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Nothing to Me, Nothing to You

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 Shang Qinghua woke up having a bad day - forget going through puberty twice, because in this transmigrator’s opinion, having to experience a new round of “first day of school” bullshit year after year was worse - and speed-walking through the Cloud Recesses wasn’t helping him get through it any faster. He wasn’t running! Running was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses! This was almost a good thing, lowering the chances of him dropping all the important paperwork he was carrying, but it sucked ass when he was late again. 


 “Fuck you, Big Uncle,” he muttered. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, let’s hold some special guest lectures as a celebratory meet-and-greet for everyone’s replacement kids,’ when you’re not the one doing any work, like figuring out where to put everyone and what to feed them and where they’re going to shit. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you-!” 


 “Qinghua! Qinghua, did you hear?!” 


 He looked up to see one of the Cloud Sect inner disciples running towards him, though he nearly panicked at first glance, thinking it might be a guest disciple. All of the guest disciples had been given the plain, white uniforms of Cloud Sect disciples - as opposed to the white and/or blue, still relatively plain robes of everyone else in the Cloud Recesses. Everyone had the same clothes was supposed to cut down on the bullying of minor sect and sectless disciples due to not having the same fancy duds as a Great Sect disciple, and also discourage everyone just grouping by color during social time, or something like that. At least it also cut down on specialized laundry. 


 Anyway, that was a different shade of white! After eighteen years in the Cloud Recesses, Shang Qinghua had gotten pretty good at identifying different shades of white as a matter of survival. Plus, there was the handy white forehead ribbon giving the mystery away. 


 The person running towards him was Chen Riling, who was similarly doomed to work in sect logistics and also nineteen years old to his eighteen (physically), but kind of looked about twelve with her short stature and round face, and was generally inclined to act like it. Her eyes were wide with panic, but without even a little bit of delight over someone else’s misfortune. 


 “Holy shit, who died?” Shang Qinghua demanded, his stomach curdling with dread, though he of course didn’t stop walking. He had places to be! Things to do! His martial sister could tell him on their way to clean up the mess before any of their very important guests saw it. 


 Chen Riling was moving fast enough that she passed him on one side and looped around to his other.


 “No one yet! But it was close!” she said. “It could probably still happen, actually!” 


 “Which one of our honorable guests was it? Those Mountain Sect meatheads, right?” Shang Qinghua guessed. “Ah, no, wait, it was those Flower Sect snobs throwing a fit over their sheets having had other people sleep in them before! Wait, no, the River Sect was late, weren’t they? And they lost their invitations or something? Was it them? Please, please tell me it wasn’t anything to do with Sun Sect-!” 


 “No, no, it’s not-” 


 “Fuck, more than one? I knew this would happen! Oh, I know, to relieve political tensions and make new inter-sect friendships, let’s shove a bunch of resentful, hormone-riddled, spoiled brats of variable ages all into one space! That’ll work for sure! Fuck you!” 


 “Qinghua, language,” Chen Riling hissed. 


  “No running in the Cloud Recesses,” Shang Qinghua countered.


 He and Chen Riling had a deal where the rules were concerned: don’t get caught letting each other break them. So, he did a cursory check for anyone else on this path. The Cloud Recesses covered four peaks on a massive mountain, and the side called “An Ding Peak” was the largest and often the busiest after “Qiong Ding Peak”. Today was busier than most all over the sect, trying to settle all their guest disciples and their servants and their delegations, preparing for the opening ceremonies, but this private path between his Little Uncle’s office on An Ding Peak and his Little Uncle’s office on Qiong Ding Peak was clear of anyone else for now. 


 Probably because Shang Qinghua was late. 


 He picked up speed and asked, “Ah, just tell me already: what was it now? A fight? A fit? A temper tantrum? An allergic reaction to food without taste?” 


 “Qingyuan got in a fight.” 


 Shang Qinghua heard the words, but it took several seconds for them to sink in. Then his feet disconnected from his brain and stopped working, and somehow the malfunction reached his hands, and one of the scrolls he was holding fell and clattered against the stone tiles. 




 Chen Riling’s brow was furrowed intensely and her lips were so tightly pressed together that he couldn’t see them anymore. Shang Qinghua still wasn’t sure that he hadn’t just had an audio-hallucination or something, but clearly, whatever Chen Riling had actually said, she wasn’t joking. She wasn't even a little bit joking. 


 “Yue Qingyuan got into a fight,” Chen Riling said, slowly, in deference to the fact that her martial brother was a little broken right now and what she was saying made no fucking sense. “Late last night when he was on patrol. With a River Sect disciple.” 


 “A River Sect disciple?! Aren’t they supposed to be all laid-back-...” 


 Understanding broke through the cracks Chen Riling had just made in his brain. First, a little bit, as the transmigrator who had once been known as Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky was speaking, and then the memory of the plot washed over him all at once. 


 “Oh,” he said. 


 “It was one of the new ones,” Chen Riling confirmed, trying not to sound too distasteful and not really managing it. “I didn’t catch his name yet, but I really hope that the River Sect Leader isn’t planning on making that one his replacement.” 


 Well, now Shang Qinghua was even more sure that a certain future scum villain was “back from the assumed dead”, even though he didn’t see that dreaded name on the list of guest disciples. Not even one full day back and this future scum villain was already fucking up Yue Qingyuan’s life beyond repair! 


 “Where’s Qingyuan now?” Shang Qinghua asked. “On Qiong Ding, preparing for the big day? Wait, shit, you said death was a near thing. Qian Cao? Is he on Qian Cao Peak? Today?”   


 As he spoke, Shang Qinghua crouched down to pick up the scroll he’d dropped, accidentally dropping another scroll, and then picked up that one too. He ended up dropping a third one. He felt that this was an unnecessary mirroring of the rest of his transmigrated life. 


 “Once I drop these off, I could make time to-” 


 Chen Riling crouched down next to him and picked up the fourth scroll that he’d dropped while picking up the third one. Again, her face was full of lines. Shang Qinghua didn’t like the shape that those lines made at all. 


 “The sect leader already knows,” she said. 


 “Oh,” Shang Qinghua said again, half realization and half question. 


 “Yes,” Chen Riling answered. 


 The transmigrator who had once been known as Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky closed his eyes and thought of his happy place: anywhere but here. He took a deep, calming breath. 


 “Fuck!” he said. 



 All of Shang Qinghua’s problems had started with this asshole called Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky, but since transmigrating into his own web-novel, he liked to blame his problems on these apparently real people acting out his story. It wasn’t his fault, arguably, if they also didn’t want them to be doing what they’re doing, since they could have just decided to make their own shitshow. So, it really wasn't his fault if they were following the plot that he'd written, but apparently it was still his problem. 


 Therefore, all of Shang Qinghua’s problems had actually started with the Five Great Sects’ “Lost Generation” and its sole survivor: this asshole called Tianlang-Jun. The character of Tianlang-Jun was the father of the protagonist of Proud Immortal Demonic Way. Currently, well, the man would be the father of Luo Binghe someday, but they weren’t at that part of the story yet. 


 It turned out that unwillingly transmigrating into his own web-novel, being unwillingly assigned the role of a minor character a generation or so above the protagonist, and then replacing that character from the very beginning of their life… meant experiencing all of the shit that had only been hand-wavey backstory in the original web-novel. This transmigrator had to live all that hand-wavey backstory out. 


 And living out backstory that had been, very often, only vaguely described and occasionally vaguely described by unreliable narrators meant that Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky was often unpleasantly surprised to find out how his Transmigration System had apparently been filling in the blanks. The plot - anything that he wrote and published - wasn’t officially supposed to start for another fifteen-to-twenty years. There were a lot of blanks to be filled in. It was more blank than not, honestly. He did not appreciate the creativity that the Transmigration System used to fill them in instead of, say, consulting the conveniently available author or something. 


 Also, transmigrating in this early had meant having serious headfuckery until his developing brain could start to interpret the memories of a past life leaking through the block in his mind. The block broke partway into his extremely strange second childhood. Sometimes, being the nephew of the sect leader paid off, because he was sure the Cloud Sect had been tempted to toss out such a weird kid who had, upon getting those memories back, only gotten weirder. 


 Anyway, in this world of cultivators and monsters, known in a different world as Proud Immortal Demonic Way, the Five Great Sect ruled over these lands. There were lots of minor sects of varying sizes, too, which had never really mattered in the web-novel, but were very real here and actually did things sometimes and got super offended if Shang Qinghua couldn’t remember their names. It wasn’t like the minor sects didn’t have any influence or importance whatsoever, but it was the Five Great Sects that really ran the show here. And honestly, the Five Great Sects would be as fucked as anyone else when the vengeful protagonist rose to become Emperor of the Cultivation World! Arguably, the Five Great Sects had been more fucked than anyone else in the story! There was no winning for anyone. 


 There was the River Sect, a sect of flowing elegance and freedom. 


 There was the Cloud Sect, a sect of reserved contemplation and knowledge. 


 There was the Mountain Sect, a sect of immovable strength and endurance. 


 There was the Flower Sect, a sect of dignified fellowship and beauty. 


 And then there was the Sun Sect, a sect of incomparable power and ambition. 


 With all of its branches and subordinate sects combined, the Sun Sect was possibly as large as all the other Great Sects combined, and they liked to make sure everyone remembered it. Many different, dangerous families jostled for power in the court of the Sun Sect Leader. The scale of the cultivation world wasn’t balanced here so much as it just hadn’t snapped under the imbalance yet. If this world really was setting up to follow the plot of the story he had written in another life, Shang Qinghua knew that someday, sooner than he might like, it was inevitably going to snap. 


 Most of the sects had a ruling family, which was also usually the family that founded the sect. All the Great Sects had done it that way for generations. The position of sect leader had historically been passed down from parent to child, or at least to a close cousin or something, ensuring that the power stayed in the family. The usual bloodline inheritance system had been working fine for the sects until their heirs had started dying off. 


 Being a sword-wielding cultivator who hunted monsters was a dangerous business for many reasons, so someone’s heir getting themselves killed happened from time to time. It was an occupational hazard! It happened even if less-dangerous worlds and this was a very dangerous world! It was still very tragic, of course, and sometimes things got a bit messy politically, but usually there was at least one spare around, either grieving their lost family member or trying desperately to pretend they weren’t thrilled. 


 Except the spares had started dying off, too. 


 The River Sect Leader’s two children - adult children - had died on a night hunt, when a bad situation was made worse due to misinformation and neglect.  


 The Cloud Sect Leader’s only child had died due to a fatal cultivation accident. 


 The Mountain Sect Leader’s four children had died because of an illness that swept through the region. It had also killed the Mountain Sect Leader’s wife and some other family. 


 The Flower Sect Leader’s children had met a series of unfortunate events. The eldest had health problems from birth, the next had been perfectly healthy until they had been murdered, and the youngest had died on a night-hunt after failing to recognize and treat a slow-acting demonic poison. 


 The Sun Sect Leader’s two children… well… one of them, the daughter, had run away and gotten disowned for it and later died. No one knew the details of how exactly that went down outside of the Sun Sect. The other one was a man who was given the title of Tianlang-Jun. 


 When the Sun Sect Leader had passed away, some years ago now, Tianlang-Jun had been left to inherit the most powerful cultivation sect in the world. This had been shortly after the wave of misfortunes that had devastated the sects with the loss of the most promising cultivators of their generation. Tianlang-Jun, the sole survivor of the so-called Lost Generation, an incredibly skilled and powerful cultivator himself, could have taken over the formidable Sun Sect and raised it to even greater, even more fearsome heights. 


 Instead, Tianlang-Jun had declared that inheritance through bloodlines rather than merit went against the very principles of cultivation, and had handed over the title of sect leader to his late father’s second-in-command, the leader of one of the Sun Sect’s other ruling families. Tianlang-Jun had then fucked off to go wandering the world, which he had more or less been doing before, only without getting disowned for running away because he had been the favored son and also the only son. Clearly, if a man like that wanted to be disowned, he had to do it himself! So he did! 


 The Sun Sect’s ruling family had, at this point, withered down to only Tianlang-Jun, whose general disinterest in politics was well-known and well-commented-on, so no one had been particularly surprised when he stepped down. Things might have been fine if they had stopped there. 


 But things hadn’t stopped there. 


 The sect leaders of the other Five Great Sects were all already up there in years - most of their losses had been adult children, some on the cusp of getting married or even having their own children. The idea of “starting over” and just having more children to replace the Lost Generation had seemed, for many, utterly unthinkable. 


 The next stage of the future shitshow had started with the Mountain Sect Leader’s unwillingness to remarry after the death of his wife alongside his children. At the next cultivation conference, the broken-hearted warrior had announced his intentions to follow Tianlang-Jun’s example by choosing a successor based on merit. 


 And, in doing so, had apparently given the Cloud Sect Leader ideas. 


 As things stood now, the Mountain Sect Leader and the Cloud Sect Leader had both chosen new heirs from their most promising disciples. The River Sect Leader and his wife had been infamously unsuccessful in having more children, so word of mouth was that the River Sect Leader was going to give up soon and it was making his marriage even more unstable. The Flower Sect Leader hadn’t committed one way or the other, but his head disciple was a shining example of a righteous cultivator, and everyone agreed that he couldn’t pick anyone better if he handed his sect over to her. 


 In another life, Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had explained this backstory for his web-novel in vague, overview terms. The only details needed had been the ones that set up the conflicts into which innocent, young, protagonist Luo Binghe was walking blindly… or the details that had set up conflicts for a jaded, resentful, older Luo Binghe to fight through as he had remade the imbalance and wartorn cultivation world to serve him. 


 Actually living it out, there were so many new and surprising details that Shang Qinghua sometimes forgot that the Transmigration System was probably pushing everything towards the point where the plot takes off. It felt surprisingly, terrifyingly, natural sometimes. 


 The story of Proud Immortal Demonic Way was supposed to start in fifteen or twenty years or so, when the young protagonist, Luo Binghe, would be accepted as a disciple of the River Sect by its sect leader, Shen Qingqiu, a villainous character who would make his life hell. At least, things would be this way until the protagonist’s late teenage years, when the growing conflict between the Sun Sect and the rest of the cultivation world finally erupted into unavoidable war. Then things would get worse. 


 It was almost as if there was no guarantee that future generations would fulfill all the hopes and dreams of their flawed predecessors! Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had kind of been making a point that brave new initiatives like choosing the “best” person for a ruling position didn’t mean shit when those rulers were still dictators and/or assholes. No structure had really been put into place to support these new, somewhat ill-prepared sect leaders in a world that still largely went by bloodline inheritance and was also deeply unbalanced from the get-go, which had further divided the cultivation world when it most needed to unite.  Anyone’s good intentions had collapsed hard in less than a lifetime.


 In the story, the resentful protagonist had risen from the bloody war to take over as the merciless emperor of the entire cultivation world. 


 And had also started a ridiculously sized harem because, well, that sort of thing had been popular and Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had needed money. It had always been planned that there would be porn, of course, because it had always been a stallion novel, or at least using a lot of elements from stallion novels, and there had been genre conventions, and also Airplane had had some things to say about the protagonist’s emptiness and unhappiness despite having everything an ordinary man could ever want, but admittedly Airplane had probably ended up overdoing the harem and "crushing people who underestimate me" cycles for easy money. 


 Had he been supposed to write with no roof over his head and no food in his fridge?! 


 So, yeah, that story was what was supposed to happen someday. Among many other things that sometimes woke Shang Qinghua - inner disciple of the Cloud Sect, transmigrator, physically eighteen years old and mentally a fucking mess - up at night in a cold sweat. 


 They weren’t there yet, though. 


 In summary: Tianlang-Jun hadn’t wanted to do any work, grabbed the nearest easy fix-it, and fucked off to go hitchhiking or something, setting the world on a path of chaos and destruction, and terrifying a poor transmigrator. The other sect leaders of the Five Great Sects, apparently not to be outdone when it came to making bad decisions and also unwilling to face the growing problem of the Sun Sect’s incredible power, were following Tianlang-Jun’s example... and in doing so unknowingly following the path towards the plot. 


 And now, thanks to that asshole called Tianlang-Jun (and, arguably, it could be said, that asshole called Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky), a lot of Shang Qinghua’s latest problems started with this asshole called Yue Qingyuan. 



 Shang Qinghua burst into his Little Uncle’s office on the Qiong Ding side of the Cloud Recesses and said, “Yue Qingyuan-?!” 


 “Being punished,” Little Uncle said. “He will return to us late next week.” 


 Shang Qinghua’s second uncle, the younger brother of their esteemed sect leader, was a cultivator who was so inoffensively average that it was kind of remarkable. He wore the Cloud Sect forehead ribbon and nicer robes than most, but they were still white with only some bluish greys thrown in for color. His hair and beard were more grey than black these days. He was heavy around the middle and he always looked tired. 


 “But… what about… the opening ceremony of the guest lectures…?” 


 “Our senior teacher in charge of the guest lectures will give it, just as originally planned, without Yue Qingyuan’s presence as he reflects on his failure to meet expectations.” 


 “But… but what about his duties? Who’s-?” 


 “Yue Qingyuan’s duties will be distributed among yourself, Mu Qingfang, and Wang Qingjie, and other senior inner disciples where applicable.” 




 Little Uncle finally looked up from his desk. “Put the scrolls over here. You’re late.” 


 Shang Qinghua wanted to scream for too many reasons to count, but instead he put all the important paperwork he had been meant to bring over earlier down where his uncle was pointing. He wanted to say: “But wasn’t a MAJOR POINT of these guest lectures kind of showing off our future sect leader?!” He wanted to say: “You know that me, Mu Qingfang, and Wang Qingjie all have our OWN DUTIES already, right?!” He wanted to say: “Is it really Shen Qingqiu and why the FUCK did anyone let that scum villain in?!” 


 He wanted to say: “You let that asshole you call an older brother do this AGAIN?!” 


 Instead, he didn’t say shit, and wondered if someday he’d choke on it. 


 Cowards had better chances of survival in this world. Besides, shouting until his voice was hoarse - just screaming at the top of his lungs due to the unfairness of the encroaching plot,  wouldn’t actually do anything except get him into shit, and he wasn’t masochistic enough to suffer out of sympathy for someone else. What would that accomplish? It had never accomplished much of anything before. 



 In an unsurprisingly anticlimactic turn of events, Shang Qinghua finished his duties for Little Uncle by the skin of his teeth, and then stood in the place he was told to stand through the opening ceremonies of this special series of lectures. He started out frozen in terror, willing the guest disciples not to look at him at all, and then ended up trying not to yawn from boredom. No big deal was made about Yue Qingyuan's absence. 


 The senior teacher in charge of these lectures was from the Ku Xing Peak side of the Cloud Recesses, which followed the most ascetic interpretations of the thousands of sect rules carved into a big wall in the heart of Qiong Ding. Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure that they could have chosen a stuffier person with a bigger stick up their ass to lead this initiative. On the An Ding side of the sect, which was a little less strict about a lot of the rules but especially the ones about gossip and talking behind other people’s backs, he’d heard more than a few people jokingly wonder in whispers to each other if they were intentionally setting up these special guest lectures for failure. 


 One thing that Shang Qinghua actually had been looking forward to at these guest lectures was finally meeting some of the characters from his web-novel. Sure, he’d kind of had a breakdown and a meltdown when, years ago, the sect leader had suddenly brought the real Yue Qingyuan into his life, but he’d gotten over that! Mostly! He’d prepared himself to see characters brought to life this time! Mostly! 


 Only… he couldn’t actually see much. His position wasn’t great. Little Uncle, the senior teacher, and at least three other teachers were in the way. The room wasn’t sloped and there wasn’t a dais, so he couldn’t see a lot of the guest disciples past a few in the front row, and all of the guest disciples were wearing the white uniform so he couldn’t pick people out easily. If Shen Qingqiu was here, Shang Qinghua couldn't spot the future scum villain anywhere, and the Cloud Sect disciple standing next to him kept elbowing him every time he tried to stand on the tips of his toes for a better look. 


 There was a lean young man in the front row of the guest disciples who was incredibly pretty, with a beauty spot beneath his left eye and everything, and Shang Qinghua thought by the braids in his hair that he was a Mountain Sect disciple. Watching this guest disciple try not to fall asleep had initially been kind of funny, but it had gotten pretty boring after the first half-hour of the senior teacher’s droning voice. Shang Qinghua had no idea how the disciples had been seated, so he couldn’t be sure, looking around this one guest disciple, if Liu Qingge, the newly chosen future Mountain Sect Leader and budding legendary warrior, was anywhere nearby. 


 The guest disciples and their sect delegations were dismissed first, after the opening ceremony was finally complete and everyone had presented their greetings and gifts and gratitude to Little Uncle, while the Cloud Sect disciples were forced to stay painfully still. After that, Shang Qinghua still couldn’t chase any characters down to ogle, because Little Uncle was already dragging him off for more logistics work. 


 After all their hard travel to get to the Cloud Recesses, the guest disciples and sect delegations already had a bunch of laundry that they wanted done right away, of course. Some sect delegations were leaving right away after dropping off their guest disciples, while others were staying a little longer for some trade negotiations or a friendly visit or an opportunity to poke around the Cloud Recesses before they were asked to leave, so guest quarters had to be arranged and rearranged accordingly. The kitchens were having nonstop issues with preparing so much extra food and getting it where it needed to be at the right time. And so on and so on. There was so much mundane crap to do to make the magic happen. 


 “Fuck you, Big Uncle,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “'Semi-seclusion'? More like, ‘I only come out of seclusion to focus on Yue Qingyuan and I go right back into seclusion as soon as anyone comes in my direction with the actual work of running a sect.’ Fuck you! No wonder a certain character here is supposed to screw everyone else over someday.” 


 Shang Qinghua wasn’t actually slated to attend these special guest lectures. Spots in those classrooms were very precious, and also Little Uncle wasn’t willing to let his nephew off work for lectures that he had already mostly been forced to endure. The original Shang Qinghua character, in this situation, had probably been incredibly bitter about his elders’ decision robbing him of invaluable networking opportunities, but this Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but be super relieved about it. (Not that this had probably stopped the original Shang Qinghua characters, anyway.) Better an administrative assistant than a student! Or worse: a teaching assistant! 


 Wang Qingjie - a seventeen-year-old distant cousin of the sect leader who had already apparently given up positive facial expressions and all kinds of fun for life, and so the future “leader” of the Ku Xing Peak side of the Cloud Sect - was one of the senior inner disciples actually in the classes. The bulk of Yue Qingyuan’s classroom-related and discipline-related duties thankfully fell to him. 


 Mu Qingfang - no relation to the ruling family - had apparently somehow gotten out of being given too many extra duties. That guy was surprisingly wily. Given that the nineteen-year-old future master of the healing arts in the Cloud Sect had been roped into teaching classes for the guest disciples, Shang Qinghua wasn’t too mad about it. 


 Everything else, however, fell to Shang Qinghua, and he was really fucking mad about that. 


 Because Yue Qingyuan had a lot of duties?! Some of them were just meet-and-greet nodding sessions with the various parts of the sect and other kinds of time-wasting fluff to keep up appearances, but it was time that Shang Qinghua didn’t really have to waste. 


 All of his best-laid plans to ogle the teenage-to-young-adult versions of his characters flew out the window! Instead, he was running around not unlike a headless chicken, performing extra checks on defenses, storehouses, night-hunting parties, supply deliveries, the market down in the village, the school down in the village, whatever the fuck else the local village council thought the sect needed to know, and enough correspondence to drown a man if he just gave up trying to tread water, and more. He spent the next five days like this, only catching glimpses of the special batch of guest disciples, and honestly avoiding them when possible so that these incredibly beautiful, skilled, and respected young people didn’t catch sight of the flapping grey bags under his eyes or the duck feathers in his hair. 


  “Don’t ask,” Shang Qinghua had told Chen Riling, as she had picked white fluff off of his shoulder. 


 With all the extra duties, there was no chance to go see Yue Qingyuan or a certain River Sect disciple. It was the longest Shang Qinghua had gone in a while without visiting when his future sect leader and pseudo-cousin was in “seclusion”. At least the sect leader had managed to squash the gossip and sweep the fight under the rug as a “simple misunderstanding” to those who had caught the gossip before the squashing, with the fault of it implied to lean more towards the guest disciple. The sect leader had told everyone that Yue Qingyuan had been “delayed” to pay respects to the traditions of the Cloud Sect. 


  “Fuck you, Big Uncle,” Shang Qinghua muttered, sitting in the tiny room adjacent to his Little Uncle’s office on An Ding. “Screwing everyone over here as hard as fucking possible. What do you think happens when you treat your own nephew like a servant so you can focus on your do-over kid? He grows up to betray the sect! What a fucking surprise! He gets tired of being pushed around by everyone and makes a deal with the Sun Sect to make himself sect leader, after you passed over your own family for an ideal that doesn’t exist.” 


 Shang Qinghua shuffled some papers over, wondering if he was supposed to forge Yue Qingyuan’s signature or just sign twice. Some of Yue Qingyuan’s duties involved reading over Shang Qinghua’s reports and signing off on them, and no one had told Shang Qinghua what to do about that. He could just forge Yue Qingyuan’s signature. He’d done it before… 


 “Not that I want to be sect leader,” Shang Qinghua muttered, quickly signing the papers with Yue Qingyuan’s signature. “But it’s the whole point of the character: the older, less talented nephew getting passed over for a street rat isn’t happy about it and it comes back to bite everyone in the ass. Ruling families don’t want to give up power or privilege! Hopeful ideals on jealous, greedy, unstable foundations make everything worse! Wait, shit, now I’ve signed this three times. Will anyone care? If anyone does care, then they need to get a damn life. I'm not writing it out again.” 


 He reached up to rub at his temple, fingers running over the Cloud Sect forehead ribbon, and then noticed the droplets of ink on his sleeve. “Fuck,” he said, out of habit. 


 “No cursing in the Cloud Recesses!” 




 Chen Riling swanned into the room, without bothering to knock, her arms full of her own busywork. Little Uncle was on Qiong Ding Peak right now, which was why Shang Qinghua had let loose and let himself curse his alternatively excruciating or excruciatingly boring existence. 


 “No eavesdropping in the Cloud Recesses!” he snapped back. 


 “I come bearing bad news,” Chen Riling announced. 


 “Gossip is forbidden!” Shang Qinghua said desperately. “Speaking negatively is forbidden!” 


 But it was too late. Chen Riling dragged him off to go see Little Uncle, because Wang Qingjie had apparently thrown out his shoulder in sword classes today, sparring with some meathead from the Mountain Sect who had apparently been making Mu Qingfang and all of Qian Cao’s life harder for no reason lately. Shang Qinghua and Mu Qingfang were both needed to take on some of Wang Qingjie’s duties for the next few days. 


 “Dropping like flies,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “I call dibs on being next.” 


 Mu Qingfang and Little Uncle both ignored him. They did that a lot. 


 “Qinghua, I will take back your correspondence duties and redistribute the village and trade matters on your desk at the moment across the other disciples,” Little Uncle said, which was such an incredible thing to hear that Shang Qinghua tensed in preparation for the shitty news that was sure to follow. “You will instead take on these disciplinary cases for the guest disciples until you are relieved of the responsibility.” 


 Shang Qinghua was too stunned (and too much of a pushover, both character-wise and personality-wise) to protest. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mu Qingfang give him a sympathetic look before the healer skedaddled out of the line of fire. 


 Little Uncle pushed over the relevant papers and didn't even look up. “All the information is here: the teachers have already informed the students in question of their punishments. They just need a senior inner disciple to supervise them. Dismissed.” 


  “I am NOT picking up cakes for you the next time I go to town,” Shang Qinghua thought viciously, as he made like an obedient nephew and got out before the asshole could give him any more work. “You’ll look at me expectantly and I’ll look back with blank eyes and empty hands, like, ‘What? I don’t have anything for shitty uncles who don’t tip anyway.’” 


 He was certain this was going to be a hellish experience. Some of these disciples would just show up at the Discipline Hall to copy some rules or go to An Ding to perform some menial chores without being constantly reminded, but some would have to be pushed and prodded all the way there! Shang Qinghua would become the human version of a snoozed alarm! This early in the lectures, there was also the possibility of guest disciples just getting lost, but the experience was often more like herding tigers than pigs or chickens or cows. The tiger didn't want to go and making the tiger go sometimes involved sacrificing limbs. 


 As he walked alone on this quiet path in the Cloud Recesses, which was admittedly incomparably beautiful and serene and peaceful when a person had the time to enjoy it, Shang Qinghua flipped through the papers, skimming over the names of the damned. This went against all his resolutions to observe from after! To look in from the outside only! To survive by never bringing himself to the attention of these future movers and shakers of the cultivation world! Hopefully, these names were fellow cannon-fodder only... 


 Shang Qinghua stopped, dropping all but one of the papers. His stomach suddenly felt like it was somewhere in the vicinity of his knees. He had known that this was going to be bad, he had known that these people were here, he had known that this person was here, but… 


 “Holy shit, I’m going to die,” he said. 


Chapter Text


 Shang Qinghua was a slimy little man. 


 The character, that was. 


 Although, the man who had once been called Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky could admit that he could also be slimy. He was also often “little” in the cowardly way. (Shang Qinghua wasn’t short. He was of average height. Although, admittedly, he was also pretty good at scrunching himself into a small ball to cover his vulnerable spots or roll under furniture.) He, at least, had never betrayed anyone, except maybe those readers who had been hoping he’d actually go somewhere besides a loop of harem-building revenge fantasies. 


 Shang Qinghua, the character, was the only son of the Cloud Sect Leader’s only sister, whose husband had joined the Cloud Sect and been given the family name. It had been some kind of romance. Shang Qinghua’s parents had passed away early on in his childhood, leaving him in the care of his mother’s brothers. The only other child in the family had been the sect leader’s only son, who had been nearly twenty years older than him. 


 Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had written this backstory in another life, though he hadn’t consciously known he’d written the life he was living until his memories of his past life kicked in during his childhood. 


 Then, that vague summary of this background character’s life had seemed so incomplete, almost meaningless, because it couldn’t even begin to describe the day-to-day life of the Cloud Sect, or the contrasting personalities of his uncles, who had only been mentioned and never seen in the original story, or any of the thousands of people who lived in or around the Cloud Recesses, who had never been characters at all. It also didn’t begin to describe his older cousin, Shang Xinzhong - handsome, skilled, much respected and adored throughout the sect - who had taken on the orphaned Shang Qinghua as a younger brother. Where the Cloud Sect Leader and his brother had been as cool as the clouds, Shang Xinzhong had been as warm as the sunshine, capable of clearing up nearly any cloudy day and indiscriminate with his glow. 


 A couple paragraphs, buried somewhere in the millions of words of Proud Immortal Demonic Way, about how the original Cloud Sect heir had passed away and Yue Qingyuan had been chosen in his stead, couldn’t begin to describe the grief that had overcome the sect when Shang Xinzhong had passed away. The silence in the ensuing months had made every mundane sound painful in their loudness. 


 This Shang Qinghua didn’t know how the death of Shang Xinzhong had factored into the ambitions of the original Shang Qinghua, if the death of a family member had factored in at all beyond the position of heir temporarily opening up. This transmigrator only knew that the original Shang Qinghua had really allowed himself to hope when Tianlang-Jun had stepped down and the Mountain Sect Leader had announced his intentions to choose an heir from his disciples. It had seemed, according to the original Shang Qinghua's backstory, that with the death of his older cousin, the ambitious son of the sect leader’s late sister might have actually had a shot of getting everything he had ever wanted. 


 At least until Yue Qingyuan had shown up, a boy begging the Cloud Sect Leader’s help and mercy, who had quickly become the new apple of the Cloud Sect Leader’s eye, whether he had wanted to be or not. As the Cloud Sect Leader had projected all of his many, many unresolved issues onto Yue Qingyuan, who had also turned out to be handsome and skilled and liked by many, the much more mediocre Shang Qinghua had been left by the bitter wayside. The original Shang Qinghua had felt unjustly passed over and deeply insulted by being replaced by “polished gutter trash”. 


 This Shang Qinghua, meanwhile, wished Yue Qingyuan the best of luck with that shit! This Shang Qinghua was doing his best to figure a way out of the plot completely! 


 So, anyway, the original Shang Qinghua had railed against the injustice of Yue Qingyuan's appointment to deaf ears, and then this background character had started to scheme. In the war between the Sun Sect and the rest of the cultivation world, the original Shang Qinghua had been revealed to be a traitor and a spy, selling out everyone else so that the Sun Sect would make him the new Cloud Sect Leader, subservient to their new empire. After rising to turn the war on its head, the protagonist Luo Binghe had decided to honor Shang Qinghua’s deal with the Sun Sect, and the original Shang Qinghua had finally become the Cloud Sect Leader! 


 Until the original Shang Qinghua had reached too far, betraying the protagonist in his greed and resentment, and had been violently killed by the protagonist’s right-hand man and this scum spy’s foremost former contact: the younger Mobei-Jun, Mobei Yi, of the Sun Sect. 


 Airplane had never actually explained how the younger Mobei-Jun and the original Shang Qinghua had met. It had never really been relevant. Whether the scheming Shang Qinghua had reached out to the Sun Sect or the Sun Sect had approached the obviously embittered Shang Qinghua, what did it matter? The end result was that the original Shang Qinghua had betrayed his sect and then gotten himself killed for being greedy! End of story! 


 In hindsight, this Shang Qinghua’s plan to desperately avoid anyone associated with the Sun Sect, especially the younger Mobei-Jun, for months on end, was looking really unrealistic. But he was only eighteen! Physically! He really thought he’d have more time. 


 Shang Qinghua took a deep breath. “Just… remind him that he has to go copy the rules a couple times,” he muttered. “Just go in and tell him, ‘Hey, remember how you haven’t been doing any fucking classwork and also fell asleep in class? We don’t allow that sort of thing here! So now you have to… do extra classwork… which could probably be used as a sleep-aid.’ Shit, who came up with this punishment? They can’t really think he’s going to do this, right?” 


 There was only so much dragging of the feet Shang Qinghua could do before someone would ask if he needed to be dragged to Qian Cao. He had already dealt with everyone else. The last person he’d told to report to the Discipline Hall had not only gone willingly, with a shamefaced expression and a promise to better meet the standards of the Cloud Recesses, but oh-so-helpfully told him where to find the Sun Sect disciples! What an asshole! Shang Qinghua didn’t like his odds of convincingly pulling off getting lost in his own sect. 


 “Maybe he’s not that scary,” Shang Qinghua told himself. “He’s still young, right? Haha, maybe he still needs to hit his growth spurt and everything! Even though… he’s… one of the older guest disciples for this special event… like nineteen, maybe? It’s totally possible that the protagonist’s future right-hand man still has a babyface or something.” 


 Although… when had the character of Mobei-Jun, the son of the Sun Sect Leader (and then Sun Sect Leader) turned tool of the protagonist, ever been less than terrifying? 


 Shang Qinghua turned on his heel. “Ah, or maybe I should just drink some light poison and call in sick. I don’t want to meet the man who’s going to kill me! System, I thought you said that I could get away with not meeting Mobei-Jun! What happened to admiring from afar?!” 


 Little by little, Shang Qinghua dragged himself all the way to the river, where the Sun Sect disciples were apparently enjoying a free late afternoon of sunshine. Wasn’t the character of Mobei-Jun supposed to be a solitary creature? Why was he travelling in a pack like this? Shang Qinghua tried not to gulp as one Sun Sect disciple elbowed another, pointing him out on the path to the riverbank, and they both snickered. 


  “Oh, FUCKING GREAT,” Shang Qinghua thought, as he caught sight of one of them clumsily hide a jar of what was definitely alcohol up their sleeve, while throwing their skirt over the rest. “SLIGHTLY TIPSY, rich, powerful, teenage idiots.” 


 The Sun Sect disciples were all dressed in the white uniforms of the Cloud Recesses, but they had maintained their own hairstyles, some personal belongings such as jewelry, and their foreheads had all been marked according to the different branches of their unnecessarily large sect. There were disciples from at least ten different families here. 


 In this lounging and splashing around, there were four disciples all the others seemed to be orbiting around. There was a girl standing in the river, apparently catching bugs and small fish with her bare hands, with her hair falling out of its ponytail and her forehead marked in black as a Meng. On the river bank nearby was another girl, wearing complicated braids and the red mark of the Yenan, with a bow and arrows. A boy standing nearby, with a wide smile and the white mark of the Bai, had apparently been flicking out paper targets for her to nail to the trees with her arrows. And lying on a large rock, with an arm thrown over his eyes and the blue mark of the Mobei peeking out, was the person who was possibly destined to kill Shang Qinghua someday. 


  “Holy shit, I hope there’s no growth spurt left,” Shang Qinghua thought. 


 An arrow pierced the ground directly beneath Shang Qinghua’s boot as he walked. His foot landed on the arrow and he jumped back with a startled yelp. A split-second later or a little bit higher and he totally could have lost a toe! 


 Laughter rang out across the riverbank as he looked at the Yenan girl in fear. 


 The Yenan girl raised her eyebrows in a picture-perfect “and what the fuck are you going to do about it?” expression. What did she have to fear? This spoiled, incredibly deadly brat was the niece and heir of Chiyan-Jun, who was the leader of the second-most-powerful family in the Sun Sect and so second only to the Sun Sect Leader himself. Also, this girl was taller than Shang Qinghua. She could kick his ass with no problem. 


 “It’s unwise to interrupt someone else’s training session,” the Yenan girl drawled. “The intruder could get accidentally hurt if no one notices he’s there.” 


 More laughter rang out across the riverbank. 


 Shang Qinghua had set foot into a den of hostile teenagers and now he was paying for it. He could have tried to muster courage through the fact that, with both of his lives combined, he was totally old enough to be their father. But, honestly, that knowledge just made things more pathetic, because he was totally going to get bullied anyway. 


 “What do you want?” the Meng girl demanded. 


 “I, ah, I have a message here- right here, I have a message for- for Young Master Mobei.” 


 First, there was silence, and then there was more laughter. 


 The Bai boy, who was the favorite son of another one of the Sun Sect most formidable families, walked over to the figure napping on the rock and kicked them in the shin. It was like watching someone kick a tiger awake. Finally, the arm moved, and Mobei-Jun sat up, glaring. 


 “What?” he said. 


 “You have a message,” the Bai boy said, gesturing towards Shang Qinghua. 


 Mobei-Jun looked at him. He had heavily lidded eyes, features that made Shang Qinghua think “striking” before “handsome”, and hair so black that it looked blue, and when he stood up, he went up and up and up. He had to be nearly two meters tall. He was also unfairly broad and thick, so a person could see the hints of shifting muscle as the son of the Sun Sect Leader dragged himself to his feet, and Shang Qinghua’s mouth went a little dry all of a sudden. 


 Shang Qinghua felt it in his neck as Mobei-Jun approached him. 


 He also felt, suddenly, extremely eighteen. 


 This was not how he had planned on seeing the character who had, to be honest, been his favorite and also kind of his ideal man. From a distance, this transmigrator had thought, would allow him some protection from the character destined to kill him… and also give him space to react in peace, in case he was disappointed by the realization of this character. Shang Qinghua hadn’t honestly anticipated that whatever had made this world would do too good a job. Damn. 


 He swallowed, forcing himself not to take a step backwards or to faint under the intensity of Mobei-Jun’s stare. He couldn’t see the unique spiritual weapons that this OP warrior had carried in Proud Immortal Demonic Way, which had been used to kill the traitorous Shang Qinghua in a gruesome way, so maybe Young Master Mobei hadn’t earned them yet. 


 “...What do you want?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 “Oh,” Shang Qinghua said, realizing that they’d been staring at each other in silence for longer than was reasonable. He ignored the renewed laughter and snickering around the riverbank and held out the paper summoning this delinquent to the Discipline Hall. 


 Mobei-Jun looked at the paper and didn’t take it. 


 “Read it,” he said. 




 It was apparently beneath a young master of the Sun Sect to repeat himself. 


 So much for his hope that he could serve the papers and then flee! Shang Qinghua reluctantly took the paper back and cleared his throat. In a slightly scratchy, probably obviously terrified voice, he announced to over a dozen Sun Sect disciples, all of whom could probably kill him with their pinky, that Young Master Mobei had been summoned to the Cloud Recesses Discipline Hall to copy the rules a set number of times, a punishment assigned due to… 


 Shang Qinghua trailed off. 


 “What?” Mobei-Jun said again. 


 “Due to a failure to complete the assigned work and sleeping in class,” Shang Qinghua summarized quickly, like that would lessen the blow that he was going to get for delivering a message like this to the son of the most powerful man in the world. 


 The Bai boy - Bai Jianming, Shang Qinghua remembered, thanks to the name falling out one of the fear holes in his brain - burst out laughing. Several others echoed him. 


 “I told you not to sleep in class!” Bai Jianming howled. “Now you’re in trooooouble!” 


 Mobei-Jun glared at him. 


 “Looks like you’re too busy to hang out, Mobei!” Bai Jianming continued, apparently oblivious. “The Cloud Sect has clearly sent its best and brightest to bring you back into line!” 


 The laughter got even louder. 


 “They’ll make a proper gentleman and scholar out of you yet, Mobei!” 


 “Shut up!” Mobei-Jun snapped. 


 Several of the Sun Sect disciples fell abruptly silent. Others trailed off awkwardly, while Bai Jianming continued to wheeze, and the Yenan and Meng girls continued to smirk. Shang Qinghua wasn’t even a little bit surprised when Mobei-Jun glare snapped back to him. 


  “They won’t let him get away with killing me here and now, right?” Shang Qinghua thought, his internal voice unconvincing even to himself. 


 He had asked Little Uncle why they were inviting the Sun Sect too. He had pointed out to his Little Uncle that the Sun Sect would probably feel insulted by the idea that the Cloud Sect had anything to teach them, and that the Sun Sect would probably only show up to intimidate people and spy on them. Little Uncle had pointed out that all the sects would come to spy on everyone else, at least a little bit, and then had asked him how they were supposed to invite all the other sects to come over for a playdate while explicitly excluding the Sun Sect. 


 Shang Qinghua hadn’t been able to come up with a feasible answer. So instead, he’d focused on more reasonable solutions: wishing desperately that the Sun Sect would turn them down. 


 “It shouldn’t take more than a couple hours?” Shang Qinghua found himself saying, like he could make himself a shield out of words. “It’s a first offense, and you’re a guest disciple, so it’s pretty lenient? It could definitely be worse! But, ah, it’s already been… put off… a couple days… and if punishments aren’t completed, then they, ah, they increase, like interest? So, it’s easiest to just get it over with as soon as possible-” 




 “-so it doesn’t… oh.” 


 Laughter again. Shang Qinghua had moaned and groaned at the fact that he had transmigrated in as a traitorous background character, doomed to a gruesome death, unless he could successfully escape the plot, but at least he wasn’t cannon fodder who could have been replaced by a fucking laugh track without making a difference! 


 “I mean, if we just went to the library now, I-” 


  “No,” Mobei-Jun repeated, slowly, like he was talking to a child. 


 He leaned forward. Shang Qinghua leaned back. 


  “I’ll copy the lines for you, no problem! Please don’t break me into little pieces!” Shang Qinghua thought. He only didn’t shriek it because he couldn’t manage to get his pathetic begging and bargaining past the blockage in his throat. 


 Mobei-Jun’s lips were turned up slightly. It was a little devastating. 


 “Leave,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “All right,” Shang Qinghua agreed, clutching the paper to his chest. “All right, I’ll just- I’ll just go now. I’ll come back another time…” 




 “Or not! Or not, it’s true. I could not do that…” 


 Bai Jianmang laughed again. “So this is the famously rigid discipline of the Cloud Sect!” 


 “How strict,” the Yenan girl agreed. “How resolute.” 


 “How pathetic,” the Meng girl said flatly. 


 Shang Qinghua had been prepared to volunteer to copy the rules on Mobei-Jun’s behalf! If only the young master had agreed to sit in the Discipline Hall or in the Cloud Recesses’ library for an hour or two, pretending to work. Maybe, he had thought, it would get him a little on his future murderer’s good side! But now he was definitely not doing it. 


 “Well, so long as this is an informed shitty decision…” Shang Qinghua muttered, too low for anyone to hear over all the delinquents laughing at him. Someone else would be back to take these disciplinary duties from him soon enough and this shit could be their problem. 


 He turned around to leave. 


 He only got a couple steps before his feet went out of underneath him, skidding sideways, towards the riverbank. With a totally unheroic shriek, he fell. His hip banged against the riverbank and then he tumbled into the water, tearing out some grass and weeds in a pathetic attempt to hold on to that ledge. His head went under the water with his mouth still open. 


 The water was only about a metre deep in this part and it wasn’t running quickly at all, more of a swirling pool as the river crawled over rising and falling beds of rock and mud. Shang Qinghua had his feet beneath him again quickly enough, pushing himself up and spitting out riverwater, leaning on the riverbank for support and ignoring the howls and shrieks of the Sun Sect disciples behind him. His forehead ribbon had been pushed up to his hairline. 


 The papers he’d been carrying were swirling gently away, getting caught on a rock, but who really gave a shit about that? 


 There was a thick layer of black ice - that shitty perfectly transparent stuff - on the riverbank. Shang Qinghua didn’t know how Mobei-Jun had managed it, but he didn’t see anyone else here whose cultivators were regularly called “ice demons” for their special spells. 


 Mobei-Jun’s smirk was even wider. It said plenty. 


  “You better fucking watch out that SHANG QINGHUA doesn’t end up killing YOU, you asshole,” Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky thought. His chest felt hollow with something that could have been anger and could have been disappointment, and was unsurprised either way. 


 He waded through the water, then hauled himself out of the river, and stalked off, careful to watch the ground this time. 


 Only for an arrow to whizz past his fucking ear. 


 He hauled ass faster then, ducking behind a tree, putting the laughter behind him before these idiots could get any more smart ideas. Shang Qinghua had endured a lot as the errand boy and laughing stock of the Cloud Sect’s ruling family, he’d been someone’s punching bag through many martial classes over the years, but suddenly there were worse day-to-day existences clear to him. Unfortunately, he was too resentful about this whole situation to look on any kind of bright side and act grateful about this shit. 


 He ran halfway up the mountain, soaking wet, before he stopped to wheeze against a tree. 


 Was he going to report this to Little Uncle? The senior teacher in charge of the guest lectures? The sect leader himself? Honestly, thinking about it, probably not! He’d tell his side of the story and there would be more than a dozen Sun Sect disciples ready to say that they “didn’t see anything like that” and that “it wasn’t that bad” and that “Young Master Shang had gotten a little overexcited for no reason”. This disciple knew how it worked! If he dared to push forward, the only thing he would accomplish would be making an enemy of some of the most dangerous young cultivators alive! 


 If Mobei-Jun, who was only a young master at this time, wanted to skip out on Cloud Sect punishments, then that was fine! The punishment would accumulate and increase! And… honestly, Shang Qinghua didn’t see a way forward without inciting violence and/or invoking the Sun Sect Leader’s wrath if anyone tried to force the younger Mobei-Jun anywhere. No one wanted to provoke the Sun Sect. It would definitely be let go. 


 “FUCK!” he shouted, because it was a private path, and he deserved it. 


 Instead of continuing back up the mountain, so that he could get back to the grind of the Cloud Sect, Shang Qinghua determinedly turned towards a different path. He set out in the direction of the village that rested at the base of the Cloud Recesses, because he deserved that, too! This was a little earlier than he’d originally intended, but his date later tonight probably wouldn’t mind if he pre-gamed their special dinner. 



 Later that night, when all good Cloud Sect disciples were in bed, Shang Qinghua snuck through the back paths of the Qiong Ding Peak side of the Cloud Recesses. He didn’t have too far to go, since he wasn’t so lowly regarded that he didn’t have a place in the residential area designated for his family. Eventually found his way to a lovely little house surrounded by flowers, secluded from all the others in regular use, and because his arms were full of food, he kicked at the window. 


 Gently, though! He didn’t punch through it or anything! 


 These windows weren’t supposed to open, but Shang Qinghua was pretty much an official An Ding guy now, and even houses like this one still needed regular maintenance. It hadn’t actually been that hard to sneak around and subtly reverse some of the special modifications. At least enough that the back window could open like windows were supposed to do. 


 It took a minute for the person inside to respond to his knock. In that minute, Shang QInghua managed to convince himself that all sorts of horrible things had happened, so it felt like he’d narrowly avoided a brush with death when Yue Qingyuan peeked out. 


 “Oh, good, you’re alive,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Then he shoved the food through the window at Yue Qingyuan and climbed through the window. It was more of a squeeze than it had used to be. Shang Qinghua blamed all the stress-eating this shitty sect made him do: it was making his ass too fat for this. 


 “I heard you got in a fight with some asshole, so I got all your favorites to celebrate,” Shang Qinghua said, closing the window behind him and then heading for the depressingly sparse kitchen so he could get out the one bowl in this house. “Sorry that I couldn’t come sooner, but Big Uncle has had people keeping an eye on the house, like he was afraid the guest disciples would invade or something.” 


 Yue Qingyuan tried to smile. 


 It was the saddest fucking smile Shang Qinghua had ever seen, which was saying something. 


 If Shang Qinghua had been a lowly outer disciple in a sect where nobody had any kind of family bonds, maybe he could have gotten away with keeping his distance, with minding his own business and with no one minding him, but instead this transmigrator had been stuck with a brand new family. He couldn’t say that he liked this family, but after eighteen years, this damn family was a habit that was hard to break. It was a lot like his family from his past life. 


 If Shang Qinghua had actually been eighteen years old, instead of a transmigrator whose age was kind of all over the fucking place, maybe he would have been boilingly jealous of Yue Qingyuan. (Not that he wasn’t, on occasion, a little jealous.) Instead, he looked at their extremely promising future sect leader and saw a sixteen-year-old - no, wait, Yue Qingyuan was seventeen now, they thought, even though the boy didn’t know his own birthday - who was almost constantly on the edge of breaking into a million pieces. 


 Yue Qingyuan carefully put the take-out on the empty table, then he looked at Shang Qinghua, and Shang Qinghua felt like he should throw up something in front of his eyes, just in case Yue Qingyuan really did break into a million pieces. 


 “Shen Jiu isn’t dead,” Yue Qingyuan said, more calmly than should have been possible. 


 The Cloud Sect could do that to a motherfucker. 


 “I, ah, I noticed that,” Shang Qinghua answered. “Surprise guest disciples, huh?” 


 Shang Qinghua had made the time to ogle at least one guest disciple in this past week. Well, not so much ogle as peek at, while he was doing his running around like a headless chicken. 


 The River Sect disciple currently known as Shen Qingqiu was a tall, sharp-looking boy, apparently either all determined elegance or all barely restrained anger. The sixteen-year-old or seventeen-year-old boy wore the purple robes of his sect like he’d been born into them and the white uniform of the Cloud Sect like he was dressing to make everyone else look bad. The River Sect disciples, from what Shang Qinghua had been able to catch, either resented him immensely or hung on to his every word, with very little in-between. 


 He wasn’t bad-looking at all, but Shang Qinghua had kind of wanted to puke into the nearest bushes anyway. So, this was the future scum villain who was going to screw over the young protagonist so badly that Luo Binghe would become a master of demonic cultivation! 


 Yue Qingyuan sat down. Shang Qinghua sat down across from him. 


 Shang Qinghua served them both some food. Yue Qingyuan had the honor of this shitty house’s single bowl tonight, but he barely looked at the food, even after a solid week of the tasteless rations they served to people in forced seclusion like this. 


 “So, a fight,” Shang Qinghua said. “That’s… unexpected.” 


 In much the same way that Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had never written the first meeting between the character of Shang Qinghua and the character of Mobei-Jun, he had never written the original reunion between Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu. It had been stated at some point in the web-novel that Shen Qingqiu had attended the lectures at the Cloud Recesses, but with his name missing from the list, Shang Qinghua had assumed that it would be some other year. Instead, the River Sect Leader had apparently swapped out one of the original disciples slated to attend for Shen Qingqiu at the last minute. 


 Yue Qingyuan swallowed and said. “I thought… I thought he was a ghost.” 




 “He didn’t like that,” Yue Qingyuan added with a huff. 


 “Haha, yeah, that’s a weird greeting,” Shang Qinghua agreed. “Is that how…?” 


 “He… One of the things he said was that he would prove to me that he was real… and that if I thought he was supposed to be a resentful ghost, maybe there was a reason for that. I… I lost control of the situation. I failed him. Is he…? How was he punished…?” 


 “He finished copying out a couple rulebooks days ago,” Shang Qinghua said, desperately glad that shit had been Wang Qingjie’s problem. “He’s fine! He’s totally fine!” 


 Yue Qingyuan slumped a little. “That’s… good.” 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t know what he had been expecting here. A few tears, maybe? Maybe at least one sniffle? Or maybe Yue Qingyuan had gotten all that shit over with in the week that he’d been in forced seclusion in this damn house where Shang Xinzhong had died, instead of his own, regular house among all the other family residences. 


 At least the Qiong Ding Peak caves had never gotten a repeat. 


 “Did you… did you get to talk to him…?” Shang Qinghua pushed. “About why you didn’t manage to come back for him? Because I think he really might like to hear about that-” 


 “He doesn’t want to hear any of my excuses,” Yue Qingyaun said firmly. 


 “It’s not an excuse, it’s a reason,” Shang Qinghua said. “It’s-” 


 Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “He’s alive. That’s… that’s really all I need.” 


 Shang Qinghua stared at the boy - at this fucking kid - who had apparently never really forgiven himself for breaking down on him and begging him to go rescue Shen Qingqiu in his place. As though fourteen-year-old Shang Qinghua had actually had the power to travel that far without his uncles tracking him down and dragging him back by the ankles. He had eventually managed to help Yue Qingyuan run away from the Cloud Sect, a couple years later, only for the fifteen-year-old Yue Qingyuan to come back looking like his heart had been torn out. The past two years had been... ah... not great. 


 Sometimes, Shang Qinghua really, really hated the story he’d written. And sometimes, Shang Qinghua really, really hated the story that he’d never gotten to write. Shen Qingqiu’s tragic backstory had never actually been included in Proud Immortal Demonic Way. There had only been tiny hints! And Yue Qingyuan’s glaring weakness for the man! 


 Shang Qinghua hasn’t seen Yue Qingyuan cry in years. 


 The Cloud Sect could do that to a motherfucker. 


 “Shen Jiu is alive,” Yue Qingyuan repeats, with the confidence befitting a future sect leader. “I don’t need anything else from him. I don’t want anything else from him-” 


 “It’s not a bad thing to want things,” Shang Qinghua said weakly. 


 “That he’s alive and well is all that matters to me.” 


 “All right.” 


 “He can be angry at me forever, as long as he’s alive.” 


 “...All right.” 


 “He’s right to be angry, anyway.” 


 “Maybe at the general unfairness of the situation, but at you…” Shang Qinghua trailed off as Yue Qingyuan’s face set itself even more firmly. 


 He probably would have had better luck trying to convince the wall with all the sect’s rules on it to be a little more lenient and fun. The stone wall could probably be convinced to let go and live a little before Yue Qingyuan would go for it. 


 Shang Qinghua cleared his throat. “All right.” 


 “All right,” Yue Qingyuan repeated. 


 “So… how much longer do you have in here?” Shang Qinghua asked, casting an eye over the dry texts that were Yue Qingyuan’s only company unless Big Uncle was visiting. “Reflecting on your… I don’t know… inability to not be a walking and talking jade statue or puppet? Since you’re a human being who needs to do human things like eat and sleep and shit.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed and made a face. “Several more days, at least.” 


 Shang Qinghua made a face back at him. 


 “Meditation makes it pass quickly enough,” Yue Qingyuan said placidly. 


 “I thought you were out sooner than that.” 


 “...The sect leader thought that I needed more time to reflect.” 


 “That fucking asshole.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed again. 


 “What did you do? Ask if Shen Qingqiu was all right or something?” 


 Yue Qingyuan said nothing. 


 “Oh. You did.” Shang Qinghua searched desperately for a distraction, pushing the food towards his poor, unfortunate, pseudo-cousin, and then said, “I fell into the river today.” 




 “I fell into the river today.” 


 “Your hair is a little wavy,” Yue Qingyuan noticed. “How? What happened?” 


 “Eat! Eat! I’m not telling you this story unless you shove some real food in your mouth, because I went all the way to town for this stuff, and also I kind of want to see if I can get you to spit it out. All right. Picture this: you out of commission, Wang Qingjie fucking up his shoulder trying to fight this Liu Qingge asshole, and Little Uncle left with me and Mu Qingfang to hold down the fort, so I get stuck with trying to discipline the future leader of the fucking Sun Sect for sleeping in class! In the first week! Sleeping in class!” 


 Shang Qinghua told a slightly altered encounter of the altercation at the riverbank, in which he had tripped over his own feet, ruining his own exit, instead of any ice popping from nowhere to screw him over. So Yue Qingyuan found the story of Young Master Mobei just refusing to go copy the rules funny instead of horrifying and alarming! 


 Shang Qinghua had already given up too many thoughts to those assholes today! 


 Yue Qingyuan seemed to be in a good enough mood, with some noticeable bouts of moroseness and shame and guilt over Shen Qingqiu. He noticeably perked up - well, noticeable to Shang Qinghua, at least - every time that the River Sect was mentioned in a story. Shang Qinghua gained confidence that Yue Qingyuan would be back with them soon, despite his dramatic and harrowing encounter with a figure from his life before the Cloud Sect. 


 Some part of Shang Qinghua kept bringing up the fact that Yue Qingyuan was a required figure for the plot of Proud Immortal Demonic Way, so of course he would make it there. Another part of Shang Qinghua wasn’t so sure. The Transmigration System had made some extremely worrying statements over the years, suggesting that no minor character was really safe, and that the show would go on without them. It made Shang Qinghua feel that if he failed to juggle the invisible balls in the air, certain people might just drop on him. 


 Yue Qingyuan had been in a bad state after thinking Shen Qingqiu had died. The Cloud Sect Leader had done the compassion thing - Shang Qinghua thought this with a great deal of sarcasm - and punished Yue Qingyuan severely for it. Just one part of those punishments was some more forced seclusion in this house where the Cloud Sect Leader’s son had died in a fatal cultivation “accident”. Clearly, the Cloud Sect Leader was not a man who learned from his mistakes. 


  “Fuck you, Big Uncle,” Shang Qinghua muttered, when his visit with Yue Qingyuan was over, and he was shimmying back out the window with the take-out containers. To Yue Qingyuan, he said, “I’ll be back again tomorrow night.” 


 “It’s fine if you can’t make it,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 “Maybe it's not about you. Maybe I want an excuse to eat spicy noodles,” Shang Qinghua answered. “I’ll be back tomorrow night! I need to tell you how my attempting to discipline the Sun Sect’s most spoiled brat goes. Wish me luck, Qingyuan!” 


 “Good luck,” Yue Qingyuan said dutifully. 


 “Come on! Say it like you mean it!” 


 “I do. I just don’t think my wishes are likely to change anything.” 


 “Not with that attitude.” 


 “Why can’t you muster your own attitude?” 


 “I have too much of it already,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “It’s the wrong kind.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed. “Goodnight.” 


 He didn't close the window right away. He almost never did, unless his mood was really bad. It was almost always Shang Qinghua who had to walk away first, so Yue Qingyuan would finally close the window and return to his forced seclusion. Shang Qinghua often found his feet dragging, even though he had to be up early in the morning, every morning. Yue Qingyuan would probably have to be up early tomorrow morning as well for a visit from the sect leader trying to get things right this time.  


 “...Goodnight,” Shang Qinghua said. 


Chapter Text


 When Shang Qinghua told the senior teacher in charge of the guest lectures, who was sometimes referred to as the Master of Ku Xing Peak, that Young Master Mobei had refused to participate in the assigned discipline, for some fucking reason, it was Shang Qinghua who got into trouble for it. Oh, sure, the punishment was increased and all that, but the Master of Ku Xing Peak just handed the responsibility of administering it straight back to Shang Qinghua and asked him why he hadn’t managed to make it happen like it was all his fault. 


 “I tried,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 This came out in the same tone as, “I could have died! Do you want me to die?” 


 “Try harder,” said the Master of Ku Xing Peak. 


 This came out in the same apathetic tone as, “Then die.” 


 That was how Shang Qinghua heard it, anyway. 


 So, there was nothing to do but drag himself away, damned all over again. 


 “High and mighty asshole,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “Acting like his special pupil Wang Qingjie could have somehow managed to produce a fucking miracle, instead of sending us to war with the Sun Sect! Wang Qingjie fucked up his shoulder because he lost the temper he pretends doesn’t exist on a Mountain Sect disciple! We would be at war right now if it had been anyone else down there! Is that what you want?!” 


 This time, Shang Qinghua wasn’t going to let himself be caught in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a pack of spoiled, predatory brats. He actually wanted to survive this shitty story, not end up buried in the woods! So he went to confront Mobei-Jun again as soon as the guest disciples exited their last class for the day, fairly sure that the Sun Sect wouldn’t bully him too badly in front of the disciples from all the other sects. 


  “Fuck, what if they do?! I’ll never live it down!” he thought. “That’s definitely the sort of humiliating incident that goes in the backstory of a jealous traitor!” 


 He’d live, though, and he already lived through being treated like a servant by his own family by remembering who he really was. He was just hugging thighs to make people leave him alone! Not because he really meant it! As long as he knew that he was really the Author God of this world and that the protagonist Luo Binghe would probably rise to fuck these assholes over someday, it was fine. After having gone through childhood twice, and technically being of a very mature age by now, this transmigrator was of the wise mind that humiliation was in the eye of the beholder.


 “Still going to hurt,” he muttered. “Er, Young Master Mobei? Young Master Mobei!” 


 If Shang Qinghua sounded out of breath, it was totally because he’d lost track of time on An Ding Peak and had to come sprinting across the Cloud Recesses to make it here. Definitely not because as soon as Mobei-Jun turned that intense stare on him, it made his heart lurch in a bad way. Definitely not because some familiar Sun Sect disciples filtered out of the classroom behind the son of their sect leader, looking both as pretty and mean as ever. 


 Bai Jianming, the boy with the wide smile, followed Mobei-Jun’s gaze and then burst out laughing. This of course caught the other disciples’ attention and soon there seemed to be smirks and giggles on every face! 


 Mobei-Jun then turned away and walked off, ignoring Shang Qinghua. 


 The other Sun Sect disciples laughed, before following him, as though Mobei-Jun deciding not to bully the messenger was really Shang Qinghua’s loss! Unfortunately, this was in sight of some other disciples from assorted sects as well, including some Cloud Sect disciples and the teacher coming to stand at the door. Shang Qinghua swallowed his hatred of this shitty situation and followed Mobei-Jun to at least achieve better proof that he’d tried! 


 “Young Master Mobei, if I could just have a moment of your time!” 


 Mobei-Jun kept walking. 


 At least the other Sun Sect disciples trailed behind a little, apparently to watch the show. 


 “Young Master Mobei, I took your, ah, refusal to visit the Discipline Hall back to the teachers and I’m afraid that they only increased the punishment,” Shang Qinghua said, speaking quickly, hopping a little as he struggled to keep up with Mobei-Jun’s freakishly long legs. “Though, ah, lenience was still shown, given that the lectures have only just started… If you could report to the Discipline Hall as soon as possible,-” 




 “If you’re busy now, then perhaps-” 




 “It doesn’t even have to be today that-” 


  This time, Mobei-Jun stopped and stared him down, and all the words Shang Qinghua had been about to say very effectively shrivelled up and died. 


 Shang Qinghua had to clear his throat to restart it again. Three times was the charm! No one could say he hadn’t tried! Except for the Master of Ku Xing Peak, who was probably going to say exactly that, for the second time, but that guy was an asshole. 


 “All right,” Shang Qinghua said. “Ah, I’ll… let them know.” 


 Unfortunately, Shang Qinghua had to pass the other Sun Sect disciples to leave again, and the Meng girl “accidentally” elbowed the papers he was holding out of his hands and across the path. Shang Qinghua had known better to bring important papers this time, though! He didn’t even have the papers describing Mobei-Jun’s new punishment! He picked these off the ground and went back to work appreciating the little victories. 


  “Ha, you knocked papers out of my hands that were actually totally blank! Who looks stupid now?” he thought. And then he thought, “Wait, that still sounds pathetic. Fuck.” 



 Shang Qinghua spent the next few days working through most of the morning and afternoon, ambushing Mobei-Jun as soon as the guest disciples’ classes ended, failing to get Mobei-Jun to go to the Discipline Hall, and then usually working a little bit more. There were some unavoidable training sessions and other classes for Shang Qinghua’s own continuing education thrown in there as well, of course, but no one apparently gave a shit to make sure that Shang Qinghua was socializing with the most promising young cultivators of his generation. His character was probably supposed to be bitter about that, but Shang Qinghua had way more worthwhile things to be bitter about. 


 He spent the evenings, of course, visiting Yue Qingyuan, now that the sect leader apparently didn’t have anyone keeping an eye on the prison called a seclusion house. He brought food, even if it was just something from the kitchen and not take-out from the village down the mountain. Yue Qingyuan made noises of protest, as he usually did, probably feeling like he needed to free Shang Qinghua from the “unnecessary obligation”, but Shang Qinghua told him that after the chaos the guest lectures had brought down on the Cloud Recesses, he was going to treat himself whether Yue Qingyuan liked it or not. 


 “Excuse you! Which one of us is the elder here?” Shang Qinghua had demanded. “Respect your elders when they provide for you!” 


 Yue Qingyuan had almost smiled at that. “Well,” he said, “in that case…” 


 The transmigrator once known as Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had absorbed a lot of shit from the Cloud Sect, but one thing he was determined that all its stuffy rules and strict appearances of dignity wouldn’t take from him was the ability to stuff his face when he damn well felt like! He was an adult again finally! This was his right as a human being! 


Yue Qingyuan was obviously paying the most attention to anything about Shen Qingqiu and the River Sect. Shang Qinghua threw in some juicy gossip partly to test this and partly because it was kind of important news if the River Sect Leader’s tumultuous marriage had reached the point where his wife was actually threatening to leave him! That was more news than gossip, right? 


 “I think it only counts as news if it’s actually happened,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 “Her threatening to leave him has actually happened, so it’s news,” Shang Qinghua argued. 


 “Do not involve yourself in the private affairs of others,” Yue Qingyuan recited. 


 “Ha! Do you see me getting anywhere near that?! No, thank you! I’m not involved at all!” 


 A child of divorce in another life, Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky didn’t envy the disciples of the River Sect at all. Being stuck between two people who desperately needed to divorce but refused to do it was a special kind of hell! And then the divorce itself would be its own kind of ugly! And the aftermath of the divorce could also be bad in a new and different way. There would be no winning. 


 “It’s really common for marriages not to survive grief and loss like that,” Shang Qinghua said knowingly, in between bites of the most delicious bites of roasted vegetables. “Inheritances can also tear a family apart. If they didn’t agree on anything before, there’s no way that they’ll agree on the same candidate for the next sect leader.” 


 He knew for a fact that they wouldn’t. The River Sect Leader would choose Shen Qingqiu, a disciple who his wife had hated from the very beginning, over his wife’s candidate of Qi Qingqi, who was one of her relatives. Qi Qingqi was here at the Cloud Recesses now and holy shit, that girl’s dislike of her rival had the sort of silence that spoke volumes, and the divide between them had shown up frequently throughout Luo Binghe’s time at the River Sect in Proud Immortal Demonic Way, so it probably wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 


 “Shen Jiu told me not to get in his way,” Yue Qingyuan murmured. “He must want the position.” 


 “Ah, competitive?” Shang Qinghua said, unnecessarily. 




 Shang Qinghua stuffed his face in the awkward silence that followed. 


 “You know… I’ve been thinking…” he said. “He might not want to talk to you now, when all the memories and emotions have been stirred up again, but if you just… leave the door open for communication later then maybe someday-” 


 “No,” Yue Qingyuan said. “He said he never wants to speak to me again.” 


 Shang Qinghua manfully resisted the urge to drag his hands down his face, feeling much, much older than his eighteen years in this world. Ah, to be truly seventeen again! He didn’t miss it at all! 


 “Well, aha, that’s been said in the heat of the moment, but once he knows about the sect leader’s bullshit behavior, then I really think-” 


 Yue Qingyuan shook his head morosely and declared, “Shen Jiu doesn’t change his mind…” 


 Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky unfortunately found it difficult to argue with that one. The scum villain of Proud Immortal Demonic Way, forced to rock bottom by the protagonist, would rather take a shovel and keep digging than give in. Arguing with that guy was probably a lot like trying to convince Yue Qingyuan that Shen Qingqiu wasn’t his fault or his responsibility. 


 Shang Qinghua wasn’t having much luck with that one either. 



 Eventually, Yue Qingyuan was brought out of seclusion, leaving that damn house behind, to finally be introduced to the rest of the young cultivation world, apologizing for his absence as though he’d had any choice in the matter. It made Shang Qinghua want to bite off a certain uncle’s fingers or something. 


 Most people seemed very taken with Yue Qingyuan - after all, he was handsome and skilled, yet modest and very likable - except for the people who were determinedly unimpressed, like a certain River Sect disciple, some of the Flower Sect disciples who were dubious of anyone without an impressive family lineage to back them up, and most of the Sun Sect disciples. Shang Qinghua was almost impressed at how strictly Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu were refusing to look at each other, both of them clearly also upset about the other not looking at him, for very different reasons. 


 It was kind of painful to see, actually. 


 Big Uncle, of course out of his partial seclusion to oversee the kids playing nice, was practically beaming with pride at this initial success. Some of the Cloud Sect teachers came by to congratulate him again on selecting such an exemplary young man, which the Cloud Sect Leader graciously accepted. Shang Qinghua, there with Little Uncle to show “support”, may or may not have spent his time forced to witness this bullshit fantasizing about gouging out his uncle’s eyebrows with the writing utensils he was holding. 


 Which… had stained his sleeve again. 


 “Fuck,” he muttered. 


 This was the same day that Wang Qingjie was pronounced fit to resume nearly all of his duties again. So, Shang Qinghua brought Mobei-Jun’s latest refusal to the Master of Ku Xing Peak yet again, expecting that either Yue Qingyuan or Wang Qingjie would soon be dispatched to bring the Sun Sect disciple into line. This was a terrifying prospect that would probably become one of the thousand “injuries” that would “force” the Sun Sect to go to war against the cultivation world. 


 “Wang Qingjie and Yue Qingyuan will take on all discipline issues with the disciples that arise from this point,” the Master of Ku Xing Peak agreed. “You will, however, see all the responsibilities that you have started to completion.” 




 “Your failure to complete your given duties must be corrected.” 


 “But I-” 


 The Master of Ku Xing Peak fixed him with an especially cold look and said, “You must pull your weight around this sect, Shang Qinghua. There are no excuses for your deficiencies.” 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t offer any excuses, mainly because he was too angry to speak. 


 “I expect results,” said the Master of Ku Xing Peak. “Dismissed.” 


 Shang Qinghua took the latest papers he had been sent to fetch, which Mobei-Jun wouldn’t even look at even if Shang Qinghua practically shoved them in his face, and stumbled out of the office, breathing quickly and yet somehow not getting enough air. He made it most of the way to the An Ding Peak side of the Cloud Recesses before he found a good place to stop. 


 The Master of Ku Xing Peak was one of the characters who was supposed to die in the war, alongside both of Shang Qinghua’s uncles. It was times like this that Shang Qinghua had the ugly thought that - fuck what would happen to the rest of the sect, like all the other people who were screwed over on the daily by a few assholes at the top - the war with the Sun Sect couldn’t come fast enough. These people really were digging their own hole, huh?! 


 Shang Qinghua managed to calm down eventually, after kicking a few rocks while pretending they were the Master of Ku Xing Peak’s head. Well, he managed to appear calm, at least, by the time that he dragged himself back to the An Ding side of the Cloud Recesses. 


 “No luck, hm?” Chen Riling said, as soon as she looked at him. 


 “I have yet another appointment tomorrow with the person who will definitely kill me someday,” Shang Qinghua confirmed, dropping into a seat and then dropping his forehead against the surface of his desk. “And apparently every day until he kills me.” 


 Chen Riling hummed in a vaguely sympathetic way. 


 Shang Qinghua enjoyed the comfortable, resentful silence for a while, before he sighed and sat up again. “No rest for the cowardly,” he muttered. 


 Chen Riling laughed. “You know, Qinghua, you’re the strangest coward I’ve ever met.” 


 “What? Why?” 


 “I think that most cowards wouldn’t even go near the person they believe will inevitably kill them,” she pointed out. “Or, for example, go anywhere near a cursed mirror on a night hunt, even if other people told them to do it. Maybe you’re complaining and screaming the entire time, but you still usually do it, instead of just fainting.” 


 “You can’t run for your life if you pretend to faint,” Shang Qinghua said, taken aback by this unexpected almost-compliment.


 Maybe it was an insult? Maybe Chen Riling was telling him that he wasn’t doing cowardice properly and he needed to be more incompetent. She had a point: it was easier to get through a lot of things when people had low or other lowly expectations of him, and sometimes they wouldn't ask a coward him to do anything important if only to avoid the terrified wailing. But it was also easier, when other people wouldn't let him wiggle out of bullshit, to just get a lot of things over with. If he embarrassed himself promptly, if he threw away his pride at the slightest provocation, Shang Qinghua could be reading in bed or otherwise relaxing all the earlier.



 To console himself, Shang Qinghua treated himself with actually good food again, and he shared it with Yue Qingyuan to excuse it as a bonding activity. Yue Qingyuan was back in his own house again, the one with some personal belongings (inspected by their shitty sect leader, though, of course) and books (also inspected by their shitty sect leader) and a door that Yue Qingyuan was actually allowed to use when the nightly sect curfew wasn’t in effect. 


 “So, how are the first few days of school? Bad? I knew it,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed and said, “Busy.” 


 “That means bad.” 


 “No, it just means busy. It’s been interesting meeting the other disciples.” 


 “Interesting also means bad.” 


 “No, it just means interesting,” Yue Qingyuan said, smiling. “They’re all so different.” 


 “I think that means we don’t get out enough.” 


 This surprised Yue Qingyuan enough that the boy actually laughed, a rare and awkward sound, quickly swallowed. “Maybe we just don’t get out enough,” he agreed. 


 Shang Qinghua had suggested that Yue Qingyuan apologize to Shen Qingqiu again and then give the other boy space, so Yue Qingyuan had apparently skipped the apology (saying that Shen Qingqiu had to approach him on his own) and just given Shen Qingqiu space. In response, Shen Qingqiu was still refusing to look at him and very occasionally making venomous comments about the things Yue Qingyuan said in public, which was totally unsurprising and made Shang Qinghua want to hit his head against a wall. Yue Qingyuan seemed determined to allow this and to continue this way. 


 In the meantime, Yue Qingyuan had apparently been making friends with other guest disciples, which, on one hand, was a super great thing and would maybe help him in getting over Shen Qingqiu! On the other hand, it was probably making Shen Qingqiu even angrier. 


 Especially because Yue Qingyuan had apparently made friends with Liu Qingge, the disciple that the Mountain Sect Leader had chosen to be the next sect leader. This future "war god" was supposed to suffer a fatal qi deviation sometime in the future, after Luo Binghe had become a disciple of the River Sect, with Shen Qingqiu present and apparently having tried to help. This would lead to several people, including Liu Qingge’s younger sister who was one of the protagonist’s future wives, becoming convinced that Shen Qingqiu had murdered that guy he’d always hated and just disguised it as a qi deviation. 


 Shang Qinghua did his best to be supportive, listening to Yue Qingyuan talk about his exciting spar with Liu Qingge, while thinking to himself, “This is going to end badly. This is going to end badly. This is going to end SO FUCKING BADLY.” 


 “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen the Mountain Sect’s head disciple yet,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Yue Qingyuan raised his eyebrows. “You haven’t?” 


 “I’m not in the classes! I’m busy! And everyone is wearing the uniforms!” 


 “I thought that you said you’d seen most of them,” Yue Qingyuan said. “Weren’t you visiting the other day when I joined the classes? Liu Qingge was there.” 


 “Ah, I was too busy wishing Big Uncle would go fuck himself. He really should.” 


 Yue Qingyuan ignored this. “You’re there when the classes went out to speak to Young Master Mobei, aren’t you? There are lots of Mountain Sect disciples, but Liu Qingge is a difficult person to miss. If you like, I can introduce you.” 


 “Haha, no, I don’t need to get into a sparring match with him!” Shang Qinghua said quickly. “Unlike Wang Qingjie, I need my shoulders for deskwork! What does he look like?” 


  “Well, his hair is braided in the Mountain Sect style, and he has this spot underneath his-” 


  “That’s Liu Qingge?!” 


 “-eye.” Yue Qingyuan gave him an alarmed look. 


 “The guy with the beauty spot right here?” 


 “I didn’t see any other Mountain Sect disciples with a feature like that.” 


 “That’s Liu Qingge?!” 




 “He’s way too pretty!” 


 Yue Qingyuan stared at him, then cracked up laughing. 


 “I’m serious! How hasn’t a meathead like that ruined a face like that yet?!” Shang Qinghua demanded, honestly shocked. He had never given Liu Qingge a physical design, but maybe he should have thought about Liu Mingyan and looked from there. “Stop laughing at me! No one gave me any fancy introductions! I had to guess!” 



 Shang Qinghua was in a good mood when he left Yue Qingyuan’s place for the night, until he remembered that he’d left some important paperwork in Little Uncle’s An Ding office that the man had said he wanted to see on his Qiong Ding desk first thing in the morning. So, Shang Qinghua cursed and ran off to fix that now. He wasn’t going to remember in the morning! He never did!


 Fixing that shit took a little bit of doing, especially because Shang Qinghua had to dodge someone on a nightly patrol, but soon enough he was back on his way to his sweet, sweet bed! (Although it could have been sweeter, honestly, because the Cloud Sect apparently believed truly luxurious mattresses with a mountain of feathery pillows were bad for the moral character or something.) All Shang Qinghua had to do was take a few lesser known shortcuts through Qiong Ding Peak and no one would be the wiser. 


  “Oh, fuck, I cursed myself,” he thought, as someone lurched out of nowhere. 


 It was a gigantic figure, appearing monstrous in the darkness, and Shang Qinghua nearly screamed. He did make a strangled little yelp, though.


 The noise caught the attention of the figure looming over him and Mobei-Jun glared at him for it. 


 Shang Qinghua stopped breathing, staying perfectly still, possibly out of some dim, instinctual hope that if he didn’t move, the predator would lose interest and forget he existed. 


 And then he noticed that Mobei-Jun was kind of… swaying back and forth? 


 He started breathing again and the smell hit him like a rock. 


 “Young Master Mobei, are you… are you drunk?” 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 Shang Qinghua leaned backwards, as the smell was apparently trying to make a permanent home in his nostrils. “Did you take a bath in wine or something?” 




 Mobei-Jun was definitely drunk. 


 Shang Qinghua had no fucking clue what to do about this. His go-to move here was to get out of this young master’s way and let him stumble to wherever he’d been headed before, but Mobei-Jun didn’t move. Even when Shang Qinghua shuffled off to the side, off the path entirely to make room for the young master to lurch onwards, Mobei-Jun just stood there, swaying slightly, apparently unable to keep his glare focused. 


 After a while of standing there in the darkness, Mobei-Jun sat down. It didn’t look like he’d done so willingly.


 Shang Qinghua wondered if it was because he’d gotten a good whiff of himself. 


 Obviously, the thing to do was leave him here! 


 Instead, Shang Qinghua found himself gingerly stepping around Mobei-Jun, who was struggling to stand again, and picking up the open jar dropped just a few steps down the path. The jar was empty. Shang Qinghua was a Cloud Sect disciple, so he didn’t get a lot of opportunity to browse different kinds of alcohol, but he still recognized what he found on the underside of the jar. 


 “Is this… is this from Flower Sect?!” 


 Mobei-Jun managed to pull himself to his feet, throwing out his arms to stay that way. 


 “Isn’t this the stuff that can kill you?” Shang Qinghua demanded, aghast. “‘Alcohol doesn’t affect cultivators the same way, so let’s drink poison for fun!’ Young Master Mobei, how did you even get this stuff?!” 


 “Bai Jianming,” Mobei-Jun snapped, waving a hand. “It was… him! His idea! All of this…” 


 Shang Qinghua looked around uncertainly, trying to see if Mobei-Jun was waving at anything in particular, until he realized that they weren’t actually too far from some of the dormitories where the Flower Sect was staying. It was a terrifying realization! 


 The head disciple of the Flower Sect, Su Xiyan, was a woman with a talent for politics and diplomacy, quick-witted and able to twist a tense situation with a few words, but she was an adult, too old to be attending these lectures. She had escorted the Flower Sect disciples here and Shang Qinghua had seen almost at once why Tianlang-Jun might fall head over heels in love with her, but then Su Xiyan had gone on her way, off doing great deeds and possibly hooking up with a wandering near-immortal, leaving the Flower Sect disciples in the charge of her junior martial sister. Shi Chun was, as far as Shang Qinghua could see, ruthlessness in the form of a teenage girl, with her sword in one hand and a whip in the other. 


 Shang Qinghua had spent several days terrified and desperately confused, until he had realized that the Little Palace Mistress, Luo Binghe’s most important wife from the Flower Sect, probably wouldn’t just spawn from thin air. Now he was disgusted over the fact that the Flower Sect Leader was going to have his replacement child with a girl probably young enough to be his granddaughter, and also still terrified. 


 “Is… ah… Young Master Bai out here… anywhere…?” 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun said, annoyed. “No, he- he left.” 




 That could have meant that the other Sun Sect disciple was actually just somewhere out there, also very lost and very drunk, but by the way Mobei-Jun said it, Shang Qinghua suspected this was more like a prank at Mobei-Jun’s expense. Get the son of the sect leader super drunk on Flower Sect booze and then dump him on their doorstep! Or something like that! 


 “...Bro, your friends are shitheads,” Shang Qinghua muttered. 


 Mobei-Jun stumbled again. 


 “Just like you,” Shang Qinghua said, even more quietly. Then he said, “Young Master Mobei, maybe I could… help you back to your dormitory? Without anyone seeing… this?” 


 This asshole didn’t deserve his help, but this was really pathetic, and Shang Qinghua didn’t want to have to spend tomorrow mopping up a mess between the Flower Sect and the Sun Sect. Also, maybe he could hold this over Mobei-Jun’s head! Or maybe it would just make his future murderer hate him even more, but Shang Qinghua hoped that this Mobei-Jun was a man of his word and personal honor like the original character was supposed to be! 


 Besides, it would be a dent to Shang Qinghua’s pride if his favorite character, the fearsome and deadly Mobei-Jun, died due to alcohol poisoning or something before the plot even started. Shang Qinghua deserved better than that, didn’t he? This Mobei-Jun needed to live up to that! 


 It took a little bit of coaxing, but Mobei-Jun started to follow him. Unfortunately, Mobei-Jun was clearly having difficulty with that for a number of reasons, foremost an inability to walk in a straight line. 


 “Young Master Mobei, how much… how much did you drink?” 


 Mobei-Jun just frowned at him. 


 Shang Qinghua held up the empty jar. “All of this?” 




 “More than this?” 




 “Oh, shit,” Shang Qinghua breathed, wondering if he should have been hauling Mobei-Jun towards the Qian Cao Peak side of the Cloud Recesses instead. 


 He waffled on a course of action, but finally decided that Mobei-Jun was probably not going to agree to go to Qian Cao. Shang Qinghua braced himself and asked for Mobei-Jun’s wrist, then braced himself again and very, very carefully took Mobei-Jun’s wrist himself, wincing even though Mobei-Jun was apparently drunk enough to let him. Mobei-Jun apparently wasn’t going to pull a Liu Qingge or anything, but he was very, very drunk. 


 “Young Master Mobei, please know that I don’t take any pleasure in this,” Shang Qinghua said, leading Mobei-Jun towards the side of the path. 


 Mobei-Jun blinked at him. 


 Shang Qinghua then summoned spiritual energy to his hand and essentially punched the son of the most powerful man in the world in the stomach. Mobei-Jun made a sound that was more confusion than pain, and then, as Shang Qinghua finished the trick and jumped to the side, Mobei-Jun fell to his knees and threw up into the bushes. 


 “Thank you, Mu Qingfang,” Shang Qinghua whispered, kissing his knuckles. 


 He had lied to Mobei-Jun just now. He had taken a great deal of pleasure in that - that had been fucking amazing - and he was finding a great deal of satisfaction in watching the young master empty the contents of his stomach into the bushes. 


 The bushes and Mobei-Jun were probably having a bad time, though. 


 When Mobei-Jun was just wheezing, Shang Qinghua finally approached him again, and Mobei-Jun glared at him. His hands were shaking, though, and his movements were still incredibly sluggish. Shang Qinghua didn’t think he had great odds of pulling off a murder tonight, though he did cringe away just in case. Mobei-Jun just wavered on his knees without lunging. 


 “Young Master Mobei, ah, now we can go back to the dormitory…” 




 “No? What? No?!” 


 Mobei-Jun shook his head. “Not- not like this.” 


 “Young master, you can’t intend to sleep here on the path.” 




 “Then you need to go back to your own bed…” 




 They went back and forth like this until Shang Qinghua felt ready to tear out his own hair. “What about a different bed?!” he said desperately. “Out of the open, at least!” 




 “If you won’t- what, really?” 


 Mobei-Jun tried to stand again and Shang Qinghua had to help him up. Mobei-Jun shoved him away and then fell over again, and then Shang Qinghua helped him up again. Mobei-Jun didn’t shove him away this time. In fact, Mobei-Jun leaned nearly his entire body weight, which was a lot of body weight, directly on Shang Qinghua, and Shang Qinghua was finally grateful about all that heavy lifting and all those handstands the Cloud Sect made its disciples do. 


 “...You don’t deserve this,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “Not even a little bit.” 


 But against his better judgement, he lifted Mobei-Jun into a shoulder-carry and took the person who was supposed to kill him someday back to his own house.


 Mobei-Jun was apparently an inconsiderate person to carry. He wiggled. He shifted his weight around. He tried to get down twice. He elbowed Shang Qinghua in the head. By the time they got back to Shang Qinghua’s house, which hadn’t actually been that long of a trip, Shang Qinghua had decided that anyone who had described one person carrying another as anything less than torturous had probably been lying. Heroism was a scam, for sure. 


 He forced Mobei-Jun to drink water, though he had to prove it wasn’t poisoned first by drinking a little, and then Mobei-Jun kept giving the water back to him to prove it again. Like Shang Qinghua could have somehow poisoned it while Mobei-Jun had been drinking it. 


 He also, very generously, provided some things from his precious snack stash. Mostly because he really needed a treat at this point, but then Mobei-Jun apparently changed his mind and gobbled them all up! Shang Qinghua was so incensed that he almost formed the resolve to bill Mobei-Jun for this later! The Sun Sect was supposed to be super rich, weren’t they?! They could pay for their own treats!


 Mobei-Jun’s outer robe had a little bit of vomit on it, so Shang Qinghua wrestled him out of it, because he was not having that get on any surfaces in his house. And when he came back from washing in, instead of settling on the nice place on the floor Shang Qinghua had made for him, Mobei-Jun had taken the bed! Shang Qinghua’s bed! Shang Qinghua, pissed the fuck off, had mustered either the bravery or the annoyance to tell Mobei-Jun that he was in someone else’s bed, thanks, and Mobei-Jun just grumbled at him without moving. 


 “I’m not sleeping on the floor in my own house!” Shang Qinghua hissed. “Move over!” 


 It took a lot of shoving, with Mobei-Jun slapping him away, but Shang Qinghua was determined. He told himself that he was way too fucking tired and angry to be scared. He’d come up with some good excuses in the morning or something! He needed to get Mobei-Jun into a position where he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit through the rest of the night, anyway, though he had checked Mobei-Jun over several times now and was confident that this asshole was going to be fine. 


 Eventually, Shang Qinghua dizzily climbed into bed, even though the smell was still bad. He felt like he was going to pass out right away, but unfortunately, he didn’t. 


 “...This isn’t even a little bit sexy,” he said to the ceiling, after a while, because it wasn’t. 


 Beside him, Mobei-Jun snored.  




Chapter Text


 Shang Qinghua woke up bright and early in the morning, like a good Cloud Sect disciple did, although this was really only because Yue Qingyuan graciously banged on the front door and then stuck his head inside to shout at him, like he usually did whenever he was out of seclusion and had the suspicion that Shang Qinghua was going to oversleep. So, he did this nearly every day. 


 “Qinghua, it’s time to get up!” 


 Shang Qinghua sat bolt upright and wiped drool off his chin. “I’m awake!” 


 His drool-covered hand landed on another human being. Point by point, Shang Qinghua’s brain became aware of the weight pressed up against his leg and hip, of the sleeve of his other arm being pinned down by an incredibly thick arm, and of a shiny trail of drool up the neck of the other person in his bed.


 Holy shit, he’d licked Mobei-Jun’s neck in his sleep. 


 “...Are you really awake or are you just talking in your sleep again?” Yue Qingyuan called. 


 “I’m awake!” Shang Qinghua cried. “I’m awake! I’m awake! Don’t come in!” 


 “I wasn’t going to come in, but now I’m thinking that I should.” 


 “Don’t! Please, don’t!” 


 “Now I’m thinking I really should,” Yue Qingyuan said, bemused. 


 Shang Qinghua searched desperately for a shield here and ended up saying, “I’m naked!” 




 “I slept naked again, so don’t come in!” 


 “I think that practice is one really bad incident from getting a rule against it,” Yue Qingyuan joked. “I won’t come in if you don’t want me to come in. Do you need anything?” 


 “No! Nothing at all!” 


 “All right. Good luck with whatever it is that you’re hiding, Qinghua!” 


 “I’m not hiding anything,” Shang Qinghua insisted, trying to tug his sleeve free from where it was stuck underneath Mobei-Jun, who was thankfully out cold. “I have nothing to hide!” 


 “Good morning, Qinghua,” Yue Qingyuan said, and left. 


 Because sometimes he was a bro like that! Although he probably thought Shang Qinghua was actually just naked in bed, not that he was in bed with one of the guest disciples. Yue Qingyuan would probably be a little less chill about that! 


 Shang Qinghua dragged his free hand down his face, then stared down at Mobei-Jun. Well, firstly he noticed the guy was alive, which was a huge success. Secondly, his features really were very striking. Last night, Shang Qinghua hadn’t really had the opportunity to admire Mobei-Jun’s profile relaxed in sleep, but now he was close enough to touch the face that all his imagination hadn’t really come close to matching. Thirdly, he was close enough to notice that Mobei-Jun actually had a couple zits forming on his forehead and chin, that he had some eye discharge crusting on his eyelashes, that his lips were dry, and that he had stubble. 


 It was weirdly mesmerizing. He looked so real.


 Shang Qinghua also really, really wanted to slap this guy in the face. This asshole had caused him nothing but pain and trouble so far! He was still really angry about this bullshit! 


 Instead, Shang Qinghua dragged himself out of bed and carefully pulled his sleeve out from underneath Mobei-Jun, refusing to even think about cutting it and also cursing the very concept of irony. He went through his morning routine on silent feet, ignoring the snoring Sun Sect disciple in the room for as long as possible, until he was finally armed in fresh, neatly arranged clothing and quickly brushed hair. As well as his Cloud Sect forehead ribbon, of course! Perfectly in place for his protection! 


 He was pretty sure that some people in the Cloud Sect considered being caught in bed with someone without the forehead ribbon was just as bad as being caught completely naked in bed with someone. He didn’t subscribe to this belief personally, but… well… the forehead ribbon being back in place helped his composure a little bit. A person got used to wearing it. 


 Now it was time to poke the sleeping tiger. 


 Shang Qinghua tried speaking directly to Mobei-Jun, at increasing volumes, until he was too concerned that this was the unlucky day someone would pass too close to his house. So then he actually poked Mobei-Jun, though apparently too gently for success. Poking him a second time didn’t work either. Quickly pinching Mobei-Jun’s cheeks out of annoyance and sheer temptation finally got this spoiled brat to move, but only to roll over, apparently. 


 So, Shang Qinghua, who was a hardworking Cloud Sect disciple who couldn’t afford to stand around all damn day, went to go get some water and threw it in Mobei-Jun’s face. If anyone asked, he slipped and he was very sorry. In reality, he wasn’t even a little bit sorry, especially because this would hopefully cover up any lingering drool. 


 Finally, Mobei-Jun’s eyes opened. 


  “Fuck, I should have just left him here,” Shang Qinghua thought. “What do I need a house for, anyway? He can have it! If he agrees not to kill me, he can totally have it!” 


 It took Mobei-Jun a moment to focus on Shang Qinghua. When he did, his eyes widened, and he sat bolt upright in bed. This was apparently a big mistake, because Mobei-Jun immediately winced and put one hand to his probably pounding head, and he had to look around Shang Qinghua house through a fierce squint. He swayed a little, and Shang Qinghua desperately hoped that this asshole wasn’t still drunk. 


 “Young Master Mobei, you… ah… you need to go back to your own dormitory now,” Shang Qinghua said. “Well, ah, you don’t need to go back to your own dormitory, but you can’t stay here, because I… I have to go to work now.” 


 Mobei-Jun stared at him. 


 “Do you… do you remember what happened? Young Master Mobei?” 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t even get a blink this time. 


 “I, ah, I found you lost on Qiong Ding Peak and… indisposed? And you didn’t want to go back to your own dormitory, while indisposed, so I ended up taking you here instead, because if you had wandered over to the Flower Sect dormitories or something, ha, that probably would have been really bad! Also, you apparently drank a lot, so I might have kind of saved your life, when you think about it, so please, please don’t kill me or anything!” 


 Mobei-Jun finally moved, but only to brush some wet strands of hair from his face. His hair was falling apart and tangled in places. His blue family mark seemed to be intact, at least. 


 “Did you throw water at me?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 “Ha ha, would I do a thing like that?” Shang Qinghua said, hastily putting down the bowl he was holding. “Please remember, Young Master Mobei, that you kind of owe me here!”


 “...What do you want?” 


 “I really need you to leave now and, oh, that it would be a lot better for everyone if you weren’t seen leaving my house doing a walk of shame- eep!” 


 Mobei-Jun stood up, doing a surprisingly good job of looming for someone who was still unsteady on his feet. It was probably the killer glare. “What do you want from me?” he repeated, slowly, through gritted teeth. 


 Shang Qinghua looked up and swallowed his heart back into place. “I want you to… leave?” 


 Mobei-Jun’s scowl deepened. He leaned forward. And then he learned heavily sideways, putting his hand on the wall for support, wincing, returning his hand back to his head. He took a deep breath and then went back to glaring at Shang Qinghua. It was unfortunately still intimidating. Was it just Shang Qinghua or was the room temperature dropping slightly? 


 “And what else?” 


 “...What else?” 


 “What else do you want from me?!” 


 Shang Qinghua took a step back, the middle ground between freezing in place and jumping out of the window. “I don’t know?! Show up to your punishment?! I don’t really want-” 


 “That’s it? You claimed that-?! And that’s the worth to you of-?!” 


 “I’d settle for you promising never to kill me!” Shang Qinghua yelped, taking another step back. “Please just don’t kill me! Young Master Mobei, I’m a simple, humble disciple of the Cloud Sect, without any great ambitions, besides not getting tripped into rivers for no reason! I’m going to be late to work! Someone’s going to notice that you were missing all night!” 


 Mobei-Jun stared at him in silence for several seconds, then pushed off the wall, and allowed Shang Qinghua to give him back his outer robe and shoo him out of his house. Shang Qinghua checked that no one was outside in the greyness of the hour, then gave Mobei-Jun directions back to the guest disciple dormitories, and saw his future murderer off without any relations or Cloud Sect cultivators popping out of the bushes screaming, “AHA!” It was so anticlimactic that Shang Qinghua was sure there would be consequences later. 


 Maybe, Shang Qinghua decided, he would give Mobei-Jun a break this afternoon from badgering him to show up to his punishment. He had tempted fate too much in the past twenty-four hours! Damn what the Master of Ku Xing Peak said! He needed a break too! Surely this whole affair would count towards his daily failure to persuade Mobei-Jun to submit himself to the discipline of the Cloud Recesses. 


 Course of action decided, Shang Qinghua nodded to himself, and then speed-walked off to get breakfast - because running was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses - and prepared to inevitably throw himself on Little Uncle’s mercy for being late again. 



 The rest of Shang Qinghua’s day passed in a shitty haze of stress and not enough sleep. At every corner, he expected to run into the smirk of someone who knew about the scandal he’d been involved in, or the disappointed glower of an elder who was about to tell him that he’d brought shame and dishonor down upon the Shangs, or the furious fist of a Sun Sect disciple for making the son of their sect leader look like a cutsleeve. Instead, he mostly just ran into Little Uncle’s dead-eyed stare of low expectations met yet again. 


 He skipped out on catching Mobei-Jun at the end of the guest disciples’ classes for the day, determined to put a little space between them. They needed to see other people for a while! Their relationship clearly needed a break! It would be healthy for them! 


 Well, it would probably be healthier for Shang Qinghua, since it would help in Mobei-Jun not killing him or pushing him into a river, which was the important thing here. 


 Instead, Shang Qinghua spent that part of the afternoon in the Cloud Recesses library, copying a rarer text for one of Little Uncle’s political penpals for “cultural exchange” or “literature exchange” reasons, or something like that. The scary head librarian strongly preferred this older text not leaving the library, so Shang Qinghua had to do it here. 


 As far as late afternoon activities went, copying in the library wasn’t too bad. It beat carrying book deliveries up the mountain or being berated by someone for a low stock of something he had nothing to do with. Sure, it could be super fucking boring, and it was all Shang Qinghua could do not to fall asleep today, but it definitely could have been worse! 


 Unfortunately, he was a little too tired to realize that thinking this sort of thing was like begging to be cursed, until it was too late. 


 Mobei-Jun dropped down across from him. 


 Shang Qinghua startled, yelped, and knocked over the ink on his desk. 


 “Shit!” he said, just barely managing to yank the text and his copy out of the way. Never had he been so grateful for procrastinating on getting more ink! Yay for procrastination! 


 He cleaned up the small spill, then warily looked up at Mobei-Jun again. 


 He had never seen Mobei-Jun in the library before. He had seen one or two of the less important Sun Sect disciples every now and again, though not in this more secluded part of the library, as he would occasionally see one or two Mountain Sect disciples or River Sect disciples or any of the other guest disciples. Honestly, if anyone had asked before now, Shang Qinghua couldn't have said that Mobei-Jun knew where the library was!


 “Ah, hello, Young Master Mobei?” he offered. “Can I… help you? What brings you here today?” 


 Mobei-Jun just kept frowning at him. He had clearly changed clothes and found a hairbrush since their parting, but he still looked tired. He didn’t have any obvious weapons on him. 


 “Young Master Mobei? Why are you here?” Shang Qinghua pressed. 


 He glanced around, searching for the Sun Sect disciples who were probably lurking somewhere, ready to pounce on him with some new and painful “prank”. Would Mobei-Jun’s pride allow him to play bait and distraction like that? Shang Qinghua couldn’t be sure! He couldn’t spot any mean and beautiful people sneaking between the shelves yet, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there, scheming to somehow get him in trouble with the librarians. 


 Mobei-Jun exhaled sharply, then leaned back, and then… lay down and threw an arm over his eyes. Shang Qinghua stared at him with wide eyes, not having realized that it was actually physically possible to lounge like that in the Cloud Recesses library. 


 Finally, it dawned on Shang Qinghua that Mobei-Jun was “showing up” to his punishment, just as Shang Qinghua had thrown out there this morning as one of the things he wanted from Mobei-Jun. He hadn’t actually expected Mobei-Jun to take that seriously. Although… Mobei-Jun was apparently only “showing up” to his punishment and not actually doing it, using the Cloud Recesses library as his afternoon nap location instead, which was a loophole Shang Qinghua fairly decided was kind of on him. 


 “All- all right, then…” 


 It really did feel as though a tiger had walked into the library and flopped down across from him. Tigers weren’t supposed to be in the Cloud Recesses library, or any library, but how was Shang Qinghua supposed to get this one out?! If the tiger wanted to nap in the library, the tiger was going to nap in the library! Obviously the tiger didn’t sleep well last night and was probably a little hungover. 


 Eventually, Shang Qinghua went to fetch some more ink on silent feet, and returned to finish his copying. He held his breath every single time that Mobei-Jun so much as shifted a leg or switched the arm over his eyes, before shakily continuing again. 


 One senior cultivator from the Qiong Ding side of the Cloud Recesses walked by and gave him a boggled look, and Shang Qinghua just shrugged back, and the man just shook his head at the youth of today. A little while later, a Mountain Sect guest disciple, Wei Qingwei, who was one of the Mountain Sect’s future master smiths, did a double-take as he passed, and then had the audacity to wink at him before skipping out . Sometime after that, one of the librarians noticed this setup and came over with a deep frown, but then got close enough to notice the blue mark of the Mobei family on the offending napper forehead, froze with an obvious expression of fear, and then just nodded at Shang Qinghua, shoved her hands up her sleeves, and abandoned him. 


 He was surrounded by unhelpful cowards! 


 Shang Qinghua finished his copying shortly before the bells rang out for the evening meal, when he was chewing on his lip, trying to figure out what to do next. He had returned the original text to the librarians already and packed up all his things. 


 He cleared his throat. “Ah, Young Master Mobei?” 


 The arm moved and Mobei-Jun stared at him with those intense, heavy-lidded eyes. 


 “It’s… it’s time for the evening meal.” 


 Without a word, Mobei-Jun sat up, stood up, and then walked away. Shang Qinghua didn’t let out his breath of relief until his future murderer was out of sight, pathetically grateful that the tiger hadn’t decided to make him the evening meal on its way out of the library. 


 “What the fuck was that,” Shang Qinghua muttered, before grabbing all his things and speed-walking off to get some food and beg the limited mercy of Little Uncle for taking longer than expected. “Honestly, what the fuck was that?!” 



The next day, Shang Qinghua had no reason to be in the Cloud Recesses library. So, he took his work from Little Uncle’s An Ding Peak offices and brought it to the library, and waited. 


 A little while after the end of the guest disciples’ classes for the day, Mobei-Jun showed up, sat down across from Shang Qinghua, and then laid down for a nap. If Shang Qinghua had been less terrified and less confused about this whole thing, he would have had some very rude and hypocritical questions about this disciple’s sleeping schedule. Did he have a medical condition?! Were the Sun Sect disciples partying in their dormitories every night?! 


 He didn’t really understand why potentially saving Mobei-Jun’s ass from alcohol poisoning or the whip of the Flower Sect’s Shi Chun warranted begrudging company in the library like this. 


 “Ah, Young Master Mobei, you… you’re showing up and that’s really great, that’s a big step forward and I’m very grateful, but you know that this doesn’t actually count as completing your punishment, right? It’s not going up anymore, at least! But… it’s not going down…” 


 Mobei-Jun didn’t answer him. 


 “Well… as long as you know that, Young Master Mobei…” Shang Qinghua said weakly, and got back to work. “Some of us,” he thought while burning with envy, “have responsibilities that don’t allow for multi-hour afternoon naps, you know! We can’t all have a tiger’s lifestyle!” 



 Before Shang Qinghua really knew what was happening, this had become his new schedule. Shortly before the guest disciples’ classes were due to end, he would take his work to the library, and Mobei-Jun would show up to use the seat across from him as a bed. Shang Qinghua even found himself getting most of his “out of the office” responsibilities done in the morning, so that he could be at the library in time. 


 Having Yue Qingyuan and Wang Qingjie back in action really helped on that front. As these special guest lectures settled into place in the Cloud Recesses, the chaotic busyness that had plagued their sect earlier settled too. 


 Shang Qinghua was a little afraid to find out what would happen if Mobei-Jun showed up to the library and he wasn’t there. Also, as nerve-wracking as it was to work beside a sleeping tiger, there were undeniable benefits. People couldn’t find him at the An Ding offices for bullshit errands and, if they found him in this relatively secluded section of the library, they were less likely to approach him about their bullshit errands when it also meant potentially bothering a sleeping tiger. 


 Mobei-Jun was a surprisingly unobtrusive presence, when he wasn’t shouldering Shang Qinghua into a bush or letting one of his shithead friends trip the poor messenger. 


 After the first week of this new arrangement had passed, Shang Qinghua sometimes forgot Mobei-Jun was there, which could be a very bad thing when the correspondence he was answering was filled with the most greedy, entitled, backhanded bullshit he’d ever seen written down. 


 “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! We’re not giving you the talismans to address the problem just because we’re the ones who told you about the problem on your sect’s territory and you’re too cheap to make your own! Don’t make the messenger pay!” Shang Qinghua muttered. “Little Uncle, did you want to see how many curse words I know when you gave me this one to write the draft for? Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! F- oh…” 


 Shang Qinghua trailed off as he realized Mobei-Jun had lifted his head, leaning on one elbow, and was staring at him over the table. Mobei-Jun raised his eyebrows. 


 “Ah… not you,” Shang Qinghua said quickly. 


 Mobei-Jun stared a little more, then lay back down, and Shang Qinghua tried to be more careful about what he muttered after that. He wasn’t entirely sure that he was successful. Some of the correspondence he was answering had clearly been written by people who didn’t understand that they were not the protagonist of this story! 


 Shang Qinghua silently wished for Tianlang-Jun and Su Xiyan to get fucking already to bring on the end of the cultivation world as these entitled assholes knew it faster. 



 The Master of Ku Xing Peak was not impressed to hear that Mobei-Jun was actually attending his punishment, because the Master of Ku Xing Peak was never impressed by anything, unless it was by his own accomplishments or by Wang Qingjie’s accomplishments which probably counted in his mind as his own accomplishments. Shang Qinghua carefully didn’t elaborate to say that Mobei-Jun was napping instead of copying anything, but it wasn’t as though the Master of Ku Xing Peak asked about that loophole or for any other details. 


 Mobei-Jun’s punishment wasn’t increasing due to his skipping out on discipline anymore, but it was apparently still increasing due to Mobei-Jun just not doing classwork. He wouldn’t write anything about anything for any of the teachers. 


 Shang Qinghua took a certain degree of satisfaction in thinking, “Well, now I’m making progress on MY job, but it looks like you’re still failing to do YOUR job, huh?” 


 If this had been a Cloud Sect disciple, or really nearly any disciple from any of the other sects, the punishment would have gotten much worse than just copying by now. Really, if this was a Cloud Sect disciple, they probably would have gotten kicked out of the Cloud Recesses by now. But the Cloud Sect Leader had apparently refused the Master of Ku Xing’s request to kick out any of their guest disciples, probably because the man felt that the only real purpose of this event was to show off Yue Qingyuan and let his replacement kid make friends, and the only punishment the people at the top of the Cloud Sect apparently felt comfortable giving the son of the Sun Sect Leader was copying. It was like a really fucked-up and kind of pathetic impasse. 


 So, the Master of Ku Xing Peak bitterly let it be known that Shang Qinghua was probably going to be spending nearly every day with Mobei-Jun until the guest disciple left. “Apparently we as a sect are content to appear to the Sun Sect as nothing more than spineless servants,” the man said.  


 Shang Qinghua left their encounter, as he left many of their encounters, biting his tongue. He relayed this and other remarks to Yue Qingyuan the next day, when they were sharing some evening tea together on Yue Qingyuan’s front porch, before curfew for once. 


 “Teacher is… stressed,” Yue Qingyuan said, but clearly out of obligation. 


 “If I had known that being stressed gave you an unlimited license to be an asshole, I would have started getting use out of mine ages ago,” Shang Qinghua said bitterly. “And we should all pity the Sun and Flower Sects for their great hardships, apparently.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed. 


 “And also the River and Mountain Sects,” Shang Qinghua added. “And everyone from all the other sects and everyone who isn’t from a sect, too. Except that Ding Lanfen girl who got in on recommendation, who helped me pick up some papers yesterday. She can stay.” 


 “This is an explosive mix of characters,” Yue Qingyuan mused. 


 Shang Qinghua choked on his tea. “W-what?” 


 “This is a tumultuous mixture of personalities,” Yue Qingyuan said. “It’s understandable that there would be some irritation. Many of these guest disciples are a long way from home.” 


 “...Are you the one handing out the asshole licenses? Can I have one?” 


 Yue Qingyuan rolled his eyes. “No and no.” 


 “Ah, right. It must be Big Uncle, the biggest asshole of all. Damn, I’ll never get one.” 


 “You must know that I’ll support you if there are any difficulties,” Yue Qingyuan said, sounding discomfortingly sincere all of a sudden. “I would go to the sect leader on your behalf. Qinghua, you would tell me if there were any difficulties I could do something about, wouldn’t you?” 


 Shang Qinghua hastily waved a hand. “Oh, sure, sure, but you have more than enough of your own difficulties already. I can handle this, no problem! I’m just going to complain a lot!” 


 “If you needed, I could persuade Teacher to return the responsibility of Young Master Mobei’s punishment to me. I know that you have a lot of work.” 


 “It’s fine! It’s fine! Look to the work on your own plate first, before taking mine!” 


 “I could persuade the sect leader that we need to focus on our relationship to Sun Sect.” 


 Shang Qinghua imagined the reaction of a certain River Sect disciple if Yue Qingyuan started ignoring him for the son of the Sun Sect Leader instead. It was almost worse than imagining Yue Qingyuan pushing Mobei-Jun until there was a super OP showdown in the library, as an unstoppable force would meet an immovable object, and the Proud Immortal Demonic Way forums’ debate threads would be answered once and for all! 


 “No! No, don’t do that!” Shang Qinghua insisted. “Didn’t I mention the benefits? I told you that he just naps through our time in the library, right? People don’t approach me with random busywork when he’s napping nearby! I’m really just using him! Don’t take my shield!” 


 Yue Qingyuan smiled and finally leaned back. “If you say so, Qinghua.” 


 “I do! I really do! Don’t poke your nose into it. By the way, ah, speaking of poking noses into other people’s business, how are things going with a certain River Sect disciple?” 


 Yue Qingyuan’s smile fell at once and his entire posture drooped. 


 “That badly, huh?” 


 Apparently, Yue Qingyuan had finally taken Shang Qinghua’s advice to talk to Shen Qingqiu and actually tried to be friendly towards Shen Qingqiu, only to be rebuffed at every turn by a deeply insulted Shen Qingqiu. Shang Qinghua asked if Yue Qingyuan had tried asking if he could really explain his side of things to his childhood friend. 


 “...No,” Yue Qingyuan admitted. 


 Shang Qinghua wanted to beat his head against the wall that he was leaning on, or maybe thunk Yue Qingyuan’s seventeen-year-old head against it a few times. “He probably thinks that you’re trying to erase your past and his suffering and your broken promises,” he groaned. 


 Yue Qingyuan looked stricken. “I’m not trying to do that!” 


 “Then talk to him properly.” 


 “But he won’t stay in the same room with me unless he’s being forced,” Yue Qingyuan complained. “I don’t think that he’ll agree to being alone with me, and I can’t talk about our past in front of everyone else. Shen Jiu would never forgive me.” 


 “All right, definitely don’t do that.” 


 “I’d have to ask to speak alone in front of everyone, and then he’ll either reject me or bring someone else so that we won’t be alone.” 


 Shang Qinghua swallowed and forced himself to say, “Do… you want me to talk to him…?” 




 “Oh, good,” Shang Qinghua said, relieved, before he could stop himself. “I mean, I can definitely do that if you need me to do that. Since you’re having trouble talking to him without drawing any attention. No one pays me any attention unless I’m right in front of them and trying to talk to them, and even then it’s still kind of hit or miss.” 


 “That’s not true,” Yue Qingyuan protested. 


 “Ha, it’s a little true. Anyway, just let me know if I need to talk to the scary River Sect asshole.” 


 “...I’ll let you know if that becomes necessary.”  


 Evening tea was good like that until Shang Qinghua spotted someone coming up the path and then it felt like his stomach had twisted into knots. It was the Cloud Sect Leader. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Qingyuan stiffen. They both straightened up to maintain appearances and then stood to greet the man. 


 “Sect Leader,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 “Sect Leader,” Shang Qinghua echoed. 


 The Cloud Sect Leader nodded at them both, with the ghost of a smile. “It’s good to see family getting along like this,” he said. “Qingyuan, I would like to speak to you about your recent favoritism of the Mountain Sect above the others, when we must keep a serene distance between ourselves and the other sects. Bid your younger cousin goodnight.” 


 Shang Qinghua and Yue Qingyuan exchanged a look. 


  “Don’t start!” Shang Qinghua thought, shaking his head ever so slightly exactly once. “Bro, you know it’s not worth it and it won’t do shit, he'll never bother to remember how old I am or stop confusing you with his dead son, so just don’t start! Not even a little bit!” 


 “Goodnight, Qinghua,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 “Goodnight,” Shang Qinghua echoed. Then he turned towards the Cloud Sect Leader, bowed, and said, “Sect Leader, goodnight.” 


 The Cloud Sect Leader nodded in dismissal. 


  “Fuck you SO MUCH, Big Uncle,” Shang Qinghua thought, as he reluctantly left Yue Qingyuan behind and made his way back to his own house. “Fuck you SO, SO MUCH!” 



 After he had seen that Yue Qingyuan hadn’t been put back in time-out (which was a more comfortable term to think than “solitary confinement”) for disagreeing with their shitty sect leader or anything, Shang Qinghua carefully went back to his new schedule: attending to his own classes and training and “out of the office” responsibilities in the morning and early afternoon, and then heading to the library with his paperwork to supervise Mobei-Jun’s after-class naptime. Shang Qinghua and Yue Qingyuan both, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, stepped lightly for the next few days. 


 Shang Qinghua’s next secret meeting with Yue Qingyuan, a few days after the encounter with their shitty sect leader, revealed that the Cloud Sect Leader had wanted to be certain that Yue Qingyuan wasn’t being too friendly with Liu Qingge. This wasn’t innuendo or anything. Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure that Big Uncle knew what innuendo was. The Cloud Sect Leader simply thought that it was appropriate for Yue Qingyuan to be friendly towards the guest disciples and for the guest disciples to be “friends” with him, but believed that Yue Qingyuan shouldn’t really be friends back. Yue Qingyuan was to make political friends, not actual friends. 


 “Fuck you, Big Uncle!” Shang Qinghua said again, directly in front of Yue Qingyuan. 


 Yue Qingyuan didn’t react at all. He just looked miserable. 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t know if Little Uncle had heard about any of this from his shitty brother, but the man was a little more lenient with Shang Qinghua’s workload over the next couple weeks. It could have just been that there wasn’t that much work, now that everyone was settling down, combined with a naturally occurring slow period, but it could have been that Little Uncle was loosening Shang Qinghua’s leash a little out of sympathy for Yue Qingyuan. 


 But even that and a new special delivery of lewd books, which usually cheered Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky up at least a little bit, couldn’t really brighten things up after that. 


 No one got near enough to Shang Qinghua’s table in the library to notice that his “work” was sometimes really a little recreational reading, or him just glaring at a page while fantasizing about all the ways he could betray and remove one particular sect leader. Except for Mobei-Jun, who was close enough, but didn’t notice on account of being unconscious.


 Well, occasionally Shang Qinghua caught Mobei-Jun looking at him, but Mobei-Jun was never looking at any of the papers or books that were directly in front of Shang Qinghua. 


 The only person who came close to interrupting their time in the library was when one of the Sun Sect disciples, Bai Jianming, managed to catch Shang Qinghua while he was up and returning a book to a nearby shelf in the next room. “Hey! You! Cloud Sect messenger!” 


 Shang Qinghua sometimes thought his courtesy name might as well have been, “Hey! You!” 


 He exhaled sharply before turning around. “Young Master Bai, can I help you?” 


 Bai Jianming grinned at him. “I’m looking for Mobei. Have you seen him?” 


 The son of Xifeng-Jun, who was a powerful warrior and general within the Sun Sect, really was a handsome boy and he smiled like he knew it. He had never shoved Shang Qinghua into a river, or shot an arrow at him, or knocked papers out of his hands or tripped him, but he hadn’t stopped anyone else from doing it and he had laughed the loudest of all the Sun Sect disciples nearly every time. 


 Shang Qinghua wanted to knock his fucking teeth in. 


 “Maybe Young Master Bai would have better luck in a less public area?” he suggested timidly. “Like the cold springs on the Ku Xing Peak side of the Cloud Recesses?” 


 Bai Jianming laughed. “Ha, that sounds like Mobei! Thanks!” 


 He clapped Shang Qinghua on the shoulder as he left. It didn’t hurt or anything. He removed the hand before Shang Qinghua could shrug it off, but the warm touch seemed to linger and the memory wasn’t so easily shrugged off, though Shang Qinghua tried as he returned to his seat. 


 After he sat down again, he noticed that Mobei-Jun, who had been sleeping with his crossed arms on the table and his head on his arms, was actually awake. The Cloud Recesses library was quiet and the shelves where Shang Qinghua had told the other Sun Sect disciple to get lost hadn’t been that far away, so Mobei-Jun had probably heard the whole thing. 


 Shang Qinghua kind of still wanted to knock this guy’s fucking teeth in too. 


 “What?” he asked. “Did you want to hang out with that guy?” 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “Well, there’s no problem, then, is there, Young Master Mobei?” Shang Qinghua said, and picked up the letters that he’d been putting off until he was in a better mood. He’d been hoping to do some reading today to improve that, but apparently it wasn’t fucking happening. 


 On a particularly difficult bit, he wondered if he should go ask Mu Qingfang for help. Mu Qingfang was pretty good at telling people to go fuck themselves without explicitly telling to go fuck themselves, even though he claimed that wasn’t what he was doing. While Shang Qinghua pondered his odds of catching the other senior inner disciple at the evening meal, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a book being sneakily pulled from the stack beside him. 


 His brain caught on to what was happening embarrassingly slowly. The stack was much smaller than it should have been. He followed the book to the other side of the table, where all his other personal reading material was strewn around. Even upside-down, Shang Qinghua recognized the flowery text of one of the new lewd novels he was reading. 


 The book that Mobei-Jun was holding now was even worse than this. Shang Qinghua only had the time to open his mouth in horror before Mobei-Jun lazily opened the illustrated book of pornography. Damn those discrete covers making it look like any other book! 


 He saw Mobei-Jun’s eyes widen immediately. It was too late. 


 “Fuck,” Shang Qinghua breathed. 


 Mobei-Jun looked at him with those wide eyes, looked back at the book, and then slammed it shut and sat up properly. He leaned over the table and hissed, “What is this?!” 


 “None of your business!” Shang Qinghua whispered back, grabbing for the book. 


 Mobei-Jun held it out of his reach. “You read this in public?!” 


 “I can appreciate the art of it! I didn’t even mean to bring that one here!” 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t need to mentioned that he had idly flipped through other illustrated books of pornography in public before. It definitely wasn’t something he did often! But sometimes, like now, they just happened to be in his recreational reading stack! 


 Mobei-Jun opened the book again, to a different page, this time to one of two men instead of two women, and his eyes somehow got even wider. 


 It was a book of equal opportunity! Shang Qinghua wasn’t a discriminating guy! 


 This time, Shang Qinghua lunged across the table and managed to snatch it out of Mobei-Jun’s hands, managing to slam the book shut again. He held it protectively to his chest. 


 “You read that?!” Mobei-Jun repeated. 


 “So what if I do?!” 


 Shang Qinghua hadn’t had sex since transmigrating. Everyone his own age pretty much looked like a child to him, so it was weird, and he looked like a child to everyone else, so it was also fucking weird, and it wasn’t like the local village had a nightlife or like he could have gotten away for a random hookup! He wasn’t even sure that he could go through with a random hookup! He thought that the least he deserved under these circumstances was a minor and harmless porn habit. 


 “It’s not like it affects you in any way,” Shang Qinghua argued. 


 “You’re the one reading that kind of lewd thing in public,” Mobei-Jun snapped. 


 “I wasn’t even reading it!” 


 “It’s inappropriate to have books about that in public!” 


 “You were the one reading it!” 


 “I wasn’t!” 


 Shang Qinghua looked around at all the lewd novels strewn around the table. 


 Mobei-Jun stiffened, and then got up and stomped out. 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t know whether to celebrate his good fortune or to expect bad things ahead. He hastily tidied up all the books that Mobei-Jun had stolen and flipped through, before anyone else came through and saw them, even though the one safely against his chest was the only one with any illustrations. He understood why the illustrated book of porngraphy had been the place where Mobei-Jun had drawn the line, but… 


 “It’s not like this other shit is subtle,” Shang Qinghua muttered. 


 One of the books was open to a page where the first thing on it said, in relatively large lettering, “He thrust his hard, dripping pillar into her quivering flower and she felt the pleasure tear through her like a flaming sword.” Writing like that was many things, but subtle wasn’t one of them. 


 Shang Qinghua found himself staring at this page, the gears grinding in his brain. 


 “Holy shit,” he said. 



The next day, Shang Qinghua waited in the library feeling like he was going to vibrate out of his own skin. He had made sure that no lewd books of any kind had been brought to the Cloud Recesses library today. He had real work to do, of course, but he couldn’t focus on any of it, wondering whether or not Mobei-Jun would ever come back. 


 Eventually, only a little late, Mobei-Jun showed up. He dropped down across Shang Qinghua and lay down immediately, throwing an arm over his eyes like he was daring Shang Qinghua to say something about lewd books or anything at all. 


 Shang Qinghua just let Mobei-Jun be for a little while, working up the courage to push over the paper that he had written out while working with his Little Uncle this morning on the An Ding side of the Cloud Recesses. He forced himself to wait for half-an-hour, actually counting the seconds, before he cleared his throat and slid the paper across the table. 


 “Young Master Mobei?” 


 Mobei-Jun didn’t move his arm. “What?” 


 “Young Master Mobei, I have a paper here from my uncle, about each of the visiting sects’ guest disciples having an afternoon to visit the local village,” Shang Qinghua said quickly. “Since you represent the Sun Sect, could I… could I trouble you for your opinion on what day would be best for your sect to visit the village? There are certain activities happening in the village on different days.” 


 Mobei-Jun sat up and, once he noticed the paper, took it up and looked it over once. 


 “Describe the activities,” he said. 


 “It’s all written there,” Shang Qinghua pointed out. 


 “Describe them in your own words.” 


 “Ah, well…” Shang Qinghua launched into an explanation of the different market days and what things like that meant for the different shops of the local village, and what the different days of the week would mean for tourist groups. He, personally, recommended the third day available. 


 “Fine,” Mobei-Jun said, and slid the paper back across the table. 


 He lay back down again, apparently going back to his nap, and it took Shang Qinghua nearly a minute before he reached out and took the paper back. He cleared his throat again. 


 And again. 


 Mobei-Jun sat up and said, “What?” 


 “Young Master Mobei… ah… that’s not what this paper says.” 


 Mobei-Jun frowned. 


 Shang Qinghua dropped the paper back on the table. The writing on it was formatted to look like a list, but it was actually a poem. It was, in fact, a rude and humorous poem, that was quite infamous, because it was essentially telling the reader to go fuck themselves. 


 Mobei-Jun looked at the paper again, then his eyes widened slightly in realization that it had been a trap. 


 Shang Qinghua leaned forward and whispered, “Young Master Mobei, can you read?” 



Chapter Text


 Mobei-Jun leaned back. “What?!” 


 Shang Qinghua cringed, looking around the library. They were thankfully alone for now. No lurking librarians or eavesdropping disciples were nearby. Shang Qinghua had timed this confrontation for when no one else was around, but now he was thinking he should have given more weight to no one being around to witness his murder. 


 “Ah, well, I’ve heard that you don’t do your classwork?” Shang Qinghua whispered helplessly. “And you didn’t react to, ah, the unillustrated books yesterday. And you didn’t read this paper just now or else you would have said, ‘This is clearly the wrong paper.’ And I would have gone, ‘Oh! My mistake! I gave you the wrong paper!’ And I would have given you this paper instead and then pretended that this whole thing never happened!” 


 “Do that,” Mobei-Jun snapped, but his eyes were still wide. 


 Shang Qinghua knew panic when he saw it and heard it straining through someone’s voice. 


 “How does the son of the Sun Sect Leader get to be your age without learning to read and write?!” Shang Qinghua hissed. “How does that even happen? That’s ridiculous! You should have had tutors for everything before you even started walking! I know that the Sun Sect prizes martial abilities far, far above everything else, but-” 


 “My father initially forgot to arrange them and then several of my ‘tutors’ tried to kill me,” Mobei-Jun snarled back. “My uncle-” He cut himself abruptly, forcibly swallowing the words. 


 “O-oh,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky recalled the personal details of the life of the character called Mobei-Jun, which he had spent a lot of time trying to remember last night. Mobei-Jun’s mother had died shortly after his birth, leaving in the care of some few, precious trusted servants who must have been totally out of their depth with the situation. Mobei-Jun's elder half-siblings, from his father’s various wives, had died as part of the Lost Generation, and Proud Immortal Demonic Way had implied that his father’s resentful younger brother may have been pulling the strings behind their deaths. 


 Either that or it had been basically any other significant figure in the cutthroat Sun Sect, ready to prove that the last member of the Tian family should have chosen them to be the new sect leader over the elder Mobei-Jun. There were a lot of options, actually. Even the other Sun Sect disciples here now couldn’t really be trusted. 


 Shang Qinghua had never met or seen Linguang-Jun, and he never wanted to meet this resentful uncle. Just because, in another life, Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky wrote that Linguang-Jun had attempted to murder his innocent, neglected, and disfavored youngest nephew at least a dozen times over the course of his childhood, didn’t mean that the shitty man had actually had to go for it! He could have said no to murder! He had had the option of not trying to kill his nephew! 


 “And I thought my uncles were bad,” Shang Qinghua breathed. 


 Mobei-Jun glared at him, then leaned back a little, apparently so that he could glare at a slightly different angle. He also glanced around for any witnesses to this confrontation. Then he went back to staring down Shang Qinghua, who was fearfully silent and also internally cursing the System for apparently enabling backstory shit that he had never written. 


 “I can read,” Mobei-Jun whispered. 


 “...All right,” Shang Qinghua said, disbelieving even to his own ears. 


 “And write.” 


 “All right,” Shang Qinghua said again. 


 “There is no issue,” Mobei-Jun insisted. “You are imagining things.” 


 Imagining things was kind of what had gotten Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky into this shitty situation in the first place. That and, for some damn reason, his inability to leave certain drunk assholes to the consequences of their actions and well enough alone. 


 He proved this inability again by saying, “All right, but… if I wasn’t imagining things - which, I agree, Young Master Mobei, I definitely am, I don't know what I'm talking about - but in the hypothetical scenario that I wasn’t, then the issue could be… fixed? Since you are, ah, in a library. And no one from your sect has to know to spread unfair and shameful gossip? And your shitty uncle isn’t here to, I don’t know, bribe tutors into side jobs as assassins? If that's what happened.” 


 “There is no issue,” Mobei-Jun repeated. 


 “Yes! I was very mistaken! There is no issue!” Shang Qinghua said. “I don’t know what I was thinking making such a ridiculous accusation, Young Master Mobei, please forgive me. Obviously, you just don’t like to waste your time on random busywork. You’re too important to read random writing when someone could just say it faster.” 


 "Shut up." 


 “Ha ha, really, what was I thinking? I heard that you do actually participate in making talismans, which was a big point against any weird theories, so that’s definitely proof I don’t know what I’m talking about! Although… I guess talismans are kind of one of those things where you just need to memorize the existing patterns and copy, huh? You wouldn’t actually have to be… literate… to make those… anyone can make them, really… I’ll shut up now.” 


 "Never talk again,” Mobei-Jun agreed darkly. 


 Shang Qinghua opened his mouth to make that promise, before quickly closing it again. Instead, he ended up just staring at the work in front of him for several minutes, feeling the intensity of Mobei-Jun’s glare on the top of his head. Then he carefully picked up his writing utensils and slowly returned to work. 


 Several minutes after that, Mobei-Jun stood up and walked off without a word. 



 Shang Qinghua was sure that his accusation hadn’t been wrong. At least, he was sure that his accusation hadn’t been entirely wrong. He didn’t know what the issue was, but clearly there was an issue! Maybe multiple issues! Mobei-Jun had actually admitted that there had been issues with his education, before claiming that there were actually no issues! 


  Shang Qinghua’s shitty uncles treated him like a servant most of the time, but at least they were making sure that he was well-educated - he sometimes thought this was really because they just wanted him to be able to do more work, but the Cloud Recesses actually had a thing going on where all residents received at least a basic education, so maybe accusing them of planning ahead that far was maybe giving them too much credit - and also Shang QInghua’s shitty uncles had never tried to kill him. Mobei-Jun’s father and uncle apparently weren’t even managing to reach that incredibly low standard. 


 What Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure about was whether or not Mobei-Jun would come back to the library. The porngraphy incident had been one thing, but if that sort of thing got outed, then Shang Qinghua would just be a teenage boy messing around with inappropriate material, which would mean suffering a punishment and some mocking rumors, but the main reaction there from most people just a blink and maybe a laugh. Boys would be boys! And also, who was Shang Qinghua, again? Did anyone know that guy? The worst thing that would happen to him was that he probably wouldn’t be able to get away with reading lewd novels in public places anymore. 


 If it got out that the son of the Sun Sect Leader was uneducated to the point of being unable to read, whether or not it was true, Mobei-Jun would probably never live it down. Better for it to look like Mobei-Jun was simply choosing not to take the guest lectures seriously, like it was all beneath him, rather than let the entire cultivation world know that he couldn’t keep up. 


 Shang Qinghua now had something to hold over Mobei-Jun’s head, even more than whatever debt existed from picking his future murderer’s drunk ass off a Cloud Recesses path, which felt kind of thrilling, but didn’t feel very good. It didn’t feel good at all. Probably because it came with the knowledge that Mobei-Jun would want to kill him off even earlier now to prevent the secret from getting out. Yeah, that was definitely it. 


 The next day, Mobei-Jun didn’t return to the Cloud Recesses library. 


 Mobei-Jun didn’t show up the day after that, either. 


 Or on the third day. 


 Shang Qinghua kept going to the library. He figured that he had a little time before the Cloud Recesses collectively realized that the sleeping tiger was gone and the sect’s favorite errand boy was extra free for pushing around again. He didn’t go anywhere near the guest lectures if he could help it. He was still trying to compose what he was going to say to the Master of Ku Xing Peak or any of the other teachers about his progress with their least favorite student’s pathetically meaningless punishment going backwards. 


 Was there a point in telling the Master of Ku Xing Peak that things had gone back to the way that they were before? When Mobei-Jun could return any day now? 


 He suspected that Little Uncle already knew, but the man was apparently pretending to mind his own business. It was possible that Little Uncle and the Master of Ku Xing Peak, who were cousins, were having one of their weird and unpredictable cold-shoulder standoffs again. 


 Mobei-Jun didn’t show up on the fourth day. 


 Or on the fifth day. 


 On the sixth day, Shang Qinghua had someone drop down at his table, but it was actually two someones: some Mountain Sect disciples just passing through. Wei Qingwei and Ji Jue, who were probably the most level-headed Mountain Sect disciples, had decided to come and make conversation, apparently on the basis that Yue Qingyuan had briefly mentioned him (Yue Qingyuan talked about him?! What the fuck, Yue Qingyuan?!) and had somehow given these boys the impression that Shang Qinghua was cool. 


 Shang Qinghua probably disabused them of this notion really fuckin quickly. He was bewildered and distracted, and it definitely showed. Smalltalk inevitably turned to complaining about the food at the Cloud Recesses, so Shang Qinghua directed them towards Cloud Sect disciple on the An Ding disciple who actually had the time to hook them up with takeout, and shooed them on their way. 


 Mobei-Jun didn’t show up on the seventh day. 


 Or on the eighth day. 


 On the ninth day, Shang Qinghua thought that he saw Mobei-Jun, but it turned out to be a certain River Sect disciple. Shang Qinghua was caught having no reason to talk to the future scum villain he’d chased down through the library without thinking things through. It was terrifying. Shen Qingqiu, only seventeen yet apparently already made of all sharp edges, gave him the most cutting up-and-down look that he’d ever received. Shang Qinghua had never wanted to be this close to the boy. 


 “Do you have something to say to me?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. 


 “No!” Shang Qinghua said quickly. “No, not a thing!” 




 That should have been Shang Qinghua’s cue to run. 


 Instead, possibly because he’d spent the past nine days consumed by a different totally lost cause, he found himself, against his will, saying, “Young Master Shen, I- you should really listen to Yue Qingyuan’s real story- if you hear him out-” 


 “If I won’t listen to your revered and virtuous head disciple’s personal telling of his rise to greatness, then I certainly won’t listen to whatever equally spineless sycophants he sends to plead his case,” Shen Qingqiu snapped. "Hear for yourself what I told him: go away." 


 "I'm not- he really didn't want-" 


 Shen Qingqiu slammed the book he was holding back into place. "I don't care what he wanted!" 




 Wow. Shen Qingqiu had already cultivated such a villainous loom. He advanced on Shang Qinghua until they were face to face. 


 "I don't care," Shen Qingqiu repeated. "I don't care what he wants to say." 




 “Go bark at another intruder, you pathetic Cloud Sect lapdog, and tell your inculpable master never to try this again, or else he and you will regret it severely.” 




 The future scum villain stalked off and Shang Qinghua legged it in the opposite direction. 


  “What an asshole!” he thought. “Totally uncalled for!” 


 On the tenth day, during the midday meal, before Shang Qinghua was due to move himself to the library, Yue Qingyuan came by and dropped off some reports and orders from Mu Qingfang, who was taking on more and more of his master’s duties these days. Shang Qinghua forced himself to admit to having seen Shen Qingqiu in the Cloud Recesses library yesterday. He also admitted that he now slightly better understood Yue Qingyuan’s difficulties in getting Shen Qingqiu to have a private conversation with him. 


 “He’s… angry,” Yue Qingyuan agreed.  


 “He called me a lapdog,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Yue Qingyuan sighed, then smiled weakly and said, “It sounds like you must have caught him in a good mood.” He couldn’t keep up the joke for longer than a few seconds before he added, “I’m sorry that he called you that. You didn’t deserve that.” 


 Shang Qinghua shrugged. “I’ve been called worse,” he said, “and I’m guessing that he’s been calling you way worse things than that. You don’t… you don’t deserve that either.” 


 “...Thank you,” Yue Qingyuan said, though he clearly didn’t believe it. 


 “I really don’t get what you see in that guy…” 


 “I hear that Mobei Yi hasn’t been seen in the library for several days now, despite the fact that he is clearly well enough to attend classes every day,” Yue Qingyuan answered sharply. “Perhaps Qinghua would like to explain his goal in dealing with this person.” 


 Shang Qinghua looked at the other boy in surprise. 


 Yue Qingyuan looked back, standing firm. 




 "What does Qinghua see in that person?" 


 “I’m just… using the peace and quiet while it lasts…” Shang Qinghua said. 


 It was a weak excuse, most of all because he said it weakly. Yue Qingyuan was probably the person who came closest to knowing Shang Qinghua, made evident by the fact that he could bite back like this, and in turn, Shang Qinghua knew Yue Qingyuan well enough to recognize something that he hadn’t seen on the other boy in some time: genuine anger. 


 “It’s good to have some things to yourself,” Yue Qingyuan said tightly. 


 “Ah… yes, it is…” 


 “Excuse me, I must return to the lectures now.” 


 “Really? I mean, of course. Don’t let me keep you or anything.” 



 Shang Qinghua didn’t get much work done that afternoon. When it came time to go to the library, he almost didn’t go, but Little Uncle looked at him with an expression that seemed to say, “Nephew, you and I both don’t want to have a conversation about this, but you’re starting to force the issue.” Shang Qinghua understood Little Uncle’s point! He dragged himself off to the library so that they wouldn’t have to talk about this. 


 Unfortunately, only a little while after Shang Qinghua settled in the Cloud Recesses library, he learned that the Sleeping Tiger Effect had apparently worn off. He was cornered by a fellow Cloud Sect disciple, who was a couple years older than him, and who was volun-telling him to help with the tedious task of copying some damaged books on the basis that… Shang Qinghua had been too busy viciously cursing himself during that part, actually. It was probably because Shang Qinghua was here and he “didn’t look too busy” (Shang Qinghua thought sometimes that his sect needed to be tested for selective blindness) and he could be reliably be bullied into taking on a lot of bullshit tasks. If he said no, he would have to brace himself to be smacked with rule after rule until he finally gave in. 


 It was always “be generous” and “be obedient” until it came time to return the favor! 


 Shang Qinghua had already made “well, I’ve already got a lot of work to do” noises three times, to no success, so he was resigning himself to his fate when the other Cloud Sect disciple seemed to swallow their own tongue. Their eyes seemed to bug out of their skull. Shang Qinghua whipped his head around fully expecting to see that a great and terrible demon had just walked into the Cloud Recesses library and come up directly behind him. 


 Instead, it was Mobei-Jun.


 Shang Qinghua and Mobei-Jun stared at each other. 


 Mobei-Jun looked good. Well, he looked more or less the same as when he’d walked out of the library, still dressed in the white disciple uniform, still with his family mark on his forehead, only apparently he’d actually bothered to braid his hair back today. He was, of course, frowning. 


 The frown turned on the other Cloud Sect disciple and deepened. 


 “Leave,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 The Cloud Sect disciple looked at Shang Qinghua. 


 “I, ah, I told you that I was too busy to help right now,” Shang Qinghua said to them.


 Hopefully, this didn’t sound too much like, “Go get some fucking help, bro, or you’re going to be the last person who saw me before my mysterious disappearance!” 


 The Cloud Sect disciple nodded, apologized to Mobei-Jun for the interruption, and then abandoned Shang Qinghua without a second thought. Shang Qinghua didn’t know whether to be betrayed or impressed. Such was the power of a glowering Sun Sect disciple! If someone accidentally tripped Shang Qinghua, on the other hand, there was a non-zero chance that they would look to him for an apology for getting in the way of their foot! 


 Speaking of such people… 


 Shang Qinghua swallowed and turned to face Mobei-Jun. 


 “Young Master Mobei,” he said. “Can I help you?” 


 Mobei-Jun stared at him for so long that Shang Qinghua began to wonder if he’d only imagined speaking. He was mustering up the courage to repeat the question when Mobei-Jun said: “If you tell anyone about this, I’ll kill you.” 


 “All right,” Shang Qinghua said immediately, because he didn’t want to die. “I won’t tell anyone!” 


 Didn’t matter what he was agreeing to, really! He didn’t want to die! 


 “Ah… what exactly am I not telling anyone, though?” 


 Mobei-Jun glared harder. 


 “Ah, stupid question! Never mind! I’ll just never talk to anyone ever again!” 


 “The…” Mobei-Jun took in a deep breath, and then bit out, “The issue from before.” 


 “What-? Oh. Ohhh.” 


 Shang Qinghua couldn’t help a small thrill of victory. He had been right! 


  “Oh, shit, I was right,” he thought. 


 “Of course! No one will ever know from me, Young Master Mobei!” Shang Qinghua agreed, only really surprised that the death threat had taken this long. He had kind of been expecting Mobei-Jun to just go on pretending that there was no issue, with all the death threats implied. 


 “Good,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 That should have been the end of it, but Mobei-Jun kept staring at him. 


 “Was… there anything else…? Young Master Mobei?” 


 “You said…” 


  “Fuck, what did I say now?!” Shang Qinghua thought, as Mobei-Jun trailed off. “I say so many things! You can’t hold me accountable for the bullshit that spews out of my mouth! That’s how worlds get started, apparently! It’s a provably bad idea!” 


 “You said that the issue could be fixed,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “I… I did.” 


 “How do you propose to fix it?” 


 Shang Qinghua’s mouth dropped open. He couldn’t help it. It wasn’t that he hadn’t come up with ideas on how to tackle the issue - he’d come up with ideas on how to tackle a variety of different issues, depending on what the issue might be - partly out of panicked disbelief and then in the hope that he might be able to throw some these ideas out in front of him like a shield or a payment for his life. When Mobei-Jun had announced that there was no issue, there had been no point in sharing any of them. 


 “Ah, well, the easiest way to do it would be to have a secret tutor,” Shang Qinghua said, feeling a little like he was floating away from reality (even more than usual), “while you’re away from the Sun Sect and the influence of any… ah… rivals.” 


 Mobei-Jun nodded, slowly, and then said, “You will do it.” 


 “I… what?” 


 “You,” Mobei-Jun repeated, as much of a warning as a declaration. “No one else will know.” 


 “Oh… of course…” Shang Qinghua said. “That makes so much sense.” 


 He and Mobei-Jun stared at each other, with Mobei-Jun’s frown steadily deepening. 


 “Will you do it or not?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


  “Fuck,” Shang Qinghua thought. 


 “Yes,” he said. 



 Shang Qinghua had never taught anyone before. Unlike the likes of Yue Qingyuan, Mu Qingfang, and Wang Qingjie, no one had ever dragged him in front of a class of young Cloud Sect disciples and said, “Children, this is a role model! Learn from him!” At best, Shang Qinghua had been a classroom assistant, pretty much always an unwilling one, and his greatest responsibility had been making sure no one licked ink until the real teacher got back, which had sometimes proved too much responsibility for him. 


 “At least you know what you don’t know…?” Shang Qinghua muttered, shuffling through his papers on their shared table in order to disguise the fact that he didn’t fucking know what he was doing. “Maybe we should… figure out what you… already know?” 


 The situation was actually not nearly as dire as Shang Qinghua had feared. 


 “Oh, good, you’re not entirely illiterate,” Shang Qinghua breathed, because he was so relieved, only to flinch when Mobei-Jun scowled at him. “Ah, I mean, continue! Please, continue!” 


 Mobei-Jun’s summary of the situation was pretty bare bones: his father had been “too occupied” by other affairs to pay much attention to his youngest (and now only) son’s education. Mobei-Jun’s caretakers had done a little, but most of them hadn't been well-educated either. His first proper tutor… well, Mobei-Jun didn’t know whether or not the man had been doing a decent job or if it had been sabotage from the beginning… but it hadn’t worked out because his tutor had eventually tried to kill him. After that… 


 “I chose to focus on my martial abilities,” Mobei-Jun said flatly. 


 “That makes sense!” Shang Qinghua said quickly. “That was the smart thing to do, Young Master Mobei! Reading… well, it can save your life, in certain situations, I guess… but it won’t protect you from a sword stabbing at your heart! Scholarly pursuits come after survival on the list of priorities, for sure. It was a good choice!” 


 “It was the only choice,” Mobei-Jun said, unflattered. 


 The Sun Sect valued a cultivator's fighting abilities most of all, and Mobei-Jun had soon started to excel at this, so his father had laughed off Mobei-Jun’s fervent avoidance of scholarly skills as ordinary and harmless youthful rebellion. Shang Qinghua kind of got the picture that a young Mobei-Jun, like many other young cultivators, had assumed that fighting skills were everything, and, unlike many other young cultivators, he hadn’t had guardian figures to force him to focus on the “boring” things. Mobei-Jun hadn’t come to recognize the importance of non-martial skills, or that his education was leagues behind other “young gentlemen” of his position, until it had felt too late to do anything about it - at least not without shaming and discrediting himself, and opening himself up to attack. 


 “I did not want to come to the Cloud Recesses,” Mobei-Jun said bitterly. 


 “I can… ah, I can see why,” Shang Qinghua answered. 


 “My father insisted.” 


 “They’ve probably already written to him. Your father, I mean. About all the work that you’re not doing,” Shang Qinghua warned. “They, ah, probably told you they were going to do that, right?” 




 “Ah, as long as you know…” 


 “I told him that I would not do the work.” 




 “He will not care.” 


 “That sounds… covered, then.” 


 Over the course of the afternoon, through a series of questions that were apparently deeply painful on both sides, Shang Qinghua discovered that Mobei-Jun probably had the education of someone half his age, at least when it came to reading and writing. So, he really wasn't illiterate at all, just desperately behind. He had what his tutors had taught him - before they had either tried to kill him (Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure how many times this had happened, but apparently it had happened at least twice that Mobei-Jun knew of “for certain”, which was alarming and discomforting to hear mentioned in an almost casual fashion), had quit due to being constantly avoided, or had been forcibly run off by a resistant and often hostile Mobei-Jun - and he had things that he had picked up through context. It definitely could have been worse, but it still wasn’t much for someone of his position. 


 Somehow, probably due to how fighting-focused the Sun Sect was, nobody had truly caught on to the fact that the son of the Sun Sect Leader didn’t read because he kind of couldn’t read, at least not very well. It sounded like Mobei-Jun, by the time he’d finally recognized that there was a serious problem, had focused more on hiding it than facing it, probably hoping against all reason that the problem would just go away in time, and it had only gotten worse and worse. Mobei-Jun was important enough that he could make any messenger read aloud anything they tried to hand him. If he headed up a night-hunt or anything that required a report, there was always a second who could be dictated to or told to just write it themselves. He had gotten into the habit of glancing over papers without reading them, Shang Qinghua assumed, probably because he didn’t want anyone to see him struggling through actually trying. 


 Shang Qinghua was super relieved to discover that Mobei-Jun wasn't actually poorly educated when it came to history, philosophy, cultivation practices, and so on, and that this already overworked Cloud Sect disciple hadn’t signed himself up for teaching every single subject under the sun. Shang Qinghua asked how Mobei-Jun had learned these things if he couldn’t read, and Mobei-Jun gave him a disdainful look. 


 “I listen.” 


“All right, that was… that was a stupid question.” 



 So, Shang Qinghua kept going to the library every afternoon, just before the guest disciples’ classes ended, and played unpaid tutor to his future murderer. It was… an experience that could have been worse. Mobei-Jun didn’t have much patience as a student. Shang Qinghua didn’t have much patience as a teacher. Neither of them had much experience with it. Yet they persevered through sheer stubbornness (Mobei-Jun) and some fucked-up cocktail of fear and pity and undeserved, unexamined, unspeakable attachment that was definitely going to get someone killed someday (Shang Qinghua). 


 Together, day after day, they ground through reading and writing exercises that had originally been meant for children. Shang Qinghua had been right: the one bright side really was that Mobei-Jun already knew what he didn’t know. The less bright side was that Mobei-Jun was really angry about it. Shang Qinghua learned quickly that jokes to lighten the mood weren’t even a little bit appreciated, only having the opposite intended effect. 


 Also, when Shang Qinghua was nervous, he fidgeted. With Mobei-Jun awake and focused on him, he was definitely nervous, and with Mobei-Jun no longer napping, and already frustrated by giving up naptime to actually work, he apparently found the fidgeting annoying. No, Shang Qinghua could not just “be still”! It was a vicious cycle. 


 “Progress,” Shang Qinghua muttered to himself, after the first few days of tense, miserable lessons. He could have been lying to himself, he was probably lying to himself, but he needed the lie. “We’re making progress.” 


 Things seemed to get a little better when Mobei-Jun had the idea to bring the classwork from the guest lectures to Shang Qinghua. Mobei-Jun usually knew the subject matter already, for one thing, and, because his pride considered it to be more “on his level”, he had slightly more patience for going over the classwork than the remedial exercises, for another, though Shang Qinghua insisted on keeping the remedial exercises around for “warm-up” purposes, to give himself the time to quickly read over the classwork Mobei-Jun brought him. He was too grateful not to have to keep stealing full lesson plans to object to this approach. 


 “Progress,” Shang Qinghua mumbled again, a few days later. “We fucking better be making it.” 


 At least Little Uncle had stopped giving him looks stuck halfway between concern and annoyance.


 The Master of Ku Xing Peak and the other teachers of the guest lectures apparently hadn’t been informed of Mobei-Jun’s brief absence from the library, and so they continued to gnash their teeth about being unable to properly discipline the son of the Sun Sect Leader without any new fuel to their fire.


 The discomfort between Yue Qingyuan and Shang Qinghua over Shen Qingqiu had been solved a couple days after it had happened, with Yue Qingyuan and Shang Qinghua both apologizing for causing discomfort, and now apparently both doing their best to pretend it had never happened and keep their noses out of each other’s bad decisions with certain guest disciples for now. Agreeing to ignore the problem was solving it, right? 


 The Sleeping Tiger Effect returned in full force, which prevented Shang Qinghua from being dragged off, at least while he was in the library, on everyone and their mother's errands and busywork. Mobei-Jun was so against anyone coming even remotely near their table that Shang Qinghua had to jump up and head off anyone who tried to approach him at all. Silencing spells around their table had helped a little, but the environment still hadn't become relaxed. Shang Qinghua kept telling himself that he was not, under any circumstances, going to volunteer his own home for this - if he kept telling himself this, he told himself desperately, maybe it would stick. 


 “How are we supposed to make progress, though, when he so clearly resents me for every little correction I make?” Shang Qinghua muttered, in the safety of his own home, after they were nearing the end of the second week of their tutoring sessions. “‘Oh, just a tiny, little adjustment here, Young Master Mobei!’ ‘Very nearly complete right, Young Master Mobei, but you’re actually completely fucking wrong because your sect is a cutthroat pile of shit.’ He probably doesn’t even need to know how to read! Did I ever write anything about Mobei-Jun reading anything in Proud Immortal Demonic Way? He’s fine! He knows how to punch good!” 



 The breakthrough in Shang Qinghua’s tutoring sessions with Mobei-Jun happened in a way he didn’t expect, possibly because he had been expecting more of a breakdown with negative, perhaps even deadly, results than any kind of positive breakthrough. Mobei-Jun’s temper was especially short for some reason that day, from the very beginning of their time in the library, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that Shang Qinghua could finally see and had happily pointed the real progress they were making, so Shang Qinghua found himself babbling on even more than he’d intended. 


 “I think that this exchange of skills is going very well!” he said thoughtlessly. 


 “This isn’t an exchange of skills,” Mobei-Jun snapped. 


 “Ah… well…” 


 “What are you getting out of this?” 


  “You… ah… you said that you would make the other Sun Sect disciples leave me alone?” Shang Qinghua said hastily. It had been the first thing that he had thought of, when Mobei-Jun had asked him this same question, at the end of their first meeting about this issue. “You have a skill for getting people to leave you alone which I do not have, so, really-” 


 “You must want something more than this,” Mobei-Jun insisted. 


 “Bro, you threatened to kill me if I told anyone! I just want to live!” Shang Qinghua thought. 


 “It’s really not necessary! I don’t really need - I don’t know - tutoring in martial abilities or something, though Young Master Mobei is of course very generous to ask. The Cloud Recesses sees education as a duty, so really, there’s no need for any return lessons- ah, why are you cleaning up? Young Master Mobei, we still have more to do, don’t we? Ha ha, there’s no need to get up? We’re not going anywhere, are we? Oh, no…” 



 Fifteen minutes later, Shang Qinghua found himself out in the back hills of the Cloud Recesses, where no one would hear him scream, holding his sword a lot like a stuffed animal. 


 He was so stressed that he felt like crying. 


 “Stop that,” Mobei-Jun snapped. 


 Shang Qinghua raised a hand to his cheek and, yeah, a single tear was making its way down his cheek, as he prematurely mourned himself. He quickly wiped it away with his sleeve. 


 “Young Master Mobei, this is really unnecessary!” 


 “This is an exchange of skills,” Mobei-Jun said. “So you will practice your martial abilities.” 


 Shang Qinghua stared at him helplessly. 


 Mobei-Jun’s sword was (this wasn’t too weird a thing to say among cultivators, but the thought always made Shang Qinghua want to make an inappropriate joke) really gorgeous. It was a large blade, saber-like, by virtue of Mobei-Jun’s own height and width. The sheath was in gleaming blues and silvers, and the icy decoration continued on the sword itself. 


 “But you’ll squish me,” Shang Qinghua pleaded finally. 


 Mobei-Jun’s lips twitched. 


 "Take your temper out on someone else!" Shang Qinghua thought. 


 “Young Master Mobei, I’m really no match for you! I’m nowhere near your level!” 


 “That is an issue that will be fixed.” 


 Shang Qinghua was so full of dread that he had no more space for any other emotions. He was running out of space for thoughts, too. Mobei-Jun, standing across from him in this little clearing in the woods, was clearly prepared for a spar that would break him into little pieces or some series of exercises that would also break Shang Qinghua into little pieces. Mobei-Jun had been raised to fight, had thrown himself into it from a young age, and the Cloud Sect teachers still hadn’t let him spar against either Yue Qingyuan or Liu Qingge yet probably because they were afraid of the whole damn mountain breaking. 


 So, Shang Qinghua found himself blurting out, “You’ll have to catch me first!” 


 The panic was too much for him! He hopped on his sword and fled into the woods! Every fiber of his being was certain that if he tried to fight Mobei-Jun in any way - if he tried to fight the person who was supposed to be the character destined to kill him someday - then he was going to die! He didn’t want to die! So he had to run! 


 “What-? GET BACK HERE!” 





 Mobei-Jun was much stronger than Shang Qinghua and Shang Qinghua didn’t doubt that he was much faster too, but Shang Qinghua knew these woods very well. Once upon a time, he had played hide-and-seek in these back hills of the Cloud Recesses. Now was apparently the day to call upon all those skills! 


 Shang Qinghua tore through the trees. He heard Mobei-Jun shout at him again, following him, and flew even faster, weaving through the tree trunks, bursting up through the leaves and then back down again. His heart threatened to burst out of his chest as he felt one of Mobei-Jun’s hands skim the ends of his robes. He twisted sharply away, grabbing onto a tree branch to swing sharply around, changing directions completely. 


 He felt like a prey animal! So far, it was a really terrible experience! 


 Though, ah, he had to admit: dodging at the last second, jumping off his own sword between two tree branches before landing on the sword again, and causing Mobei-Jun to nearly run into a tree branch was immensely satisfying. Sometimes, Shang Qinghua thought triumphantly, it really paid not to be stupidly tall and muscular! 


 Shang Qinghua ducked through ravines and twisted between tree branches. Once, he got far enough ahead that he could actually catch his breath, but Mobei-Jun apparently followed the sound of his wheezing. So, as Mobei-Jun approached, looking like he was going to tear Shang Qinghua limb from limb for running, Shang Qinghua was forced to 1) pretend to give up, and then 2) fly away again just by holding on to his sword with both hands, his feet dangling behind him as he rocketed away, probably looking like he’d been caught on a runaway sword, which saved him the precious seconds of jumping onto the sword. Every second counted! 


 “What?!” Mobei-Jun shouted. “Stop this, you-!” 


 Dignity was for people who prioritized looking cool over being alive!  


 Shang Qinghua was not one of those people. 


 Somehow, while running and flying and generally fleeing for his life, slowing his sword’s flight enough to kick off the ground and hop back onto the sword itself, Shang Qinghua got an idea. It was a terrible idea. It was an idea that he shouldn’t have entertained for a second. But the temptation of it was so much that it let itself in, so Shang Qinghua really couldn’t help but change directions again, now heading down the slopes of the mountain. 


 The idea only worked because it was unexpected. 


 It was unexpected partly because it was, in Shang Qinghua’s personal opinion, very stupid. 


 Once he got to a certain point, already flying in a crouched position, with Mobei-Jun terrifyingly close behind him, Shang Qinghua grabbed the handle of his sword with both hands, practically wrapping all his limbs around his sword, braked hard to the point of trying to reverse directions, and braced for impact. Shang Qinghua’s shoulder at the upper back immediately slammed into Mobei-Jun’s shins and sword. 


 It hurt like hell, but Mobei-Jun went flying. 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t really get to see it, but he felt it when Mobei-Jun’s feet disconnected with his sword, and he heard the splash as the totally unprepared Sun Sect disciple flew directly into the deepest part of the river at the base of the Cloud Recesses.


 Shang Qinghua, meanwhile, rolled painfully along the muddy riverbank until he came to a squelching stop. He moaned, sure that he was going to have bruises on every part of his body the next day, but the sound of more splashing brought him back to himself. He scrambled out of the mud and looked up to see Mobei-Jun surfacing again. 


 The water came up the edge of Mobei-Jun’s ribcage. He had been completely dunked in the river, so his hair was completely ruined, covering his face in a thick curtain, and Mobei-Jun had to drag it aside to see again. Also, so that he could spit out river water. He looked shocked and disgusted, and it was really everything that Shang Qinghua could have asked for. His great and terrible idea had worked! 


 “Ha!” Shang Qinghua shouted, pointing. “Revenge! Justice!” 


 Mobei-Jun looked at him. 


 Shang Qinghua quickly lowered the betraying hand. “Oh… was that out loud…?” 


 Mobei-Jun’s eyes narrowed. 


 “Er, Young Master Mobei, we should really get you back to the Cloud Recesses so that you can be dried off, shouldn’t we? I think that we’ve had enough exercise for one day, right?” 


 Mobei-Jun waved one of his hands over the water’s surface, which swayed a little after his hand, like the moon pulled the tide. Tiny ice crystals spun off the churning water. Shang Qinghua realized, much too late, that the bad-tempered, martially-skilled person who he had just dumped in the river came from a family that famously specialized in ice spells. 


 “Oh, shit,” he said. 



 “Y-Young Master M-Mobei that was totally unnecessary,” Shang Qinghua said, rubbing his hands together, as they trudged back up the darkening mountain. The dinner bell had probably rung ages ago without missing them. “We really don’t need to do any extra training! Maybe I’m just doing this out of- of the goodness of my heart.” 


 Mobei-Jun snorted. 


 Of the two of them, despite being dunked in a river, Mobei-Jun had undoubtedly emerged from this shitshow as the victor. Their ridiculous and ill-advised “spar” had ended with Shang Qinghua pinned to a tree by ice arrows in his sleeves, and his boots having been frozen into place. Pulling free had been more awkward than anything else, with Mobei-Jun watching super unhelpfully, and now Shang Qinghua’s toes and fingers were red and chilly. Also, he had holes in his sleeves now! Kind of big ones! 


 As they walked, he fingered the holes in his sleeves. They looked ridiculous. Who was going to fix that shit, huh? 


 Despite all this wear and tear, Shang Qinghua found himself laughing. 


 “...What?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 Shang Qinghua gestured towards his robes, which were now more brown than white. 


 “It really is kind of like hide-and-seek all over again,” he confessed, a little disbelieving this had just happened to him. He had just survived a fight-like encounter with the person who was supposed to be his future murderer and now they were walking back to his sect to beat curfew. What really was this life? What really was this world? “Covered in mud and late for dinner? Ahhh, I haven’t done anything even a little bit like this since… well… since before Xinzhong died.” 


 “...Xinzhong,” Mobei-Jun repeated. “The… sect leader’s late son?” 


 “Ah… yes…” 


 Shang Qinghua hadn’t properly thought about his late cousin in a while now. The empty position he had left came up a lot, of course, but the man himself generally didn't. Shang Qinghua probably shouldn’t have brought it up, especially since no one really talked about Shang Xinzhong in the Cloud Recesses, and especially not to Mobei-Jun. 


 “What’s your name?” 




 “Your name,” Mobei-Jun repeated. 


 Shang Qinghua stopped walking to stare at him. “You don’t know my name?!” 


 “You never introduced yourself!” 


 “What-? Oh. Really?" 




 "I guess that I didn’t…"




 "It’s- it's Shang Qinghua.” 


 Mobei-Jun frowned, then said, “You’re part of the main family.” 


 Shang Qinghua tapped the Cloud Sect forehead ribbon, which said as much to anyone familiar with the slightly different styles of them, which apparently Mobei-Jun was not. “Yes?” he said. “The sect leader and his brother are my uncles." 


 Mobei-Jun stared at him for several seconds, before he said, “...Then you should be the next sect leader.” 


 “Oh, no,” Shang Qinghua said hastily. “No, no, no! Maternal uncles!” 


 “So?” Mobei-Jun said.


 Shang Qinghua belatedly remembered that a decent handful of Sun Sect families went by sheer strength. Even age wasn't as important as strength, sometimes. 


 “Anyway, I really don’t want it,” Shang Qinghua said instead, rubbing his hands together and starting to walk again. “Really! Yue Qingyuan can have it! I do enough work as it is and I don’t need to listen, all day and every day, to everyone in the Cloud Recesses tell me that they wish I was someone else. Being a sect leader sounds exhausting, don’t you think? Having everyone looking at me all the time is kind of my nightmare, Young Master Mobei, so this is really better for everyone.” 


 Mobei-Jun said nothing. As usual, Shang Qinghua had no idea what he was thinking. 


 “This is much better,” Shang Qinghua repeated. 


 "I don't want it, so don't recruit me as your spy or anything!" he thought. 


 “Then what do you want?” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “Ha ha, what everyone wants, probably? Anyway, Young Master Mobei, I really don’t want you to waste your time on trying to tutor me in return as payment like this! I think it's kind of a lost cause. The current deal is enough! Keeping all the other Sun Sect disciples away is more than good enough.” 




 "Young Master Mobei, please, I insist." 




 “Ah, then… what about an apology for tripping me into the river that first time? Young Master Mobei, you never apologized for that incident, and that instead would be-” 




 “W-why? Young Master Mobei, did you just-” 


 Mobei-Jun smirked at him and then pointed out, “You got justice already, didn’t you?” 


 The Sun Sect disciple’s long strides took him a little ahead of Shang Qinghua, and Shang Qinghua gaped after him. Oh, the things that he wanted to say to that! He didn’t, of course, because they had to get back before curfew and Shang Qinghua really didn’t want to get dunked in the river all over again or something. 



 The next day, in the Cloud Recesses library, while Shang Qinghua was quietly working on his own things and Mobei-Jun was quietly working on the task of the day, Mobei-Jun suddenly looked up and abruptly, stiffly said, “I apologize for tripping you into the river when we first met.” 


 Even more than the day before, Shang Qinghua had to wonder if he was dreaming. 


 “Thanks?” he said, uncertain of what would happen if he didn’t accept it. 


 Mobei-Jun nodded and went back to work. 


 “Stop tapping your fingers,” Mobei-Jun snapped, a minute later. 


 “Ah, right! Sorry!” 


Chapter Text


 The Cloud Recesses was full of routines, built on them, and sometimes that really sucked when all a hard-working disciple wanted to do was sleep until noon, but sometimes it wasn’t so bad to have things be predictable and a little boring. Shang Qinghua’s days began to blend together, a little, but not into a haze of resentment and apathy, or anything like that. He wasn’t staying up late because he was dreading getting up in the morning to do it all over again. 


 With his new routine, time seemed to pass him like it didn’t hate his guts for once. In fact, despite some hard work and some busy days and some terrifying “sparring” sessions, Shang Qinghua thought that he could happily go on like this for a long while. He was making progress. 


 Against all the odds, Shang Qinghua was surviving his tutoring sessions in the Cloud Recesses library with the person who was supposed to be his future murderer. Against all the odds, the tutoring sessions seemed to be going well. 


 Mobei-Jun’s writing hadn’t been bad before, but it had been stiffly done and incredibly slowly. Mastering the copying of basic talismans to cover up for his missing skills had given him a steady hand if he focused, but the pressure that he had apparently felt to perfect unfamiliar characters (on his first tries) had made for tense afternoons. Now, he wrote with a looser hand, a faster hand, seemingly less concerned with placing every single stroke exactly right. 


 He was still pretty judgemental when he caught sight of Shang Qinghua’s messy, cursive penmanship, on private notes of the work papers that Shang Qinghua bfought to the library, which were admittedly occasionally illegible even to Shang Qinghua himself. Shang Qinghua wrote as cleanly as possible for Mobei-Jun! Thankfully, Mobei-Jun didn’t seem to be enraged by evidence of his tutor’s occasional bad practices anymore, no longer afraid to the point of anger of being contaminated by laziness, only annoyed at worst. Mobei-Jun acted like different types of handwriting might as well be a completely different language.


 “Are you certain that you can write?” Mobei-Jun had asked once, watching Shang Qinghua stare at his own personal notes. 


 Shang Qinghua had scratched beside his forehead ribbon, annoyed at himself for this one, trying to figure out what the fuck he’d been trying to say here now that he had to write them out nicely for Little Uncle. “‘I don’t have to make it look good now when I’ll have to rewrite it anyway’?! Fuck you, Past Shang Qinghua!” he thought. 


 “Young Master Mobei, you wouldn’t believe how many people have told me that I can’t write and should give it up for the good of society,” he had muttered, before leaning over to squint at Mobei-Jun’s papers across the table. “Young Master, that’s the wrong character again.” 


 “They sound the same,” Mobei-Jun had snapped. 


 “They do! It’s an honest mistake! Honest mistake! No harm done, right? Ha ha, no new harm done, right? I still kind of have the bruises from your tutoring session the other day, which I didn’t ask for and exchanging skills is still very unnecessary, so harm was done, but-” 


 “Be quiet,” Mobei-Jun had reminded him, while correcting his mistake. 


 “Right,” Shang Qinghua said.


 Then he said, “You're writing that character backwards again.”


 Mobei-Jun glared at him, but crossed the character out. Accidentally writing characters backwards was one of his most common mistakes, alongside mixing up characters with the same sound, which sometimes made Shang Qinghua wonder if Mobei-Jun needed reading glasses or something, which was a funny thing to think about. Who had ever heard of a character as cool as Mobei-Jun needing reading glasses? Shang Qinghua had hinted around the possibility of Mobei-Jun's eyes being bad a few times. Mobei-Jun had snapped at him every time.


 Mobei-Jun’s reading had become much faster as well. When reading aloud, he stumbled less often than before, his guesses for certain characters were more and more often right, and Shang Qinghua didn’t have to supply answers quite so frequently. Mobei-Jun still needed to reread sentences sometimes to understand them completely, but as the weeks passed them by, as those weeks turned into months, Shang Qinghua could see the slow but steady progress they were making together. 


 It made Shang Qinghua a little proud, probably undeservedly, in Mobei-Jun as a student and in himself as a teacher. The two of them getting along like this was, potentially, proof that he could survive the plot when it came for him, if he didn’t manage to escape to a simpler life before that, which was very exciting. Look at him teaching successfully and not dying!


 This was the most time that Shang Qinghua had regularly spent with another person who wasn’t Little Uncle, or Yue Qingyuan, or, once upon a time, his cousin, Shang Xinzhong. 


 He was glad all over again that he wasn’t a part of the guest lectures. Things might have settled into a routine, but there also always seemed to be some kind of drama going on over there. It was kind of fun to hear about from his fellow cultivators on the An Ding Peak side of the Cloud Recesses, sure, but if Yue Qingyuan’s grimaces during their chats was any indication, it was a lot less fun to be responsible for smoothing over and even less fun to be part of it. 


 Evening tea and secret nighttime take-out sessions with Yue Qingyuan continued whenever they could find the time for it. Shang Qinghua made time for it. After all, he told himself, with Yue Qingyuan in the thick of it, he was one of the most reliable sources of news. 


 “Gossip is against the rules,” Yue Qingyuan had reminded him, but he had been smiling, relaxed against the wall of his house with a cup of tea in hand. 


 “It’s news,” Shang Qinghua had insisted again, stretching his legs off the porch. “Gossip is when you’re not sure what really happened or if it’s super private, otherwise it’s just news, right? Anyway, you’re just taking pity on me, your poor cousin who doesn’t get to be part of the guest lectures. You’re being kind! You’re righting wrongs!” 


 “I thought you said you’d fake an illness before you let them drag you into that classroom,” Yue Qingyuan had said. 


 “Did I say that?” 


 “If my memory is correct, you also said that you would break your leg for real before you let them drag you into that classroom, when I tried to ask if you actually wanted to be included and if you wanted me to take it up with either one of your uncles.” 


 “I stand by that statement, wholeheartedly, but it doesn’t mean I’m not feeling a little neglected! A little left out! My feelings on this matter can be super complex, you know. Anyway, is it true that you confiscated an entire crate of pornography from one of the boys from the Flower Sect? And do you still have it? Or do you know what room it’s been locked up in?” 


 Yue Qingyuan had huffed, then admitted, “It wasn’t a crate, but I’m still not certain what he expected to do with all of that. I would have left it alone if he hadn’t brought it to class.” 


 “Wow. Ha ha, who would ever do something like that?” 


 “Who indeed?” Yue Qingyuan had agreed wryly. “Teacher saw me trying to get him to put it away, and he was so perturbed by the material that I think he’s actually having someone fly it back to the Flower Sect right now so he can pretend it never existed. Sorry to disappoint you.” 


 “Damn. Also, now I’m even more curious.” 


 "The sign of a healthy mind, I hear." 




 They made a conscious effort not to talk about Shen Qingqiu. At least, they made a conscious effort not to only talk about Shen Qingqiu, who was still resisting all of Yue Qingyuan’s invitations to speak privately. Shang Qinghua would have been a little in awe of such masterful avoidance, such inarguable shutdowns, if Yue Qingyuan wasn’t so miserable about it. 


 Shang Qinghua knew that this careful balance couldn’t last forever. This new routine was already on the way out, really. The guest lectures would end eventually, obviously, giving way to increased sect duties, cultivation conferences, and all the unavoidable responsibilities of adulthood for both himself and Yue Qingyuan. Then… well… he supposed that he’d see if Proud Immortal Demonic Way was really going to happen. 


 At this point, though, it made Shang Qinghua extra determined to enjoy things before he was finally forced to run off and start a new life far away from the plot. 



 “Young Master Mobei, please, we don’t need to do any martial training today! It rained this morning and it might rain again, and we have to protect our health, don’t we? Don’t we? Young Master Mobei, please, I’m wearing white!” 


 Mobei-Jun’s expression was as merciless as ever. “Then don’t get knocked over.” 


 “Don’t say that like it’s that easy!” 



 “So, Qi Qingqi has just flattened the Yenan girl in the training ring, right? Right after flattening the Meng girl too, so the River Sect has just embarrassed the Sun Sect hard here,” Shang Qinghua said to Yue Qingyuan. “Long-in-coming revenge for the archery match I was telling you about the other day, I guess. You heard about that, right?” 


 “Mm,” Yue Qingyuan replied. “The apple shot out of Qi Qingqi’s mouth? I heard.” 


 “Yeah, that’s the one. So, then Shi Chun from the Flower Sect barges onto the scene of this standoff, outraged that she’s been left out of this competition to prove who’s the top- er, dog when it comes to martial abilities. Practically spitting fire, so Chen Riling told me, demanding to fight the victor of this series of matches. She’s super loud. Can’t miss her. So, what does Qi Qingqi do in the face of the madwoman with a whip?” 


 “She talks Shi Chun down calmly and extends the hand of friendship.” 


 “Ha! You wish!” 


 “I really, truly wish,” Yue Qingyuan agreed tiredly. 


 “No, instead Qi Qingqi apparently does the other super mature, not panicking thing of refusing to look at Shi Chun, pretending that she hasn’t seen her and can’t hear her.” 


 “Oh, no.” 


 “Oh, yes, because Shi Chun is so short, right? I mean, the Yenan girl is tall and Qi Qingqi is only a little shorter than I am and I’m tall enough, but that Flower Sect girl is tiny, so Qi Qingqi refuses to look down and then the Yenan and Meng girls pick up on it right away, also refusing to look down or admit that they can hear the person trying and failing to yell in their faces, until Shi Chun looks - Chen Riling said - like she’s going to burst into flames and-” 


 “And that’s why Qi Qingqi’s bangs are now uneven?” 


 “That’s why Qi Qingqi’s bangs are now uneven,” Shang Qinghua agreed, “and they’ve all been assigned to write lines for ‘unsupervised’ sparring. There was nooooo friendliness in that ‘friendly session’ that just ‘got out of hand’. You’re not supervising that, right?” 


 “No,” Yue Qingyuan sighed gratefully. Then he said, “I’m going to be too busy supervising Xue Qingming of the River Sect retrieve the breeding pair of rabbits he ‘saved’ on his way here and released into the private gardens on Ku Xing Peak shortly after he arrived.” 


 “Ah, I’m not hallucinating!” 




 “I woke up to a really big, pure white rabbit in front of my house the other day. You know, that day when it was really misty? It made direct eye contact with me and I don’t think it blinked. So, I climbed out one of the back windows to avoid it, just in case,” Shang Qinghua admitted. 


 Yue Qingyuan laughed. “Just in case of what?” 


 “I don’t know! Just in case!” 



 “What if you copied the rules just once?” Shang Qinghua pleaded. 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “It would be good practice! With your new skills, it would hardly take any time at all.” 




 They were in the library again. Shang Qinghua had early this morning had another encounter with the so-called Master of Ku Xing Peak, who was also the head teacher in charge of the guest lectures, whose newest tactic for keeping it together apparently involved pretending Mobei-Jun just didn’t exist, and yet somehow still expected Shang Qinghua to be getting “results” from his time supervising Mobei-Jun’s always increasing punishment. Mobei-Jun might have been going over his classwork with Shang Qinghua to practice his reading and writing skills, but he apparently still wasn’t handing anything in. 


 Shang Qinghua supposed that even if Mobei-Jun skills were miraculously up-to-standard - which they weren’t, honestly, despite all the good progress they were making - it would look kind of weird if he suddenly started trying to do the work now. Mobei-Jun had a reputation as an apathetic delinquent to uphold! Also, who wanted to do extra work? 


 As someone who tended to fold like wet paper whenever someone frowned at him, Shang Qinghua was a little envious. If he could get Mobei-Jun to copy the rules just once, it would feel like a victory on way too many levels than was reasonable. 


 “Young Master Mobei, you’re really going to make people think that I spent all this time in the library with you and didn’t get you to copy the rules even once?”  


 “Yes,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “Oh! Have pity!” 




 “Have mercy?” 




 “Have… uh… kindness? I should have started with kindness and worked down…” 


 “Shut up.” 


 Shang Qinghua sighed, watching Mobei-Jun write with the kit that Shang Qinghua had found for him, better suited to the size of his hands. He thought, again, about how Mobei-Jun had probably never once been shown reading or writing in Proud Immortal Demonic Way, or even relaxing through any kind of hobby, as far as he could remember. 


 “What if you copied an opposite version of the rules?” Shang Qinghua wondered. 


 Finally, Mobei-Jun looked up at him. “What?” 


 “The rules, but reversed,” Shang Qinghua explained, flipping his hand over in gesture. “Instead of, ‘Do not run in the Cloud Recesses,’ you write, ‘Always run in the Cloud Recesses.’ Instead of, ‘Respect your elders,’ you write, ‘Disrespect your elders.’ And, ‘Always talk with your mouth full during meals.’ And, ‘Be selfish.’ And, ‘Uphold injustice.’ You know, a wicked version of the rules. Would you write that version?” 


 Mobei-Jun stared at him. 


 Shang Qinghua lowered his hand. “A-ah, never mind…” 


 “Why?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 “I don’t know,” Shang Qinghua answered. “I did it a few times.” 


 Mobei-Jun raised his eyebrows. 


 “It’s a lot funnier as a concept when you’re seven years old,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “It wasn’t even my idea, actually; it was my cousin’s idea. Ah, never mind. Never mind.” 


 “Shang Xinzhong?” 


 “Yeah, it was- it was him. Anyway!” 


 Shang Qinghua tried to go back to his own work, but Mobei-Jun said, “Why would the sect leader’s son tell you to write a wicked version of your sect’s rules?” 


 “Fun?” Shang Qinghua suggested. 


 But Mobei-Jun kept looking at him, apparently waiting for a real answer. 


 “He had a funny sense of humor - weird in the Cloud Sect, I know - and I… ha ha… I went through a period of time when I didn’t want to do any work, you know? Childish rebellion? So he sat down with me in my bad moods and started composing a wicked, opposite version of the rules, and egged me on to finish it, and when my uncle found out, he asked why. And Xinzhong said that I was still learning the rules, in a way, by at least writing down what not to do.” 


 After he’d explained himself, Shang Qinghua only felt worse for bringing it up at all. It had been a really ridiculous suggestion to begin with, but now it sounded extra silly and childish, taken from an old memory that had no business turning up again. 


 “Never mind,” Shang Qinghua repeated. “Just one copy of the rules from you would exceed expectations for me, but a wicked copy of the rules probably wouldn’t impress any of the teachers at all. The Master of Ku Xing has no sense of humor at all. Even Wang Qingjie is better than that guy and he’s supposed to be his replacement someday. I think that if Wang Qingjie’s innocent eyes ever saw a copy of the wicked rules, his head would blow up, even though as acts of delinquency goes, that’s pretty tame. Almost boring, really.” 





 Shang Qinghua chewed his lip, lying on his back and staring at Yue Qingyuan’s dark ceiling. “What if… what if you wrote him a letter? If he won’t talk to you, then you could write him a letter saying everything that you want to say.” 


 “I thought of that,” Yue Qingyuan said glumly, lying next to him. “He would tear it up.” 


 “What if he reads a little bit before he figures out who it’s from?” 


 Yue Qingyuan sighed. “I don’t want to take the risk that someone else will find it first or take it from him. He’ll be furious if I write everything down for someone else to find.” 


 “It’s not like he’s giving you any other options if he won’t be alone with you…” 


 “I don’t care if people know the worst details about my past,” Yue Qingyuan declared, with such great feeling that his voice trembled slightly. “I could live with that.” 


 Shang Qinghua winced. “Big Uncle would… react… somehow… maybe…” 


 “I don’t care,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 “I know, it’s just…” 


  “I don’t care,” Yue Qingyuan repeated. 


 “Of course! His opinions are terrible and in an ideal world, no one would listen!” 


 Yue Qingyuan fell silent, then said, “But.” 


 “But,” Shang Qinghua agreed. 


 “...Shen Jiu would care,” Yue Qingyuan said finally. “I don’t think anyone but me knows the worst details of his past. From what I can tell, people barely know anything about his past, and he’ll care if they find out anything that can be used against him.” 


 “People who want to find something to use against you are always going to find something to use against you,” Shang Qinghua said. “There’s no escaping those assholes.” 


 “I don’t want to give them any weapons,” Yue Qingyuan countered. “I won’t help hurt him.” 


 “Ah… that's fair.” 


 Shang Qinghua had heard, however, about Yue Qingyuan stepping in between some River Sect disciples including Shen Qingqiu and some Flower Sect disciples speaking down to those from undesirable backgrounds. The Flower Sect disciples had assumed that Yue Qingyuan was objecting based on his own background and had apologized to him, but with thoughtless cruelty had added on the condition that Yue Qingyuan, with his skills, had earned his position. 


 So, that protective gesture had backfired! Badly! Shen Qingqiu was, apparently, less than grateful for such a “condescending” savior from another sect. Shang Qinghua could see the beginnings of a pattern that had appeared in Proud Immortal Demonic Way, and he didn’t know what to say to get Yue Qingyuan to turn away from it. 


 “He seems like he can handle himself, at least,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 “...He shouldn’t have to,” Yue Qingyuan answered. 


 Shang Qinghua sighed and muttered, “It’s not that kind of world.” 



 Somehow, Shang Qinghua kept ending up in front of Mobei-Jun, holding a sword and being told to defend himself. The last time Shang Qinghua had tried to run away, only really just beginning to think about it, Mobei-Jun had used one of his ice spells to spear the ground beside Shang Qinghua’s foot in warning. Wiggling out of this “exchange of skill” had gotten so much trickier! Shang Qinghua had been forced to employ so many tricks! 


 “Please, Young Master Mobei! I have so much to live for! Think of the children!” 


 Mobei-Jun paused at that. “What children?” 


 Shang Qinghua blinked, not having expected a reaction, but leaping on the opportunity. “I still count, right? Think of this poor child! Whose back hurts from sitting at a desk all day-” 


 “Then shut up and stretch.” 


 “I am! I’m stretching! Don’t come over and help again!” 


 “Then stretch.” 


 “Only if the young master thinks of the children!” 


 “You’re not a child.” 


 “I could act more like one.” 




 “Well, somewhere out there, there are probably some children who could be upset by all this!” Shang Qinghua declared. “They’re not here watching this, sure, but if someone ever tells them that this ever happened, they could be upset! We have a duty to future generations who may or may not exist to protect their innocent ears-” 


 Mobei-Jun let out a bark of laughter. 


 Shang Qinghua’s throat dried up unexpectedly as Mobei-Jun looked at him again, lips turned distinctly upwards. He didn’t want to call that expression a smirk. It looked too different. 


 “You are the most ridiculous person I have ever met,” Mobei-Jun informed him. 


 “...Ah…” Shang Qinghua said, intelligently. 


 Mobei-Jun looked away and went back to finishing his stretches, so he could kick Shang Qinghua’s ass again and call it “fixing the issue” of Shang Qinghua’s comparably lacking martial abilities. Shang Qinghua was pretty sure this was just an occasional vent for Mobei-Jun's frustration and counted himself fortunate these forceful tutoring sessions only happened every several days. 


 “...Was… was that a compliment…?” Shang Qinghua asked him. 


 Mobei-Jun kept ignoring him, but he was still smiling. 


 “I’ll… I’ll take that as a no…” 


  “Asshole,” Shang Qinghua thought, dazedly. 



 “If he won’t come talk to you, have you ever considered just…” 


 “Just what?” 


 Shang Qinghua gestured vaguely in front of him, out towards the dark trees and slopes of the Cloud Recesses surrounding Yue Qingyuan’s house. Yue Qingyuan, leaning back against the wall of his house, turned his head slightly towards the meaningless hand-waving, waiting until Shang Qinghua dropped his hands back into his lap.  


 “...No, I can’t say that I considered that,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 “You know what I mean! What if you just cornered him in his dormitory or something?” 


 Yue Qingyuan stared at him. 


 Shang Qinghua drooped and also leaned back against the house wall, looking at the empty bowls for some leftovers to shove down his throat and finding nothing left but sauce.


 “...I promise that suggestion sounded way less creepy in my head.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed. “Go begging at his door?” 


 “Some time when the other River Sect disciples aren’t there with him, but… yes.” 


 “I think he might attack me again,” Yue Qingyuan said, amused. 


 Shang Qinghua frowned. “Oh, shit, right. That first fight. Never mind, don’t do that again.” 


 Yue Qingyuan laughed, but tiredly. 


 “If he doesn’t want to talk to me, I can’t… I can’t force him,” he said. “I can’t force him to forgive me. He doesn’t need to forgive me. I just want him to know that I still care - that I’ve always cared - that I will always care. He should know that, but…” 


 Shang Qinghua listened and watched carefully. 


 Yue Qingyuan sounded younger than he usually did, during the day-to-day of life in the Cloud Recesses. It was a compliment for a disciple to be “mature for their age”. Shang Qinghua had thought, during his miserable second childhood, that the comment really just revealed that his uncles had been a little too old to raise children again. Shang Xinzhong had stepped up for a while, but then everyone had been too deeply grief-stricken and any real patience for youth had been long, long gone. 


 “But is it really for his benefit?” Yue Qingyuan wondered. “Or is it really just for mine? My peace of mind? My guilt? If he wants to wash my hands of me, do-… I don’t have the right to ignore the lines that he lays down. I can’t force myself on him like that.” 


 Shang Qinghua hummed awkwardly, recalling the relevant tragic backstory again. 


 “But it’s Shen Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan said next, waving one of his hands in his own vague, erratic gesture. “He’ll just keep laying down lines and refusing to let me in through the door, because that’s what he does with everyone, and pushing means I don’t respect him and not pushing means I don’t care, and everyone is watching all the time, and who knows what the sect leader will do if he finds out about any of this, and I don’t know what to do.” 


 Yue Qingyuan dropped his head into his hands. 


 Shang Qinghua had heard variations on this speech for months now, as the guest lectures passed them by with surprising speed, but to hear it all at once like this, Yue Qingyuan’s voice cracking under the strain, was like the blow that finally broke the rock in half. He rubbed at his chest absently, chewing his lip, but no convenient words appeared in his throat. 


 “I never know what to do for him,” Yue Qingyuan mumbled. “I always get it wrong.” 


 He stayed like that, hiding his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes. 


 Carefully, Shang Qinghua reached out and laid a hand on Yue Qingyuan’s back. Yue Qingyuan was broader than he was now, and slightly taller, too, and apparently a prodigy among young cultivators, but he was still only seventeen. His back was warm and a little stiff under Shang Qinghua’s hand. Shang Qinghua rubbed up and down, feeling the familiar white fabric of the Cloud Recesses, and the painstaking rise and fall of Yue Qingyuan’s breath. 


 He kept his hand there for several minutes, before Yue Qingyuan finally took his head out of his hands and straightened, gently shrugging Shang Qinghua’s hand off his shoulder. Yue Qingyuan took a deep breath, appearing calm again. Shang Qinghua flexed his hand and remembered how Yue Qingyuan’s back had never fully relaxed under his touch. 


 “I’ll see if there’s an opportunity on this night hunt,” Yue Qingyuan decided, hoarsely. “I’ll try to make an opportunity, but if it doesn’t… I should resign myself to the fact that Shen Jiu has been too deeply betrayed to ever forgive me.” 


 “You didn’t betray him, though,” Shang Qinghua said, as he’d said so many times before. 


 “He doesn’t think so,” Yue Qingyuan replied. 


 “There’s still a lot of time left in the lectures, actually. Lots of time to figure something out before he returns to the River Sect,” Shang Qinghua pointed out. “And the world won’t end with the lectures. It doesn’t have to be this one night hunt.” 


 “No,” Yue Qingyuan agreed. 


 “I mean, it’s already going to be a shitshow no matter what, though, so maybe now is good, too.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed. 


 “You, Shen Qingqiu, Liu Qingge, and an assortment of other disciples from those sects whose names I can’t and won’t remember if you try to tell me again, taking a stroll around the block. If people light themselves on fire in the right way, maybe you’ll get a really convenient moment where it’s just you and Shen Qingqiu! And the day is already ruined, so you might as well take your shot!” 


 Shang Qinghua reached out to pat Yue Qingyuan’s back one last time. 


 “Let’s be optimistic about this, all right?” 


 “All right,” Yue Qingyuan agreed, forcing up a smile. “Firstly, I hope that scenario does not happen, because I will be obligated to put out anyone who catches on fire.” 


 “You’ll be interrupting a teaching moment and then they'll never learn, but fine.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed again. “Secondly… you’re right… there’s time. He’s alive. That’s really all I need, so I can wait until he’s willing to talk to me, as long as it takes.” 


 According to Proud Immortal Demonic Way, Yue Qingyuan waiting would come to nothing; Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu’s mysteriously entwined backstory had never made an appearance in Luo Binghe’s story. Shang Qinghua didn’t say that, though. Instead, he sat beside Yue Qingyuan and wished him luck, hoping that something, anything, would force things to be different. 



 Against good sense, Shang Qinghua had gotten used to the idea that no one knew or really cared that he and Mobei-Jun spent afternoon after afternoon in the library together. He knew this wasn’t true. The librarians knew. The Cloud Sect disciples and the guest disciples who passed through the library knew. Little Uncle knew somehow, so some gossipy fucker had probably spread it among the elders of the Cloud Recesses who apparently had nothing better to do in their winter years than flagrantly break the rule against gossip. 


 “That Sun Sect disciple you’re supervising in the library…” Little Uncle had said to him. 


 “We’re talking about this?!” Shang Qinghua had answered, horrified. 


 Little Uncle had given him a long look and then said, “No, as long as it’s going well.” 


 “It’s going really well!” Shang Qinghua had said. 


 And then he fled the room and they continued not to talk about it. 


 So, Shang Qinghua had known that some people knew, but he had gotten used to how most people didn’t care or politely pretended not to care. Willfully so, maybe. 


 It was more shocking than it should have been to look up and see another member of the Sun Sect walking into this specific, more secluded part of the Cloud Recesses library. This other Sun Sect disciple was following another guest disciple, a teenage girl who didn’t belong to a sect, but had been invited to the lectures by virtue of family connections and talent. Ding Lanfen’s expression was pinched, but Bai Jianming was smiling. 


 Bai Jianming’s smile only got wider at the sight of Mobei-Jun.


 “Mobei! So this is where you go!” 


 Mobei-Jun dragged the spare papers to cover up his work at once and glared at the other boy, whose smile remained fearless. Bai Jianming looked towards Shang Qinghua, only for Mobei-Jun to stand abruptly and get in his way, probably to give Shang Qinghua more time to hide the evidence of what they’d been doing. Shang Qinghua hastily did that. 


 “I was trying to compliment this beauty,” Bai Jianming confided loudly. 


 Shang Qinghua peeked around the wall of Mobei-Jun just in time to see the female guest disciple bow.


 “Do not allow me to interrupt your conversation, young masters,” Ding Lanfen insisted politely. “Excuse me.” 


 She excused herself at a very brisk pace. 


 Bai Jianming sighed. “Another time,” he said, laughing to himself a little. “So! The library! The library of all places? That’s an unusual place to see you, isn’t it? And with such unusual company, too! Hello, there.” 


 “This is one of the few places to get some quiet,” Mobei-Jun replied. 


 “Oh, am I interrupting your nap again?” 




 “Sorry,” Bai Jianming offered, cheerfully insincere. “It didn’t look like you were sleeping. What were you doing? It can’t be classwork, can it?” 


 Mobei-Jun didn’t answer. 


 Shang Qinghua assumed that Mobei-Jun was glaring fiercely. 


 But Bai Jianming didn’t leave. 


 “Young Master Mobei, I’m sorry again to have interrupted your sleep,” Shang Qinghua said, picking up everything he had gathered and stacked, including the silencing spells that they had been employing for extra privacy. “Thank you for your time! I’ll take this correspondence back to the sect leader immediately, so it can be sent to your father as soon as possible. The Sun Sect Leader shouldn’t be kept waiting! Excuse me!” 


 Shang Qinghua stood, bowed, and then excused himself from the room. He didn’t actually go running off to the sect leader’s office, across the Cloud Recesses, but tucked himself in a convenient hiding spot just outside the room. Even if Bai Jianming chose to take this long way out through the library, instead of going back the way he’d come, the risk that he would see Shang Qinghua was very low. Shang Qinghua did his best to breathe and generally exist in perfect silence.


 He listened. 


 “Your father, hm?” Bai Jianming said finally. “Mobei, are you in troooouble?” 




 "What is it, then?" 


 "None of your concern. Go away.” 


 Bai Jianming laughed. “You’re staying here? Come on, let’s go have some fun for once, without the girls weighing us down. We can go find some nicer girls.” 




 “Oh, nice girls aren’t your type? What is your type?” 




 Bai Jianming laughed again. “Fine, fine! I’m going! Sleep well, Mobei!” 


 Shang Qinghua listened to the other Sun Sect disciple leave. He waited a little while longer before he dared to leave his hiding spot and poke his head back into the other room, where Mobei-Jun was still standing beside their table. Shang Qinghua crept back into the room and put all their supplies back on the table, dropping down again. 


 Mobei-Jun startled at the sound of the books. He swung around and Shang Qinghua stared back at him with mirrored surprise, having thought Mobei-Jun would have seen him out of the corner of his eye or something. 


 “Ah, sorry, I… should have made more noise,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Mobei-Jun’s expression shuttered again, before he also sat back down. 


 “Do… you want to keep working… or…?” 


 Mobei-Jun laid down, assuming one of the many nap positions that he’d used before Shang Qinghua had figured out his reading and writing issue. He closed his eyes. 


 “Ha, that guy seems pretty exhausting,” Shang Qinghua agreed, not bothering to get everything out again. “You don’t share a room with him, do you?” 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun said, with obvious gratefulness. 


 “Ha ha, that’s good. I don’t think I’d be able to sleep with him nearby.” 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun agreed. “He’s next door.” 


 “Oh, shit.” 




 Shang Qinghua tried to remember more about the character of Bai Jianming. The boy was supposed to replace his father as Xifeng-Jun and become one of the Sun Sect Leader’s generals in the coming war, a deadly warrior, but also a cruel and spoiled young master. Or maybe some even more brutal brother or much crueler cousin would pop up to take this laughing boy’s place? Maybe Shang Qinghua had the wrong person. Who knew? 


 “Stay away from him,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “I try to avoid people who laugh when other people trip me into rivers or knock papers out of my hands or shoot arrows at my head,” Shang Qinghua agreed, mildly offended that Mobei-Jun thought he needed the warning. “He’s such a typical young master,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “The things he wants are sooooo predictable.” 


 Mobei-Jun went back to napping. Sleep was something he probably needed desperately if he was surrounded by such dangerous and untrustworthy people all the time.


 Meanwhile, Shang Qinghua gave up on working in favor of flipping boredly through a book. It wasn’t erotica, unfortunately. With Mobei-Jun’s reading skills getting pretty good, Shang Qinghua had to be more careful about the shit he read in public, which was putting some heavy limits on his bookshelves. This was a pretty big sacrifice, in Shang Qinghua’s opinion, but it was one which Mobei-Jun wouldn’t be impressed by at all, so he didn't bring it up. 


 The afternoon passed quietly. 



 It was just before curfew when Shang Qinghua finally heard that Yue Qingyuan’s hunting party had returned to the Cloud Recesses. It was a very bad time to make a visit, since Shang Qinghua had just had a very busy evening, and then had to be up very early the next morning for some bullshit between the An Ding Peak and Qian Cao Peak sides of the Cloud Recesses. Chen Riling had assured him that everyone had made it back alive and in one piece, so there was really no need to make a visit. 


 Shang Qinghua paid a visit to Yue Qingyuan’s house anyway. He knew that Yue Qingyuan had met with the Cloud Sect Leader directly after returning, so it was safe to sneak in, but he still let himself into the house carefully after knocking. He already had his head through the front door when Yue Qingyuan’s voice rose up to tell him to come in. Shang Qinghua found his future sect leader lying on the floor in the middle of his house, staring up at the ceiling, surrounded by some travelling supplies not yet put away.


 Yue Qingyuan looked fine. A little tired, but fine, and apparently just lying on the floor because he felt like it. 


 “So, ah, how did the night hunt go?” Shang Qinghua said, leaning against the door. 


 Yue Qingyuan sighed and said, “It was a shitshow.” 





 Shang Qinghua didn’t have much room to criticize anyone for falling asleep in the middle of the day, though admittedly this sometimes didn’t stop him. Being hypocrtical was one of life's little pleasures, after all. He did his best - well, he tried most of the time - to follow the sleeping routine of the Cloud Recesses, but sometimes he had shit to do, thoughts that wouldn’t leave him alone, or simple exhaustion that told him eight hours of sleep just wasn’t enough and was absolutely right. After a bad night’s sleep or during a particularly boring lecture, Shang Qinghua had nodded off in the classroom, at his desk at both the An Ding Peak offices and the Qiong Ding Peak offices, in the library, in the Discipline Hall, in Yue Qingyuan’s house, and a handful of other places around the Cloud Recesses. 


 So, it wasn’t too alarming to come awake with the sense that he’d passed out somewhere he shouldn’t have, especially with the vague memory of being unable to keep his eyes open in the library. The surface he was sleeping on, though, was definitely new. He was partially upright, sitting and leaning against something just the right balance between solid and giving, something a little warm, and something, as he rubbed his cheek against it slightly, with the same texture as the Cloud Sect disciple uniforms. 


 Shang Qinghua pushed against it, sitting up again, holding on while his balance came back online. It moved underneath his hands, which was weird. Shang Qinghua looked blearily around, up from a familiar table covered in work, and then up at Mobei-Jun. 


 “Oh, no,” he said, looking back down at the hand resting on Mobei-Jun’s chest. “Oh, no.” 


 Shang Qinghua scooted quickly away, but it was much too late to undo the fact that he had fallen asleep on Mobei-Jun. Sitting side by side was the easiest way to practice reading, and apparently Shang Qinghua had overcome how nervous this sitting arrangement made him long enough to nod off against the side of the Sun Sect disciple, and he’d apparently stayed there long enough to leave drool on Mobei-Jun’s uniform. 


 He couldn’t flee too far, however, despite his pounding heart screaming for him to run away over the hills and never return. Shang Qinghua tried to scoot farther away and his entire head jerked forward. His forehead ribbon was caught on something. One of Shang Qinghua’s hands reached up to keep the Cloud Sect forehead ribbon in place, while the other reached for whatever it had snagged itself on.


 He didn’t know what he was expecting to see.


 He wasn’t at all expecting to see the ends of his forehead ribbon tangled around Mobei-Jun’s fingers.


 Mobei-Jun quickly freed his hand from it. The ends of the forehead ribbon fluttered back to Shang Qinghua, falling against the front of his robes. Shang Qinghua's free hand fell back against his chest, holding the ends of the ribbon there. 


 “...You fell asleep,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “I’m sorry! Young Master Mobei, I’m so sorry! Please forgive me-!” 


 “It’s fine,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “-I- oh, all right. That’s good, but I really didn’t mean-” 


 “Don’t do it again.” 


 “Of course! It won’t happen again, I promise! Thank you for-” 


 “Shut up.” 


 Shang Qinghua shut up and decided to count himself fortunate that Mobei-Jun had decided to take pity on him today, probably paying back that time Shang Qinghua had rescued his drunk ass from wandering lost through the Cloud Recesses at night. His heart was still pounding, but it warmed a little at the idea that he had earned so much good will from Mobei-Jun. They really were almost bros now, weren’t they? They were pretty friendly now, actually! 


 “Where… where were we?” Shang Qinghua tried. 


 “Never mind,” Mobei-Jun said, closing the book in front of him. 


 “Oh. All right.” 


 It looked for a moment that Mobei-Jun was going to drag Shang Qinghua off for another sparring session, in which Shang Qinghua was repeatedly knocked to the ground by a simultaneously smug and frustrated warrior who could squish him. Instead, Mobei-Jun just reorganized the supplies on their table slightly, without obvious purpose. Some writing exercises were closest to the top now. After a little while, Mobei-Jun took them.


  Shang Qinghua moved to the other side of the table, the safe side of the table, to continue his own work. Unfortunately, he yawned against just looking at it, feeling every extra minute he had stayed awake. 


 Yue Qingyuan had been fine in the end. The seventeen-year-old was just exhausted from the night hunt, and from playing both referee and punching bag throughout the trip, trying to make a bunch of guest disciples, some of whom were older than him, get along. Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge’s relationship had apparently deepened into lifelong loathing after a misunderstanding, and Yue Qingyuan was in shit with both of them for trying to mediate instead of picking a side. 


 There had been no opportunity to talk to Shen Qingqiu alone and, with the River Sect disciple still fuming over Yue Qingyuan’s apparent “favouritism” for Liu Qingge or some other bullshit like that, there probably wouldn’t be one any time soon. Yue Qingyuan had either made no progress whatsoever or made a small bit of negative progress on his mission there. It was a disappointing but unsurprising result. 


 “What happened?” Mobei-Jun said, after the next yawn. 




 “Why are you yawning? What happened?” 


 “Oh, nothing, I just… went to go check on my cousin after he got back from the most recent guest disciples’ hunt last night,” Shang Qinghua explained. “I probably didn’t need to do it. I had to get up early this morning and it would have waited, but then I would be thinking about it all day and I’d get nothing done, so checking in was maybe necessary after all…” 


 “...Why did you need to check in with him?” Mobei-Jun asked. 


 Shang Qinghua shrugged. “Just because.” 


 No way was he ranting about that kind of family drama to Mobei-Jun, new bros or not! 


 Thankfully, Mobei-Jun let it go. 


 They didn’t talk again for some time. Shang Qinghua swallowed countless yawns, trying and failing to focus on his work, as Mobei-Jun worked slowly through the writing exercises. 


 “What does everyone want?” Mobei-Jun said finally. 




 “What does everyone want?” 


 “...Are they doing that kind of philosophy in the lectures now? I must have missed-” 




 “-it. Oh. Then… why…?” 


 “You said that you wanted what everyone wants,” Mobei-Jun informed him. 


 Shang Qinghua blinked. “I did?” 




 “Ah, I guess I did.” 


 “What does ‘everyone’ want?” Mobei-Jun repeated. 


 “Oh, I really don’t know. Everyone wants different things, don’t they?” 


 Mobei-Jun’s frown deepened into a scowl. 


 “But, ah, that’s the short answer!” Shang Qinghua said hastily. “The long answer is… I think that most things that people want really come from the same roots, right? They want to be happy! Ha, it sounds kind of innocent when you say it like that, but it’s really not because people can want some really disturbing things, so maybe it’s more right to say that everyone wants to be spoiled, according to whatever special vision they have of the ideal life for them. 


 “There’s lots of people out there, for example, whose great fantasies of their perfect happiness involve, I don’t know, a harem of beautiful women who fawn over them, a magnificent palace full of luxuries, a treasure room full of endless gold, a sword that wins all their battles for them, and the endless suffering of everyone who ever scorned them. That’s what ‘everyone’ wants, right? That’s the usual setup? Oh, yes! You could think that a person like that must be deeply satisfied with their life! What a hero! It’s not like a lot of people who come close to that seem to spend a lot of their time fucking around for attention and accolades, filling a bottomless appetite for stuff so they can keep themselves from dying of boredom and superficial satisfaction. Look at me! I’m better than you! 


 “Most people just want to not starve and have nice things, and once you get past that stage, most people apparently want to have more than anyone else, so they can assure themselves that they’re not at the bottom of the pile, and that life will come screw over their neighbor first if things turn bad. After all, if they’re good and skilled and in all ways superior, then they get praise and can do whatever they want and they can also tell themselves that bad things will never, ever happen to them again because, unlike those poor and mediocre normal people in the background of their lives, they’re a deserving person above common misfortune. 


 “Why would someone want a sword that wins all their battles for them? Maybe they want to build an empire! What a great and impressive and super interesting goal, right?  Why do they want to build an empire? Probably so they can have nice things and experience the joy of taking things from the little people! The root of it really seems to be making other people eat dirt and making sure no one can ever beat them up! It’s not that deep! 


 “And they want women, too, of course, because sex, and having more and better than everyone else, and also that’s what you’re supposed to want in these wild and lurid fantasies of control and power and pleasure and nonviolent human contact, right?! It’s a fantasy! A fantasy! It’s not supposed to be turned into reality-! Wait, where was I going with this?” 


 Shang Qinghua brought himself out of whatever the fuck he’d been talking about and refocused on Mobei-Jun, who was staring at him with a faint frown.


 Shang Qinghua coughed. “Ah, well, never mind! Most people want to be happy and healthy - or safe and spoiled - and usually superior to everyone else, too,” he said. “That’s what everyone wants, isn’t it? A lot of char- human motivations aren’t really that complicated at their root.” 


 Mobei-Jun, on the other side of the table, said nothing. 


 “Young Master Mobei, I’m really tired, so that probably made no sense,” Shang Qinghua said desperately. “I don’t think my mouth is really awake yet. I don’t even remember everything I said just now, but I don’t really want all that - that would cause too much trouble for one thing, ha ha, it wouldn’t be worth it - it was just an example.” 


 Shang Qinghua stayed very still, waiting for Mobei-Jun to say something, anything, partly because he was convinced that he would somehow manage to knock ink into Mobei-Jun’s lap for his next horrifyingly humiliating accident in this ruined tutoring session. He should have given in to his instincts and fled the second he woke up against Mobei-Jun’s arm, clearly. 


 Apparently, he was going to be waiting forever for Mobei-Jun to say something. 


 “So, you have your own night hunt with the other Sun Sect disciples soon, right? With some Flower Sect and Cloud Sect disciples, too. That should be, er, interesting.” 


  “Please take the conversation change bait!” Shang Qinghua thought. “Please!” 


 “...Yes,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “Probably not a good interesting, but hopefully a good interesting!” 


 “It won’t be.” 


 “No, it’s going to be bad, for sure. I’m so glad that I’m not a part of these guest lectures; I don’t know what I’m going to do when Little Uncle finally drags me to a cultivation conference. I’m supposed to start going to those soon, unless I can persuade him to do what everyone else does and forget I exist, which is a long shot but I have to try.” 


 “...You don’t have to try,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “What? Maybe not, but I have to put some work into making it a pain for them to push me around, on the off-chance they’ll be so embarrassed to be seen with me that they leave me be,” Shang Qinghua joked. “Fussing at least makes them think twice about it.” 


 Mobei-Jun, unsurprisingly, wasn’t impressed by this joke. 


 Hopefully, this entire afternoon would be forgotten. Shang Qinghua intended to do his best to forget it ever happened. 



 Things really were going well between them, Shang Qinghua dared to think, after Mobei-Jun returned from the trip he’d gone on with some Sun Sect, Flower Sect, and Cloud Sect disciples. This night hunt apparently hadn’t been too much of a shitshow. It had been led by Wang Qingjie, rather than Yue Qingyuan, and the only person to get more than lightly injured was the Cloud Sect disciple from the Qian Cao Peak side of things, one of the healers of the party who hadn’t jumped out of the way of the danger fast enough. 


 It had been strange spending those few days without Mobei-Jun. Shang Qinghua had tried to continue going to the library, not wanting to let anyone think he was free to be sent on errands, but Little Uncle had roped him back into the An Ding Peak side of the Cloud Recesses. He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling he should have been somewhere else, with someone else, and taking a break only to be put to work hadn’t been a welcome change at all! 


 It was almost a relief, weirdly enough, to be back with Mobei-Jun. 


 Even if that also meant trying to survive through Mobei-Jun’s martial skills tutoring again. 


 Mobei-Jun was a harsh taskmaster, increasingly wise to all of Shang Qinghua’s tricks to get out of a fight, and apparently not in a good mood today - at least, even more than usual. Every time that Shang Qinghua’s arms and legs were out of place, his hits not forceful enough, Mobei-Jun snapped and snarled. Every time Mobei-Jun snapped or snarled at him, Shang Qinghua’s focus got worse and his steadiness dropped out from under him. It was a bad combination. 


 Shang Qinghua had tried joking around to lighten the mood, but that had only made things worse. 


 He was trying to take it seriously now, he really was, but that didn’t seem to be working either. The fact that he had really been trying made it hurt even more when Mobei-Jun knocked his sword out of his hand for the twentieth time or so, sending it clattering against some tree roots, and then immediately slammed Shang Qinghua over into the dirt for the thirtieth time or so. Mobei-Jun didn't pull his punch this time. 


 The blow was hard and Shang Qinghua landed just as hard, unable to breathe even after he pushed himself up again, his chest straining from the shock and emptiness of being winded. He looked up, struggling to even wheeze, and found Mobei-Jun’s sword directly in front of his eyes. 


 “Do you want to die?!” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 Shang Qinghua tried to deny it, as he turned over, but the sound came out choked. 


“You cannot rely on your opponent’s mercy!” Mobei-Jun snapped. “One day you will not be able to run! You will not be underestimated! Your opponent will not care if you act harmless. Your opponent will not care if you are harmless! Your opponent will have no desire to stay their blade if at all possible! They will not think twice! What will you do then?!” 


  “I’ll die,” Shang Qinghua thought, staring up at him with wide eyes. 


 He didn't think this answer would go over well. 


 Mobei-Jun took the sword away, but he didn’t step away or offer a hand down. The Sun Sect disciple kept scowling down at Shang Qinghua, so high and mighty above him. 


 “Do you have nothing to protect? Do you really stand for nothing? Wish for nothing?” 


 Shang Qinghua swallowed. 


 “You allow yourself to be treated as you are,” Mobei-Jun informed him, sneering. “You look down on those around you even when you stand on nothing… and complain… and complain… and complain. It is pathetic. This is pathetic.” 


 There was silence afterwards, a space for Shang Qinghua to defend himself, but he didn’t even try to speak.


 His chest ached.


 His throat hurt.


 He couldn’t even keep looking at Mobei-Jun. 


 It took longer than he would have expected, maybe, for Mobei-Jun to give up on him. After a few minutes, Mobei-Jun sheathed his sword and walked away without another word, leaving Shang Qinghua on the ground, alone in the woods of the Cloud Recesses. It wasn’t time for their training to end yet, but Shang Qinghua didn’t try to stop him. 


 Several minutes after Mobei-Jun left, Shang Qinghua looked at the sword that had been knocked aside, sitting on the ground, out of his reach. It was a nice enough sword, Shang Qinghua had always thought, a little understated but still elegant, so long as a person didn’t know who it really belonged to and judge it by that. Little Uncle had at least made sure that Shang Qinghua’s spiritual sword didn’t embarrass the sect, as long as Shang Qinghua didn’t actually try to do anything with it and embarrass them anyway. 


 Looking away from the sword, off into the trees, Shang Qinghua leaned back and put his hands behind him.


 If he was going to ditch the sect someday, if the plot ever came for him (when the plot came for him, it was beginning to look like), and become a melon farmer or a glass merchant or something instead, there wasn’t much stopping him from just doing it now. If he just got up and started walking, he could get a long way. Once upon a time, he'd actually done the math on it. These days, no one would notice his disappearance until midmorning the next day at the earliest, probably. There was no designated person to check on him or bring him back if he tried to make a break for it. 


 Shang Qinghua stayed where he was until the bell rang for the evening meal, then he stood up, picked up his sword, and walked slowly back to the Cloud Sect. 


 “Too much of a coward to even run away spontaneously,” he muttered. “How pathetic.” 



Chapter Text


 Shang Qinghua thought about not going to the library the next day. 


 He wondered if it was going to be like that time he’d confronted Mobei-Jun over his reading abilities (or lack thereof), when the Sun Sect disciple hadn’t returned to the library for days on end after stalking away in anger, and Shang Qinghua, like a loser, had waited there anyway. This time, he thought, it should be the other way around! Yeah, he really liked the idea of Mobei-Jun sitting there, alone, uncertain if Shang Qinghua was going to show up! 


 He wondered if Mobei-Jun would come looking for him. 


 He probably would, but only to murder Shang Qinghua for standing him up.  


 Shang Qinghua almost didn’t go, but in the end, he was apparently too much of a coward to even put up that much of a fight. The fantasy of Mobei-Jun being teary-eyed and frantic in his absence was kind of fun, but too unrealistic to entertain for long, especially when he knew that if he tried to skip out, Mobei-Jun would probably only get angrier with him. 


 Besides, what else was he going to do with his time? Work more? Train more? Dedicate himself to the thousands of rules written on that damn wall like he cared? Ha! 


 So, Shang Qinghua went to the library as though nothing different had happened the day before, and he resented the Cloud Sect for this ridiculous punishment setup, Mobei-Jun for being such an ungrateful asshole, and most of all: himself for not doing shit about it. 


 Mobei-Jun came into their library space at a sedate pace and didn’t sit down immediately. He stood beside the table and stared. 


 Shang Qinghua wondered if he was supposed to leap up, screaming about the unforgivable attack on his pride or dignity or skills, and attack Mobei-Jun with his bare hands or something. Then he noticed that, beneath the classwork that Mobei-Jun was holding, there was something else in his hands. 


 “Young Master Mobei…?” 


 Mobei-Jun sat down and dropped a package on the table, pushing it towards Shang Qinghua. It unfolded as it slid, revealing… 


 “Candy?” Shang Qinghua mumbled. 


 He recognized it from one of the shops in the local village. Mobei-Jun must have picked it up the last time that the Sun Sect disciples had passed through on a night hunt or a day trip down the mountain. For several seconds, the idea that the terrifying right-hand-man character from Proud Immortal Demonic Way had any kind of sweet tooth was too much to handle. 


 Mobei-Jun was looking at him expectantly. 


  “Bro?! What the fuck is this?!” Shang Qinghua thought. “Do you really think that this coward is so cheaply bought?! Do you think you can pay to push me around in candy?!” 


 He wasn’t even the biggest fan of these candied fruit slices. Not that his mind would change if these had been his favorite treats, he thought, even as drool puddled in the bottom of his mouth. Candy in the Cloud Recesses wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence, that was for sure the only reason he was drooling. Sometimes this transmigrator dreamed unreasonable dreams about processed foods, deep-fried foodstuffs that never should have been deep-fried, and packed sugar that had been stuck inside a vending machine for potentially years on end. 


 Nevertheless! He was still super angry! Did Mobei-Jun really think that this made things good between them? This almost seemed worse than pretending nothing had happened. 


 “...What is this for?” 






 Mobei-Jun remained silent. He scowled. 


  “Say it, asshole!” Shang Qinghua thought. 


 “...Why not?” Mobei-Jun finally said. 


 Shang Qinghua’s mouth dropped open. If he was a braver person, he might have jumped onto the table, kicked the candy away, and shouted, “You think I’m pathetic! You think that I’m annoying! You resent needing my help! Take your fucking pick!” 


 Instead, he said, “Fine. Thanks. Let’s get on with things, I guess.” 


 So, they got on with things. Shang Qinghua had dragged himself to the library telling himself that he wouldn’t have to do that much, just sitting beside Mobei-Jun as he read and reviewing his writing efforts, only interrupting here and there. He didn’t really bother to try and break the ice today. It was a little tense, a little quiet, but it was still probably better than when they had first started these lessons and he thought Mobei-Jun might rip out his tongue. 


 Today, however, Mobei-Jun apparently needed nearly everything explained at length. By the end of the first hour, Shang Qinghua would say, “Does that make sense?” and Mobei-Jun was saying, “No,” every single time, and so Shang Qinghua would have to stumble through explaining shit all over again in a slightly different way. 


  “I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore,” he thought helplessly, so close to the end of their tutoring session and yet somehow searching for a fourth way to explain what he had previously thought was a pretty simple concept. He was beginning to doubt his own understanding. 


 He wanted nothing more than to slam his hands down on the table and scream, “Are you just fucking with me?! You HAVE to be fucking with me, bro!” 


 He was so glad when the tutoring session ended that he forgot to take the damn candy. 



 Which explained, the next day, when Mobei-Jun dropped the damn candy on the table again, glaring at Shang Qinghua like he was ruining an important poisoning plot. “Oh, I forgot,” Shang Qinghua said, leaving out how he’d spent a fucking hour last night flipping between delight that he’d accidentally slighted Mobei-Jun, anger that he hadn’t even gotten any damn candy out of it, and terror over the fact that he’d accidentally slighted Mobei-Jun’s shitty apology. 


 Halfway into the tutoring session, Mobei-Jun ate a piece of candy, looking at Shang Qinghua while he did it. Shang Qinghua didn’t know if Mobei-Jun was condescendingly demonstrating how to eat the candy to a Cloud Sect disciple who had possibly never eaten sweets in their life, or if Mobei-Jun was daring him to say something about selfish assholes stealing his bribe. 


 Shang Qinghua pretended to be totally blind to this. 


 “Young Master Mobei, let’s go over these writing exercises now.” 


 At the end of the lesson, Shang Qinghua left the candy behind on purpose. He wanted Mobei-Jun to say something about it, so he could smugly use the comeback he’d been sitting on for an hour: “Young Master, I thought you had taken your gift back!” But Mobei-Jun didn’t say shit as he left, so Shang Qinghua left disgruntled at the missed opportunity and unreasonably pissed off about it. 



 “...I have no experience as a teacher,” Mobei-Jun said, out of nowhere, on the third day. 


 Shang Qinghua blinked at him. 


  “Yeah, that’s been really fucking obvious from the get-go, bro,” he thought. 


 “Well, that’s something we have in common, Young Master.” 


 “You have none?” 


 Mobei-Jun’s brow was furrowed. His voice had turned up slightly at the end. The surprise was unexpected and so flattering that it was pathetically embarrassing. 


 “I’ve been in classrooms as a ‘teaching assistant’,” Shang Qinghua admitted, “but I was really just there to try to keep impractically white robes on grubby children from becoming unsalvageable. And I wasn’t very good at that. Children are fast, you know? And surprisingly devious! And also they don’t know anything about anything, and it’s kind of just funny when one of them turns to the other and says, ‘Open up!’ and then sticks a brush in the other one’s mouth because they just did it. That’s… not relevant, though…” 


 Shang Qinghua cleared his throat. Look at him! Getting off topic right away! There went all of his efforts to be efficient and respectable and not the most ridiculous fucking person in the Cloud Recesses. It really was a lost cause. 


 Mobei-Jun was frowning at him, of course, but not too deeply. Shang Qinghua had come to see many frowns over the course of these tutoring sessions, so he was pretty sure that this one was the thoughtful frown. “Don’t strain yourself, Young Master,” he thought bitterly. 


 “I have little experience as a student,” Mobei-Jun said next. 


 “I know, that’s… why we’re here,” Shang Qinghua agreed cautiously. “Wait, what about lessons in swordsmanship and spells and all that? I thought you at least did those ones? Don’t those count? ...Young Master Mobei?” 


 “...The Sun Sect has a different teaching style.” 


 “Oh.” Shang Qinghua said, then muttered to himself, “The ‘learn or die’ style, I guess…?” 




 Shang Qinghua hadn’t actually meant for Mobei-Jun to hear that, and he tapped his fingertips against the table, having just been handed a response he didn’t want in a conversation that he didn’t want either. “But when it comes to this stuff, you didn’t do either of those things, so how did that teaching style work out for you, Young Master Mobei?” he demanded. 


 Mobei-Jun scowled. 


 Shang Qinghua shrank back. “Never mind,” he said. “Ha, what am I even saying? I’m talking nonsense. Don’t mind me. Let’s go over this one more time, Young Master Mobei, slowly, and I’m sure it’ll make sense this time so we can leave. As my cousin used to say, ‘You have to do it slow and right before you’re allowed to do it fast and wrong.’” 


 Miraculously, Mobei-Jun understood the concept this time, and Shang Qinghua sat back as the Sun Sect disciple reviewed the work one last time. He resigned himself to the fact that he probably wasn’t going to get an apology from a young master who definitely didn’t think that he’d done anything wrong, and as a reward for this enlightened perspective, he finally gave into temptation and popped a piece of candy into his mouth. 


 It was a little too sweet, maybe a little stale, but it was still good enough. 


 After the fifth piece, Shang Qinghua thought for a second that Mobei-Jun was going to strangle him for chewing too loudly, or for accepting a gift he hadn’t actually been meant to eat but another miracle occurred: Mobei-Jun looked down again without a word. 


 It was weird. 


 Shang Qinghua kept chewing loudly, until he swallowed the wrong way, and then ended up having a coughing fit. So, Mobei-Jun came around the table to slap him on the back so hard that he nearly coughed up his lungs. Mobei-Jun also told him to stop it, like the annoying coughing fit had been on purpose or something, and that was a little more like it. 



 Dreading their next training session didn’t actually stop it from coming. Shang Qinghua had been hoping that Mobei-Jun would deem him a lost cause and give up, but apparently not. In fact, for once, Mobei-Jun didn’t just start barking orders or yell at him to, “Defend yourself!” 


 They went through some forms slowly, with Mobei-Jun correcting Shang Qinghua’s stance or grip, and Shang Qinghua didn’t know whether to be breathtakingly grateful for the change of pace or to be pissed off that Mobei-Jun was apparently treating him like a child now. He ended up doing a little bit of both, putting in the effort not to tremble like a trapped mouse and to convince Mobei-Jun that he didn’t actually want to die, thanks. 


  “So please don’t kill me!” he thought. 


 It was fine. It was almost good. Except that not knowing what the fuck was going to happen next was super stressful, so by the end of something that was, objectively, not that bad, Shang Qinghua was unreasonably exhausted, totally confused, and still kind of pissed off about it. 


 “...Good job,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t know whether to be proud of himself or pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Was this pity?! Was the young master mocking him?! It seemed more likely that Mobei-Jun was mocking him than that his patheticness had finally moved a cold heart. 


 “With compliments like that, I’ll get a swollen head,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 “There is a long way yet to go,” Mobei-Jun replied, which was a little more like it. 


 “Ha ha! Isn’t there always?” Shang Qinghua finished his stretching and stood. “Young Master Mobei, I’m never going to be on your level, so trying seems a little pointless.” 


 He was ready to go, but Mobei-Jun didn’t lead them off yet. 


 “That is not an excuse,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 Shang Qinghua disagreed, but he kept it to himself, because he wasn’t supposed to out a certain no-good, shitty Transmigration System to the other characters. Unlike certain other people around here, his assigned character just wasn’t destined to be an OP badass, and getting angry about it didn’t change shit. He’d tried. 


 “I may never be your equal in your skills,” Mobei-Jun bit out next. 


 “What? You mean… what? Reading and writing?” 


 Mobei-Jun didn’t nod. 


 He wasn’t even looking at Shang Qinghua. 


 But he didn’t shake his head or glare or say, “Ha ha, kidding!” 


 “Well… that’s… that’s just a lot of practice,” Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky said. 


 “Yes,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 Shang Qinghua’s calligraphy depended mostly on the effort put into it. His poetry was pretty good, in this humble author’s opinion, but when he was forced to write poetry, people around the Cloud Recesses mostly just called it “unusual” like he ought to have been ashamed of himself, and as far as he knew, Mobei-Jun had never seen any of it. Creative writing… yeah, he didn’t do that shit anymore. Not in this lifetime. 


 “You will not need superior skills until the day it is deadly to be without them,” Mobei-Jun said, still not looking at him, and it had the sound of a philosophical quote. It didn’t quite have the tone of one of the rules of the Cloud Recesses, though. 


 “...Or I could just pathetically cling to the thighs of someone stronger than me for the rest of my life,” Shang Qinghua muttered, too shocked to ask for citations, too cowardly to make the joke any louder. Was he joking? Maybe not! Clinging to someone’s thighs to survive seemed an acceptable price to him, especially if it got him out of unnecessary training sessions, too.  


 The Sun Sect disciple turned away then. Apparently, the super weird conversation was done now and it was time to go back to the rest of the Cloud Sect. Shang Qinghua decided to be relieved, replaying Mobei-Jun’s words, for sure making more out of them than was there. Maybe Mobei-Jun just hadn’t wanted to call him pathetic in the same way twice. 



 The next time Shang Qinghua was dragged off to the woods to get beaten up in the name of bettering himself, he fucked up pretty spectacularly at one point, but the really incredible thing was that Mobei-Jun didn’t yell at him for it. For a moment, it totally looked like Mobei-Jun was going to throw him into the river for being such an embarrassment to the cultivation world, but then Shang Qinghua’s future murderer swallowed his anger and just said, “Again.” 


 It was super obvious that Mobei-Jun didn’t want him to quit their “exchange of skills”. That had been super obvious from the beginning.


 The question was what the fuck to do about it. 


 Of course Shang Qinghua had to fuck up again just to test this. Well, the second time that he messed up what he was supposed to be doing, it really was another accident, but it was mostly Mobei-Jun’s fault for not yelling and leaving Shang Qinghua in a state of shock. The third time that Shang Qinghua messed up, it was at least 50% on purpose. 


 Mobei-Jun was definitely fooled! 


  “What about this aren’t you understanding?!” he demanded, incredulous. 


 “Ha ha, if I knew, we wouldn’t be having this problem,” Shang Qinghua lied. “Sorry! Sorry!” 


 “You should be able to do this.” 


 “I’m trying! Sorry! Sorry!” 


 “Stop apologizing!” 





 It would serve Mobei-Jun right, in Shang Qinghua’s opinion, if he did up and ditch him! It would serve the young master right if he actually had to grovel a little to get back into Shang Qinghua’s good graces! But would he? Would Mobei-Jun’s pride allow that? If Shang Qinghua cried, “Call me your god or else I’ll humiliate you in front of all your peers!” then Mobei-Jun might just beat him up for real and would treat Shang Qinghua as the slimy little character he was forever. 


 As nice as it would be to call Mobei-Jun a spoiled brat and pinch his cheeks until his face was red, as nice as it would be to hurt the asshole back a little, Shang Qinghua didn’t want to push them onto a path that would only lead to the plot of Proud Immortal Demonic Way. 


 Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe trying was pointless. 


  “Trying for WHAT?!” Shang Qinghua thought to himself, after having that thought. 


 He didn’t get an answer. 


 By the third training session after the one where Mobei-Jun had called him pathetic, Shang Qinghua was supposed to be the one attacking Mobei-Jun. It was possibly one of the most stressful things that this transmigrator had done in any lifetime. 


 Mobei-Jun was unimpressed by his efforts. 


 “Attack like you mean it!” Mobei-Jun snapped at him. 


 “But I don’t!” Shang Qinghua wailed. 


 This training session went on for too long! And it was much too grueling! Shang Qinghua would have been super glad when it finally ended, except that it ended with Mobei-Jun countering his lackluster attack with all the force he apparently expected Shang Qinghua to attack with. Shang Qinghua went flying back into the bushes. He was cushioned by slightly spiny leaves no one in their right fucking mind would have made a cusion out of. 


 “Ow,” he wheezed. 


 Mobei-Jun stomped over to drag him out of the bushes again by the collar. 


 “...Did you need to hit that hard?” Shang Qinghua mumbled, brushing himself off to no effect. The spiny leaves were clinging to the white robes. “Ah, fuck, this really isn’t fair… why am I the one always ending up in these shitty situations…” 


 “Hit me back.” 




 “If I let you hit me back, would that satisfy you?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 Shang Qinghua stared at him. “Is that… an offer…?” 






 “Yes. Would that satisfy you?” 


 “Oh… well…” 


 “Would it?” Mobei-Jun repeated, leaning forward. 


 Shang Qinghua leaned back. “No!” 




 “No! I don’t want-! I don’t want to do that!” 


 “You don’t?” 


 Shang Qinghua held his sword away from Mobei-Jun and his free hand partly behind his back, just in case. Mobei-Jun’s face was right there. Shang Qinghua couldn’t deny that it was a little tempting, for morbid curiosity’s sake if not long-awaited revenge, but that didn’t mean that he actually wanted to hit this person! It was kind of insulting this way, too! 


 “Why not?” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “Why not?! Are you really asking why not?! 




 “Well, fine! Fine!”  Shang Qinghua reached out with his free hand and pinched one of Mobei-Jun’s cheeks, tugging sharply twice before letting go. “There!” 


 Mobei-Jun blinked at him. “That’s it?” 


 “Maybe I don’t get off on causing people pain!” Shang Qinghua snapped back. “You hurt me, now I get to hurt you? Where does that end? Maybe I’ve had enough of that kind of thing!” 


 If push came to shove, Shang Qinghua was pretty sure that he could commit violence to save his own hide, and admittedly, he sometimes found other people’s mundane and tedious bits of suffering super funny if they had screwed him over in the past. But Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky was indirectly responsible for so much shit already, so maybe he didn’t want to actually see any unnecessary bloodshed in the Cloud Recesses! Maybe that was too real! 


 “What if it’s not your choice?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 “It’s my choice now!” 


 Shang Qinghua came to regret that outburst, as Mobei-Jun didn’t reply. He also regretted not taking all those opportunities to draw a mustache on Mobei-Jun’s face when he had been napping in the library. Shang Qinghua had resisted the temptation, but for what? 


 “Can we go?” Shang Qinghua demanded. “We’re going to be late for the evening meal.” 


 “The bell tolled some time ago, when we were sparring,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “...What?” Shang Qinghua looked back up the mountain and then up at the sky. “Oh. We’re so far from the rest of the sect, there’s no way we’ll make it back on time…” 


 Sneaking snacks wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him, but he was really hungry. He wanted a hot meal. He wanted a meal with a kick. He wanted a portion size that would make the relevant rules on that wall on Qiong Ding Peak crack from the sheer audacity. Tonight definitely seemed like a “hit the town and eat to forget your worries” night. 


 He looked at Mobei-Jun and said bravely, “You should buy me dinner.” 


 “...Fine,” Mobei-Jun said. 



 Shang Qinghua was unreasonably surprised to find himself in the village down the mountain, sitting in his favorite restaurant, across from Mobei-Jun. He’d had the entire way here to get over the fact that this was happening, but apparently that hadn’t been long enough. He’d done worse things than sneak a Sun Sect disciple out of the sect, he told himself. 


 In his effort to get over the fact that this was happening, he’d apparently forgotten that the restaurant owner, Madam Yan, would inevitably pop out from nowhere to greet him personally and ask after Little Uncle’s health. Madam Yan was a youthful old widow who still remembered when Shang Xinzhong had brought his little cousin here for the first time, and that little cousin had eaten too much too fast and thrown up all over her dining room, which was one of the many reasons she would never, ever see Shang Qinghua as someone grown-up and respectable. 


 Yue Qingyuan was apparently a “very nice young man”, in her eyes, meanwhile Shang Qinghua was someone who always needed an extra five napkins delivered to his table just in case of an accident. 


 “Oh, you’re tall,” Madam Yan said to Mobei-Jun, and then delightedly patted his bicep. “And strong. Where did you get this? Not up there at that sect! I bet that you haven’t eaten a good meal in far too long! Come on in, come on in, and let Auntie Yan give you some real food.” 


 Mobei-Jun gave Shang Qinghua an alarmed look as Madam Yan dragged him off. 


 “Sorry,” Shang Qinghua said, when Madam Yan finally, finally left their table after interrogating the both of them to her satisfaction. It helped that Madam Yan tended to only hear what she wanted to hear anyway. “I come here a lot.” 


 “I guessed that,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “Our sect’s food isn’t that bad, but it’s… uh… repetitive.” 




 Shang Qinghua mostly came here for take-out. He’d only dined-in before in the company of his late cousin, Little Uncle, Yue Qingyuan, and occasionally Chen Riling. Madam Yan was thrilled that Shang Qinghua had apparently made a “friend”, especially one who obviously had a hearty appetite, and she quickly plied their table with food, which saved Shang Qinghua from having to make conversation with a “friend” who thought he was pathetic and ridiculous. 


 Mobei-Jun ate like someone who had been starved of good food for months, a steady path of destruction. Shang Qinghua ate at a less impressive pace, partly because someone needed to reply to Madam Yan as she shared some village news and some village complaints. 


 “That bridge that was damaged in one of your hunts is so rickety now that my daughter thought she was going to be washed away! Why isn’t it fixed yet? When is it getting fixed?” 


 “I delivered the order to the builder personally, Madam Yan,” Shang Qinghua promised. 


 “Tell your uncle to tell that man to hurry it up, then.” 


 “Yes, Madam Yan.” 


 Madam Yan left them alone eventually, though not before jokingly offering them some of her best wine. Shang Qinghua made a show of being deeply tempted before declining. 


 “Oh, did you want some?” Shang Qinghua realized when he saw Mobei-Jun was looking at him. “It’s really pretty good, if you haven’t tried it! I’d be kind of surprised if the guest disciples haven’t had some of the local stuff already. I can call her back-?” 




 “It’s no trouble-” 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun repeated. “I haven’t since…” 


 “Oh. All right.” 


 It had been some time now since Shang Qinghua had found a drunk Mobei-Jun on a dark path in the Cloud Recesses. He was kind of impressed. He knew that Yue Qingyuan had confiscated alcohol from various guest disciples several times since then, so it wasn’t like all of the guest disciples had suddenly gone dry. 


 “The, ah, Cloud Recesses makes it easier to not drink, huh?” Shang Qinghua said. 




 Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had liked drinking, maybe a little too much. A beer at the end of the day hadn’t been unusual at all. Two or more beers at the end of a bad day had been normal and bad days hadn't been unusual either. The less said about really bad days, the better. It was ironic now that he’d inherited his new family’s non-existent drinking tolerance and become a severe lightweight. Clearly, he should have thought through the consequences of giving that quality to one of Luo Binghe’s wives! 


 He knew that he was a lightweight for a fact because he had actually gotten drunk in this lifetime. He’d been too young for it, definitely, and it had been unmooring enough that he hadn’t done it since. He’d gotten the feeling that if he started, he might not stop. 


 “I’d make sure that you got back,” Shang Qinghua offered. “You can drink if you want.” 


 “I know,” Mobei-Jun said, “but I will not.” 


 “...All right.” 


 Madam Yan delivered a plate of cakes to their table and, along with it, a neatly wrapped box of cakes for Shang Qinghua to take back up the mountain for Little Uncle and an extra one for Yue Qingyuan because Madam Yan assumed (correctly) that he was working too hard. Shang Qinghua hadn’t even had to ask for the usual bribe for Little Uncle. 


 “Ah, these are for my family. I’ll pay for these.” 


 “No need,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 Mobei-Jun paid for everything, mercilessly ignoring all of Shang Qinghua’s hemming and hawing. Madam Yan, who had only been told that Mobei-Jun was a guest disciple, patted the son of the Sun Sect Leader on the cheek and called him a kind and generous young boy, and told Shang Qinghua to shut up and be grateful. Mobei-Jun smirked. 


 “We’ll have to sneak back in, but don’t worry about Madam Yan telling anyone and getting us in trouble,” Shang Qinghua said on the way back. “She’s better than that! Also, worst case scenario: Little Uncle will totally swear that I was there on official, super important business with the village if he wants to keep getting his cakes.” 


 “Hm,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “It’s worth going back there if you get the chance. Everything on the menu is good. Madam Yan threw nearly everything at us, but there are seasonal specialties, you know? Don’t take the other Sun Sect disciples there, though. They don’t deserve it.” 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun agreed. “They know too much already.” 


 “What? What do they know?” 




 “Nothing is too much?” Shang Qinghua demanded. 


 “Some of them suspect that there is something to know.” 




 “Do not speak with them.” 


 “I wasn’t going to! Ah, now I’m going to have to avoid them extra hard…” 



 Just because Madam Yan thought they were friends didn’t actually make them friends. One dinner bought to make up for being an asshole didn’t make them friends. It didn’t make Mobei-Jun less of an incomprehensible asshole either, honestly, but it did apparently put a certain incomprehensible asshole in a better mood. Honestly, it put Shang Qinghua in a better mood, too, though he was wary of sudden changes. 


  Progress! They seemed to be making it again! 


 A few days later, Shang Qinghua found himself having to pass by the classrooms just as the guest disciples’ lessons ended for the day. Little Uncle needed something delivered to one of the teachers as soon as possible. Shang Qinghua’s pleading expression had said, “But I brought you a bribe just the other day!” And Little Uncle’s sympathetic expression had said, “I don’t see a new bribe on my desk for this completely unrelated thing.” 


 Of course Shang Qinghua’s luck was shitty enough that he had to pass the mob of Sun Sect disciples again. Mobei-Jun didn’t look at him, but Bai Jianming clearly recognized him and grinned. One of the others, probably the Yenan girl, stuck out her leg to trip him. 


 Shang Qinghua hopped over it and kept moving seamlessly. 


  “So fucking predictable!” he thought. 


 Maybe she would see this as a challenge or an insult, but he didn’t intend on hanging around to find out! He heard Bai Jianming’s laughter behind him and glanced over his shoulder. He caught a glimpse of Mobei-Jun’s raised eyebrows and upturned lips before he turned the corner. 



 So, things were good! Things were great! Progress was being made! 


 And then Chen Riling came to the library. 


 Chen Riling was a disciple of the Cloud Sect, so it wasn’t unusual to see her in the Cloud Recesses library, and it wasn’t unusual for her to come looking for him to deliver news. But Shang Qinghua had asked her not to come looking for him in the library on these afternoons. It was alarming to see her hovering in the doorway, fidgeting, her lips pressed tightly together. 


 As soon as Shang Qinghua made eye contact, she darted forward. 


 Shang Qinghua hastily covered up what he and Mobei-Jun had been doing, pushing off the table and standing to greet her. “Riling, what’s wrong?!” 


 “Oh, ah, nothing’s wrong!” Chen Riling lied, glancing at Mobei-Jun. 


 Mobei-Jun looked back at her flatly. 


 “Nothing’s wrong,” Chen Riling repeated. “Nothing’s wrong, it’s just that… ah… did you hear the news? Someone returned earlier than expected to the Cloud Recesses today! For a visit! Ding Lanfen is delighted to see her friend and they’re walking together and they’re heading towards the water gardens on Qiong Ding…” 


 This was supposed to be meaningful, Shang Qinghua knew it, but he was fucking lost. 




 “Someone went to tell Qingyuan about her arrival so he could greet her,” Chen Riling said, meaningfully. 


 As the future sect leader, with their current sect leader in seclusion more often than not, Yue Qingyuan had to greet most visitors to the sect. The significance was still, unfortunately, completely fucking lost on Shang Qinghua. 


 He glanced at Mobei-Jun, who was making a super obvious “get rid of the interloper before I do” expression of displeasure. Shang Qinghua could see why Chen Riling maybe didn’t want to spill private Cloud Sect gossip in front of a face like that, but his brain was still stuck on the reading exercises they’d been doing, and couldn’t keep up with this dancing around. 


 Chen Riling’s lips pressed even tighter together before she said, “They’re probably all there already… you know… meeting in the water gardens where the River Sect disciples like to hang out sometimes…” 


 Understanding hit Shang Qinghua all at once and not kindly. 


 “Holy shit,” he said. “The fiancée.” 


 Chen Riling nodded. 


 “The what?!” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 Shang Qinghua met Mobei-Jun’s wide eyes with his own. “Excuse me, I have to go handle this right away!” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as possible!” 


 “Shang Qinghua-!” 


 But Shang Qinghua was already out the door at a dead run. 



 Chen Riling was behind him at first, but she fell behind, unable or unwilling to keep up with Shang Qinghua’s sprint. Someone undoubtedly saw Shang Qinghua’s flight across the Cloud Recesses and would definitely report him for it later, but he didn’t care. Little Uncle would hopefully agree with him that some things were more important than no running in the Cloud Recesses! There was an exception for emergencies! 


 If Mobei-Jun tried to follow him, Shang Qinghua probably lost him in all the twists and turns of his shortcuts. He’d grown up in the Cloud Recesses and that came with some upsides that helped, occasionally, when handling the many, many downsides. 


 Shang Qinghua reached the water gardens and nearly ran over his own cousin. 


 “Ah! Sorry!” 


 “There is no running permitted in the Cloud Recesses,” Shang Yuxi said. 


 “Of course! Of course, it’s just… an emergency,” Shang Qinghua said, straightening and desperately flattening his robes. “Hello, cousin! How are you? We weren’t expecting you to be back from your mother’s family so soon! Were you planning on visiting the water gardens? It’s not that nice this time of year and it’s crowded, so-” 


 “We have already experienced this,” Shang Yuxi said coolly. 


 Beside her, Ding Lanfen tried to smile agreeably, but didn’t succeed. 




 Shang Yuxi was Shang Qinghua’s height, but she still had a way of looking down on him. Her expression was on the disapproving side of neutral. She was twenty years old and the most beautiful woman Shang Qinghua had ever met - tall, slender, with inky black hair and a finely featured face - it was difficult to believe he was supposed to be related to her. People tended to get tongue-tied around her, sometimes completely starstruck, which she didn’t seem to mind because she generally didn’t want to talk to them. 


 She followed the rules of Cloud Recesses without complaint and without fault. She was also an exemplary cultivator, the highest-ranked female cultivator of their generation. The ideal disciple. It was no wonder that Shang Qinghua’s second cousin had been, by almost unanimous agreement, betrothed to their future sect leader. 


 “Have you, ah, have you seen Qingyuan yet?” Shang Qinghua asked. 


 “Yes,” Shang Yuxi said. 


 “And? How did that go?” 




 Shang Qinghua had forgotten the joys of these conversations. 


 “I think he’s still speaking with Young Master Shen,” Ding Lanfen volunteered. “They seemed to have some sort of disagreement after introductions with the River Sect disciples.” 


 “Oh, thanks. Shit. Excuse me.” 


 Shang Yuxi and Ding Lanfen stepped aside so that Shang Qinghua could throw himself into the water gardens, clearly too late to do anything but damage control. 


The Cloud Sect hadn’t exactly jumped for joy when their sect leader brought some random street kid into the sect. More the opposite. Yue Qingyuan at least turned out to be incredibly powerful, talented at everything he tried, and good-looking and charismatic and on his best behavior when he hadn’t been pulling reckless bullshit when people’s backs were turned. But there was no pleasing some people! In the minds of many, the Cloud Sect had a responsibility to preserve tradition, preserve bloodlines, and also not to emulate any bullshit pulled by Tianlang-Jun when choosing their next sect leader. 


 So, compromises had been made! Conditions had been laid out! Firstly: Yue Qingyuan was to be married off to one of Shang Qinghua’s female cousins to keep things in the family as much as possible. Secondly, because the previous heir had died unmarried and childless, the sect elders wanted Yue Qingyuan and Shang Yuxi to get hitched and start producing babies as soon as possible! The Cloud Sect Leader had agreed, of course, to this very sensible course of action. 


 Yue Qingyuan and Shang Yuxi’s opinions? No one asked them! Why would they?! 


 Shang Qinghua couldn’t remember which auspicious date had been chosen for the wedding, but he was pretty sure the nodding heads favored some time shortly after Yue Qingyuan’s eighteenth birthday, which would be some time after these super special guest lectures ended. Wedding planning was probably already happening somewhere in the depths of the Cloud Recesses, probably somewhere in the depths of one of Little Uncle’s desks, but Shang Qinghua had been able to ignore it pretty well until right fucking now! 


 The first thing that Shang Qinghua saw were the River Sect disciples, including Qi Qingqi, all shamelessly looking towards the far end of the water gardens. Following their gaze, Shang Qinghua saw two distant figures clearly having an unpleasant conversation. The words of the confrontation couldn’t be heard, all the way across the water gardens, but Yue Qingyuan’s postures was stiff and Shen Qingqiu’s movements as he spoke were sharp. 


 Shen Qingqiu turned slightly away, taking a step towards the far path. 


 Yue Qingyuan took a step to the side, not quite blocking the path. 


 Shang Qinghua made a bad decision: he stepped forward. 


 And then he did it again.  


 Shang Qinghua walked forward and no one stopped him! He could feel the eyes of the River Sect disciples on his back, but not a one of them lunged forward to stop him, and not a one of them screamed, “Don’t do it! You have so much to live for!” The Transmigration System didn’t even give him a pop-up saying, “Bro? You sure?” 


 As Shang Qinghua came closer, the confrontation unravelled for him. 


 “-please, I-” 


  “-want me to say exactly?” 


 “I don’t-” 


 “She’s very beautiful. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.” 


 “That’s not how it is between-” 


 “Oh, I see how it is!” Shen Qingqiu interrupted, voice dripping with a killing kindness. “It’s obvious. They need you for breeding purposes. You’ve been bought and sold by the Cloud Sect like a stud at the market. Truly, congratulations on your engagement.” 


 Yue Qingyuan flinched. “...A-Jiu,” he said, wounded. 


 “I told you not to call me that!” 


 “I never agreed to the marriage,” Yue Qingyuan said. “If I did, it must… it must have been after I tried to go back for you. I… I don’t remember some things from that time…” 


 “How convenient.” 


 “I thought you were dead, it-” 


 “That would have made things easier for you, wouldn’t it?” Shen Qingqiu said. 


 “No! No, how can you say that?!” 


 “How can you? You’ve been caught enjoying your new life! Don’t pretend that you were miserable without me dragging you down!” Shen Qingqiu snapped, and then whirled on Shang Qinghua. “What? What do you want? Go hang on to someone else’s robes!” 


 “Don’t talk to him like that,” Yue Qingyuan protested. 


 “This is a private conversation. I’ll talk to your little sycophants however I like. How many other people have you told about these things? Laughed about these things with? Clearly, you’ve been lying when you said that no one knows about the past!” 


 “No one else knows!” Shang Qinghua insisted. “Just, ah, just me. About you.” 


 Shen Qingqiu’s eyes narrowed. “And who are you?” 


 “This is Shang Qinghua,” Yue Qingyuan introduced. “The sect leader’s nephew.” 


 “Oh. The passed-over cousin.” 


 Clearly, these words were meant to bite, but it wasn’t anything that Shang Qinghua hadn’t heard a thousand times. Shen Qingqiu couldn’t hurt him with that old insult! Not when this transmigrator was actually super glad to have been passed over! 


 “I told you that you should hear him out,” Shang Qinghua said, and then looked at Yue Qingyuan. Last that he’d heard, Shen Qingqiu had been giving Yue Qingyuan the cold shoulder for not calling Liu Qingge an idiot. “Have you been able to tell him? Everything?” 


 “Parts,” Yue Qingyuan said. “I-” 


 “I don’t need to hear anything more,” Shen Qingqiu interrupted. 


 “You do! Actually, you really do,” Shang Qinghua told him. 


 “Hearing more lies will not change my mind.” 


 “They’re not lies!” Shang Qinghua said. “Maybe you don’t want to trust someone you think let you down, fine! But maybe this isn’t one of those situations where someone is right and someone is wrong! Maybe this is one of those situations where it was bad for everyone!” 


 Shen Qingqiu waved a hand over the water gardens, which were incredibly beautiful, the sort of construction usually reserved for palaces. “Bad?” he repeated. “Yes, what a terrible prison. What a stroke of misfortune. What a wretched fate Yue Qi found himself in, to be sure, to be chosen as the next sect leader of the Cloud Sect!” 


 “It was for you,” Yue Qingyuan said. “A-Jiu, all of it-” 


 “I doubt you spared much thought during your great ascension for me.” 


 “Do you know how many times he tried to run away?” Shang Qinghua demanded. “When he figured out the damn sect leader was stringing him along?! He tried to go back-!” 


 “Shall we all now celebrate complete failures because someone tried? Oh, someone tried. That’s almost the same as succeeding! I, personally, fail to see the difference. Perhaps, if he truly cared, he should have tried harder.” 


 Yue Qingyuan let out a pained exhale. 


 “He came back for you!” Shang Qinghua snapped. “You were already gone and he thought you were dead, and you’re lucky that he’s not dead trying to follow you, you asshole!” 


 Shen Qingqiu finally paused, looking sharply towards Yue Qingyuan. 


 Shang Qinghua jabbed a finger in this future scum villain’s face. “Yeah, that’s right! It was like someone had killed him! He got punished for running away again when they dragged him back and he didn’t care at all, and I thought every fucking morning was going to be the day that we need a new heir to the sect again because he only cared about you and you were gone!” 


 Shen Qingqiu’s eyes had widened and he inhaled sharply at the implication. 


 “...Qinghua,” Yue Qingyuan said, softly, behind him. 


 Shang Qinghua shakingly lowered his hand and didn’t look back. 


 Shen Qingqiu exhaled, lifting his chin, holding himself as though he was high above all of them, but especially Shang Qinghua. “If he was truly so miserable, so dedicated, then what stopped him from going through with it?” he challenged. 


 It took a second for the words to sink in. 


 Shen Qingqiu’s stare flicked away from Shang Qinghua, turning the challenge on Yue Qingyuan behind him with cold, determined cruelty. 


 It was like a spark catching. Shang Qinghua’s hands shook and his chest thundered and his throat squeezed, and the fire had to get out somehow right now. The next thing he knew, his fist cracked across Shen Qingqiu’s face.


 The future scum villain of Proud Immortal Demonic Way fell back, arms waving wildly, and crashed into one of the water gardens’ ponds. 


 The splash was very loud. 


 Shang Qinghua stared down at Shen Qingqiu, soaking wet, sitting in the pond with a disbelieving expression. 


 He stared down at his fist, still burning. 


 “Oh, fuck,” he said. 


 He looked up to see some of the River Sect disciples running across the water gardens. Qi Qingqi was in front, ahead of all the others, getting closer by the second and honestly getting way too close now. Shang Qinghua took an uncertain step back, but it wasn’t enough to stop Qi Qingqi from clocking him across the face and sending him sprawling back into the flowerbeds. 



 Shang Qinghua didn’t manage to start a brawl in the Cloud Recesses. Qi Qingqi’s vengeful punch was the last one thrown. No one was allowed to punch that super condescending shidi she hated except for her, apparently! The other River Sect disciples arrived to hold Qi Qingqi back and help Shen Qingqiu out of the pond, Yue Qingyuan dragged Shang Qinghua out of the dirt, and then there were lots of people being super loud and moving around a lot. 


 And now Shang Qinghua was on the Qian Cao side of the Cloud Recesses, having Mu Qingfang frown at him. 




 “Sorry,” Mu Qingfang said, insincerely, and poked at his face again. 


 “You’re enjoying this,” Shang Qinghua complained. 


 “I can promise you that I am enjoying no part of these guest lectures,” Mu Qingfang said. 


 Shang Qinghua sighed and turned to look at the other Cloud Sect disciple in the room, standing in the corner and glaring at him for no good reason.


 “What is he doing here?” 


 “You attacked a guest disciple,” Wang Qingjie bit out. “You’ll need to be disciplined.” 


 “What, you want to make sure you get to do it? You think I’m going to run away before I can be punished if Yue Qingyuan’s not here?” Shang Qinghua asked. “Ah, go away. I’m sure that you’re missing an important class on shoving a stick up your ass on Ku Xing, cousin.” 


 Wang Qingjie stiffened like he’d been bitten. “You-!” 


 “Me,” Shang Qinghua confirmed glumly. 


 Wang Qingjie glared at him, ineffectively, until the other Cloud Sect disciple finally snapped out, “You are the worst Cloud Sect disciple I have ever seen!” 


 “Then don’t look…?” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Wang Qingjie made a disgusted noise and stomped out. 


 Mu Qingfang said nothing. He was totally judging all of them, though. 


 Shang Qinghua sat in silence as Mu Qingfang finished patching him up, and then continued sitting in silence while Mu Qingfang puttered around his workroom doing the thousand little tasks that the healers apparently did every day. He mostly just stared at his hands. 


 “Oh, what now?” Mu Qingfang said. 


 Shang Qinghua looked up. 


 “Hey, hey! It’s fine! No one’s injured!” Wei Qingwei said. The Mountain Sect disciple made a show of putting his foot over the doorway, then retracting it again. “Or do we need an injury to come in? Because we can make that happen!” 


 “Do not,” Mu Qingfang said. 


 Wei Qingwei came inside, accompanied by two other disciples from the Mountain Sect: the steady Ji Jue and a ridiculously pretty boy with a beauty mark under his eye, Liu Qingge. Both of them nodded to Mu Qingfang, who just closed his eyes and took a deep breath. 


 Shang Qinghua felt cornered as the Mountain Sect disciples surrounded him. 


 “Heard you punched Shen Qingqiu,” Wei Qingwei said. 


 “...Yeah,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 The Mountain Sect disciples all looked impressed. 


 “Nice,” Ji Jue offered. 




 Liu Qingge nodded and said bluntly, “I hate that guy.” 


 “You know? Me too,” Shang Qinghua said. 



 The person who came to talk to Shang Qinghua about everything ended up being Little Uncle. This was better than it being Big Uncle or the Master of Ku Xing Peak, but in some ways it was worse, because Little Uncle actually looked at him. Little Uncle didn’t have all the answers made up in his own head already, so it mattered what Shang Qinghua said. 


 Little Uncle looked tired. 


 “Sorry,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 “What does that fix?” Little Uncle said, and took a seat across from him. 


 The good news was that no one knew why Shang Qinghua had punched Shen Qingqiu. Through his interaction with the Mountain Sect disciples, Shang Qinghua knew that the gossip ranged from Shen Qingqiu punching him to him challenging Shen Qingqiu to a full-on duel, from Shen Qingqiu insulting Shang Yuxi to Shang Qinghua punching both Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan out of jealousy. Wang Qingjie was probably tearing out his hair trying to uphold the rules against gossip right now, which was a nice thought. 


 The bad news was that Shang Qinghua was definitely going to be punished and they were considering kicking Shen Qingqiu out of the guest lectures and the Cloud Recesses. 


 “What? Why?” 


 “This is the second violent incident involving this disciple and Yue Qingyuan,” Little Uncle said. “The Sect Leader is concerned that this disciple may be a bad influence.” 


  “Fuck you, Big Uncle,” Shang Qinghua thought. “You’re not wrong, but fuck you!” 


 “Qingyuan’s story is… vague,” Little Uncle said. 




 “Perhaps you can shed some light on what truly happened.” 




 Little Uncle waited. 


 “I punched Shen Qingqiu just because I didn’t like his face,” Shang Qinghua said finally. “He didn’t do anything. He’s totally innocent in this situation. It’s all my fault.” 


 His uncle didn’t even blink. 


 “I see,” Little Uncle said. “How… uncharacteristic of you.” 


 “I’m stressed,” Shang Qinghua said. 





 Did Shang Qinghua want to spare Shen Qingqiu? No! Fuck that guy! If Shen Qingqiu was on fire and Shang Qinghua was holding a cup of water, he would totally drink it under other circumstances! He didn’t want to get extra punishment and to have Shen Qingqiu’s punishment be lessened to writing some lines for some “unknown harsh words”. 


 But… well… Yue Qingyuan would be super sad and unbearably guilty if Shen Qingqiu got kicked out of the Cloud Recesses. He’d try and pretend that he was fine with it, maybe, but it wouldn’t be fine. Maybe Shang Qinghua had stirred up too many bad memories when getting stupidly involved and Yue Qingyuan would even do something reckless again, like, in a best-case bad scenario, run away to follow Shen Qingqiu home to the River Sect. 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t really want to find out. 


 It was too late now for any kind of serious punishment, so now Shang Qinghua was back in his own house and looking ahead to a really shitty morning. 


 He hadn’t managed to make it back to the library. 


 He was in for more than a few shitty days, actually, so he probably wouldn’t make it to the library tomorrow, either. Maybe he could convince Chen Riling to get a note to Mobei-Jun. The smart thing to do would be to write that note now, but he didn’t know what to say. 


 Someone knocked on his door. 


 “...Come in.” 


 Shang Qinghua sat up as Yue Qingyuan came inside. 


 Yue Qingyuan was still dressed in his regular uniform despite the late hour. His expression was blank. He sat across from Shang Qinghua and neither of them spoke for a long time. The situation wasn’t strange, but suddenly, it didn’t feel real. Shang Qinghua almost wished the System would pop up and tell him that he’d fucked everything up. 


 “You thought…” Yue Qingyuan said hoarsely. “When I thought Shen Jiu was dead, you thought that I would… that I wouldn’t want to live anymore…?” 


 Shang Qinghua said nothing. 


 Yue Qingyuan leaned forward. “Why would you think that?” 


  “Why wouldn’t I think that?!” Shang Qinghua thought. 




 “You were so angry and so desperate when you first got here.” 


 Yue Qingyuan leaned back. 


 “And then there was the accident with the cave, and then when you finally got away and found the burned-down estate and thought he was dead, it was like you were a shell. And there was no guarantee from the S- there was no guarantee that you were going to be all right ever again,” Shang Qinghua said. “You said as much! And I kept thinking that… I kept thinking that this was going to end up like when I found Xinzhong.” 


 “...You found your cousin…?” 




 “After his accident?” 


 “...It wasn’t an accident.” 




 Shang Qinghua shrugged weakly. “I went to get Little Uncle because I didn’t know what else to do. I kept thinking, ‘Big Uncle can’t see this. Big Uncle can’t see this. It would kill him.’ I don’t even know if Big Uncle knows it wasn’t an accident.” 


 Some days, Shang Qinghua was sure that the Cloud Sect Leader knew. Other days, Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure if the Cloud Sect Leader had intentionally forgotten or wasn’t letting himself know, just because he couldn’t face what had happened. Other days, Shang Qinghua wondered if the man was just that blind.


 “Little Uncle told me that I had found a terrible cultivation accident, but it wasn’t. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t be able to tell. Xinzhong did exactly what he meant to do.” 


 Yue Qingyuan stared at him in horror.


  Shang Qinghua understood, because what the fuck did a person do with information like that? 


 “...Why…?” Yue Qingyuan said finally. 


 “I don’t know,” Shang Qinghua said. “No one expected it from him. He didn't seem sad.” 


 Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky should have known. He had known, but he had been a child again, with all the time in the world before a plot that might never come. Sometimes he wondered… if anyone was at fault for the death of Shang Xinzhong… then it would be… 


 “Qinghua,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 Shang Qinghua looked up from the floor and met Yue Qingyuan’s eyes. 


 “I’m not going to do that,” Yue Qingyuan said. “I’m not.” 


  “I’m not sure any of us have a choice, bro,” Shang Qinghua thought. 


 Yue Qingyuan reached out and took Shang Qinghua’s hands. “I’m not,” he repeated. 


 Shang Qinghua remembered when Yue Qi had first come to the Cloud Recesses - begging for help, any kind of help. He remembered an outsider, simultaneously desperate to please and yet disinterested at heart in the approval of others, unable to fit in and without anyone willing to treat him as more than an obligation. It had, at least, livened things up a lot for Shang Qinghua to help that boy out. No one else was doing it.


 “He shouldn’t have said that,” Yue Qingyuan said. “He didn’t really mean it. I know Shen Jiu. I know he didn’t mean it, but… he shouldn’t have said it.” 


 “I’m not sorry for punching him.” 


 “I… didn’t expect you to be.” 


 “Kind of wish I hadn’t done it, but I’m not sorry.” 


 “...Why did you take on the blame?” 


 Shang Qinghua shrugged, though Yue Qingyuan was still holding his hands. “I don’t know. I’m really concerned for his education, I guess. Maybe he can use his time here to get his shit together enough to hear you out. Maybe I thought you’d run away to the River Sect together and I’d have to be sect leader or something.” 


 “I’m not leaving.” 


 “You could, though, if you wanted.” 


 “I’m not leaving,” Yue Qingyuan repeated. “I have… responsibilities here.” 


 “Someone else could do them.” 


 Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “I’m the one who took them on. How I came to the Cloud Sect is… complicated… and as you know, as you don’t hesitate to remind me, I have regrets… and resentment. But I have… I’ve made this a home, too. I have responsibilities. I’m not leaving, Qinghua. I’m not leaving you.” 


 Shang Qinghua stared at him, touched despite… despite a lot of things. 


 “...Thanks,” he said. 


 If Shang Qinghua had been a lowly outer disciple in a sect where nobody had any kind of family bonds, maybe things would have been different. Maybe he could have gotten away with keeping his distance, with minding his own business and with no one minding him, but instead he had been born into this shitshow. He’d grown up here. Once upon a time, Big Uncle had brought back treats every time he travelled, and Little Uncle had led his nephew around the Cloud Recesses by the hand. Family was a habit that was hard to break. 


  “Bro, what about my plans to leave you someday?” he thought. 



Chapter Text


 Punishment happened first thing in the morning. 


 Shang Qinghua got the feeling that someone wanted to make clear to the River Sect that, while this was obviously just some teenage disagreement that got a little out of hand, no big deal, they were taking this offence very seriously. The Cloud Sect wanted to make it super clear that their disciples going around attacking people for no good reason was totally out of the ordinary and they definitely disapproved of it. This was a serious offense and they were taking it very seriously! Promise! Still no big deal, though! 


 Someone in the Cloud Recesses was probably drafting a letter to the River Sect Leader, sweating with the effort of trying to explain the incident while making it sound like nothing to worry about or take offense from. Someone other than Shang Qinghua for once! Probably Little Uncle. 


 The worst part of it involved a formal apology to Shen Qingqiu beforehand, who curtly accepted the apology and then strutted out like someone fleeing the scene while trying to pretend they weren’t fleeing the scene. “Yeah, you better run, bro!” Shang Qinghua thought. “Run away before anyone figures out what kind of shit you were saying that got you punched in the face! Don’t let the door hit your big black eye on the way out, asshole!” 


 Honestly, that wasn’t the worst part at all. He told himself it was, but Shang Qinghua had made meaningless apologies to assholes before and he would probably make meaningless apologies to assholes again. Getting to see the black eye he gave that future scum villain was worth it. 


 The worst part was the pain. Tedious and grueling described most of the punishments at the Cloud Recesses, if not all of them, because tedium and drudgery was supposedly good for the soul. In Shang Qinghua’s unpopular opinion, there was very little that grated on the soul like being in a lot of pain, constant pain, and being really fucking bored of it. 


 He didn’t try to be stoic about any of it. Who did he have to impress? If he had to be uncomfortable, then he was going to make everyone around him uncomfortable watching him moan and groan and tear up a little. 


 The punishment sucked ass - starting far too early, eating up his morning, making it so that his knees would probably never work right again, and for sure everyone in the Cloud Recesses knew about it already - but at least Shang Qinghua wasn’t supposed to go back to work immediately afterwards. Little Uncle had said he didn’t expect to see Shang Qinghua on the An Ding side of the Cloud Recesses for at least three days. 


 Officially, this was also a punishment. Shang Qinghua was supposed to continue his reflection in solitude or something. He only intended for his face to reflect at length on the softness on his bed, thanks, and he was pretty sure that Little Uncle knew that. 


 It didn’t feel like a break. 


 It was so boring. 


  “Pain, pain, pain,” he thought. “Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain.” 


 He wanted to remind someone that this kind of punishment mostly led to a lot of resentment, rather than any kind of correction or betterment. In novels, it often led to revenge! Honestly, this "improving" punishment mostly just made Shang Qinghua want to do drugs. His kingdom for some fucking painkillers. 


 Yue Qingyuan checked in with him around lunchtime. Early afternoon-ish? Shang Qinghua didn’t remember the interaction very well, besides waving vaguely in Yue Qingyuan’s general direction, while staying facedown on his bed. Yue Qingyuan promised to check in on him again later, probably partly out of guilt, and Shang Qinghua would have milked it to at least have his adoptive cousin bring food if his appetite hadn’t apparently turned inside out on him. 


 After that, Shang Qinghua had a nap, or maybe the nap had him. He didn’t seem to have any say in the nap. Not in when it started, not in when it ended, and not in waking up a bunch of times throughout because he couldn’t find a comfortable position. 


 Despite thinking about it for half the day, and all the night before, Shang Qinghua completely forgot to give Yue Qingyuan the note for Mobei-Jun. He hadn’t even seen Chen Riling today to enlist her help. He conveniently remembered this shortly after being thrust out of the nap he’d had no say in taking - or maybe it was the reminder surfacing from his consciousness that scared him out of a restless sleep. Who could say which came first? The chicken or the egg?


 It was now… Shang Qinghua squinted in the direction of the window… late afternoon now? Maybe? Probably? For all he knew, he’d slept straight through to the next day! 


 “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” 


 In his panic, Shang Qinghua failed to notice that he had also been robbed of the knowledge of where his legs ended and where his feet began. Jumping out of bed was more like the flailing of a flightless bird. His crash-landing was loud, embarrassing, and extremely painful. 


 He was still tangled in the trappings of his bed after landing, so the obvious solution was to slowly roll across the floor, hitting every single bump and bruise along the way, until he was free and his head felt like it was prepared to negotiate on standing up. He hit the wall before that happened. 


 “Ow,” he said. 



 Going to the library was definitely a mistake. 


  “It’s not such a long walk! I have nothing else to do with my day!” he had thought to himself! This was wrong. It was, he decided halfway there, the wrongest anyone had ever been about anything. He could have better spent his time facedown on the floor, instead of limping along the back paths to go see some asshole who wouldn’t even be grateful about it. 


 “Why the fuck am I doing this?” Shang Qinghua muttered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! Fuck!” 


 It wouldn’t be that bad if he just stood Mobei-Jun up. Mobei-Jun was a big boy who could take care of himself! Maybe being stood up for once would be good for him! If he’d heard the gossip and done the critical thinking, then Mobei-Jun probably already knew to take a break from tutoring today. 


 Even though that would require Mobei-Jun either talking to people or staying awake during class, both of which seemed kind of iffy to Shang Qinghua, and both of which also required Mobei-Jun’s hearing not being drowned out by the anger of Shang Qinghua ditching him the day before, which seemed totally possible. Even if he’d heard the gossip, Mobei-Jun probably still expected Shang Qinghua to explain himself and all the dramatic bullshit personally, because he was a spoiled brat like that. 


 So, obviously Shang Qinghua had to go clear things up and beg for his life, rather than hang out at his house in partial seclusion, waiting to either pass out again or die. Stretching his legs a little hopefully had benefits of some kind. 


 Unfortunately, his great effort revealed to him that Mobei-Jun wasn’t in the Cloud Recesses library. There was no one at their table. The guest disciples’ classes had ended some time ago, the usual meeting time had passed, and Mobei-Jun, if he’d shown up at all, hadn’t stuck around to see if Shang Qinghua would return. It was unsurprising. 


 If his heart was sinking a little, it was for a totally different reason than disappointment. 


 Relief, probably. Yeah, definitely relief. 


 Shang Qinghua eased himself into his usual seat so he could put his head down on the table for a little while. (Staying for the next ten to twelve hours sounded good. He was going by feel.) What was surprising was that there was something resting in his usual seat. 


 It was a jar of wine. 


 Shang Qinghua pulled the jar out from under his ass, before he could accidentally break it, and inspected it, which meant that he mostly just stared at it, wondering what the fuck this was supposed to mean. It was local stuff, from the village down the mountain. Shang Qinghua really didn’t deal with alcohol much, but he was pretty sure this kind wasn’t cheap. Mobei-Jun's mind truly was an incomprehensible place.


 “A gift…?” he murmured. “Or another not-apology…?” 


 He put the jar down in front of him, then crossed his arms on the table to cushion his chin. 


 “...This is worse than the candy,” he decided. 


 He didn’t understand how Mobei-Jun had gotten a jar of wine. Maybe this was from a personal stash that had been collected before Mobei-Jun had decided not to drink in the Cloud Recesses again? Had Madam Yan made a sale when Shang Qinghua hadn’t been looking? Mobei-Jun must have heard the gossip to make a gesture like, but Shang Qinghua couldn’t fathom the decision-making process here, unless it had been something like, “What’s the best thing to give the average person who just had to deal with Shen fucking Qingqiu? Oh, I know: a way to get so shit-faced they don't remember interacting with Shen Qingqiu! 


 There were options here. 


 Shang Qinghua could pretend that he had never found it. 


 He could hand it off to one of the librarians or another adult of the sect. 


 He could hide it up his sleeve to gift it to someone else at a later date or sell it to a guest disciple. 


 He could make a show of returning it to Mobei-Jun, saying, “Hey, bro, you forgot this. Ha ha, can you imagine if you’d tried to leave that as a bribe or a pity gift? Anyway, don’t make me haul your drunk ass across the sect again!” 


 He could continue to sit here and stare at it, while his body throbbed with hurt every heartbeat. 


 “...Fuck it,” Shang Qinghua said, and broke the seal on the jar. 


 He may have been a lightweight in this lifetime, but there was a trick to drinking for cultivators, and Shang Qinghua had made sure to learn it. Firstly, it had seemed useful. Secondly, it was just a cool thing to know and made a person look super cool, too. Thirdly, unlike stricter Cloud Sect healers, Mu Qingfang was a big believer in preventative measures, rather than the “if disciples aren’t going against the rules and drinking, then they won’t need to know any foul tricks to burn away the effects, which will surely only encourage them to drink more” approach, and he had insisted. 


 “Thank you, Mu Qingfang,” Shang Qinghua toasted, and then took a sip. 


 He couldn’t say that the wine was good. He didn’t have much of a taste for it in this lifetime, but it was probably fine enough. The aftertaste wasn’t good at all, though. There was a thrill that came with drinking in the Cloud Recesses library, but this was a secluded corner, so it was more peaceful than anything else. No one really expected Shang Qinghua to be drinking in the Cloud Recesses’ library, so no one peeked in looking for it. 


 Also, he kept the jar up his sleeve between sips. He only had a handful of sips, anyway, staying for only ten daring minutes or so, taking just a little liquid courage and strength to get him back to his house and his bed. 


 He stood up. 


 He tried to stand up. 


 Unfolding his legs had to happen first, apparently, so he did that. 


 The alcohol was hitting him already. It was hitting him repeatedly. Continuously. 




 He had forgotten just how ridiculous his tolerance was in this lifetime, but his head was already fuzzing. The world was fuzz and blurs and pins and needles, already. When Mu Qingfang had made him and Yue Qingyuan take a spoonful of alcohol to practice the trick, it had hit Shang Qinghua quickly and Yue Qingyuan not at all (so fucking unfair), but this seemed like stronger stuff. Much stronger stuff. 


 Standing up worked this time. Staying upright was the hard part, but Shang Qinghua managed that with sufficient determination, being very firm with the floor and its mischief. He walked towards the back way out of the library, the long way out of the library, and caught himself on the asshole doorway that jumped in his way. The impact knocked through all his bumps and bruises. 


 He leaned against the doorway and kept the jar of wine from falling out of his sleeve. 


 Shang Qinghua was using the trick. He knew the trick and he knew that he was using the trick. The trick didn’t seem to be working well this time with this super strong stuff. His hands were moving slowly. His mouth was filled with glue. It was moving slowly. 


 His brain was moving slowly too. Too slowly. Almost stuck. 




 Stuck, stuck, stuck. 






 A hand landed on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder. It was warm and steadying, but the weight of the touch was unfamiliar, unexpected, and unwanted. Too much. Too suddenly. 


 He turned his head and came face to face with a wide smile. Curved, laughing eyes. Wavy, dark brown hair. A mark on his forehead, the mark of a Sun Sect family, painted in white. The hand on his shoulder reached around his neck, putting new weight on him. 


 “How are you still conscious?” Bai Jianming asked him. 


 Shang Qinghua blinked at him. 


 The jar of wine fell out of his sleeve, rolling across the floor. 


 “Drugged,” Shang Qinghua said, and his words were slurred. “It’s drugged.” 


 Bai Jianming shrugged. “It’s not personal.” 


 That was… Shang Qinghua couldn’t remember the word. It was not good. 


 This was not good. 




 “What is your name?” Bai Jianming asked, tilting his head. “Ah, it doesn’t matter.” 


 Offensive! That was the word. 






 “Fuck,” Shang Qinghua slurred. 


 Bai Jianming laughed. 


 “Did you just-? I see why Mobei likes you,” he said. "You're a strange one."


 The arm around Shang Qinghua’s shoulders tightened, pulling him away from the doorway. 


 Shang Qinghua resisted. He didn’t want this arm touching him. 


 “Come on,” Bai Jianming coaxed. “I'm a good time! You won’t even remember this in the morning...” 


 The drinking trick wasn’t working. Not completely. Not correctly. 


 But he had other tricks. 


 Shang Qinghua pushed off the doorway and fell clumsily against Bai Jianming, who caught him ungently with his other hand, the other arm still around his shoulders, leaving his stomach wide open for Shang Qinghua to punch with a fistful of spiritual energy. 


 The punch was clumsy, but it connected. 


 Bai Jianming made a sound that was more confusion and amusement than pain. 


 And then Shang Qinghua finished the trick and Bai Jianming made another noise, before shoving him away. Shang Qinghua missed grabbing for the doorway and slammed into it, dazedly grabbing it before he could slide all the way to the floor. He watched Bai Jianming stumble, then fall to his knees, a violent twitch going through his entire body. 


 “You fucking-” 


 Bai Jianming threw up. 


 Shang Qinghua’s heart was going too fast to feel any satisfaction. 


 Now the Sun Sect disciple was angry with him. 


 And Shang Qinghua couldn’t run. 


 If he couldn't run, then...


 Bai Jianming finished throwing up and turned to face him, just in time for Shang Qinghua’s clumsy, desperate kick to connect with his forehead. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. He collapsed to the floor, into the puddle of his own vomit, and didn’t move. 


 Shang Qinghua slid the rest of the way to the floor. 


 The wine had been drugged.


 It hadn’t been from Mobei-Jun and it had been drugged.


 The drinking trick wasn’t working right against the drugged wine, but he needed it out. 


 He raised his fist, summoned spiritual energy to his hand, and essentially punched himself in the stomach. It hurt. Everything inside him queased and shook and, as the trick finished, pushed up to get out his throat. Shang Qinghua fell forward onto his free hand and threw up. 


 It was disgusting. 


 His eyes filled with tears. His head squeezed. He threw up again and again, until he didn’t have anything left to throw up except his own stomach and lungs and maybe his heart, which were definitely trying to come out. He retched and coughed and spat bile off his lips. 


 And then he realized he’d thrown up partly on the person sprawled in front of him. 


 Bai Jianming still wasn’t moving. 


 He looked dead. 


 "Fuck," Shang Qinghua said.


 Then he crawled to unsteady feet and fled the scene. 



 He didn’t know where he was going. 


 He was going away. 


 He couldn’t think. His head was still squeezing, sluggish, spaced out of his reach. 


 He needed someone. He needed to leave. He needed help. He needed to hide. He had been attacked. He had attacked someone. He needed to tell everyone, but he couldn’t let anyone find out. He had fucked up so fucking badly there was no coming back from it this time. 


 Where was he going? 


 Qian Cao. Healers. Mu Qingfang. 


 Except Mu Qingfang would tell everyone and that couldn’t happen. 


 But Shang Qinghua’s heart was still going too fast, too light, and he couldn’t breathe.


 The trick wasn’t working correctly.


 It felt like he was dying. He didn’t want to die. 


 His breath hitched. 


 He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to die. 


 He couldn’t go back to his house. What if he died there? He didn’t want to die alone again. 


 Shang Qinghua stopped, putting a hand to his head, trying to help the drinking trick along, even though it wasn’t built for this. He didn’t know what this body being such an absurd lightweight meant for poisons. He needed to think.  He needed the trick to work, but t he world was still blurred in some places and too sharp in others. It hurt.


 He needed to hide the body. 


 “Shang Qinghua.” 


 He wanted this to have never happened. 


  “Shang Qinghua.” 


 A hand landed on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder. It was warm and steadying. 


 Shang Qinghua lashed out with a fist. He was too slow and missed, losing his balance, falling to the hard stone path. He landed on his hands and knees. It hurt. 


 Someone crouched next to him. He looked up. 


 “What’s wrong with you?” 


 Oh, it was the right face this time. A long face, with striking features, frowning down at him from a great height. The mark on the forehead was blue. Where had this face been before? 


 Mobei-Jun’s frown deepened, and he said, “I have been looking for you.” 


 “Don’t be angry,” Shang Qinghua begged. 


 He tried to make a respectful position, maybe even a kowtow. His limbs weren’t cooperating. He didn't want to be murdered.


 “Don’t kill me!” he said. 




 “Please, please, please…” 


 A hand slowly reached out under his chin and lifted Shang Qinghua’s swimming head. Mobei-Jun was still frowning at him. Shang Qinghua wavered, but Mobei-Jun’s hand stayed under his chin, stopping him from looking down again. 


 “What happened?” 


 “I didn’t mean to- mean to kill him!” 




 It was important that Mobei-Jun know that Shang Qinghua hadn’t meant to kill his shithead friend if he was dead. People took blows in this world that could kill a normal person. People weren’t like characters. They died so much more easily. Sometimes all it took was one shock to the system and that was the end. 


 “I never- I never wanted anyone to die because of me…” 


 Mobei-Jun’s hand was gripping his chin now, tightly, as he demanded, “Who?” 


 “Who?” Shang Qinghua repeated.  


 “Who’s dead?” 


 He didn’t know if the Sun Sect disciple was dead, so he said, “I don’t know.” 


 “How-? A stranger?” 


 “No, it’s… it’s… the guy who laughs too much. Your shithead friend-” 


 “Bai Jianming?” 


 “Oh, yes.” 


 “You killed him?!” 


 “I don’t know!” Shang Qinghua wailed. “I didn’t mean to hit him like that!” 


 Mobei-Jun stared at him. 


 Shang Qinghua tried to pull his chin free of Mobei-Jun’s hand, but he wouldn’t let go. 


 “Why did you hit him?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 “The drink… the drink I…”  


 “What drink?” 


 “The wine. It was drugged. The trick wasn’t working.” 


 “...He gave you drugged wine.” 






 “He left it,” Shang Qinghua explained. “I thought you left it.” 


 “In… the library?” Mobei-Jun asked. 


 “I shouldn’t drink it- shouldn’t have drank it.” 


 “Why would you drink it?!” 


 “I thought you did it!” 


 “No. You drank drugged wine. Then what?” 


 “He touched me.” 


 “He what?” 


 Shang Qinghua reached out and put his hand on Mobei-Jun’s shoulder. 


 He missed the first time. 


 Mobei-Jun stared at the hand and then looked back at him. “...Then what?” 


 “He threw up.” 




 “And I kicked him and then I threw up on him.” 


 “You threw up on him?” 


 “I had to get it out. The drinking trick isn’t working.” 


 “...Where is he now?” 


 “I don’t know.” 


 “Did this happen in the library?” 




 “Did you leave him there?” 


 Shang Qinghua nodded, but it was hard with Mobei-Jun’s hand holding his chin up so tightly. The rest of the world was breaking apart, falling up and down around them, but Mobei-Jun couldn’t be moved. That hand was the only solid thing in the world.


 “Don’t tell anyone. I don’t know if he’s dead. Don’t tell.” 


 “He’ll wish to be,” Mobei-Jun promised him. 




 “I’ll take care of it.” 




 Mobei-Jun finally released his chin, leaning back. 


 It felt like going into freefall. 


 Shang Qinghua quickly leaned forward and said, “You can’t!” 




 Shang Qinghua fell forward and the side of his head landed on Mobei-Jun’s thigh. He clung to it. One of his teary eyes was pressed against Mobei-Jun’s white guest disciple robes. 


 “You can’t leave me here!” 


 He didn’t know where he was or where he was going. He didn’t want to be alone. 


 “Get off!” 


 “You owe me!” 


 Hands settled on Shang Qinghua’s shoulders, but he shrugged them off, fingers digging into the robes. He hugged Mobei-Jun’s thighs even tighter. The hands pulled harder. 




 “Sit up!” 


 One of the hands grabbed Shang Qinghua’s wrists, forcibly detaching his clinging fingers, and the other forcibly yanked him up. The sudden shift in position made him see stars. Shang Qinghua blinked into Mobei-Jun’s scowling face. Oh, these were Mobei-Jun's hands. That made more sense.


 “I’m not leaving you!” Mobei-Jun snapped. “Get up. I’ll take you back to your house.” 




 That sounded good. 


 Shang Qinghua apparently didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, as Mobei-Jun pulled them both up, but he didn’t try to struggle. Standing was hard. He almost floated away, but Mobei-Jun was very strong. The grip on his wrists was too tight. 


 Mobei-Jun tried to make them walk. It worked a little. 


 His head was squeezing again, though. 


 He didn’t know how far they got before Mobei-Jun gave up on him. Mobei-Jun wasn’t a very patient person sometimes. He still yelped in surprise as Mobei-Jun cursed and then threw him over his shoulder. The shoulder was hard. It hurt a lot. 


 Shang Qinghua retched. It was good he didn’t have anything left to throw up. 


 “Stop kicking!” Mobei-Jun snapped. “Qinghua! Stop kicking!” 




 He hadn’t realized Mobei-Jun had been talking to him. Had he been kicking? 


 The walk went by a lot faster like that. The ground went whoosh. 


 Mobei-Jun’s legs were very long. 


 Shang Qinghua was supposed to be doing something, but he couldn’t remember what. He was too busy clinging to Mobei-Jun for dear life as the ground whizzed by. He could feel Mobei-Jun’s shoulder and shoulder blades moving under him. He felt along Mobei-Jun’s back with his hands as it moved. It was a very muscular back. Very nice. 


 “Stop that,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 So cruel! 


 He wasn’t even touching that much. It was just to keep his balance. Mobei-Jun was so tough that he shouldn’t even notice Shang Qinghua’s hands doing a little exploration. 


 “Qinghua, stop that.” 


 “It wasn’t me!” 


 Mobei-Jun stopped and looked around, before he kept walking. It was very dizzying. 


 “Who else would it be?” he demanded. 


 “I don’t know!” Shang Qinghua lied. “I didn’t see them!” 


 “Stop trying to undo my belt.” 


 “I wasn’t!” 


 Had he been doing that? 


 A little while later, Shang Qinghua said, “Throw up.” 




 “I wanna throw up.” 


 The world whirled as Shang Qinghua was yanked off the shoulder very quickly. By the time his vision cleared, he was leaning in front of some bushes, being held up by the back of his robes. He retched, but nothing came up. He wished something would. He thought throwing up would have made him feel a little better, getting the bad stuff out. 


 “The drinking trick,” he mumbled. “That’s what I was supposed- I was doing.” 


 “Do not drink anything more,” Mobei-Jun told him. 


 “Oh, my house! I love my house.” 


 Shang Qinghua tried to take a step towards his house, but the hand on the back of his robes was stopping him. The hand let go and Shang Qinghua went forward! He fell immediately. 




 Mobei-Jun picked him off the ground and carried him into his house. It was a different carry this time. A bridal carry. A damsel-in-distress carry. A princess carry. Shang Qinghua could see Mobei-Jun’s handsome features this way, which was nice, even though the back view had also been pretty good. He decided it was very nice, before Mobei-Jun cruelly and unceremoniously dropped him onto his bed. He was such an asshole.


 He was lucky Shang Qinghua liked him so much.


 Shang Qinghua pushed himself up just in time for his blankets to hit him in the face. They had apparently been on the floor. How had they gotten on the floor? He pulled them off his face so that he could breathe, frowning up at Mobei-Jun. 


 “What?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 


 “You’re not good at this,” Shang Qinghua said. “No bedside manner at alllll.” 


 Mobei-Jun frowned back. “What am I supposed to do?” 


 “...I can’t remember. But you’re taller and you hated me, and I helped.” 


 “Yes. You did.” 






 “You need to get me water.” 




 “Over… over there! Qingyuan left it there. Don't worry! I’ll get it.” 


 “Sit down,” Mobei-Jun snapped, and then went to get water.  


 Shang Qinghua sat back down in bed. As he pushed the blankets aside, he noticed the state of his robes, brown splotches around his knees. He couldn’t be in bed like this! He got out of his bed and started stripping off his outer robes. He didn’t want to have to do more laundry. 


 “What are you doing?!” 


 Shang Qinghua looked at Mobei-Jun and patiently explained, “I threw up.” 


 Then he dropped his outer robes on the floor, in the general direction of a corner, at least nowhere near his poor bed. It didn’t need any vomit on it. 


 Mobei-Jun came over with some water and ordered, “Drink.” 


 Water had never tasted so good in any lifetime. 


 It kind of made Shang Qinghua want to throw up again. 


 “I hate this,” he confessed. 


 “Drink your water,” Mobei-Jun snapped. 


 Shang Qinghua drank his water, kicked his dirtied clothes a little more into the corner, and made Mobei-Jun get him his snacks. People were allowed to be a little spoiled when they were sick, right? He really, really wanted noodles. But when he told Mobei-Jun that he should make noodles from scratch, for a yummy soup, Mobei-Jun threw the snacks at his face and said, “I’m not doing that.” 


 “Oh, you probably can’t,” Shang Qinghua realized, and ate his snacks. 


 He generously offered some to Mobei-Jun, who was sitting beside him on his bed. 


 “No,” Mobei-Jun said. “What happened yesterday?” 




 “You ran off after Yue Qingyuan’s fiancée and fought a River Sect disciple.” 


 “That was yesterday?” 




 It felt a lot, lot longer than that. 


 “Oh, I didn’t come back! Fuck, I meant to come back.” 


 “You didn’t.” 


 The good “maybe I won’t die” feeling that had been building evaporated immediately. 


 “Don’t be mad! Please, don’t kill me!” 


 “I’m n-” Mobei-Jun took a deep breath, then grit out, “I’m not mad.” 


 Shang Qinghua relaxed again. “Oh, good.” 


 Phew! That had been close! 


 “I wrote a note?” Shang Qinghua tried to remember. 


 “What happened to the note?” 


 “I fell asleep.” 


 “...I see,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “Shen Qingqiu is an asshole,” Shang Qinghua informed him. 




 “So are you, but he’s so much worse. I don’t like him.” 


 It wasn’t Yue Qingyuan’s fault that they had such a shitty backstory. It was that rat bastard Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky’s fault. That didn’t mean that Shen Qingqiu had to be such an asshole about everything, though, especially when he didn’t write these scenes. He didn't write any of this. It wasn't his fault.


 Shang Qinghua listed to the side and landed against something solid like a wall. 


 The wall moved, gently pushing Shang Qinghua upright again. 


 Oh, the wall was Mobei-Jun. 


 “...Why do you help me?” Mobei-Jun asked. 


 Shang Qinghua couldn’t follow these conversations at all. Why did Mobei-Jun have to be so confusing all the time?


 “Help?” he repeated. 


 “Why do you help me if you don’t like me?” Mobei-Jun asked. 


 “I like you!” Shang Qinghua protested. “You’re my favorite! I don’t want you to die.” 


 Mobei-Jun blinked at him. 


 Shang Qinghua leaned forward again, though not on purpose. 


 “You’re not allowed to die,” he said. 


 It would be so uncool if Mobei-Jun died! It would also be uncool if Mobei-Jun killed him someday, but he still didn’t want his favorite character to die because of some lowly trick from a shitty uncle or a shitty friend. Who would be the protagonist’s right-hand man? 


 “...Why do you care?” Mobei-Jun said. 


 “What? I can’t have my favorites?” Shang Qinghua said defensively. 


 He didn’t need to explain himself to everyone! He didn’t need to explain himself to anyone! Definitely not the Cloud Sect and all its fucking rules. First rule of everything was not to give a shit what the reviewers said. Sometimes people were allowed to be human! Fuck off! 


 Mobei-Jun kept frowning at him. 


 He was lucky that his face looked good that way, if it ever got stuck someday. 


 Shang Qinghua liked Mobei-Jun’s face even more for the zit on his forehead, the scar on the edge of his cheek, the stubble on his jaw, and all the other details that made him real. He liked the way it moved. He liked the way that Mobei-Jun’s brow furrowed in concentration when he was listening to Shang Qinghua ramble on about anything and everything, the way that his eyes tracked Shang Qinghua’s hand gestures even when they didn’t have meaning, and the way his lips twitched when he was amused and trying not to show it. 


 Shang Qinghua reached out to touch that face again, unable to remember why he shouldn’t. 


 Mobei-Jun let him do it, watching him carefully. 


 “Ugh, you’re so handsome,” Shang Qinghua complained, running a thumb over Mobei-Jun’s cheek. “It’s not fair. Who gave you this face? I didn’t give you this face.” 


 “...I wouldn’t take a face from you,” Mobei-Jun said. 


 Shang Qinghua scrunched up his expression. He wouldn’t take a face from him either. 


 “You’re mean,” he complained. 




 “But I like you anyway,” Shang Qinghua assured him. “Sometimes, it’s just really funny. I shouldn't like it, but I do. Sometimes, it’s just mean, though! You’re such a fucking brat. Why can’t you just say sorry? You said sorry for pushing me in the river. Say sorry.” 


 Mobei-Jun scowled at him. “What am I supposed to be sorry for?” 


 “You called me pathetic," Shang Qinghua said mournfully. "Why did you have to be right like that?"


 Mobei-Jun looked away. 


 Shang Qinghua tried to drag his eyes back, physically turning Mobei-Jun’s head. 


 “You can’t make it up to me with candy! That’s so pathetic! That's not good enough!” 


  “What do you want from me?” Mobei-Jun snapped. 


 He was so handsome. 


 It wasn’t fair. 


 Shang Qinghua leaned forward, pulling Mobei-Jun’s face down, and kissed him. 


 Mobei-Jun went still. 


 It wasn’t a good kiss. It was just lips pressed together. It was kind of a letdown after not kissing anyone in about twenty years.


 He hadn’t imagined it like this. 


 Shang Qinghua drew back and licked his lips. 


 Mobei-Jun stared at him, eyes wide. 


 “Wait. Wait, wait, wait,” Shang Qinghua said, leaning his forehead against Mobei-Jun's. “I can do better than that.” 


 And he kissed Mobei-Jun again. 


 It was better this time. Slower. Softer. He’d wanted to do this for so long. Eventually, Mobei-Jun’s lips moved on their own, instead of just being moved, mirroring Shang Qinghua’s efforts. That was much better. Now, it was good. Now, they were really making progress. 


 And then Mobei-Jun shoved him away. 


 Shang Qinghua landed on his back, sprawled out on his bed, and it set off all the bumps and bruises he’d been ignoring. That was a lot. He pushed himself up onto his elbows with a pitiful groan, opening his eyes to Mobei-Jun getting to his feet, breathing heavily. 


 That was actually kind of like how Shang Qinghua had sometimes imagined it. 


 This was the part where he died. 


 Mobei-Jun pointed a warning finger at him. “Don’t move.” 


 “Not moving!” Shang Qinghua agreed fearfully. 


 He tried to sit up. 


 “Don’t move!” 


 Shang Qinghua flopped back down. All of his bumps and bruises went off again. 




 His eyes teared up a little. 


 “I feel like a teenager,” he complained, “and a dirty old man. I hate it. I can’t have anything.”   


 “Shut up!” 


 It wasn’t a surprise that Mobei-Jun didn’t like him. Most people didn’t. Most of the time, Shang Qinghua didn’t like himself very much. He didn’t like his character, either. 


 Absolutely everything was ruined now. 


 Mobei-Jun paced the room and Shang Qinghua watched him. 


 He rubbed at his eyes and sniffled. 


 Mobei-Jun’s head snapped around, probably to kill him for existing too loudly, but then his scowl faded. When Mobei-Jun didn’t lunge forward with killing intent, Shang Qinghua slowly relaxed out of his defensive pose, and then just laid himself down entirely. His head was squeezing again. All of his pain was moving back to the front of his mind. 


 He had too many thoughts and only room for one at a time. But now all the thoughts were trying to push forward for the space, and almost nothing was making it through. 


 After a while, he felt the bed shift under the weight of someone sitting down at the end. 


 He didn’t look. 


 He wanted to throw up again. 


 Instead, breath by breath, ache by ache, Shang Qinghua passed out. 



 Everything hurt. 


 Shang Qinghua woke up and immediately regretted it. He groaned. 


 Footsteps crossed the room towards him. “Qinghua!” 


 Opening his eyes was a mistake, but he did it anyway, squinting towards a familiar blur, which turned into a familiar concerned face hovering over him. Yue Qingyuan carefully, but firmly, helped him sit up. Then he offered him a cup of something that smelled like shit. 


 “Qingfang left this. Plug your nose,” Yue Qingyuan ordered. 


 Yue Qingyuan was too OP! He wrestled Shang Qinghua fully upright, made him pinch his own nose, and then poured a cup of some foul potion down his throat. It tasted even worse than it smelled. Shang Qinghua gagged. Yue Qingyuan made him drink water next, and only afterwards released him to collapse back onto the bed. 


 “Holy shit,” Shang Qinghua gasped. 


 Yue Qingyuan frowned down at him, but didn’t keep torturing him. 


 Shang Qinghua put a hand to his head and licked his teeth like that would make his mouth feel clean again. Injuries across his body flared as he noticed them, but his memories might as well have been at the bottom of a black pit, so who fucking knew how they’d gotten there. 


 “...What happened?” 


 “What’s the last thing you remember?” Yue Qingyuan asked him. 


 Shang Qinghua squinted at him, then said hoarsely, “Shit. That’s really bad, isn’t it? No one asks that question if anything good happened.” 


 The abyss stirred, spitting up a jumbled mess that hurt to look at and might as well have been a dream. He couldn’t sort through it. He winced as he forced himself to sit up a little. 


 Yue Qingyuan sat down on the bed beside him. 


 Shang Qinghua tasted his mouth again. “Did I… Am I hungover?” 


 “That’s… part of it.” 


 “Part of-?! Fuck. Part of it?!” 


 Yue Qingyuan had the expression of someone who didn’t know where to start. Slowly, he began, “Early yesterday evening, Bai Jianming was found unconscious in the library, lying in his own vomit, with an open jar of wine spilled on the floor beside him.” 


 The ghost of a hand settled on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder and he shuddered.


 The feeling tugged at the black pit of his memories, giving him the flash of a smile and a stomach full of dread. 


 Yue Qingyuan frowned, but continued, “The disciple was rushed to Qian Cao, where it was discovered that he was not drunk, and not injured besides a large bump on the head. He claimed not to remember what had happened. An investigation started. I came to check on you and discovered Mobei Yi watching over you.” 


 This time, Shang Qinghua remembered being caught, being carried, being… shoved away. 


 “He said that Bai Jianming had given you drugged wine and then attacked you, and that he had found you wandering the Cloud Recesses after you had fought off the attack,” Yue Qingyuan explained. “Qingfang tested the wine and confirmed that it was drugged, and that you were intoxicated. The investigation would have continued, but…” 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t like that. He didn’t like any of this. 


 Morbid curiosity compelled him forward. 




 “Mobei Yi went to Qian Cao and attacked Bai Jianming.” 




 “Three of his limbs are broken. The fourth is sprained. There were many other injuries, but Qingfang didn’t care to list all of them for me, beyond to say that Bai Jianming could have been beaten to death,” Yue Qingyuan said. “Mobei Yi was also injured, but not seriously. The Master of Qian Cao Peak had to intervene. There was significant damage to that healing hall. Mobei Yi and Bai Jianming have been separated and treated, but the sect leader and his brother- your uncles agreed that the only course of action was to expel them both from the Cloud Recesses at once.” 




 “Bai Jianming will remain here until the Sun Sect can arrange transport, but Mobei Yi has been asked to leave before the end of the day.” 


 “But he didn’t do-” 


 “He nearly killed a member of his own sect,” Yue Qingyuan reiterated solemnly. Though he then added darkly, “Even if Bai Jianming apparently well-deserved it. Qinghua, do you remember… any of this? I know you have no tolerance for alcohol.” 


 “I… some of it?” 


 His head hurt even more with the effort of trying to remember. He couldn’t separate his memories from what could have been fucked-up dreams or his imagination trying to make something up. He was pretty sure that the memory of Mobei-Jun carrying him over one shoulder was real. There was no fucking way that he had kissed Mobei-Jun and lived, though, only getting shoved away for the audacity. That one had to be nothing more than wishful thinking, a fantasy screwed over by his own pessimism. 


 Mobei-Jun definitely would have killed him if that had happened. It couldn’t be real. 


 Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t let him out of bed until Shang Qinghua recounted some of his jumbled memories (he did not mention any kissing) and told him where all his worst hurts were. He barely remembered seeing Bai Jianming. How was he supposed to know what fucked-up thing that shithead had meant to do? Shang Qinghua’s worst injuries were still, by far, from his punishment yesterday morning.


 Yesterday morning! Where had yesterday gone? 


 Only after Shang Qinghua had assured and reassured Yue Qingyuan that he was probably fine enough, after Shang Qinghua had begged and pleaded with him, threatening to cry and also sneak away to go without him, did Yue Qingyuan agree to take him to see Mobei-Jun before he left. Yue Qingyuan agreed that it was good that Mobei-Jun had helped Shang Qinghua, and Yue Qingyuan agreed that he wasn’t sorry Bai Jianming had gotten the shit kicked out of him, but Yue Qingyuan apparently still didn’t want to let Shang Qinghua anywhere near anyone so violent, or anyone from the Sun Sect, really. 


 “I’d like to see you try to get around me,” Yue Qingyuan said mildly. 


 But he did help Shang Qinghua up, into new clothes,  and out the door. 


 He was a bro like that sometimes. 


 It might have been the fact that Shang Qinghua had said, desperate, “I’d do it for you.” 



 It didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. 


 His mind was reeling, which made his aching head feel even more like shit. Mu Qingfang’s medicine was slowly starting to kick in, though, so Shang Qinghua gritted his teeth and pushed forward with Yue Qingyuan’s help. Yue Qingyuan had said that Mobei-Jun had already started the process of leaving and could be gone any hour. 


 Shang Qinghua needed to see him and say, “Hey, what the FUCK?!” 


 He needed people to jump out of the bushes of this path and shout, “It’s a prank, bro! We totally got you, didn’t we?!”


 Except shit like that didn’t happen in the Cloud Recesses. Ever. 


 They found Mobei-Jun in one of the courtyards by the dormitories given to the Sun Sect. His bags were already packed around him and set onto a nearby bench. It looked like a couple of other Sun Sect disciples were going to follow Mobei-Jun out of the guest lectures, either belonging to the same clan or to a subsidiary clan or who fucking knew what was up with it. The likes of Mobei-Jun and Bai Jianming apparently couldn’t get kicked out of the Cloud Recesses without taking at least a small entourage with them. 


 Mobei-Jun turned to look at them approaching and his eyes widened. Shang Qinghua saw him snap at one of the other Sun Sect disciples, before striding over to meet them. 


 He was already out of the white uniform, instead wearing rich blue and black robes with the icy patterns of his family. They looked so expensive. They also suited him really, really well. It didn’t make sense, though, that these robes would come with a dark bruise on Mobei-Jun’s jaw, a bandage on his forehead, and bandages around both of his hands. That must have been from the fight. 


 “Young Master Mobei,” Yue Qingyuan greeted. 


 “...Young Master Yue,” Mobei-Jun managed, before looking towards Shang Qinghua. 


 “Could we… have a moment?” Shang Qinghua asked Yue Qingyuan. 


 “No,” Yue Qingyuan said. 


 “...What do you mean ‘no’?!” 


 “I mean: no,” Yue Qingyuan said, with pleasant firmness. 


 The final thing that Shang Qinghua had said, while begging Yue Qingyuan to bring him here, was, “I’d do it for you!” Which had been true, probably. Yue Qingyuan hadn't been able to deny it. Shang Qinghua would support Yue Qingyuan in some dumbass endeavor to visit Shen Qingqiu, but after… after the last encounter with Shen Qingqiu, he couldn’t say he liked the idea of Yue Qingyuan facing him alone. 


 “You’re still injured, Qinghua,” Yue Qingyuan reminded him. 


 “Really? I hadn’t noticed.” 


 “And I’m not leaving you here,” Yue Qingyuan said, smiling towards the other Sun Sect disciples looking their way, who all quickly made themselves look very busy. “Your uncles wouldn’t be pleased.” 


 “Fuck them,” Shang Qinghua muttered. 


 But this wasn’t a fight that he could win and he knew it. He didn’t have the resources, or the strength, especially not any time. So he focused on Mobei-Jun, like that would make all his memories neatly fall into place and start making any sense. Mobei-Jun stared back. 


 “So, ah, you’re leaving,” Shang Qinghua said. 




 “Well, I guess that won’t change the amount of classwork you were doing…?” 




  “What happened?!” Shang Qinghua wanted to shriek. “Why did you do that?! Are you going to be in shit with your father now?! There’s no way you’re not into deep shit with Bai Jianming’s family now! I can’t remember what happened last night, but please tell me I didn’t spend a ridiculous amount of time touching your face! Did that really happen?! I’d want to remember that!” 


 Instead, he said, “Thanks for, uh, helping me back to my house?” 


 Mobei-Jun nodded. 


 “I, ha, I wish I remembered that. It’s all kind of a blur…” 


 There wasn’t much that they could say. Not like this. Before Shang Qinghua knew it, the only thing left to awkwardly spit out was a goodbye, even though he was desperate to find a way to prolong the conversation, like that would stop Mobei-Jun from being expelled from the Cloud Recesses. This was it? This was really it?! This was how it all ended?! Like there was nothing worth talking about between them?!


 And then Mobei-Jun handed him a letter. 




 “Don’t read it here,” Mobei-Jun snapped. 


 “Oh, of course.” 


 Yue Qingyuan pulled Shang Qinghua one direction. The other Sun Sect disciples beckoned Mobei-Jun in the other direction, clearly not brave enough to actually touch him. More senior Cloud Sect cultivators were apparently on their way to oversee their expulsion, possibly including the Cloud Sect Leader himself, and avoiding the sect leader’s attention was always the best course of action for Yue Qingyuan and Shang Qinghua. 


 He didn’t even get to see Mobei-Jun leave. 


 He went back to his house and later, Yue Qingyuan told him Mobei-Jun had gone. 



 Shang Qinghua didn’t open the letter until he was back at his house and alone again, mostly. Yue Qingyuan was still in the other room. Mu Qingfang, Chen Riling, and Little Uncle had all been through. Even Shang Yuxi had been by to express concern, though he hadn’t been able to tell by her expression, and Shang Qinghua got the impression that she mostly dropped by to deliver some well wishes on behalf of her friend, Ding Lanfen. 


 Even now he was mostly alone, a part of him didn’t want to open the letter. Maybe the letter was all about how pathetic Mobei-Jun thought he was! Maybe the letter was Mobei-Jun blaming him for everything that had happened! Maybe if he didn’t read the letter, Shang Qinghua could pretend that everything hadn’t been fucked up in less than a day, and that Mobei-Jun hadn’t been whisked away in a shitty, sudden goodbye that had been so awkward and so quick that it still didn’t feel real. He opened the letter anyway, before the curiosity could kill him. He'd never be able to sleep again if he didn't read it.


 The writing inside was painstakingly neat. It was also slightly stilted, but Shang Qinghua recognized the handwriting and the style from dozens upon dozens of afternoons watching Mobei-Jun transfer his thoughts to paper. Afternoon after afternoon spent smoothing out sentences like these. He knew exactly how much work had gone into this letter. 


  “Shang Qinghua,” the letter said. 


  “I am grateful for your help. Better armed, I will continue this work. Do not send letters to my sect or they will be read. We will only meet again if you are not a coward, so do not be a coward.


 “I am sorry.” 


 It wasn’t signed. 


 Shang Qinghua checked the back, just in case, but there was nothing else. He supposed that he was lucky that he didn’t get only a single character from a man of so few words. He flipped the letter right-side-up again and stared at it, quickly putting it down when he realized that his grip was threatening to crease it… or stain it with sweat. 


 “You had to be mean one last time, huh?” Shang Qinghua muttered. “Asshole.” 


 But his eyes drifted away from the part calling him a coward - not wrongly, which was the worst fucking past - to the bits that said, “I am grateful for your help,” and “I am sorry.” 


 “...Did that hurt you to write?” Shang Qinghua wondered. “Good!” 


 “Qinghua, are you saying something?” 




 “Do you need something?” 


 “No, I don’t!” 


 “I’m coming back in,” Yue Qingyuan said, and then followed through on his threat. 


 Shang Qinghua quickly sat up, away from where he’d stashed the letter, and Yue Qingyuan looked at him like he was more transparent than glass. It sucked. Yue Qingyuan was a bro sometimes, though, and he didn’t call Shang Qinghua on his bullshit or take the letter from him to read it. 


 “Are you all right?” 


 Shang Qinghua waved his arm a few times. “I’m fine! I’m fine! Ow, I just tugged something I shouldn’t have, shit, why are there so many bruises?!” He hissed and tried to stretch out his traitorous, aching everything. “I’m fine!” 


 “Clearly,” Yue Qingyuan agreed. 


He didn’t go anywhere as Shang Qinghua finished willing life back into his limb. 




 “Your second uncle has managed to keep your involvement in the expulsion of two Sun Sect disciples out of the gossip,” Yue Qingyuan informed him. “The only people who know are him, the sect leader, Qingfang, and the Master of Qian Cao. It was assumed that you would prefer people not to know what happened.” 


 “Oh… yeah.” 


 “It wouldn’t have changed the sect leader’s decision.” 


 “My existence never does!” 


 Yue Qingyuan grimaced. “It was a… well-meant act… but the violence of it…” 


 “Too scary to keep around here,” Shang Qinghua finished. “It’s fine. It’s cool. It’s fine.” 


 “...Bai Jianming is still being held on Qian Cao, until the Sun Sect can collect him, so don’t go there until further notice,” Yue Qingyuan ordered. “If you need something, send someone for Qingfang immediately. I’ve made it clear - and so has your uncle and Qingfang - that your orders aren’t to be disregarded.” 


 “Ha ha, fun. I get to boss people around.” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed. “It’s a great power. Use it wisely.” 


 “I’m already forming wicked plans.” 


  “Do use it if you need anything, Qinghua.” 


 Shang Qinghua tried to meet Yue Qingyuan’s look, somewhere between scolding and sincere, but it was too intense. “I’ll be the most spoiled brat in the sect,” he promised, totally lying, because people would definitely resent him if he started existing too loudly. “Everyone will get sick of how spoiled I’m going to be.” 


 Yue Qingyuan looked politely unconvinced. 


  “You have no room to fucking talk, bro,” Shang Qinghua thought. 


 “Your ‘reflection’ has been extended to give you time to heal,” Yue Qingyuan said next. “So don’t get up and try to go about work as usual until Qingfang gives you the go-ahead.” 


 “Oh, that order I’m definitely going to follow.” 


 “Qingfang will be so glad to hear it.” 


 Shang Qinghua didn’t have another joke to make. The empty space came up where he was supposed to put one, but this time, he had nothing. He and Yue Qingyuan enjoyed comfortable silences sometimes, but this wasn’t one of them, especially not when Yue Qingyuan was staring at him like he had the last time they’d had a heart-to-heart here. 


 Yue Qingyuan crouched down beside the bed. “I can’t say I understood the friendship you formed with him…” 


 “Are you enjoying being on the other side of this? You are, aren’t you?” 


 Yue Qingyuan huffed. “...but you’ll see him again.” 


 “I know,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 “There will be conferences soon.” 


  “Yeah, and wars someday,” Shang Qinghua thought. “What’s your fucking point?” 


 The cultivation conferences would be filled with prying eyes and strict obligations, with humiliating competitions and cutthroat bullshit, if Proud Immortal Demonic Way was to be believed. If the enemies Shang Qinghua had probably just made was anything to go by. There probably wouldn’t be anything like the meetings in the Cloud Recesses library ever again. No more peaceful and quiet afternoons. It was, most likely, all downhill from here. 


 It made Shang Qinghua want to run away right fucking now. But where to? The next big event might be Yue Qingyuan’s wedding and the idea of skipping that already made him feel like shit. It wasn't so far away now, but if he stuck around for that, there was a possibility that he might never have the guts to leave. 


 “...I didn’t think it would end like this,” Shang Qinghua said, pathetically. 


 “I think a lot of endings aren’t expected,” Yue Qingyuan replied. 


 “It felt like things were just getting started.” 


 “Time shouldn't be wasted.” 


 "It's bullshit. Why does everything have to happen all at once like that?"


 "I wish I knew."


 “Ha, he probably won’t remember me by the time we see each other again.” 


 “Qinghua…” Yue Qingyuan said, concerned. 


 “I’m kidding! I’m kidding!” Shang Qinghua said quickly. “At least you still have time to make good with the asshole who’s apparently upset you didn’t actually die for him. He’s still got a few months left to cough up an apology. Maybe he can do it one syllable at a time.” 


 “...I think he might choke on it,” Yue Qingyuan offered. 


 “Ha! Yeah, probably.” 


 Yue Qingyuan sat down beside Shang Qinghua’s bed, and the silence this time was more comfortable, for all it hung over them like a ton of bricks. A person could get used to that shit hanging over their head. They just had to get really fucking good at not looking up. A person could almost forget it was there like that. Sure, it was going to fall eventually, but it wasn't going to fall right this minute. There was time.


 Less time than he thought, though.


 “The wedding is going to be a shitshow,” Shang Qinghua said. “Sorry.” 


 Yue Qingyuan sighed. “It’ll be interesting.” 


 “That means bad.” 


 “No, it doesn’t. It just means interesting.” 


 “Sure,” Shang Qinghua said, already thinking ahead to other shitshows meant to come. 


  Proud Immortal Demonic Way had been a stallion novel, a shameless one, and so the protagonist had married women from every sect. Some more significant and memorable than others, before it had devolved into even more shameless bullshit. From the River Sect, the most important had been Luo Binghe’s sweet childhood sweetheart, Ning Yingying. From the Mountain Sect, it had been Liu Qingge’s younger sister, Liu Mingyan, an elegant beauty out to avenge her brother. From the Sun Sect, it had been the deadly and ambitious Sha Hualing. From the Flower Sect, it had been the haughty Little Palace Mistress, Chen Danyang. 


 And from the Cloud Sect… 


 “Qingyuan, how do you feel about daughters?” Shang Qinghua asked. 


 “...Why?” Yue Qingyuan asked. 


 “That’s the point of getting married, isn’t it? Children?” 


 “...Usually the goal is sons.” 


 “Ha ha, did I say daughters? I meant children in general! Slip of the tongue!” 


 Yue Qingyuan thought about it. “I wouldn’t mind daughters.” 


  “Good, bro, because you’re getting two of them,” Shang Qinghua thought. Actually, now that he was thinking about it, a lot of people would be having daughters in the next generation, in order to accommodate the gender distribution of a stallion novel. “Oh, shit, people are probably going to be kind of shitty about that. Sucks for them.” 


 “You could call them the ‘Twin Jades’, if you had two of them, I mean! Ha ha! People already call Yuxi the Jade of the Cloud Sect, so her daughters would definitely also be jades.” 


 “I think it’s a little early to be giving babies that don’t exist titles like that.” 


 “Ha ha, oh, yes. Just… just thinking.” 


 Shang Qinghua had always kind of wanted to see them, just like he'd always kind of wanted to see the protagonist, who also wasn't here yet.


 Yue Qingyuan hummed. “If you’re distracting me, can you choose a different topic?” 


 “Ah, sure, who wants to think about the future? The future isn’t that great, anyway. Neither is the present, actually. The past is… ehhh… that’s bad too. It's all bad. Let’s talk about… oh, let’s talk about how you didn’t bring me better food? How could you? Who does that?” 


 “People who were given trays directly by a healer.” 


 “Qingfang doesn’t have to know.” 


 “People who don’t want to risk an overtired healer’s wrath. People who have had no opportunity to leave the sect in the past few days due to all the trouble caused.” 


 “That doesn’t sound like my problem,” Shang Qinghua said. 


 Yue Qingyuan laughed. 


 "Shit," Shang Qinghua thought. "I'm never going to leave, am I?"


 He was already a part of Proud Immortal Demonic Way whether he liked it or not. He hoped this one would have a better ending, but looking around, most of the time, it was hard to see what about this world was different... or could be different. At this rate, the story would be on them before he knew it.