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Humans, Demons, And Everything In Between

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"Garbage." Shen Jiu tears the paper in two, then four, then eight pieces. Useless. As always, a piece of filth like him would only be able to make more filth, he doesn't know why he even bothers sometimes. 

"Hey, I was reading that!" he hears someone say and instinctively throws a punch at the person behind him. 

The stranger ducks, then lunges towards him. Shen Jiu rushes to unsheathe his sword, his hand barely touches the hilt when the person jumps backwards. 

A young man stands some distance away. His black robe is plain, but clearly made of good silk, and his hair, although filled with knots, is decorated by a fancy looking headpiece. Shen Jiu only realizes what happened when the man holds up the pieces of torn paper, put together again. 

"You shouldn't throw this away, the story was just getting to the good part!" 

Shen Jiu clenches his fists and bites his lower lip. He knows his face's turned red, both from rage and shame. 

How dare this fucking asshole to make fun of him like this?! He knows he has no talent! That's why he only attempts to write or draw during the few moments he has when Wu Yanzi isn't around, far away from their camp, and then destroys whatever he clumsily made long before his master returns. 

The guy makes a show of carefully reading the collected paper and Shen Jiu can't stand this disrespect any longer, "What the fuck is wrong with you?!" he yells as he grabs his sword and attacks. 

Instead of being cut in half, like Shen Jiu wants to, the stranger takes a step to the left and easily dodges right before the sword connects. He tries once more and his attack is, again, easily avoided. 

This keeps on for a while, Shen Jiu's movements becoming more erratic and desperate as the stranger, (all the while reading from the papers), effortlessly sidesteps his attempts at killing him, until soon enough Shen Jiu just throws the weapon aside and tries to grab him, kick him, bite him. This proves to be about as effective as slashing with the sword, and eventually he's left down on one knee, sweating and gasping for breath, while the guy stands there, perfectly rested and pristine. 

"Yes, indeed, this is very good," the guy nods, flicking the torn sheets, and then has the fucking courage to lean down and tuck the papers insiste Shen Jiu's robe. He tries to bite him, but the stranger retrieves his hand in time to avoid it, "you should keep writing it, I would love to read the continuation! Who knows? You could even end becoming a famous author!" 

"Fuck off!" 

The man leaves after mocking him a bit more, and Shen Jiu hurries to collect his things after regaining his breath. The ink bottle was spilled at some point during the confrontation, but he manages to rescue about half of its contents. Some of the clean paper got wrinkled, but that's hardly a problem. 

Back at the campsite, he gets to work washing dirty clothes and boiling some meat. Yesterday his master said he was leaving him to attend some urgent business, which means the fucker went to a brothel, which means he will be gone for anything between two days and a week. 

Shen Jiu eats an unappetizing meal and reads from the pile of trash books they weren't able to sell after stealing them, and only when he takes off his outer robe to go to sleep and the pieces of paper fall off does he remember the stranger's mockery. 

"Talent my ass!" he swears, the humiliation from earlier coming back to the forefront of his mind. He grabs the pieces of paper, rips them apart into pieces about the size of a nail, and then stuffs his mouth with them just so he can spit them and step on them. That fucking asshole, "I'm  definitely going to kill him if I am to ever see him again!"

 


 

Despite having cursed him and sworn revenge, Shen Jiu forgets the man pretty easily. There are too many imbeciles in the world and he has no time nor energy to waste thinking about unimportant people. He doesn't spare a single thought towards him until around four months after, when destiny joins them once more. 

Wu Yanzi sets his eyes on two lone travelers on the road that goes through the mountains, a man on black robes accompanied by a child around She Jiu's age, and it's only as they're approaching from the forest, close enough to see their faces, that Shen Jiu remembers him. 

The recognition makes him slower by half a second, but half a second is all it takes. Wu Yanzi moves first, his sword aimed at the man in black, and half a second later he's lying in a pool of his own blood, his limbs torn apart and half of his head just gone. Over him stands the kid, holding the missing other half, his hands covered on green scales. 

The demons, because that's what they have to be, turn their gaze towards Shen Jiu, still hiding in the foliage. He turns to run, but before he can escape he's dragged by the back of the neck, thrown next to Wu Yanzi's corpse. 

"Oh, it's you!" the man exclaims, retiring the clawed hand he just had pressed against Shen Jiu's neck, "Have you advanced on your story?"

Too stunned to think of doing anything else, he answers honestly, "...I scraped it and started another one instead." 

"Huh, a pity, I liked that one," he says, looking genuinely sad, "Oh well, good luck with this one!, Zhuzhi-lang, let's go!" 

With that both of them just… walk away, uncaring of Shen Jiu nor the corpse that used to be his master. 

.

.

What a fucking piece of shit!

"You two, where do you think you're going?!" he exclaims, before he can think better of it, "You just killed my fucking teacher! How am I supposed to learn cultivation now?!" 

The man stops, turns towards him, looks at Shen Jiu, then the corpse, then back at him, "How long has he been teaching you?"

"About seven months."

"Then clearly he wasn't a good teacher, hardly any loss," with that casual insult against his cultivation, the man turns around and resumes walking.

Oh, he's going to fucking kill this person if that's the last thing he gets to do. "Wait!" he hurries forward, moving to stand on the demons' path "You attacked and killed my master! You have to compensate me for it!"

"It seemed like he was the one attacking us," the demon answers, walking around him, "besides, it wasn't me who killed him but my nephew." 

"If he's your nephew it's still your responsibility, and he killed him as soon as he left the trees, you can't prove he was going to attack you," Shen Jiu argues, "He might as well have been trying to say hello!"

"Really? Humans really have the weirdest ways to greet each other," the demon comments, clearly not buying it.

"Whatever, you have to compensate me somehow. If not for my shit master at least for my robes!" he gestures at his clothes, drenched in blood from when he was thrown to the gory mess that was once Wu Yanzi, "this is going to leave a hell of a stain, you have to pay for a new set!" 

The demon looks at the red splotches, then tilts his head from side to side, considering, "Do we have any money left, anything at all?" he asks the younger demon. 

"I- I d- don't think so, Junshang." 

Shen Jiu feels his eye twitch. Of course, of course his scum of a teacher would manage to get gutted by such a worthless pair of demons they don't even have cash. Of course. 

"Well, you have to compensate me somehow!" he insists, because so far it doesn't seem like they have any interest in killing him and that just means he has to take the chance to get something out of this, "You can't just kill my teacher, ruin my clothes, and then go away without even paying for it!" 

The demon blinks, then smiles. "Oh, you're an amusing person," he says, sounding oh so fucking full of himself, "Very well, since we killed your teacher I'll teach you how to cultivate!"

"J- Junshang?!" 

"I refuse."

"Eh, really?!" the demon gapes at him, "I'm actually offering to teach you! Me, a heavenly demon! Do you know how rare of a chance that is?!"

"Heavenly demon my ass, you're annoying so no thanks, just pay me up and we're done."

"Junshang i- isn't annoying," the kid demon mutters, they ignore him. 

"Are you sure? You would really flourish under my tutelage!"

"Do you even know about human cultivation? Demons' and humans' power don't work the same." 

"You'll come to learn I'm very knowledgeable," he brushes the concern off, "Let me teach you, I promise you'll learn more in one week than you have with that useless teacher in months!"

Shen Jiu has half a mind to keep rejecting the offer. After all, he's always been very prideful for someone with no pride, lowering the head and learning from this person that's humiliated him time and time again, it sounds like the ultimate defeat to his ego. Not to mention, who would trust such a suspicious looking man?

On the other hand, he can't think just of himself. He must become powerful, twice as powerful as the average cultivator at the very least, to make up for Qi-ge's lost potential. It's not only his own wishes he's carrying here. He knows he won't get far by himself, and he doubts there's any sect that would take in a piece of shit like him, not if they didn't even give someone as great as his brother a chance. 

So… better to risk it with this demon, than to set course for a sure defeat. He can't be worse than Wu Yanzi anyway, so really what is there to lose?

"Fine, but if I change my mind at any point I will just leave."

"Ju- Junshang, a- are, are you sure it's a g- good idea?" 

"You won't regret it!" the demon, again, ignores the kid, "Ah, but in exchange for my lessons I have one condition!"

"Aren't you the one repaying me?! Are you really in a position to demand anything in exchange?!" he scowls, "Fine, whatever, let's hear it out, what do you want?" 

"You have to let me read your writing!" 

"LIKE HELL I WILL!" 

Chapter Text

He hates admitting it. Shen Jiu really, really hates admitting it, but his new demon teacher, "Tianlang-Jun" he said he was called, is… actually quite a good teacher.

Well, no. He is not a good teacher, not by any stretch of the word, he doesn't know how to explain even the simplest of concepts and his approach to teaching things is "I showed this to you that one time so, just do it!" and "Do you really not know about it?! Zhuzhi, Zhuzhi can you believe it?! He doesn't know about it!" and "This is getting boring, let's do something else!" 

But, Shen Jiu is used to bad teachers, he has a lifetime of experience on how to extract information from a bad explanation, how to learn from seeing how to do something just once. As long as the person he's learning from actually knows some shit, he knows how to dig that information out of them no matter how much of a bad teacher they actually are.

Tianlang is a bad teacher, but he does know quite a lot, and that's enough for Shen Jiu to progress in big strides with just a couple of weeks learning from the man. He truly hates admitting it, but the demon was right, he's truly improved more in his cultivation in this short time than in the entirety of his stay with Wu Yanzi. 

He's fucking annoying though.

"Oh, we're writing poetry now?" 

"Fucking stop that!" With a flick of his wrist, Shen Jiu activates the seal he's become accustomed to draw on the underside of the paper anytime he's going to write or draw anything, and the sheet promptly turns to ashes. 

"That's mean, Jiu'er." Tianlang pouts, actually pouts.

"Are you five years old?!" he unsheathes his sword and lunges against the man. 

Tianlang, as usual, sidesteps his attacks with ease, now and then commenting "Pay more attention to where your feet are or you'll trip," or "You're too tense, you're going to break something like that," Shen Jiu works very hard and does his best, but it still ends as it always does, with him sprawled on the floor struggling to catch his breath and Tianlang standing over him, an infuriating smile on his face. 

"That was much better than last time!" 

"I fucking hate you."

"You wound my heart!" he cheerfully says, "Anyway, take a bath and change your clothes, the next city is only two hours of travel away."

"We are entering the city?" he grunts as he tries to sit up. It's harder than it looks, his whole body aches, "We still got enough provisions for another month."

"Is that really the only reason you can think of for approaching a city? How sad." 

"Shouldn't demons try to stay away from urban areas?" The city he's talking about isn't a small one either, they might even find cultivators if they're unlucky enough, and Shen Jiu is only talented at being unlucky so it might as well happen, "Humans don't appreciate when demons wander into their territory."

"I wouldn't be in the human realm if I was scared of humans realizing what I am!" Tianlang laughs, "But don't worry, our disguises are perfect!" 

Shen Jiu eyes the over the top young man with expensive looking accessories, yet unkempt appearance, who would stick like a sore thumb wherever you place him, and the kid with fangs too long for a human who's sitting nearby, eating raw meat. 

"If you get killed I'm going to say you had me as a hostage." 

"Seems fair, I'm not going to be killed by any human though." 

"Whatever," Shen Jiu rolls his eyes and finishes pushing himself to stand up, "Let's just make sure we arrive before nightfall." 

 


 

Surprisingly, the guards at the city wall have no problem letting a weird ass man accompanied by two weird ass kids inside. Once they've passed the gates Tianlang even dares give him this stupid I-told-you-so grin. He tries to punch him, but he just evades it as usual. Moron.

From the door onward they've barely passed four buildings when suddenly Tianlang turns to the left and Zhuzhi to the right, and they keep walking without acknowledging that. 

"Where are you going, exactly?" Shen Jiu asks, standing in the middle where they separated.

"I'm going to look for libraries and bookstores," Tianlang says.

"U- usually I g- gain us money, d- during the first day staying in a city." 

"Ah, I see," he sighs, "I'll go with Zhuzhi then. Bye, Tianlang.' 

"Take good care of my nephew!" the man exclaims, as he retakes walking who knows where. Asshole.

"Yes, yes, whatever." 

 


 

He follows Zhuzhi as the demon finds a busy enough street and sits down. 

'Begging, huh?' Shen Jiu would be lying if he said he never had to beg while with Wu Yanzi, so he gets it, one does what one must.

Personally he doesn't like it, worthless pride aside, he's just not good at it, his complexion is just too pointy and his eyes too sharp to create pity, he lost the ability to give a proper spectacle years ago. Even as children, it was usually Qi-ge who would cry and beg, while Shen Jiu lied down pretending to be the poor sick little brother he needed to buy medicine for. 

He supposes Zhuzhi can do a good job at begging, his face is more rounded, his eyes are big and tilted in a way that makes him always look a little bit sad, even as his mouth permanently curves at the ends as if he's holding back a smile. With some tears and a soft "please great masters, could you spare some coin for this lowly one?" he can probably make good cash. 

Instead of starting crying, Zhuzhi digs into his sleeves and pulls out a small ceramic bowl and a dizi. 

'Oh, so a street act' Shen Jiu also has experience with that, while he was with Wu Yanzi he would sometimes juggle knives, it would bring him more money than crying by himself, but less than begging with Qi-ge ever did. 

Zhuzhi surprises him again when from the same sleeve he got the flute from comes crawling a fucking snake. It's not a harmless one either, it's one of these very, very venomous ones that even Wu Yanzi wouldn't fuck with. 

Shen Jiu takes three steps back. 

"Ah, d- don't worry, it won't bite you," Zhuzhi says, noticing Shen Jiu's obvious discomfort with the animal. He waits for him to get closer again, and when it becomes obvious Shen Jiu isn't going to retake those three steps between them he just brings the dizi to his mouth and begins to play. 

As it turns out, it is a street act, just not what he originally expected. While Zhuzhi plays well enough, the music is clearly secondary to the snake raising its head and almost dancing to the song. Soon enough, people start throwing coins into the bowl. 

Once he's pretty, pretty sure the snake isn't going to bite him, Shen Jiu retakes the three steps and peers at the money. There's twice the coins a usual street performance would make. So, still not a lot. 

"Do you need the flute to control it?" he asks, kneeling next to the demon, the kid stops playing and shakes his head. 

"Do you have more snakes?" Zhuzhi nods.

"I'll teach you how to pickpocket the normal way and then we'll see if your snakes can do it too." 

 


 

Zhuzhi's snakes can, in fact, pickpocket. They can pickpocket very, very well. They crawl under people's robes, move through their clothes without being noticed, crawling out again with strings of coins between their jaws. Zhuzhi can control up to twenty different snakes on a distance of almost half the city's radius, and after moving their operation to one of the richer neighborhoods She Jiu can confidently say this has been the most lucrative day of his entire life. 

Fuck fake crying and spinning heartbreaking tales, fuck ambushing merchants in the mountains, fuck juggling! Pickpocketing snakes is where it's at! 

They rejoin Tianlang when the sun is just starting to set, not on purpose. They're systematically making their way through the wealthy parts of the city, and just so happen to walk in front of a small, expensive looking bookstore at the same time the man is being thrown out. 

"Oh, Zhuzhi! Jiu'er!" he exclaims, running towards them as soon as he spots them, "You're right on time! There's this great book I really really want to read but the owner wouldn't let me without buying it first!" 

Unthinking, Zhuzhi reaches for the bag where they've been keeping their hard earned money, Shen Jiu slaps it from his hands before he can hand it over to Tianlang.

"Jiu'er?"

"S-Shen Jiu?"

Without saying a word, Shen Jiu walks towards a nearby restaurant, one of those with some tables outside, then empties the contents of the bag on one of said tables. 

"This," he says, as he separates the pile of coins on roughly two equal parts, "is our budget for food, accommodations and travel supplies. This," he says, separating the other part into two big piles and a small one, he holds the small amount in Tianlang's direction, "is for you to spend on petty stuff." 

The demon wastes no time on receiving his money, grinning from ear to ear, "You made quite a lot more than usual, huh? This should be enough for the book I want!" 

"W-what a- are the other two parts?"

"This is my salary," he answers, pocketing one of the piles of coins left, then slides the other one towards Zhuzhi, "this is yours." 

"W-what?" he gasps, "n-no, I- I would rather Junshang-" it seems like he's going to push the money towards Tianlang, so Shen Jiu snatched it away.

"He should already have enough for his petty spending, if you don't want the money I'll keep it, since at least I did some of the work." 

"B-but.."

Tianlang looks between the two of them, looking amused. It makes Shen Jiu want to strangle him, "Take the money, Zhuzhi," he tells his nephew, then, on a loud, fake whisper, "You'll just have to give it to me when Jiu'er isn't looking!"

"He won't give you any!" he scolds, even though Shen Jiu knows the kid will, in fact, hand the coins over as soon as the man asks. He turns towards the demon kid in question, "Don't you dare give him any!" he tells him as he gives him his part of the money, his face very serious and his voice harsh. It's a useless warning, but still. 

Tianlang pats their heads, Shen Jiu tries to bite him, he fails. 

The man re-enters the bookstore he was just thrown out of, this time with Zhuzhi following him, and when they don't come back out Shen Jiu decides it falls on him to find an inn. 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu is very talented. In just the three months they've traveled together he's gone from the beginnings of an unsteady, dangerously shaky foundation, to being well in the way of a firm and well established one. 

Not only is he well suited for cultivation, he's also started to fight properly, his rough just-swing-the-weapon-around style slowly getting replaced by proper technique. It's in its infancy: He'll still grow frustrated and throw the sword away in order to rely on his fists, and hasn't stopped trying to bite him in the middle of sparing like a wild animal either, but Tianlang-jun can see the seedlings of a more refined swordplay. 

And of course, there's also the talent with the arts that caught Tianlang-jun's attention in the first place. The kid still won't show him whatever art he makes, but from the sneak peaks he's been able to steal he can tell Shen Jiu would make a great scholar. 

It's not so much that his work is high quality, it certainly isn't, as amusing as his stories are, it's still the writings of a uneducated child (Not that Tianlang-jun personally cares about quality, as long as a story is sentimental he'll gladly devour it, but that doesn't mean he isn't able to tell.) But rather, Shen Jiu actively tries to improve, spending part of his own money on more well regarded books than the ones Tianlang-jun prefers, and quickly reading them front to back at least twice each. Recently he seems to have found a specific author he really likes, and has started to copy that style with his latest works. 

He keeps working on his painting too, it's not too odd to find him covered in graphite up to the elbows, trying to capture some shape that caught his eyes, or staring at a painting hung in an inn for hours, trying to figure out how to recreate this or that. One time during their travels they found an expert painter, sitting on a mountain, trying to capture the clearing below, and after the man gave him permission to observe the kid refused to move until the thing was done, eyes stuck to the canvas, taking in each and every movement of the brush. The painting took a whole week. 

It might be that Shen Jiu is just good at learning in general. The kid might complain and grumble all he wants, but it's clear he actually pays attention to what Tianlang-jun teaches, and then goes out of his way to study by himself for good measure.

In that regard Shen Jiu is exactly the same as a wild weed, he just needs enough room to grow and he'll build himself up from there. It makes Tianlang-jun wonder just how bad of an instructor his previous teacher was, for him to have such little, mostly detrimental progress with this low maintenance student. 

At the end of the day, Tianlang-jun can't help but to like strong spirited people, and as much as the kid drags them wherever he wants, yells about anything and has a horrible temper, he just can't regret having taken him on a whim. 

One day, watching the kid struggle with this or that, Tianlang-jun suddenly gets this idea to imitate one of these grand gestures the good teachers in his favorite stories would sometimes come up with, because wouldn't it be great and heroic and all the things he loves about these tales? The romantic ideal of the good hearted shizun nurturing the young and all that.

"We're going to get you a spiritual sword." 

Shen Jiu stares. Really, would it be too much to ask for him to at least look a little excited at the prospect of such a generous gift? "I haven't even reached core formation yet." 

"Details," he brushes it off, "If I say you're ready then you're ready, don't question me." 

"Right…" the kid drawls, looking utterly unimpressed. Tianlang-jun sighs, why can't this prickly disciple of him let him live one of his fantastic ideals at least once? For someone so adept at reading Shen Jiu doesn't seem to share Tianlang-jun's sense of wonder at all! "And where are we going to get this sword from, exactly?"

"I'm glad you asked!" 

 


 

"The creation of spiritual weapons is beautifully difficult in its simplicity. A weapon made with a metal of enough purity, crafted by a skilled enough artisan, set to receive high amounts of qi for something between one hundred and one thousand years, with enough luck will develop its own spirit and become a spiritual weapon. 

"For demons, that usually means finding a good quality weapon and then creating the spirit themselves, either providing it with their own energy or meditating in a spiritual place for the number of years it takes. 

"Humans don't have naturally long lifespans, and their collaborative nature means they can afford to be impatient. As such, the human realm has several spiritually charged places where people from the past have left swords to gain their own life and await to serve future generations, some owned by certain sects, some not. 

"The will necessary to leave something that will serve others long after you're gone, the effort it must have taken to set such places, the mere thought someone decided to think of helping perfect strangers who haven't even been born yet! That you likely won't get to see! 

"And the nonchalance with which current cultivators regard the existence of such places!! 

"Ah, humans really are amazing. So small and ignorant, weak and fleeting, and yet they're able to get together, think of a future without themselves in it, and build things bigger than a single one of them could have built-"

"Stop mumbling and get to the point!"

"I'm not mumbling, I'm complimenting your entire species, brat!"

"Yeah yeah yeah," the kid rolls his eyes, "So, I'm assuming we're going to one of those places where people left weapons?" 

"Correct! Oh, I can see the entrance from here!" Tianlang-jun rushes forward, Shen Jiu and Zhuzhi-lang close behind him. Making their way through an overgrown forest, far away from the main path, they eventually reach a place where the mountain's side cracks, giving away to a narrow entrance to the grotto. 

"Behold! The I-don't-remember-what temple!" he opens his arms to gesture towards the location.

"That's a cave, not a temple," Shen Jiu points out with his usual unimpressed attitude. 

"The temple is built inside the cave," he explains, "There you'll find thousands of swords to choose from!" 

"Is this really an important place?" the kid wonders, walking to look inside the entrance, "it's filled with cobwebs, there are no signs, and there wasn't any path leading towards it either, are you sure you didn't just lead us nowhere?" 

"Didn't you hear my explanation?" he shrugs, "There are hundreds of places like this, all of them created centuries if not millennia in the past, of course some of them would be forgotten." 

Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow and Tianlang-jun has to shake his head at the scepticism conveyed in that single look, seriously, such lack of fate on this poor teacher. 

"I'm serious! You just have to enter, claim a sword, and get out with a powerful spiritual weapon! We'll wait here for you."

"You aren't coming with me?!" the kid retorts, taking a step away from the cave.

"The sword has to accept you as its master for you to take it," he explains, "it won't work if other people go with you, no weapon will accept that," 

"You're not filling me with confidence."

"Oh, don't worry so much!" he insists, "I wouldn't tell you to do this if I didn't think you're ready!"

Shen Jiu takes one step forward, then two steps back. "Will it be dangerous?"

"Since you're claiming a sword left here by someone else it might want to test you," he says, "but don't worry, it will be purely mental, maybe it'll show you a small illusion or two, just ignore whatever it shows you, as long as you're determined and remember why you're here you won't have any problem!" 

"Oh, great, so nothing to worry about," Shen Jiu deadpans, Tianlang-jun nods. 

"That's the spirit!" 

She Jiu stares at him, looks at the cave, stares at Tianlang-jun again.

"Will I be powerful?" he asks, "With one of the weapons in there?"

"At least twice as powerful as the average cultivator. I picked this place because the weapons here are especially strong." 

That seems to be what decides it. Shen Jiu takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and marches in. 

"I know you can do it!" he exclaims, as the kid disappears inside the mountain, then sits down to wait.

"Ju- Junshang," Zhuzhi-Lang mutters, sitting next to him when Tianlang-jun gestures to join him, "i- is h- he really going to be alright?"

"Don't worry, don't worry!" he reassures. 

It's odd for his nephew to express worry about other people, but the kids have been doing chores together, and Shen Jiu always accompanies Zhuzhi-Lang when they have to split their little party, supposedly so he isn't stuck with Tianlang-jun instead. Maybe he's finally warming up to humans? That would be nice, more people should appreciate human culture! 

"I- if Junshang says so," the kid says, "i-it's j-just, his cu-cultivation isn't very high,"

"A high cultivation might help with claiming his sword, but at the end of the day everything relies on having a strong spirit," he explains, "Don't you know Jiu'er? That kid's determined to his core! We should only have to wait two hours top, and he'll come dragging along a powerful sword! You'll see!"

Zhuzhi-Lang nods, seemingly satisfied, and doesn't say anything else, just sits and waits.

Because his nephew gives great reactions when embarrassed, and because he's come to offer his hand in marriage as a way of teasing him, he adds, "Don't worry Zhuzhi, your future husband will be alright!"

"W-wha-! J- J- Jun- Junshang! P-please d-d-d-don't joke with that!" 

Zhuzhi-Lang's face gets all red, like anytime Tianlang-jun's joked like this, and he ends laughing for a good five minutes at his nephew's embarrassment. 

After that's passed, they just sit and wait. Tianlang-jun gets comfortable lying on the floor, watching the clouds pass and listening to nature and the like, and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.





































"J- Junshang, it- it's been two weeks."

"Ahhh… I fucked up." 



Chapter Text

The I-don't-remember-what temple is, surprisingly, a temple. 

Soon after entering, just as the light coming from the entrance stops reaching the interior, the rocks start to glow on brilliant, colorful patterns. Shen Jiu holds up his hand, and takes a moment to observe how it's dyed by the colorful mosaic-like lights that surround him, before moving on. Soon after, the uneven walls and floors of the cave turn into smooth stone, and soon after that, the path gives way to a man-made, black staircase that sinks into the depths of the earth, from which comes a cold breeze. 

Shen Jiu breathes, closes his fists, and goes down. 

The stairs go down and down and down, and just when Shen Jiu is starting to grow worried they will never end, he reaches the bottom. 

From the stairs follows a door, a short one, to the point Shen Jiu has to double down not to hit his head. And at the other side the cave opens to a huge circular space. 

In the center of the room rises a giant statue of a woman. The statue glows red, except for the contents of the basket it's carrying, which is filled by a pile of rocks, each glowing with a different color. Surrounding the statue are smaller figures, carved from shiny blue stones, of people on their knees, their faces looking up towards the woman. 

The patterns of light, that looked so random and natural upstairs, take a different configuration in this space. Greens and yellows, oranges and pinks, blue, green, and all other colors combine into intricate designs that loop and repeat themselves on the walls and ceilings. The only thing that doesn't expel light is the floor, the same black material as the stairs, and, of course, Shen Jiu. 

There are doors cut around the room, leading to other pathways. Confident he'll remember the way back, Shen Jiu picks one at random and keeps walking. 

The path he picks starts as a narrow, short hallway, but it soon turns into a huge, empty space, bigger than the one with the statue. The pathway continues, now turning into a bridge that goes through this void. Shen Jiu takes a peek at the fall and can't see the bottom, bright shiny walls keep sinking into the earth until disappearing into the darkness. Something catches his eyes, and he looks up. 

The ceiling of this space, the height of five people stacked together, is filled with swords, the blades embedded on the rock, so closely packed he can't see what color it is. 

There's no way he can reach them, so he keeps walking. Soon enough, he reaches the other side of the… hole. There, stuck to the wall, is a ladder, same black material as the bridge. 

The thing to do is obvious. He climbs. 

Once at the top, he grabs a sword and random and pulls, it slides off much, much easier than he expected, and in his surprise he drops it. 

The sword falls to the void below, never to be seen again, alongside with… was that a skull, embedded on its blade? 

Shen Jiu looks back up, really looks this time. It's hard to make out, with how close the swords are to each other, but now that he's properly looking… There are skeletons. There are hundreds and hundreds of human skeletons pinned to the ceiling by the blades.

"I'm going to get sick…" he mutters. It's not like he's never seen death and rot, but this… this is just creepy. 

Whatever. He reaches for another one, his grip more secure this time. It comes off with a femur stuck on it, Shen Jiu waves the blade until the bone slides off. 

It's not a bad sword, it has a wooden handle, without any decoration on it, and the blade is sleek and long. He can feel how it hums against his skin, thrumming with power.

"With this I will be-"

"Xiao Jiu?"

.

.


















Slowly. 

Slowly. 

Shen Jiu looks up. 

On the space cleared up after retiring the sword, a face. A person, pinned to the ceiling by the blades.

"Qi… ge?" 

"Ah, it's really Xiao Jiu." Qi-ge says, smiling that sad smile he wore so often, "Xiao Jiu, I'm sorry. I wanted to be powerful to save you, but instead I ended up like this." 

He extends his hand to touch that face, that stupid, naive face he sees anytime he goes to sleep "Qi-"

His fingers make contact with a skull.




"A small illusion," he remembers Tianlang's words, "just a small illusion." 

He blinks. Once, twice, thrice. He won't cry, he refuses to. He blinks hard to keep the tears at bay, and once his vision stops being blurry begins his descent, the hilt of the sword firmly held in his mouth. 

He starts making his way through the bridge, not looking anywhere but forward-

"Xiao Jiu, I'll come back for you."

Qi-ge is dangling from the bridge, holding himself with only one hand. As soon as Shen Jiu lays eyes on him, he lets go. His body sparkles with the light coming from the walls as his silhouette becomes smaller, smaller, and disappears. 

 

"A small illusion or two." 

 

He walks. The bridge gives way to a narrow pathway with low ceilings, much longer that he remembers it being. 

Something small passes beside him, he doesn't look. 

Another thing runs past him. Another, another. He hears laughter. 

Something pulls from his robes. He makes a mistake. He looks down. 

"A-Jiu, let's go play?" His fiance smiles at him, naive, small, and without a care in the world, as she always did. 

Another pull of his robes, another Qiu Haitang clings to him. "Today you're so clingy, A-Jiu, you want a hug?" 

The laughter becomes louder. More Qiu Haitangs surround him.

"I saved you some dessert!" "Good morning!" "Let's go shopping, A-Jiu!" "Do you think this dress suits me?" "A-Jiu! Let's play! You're it!" "Good night!" "How unfair, I can never beat you at this, A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu, come look at this!" "Hey, hey, A-Jiu, tell me a bedtime story!" "A-Jiu, you should smile more!" "What is wrong? Why are you crying? Does your stomach hurt?" "A-Jiu! A-Jiu! Hurry up!" "A-Jiu, brush my hair!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!"

"SHUT UP!" 

Once his clothes are completely covered with little hands, and he can't move forward anymore, he swings the sword. 

Warm blood splashes his face. One Qiu Haitang falls to the floor, legs and hips separated from each other. The other children run away, crying and screaming. 

"How could you?!" "Murderer!" "My family!" "How could you?!" "I loved you!" "How could you?!" they say, running far, far away from him. 

He stares at the body. 

"Just an illusion," he reminds himself. 

He stares. 

The blood spreads on the floor, it permeates the inside of his shoes, then stops pooling, and grows cold. 

"Just an illusion." 

He pushes the body away with his foot, it feels solid. He keeps walking. 

His feet feel sticky. He drags a hand against his face, when he looks at it it comes off bloodied. 

He looks back. The body is still there.

"It's just an illusion," he reminds himself, and keeps walking. 

He reaches the room with the statue. The stairs are on the other side, he's almost done. 

The blue figures are now broken, and the woman's basket is now filled with children, all crying, screaming, begging. She reaches into it, and one by one picks them, and one by one brings them to her mouth. Their bones breaking as she chews sound like firecrackers and the blood oozing from her mouth mixes with the red light of her body. 

Shen Jiu walks. The kids cry. He walks. A kid calls for her mother. He walks. Firecrackers. He walks. The room is cold like winters on the street. He walks. His feet feel sticky. He walks. He feels hungry. He walks. There's blood on his hands. 

He reaches the stairs.

"Xiao Jiu!"

.

.

.

"It's an illusion," he reminds himself, and then turns around. 

The woman- no, now it's Qiu Jianluo. He holds Qi-ge between two fingers, dangling him on top of his face.

"It's just an illusion," he repeats, then readies his sword, and lunges against it.

The statue lets go of the basket, the kids fall to the floor and dissolve into light and loud sounds. It reaches with the hand that isn't holding Qi-ge, catches the sword between its thumb and middle finger, and the weapon snaps in two. 

 

"Ah." Shen Jiu really is an idiot. 

 

Qiu Jianluo picks him by the hem of his robes, holds him up. He reaches towards Qi-ge, Qi-ge reaches back. 

Qiu Jianluo let's go of Qi-ge, Shen Jiu watches as he disappears inside his mouth and becomes firecrackers and red light. 

Qiu Jianluo opens his mouth. 

Shen Jiu closes his eyes. The hand opens. 

He failed. 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu wakes up to a pair of golden eyes staring at him. 

Zhuzhi gasps, turns towards something that isn't Shen Jiu, "Ju- Junshang, h- he woke up!"

Now he's greeted by brown eyes, "Oh, you're finally awake, Jiu'er!" Tianlang exclaims, "You worried us for a moment."

.

.

"You're the worst teacher I've ever had." he mutters, then tries to roll onto his side, but everything hurts.

"You shouldn't move yet," the worst teacher says, "you almost died, you know." 

He glares. Tianlang looks away, he actually looks away, it's the first time he's ever looked away from Shen Jiu's anger. 

Good.

"I admit, I may have miscalculated-"

"You MAY have miscalculated?!" he exclaims and immediately regrets it when his chest is hit by a painful pang. 

"D- don't ra- raise your voice," Zhuzhi says, "y- your ribs," 

"You broke three ribs and bruised the rest, Jiu'er," Tianlang says, "also broke an arm, hit your head badly and twisted an ankle, not to mention the dehydration and malnutrition. Oh, and you had a minor Qi deviation!" 

"And who's fault is that?" he wants to yell, but it has to come in almost a whisper so it doesn't hurt, "didn't you say nothing would touch me?" 

"And nothing did!"

"Explain the broken bones then." 

"Y-you hurt yourself."

"Eh?!" 

Zhuzhi rushes to hide behind Tianlang. "Um, w- when w-we found you, y-you were hitting yourself with a rock," 

Shen Jiu stares. Sighs. 

"...Yeah, that makes sense," 

Tianlang scoots closet, "Um, are you-?"

"I don't want to see you right now," he spits out, with as much venom as he can pour into it. 

"Alright, I'll be outside if you need me," Tianlang actually backs down and leaves the room. They're in a room, he's on a bed, now that he notices. Probably an inn. Hm.

"Ju- Junshang didn't mean-"

"I truly hate your stutter," he bites. Zhuzhi jolts, and shrinks.

"I- I- I'm sorry, I- I'll leave," 

Zhuzhi moves to leave. Shen Jiu grabs his arm, "Stay, just don't talk." 

Zhuzhi opens his mouth, closes it, opens it, closes it again, he sits next to the bed and nods. 

Shen Jiu stares at the ceiling. His eyes feel heavy.

Ah, this is bad. If he falls asleep he'll have a horrible nightmare. 

"Talk about something." 

"B- but y-y-you said,"

"I know what I said. Now I'm bored, entertain me."

"E-en-enterta-tain how?"

This kid really needs someone to hold his hand at all times, doesn't he? Ah, Shen Jiu really is stupid, he can't help but to like being around weak people. 

"Tell me what happened after I entered the cave." 

"A- af-after y- you le-e-eft-"

"Can you really not speak clearly? You're doing way worse than usual." 

Zhuzhi lowers his head,

"Are you crying? Are you going to cry? Don't, I don't need you crying on top of not knowing how to speak,"

Zhuzhi shrinks, his shoulders begin to shake, "I- I- I'm s-s-sss-zzzzzzzz" 

"Ah, you really piss me off, you can't even apologize properly, did you never learn how to sp-"

"W-w-wordzzzzzz are h-haaa-hard!" Zhuzhi raises his voice. He actually raises his voice, he even cut him off, holy shit. It's the opposite day today? Next thing he knows Tianlang will be responsible with money and Shen Jiu will be kind with children. "D-don't m-make me zzzzo ne-nervouzzzzzzzzzz, y-you only ma- make it worzzzzz- orzzzz- orse- wo-orse! Worse! You ooonly- You only make it worse!" 

"You really worked hard on that last sentence, didn't you? It only took you like ten tries this time, congratulations."

"Sh-zzzzshut up!"

Ah, Zhuzhi really did start crying. His shoulders hitch as tears run down his face and his lower lip wobbles. Shen Jiu was right, he would be good at begging, he looks pretty when he cries. At some point his tongue darts out and Zhuzhi rushes to cover his mouth with his hands, more tears fall.

Shen Jiu doesn't do nor says anything, just stares, and eventually the kid's able to calm himself down.

Shen Jiu really is the worst, "I think it'll be better if you leave." 

Zhuzhi stands up, starts moving towards the door, slows down, stops,

"What are you waiting for?"

Zhuzhi blushes, "Y-you k-keep changing your mind, so I th- thought," 

Shen Jiu can't help it, he starts to laugh. 

"Ah, d-don't laugh, your ribs!"

His ribs do hurt. It only makes him laugh harder, until eventually a particularly hard pang forces him to stop, and he starts coughing. Zhuzhi rushes to hand him a glass of water. It helps a little.

"A-are y-you ok?"

"I'm fine," he brushes his concern off, "you can stay if you want, it's not my fault if you start crying again though," 

Zhuzhi doesn't say anything, but he sits down again.

The silence is uncomfortable.

"I'm not going to apologize for what I said, your stutter is annoying." 

He just nods and takes it, what a useless person.

"You should speak,"

"B-but you said-"

"If someone tells you something you do is annoying, you should start annoying them on purpose, are you really your uncle's nephew?"

"W-what? b-but-"

"Ah, you really are pathetic, why do I even bother? You should just-"

Zhuzhi hits his forehead. Not hard, it's more a tap than a hit, but it shuts him up. 

"Y- you aren't making any s-s-senzzze today. It- it's confusing. I- I don't like it." 

"Hmm..." is he not making any sense? "I guess my head's still fuzzy from the I-don't-remember-what temple." 

"Y-you're usually kin-kinder." 

"Me? Now you're the one not making any sense, I'm not kind at all." 

"Y-you help me g-get money."

"It's my money too, of course I want us to get as much as we can."

"Y- you insist I ke-keep a part,"

"I just don't want it all going to Tianlang, and I don't want anyone to whine about injustice if I keep it all myself."

"Y-you, you help me do chores,"

"It's faster with two people, that way you also help me with mine." 

"I- I s-still… I still appreciate it." 

Shen Jiu blinks, "You warm up to people too easily, and are too easy to take advantage of." 

Zhuzhi lowers his head. "I- I'm not used t-to people being k-kind to me."

Ah...

Shen Jiu supposes he can relate. Didn't he hold onto Qi-ge for the same reason, even after all this time? Just like Zhuzhi holds to Tianlang, when warmth is hard to come by, if you happen to find a friendly hand you can't let it go no matter what. He gets it.

This stupid demon is actually going to make him feel feelings. Unbelievable. 

"Get out."

"Uh?"

"Get out, I want you to get out."

"A-are you sure?"

"I'm sure this time, get out, or I'll kick you out myself."

"O-ok." 

Zhuzhi stands up and goes to the door, watching Shen Jiu all the time, as if expecting he's just going to change his mind again.

He glares at him, and that's enough for Zhuzhi to quicken his pace. He leaves, and Shen Jiu is left alone, just as he wanted.

"Qi-ge…" he mutters. 

Heavens

When was the last time he felt lonely? 

No

More like, when was the last time he noticed he felt lonely?

"Qi-ge, are you watching me from heaven?" 

"I miss you."

"I'm sorry. You shouldn't have left to save me, at the end I can only ruin things." 

"Is your corpse unburied somewhere?" 

His breath hitches. How stupid. 

"I promise I'll find you and bury you." 

Shen Jiu closes his eyes, and dreams about a girl made an orphan and a teenager's corpse rotting on the street. 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Two hawberry and tangerine tanghulu please." Ah. He got it out in one try.

"There you go!" The seller hands him the sticks of candy and Zhuzhi-lang hands over a coin. 

"T-thank you." Oh...

As always, the first word is where he stumbles. That's fine. It's fine.

Back at the inn they're staying at, he finds Junshang camping outside Shen Jiu's room, a pile of books surrounding him.

"Ah, my dear nephew!" he calls, setting aside the novel he was currently reading. Zhuzhi-lang gets the feeling if it wasn't because the inn they choose is mostly empty, they would get kicked out for loitering in the hallway... wouldn't be the first time. 

"Junshang," he greets, and oh, that word came out right too. 

"Did you bring the peace offerings?" Zhuzhi-lang hands him the candy, "Excellent!" 

Then, armed with tanghulu and a charming smile, Junshang valiantly charges in. He comes back out almost immediately, still with the candy but having lost the smile.

“He wouldn’t even take it,” he recounts, “When has Jiu’er ever rejected food? I can’t believe this!”

“I’m… sure he will forgive you eventually.” He’s doing very well today! He almost stutters on the second word, but he was able to make a pause and go on, this is a very good day. 

“I know, I know,” Junshang sighs, then eyes the candy, seems to consider something, and pushes it towards Zhuzhi-lang, “You try it.”

“W-what-?”

“He won’t hear me out,” he says, “Since you’re the only one he’s letting in, you might as well apologize in my name.” 

‘He’s probably going to throw me out the moment I mention you,’ he does not say. Instead he merely receives the tanghulu and accepts his fate.

“I-... I will do my best.”

Shen Jiu is sitting on his bed, reading a book, not too dissimilar from Junshang just a while ago. Zhuzhi-lang knows he would get punched if he were to ever voice such a comparison. 

"Ah, so the worst teacher sent you to take his place," Shen Jiu says, closing the book, "like the coward he is." 

'Junshang is not a coward' he very consciously does not say, instead, he sits next to the bed and offers a tanghulu. 

Shen Jiu looks at it, and Zhuzhi-lang can see his pupils dilate just a bit. Shen Jiu always denies it, but he's got a sweet tooth. 

It doesn't seem enough to compel him to take it though, and the kid looks away, opens his book, and continues reading. Since he doesn't tell him to leave, Zhuzhi-lang supposes he can stay. 

He considers the candy. Personally Zhuzhi-lang isn't a fan of sweets, he prefers bitter foods, but the idea was for Junshang to make amends by eating candy with Shen Jiu, and he's acting as substitute, so he might as well do half the deed. 

The tanghulu isn't too bad, it's less sweet than he expected, and the tangerine is actually kind of nice. As it turns out, watching someone else eating is Shen Jiu's breaking point, because Zhuzhi-lang's barely licked the candy twice when Shen Jiu snatches the other one from his hand, the fruit soon disappearing into his mouth in quick succession. 

Since it seems like as good of a moment as he will get, Zhuzhi-lang decides he will deliver his message now. 

'Junshang is really sorry, he didn't mean it and he'll be more careful in the future.' seems simple enough. It's been a good day so far, if he says it slowly he thinks he can make it. 

Zhuzhi-lang takes a deep breath, and goes ahead, "J-Ju- Junsh-shang is r-really s-sorry, h-he di- d-did't mean…" he wants to cut off his tongue!

Zhuzhi-lang's usually good at talking… or, good-ish. Really, he usually doesn't make this many mistakes, it's just, Shen Jiu made it clear he dislikes the stutter, so he wants to do it well, so that makes him nervous around him and that just makes everything harder… Ahhhh. It's such a problem. 

As predicted, Shen Jiu glares at the mention of Junshang. Finishing the sentence isn't worth the effort when he knows he's going to be kicked either way, so he lowers his head and moves towards the door. 

"Where are you going?" Shen Jiu calls.

"S-since you are going t-to t-throw me out anyway," he replies. Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow, but doesn't say anything otherwise, instead going back to his book, holding it open on his lap while the hand that isn't on a cast plays with the now bare stick. 

He isn't denying it, so that means he did think of throwing him out. Zhuzhi-lang turns to open the door, when he remembers he's still holding the tanghulu. He already licked it, but he's seen Shen Jiu eat food that fell to the floor, so he doesn't think he'll mind. He returns to leave it beside Shen Jiu, and then leaves. 

"How did it go?" Junshang asks once he closes the door.

"He ate," he says, there's not much else to report. 

Junshang still smiles at that, "That's progress!" he says, "I knew you were the right person for the job!"

"I-If Junshang says so." 

 


 

Shen Jiu is weird. He says he thinks something, then does the opposite of that, he tells Junshang 'I will never forgive you' on the regular, then sticks around nonetheless, acts some way one day and then changes his mind soon after. Zhuzhi-lang doesn't understand him.

He's kind. He says he isn't, but he is. Or perhaps Zhuzhi-lang's standards are too low. Shen Jiu talks to him, like a person, hasn't tried to kill him or hurt him, not really, and he's helped him and Junshang. 

That last one is probably the most important, he helps keeping track of the money, he helps with the chores, he makes sure they always have enough water and food. He says it's because those things affect him too, not because he wants to help, but that doesn't really matter, does it? 

People hate a rock they trip with, not because the rock meant it, and like the trees they hide from the sun under, not because the trees want to help. Shen Jiu is helpful, and Junshang likes him, so Zhuzhi-lang likes him too. 

And because Shen Jiu is helpful and Zhuzhi-lang likes him, he wants to return that somehow, but can't think of anything concrete to repay it, so the least he can do is not being annoying. 

Which is harder than it sounds. 

"Oh, for fuck's sake, can't you walk any faster?!" 

"Y-your ankle s-still hasn't-" 

"My ankle this! My ribs that! I'm fine!" 

As if to prove it, Shen Jiu's steps quicken. He maintains it until they reach the end of the alleyway, and then rests his back against a wall, takes slow, careful breaths, and starts coughing. 

Zhuzhi-lang swallows a sigh. It's been a little over a week since they got Shen Jiu from the I-don't-remember-what temple, and even with his cultivation aiding the healing process, he's still nowhere near recovered, but it's not like they could tell him that. So, as soon as Shen Jiu could walk three paces without bending over he decided he was going outside and damn whoever tried to stop him. 

"I- I think the market is-"

"I know where the market is!" Shen Jiu hisses, and then starts walking in the wrong direction.

Zhuzhi-lang fails at swallowing another sigh. 

 


 

Shen Jiu is staring at a booth's fans. He's acting like he isn't, entertaining himself with buying ink, oil, talisman paper and other things they're short on, but now and then he'll look at them. They're well made, not as high quality as a demon noble would use, but still good. 

They're terribly overpriced though, no wonder Shen Jiu isn't approaching them. Zhuzhi-lang's seen him visit fifteen different stores just to find a 5% cheaper camping tent, Shen Jiu is as stingy with money as Junshang is spendthrift, there's just no way in hell he'll so much as touch these.

But he's still looking at them. 

Hmm. Zhuzhi-lang doesn't think he has enough money to buy one. While he does get a good part of the money they make, he still gives most of it to Junshang on principle, and since he doesn't really spend it on himself, his savings are the first place they draw from when they're running out of money for necessities. So, his pockets are quite empty at the time. 

As they're moving to a different section of the market Shen Jiu sneaks a last peek at the fans.

Hm. 

 


 

As anyone could have predicted, walking on a bad ankle as fast as he can, insisting on carrying all his purchases by himself, even the ones that were quite heavy, (with one arm in a cast no less), and refusing to take breaks to catch his breath, are not great ways to speed someone's recovery, and by late afternoon Shen Jiu develops a mild fever and has to (is forced to) retrieve to his room to rest.

"I could swear humans usually have a better self preservation than that," Junshang says, after they're sure Shen Jiu fell asleep and won't, like, jump through the window or something, "he's as bad as a demon in that sense, and just as impatient."

"I… think he just wants to prove he isn't weak," Zhuzhi-lang muses, "si-since he didn't get the sword." 

"That's on me," Junshang sighs, "I was so sure he could make it, you know! And now he's all mad at me, ahhhh…"

"Mhmm," Zhuzhi-lang hums, not knowing what else to add. 

"Maybe I should find a potion to make him forget this happened, I know some people who make them…" 

"I-I'm p-pretty sure he would be more angry if you tried to do that, Junshang." 

"You think? Ah, then I'm out of ideas!" he says. 

Then Zhuzhi-lang remembers the fans from earlier, and, well it's better than nothing, "I- I think I have an idea." 

 


 

"S-Shen Jiu, c-can I enter?" he knocks on the door the next morning, "I-I brought br-breakfast."

There's no answer, so he takes that as permission to enter. 

As son as he enters, he's greeted with a glare. Zhuzhi-lang does his best to ignore it and brings the tray inside. 

"Put it here," Shen Jiu says, scooting away to make a space on the bed. 

Zhuzhi-lang stays whole Shen Jiu eats, and he doesn't complain about it, so he assumes it's fine. He waits until he's almost done, and then takes out the fan. 

It's one of the cheaper ones, not because they didn't have enough for a more expensive one… not entirely because they didn't have enough for a more expensive one, also because they (Junshang) thought it suited him most. The wood is oak and the cloth depicts a stylized drawing of a bamboo forest. 

Shen Jiu frowns at it, "Do you really have enough money to spend on such frivolous things?"

"J-Junshang h-helped," he says, and if anything it makes Shen Jiu glares harder at it, "s-since you s-seemed interested-" 

"Ah, you mean at the market?" he says, "These fans catched my attention because they were so awful! terrible design and laughable quality, not to mention the prices were as high as heaven. Truly, only someone with shit for brains would so much as consider buying one."

"Ah, I-I see."

The silence that follows is awkward, Shen Jiu isn't looking at him and Zhuzhi-lang isn't looking at him either.

"I-I never t-told you what happened… after you entered the temple." 

"You realized I wasn't coming out, entered after me and found me beating myself up, what else is there to tell?" 

"J-Junshang lost an arm,"

"What?! No, he didn't!" Shen Jiu snaps, "I saw him, he's fine!"

"I-it grew back,"

"Are you for real?" he gapes, Zhuzhi-lang nods. "Fucking demons… How?"

"It- t-the temple raises a barrier, after someone enters. S-so, to pull it open…"

Junshang had to break the seal by himself, his hand being ripped off bit by bit as he breached it. It grew back soon after, but Zhuzhi-lang knows it still hurt. 

They ended finding Shen Jiu at the deepest part of the cave, smacking a rock against his chest, screaming, bleeding from all the holes in his head, his clothes shredded. Shen Jiu is likely aware it was worse than 'You were hitting yourself with a rock,' after waking up with bite marks on his arms and legs and his nails broken from scratching the walls and floors, but he hasn't mentioned it so Zhuzhi-lang won't say anything either.

"What an idiot." Shen Jiu says. Then, miraculously, takes the fan, "I haven't forgiven him, just so we're clear. You don't even know what I saw in there, you have no right asking for me to forgive that."

"Ri-right…" 

"But…" he covers his face with the fan and looks away, "I suppose it isn't practical to keep ignoring him, since we're still traveling together." 

"Ri-right!" 

"Tell him I'm willing to talk with him again, but any of you mention this again and I'll kill you," he threatens, falling back on the bed, "now leave, I'm tired." 

"O-of course," he answers, moving towards the door, "t-thank you,"

"Why are you thanking me?! Spirits, you're so annoying!" 

"S-sorry," he mutters. 

As he closes the door he thinks he hears an "Idiots, the both of them." 






Chapter Text

Since it's a good day for fishing, Shen Jiu leaves the campsite early to visit the nearby river. He finds a nice spot under a bent tree and spends all morning lazing around waiting for the fish to bite. 

By midday he’s got a basket full of carps, and is idly wondering how to cook them, maybe he could use some for soup and salt the rest? when an imposing figure appears on his path. 

“Human, are you one of the emperor’s servants?” asks a tall, muscular man with goat horns. He stands very straight, not looking like he has any intention to attack, but Shen Jiu’s hand still moves to his sword as his mind works on possible escape plans.

“Why do you ask?”

“You carry his scent.”

He has an idea of who this demon is talking about. Either answer has the potential to be the wrong one, but one less than the other, and the man hasn't tried to hurt him yet, so,  “Yes, I am in fact one of the emperor’s servants, of course.”

 


 

"You got a letter," is his greeting as he reaches camp, throwing the sealed scroll to the back of Tianlang’s head. The man catches it before it hits him, because the world isn’t fair, “Also we’re eating fish today.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t open it,” the man comments, eyeing the scroll.

“Not everyone is as disrespectful of others’ privacy as you,” Shen Jiu answers, even though he very much did try to open it, but couldn’t get past the seal. He moves to handle the fish basket to Zhuzhi, who immediately takes one still alive carp and bites into it. Shen Jiu grimaces, “I will never understand how you like it raw.” Zhuzhi shrugs. 

"Oh no!" Tianlang exclaims, reading over the letter, "I'm needed to sort some stuff in the demon realm and I don't want to!" 

"Let me see," Shen Jiu says, taking the letter and pushing him away. Its contents are as follows: 

To the great emperor of the south something something something conflicts in the frontier something something something this and that clan something something something unrest something something something meeting with the council something something something your presence is needed immediately.

"Sounds important," he comments, passing the scroll to Zhuzhi, who receives it and proceeds to read it too without caring about the fact he's dirtying the paper with carp blood, "Guess you'll have to take care of that." 

Tianlang's following sigh is so overdramatic he bends over backwards until he falls to the ground, "I guess it really can't be helped," he whines, "Even though I really don't want to…."

"Aren't you an emperor or something?!" Shen Jiu exclaims, kicking Tianlang on the stomach. The man doesn't even have the decency to act like it hurt, "Stop slacking off and take your responsibilities seriously!"

"I take care of my responsibilities just fine," he pouts like a child, "You just have no idea how many things other people could perfectly take care of ends falling on a demon lord! I just wish to travel in peace, that's not too much to ask..."

"Then renounce your throne."

"No, it took a lot to get it."

"I hold no sympathy for you," he moves to retrieve the fish, "I'm going to make fish soup."

"I prefer it steamed." 

"C-could we smoke some later?" 

"I'm making fish soup and salting the rest." 

"Use ginger,"

"I'm using garlic and taro, nothing else." 

"How about green onion?"

"We ran out like a week ago." 

"I t-think we still have chili oil." 

"I'm not using that for fish soup."

"Oh, alright..."

"Why not? Don't be like that Jiu'er,"

"I'm saving it for when we find pork,"

"Soy sauce?" 

"Ran out. Hm, where's the pot?"

"How about adding the mushrooms we found yesterday?" 

"I would use them, if someone had not eaten them!"

"Here. Th-the pot."

"Thanks, Zhuzhi." 

"You ate them?"

"You ate them, you asshole!"

"No? I didn't? I wanted to pickle half of them!"

"So what, a wild animal ate them?" 

"Wouldn't be the first time, like the time you didn't tie a knot right and a bear-"

"It was one time! One time! It was forever ago! Can't you just forget about it already?!" 

"Of course not, it was such a thrilling adventure!" 

"I- I- I a-ate the mushrooms, actually."

"IT WAS YOU?!" 

"An unexpected plot twist!"

"S-sorry."

"Whatever, they were probably poisonous anyway."

"You're so lax with my nephew… Had I eaten them you would be trying to open my stomach to retrieve them!"

"Sorry…"

"It's not my fault you're the more annoying of the two."

"Oh my, you heard that Zhuzhi? Such a moving complement! Could it be that you've finally won over Jiu'er's frozen heart?!" 

"J-J-Junshang p-please d-d-don't joke about that!" 

"I'm going to cut you open and add both of your hearts to this soup if you don't shut up already!" 

 


 

Some hours later the food's been served and they are wrapping the leftover fish on paper cut from the imperial scroll. 

"I expect you to take back some money from your palace," Shen Jiu says, as he rubs salt on one of the carps, "we have seventy two copper coins total, I counted."

"The... last three towns d-didn't have many people carrying currency," Zhuzhi laments. 

"If this keeps going on we'll have to sell your books," Shen Jiu threatens, "Starting with the graphic ones!"

"Alright, alright!" Tianlang throws his hands up, "I was going to restock either way, no need for this violence!" 

"Should we start packing?" Zhuzhi asks, moving to wash his hands on a basin, "We are parting soon, ri-right?"

"Oh, you're going with Tianlang?" Somehow Shen Jiu thought only Tianlang would be leaving. He supposes it's fine, it'll be a well deserved vacation from these bothersome demons.

"What are you talking about?",  Tianlang says, "Obviously you're coming as well!" 

"Me?!"

"You don't really expect us to just leave you on your own for who knows how long, do you?" 

"I don't know if you've realized, but I'm a human," he replies, "a cultivator no less."

"And I'm a demon in the human realm, in case you didn't notice," he counters, "You wouldn't be the first human going there, not even the first human I bring to the southern kingdom. It'll be a learning experience!" 

"Like other learning experiences I can recall," he scoffs, "which ended with broken ribs."

"Now that's not fair, that was like half a year ago!"

"How did you put it? ah yes, 'It was such a thrilling adventure', I just couldn't forget about it oh my dear Shizun!" he tips his head to the side and makes his eyes go very wide, "What kind of student would I be not to learn from such a great learning experience?" 

"That face is not cute at all, brat,"

"I already know that, asshole," 

"Look, I know things got a bit out of hand that time-"

"A hell of an understatement."

"-but I learned my lesson, this time really no harm will happen, no physical, no mental, trust me with this!" 

Shen Jiu frowns at him, but, he does take a moment to think it over. 

It is true he hasn't been hurt like the time he tried to get a spiritual sword again. He hates thinking about it, but the man's teachings have been almost... bearable since then? Trying to explain things better and not assuming he'll just know how to do something as much. Not that it's turned into anything near a good teacher, but, he isn't as bad lately.

He certainly has been making an effort to avoid unnecessary danger he didn't put prior to that incident, going so far as changing their route if they hear there's an infestation of powerful monsters ahead. It usually rubs Shen Jiu the wrong way, he has always hated being babied like that, but it does give his promise a bit of weight. 

"If you're wrong I want two thousand golden coins in retribution."  

"Deal!"

 


 

The trip to the frontier between the human and demon realms takes three days. They go by flying on Tianlang's sword, as it would take too long otherwise, Shen Jiu standing behind him and Zhuzhi as a snake curled around Tianlang's wrist. 

In the time Shen Jiu's traveled with the demons he can count the times they've flied on one hand, partly because Tianlang says it takes away the fun of wandering, partly because Shen Jiu hates having to share a ride. 

In front of the stands frontier between the realms, more of a metaphysical line than a geographical one. 

"Ready for your first time in the demon realm, Jiu'er?" 

"I hope so," he scowls, "for your sake."

"Ah, so intimidating," Tianlang mocks, then bites his fingertip and draws something on Shen Jiu's forehead, "This way no one will confuse you with dinner," he explains. 

"T-this s-should help too," Zhuzhi says, dropping a handful of snakes on Shen Jiu, which quickly crawl under his clothes, "t-to ke-keep you safe, just in c-case." 

"Oh, also a pendant with the royal sigil," Tianlang digs a necklace from his sleeves and puts it on Shen Jiu's neck, "to be extra sure no one will confuse you with dinner," 

"M-maybe one more," Zhuzhi says, adding another snake,

"Oh, now that I think about it..." Tianlang moves to search for something else inside his robes,

"Enough!" Shen Jiu snaps, "We'll be here all day!"

"So impatient! Better caution than regret, Jiu'er!" the least apt person in the world to utter such a sentence dares to say, "but I suppose we might as well go." 

"Finally!" he exclaims, and takes a step across the border. 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu will die before he admits it…

Screw that, Shen Jiu will kill every single person in the demon realm, then kill himself, before he admits it…

But he really

Really

Enjoys wearing nice clothes. 

Several garments were supplied for him after arriving at the southern land's palace, alongside a room for himself, way bigger and more luxurious than any he's stayed in before but that's not the point, the clothes are the point. 

He's never thought much of clothing, he went from the tattered robes of a street urchin to the plain gray two layers of a slave, to the cheapest clothes he could find, at first because of Wu Yanzi refusing to spend more than necessary on him, later because of himself refusing to waste money on frivolities. The fanciest decorations he ever wore on his robes probably were Qiu Haitang's messy embroidery she would sometimes practice on his sleeves. 

Here in the demon realm he was given a trunk worth of clothes, of many colors and cuts, all made with nice silk. He begrudgingly agreed to dress like a noble during his stay, if only so Tianlang would stop whining about how his official disciple couldn't be seen wearing rags, but…

He actually likes it. 

Shen Jiu stands in front of a tall mirror, and admires himself. 

Today he wears a black under robe, followed by a second layer of black, the sleeves long enough to completely hide his hands. The third layer is dark green, with silver embroidery on the collar, and then a last layer he decided to wear open on top the belt, is a short sleeves black robe with a slightly darker black pattern on top, that can only be distinguished by holding the cloth close enough for one's nose to touch it. His hair is out of his usual ponytail, instead half down, secured with an obsidian hairpin. The symbol drawn on his forehead he hasn't been able to erase shining red.

He looks like a son from a noble household, the kind that makes him want to kill on sight. 

He opens his fan in front of his face, the painted bamboo mixes well with the green on his outfit and hides his expression. Had he not known himself, he might even have been fooled to think he was seeing the image of a proper cultivator. 

He hates it, he wants to burn these clothes, he loves it, he wants to dress like this everyday, he's going to fucking kill someone. 

Tianlang-jun's palace is a big fortress at the heart of the southern lands made out of white and black stone, its hallways always busy with multitude of servants and diplomats, not all of them of humanoid shape. The demons either look at him with disdain or ignore him altogether, but no one seems surprised by his presence here.

Considering who Tianlang is, he wouldn't be surprised in their place either. The demon lord's fondness for humans is clearly not a secret, at every corner, on every wall, he will find works of art depicting humans or the human realm. 

He asked at some point if he had gotten the art from the human realm, or had commissioned demons to depict these scenes. Tianlang just crocked his head and said "what would be the appeal of having other demons make it?" as if She Jiu was incredibly stupid just for asking. 

He did feel stupid after asking, the answer should have been obvious given the person he was speaking with. He almost asked if that was what he meant when he said Shen Jiu wasn't the first human he brought to the demon realm, as some of the art was painted directly on the walls or chiseled from the columns, but quickly realized the answer to that was also an obvious yes. 

Personally, surprisingly, Shen Jiu doesn't dislike the place. Tianlang's taste in art is pure vulgar trash, which reflects on several of the paintings and statues, but even if he wasn't already used to ignoring pornography from being raised in the streets, Shen Jiu would have learned to just from traveling with the man, so it doesn't bother him. The food is good, certainly better than what he's used to. The view from the windows, oddly colored vegetation under red skies, is pleasant. Really, the only thing he can say he truly dislikes is the rush of people running from room to room, yelling and throwing official documents at each other, is a bit of peace and quiet too much to ask?

Come to think of it, it might be Tianlang's fault for this too. From the moment he set a foot at this place he's barely seen it. Even outside of the meetings with his ministers, he seems to be permanently hassled by an army of employees surrounding him with the fervor only someone who's spent the last twenty years collecting very important paperwork for their lord to sign and desperately wants to get rid of such a collection could have. 

Zhuzhi is busy too, as he shares some of Tianlang's authority, but not as much, he still catches a sight of him now and then. Whatever the case, Shen Jiu has barely seen these two, so he was half right on this being a vacation from these bothersome demons. 

He spends most of his days in the library, exploring old and thick tomes he likely won't be able to find anywhere else. He might or might have not stolen some for himself.

He finds himself mostly drawn to the books about the monsters, animals, plants and other wonders from the demon realm. There's just something about the descriptions of such beings, such places, that speaks to his sense of wonder, most of the bestiaries have no illustrations, and it makes him want to try and draw these creatures from the descriptions alone. 

He's reading one of such books, when he finds this:

  The fingers that reach everything:

Also known as the six fingers. This small lake, found in the southern hemisphere of the demon realm, is said to be connected to everything there is. It is easily recognizable by its pink colored waters and lily-like plants that lead to it. It's location, same as with the rest of places listed on the encyclopedia, is marked on the map at the back of this book.

By employing the ritual described at the end of this section, it is possible to open a direct path to any place, object, person or animal desired, independent if the exact location is unknown. 

After the ritual has taken place, thirty years are needed for the lake to gather enough energy to be employed again. 



 

Huh.

 


 

"Sorry, but we can't," the person who Shen Jiu is going to fucking murder dares to answer. 

"Why not?!" he exclaims, outraged "Don't you want us to go on some great adventure, oh amazing shizun?! It'll be a learning experience, oh best shizun ever!" 

"Tempting," Tianlang says, touching his chin, "but the fingers that reach everything are near the frontier with the northern kingdom." 

"So what?!" 

"Didn't you pay any attention to why we are here? Any at all?" he mocks, "Some northern clans have been trying to get past the border, no one knows why. It's a delicate situation, so it would be a bad idea for me to be seen there."

"Because you care so deeply for the politics of the demon realm," he draws.

"I do care!" Tianlang gasps, grasping his chest, "my Jiu'er, you offend me!"

"Oh, drop it, what is the real reason?"

"Isn't it obvious?" the demon rolls his eyes, "It would be fine if I went there, I'm considering going either way to set the matter once and for all," he says, "but I'm not sure I can properly protect you if I bring you too, so..."

"And you care for my safety so much," he says with as much sarcasm as he can muster. Still, he hates that a part of him believes him a little. 

"Why, it's just I don't want to lose two thousand golden coins!" Tianlang winks, "If you really want to go, we can set a trip for another time, after it's safe to. Maybe in a couple of months."

"Right," he grumbles. 

Before either of them can add anything else, the employees finally spot where their boss has run to, and the man's quickly swarmed and dragged back to his office like a soul sent to hell. 

Shen Jiu sighs. 

So waiting, eh?

 

No. 

No, he can't wait. He doesn't know when was the last time the ritual was used, as far as he knows it might be too late already, he might already have to wait another several years, but if he's still in time then It's a matter of time for someone to steal his chance. He can't wait, he can't wait, his feet and hands itch with the idea, he can't wait. 

But he's still aware that as much as his cultivation has been steadily improving, he's still weak compared to the average demon, and will likely die if he goes alone, and then everything will be for nothing. 

Shen Jiu bites his thumb while he thinks about it, and just then the person he needs to appear shows up.

"Zhuzhi!" he calls, "Come here, I need your help with something!" 

Chapter Text

This is a bad idea.

It's a horrible idea.

He's actually doing something behind Junshang's back, this is the worst idea

But… 

"I- I don't think…" Zhuzhi-lang says, starting to move away.

"Zhuzhi-lang, please!" Shen Jiu exclaims, jumping forward to grab his wrist. 

It's the first time he's ever heard Shen Jiu say please without it being a joke or a jest. And, when he looks at his expression, he's pretty sure it's not his imagination, the edge of barely suppressed desperation he sees in it. 

How was he supposed to say no in that position?! Shen Jiu never asks for anything, and Zhuzhi-lang has wanted to do something to repay his constant help for a while now with no success, then he's thrown into that?! He was basically forced to agree!

This is still such a horrible, horrible idea. He thinks he's going to be sick. 

"According to the map, it should be inside this forest," Shen Jiu says, stepping down from where he was sitting on Zhuzhi-lang's back, and then the snake goes back to his human form. 

He peers at the map. While a section of the forest is marked, the exact placement of the clearing inside of it is not. 

"I-it m-might take a while to find it." 

"According to the book, we will start to see flowers similar to lilies as we get closer," Shen Jiu says, ignoring him "so keep your eyes open and tell me if you see anything." 

As they make their way through the forest, Zhuzhi-lang keeps his guard up for threats, but luckily animals seem to ignore them. Most beasts in the demon realm would be intimidated by Junshang's blood mark on Shen Jiu's forehead, not only because of what the symbol represents, as they're too dumb to recognize such concepts, but the power that accompanies it, and leaving that aside there aren't many creatures willing to attack one of the great southern snakes. As such, they mostly encounter small parasites that live from absorbing lingering qi, and tiny birds and rodents running around.

He's just beginning to grow reassured they'll manage to accomplish their objective and go back to the fortress without any incident, when he hears Shen Jiu say:

"Is that… ice?" 

Zhuzhi-lang's head snaps towards whatever Shen Jiu is pointing at. 

Certainly, under the shade of a group of tall trees small patches of grass have been frozen. The trail continues for some distance, until it leaves the shade and disappears, likely having been melted by the sun. 

"L-lets go t-the other direction," Zhuzhi-lang lang suggests, and Shen Jiu, although grumpy about it, agrees it's best to try avoiding anyone from the northern tribes if that ends being what caused the ice. 

It doesn't last though. 

As they continue their search, the lilies slowly start to pop up. They try to follow its appearance at the same time they avoid the cooler parts of the forest, but the overlap between the flowers and the ice only grows bigger as they continue their search. 

It all comes to a head when a sharp presence cuts through the air, the prickling on the back of his neck and palms that comes with the awareness of a stronger predator, a terribly familiar feeling. 

Zhuzhi-lang grabs Shen Jiu by the arm and bolts to hide between the high vegetation. 

"Wha- hmph!" Shen Jiu begins to say, but Zhuzhi-lang covers his mouth just in time for someone to walk into the space they were standing on just a moment ago. 

Zhuzhi-lang doesn't even have to look at the black clock dragging behind him, nor the blue sigil glowing on the man's forehead, the power that the figure exudes, like cold needles against his skin, is more than enough to know who this person is.

Mobei-jun, king of the southern tribes.  

They don't dare to move as Mobei-jun strolls towards a patch of lilies, the air misting around him. He reaches for one of the flowers, which is quickly covered in frost, and after turning between his fingers takes the path that leads to more of them. Zhuzhi-lang waits until he can't hear his footsteps to relax. 

"He's going after the six fingers too!" Shen Jiu hisses, pushing himself up.

"M-Mobei-jun is more powerful than us, M-maybe we should j-just give up-" A venomous glare silences him. 

"Let's keep moving," Shen Jiu says, "he might have gotten ahead, but he's slow. The lilies have been steadily increasing towards the west, we'll round him and get there first." 

Zhuzhi-lang wants to argue, but he's wanted to argue from the start, and he knows it won't do anything. Instead he wordlessly nods, and follows Shen Jiu as he advances through the forest. 

 


 

Now that he's aware Mobei-jun's presence is near, Zhuzhi-lang can't ignore it anymore. The demon lord's aura forms a heavy point in his awareness, the temperature of their surroundings constantly telling him just how close he is. 

Shen Jiu either doesn't notice or doesn't care. Instead, he merely focuses on following the flowers while Zhuzhi-lang does his best to steer them away from where the cold energy emanates. 

Their path turns and twists, and it feels like anytime they take two steps forward they have to take one step back. The opressing cold aura is like someone constantly breathing on his neck, and trying to keep Shen Jiu away from it is like guiding a wild horse, and just as Zhuzhi-lang's nerves are bad enough he's about to try suggesting they give up again, the trees suddenly open and they step into a clearing. 

A circular lake lies in the middle of the space, its waters dyed pink and with small a platform on the middle of it. All around it white lilies bloom, extending from the lake to the trees, and among the flowers, six pillars raise high into the air, made out of white rock and slightly bent inwards. Zhuzhi-lang supposes they do kind of look like the fingers of a hand. 

"We made it," Shen Jiu breathes, and when Zhuzhi-lang turns to look at him there's a wild look in his eyes "We made it!" 

"H-hurry up and do the ritual," he says, keenly aware Mobei-jun is still close. Shen Jiu nods and quickly jumps into the platform and the middle. He bites the tip of his figers, and begins to draw whatever symbols he needs to draw into the stone. 

Zhuzhi-lang follows, anxiously standing beside the kid while he watching their surroundings. Shen Jiu has a crumbled piece of paper on one hand, his eyes quickly moving from it to the stone where the other is drawing blood, black to the paper, black to the stone. "Fuck," he curses, then erases what he's drawn so far and starts again. 

"H-he's g-going to get here soon!" he hurries, if they well might have gotten there first, that doesn't mean the demon lord isn't still following. With the air growing colder and colder, Zhuzhi-lang knows it's a matter of time for Mobei-jun to find the clearing. Shen Jiu doesn't acknowledge his words, but his traces quickens, just a bit. 

The aura coming from the forest keeps increasing, bit by bit. The design that must be drawn in the pedestal is complicated, and Shen Jiu has to erase and start over another two times. He's in the middle of the next try, bitting his fingers again to extract more blood, when a sudden spike of power in the vicinity makes Zhuzhi-lang's heart come to a halt. 

A figure emerges from the treeline. Slowly, his steps are as calm as the power swirling around him is powerful. Mobei-jun's eyes land on the pedestal where they stand, cold and uncaring, like he's looking at an insect. 

"S-S-Shen Jiu!" he gasps. There's no time left. His companion keeps scribbling onto the rock, but Zhuzhi-lang knows, he knows he won't be done by the time Mobei-jun reaches them. 

Mobei-jun walks, the lake freezing under his feet as he makes his way to them. Shen Jiu keeps drawing, desperately so, but it's still not enough. It feels like an eternity, but, eventually, the king of the northern tribes is standing in front of him. 

His presence is even stronger this close, like a storm contained into a single person. Zhuzhi-lang's breath becomes visible in the cold, the ground beneath his feet has freezed, and he has to close his hands to keep them from shaking.

Ah. Zhuzhi-lang realizes. This is how he's going to die. In the middle of a run of the mill forest, with Shen Jiu rubbing blood on a stone behind him, at the hands of a foe that won't remember him. 

Well, death happens to everyone. He wishes he could have died helping Junshang in some way, not while doing something behind his back, but very few people can choose how to go and he's already lived longer and better than he ever imagined. He has no complains. 








"Move." 





"Huh?" 






He is… alive. Mobei-jun frowns at him, then gestures with his head, and repeats "Move." 

Zhuzhi-lang has never moved faster in his life, he pushes Shen Jiu aside, and both of them fall into the lake.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" he exclaims, as Zhuzhi-lang grabs him by the middle and pulls them away, until they're out of the water and on the flower bed. 

Mobei-jun doesn't spare them a second glance. The man swipes away the blood Shen Jiu left on the stone, bites one of his fingers, and draws his own symbol. Unlike them, he gets it right in one try. The lilies grow red and open completely as the pink water clears, and when the lake turns into a white portal Mobei-jun takes a step forward and dissapears. 

Shen Jiu's been screaming and struggling against his hold during all that, and only when the cold aura lingering after Mobei-jun's departure dissipated does Zhuzhi-lang let him go. 

"Why the fuck did you do that?!" he exclaims, throwing a punch. Zhuzhi-lang doesn't dodge, and it doesn't really hurt, "H-he could have- W-we almost d-died," he tries to reason. 

Shen Jiu glares at him, an ugly glare filled with hate, but does not attack him again. Instead, he lowers his eyes and starts tearing flowers from the ground. 

Zhuzhi-lang looks away, giving him space. Shen Jiu growls and crushes the lilies, eventually pressing his face against the soil and letting out a rage fueled yell. 

By the end he's breathing hard, body sagging with each one, hands and head resting against the ground. 

"L-let's g-get going…" he says, standing up, trying to ignore the recent outburst. 

He holds a hand for Shen Jiu to take. The kid looks at it, then shakes his head.

"I'm going to wait." he says, moving to sit properly in the direction of the lake.

"Wa-wait? Wait what?" 

"I'm going to wait until he comes back." he clarifies. 

"S-Shen Jiu?"

"I want to see what was so important I lost my chance to it," he says, "So we wait."

 

Chapter Text

Soon enough, the light from the portal dissipates and the lilies begin to rot. From the now clear lake, a figure begins to emerge.

'Show me, show me what makes you deserve this more than me' 

The demon is giving him his back when he raises from the water. And so, Shen Jiu waits, he waits to see what invaluable relic or lost magical item, what legendary plant or powerful beast is more worthy to be found than—

….

Mobei-jun finally turns around, and in his arms, is a kid. Covered in bruises and crying while at the same time having no expression on his face, looking oh so similar to the older demon, same eyes, same nose, same mark on his forehead. 

The demon lord climbs out of the lake, and without so much as glancing at Shen Jiu, disappears between the trees.

"Fuck." he mutters, lowering his head, "why couldn't it be a magnificent, legendary weapon?" 

Damnit

Damnit 

He wants to hate this person so bad, he just wants to hate someone, why must everyone make it harder?! 

Damnit. 

"A-are… you alright?" He hears someone say and, oh, right, Zhuzhi is here. He forgot for a moment. 

"Perfectly," he replies, moving to stand up. 

"What… What were you trying to find?" this useless snake asks. 

"What do you care?" he scoffs, "I was so close and you had to fuck everything up!"

"Y-you- ...M-Mobei-jun could have killed us." 

He knows. Shen Jiu knows and he hates so much he knows. "So what?!" he replied and ah, wonderful comeback, truly wonderful, very fitting of an insignificant person. Yes, that'll show that snake! Fucking moron. 

"I-if you tell me what you're looking for, I- I could hel—"

"I don't need your stupid help!" he snaps, who does he think he is, how dare—

"But… if you tell us, Junshang and I…"

"I don't want your stupid help!"

"Y-you- You already asked me, t-to help you come here, so," the demon argues.

"I don't owe you anything!" Shen Jiu exclmaims and, fuck, he shouldn't have told him to come with him, fuck.  

"I-I d-did't say that!" Zhuzhi exclaims, "I-I ju-just want to help!" 

'I want to help! I want to help!' what an infuriating set of words. What an infuriating voice, so broken and useless. What an infuriating expression. He wants to hit him, so he does. 

Zhuzhi places a hand where Shen Jiu slapped him, but otherwise doesn't react, doesn't take a step back, doesn't gasps, doesn't cry, doesn't even turn his head, merely touches his cheek and that's infuriating too. 

Shen Jiu walks away, there's nothing for him here anymore. He wants to go back to that stupid castle and forget this every happened, "Let's get going, we might be able to get back before Tianlang knows we're gone," Not that it's a hard task, they could be gone for an entire week and he doubts the man would notice, he can be very clueless sometimes. 

He takes three steps when this asshole grabs his wrist. 

"Let go," he grunts through his teeth. He pulls his hand once, twice, but the stupid snake's grip won't budge.  

"I- it's important to you, isn't it? Y-you almost died to find whatever it is." 

"I don't have to tell you anything," he bites out. He pulls his hand again and nothing, seriously, isn't this dumb demon going to let him go? 

"I-I j-just want to help!" 

"And I don't want your help!"

"Why?!" 

"Because I don't want it!"

"B-but! Why?!" 

"I don't have to tell you that!" 

"I-I just—!"

"No, shut up! Let me go!" 

He yanks his arm again, kicks him, tries pushing Zhuzhi away, and suddenly he's on his back, and the demon's holding his wrists down.

He can see in Zhuzhi's expression, his eyes wide open, his mouth a thin line, that it wasn't intentional. Still, he makes no attempt at getting off. Shen Jiu tugs at his trapped wrists, knees his stomach, but it's like fighting a statue.

"Get. Off. Me. Now" he orders. The stupid snake shakes his head.

"T-tell me... Tell me what we came here for." 

"No."

"Please." 

It's been a while since he truly wanted to kill one of his companions, but right now it would feel really nice to strangle this one.

"Why should I?"

"I-I want to know!"

"Such a compelling reason." 

The thin line of Zhuzhi's mouth becomes thinner, and still, still he won't let go. 

Asshole. 

He waits, and waits, and still, the stupid snake won't get off. Is he for real? 

Well, that's fine with him, does this demon want to play the waiting game? Shen Jiu has an entire life worth of experience with being manhandled by people stronger than him. If it comes to playing dead until his opponent gets bored just leave it to Shen Jiu, he's the champion at it. 

This time he isn't even being hit. The fingers around his wrists dig into his skin a little, it's uncomfortable, but it doesn't hurt, this is nothing compared with the beat ups he's so used to receiving. Compared to the adults on the street doing cleaning duty, the constant beatings from the Qiu, the occasional punch to the face by Wu Yanzi, this is absolutely nothing. 

 

Oh, but how he hates this though. 

 

"If you don't let me go I'm going to bite off my tongue." at the end he decides to fight back. His opponent is this weak after all, he might as well win one time, why stand more of the usual humiliation than necessary? 

Zhuzhi's eyes grow wider, and there's a short quiver of the fingers around his wrists, but he still doesn't get off.

Oh, does he think he's bluffing? Well, he is, but Shen Jiu has never tried a bluff he isn't ready to go through with. 

He opens his mouth, makes a show of sticking out his tongue, and bites. 

It hurts, it hurts more than he thought it would, and that thought only makes him sink his teeth in harder. The very second he feels the metallic taste he dislikes so much fills his mouth Zhuzhi-lang leaps away. 

Shen Jiu sits up and spits out the blood. Shit, it's such a small cut, and yet it keeps bleeding, he has to spit it out a second time. 

Zhuzhi is on the floor, a dazed expression on his face, 'Do you really think you have the right to look like I was the one doing something bad?'   Fucking asshole. 

"I really hate you," he spits a third time. In that moment, from the bottom of his heart, he couldn't mean it more. 

Finally someone's giving him reasons to hate them, oh joy, let's throw a party! Stupid snake. Go and choke on a rat or something.

Shen Jiu turns towards the forest and begins to walk, if the snake follows him it's fine, if he doesn't it's also fine, he doesn't give a shit. 

He really shouldn't have asked for help with this, should never ask for help with anything, ahhh, what a moron, he forgot nothing good comes from depending on other people. Now he remembers. Good. 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu can't read. He's too restless lately and can't properly sit in the library to read. He opens a book, and his eyes just gloss over, one of his hands idly playing with his new fan.

He realizes what he's doing and stops. He glares at the fan. 

"We got you this!" Tianlang says, holding out a fan. 

"Are you going to turn this into a habit?" he drawls, "one of you offends me, then the other comes with a cheap fan and I have to forgive you?"

"Rude, this isn't cheap," the man says, "I still don't know why you're even mad at my nephew." 

Yes, because this man is so stupid he hasn't realized they were gone for four entire days and neither of them is going to tell him. Idiot. 

"Fuck off."

"It was worth a try," he shrugs, then moves to leave.

"Wait, leave the fan." 

It is a nice fan, made out of black wood, with silver and golden bird silhouettes flying against a black background. He likes it, he can admit that much, so he took it, but he's still fucking mad. If anything it makes him angrier, how dare them try to bribe him. Did they really think it would work? How insulting. 

The snake tried to apologize, but after the first three rebuttals he just stopped. That's good, he supposes, Shen Jiu hates those empty apologies, and he doesn't think Zhuzhi even knows what he's apologizing for. 

Being surrounded by books while unable to read is boring, so Shen Jiu leaves the library and begins to wander.

In truth, he muses as he walks aimlessly through the hallways, in truth Shen Jiu knows he's being silly. Nothing that happened was a big deal, it's less of a big deal than when he wouldn't speak with Tianlang, and he let go of that easily enough. 

There's something about this that bothers him though, although he isn't sure what.

He stops in front of a window and rubs his wrists while looking at the landscape below. It's been a long while since the last time Wu Yanzi chained him to a tree as punishment for literally anything, or that Qiu Jianluo tied his wrists and ankles together while beating him up, and this time it didn't even hurt, so he doesn't understand why his wrists are still tingling almost two weeks later. 

It's probably the place, he decides, the clothes and the food and the presence of so many strangers what is making him feel weird. They're set to leave the demon realm soon, so he just has to keep wandering for a couple of days and surely then he'll stop feeling weird. 

"You! What do you think you're doing?!" someone calls. He turns towards the voice, and finds a female demon, about twice the height of a human, with red skin and four arms holding several scrolls, walking quickly towards him.

"Nothing," he answers, and that makes the demon frown harder.

"Exactly! Don't you know we're understaffed?!" she exclaims, then, without stopping, casually picks him up by the back of his robes, "Since you're oh so unoccupied you might as well help with the archives." 

"Hey, wait a second!" he argues, kicking his feet in the air, "What makes you think I'm your employee?! Drop me right now!" 

The woman raises him so they're eye to eye, and gives him a wonderful imitation of the old head of servants in the Qiu household anytime she would catch him stealing food, down to the twist of the mouth and the raised eyebrow, and it makes him shut up. 

"You're here and we're understaffed," she repeats, throwing him over her shoulder and continuing walking, "in my eyes that makes you an employee." 

"But I'm not—"

"Employee!" 

Goddamnit. If this was a man he would be drawing his sword by now, screaming at him not to touch him, but, as always, Shen Jiu is weak against women. 

 


 

The giant takes him to a big office and drops him in front of a desk with a pile of paper that rises halfway to the roof, then turns towards the rest of the room, where other demons are quickly working on organizing similarly sized piles, "I got us extra hands!" she exclaims, "MingMing! Where the fuck is MingMing?!" 

"I'm right here, boss!" Another demon, this one looking human except for the big horn growing on her forehead, raises from where she had been buried on paper and quickly bows at the taller one. 

"Good! I'm leaving you in charge of teaching the newbie our filling system!" she exclaims, pointing at Shen Jiu, "I trust it won't take long!"

"Yes boss! Right away boss!" The demon bows again. 

Satisfied, the giant nods once before leaving to supervise, command and scold other workers making their way through the papers. 

"This is how it works," begins the demon left in charge of him, reaching for a set of stamps under the desk, "mark all the requisitions with this one, the political threats that seem real with this one, the political threats that sound fake with this one, the marriage proposals with this one, unless it's written as a joke in which case you use this one, you can use both if you aren't sure, for the territorial disputes you use this one, if any letter mentions the human realm in more than three sentences forget protocol and just mark it with this big one on the back. If you find something that doesn't fall in any of these categories hand it to someone else. Now, once you mark them..." she reaches for three identical boxes, also under the desk, "These are qiankun items, put anything written in red ink in this one, unless it has a blue dot on the upper right corner, put all those in this one, and the rest go here. No matter what, don't mix them up. Understood? Yes? Good, so get to work!" 

Shen Jiu barely has time to blink before the demon is shooting straight into another pile of paper, disappearing from sight.

"I don't work here," he mumbles, moving to take a random paper. He isn't actually planning on doing any work, just look as if he does. He reads over the page and—

"This is dated twenty years ago," he gasps, quickly moving to take another one, "and this one fifty," another, "seventynine," another, "And this petition is five hundred years overdue?!" 

"Well, A-Jie surely told you we're understaffed, didn't she?!" a demon sitting nearby turns towards him, the gem embedded on her forehead shining an ominous shade of purple, "so stop complaining and get to work!" 

The indignation is too much for him to stick to his original plan. Shen Jiu takes a piece of paper and begins to work in earnest.

 


 

He's in the middle of deciphering whether this letter is in another language or the sender just happens to have horrible handwriting when a bell rings through the office.

"That's enough!" exclaims the giant demon, standing in the middle of the room while holding a bell, "break time! Go eat lunch! Take a nap! Everyone put their papers down."

"I'm almost done with this one!" complains one of the workers, but a glare from their supervisor quickly shuts them up. 

"Everyone, papers down, you know well the recess is mandatory for a reason!" she repeats, "tired people make mistakes, I don't want to repeat five years ago's disaster!"

Between grumbles and sighs, the demons bring their work to a halt, and one by one leave the room.

Shen Jiu doesn't stand up, not sure this applies to him too. The giant demon catches his eyes and gestures for him to follow.

"And you? Come on, the cafeteria will run out of the good food." 

"I have never gone there," he admits. For as long as he's stayed here he's eaten his meals in his room or in the main dining hall. 

The demon shakes her head, "Follow me, I'll show you the way." 

He tips his head to the side, "Will it be fine if I go and eat with everyone else?" he asks, half remembering Tianlang's words about being seen as dinner "I'm a human." 

The woman raises an eyebrow, "You think I didn't notice? what does that have to do with anything?"

Shen Jiu doesn't need to be told twice, he follows her out of the office. 

 

Chapter Text

"But man…" MingMing sighs, "you would have thought with Junshang here we would have less work, and yet…"

"Can't be helped, he's busy filling all the blood oaths he's postponed for so long," YangYang tells her.

"Ugh, don't remind me," RenRen wrinkles her nose, "he's, what? Halfway done?" 

"I don't think he'll be done before he leaves," MingMing hangs her head. 

"Don't curse it!" HuaHua gasps.

"This place seems to have problems with logistics," comments… huh.

"Now that I realize, I never asked your name," Zhang Hong says. 

"I'm Shen Jiu," answers the human, pushing the food he hasn't so much as tried around his plate, a sharp contrast with everyone else’s empty bowls, "nice to meet you."

"I'm Hu Yang, but call me YangYang!" 

"Fu Ming, but MingMing is better."

"Mao Zhiren, RenRen is fine."

"I'm Sha Huadi, call me HuaHua."

 "And I'm Zhang Hong," Zhang Hong finishes, "but you can call me HongHong!"

"We usually call her A-jie though," adds HuaHua, "or boss, if we're working." 

"Anyway," MingMing shrugs, "it's good having you on board, JiuJiu—"

"JiuJiu—?"

"—we're always lacking extra help, as you no doubt have noticed." 

"Don't get too used to him," comments YangYang, "he's going with the emperor once he leaves."

"Eh?! No way!" HuaHua gasps, "but he's so efficient! So full of potential!" 

"It's always the good employees who leave, only the bad ones stay..." MingMing laments.

"Hey now, then what does that say about me?" Zhang Hong jokingly complains, "I'm the oldest worker here!"

"Of course, A-jie is the exception that proves the rule!" MingMing proclaims.

"Good, good," Zhang Hong nods, "so since he's leaving soon, everyone better appreciate JiuJiu while he's here, understood?!"

"Yes boss!" the rest of them cheer. When Zhang Hong turns to look at the human, he's hiding behind a fan and what's visible of his face has turned red. Cute!

"JiuJiu, you have to join too," HuaHua places a hand on his shoulder, "Come on, say 'Yes boss!', it'll be our initiation rite!" 

"Eh? That's a little…"

"Come on, come on," MingMing joins the peer pressure, throwing a hand around JiuJiu's other shoulder and pulling him closer "You're already leaving soon, indulge us a little!"

"Everyone already did it, so we will accept no excuses," adds YangYang. 

"Do it! do it! do it!" RenRen chants under her breath, tapping on the table softly with each sentence.

"Fine, fine," JiuJiu finally yields, saying softly "...yes boss."

"Louder!" MingMing urges.

"Yes boss."

"I can't hear you!" Encourages HuaHua.

"Yes boss!"

"Too tame!" insists YangYang.

"Yes! boss!"

"Laaaameee!" exclaims RenRen.

"YES BOSS!!!" 

"THAT'S THE SPIRIT!" they all cheer raising their cups in the air, immediately following by breaking down in laughter. By the time they're done the human has his entire head hidden behind his fan, going so far as to open a second one just in case the first wasn't enough, and that has them laughing again.

Eventually they go back to idle chatter, JiuJiu adding a comment now and then, when Zhang Hong stops someone in the crowd, 

"ZhuZhu!" she calls, "Come here, sit with us!" 

The snake in question waves, starts walking towards their table, stops, and continues walking at a much slower pace. 

"M-madame Zhang, um, Shen Jiu." he bows before taking a sit, his eyes darting towards JiuJiu once before quickly looking away. Zhang Hong glances at the human in question, and notices his posture has become rigid, and he’s also not looking at ZhuZhu.

Oh. Ohhhhhhh. She found some drama here. 

“Oh, now that I think about it, you two are friends, aren’t you?” MingMing comments, unaware of the underlying tension. 

JiuJiu snorts, “As if.”

“Oh, I’m wrong?”

“No, no, I saw them when they just arrived,” YangYang declares, “They were talking all friendly and stuff, they’re friends for sure.”

“That’s right, I’m sure I’ve seen them together once or twice before,” comments HuaHua, “I thought they seemed close!” 

“Don’t insult me just because I’m forced to travel with this vermin,” argues the human, making ZhuZhu shrink with each word, “he’s nothing but an unending source of annoyance for me,”

“Sorry…” mutters the other kid. Zhang Hong and the other girls exchange a look. 

“Did something happen?” asks RenRen, her eyes shining with the hunger for a good gossip. 

Some way or another, they manage to tear the story from the kids piece by piece. Both of them are unwilling to share, but Shen Jiu turns out to be weak against their combined insistence, and Zhuzhi-lang is weak to peer pressure in general. The story they get goes something like this: Recently the kids went looking for something somewhere that Shen Jiu wanted to find, some undisclosed danger happened, they almost died and did not get what they wanted. Zhuzhi-lang asked started asking what the hell it was they were after on the first place anyway?, but got very pushy, tried to force the human to tell him and Shen Jiu got mad and still is.

“I don’t know, I would have done the same as ZhuZhu,” comments HuaHua, and receives a glare from JiuJiu in return, “I mean, wouldn’t you want to at least know what you’re risking your life for? he deserves that much!”

“There’s something admirable about no taking no for an answer!” opines RenRen, “if anything his mistake was giving up at the end on getting an answer!”

“No, no, JiuJiu didn’t have to tell him anything!” argues YangYang, “if he was going to demand to be told about it he should have asked before they went, I hate so much those people who expect to get something that wasn’t on the contract! JiuJiu is right to be mad!”

“I don’t know, would JiuJiu have told him if he asked beforehand?” wonders MingMing, “taking advantage of the opponent's weakness is basic barging! he waited for a good moment to strike, like the snake he is! That’s smart!”

“I-I didn’t mean it like that!” ZhuZhu quickly interrupts, “I-I just, I mean, i-it’s like, a-at the time, I j-just—”

“For fuck’s sake! Speak clearly!” JiuJiu glares, “what did you mean it like?”

ZhuZhu lowers his head, “So-sorry…” he apologizes, but that only seems to work for fueling JiuJiu’s anger.

“What are you even apologizing for?!” ZhuZhu stays silent, and JiuJiu’s face goes red, this time clearly not out of embarrassment, “ ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’, those words are already half empty, but not knowing what you’re even saying sorry for makes it completely hollow!” 

“...Sorry.”

“Are you trying to annoy me on purpose?!” 

“I- No! But, y-you’re already mad, w-what else co-could I…?”

“Well, what do you think he should apologize for, JiuJiu?” Zhang Hong interjects.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he crosses his arms, “it’s none of his busyness, and I’m not going to tell him anything, yet he keeps insisting. It’s annoying.” 

“It is kind of his busyness, though, don’t you think?” HuaHua argues, “he almost died for whatever it was.”

“I didn’t force him to come,” JiuJiu answers.

“Y-you- Y-you would have gone either way!” ZhuZhu exclaims.

“So?”

“I- I couldn’t let- Y-you know I had to- Shen Jiu!”

“Why? Why did you have to come? Why do you care?! My life is none of your busyness, just because you agreed to help doesn’t make it so! It’s obvious you didn’t want to go so why did you?! Why didn’t you just leave when it became obvious you could die?! How much of a pushover can you be?!”

“I…” ZhuZhu’s shoulders drop, “...isn’t …isn't it obvious I care about you?”

JiuJiu blinks. He opens his mouth but no sound comes. He looks away and after a moment is able to say “I don’t understand you at all.”

 "Wow,” MingMing breathes, the awe at getting to experience such a nice melodrama in real life clear on her face, “You two are speaking two different languages." 

JiuJiu frowns at her, but before he can say anything Zhang Hong interrupts.

"That's enough. I think I see the problem," she says.

“Oh, A-Jie is giving relationship advice?” RenRen pipes in.

“A-Jie gives the best advice, she helped me break up with my boyfriend!” comments YangYang. 

Zhang Hong basks on the praise, then turns towards the kids.

"Shen Jiu, you work quickly and were able to adapt to our filling system easily and I love you for it, but I must say your personality is hot garbage." 

"Wha—?!"

"Zhuzhi-lang,” she addresses the other one, “you're really sweet and nice to hang out with, but half of the staff secretly hates you for being a bootlicker, and the other half openly hates you for being too much of a pushover to talk Junshang into working more."

"I… I d-did not know that." 

"So here's my advice," she pauses here, for dramatic effect, "Give up!"

The surprise at her words is apparent on the boys’ faces. Zhang Hong nods at herself and keeps talking now that she has their attention.

"Zhuzhi-lang, relationships are a bridge tied from both sides. If you keep trying to be nice to someone who doesn't want you to, you'll just wear yourself out as well as become a royal annoyance, so stop trying. Just give it up! Shen Jiu doesn't want to get along with you! It isn't worth it! Do everyone a favor and stop!" 

"I… I don't know if I can do that."

"Too bad!" she turns towards the other kid, "Shen Jiu, it's fine if you don't want to get along with someone, but if you are dead set on not making friends just cut that relationship off! No one is forcing you to stay around Zhuzhi-lang, you know? Lingering in this middle space is just bad for both of you, especially when it's clear you can't keep yourself from taking advantage of the fact he doesn't know how to say no to you, just cut it off!" 

Shen Jiu seems taken aback for half a second, before he quickly retorts, "I would love to do that, but sadly it's not like I can stop seeing him, Tianlang-jun is teaching me cultivation, as you might know, so I'm forced to be around this stupid demon."

"That sounds a lot like an excuse, you know? If you just want to learn to cultivate you could stay here," and, ah, she didn't start giving this advice with this intention, but now that she's in the middle of it Zhang Hong can't keep herself from thinking 'please stay, please stay, you know we're understaffed' "we can find you a cultivation tutor, hell, Junshang will probably find you one himself if you were to stay here, don't act like you're a martyr suffering other people's company because you don't have a choice, because you very clearly do, kid." 

JiuJiu frowns, his mind clearly working on an answer to that, before he gives up and looks away. 

Both kids seem uncomfortable at her conclusion, but Zhang Hong knows well that a good compromise is that in which no one is happy with the outcome.She places her hands on top of the kids’ heads and congratulates “Good, problem solved!” very pleased with herself. 

“Oh, A-Jie since you’re giving relationship advice!” speaks HuaHua, “Since uncle Jiuzhong killed my father my family has been filled with infights and it’s truly bothersome, I can’t even go back home for fear I’ll lose my temper and kill someone, what should I do?”

“Oh, I’ve been having problems with my mom lately!” adds MingMing, “What do you advise, A-Jie?!”

“And my friend has been acting weird ever since he married!” complaints RenRen, “What can you make out of that?!”

“Now, now, one at a time. The break is almost over, but let’s see what we can cover.” 

Chapter Text

"Do you need-…. C-can I help?" 

Shen Jiu looks up. Zhuzhi is standing next to his desk. He hasn't seen him since the boss told them to cut each other off two days ago. He was half sure the snake had come to his senses and taken the advice to heart.

"Sit down." he gestures to the space next to him. 

Zhuzhi does just that. He stares at the —relatively small— pile of documents in front of them, then at Shen Jiu. 

Shen Jiu sighs, "This is how it works," he says, reaching for the sheet on top of the pile, "We're answering letters, take one missive and white paper, this note here," he says, tapping the small square of paper clipped to the document, "someone already went through the messages and decided how to handle them, it says how you must answer, whether to accept or reject a petition, if you must be polite or rude, etc. You just have to elaborate on it, it's very mechanical," he goes back to the letter he's currently working on, "Hand me the ones that demand for threats while you handle the official apologies, since you have so much practice with empty platitudes."

Zhuzhi nods. He picks a small stack of documents and starts sorting them in two groups, once he finishes he slides one towards half Shen Jiu and begins working on the other one. 

They work in silence for a while, it would be almost peaceful, were it not for the tension beneath. Just as Shen Jiu's brush raises from the last character of his third letter, one of them speaks.

"I'm sorry." Zhuzhi mutters. Shen Jiu frowns, this again?

"I told you—"

"I- I am sorry!" he insists, raising his hands as if to shield himself from Shen Jiu's words, "I just... d-don't know what about." 

"How can you be sorry if you don't know what you're sorry for? You're just spouting bullshit," he scoffs.

"Y-you're mad. I... I must have done something…"

Seriously, this person. Shen Jiu grabs another document.

"You're really self centered, not everything is about you," he says, forcing himself to relax the muscles of his arms and shoulders to keep his calligraphy neat, "I hate when people act like they're entitled to know me, shouldn't be hard to understand." 

"I- I understand that much, I think, but-..." the snake sighs, "But I really j-just want to be helpful, w-whatever it is you're looking for is important, i-isn't it? W-why won't you accept help to find it?" 

"Why do you want to help me on this so badly?"

"You… y-you never ask for help with anything, this- this was the first time. An-and anytime I try to do something good I just annoy you… I... I j-just want to be useful somehow."

"Seriously, you," he grimaces and sets his brush down, "You're always doing this or that for Tianlang, always subservient and meek, it's really annoying, and now you want to be 'useful' to me too? To be 'helpful'? Why do you need to serve others so badly?! It pisses me off."

"I just do," the demon answers without missing a beat. 

"That's stupid."

"Maybe, but it's the truth."

Shen Jiu sighs. He takes the letter Zhuzhi just wrote, then sets it aside when he finds it up to the boss' standards —which admittedly aren't high, quantity over quality is the only way they can keep this place running— and gestures for him to continue with the next one. 

"And you, in my position, would accept any help, just like that?" he tries to reason. 

"If- If I t-think someone will truly help… I-I think I would accept it," the snake shrugs. 

Shen Jiu doesn't answer, focused on his current message. He spends a moment pondering how to address the incident the note asks to reference in a demeaning manner without giving away he has no idea what said incident was about, and only replies once he figures a good way to do so.

"You're so simple, it's like you don't even realize people can take advantage of other people," he says.

"I'm- I'm not stupid," Zhuzhi pauses on his work to look at him. Shen Jiu doesn't look at him back, "I k-know people lie, betray, ch-change their mind, I… I don't say you should trust everyone, but… i-if you know, really know someone will help, why- why not accepting it?...." here he pauses, his eyebrows shoot up as if he just had a revelation, and looks down, "O-or… or... m-maybe... y-you think I won't help you, on-once I know what you want to find?"

It's tempting to reply that yes, in fact that is the problem, so stop bothering me please, but at the end he decides to be honest for once.

"No, by now it's obvious if I ask for help you will help. I don't understand why, but I can get that much."

"The-then why don't you want...?"

"Why should I accept other people's help?!" he slams his hands on the table, "I've always been fine by myself, you have no right to humiliate me after all that! I don't need your help, I will find Q—!" shit "I'll find it alone, as usual," he didn't mean to put that much emotion on that explanation, so he reaches for his fan and begins calmly fanning himself to cover the outburst, "so stop bothering me."

Zhuzhi stays silent for a moment, eyes cast down, and when he does speak, his words come out soft, but steady.

"But doesn't… doesn't everyone really want for someone else to help them?" 

Shen Jiu stares. What kind of stupidity is that? That right there is a string of words that should never be put together, that's how senseless that sentence was. Somehow he's surprised the ceiling didn't cave over them as punishment for giving form to such an idea.

"How can you even say that?" he replies, he doesn't even put venom into it, that's how stunned he is at the thought this person actually believes such barbarity. 

Zhuzhi insists, "Wha-what does it matter if you don't need it? If it's easier, i-isn't it better?"

"Are you some kind of saint who goes around saving people?" he squints, "You get off of that? is that it?" 

"N-no, It's not like that, I don't care about strangers, not even a little, and I- I know how to hold grudges, s-so it's n-not that at all."

"Then I don't understand why you would care about me," and really, that's the most bemusing part of all this, isn't it?

"I- I have said this before... Y-you assist us during our tr-travels, and we've been together for a while now. So..."

"That's all?" There's no way it's that easy.

"That's all," the demon actually replies.

"Whatever you think was me being nice to you, it's a misunderstanding," he explains, "I've never thought about you, not even for a second, I've never thought about being nice to you in any way as far as I've known you."

"Do-does it matter? I can't see inside people's hearts, s-so if someone is nice then they're... nice." 

"Someday you'll be betrayed with that way of thinking." 

"I'm fine with that." 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, what even is this? What language is this person speaking?

"MingMing is right, I can't understand a single word that comes out of your mouth, and not just because of the stutter." 

"I... don't understand you either," Zhuzhi admits. 

"Good, so we agree." 

He thinks it'll be left at that, but it takes no more than another two missives for the snake to attempt conversation once more:

"We're leaving tomorrow," he says, as if Shen Jiu didn't know already, "A-are you…" he looks away, "a-at the end, a-are you going to stay here? L-like madam Zhang suggested?"

"No," he answers quickly, "I'm going with you and Tianlang."

"Oh."

"Too much paperwork, I would grow tired of it."

"I- I see."

Shen Jiu dares to glance at the other's expression, and finds a small, relieved smile on his face. How infuriating.

He sighs. As tiring as communicating is, he has to admit the boss is right about something, whatever it is they've been doing here is even more exhausting in the long run. 

"I'm not mad at you anymore," he admits, "haven't been for a while now, I'm just... mad." 

Zhuzhi blinks, "That's… good?" 

"It's not, but it doesn't matter."

"I mean, y-you're mad all the time anyway, so it isn't much of a change." 

Shen Jiu's head snaps to the side, "Are you mocking me?!"

"N-no, of course not," Zhuzhi looks away, very unconvincingly, and the smile is still there. Unbelievable, of every possible moment he chooses this one to start getting an attitude?

"Asshole," he huffs. 

They go back to writing letters and Zhuzhi doesn't say anything else, it's… not awful, there's something comforting about monotonous work next to another living being, like when he used to count coins with Qi-ge stitching clothes next to him, washing clothes beside the older girls in the manor, it's… almost nice. 

...But Shen Jiu finds there's still something bothering him. 

At the end of the day they never came to any understanding whatsoever, did they? Even if Zhuzhi apologizes it's obviously always hollow, so they will continue fighting around this.

That would be tiring… so how about… maybe if he gives this dog a bone it'll stop begging for meat?...

He fiddles with his fan, tapping it against the desk with the right hand at the same time the left leaves strokes on the paper. 

It's worth a try...

"If I tell you a way to be useful, will you let go of this whole…?"

"Yes, o-of course!" Zhuzhi immediately answers, as expected. 

"Fine, so…" he bites the inside of his mouth, he wants to ask for something unimportant, but it's hard when everything matters, "If you happen to find human remains, bury them. That's all," is what he settles on. There are many corpses in the world anyway, what's the chance he'll rob him of burying the one that truly should be buried? If Zhuzhi finds it first that will only mean Shen Jiu was never going to get to it. 

"How will that—?"

"I'm not explaining!" he exclaims, "You don't need to know more than the fact you'll be doing me a favor. Consider yourself lucky I'm telling you this much." 

"R-right. Right!" the demon nods four times in quick succession. 

"So stop worrying so much with the idea of being helpful and don't use every single breath to apologize, it's annoying." 

"I- I'll try my best," 

With that they settle back on working until it's time for the mandatory break. Zhuzhi ends joining Shen Jiu's table again at the cafeteria alongside the boss and the other sisters. He expects them to comment on him not following the boss' advice, but they don't say a word about it.

He uselessly hopes that doesn't mean they'll just gossip about it once he leaves tomorrow. 

 

Chapter Text

"It certainly appears you hit a bottleneck," Tianlang declares, releasing Shen Jiu's wrist.

So it's as he feared. Shen Jiu noticed his progress was slowing down, basically coming to a halt in the last two months. He hoped it wouldn't be anything important, that it would get solved by itself, but clearly it hasn't.

Shen Jiu opens his eyes and moves out of the meditative pose, "So now what? I've been following all the exercises exactly as you told me and they're clearly not helping!" he accuses.

"Don't worry so much about it," Tianlang brushes off, "It was bound to happen eventually!" 

"I'm not even that far into my cultivation! I can't start stagnating this early!" 

"Kid, do you hear yourself? You're about to enter core formation, that's actually quite advanced for your age, you're doing well," he says, "bottlenecks can happen at any stage for any reason and usually get resolved naturally by simple personal growth, if you start stressing over how to get past it you will just make it worse. For now let's continue as usual and if in one year you haven't moved past it then we'll start looking into possible solutions." 

"One year?!" he all but screeches, "You're going to ignore the problem for one entire year?! And you call yourself a teacher?!" 

"Ah, always so impatient," Tianlang sighs, "a year isn't a long time for cultivators at all, Jiu'er. You better start thinking in terms of decades and centuries if you're serious about becoming an immortal!" 

"How about seclusion?" he proposes, "It's what most cultivators do to advance, right?" 

"Secluded cultivation can be very helpful to some cultivators, but it's not for everyone, and depending on the nature of the bottleneck it might actually lead to a qi deviation. Personally I would like to wait until you have a fully formed golden core before starting with it." 

"So we just ignore it," he scowls, "My progress has completely stopped and we just ignore it." 

"You act like there aren't plenty of other things to work on already," Tianlang raises an eyebrow, "Not taking into account the theoretical lessons there's sword training and martial arts in general. There's also crafting talismans and designing arrays, and it's about time I start teaching you how to play some instruments," here he pauses and taps his chin, "You know, now that I think about it there's this master artisan and painter I know in the demon realm, since your progress seems to be somewhat linked to artistic growth it could be a good idea having you learn from her for a while. If you're still stuck by next year let's take some months off to focus only on the arts and that might be just extreme enough to deal with the problem." 

Shen Jiu glares, not at all satisfied with the explanation. Tianlang stares back, a stupid smile on his face. Eventually he gives up.

"Fine." 

"Glad to see we're in agreement!" he nods, "the next town we'll be approaching is set near a cultivation sect so it's bound to have part of its economy centered around spiritual articles and the like, maybe look for pills and teas for clearing up the mind and soul if you're still worried about that bottleneck, can't hurt."

"If that's the case we should start making extra talismans," Shen Jiu says as he reaches for the bag where they keep the paper and writing supplies, "they sold well last time we traveled to a place familiar with cultivators," 

"T-the heating and cooling ones were very well received," Zhuzhi pipes in, moving to receive his own stack of paper to draw the enchantments on.

"The muffling ones too," Shen Jiu adds, already starting to grind some ink. 

 


 

"Well then, I'll see you later!" Tianlang proclaims his goodbyes as soon as they enter the city, as usual. 

Shen Jiu and Zhuzhi promptly move to a populated area and begin the labour of advertising the amazing properties of their talismans, giving demonstrations such as setting wood on fire and quickly cooling it down.

They don't usually sell this stuff. It's easy to make and can go for gullibly high prices, but normal people are often too scared or intimidated by magical stuff, always thinking if they buy these grand artifacts there will be a horrible catch later on like in so many folk tales. 

People in this town are more used to cultivators however, if not familiar enough with cultivation itself to realize they're being scammed paying a silver coin for a pathetic low grade talisman, so they sell well. 

Personally Shen Jiu would prefer to use Zhuzhi's snakes to rob everyone and be done with, but they've learned the hard way controlling too many at the same time leaves traces of demonic qi in the air, and risking it in a place so close to a cultivation sect is just asking for troubles. They still use them of course, just more selectively. 

Sure thing, they soon run out of talismans, the townspeople delighted by the little one-time-use things. They decide to stop working for the day, instead of drawing more talismans on the spot it'll be better if they take the evening and night to replenish stock and continue tomorrow, it'll give their very dear customers time to use the ones they bought, spread the word about the rouge cultivators selling wonderful shit, and then come back looking for more. 

They buy roujiamo for lunch, and then proceed to kill time by looking around different stores. Shen Jiu isn't interested in looking for pills or teas for clearing up the mind and soul: Same as their low grade talismans, medicines and other special objects tend to reach obscene prices in these kinds of towns, but sometimes one can find rare books lost from the nearby sect's library. 

Visiting bookstores also has the added benefit it'll make them run into Tianlang earlier, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on whether they're able to drag the man into checking in an inn, or fail and get dragged into assisting mediocre theatre plays instead. 

It's in these meanderings that Shen Jiu finds an incredible treasure. Not a sacred text about cultivation, a diagram on rare magical herbs or a lost manual on a long forgotten technique, but sometimes much, much more valuable.

He finds a book by his favorite writer he doesn't own already. 

Not only that but it's very thick, thicker than any other novels he owns from this person, and as he gingerly opens the cover he sees the printing date on the first page, this was just published last year! This person's work isn't very popular so very rarely gets reprints, this very well might be the author's newest work! He wants to read it, ah, he wants to read it. He wants to read it so badly! 

Shen Jiu is often very careful with his money, and yet he finds himself reaching for his pouch before even checking the price.

"Shen Jiu?" Zhuzhi's voice drags him out of his hypnosis. When he turns towards the demon, he's raising an eyebrow and looking equal parts curious and concerned. Shen Jiu covers his face with his fan, realizing he might have made a weird expression in that short bout of infatuation. 

"I think I saw a genuine cultivation manual earlier," he says, pointing at the pile of clearly ass fake cultivation manuals set on the other side of the store, "go see if you can find it." 

Zhuzhi blinks, "Why—" he starts, Shen Jiu whacks the top of his head with his fan. 

"Just go!" he orders. Zhuzhi's expression grows in confusion, but he's still a pushover so he nevertheless goes. 

Shen Jiu turns his attention back to the book. He picks it up and quickly looks for the seller. He spots the man soon enough, talking with some old lady some five shelves away. 

His new treasure firmly held against his chest, Shen Jiu is about to start walking in that direction—

And then he feels a sharp pain as something metallic buries itself into his side. 

Shen Jiu's head snaps in that direction, one hand moving to his sword, his attention focusing on cutting the threat down—

 

A familiar face. 

 

The book falls to the floor. It's quickly followed by a small, very small and bloodstained knife. In the pale face of the girl he sees reflected his own shocked expression. 

"It was really you…" Qiu Haitang whispers, hugging her own form as if trying to stop the trembling that consumes her entire body. 

Shen Jiu opens his mouth to say something, anything, whatever, and instead of word what comes pooling out is a cough and a mouthful of warm blood.

Ah

Poison. 

Death by poison for the poisonous person, inflicted by a knife so short it wouldn't even leave a scar otherwise. He can see why she would think it a fitting way to go about things, he agrees, it's a little poetic. 

He takes a step back and ends sending an entire stack of books tumbling down. His head feels light and his extremities heavy, and in his daze he would have followed the books in their way to the floor had it not been for a hand on his shoulder and a firm body against his back.

"S-Shen Jiu?!" Zhuzhi's eyes are very open, and the expression he gets as they move from Shen Jiu's face to the wound to Qiu Haitang —Fangs bared, pupils nothing but tiny slints, a hiss escaping from between his teeth— feels completely foreign in this person's face. 

He feels Zhuzhi move and suddenly all Shen Jiu can see is the memory of Wu Yanzi's body with his jaw crushed like a squashed fruit, the upper part of his head lying separated from the rest with his dentadure perfectly exposed. 

"Don't kill her," he forces himself to push past the knot in his throat, "DON'T KILL HER!" 

He can't hear anything over the ringing scraping against the inside of his ears, can't be sure if the words made it past the blood clogging his mouth. The last thing he sees before passing out is the small figure of Qiu Haitang turn around and start to run.  



Chapter Text

"Shimen, would you like to go to the town with us?" 

"I'm sorry, Shixiong, I won't be able to go." 

"Oh, alright." 

 

When Qiu Haitang first reaches Kangfu sect she's a small, weak child, her feet swollen from eating dirt and her stomach hurting from drinking nothing but air, the only keepsake from home a handful of ashes on her hair she doesn't dare to wash.

Shifu takes a look at her pitiful figure kneeling at the entrance and tells her to come in. The food is disgusting and the clothes poor, the disciples' rooms are cold and for every two days of classes she collapses another three. She's never felt more grateful for anything in her life. 

Training is hard on her body and soul, never having grown accustomed to working for anything, a pampered baby thrown into the world of adults, but she wears the memory of warm hugs and happier days as an amulet, the image of a demon covered in blood as a target, and before she realizes her arms and legs grow thicker and she's able to finish her daily exercises without throwing up. 

Only when her body has gained the strength it never needed in the past does Shifu hand her a cultivation manual. Qiu Haitang reads it from beginning to end in two days, memorizes the exercises, takes to heart the advices scrawled on the notes, and some time after warm energy begins to gather under her stomach. 

Four months after joining the sect Shifu compliments her progress with a simple "You're making acceptable progress," and it's the first time she's been able to feel proud of something she achieved by herself. 

 

"Shimei, we'll have a small gathering for my birthday tomorrow, would you like to attend? There will be food."

"That's very kind of you Shijie, but I'm afraid I just don't have the time."

"That's alright Shimei, just thought I should ask." 

 

Eight months after joining the sect she's allowed to assist night hunts. She's only allowed to watch, and cannot separate from the group, but it's an important step. 

On her first outing they find a great beast, stronger than she ever thought possible, yet, her Shijie shoots an arrow at it and the monster immediately falls dead.

"We're taught to hunt using poison," later one of the seniors in charge of supervising them explains, "Venoms and medicines are the speciality of Kangfu. You'll learn to make and use your own with time." 

Even the weakest person in the world can defeat a god by slipping the right substance into their veins. She takes this lesson to heart. 

 

"Qiu Shimei, there's a festival tomorrow, we were wondering if you would want to assist with us?"

"Ah, that sounds fun, but I'm too busy for that."

"Oh, that's a shame." 

 

As the anniversary of her family's demise approaches the nightmares grow in number. That's fine, she's used to it. What really hurts are the nice dreams, the warm memories of better times that have her waking up in tears.

Concerned, her roomates force her to see the healer. She's prescribed a calming tea that brings her dreamless sleep, and the sweet memories stop.

 

"Haitang Shimei, are you free after caligraphy class? We'll have a dance tournament in the music hall! The winner gets everyone else to do her chores for a month!" 

"Sadly I have something else to do, but I wish you the best of lucks in the competition, Shijie." 

"Well, your loss." 

 

Her fellow disciples keep inviting her to this or that. They watch out for her health, give her their advice, help her studying, and are all so incredibly nice.

Somehow it hurts. She doesn't know why it hurts, maybe it's because she's so used to associate kindness with home that it brings painful memories. 

She feels rude and terrible anytime she has to decline their attempts at getting closer to her, but she tells herself it's necessary in order to dedicate herself to growing stronger. 

Her efforts are payed off when a year and a half after joining the sect she's allowed to start mixing venoms and medicines. She starts carrying a small bottle of poison between her clothes. It brings her comfort, somehow. 

 

"Shimei! Meng Shidi is returning to his home next month, so we're going to the town to buy him a goodbye present, would you like to come?"

"I don't really know Meng Shixiong that well, so I wouldn't be of much help with that, it'll be better if you take care of it without me."

"Hm, you're probably right." 

 

Two years after joining the sect Shifu regards her concoctions as "Quite effective", "Quick acting", "Excelent work", and she ends bursting into tears in the middle of class. 

Her Shifu looks uncomfortable, a soft blush crawling into her face. Shifu has no idea what to do with crying children, she knows this from personal experience, so Qiu Haitang dries her eyes and assures everyone she's fine. 

 

"Qiu Haitang Shimei, do you like popular novels? We're trying to found a book club!"

"I'm sorry, but I'm not familiar with them."

"I see…" 

"But… Maybe ask Zhu Shixiong? I've seen him reading them."

"Oh, thank you! I'll make sure to ask him!" 

 

Two years and a half after joining the sect she's allowed to properly participate in night hunts. 

She's hopelessly bad at archery, but she manages to master throwing needles and knives. She lives through many, many battles against many, many creatures, and somehow she begins getting a reputation as a promising cultivator you can rely on.

She doesn't know how to deal with having her classmates asking her for help studying for exams, much less when Shifu names her the official teacher assistant for alchemy class.

Still, she forces herself to smile and accept everything that comes her way with grace and dignity. Only later hiding where no one will find her and shedding tears she isn't sure come from joy or homesickness. 

 

"Qiu Shimei, did you hear? A famous acting troupe is coming to the nearby town! Shifu gave us permission to attend, why don't you join us?!"

"Ah, I would love to Shixiong, but I really have to finish helping Shifu grading the papers on brewings with spider venom, you see…"

"Qiu Shimei is working hard as always! Very well, maybe we can bring you something from the town?"

"Oh, um, I suppose that would be nice. Maybe some egg tarts?"

"Of course!" 

 

Three years after joining the sect, they hold trials for new students to join. Kangfu only takes in new disciples every five years, plus the odd cases like her own, and when the time comes Shifu asks her to stand next to her and help with the selection. 

She has no idea what makes a candidate promising or not, and as such remains silent for most of the trials. 

Still, Shifu keeps Qiu Haitang close and points at this or that kid, explaining what they exhibit or lack. Qiu Haitang doesn't know why she's being told this, nor why she has been picked to attend the trials, but still makes sure to remember every single word. 

 

"Qiu Shimei, we'll have a study session tonight, we were wondering if you could come?"

"A… study session?" 

"That's right. The main topic will be how to refine rare beasts into useful components."

"...I … suppose I can go, but only for a couple of hours." 

"That will be of great help Qiu Shimei!"

 

The new students are small and cute, most of them being younger than her by half a decade or more, and it's here her reputation as a reliable source of studying advice betrays her, as her Shixiongs and Shijies evade the little ducklings by sending them her way.

She has no idea how to deal with the adoring eyes that surround her, nor knows how to respond when someone calls her 'Shijie' on such a reverent way , but she still tries her best at giving directions and making her voice sound kind and sweet. 

She tries to channel her older brother, always enduring her silly games with a smile, never raising his voice, petting her hair and surprising her with toys and sweets, and succeeds on becoming popular with the little ones.

This turns out to be the worst possible outcome, as it creates a feedback loop in which the kids decide she's great, so they look her up, so she's nice to them, so they decide she's great, so they keep coming back. 

By the time her Shifu compliments her by saying "I'm glad you're good with kids, it'll help you in the future," she's given up to her fate. 

 

"Shimei, would you like to go to the town with us?"

"I guess I can make the time."

"Oh, I see— wait, you agreed?!"  

"Well, yes. I suppose I could take a break from looking after our newest disciples."

"That- That's great! That's great Shimei! I'm glad!" 

 


 

Even though she agreed to go to the town with others, it doesn't take long for them to get separated as they look at this or that thing. It's the first time Qiu Haitang goes to the nearby town without it being some official business, and as such ends entering to this and that store looking at everything with very round eyes. 

At some point she enters a decently sized bookstore, and spends some time looking at the poetry sections, picking this and that thing she might as well spend her —by now very decently sized— savings on. 

She's considering looking at the novels, vaguely remembering some of her roomates have joined a reading club, when—

 

"Shen Jiu?"

 

She freezes, every nerve of her body going into panic. It's just a name, all it takes is for her to hear a name, and suddenly all her training is evaporating and she stands there frozen like the small cowardly child that passed out in the fire. 

The two people behind her keep talking, one of them leaves to look at something at the other side of the store and the other one remains. The other one who is— Could be— That—

She sees white. Everything, all of it, becomes just a solid wall of white. When the colors slowly return she finds herself standing somewhere else, one of her knives buried into something— Someone—

She stares at it. Her knife cutting through human clothes and human skin. She. She stabbed a person. She doesn't know how, when, but— A person, these aren't made for people, the medicine is for humans, the venom for hunting beasts, that's what Shifu always says, these should only be used with monsters, and yet she—

She stabbed a person with a poisoned knife!!!

She slowly raises her head, and sees who she attacked. In the pale face of the boy she sees reflected her own shocked expression. 

The boy lets go of what he's holding. She also lets the knife fall.

"It was really you…" she whispers, a relief so, so deep invading her body it leaves her shaking. She didn't hurt a person, this is a monster, not a human, she didn't hurt anyone. She puts her hands around her stomach and starts to hyperventilate. 

Shen Jiu takes a step back, sending an entire stack of books tumbling down as he trips. And he would have fallen to the floor was it not for

For—

Ah

Her body recognizes the threat before her mind does. 

Death. 

Death is looking at her. This isn't a person either, death is coming for her, there's something in her soul that recognizes it as such. 

'Run. Run. Run!' urges every hair, every pore, every drop of blood in her body. A primordial part of her being that is able to recognize she just became prey is screaming.

As death lunges towards her she turns around and tries to run. "DON'T KILL HER!" is the last thing she hears before something hits her on the back of the head and she is knocked unconscious.

Chapter Text

"A-Jiu, let's play! I'll be the mouse and you the cat!" A-Tang says, standing up from where they were looking at the flowers and beginning to run.

"Ah… A-Tang, wouldn't you prefer another game?" he proposes, but the kid just shakes her head and pouts. 

"I want to play this one!" she says, "A-Jiu, pleaseee!"

"Alright, alright," he complies. As he stands up his legs ache with yesterday's injuries, but he makes sure it doesn't show on his face, "Then here comes the cat!" 

A-Tang laughs as she runs, and Shen Jiu gives his best to endure. His mistreated legs scream, his feet swelling inside his shoes, he's going slower than usual, and breathing harder as well, but luckily it seems like A-Tang doesn't notice. 

He desperately hopes A-Tang grows bored and changes the game before his feet give up on him, but, sadly, that's not what happens. He's acting as mouse, trying to stick to walking by making them go forth and backwards around a pillar, when his ankle twists and he falls to the floor.

"Ah," he lands on his hands. Shen Jiu tries to push himself up but… it's too much. Qiu Jianluo was especially angry yesterday and now his body is completely covered in bandages under his clothes. His arms give up too and he hits his face against the floor. 'Ah, great way to hurt the only part Qiu Jianluo doesn't hit, you fucking idiot'

"A-Jiu, are you alright?!" A-Tang is besides him in a second, her eyes very wide and scared, obviously not knowing what's going on.

"I guess I'm a little tired," he lies, "give me a moment to rest." 

That should be good enough, right? A-Tang doesn't pressure him into playing when it's so obvious he's 'tired'. He just needs to lay here a moment and then maybe he'll be able to walk again.

It becomes oddly silent, usually A-Tang would continue talking and talking and never shut up, but it's silent. He's starting to believe she left when suddenly two arms are picking him up. Or, trying to.

"A-Tang, what the fuck?!" he exclaims, quickly covering his mouth when he realizes he let out a swear.  

If A-Tang repeats that in front of her family he's as good as dead. 

A-Tang doesn't seem to be paying attention to him though, instead struggling —really struggling— to carry him, an arm under his knees and another supporting his hips. 

A-Tang is pretty weak, never having to do shores and having servants carry everything she could possibly need to lift, but Shen Jiu is malnourished and short, so he doesn't weight much. She manages to lift him, but it has her sweating and frowning and fighting to catch her breath. 

"A-Tang, put me down!" he exclaims, "I'm too heavy for you!"

"No!" she shakes her head, "It's ok, I can do it!" 

"A-Tang! Come on! It's improper!" If someone else sees this— He doesn't even want to think of what a beat up he'll receive if someone else sees this.

"My father carries me like this all the time!"

"He's your family, it's different!"

"You're my fiance so you're family too!"

"That's not how it works, if anything that only makes it more improper!" 

"It'll be fine!" she insists, starting to take a step forward, and then another, "We're going to be married, so I should be able to take care of you too!" Soon she's actually walking while carrying Shen Jiu.

"Where are we even going?! A-Tang!" 

"To my room! You can take a nap and then we can play something else there!"

"That's at the other side of the estate!" he tries to reason, but the girl just takes a deep breath and keeps matching forward. 

A-Tang keeps walking, actually managing to reach the end of the courtyard, and Shen Jiu keeps trying to make her drop him to save his life, when—

"A-Tang, stairs! You'll trip!"

"I can do it!"

"You can't!"

"I can—! Aah!" 

She couldn't. A-Tang trips at the stairs and the two of them are sent tumbling down. It's not a long flight, only six steps or so, but the stairs dig painfully into his bruises and he thinks might even have opened some stitches. 

He lies there for a moment, bitting his cheeks trying to get past the pain, when Shen Jiu suddenly realizes he wasn't the only one to fall and quickly sits up. "A-Tang!" 

A-Tang is holding her shoulder, making a pained expression and oh gods, she's going to cry, she's going to cry and everyone will say it's his fault and she won't want to play with him anymore and they won't have any reason not to kill him and he'll become food for the dogs and will never see Qi-ge again and—

"Heh… Hahahaha!" A-Tang begins laughing. She's still holding her shoulder and it still seems like she's hurt but she's laughing, "hahahaha! I'm sorry, A-Jiu, it seems I couldn't after all hahaha! You hurt?" 

Shen Jiu lets go of a breath he didn't know he was holding. It'll be alright, somehow. A-Tang is laughing and he allows a small smile to form on his face.

"I'm fine. I told you you couldn't!" he pouts, "I won't tell anyone if you don't, but you better listen to me next time!" 

"Hahaha! Alright, alright, I'm sorry, hahaha!" 

"Pfff…. hahaha"

"Hahahaha"

"Hahahaha!" 

His injuries hurt and he hates this place and his only ally is away, but— 

But A-Tang's outer robe is all messed up from the fall and her shoulder is probably going to get a nasty bruise and she's laughing so hard she's beginning to choke. And this moment. This one, single moment, is alright. 

 

Shen Jiu wakes up to a starry sky. 

He sits up. 

"Ah!" someone gasps nearby. He looks at the source of the sound and finds Zhuzhi, his eyes round like plates, "Y-y-you woke up!"

"Clearly," he looks around. They aren't in a town, but in a valley, a fire and a tent set nearby. 

Shouldn't they be in a town? He feels like they were in a town, but he can't remember—

A book, a knife, poison, Qiu Haitang—

Qiu Haitang

He grabs Zhuzhi by the front of his robes, "Did you kill her?!"  

"I-I-I" he uselessly stutter. Shen Jiu twists the cloth and starts shaking him. 

"Did you FUCKING kill her you bastard snake?!"

If Qiu Haitang is dead he'll

He'll

He'll be the only one left 

"I-I-I did not!" 

Shen Jiu lets go, then doubles over until his forehead touches the floor, and just breathes. 

She's alive. 

She's alive. Oh thanks heavens she's alive! Qiu Haitang is fucking alive

"That's good," he mutters, as mechanically and devoid of emotion as humanly possible. 

"She's here, actually," he hears Tianlang say and quickly looks up, "sleeping in the tent," he points at it. 

"You—" he gapes, did these guys really— "You fucking kidnaped her?!" 

"She poisoned you," Tianlang shrugs. 

Which reminds him... "How am I alive?" he places a hand where the injury should be, but isn't. He could have sworn he was going to die, when the pain enveloped the entirety of his skin and it felt like he was puking his own melted guts.

Inexplicably, Zhuzhi looks away. 

"I-I'm sorry…" he mutters. Again with this old habit? 

"You're sorry I'm alive?" he teases, but the snake still won't look at him. Shen Jiu frowns. Something's wrong. "What. Did. You. Do?" 

Zhuzhi-lang opens and closes his mouth, no sounds coming out.

Probably as bored of this charade as She Jiu is annoyed Tianlang speaks in his place. "He had to make you drink his blood." 

Shen Jiu blinks, "What does that mean?" He knows blood is important for heavenly demons, he hasn't been told exactly how. 

"Zhuzhi-Lang's half a heavenly demon, half a great snake from the south, so his blood is an all uses antidote," Tianlang explains, "you're basically immune to most poisons now, congrats." 

Shen Jiu crooks his head. That's… good? That's obviously good. Even an idiot like Zhuzhi should realize giving someone immunity to poison is a good thing. Why is this idiot apologizing? Does he think Shen Jiu was planning on suicide by drinking poison in the future? 

His confusion must be evident in his face, as Tianlang pushes Zhuzhi's shoulder in a 'you tell him' kind of gesture. 

The opening and closing of his mouth is repeated. Tianlang sighs at his nephew's inability to talk and resumes the explanation, "It also means he can take full control over your body at any time, that's how he healed your wound too." 

.

.

.

"WHAT?!" 

"I'M SORRY!" Zhuzhi kowtows, "J-J-Junshang wazzzzn't cl-clozzze an-and I panicked a-a-and you were dying a-a-and I- I don't- I didn't know w-what to- I'm zzzzo, zzzzo zzzzorry!" 

"Then get the blood out!" 

"I-I-I can't!" 

"Once you drink a heavenly demon's blood it becomes part of your own blood," Tianlang says, "Not even I know of a method to extract it." 

"Oh for fuck's sake!" he covers his face with his hands.

This is fucking awful. 

"Did you at least see if she carried the antidote before doing something so drastic?!" 

"S-s-sorry…"

"We did check later and she didn't carry any though," Tianlang points out, "if that helps,"

"But not before he gave me the blood."

"No, he didn't check before that." 

Shen Jiu groans into his hands. 

He takes a deep breath.

"I suppose it could be worse," he concedes. 

There could be worse people to hold total, complete control over him, he knows that from experience. At least with this person he knows Zhuzhi is too much of a coward to try anything. Probably. 

Fuck.

"I swear, if you ever attempt to control me—"

"I- I won't!" he exclaims, his face still pressed to the floor "I p-promise!"

Shen Jiu sighs, "Fine," he lowers his hands, "then I forgive you." 

Zhuzhi raises himself slowly, looking like he can't believe it, so Shen Jiu repeats, "I forgive you, as long as you don't try to control me with it I forgive you." 

"T-thank you…"

"Aww, you two are so heartwarming! I'll tell this anecdote in your wedding," Tianlang coos, placing an arm around each of their shoulders, "now how about you tell us who the lady inside the tent is?"

Shen Jiu looks away, "I don't know."

Tianlang blinks. "Jiu'er, if you're going to lie at least come up with something decent, I know you're better at it than this." 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, "She's just… a girl I knew years ago, no one important."

"She's obviously important to you."

"She isn't." 

"Then let's just kill her—"

"NO!"  

Tianlang's smile at Shen Jiu's reaction is disgustingly smug. 

Where are his fucking fans? He could really use one right now. 

"Just a girl you knew huh?"

"She is," he insists, "I knew her years ago."

"She's wearing the uniform of the sect nearby, I thought you didn't know other cultivators other than your old teacher?" 

"I suppose she joined it at some point, I don't really know what's been of her since last time I saw her." 

"And she's important to you," Tianlang finishes. It's not a question. 

Shen Jiu shrugs, "somewhat important." 

"And now she wants to kill you," 

"That much is obvious,"

"So, how are we going to fix this?"

"Fix what?!" Shen Jiu laughs, "There's nothing to fix! I'm fine now, so let's just leave her in some inn back in the town and continue traveling!"

"She will keep trying to kill you," no shit genius 

"So?" he raises an eyebrow, "let her keep trying, she won't make it. We met by pure coincidence and now we know she's here, we won't find her again." 

"Hm, no, we can't do that," Tianlang shakes his head. 

"Why not?! I'm sure you have many people wanting to kill you too!"

"Maybe if you were a demon it would be fine," the man muses, "but as a human I can't let you leave it like that,"

"I'm not as weak as you think I am!" he snaps, "I can fucking look out for myself, you—" 

Tianlang shuts him up by placing his hand over Shen Jiu's mouth. 

"Would you ever just let me explain? Seriously," he sighs, "Demons cultivate by embracing their base nature and allowing themselves to feel strong emotions. If you were a demon I would actually encourage making emotionally loaded enemies, as that would incentivize internal struggle and more complex interactions with the world, which are important for us to advance. But! You're not! You're a human, and as such your cultivation will improve by achieving inner peace and gaining control over your own desires. There's a reason demons start conquering as they gain power while really advanced cultivators end locking themselves up and grow apart from the world! Having someone you care about wanting to kill you will hurt your growth in the long run, and as your teacher I just can't allow that." 

He rips Tianlang's hand off his face, "You always choose the worst times to pretend you're a good teacher,"

"You hurt me! I'm a great teacher all the time!" 

"Bullshit," he cleans his mouth with the back of his hand, "how do you even want me to fix anything? She hates me, I can't change that."

"I still don't know what's going on with you and that girl, but whatever it is you should at least talk to her," he insists, "you might resolve something!"

"Like hell!" 

"At least try it," he pats his head, Shen Jiu tries to bite him, "if nothing comes out of it we'll knock her out again and leave her where we found her, how does that sound?" 

He glares. Tianlang smiles.

As always, he ends giving up. Between the two of them the demon is the more stubborn one. 

"Whatever, fine." 

"Great!" he claps, "let's wake her up!" 

 

Chapter Text

They gather inside the tent, kneeling around Qiu Haitang, who is in the middle of it, resting on top of a bedroll. 

She doesn't… seem hurt. So that's a good thing. 

Tianlang ties her wrists and ankles together, then binds them to the floor with a sticky charm. He draws a symbol in the air in front of her face and immediately her eyes fly open. 

She looks around, clearly confused, and struggles against her bindings, then her gaze lands on Shen Jiu and her expression grows hateful. 

"You!"

"...Hi" he weakly waves. Seriously where are his fans? He needs to cover his face.

"I see you survived," she hisses, venom like he's never heard before coming from her dripping from each word, "Now what, are you going to kill me? Complete the job?!" 

"No, I won't."

"Then what do you—" Qiu Haitang's eyes grow wider, her face becomes pale, and the struggling grows in intensity "If you think you can take advantage to—!"

"I would never—!"

"Just because you were my fiance doesn't mean I will allow—!"

"I told you I won't—!"

"I swear, if you touch me—!"

"Stop saying that!" 

"You disgusting—!"

"Ok, enough," Tianlang snaps his fingers and both Qiu Haitang and Shen Jiu's mouths snap closed by themselves. 

"It's a pleasure to meet you, young lady," he ignores the 'mmhm's 'hmhmh?'s and 'hmnnhmh!'s both humans make in an attempt to regain their ability to speak, instead bowing at the girl, "My name is Tianlang-jun, I'm Shen Jiu's shizun, and this is my nephew, Zhuzhi-lang," he gestures at Zhuzhi and Qiu Haitang's eyebrows shoot up, he ignores it, "I believe whatever conflict there is between you and my student could impede his ability to cultivate in the future, so it's important for me to solve it. I'll allow you to speak now, but know I can, and will silence you at any moment so try to remain civil." 

He snaps his finger and Qiu Haitang gasps while Shen Jiu's lips continue stubbornly shut. 

"You say you're his teacher?" she says, "then you must know your student is a murderer and a monster! A disgusting demon, ready to betray you at any time!" 

"I will let you know I happen to be a demon too," he makes his eyes glow red, along with the mark on his forehead, "A real one." 

Qiu Haitang stops, she looks between Tianlang and Zhuzhi, then scoffs, "Of course such a scum could only be received by literal demons."

"That's a little prejudiced, don't you think, Miss? One can't help what one's born as." 

"Demon or not, the fact you associate yourself with this," she spits, Qiu Haitang actually spits in Shen Jiu's direction, he's never seen her do something like that, "piece of manure tells me all I need to know about your character." 

"A little harsh, but alright. Jiu'er, anything to add?" he snaps his fingers again. Qiu Haitang's mouth is pulled closed while Shen Jiu's opens.

"Are you planning to make us speak in turns?" he realizes. 

"It's the best way to keep order!" Tianlang smiles.

Shen Jiu glares at him, "You're ridiculous. I finish my turn." 

"Ok then," Another snap, another switch, "Would you mind telling us why you want to kill Jiu'er?" 

"Why?! I'll tell you why!" she yells, "That son of a bitch murdered my family! Burned down my house! We took him in, gave him food, a roof over his head! Treated him like family, even promised my damn hand in marriage! We gave him everything, saved him from the streets, and as a reward everyone was killed by him! My brother! My father! Half of all the servants! I can only assume he left me alive to see me suffer carrying that loss! To rejoice in the knowledge I would have to beg on the streets, go through hunger beyond measure, and live without a place to call home! He deserves a fate worse than death for what he's done to us! I swore on that day I wouldn't rest until I could see his face in agony as—"

"I get the gist of it," Switch, "Shen Jiu, your version of the events?"

"It's exactly as she says, word for word, from the actions to the motive, her recollection is accurate. I merely wanted to make them suffer, so I did. I finish my turn." 

"Good to know," Switch "Now, you—"

"And you even admit to it! You disgusting sack of—!" 

Tianlang silences her, "Don't interrupt me, I'm still talking," he says, "Now, you seem pretty determined on killing my student, but you must realize I can't allow that. Is there some other way for you to let go of this?" Snap.

"Do you hear yourself?! You— How can you be alright continuing teaching him after what he's admited to?! Do demons truly have no heart?!" 

"I've done worse," he shrugs, "I'm not proud of it, but I'm no one to judge. And you Zhuzhi-lang? Do you mind Shen Jiu killed this lady's family?"

"I-I don't really care about strangers..." 

"You all disgust me—!" Snap.

"Good to know, but not the point. Answer no or yes only, is there anything my dear student can do to compensate you other than dying?" Snap.

"Yes." Snap.

"What would suffice?" Snap.

"The only appropriate punishment would be to cut off his arms and legs! Take out of his eyes, cut off his tongue and—!" Snap.

"You must understand I can't allow that either. Is there anything that won't permanently damage him? Yes and no answers only," Snap.

"NO!" Snap.

"Good. In that case we'll knock you out and leave you where you found us. And believe me when I say you will never see us again. Are you truly satisfied with that? It's pretty much the same as just letting it go, only sadder. Please think carefully about your answer," Snap.

It takes a while for Qiu Haitang to speak, "You say I'll never find him again. I already found him once, why should I believe such a thing?" Snap.

"Because now I know you exist, and I won't allow you to meet him ever again," Snap.

"How would you even do that?!" Snap.

"It seems you aren't familiar with my name, if you were, you would know. Let me put it like this, it would take the entirety of the cultivation world to defeat me, and even then I doubt they could kill me. Maybe seal me, at most. Do you think I can't manage something as simple as keeping two people separated with that power?" Snap.

"Why should I believe such a thing? You're bluffing!" Snap.

Tianlang moves very, very close to her, his face right next to Qiu Haitang's, eyes and sigil glowing red, an expression on his face Shen Jiu's never seem before, one that sends shills down his spine,

When he speaks, he does so softly, and calmly, and cold, "How about I go to Kangfu and kill every single student and every single teacher and level all the buildings to the ground using only my little finger? Would that demostration suffice?" 

Qiu Haitang's face grows very, very pale, paler than it's ever been so far, white like a sheet of paper.

Snap.

"I believe you, please don't do that," she whispers. 

"Good!" Tianlang sits up and goes back to his usual, happy self, "So you better think of some compensation that doesn't involve hurting Shen Jiu or just straight up give up this revenge thing! Come on, you look smart, I'm sure you can think of something!" 

The tent grows quiet. It takes a while, but eventually…

"I want him to go with me to the ruins of the Qiu household and apologize to the spirits of those he's killed." 

"Sounds good to me!" 

"Alone. I don't want either of you there, I don't want either of you for the trip," she adds, "it must be a completely personal thing, only that will work,"

"I've never heard a more obvious ploy to kill someone," Tianlang nods, then reaches into his sleeve and retrieves a small cup. He cuts his wrist with one claw and fills it with blood, "then my condition will be for you to drink my blood, that way I will be able to stop you if you try anything. I'll unstick your wrists from the floor so you can drink this, and I hope you realize I can restrain you again at any moment so don't try anything stupid." 

Qiu Haitang's hands separate from where they were splayed on the floor. She sits up and moves to accept the cup. Shen Jiu starts hitting Tianlang on the arm because hey hey hey hey stop that! "Mhmhmhmnhm!! Mhmhn! Mhmhnmnnmn!!" 

"Oh, Jiu'er wants to say something," Tianlang snaps his fingers.

"Don't consent to that!" he exclaims, "He's a heavenly demon, he can control anyone who drinks his blood! He isn't lying when he says it'll prevent you from hurting me! If you drink that you'll really be renouncing the chance to get your revenge! Ever! Is that worth an apology that won't even be sincere?!" 

Qiu Haitang holds the cup between her fingers, she looks at it, at Tianlang, at Shen Jiu, "How do I know he'll cooperate? He might run away in the middle of the trip to the remains of the manor." 

"Glad you ask!" he says, "Jiu'er has already drank my nephew's blood, so he can make sure he complies,"

Zhuzhi and Shen Jiu jolt at that,

"You fuckin asshole—!" 

"J-J-Junshang, I promised—" 

He snaps his finger and the tent goes silent again. "He'll make sure Jiu'er complies, not by controlling him, but simply by telling me if he's moving in the right direction," he turns towards Zhuzhi, "You never promised anything about not sensing his location with your blood," he looks back at Qiu Haitang, "If we notice he's deviating from the path I will personally fly there, tie him up, and hand him back to you. We'll make sure he goes where you want him to, I promise." 

Snap. Only Qiu Haitang's mouth gets free.

"Why should I believe you will keep your word?"

"Would you prefer we knock you out and leave?" 

Before She Jiu can stop her, Qiu Haitang brings the cup to her lips and downs the whole thing. 

"It's a deal. As soon the sun raises, we begin the trip home." 

 

Chapter Text

They untie her and leave her inside the tent. As he exits, Shen Jiu turns to look at her. She glares at him.

Qiu Haitang is left alone. She sits there and massages her ankles and wrists until the pink marks from the ropes fade away. She doesn't check if her knives and needles and everything else is where it should be, because the thought of these people inspecting her person, manhandling her while she's out, taking off her robes— It sickens her, so she doesn't check. 

Instead she sets to explore what she's left with. The tent is relatively small, only the very center is tall enough for her to stand straight without her head hitting the canvas, and she can walk from end to end in six paces. 

Apart from the bedroll she was set on, there's a leather bag and a wooden box, she opens both of them, and finds nothing that would be out of the ordinary for a camping trip: Incense, paper, a bag of dried fruit, a blanket, basic medical supplies, etc. 

She tries going out, but as she's about to open the tent her body freezes. It's not painful, she can breathe, her head can move, but her legs and arms are frozen in place. Before she can start getting scared however, it's gone, like it didn't happen. She goes through the bag and box a second time before she tries again. Once more, she can't. 

It doesn't happen if she just sets herself to place her hands over the entrance, she can stand next to it and touch the flap that closes and opens all she wants, she can even mimic moving to open it, as long as she doesn't actually mean to, but the second she's going to actually pull from it her muscles stop responding to her. 

She sighs, "So that's how it's going to be." 

She knows well what a great effect drinking a single drop of medicine can have. It's not like she didn't believe the claim about the blood, and she doesn't regret it, not yet, but it's still unnerving to experience the control first hand. 

Still, it's a bit unfair she isn't allowed merely going outside, isn't it?! The guarantee is supposed to protect the murderer, not to restrict her. Tomorrow she'll negotiate more exact terms with the demon, not that she has any hopes he'll stick to them. 

...No, she still doesn't regret it. When that man, that thing, Tianlang-jun, looked at her in the eyes, told her he could destroy what little she has left, what little she's built by herself, she felt his power reverberate through her bones and knew she had no chance against it. She gained time, and the space to be alone with that monster. The restriction is still better than having the two signs of death looming nearby, she will find a way around it. Probably. 

She's… it's embarrassing to admit it, but she's a little proud of not having passed out. It's a low bar to cross, but she faced death twice and was still able to make a deal with the devil. As much as that deal might fuck her over in the future, 'I talked— I argued with this being and lived' is more than what she believes most people can say and she can't help but getting some sort of giddiness from it. 

With nothing else she can do, she decides to try to sleep. She spends the entire night not batting an eye, of course.

 


 

As morning arrives, the demons bring her breakfast, and she mentions not being able to go out last night. Tianlang-jun says he wanted to keep Shen Jiu and her apart for the time being, she says she didn't agree to the guarantee to become a puppet, he says most people who become a puppet don't agree to become a puppet and besides why would she have wanted to leave the tent yesterday? Didn't she hate them anyway? she says it's a matter of principles, he says hmm we'll see, so she drops it.

After breakfast she traces the route she wants to take on a map, it should take about two weeks to reach the manor if they only stop to rest. She intentionally picks the long way there and no one calls her out on it.

When the time arrives, she walks away to let them exchange their farewells in private, not because of any kind of respect or sympathy, but rather having those monsters acting like people, saying stuff like "take care" and "good luck" rubs her the wrong way. 

Soon enough, the demons hand her some bags with enough supplies for a trip back and forth for two people, as well as a small pouch they say contains her personal stuff. Inside she finds her weapons, money, and the small bottle of poison she keeps as an amulet inside her under robes. She decides not to think about it. 

Shen Jiu follows her lead at first, but having him walking behind her unnerves her. Qiu Haitang might be impeded from killing him, but there's nothing to keep him from stabbing her while her back's turned, and soon she's looking over her shoulders every three steps, so when he suggest they exchange places she has no choice but to agree, as much as she hates having him being the one setting the pace. 

All in all, the first day of travel passes by rather peacefully. Shen Jiu doesn't say nor does anything of note, and she still feels the lingering traces of yesterday's tension, so isn't quite willing to try anything yet. 

Only after they find a nice set of trees beside the road to set their bedrolls, each against a different trunk, does she reach for a knife coated in venom, and tries to aim at the form of the monster sleeping nearby. She gets to the point where she's bending her elbow, and then her muscles lock.

Fine. She puts the knife back and reaches instead for a needle, the clean ones used for hitting acupuncture spots. She aims, in a way it won't kill him, but will cause some considerable pain, and her muscles still lock. 

Fine. She changes her aim to the spot between the neck and shoulder. It's a common point to hit to release stress, and shouldn't really hurt, it'll be like an insect's sting, at most. Still, her hand won't throw it. 

She wonders why. The last one isn't really harmful, not really. She raises her aim and throws the needle so it's nailed on the trunk behind Shen Jiu, a couple of fingers on top of his head. He doesn't give a satisfying startle, instead calmly sits up and raises an eyebrow at her. 

She lies down on her bedroll and rolls onto her back. 

Again, she doesn't sleep, but this time she doesn't try to. Who knows what might happen if she closes her eyes next to this beast. 

 


 

The second day is the same as the first, they get up, they eat, they walk. This time however, as they make their way through the road, she takes out one of her knives. She holds it so it's pointing forward, directly at Shen Jiu's back, and begins walking faster.

'I'm just walking, I'm just walking' she repeats inside her mind, but it only takes two steps for her feet to stop. She puts the knife away, as expected, it's just impossible to convince yourself you aren't about to kill someone. 

She walks forward and places her hand against Shen Jiu's back. He turns towards her.

"What?" he scoffs. Qiu Haitang ignores him and moves her hand to pull his hair, but her fingers stop before she can touch the strand she's targeting, "The hell is wrong with you?!" Shen Jiu slaps her hand away. 

"Nothing," she shrugs, "why are we stopping?"

"You are the one who—"

"Shut up and keep walking, we have a long way to go."

Shen Jiu glares, but he turns around and keep walking, muttering something that sounds like "Fucking weird," 

That night she lies awake once more. Once she's sure Shen Jiu is sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep, she gathers some vendanges, needles, and her personal bottle of poison. 

It's clear the blood curse works by intent, not the action itself, and Tianlang-jun didn't act like he knew she tried to leave the tent before she complained, so she isn't being monitored, it's an automatic response. She's allowed to touch, but not to harm, not even a little, that means she should be able to kill him, as long as it's an accident.

She wraps her middle finger on vendanges, breaks the tip of a needle, coats it on poison, puts that on her fingertip and wraps it again, so it protrudes a little, but isn't noticeable at first sight. 

She's bound to touch him eventually, it's a two weeks trip. She will make sure to forget it's there, and one of these days she'll touch him with that finger without realizing. She's used to avoiding touching her face, so it's unlikely she'll poison herself without realizing. She still might brew some antidote later though, just in case. 

She lies on her back and stares at the sky, trying not to think about the needle in her finger, but not to think about something is hard, so she tries thinking about something else instead.

'I wonder if Shifu is having a hard time with the little ones without me to assist her…' she thinks, and after more than two days of being awake, she accidentally falls asleep. 



 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu falls to the floor, the basket is knocked out of his hands and the laundry scatters around him.

He curls around his stomach, and then a second kick lands on his back.

"Stand up, you dog," Qiu Jianluo scoffs. 

Ah. He must be really angry to attack him out in the open. When did he even arrive? Didn't he go to an auction in another city? Shen Jiu was looking forward to some more weeks without bruises. 

He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and scrambles to stand up. Qiu Jianluo is immediately grabbing his wrist, dragging him to the usual place. 

Before they reach Qiu Jianluo's study however, 

"A-Luo, you're back!" A-Tang appears from the other side of the hallway and her brother immediately moves his hand from around Shen Jiu's wrist to resting on Shen Jiu's shoulder. 

"A-Tang!" he exclaims, his face immediately softening, "it's so good to see you!" 

A-Tang launches herself to her brother, who immediately doubles down to properly embrace her. He lets go of Shen Jiu to do so, and the child dares to hope he will be able to run. He tries taking a step back, but a quick look sent his way stops him in his tracks. 

"I'm so glad to see you too!" A-Tang exclaims, her face firmly squashed against Qiu Jianluo's chest, unaware of the tension holding Shen Jiu where he stands, "did the auction go well?" 

"Ah, at the end it was canceled, sadly," he replies, letting go of his little sister.

"Oh no! You were so excited about it!"

"It's fine, it's fine," he laughs it off like someone who wasn't about to take out his rage about it on Shen Jiu. It's so different from the way he laughs when kicking him but it doesn't even sound forced, he fucking hates it,  "those things happen, one has to accept things as they come with a smile, A-Tang!" Hypocrite. 

"Oh, I get it! That's so smart!" The hell are you getting anything.

"Well, I'm happy to see you're well, but there are so many things I need to sort out after being away for so long, so," he pats A-Tang's head, and placing a hand on Shen Jiu's back, attempts to push him past the other kid. 

"But you just came back!" she gasps, pulling from Qiu Jianluo's clothes, "I've missed you so much! Can't we do something together first? Pleaseee!" 

Qiu Jianluo sighs, he lets go of Shen Jiu, his shoulders fall, his posture relaxes and a resigned smile grows on his face, "Well, if you insist it can't be helped!" He picks A-Tang by the armpits, and places the laughing child on top of his shoulders, "What do you want to do, A-Tang?" 

"You must see the new dress dad bought me!" she exclaims, grabbing a few strands of Qiu Jianluo's hair and pulling, hard, "Go, my brave steed! Go!"

"A-ah, I'm going, I'm going, A-Tang," Qiu Jianluo's smile strains as he attempts not to show a painful grimace. 

Shen Jiu thinks it's safe for him to escape, but just as he's moving away A-Tang turns towards him, "A-Jiu, you aren't coming?" she asks. He wasn't sure she had even noticed he was there.

"Ah, I'm busy," he forces himself to smile, "I'm sorry, A-Tang!" 

A-Tang frowns, "Weren't you helping A-Luo with his paperwork like always? So if he has time you're free too!" 

"There are other things A-Jiu needs to take care of other than paperwork, A-Tang," Qiu Jianluo explains, "Let him be, now come on, show me your beautiful new dress!" 

"Oh, alright!" she grins, pulls from Qiu Jianluo's hair once more, and Shen Jiu is finally allowed to leave. 

He hopes Qiu Jianluo will be in a better mood after playing with A-Tang, but he knows that's unlikely. 

 

 

He tries to ignore the promise of pain hanging over his head. It's not like there's ever a moment said promise isn't there, but— But he can't help but to be specially unnerved today. Maybe it's because it's been a while since he's been thoroughly damaged, maybe it's because the violence had already been escalating before he left for his trip, but for the first time in a long, long while, he's scared of the pain that's coming. 

So that's why later, when he spots Qiu Jianluo coming his way from the other side of the hall, instead of obediently lowering his head and following, he turns around and runs towards Qiu Haitang's rooms. 

It's stupid, it's incredibly stupid, and he knows he'll be punished later, but he just wants to be fine for no, just for now, just a little longer. He knocks on the door, begs heavens the kid is inside, and when the door opens wastes no time rushing in. 

"A-Jiu? You need something?" she asks, rubbing her eyes, she's in her underobes, and the only light in the room comes from a small lantern in a corner... ah, that's right, A-Tang goes to sleep at eight and it's nine. Qiu Jianluo is going to fucking murder him for this tomorrow.

"We haven't played for a while," he manages to say, "I thought maybe you had time? I- I could read you a story from that book you like!" He doesn't know how to read more than ten characters, but he's heard bits and pieces of A-Tang's father reading to her, he's sure he can fake it. 

"It's late," she yawns, "you should be sleeping too, we'll play tomorrow. Dad always says sleeping is important to have energy the next day!" 

She starts going back to bed in an obvious dismissal, but he reaches to grab arm with both hands and makes her turn towards him.

"A-Tang, can I sleep here tonight?!" The words rush out of his mouth before he can think them over, "I know it's improper, but it's how you say, who cares, right?! It'll be a secret sleepover, doesn't that sound fun?!" 

A-Tang blinks, "Are you ok?" she asks, and if A-Tang is actually noticing something isn't going perfectly around her Shen Jiu must be in a worse state than he thought, "are you sick? Should I tell my dad to call the doctor?" 

"I'm fine, I'm fine!" he tries to regain his usual strained smile, "I just… I just miss you, is all." 

There's a knock on the door. 

"A-Tang?" Qiu Jianluo's voice comes from the other side, "A-Jiu is with you, isn't he? I need to talk with him about something."

A-Tang opens her mouth to reply, but then hesitates when Shen Jiu frantically shakes his head, "No, I was sleeping. You woke me up." 

There's a beat.

"Ah, hahaha, sorry A-Tang, just go back to sleep! Don't tell dad I woke you up!" 

Shen Jiu listens and Qiu Jianluo's steps grow fainter, and then lets himself relax.

"Are you sure you aren't sick?" 

"I just miss you a lot." 

A-Tang smiles, "Alright, I've missed you too, A-Jiu." 

A-Tang pushes him towards the bed, and then insists he climbs in too, and then places her arms around him. Qiu Jianluo is really, truly going to kill him if he ever learns about this. 

He decides he doesn't care right now. He'll be hurt tomorrow, but for now he's fine. So he rests his head against A-Tang's chest and lets himself smell the scent of begonias he's come to associate with temporary safety. 



The sound of something hitting against wood wakes him up. He remains still, opens his eyes slowly, looks around, and sees something shiny stuck to the tree next to him. 

He sits up and turns towards Qiu Haitang, raising one eyebrow. 

She turns around and goes back to sleep. 

Whatever, it's fine, he trusts Tianlang to make sure she doesn't kill him…. 

Oh heavens, did he really just think 'I trust Tianlang to do something'?! Maybe part of his brain stopped working after the poison incident, or Zhuzhi's blood not only gives immunity to toxins but also spreads fucking stupidity. 

Ah, these two are really infecting him with their ridiculousness, as awful as this all is maybe it'll be a good thing he spends some time away from them. 

 

Chapter Text

They travel, and Shen Jiu is pretty sure he can count in one hand how many words they exchange. 

Qiu Haitang tries to never expose her back to him, and he isn't sure if she's sleeping or not. He would be doing the same if he didn't already have the guarantee, so he isn't surprised by that.

She's trying to kill him, he thinks, because sometimes, every three days or so, she'll take a knife to cut meat, or an ax to cut wood, and then she'll freeze for a small moment, before acting like nothing happened. 

It doesn't bother him, not more than usual, if anything it's comforting to know she's trying, because that also means she's failing, so she really can't touch him. 

It's… a bitter kind of comfort. 

He doesn't want to die, of course. He has things to do, becoming strong enough to honor the wishes of two people, finding a corpse, and other less important things, so he can't die, but it seems unfair to take away her chance at revenge. 

He did kill her family. The Qiu were good to Qiu Haitang, he has no doubt about it, and not a fake kind of good either. So what if they were assholes to him? That's for him to get revenge, and he did. If someone killed Qi-ge —if he ever finds who killed Qi-ge— he won't give a shit if it was justified or not, so he can't complain.

He wasn't going to let her kill him either way, so was it really necessary to make her drink the blood? Surely Tianlang had other ways to protect him, he himself said it was permanent, shouldn't it be a last resource? 

But of course Tianlang doesn't care about Qiu Haitang, she's just a step in Shen Jiu's growth. He doesn't care about Shen Jiu either! He himself said if he was a demon he would push him into making more enemies, what kind of care is that? 

He didn't even ask Shen Jiu if he agreed to come. 

It isn't going to solve anything anyways, as if someone would drop a resentment over a stupid hollow apology. This is just inconveniencing everyone. 

 

"Why did you let me live?" 

Shen Jiu stops strocking the fire. He puts the piece of wood down.

They're one day away from their destination, and he can count on one hand the number of times they've spoken. 

"Didn't I already tell you? To make you suffer."

"I'm not suffering right now.'

"So?"

"So why don't you kill me? With the restriction I cannot fight you." 

He forces himself to laugh, "You really think you aren't suffering? You'll pass the rest of your life regretting drinking that blood! You'll stay awake at night, knowing I'm alive and you can't hurt me, knowing you're a useless little child who can't avenge your family anymore! You've tried to hurt me already, haven't you? I've noticed how you freeze sometimes. Nothing will come out of it, you know that, don't you? You say you aren't suffering, but I'm having a great time watching you struggle!" 

By the end of his monologue he's breathing hard, leaning forward towards Qiu Haitang, the light from the dying fire illuminating his face in a way he knows makes him look unstable.

He expects her to yell at him, as she did before, and get a repetition of the argument, this time with no one to mediate. 

Instead she nods, extends her hand as if to touch him, freezes, retracts it, "I thought it was something like that," she says, "but retribution will come eventually. I have to hope for that," and they don't speak anymore. 

That's the only conversation they have on the entire trip there. 







They reach the city, a place he never wanted to see again. The streets are filled with street urchins, as filled as they were when he was one. He recognizes his old favorite spot to beg, now occupied by someone else, some girl with sunken cheeks that isn't cute at all. She would do good teaming up with someone else, ugly kids can only make good money if they team up with someone cuter. 

As they enter the more well off parts of town, Qiu Haitang actually starts walking in front of him, he tries to speed up, to walk beside her, but she just increases her own speed, until eventually they're almost running. 

It suddenly occurs to him he also walked quickly while making his way through the slumps. He wonders if she recognizes the buildings around here. He doesn't, even though he accompanied people many times to these markets, he can't even tell where it was that he met Wu Yanzi for the first time. 

At the very end of the richer parts of town, lies the old property of the Qiu. The remains of charred wood haven't been cleaned away, It looks just how he left it. 

Qiu Haitang stops, just long enough for Shen Jiu to wonder if she's alright, and then walks in, not even saying a word. 

He follows. 

She reaches what used to be the courtyard and… ah, that's right, here's where she saw him, right before passing out.

She kneels. He follows suit.

"Dad. A-Luo." She says, voice surprisingly steady, "I've brought the monster who took your life. I hope having an apology will help you rest in peace." 

She doesn't say anything else, and he realizes that signals it's his turn.

Shen Jiu sighs, what a stupid piece of bullshit. Fine, he's good at saying things he doesn't mean. He kowtows and tries to look remorseful, even though he isn't.

"I sincerely apologize for taking your lives," he lies. When Qiu Haitang doesn't say anything, he assumes that isn't enough, "you took me in, and I turned against the hand that fed me, I know my ungratefulness can't be forgiven, but I express my most sincere apologies," He waits… still not enough? Hm, "this humble beast isn't and was never worthy of your consideration, but I still wholeheartedly hope with this apology your souls might find some semblance of peace." 

….Still not enough? What the fuck does this girl want?! He turns towards her with the intention to ask just that, and finds Qiu Haitang shaking in silence, curled around herself.

"...Qiu Haitang?" he asks, slowly moving closer. When he tilts to look at her face, she finds a bleeding set of eyes, nose and mouth. 

Oh. So this is what a qi deviation looks like.

He rushes to grab her wrist, the other hand moving to rest on her forehead. He has knowledge of the theory of how to treat this, if not practical experience. 

Shen Jiu allows his qi to circulate outside of himself and into the other body, he works in aligning the chaotic energy, straightening the worst of the deviation, he can feel how Qiu Haitang's also fighting to get her own body under control, and for a moment, with both of their efforts, he thinks they'll be able to pull her out of it.

Then her qi blows up, suddenly, erratically and out of proportion, and Shen Jiu, too, is dragged under that wave. 





 

 

 






 

 




 


 

 


 

 


 


 


























 

He wakes up.

He's on a bed, a comfortable, warm bed. It takes him a while to recognize the wooden ceiling, but once he does…

This is… Qiu Haitang's old room. 

A dream? His dreams are more often than not memories, and he's been remembering these times more and more with everything that's been happening, but he's also never been able to recognize when he's asleep as he's now.

He hears water hit against the rooftop, and smells the scent of rain. The bed feels real, his body feels solid. His dreams are detailed, but not to this extent, is this really a dream? 

Before this… he was in the burned estate, helping Qiu Haitang with a qi deviation, and then… he thinks he started to deviate too.

There's a knock at the door, "A-Tang, are still asleep? It's late!" 

Shen Jiu recognizes that voice. It's a voice that makes all his muscles lock into place and his breathing stop. This really must be a dream, for this voice to be here it really must be a dream.

The door slides open, and Shen Jiu remains very, very still, "A-Tang? Come on, it's time to get up." Maybe if he doesn't move he won't see him, maybe he will notice him but won't pay him any attention, maybe it'll be fine, "A-Tang? Is something wrong?"

A hand is placed on his forehead, and Shen Jiu can hear his own blood thrumming between his ears.

"You don't have a fever," Qiu Jianluo says, moving to take hold of his hand, "Your skin is a bit clammy, can you squeeze my hand?" 

Shen Jiu just blinks at this, having no idea what the actual fuck is going on, and Qiu Jianluo's face… it makes a weird expression, it's a frown, but he doesn't seem angry, his eyes are looking right at him, but they don't show the usual disgust, he doesn't look like he's staring at a pile of shit. 

"A-Tang, does something hurt? Why aren't you talking? Can you get up?" Qiu Jianluo's hands move to the sides of his head, close to his neck, too close to his neck, and Shen Jiu can't take it anymore, he kicks him on the stomach, scrambles out of the bed and tries to escape. 

"A-Tang?!" 

He feels a pair of big hands closing around his arms, and instinctively struggles against that hold 'No, no, no! I don't want this again, I can't go through this again'  

He doesn't actually expect the struggle to do anything, it's never done anything, it's never been of any use but to make Qiu Jianluo more angry... But, to his surprise, he actually lets go. 

Shen Jiu rushes to the other side of the room. That's not where the door is, he should have run towards the door, but at the moment, all he can think is getting as far away as this man as possible. He hits the opposite wall, and slides to the floor while fighting to regain control of his breathing.

When he looks again at Qiu Jianluo, the man's eyes are very open, his mouth hangs slack. He stands from where he was sitting on the bed, and with uncharacteristic slowness comes to kneel in front of Shen Jiu.

"What's wrong?" he says, and Shen Jiu is in too much of a panic to do little more than shiver when Qiu Jianluo tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, "Did you have a nightmare? You know you can tell gege about it," he gives a hesitant smile.

Shen Jiu blinks. "Are you…" he swallows, "are you talking to me?" 

Qiu Jianluo tips his head to a side "Do I have any other sister I don't know about?" he tries to joke.

Shen Jiu pushes him away and marches towards the full body mirror hanging next to the dresser as if possessed, the rushing of blood moving through his veins becoming louder and louder with each step. 

Inside the mirror, to his horror, instead of his own reflection a young Qiu Haitang stares back. 

"What the fuck?" 




Chapter Text

"Is he following the path?" 

"He is." 

"Good," Tianlang-jun picks up his book and retakes his readings.

It's been a couple of days since Shen Jiu left alongside the lady, hm, Qiu Haitang he thinks she was called? 

He and Zhuzhi-lang went back to the town and rented a good space in an expensive inn, because the gremling of money savings isn't here to yell at them for once. 

"I-is that a human rib?" Zhuzhi-lang says, he looks up. His nephew is watching something through the window, he moves closer to take a peak.

Down on the street a dog is chewing on a bone. 

"Human ribs are curved, other animals' tend to be more straight. Monkeys' are also curved but they're smaller." it certainly seems like a human bone, "it either comes from a human or from another humanoid creature."

"What's the chance of it not being human?"

"Unlikely." 

Zhuzhi-lang nods. Tianlang-jun raises an eyebrow, what's up with that? 

Hm. Oh, well, whatever, he goes back to his book. 

As he's turning a page, he feels the girl fighting against the restriction again. He isn't checking on exactly what she's doing, between him keeping her actions in check and Zhuzhi-lang monitoring Shen Jiu's health he isn't worried about her murder attempts, and direct surveylance would take too much of his attention. For the moment he just set the parameters to 'freeze when intending to cause physical harm' and let the blood do its thing, but he still feels a weak pull from it when it flares up. 

He's got to respect her stubbornness, this is the third time today.

Twenty pages later he asks again, "Is he still following the path?" 

 


 

"How is Jiu'er doing?" Tianlang-jun asks, and when he receives no answer he looks up.

Hm. He's the only person in the store. Now where did his precious nephew go? 

He stands at the door and looks around, he spots him in a nearby alleyway…. opening a cat's stomach? And retrieving something from it? Huh.

Well, let him have his snack in peace, he isn't going to scold him for playing with his food. 

Tianlang-jun goes back inside the store. The young lady is walking at a constant pace anyway, she probably wouldn't if Shen Jiu had ran away.

 


 

"How… How many bones does a human have?" Zhuzhi-lang asks over breakfast. 

"270 as babies, 206 as adults," he immediately answers. 

"H-how can one tell if t-two bones belong to the same skeleton?" 

Tianlang-jun blinks. Oh, what is this? What is this? Is his nephew finally getting interested in humans?! 

Ah, although Tianlang-jun is more into their culture than biology— but hey! He isn't going to be picky with how Zhuzhi-lang shows his interest! Everyone has their own entry points! He himself first got interested in humans via learning about farming techniques, you know! Let the kid like biology, and Tianlang-jun will later find how to link that interest to other areas!

"If it's related to humans leave it to me!" he proclaims, puffing out his chest, "now, on how to know if two bones have the same source you'll have to break a piece of each one and……." 

 


 

The young lady is very impatient today. It seemed like she had calmed down, but today she's been trying to go against the blood restriction at least twenty times now. Shen Jiu must be really pissing her off.

It's honestly making it hard to concentrate on the poetry book he bought yesterday. 

He has half a mind of twisting her insides a little, just to send a message that some people are trying to relax, but if she starts crying in pain in front of Shen Jiu he's going to know who did it and then get mad about it, so it's best not to. 

'Still, damn, lady, it's too early for murder attempts! Do you at least have a plan to exploit the loopholes?! Or are you just trying to get past the rules through brute force?!'

"I-I'm heading out," Zhuzhi-lang says, he waves goodbye at him. With the blood constantly telling him the girl's trying to kill Shen Jiu, Tianlang-jun doesn't think he'll need his nephew to know if the kid's still near her.

"Have fun." 

He returns some hours later, covered in mud up to his waist, "Junshang, is this a rock or a bone?" he asks, but Tianlang-jun is too invested in this part of the book, so he doesn't even look up.

"If it sticks to your tongue it's a bone, otherwise it's a rock," he simply says. 

".........oh, it's a bone." 

 


 

He oversleeps, and exactly in the day he was supposed to be actually paying attention. When he wakes up, the lady has already reached the city. However, he doesn't think she's at the ruins of her old home just yet. 

Her breathing is more irregular than usual and her heart is beating fast, but it's not to the extreme he would expect if she was back in the crime scene. 

He looks for his nephew and does not find him in their expensive rooms, so he moves downstairs to ask the owner. 

"Oh, he went to the graveyard," the owner answers with an admirable level of disinterest. 

"The graveyard?" 

"That's right, he came to the reception carrying a big leather bag and a shovel, and asked where the graveyard was."

"Huh."

Well, at least he's being proactive on his interests. Good for him!

Tianlang-jun could go there to find him, but he's pretty confident Shen Jiu will be with the girl, and what follows isn't too hard, so at the end he decides to take care of things himself. 

Besides, today is such a perfect day to spend it lazing around inside, and the inn they got is so nice for once, they can never get nice inns with Shen Jiu here, he might as well enjoy it.

About three hours later, the young lady stops moving, her heart is beating even faster than before, and it seems she's forcing her breathing to slow down in order to avoid hyperventilating. She's most likely in position, so Tianlang-jun stirs this and that and gives her a small qi deviation. She was already in an altered state anyway, this plan wouldn't work otherwise, so he just needs to give a small push for her to take the half step left. 

He waits a couple of minutes, but no one interferes… Was he wrong? Maybe Shen Jiu isn't present? Or is he going to let her die in front of him? Doesn't sound like him, he did seem to clearly care about this girl before they left.

Tianlang-jun's about to call it a failure and set things back in order, when a familiar energy enters the lady's body. There he is!

Shen Jiu attempts to straighten the flow, and Qiu Haitang is also fighting, trying to close and open this and that path. Soon they almost have the minor deviation under control and he feels very proud of his student for remembering what to do in these situations.

Still. Tianlang-jun hooks a finger and pulls from both treads, he braids them together, switching the side of each end, and coils the resulting string, then holds thigh for a moment before letting it go. He sends a wisp of qi through the blood to fix any misalignment when he's done, and both strands line up nicely before Shen Jiu's energy disconnects from the girl's.

He's just making sure the experience wasn't too harsh on the girl's body when Zhuzhi-lang bursts through the door.

"J-J-Junshang!" he exclaims, "W-what did you—!" Ah, no doubt his nephew felt him twisting Shen Jiu a little. Just a little bit, really. His concern is very cute. 

"Don't worry, don't worry," he brushes it off, "it'll be good for them in the long run!" 

Tianlang-jun's confident his plan will be a success at the end. As much as Shen Jiu says he killed the girl's family for no reason, that's unlikely given how much he cared about her life. He doesn't know what exactly happened, but he's pretty sure if this doesn't force them to address whatever conflict they have then it's truly a futile battle, understanding is at the core of any reconciliation after all.

It's in moments like this he wishes he had learned how to properly manipulate dreams though! Then he could have skipped all this trip and fixed things two weeks ago by himself! But as it stands, he only knows enough to stimulate already existing feelings and guide them into constructing their own illusion, instead of just building it for them. 

Ah, but in that case he wouldn't have been able to rent a good place, so maybe it's for the best they had to travel!

His nephew still looks apprehensive, biting his fingernails and looking at a side. Zhuzhi-lang frowns, as if concentrating and, oh, is he also making sure the experience didn't hurt their precious companion too much? Truly, these two's friendship is adorable. 

"Anyway, where's your skeleton?" Tianlang-jun changes the topic. His nephew blinks.

"My… skeleton?"

"You know, the one you stole from the graveyard." 

Zhuzhi-lang blinks again, once, twice, then straightens up, "Ah, n-no, it's the other way around! I was burying something! Burying! N-not—" 

"There's no shame in digging up corpses, Zhuzhi-lang!" he insists, "don't feel bad for admitting to it!" 

"I- I wasn't—"

"I won't judge you! I desecrated many graves when I was young too, this uncle understands!" 

"Junshang, I really wasn't—" 

"Anyway, Jiu'er will probably be mad when he gets back," if he realizes the experience was Tianlang-jun's doing, there's no doubt he'll have a couple of rude things to say about it. Ungrateful brat, "let's see if we can find a store selling quality fans!" 

Chapter Text

"A-Tang, I asked the cooks to make your favorite,"

"Go away."

"I'll let it here, just, in front of the door..."

"Go away."

"A-Luo and I are very worried, if anything happened to make you…"

"Go. Away." 

"Well, I know I've been busy… and haven't been able to spend time with you lately, I understand if you're angry about that... but I want to make sure you know baba loves you, right?"

"Is everyone in this damn house fucking deaf?! Go the fuck away! Get away from me! Leave! Me! Alone!" 

"...Alright. Please at least try to eat, even if it's just a little." 

Shen Jiu hears the person at the other side of the door stand up and walk away. 

He takes a deep breath, and slides the door open, just a little. As promised, a bowl of wonton noodles and another smaller plate with fried tofu has been left by the door. Shen Jiu slides the plate of tofu inside. He's able to get three bites past the lump clogging his throat before his stomach protests and he vomits a mouthful of tofu and bile on the same plate. 

"Seriously…" He's never been someone who throws up easily, that would be such a desperdice of food. If anything he's the kind of person who can eat anything at any moment and any place. 

Qiu Haitang's body seems to throw up easily though, it's such an inconvenience.

He throws the plate out, the sound of it breaking is nice. He shuts the door again. 

What a waste. 

It's been… some time since he ended in this… dream. It's honestly hard to tell how long it's been, it feels like days, like weeks, but also like hours.

He hasn't left this room at all in that time and somehow they haven't dragged him out, only shoved a poor doctor inside and after hearing nothing's really wrong with him left him be. He's glad about it, he doesn't think he could bear it, if he had to keep seeing their faces. 

Both Qiu Haitang's father and brother have been coming to talk to him through the door every now and then though. It would be nice if that stopped too. Somehow this misplaced concern is more unsettling than what he's used to. 

Shen Jiu curls up in a corner and hugs his legs. He hopes he wakes up soon. 










"A-Tang, I brought some congee."

"I don't want it."

"I know you don't really like it, but me and dad thought it might be easier for you to eat…"

"Leave. Now."

"It's got bits of braised pork! That's… probably not as good for your stomach, now that I think about it, but, I thought it would make it a bit tastier, so—"

"Is it too fucking hard to understand you're the person I want to see the least in the entire world?! Leave!" 

"...Alright. I'll just leave it here." 





Shen Jiu doesn't sleep on Qiu Haitang's bed. He refuses. He curls up in a corner and rests there. The smell of begonias sticks to his skin, viscous and warm, sickly sweet, and with each breath he feels the walls constricting around him. 

This place used to be his sanctuary, the only place he could run to in order to breath. But it was only meant to be that, a momentary rest. He doesn't belong here in the long run, this isn't his place. 

The manor is a place to get hurt, that's all it can be for him, that's all it could have ever been for him. Wearing nice clothes, eating warm food, sleeping in a soft bedding. That's wrong. That's so wrong. It doesn't go with this place, it never did, it never could have, and each nice thing only serves to make him ever more aware of the scars he isn't carrying right now.

People like him can't find more than a momentary peace in here, that's a lesson carved in every corner of his soul. This is different from his memories, and that compassion burns.

It makes him sick. 





"A-Tang, I was thinking we could go to the market today, how does that sound? Just you, me, and maybe A-Luo too, it'll be a fun family outing! We haven't had those in a while."

"It sounds awful. Let me be."

"O-oh… alright. I just thought… Is there anything else you would rather do? Anything at all? Do you want me to read you a story?"

"No. Now leave."

"A-Tang, please, won't you just tell baba what's wrong?"

"I would rather die." 






His stomach hurts and he recognizes this sensation as hunger. It's been a while since he's been so hungry his stomach starts to twist itself, ah, how nostalgic. How are you doing old friend? 

He opens the door, and finds a bowl of soup. He thinks it's what they left this morning, but when he goes to retrieve it, it's warm. He didn't notice when they changed it, he really must be in a worse state than he originally thought if he didn't notice. 

He downs half the bowl, firmly covers his mouth with one hand and only stops when he's sure it's settled in his stomach. 

It tastes good. He wishes it tasted bad. He wishes it was cold. 





"How about we walk to the garden and back? Just a short walk. Staying in your room like this isn't really healthy,"

"I don't give a shit and you shouldn't either."

"Of course I care! I'm your brother, I—"

"Leave!" 

"I'll leave, don't worry. Just… think about leaving your room and walking around, it's fine if it's by yourself. Just— Maybe try to get some sunlight?" 






One night the walls are especially oppressive, Shen Jiu steps outside Qiu Haitang's room. 

Shen Jiu's good at avoiding people in these hallways, he still remembers the paths people avoid at these hours, what boards make sound when stepped on, what's the best position to stick to the shadows. 

He isn't going anywhere, he isn't trying to go anywhere, and yet, suddenly, he realizes his feet are taking him to Qiu Jianluo's study. 

He should leave. This is the one place he never wants to visit again. And yet… And yet, he approaches this room and places his ear against the door. 

There's the soft sound of something being hit, muffled grunts, he thinks he can make out Qiu Jianluo's voice saying something like "Disgusting little beast, if you don't stand up right now I'll kill you, don't test me," 

He closes his eyes, and just listens to it, and it's like each hit scratched his skin bit by bit, this ill fitting suit, branded again the scars he knows should be there, fixed his reflection. It burns. 

He hears Qiu Jianluo's steps approaching the door, but Shen Jiu doesn't run. He just stands there, and waits. 

Qiu Jianluo opens the door. His face is decorated by very dark eyebags, his skin pale. Shen Jiu feels his shredded costume's got to be transparent right now, and waits for the recognition of the street rat he so obviously is, waits for his face to twist into an ugly glare and for him to raise his hand.

Qiu Jianluo's face brightens. "A-Tang!" 

Ah.

Shen Jiu feels sick. 

He turns around and starts marching back to the borrowed room.

"A-Tang, wait!" Qiu Jianluo follows, "I- I know it's very late, but since you left your room why don't we make an exception and do something? Anything you want!"

Shen Jiu stops, but doesn't turn around, "Anything?"

"Sure, anything!"

"Can I enter your study?"

"Ah"

"You never let me, can I enter your study?" 

"Maybe… Maybe tomorrow,"

"Why not right now?"

"One of our dogs bit one of the servants. I have it locked in there."

"I thought I heard something being hit. Was that it?"

"I was punishing it, just a little... it almost bit off that girl's hand, you see. Something has to be done." 

"Ah, I see." Shen Jiu keeps walking, "I'm going back to my room."

"Don't- Don't you want me to at least carry you?!" Shen Jiu feels two hands coming to his sides and quickly slaps them away.

"Don't touch me!" he exclaims, turning to glare at Qiu Jianluo.

"...I'm sorry," he simply answers, actually looking remorseful for once.

He can't take any more of this. He's going to throw up. Shen Jiu runs towards Qiu Haitang's room.

"A-Tang wait!" Qiu Jianluo follows, but doesn't open the door when Shen Jiu locks himself inside, "A-Tang, come on…"

"Leave me alone!"

"A-Tang!" Qiu Jianluo lets out a strangled, frustrated sound, and Shen Jiu feels more than hears him resting his back against the door and sliding to the floor. "A-Tang, please, just tell me what's wrong! Why won't you leave your room?! Why won't you talk to us?!"

"It's none of your business. Now leave." 

"A-Tang…" he whines, "Come on, at least tell me what's wrong!"

"It's not your fucking problem!"

"Of course it's my problem…"

Neither of them say anything for a moment, just enough for the silence to become uncomfortable, and then,

"I still have the bracelet you made me," Qiu Jianluo says. The meaning is lost in Shen Jiu.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Ah, well, I suppose you were very young…" his voice wavers just a moment, and then becomes steady again, "When you were, like, four or five I think, you were making bracelets for everyone, me, dad, the servants.

"I don't know how, you said it was a bird but I'm still not so sure, but, somehow one of them, the one you later gave to me, it ended dangling from the top branches of a tree. I don't really know how you climbed all the way up, I just know I came running as soon as I heard you scream,

"You were stuck and didn't know how to get down. It wasn't even that tall of a tree… I told you to jump, and that I would catch you, but you were too scared to do that,

"And I said… Do you remember what I promised back then?"

"I don't, and I don't care. Just shut up and leave." 

"I told you," his voice cracks a little, "that I would never let anything bad happen to you. I still stand by it. But, A-Tang, your gege can't read minds. If you don't tell me what's wrong, I won't be able to fix it! So please…" 

Shen Jiu breathes. He forces himself to breathe. The pressure that's been building inside his chest ever since he came here feels like it's swelling and it's going to crack his ribs.

Ahhh… 

He finally realizes why he dislikes having these people being nice to him so, so, much. He finally realizes why not being hurt hurts so much more than being hit.

"You can be so kind."

"Hm? Well, I guess I try to—"

"And that just makes everything so much worse."

"Huh?" 

Shen Jiu stands up, he walks towards the mirror, the one he covered with the bedsheets, he pulls from the cloth, and that wrong reflection greets him.

All this time. 

All that time.

He always thought, he was always so sure, there was something about him, there was something about these people, there was just a very basic thing that separated them, that made it so they could only bring him pain.

Of course the Qiu used to beat him up, it was in their nature to recognize the likes of him, to hurt the likes of him!

But is there really such a difference? 

Qiu Jianluo is being nice to him. Qiu Jianluo doesn't recognize him, doesn't see he's a rat from the streets. Was there really something inside him that set things so he had to bring him pain? 

No… No… Shen Jiu realizes just now, and the discovery is enough to almost make him trip.

That son of a bitch didn't have to, he just chose to be cruel!

All this time it seemed so natural, so normal, that of course they weren't nice to him, he was a street rat. How could he ever deserve their kindness?! He always resented the extra cruelness, but it's not like he thought there was the option for them to ever be good!

And yet what he sees in his reflection, isn't it superficial? Isn't the costume paper thin? This is Shen Jiu, despite the appearance, despite the lack of scars, be it that he smells like blood and sweat or begonias, this is definitely, unequivocally Shen Jiu.

These people chose this. It wasn't an inevitable destiny, it had nothing to do with him, someone just wanted to hurt him and so he did. Someone who didn't have to choose that. 

Ah. 

He wants to kill them

He wants to see the house burn again

He wishes he had tortured them more 

He thought he hated them but no. No, he was just angry about finding himself in pain.

Now he hates them. 

With the little strength of this body, he takes the mirror off the wall and throws it to the floor.

"I HATE YOU EVEN MORE THAN BEFORE!"  

All this time. 

ALL THIS TIME. 

ALL THIS FUCKING TIME THIS PERSON KNEW HOW TO BE NICE. 

"A-Tang, what are you doing?!" the noise of the crash must have been enough to push Qiu Jianluo into entering the room. 

Shen Jiu grabs a piece of the broken mirror and slashes him with it. It's just a cut, a superficial cut on the arm, but it feels more satisfying than running a sword through him. 

Qiu Jianluo grabs his wrists, forces him to let go of the shard, and for a moment, just a moment, Shen Jiu is convinced he'll hit him again, just like before. Just like he should. 

'Show me you were never human. Show me you don't really know how to be good. Show me this is just the kind of people we are' 

Warm arms wrap around him. His face is pressed against Qiu Jianluo's chest, and he's held so he can't move. But it doesn't hurt.  

"Shhhhh, shhhhh. It's ok, A-Tang. It's ok. I got you, don't cry..."

Ah….

It never had anything to do with what they were, did it? At the end even Qiu Jianluo is a person. Just as himself. Humans, nothing more, nothing less.

And to think Shen Jiu always believed himself to be hateful.

And to think he didn't realize anger and hatred were different things.

The truth is, the truth he just realizes, right now, right this second… All his life, Shen Jiu never really experienced what hatred is... until now.

Now he knows what hating someone is like.

"Please die." 

 


 

Some time later, the remains of the mirror have been removed and his hands have been bandaged from when he cut himself with the shards. He's back in Qiu Haitang's room.

On the bed.

There's no reason for him not to lie on it. It isn't too good for him, there's no reason for him to feel pain, and this bed isn't too good for him. 

Everything was just the whim of a person who knew how to be nice, and wasn't. 

What a waste.

If he wants to lie on it he will damn well lie on it.

There's a knock at the door.

"I said I don't want to see anyone."

"....Can I please come in?"

Oh

He recognizes that voice too. Even better than the voices of the Qiu.

Shen Jiu opens the door, and finds his reflection standing at the other side, the right one this time, shaking from head to toe.

He is so small…

He never thought it mattered, but he really was oh so very small.

Someone chose to hurt this small kid.

Shen Jiu grabs his own hands, and draws the kid to sit on the bed. He sits next to him, and immediately the little Shen Jiu buries his face on the fake Qiu Haitang's shoulder and begins to cry.

Shen Jiu doesn't remember being so obvious. There were one or two incidents in which he was specially careless, but he doesn't remember being this obvious. 

In the back of his head, this is a thought that's been circling for a while now...

If he's here, wearing this appearance, then this person who looks like him...

"Are you—?" 

No

No

That would be too horrible.

He doesn't want to know.

Shen Jiu shakes his head "Nevermind," he mutters, and the other him doesn't seem like he heard.

His memory from this time is filled with little holes anyway. Who knows, maybe there was a time he was this obvious about crying.




But man…

He really was very, very small. 

 

Chapter Text

He doesn't know how long it's been. This world's sense of time seems to be a little distorted, at first time stretched and stretched and kept stretching until Shen Jiu could have sworn there were entire years slotted between each day, and part of it was probably his own discomfort, yes, but not everything. Now it's moving faster.

Since the day he broke the mirror, it's like each week skips one entire year. It's not really like he goes to sleep and wakes up in the future, he has some vague awareness of days and days and days passing by, but rather, like in a dream, it feels like a speeding blur with short spots of lucidity. He realizes time's passed, but can't really feel it until it's already behind him. 

That's a relief, he doesn't want to stay too long in this world. If he were to go back to reality right this second it wouldn't be soon enough.

It could be worse, he supposes. He spends all his time in Qiu Haitang's room, insistent on not having to see these people's faces if it isn't needed, and other than leaving him food and speaking to him through the door they don't really try anything else to drag him out, even as the growth of this body and the change of seasons tell him the years have started to pass. 

The only person he lets in is the younger version of himself. The other Shen Jiu will knock at his door now and then, sometimes with the pretext of wanting to play a game, as used to do, sometimes just to take a moment to rest in this safe space, with neither of them saying anything, just sitting close by. 

He hasn't cried again, not in front of him, and the visits have turned more and more sporadic as time passes. He very consciously does not think about this other Shen Jiu more than strictly necessary. 

Now that some time passed, things have calmed down and Shen Jiu is able to think more clearly, he's pretty sure by now this world is, at least partially, made out of memories, both his and Qiu Haitang's. It took him a while to remember, but this situation isn't completely unprecedented. 

There was this one time, when he was around thirteen, that Qiu Haitang had a horrible tantrum, he doesn't know what caused it. She locked herself in her room, and her family had to leave her food just as they do now. He doesn't know if they also spoke to her through the door as they do here, but it wouldn't surprise him.

The whole affair lasted a great total of two and a half day, and Shen Jiu didn't remember it until now because that time has been fondly labeled in his memories as 'That one time Qiu Jianluo almost fucking kills him for real', leaving little space to care about how the lady of the house was doing.

It would make sense, if neither he nor Qiu Haitang know how her family would react to the current situation, for this world to drag from the most extreme case they know about. 

Shen Jiu expected noticing this world isn't quite right would take away some of the uncomfortable feelings he found while in here, after all, realizations found via lies ouch to be lies too, right? But that doesn't happen. He still hates, he isn't merely angry, he hates. Because even if it isn't fully real, fake isn't the same as false, and it's still based on real things, isn't it? 

A part of him already knew Qiu Jianluo could be kind, he didn't want to admit it, but he knew, he saw it, back then. When he would drop everything to play with his sister, when he would joke with his friends the few times they had visitors and he thought no one was watching, when he had to act as if he was nice to Shen Jiu because Qiu Haitang was watching. The asshole was capable of being good, there wasn't anything forcing him not to be. He just wanted to. Shen Jiu already knew, this experience just drilled it in. 

Really, the only thing noticing the inconsistencies of this place has done is keeping him from burning the building again. He has no interest in killing a copy, no matter how well done, and he also has no interest in having Qiu Haitang kill her brother without him ever knowing why, if Qiu Jianluo's going to die, he has to know it comes from Shen Jiu's hand. 

Because… the fire will still happen, won't it? 

It has to. When thinking about this house, about everything that happened here, that's the linchpin. Everything that transpired after everything that came before, it culminates in that event, he can't imagine a world in which it doesn't happen, in which this situation leads to anything but the killing and the fire, so the dream shouldn't be able to show such a world either… Well, maybe Qiu Haitang can imagine it. 

If the final date comes and goes, and this simulacrum goes on as if nothing happened, he supposes he'll have no choice but to tarnish this costume with the blood of her own family. But for now, he's willing to wait. 

 


 

There's not a single indicator of when the fire is bound to happen, at least none he can catch from Qiu Haitang's room. No sound, no sighs, no special event to tell him it's the time, and yet, when the day comes, he knows. He knows for a long time before he even smells smoke. There's just something, some feeling in the air, that tells him it's coming.

He doesn't sleep the night before, and decided to forgo eating for the day. He spends the entire morning and afternoon curled next to the door, still like a statue while at the same time every nerve in his body begs him to move.

In the evening, just as he's getting anxious about whether or not it'll happen again, he hears quick steps rushing through the hallway, accompanied by hushed voices, quietly panicking. 

He opens the door, and the servants moving from one place to another ignore him as he makes his way to the other side of the building, where Qiu Jianluo's study is. 

The door is open, he enters and closes it behind him. It takes him a moment to find him, with how disorganized the room is, the broken furniture scattered through the floor, decoration pulled from the walls, but eventually he sees him, on a corner of the room, Qiu Jianluo's corpse lies. 

Shen Jiu squats next to it. "You brought this upon yourself," he says. His eyes are closed, so Shen Jiu pokes at the eyelids until one of them is resting open again, "You know you brought this upon yourself, don't you? You have nothing to complain about, this is your own fault.

"You know, I used to tell myself it couldn't be helped, but it really could, couldn't it? You basically pointed a knife to your neck, was it worth it having something to kick?

"Why couldn't you have learned to punch walls or lock yourself inside your room to scream? I don't care how bad your temper was, there are people who break furniture when they get angry. Although I suppose it was cheaper to use me for that than breaking your own stuff… is it still cheaper now?

"I know I already apologized, but honestly I don't regret it one bit. I'm not sorry at all. What did you expect would happen?"

He sighs. Shen Jiu doesn't even know why he's doing this. What's the use of speaking to a corpse? A fake corpse at that.

Still. He brings his face closer to Qiu Jianluo's, and smiles.

"This little sister is very disappointed in her big brother, A-Luo. I hope your soul rots in hell."

He leaves the study, just in time for the first wisps of smoke to come from the hallway.

Shen Jiu thinks he knows where Qiu Haitang's father lies, and even contemplates visiting him too, but at the end decides against it.

It's not like he doesn't despise the man too, he knew what was happening, was perfectly ok with it. But, at least he never touched Shen Jiu, not because he ever thought of him as a person, just out of respect for others' property. Still, it means he doesn't feel much of a need to visit him.

It's about time he gets in position anyway, isn't it? 

The main courtyard isn't far. He gets there, sits where he's supposed to, and waits for the building to burn.

The smoke keeps accumulating around him, and eventually, the fire starts to show, spreading through the walls to the ceiling, consuming the wooden columns, making this and that part of the structures fall on top of itself. 

The servants run all around him, either carrying water buckets or stolen stuff, first in high quantities, but dwelling as the fire rides. By the time none of them are left running around the courtyard, the person he was waiting for appears.

He has to agree with Qiu Haitang on this, he really looks like a monster. A robe covered in bloody patches, his hair completely undone, eyes wide open bouncing inside his skull the only fraction of his face that hasn't been turned gray and black with ashes. 

On his right hand, a sword with its' blade turned red.

"Ah, what is happening," he recites from memory, not really putting any effort into giving it the proper emotion, "A-Jiu, is that you, it can't be, it can't be, what is the meaning of this, what have you done," 

The figure turns towards him, and begins to approach. This is the point where he's supposed to lie down and pretend to sleep, but he doesn't feel like it.

He's always wondered: what would he have said, if Qiu Haitang hadn't passed out? 

Shen Jiu comes to a stop, only a couple of steps apart from him, sword starting to shake with the force he's putting into holding it.

"Pathetic imitation," the other him mutters, "pathetic imitation, badly done, why is she still awake?" 

Shen Jiu blinks, "...what are you—"

"Wrong. Wrong! This is all wrong. Why are you still awake?! Don't look at me like that!" the reflection yells, slashing the air around him with the sword, the hand that isn't holding it tugging from his own hair, "You are nothing more than a badly done illusion! What would you know?! Go away, go away! None of this is real!" 

Ah… this is 

The sword falls to the floor as the other person throws themselves at Shen Jiu. Both of them end on the floor, faces very close from each other, bloody hands gripping his shoulders, pinning Shen Jiu to the ground.

The can feel warm tears landing on his face.

"This isn't how it happened! You're wrong! My family— My family was good! Kind! Dad! A-Luo! I didn't do this, this isn't how it happened! I love them, I didn't do this! I would never do this! They would never do this! They love me! He betrayed us! None of this is true! This is all nothing but a stupid farce!"

Shen Jiu feels his stomach drop. Those words, those words that can only belong to someone—

Well, of course, if he's wearing this skin then isn't an obvious question to ask where was the other person? All this time, where was the other person? 

He's been trying very hard not to think of this obvious question. He's been trying to ignore this obvious answer. Because…

 

Because if he's right

 

That's cruel. 

 

That's way too cruel. 
















"A-Tang? Is that you?"











"......A-Jiu?" 



Chapter Text

"A-Luo," she asks, pulling one more time from her brother's hair, "are you awake?"

"...I am now." A-Luo grumbles, sitting up and scrubbing his eyes, "It's late, A-Tang." 

"Sorry," she mutters, looking away. 

A-Luo, slipping out of the covers, places a hand on the top of her head, "What is it? Did you have a bad dream?" 

"...ye."

"So, do you want me to tell you a story?"

"Can I sleep here?"

"Do you really have to ask?" A-Luo scotts to a side, patting the space next to him, "come on,"

Qiu Haitang wordlessly hops onto the bed and A-Luo sets the covers on top of both of them. 

Even though she's tired, the bed is warm and nice, and her brother is besides her, somehow Qiu Haitang still finds it hard to go back to sleep. She doesn't even remember what her dream was about, something about wild animals and teeth?

A-Luo must notice it, because even though she thought he was already back asleep, she hears him say, "Was it really such an ugly dream?"

"I dunno," she mumbles, "kinda?"

"Hm," She feels A-Luo move, getting out of the bed, and soon he's standing next to her side, "give me your hand?" 

"Why?" she asks, even as she extends her arm towards him.

A-Luo grabs her hand and pulls her up, "Come on," he says, pulling her towards the hallway.

"Where are we going?" she yawns, "A-Luo, shouldn't we be sleeping?" 

"Didn't you just say you can't sleep?" he chuckles, "shhh, come on, come on." 

A-Luo guides her through some parts of the manor she doesn't know very well, ignoring the few servants that are still working this late in the night, answering with "just follow me, A-Tang," anytime she asks where they're going. 

Eventually they reach their goal, and Qiu Haitang doesn't realize they're in the kitchen until A-Luo lights on a couple of candles. 

"What are you doing?" she asks, as A-Luo searches through some drawers and boxes, eventually holding up a small bag with a triumphal smile. 

"This tea is for smoothing out your nerves," he says, twirling the bag between his fingers, "come here, I'll teach you how to make it,"

A-Luo guides her through the steps to make tea, boiling the water way higher than she thought one should and mixing in some brown powder. Then he lets her pour two cups, his hands on top of hers to make sure it doesn't spill. 

"Drink it in one go," he instructs, as Qiu Haitang brings one of the cups to her mouth.

It's horribly bitter, and she has to fight not to spit it. 

"Ah, I told you to drink it all in one go," A-Luo says, seeing Qiu Haitang was barely able to take a small sip.

"It tastes bad!" she complains.

"I know," he sighs, "I hate it."

"Do you really drink this?!"

"I mean, I should take it, but of course I don't actually drink it, it tastes bad," he sticks his tongue out.

"You're using me to finish it for you!" she accuses, and gets a light flick on the forehead as payment, "A-Luo!"

"It's calming, it's good for you," he insists, "come on, I'll drink mine too." 

He brings the other cup near to his mouth and raises an eyebrow at Qiu Haitang, waiting for her to do the same.

"Fineeee," she sighs, raising her own cup.

"One, two-!" 

Both of them throw their heads back and swallow the horrible mix as best as they can, sighing heavily once it's past their throats. 

"Ahhh, it tastes worse than I remember," A-Luo whines. 

"It tastes like medicine that went bad,"

"It tastes like the soil that gets stuck under your boots on a rainy day,"

"It tastes like congee that's been reheated twenty times,"

"It tastes like the inside of a pig's mouth,"

"It tastes like that one time my brother tried to cook,"

"A-Tang!" he gasps, "You wound me!" 

There's a pause that lasts about half a second, and then both of them start to laugh. 

"Very well, let's go back to bed," A-Luo says, pushing Qiu Haitang towards the exit.

"Can I wash my mouth first? It tastes bad,"  

"No time! it'll take some minutes to act up and then you'll fall asleep, hurry up, we need to get you on a bed,"

"You can just carry me if I fall asleep," she counters, nonetheless walking forward.

"And you think I'm not tired?" he yawns, "I'm about to fall too, come on, let's go back to bed, if the servants find us passed out on the hallway someone will have a heart attack."

As they move, she can feel some tension inside her body uncoil, her eyes begin dropping, and she has to put some effort into keeping her head upright. The sleepiness is so that she doesn't even notice they aren't going back to A-Luo's room until her body is opening the door.

"Father," he calls, slipping inside the bedroom "Are you awake?"

"I am now," their father answers, only raising his head from where he lies on the bed.

"I had a terrible nightmare, you see," A-Luo says, grabbing Qiu Haitang's shoulders and guiding her to come forward, "I asked A-Tang to sleep with me, but after all I think I would feel better if I could be with you as well, may we sleep here tonight?"

Their father doesn't say anything, just gestures with one arm for them to come in, resting his head back on the pillow and immediately starting to snore.

She climbs onto the bed first, followed by her brother, so Qiu Haitang's comfortably squished between A-Luo and Dad. They've barely reached their place on the bed when both of them promptly fall asleep too, their own snores about as loud as their father's. 

 


 

A kick to the stomach has Qiu Haitang doubling over, followed by a hit on the back that sends her sprawling on the floor. 

"Who do you think you are?!" A-Luo exclaims, his foot landing on her waist, "What 'A-Luo'?! Have I been so soft with you lately you think you can start disrespecting me like that, you little piece of shit?!" 

A hand grabs her hair and forces her first to raise her head and then to stand up completely, another hand grabs her jaw, digging painfully into the skin of her face and forcing her to look at her brother.

"Listen here, you brainless dog," he spits, face twisted on a terrible smile not at all like the ones she's used to see, "I'm master Qiu. Master Qiu, you hear me?!" He keeps pulling her hair until she has to tiptoe, "And in front of A-Tang I'm Jianluo. And in front of my father I'm young master Qiu, but never. Never. A-anything." 

He lets go of her hair and Qiu Haitang falls to her knees, just in time to receive a harsh shove that has her falling backwards, "Do you know how disgusting it is to hear something like that come out of your stinky mouth? Ah, I feel dirty just from hearing it! I'll need a bath after this!" 

A foot is on her face, not hurting, not yet, but pressing her head against the floor, "Do I need to be harsher with your training? Is that it?"

"....no." 

"Who told you you could speak?!" The foot moves to rest on top of her throat, "Do you think we can't replace you at any time? Don't think you're so fucking special!" 

With a last hit to the stomach that knocks the breath out of her, A-Luo storms out of his study, leaving Qiu Haitang lying on the floor fighting to regain her breath. 

What is this? Really. She was at the site of the fire, there was a brief, but strong pain, and then she woke up back in her old home, but everything is wrong. 

The building is fine, the weather, the animals, the trees. Everything seems so, so right, but the people. 

Her brother is completely different. Her father too, she hasn't seen him as much, but the way he looks at her the few times they have met, like a piece of furniture, that's not like him at all. 

She doesn't even care if she was thrusted into the wrong body, that's the least important mistake in this whole situation. If anything it's better for Shen Jiu not to be here, where he can repeat his crimes once more. She was so, so happy to see the building still standing, her family looking so alive, even a few years younger than the last time she saw them, she didn't even care if her appearance wasn't quite right.

But

But everyone is acting like complete strangers. 

With unsteady arms and legs, Qiu Haitang manages to push herself up. She learned early on just how useless it is to try and explain who she really is, but it's still hard not to say something during these… sessions. 

The servant's quarters are, in all honesty, not too dissimilar from the dorms in Kangfu. The building is better heated, the bedding way tougher, but the rooms are still too small for the number of people they house. Qiu Haitang drags herself to her room, which is luckily unoccupied at the moment, and lets herself fall on a very uncomfortable mattress. 

How long has it been now? She's pretty sure it can't have been more than a week, two weeks top, but it feels like she woke up here an eternity ago. No matter how long, she still can't get used to it.

Qiu Haitang reaches under the mattress and pulls out a small package of vendanges and a tiny bottle of medicine. When she pulls off the cork, it's empty, she stares at it.

"Are you mocking me? If you're going to steal the ointment at least take the bottle as well, you bastard!" She curses.

Qiu Haitang falls back onto the bed. 

Maybe she should have seen it coming... She's been crying most nights, both from physical and emotional pain because nothing here has been kind to her so far, why should she expect this to be different?

Fine, she wasn't as careful as she should have, she applied ointment on her bruises in front of other people, and didn't care to hide where she was putting it afterwards, that's on her, even if her house is a noble household, while acting as a slave she should have realized street rules applied. 

She got food and money stolen this exact same way plenty of times during those months she spent homeless, come to think of it, and even though Shifu is very strict when it comes to stealing she still lost plenty of things to her roommates' 'borrowing'. She really should be less trusting, Qiu Haitang thinks not for the first time, there's a point in which optimism becomes naivety... Now if she could just get that lesson past her thick skull! 

"Ah… Really, why am I so…" 

At least the rest of her things are still there— Qiu Haitang's eyes fly open and she hurries to look inside the wooden trunk where the servant's spare clothes and blankets are kept. Tapped to the bottom of it with a piece of paper and a bit of clay, she retrieves a set of six needles she's managed to amass during her time here. 

"Oh, thanks heavens!" She hugs her little package. If she had lost all her work so far, she would have… well, she would have cried, she would have cried for sure. 

She should find a better place to hide them, properly hide them this time around. If she looks at it that way, it's a good thing she lost the medicine, it'll be a warning not to let the same happen to the needles. 

Qiu Haitang puts the needles under her clothes, scrapes the bottle for what little ointment remains stuck to the walls of the jar, and bandages her wrist where it's starting to swell. 

All in all, the last beatings have been less painful than the ones she received at first, her brother has been limiting himself to kicking and punching, and hasn't used the whip nor the paddle again. It's probably because A-Luo is waiting for the wounds on her back to heal a little before replying that treatment, but Qiu Haitang wants to hope the trend will continue, A-Luo will keep hitting her less and less until eventually it stops, whatever is wrong will fix itself and he'll go back to being her usual good older brother who will then apologize for it all, then her father will go back to normal as well, they'll recognize her, Shen Jiu's body will magically turn into her own, and they'll share a group hug and live happily ever after for sure.

"Heh, as if..." 

She ends hiding the needles under a loose tile on the path to a small storehouse. It's not the best place to put them, and she might move them again later on, but for now it will do. 

The day continues calmly... for this place. She washes some clothes, cleans some floors, and tries to ignore the pains that plague her body. In the evening, one of the old women that works in the kitchen gifts her a small bag with food, the head of servants finds out about it and assumes Qiu Haitang stole it, so she receives a long and boring lecture about knowing her place… but she's still allowed to keep the food. 

At night she lies on a thought bed surrounded by people she doesn't really know. Qiu Haitang rubs the ugly bruise blossoming on her hip, and stares at the ceiling.

Originally she wanted to wait until she had amassed at least twenty needles, but thinking about it, she probably can manage fine enough with just ten, right?

 


 

"I think A-Luo is asleep," Qiu Haitang says, once her dad finishes reading the current poem.

"Oh?" Her dad closes the book and turns towards A-Luo, who had brought a small desk to the garden so he could be around his family while she played, and at the same time keep up with his calligraphy studies. Now his face is resting on said desk, a sheet of paper plastered to his cheek with saliva, "your brother has been working hard on his studies since we got him a new tutor. I'll scold him later for neglecting his sleep, but for now let him rest." 

"O-kay," she intones, her attention going back to the colorful flowers and beautiful blues sky while her father continues with a poem about a cat.

Dad is in the middle of the third poem about animals, when Qiu Haitang stands up and walks towards the desk. She slides the brush out of her brother's hand, and before anyone can stop her draws a set of whiskers on his face. 

"A-Tang," her father admonishes, and she freezes. 

"Sorry, dad, that was silly of me," she mutters, lowering her head. 

Her father takes the brush from between her fingers and—

And draws a pair of fake eyes on top of A-Luo's eyelids.

"Dad?!"

"Yes? What is it, A-Tang?" her father replies, no change in his expression, even as he moves to join A-Luo's eyebrows with a thick line of ink between them. 

Qiu Haitang gapes at this, and then a huge grin grows on her face. She moves behind A-Luo and unties his hair, beginning to put it into three brands. As usual, her brother is quite the heavy sleeper. 

Her father is just finishing the last character of the poem he's writing on A-Luo's forehead when her brother raises his head and both of them freeze.

"Father?" he mumbles, his voice still heavy with sleep, "what are you doing?"

Their father places the brush on the desk, straightens his back and says, "Let this be a lesson on the importance of proper sleep," 

A-Luo blinks three times, then rushes to touch his face and gasps when his fingertips return black, "Father?!" he exclaims.

"Lessons are better learnt with incentives, let this help you remember it, Jianluo," 

A-Luo continues staring, turns towards Qiu Haitang, turns back towards his father, and stares a little more. 

He lowers his head, "I understand," 

Their father nods, "I'm glad you've learned the lesson,"

"But, father," A-Luo says, one of his hands raises slowly, it is holding the ink brush, "don't you believe I deserve some compensation?"

Their father blinks, "...I don't understand."

"When we inconvenience others we must pay compensation, right?" A-Luo continues, his face finally rising, his eyes shining with something ominous, "That is what you've teached us, isn't it right?"

Their father blinks again, "It's different when it's a deserved punishment," 

"Father, please think of the example you're setting for A-Tang, even if it's as a punishment, she might misunderstand" that hand moves, very, very slowly, getting closer to their father, "please show her how we must give compensation," 

"I just remembered, I have something else I must attend to," their father says, standing up, "right now," 

"Father!" A-Luo exclaims, standing from his seat and following his father as he leaves the gardens, "it will take a second, one second, please!" 

"And there they went…" she mutters once both of them are gone. 

She goes back to the poetry book, but when she reopens the page where they left she sees she can't understand more than three characters, "Now what do I do with this?" 

She's about to go ask a maid to read it, when A-Luo returns. He kneels in front of her, dips the brush on the plate of still fresh ink, and draws something around her mouth.

Qiu Haitang blinks, "A-Luo?!" 

A-Luo grins. "You think I wouldn't know you had something to do with it?" he pats her head, "let this be a lesson, A-Tang, like dad likes to say, a lesson," then he stands up again, and resumes moving in the direction their father went.

Qiu Haitang stands up and goes to the nearby fountain. On the clear water, she can see her reflection now sports a mustache and a beard.

"A-Luo!" she yells, rushing to take one of the calligraphy brushes left on the desk, she then dips it in ink and runs after her brother and father, "You'll pay for this!" 

 


 

The door slides open and the wooden rod falls to the floor next to where Qiu Haitang is curling into a tiny ball. 

"Father!" she hears A-Luo say, the tone painfully familiar, actually familiar, followed by someone stepping inside the room, "Oh no, did I miss the meeting with the suppliers?! I'm so sorry, I wasn't aware of the time—"

"It's alright, there's still two hours left before that," she hears her father say, "and it's not like you need to attend in the first place, it's just a boring meeting with some minor merchants, it's alright if you miss it,"

"I want to go! I have to start getting the hang of these things if I'll become the head of the house someday, right?" 

He left the door open, Qiu Haitang notices. She risks looking at her family, they don't seem to be paying any attention to her. 

"Hm, that's certainly a good attitude to have." 

"But, father, why have you come here then? Not that I don't appreciate seeing you." 

Helping herself with her elbows she begins crawling towards the exit. She is shaking, and her vision is starting to get blurry with exhaustion, but if she makes it to the door she might be able to stand up and walk away.

"She didn't eat again… I was thinking of taking some time off, so I can be there for her properly once she leaves her room." 

"I'm sure she would appreciate it,"

She accidentally hits her side against a table while trying to make her way there. The sharp corner digs painfully on the small wound near her ribs, she thinks it opens, because soom there's a path of warmth on her side. She bites her lips not to let any sound out, and continues moving towards the open door.

"But we're in the second half of the year, and you know that's the time when we're the busiest. So, I'm handing some things to you. Can you manage?" 

Their voices sound distant under the sound of her own pulse, and the bothersome whistle that's nestled itself inside her ears, so she ignores them and focuses on crawling forward.

"Don't worry, father. I'll show you I'm capable of it,"

"I'll send you some of the documents you'll have to look over after the meeting, then," 

She finally manages to reach the door, her fingers touch the wooden floor of the hallway and she tries to push herself past the threshold. 

"Your pet is trying to escape, by the way." 

"Oh, it's fine. It's fun to grab him just as he reaches the door. Want to try it?"

"No, you have your fun," 

Just as she's trying to rise from the floor, something grabs her leg and pulls her back inside, her arms give up, her head hits the floor, and she passes out. 

 


 

It takes a couple of days for her to be able to move properly, since a good part of that beating ended landing on her legs, but it seems like a day of a great beating is followed by lighter ones, so soon enough she can run unimpeded, if with a little bit of discomfort. On the fifth day of light beating she starts to fear the streak is going to run out, so Qiu Haitang rushes to retrieve the needles from their hiding place. 

She only has eight so far. They're of different lengths and meant for different uses, stolen from different places on different days, she tried to add a pair of scissors, once, and it ended with her being punished by someone who wasn't her brother for once. The servants don't seem like they pay attention but they do, it's hard to collect what she needs. 

She wishes she had better tools, but if anything she should be grateful she managed to get so far. It'll do. It'll have to do. 

Just as the sun is starting to hide, she makes her move. She's carrying baskets with supplies for the chicken pens alongside another two servants, and no one else is nearby, so she walks a bit slower than her companions, reaches for two needles, and sticks them on an acupuncture point on their backs. Both servants promptly fall unconscious and Qiu Haitang retrieves the needles before rushing towards the exterior wall. 

The wall is made of smooth bricks with very few imperfections to hold onto. Shen Jiu always was kind of sickly, getting tired easily and having problems running, and the additional injuries are of little help, so she doesn't want to try climbing the wall. Instead, she sticks to it and walks along the perimeter in search for a tree. 

She tries to make herself small and make little to no sounds, but she still finds three people on the way that see her. She throws a needle each time before they can alarm others, but people quickly rush to see why they fell down so she can't retrieve the needles. 

Five needles still under her power, the sun having just finished hiding, she finds the tree she was looking for. It's not a very tall one, but it's enough to reach the top of the wall, and has enough spots to grab onto that she was able to climb it when she was really small. 

She grunts and struggles, her bruises and cuts protesting at the strain, but still manages to get to the top of the wall. 

Now the problem is the drop at the other side. It's not tall enough jumping will kill her, but more than enough for her kid body to break a bone. The wall is thick enough for her to crawl on her knees, but only by virtue of her body being small and being careful of keeping her legs very close together. 

She knows there's a tree she can use to climb down some five hundred steps away or so from here, she's seen the top branches rising over the wall while doing other chores. She should be able to descend safely once she reaches it. 

Qiu Haitang crawls, trying to lower herself as much as she can, and hopes no one will see her. Because the heavens are against her, she ends being seen by the worst person possible. 

"What do you think you're doing?!" she hears A-Luo exclaim, and sure enough, back inside the estate her brother is looking directly at her, gesturing for guards and servants to see her too. 

The tree is still nowhere close, and people is starting to gather to catch her, so Qiu Haitang takes out one of her needless and aims at her brother,

"Sorry, A-Luo. I hope you don't hit your head," she mutters before hitting her brother with it, who promptly falls to the floor. 

That should give her some precious minutes while the servants panic around their young master. Qiu Haitang turns towards the other side of the wall. The drop hasn't become any shorter than before.

Two of the four needles she has left are very long and sturdy, she feels the other side of the wall with one hand, looking for cracks and fissures between the bricks, then once she finds one nails one of the needles to it, as low on the wall as she can get, hitting it with her feet until it's well and truly stuck.

Qiu Haitang grabs the needle, and jumps. It makes a terrible cracking sound, but it doesn't break, and she's left suspended on the outside of the compound. She takes the second needle, and tries to repeat the process again. 

Once she takes hold of the second needle, she tries to unpin the first one, but there's another sound of something cracking, and this time it does yield, breaking cleanly into two halves. 

Qiu Haitang falls on her side and rolls. It hurts, it really, really hurts, but not as much as some of the punches and kicks she's endured these past few days, these past few weeks, and so she's able to force herself to stand up. 

The noise at the other side of the wall is becoming louder, there's no doubt the guards will be on their way. Her feet are unsteady, but that doesn't stop her from running towards the city as fast as she can. 

 


 

There are few things Qiu Haitang enjoys more than going to the market.

The colorful stands, the smell of food, the sound of people going about their day, it all just fills her with content. 

And of course, there's also buying things! 

She doesn't need new things, but oh, isn't it so much fun to get them anyway? All those sparkling, gorgeous things, clothes, toys, books! All new, new, new! What could be better than to add new things to her life? New experiences enrich us, says her father. New people fulfills us, says her brother. So then, new things entertain us, would say Qiu haitang. She can't help but to flutter around the stalls like a moth attracted to light, picking this and that thing that catches her eyes: Some are gifts for others, most are for herself.

"A-Tang, please slow down," She hears A-Jiu call.

"Ah, sorry," she says, waiting for A-Jiu to catch up to her, carrying a box with stuff alongside the rest of the servants she's brought with her. 

She knows she shouldn't run too much, if not for fear of getting lost, at least out of consideration with her companions. It's just... New stuff! Shiny, beautiful new stuff! How could she be expected to control herself when she's surrounded by such wonderful piles of treasures? She grabs a beautiful necklace with jade and silver, and puts it inside the box A-Jiu has with him before moving to the next stall. 

A nice smell catches her attention, and she finds herself moving towards it. An old man is selling different kinds of candy: Caramelized plums, haw flakes, etc. She buys a bag worth of candied ginger, and continues with her purchases while throwing small pieces inside her mouth. 

"What is that?" A-Jiu asks at some point.

"Candy," she simply replies, adding a beautiful wooden figurine of a rabbit to the box he carries. 

"...Can I have one?"

Qiu haitang pouts and puts her arms on her hips, "No, I bought them, they're mine!" she replies, throwing back her head and looking mean.

"I didn't want any anyway, sweets are bad for you—" A-Jiu starts to grumble, and then his eyes go wide open when Qiu Haitang interrupts him by pushing a piece of sweet ginger inside his mouth.

"I'm obviously joking!" she grins at him. A-Jiu's cheeks get dusted with light pink and then he looks away. 

Cute!

 


 

Qiu Haitang runs during the night and sleeps when it dawns, hiding in the space between two walls. 

She isn't sure if she broke a rib with the fall, but after the adrenaline fades she notices a sharp kind of pain when she breathes. Qiu Haitang uses her teeth and the remaining two needles —She lost another one during the race through the city— to cut strips of cloth from her robe to wrap her chest with. 

By now the city guards have joined the private staff on the search for the escaped slave. She's almost managed to reach the point in which the rich parts of town begin to give way to the poorer areas, it should be easier to avoid her pursuers once she is in the slumps. 

"Isn't this a little overboard?" she mutters to herself after another two guards run past her hiding place, "what with that talk about being replaceable, huh?" 

And it's really too much for just one slave, isn't it? She didn't steal anything of importance, and even though Shen Jiu used to help A-Luo with work, here she's been made to help sorting writing supplies once or twice at most, she is in no way essential for the workings of the house. Even after attacking A-Luo, she expected her family to solve the matter more privately, maybe, maybe, to inform the local magistrate, send a couple of people to look around town, but not much more, so what's up with this city-wide search party?!

Another set of guards go past her and Qiu Haitang burrows further into her hiding place. 

It ends taking two more days of moving during the night and hiding during the day before she reaches the slumps. The city is still swarming with people looking for her, if anything more than the first day of running, but at least in the poor areas her escape is a little more relaxed. 

Or so she thinks 

After days of only seeing the light of day as it seeps through cracks into the holes she inhabits, after running for a hiding place as soon as the sky begins to clear and only moving again when it darkens, she can't help put to slip into the streets when she finally reaches a place without guards. She takes five nice, sweet steps into the lapidated road, warm light showering her skin, and then someone grabs her wrist. 

"You're the escaped slave from the Qiu!" an old man exclaims, an old man that's clearly a civilian and who shouldn't know nor care about who she is.

"I'm not," she replies, even as the man starts dragging her in the direction of the house, "I don't know what you're talking about," 

"I've found Shen Jiu!" the old man exclaims, and then a young woman, with old clothes and dirty hair who's clearly a beggar goes to grab her other arm.

"You should have thought twice before running away!" she tells her. 

Qiu Haitang blinks.

What? 

She tries to struggle against their hold, and finds she can't release herself. They really are capturing her, for real, dragging her back.

She manages to pull one of her hands down, still held by the woman, but now it's down. The needle inside her sleeve falls from it and into her hand, and she manages to stick it into a point in the woman's arm, then once her grasp goes slack she reaches for the other one, stuck inside her clothes by piercing a part of the collar, and strucks the old man as well.

Both people fall to the floor, one at each side of her. She takes two breaths, turns back to the direction she was originally heading towards and… notices… every single person, men, women, and children are looking… directly… at her… She stares back, not knowing what is happening.

A kid, so young he shouldn't be able to say more than ‘mama' and ‘baba' is somehow the one who breaks the silence.

"IT'S THE ESCAPED SLAVE!!!" he yells, with a surprisingly clear, loud voice, and in an instant the entirety of the street is rushing towards her.

"What is wrong with you, people?!" she exclaims and she turns to run.

"Don't let him escape!"

"Shen Jiu! It's Shen Jiu! Catch him, quickly!"

"He can't go! Go! Go get him!"

"The slave from the Qiu estate!"

"Shen Jiu, you won't get away!"

"Why do you care?!" Qiu Haitang yells as the mob chases her, "How do you even know all that?! Who are you?!" it's surprisingly ineffective. 

"Come back here! You can't escape!"

"Go! Go! Go!"

"Shen Jiu! We're coming for you!"

"He can't run forever! Keep going!"

"More people, we need more people, go call for the rest of the neighboring houses!"

"Come back here you slave!"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!! GET AWAY FROM ME YOU BUNCH OF MANIACS!!!!"

The chase ends when she's cornered in a blind alley, the swarm of people closing around her, her heart beats like a caged animal and her feet feel weak. With really no place to run or hide, she closes her eyes and wishes it will all just go away.

"Xiao Jiu, this way!" Qiu Haitang hears someone call, her eyes fly open looking for the source of that voice, and she finds a hand extending from upwards. She grasps it, there's no other thing to do so she grasps it and the hand grips hers back. 

She finds herself being pulled up, escaping to the roof of a small house, and then dragged by that arm, running through the rooftops, the mob that's started to climb the buildings close behind her. 

They disappear through a small hole on one of the roofs, into a pottery store, and then continue moving through the backdoor, over a fence, through the space between two houses, under a fence, until finally coming to a stop inside a big ditch, her rescuer lying on top of her as the multitude runs past them. 

"Are you ok?" the stranger asks as he sits up, once they can't hear the rushed steps of the mob anymore. 

"I'm fine, thank you…" she bows, and then properly looks at this person for the first time.It's a kid, a couple of years older than she's right now, wearing cheap clothes and a warm smile, "Really, thank you so much," she bows again. 

"Ah, it's fine, it's fine," the kid quickly grabs her shoulders and pulls her upwards, "Xiao Jiu, there's no need to be so formal."

Qiu Haitang blinks.

‘Xiao Jiu' he says. He called her that earlier too, didn't he?

Another person deceived by Shen Jiu's charming act, then? The fact he knows the owner of this body should put her on edge, but, somehow it makes her relax. It's not the kid's fault not knowing what kind of person Shen Jiu is, and he just risked himself to help his friend.

This person is someone she can trust, she decides that very second. 

"It's good to see you!" she smiles, and the kid gapes at her. Too friendly? Right, Shen Jiu wasn't one for huge smiles on his act, but more subdued expressions. She bites back that grin, "Everyone started chasing me out of the blue! I really wouldn't have escaped without your help."

The kid shakes his head, "I didn't expect you to escape the Qiu by yourself," he says, "were they that horrible? Are you alright?"

"They were perfectly kind and nice to me thank you very much" she does not say.

Instead she says, "I need to get to Kangfu. Please help me!"

He tips his head to a side, "Kangfu?"

Qiu Haitang nods, "It's a cultivation sect, two weeks walking from here! If I can get there Sh— the sect leader will be able to get rid of whatever is possessing everyone."

"Possessing?"

She nods again, "Something is controlling the people here. I thought it was only the Qiu, but," she gestures to the direction in which the mob disappeared, "Now I realize it's the entire city that has been affected."

"I don't really understand it," the kid admits, lowering his head, "...But, if Xiao Jiu needs my help I'll do my best!"

"Thank you, really," She can't help but to pet the kid's head. He reminds her so much of her cute little shidis and shimeis it makes her chest hurt. The kid opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again, looking like he can't believe what is happening, and then suddenly she's being pulled into a hug.

"I missed you," he whispers into her shoulder, burying his head in the crook of her neck.

"I… missed you too," she lies, because she would feel like such a jerk if she didn't. 

She will apologize after Shifu fixes everything, she tells herself. And explain that it's for the best that he didn't reunite with Shen Jiu again. It'll hurt but... she thinks she will be able to help him handle it, having gone through the same thing. 

"Let's get going," the kid says, helping her to stand up, and they get on their way. 

With the help of the stranger, they manage to navigate the slumps without anyone noticing them. He's clearly familiar with the place, which is good because Qiu Haitang can't horiantate herself to save her life, even though she spent a good three weeks roaming through the area after her house burnt down and no one came to take her in, before she was pointed in the vague direction Shen Jiu took off and took that road, and later had to roam other slumps in other cities until finally ending in Kangfu.

It took her more than a day to get out of the rich neighbourhoods. The slumps are even bigger than the central area, and it seems like now everyone is going after her, but with the kid's help they somehow reach the outskirts of town in less than a day. 

 

"What is this?"

 

Qiu Haitang stands at the edge of the city, and it's…

White.

There's no road that leads out of the town, there's nothing at the sides of said non-existent road, there's… nothing. There's the edge, and then where it should turn into the area outside the city it's just… white space. 

"Let's go, Xiao Jiu," the kid says, stepping onto the white before Qiu Haitang can stop him, and then… walks on it. Walks on the white as if there was anything to step onto.

Qiu Haitang swallows and attempts to take a step on the white, but her foot is met with nothing but air and has to take a step back.

"I can't do it," she says. The kid, who had already taken several steps into the nothingless turns towards her. 

"What can't you do?" 

"I can't walk in there like you're doing," 

The kid frowns, looks down, seems to mull something over, then looks back at her, "I'll come back for you!" he says.

Qiu Haitang blinks, "No," she shakes her head, "Just… carry me on your back and get me out, please."

The kid shakes his head, "I can't do that," he says, "I would fall alongside you,"

"Then let's find another way, there— There has to be something we can do!"

"I'll learn to cultivate and come back for you, you just wait for me,"

"Eh? What are you talking about?!" she exclaims, "Do you know how long that would take?! How are you even going to— No! Just— Help me, like you've done so far!"

"Don't worry Xiao Jiu, I promise I'll come back!" the kid insists, starting to walk away

"Aren't you listening—?! W-Whatever the case, if I can't leave at least come back here, everyone else is against me! Don't leave me alone!"

"Just wait for me!"

"Stop walking away!" she yells, "Stop, come back! Come back! What am I supposed to—?!"

The kid becomes smaller and smaller, disappearing into the distance.

Qiu Haitang falls to her knees.

What was that? What— What is this?! It has to be some kind of joke, right?! Even though she got so far!

The ground starts to shake, and then tilt. She rolls some distance back before she's able to catch onto the edge of a building. The movement of the ground keeps going and going, until it's a 90 degree slope. Qiu Haitang holds for as long as she can, as long as her arms will let her, but eventually she just can't resist the pull downwards.

She falls. She falls through the street, trying and failing to catch onto anything, but the ground is starting to drift away and the rearrangement of the ground hasn't stopped, it keeps tilting, until it replaces the sky and Qiu Haitang is left suspended on a nothingless white. 

She looks down, and realizes the city has wrapped onto itself, like the inside of an egg. And in the center, getting close and closer, the thing she's falling towards, is her home.

No spirit nor demon should be able to affect reality in this manner, unless—

"None of this is real" she realizes, two seconds before hitting the main courtyard like a landing meteor.

 


 

"You can do it, A-Tang!" Gege cheers, his eyes very open as she moves her feet. 

She really wants to use her hands to move forward, but if she does Baba will grab her and place her back at the beginning. It's so frustrating she could cry. 

She puts another foot in front of the other, and the next step comes naturally, and then she's stumbling forward into Gege's arms. They're warm, it feels nice. 

"You did it!" Gege grins, leaving kisses on her cheeks and hair, "baba, did you see?! A-Tang walked!

"I saw," baba snorts, then sighs, "Even though she wouldn't do it when I was the one calling her," 

"You can be a little intimidating, baba," Gege says, one arm leaving from where it was around her, so she takes a deep breath, redying herself to scream, but then it's quickly set back on her back and her face is squished against his chest. It's warm and dark, and that makes her sleepy. 

"No, she just really likes you," baba says, and she can feel a new weight of arms settling around her, "You really will make a good older brother."

"Hehe, you think so?" Gege laughs, "I hope you're right." 

 


 

"You've really done it this time," 

Qiu Haitang is kneeling in A-Luo's study as her brother walks back and forth while holding a whip.

Or, well… No, not her brother. The image of him. He feels real but—

"I haven't even touched you and you're already crying?" he mocks, grabbing Qiu Haitang's chin and forcing her to look up, "Say, why don't you tell me what's so horrible you've started to sob? I promise you, I'll give you a real reason to cry!"

"Because…" Qiu haitang swallows, "Because, you see, A-Luo…"

Even his hand feels real. The harshness with which he's touching her is unfamiliar, yes, the voice he's using is irreconocible, yes, that face shouldn't take such cruel expressions, yes… but it feels real.

"Speak up, you stupid dog! Why are you crying now?!"

It feels real but it isn't

"...I'm crying because you're still dead," she confesses. 

Everything has been so awful, and yet, she was a little happy. She was back. She was back. There were unspeakable mistakes, there was pain, but she was back. They were back. 

Returning the dead to life is outside of what she can do, and that was solved. As long as that part was sorted out, if she just found how to fix whatever was wrong, then—

But they were never back. 

Through her tears, Qiu Haitang can barely see the person who isn't her brother twist that beloved face in a really terrible way. She closes her eyes before the whip hits her. 

 


 

After A-Luo leaves, Qiu Haitang lies there longer than she has, longer than she should. 

Eventually she stands up. 

There's a place she's been avoiding, a person she didn't want to see. Everything was so odd already, she didn't need the added weirdness of it all, but right now…

She wants to go to her room. 

So she does. 

"I said I don't want to see anyone," s familiar voice replies when she knocks at the door.

"Can I please come in?" 

The door opens, and a child with a good family greets her at the other side. 

She really was this small once, wasn't she? This little girl will have to grow up someday, alone. 

This kid reminds her of her shidis and shimeis too.

She wants to hug her.

Qiu Haitang takes her hands and guides her to the bed. They sit together, close to each other, and Qiu Haitang can't keep herself from burying her face into her own shoulder, such a warm presence, and starting to cry. 

 


 

"A-Tang, you like Shen Jiu, don't you?" A-Luo asks her one day.

"I like him!" she nods, "He always plays with me whenever I ask him to!"

A-Luo nods, "That's good." 

There's a pause as her brother visibly looks for the words he wants to say.

"Shen Jiu is very talented," he settles on, "He will be of great help on running the house someday,"

"Oh, I'm glad!" she says, because that's indeed a good thing.

"He's also a good man," A-Luo continues her, not looking at her, "the best one I've ever met, I'm glad we rescued him from the streets," 

"Is he that amazing?" she knew Shen Jiu was nice, but for her brother to praise him like that… he must be such an amazing person.

A-Luo nods, very quickly, "You know, there isn't any man good enough to be your husband, A-Tang," he finally looks at her, "But I think he could be as close as we will find, so that's why…" 

 


 

Life goes on. Qiu Haitang raises a barrier around her heart, the same one that helped her in the aftermath of the fire, the one that got chipped away little by little by Shifu and her fellow disciples. It's hard to go back to that mindset, the fact the family that isn't her family keeps looking alive and feeling real doesn't help.

At the start she waver, and so she goes back to her room. This world's Qiu Haitang stays there, she doesn't walk freely through the grounds, and doesn't look for Shen Jiu to play. She's gland, it would hurt otherwise. This world has been nothing but cruel, but maybe even it knows not to push too hard. 

Qiu Haitang, the one that isn't her, is warm and solid, and her presence means her brother won't come looking to make her hurt. It's safe, the way nothing else here is, but it's a safety she can't afford. The same as the sweet memories she would sometimes dream with, it hurts more than it helps, so, eventually she stops visiting. 

It becomes routine, this thing that one shouldn't be able to get used to. People are really great, they can get used to anything. 

One day, she's sent to the town to buy something, whatever. 

And that's odd, she hasn't been allowed outside since she ran away… hadn't been allowed even before that, really, but now they're basically pushing her to the door, only another three servants to watch her. 

She takes a step outside the manor and it's…

Fake.

Faker than usual. There's a single, long street, with flat buildings that seem made out of paper surrounding it. She takes three steps forward, and when she looks back the door to the manor has disappeared, and the servants that were with her have turned into cutouts too. 

The instructions couldn't be clearer, she's meant to walk forward. She doesn't like the idea of playing along with this world, but what other choice does she have? 

So she walks, and at the end of the hallway-like street, she finds a man.

"Hello, young man," the man greets, "I can see you have great talent for cultivation," 

"Not really," she replies. She's been meditating daily, not wanting to break the habit. She's noticed Shen Jiu has some of his meridians open, yes, but not much else, even with practice this body hasn't progressed on its cultivation at all as long as she's been here. 

"Wouldn't you be interested in joining me as an apprentice?" the man ignores her answer. 

"Are you a rogue cultivator?" she asks, eyeing the man's appearance again. The dark hues of his travel worm robes, and most importantly the old, rusted sword strapped to his hip. If a disciple from Kangfu took such poor care of their weapon Shifu would make them run three hundred laps as punishment. 

"Indeed," the man confirms, "I'm just passing by the zone, wouldn't you be interested in joining me?"

"Even if I wanted to," and she doesn't, "I can't leave this city."

"Why not?"

"Isn't it obvious?" she shrugs, "I can't walk through the white, I would just fall off. I can't be your disciple so please just go away."

"What if I told you I know how to help you walk on the white?"

"I would tell you I'm tired of people promising to help only to leave me once we reach the edge," she shakes her head.

"Are you just going to throw the chance then?" he laughs, "you must really enjoy staying here," 

Qiu Haitang purses her lips. 

Well, what does she have to lose? 

"Do you really know how to help me escape? Really escape?" 

"I swear it on my life." 

 


 

Against her better judgement, Qiu Haitang finds a weak hope growing inside her. 

Maybe this is what she's been waiting for, a way to escape this dream, a real way to do so. Who's heard of a dream that lasts forever, after all.

The day she's set to try to escape again, this time maybe for real, she finds herself in A-Luo's study, not getting hurt for once, instead writing something on a blank scroll.

She finds herself turning to look at him now and then. It probably won't work, but if it does…

She will miss him. Not that she ever stopped missing him.

Gods. She wants to leave, but she doesn't want to. 

Her mouth opens and closes, knowing she wants to say something, but knowing she doesn't know what. This isn't A-Luo, not really, she knows that, she should know that, but…

It likely won't work anyway. This Wu Yanzi doesn't seem trustworthy in the slightless, if the other kid couldn't get her out, why would this man who exudes a dark aura?

And if it doesn't work, there's no need for farewell words. 

She wants to leave.

She doesn't want to leave.

She wishes she could take her family with her when she leaves. 

She wishes her family were acting like themselves. 

Her heart's made a mess. 

Qiu Haitang finishes writing, and is about to leave when A-Luo stands from his desk.

"Do you think you can leave?" he says. Qiu Haitang freezes.

"No… of course not," she answers. A-Luo takes a step closer, she doesn't move from where she's kneeling.

"You're really shameless, wanting to leave this place again! Haven't I been educating you properly?!" 

She swallows. She doesn't know where this is coming from, not that the beat ups need to come up from anywhere, but maybe she can still descalate this. If she gets her legs broken today, it'll be hard to follow Wu Yanzi. 

"Master Qiu," she says, "of course I wouldn't dare to leave my home." 

Judging by A-Luo's face, that doesn't work at all. 

"You really are an ungrateful dog, going to whoever will feed it scraps," he spats out, "I can see it in your eyes! You are planning on leaving!" 

"So what if I do?!" the words tumble out of her lips without her permission, "What else am I supposed to do?! I can't just stay in a place where I'm mistreated!" 

As if to prove her point, A-Luo slaps her. Qiu Haitang takes a deep breath, and then stands up. She's almost as tall as A-Luo now, but the other still has a great skill at looming. She isn't intimidated by it, not really. It's sad, but not scary. It was never scary.

"Why must you be like this?!" she exclaims, taking her own step forward, "I was so glad to see you, I didn't want to leave! Of course I didn't! But what other option do I have with you in this state?!" 

"And what state would that be?"

"Wha— Isn't that obvious?! You— You're acting like a monster!" she pushes at his chest, "Why? Why?! Even though you're such a good person!" 

"Me? A good person? After all our time together that's your conclusion?" 

"I know you are," she takes a deep breath, "I have heard you speaking to m— to Qiu Haitang through the door. You care about your sister, you care so much even here. Of course you care, not even this world can change it... then why?! How can you still— Pick a face and stick to it!" 

The next punch to the face is no surprise at all, but she doesn't let that deter her.

"Don't you fucking dare bring A-Tang into this!" he yells, this stupid—

"I'll bring Qiu Haitang into this as much as I want to!" she replies, "What would she think if she saw you now?! What happened to being kind to others?! Whatever happened to we're here to be with other people?! You taught me all that!" 

"Don't tell me you believed all the trash I've been telling A-Tang," he scoffs, "It's all lies, I don't follow any of those, isn't that obvious?" 

This time it's her the one who slaps him. She expects Qiu Jianluo to hit back, but he just looks away.

"They're not trash," she declares, "They're not lies. Be kind to others! Fill your life with people you care about! Accept whatever comes with a smile! Everything can be a lesson for the future! Tell someone when something is bothering you! Help others whenever you can! Accept other people's help! Everything has a good side! You'll find a solution if you look hard enough! Be happy and make others happy! None of that is a lie!" 

"No, they aren't," Qiu Jianluo mutters, still not looking at her, "they just don't apply to me." 

"You taught me that," she begs, clinging to the front of Qiu Jianluo's robes, "how can it not apply to you?" 

He shrugs, "You don't need to know something to teach it." 

"But— But you always— Then what is the truth? How should I remember you? I don't understand any of this!"

"I love my family," he says, "that's not a lie. Everything else… maybe a little."

"You say you love your family,"

"I do,"

"You're good to them,"

"I try to be,"

"Then why are you being so cruel to me?!" 

Qiu Jianluo closes his eyes, just a moment, and when he opens them again the traces of her brother she saw just now are gone.

"Isn't it obvious?" he scoffs, pushing Qiu Haitang away, "You aren't a person! You're barely an animal! What does it matter what I do to you?!" 

A knee connects with her stomach, and she falls on her knees, just on time to receive a kick to the head.

"I can do whatever I want to you!" Qiu Jianluo exclaims, pouncing over her, his hands coming to surround her neck, "I can do whatever I want for whatever reason, a waste of space like you isn't even a human! So what if I hit you, so what if I hurt you?! So what if I fucking kill you?!" 

She tries to claw at his face, at his eyes, but her body isn't strong enough, and the air leaving her lungs and the pressure on her throat isn't helping. 

"The only reason I keep you around is for A-Tang's sake!"

What terribly ironic parting words, Qiu Haitang thinks. 

 

Her hands fall at her sides, 

 

her eyes roll inside her skull

 

She can't breathe

 

She tries to say something, her lips move, she doesn't even know what she's trying to say

 

And then



And then



And then



And then everything 




Becomes 







White  



















 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the colors return, she's standing somewhere else. Holding a sword.

And that sword is buried into…….

"Ah…"

The sword falls to the floor, alongside with her brother, who is—

"Ah….."

There's something warm and liquid on her face, splashes from when she—

"Ah… Haha…." 

Qiu Jianluo… A-Luo twists on the floor like a half dead cockroach and—

"Haha… ha... haha…."

When he stops moving, when his body goes limp, she can see, around his wrist, a string bracelet, becoming red with the blood. His blood. 

"Hahahaha…. Hahaha… hahaha!" 

"As long as I'm alive I won't let anything bad happen to you!"

"Hahahahahahahahahahah!"

"That's the work of the older brother!"

"Hahahahahahahahhahahahahahhahahahahahahahahah!"

"It's a promise!"

 

"Hahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahaahhahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahah—"




"Shen Jiu! I will never forgive you for what you've done!" 














































This place has to be mocking her. 


















It's been mocking from the very beginning.








It's been set against her for the start, why would this world stop laughing at her expenses now? 

 

This world that at every turn mocks everything she tries to do?

 

So what's the takeaway she's supposed to get from this?



What is the lesson?

 

What is the good side?

 

That all the pain and sadness, the fear, the anger, the months on the streets, having to beg and steal and beg again, the shame, the knowledge her family wouldn't approve as her manners and pride starts slipping away as survival takes over, keep living, for you have a reason, for you are set to bring justice, that the nightmares, the sleepless night, the constant hunger for home, the unending marching forward, that the desperation, the tears, the sweat off her forehead, the warm memories that pain her, the unending restlessness, "Just let go of all that with a sad shrug, for you would have done the same if given this role" is that what you're saying? Is that what she should do?

 

You've got to be kidding me 




You've got to be fucking kidding me here, this is such a tasteless joke.



Are you listening to yourself?











Are you even listening to yourself?!








THIS SITUATION HAS NO GOOD SIDES!!






Who is going to hear the claims of a place that clearly hates me? Aren't you simply making me suffer? Don't you just find it very funny to see? 

What lesson?! What stupid lesson?! 

Everything seems so twisted and distorted, a mockery of my previous life, and you expect me to see it, and suddenly accept this hell as the truth? 

Who would be so stupid as to accept it?! 

But fine

You want me to enact what happened, in this distorted twisted way this world works. 

I might as well please you, don't you think? 

Fine, I give up, I'll play my role at the end

This mockery might as well burn, let it be the only thing this and my home have in common. 

I've seen this landscape a thousand times in her dreams already, what's one more?

Might as well let the white take over 

And with a sword held in one hand

Wearing a red string around the left wrist

 

I should erase this place from existence



Goodbye, A-Tang, have a good trip 

Why, thank you, gege, I'm going out now 

Don't take too long, you know we worry about you 

Of course, father, I'll be back very soon




Her father is the first to go down. It wouldn't feel appropriate to send anyone else right after A-Luo, and even as her mind is high, high, high, watching everything from afar, her body knows this, and so it follows.

"Ha! Hahaha! Ha ha! Hahahahahahaha!"

She strikes down all the servants equally. Men, women, children, they all fall under her sword. She's violated her family ties, her home is set on fire, what difference does it make? 

"Hahahaha! Hahahahaha!"

Those who were kind to her, those who were mean to her, even the animals, she cuts every single thing that dares to cross paths with her.

"Hahahahahaha! Ha! Hahahaha! Hahaha!" 

Once everything is red or black, ashes to blood, blood to ashes, once the fire starts licking the ceilings, she remembers she has a very important date to attend to.

With a good for nothing child who thinks her family's murder scene is the perfect time for a nap.

She'll do it right this time. Why keep her from her home? How cruel! At least I survived? There's no at least, that's a punishment!  That is no good side! Everyone should go forward with their arms firmly linked! It's just common sense! That thin neck, too weak to hold that fat, empty head upright, she will make sure to bury her sword into it this time around.

Family blood mingled, what a beautiful concept, let's not let a single person out of the party! Surviving is cruel! At least we went all together, that's the one true at least! So she'll keep cutting! Until this red sword drinks from the entirety of the house of Qiu, let's cut people down!

 

Let this blade get drunk from all this filial love I have to give. 

 

She finds Qiu Haitang in the same courtyard this happened last time, sitting there, as if to wait.

"Ah! What is happening?!" 

"A-Jiu, is that you?!"

"It— It can't be,"

"It can't be!" 

"What is the meaning of this?" 

"What— What have you done?!" 

Subpart work. Even the copy of her words is wrong. She remembers the right script. 

Ah, what is happening? 

A-Jiu, is that you?

Are you alright? Are you hurt?

It can't be

It can't be

You wouldn't—

What is the meaning of this?

A-Jiu

What have you done?

Don't come any closer

Please

Well, fine, she'll finish this once and for all as it should have ended the first time. Sword firmly held in her hand, she approaches that familiar figure and Qiu Haitang stares at her, her head held high, as she should have the first time. Her sight firmly buried on Qiu Haitang's face.

What's up with this disapproval? 

Haven't I played along like you wanted, joke world?

You think I don't know this is terrible? 

You think I wished for this?

What do you know?

Little brat, what would you know? Don't look at me like that!

Don't look at me

You don't know a thing 

What right does a baby who knows nothing about pain have to hold her head higher than I did? 

Don't look at me

I didn't want any of this, I would never do something like this because I wanted to, so don't look at me like you despise me

Can't you see I'm just trying to spend my life writing love letters? To those who left me, to those who spent theirs teaching me what it's like to be loved back, to load me with enough love to last the rest of my life now that they left

What's so wrong about that? 

The past was so pretty, let me keep on holding to the memory of it. Let me comply with the obligations to my family that I ended throwing away here. Moving on? How insulting.

What right do you have to judge, stupid replica?

Don't look at me

Don't look at me

Don't look at me!

DON'T LOOK AT ME!!

I already know how ugly I look, I couldn't forget that image for as long as I live even if I wanted. 

WHAT WOULD YOU EVEN KNOW?!

What's up with that child looking at her?! This is completely different from the first time around!

"This isn't how it happened! You're wrong! My family— My family was good! Kind! Dad! A-Luo! I didn't do this, this isn't how it happened! I love them, I didn't do this! I would never do this! They would never do this! They love me! He betrayed us! None of this is true! This is all nothing but a stupid farce!"

I'll kill you

I'll kill you

As you will wish he had done

Bringing her hands closer to that ugly neck, she will—

"A-Tang? Is that you?"













The white recedes, just a little. 

 

When she first appeared here

Before she first appeared here 

She felt a hand trying to reach her

She was sure it was her imagination

But if someone will finally, finally, call her by her name, then...

 

"......A-Jiu?" 












 










 

 

 

 


 

When Qiu Haitang opens her eyes, she's on top of Shen Jiu. Shen Jiu, with the right age and appearance, her own hands looking like her own.

Slowly. Slowly, she doesn't trust herself. She moves aside.

Shen Jiu sits up, with the same Sluggishness with which she moved. There's blood under his mouth, nose and eyes. Qiu Haitang touches her own face, and her fingertips come back red.

"All this time, you were—?" she begins to say, then shakes her head.

She knows the answer. Shen Jiu was there, and she didn't notice. What a stupid question.

"A—" Shen Jiu begins, then cuts himself off, "Qiu Haitang," he amends, "the Shen Jiu inside the dream… it was you wasn't it?" he does ask. He asks such a stupid question. 

It makes her feel such a powerful, irrational fondness. 

"Was it true? What I saw in there?" the words come easily. It's not like a rock got stuck inside her throat, it's the most terrifying thing she's thought of, and yet the words just… come.

Because Shen Jiu was in the same world she saw, somehow, she doesn't know why, she doesn't want to know why… but it gives the mistakes credibility.

Shen Jiu looks straight into her eyes and says, not an ounce of doubt in his voice, not a single waver "No. It was just a badly done illusion made to trick you."

Qiu Haitang lowers her head.

"Ah, I see…." So it was all true.

Shen Jiu is good at lying. He must have been always good at lying, and yet, in this moment, perhaps because the conexion hasn't been cut off, perhaps because she knows if it was the truth his voice would break a little, but she knows, Qiu Haitang knows, in her heart, in her bones, in her soul. 

Shen Jiu is being kind. He's lying. 

Shen Jiu closes his hands into fists and looks away, probably knowing, the same way she just did, that Qiu Haitang saw through him.

She looks at him. Truly looks, and she sees that kid who would laugh but never cry. 

In truth she wasn't happy when her brother told her who she would marry. She wasn't sad either, she just accepted it… and then worked so, so hard to love him.

This stupid child. 

Ah, she's a stupid child too, isn't she?

She moves closer, raises her hand, and slowly, places it on Shen Jiu's cheek. 

"A-Jiu," she calls, "you're really stupid," 

"A-Tang…" he mutters, leaning into the touch, "I'm sorry," 

Shen Jiu winces, just a little, and moves his head away, there a tiny speck of blood on his cheek, "Why do you have a needle on your finger?" 

Qiu Haitang blinks.

Oh, she completely forgot about the poison.

She's been trying to forget about it for weeks now and she finally forgets about it NOW?!

"Where is my bag?!" she exclaims. A-Jiu startles and then points at somewhere behind her. 

Qiu Haitang rushes towards the discarded bag, turning it upside down and letting all kinds of flasks fall from it. She grabs the one she needs and rushes back towards Shen Jiu, pushing it onto his face, "Drink this!" she exclaims.

"I- What—" There's really no time for doubt, she quickly pulls the crock off and begins trying to push the bottle inside his mouth, "Stop that!" he complains.

"We don't have time for this!" she urges, "Just drink it! Or the poison—!"

"Poison?!"

"Just open your mouth!" 

"A-Tang, stop that!" A-Jiu slaps her hand away, and her eyes widen as the flask leaves her hand and goes flying away, spilling all the liquid.

"YOU MORON!" she grabs A-Jiu's robes and begins to shake him, "THAT WAS THE ONLY ANTIDOTE I HAD!"

"A-Tang—"

"HOW COULD YOU!" she's crying now.

"Hey, listen—"

"YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DIE AFTER ALL THAT!"

"Listen, it's fine—"

"YOU ABSOLUTE SCUMBAG!"

"A-Tang, it's fine! I'm immune to poison!" 

Qiu Haitang stops shaking him.

.

.

.

She blinks

"What?! No, you're not!"

"I am!"

"Since when?!"

"Like, two weeks ago? I—" 

"How?!" 

"I drank some blood and—"

"Why?!" 

"I- I don't know?!" 

Qiu Haitang stares at him. A-Jiu stares back.

"..."

"..."

"...heh… he.. ha ha"

"...pfff, ha ha ha"

"Hahahaha… hahaha!"

"Hahahahahaha!" 

Both of them begin to laugh. And laugh, and laugh, and keep laughing while holding their stomachs.

Once they've finally laughed so hard neither of them can breathe, they cry. 

Chapter Text

Neither of them say anything for a long while, just sit in the middle of the old manor's remains while trying and failing to dry their faces. 

Shen Jiu doesn't cry loudly, he's never done so unless he's faking it. His real tears are silent, the only sound being little breathy sobs now and then as a thin line of liquid slides down his cheeks.

Qiu Haitang cries like a bawling cow, each intake of air sounding like she's swallowing sandpaper instead of air, snot and tears dripping freely from her chin and onto her clothes, a few strands of hair sticking to her red face.

Eventually they run out of tears to spend, and it becomes obvious if no one says or does anything they'll just end up spending the night at the ruins. 

"Let's find an inn," Shen Jiu says.

Qiu Haitang looks at him, and tries to smile, "Sounds good. Let's do that," It's… not a very good smile, all forced and strained, and not reaching her eyes in the slightless. 

Shen Jiu tries to smile too, he's much more experienced at it and as such it comes off as natural and nice, not too exaggerated, with some wrinkles around the eyes. Qiu Haitang, inexplicably, grimaces when she sees it, then stands up and starts walking off. 

Shen Jiu doesn't know what's up with that reaction, he's pretty sure his smile was flawless, but he doesn't say anything and just follows after her. 

 


 

"Just ask for a single room, there's no reason to get two."

"But I have the money to pay for two."

"That doesn't mean you have to waste it without any reason."

"It's my money, I will waste it if I want to."

"Fine, then get your wasteful two rooms, but for my part I'm going to find a cheaper inn for myself—" 

"A-Jiu!" Qiu Haitang cuts him off with a flick to the forehead, "when someone buys you something you ought to say 'thank you very much', not complain about prices," she sighs, then turns towards the servant that received them at the door, "We would like one room for two, people."

They're at a not too expensive, not too cheap inn a little before where the well off part of town blends into the poorer neighborhoods that Qiu Haitang picked. Normally Shen Jiu would have gone for the cheapest stay they could find, or even consider setting camp outside the city, but after everything that went down he's tired, and he's sure Qiu Haitang is even more tired, so he'll let it go this time. A good bed wouldn't be so bad right now... It is her money, anyway. 

As soon as they enter their room Qiu Haitang falls on one of the beds and starts to snore. Shen Jiu shakes his head, it's not even that late, the sun is still high on the sky.

Personally he's more hungry than sleepy, so he sets their things down and goes to ask for some food to be brought to their room, then wastes time on the courtyard near their door until it arrives. It's… not been a long while since he last bathed on sunlight like this, it's most certainly not been that long nor did it feel that long, but it's still nice. 

"A—" he stops himself. It's true Qiu Haitang has called him 'A-Jiu' a couple of times now, and he too got carried away a little when the dream just finished and ended calling her 'A-Tang', but that's not like— "Qiu Haitang," he calls, shaking her shoulder, "The food is here."

"Hmm?" she yawns as she sits up, "What food?" 

"This food," he shoves a bowl of rice into her hands, then starts to serve himself this and that thing. 

"Oh, thank you," she moves to sit next to the table and take from this and that too, "this is well made,"

"I guess,"

"I like the pork,"

"Hm,"

"You know, we don't eat meat in Kangfu, Shifu believes a light vegetarian diet is good for cultivation."

"Fascinating," 

"Sometimes disciples bring beast carcasses from night hunts and we'll cook those without Shifu knowing,"

"Hm,"

"But it's been a while since I've eaten pork,"

"Hm,"

"Do you eat meat often? Our travel supplies only had rice and dried vegetables so I'm assuming not,"

"Now and then,"

"We should hunt something on the trip back, it would be fun! It might surprise you but I'm a very good butcher!"

"Sure,"

"Now that I think about it—"

"You don't need to do this, you know?" he snaps.

Qiu Haitang blinks, then looks down, she takes another two bites, chews and swallows, and then speaks.

"Doing what?"

"We didn't talk at all for two weeks," he says, "and now you're suddenly trying to strike a conversation over meat of all things. It's weird."

"Hm," she hums while chewing on something.

Qiu Haitang brings her bowl to her lips, throws her head back, and quickly stuffs her mouth with rice in a very unladylike manner. She then adds two pieces of meat and a carrot to her inflated cheeks, and swallows it all while hitting her chest, then sets the bowl and chopsticks on the table with a loud clank from the porcelain. 

"Fine, then let's strike conversation about something else," she says, a frown on her face, "Why didn't you just tell me about how my family treated you?"

"I don't know what you're talking abo—"

"We shared the same dream, I know what I saw came from your memories, just as you know what you saw came from mine. Don't feign ignorance, it's insulting!" 

Shen Jiu places his own chopsticks down and looks away, "It's not like you would have believed me."

"You still should have told me! All this time I thought you betrayed us out of nowhere, if you had just said something... Even if I didn't believe you, you should have explained! For heaven's sake you even played along!"

"What difference would knowing make, anyway?" he shrugs, "I killed your family, I burned your home down, I don't regret it, it's easier if you just keep doing as before. Knowing the reason doesn't mean you suddenly have to forgive me."

"That's up to me to decide, and it was also my right to know! It's not like I wanted to hate you!" 

"But you still do, don't you? Hate me, I mean."

"I… No, I don't think I do."

"I don't believe you."

"I don't hate you, I'm sorry I did... I'm sorry I tried to hurt you, A-Jiu."

"Again with the 'A-Jiu', what's up with that?!" he scoffs, "You don't want to hate me? Why?! If you think you have to forgive me because we knew each other years ago you can just drop that. Now you know about the past, don't you? So you must realize that friendship was an act, we're just strangers—"

"I know that!" she hits the table, making the plates rattle, "I know that better than anyone," she settles down, "I knew that before, and I still know that now, if for different reasons." She laughs, but it sounds too raw for a normal laughter.

"Qiu Haitang…"

"I hate not knowing things," she covers her face with her arms, "My dear brother became a monster anytime I wasn't looking. My father who preached kindness and justice turned a blind eye to other people's suffering. The boy I thought would become my husband is a complete stranger. I'll return to Kangfu only to find out Shifu keeps a basement full of human bones under her house! And all the other disciples will turn out to be anthropophagous monsters in disguise!" 

"I think my teacher would have mentioned something if that was the case," he says. Qiu Haitang lowers her arms just to give him a flat look. He takes out his fan to cover half of his face, "What? It's the truth!" he defends, "You can even ask him if your sect has monsters in it if you aren't sure!"

Qiu Haitang sighs and bends forward until her forehead touches the table, "Spirits, you're useless." 

See? This is why it was obviously better to leave things as they were. Shen Jiu had everything perfectly under control, knew exactly how to deal with this person's anger, but they had to end in some weird cultivation accident and now Qiu Haitang is thinking weird things he doesn't know what to answer with. He's used to receiving people's hostility, comforting others is completely out of his realm of experience.

"You're right, I'm kind of useless." 

Suddenly she shoots up and lunges towards Shen Jiu.

"Ack!"

"Don't just agree with that!" she scolds, pulling from his ears "That attitude is half of the problem!" 

"Stop that," he shakes her off, then covers his ears, "Ouch!" 

Qiu Haitang rolls her eyes, "Oh, come on, it's not like I can even—" she stops. Qiu Haitang raises her hand and stares at it, "huh." 

"What?" instead of answering Qiu Haitang takes a strand of his hair and pulls from it, "Cut that off!" Shen Jiu stands up and walks so he's out of her reach, "What's up with you now?!"

Qiu Haitang has a pensive expression that soon turns into a small smile, this one more real "I see…" she mutters, "I wonder if that means he trusts me now?"

"What are you talking about?" Did she lose her mind? He's heard of people losing their minds after a qi deviation, shit, should he worry?

"Nothing," she shakes her head. Then gathers the dishes and goes to leave them outside their room for the staff to pick up, "I'm still a little tired," she says, closing the door, "I will go back to sleep. And you?"

"I guess I'll sleep too," now that he's eaten his eyes are starting to feel tired. He moves to close the curtains and the room darkens.

"Alright. Goodnight, A-Jiu."

"It isn't night time yet."

"Whatever, just go to sleep." 

"Hmph." 

After a while, after he thought she was already asleep, when he's started to fall asleep himself, he hears Qiu Haitang say, 

"My name is Qiu Haitang, from Kangfu sect. You may call me A-Tang, if you want to."

He rolls so he's facing her bed. He can't quite make out her face in the dark. "What nonsense are you saying now?"

"I'm introducing myself."

"Why?"

"It's normal to introduce yourself to someone you don't know yet."

"You already know me."

"Do I?"

What a stupidity

Ah, and even though it's stupid, Shen Jiu knows perfectly well he'll still...

"...My name is Shen Jiu, student of the demon emperor of the south, Tianlang-jun. I don't care what you call me... Nice to meet you, Qiu Haitang." 

He hears her laugh. Dumbass.

"Let's get along, A-Jiu, we still have two weeks of trip back left." 

"...Fine." 



Chapter Text

Shen Jiu jumps away just in time to avoid the monster boar trampling him. He throws his sword as he does so, and only succeeds in getting it stuck into the beast's thick fur. The animal bellows and tries to change direction just in time for a knife to strike it in the one eye it hadn't lost yet. 

Now blind, it jerks and tosses without knowing which direction to take. Shen Jiu darts forward to pull free his sword, then retreats to the sidelines where Qiu Haitang is hiding on a tree.

"Ready?" she whispers as he lands next to her. He nods.

They jump in different directions, always staying outside the beast's reach, and Shen Jiu uses sharp leaves and rocks to guide it in a path that will make it crash against trees and rocks, while Qiu Haitang targets it's limbs with more sturdy blades.

Eventually they tire it out as the boar steps forward and falls to the forest floor with a hoarse roar.

Qiu Haitang cheers and approaches the body, Shen Jiu close behind her. It takes little more than burying his sword into the animal's neck for it to finally die. 

"Are you sure it'll be safe to eat?" he asks, as he takes the boar's hind legs and Qiu Haitang tries to raise the front, her slim frame disappearing under the animal's jowl. 

"Don't worry, it'll be safe once we cook it," comes her muffled reply, "The only inedible part of the six eyed saber tooth boar is the heart, and that can be used for other things." 

"Don't expect any sympathy if you fuck up and accidentally kill yourself with food poisoning." 

"Such distrust! Keep that up and I won't give you any pork, is that what you want? Hmmm?" 

"I sincerely apologize from the bottom of my heart oh great masters chef Qiu Haitang."

"Pfff, moron."

 


 

They cut the body and cook half of the spare ribs on a makeshift grill. The meat is tough and hard to chew, but for the most part it does taste like pork. 

"What do we do with the rest?" he gestures towards the part of the meat that couldn't fit inside the one qiankun bag they had, currently wrapped on cooling talismans inside some big sacks. 

"We can just leave it—"

"That's wasteful," he interrupts. They didn't go through all the trouble of hunting the thing to leave half of it to rot.

"Well, the next town isn't too far away, we could give it away—"

"Let's sell it," he decides.

Qiu Haitang raises an eyebrow, "We aren't short on money—"

"We also aren't drowning on it, so we sell it."

"Will people even buy this? It's not so bad," she says as someone who's used to eating worse beast meat would, "but it's also not prime cooking material."

"Well, of course, it comes from a great monster slain by cultivators," Shen Jiu reasons, "the giant six eyed saber tooth boar, known for its great healing properties—"

"Now that's just deceitful." 

"—there's no doubt eating from its sacred body will cure any illness—"

"Too much! Someone will sell their house to save their dying mother,"

"While incapable of curing the present ailments it'll work to prevent any future—"

"Now someone will buy it and someday refuse to go to the doctor when they really need to."

"It will return your strength and beauty from when you were young—"

"Can we not profit from little old ladies?" 

"By eating from this flesh there's no doubt you'll conceive a healthy—"

"Great, now it's desperate women who are infertile."

"It's just a potent aphrodisiac then!" he finally exclaims, exasperated.

Qiu Haitang is clearly about to voice another complaint before she stops, tips her head to a side, scratches her chin and cheek, and finally concedes, "We'll workshop it on the way there." 

 


 

Shen Jiu carries the sacks of discarded meat over his shoulders and back while Qiu Haitang takes care of the rest of the luggage. They're on a paved road through fields of rice, when they hear drums behind them.

They move aside as a wedding procession marches forward, a band, six red sedans, a car with treasure and four oxens, as well as a number of guards that glare at them as they pass by.

"A-Jiu, A-Jiu, did you see that?!" Qiu Haitang grips his arm and shakes it, stars in her eyes.

"If I had missed it I would be blind," he snaps. 

"That was so pretty!" she ignores him, lost in her own excitement "Did you see how many people were in the procession?! It's going to be such a big wedding for sure!" 

"Good for them," he shrugs, "let's rest here for a bit so we don't run into them again, they're probably going to the same town we are."

"We should follow them."

"...What? Why?"

"Because we're rightful cultivators who want to make sure the bride reaches her new home safely," he raises an eyebrow at that bullshit. Qiu Haitang bites a smile and looks away, "...and maybe that way they'll invite us to the wedding." 

"That's stupid, didn't you see how the guards looked at us?" he says, "It's more likely they'll try to fight us so we go away."

"So we fight them a little and show we're stronger than them!" she argues, "And we will go, 'see, you really could use our help' and the bride will go 'We will be happy to accept' and we go to the wedding." 

"You're going to ruin that woman's wedding."

"And we even brought meat from the sacred six eyed saber tooth boar which is known for bringing prosperity to newly married couples as a gift."

"Now it's fine to be deceitful?" 

"Maybe we even came because of a prophecy that told us the couple would need our protection, you know?"

"It sounds like more troubles than it's worth it."

"Besides—"

"Let it go, it's—"

"If we join them—"

"Not a good—"

"They might even let us attend—"

"Idea at all, why are—"

"To the wedding banquet."

"Why aren't we moving faster, they're getting away." 

Qiu Haitang giggles as Shen Jiu grabs her wrist and pulls her forward. While they were bickering the procession managed to gain a good distance from them, but they still aren't that far away. 

"You do the talking, it was your idea," he mutters, pushing her forward. 

What follows is fifteen minutes of Qiu Haitang spouting the most fucking nonsensical bullshit Shen Jiu's ever heard in his life, alongside presenting the boar's tusks as some incredible gift and saying something about paying a family debt from six generations in the past by accompanying the bride. 

It's all incredibly transparent, specially for someone who actually knows how to lie like Shen Jiu. From the voice to the facial expressions to body language to the nonsensical story Qiu Haitang sucks at being misleading, even though she obviously tries so hard. 

The tusks must be actually valuable though, or maybe the wife just thinks having two cultivators as bodyguards will give her face, because she accepts the offer before Shen Jiu has the chance to intervene and strengthen the lie. 

And like so, they find themselves following five paces behind the procession. 

"Why did you even want to assist the wedding that badly?" he asks after a while of walking.

"I just really like weddings," she says, "And I haven't seen one in so long, when else am I going to have a chance to assist one if I don't invite myself?" 

Shen Jiu stares at her, "...You say it like that's something you do often, is that a thing you do? Getting to weddings univited?" 

"I mean, this would be the first time…"

"Ah, the first time, first one but not last, so this is just the start of your long career of crime irrumping into weddings?" 

"I got invited!" she pouts, "it's not a career of crime if you get invited!" 

"Oh, so that's a yes," he nods, "I see, I see, and to think I'm watching your slow descend into—" she digs her elbow into his side, "Ack, hey!" he elbows her back. 

She elbows him again, and they end trading attacks for a good minute. 

"If you don't want to assist we can regroup later," she says as they finish the exchange of jabs.

"No, I want to go to the banquet."

"See? I'm not the only one who wants to go!" 

He rolls his eyes, "What is so great about weddings anyway?" he grumbles, "It's all a public flaunting show, might as well throw a party anytime they sign a contract."

"It's the union of two families!" she argues, "It celebrates the new couple's partnership and future. It's the creation of an important bond." 

Qiu Haitang stares at the sedan carrying the bride, this lovestruck expression on her face. Shen Jiu rolls his eyes. 

"Did you ever wonder about why they did that?"

"Huh?" He turns towards her, "About who did what?"

"You know…" she gestures between them, then at the procession and back between them.

Oh

Ohh

Shit  

They've been traveling some days now in relative peace, but that's partially because they've been acting as if they were deadly allergic to any topic even tangentially related to the past. After that day in the inn in which she said she wanted to start over, they've really been acting as if they met very recently and there's no baggage between them. 

Is Qiu Haitang really bringing that up? Now? He really hoped they could continue as they were until the two weeks were over. Really, they're getting along just fine so far, why break that? She should know that too! Fuck. Fuck. Can't they just ignore she said anything and continue as they were?

"I used to be grateful about that engagement, you know? Back when I thought…" she starts to say once it becomes obvious Shen Jiu won't say anything, not giving the topic up, "Well, my brother had taken you as an assistant, supposedly because of what a great man you were, so, I was grateful. 'Ah, my family wants me to marry a good man more than they want to make useful connections' I thought. 'Ah, instead of being sent away I'll be able to stay at home with the people I love' I was glad, how many girls can say that? But now…" she looks down, "Did they want to keep my dowry so badly? We weren't running low on land or money, I'm sure a good alliance from that marriage would have been so much more…" 

She shuts up then, and after some moments of silence it becomes obvious it's his turn to say something. 

He wants to stay silent, or to change the topic, but Qiu Haitang is staring at the floor with this expression as if she's trying not to cry and Shen Jiu remembers her telling him not saying anything was what caused half of their problems.

"I don't think they had bad intentions, not for you anyway," he awkwardly tells her, "Qiu Jianluo was often saying 'You have to make Qiu Haitang happy' and 'We keep you here for Qiu Haitang's sake', and so on… didn't you get those, in the dream?"

She tips her head to a side, "Hm, a little bit at the end, but not so much…"

"That's probably because I didn't leave your room, so they didn't see us together much, but he used to say that a lot… I think he just didn't want you to leave."

She shakes her head, "It's not like my father had ten daughters and wanted to keep one, I know there were marriage proposals from other families, rejecting all of them to marry me to a servant he didn't actually care about... Wouldn't that bring unwanted enmities?"

"I didn't really know your father, just saw him in passing now and then, so I can't opine on that."

"Just… how did they even think that marriage would work out?! They kept their treatment a secret but I would have realized what they did to you when we had to share a bed, wounds like the ones from the dream would leave scars. Even if they said those were from before taking you in, I think a mark from a whip is easy to recognize!" 

"I…." Is it a good idea saying this? If she went through that entire dream and still didn't realize it by herself maybe it'll be worse if he points it out… He still says it anyway, "I always thought the plan was to kill me after we married, to be honest. He disliked when we were alone, and said I couldn't touch you under threat of death. I could never imagine him letting us consummate." 

Shen Jiu always knew Qiu Jianluo wanted him to marry Qiu Haitang, but he certainly didn't seem like he wanted Shen Jiu to be married to her. It was part of what finally pushed him into accepting Wu Yanzi's offer, what made him want to leave instead of wait a couple of years more, it was never a matter of Qi-ge saving him or he staying in that household, but a matter of Qi-ge saving him or death.

It wouldn't even have required Qiu Haitang to realize her family did it, as they certainly didn't want her to know, just telling her about some tragic accident soon after exchanging bows would have been enough to get rid of the bothersome slave that finally accomplished his mission. No one ever said that's what would happen, but he always assumed.

"...Oh," Qiu Haitang's eyes fly wide open, her face goes pale, "Oh, they would, wouldn't they? And then I would remain home as a widow."

"That's what I assumed."

"That's still so… extreme?" she grimaces, "Keeping me home without a husband nor kids, grieving my spouse's death, isn't that shameful? They must have known I wouldn't have been happy like that!"

Shen Jiu frowns at that. What an absurd complaint, really. Oh, yes, such a horrible life, being surrounded by people who love you and getting all your needs cared for! And not even having to deal with serving a bothersome husband or to raise an inconvenient kid! Sounds like living hell! 

"You would still remain all pampered and well cared for, wouldn't you?" he replies, the long forgotten envy tastes bitter on his tongue, making his words sound ugly, "It doesn't sound like such a bad life to me, I'm sure you would have gotten over my death in a day or so, you were always so carefree and all," Naive, spoiled, free of any worry or struggle.

"...I think I would have killed myself." 

Shen Jiu stops walking. Seeing this, Qiu Haitang stops walking as well.

"No, you wouldn't have," he says. It's not a question, it's a fact, one he's sure of. 

Sure, his passing would have hurt her a little, she was the kind of person who would cry over a dead bird, but the idea of taking her with him— Absurd, nonsensical, impossible.

He waits for Qiu Haitang to agree, to say 'You're right, I would have cried a little but that's it, and then I would have gone back to my carefree life as always, hahaha! Sorry for exaggerating!' but she doesn't. She purses her lips and looks away with a shrug.

"Is marrying and having kids really so important for you?!" he exclaims.

If there's one thing, one single thing he knows about Qiu Haitang it's that she's optimistic and happy to a fault. The idea of she deciding to end her life is just nonsense. 

And for such a stupid reason too.

"I mean, not so much now, although it's not like I dislike the idea either… It's just, I would have felt so useless…" she chuckles, "And if I've learned anything in these recent years is that I'm very bad at feeling useless, so I think, if the me back then had been suddenly told she couldn't fulfill her duties as a woman… couldn't even be beside her husband... I don't know, maybe." 

He's… baffled, more than anything. But… underneath that and all his other current emotions there's a mental image.

Shen Jiu can imagine, very clearly and in detail, Qiu Jianluo patting himself on the back for a job well done after telling Qiu Haitang her husband died, maybe asking the servants to bring wine and play music… or even better, going to the market to buy his dear little sister a gift, incredibly happy knowing he will be able to have her baby sister close where he can make sure she's well taken care of, where he can see her outside of once in a while visits. Shen Jiu can see him, smiling and content as he enters Qiu Haitang's room, only to find her with a rope around her neck, her body gently swaying with the wind. 

Would he realize it was because of his idea? He would have felt so guilty, he would have regretted everything, he might have even reached for a sharp objects with which to cut his neck as soon as he catches sight of his sister.

That terrible vision makes him so incredibly happy. It makes him sad, just a little, but mostly so, so happy.

Ah, he feels like he's going to get sick.

"It's just a supposition," he desperately tries to drag the conversation out of whatever it is this weird place they have fallen into, "as far as we know they could have had a different plan. It's not like we can ask them." 

"I wish we could."

"I'm glad we can't," he regrets the words as soon as he says them, not because of their content, not at all, but even he knows some things shouldn't be said in front of some people.

Qiu Haitang smiles her fake smile.

"The procession is really going to leave us behind at this rate," she says, "Let's keep moving." 

 

Chapter Text

The groom's house has been wonderfully decorated with red and gold colors covering every inch of the residence. A group of servants greet them as they arrive and Qiu Haitang can only get a glimpse of the bride —a beautiful red dress and veil peppered on gold— before they're being taken somewhere else to clean up a little before assisting the ceremony.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they aren't given a good position to watch the wedding. She and A-Jiu stand near the back of the hall on opposite ends of the door, so they can be seen as guarding the place —as decorations— but also aren't too intrusive. Still, if she twists her neck just so she can get a good look at the shrine and the people in front of it.

As much as she says she loves weddings, she's only been to a total of two and a half. One time when she was very little to her old uncle's wedding, who remarried after his wife died, and she doesn't remember much more than loud music and blurs of red. 

The second time is actually the half one, watching her cousin mount a red sedan before leaving. She vaguely remembers her dad went to the actual ceremony, but Qiu Haitang could only see the bride leaving. Her brother also stayed home, even though she thinks he could have gone too. 

She remembers her cousin and Qiu Haitang's aunt hugging before being carried to the sedan. Her cousin cried, but Qiu Haitang thinks once the hug ended she was also smiling. 

The third time is the second proper wedding she attended, when she was older and was already told who she would marry. A pair of servants asked permission to marry and were allowed to: They had a small ceremony during the evening, with red robes lendend rather than tailored, and a small banquet consisting mostly of rice. She heard about it through gossip forty minutes before the ceremony, wanted to assist, was of course allowed to, and brought one of her own hair accessories as a gift. 

The last one probably had the biggest impact on her liking weddings, the bride and groom smiled very widely, showing all their teeth, and people laughed and cheered once the bows were exchanged. 

'I want to do that' she thought, and then was happy knowing the next time she saw a red veil she would probably be the one wearing it. 

Hm. She hasn't thought about that abandoned hope in a while, even when her shijies would gossip about how this and that friend was leaving because her family found her a husband she just listened to it with vague indifference, but when she saw the procession earlier today she just had this great want to watch a wedding, so she's here now.

So it's not like inviting herself to weddings will become a habit! It will absolutely not! 

Probably.

"This is so fucking boring," she hears A-Jiu mutter, just low enough for her cultivator's hearing to pick on. 

"Do it for the banquet," she teases, with the same low volume, "free food, just think about all the free food." 

"Only because I want to eat some real pork after that bad meat from earlier." 

"What's wrong with the boar?" she shakes her head and goes back to looking at the couple just in time to catch the first bow. When the bride and groom raise their heads, both of them have very soft smiles. It makes something warm flutter inside her chest.

Weddings are so nice. 

People reunited to wish you good luck as you start your new life with the birth of a new bond. She can't help but to look at A-Jiu.

It's… probably a bad thing she still wants to get married, right? Not to him, not really, that particular fantasy died with the fire, but the idea of her brother helping her mount a sedan, of serving her father tea… It's probably a bad thing she still holds onto that. 

No one but her ever held onto that, right? Her brother didn't actually want her to marry this person. This person saw marrying her as a death sentence. She can't be sure what her father thought, but probably something along the same lines. 

The fact she still feels happy watching this ceremony, imagining herself wearing red, it's like she's wishing for bad things to happen, that must say something ugly about herself. 

No wonder A-Jiu dislikes weddings. She wonders if he's thinking about similar things, watching this. 

Probably not, right? He's been grumpy and uncooperative but he's been like that for half of the trip back. If he really was uncomfortable she would probably notice.

Like you noticed before, right?

She shakes her head. Stop! Stop! They're already here and they'll enjoy a wedding and then the banquet, there's no reason to sour it thinking this and that what ifs!

That attitude is what made everything go as it did.

Enough! She'll enjoy this wedding in peace and after that ask him if he's doing fine, and if he lies when he says he is then it's not her fault his face looks the same when he's saying the truth and when he isn't. 

 


 

The wedding ceremony continues as it's meant to, and eventually the banquet begins. They're given a table the family apparently brought out at the last minute so they didn't have to sit the cultivators with the rest of the guests, and Qiu Haitang watches the married couple moving through the tables as A-Jiu begins to eat.

"They look good together, don't you think?" she asks, A-Jiu rolls his eyes.

"You don't know a single thing about them other than their names," he says, "If you don't stop staring like a creep I'll eat all the food, don't test me." 

"I'm eating, I'm eating," she takes a bite of roasted suckling pig and frowns. Fine, she'll admit it, the boar was kinda gross in comparison, "it's delicious," she sighs, defeated. 

"What's up with that face?" he raises an eyebrow, "Why do you look happy during the wedding and then frown on the banquet? Your mind works backwards." 

"No reason," she brushes off and takes one more bite "I heard someone say they almost added another course with the meat we brought, but since there wasn't much time and weren't sure how to cook it they decided to serve the nine ones they originally planned on."

"So it seems you didn't ruin their wedding after all, congratulations," She pinches his arm, then goes back to eating before anyone notices, "Rude."

"Whatever. How many courses do you want to serve for your wedding?" 

"What makes you think I'm going to marry?" he raises an eyebrow. 

"Hm, fair," she concedes, "I always thought of serving nine as well, it's a good number, don't you think?" 

A-Jiu's eye twitches, "It's a number, that's for sure."

"A large table, lots of wine and nine courses, that's what I want when I marry."

"'When?', not 'if'?" 

"Hum…" she's rescued from having to choose an answer when the spouses come to visit their table. 

The toast is short and impersonal, with some dry 'we're grateful to have such honorable people at our ceremony' and the like. It honestly makes her feel a little guilty about inviting herself in. 

"What's your favorite number?" she asks in order to avoid the 'when or if' topic as soon as the couple leaves by returning the conversation to numbers. It's not the smoothest transition, but it'll do. 

A-Jiu's hand moves to where he keeps his fan, but doesn't open it just yet, "Seven," he says. 

"Not nine?" 

"Nine is a bad number."

"It's literally a lucky number..." so stubborn! They've spent enough time together for her to notice when A-Jiu feels comfortable to speak openly he tends to self-deprecate, but there's a point in which it stops being worrying and just becomes annoying, "Why seven?" 

A-Jiu opens the fan now, "For the double seventh festival," he answers quickly. 

"Oh, that's so cute!" she coos, "You say you dislike weddings but there is some romance inside you after all!" 

"Shut up," he huffs.

"Mine is five hundred thirty."

"Wait, not nine?" 

"Oh, someone got conceited?" she teases. 

A-Jiu's eye twitches again, "If you're going to spend all the conversation defending number nine you should at least stick with it until the end."

"I like nine just fine, don't I? It's just not my favorite number," She used to like it a lot, then she hated it for a while. Now she likes it again, but her favorite? Not really, for the same reason she wouldn't be able to marry him anymore, it's way too heavy.

Five hundred thirty isn't her favorite either, she just picked one at random. She doesn't really have a favorite number. 

A-Jiu rolls his eyes and takes more bites of food, she does the same. The food is really, really good. 

 


 

They're invited to stay in the residence after the banquet, but she doesn't want to impose even more than she already did and A-Jiu also doesn't want to stay, so they push forward. The only reason they planned to stop at the town was to get rid of the boar meat and that's settled, plus they got a wonderful lunch, so there's no reason not to continue.

"I managed to convince them to let us take some leftovers," she unpacks the box they gave her as they set camp in the evening. 

A-Jiu takes out something wrapped on fabric, "I stole several pastries." 

"Wha— When?!" 

"Obviously, when they served the dessert." 

"I didn't notice…"

"You can be very oblivious," he shrugs. 

"That is true," she admits. 

Not noticing things, history of her life, right?

"I got mostly seafood," she opens the box, "Scallops or fish?"

"Fish is good," he opens his own package, "What filling, lotus seed paste or red bean paste?"

"Red bean please,"

They eat more or less silently, interjecting now and then with inoffensive banter, as they've been doing these past few days.

Qiu Haitang's skin itches though.

It's been… how many days since they started the trip back? Almost a week for sure, and yet they have been avoiding talking about anything with more substance than "What do we eat today?", "Do we stop at this town?" and "This is super cheap, no it's expensive actually." Even after touching some important topics earlier, they quickly went back to veering away from that.

And it's not like she wants to talk about unpleasant stuff, of course she doesn't want to, she wants to follow that certainly that surely everything is alright between them and have a pleasant trip.

Like she always does. 

So "Are you alright?" she finds herself asking after they've put the food away, sitting next to a small fire under a clear night sky.

"Hm?" A-Jiu looks up from where he was resting against a rock nearby, "Sure, I'm fine."

"Really?"

He moves closer, raises an eyebrow, "Yeeees? Why wouldn't I be?"

"Since you don't like weddings and all…"

"They're boring."

"But you're fine?"

"I told you I'm fine," he huffs, exasperated, "Weddings are boring, but the banquet was nice, why the fuck wouldn't I be fine?"

"I'm just making sure," she mutters, "I just don't want to take things at face value," since I tend to do that so often. 

He makes a pained face, "You've been saying lots of weird stuff today."

"Have I?"

"You have, it bothers me."

"What have I been saying that's weird?"

"Stuff like," he gestures at something in the air, "dying and marrying and that kind of stuff."

"Don't you want to talk about what happened?" she frowns, "A lot of stuff happened, in the dream and before that, do you really not want to talk about any of that? I have a lot of questions! You must have questions too!"

"Not at all."

"I don't believe that." 

He sighs, "Look, I'm fine, you're fine," he smiles. It looks genuine. It looks like she remembers from her childhood, it makes her want to trust it. It's not a trustworthy smile, "We're fine, so drop it. I dropped it, why haven't you fucking dropped it already? There's no reason not to drop it! Didn't you say you wanted to start again or something?!"

"I just want to make sure I'm getting things right this time!" Qiu Haitang insists, leaning forward "I never questioned anything, because I didn't think there was anything to question, and that ruined so many things. At least this once, I want to have something I know I can be sure about. There are so many things we need to talk about, even if we act as if they aren't there, they still are, and I think you know that! I promise I'll listen properly if you also promise to be honest, so that's why..."

A-Jiu looks away, his forehead wrinkles as he glares at nothing in particular. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, his shoulders raising and lowering alongside the air, and looks back at her, face blank. 

"Alright," he says, "Let's talk about whatever you want to talk, ask anything you want, say whatever you think, I'll be honest too, but in exchange I don't want to do this ever, ever again. Is that clear?" 

She nods, an instant relief passing through her, forcing her muscles to relax, "Thank you." 

A-Jiu's lips thin, he bites the inside of his mouth, his hands twisting the lapels of his robes for a second, then he reaches inside his clothes and pulls out his two fans, he throws the black one at her whole keeping the one with a drawing of bamboo.

"This is?" she asks as she catches the fan. 

"Since this will be clearly painful as well as pointless," he mutters, opening his fan, hiding half of his face with it as he slowly fans himself, "might as well help us not to chisel off our faces entirely," she thinks she hears him add a 'not that they didn't lie in pieces already' under his breath. 

She twists the fan between her hands, snapping it open and closed a couple of times before raising it to cover her own face, as she's noticed A-Jiu tends to do whenever he feels… any emotion, really. 

It's not too dissimilar from covering her face with her hands when she's embarrassed, but a bit more dignified. 

"This is kind of nice," she comments, and A-Jiu raises the fan until only the upper half of his eyes are visible. 

"Wasn't there things you wanted to ask about?"

She nods, "Alright, so… First question, have you been having fun on this trip?"

"I have."

"Even though I'm here too?" 

"It's been a little awkward… but fun," he shrugs, "Since there's nothing I can do to make you hate me more than you hated me before it's like… Being with someone I can be rude to on purpose is fun."

"Ok, so…" she gestures towards him with her fan, "Your turn, you have something to ask?"

He blinks, "What? I thought you were the one who was going to ask things, you're the one who wants to do this."

"Don't you have any question? Any at all?"

"I mean, maybe some but—"

"Then ask something!"

"Wait, are we seriously going to take turns?" his eyebrows are pulled together, "Tianlang isn't here to force us to do that,"

"A-Jiu, please…"

"Alright, alright…" he rolls his eyes, the speed with which he fans himself increases, "Say… Are you really alright being around me? Even if you say you forgive me… I just can't see how."

"It's complicated," she replies, "I did the same thing in the dream… kind of worse even... I loved them and still did the same thing, how could I blame you after that?"

"As far as we know the illusion forced you to do it, I saw you near the end, you weren't quite there."

"And you were there when it happened? I saw you before passing out too, you know…"

She hears his lips parting, then being pulled back together. When she's sure he won't say anything she goes on.

"I can't blame you, I really can't. I also can't blame any of them, even after what I saw, when I think of my brother my first thought is sitting on his shoulders while he lets me pull from his hair. I can't just say 'He had it coming!' no matter how much he might have deserved it, I just can't. I want to blame someone so badly, but there's no one I can hate except maybe myself."

"It wasn't your fault," he interjects. 

"I… don't think it was?" She grimaces. This is something she's been thinking about for a while. She does feel guilty about not noticing, if she had noticed what happened it would have solved so many things but... "I… I almost wish it was, then I would punish myself and problem solved, but I keep thinking about it and I think I could have done something, if I had realized, but… so could have many people who actually knew. I could have done something, but I didn't cause it… So, then it's even worse, because I can't even blame myself. I used to be so, so, angry at you, but now that I don't know who to point that anger at it's like it fizzled out and…" she touched the fan with her nose, burying her face against the cloth, "I'm just left feeling sad." 

"I don't mind if you point it at me again."

"Stop trying to make me hate you," she lowers it so she can properly glare at him, "I only did so because it seemed unjustifiable, but now I know it wasn't. I can't hate you anymore even if I wanted to, much less because you want me to." 

"...Your turn."

"That illusion… do you think it had some reality to it?"

A-Jiu blinks, as if the idea hadn't even occurred to him,"It was based on real memories."

"It's just… Qi deviations aren't well understood yet, and we were where they died. If their souls were really called into it then I really—"

"It was just memories," he asserts, "They didn't react like people would, even after I locked myself in your room and never tried to pass as you, but they gave no real reaction to it."

She nods, "I at first tried to explain who I was, even bringing up things only I could have known, but A-Luo just kept being like 'You're really pissing me off!', I assumed something was controlling them before realizing it was an illusion."

"See? It was fake."

"But near the end… he said some things that sounded genuine. So I'm not sure… Maybe it was just a fragment and—"

"You're spinning it too much," he interrupts, snapping his fan closed and hitting the top of her head, "I say this from experience, you shouldn't mistake an illusion for a real person, your family was dead before the deviation, they were dead during and are still dead now. Don't think too much about meaningless things."

"...Alright."

"My turn," he opens it again, "Even if you don't hate me, you must resent me somehow, don't you?"

"How many times do I need to say this—"

"There's just no way I can believe we're alright. If I was in your place I wouldn't give a shit about motives,"

"I already answered that," she closes her own fan to hit him as he just did, "I'm not going to repeat the same thing a hundred times until you believe me, I forgive you."

"But—"

"My turn!"

He sighs, "Fine."

"Since we're asking whether we're angry at each other, I was pretty awful to you before knowing the truth, I'm sorry for that. Can you forgive me?"

He raises an eyebrow, "You seriously worry about that?" he waves the fan in front of him as if clearing off smoke, "It's nothing, it's fine, didn't you apologize about that before anyway? I don't really mind." 

"I did stab you, you know…"

"I've had worse, I didn't take offence in the first place, you had your motives."

"Ah, so you do give a shit about someone's motives, huh?" 

He pauses, "Don't twist my words in your favor."

She chuckles, "You can't say 'the motive isn't enough to forgive me' and then go 'You had your motives' A-Jiu."

"I can't believe you threw away your turn to make a point." 

"It's not throwing it away," she insists, "I did act like a jerk to you, even though I was wrong at the end."

"It's not like I gave you much reason to think you were wrong."

"And it's not like I put much effort into learning what happened," she places the fan on her lap and forces herself to look right at him, "You were a dear friend to me, but I still assumed the worst of you and didn't care to look if there was more to it, and I'm sorry."

Even with the fan as a shield A-Jiu looks away, his fingertips becoming white with the force with which he's holding it, "It's fine really," he mutters.

A-Jiu takes a moment to compose himself and snaps the fan closed, tapping it against his knee, "You're different from what I remember."

"Am I?"

"Not by a lot, just a bit, You were…" he snorts, "You were very weak."

"Thank you?"

"You know I don't mean it like that," he licks his lips, "Just, what happened?"

"It's not like I'm very strong now?" she answers, "Yes, I started to cultivate, I'm good at alchemy— I'm very good at alchemy for my age, you know! But I suck at actual combat unless it's as support, and when I really need to be brave I still freeze, my cultivation isn't that high, and I still trust people way too easily even though I probably shouldn't, and I still let things affect me more than they should, and I still want everything to go as I want, and I still…" here her voice starts to break. She takes a moment to breathe, "I guess having a goal did make me more driven, but now that I don't have it maybe I'll go back to being useless."

"The goal was killing me, right?"

"I already apologized for that."

"Why do you—"

"We're not skipping over my turn!"

He sneers "Right."

He takes another deep breath, then rushes the words out as quickly as she can, "Do you think I'm a bad person?"

A-Jiu blinks "How so?"

"I miss my family. I saw what they did to someone I care about, and I still wish they were here," she explains, "Even while traveling with that important person they hurt, I wish they were here. That must make me really evil, don't you think? That I still love them." 

A-Jiu seems to think the question over, moving the fan from tapping his knee to tapping his chin, before settling on answering with "I'm not really the right person to ask that." 

"Why not? Who else could I ask?" 

If he doesn't know the answer, and she doesn't know it either, what hope is there to ever get an answer?

"Since I'm not good myself, I wouldn't know how to judge," he says, as if stating a fact.

They fall silent for a moment, neither of them knowing how to continue from that. Eventually Qiu Haitang breaks the silence.

"...Because you steal pastries from weddings?" 

A-Jiu chokes on a chortle, "That's right, it's all because I steal pastries from weddings!" he proclaims, hitting the space between them with the fan.

"The worst of crimes!" she covers her mouth, scandalized, "How can he sleep at night?! Someone must stop him!" It's not that funny, but it undercuts the tension a bit. It makes her grin. 

When she lets go of the dramatics, she still holds onto that smile, "It's fine, I don't mind," she says softly, "I'm very good at liking bad people, it seems."

A-Jiu looks down, "It's not a bad talent to have."

"How can it be a good thing?"

"Because... bad people tend to like those who like them."

Her eyes feel hot. Shit, he's right, this conversation is hard. She retrieves the fan to blow air against her face. 

"It's your turn, by the way."

"Why do you like me?" he does not hesitate to say, "You said you wanted to get to know me again, but by now you must realize I'm nothing like the Shen Jiu you knew. I tried to act nice and do whatever you said, now you know in reality I'm harsh and we're always arguing. How can you still like me, now that you know I'm not the same?"

"Hmm…" that's both a very easy and very hard question to answer, "Since we were going to marry, it was important to me we got along… It was important to me that you were important. Family is supposed to support each other, and you were family, or would be. I used to dream of a future in which we would support each other, you would always keep me safe, and I would lend you my hands and help you on anything you needed. And, at some point, I guess I managed to force myself to love you.

"Of course, I didn't really know you back then, I thought we were on equal footing… more or less equals… I guess I always knew I was a little higher... but I didn't realize you couldn't deny me anything. 'Shen Jiu is so nice, he likes spending time with me, he likes to indulge me, he also wants to marry' is what I assumed. 

"And even though I know the truth now… even though I got to actually meet you... how to say this? The current you and the one I knew, somehow they don't feel so different after all! Yes, you're harsher than I thought, and now I can't tell if your smiles are real or not, which is scary… but you're still kind, if in a different way than before, and I still enjoy being around you. I like to joke and, well, play I guess. We've been playing, haven't we? It's fun having someone to bicker with!"

"...I never thought you were useless, you know?"

She blinks, "I wouldn't blame you if you did. I was a very useless child."

"I didn't and you weren't" the certainty with which he says that takes her by surprise, "It's true you were annoying, often, and I used to— I still resent you, for having a good life, for never noticing. But, I liked being around you… Not just because no one would hurt me while you were close… although that was good too... but also it was kind of nice to have someone who wouldn't look at me with pity or contempt. You were the only person who would smile to me in that house, the only one I knew wouldn't hurt me on purpose. 

"You were always optimistic about everything, it was infuriating, I was constantly hurting and you still thought the world was great, a lot of the time I wanted to slap you… but, sometimes… sometimes, now and then, somehow I would smile or laugh because of you, and it was as if I could hold onto that 'Everything is alright' attitude, just a moment and... it made it more bearable… it made it so, so much more bearable. It was important."

She opens her mouth to answer, but only a gross sob comes out. Everything feels hot and it's hard to push air through her throat. She attempts to cover her mouth but that only works on making the tears she was holding back swell, "Shit," she tries to wipe her face. It just makes it even more of a mess, "Shit!"

"Qiu Haitang…" A-Jiu reaches towards her, but his fingers curl and his hand lowers before touching her.

She rushes to take that hand between hers, "Call me A-Tang, please," she pleads, "Please?"

A-Jiu visibly swallows, the fingers she's holding curl around hers. His free hand moves to rub the corner of his eyes, whipping away the moisture that is starting to accumulate there.

"...A-Tang."

"Can I hug you?"

He nods, "Go ahead."

She wasted no time into placing her arms around him, pulling him closer, burying her face against his chest. 

A-Jiu's hands rest on her back, they grab a fistful of fabric, let go, grab it again and finally tighten around her, pulling her close. He rests his chin on the crown of her hair, and she can feel him shaking ever so slightly against her body. That's fine, she's shaking too.

"We are no longer engaged," she manages to say, the words come rough, breathy, muffled and ugly, but she still manages to speak, "and to be honest I don't think I want to marry you anymore… but… is it really bad if I want us to still be family?" 

"It is really bad," he lets out a wet chuckle, "absolutely terrible." 

"Asshole," she grins.

"But since neither of us is that much of a good person," he continues, "I guess some really bad things are acceptable." 

"That's a yes, then?"

"I think…" she feels more than hears him taking a deep, deep breath, his nails burying into her back, "I think both of us could use a little more family, it's not like we have much left." 

 

Chapter Text

"What do we put as birthdate?" 

"Hmm… we used to celebrate your birthday on the day you came to the manor, but I suppose you don't want to use that."

"I would rather not."

"Didn't you have anything before?"

Shen Jiu shakes his head, "I know I was born sometime in autumn… or winter,"

"Well, at least we know you're eighteen."

"Probably."

"Probably?!"  

"I mean, either eighteen or nineteen, but it's usually better to go with the lower estimation."

"So we don't have a year either, and we have six months to choose from," A-Tang sighs, "My birthday is in autumn, you can co-opt it if you want to."

He frowns, "I don't like that idea either."

"Do we pick a date at random? Or do we leave it blank?" she scratches the back of her head with the handle of her brush, "You know, I think some seers can know a person's birth date by reading their palm, like how they see their death but the opposite? Do you want to postpone it, figure out the date and try again another day?"

"We're already here and have everything ready," he gestures towards the already burning incense, "let's just pick a random day." 

"How about the double seven festival?"

"Hm? Why that one?"

"Didn't you say it was your favorite day?"

Did he? When? Why? Shen Jiu doesn't dislike that holiday but he also doesn't feel any special affection towards it either, did he really say that at some point? "You're right, let's just put that one," he agrees, it's about as good a birthday as any other date. 

He dips his own brush on the ink and writes the new date under his name. Qiu Haitang takes the paper and writes her own name and birthday next to his.

"I guess we're ready, then," Shen Jiu raises the cup of wine. 

Regarding the exact wording, they had an argument in which they ended exchanging stances at least three times regarding whether it should be poetic, flowery and pretty since it was an important thing, or if exactly because it was something important it should be simple, plain and clear. At the end they settled for

"We who the world has attempted to join through tragedy and coercion now seek to meet under a bond of our own choosing. From this day onwards we swear to be brother and sister. We swear to always come when asked for help, and to ask for help in the first place. We swear to listen to the other's perspective before giving judgment, and to giving said perspective, and we swear to call each other out whenever we're being really fucking stupid. Should one of us forget and transgress this oath, they shall be struck dead by heaven and their remains eaten by wild animals." 

He drinks first, and A-Tang second. They didn't add their blood to the wine as it's customary, out of worry of demon blood cross contamination, but they mixed a little bit with the ink used to write the oath. 

Taking each a corner of the document, they send a spark of qi to set it on fire, and it burns easily between their fingers. The heat feels nice in his hand, welcoming and comfy, and it makes a similar warmth, a cheerful and weirdly optimistic flame, grow inside his stomach. 

He looks up at the same time as A-Tang does, and when their eyes meet both of them grin like morons. 

And so, at the tail end of a trip filled with way too many good and bad parts, in a small temple at the side of the road, with a bunch of youtiao and a pitcher of soy milk in place of the usual feast, somehow Shen Jiu gains a sister. 

 


 

At the entrance of the town where they agreed to meet at the end of the trip Shen Jiu is greeted by a fan.

"We know you're mad," Tianlang says, hiding behind Zhuzhi, who holds an offering fan in front of him as his own, smaller, shield, "but hear me out—"

"...But I'm not mad at all," he replies, receiving the fan. It has a white cypress frame and opens to reveal a row of pink begonias because subtlety is dead. The quality is a bit higher than his bamboo one, but much lower than the black one, "should I be mad about something?" he raises an eyebrow.

"Not at all!" the demon exclaims, throwing his nephew aside now that he doesn't need the protection, "I absolutely did not spend half our money on an expensive room!"

Shen Jiu pinches the bridge of his nose, knowing a headache is about to start, "How many times have I said—?!"

A-Tang coughing cuts him off. "Greetings," she bows to the demons, "I know we didn't have the best start, but it's nice to meet A-Jiu's shizun and his friend." 

"I take everything went well then," he preens and Shen Jiu rolls his eyes. Fucking unbearable, "It's nice to meet you too, young lady," Tianlang bows back. 

Zhuzhi just stares between the three of them, so Shen Jiu grabs the top of his head and forces him to lower it, "You're supposed to greet her too, don't be rude." 

"Um, g-greetings," he mutters, not quite lowering his eyes. 

A-Tang smiles at them. 

"I already said goodbye to A-Jiu, but I wanted to see his companions again before we parted ways." 

"D-didn't you hate Shen Jiu and tried to kill him?" Zhuzhi says, Shen Jiu stomps on his foot. 

"Yes, but we're fine now," he says through gritted teeth. 

"We had a misunderstanding," A-Tang looks down, "but we solved it." 

"What she said."

"I'm glad to hear that!" Tianlang lights up, "I knew you could get along, you just needed some time together!" 

A-Tang sparkles in return. 

"You can leave now," Zhuzhi speaks up again, so he kicks his shin. 

"I told you not to be rude!" 

"Ah, it's fine," she laughs off, "Everyone must be worried after I disappeared for a month, I probably shouldn't be stalling," she grimaces, "Shifu is going to punish me so hard."

"Don't die."

"I'll try my best," she sighs, before brightening up again, "Take care, A-Jiu," A-Tang says, taking one if his hands between hers, "I…" she stops, her eyes trailing towards the demons,  "...was about to say I would write, but I suppose exchanging letters would be hard given our affiliations," 

"I'll set something up," Tianlang shrugs. Shen Jiu doesn't argue for once. 

A-Tang leaves there, waving as she takes a different path leading towards Kangfu. Shen Jiu waves back, and soon enough she's gone.

"You will tell us exactly what happened, right?" Tianlang places his hands on his shoulders, he shakes him off.

"We traveled, made up, we swore siblingship, we came here," he quickly recounds. Tianlang hides a huge grin behind his hand, while Zhuzhi seems to choke on something. 

"Details?!" 

"Absolutely not." 

"It was worth a try," he shrugs. 

 


 

Tianlang thought he was very smart paying a month and a half upfront for an expensive room, but Shen Jiu manages to drag the demons into leaving the town early and talks the innkeeper into returning the money for the weeks they won't stay. By the very next day they're already setting camp far away, on a clearing near the Luo river. 

"Now, let's check if the trip helped at all," Tianlang says once they're done placing the tent, extending a hand forward.

"Oh, right," with everything that went down Shen Jiu completely forgot about the bottleneck. He places his wrist on Tianlang's hand.

The demon frowns, "What? What's wrong?" if it turns out that qi deviation damaged his cultivation he's going to kill someone. 

Tianlang releases his wrist, "I really wanted to take some years for you to properly set down your foundation," he shakes his head, "but you had to go and cement it in one go, what am I going to do with this student? Seriously."

"Oh," Shen Jiu places a hand on top of his lower dantian. Sure enough, when he concentrates he can feel the flow of energy running through that place has stabilized into a calm river, no sign of the intermittent ripples that used to cut through it from time to time. It seems at some point he put down the last little stick needed for the nest where his core will grow and he didn't even notice. 

He can't help but to smile at the discovery.

"No, get that grin out of your face!" Tianlang scolds, "Rushing like that is dangerous! Listen to me! You will not start to form your golden core until I'm sure that foundation is stable! Did you hear me?!" 

"As always, your lectures sound ridiculous coming from you."

"I'm serious!"

"Sure, sure," he rolls his eyes.

Tianlang pouts and huffs, and then goes to do something else. 

Shen Jiu places his hand over that spot one more time, feeling the warmth radiating from that current.

He doesn't quite understand how, exactly, he's gotten here, but somehow a person like him got some family, and now is also making good progress on his cultivation. And it might be a product of not seeing them for a month, but right now he doesn't think these two demons are that annoying. 

He knows it won't last, optimism isn't in his nature, and it's not like things aren't still a bit awful, but, somehow… he thinks what lies ahead in his life might not be so bad, for once. 

 

Chapter Text

The fire starts to thin and rise, looking similar to a small twister as his energy pulls it up, he tries to lift it off the firewood, and the second it stops touching it, it shoots like a cut string before flaring up into a big ball of fire. 

"Shit!" Shen Jiu covers his face with his arms, more as protection against the light than the heat.

"Oh, you almost had it!" Tianlang says from somewhere at his right. Shen Jiu blinks to clean the spots brought by the explosion from his vision and glares at him. 

"It was exactly the same as last time!"

"You almost had it last time, too," the demon shrugs. This fucking—

"I need a break," he declares, brushing off the ash from his robes as he stands up, "I'm going for a walk."

Stabilize your foundation this, stabilize your foundation that, he cemented that nest so long ago, his foundation is set like a stone! And yet he won't be allowed to progress until he meets this person's arbitrary requirements, really.

Master this, master that, lear this and that thing, and now this stupid learn to manipulate the five elements thing! So what if he's bad at fire?! Injecting qi into metal and wood come like second nature to him, water is harder, but he manages that already, he almost didn't pass the trial with the rocks but at the end he did, but fire is being fucking impossible. Four out of five has to be enough, isn't it?! "A spiritual cultivator should have a basic grasp of all the elements," bullshit, he knows there are cultivators who only master one thing, why can't he just move on and go back to the fire thing when it's easier? Aghhh! 

Shen Jiu kicks the snow under his feet, and then moves to kick the side of the mountain, infusing qi into his feet so the rock crumbles under his ankle. Stupid stupid stupid! What a fucking imbecile! Die! Eat shit! Scum!

...Ah, but really the worst part is he knows he's just throwing a tantrum. 

Shen Jiu sighs and sits on a piece of rubble that fell from the rock wall, takes off his shoe and massages the swollen calf. In truth, he understands why it's a good idea for him to learn to work with different materials, he's a spiritual cultivator, not a physical one, when he looks at that cliff he hit, the rocks he managed to tear off are really not that many. He lifts a finger to inject a string of qi into the mountain, and then simply pulling from that thread tears a hole three times the size as the one from before. 

He's just growing desperate because he's finally at the point where he only needs to take one more step to be allowed to start forming his golden core, but because of how close he is that step feels longer and harder than the entire path behind it, even though it isn't.  

Although knowing he's drowning in a puddle doesn't make the experience any less angering. 

He breathes in the cold air from winter, and attempts to get rid of part of that frustration by brute force of meditation. He's about to return to their camp when he opens his eyes and finds a red dot flying over him. 

"Speaking of fire," he mutters, raising an arm and whistling. The fire tail raven lands on his forearm, flapping its eight wings as it regains its balance. 

"You're four days early, XiaoHuo," he tells the bird, which closes its eyes happily as he scratches its neck, "not that I'm complaining, I could use some good news."

Shen Jiu takes the bamboo strip tied to the bird's leg, bites the tip of his thumb and smears some blood on top of the characters carved into it. The strip expands to become a cylindrical container, which he then pops open to retrieve the scroll inside. 

He shakes the bird off, which causes XiaoHuo to hop from his forearm to his shoulder, and leaning against the damaged side of the mountain begins to read the letter.

"Oh, fuck you! I asked for good news!" 

 


 

Shen Jiu returns to the camp with a fire tail raven on his shoulder and a worse mood than the one he left with. 

"Oh, XiaoHuo!" Tianlang exclaims, causing the bird to leave Shen Jiu to go and harass his true master. 

"A-Tang won't be sending more letters this month," he says, as he goes looking through their cooking for a pouch with small pieces of meat, "nor next month, probably also the one after that," 

"Did something bad happen?" Tianlang frowns, bird resting on top of his head, "she feels fine," 

"She's fine," he says, retrieving two pieces of meat to feed XiaoHuo. Once he's received his treat the bird flies off, "Her shizun is taking her and some other students to some sect trip or something, she doesn't think she'll have the chance to sneak away to send anything." 

The fire tail raven is quite a smart creature, good at distinguishing people, can fly long distances quickly, looks like a normal bird from afar, and most importantly leaves very few traces of demonic qi on its surroundings, making it a good carrier to communicate with someone inside a cultivation sect, as long as said person can get somewhere without much surveillance. 

A trip in close proximity with an experienced cultivator is probably not a situation with low surveillance, especially if the woman is only taking a few disciples with her, which means she'll have less heads to keep her eyes on.

"That's good," Zhuzhi mutters. Shen Jiu glares at him, making him shrink, "S-sorry." 

"No, he's right, that's actually very good," Tianlang says, "it means she's recognized as a promising student," 

"I guess so," he sighs, somehow that doesn't make him very happy.

"Oh, don't make that face," Tianlang rolls his eyes, "Gotta love the drama, really do, but a small break in communications won't kill you, stop mopping." 

"I'm not mopping!" Shen Jiu very definitely does not pout, "where do we keep the coal? I want to see if setting the fire on a less conductive material it takes longer to blow up," 

"I think we ran out like a week ago," answers Zhuzhi.

Oh this day just keeps on getting better.

"I'm going to sleep," he decides, moving to enter the tent. 

"You're obviously moping!" he hears Tianlang exclaims from outside, "it's not even four pm!" 

"Like you never took a nap in the middle of the afternoon!" he replies, moving to dig out the covers and falling on the bedroll. He is not mopping, much less for such a dumb reason.

Sure, it'll be bothersome to break the habit of writing to his sister after they've exchanged letters twice a month for years now, but it's not like that's the end of the world, he's just tired and in a bad mood, give him a break. 

Soon after he closes his eyes he feels something slithering under the covers, he kicks the snake, "What's up with you now?"

It's not something new, Zhuzhi sometimes will do that, go and curl with someone else to sleep, usually with his uncle, but lately he's started doing it with Shen Jiu more and more. Personally he dislikes the thought of sharing a bed with other people, but he doesn't mind doing so with animals, so since the other does so as a snake he doesn't mind.

It happens more often around autumn and winter, and that's led him to think the demon's just using other people as heaters.

Case in point, "It was cold outside," he hears him hiss, a small snout poking out of the blanket.

"Whatever," he huffs, pushing his head down with the back of his hand, "just stop moving so much." 

"Ok." 

Chapter Text

Zhuzhi-lang is not a possessive person… he thinks. He's never had something to call his, his life's been built out of stealing and lending and sharing, but never owning, so there's no way he's a possessive person. 

And yet, having Shen Jiu miss someone else… it should, maybe, worry him, or sadden him, but instead it just bothers him.

He decides it's because of the person he's missing. Because, really, what reason does he have to like that woman? He understands she's important to him somehow, his sister, he's said, but can't see the motive, Shen Jiu isn't one to open easily to others, he's sure of that assessment, and yet in the matter of weeks they went from murder attempts to A-Tang and A-Jiu, how long did they know each other before that reunion anyways? Three years from what he understands? Three years of knowing each other, three years of not knowing where the other was, and a month-long trip and he starts writing to her and saying she's very important. He's been traveling with Shen Jiu for five years now and he doesn't feel like they're actually close.

Not that he would dare to want to become closer! Being nearby has always been enough to him and still is. Having his presence tolerated, letting him be there, he knows those are things he can't take for granted, he knows it should be enough.

Surely it's just that that sister made such a horrible first impression, there's no way he can be convinced she somehow became worthy of that loyalty so very quickly and without paying for any of the past offences… Not that Zhuzhi-lang's opinions matter in regards to this topic.

Later that week, he finds Shen Jiu resting his back against a fallen log, using a bamboo hat to keep the snow off his face as he writes something, his face and posture relaxed for once, and Zhuzhi-lang is glad he's gotten over that stupid comunication break, but when he peeks over his shoulder —He can't help but to exploit the fact that, after so long of traveling with Junshang, Shen Jiu's finally resigned himself to let people spy at his writings… sometimes, depending on the thing he'll still kick a fuss. But usually he's ok with it now— he finds he's writing a letter. 

"Didn't you say you wouldn't exchange letters for some months?" The words taste like vinegar as they leave his mouth. 

Shen Jiu pauses and turns towards him, "That's right," he says, a small smile climbing into his face that normally would make Zhuzhi-lang feel warm but right now is like a block of ice inside his stomach, "but I thought about it and since it's hard to break the habit I'll just keep writing the usual letters and send A-Tang the whole package later on." 

"Ah, I- I see," He doesn't know why it always bothers him anytime he says 'A-Tang' , but it bothers him, it really, really does.

It's surely because he's seeing someone he cares about being taken advantage of for so long. Which makes no sense since Shen Jiu's doing this to himself, but then again that's even more infuriating isn't it? That he's wasting his time like that?

"You really don't have to, you know," he tries to point out, "I don't think she'll extend the same courtesy to you." 

"Well, no, she's busy," he raises an eyebrow, "of course I'm not expecting A-Tang to also write letters to send later." 

"Then?" Zhuzhi-lang feels his eyebrows twitch.

"I just do it because I want to," Shen Jiu scoffs, "what? You're honestly going to judge how I spend my free time?" 

"N-not really," he looks down, "It just seems like a bit of a waste…"

Shen Jiu glares at this, "She's my sister, I can write her as many letters as I damn well please. I like to do it, anyway." 

He really doesn't understand this person. It's like he doesn't even remember he almost died before, in a very painful manner too.

Zhuzhi-lang still remembers, he remembers perfectly, the panic that took hold of him watching this person bleed from his ears and nose, white foam coming from his mouth, unresponsive to his name, the desperation when he cut his own skin, knowing he would be mad when he knew what he did, but also knowing that would be better than...

'A-Tang', 'A-Jiu', what an odd way to repay such an unpleasant experience. Zhuzhi-lang's always tried to ignore their relationship, it's not like she's traveling with them, so it usually isn't so hard to look away when Shen Jiu receives and sends new letters, but somehow, seeing him miss her is harder to ignore than before.

"I should have killed her when I could."

Shen Jiu now turns fully towards him, face red with anger and a murderous look in his eyes, "What did you just say?"

Oh

Oh no

OH NO!

He said that outloud!

"I-I d-d-did't zzzay a-anything!" he tries to backpedal. How could he let himself say—?! Ahhh he's swallowed most of his mean words for years now and he finally said something really bad without meaning to! "I- I wouldn't, I zzwear I w-wouldn't—!" And he would never, even though he doesn't understand that relationship and as much as it bothers him and even if he dislikes her he knows how much Shen Jiu cares and he would never take something as important as family from— "I-I'm zzzorry, I d-d-didn't mean to—!" But no matter if he meant it or not he still said it. And judging by how Shen Jiu reaches for his sword that's enough. Ah, Shen Jiu wouldn't kill him for some empty words no matter how mean, would he? Would he? Judging by the look on his face, maybe he would! 

"Something is coming," Junshang's voice interrupts the very likely murder attempt. He's looking at something to the west, and it only takes a couple of seconds after he speaks before a whisper of energy crosses the air and Zhuzhi-lang feels it too. 

Judging by the way Shen Jiu moves to gather the tent he's also felt it. The three of them —Really only Zhuzhi-lang and Shen Jiu— work quickly on disassembling the camp and moving their things away, just in time for something to fall from the sky against the spot they just vacated, leaving a crater of dirt and snow around the impact zone.

Junshang whistles, "Eight points for speed, but I have to discount half of those for the landing." 

"At least three extra points for aim…" Shen Jiu absently mutters before quickly realizing what he just said and moving to hit Junshang on the head, presumably because 'I can't believe you're managing to rot my brain!' as Shen Jiu sometimes says when he occasionally finds himself enjoying a book or play that carry the demon lord's recommendation. 

From the white and brown mound left at the center of the crater a child, of around fifteen or so, wearing yellow robes, crawls out, "Help!" he exclaims. Absolutely no one moves to help him.

Even without the help, the young cultivator still manages to extract himself from the snow. He looks around until his eyes find them, and then rushes towards them while tripping all the way.

"We need your help!" he exclaims, falling on his knees in front of them. 

"Oh?" Junshang takes a step forward, a smirk on his face as he tips his head to a side, preparing for a game "And whoever would it be that needs this lord's services?" 

Shen Jiu grimaces, preparing for a hassle. 

Zhuzhi-lang tries not to look at anything nor anyone in specific, no expectations for anything.

All three of their expressions are replaced by sharp surprise once the kid pulls out a certain object from his sleeve.

 



 

The smell of mold and decay persists no matter how many steps she takes, how many stairs she climbs, it's stuck to her clothes, to her hair, to the skin under her nails, and no matter how many times she tries to shake it off, how many talisman she wastes, how much energy she, that scent, like slime dragging itself over her body, won't be purified. 

Something is wrong with the number of steps echoing behind her. She turns around, recounts the heads, one, two, four, seven, ten, twelve people, only twelve, they were fifteen! Where? Where did— No, when did— She calls for the group to form a circle around her, to huddle together and remain where she can keep them safe, didn't she tell them to hold hands?! Didn't she tell the disciples to keep watch?!

"The three girls that were with you!" she demands, her hands grabbing that young boy's shoulders, "Where are them?!" 

The kid's eyes turn inside his skull, hollow and unseeing, she gives him two more shakes and they finally snap forward, focusing on her face. He opens and closes his mouth, but before any sound can come out his face twists on such a sorrowful expression. 

She breathes. Closing her eyes, letting the air circulate through her nose and mouth, she puts the child down. 

"Everyone!" she calls, turning towards the shivering mix of disciples and civilians, "I want you all to stay as close to me as possible! Grab my clothes, my hair! Anything you can get your hands on! And make sure to hold onto at least two other people!"

Walking like this, evading the heavy steps of the guards, hunting the stairs, pushing heavy doors and sinking her swords into the opening walls… it is hard, with so many hands grabbing her, using her to stay afloat. She walks slowly, makes sure none of them trip, makes sure to keep count of each and every single breath around her. 

But. Inevitably, finger by finger, hand by hand, the number dwindles down. 

She tries to fight it, she tries to catch them, she tries to pull them back towards her, but they're just gone. Swallowed by the darkness, like sand, like blood, slipping through the cracks of a broken vase. Slipping through the cracks between her fingers.

Twelve. Ten. Eight. Five. Three. 

And eventually she finds her group reduced to two. 

Two shaking children, one under each arm, that she grabs onto like a mother tries to keep safe her own flesh.

One.

A heavy door opens to the light of the sun, the fresh air washing away that grime that nothing could clean off, and there's only one person with her. 

One little, tiny junior, grabbing onto her clothes with the same ferocity she's grabbing onto his. 

She pushes the kid outside the structure— outside the thing. Before he can be whisked away— ripped away from her. The child trips and stumbles, but when he falls to the floor, he's at the other side of the door.

She remains with one foot in, one foot out.

Fifty three people.

She came here to rescue fifty three people.

She found forty three.

She got one out. 

Her hand sneaks inside her clothes, towards the inside of her left thigh. Her nails scratch the skin there, until she can feel the head of the nail, and then two fingers pull it out. 

She told that person she threw it away. In truth she just decided to hide it where no one would find it. 

She bends forward, takes the hands of the shidi between her own, and closes them around the bloody nail. 

The junior's eyes are huge and dazed, a question on the tip of his tongue.

"This will lead you to that person," she says, "tell him I sent you, tell him where I am, and tell him that, just this once, I need his help." 

The words taste bitter, like failure. She never wanted to ask this, she never wanted to use this, not because of necessity at least. That was not the reason why she kept it. 

Regardless,

There are at least fifty two people still in there.

"Shijie?!" The kid grabs her clothes as she turns around, not too different from how they all did, when she still had an entire group to protect. 

She holds the child between her arms. She isn't good at giving hugs, she's been told this time and time again, doesn't really like them herself if she's honest about it, it's not in her nature to seek or give affection. 

This seems to be the right time for a hug though. 

"It's going to be alright, he will help," after a final squeeze, she lets go, and the kid falls on his knees, body curling around the nail. "In the meanwhile, I have fifty two people in need of me."

Staring at that deep, deep darkness she could so easily leave, Su Xiyan steps forward. 

"Since you're always talking about heroes saving fair maidens, I hope you're happy for the chance, Tianlang-jun." 





Chapter Text

"No need, I know where she is," after the barest of explanations 'Su Shijie gave me this and asked for your help, follow me' Tianlang draws an arc in the air with the compass needle he gave Su Xiyan over a year ago, one of those dumb gifts he's so fond of handling her and usually end thrown away. The blood on it forms an arrow, and half a second later he's mounting his sword, leaving everyone behind, stunned and knocked into the snow by the force of his takeoff. 

"Asshole," Shen Jiu mutters over the ringing inside his ears. 

 


 

"It started four days ago," the Huan Hua disciple explains while carrying Shen Jiu and Zhuzhi on his sword, following after their companion's hasty departure, "The structure appeared on top of a village of thirty people. Ten disciples were sent to investigate, from which I was one. After we didn't come back, another group was sent to look, and when that group also went missing—" 

"And after throwing so many useless people at it they finally decided to send someone competent," Shen Jiu finishes, not caring about how the kid's face twists into a grimace at the comment.

Shen Jiu's never liked Huan Hua palace. Out of all those bothersome orthodox sects, that one's the one which insists the hardest they are the most righteous, while acting the scummiest, often ignoring tasks that won't bring great prestige or money, even those that would save human lives, yet acting like their presence is such an amazing blessing to the land and the common folk.

Even though they're so well regarded, the average Huan Hua cultivator is the weakest out of the four great sects, as they tend to rely on working on big groups rather than the quality of the individual disciple. Of course, that's not to say there aren't strong cultivators that come from Huan Hua palace every now and then, Su Xiyan being a clear example. 

Shen Jiu isn't completely sure how the fuck that stupid teacher of his fell for that woman, most of it happened when he wasn't looking, or while he was actively avoiding it. He thinks they already knew each other before he joined the demons? Or at least shortly after. Whatever the case, at some point during their travels Shen Jiu turned around and when he looked back Tianlang was spouting this and that bullshit about his 'beloved'. 

They run across her every now and then, finding her cleaning spirit plagues from villages and saving people from wild bests. Su Xiyan is… alright, he supposes, in all honestly he doesn't know her very well, hasn't tried to. Anytime they see her Tianlang becomes even more annoying than usual, and so Shen Jiu takes the chance of having him focusing on someone else to abscond until that encounter is over. 

For what he's seen she seems to genuinely care about protecting people more than gaining fame or honor, which is a nice contrast with the usual cultivators from well known sects, and she doesn't give a single fuck about the fact his companions are demons, which is also rare. So, for now he would tentatively place her as bearable. 

Honestly, Shen Jiu didn't think she returned the demon's feelings, always assumed she just had enough patience to deal with the unwanted attention. Anytime Tianlang asks for this or that gift he's given her she says they went lost and Shen Jiu believed her, there wasn't a reason not to, she's never shown any feelings towards the man, at least not in front of him. Now that it's clear she did keep at least one of the gifts he might have to rethink that assessment though.

"It's here," the disciple clarifies, unnecessarily, as after hours of travel at top speed they finally reach a pale, cylindrical tower, at least a hundred stories high, with no visible windows or doors.

They aren't the only ones interested in the building, it seems. All around the area he can see camping tents and observatory posts, from which people constantly enter and exit. Judging by the colors of the tents and the people's clothes he thinks he can distinguish at least eight different sects keeping watch of the tower. Whatever that thing is, the news of its appearance traveled quickly. 

The kid's Huan Hua uniform helps them pass easily through the cultivators guarding the area without anyone stopping them, and soon enough they're standing next to the building.

"The entrance changes places every few hours," the kid explains, "but it usually remains near the ground… Are you really going to enter?"

"Su Xiyan is inside, isn't she?" Shen Jiu says as a form of explanation. It's a rhetorical question, but the kid still nods. 

Tianlang surely is already inside too. He probably can take care of most of it himself, but leaving that guy alone to do whatever he wants is asking for trouble, especially when the situation is so closely monitored, so it'll be better if they enter as well. 

He absolutely isn't following because he's worried, not little bit. 

Shen Jiu places a hand on top of the tower's wall. The surface is uneven, made out of little, dry, chalky pebbles, most of them are white, but some have started to dirty into a brownish color here and there.

"So, the only entrance is always near the ground and we have to reach the top?" he asks, eyeing the tower's height. It'll certainly take a while, depending on what they find inside.

However, "No, Su Xiyan isn't on the superior floors!" the kid corrects, "When she helped us… when she helped me escape we had to climb up to reach the door. She's likely closer to the basement."

"Oh? That's counterintuitive."

"The tower grows upwards, we checked the material at the top is newer than the one at the bottom," the kid says, pulling from his own clothes and chewing on his own lips, "...but I believe the bones to build it are cleaned down, in the basement."

Shen Jiu retreats his hand from the wall as if burned. 

"...Bones."

The kid nods.

"Ah, I see," Shen Jiu laughs, "A tower of bones, no wonder all these cultivators are keeping an eye on it." He turns towards Zhuzhi to add something else… and finds him about to lick the wall, "Wha— Don't do that! What the hell is wrong with you?!" He pulls him by the hair and away from the tower.

"I... wanted to make sure it really was bones…"

"By licking it?!" 

The demon shrugs. Shen Jiu presses a hand against his temple, he can feel a vein popping there. Ah, it's really a miracle he hasn't died out of stress yet. 

"I… um…" the kid coughs, getting them to pay him attention again. "I didn't really see much when I was inside, I was mostly following my shixiongs and shijies. I just know the tower guides people down… The assumption is it wants to… gather materials, although it's just a supposition. When I was inside all the paths inside led down, it was impossible to find a way up, and the walls were too hard for us to break. We managed to find some of the missing people, the same way the second group found us, but then we couldn't find a way to leave," he grimaces, "I never actually saw the bottom, Su Shijie got to us before that. Somehow she knew how to find paths that went upwards, but then everyone started disappearing. I think something was following us, but I never could see what it was… I—… I kept my eyes closed most of the time. That's about all I know." 

"So it tries to lure its prey down, and if it refuses to follow the path willingly, it uses force," he muses, "if that's the case it shouldn't be too hard to reach the bottom, since we'll cooperate." 

Alright, their objective isn't to figure out what the tower is nor is it helping the cultivators get rid of it. All they have to do is find Su Xiyan and Tianlang, and then stick to them in order to make sure things don't get out of hand. Su Xiyan managed to escape once, only went back because she was looking out for other people, so the tower can't be that powerful, all things considered. It likely only grew this big from preying on weak prey. This shouldn't be too hard. 

Probably. 

"You can return with your sect now, maybe don't mention your Shijie asked you to look for us? ...Or maybe do it, I don't know, that's Su Xiyan's problem, really," Shen Jiu tells the kid. He doesn't seem to have any more useful information and it's clear being near the tower is freaking him out, it might be better if he leaves already. Then, turning towards Zhuzhi, "Let's start looking for the entrance."

 


 

There aren't cultivators this close to the tower, most of them are watching it from the sky or in observatory camps, likely staying at a prudent distance as they either wait for the situation to change or make plans on how to approach, so they don't have problems while walking around the structure, looking for the elusive entrance. 

While the tower's main feature is its height, its width is no joke either, the exterior wall's curvature almost becoming a straight line as they walk alongside it. Shen Jiu wonders how many people would be needed to achieve such a thing, do all the bones come from humans? If so then the number of victims has to be well past the thousands, it just seems impossible for such a thing to exist without anyone noticing until now.

He decides not to think about it, and instead just focuses on walking, looking for a door or a window. The search is a little unnerving, at first, but soon it just turns boring.

"Just so we're clear, I'm still mad at you," he says after they've rounded about a third of the structure. With all that's happened in quick succession the matter of what Zhuzhi said earlier had to be postponed, but it's not like he's going to ignore such a threat. 

Not liking his sister is one thing, as long as he doesn't express it too much in front of him Shen Jiu is willing to put up with that, he knows people can dislike others for no reason whatsoever, there's plenty of people he hates for no good reason. 

But to dare to threaten her? In front of him no less! It doesn't matter how much he didn't mean it or how much he doesn't actually think Zhuzhi would ever pass those words to actions, it's not something that can go without some kind of punishment. Might as well make sure that's clear while they're idle, "And I will chop your head off once we're done with this."

"... I'm well aware," Zhuzhi mutters, not looking at Shen Jiu, "I- I really, really didn't mean it."

"Save your excuses, I don't care to hear them. Anyway, for now we'll focus on the tower, just don't think I'm letting go of it." Zhuzhi gives a small nod, and they don't speak more after that. 

They end up finding the door next to the ruins of what used to be a house, now caved onto itself after the structure cut it in the middle, as if the tower had just been dropped on top of the town. The door is made of the same material as the wall, and while looking heavy, it offers very little resistance as Shen Jiu pushes it open. Using a night pearl to illuminate the dark interior, they step inside.

There's an immediate shift from the outside and the inside, the interior of the tower is warmer, the air is stale, heavy with moisture, and there's a pungent odor that permeates it all, sticking to every hair and every patch of skin, making him feel dirty. Even though he tries not to, he can't help but to mentally compare it to what he imagines entering a mouth would be like.

There's also something… familiar, somehow, in the smell, in the air around him, but Shen Jiu can't quite place where he has experienced something like this before. Shaking that dejavu off, he starts to make his way through the structure, Zhuzhi following close behind him. 

The walls and floors seem to be made out of the same material as the exterior and, as they follow the long, straight hallway, their steps echoing in the darkness, they don't find anything nor anyone, no doors, no furniture, no people, just a passage with no end in sight. It takes a while, but eventually they run into a set of descending stairs, with no other path to turn away from them, and Shen Jiu sees what the kid meant when he said it's like the tower is guiding them down. 

They continue this way until they've descended at least four floors. It goes hallway, stairs, hallway, and so on. Everything looks exactly the same, and since there aren't any windows he can't know for sure how long it's been since they entered. The only thing that tells him they are making any progress is the way the air becomes slightly warmer with each set of stairs they climb down.

He's just stepping off the latest set of stairs when the acrid smell rapidly intensifies, forcing him to cover his mouth and nose with his sleeve. It's a putrid, musky smell, like rotten milk and meat, that makes it hard to breathe without choking. And yet, under that, there's something sweet that is so achingly familiar it borders on nostalgic. 

Shen Jiu's eyes widen as he's finally able to place where he's felt this before. He turns towards Zhuzhi to announce his discovery, only to find the stairs he just stepped off of have been replaced by another straight hallway. 

"...Zhuzhi?" he calls, raising the night pearl to illuminate a little further into the pathway, "Zhuzhi-lang?!" 

The odor disperses into its mild state from before, and Shen Jiu is left standing there… alone.

Shen Jiu walks in one direction, then turns around and walks in the other one, and turns away anytime he finds a new set of descending stairs at the end, occasionally holding up the light and calling his companion's name, but it proves pointless. There's no trace of the demon.

He takes a pause and reorganizes his thoughts in the span of a deep breath. 

"It's alright."

It's alright. The plan hasn't changed just because they got separated, it hasn't changed one bit. 

They had already split from Tianlang, so what's one more division to their group? He'll just find them at the bottom alongside Su Xiyan. 

Thinking that, he continues his pursuit for the stairs. He finds a new set of descending ones easily, and is about to climb down when the light catches something on the wall. He turns to examine it and finds… a door. 

So far it's all been hallways and stairs, with the only directions being back and forward, a door is something new. 

He puts the pearl down and readies himself, not knowing if an enemy will jump as soon as he opens it, his sword in one hand and a fire talisman in the other, and in one quick movement pulls it open. 

Something pounces at him. Shen Jiu cuts it in two, and barely stops himself from throwing the talisman once he sees what is in front of him. 

Inside the room, one arm extended forward from when she threw a shoe, stands a woman, the other arm carefully cradling a baby against her chest.



Chapter Text

"I didn't—" the woman begins, her entire frame quivering as she squeezes the bundle of cloth against her chest and the little baby begins to babble, tiny hands moving to pull from her hair, "I didn't know there were more people in here." 

"There are at least another fifty people in this building," Shen Jiu informs her, "Are you one of the villagers that went missing?" 

The woman stares at him, like she still can't quite believe he's there. "I… suppose?" she says, "I— We woke up here some— I— I don't know how long ago and I—"

"Haven't you seen anyone else during that time?" he asks, by the woman's reaction to his presence the answer is obvious, but he still wants a confirmation, "A woman? A cultivator? With yellow clothes? About this height?" 

The woman shakes her head slowly. "You're the first person I see," she says, "I looked for other people, you're the first person I see." 

That established, Shen Jiu finally takes a better look at the room. It looks like a bedroom, with a red carpet and two shelf beds, both of them without curtains, with gray bedsteads and dark brown mattresses, covers and pillows that have an odd texture as he touches them, similar to silk, but just slightly off. There is also a small dresser, same material as the bedstead,  and two lanterns, seemingly made with thin leather, illuminating the room.

He wasn't really expecting to find anything but empty hallways here. "This is the first room I find," he says out loud as he moves around, examining the objects. The dresser is empty and there are big, yellow candles burning inside the lamps. They smell like animal fat. "Are they common? The rooms, I mean."

"I… I've found a hall, some time ago," she answers, "and a study… and this room." 

"Hmm," that's not enough information to know how common the rooms are. He was getting used to the idea of the tower as a straightforward trap, an artefact made to lure people in, he doesn't like the idea of it having living facilities inside of it, he doesn't like it implies someone might be living in it. 

"You're a cultivator, right?!" the woman interrupts his train of thought, "What happened to us? This seems like someone's house, were we kidnaped by spirits? Demons?!" 

"Yes, you were kidnapped, no, it wasn't a spirit or a demon. This is the work of a human," he corrects, turning towards the woman "a demonic cultivator, no less." Which to be fair some might say is worse than a demon or spirit. He certainly would, but then again, Shen Jiu is biased.

"Demonic… cultivator?" the woman frowns as if confronted by a hard puzzle, "A cultivator did this?" 

Shen Jiu can't help but to roll his eyes. Really, he doesn't have the time to explain the difference to this person. 

"Sure, let's say that's it. An evil cultivator did this. Whatever the case, lots of good cultivators are already working on how to solve it as we speak," he says, as condescending as he can get, while he moves to examine a pillow. It feels odd, so he rips the cloth open, and finds a handful of braided hair and teeth. He puts it on the bed, ripped side down. "So you should just sit to wait here until it's all fixed. It shouldn't take long now." 

With that said and nothing else to look at, he starts to move towards the door. 

"Wait!" the woman stands up, following him, "You can't leave us here!"

"You seem to have been doing well so far," he tries to reason, "I need to continue moving forward. I can't stay here to play babysit." 

"Then let us follow," she insists, "Please, master cultivator! I've been so scared! I can't protect my son by myself!"

"Then what the fuck makes you think you'll be more safe following me into battle?!" he snaps, and it only succeeds in making the child cry, "Oh, great." 

The woman starts shushing the baby, softly bouncing him in her arms. Shen Jiu hopes to use the distraction to slip away, but the woman just follows him as he goes back to the corridor, where the set of stairs from earlier have disappeared, replaced by the familiar straight hallway. 

At the end, he can't do much but to let her follow as the baby continues crying his little head off. Really, it's not Shen Jiu's responsibility to look after this person, and he refuses to feel pity just because she's carrying a child. If she wants to endanger herself and her son by following him, erroneously thinking he'll protect her just because he's a cultivator, that's her problem, and he won't feel bad when she gets killed by whatever they find at the bottom of the tower. 

 


 

A normal person naturally has less stamina than a cultivator, and the woman didn't seem very athletic in the first place, with a round face and plum body. Given that Shen Jiu refuses to slow down his pace on account of her, added to the fact she lost a shoe, plus the corrupted energy in the air being detrimental for most living things, it's not at all surprising when she eventually has to rest her back against a wall to catch her breath, slowly sliding to the floor. 

"Wait—" she pants, "Let's wait for a moment, please." 

"Didn't I already tell you I wasn't going to babysit you?" he scoffs, continuing moving forward at the same speed as before. 

He makes a mistake after the third step he takes, however. He looks back, and finds the woman, still sitting where she fell, with her eyes very open and pursed lips, looking on the verge of tears.

Shen Jiu curses under his breath, mad at his own weakness. If this was a man he's sure he would be able to just drop him, but of course he just had to find the most adequate thing to elicit his pity, didn't he?

He walks back and sits next to Lu Fang, takes off his shoes and hands them to her, hoping she doesn't mention it. 

The woman smiles at him, "Thank you," she mutters, but otherwise doesn't say anything and he's grateful for that. 

Then, unexpectedly, she pulls out a small bag from her robes and begins to take and peel lotus seeds from it.

He stares, somewhat taken aback at the sight of someone stopping to take a snack in this place.

She stares back, "What?" she asks, "Eating is important not to die!."

"It's nothing," he shakes his head.

"Would you like some?" the woman  asks, gesturing at the bag, "I always carry some snacks with me, so don't worry, I have more."

Because this might as well happen, Shen Jiu raises a hand to receive the seeds. He expects her to simply pour part of the contents of the bag on his palm, but, instead the woman takes the time to peel some seeds before gently placing them in his hand.

"I'm not a kid," he glares, even as he puts two peeled seeds inside his mouth. 

The woman blinks, then smiles, "You're never old enough to have your seeds peeled," she says, "My husband does it for me all the time, and I do it for him as well."

"So both of you, pair of idiots, end up peeling for each other the same number of seeds you would peel for yourselves," he scoffs, "how utterly useless."

The woman blinks at him, likely taken aback by the hostility, but quickly recovers and places a smile on her face. "Now that I think about it I haven't told you my name," she says "My name is Lu Fang," then, pushing the baby towards him, "This is my son Xiao Yi." 

Shen Jiu peers at the baby. Xiao Yi stares at him with big, shiny, manipulative brown eyes, and then immediately starts to cry.

Shen Jiu smirks, "He's scared of strangers. How smart." 

"Oh? Oh no," Lu Fang mutters, rocking her son back and forth as she tries to calm him down, "come on Xiao Yi, don't be like that. This man is a good cultivator who's going to protect you and mama, see? Don't cry." 

He supposes he was the one who spouted that bullshit about good and evil cultivators, so Shen Jiu stops himself from scoffing or pointing out most cultivation sects would label him as the evil kind. 

Eventually she manages to get the little one to shut up, even managing to lull him into sleep. They stand up again, Lu Fang clinging from his sleeve and walking right beside him as she hums a lullaby, and if Shen Jiu opts to walk more slowly this time around it's only because he doesn't want the brat to wake up and start crying again. 

They reach the end of the hallway, which takes a turn left, and find another set of stairs. These ones, however, go up. 

"Is there something wrong?" Lu Fang asks, once she notices Shen Jiu has stopped walking.

He frowns. 

"Is this the first time you see a set of stairs that go up?" he asks.

Lu Fang's eyebrows move up and she shakes her head. "They're rarer than the ones that go down," she replies, "but I've found a few." 

"I see…" 

The Huan Hua disciple said he didn't find anything but descending stairs until they found Su Xiyan, and then only she was able to guide them up. Shen Jiu thought it was because her level of cultivation was enough to weaken whatever spell the tower had that guided people downwards, but if this normal woman has found paths that climb up by herself then it must be something else. 

"Have you taken any stairs that go up?"

"A couple."

"And nothing tried to attack you?"

"I- No, nothing." 

"Nothing followed you?"

"I… don't think so?" 

Shen Jiu frowns. There's something here he's missing. He looks at the stairs, then looks at Lu Fang and her son…

Su Xiyan managed to get one of the kids out, so as long as you can move up, it's not impossible to find the door that leads outside. He's been counting the number of steps he's descended, they aren't that deep. 

Tianlang will solve most of it anyway, and even if he separated from Zhuzhi that guy's surely going to continue searching for his uncle, he's responsible and obedient like that, he wouldn't forget their vague plan just because he was left alone. 

So is Shen Jiu really needed down there? Maybe he could... 

He stares back at the woman, still bouncing the kid who's finally fallen asleep, and curses that old weakness of his. He's always had a soft spot for women, double that for mothers and sisters.

Fuck

"I will make sure you two get out of this tower," he ends up saying, forcing the words out like pronouncing them hurts.

He's rewarded by Lu Fang assaulting him as she jumps to hug him as well as she can without squishing Xiao Yi, "Thank you! Thank you so much!" she exclaims, with such a palpable relief he's surprised she hasn't fallen to the floor. 

He takes a step away and nods, already regretting it. He begins to take a step towards the stairs, then pauses.

"...I haven't introduced myself," Shen Jiu says, turning towards her. 

If he's going to let this person actually stick around, if he's going to try and help someone else for a change, he might as well share his name too. After all, it's only natural to introduce yourself to people you don't know, right? "My name is Shen Jiu."

Lu Fang smiles at him, a huge grin, showing all her teeth, "Nice to meet you, Shen Jiu. This one and her son are in your hands." 

Chapter Text

Su Xiyan drives her sword into the floor as soon as it begins to crack, it slices the toes of the malformed foot that was just starting to creep out of, and the guard squeezes itself back to its place between the walls with a wet grugle. She's able to pull the sword out just in time for the floor to mend itself, the bones harshly scraping against the metal on its way out.

"Cultivator Jiejie!" the kid who was standing where the floor opened cries out, pulling from Su Xiyan's skirt. 

"It's alright," she assures, pulling the girl closer. The other two kids also move to surround her, hanging from her arms.

She sends another five talismans flying, which promptly stick to the walls and lit the space. She scans the surroundings for more cracks, and when she doesn't find any, allows her sword to lower by an itch. 

Su Xiyan is tired. She's so. Incredibly. Tired.  

When the tower appeared she was already in the middle of another mission, and didn't have time to rest before being called here. The corrupted energy inundating this place doesn't help any: There's no qi to draw from, it's all dirty and unusable, all she can rely on is her own energy reserves, which are slowly but steadily depleting. 

She calculates she has about a week left in these conditions, assuming the guards keep spawning as they've so far. It should be enough. It will be enough. 

The ceiling starts opening, and she's too busy, in the middle of cutting through the hands blooming there, when several fissures form behind her, and five dozen fingers and teeth tangle into her hair, drawing her backwards. This is the first time the guards have attacked her directly.

There's no time to slash at all the parts that have taken hold of her, not if she wants to get to the kids before they're dragged down. Without a second of hesitation, Su Xiyan's sword moves to cut off her ponytail. 

Two strands of hair fly into the air, her sword hitting something hard before the rest can be cut, and ten red dogs move to dispose of the guards that were reaching for the kids as well as the ones pulling her.

"I'm sorry I took so long," Tianlang-jun says, a hand blocking her sword, the other mournfully holding the two lost strands of hair, "But I'm glad I got here before we had to face an insurmountable loss." 

The corners of her mouth twist upwards. This dependable idiot is as always so truly idiotic. 

"You protect our charges," she huffs, her hold on the sword and the placement of her feets changing from protective to hostile, "I'll take care of the offensive." 

"My lady's words are orders to me," The idiot bows, and as the blood hounds organize around the kids all the walls and the ceiling and the floors crack open like never before, releasing the next wave of flourishing flesh. Su Xiyan breathes, takes position, and cuts. 

 



 

The search through the tower is unnerving and awkward. Zhuzhi-lang walks closely behind Shen Jiu, both of them holding a night pearl, even though Shen Jiu is the only one who can't see in the dark. Over the musty smell of the tower Shen Jiu smells like anger and frustration, which he can understand, he did say something really awful. He wants to say something, but doesn't know what. 

Really, what right does he have of being bothered by Shen Jiu's relationship with someone else? Even if he dislikes that woman for the way she acted in the past, doesn't the fact they're friends— family now just means Zhuzhi-lang is even worse? Why should Shen Jiu be unfriendly towards other people just because he's that way towards him? He hates admitting it, but while he still doesn't like her, this hatred comes from the comparison of their relationships to Shen Jiu, not really because of her as a person…. And that is so stupid.

Really, all he ever does is make Shen Jiu angry, and then he wonders why he doesn't like him? Such a nuance as himself surely hasn't given a good reason to be appreciated… although not for a lack of trying. 

Junshang keeps him near him because they're related by blood… Well, because he promised to his mother, more than anything, and he can count on that, but expecting Shen Jiu to be nice to him is stupid, no one's ever been, he's never expected anyone to be, it would be unconciderate to, given who he is. So why is he now so bitter at not having something someone else has? 

A creature like him doesn't have right to anything, if Shen Jiu knew what he was born as he wouldn't even want to stand near him, so how dare Zhuzhi-lang be unsatisfied with just being near other people? Did he already forget what being all alone was like? Didn't he spend who knows how many years wishing he could be tolerated? To dare to ask for even more after that dream came true, what a greedy, ungrateful person it must make him.

He stops while they're walking down a set of stairs, just a second. He's about to apologize again, even if it will only make Shen Jiu angrier, because he doesn't know what else to say, can't reach any other word to communicate with... because as always he's bad at everything surrounding the act of speech. 

However, before he can open his mouth, Zhuzhi-lang feels a set of arms surrounding his neck, warm and soft. Comfy. And alongside them there's this sweet, comforting smell that speaks of safety. He wants to sink into it. 

"Oh, my unwanted child, I pity you so."  

 



 

"I don't understand why we aren't just going in!" 

"Shidi is too impatient," Quan Shixiong sighs, rubbing his forehead, "Shizun already explained it, until we are sure the tower won't move we can't send anyone in."

"The fact we don't know when it will move is all the more reason to enter!" he argues, pointing at the tower in the distance, "We know there are people inside! An entire village! How can we call ourselves followers of the rightful path if we ignore their need for help for some details like—"

"Minghai Shidi!" Quan Shixiong snaps, shutting him up. "The only reason Shizun allowed you to come to this mission is because she thought you could follow orders. Are you arguing with her direct commands?" 

He bites his cheek and closes his hands into fists. It's all he can do to avoid punching his Shixiong on the face. "No, Shixiong." he forces himself to say between grinded teeth, "I understand, Shixiong." 

"Good." Quan Shixiong nods and puts a hand on his shoulder. He wants to shake it off, "Now go and help move the pillars for the array." 

"Yes Shixiong, of course Shixiong..." he mutters, moving to do just that.

He knows he needs to obey orders, he knows. Shizun only allowed him to go back to participate on missions under that condition, but…

It's just… The enemy is right in front of them! There are people inside! Instead of worrying with all these pointless precautions they should just go ahead and fight evil as they are supposed to!

He understands Shizun's reluctance, he does! Considering… But the more they wait the more likely it is that the tower will go away! They're wasting time on something they aren't even sure will work! If she doesn't want the past to repeat, isn't it all the more reason to let them in as soon as possible?!

Ah, this is way more complicated than it ought to be!

 



 

It's kind of chilly. Xiao Yi doesn't seem to mind, still sleeping deeply as she hums a simple melody under her breath. Lu Fang still makes sure to check he's properly snug inside his blankets as they continue moving forward.

According to the master cultivator, Shen Jiu, the last stairs they took, a long stretch that seemed to go forever, left them a handful of floors above the surface, so now they're looking for a set of descending ones. 

Apparently he's been able to keep count of how many steps he's descended and ascended since he entered the tower. It's comforting to know they're in the hands of such a capable person. 

All they've found lately are stairs that climb up, but she isn't worried. It's been like this ever since she woke up in this place, a lot of stairs that go down appear one after the other, followed by short periods in which everything leads up. So far Lu Fang's just been blindly taking whatever path appears in front of her, but now that they have a proper guide there's no doubt in her mind they'll reach the exterior in no time. 

Shen Jiu really came at the right moment. The truth is, she was starting to worry the snacks she had with her when they were kidnapped would run out. Now that won't be a problem! She can stop rationing!

She hopes her family is alright. They don't carry snacks like she does, so she hopes they aren't too hungry. The last thing she remembers before the tower is helping her mother in law stitch her husband's old robes. She wishes she had woken up with them, but on the other hand at least she managed to hold onto her son, and she has no doubt the cultivators will solve everything soon!

Speaking of food, after his little nap Xiao Yi wakes up looking for food, and they make a stop so she can feed him.

"How many times are we going to stop?!" argues Shen Jiu.

She replies with a simple, "Food is important for babies to be alive!" and he allows them to pause, looking at anything but her as she pulls open her robes. 

Xiao Yi is very, very awake after, and she plays with him by tickling his face with her hair. Soon after they resume walking, they find a set of stairs that go down.

As expected, everything will be alright.

 



 

He's always been better at taking an offensive stance than protecting something else, but he manages. Tianlang-jun orders the hounds to form a tight circle around the weak humans, ripping apart any arm or leg that attempt to get near them, he himself standing at the center, taking care of the ones that try to span inside the circle, while Su Xiyan takes care of cutting a path for them to move forward, even going so far as to stick light talismans to the walls she clears up, and with this formation, pulling and pushing the weaklings that seem to have forgotten how to walk by themselves they manage to advance through the tower. 

In the battlefield Su Xiyan is fight streamlined to its essence, her technique polished to make exactly as many movements as they're needed and not a single twitch more, all her strikes utilitarian, clean, simple and precise, free of unnecessary flourishes, each position flowing beautifully to the next. 

It's as devoid of personality as an anatomy textbook, and about as entertaining to watch as a churn drill.

He loves it, it's motion and violence and drive all gathered together, bared and set free. Tianlang-jun could watch it all day if not for the fact the slight delay on every fourth cut makes it abundantly clear she's pretty worn off. 

The fight breaks off as they enter a small music room, the instruments made out of bones, tendons, leather and hair, and the tower doesn't try to fight them past the door. 

"So far it hasn't attacked when we're inside the rooms," Su Xiyan says, as Tianlang-jun brings a stool for her to sit on, "but keep your guard up, just in case." 

He nods, calling the blood of two of the hounds back into himself, setting one to guard the door and another two to keep watch of the dead weight. Tianlang-jun kneels besides Su Xiyan, gently taking one of her hands.

As he measures her spiritual energy, his eyebrows shoot up, "... I'm surprised you can stand," It's way worse than he thought.

"Don't underestimate me," she huffs. 

"I would be the last person to do so, my love," he turns towards the other humans. Three of them are clearly normal people, but the other three have some level of cultivation, "Can't you see how low your Shijie's qi is?! Come here and transfer her energy right now, you—!" he's cut off by a heavy palm landing on his head.

"Since when do you have the authority to order Huan Hua disciples around?"

"Xiyan…" he pouts. 

"He's always all too dramatic, I don't need an energy transfer," she tells the disciples, then, looking back at him, she pulls him by the hem of his robes and harshly whispers, "Can't you see these are juniors? To replenish my reserves even a bit would have them end in bed for a week."

"It's not like dragging their unconscious bodies would be that much of a jump from herding them as we're now..." He receives a rough shake for that, "I understand, I understand. My bad. This servant apologies." 

"You worry over nothing, I have enough qi to last me a week," If she consumes part of her life energy, maybe… Ahhh, that's probably what she plans to do, isn't it? "Who would I be if I were to use the people I'm supposed to protect for my own convenience?" 

Tianlang-jun sighs. As one would expect from someone who hates compromises, Su Xiyan will always try to avoid sacrificing anything, she's that sort of win it all or lose everything kind of person. 

She isn't stupid, yet she chooses to be stupidly idealistic, it's something Tianlang-jun has never been able to do properly, fully, and coming from the heart, even though he's tried to fake it many times before. He can't help but to adore that stubborn naivety. 

"I should start carrying spirit stones," he mutters as he starts transferring qi. 

Demonic and spiritual qi can work as transfusions for both humans and demons, both beings' bodies can convert the other's energy into the proper one, but only in small dosis, otherwise it becomes dangerous, so it's always better for everyone to stick to their proper type. 

So, while he wouldn't mind handling Su Xiyan all he has, there's a limit to how much he can give. 

"Do you know what this tower is?" Su Xiyan asks, once he releases her wrist. 

"Judging by the corrupted energy, it's demonic cultivation for sure." 

"So, I assume you haven't seen it before?" 

"I only have a couple of decades traveling the human world," he shrugs, "I have seen a few products of demonic cultivation, but this specific one? No, I haven't." 

"Last I heard, the working theory is that it is an apotheosis." 

"No, that's not it," he shakes his head, "I saw one once, a real one. If it was an apotheosis we would be already dead, me included." 

"You think it's an imperfect apotheosis, then?"

"An imperfect apotheosis sounds more likely. One that's been going on for a long time though, based on the tower's height." 

"That's why we were leaning towards a complete one," she frowns, "If it's an imperfect form, it shouldn't have been able to exist this long." 

"It could, if it had a sufficient supply of food." 

"It would have to eat every hundred years or so. We don't have records of this thing before this incident. It's a little hard to miss."

"You got inside before the other sects offered cooperation, right?" Su Xiyan nods, "Most of the major ones are outside, some minors too. They might know more, when I entered it seemed like they were putting together an anchorage array." 

Su Xiyan's eyebrows rise, "That's…" she wrinkles her nose. It's cute. He wants to kiss that wrinkle, "...not reassuring in the slightless." 

"It was only half formed when I saw it, but personally I don't think it will be strong enough to chain something like this." 

"As I said, not reassuring." She taps her chin. He wants to kiss that finger too, "How did you get here?" 

"I followed your trail of blood in the compass needle," He smiles. 

"You didn't go through any wall?"

"I thought about it," he says, "but this place is way too wrapped. It might just collapse on itself if I were to force it like that." 

"You only found descending stairs?"

"That's right." 

"So far I've been the only one who can find stairs that lead up, so I can't get you to take them out while I descend," she explains, gesturing towards the other humans, "My plan was to get this group to safety, then return for the rest. However, if they're building the anchorage as anything more than an extra precaution there might not be time for that." 

"How many people do you need to find?" He tips his head to a side.

Su Xiyan frowns. "Didn't Xuan Shidi explain that?"

"Haha, ah, you see..." he scratches his cheek, trying to look a bit pitiful, "I might have rushed to find you as soon as he showed me the needle." 

Su Xiyan stares at him, lets out a huge sigh, and passes a hand through her hair. "I thought you were alone because you realized the danger of what we were dealing with and instructed the other two to stay outside, but instead you just ditched them, didn't you?" 

"I was too worried to do anything else, my lady!" he pouts and makes his eyes go round and shiny. This has no visible effect on her.

"They're good kids, so they most likely followed you as well…" she says, slumping on her seat and for once sounding as tired as he knows she is, "Make it fifty four people to rescue, then." 

 



 

"Ah!" Lu Fang lets go of the jar, and it falls to the floor spilling its contents, human ears swimming in a yellow liquid, "Oh dear!" 

They've been walking for a while now, it's hard to know exactly how long without seeing the sun, but she thinks it has to have been at least a day. They found another room, what looked like a nursery, and stayed there to rest while she and Xiao Yi took a nap, the baby resting on her lap as she didn't dare to put him in any of the cribs. They continued walking after that, and managed to descend four floors, leaving them something like twenty steps over the ground, when they found what looked like a kitchen.

She thought it would be a good chance to replenish her food supplies, but each container is worse than the last. 

"Let's keep going, we aren't going to find anything here," Shen Jiu says from where he stands near the door, Xiao Yi held in his arms. 

Even after making a makeshift carrier out of Xiao Yi's blankets, her shoulders and arms were just starting to numb, and there's no way Lu Fang is going to place her son anywhere else in this place than in a trusted person's arms. She dealt with it by sitting down and resting Xiao Yi's weight on her lap every hour or so before meeting Shen Jiu, but since the cultivator kept insisting against taking rests, she got him to hold him while she rested her arms. 

Of course, he initially said he didn't want to, or even didn't know how to hold a baby, but eventually she convinced Shen Jiu to it, who soon proved to be perfectly capable of holding a baby.

At first there were some tears as Xiao Yi's never been fond of strangers, but after a bit of showing him mama was still close and begging Shen Jiu to make funny faces, it seems the kid's finally getting comfortable with the inmortal.

Case in point, when she returns to retake her baby, Xiao Yi is peacefully sleeping in the other's arms. 

"You're right," she sighs, as she accommodates Xiao Yi's position, "We should keep going," Lu Fang glares at the jars and boxes filled with rotten meat and other unspeakable things, and together they go back to the hallway. 

Lu Fang walks close behind him, humming a son under her breath as she's used to doing when her son is asleep, only finding paths that go upwards as they continúe searching.

"He sleeps a lot, doesn't he?" Shen Jiu says at some point, pointing at Xiao Yi.

"As all babies should," she nods.

"Do you need to sing that lullaby anytime he's asleep?" 

"Hm? Oh, I guess not, but it helps him sleep soundly. Protects him from nightmares and other unpleasant stuff."

"Could you stop singing it? Just a moment," Shen Jiu asks, "I want to check something."

"Uh... alright," she agrees, even if she doesn't understand what the song has to do with anything, Shen Jiu surely has a reason to suggest that. 

They have a bit more luck after that, they find two descending staircases, but it's obvious both of them are way too long for what they need, and would leave them underground again, so they don't take them.

"Could you go back to singing it now?" Shen Jiu instructs again, after a while.

Lu Fang nods and proceeds to sing again, this time properly singing instead of just humming the tone, in hopes it'll be even more useful for whatever Shen Jiu has in mind.

"It's as I thought," Shen Jiu declares once they find the next set of stairs, a short staircase with steps that climb up.

"What?"

"Anytime you sing we find ascending stairs," he says, pointing at the staircase, "and whenever you stop they go back to lead down."

"Oh," Lu Fang blinks. With all the fear and anxiety of waking up here, she didn't make that connection, but now that she's thinking about it… it seems to be true, the stairs change depending on whether or not she sings, "I didn't realize."

Shen Jiu nods, "It should be easier to navigate our way out, now that we know this." 

 



 

Something's changed. Where originally Su Xiyan could find paths leading deeper into the tower fairly easily, now it seems like most stairs lead up, only occasionally finding descending steps.

This wouldn't be a problem if she still held to her original plan, guiding this group of people out of the tower, then returning to look for the rest, but after hearing what Tianlang-jun said about the anchoring array she isn't so sure anymore.

The only reason the sects would find it necessary to construct such a complex and expensive is if they knew for sure afraid the tower will teleport away soon, which explains why so far they haven't sent reinforcements inside. 

The possibility of it eventually moving was always there, it appeared out of nowhere on top of this town after all, but to be able to relocate an object of this size she expected it would need longer to recharge whatever it used to come here. Huan Hua palace didn't have any register of this thing before now, but probably one of the other sects came forward with some kind of information, and now they're sure it's a matter of days for the tower to move, not months as she originally thought. 

Su Xiyan isn't sure if she will be able to guide this group out and then return for the rest in time. Maybe she should keep going, and only go back once she's found everyone. She hasn't lost a single one now that she has Tianlang-jun helping keep watch, after all.

"I could continue moving down to retrieve the other people while you guide these outside," That one Tianlang-jun says, pointing at the kids as they stumble into another room, nails and teeth almost scraping against her clothes. This one looks like a small warehouse, all shelves filled with mucus and fingers and tongues. 

"And if you reach the bottom and don't find everyone there?" she retorts, leaning her back against the wall. The lack of paths leading to the bottom hasn't helped her keep her energy, "The ones taken are most likely there, that's how these things tend to operate, but there's still a chance we're wrong and they're being held somewhere else. Not to mention, we only know for sure forty two people were dragged, there might be more still wandering around the building, that's how I found this group." 

If the idiot gets to the bottom and doesn't find everyone there, he won't be able to backtrack. Even if he can protect those he finds as he brings down the entire building, there might be people he won't get to.

"Even so, lately all we're finding are ascending stairs, the escape has turned easier, while advancing not so much," he shrugs, "I respect your strength fully, you know this, but as things are we might not make it to the bottom before this place teleports. If we end in a mustard seed dimension or another kind of hibernation state, who knows how long it will be before we can escape? Let me keep looking for your people, and you should leave with what you have. There's a saying 'it's better a bird caught than a hundred flying' my lady." 

Because Tianlang-jun is the kind of person who would use such a saying regarding human lives is exactly why this man can't ever be left in charge of a rescue mission. Oh, he would try, of course he would, if not for the victims at least for her sake, but the moment it comes to choose between saving five or saving ten he will take the ten for sure without even wondering if there's a way to save them all. 

She shakes her head and slides to the floor. She will rest a moment, just a second, and then they can proceed.

"Hm… This is unsustainable," that person sighs, and then, perking up "I have an idea."

He walks towards the group of kids, grabbing one by the back of his robes and throwing him over his shoulder.

"What are you—?!"

"I'll apologize upfront so please don't get too mad at me, Xiyan," Tianlang-jun smiles at her, before rushing out of the door. 

"Stay in this room!" she commands the rest of the group before quickly following back into the hallway, "Come back here!" 

The demon, for once in his lifetime, does not listen to her, instead he just keeps running as the walls, floor and ceiling open around them, spouting guards until they're completely surrounded by crawling limbs. 

Tianlang-jun stops, grabs the kid, and throws him towards the reaching hands, the walls opening wider to take him in. 

She lunges forward, the hands pull the kid at the same time they push her away. She manages to cut most of them off, most of the ones between her and the child, and I'd about to grab him when Tianlang-jun jumps too. He pushes the arms aside, and she hears bones and skin breaking as he digs into the mass of flesh, not sure if it comes from the tower's limbs or his, and then manages to push his body through the hungry hole that had just opened for the kid. 

The limbs stop and then let go, and Su Xiyan catches the child as the tower growls and shakes.

 



 

It's the early hours in the morning, and the sun isn't up yet, same as most people in the camps. Yet, he is still working on moving rock pillars around the perimeter, because Quan Shixiong thinks it'll teach him discipline or whatever. Joke's on him though, he doesn't mind physical labor, if anything he was starting to get bored, being idle all day while others monitor and plan or whatever. 

He's setting down the second to last pillar assigned to him, when a loud growl, like that of a dying beast, echoes through the air. He looks at the direction it came from, the tower at the center of the perimeter, and finds the building wobbling and shaking like a construction in an earthquake. 

All around the campsite people begin to leave their tents, rushing here and there. He almost takes course towards the head disciple's tent, around which disciples are starting to gather, when he stops. 

Because he was busy setting the pillars, he's relatively close to the perimeter, and no one is watching him, it's likely few people would notice his absence, were he to disappear in the middle of the confusion. 

He looks back at the tower.

The sects are going to call for a meeting, argue and argue for hours without getting to decide anything, and who knows if by the time they're done the tower will still be there? 

He's heard of one Huan Hua disciple who managed to get out after entering. A junior, no less. If a junior disciple from Huan Hua can enter and get out, surely he could too, right? Find the people lost inside and help them out, maybe even get the chance to defeat whatever monster inhabits it. 

Whatever the case, if they keep wasting their time with all this preparation, he's pretty sure everyone inside will die.

So, disregarding direct orders, he leaves the stone pillars where he stands and rushes to enter the tower. 

 



 

There's a loud sound and the floor begins to shake, making Lu Fang stumble. Luckily, Shen Jiu catches her, supporting her side before she and Xiao Yi fall to the floor. 

In the commotion, however, he lets go of the lighting orb, which rolls away. 

The earthquake subsedes and Lu Fang moved to take the sphere. She's crouching down as well as she can while holding her son, reaching to take the light, when the patch on the floor next to it opens, revealing a small, tiny, child's hand, reaching for her.

She screams, trying to jump away, but something grabs her ankle and pulls her down. There's a metallic sound and the thing let's go, just to be replaced by something else around her waist, and another thing that tried to touch Xiao Yi.

"No!" she screams, struggling against the hold.

"Lu Fang, it's me!" Shen Jiu exclaims, and it's then that she realizes he's the one that pulled her up. 

There's a sound behind them, like rocks rubbing against each other. The light is still on the floor, far away from it.

Slowly, not quite letting her go, Shen Jiu takes a step towards the orb, calling it to his hand with a complicated hand movement to retrieve it without having to bend down, and points at the place from where the sounds come from. 

A hundred arms of different sizes are coming from inside the wall, some sticking at the elbow, others only the fingers poking out from the spaces between the bricks, all of them diligently working to dig themselves and their companions out. 



Chapter Text

The wall falls apart and the onrush of limbs charges towards them. After slicing one or two hands that try to take hold of Lu Fang's clothes it becomes obvious fighting them all off will be impossible, so Shen Jiu grabs her wrist and runs out of there. 

Absently, he notices the layout of the building has changed, the straight hallway now has turns, he takes one of these turns, moving forward, all the time perfectly aware of the sound of things crawling behind him. 

They take another three detours, the things running after them slowly getting cloder, until finally one of the paths he picks ends on a hallway with one single door at the end of it. They get inside, Lu Fang closing the door as they enter, before Shen Jiu pulls her behind him, sword ready, fully expecting the things to break through the thin door. 

They don't, the door remains closed and unbroken, and nothing inside the room attacks them either. They exchange a look, and Shen Jiu steps forward as Lu Fang takes a step back. He holds his sword firmly on his left hand, the right, placed on the door's frame, holding four talismans, one between each finger, the night is pearl tied around his neck by now, and with a quick movement Shen Jiu opens the door.

He hopes the layout of the tower will have changed, as it would often do after spending too long in a single place, and their attackers will be gone. He expects the monsters to pounce at him, he expects to fight. He expects closing the door after some of the things enter, to see if that still holds the rest out as he takes care of the ones that get past it, he doesn't expect it to work, and given the volume of the things that were chasing them he half expects to lose.

None of these things happen. The creatures made out of human limbs don't jump at him, don't even react to the door opening, instead remaining still at the entrance, as if waiting for them to come out.

"I..  guess it wasn't the door that stopped them," Lu Fang puts his own thoughts into words, "they just don't want to enter this room." 

"That seems to be the case…" he agrees, slowly closing the door again. 

He looks at the room, and doesn't find anything that might help. There's a dark brown ceramic oven, a cabinet filled with bone china, baskets and boxes filled with disgusting things, and the broken jars on the floor, meat and wars lying on piss and human crap, don't leave any doubt it's the same kitchen they visited some time ago.

This is unusual in the sense this is the first time either of them reencounter any section they already passed through. Shen Jiu even started leaving small chalk marks on the walls some long time ago just to check, and after leaving a place he never saw those again. Right now is not the time to wonder what that means, however. 

He grabs a teapot and throws it to the creatures outside, they don't react, even when he picks another cup and infuses a bit of qi on it before tossing it out. Even when it breaks against a thigh, leaving a bit of blood and a bruise behind, they don't attack, don't even stir. "It seems… as long as we don't leave the room we will be fine," he says outloud. 

Shen Jiu has always been better at long range attacks than close combat, so this position suits him just fine. He picks up the rest of the tea set and smashes it against the floor, then, picking up a few fragments and infusing them with qi, sends the projectiles hurling towards the enemies at the other side of the door. 

It doesn't take long, the monsters aren't more resistant than a regular human body, the danger coming from the sheer number of them more than  anything else. Now that they're basically sitting targets that don't even try to run away, it's not too hard to dispose of them.

Eventually all the monsters lay on a heap of blood, bone and flesh. He and Lu Fang take a tentative step outside the room, and when nothing immediately jumps at them they quickly move out of the bloody area, going back to looking for the exit door. 

So that was easy. 

Deceptively so. 

They've barely managed to get some space between them and the remains of the massacre when they once again hear the sound of skin hitting stone and the chase begins anew.

So far, the tower has kept twisting around them, hallways changing shape if they look away for too long, rooms and stairs disappearing from one moment to the next, bare walls being replaced by doors, dead ends turning into new paths after waiting long enough. This has changed with the earthquake. 

Even as they're chased by those monsters made out of limbs, Shen Jiu notices this change. The tower has… stopped twisting. The rooms and paths remain static even when they aren't looking, and they're even able to find stairs going on both directions without having to rely on the effects of Lu Fang's song. The building almost seems like a building, ignoring the still ever present corrupted energy and the occasional wall and ceiling that breaks to release more of these beings. 

They take advantage of this change as well as the monsters' refusal to go through doors by turning the space outside the rooms into kill boxes, as well as setting traps through the hallway by leaving small objects charged with qi that can be manipulated at a distance. This works well for a while, they're able to avoid direct confrontation while still disposing of the attackers, but eventually their luck runs out.

It happens because of a mix of factors. No matter how many Shen Jiu kills, new creatures keep appearing as if coming from a bottomless pit, the intervals between their appearance becoming shorter and shorter, Lu Fang can't run too fast, and he can't carry her without impeding his own mobility, the ambient inside the building keeps eroding his strength little by little, with no clean qi from which to draw new energy, and they run into a section of the tower with too many dead ends and too few places to hide. 

He still persists, more than he might if it was just himself. Shen Jiu is naturally bad at protecting other things, even when he honestly tries, even when he truly wants to keep something safe, he always misses something and then fails halfway. 

He took on the job of watching over these people, even though he knows he's bad at it. He's aware how much of a bad, stupid, selfish idea that was, and yet he can't help but to want to do a good job at it. If he were to fail, it would be...

They're on the limit of a won and lost battle, surrounded by enemies on both sides, Lu Fang and her son shielded behind Shen Jiu as best as he can, when suddenly the floor sinks, the bricks parting and getting tossed away as more bodies pour from the cracks, grabbing onto them and pulling, too many for fingers and feet he manages to chop up to make any difference.

"Shen Jiu!" Lu Fang screams, as the invaders from below are joined by the ones that blocked their sides, her hand extended towards him. Shen Jiu reaches back with his right hand, the left still trying to move the sword around, even as the hands grab it and stop any movements above the wrist. His fingers touch hers, then the things pull them in opposite directions, and the last thing he sees and hears is the woman's terrified expression and Xiao Yi's cries before they disappear into the mass of bodies. 

He struggles against his own captors, screaming and thrashing, but it only serves to make the limbs tighten their hold, twisting his own body in painful ways. His sword is snatched away, his hair is painfully pulled back, a set of arms hook around his neck, not quite choking him, but making it hard to breathe, and once he can't move anymore he's dragged towards the maws on the floor from which the new enemies came from.

But just as the corrupted energy and foul, familiar smell of demonic cultivation overwhelms his senses, something shines between the sea of flesh. Something white and fast flies through the monsters, leaving a trail of blood and chopped corpses on its wake. 

Shen Jiu falls to the floor, barely managing to avoid the hole that is starting to close, severed arms and legs landing around him, and there, looking down at him, stands a… A child, really. 

A prepubescent child dressed on white and pristine clothes, not a single speck of blood on them even after having slashed through that mass of bodies, his frame so sleek and face so polished Shen Jiu would have mistook him for a girl if not for the not-quite-deep-yet voice that comes out when he opens his mouth.

"Are you alright?" 

Shen Jiu scoffs, surprise replaced with boiling anger and frustration, "Your timing is atrocious."  

The boy frowns, taken aback by the sudden hostility, "Is that the way you show gratitude to the person who helped you?" 

"Maybe if you had showed up five minutes earlier," he scoffs, retrieving his sword and briefly placing a hand on where the dark hole used to be, now closed again, he pushes himself off the floor, "if you're only going to save one person you might as well not save anyone at all." 

The boy's scowl deepens, but, perhaps because of the insinuating he arrived too late to save more people, doesn't reply to Shen Jiu's taunts.

"I didn't know they were allowing rogue cultivators to enter the tower," he says instead, pointing at his clothes and sword. 

"I don't know what they are or aren't allowing, but my name is Jiaming, I was visiting my aunt and her son when somehow we ended up here." Shen Jiu lies without a second of hesitation, "Of course, they were just taken, since my useless rescuer couldn't be bothered to arrive a little faster," now it's his turn to point at the kid, "And just who the fuck are you supposed to be?!" 

The boy's back straightens: Puffing his chest, cupping his hands and holding his head up, he looks so full of himself Shen Jiu wants to punch his teeth out. 

That attitude, the uniform, and the general noble aura he carries are more than enough to know the kid comes from an awfully righteous sect, but Shen Jiu still waits and allows him to introduce himself, 

"I'm here to dispel this evil and to save the innocents it has fallen over. This one is Liu Minghai, from Cang Qiong mountain, Bai Zhan peak." 

Chapter Text

Liu Minghai is a pain in the ass, as any and all cultivators from great sects tend to be. 

He's both condescending and paternalistic, as well as judgemental, pushing Shen Jiu to stand behind him as if he was unable to defend himself, yet acting as if he was offending him by preferring long distance attacks rather than short range, calling basic strategy cowardly means not fit for a warrior, and in general just acting like the brat he is. Is 'Jiaming' a victim in need of protection or a fellow cultivator for him to judge? Pick one and stick to it, stupid brat! If it was up to him, Shen Jiu wouldn't even have paired with him, but both of them are going in the same direction, looking for the same thing, and the kid insists on taking the same routes, so there's just no way around it. 

At the very least he's useful. Shen Jiu hates to admit it, but when it comes to direct combat the kid is probably— No, definitely stronger than him.

This kid that barely reaches past his shoulders charges head on against the assaults of the tower without so much as batting an eye. Meanwhile, Shen Jiu stays some steps behind as support, using whatever he's managed to collect on the way as projectiles. As much as they instantly disliked each other as soon as their eyes met, and as much as he hates having to partner with a literal kid, they fight well together: The abysmal brute strength but reckless attitude of the one complementing with the lower resistance but better tactics of the other, and between the two of them they advance through the building with minimal breaks.

"What is that?" Liu Minghai stops to point at something shining ahead.

"It…" Shen Jiu squints, "seems like light talismans?" 

Three light talismans, stuck to the walls and ceilings, illuminate the end of the hallway. He rips one off the wall for closer inspection, causing the piece of paper to lose its glow. 

The talismans are written on good, durable paper, not the cheap kind he usually uses for his own. The symbols on it are arranged a bit differently than what he's used to see in talismans, and if he's remembering his lessons on arrays correctly this design should be trading intensity of the light for qi economy, which admittedly seems like the sensible choice in this environment. 

"They must be from Su Xiyan... Maybe she's close." he muses, a finger tracing over the characters.

"Who?" Liu Minghai asks, raising an eyebrow.

Shen Jiu raises his own eyebrow in response, "Huan Hua Palace's head disciple?" he explains, as if he was talking to a five years old kid instead of a thirteen years old one, "You're from Cang Qiong for heaven's sake, aren't you supposed to be familiar with that kind of information?" 

Liu Minghai huffs and turns up his nose, "Why should I bother knowing the names of people from other sects?" he says, as the snotty, conceited, brawls-for-brain brat he is. Then, side-eying him with something like suspicion, "How do you know they come from her, anyway?"

"We've met a couple of times in our travels, it wouldn't be out of character for her to show up in a place like this," he answers without missing a beat, "I recognize her handwriting, it's extremely unique," It's most definitely not, Su Xiyan's handwriting is as generic as generic handwritings go, it's clear and clean, easy to read, and devoid of anything that can tell it apart from the kind of writing you'll find in any instructional book. It's the kind of bland handwriting people well versed in array design tend to have. 

Still, Shen Jiu is pretty sure a battle obsessed meat head like Liu Minghai wouldn't be able to tell either way, and even makes a show of holding the paper for him to check, "see by yourself." 

Liu Minghai squints at the characters on the paper, like a person who has no idea what he's supposed to look at but will die before admitting it, before huffing and conceding, "You're right, it's very unique." 

It takes all his self control to suppress the smirk trying to form on his face, but Shen Jiu perseveres, merely pocketing the paper without further comment.

"The Huan Hua cultivators were the first to find and enter the tower," Liu Minghai adds, unaware Shen Jiu already knows that, "she must have been among them." 

"That makes sense," he nods, "we might as well join them, if we find them."

They find another set of talismans later in, and then another, and another, but they don't necessarily follow each other in an organized path, and they even find a stack of them on a dead end and later on opposite sides of an intersection. 

"She must have placed them before the tower stopped shifting,"

The same thing happened to the chalk marks Shen Jiu made as well, after the earthquake he would find them scattered around the floors he passed through.

A couple of floors later, the talismans begin to create an actual trail, marking the place Su Xiyan was when the tower change happened, and not too long after, they find a door, completely covered in them, so much so staring at the glow hurts their eyes. It couldn't be a more obvious 'Please check inside' sign, so they don't have to think about it too much before throwing it open. 

A lightning bolt is thrown their way, Shen Jiu protects both of them with a barrier, the lightning weak, and doesn't so much as threaten to break it, the electricity merely dissipating as soon as it touches the energy shield. 

"What was that for?" he grumbles as he lowers the shield. Inside the room, a small group of six people, some with yellow uniforms, some with normal clothes, stare at them.

"I— Cultivator Jiejie told me to watch in case the monster got in," a young girl stutters, holding between her hands a bunch of crumbled talismans. 

"Well, we clearly aren't monsters," Shen Jiu sighs, stepping inside. Then, looking at the Huan Hua disciples, "Su Xiyan left her in charge when you are here?" The cultivators, all of them older than Liu Minghai but likely younger than Shen Jiu, blush and look away. Truly, Huan Hua cultivators through and through. 

"Where is Su Xiyan then? She just left you here?" Asks Liu Minghai, entering the room after him. 

"Jiejie went to put an end to the demons who created this thing!" the girl replies.

Shen Jiu reminds himself it's not normal people's fault for not knowing these basic things and decides to explain it, again, "This is demonic cultivation, not demons,"

"Aren't those basically the same thing?" Disappointingly, but not necessarily surprisingly, it's Liu Minghai who asks this, "Demonic cultivation is used by humans to imitate demons, right?"

He squints at him, "You… are you really from Cang Qiong?" What kind of fucking ignorance...

The kid glares at him, "Why would I have to know about the specifics of demonic cultivation? It's evil, all we need to care about is making sure to eradicate it."

Ah, of course, the normal and well tried approach of saying something is evil and then killing it. This one is also a Cang Qiong cultivator, through and through.

"Every second I spend with you reminds me how grateful I am that I never joined a cultivation sect," Shen Jiu pinches the bridge of his nose. Just once, it would be nice to have some company that doesn't make his head hurt just once.

"Why is it called demonic cultivation then? Isn't it because it turns spiritual qi into demonic one?" asks one of the Huan Hua disciples. 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes at him, but still begins to explain, "Listen," he says, "Demonic cultivation is called that because high concentrations of the corrupted energy produced from humans who practice it look black, similar to demonic qi, but those two aren't the same thing at all. You have never encountered a demon, have you? If you had, you would know this,"

He says the last part more to Liu Minghai than to the Huan Hua kid. Liu Minghai huffs and crosses his arms over his chest, but doesn't contradict him, so Shen Jiu is probably right on that. 

"Demonic qi isn't dangerous to be around, and as long as you don't absorb too much of it it can even work to replenish your own, unlike this place's energies, which you must have noticed by now are just corrosive," he continues, "when demons try demonic cultivation their energy turns white like spiritual qi, but it's still corrupted and just as damaging as the black version. Really, it's only because it's more popular in the human realm that it ended with that name, if it was more common among demons it might as well have ended as 'humanic cultivation' or something stupid like that." 

"Um," the girl that was left in charge, who so far had just been watching the exchange, interrupts,  "are you going to bring us outside?"

Shen Jiu turns towards her, "What?"

"Jiejie said help might come before she returned," the girl explains, "you are the cultivators she was talking about, aren't you?" 

"He is," he quickly points at Liu Minghai, "I'm just a rogue. So, you've heard her, Liu Minghai, help these victims as I continue going forward,"

Liu Minghai glares at him in response, "You won't be able to reach the bottom by yourself," he says, going so far as to grab his wrist as if fearing Shen Jiu is two seconds away from rushing out of the door, "you were almost taken once already," 

"It took me by surprise," he scowls, shaking his wrist free, "and I was busy looking out for someone else. There have been fewer and fewer monsters as we descend, so I can take care of myself from here," he gestures towards Su Xiyan's group, "didn't you say something about being here to help the innocents or whatever?"

"It's exactly because of that I can't just let you continue alone just to be captured, Jiaming," he grunts, "no matter how unlikeable you are." 

Shen Jiu shakes his head and smirks, trying to look obnoxious, "You just want to fight something, don't you? Helping people is too boring and you want to find more enemies to cut." 

Liu Minghai glares, huffs, and then turns to talk to the rest of the people in the room instead of him, "The sects are outside, they should send a search party eventually," he says, then, after a beat, with a pained expression, "...I'm not sure I could get this many people out by myself without losing anyone, and I can't let Jiaming wander around by himself… we can't take the villagers to join us, but you could help if you want to," the last part is directed to the Huan Hua cultivators.

The disciples, going a bit pale at the suggestion, quickly say something about remaining with the normal people so they can protect them if anything happens, clearly an excuse to remain where it's safe. 

At the end it's decided the two of them will continue forward, while these people stay in the room waiting for a better rescue party, the one Su Xiyan was most likely actually hoping for. Since the door and its surroundings are still covered in light talismans, they shouldn't be too hard to find to anyone who gets this far into the building, and if things continue as they are they should stay safe inside. Still, he and Liu Minghai give a couple of extra talismans to the girl before leaving, just in case. 

 


 

"What is demonic cultivation, anyway?" Liu Minghai asks later, after they've descended a couple of floors. By this point, the attacks have diminished enough they spend more time walking than fighting, but they still have to keep their guards up.

"Oh? You're actually asking?" Shen Jiu mocks, "What happened with that 'don't need to know it to kill it' philosophy?"

Liu Minghai glares at him, but doesn't take the bait, "Since it seemed like you knew about the topic, I thought it would hurt to know what exactly we were facing. Now I see I shouldn't have said anything." 

Shen Jiu looks at the kid, and after a while, decides he doesn't lose anything by teaching him something. After all, having a partner who doesn't even know the basics of what they're fighting can only lead to disaster for himself.

"It's…" he takes a moment to organize his thoughts, "So, as cultivators, we gain power by mastering our emotions, and by quelling those that are too strong bring them all to an equilibrium, a net zero, so to say. Demons also cultivate control over their emotions, but instead of lowering those that are too high they have to amplify the lower ones, once again bringing everything to zero," he explains, trying to make his words clear and not leave things out, not even the ones Liu Minghai should already know, since clearly the kid is an idiot with a knowledge filled with holes, "Demonic cultivators focus on a single thing... a wish, usually an unattainable one, and by developing their obsession get rid of everything else. It resembles our zero, but it's artificially achieved… it's closer to a negative one, and it wants to turn other things into more of itself." 

"You know a lot about these things," Liu Minghai says, and Shen Jiu isn't sure what to take out of his expression.

"I used to know someone who practiced demonic cultivation… oh, don't make that face, he's been dead for half a decade now." 

Liu Minghai frowns, twists his mouth and then seems to make up his mind about something, before declaring, "Rogue cultivators are very strange," speeding up his pace without waiting for Shen Jiu.

"At least we aren't all ignorant assholes like cultivators from rightful sects seem to be," Shen Jiu answers, following close behind.



Chapter Text

"I'm sorry, I was stupid," Gao An mutters as she stumbles through the door.

"Yes, incredibly so," Gao Jin replies. She glares at him, "What? It's true!"

"Gao Shijie!" the Qian Cao disciples stationed around the building rush to take hold of her as well as the group of people they managed to bring out, "there, don't move too much,"

"Ah, it really looks way worse than it is," she mutters, trying not to wince as one of the disciples takes hold of her broken arm.

"I'll go back inside," Gao Jin says, already moving to do just that. 

"Be careful," she mutters in response.

Then

Then, as they move away from the tower there's a sensation, like something cold and painful settling on the back of her neck. It lasts a second, and then it's gone.

"Da-ge...?"

When Gao An turns around, that building that appeared two days ago is gone, alongside the seventy five villagers and thirty seven Cang Qiong disciples that were inside.

 


 

"I should have kept a closer eye on him, Shizun. I have no excuse." 

Gao Xianda's fingers drum against her knees, she sighs, gestures for her head disciple to stand up, and says, "It's mostly my own fault for allowing him to return to missions so soon. I should have realized he still hadn't learned his lesson."

Of course, if the tower hadn't started shaking, and if two of the sects responsible for the pillars hadn't provided them with subpar materials for the anchorage, forcing them to start part of the construction all over again, and if Zhangmen-Shijie hadn't required so much convincing to allow her to come join Song-Shidi on supervising the operations and now that we're complaining if this one very specific thing hadn't reappeared out if the blue after so many years then the kid wouldn't have run away as he did so really absolutely nothing of this is her fault and if everyone would just get their heads out of their asses and listen to her for a change— Not the point! 

She can almost understand that kid (Almost! If he ever comes out he's so, so, so getting beaten up to hell and back. She might even break her no-violence-inside-my-peak-except-for-sparring rule and do it herself, just to see if that pushes the lesson past that brat's tick skull… It won't, she knows it won't. She still will do it.) In truth, she almost wishes she could run inside herself. Out of all the people here, she's the only one with a personal score against that thing.

Alas, being in charge is terrible like that! She can't just leave her post, it would start a commotion and more importantly, Zhangmen-Shijie would be mad. Maybe when they finish the array she will be able to charge in, that is, if they ever get to finish it. At this rate, they honestly might not. 

At the very least the tower has remained here far longer than it stayed last time, she thinks, as she watches the pale silhouette of the strange building, its edges blending against the white winter landscape. It looks a little bit taller than before, just a bit taller.

She wonders if Gao Jin's bones have passed to form part of its walls, alongside so many of her classmates. At the very least this time it won't take so many of their own, as they refuse to send their people in without first being sure it won't move.

She wonders if that reckless kid's bones will join these walls at the end of this.

Aaaah, maybe Bai Zhan is simply cursed to losing at least one promising disciple to demonic cultivation per generation?!… Hmmm, did Liu Minghai have some more talented younger sister she can snatch from Xian Shu too? 

 



 

Liu Minghai knows, instinctively, the moment they reach the bottom. 

The air is heavy and warm, almost uncomfortably hot, black, corrupted energy clogs the space, dense enough for clusters of it to be seen to the naked eye, and the tick, nauseating smell of rotten meat mixed with something sweet like honey that's been so ubicuos ever since he entered, the one that by now he's learned to ignore becomes so pronounced he has to fight not to gag. 

They step off the stair and their feet sink into something viscous and sticky, some kind of warm, translucent slobber that reflects the light from the night pearls, covering the floor up to their ankles. 

"What is this thing?" he mutters as they continue advancing. The goo tries to climb his legs, but it detaches easily as he takes a step forward, so he doesn't pay it that much attention. 

He tries not to pay it too much attention, but the mix of sensations as they make their way through the narrow passage is odd, the air presses against his skin, the floor seems to try to pull him down, and it all calls attention to itself, making it hard to ignore. 

It's… not uncomfortable, which is the weirdest thing of it all. As they advance, the sweet part of the smell becomes more and more prominent, almost completely stifling the rotten scent, the place is hot and the humidity sticks to his skin, but it's not all that different from a hot spring, and the slime is warm, only leaving a cold imprint when it's pulled off. Before he realizes, Liu Minghai's eyes begin to grow heavy, Jiaming's steps begin to grow distant, and...

"Damnit Liu Minghai, don't fall asleep!"

Liu Minghai's eyes snap open, and he finds himself with both of his knees on the ground, the climbing goo enveloping him up to his waist while Jiaming shakes his shoulders. 

"I'm awake," he replies as he stands up and shakes the thing off.

"It's trying to eat us," Jiaming says, a dark expression on his face "if we don't pay attention to its pull we should be able to resist far longer."

"I was already trying to ignore it," he replies and Jiaming, that bastard, jams a finger between his ribs as a reply.

"Badly, may I add. Of course, idiots always try to not think about things by focusing on not thinking about them," he admonishes with an incoherent sentence, "If someone tells you not to think about a white tiger and you just try to ignore it you'll just end thinking about the tiger again. The trick is instead to think about a red lantern, I already told you demonic cultivation stems from obsesion, right? It'll yank you back if you just try to ignore it without anything to hold your concentration away, you need to form another pull by fixating on something different, it can be important or trivial, doesn't matter, but you have to have something." 

"I get it, " Liu Minghai replies. If he retorts that Jiaming is bad at explaining whatever he just tried to explain, they'll be here all day and they don't have the time. He thinks he got the gist of it, anyway, "Basically we need to think about something unrelated to this place,"

"If you stay back again I'll just leave you." 

"I'm surprised you didn't just now,"

"Seeing your incompetence is unbearable, stop talking nonsense," Jiaming grunts, resuming moving forward. 

He tries to put the advice into practice, it's not as easy as he would have thought, this place has a very strong presence, and Liu Minghai is trained not to ignore his surroundings, if he just starts thinking about something uninteresting or unimportant he soon finds his thoughts straying back to the here and now. 

He ends up going over Shizun and Liao Shibo's latest spar. The disarming move near the end shouldn't have worked as it did, the way she raised her arm should have left her exposed to Shibo's kick, yet somehow she ended up not only deflecting what was a certain hit but getting her elbow to connect against Shibo's stomach. He's pretty sure the secret to it lies on the footwork that accompanied the move, but even after discussing it with other students no one was able to correctly pinpoint what was about it that made it work, and anytime they try to reenact the fight during open sparring cannot get past that point. Like most fighting moves it likely has to be rooted in the flow, but that just makes it harder to accurately measure from just seeing it as an expectator. So far he's always tried to lean his weight forward, as one would intuitively assume, but maybe leaning a bit more to the back it could help to retake a more— He crashes against Jiaming, who's stopped walking. 

He almost asks what happened, but it becomes obvious as soon as he returns to paying attention to the surroundings.

There are limbs coming out of the walls, some start sticking from the wrist, others have the entire limb out of the wall. Liu Minghai places a hand on the handle of his sword in preparation, but they don't move to attack them, instead just hanging limp from their place on the wall, and after staring at the spectacle for a moment they go back to walking.

Jiaming stops one more time as they pass past an arm, out of the wall up to the shoulder, that draws his attention, but he recovers quickly and Liu Minghai attributes the small pause to the oddness of the limb, pale like snow and with long, sharp, almost claw-like nails at the end of its fingers. 

Eventually they encounter light not coming from the night pearls, and then, at the end of the passage the source, a golden opaque sphere, with a shadow inside it in the shape of a human being.

 



 

Su Xiyan lowers the barrier as she notices the other two people approach. Not completely, she keeps part of it up, enough to keep the stomach fluids away, but enough for her figure to be seen.

The presences turn out to be Shen Jiu, accompanied by a Cang Qiong junior disciple. "Su Xiyan." the kid says as a way of greeting. 

She looks at the Cang Qiong kid, then back at Shen Jiu, and since she knows the child doesn't like to share his name freely decides to ask, "I must apologize. I recognize your face, but I believe I've forgotten your name." 

Shen Jiu's face twists, just for a second, before his eyes dart towards his companion, understanding dawning on him, "It's alright, I'm sure there are more people you don't remember than those you do," Factually untrue, "My name is Jiaming."

Simple, obvious, unconvincing and to the point, and most importantly utterly insulting in its lack of creativity. She has no option but to approve of the fake name. 

"It's good to see you again, Jiaming," she turns towards the other kid, "And this would be?"

"I'm Liu Minghai, from Cang Qiong. It's an honor to meet you, Senior Su," he cups his hands.

"The shooting star of Bai Zhan," she recognizes the name, "Should I take your presence here as a sign Cang Qiong has finally sent backup?"

".........no."

"Ah," Fifty five, "Jiaming, your companions..."

"Were taken, I'm aware," Shen Jiu finishes, his eyes darting towards the single foot sticking out of the ground next to where she's kneeling. He must have found Zhuzhi-lang on the way here too. She nods.

She gestures for them to come closer, then raises the barrier once more, protecting the three of them from the corrosive energies. 

"What are you doing now?" Shen Jiu asks, gesturing at Tianlang-jun's foot.

"This person let himself be taken," she explains, "I believe he thought he could do something to damage the tower from the inside, although I'm not completely sure what. He managed to stop it from changing its shape, but I can't know what else he's planning. I've been trying to reach him, but it's proved to be difficult to do without falling asleep myself." 

"You think the people trapped in here are connected?" he asks. 

The kid is talented for his age, but of course seeing the threads connecting the web on this floor is beyond what he can do yet. It's not an easy thing to explain without seeing it, but she still tries to teach something, "It's hard to eat a soul without putting it to sleep first," she explains, "Their consciences are in the same space, although likely in different pockets. It would be too costly to create a completely different dreamscape for each one."

Shen Jiu frowns, bites his lip, and "I'll do it, then." 

Su Xiyan raises an eyebrow, "Oh? Will you?"

"Wait, I don't really understand what you're talking about," Liu Minghai interrupts, "But why are you the one offering for this?!"

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, "We've done well so far, but this place is taking away our energy, it's a matter of time before we fall. Although my barriers are strong, I can't keep them up for long, so Su Xiyan can't go or we'll be eaten without her protection," he says, gesturing at the golden barrier, "I'm practiced on how to deal with demonic cultivation, and know who we're talking about. I'll find Ti- that person and then find a way to wake myself up." Even if he can't wake up for himself, Tianlang-jun may just know how to send him back, as long as they don't let his body be put between the walls.

"But—!"

"Let's let him do it," she interjects. 

"Are you serious?"

"I am," she nods. 

Su Xiyan opens a part of the barrier to allow the kid to step outside. He moves just past the edge of it, leaving one arm in, from where they can hold him so he isn't dragged away, and kneeling on the floor allows the stomach fluids to climb him.

"If you fail it'll not be a big deal, we'll just have to do something by ourselves," she reassures.

Shen Jiu frowns, "Don't assume I'll fail from the very start."

"I don't. I expect you to succeed and I'll be greatly disappointed if you don't," she says, taking advantage of his short surprise to pat his head, "But, if you do fail, I'll just do something else. We won't die just because you failed." 

At that, he blinks, blushes, and looks away, "You think too highly of yourself." 

"The first step at saving yourself is believing you can," she agrees, then closes the barrier again, the light accommodating around Shen Jiu's arm without cutting it off. She moves to take that hand, gesturing for the Bai Zhan junior to grab the wrist. "The first step at saving others is knowing you must." 

Shen Jiu doesn't say anything at that, just looks down, and, closing his eyes, he soon falls asleep, his forehead resting against the barrier. 

Chapter Text

The fireworks rise and bloom, painting the dark sky, almost a mirror of the land under it, every corner filled with beautiful paper lamps, the colors on both the sky and the earth reflecting on the smooth streets, making them resemble some kind of colorful stones. 

"Xiao Jiu."

Shen Jiu picks a mooncake at random and bites into it. The filling is thick and sticky, sticking to his tongue, and he needs to chew for a long time before he can answer.

"What?"

Before he can take another bite, Qi-ge reaches for the sweet and pries it out of his fingers. Shen Jiu frowns, and tries to take it back, but Qi-ge just holds it over his head, and, being the shorter one, he can't do much more than to reach in vain.

"Wasn't there somewhere you needed to go?" Qi-ge says, lowering the cake just to take a small bite from it, then raising it again.

"No, it's fine," he says, giving up on the stolen treat, instead reaching for another mooncake from the basket, this one is a bit more creamy, easier to chew, "I can just stay here." 

"Xiao Jiu." 

"It's true!" he argues, turning towards him "These guys can take care of themselves, Su Xiyan said so herself! It can't be that bad to just stay here for a while, right?" 

"Xiao Jiu…" 

"Let's go this way," he changes the topic, grabbing Qi-ge's arm and turning left, "I've always wanted to buy a festival mask, let's go get some." 

Qi-ge sighs, his whole body sagging with it, making the red lantern on his right hand rattle, "I just can't deny you anything," he says, finishing the stolen mooncake in two more bites.

They find a small store selling masks, ones that look more like round plates than faces, and end up buying two, his is white and Qi-ge's is red. The festival is loud and radiant, the street doesn't look like a street and Shen Jiu takes enjoyment in just strolling around, getting lost between the many colors and sounds. 

They watch a street performance from a traveling troupe, filled with acrobats twisting their bodies in incredible shapes, eat many sweets accompanied by osmanthus tea, and when they come across folks dancing and singing in a circle that he's unable to admit he wants to join, so Qi-ge drags both of them into it, and doesn't let them leave until their hair is properly undone and covered in sweat, because he's always been good at knowing what it is Shen Jiu is unable to say himself.

All the while Shen Jiu holds onto Qi-ge very tightly, not caring if it looks silly or makes it harder to walk, resting his head on his shoulder and breathing in a comforting smell he's worked so hard to remember no matter how much time has passed, lifting his mask every once in a while to admire that face he's been so afraid he might one day forget. 

After walking and walking, passing through loud crowds, filling their cheeks with food and watching actors dance while wearing dragon heads, they sit on a pier, ankles, knees and wrists touching, and watch the dragon boat race pass by. 

The boats appear one after another, an army of nine thousand nine hundred fifty eight boats making their way through the currents, leaving no place untouched, and once again everything is loud, colorful, and almost enough to be overwhelming, so he takes his eyes away, just for a moment. When Shen Jiu looks down, the reflection of his white mask on the water looks like the moon. 

He doesn't want to ever have to stand up from here.

"It's getting a bit late, don't you think?" Qi-ge says, nudging his shoulder, getting back his attention. 

"A little," he concedes. 

"What do you say if we leave now?"

Shen Jiu shakes his head.

"You aren't satisfied yet? Haven't you been having fun? Is there still something else you want to do?"

"No… It's been fun," he mutters. There's almost no space between them, and yet he moves to press his body just a little bit closer, to be just a little bit warmer, "I've missed this," Qi-ge moves to stand up, so he grabs his hand and pulls him down, "Don't, please."

Qi-ge moves closer, until their masks clank together. Shen Jiu can't know what his face looks like right now under that red face, but he can hear a smile in his voice when he says, "Festivals aren't made to last forever, Xiao Jiu."

Qi-ge stands up, not minding how Shen Jiu tugs at his clothes and wrists, "I'll walk in this direction now," he says, raising the red lantern to point in some direction far away, "Xiao Jiu, won't you accompany me?" 

Shen Jiu stares, his hands scratch the wood of the pier as they close. He breathes, and carefully draws himself to stand.

"You're always like this, doing whatever you want, even though you know I have to follow," he complains, reaching to take Qi-ge's arm again, "let's go very slowly." 

"As long as we go," Qi-ge replies, a hand moving to interlink their fingers, "As long as we go we can take our time... I know it's hard, but I'll accompany you as far as I can." 

Shen Jiu doesn't know how to answer, if he just opens his mouth, he thinks he might choke. He rests his head on the crock of Qi-ge's neck, and walks. 

The pier turns into a bridge, impossibly long, impossibly thin, crossing the water, the thousands of boats moving in the other direction, slowly disappearing from sight and being replaced one by one by floating paper lanterns that follow them as they walk. 

Shen Jiu tries to walk slowly, taking as much time as he can, trying to savour every little moment, but no matter how hard he tries to postpone the inevitable, the path has to come to an end at some point. The bridge, the water and the sky end against a tall wall of white, cutting this world from the rest. 

"This is as far as I can go," Qi-ge says, standing in front of that white nothingless.

Hot panic begins to surge inside his chest, "I changed my mind," he says, trying to take a step back, "Qi-ge, I changed my mind, I don't want to leave!"

"Xiao Jiu," Qi-ge grabs his elbow, moving to stand in front of him, leaning close enough their masks touch, "It's time,"

"I don't—"

"Xiao Jiu…"

He shakes his head, "I don't want to!"

Qi-ge reaches to lift his own mask, then Shen Jiu's, then, leaning to kiss his forehead, "You can stay if you want to," he whispers, "but I'll be greatly disappointed."

Shen Jiu hides his face against Qi-ge's chest, fists clenched against his clothes. The air flowing through his nose seems to be insufficient all of the sudden, so he attempts to breathe through his mouth, but that only succeeds in making his throat close tighter, and letting loose the tears that were stuck on the corners of his eyes. 

"I'll go," he says, "Because I know you don't want me getting stuck here,"

Qi-ge smiles. It's a happy face, with no sadness nor regrets nor nostalgia, it suits him yet it doesn't. He takes Shen Jiu's hands between his own, closing them around the lantern he's been carrying, the same kind that's been following them through the water. He cleans the tears away from his eyes, and places the red mask on Shen Jiu's face. 

"Festivals don't last forever, they don't have to, because there will always be more," he says, "you should attend, meet more people, and see many things, that's what I would want… ah, but you already knew that, didn't you?" 

Qi-ge places the white mask on his face and disappears without a trace. 

Shen Jiu stands there, hugging the red lantern for far longer than he probably should. 

Then he turns towards the border and crosses it in two quick strides.

 


 

In the space between dreams Shen Jiu recuperates his true age and height and the mask and lantern disappear. This empty space extends for what looks like forever, and, not having a particular direction to follow, instinctively knowing dreams are navigated more by intention than by movement, Shen Jiu thinks back as to why he entered here in the first place and starts to walk. 

It doesn't take long for him to bump into something. The space around him remains just as empty as before, but he knows if he takes another step forward, he will be breaching into another person's dream. Hopefully it will be the one he's looking for. 

The barrier offers almost no resistance as he crosses it, like a soap bubble letting something pierce without breaking, and Shen Jiu finds himself inside what looks like Tianlang-jun's fortress, walls and floors made out of black and white, polished stone, and near him a person stands, his back turned to Shen Jiu.

The height isn't quite right, and the hair has been arranged into a neat hairdo, instead of the usual bird nest style, but it's just logic that he won't look exactly the same as he does in the real world, after all, Shen Jiu also took on a younger appearance inside his own dream. 

"Tianlang," he calls, the person turns around and—

The person in front of him looks like a heavenly demon in all aspects, his hair is the same black, fluffy, thick brand as Tianlang's, his eyes the same red he sports whenever he isn't hiding his identity as a demon, even the mark on the forehead is the same red sigil of the heavenly demon clan. Yet, the face clearly belongs to someone else. Someone he also knows. 

"Shen Jiu! Is that you? That's you, am I right?!" Zhuzhi moves to greet him, smiling widely, "I had no idea you would visit! Ah, but you should have said something beforehand! I'm not sure if we have any free guest rooms I'm afraid... Oh, well, it's alright really, I'm sure we can set something up! No worries!" 

"...Zhuzhi? What—" 

"Oh, but by heavens, don't just stay there standing like a tree," Zhuzhi continues speaking, faster and louder than he usually does, as he places a confident hand on Shen Jiu's shoulder and starts ushering him down a hallway "You arrived at a good time! Come on, come on, I know you can walk faster than that. The food is about to be served and you just have to join us, I insist. I'll even tell the cooks to prepare extra desserts just for you, you've always had a sweet tooth, have you not? Everyone will be so thrilled to meet you, it will be great." 

"Meet who?! Where the fuck are we even going?!" 

"Ah, you're always so funny, Shen Jiu!" Zhuzhi laughs, openly and freely. Shen Jiu isn't sure if he's ever seen him laugh at all, much less like this. It's… a little unnerving, "Of course, we're going to introduce you to my family, who else?!" 



Chapter Text

"...and this is my thirty-fifth half sister and her husbands and kids..." Is it possible to fall asleep inside a dream? Because Shen Jiu is about to. 

He sits on a comically large table, accompanied by a comically large number of people, as Zhuzhi parrots who this and that imaginary person is. He first goes through all the many, many, way too many family members, all of them of the heavenly demon clan, starting by his parents, then grandparents, then siblings, only after he's gone through all of them, moving to introduce the various guests, allies, family friends, personal friends, fucking suitors. 

Shen Jiu sits there, admiring this sad pantomime of a happy home life, and doesn't so much as raise his eyes when it's his turn to be presented as an old, dear traveling companion and friend. 

What a weird thing to wish for. 

He doesn't know much about Zhuzhi's life before meeting him, Shen Jiu knows his mother is dead, Tianlang is the only heavenly demon left alive after all, and he doesn't know anything about the father other than the fact he's one of the southern great snakes. He's always assumed he's dead too, just because that would fit into this picture.

All the people here are as generic as generic goes, and even though Zhuzhi talks about them with obvious care, explaining this and that detail regarding their character, sharing one or two convoluted anecdotes, Shen Jiu's eyes just gloss over anytime they try to land on anyone. 

This family is fully imaginary, not even based on memories of real people, even the parents are just bland figures to fill some space. He already knew Zhuzhi is a bit of a lonely person, it would be hard to miss, after traveling together for so long, but this is just sad. 

Shen Jiu should leave. He could leave. There's nothing retaining him inside this dream, if he just stood up and started walking he could pass through that border back to the empty space between dreams no problem. He still has to look for Tianlang, time moves faster in dreams, but that doesn't mean he can stall like this.

He doesn't really know when exactly Zhuzhi was taken, maybe it was when they got separated, or more likely after the tower started to shake, in truth he didn't expect Zhuzhi to allow the tower to take him at all, as weak as he acts he's still a demon from powerful bloodlines, he isn't exactly easy to beat on a fight. 

Whatever the case, it was long enough for him to be pulled deep into the fantasy. In his own dream, although reticent to leave, on some level Shen Jiu was always aware it wasn't real, here when he suggests Zhuzhi should leave this dream alongside him as he was guided towards the table the comment is just laughed at as the demon commends him on his good sense of humor once more.

He can't take Zhuzhi with him unless he comes willingly, he doesn't have enough control over this place to manage something like that, the one time he tries to pull him towards the border it just succeeded in receiving some more unsettling laughter.

He really should leave. 

And yet, when he thinks back of Zhuzhi's limp arm hanging from the wall, and looks at him completely swallowed by his sad dream…. 

"Shen Jiu, are you listening?" someone calls near the end of the meal, pulling him out of his own thoughts.

"Hm, what?" 

"My brother was asking if you would join the hunt," Zhuzhi responds from the other side of the table, gesturing towards one of the generic siblings, "You will, won't you? Everyone else is going to participate. It'll be fun!" 

"Sure," he answers without thinking, mindlessly tapping his fingers against the table. 

He barely gets to secure time to speak with Zhuzhi both during and after the banquet, always surrounded by adoring company as he is ever since they got there. It proves to be useless, anyway. From "You never mentioned your family even though they seem nice, why is that?", "How did we meet each other again?" and "I always thought the heavenly demon clan was smaller, who would have guessed," to "Don't you feel there's something weird?" and "Does it hurt when I pinch your arm?" Zhuzhi just manages to brush off all of his attempts. 

He should leave.

When the meal and subsequent socializing is over people begin to leave their seats, and as he and others step out of the banquet hall, something shifts. 

He first notices the changes in the surroundings, then the ones in the people soon after. Where before he was inside of Tianlang's fortress, a mighty building made out of stone set at the heart of the south, now he's coming from inside a tent, a big one, ready to house several dozens of people, made out of though materials and surrounded by several others of different sizes, but ultimately something you can set up and later disassemble in the matter of days. 

Some people around him have changed as well, the 'family', to be precise. Some of them have been straight up replaced by big snakes, of different colors and sizes, ranging from the average normal animal to huge man-eater things, while others retain their faces and overall build, but even those people aren't exactly the same.

Their eyes have changed from an uniform red to an array of colors, some green, some gold, some gray, some blue, all very clear and shiny, and their coarse black hair has been replaced with straightened white, alongside the symbols on their foreheads, turning into a green sigil similar to Zhuzhi's usual one, but not exactly the same, as well as their clothes having turned from heavy back and reds robes to lighter white, green and pink garments. 

"Shen Jiu, the entrance is only big enough for one person to pass at a time," he's lightly pushed by someone behind him after standing there for too long, assessing the changes. 

That person turns out to be Zhuzhi, stepping out of the tent with the same white hair as the rest, same light clothes, same sigil, and his usual golden eyes. 

"Let me guess," Shen Jiu says upon seeing him, "you're a pure blood great snake from the south." 

Zhuzhi laughs, again, showing all his teeth, "Hm, we've known each other for how long now and you just realize?," he says, stepping around him while he turns three times as if to model his new appearance, the loose white and teal robes fluttering around him as he moves, "What else would I possibly be?" 

"Ah, you're right, how stupid of me," Shen Jiu grunts. Then, pointing at the snakes scuttling away, "Aren't you too young for being able to take a humanoid form yet?" 

"Ah, what can I say?" he smiles, leaning into Shen Jiu's space, "I'm just talented like that!" 

"Of course," he mutters, taking a step away. 

"Aren't you going to commend me?" Zhuzhi asks, cheekily.

"Absolutely not," 

"It was worth a try!" Zhuzhi shrugs, unaffected, the bothersome smile still firmly in place, "The hunt should be starting soon, you said you would come, right? So no backing down!" he changes the topic, "The armory is this way, come on," 

Zhuzhi starts walking towards another tent further into the clearing, around which a group of people is starting to congregate. This person is the only reason he hasn't left this dreamscape, so, of course, he ends up following as well.

From the very start he thought the change of race was odd. Shen Jiu never felt like Zhuzhi had any particular desire to be a heavenly demon, nor that he resented the traits of him that made him closer to a snake, so he was taken aback when he took such a form in his dream.

Now that he sees the dream swing from that to this, as he eyes Zhuzhi's white hair and altered sigil, he realizes Zhuzhi doesn't mind one way or the other, both the heavenly demons' and the southern snakes' bloodlines are fine, apparently he just doesn't like the fact they're mixed. 

 


 

He gets a bow and arrows, as well as a mount that's basically a horse if you ignore the teeth, horns and claws, and joins the extended family, some on their own saddles, some sliding on the ground, as they enter the forest.

The participants soon disperse into small groups, never so far apart regrouping becomes difficult, but enough that they can't be considered a cohesive unit, each doing their own thing. 

Zhuzhi doesn't take charge of the expedition, as he would have expected, given that it's his dream, instead moving from group to group and easily blending in for a while before moving on, Shen Jiu following close behind. 

Zhuzhi isn't ignored by anyone, as soon as he approaches he's quickly pulled into the conversation. In fact, it would be more accurate to say all the attention fully focuses on him, people ask him stuff and joke with him and talk to him about different things, but he still doesn't take a leading role. Both in the hunt and the conversation, he's more the one spoken to than the one giving direction to others, and when he leaves to join other people the ones left behind quickly retake the flow they had before his arrival. 

It's a non intrusive, almost soft way of standing out, he supposes it suits him, somehow, but the fact Shen Jiu knows it's fake makes it so every nice exchange he has to witnesses has him grinding his teeth. 

"You seem to be enjoying this," he says offhandedly during one of the shifts from one group to the next. 

"And you seem to be really hating it," 

Zhuzhi's direct response takes him by surprise. Shen Jiu turns to look at him, expecting to find some kind of anger or annoyance, but finds nothing.

Zhuzhi, back to red and black ever since the hunt started, is smiling, a couple of black curls framing his face, swaying with the movements of the non-horse, red eyes focused on him as he guides the mount closer, until it's almost touching Shen Jiu's.

"I know you don't like being around so many people," he says, sounding painfully sincere, the smile on his face is smaller than the ones he's shown so far, more like himself, "so I appreciate the effort. I'm so glad you came to visit, really." 

"You're a fucking idiot," he mutters, and since he can't reach for his fan, both hands too busy holding the reins, he has to hide his face by looking away. What's up with that stupid expression? If there's something worse than someone who's charming it's someone who's genuine. 

"Ah, don't get embarrassed," Zhuzhi continues with the onslaught, leaning towards him and even placing a hand on his shoulder, "It's a compliment, so there's nothing to be ashamed of. You always get embarrassed way too easily, A-Jiu."

"Who is A-anything?!" he retorts, pulling from the reins to open a space between them, pulling away from that hand, suddenly angry, "Don't think you can say whatever you want just because now you are able to put more than three words together!" 

Zhuzhi's face falls, "Can't I call you that? Aren't we close?"

"Absolutely not."

"Even though—"

"I'll cut your tongue off, you hear me?!" he threatens.

Zhuzhi is starting to open his mouth to say something else, when the sound of a horn cuts through the chatter around them. 

"The forest guardian has appeared!" comes the announcement from the head of the procession. All the heads turn, predatory eyes focused on the front of the group, and almost simultaneously the red and black gives way to the snake blood again. 

The change is obvious. Where before the hunt was a relaxed family outing, now it's an earnest chase. The family splits into three groups, right, left and center, and try to surround the prey, shooting arrows tied to ropes as they go. 

Shen Jiu stays near the back, struggling to keep up with the flurry of practiced movement around him, his eyes sporadically catching small patches of white striped skin between the commotion, slowly becoming drenched in red.

The formation tightens, seemingly having managed to surround the forest guardian, now just guiding it to a convenient spot. Catching his breath, Shen Jiu looks around, looking for Zhuzhi.

Everyone is focused on the task at hand, the idle chatter from before extinguished and turned into the concentration needed for a serious task. And yet, when he finally finds Zhuzhi in the crowd, he's smiling just as brightly as before, as he helps his second younger sister and sixth uncle maneuver the ropes, and Shen Jiu finds he is, suddenly, fed up with playing nice with the dreamscape.

He readies his bow, pointing at the seventh cousin. If he remembers correctly from the chatter earlier, this is the honored one with the final task of swallowing the heart. 

The cousin's heart disappears in one clear shot, as if it was never there to begin with, and as the body falls all movement stops. 

The family stands there, their faces blank, like the world itself doesn't know how to react. The ropes snap under the pressure of the animal still trying to escape, and no one moves to stop it.

"Ah," Of course, Zhuzhi is the one who breaks the silence, moving towards the body and dismounting his non horse, "It seems there's been an accident!" he tells the crowd, properly taking the lead for the first time since Shen Jiu got here, "I'll take care of this while you continue with the hunt!" 

As one, the people follow the suggestion that is more of a command. Shen Jiu stays, of course, and watches as Zhuzhi moves to look for something between the bushes, coming back with the arrow skewering the broken pieces of head. 

"It's alright," Zhuzhi tells him, holding the arrow and the meat between his hands, "I know it was an accident, accidents happens!" he smiles.

Shen Jiu watches, as Zhuzhi kneels before the dead cousin, and then proceeds to try to fit the shredded head back on top of the neck.

Shen Jiu scatters the five fragments he's managed to put back together with a kick. 

Zhuzhi looks up at him, his eyes filled with confusion, a small frown on his face, before he lights up in some kind of realization.

"Oh, it's a prank!" seems to be his rationale for Shen Jiu's actions, "This is a bit much though, don't you think?" he laughs, moving to retrieve the pieces of flesh and bone once more, "well, it's alright, no harm no foul!" Shen Jiu watches, as Zhuzhi amends the head again, and then the very dead body raises itself from the ground. Zhuzhi whispers something to the corpse, and the cousin starts to run in the direction the others left.

Shen Jiu waits until it's almost out of sight to skewer it's chest with another arrow, and it flops once again.

"...Shen Jiu," Looking back at Zhuzhi, he seems helpless now, his expression that of a mix between a grimace and a wince.

Shen Jiu grabs him from the collar and pulls him up on his feet, "How can you not realize all of this is fake?!" he screams into his face.

"I know that."

"You—" Shen Jiu is about to continue with his tirade, when he catches what Zhuzhi said, letting go of him, "What?"

"Of course I know this isn't real," Zhuzhi answers simply, "because I'm not stupid." 

"You— All this time—" he feels white, hot rage pouring into his stomach, at being deceived, at this person's stupidity, at his own confusion, "Why the hell are you still playing along then?!" 

"I like the people here," He shrugs, like it's not a big deal, "you have a sister too, right? So you should get it, being among friends and family is warm."

"My sister is not fake," he growls, "And I've never had the need for imaginary friends."

"Ah, low blow!" Zhuzhi exclaims, bringing both hands to his chest as if hurt, "Well, beggars can't be choosers and all that, I've always been good at eating whatever is available anyway, you can't blame me for eating tofu when there isn't meat." 

"I have no idea what you're trying to say."

"Ah, well, I guess good diction can't cure being generally bad at speaking, hehe," he laughs, although it sounds forced, "Basically this place is really nice and I won't leave, but I appreciate the visit! Come again whenever you have the time." 

"Do you have any idea of what the situation even is?!" Shen Jiu yells, taking a step forward, raising a fist as if to strike, "This isn't just some little nice dream for you to take a nice vacation to, your soul is being consumed as we speak!"

"Oh, is it? Hm," Zhuzhi's nose wrinkles, as if considering the information, "That's kind of tragic but I guess it makes sense..." he says, "I'm still staying here though." 

"You—!"

"I know it sounds petty, you don't need to point it out!" he places his hands on Shen Jiu's chest, pushing slightly to keep him from taking another step forward, "But it's actually really important for someone like me, so please, please understand. It's not like my real life is awful or I hate it, it's already better than I could have ever imagined, but here are people who actually love me for no other reason than just love, friends I made by myself and family who chose me everyday. I thought I could live without any of that, but now I don't know if I could ever leave it. Everyone dies someday anyway, so why not take what I've been given?" 

"Are you listening to yourself?!" Shen Jiu does throw a punch now, it hits Zhuzhi square on the face, but of course the demon doesn't even move, wince or react in any other way, "This dream is designed to trick you into allowing yourself to be consumed and you're just letting it!" he exclaims, red invading his vision as anger overtakes him at the stupid excuse, "You aren't even fighting it! We all are trying to get rid of whatever this tower is while you just take a fucking nap and escape to whatever stupid fantasy this is!" Zhuzhi visibly shrinks with each word. He tries to take a step back, but Shen Jiu grabs his lapel and holds him in place, "It is fucking petty, and selfish and rude!"

"I'm not stopping you or anything!" Zhuzhi counters, shaking slightly, "I'm sure I'm not actually needed for you to escape from here or whatever, I'm stepping aside, letting you be like you always say you want, you can't tell me I'm bothering you through inaction, so please do the same for me!" 

Shen Jiu lets go of him, "You're pathetic." he spits.

"Ah… Don't worry, I'm well aware." 

"So you're what, staying here because you don't know how to make friends?!" 

"I know how it's done," Zhuzhi says, taking two steps away from the still furious Shen Jiu, as if he knows what he'll say next will only maden him more, "I just can't." 

"That makes no sense!" 

"I thought you would understand, but of course you wouldn't," he sighs, face falling from fear and into sadnesses. Resignation, "You know, I used to think you were lonely enough for us to become closer," he whispers, like he's sharing some great confession, even though he is not, "but instead you went and picked other connections like it was nothing, so of course you wouldn't get how it's to be someone like me."

Shen Jiu feels his eyes twitch, "Ah, poor little thing! Are you seriously expecting me to feel pity for you?! Oh, how special you must be, how awful to confront that truth!" He mocks. Then, suddenly, remembering what happened before the whole tower fiasco, Shen Jiu realizes something about his words just now, "Oh, for— So this is what it was when you threatened my sister?!" he accuses, "You're fucking jealous?! You're sad people aren't bowing before you and calling you great every five seconds! Fucking disgusting!" 

"No… I don't mean it like—" Zhuzhi tries to defend, frantically making space between them as Shen Jiu steps towards him, "I'm just trying to explain—"

"You haven't explained shit!" he yells, "All I hear is self centered self pitying garbage! You're even weaker than I thought!" 

"If I'm so weak then just let me be—"

"Oh so you don't have friends, that's soooooo fucking tragic!" Shen Jiu's tone is now sweet, exaggerated, mocking, "That's soooo worth it hiding away and letting others solve the problem for you! I'm fucking crying, what a fucking tragic story!" he twists his face into the exaggerated expression he would use when faking tears in the past. He hasn't used it in so long, but based on Zhuzhi's striked expression he's still at least good enough at it to use it derisively "Everyone, come here to hear this bullshit tragic story! Let us all gaze upon Zhuzhi-lang, the saddest, most pathetic, unhappiest person in the world!" he gestures towards the air around them as if calling an imaginary crowd, "So sad! So sad! So, so, so fucking sad! And to think I was worried about you! I thought you were trapped, but you're just hiding! Maybe if you weren't so fucking disgusting people would like you more!" 

"Shen Jiu…"

"Because this?!" he stomps his foot, pointing at the direction in which the hunters left, "This is a self masturbatory fantasy, where you're so great and so amazing and so strong and everyone fucking adores you. Poor little Zhuzhi-lang wishes he was someone else! Ah, but I can't blame him, now that I know his true self it's so ugly I can't stand him!"

"You're the one who entered without permission!" Zhuzhi exclaims, crying now. How fucking pathetic.

"You once said you cared about me, but how can someone who just gets up and leaves when things get a little hard care about anyone?!" he hisses, "I almost fucking believed it, you had me tricked! Now I see I misjudged you."

"Hey… don't..." 

"While we're risking our lives you're masturbating! You're fucking masturbating, stroking your own ego! Like the fucking traitor you are! Selling us for a piece of candy! Fuck! Selling yourself for a piece of candy! This dream isn't even that well done, and this is what you're dying for?!"

"I just…" he lowers his head, finally stopping moving away " I just wanted to be a little bit happier…"

"You're just running away for no good reason! And now you want to justify it?!" Shen Jiu screams into his face, "You're trying to buy my pity points?! What would your uncle think if he saw you giving everything and everyone up for shit like this?!"

"...Get out."

"What did you say—?!" Shen Jiu stops.

He notices, just now, how cold the surroundings have become. He notices, just now, the dangerous energy that's started to seep out around them.

Zhuzhi looks up. 

If asked, Shen Jiu would have said Zhuzhi is incapable of glaring or snarling or looking mad at all. Right this moment, looking at that expression, it's clear he would be wrong.

"Get out!" Zhuzhi exclaims, the ground shaking as he steps forward, an accusatory finger digging into Shen Jiu's chest, "I was happy to see you, I really, really was! but if you're here just to ruin everything you may as well leave!"

"Zhuzhi-lang—" Shen Jiu, now more clear headed, tries to savage as he steps back.

"What do you know?" Zhuzhi continues, his eyes flashing red, then gold, his appearance shifting from one lineage to the other one and back with each word he says, "What do you even know?! You've never understood me, not even once! You haven't even tried!"

"Calm down—"

"And yet you always talk as if you knew me! Judge, judge, judge, you're judging me all the time!" he keeps raging, tears running down his cheeks even as his voice grows louder and louder, "Everyone is always looking down on me and you do so too! I don't want it! I don't like it! What is so wrong about running away anyway?! If I never ran away I would be dead a thousand times over!"

"If you just listened to me—!"

"You've never thanked me for my help, not even once! You've told me many times it isn't wanted! and now you demand it?! Now you're mad because I do something for myself?! I'm glad you're able to wake up from your own dream, I really am! But if you're here just to rub in my face all the ways in which I'm lacking then get out!"

"That's not what I—!"

"I won't commit the mistake of thinking we're alike again!" Zhuzhi pushes him, and then pushes again, and again, forcing Shen Jiu to take a step back with each word, "If you can have good enough reasons to leave then congratulations, if you can live up to your own standards then congratulations, if you can find a damn family then congratulations! Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations! I'm so glad you have so many things in your favor! So the least you can do is to let those who aren't so lucky have a nice dream!"

With a final push, Shen Jiu can feel himself passing through the border that surrounds the dream, being expelled from it.

"People who can make connections by themselves are not welcomed here!" is the last thing he hears as the forest dissolves back into the white space between places.

 


 

"Ah…" Shen Jiu rubs a hand against his face after he realizes what just happened, "I fucked that up…"

He takes a deep breath, then a second one, then, just as he's turning to continue his search, he runs face first into someone else.

"Oh, Jiu'er, you ended here too?" The person Shen Jiu was looking for says, "Haven't I taught you better than to get captured like this? ...Hm, but this is great timing, actually, this will be faster with some help. Very well, let's go, we're on a tight schedule and I'm sure Xiyan is sick of waiting!"