when the match comes to an end, unsurprisingly with the disciple lying in the dust groaning and Liu Qingge slightly - very slightly - sweaty and otherwise unperturbed. He undoes his ponytail, briefly combs through the strands with his fingers and ties his hair back up as he walks towards his audience.
Though he's really just walking towards Shen Qingqiu, who is also the only one he's looking at.
"Impressive as always, Liu-shidi," Shen Qingqiu says, giving him a smile and closing his fan. Then he takes a step closer to Liu Qingge and, to Yue Qingyuan's horror, stands up on his tiptoes to presses a kiss to his cheek, as if Yue Qingyuan wasn't even there. Liu Qingge flushes bright red and mumbles an unintelligible answer under his breath.
Yue Qingyuan clears his throat. Liu Qingge looks at him like he only just noticed his presence, and his face somehow turns even redder.
"Zhangmen-shixiong," he mutters as a greeting. Yue Qingyuan suppresses a deep sigh.
"I hope I'm not intruding, but I was hoping to speak with you on the matter of the water ghoul infestation in the river by one of the towns down the mountain, Liu-shidi."
Liu Qingge nods. "Of course." Throwing Shen Qingqiu one more look that looks disturbingly like longing, he starts walking towards his residence, ears still burning.
The disciple is still lying on the ground. He hasn't really moved. Shen Qingqiu's fan is moving faster than ever.
Yue Qingyuan follows after Liu Qingge, a headache beginning to build behind his temples.
Somehow, the fourth time is worse. Much worse.
Yue Qingyuan goes over to Qing Jing Peak on a whim when he has a bit of free time for once, hoping to catch Shen Qingqiu unoccupied and perhaps amenable to having tea with his shixiong. He does like to spend his days lazing away and transferring most of his more cumbersome tasks to his head disciple, who wouldn't dream of complaining, so Yue Qingyuan's odds aren't looking too shabby.
It's evening when he approaches the bamboo house, and he can see the faint glow of several candles through the windows. It looks cozy, in a way it certainly never did before Shen Qingqiu's illness, and Yue Qingyuan finds himself smiling as he comes closer. For so many years he and Xiao Jiu weren't able to exchange more than a sentence without the conversation turning sour, and he so cherishes the chance to spend time with his old friend once more, even though both of them have yet to bring up what transpired between them all those years ago. Yue Qingyuan is selfishly grateful.
When he reaches the bamboo house, he knocks on the door. There is no response.
"Shen-shidi?" he calls out. Again, no reaction. Experimentally, he reaches out and finds the door unlocked. With only a twinge of guilt at his impoliteness, he pushes it open and steps inside. Everything is as usual, neat and clean (which is owed to Shen Qingqiu's disciples and not the man himself), with a lamp hung up near the window and illuminating everything. Shen Qingqiu is nowhere to be found.
"Qingqiu-shidi?" Yue Qingyuan tries again, wandering over to the door that he knows leads to the Peak Lord's office. "Is everything-"
He opens the door and, before he can finish his sentence, is met with the last sight he wanted to see on this otherwise fine evening.
"Zhangmen-shixiong!" Shen Qingqiu is sitting behind his writing desk, a partially written letter in front of him and a brush still in his hand, which is hovering awkwardly in mid air. Behind him is Liu Qingge, hair down and outer robe discarded, his arms wrapped snugly around Shen Qingqiu's waist and his legs on either side of his shixiong's. Both of their faces are rapidly turning red as they clumsily attempt to disentangle themselves. Liu Qingge accidentally kicks the table and knocks over the two half empty tea cups that are sitting on it, making the liquid spill all over Shen Qingqiu's unfinished letter.
Yue Qingyuan closes his eyes and works up every bit of willpower within him to suppress the world's deepest sigh.
"What brings you here?" Shen Qingqiu has risen from the floor and is smoothing his hands over his robes in a frantic attempt to look more composed than he is. "You could've knocked, you know..."
"I did. You did not react, and neither did you when I called out your name. Repeatedly."
At least he has the decency to look embarrassed. "My deepest apologies, Zhangmen-shixiong, I was, ah..." He clears his throat. "Regardless, please do let this shidi know what urgent matter has led you to seek him out at this hour so it may be dealt with as swiftly as possible."
Yue Qingyuan feels the vague urge to burst into tears. Of course, he doesn't. "There is no urgent matter. I see that Qingqiu-shidi is otherwise occupied, so this shixiong will not take up more of his time."
With that, he turns on his heel and starts to walk out.
Liu Qingge interrupts Shen Qingqiu's half-hearted attempt to go after Yue Qingyuan. "No, he's right. You are otherwise occupied."
Yue Qingyuan hears a startled sound and then something that sounds terrifyingly like a giggle before he closes the door to the bamboo house behind him. He takes a moment to stare up at the sky, where the stars are starting to blink into existence.
Heavens, what have I done for you to test me so?, he thinks, although he knows the answer perfectly well. But hasn't he done his best to repent every day? Has he not been a good shixiong, a good sect leader? What more must he do for fate to finally allow him to catch a fucking break?
He's stilling mulling it over when he's flying back to Qiong Ding Peak.
The fifth time, Yue Qingyuan goes into seclusion for a month.
After the incident at the bamboo house, he should've learned not burst into Shen Qingqiu's rooms without properly announcing his presence, really, but he receives word that Shen Qingqiu has been injured on an assignment and no further information about his condition. Beside himself with worry, Yue Qingyuan flies over to Qian Cao Peak to make sure his shidi will make a full recovery.
One of the disciples in front of the door hesitantly speaks up and says that Peak Lord Liu is with Peak Lord Shen, but Yue Qingyuan does not pay it any mind and simply storms past her. Later, he curses himself for this. Extensively.
"Qingqiu-shidi! Are you-"
Yue Qingyuan rounds the corner and comes to a skidding halt with a strangled, tortured sound that would put a dying deer to shame.
Shen Qingqiu seems to be perfectly fine, yes. He's sitting up in bed, robes untied and revealing a thick bandage over his chest. It doesn't appear to be bothering him much as he kisses Liu Qingge like there's no tomorrow, plastered to his chest and arms wrapped tightly around his neck. Liu Qingge's hands are on his hips, inching dangerously close to his behind. Both of them are flushed, their hair is in disarray, clothes and the sheets below them rumpled.
Yue Qingyuan sees Liu Qingge bite down on Shen Qingqiu's lower lip, and Shen Qingqiu, he- he-
Yue Qingyuan rushes out of the room, ears bright red and head spinning. The urge to cry is back stronger than ever - more than that, he thinks he might enjoy throwing himself off the Rainbow Bridge. A few dozen broken bones sound nice right about now.
He did not get out of bed this morning prepared to hear Shen Qingqiu moan. He has never once gotten out of bed in the morning prepared for that! And he never will!
He announces his temporary seclusion the next day and vows to himself that he will never, ever, ever again enter a room that Shen Qingqiu is in without making absolutely, one hundred percent sure Shen Qingqiu knows he is there.
In all fairness, he keeps his vow.
He didn't know Shen Qingqiu was going to be in the Qing Jing library close to midnight.
Yue Qingyuan's reason for being in the Qing Jing library close to midnight is research. He's looking for a particular ancient cultivation manual a visiting traveling cultivator brought up to him a while ago. Most days, Yue Qingyuan is so swamped in work that he hasn't gotten the opportunity to come back to it, but he is interested in some of the theories on qi exchange the cultivator mentioned, and he thinks Qing Jing Peak might have a copy somewhere.
It isn't until very late in the evening that he finishes enough of his work that he can justify taking the trip over to the neighboring peak. He'll make it quick, he tells himself. Just a brief look.
All the Qing Jing Peak disciples are already asleep and the buildings are dark when he arrives. He knows Shen Qingqiu won't mind Yue Qingyuan perusing his library this late in the day; their relationship has improved enough for that by now.
As the sect leader, he has a key, but when he's standing in front of the library building he finds that it is unlocked, to his great surprise. Was Yue Qingyuan a wiser man, this might have already rendered him wary, but instead he assumes that a disciple must have forgotten to lock it and pushes the door open to step inside.
Everything is dark, as expected, but Yue Qingyuan is a strong enough cultivator that that doesn't necessarily hold him back. Besides, he's familiar with the library and navigates the endless rows of shelves easily enough. He moves towards the back, where he knows the oldest of the countless books and scrolls are located, some of them so ancient that the characters are outdated and hard to read.
The library is huge and the shelves muffle sound fairly well, so it isn't until Yue Qingyuan is close to his destination that his ears pick up a rather strange noise. It sounds close by, and... pained? A pitiful whimper more than anything, really.
Yue Qingyuan frowns, concerned. Did any Qing Jing Peak disciples sneak in here past their curfew? But how could they have injured themselves? Falling off a stepping stool to try and reach a tall shelf, perhaps?
He decides to investigate. Rounding a corner, he can see the faint glow of a lantern from between two rows of shelves. The noises grow louder as he gets closer, and there's a faint strange slapping sound, and a terrible realization is beginning to dawn on Yue Qingyuan, but it comes too late. He has already looked between the shelves where the light is coming from, a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.
There is a table with a few chairs, the kind that can be found several time throughout the library that disciples sit at to study. There are several old looking scrolls on it, though more of them have somehow made their way onto the floor. There is a lamp precariously close to the edge that would cause a disaster should it fall off and set fire to the priceless collection of ancient texts.
Shen Qingqiu is on his back on the table. He's still wearing his robes, though barely, his chest exposed and the skirts pushed up to his waist. There's a deep flush from his cheeks all the way down his neck, his skin is faintly glistening with sweat, and his mouth is hanging open to produce those sounds that Yue Qingyuan heard.
"Please, Qingge," he moans, "harder."
Liu Qingge, between his legs, bracing himself on the table over him, obliges, hips picking up speed.
His pants are pooled at his ankles. Yue Qingyuan has a perfect view of his bare ass.
Liu Qingge's bare ass.
"A-Yuan," Liu Qingge grunts. A-Yuan? Who's A-Yuan? Yue Qingyuan barely has the brainpower left to ask himself that question. He's standing there, frozen in place, despairing at the realization that they haven't even noticed him yet.
As if on cue, Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes a crack. They fall onto Yue Qingyuan, and immediately widen to the size of saucers. Shen Qingqiu lets out a slightly panicked sounding squeak, and Liu Qingge's rhythm falters.
"Is everything okay?"
"Zhangmen-shixiong," Shen Qingqiu whimpers, and it's definitely a whimper of mortification now and not one of pleasure. Liu Qingge's head snaps around, and he has the gall to fix Yue Qingyuan with a glare, not even looking embarrassed. At least he stops moving, but makes no move to disentangle himself from Shen Qingqiu.
"Did you need something?"
Yue Qingyuan gapes. What happened to the Liu Qingge whose face turned the color of a tomato when Shen Qingqiu so much as smiled at him? When did he become so shameless?
"I... I was looking for a cultivation manual," he says weakly.
"Well, look for it tomorrow."
Shen Qingqiu lightly slaps Liu Qingge's arm. "Shidi!"
Shidi doesn't seem bothered in the slightest. "Was that everything? Yes? Then get out."
Yue Qingyuan is in such a state of shock that he can't even feel indignation at the slight. Mutely he turns around and walks away. As he goes, he hears Liu Qingge saying: "Now, where were we?"
"Qingge! We are not continuing now-!" There's a startled moan. "Oh, do that again..."
The slapping sound resumes. Yue Qingyuan keeps walking. He walks out of the library. He walks off Qing Jing Peak. And then keeps walking. And keeps walking. And keeps walking.
When he's standing in the middle of the pitch black forest down the mountain, he makes a decision.
He does not look Liu Qingge or Shen Qingqiu in the eyes the next day when he announces that he is temporarily stepping back from his duties as sect leader to go on a journey of self discovery.
"When will you come back?" Mu Qingfang asks, clearly concerned.
"I don't know, Mu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan replies wearily. "I do not know."
Shen Qingqiu coughs discreetly behind his fan. He looks a little embarrassed, but not embarrassed enough to do something about the hand Liu Qingge clearly has on his ass, nor wear robes with a high enough collar to cover the numerous bruises on his neck.
Yue Qingyuan needs a break so, so badly.