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Shen Jiu knelt before his Shizun with his head bowed and tried to do his best to look at though he was thinking deeply filial thoughts when internally he was seething. The cold tea that had been thrown at him dripped down his face and off his hair to land on the floor in a steady plop plop plop.

 

“You can go now.” His Shizun waved a careless hand, “This master will be going into seclusion for a few months,” They gestured to the tea tray next to them and motioned for Shen Jiu to take it which he promptly stood up and did.

 

Shen Jiu nodded, “Thank you Shizun.” He didn’t grit his teeth or let any bitterness seep into his voice. It wasn’t easy but he had years of experience at holding his tongue. A little tea and humiliation heaped on him were nothing.

 

His Shizun didn’t even look at him and Shen Jiu took that as a sign of dismissal.

 

He left his Shizun’s ugly little house through the back entrance and made his way through the bamboo forest to the kitchens so he wouldn’t bump into any of the other disciples while his hair was still soaked with tea. Once he was an appropriate distance from the house he used the handkerchief in his sleeve to wipe off his face and dry his hair as best he could all the while cursing internally.

 

When I’m an Immortal Master I wouldn’t deign to live somewhere as ugly as Shizun’s little hut. Shen Jiu thought viciously as he took the tea tray back to the kitchens. I’ll have a much better house. Maybe in a bamboo forest like Shizun but much better. Shizun has shit taste anyway.

 

With his internal rant done he made it to the kitchens and handed off the tray to the workers there before making his way back to the disciple quarters.

 

“Shen-shidi.” One of the shixiong called, “What did Shizun tell you?”

 

Shen Jiu fixed his expression. This was the one boon his stupid Shizun granted him, the modicum of power of being Shizun’s mouthpiece (and punching bag, though it wasn’t as though Shizun would ever stoop so low as to punch anyone). Of course Shizun only granted him the dubious honour because he likely knew of his true identity as a filthy little runaway which meant he could treat Shen Jiu however he wanted with complete impunity unlike the other young masters and mistresses on Qing Jing peak whose families would surely protest any overly harsh treatment. Shen Jiu couldn’t wait until he had enough powder to grind a few of those privileged brats into the dust.

 

“Shizun is going into seclusion.” Shen Jiu said with the authority that insider knowledge gave him.

 

The disciples around him began to discuss the new development with some excitement.

 

“Ah Shen-shixiong,” One of his shimei said with starry eyes, “You’re so lucky to be able to serve Shizun directly.”

 

Shen Jiu’s serene expression didn’t budge, “This humble disciple would never dare to disregard such an honour.”

 

Eventually he was able to extract himself with the excuse of having to run some errand or other for Shizun (not as though anyone would be able to check the validity of his words) and descended the peak. Once in the town at the base of the mountain he made his way to the Warm Red Pavilion. He had made the mistake of entering through the front entrance before and the rumours that had raged in the Sect had taken weeks to die down. Shizun had never said he was displeased but Shen Jiu had been harshly punished for quite a minor error which told him exactly what he was in truth being punished for.

 

Now Shen Jiu enters through the back and one of the jiejies is always careful to lead him up the back servant’s staircase.

 

“Ming-jie.” Shen Jiu greets the pretty woman sitting at her tea table in her room.

 

“A-Jiu.” The woman smiles. She looks radiantly happy, “I’m so glad A-Jiu was able to visit this week before I leave.” Her happiness spills into her voice. It’s almost contagious.

 

“Leave?” Shen Jiu questions as he sits down at the table, “Where is Ming-jie going?”

 

Ming-jie serves him the tea gracefully in the exact style Shen Jiu has learnt to imitate over his years spending time in brothels. His martial brothers and sisters would surely spit blood if they learned that the innate grace they believe he possessed due to a privileged upbringing was in fact due to hours spent in different brothels watching and subconsciously learning from the working ladies.

 

Ming-jie’s smile is still as radiant and hasn’t budged an inch, “I have received an offer of marriage that I have accepted.” She says, her eyes sparkle and she looks ten years longer, “My future husband is going to pick me up next week.” She ducks her eyes to the tea tray, “This one will only be his fifth wife but I… I will be married.” Her smile is a soft trembling thing.

 

Shen Jiu feels part of him (the only part left) ache at the sight.

 

“Ming-jie will be the most beautiful bride.” He says.

 

She smiles, “Ah A-Jiu is too sweet. This one won’t be granted a large wedding but I don’t dare ask for much. To have me as his official wife… not even a concubine.” Her blush is a bright pink dusting of powdered sugar, “I am so happy.”

 

“Who is he?” A-Jiu asks.

 

“A merchant from the South. He has been doing business a few li from here for the past few months and we got to know each other. Ah A-Jiu.” She sighs, “Can you imagine this one officially married to a respectable man?” She sounds somewhere between deliriously happy and incredulous.

 

“Ming-Jie is very happy about being married.”

 

“For an old whore such as this one…” Ming-jie sighs, “A-Jiu knows doesn’t he? I don’t have many more years of work in me and if I wish to ever have children, live a stable life, marriage is the best way to do so. My future husband is not the clever type and he is kind. He has enough money and is young enough that I do not think he will die before my first child become of age. It is good A-Jiu. I can finally rest.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at her face and notices the creases in her carefully applied makeup, the wrinkles around her eyes and the veins on the back of her hands.

 

“Ming-jie will be missed.” He murmurs.

 

“A-Jiu doesn’t need to be like me though.” Ming-jie says suddenly, “He will be a cultivator, an Immortal Master, with great renown who will be able to stand on his own power.”

 

Shen Jiu stares down into his cup of tea.

 

If only. Shizun could kick me out at any moment. I have qi deviations every other day. I am so behind on my cultivation. There are still characters I don’t recognise. I might not become peak lord. I will always be under someone else’s thumb.

 

These aren’t worries he can share with Ming-jie. In a lot of ways he doesn’t want to let the brothel jiejies down. They think of him as some incredible success story; able to easily pick out the traces of slavery on him when so many of them are the same way. Their A-Jiu, now training to be an Immortal Cultivator at a righteous Sect who always seems to have gold to spare.

 

A-Jiu has never told them that the gold he has is from selling his own cultivator services discreetly when out on missions. As cultivators of Cang Qiong Sect he doesn’t make money from missions as they aren’t supposed to charge the common people and unlike the other young masters and mistresses he doesn’t receive any allowance from his family to spend on trivialities.

 

His every need is taken care of by the Sect; food, cultivation equipment and clothing but he has no money of his own. So (in direct violation to the rules that would see him punished heavily) Shen Jiu uses the official missions given to him as an opportunity to discreetly take other paying missions under a false name and façade. He hasn’t been caught yet and with that money he’s able to buy a stick of tanghulu or press gold into the brothel madam’s hands.

 

It's a dance on the edge of a razor. His fellow disciples believe him the third or fourth son of some distant noble family who disapprove of cultivation. They believe he directly defied his family to come to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect and that’s why he came late, that’s why he never leaves to visit, that’s why he never receives letters. These are all assumptions they made on their own and ones he does nothing to dissuade. If they knew he was just some gutter rat he knows what would happen, he’s seen it enough times. The bullying would be vicious and he has no confidence that his Shizun would try to stop it (if they even wanted to).

 

Shen Jiu has perfected the mien of an arrogant and somewhat spoiled young master, half taken from Qiu Jianluo and half from his own (probably flawed) understanding of what it would have been to grow up in privilege and power. Still… as he lies down for a nap with Ming-Jie carding a soft hand through his hair he wonders what it would be like to be taken care of. What it would be like to just… relax. To take someone else’s power for his own and in return have to be nothing more than a pretty bauble on their shelf.

 

*

 

That night after he returns to the peak Shen Jiu dreams. He rarely sleeps in the disciple’s dormitories surrounded by so many men. Even if he knows who they are it’s still impossible for his tense muscles to relax. Ironically this has only contributed to his image as a privileged young lordling, so privileged he can barely handle the indignity of sharing a room with so many others.

 

But that night he drinks some calming tea and lies down to will himself into sleep. He needs to be well rested. With Shizun in seclusion he’ll have a few months of peace and can finally use the time to focus on cultivation instead of running errands or brewing cup after cup of tea only to find it splashed in his face.

 

So that night he sleeps.

 

And he dreams.

 

Soft voices and perfumed air. Wu Yanzi is off burying himself in some woman for the night and as usual his young apprentice has found himself adopted by the brothel jiejies. Whether or not his erstwhile master believes he’s acting similarly to himself is of no consequence, Wu Yanzi leaves him alone on these nights and Shen Jiu is allowed to close his eyes and soak up the warmth of another person without fear.

 

“Ah Jiu’er is so pretty!” One of the women coos as she strokes a soft hand over his cheek, “Truly he outshines even some of our girls!”

 

The girls laugh around him. They sparkle with fake jewels and different coloured shawls. Shen Jiu lies there in the hazy incense smoke and closes his eyes.

 

The dream is not so much one memory as an amalgamation of many different visits to many different brothels.

 

“A-Jiu.”

 

“Yes jiejie?” Shen Jiu asks, leaning in closer to the woman holding him in her lap.

 

“Ah A-Jiu is so pretty, such soft skin! Such nice eyes. Such a pleasing figure. Ah A-Jiu would be able to make a wife, no problem.”

 

“Wife?” A-Jiu hummed.

 

“Most of us flowers can only ever find security as concubines. To be an official wife… what an honour! Ah but A-Jiu is so pretty Ying-jie is sure he’d be able to tempt any powerful man into marriage.”

 

Shen Jiu burrows closer into the woman, “I don’t want to get married.” He mutters into her neck, “I don’t want anyone to own me like that.”

 

He remembers Qiu Haitang and the fear and everything that came with it with a burst of nausea.

 

“A-Jiu.” The tone is almost scolding, “Ying-jie has seen that master of yours. Not a righteous man. Marriage is ownership but A-Jiu should not misunderstand, for those like us it is the best way out. Here we are owned by so many, in marriage a man may not shame you without shaming himself. It is power. Enough power.”

 

Shen Jiu frowns, brain hazy from the incense smoke and perfume, “What if they beat me?”

 

It’s stupid and childish. A quick beating isn’t all that bad.

 

“A man doesn’t beat what he loves. As long as he loves you A-Jiu, as long as he thinks he has you he won’t beat you.”

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “No. I don’t want to be a slave anymore.”

 

A sigh, “Oh A-Jiu.” Ying-jie presses a kiss to his head, “All of us are slaves. Are you not a slave to that master you follow? Isn’t it better to be a well-treated slave if nothing else?”

 

No. No I don’t want to be owned at all. I don’t want that.

 

“Ying-jie can hear A-Jiu protesting but A-Jiu should not let his fear stop him from making the best decision for himself.”

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, burrowing more firmly into her perfumed neck like a baby.

 

She sighs again but doesn’t protest and instead presses another soft kiss into his hair.

 

“Ying-jie only wants A-Jiu to be safe.”

 

Shen Jiu wakes up with a stifled gasp and rips his eyes open to find the wooden roof of the Qing Jing disciple’s quarters staring back at him.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t remember the dream the next few months as he cultivates as ferociously as he can get away with. He suffers several minor qi deviations and avoids Yue Qi whenever the boy comes to look for him. He does his best to consolidate his power on Qing Jing peak and tries to make himself as indispensable as possible. He needs to be Head Disciple . If he ever wants to claw his way out of the pit he needs to be Peak Lord. He needs to be the best. As long as there are those above him he’ll always be subservient to someone and he doesn’t want to be a slave anymore.

 

He doesn’t want to be a slave anymore.

 

After six months his Shizun comes out of seclusion and sends for him to serve.

 

Shen Jiu makes the tea and realises he’s (stupidly) almost forgotten what it feels like to have that tea drip down his face.

 

“This master has been thinking about the position of Head Disciple .” Shizun says offhandedly as Shen Jiu sits in a puddle and keeps his face as serene as he can, “This master is not sure who they should appoint. Currently disciple Shen is carrying out many duties are they not?”

 

Shen Jiu keeps his voice respectful, “Yes Shizun.”

 

“Hmm.” Shizun stands then, “What would this disciple do for the position of Head Disciple this master wonders?”

 

It’s obvious his ascetic master doesn’t mean anything like that but Shen Jiu’s every prey instinct seizes up.

 

“Is there anything this disciple can do for Shizun?” Shen Jiu asks.

 

His master hums, “Not at the moment no. Shen Jiu may leave.”

 

And is it just him or did the way his master say that put emphasis on the Jiu portion of his name?  As soon as Shen Jiu had his hands on the barest of literary tools when he was still under Wu Yanzi’s thumb he had found every character that could possibly be pronounced the same way as Jiu and substituted the nine for the character for wine. It was a strange name but it wasn’t immediately identifiable as slave name and that was all that mattered.

 

It turns out he’d never fooled his Shizun.

 

“This disciple will take their leave.” Shen Jiu rises and goes to the door.

 

“Shen Jiu.” His Shizun calls as he opens the door.

 

“Yes Shizun?”

 

“Hmm… nothing. This master may call on you later tonight.”

 

Shen Jiu still logically know his master doesn’t want that but he still feels the rabbit like beat of his fragile heart.

 

“Of course Shizun.”

 

He leaves.

 

Deep in the bamboo forest he allows himself to fall to his knees to vomit into the dirt. His stomach is roiling. His eyes sting. He throat burns.

 

I don’t want to be a slave. He thinks slightly hysterically. All of this was to ensure I would never be a slave again.

 

Shen Jiu knows that might ensures power and that power ensures justice. He has always known that with no family background and no personal wealth he would need to seek power a different way. Cultivation seemed the answer and he had sacrificed so much in the pursuit of it. He had killed and robbed and desecrated graves and pawed through corpses for loose change. He had followed Wu Yanzi, he had endured the man’s tortures. He had endured the Qius. He had killed the Qius. He had killed and killed and killed and killed. He had soaked himself in blood so one day he may rise above it all and be powerful enough that it would never be necessary again.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t hate killing. It’s an unfortunately necessary part of survival especially for a slave. Especially for the disciple of a reviled demonic cultivator. It’s not his favourite thing to do and he’d never had the sadistic stomach for it the same way he’d seen in so many. If he had his way he’d have enough power to never have to lift a finger ever again.

 

Shen Jiu had done many many distasteful things to survive. And perhaps he hadn’t known they were all in the pursuit of power but surviving another day was a power of it’s own wasn’t it?

 

And look at him now. Still on his knees in the dirt.

 

He’s started shivering and allows himself the luxury of curling up on his side and squeezing his eyes shut.

 

He’s still a slave and at the mercy of a capricious master’s whims. And it is likely he’ll remain so. He won’t make Head Disciple . He won’t make Peak Lord. He won’t he won’t he won’t he wont’-

 

A great pressure crushes his chest and before he can stop himself he’s descending the mountain.

 

He all but runs through the backdoor of the Warm Red Pavilion and into the first room he finds open. The girls gasp and coo and coax him into their embraces. It’s the middle of the day so not time for most clients and Shen Jiu is allowed free reign to sit there and let himself be pampered. His rabbiting heart and tangled thoughts eventually calm enough that he feels as though he’s no longer in danger of an intense qi deviation.

 

It’s stupid. His master has demanded more from him before. How can Shen Jiu allow his equilibrium to be thrown off so egregiously by a few pointed comments?

 

The memory of last night’s dream is triggered and he finds himself intensely disquieted.

 

Thankfully when he clears his throat and sits up none of the brothel ladies comment on his shameful state.

 

“Have you heard anything of interest recently?” His voice is a little scratchy but the request for gossip is common enough that he gets an answer immediately.

 

Shen Jiu settles himself down with a calming cup of warm wine and listens carefully. Information is another form of power and he will hoard every advantage he has. If his only edge is that he’s the only disciple shameless enough to visit brothels for information then he’ll use that to claw his way to the top.

 

Somehow.

 

He’ll claw his way up somehow.

 

“A-Li’s been so sad since that rogue cultivator left.” One of the women sighs as she plays with Shen Jiu’s hair, “I think she was hoping he would marry her.”

 

The women titter.

 

“She would have left with a rogue cultivator?” Shen Jiu asks, slightly incredulous.

 

“She was in love!” Another one of the young women cuts in, “Of course!”

 

“The life of a rogue cultivator is especially harsh.” Shen Jiu says, he looks down into his wine, “Most don’t survive past a few years.”

 

That’s sobering.

 

“He was strong though.” Another women protests, “He could have looked after her!”

 

One of the other ladies is chewing her lip thoughtfully, “That’s what he said though. A-Li told me he wouldn’t take her with him because it was too dangerous.”

 

“She’s heartbroken!” Another woman sighs.

 

“And the Duke is back.” One of the ladies refills Shen Jiu’s cup, “Now that the cultivator is gone A-Li can’t turn him away anymore, I have no doubts the Duke will ask her to be his concubine again.”

 

The women all oooh and ahh over that.

 

“She’ll say yes.” The woman who has been playing with Shen Jiu’s hair says rather grimly, “Women like us shouldn’t fall in love. Now that it’s happened, she’s ruined. She’ll say yes.”

 

The other women all make various agreeing noises. The mood is abruptly sombre.

 

“Ming-jie sent over a package.” One of the other girls says happily, breaking the sad mood, “She sent over a few expensive teas and cosmetics! Apparently her new husband spoils her relentlessly.”

 

Another woman snorts, “Of course he does! He’s old enough that his other wives have all lost their charms. Ming-jie is still more beautiful than any of his other pampered peacocks and their squalling children, she’ll do well to make the most of that and establish herself while she still can.”

 

Shen Jiu listens and feels a strange prickle of interest. The brothel ladies often discuss marriage and he has to admit he’s very rarely paid too much attention to that talk but… his dream must still be tugging at his mind because he’s being drawn in.

 

“Is marriage really the highest form of power?” He asks, actually curious.

 

It draws a flurry of responses from the women.

 

“A-Jiu,” One of the older ladies smiles serenely, “When one does not have power of their own they must take it from someone else. Of course as a cultivator this is not something you would have to think about, you yourself have power of your own in your skills, but for all of us we must seek it elsewhere. Marrying a powerful individual is the best way to do so. And with marriage, it is official. You have a right to their property and family name. If you bear children they will be their heirs.” The woman laughs delicately, “Of course these are not things A-Jiu ever has to think about, these worries must seem silly to him.”

 

No not silly. Shen Jiu thinks with a twist to his stomach. I’m not as powerful as you think I am. I’m weak as well.

 

Shen Jiu listens to a little more gossip (some more useful than others) and then leaves. Once on Qing Jing peak he is called to his Shizun’s house.

 

That night he gets rice thrown on him as well as the customary tea.

 

Later Shen Jiu doesn’t go to sleep in the disciple’s dormitory. He knows he won’t be able to. Instead he secludes himself inside the woodshed. It’s the perfect place to be alone. No one ever comes here. It’s even mostly empty of wood. No one would think to look for him here, not even Shizun.

 

Shen Jiu sits down on the ground and closes his eyes. He tries to meditate but he just ends up ruminating on his own continual powerlessness.

 

But what can he do? Nothing. He’s already is a much better position than most others. Most likely if he doesn’t make Head Disciple  and then Peak Lord he will become a hall master and be able to stay. Qing Jing peak is his home. He loves it here. It’s the best place he’s ever lived. He doesn’t want to leave.

 

Shen Jiu gives up on the facsimile of meditation and curls up so he can bury his face in his knees.

 

The problem is that there’s always someone better than you. The problem is that without being the best you can always be hurt. There will always be someone ready to grind you into the dust.

 

Shen Jiu knows human nature intimately and more than that he knows his own impulses intimately. Given the opportunity he would take pleasure in grinding others to powder if he could.

 

If Shen Jiu really could he’d seclude himself away most of the time and never have to deal with the petty strife of humanity every again. He wouldn’t bother with other people. It would be a lonely life but ultimately safe and that’s what he wants most of all. Besides, what use are other people for company? They’ll all betray you or leave you. Look at A-Li’’s rogue cultivator. Look at Qi-ge. Shen Jiu isn’t special, he’s entirely ordinary and that means he’s entirely liable to be left.

 

No. No he doesn’t trust other people.

 

But can he rely on his own power? It’s been failing him so far.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t have an answer to this and the next morning, after stealing a furtive few hours of sleep in the cold woodshed, he glides into morning lessons looking nothing less than pristine as always.

 

*

 

Marriage.

 

The idea has been percolating its way through his mind more and more frequently. Shizun hasn’t changed. His fellow disciples haven’t changed. Nothing has changed but as if a bucket of cold water was thrown over him Shen Jiu feels as though he’s woken up and been able to clearly view his circumstances for the first time in a long time.

 

He’s no longer the bottom of the societal totem pole but he’s still on the lower rungs of the Sect totem pole. His cultivation isn’t good enough to sustain him leaving the Sect and striking out on his own. Besides, he’s seen first-hand how terrible the life of a rogue cultivator is during those years with Wu Yanzi. He doesn’t want to do that again.

 

But then what can he do?

 

A-Jiu. When one does not have power of their own they must take it from someone else.

 

Shen Jiu sits in one of Qing Jing Peak’s beautiful and mostly abandoned pavilions and stares out at the peak.

 

Even if he was to leave there’s no guarantee there would be a better life for him elsewhere. Far from it in fact. While Shen Jiu is literate and not an idiot life isn’t easy for those with no family or wealth. Shen Jiu is fully aware that capital begets capital and often to make money one must start out with money to begin with. He would be starting with nothing.

 

Ultimately, as Shen Jiu makes his way to the disciple’s quarters for an unsatisfying night of sleep, he is aware that this is not something he can try to ignore. Ignoring issues never did anything and Shen Jiu wouldn’t let his own carelessness doom him.

 

*

 

If Shen Jiu hadn’t been so wound up he would have ignored it. If Shizun hadn’t had him running laps for hours just the day before he would have worn his usual haughty expression and ignored it. If he hadn’t felt at the edge of qi deviation the past week he would have ignored it.

 

He should have ignored it.

 

“You think this shixiong would strike to kill his martial brother while in the middle of a mission? You really think this shixiong is such a cowardly wretch?” He snarled straight into Liu Qingge stupid lordly face. Arrogant young master! Piece of shit!

 

If Shen Jiu hadn’t done his best to erase every trace of gutter rat still left on him he would have told Liu Qingge to go fuck himself and for good measure to go suck on a wild Boar Panther’s balls. But habits are habits and no matter how angry Shen Jiu has trained himself too well to lose control like that. Instead he just glares and makes another wordlessly angry sound before turning and marching off back in the direction of the Sect now that the mission is over.

 

Shang Qinghua has watched the whole interaction with something like calculation in his mousey little eyes. That one… he’s someone to be wary of. Shen Jiu can recognise a fellow opportunist easily and that one will do whatever it takes to survive. Shen Jiu could almost respect it except he doesn’t respect anyone. Besides, that little idiot hadn’t spoken up in his defence had he? It’s just like Shang Qinghua to act that way, wait for the chips to fall before making a move. It would probably be in his best interests to see strife between their martial siblings if it gave him the opportunity to wedge in his own limited influence.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t respect survival but he can’t criticise it too harshly in the confines of his own mind. Though of course the second Shang-shidi tries anything he’ll be dead, Shen Jiu doesn’t take chances with his own life of course.

 

The flight back to the Sect allows him to retain some of his scattered equilibrium and he internally curses how off balance he’s been. With Shizun suddenly running him ragged with missions, dangling the possibility of Head Disciple  just out of reach, and the lack of sleep he feels like shit.

 

Shen Jiu has the entirely inappropriate thought as he gets his nightly cup of tea poured over his head that he might actually enjoy being married if it means he can luxuriate in someone else’s power and not have to do anything ever again. In fact, he wouldn’t even mind being part of a harem. He’s confident he can play harem politics better than anyone else. If he bore someone’s son, even as the lowest concubine he’d ensure his child would triumph as heir.

 

In a lot of ways, Shen Jiu muses as he practices with his sword, playing petty politics in some small lord’s harem may in fact be easier than continually banging his head against the stone wall in pursuit of being a cultivator.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t regain any equilibrium until his Shizun leaves the peak to visit Tian Yi Outlook for some Sect gathering or other. With his master gone he allows himself to relax and once again focus on cultivation. Yue Qi visits and (embarrassingly, humiliatingly) speaks to him far too familiarly in front of everyone and even tries to push gifts into his hands.

 

Shen Jiu chases him off with some clipped words and his hands shake as he chucks the unwanted gifts into a qiankun pouch to be forgotten. Stupid stupid stupid. The gossip from that little show will keep the Sect fed for weeks. Doesn’t Yue Qingyuan understand what he does when he favours Shen Jiu so obviously in front of others? Doesn’t he understand the target he paints on Shen Jiu’s back when Shen Jiu is still too weak to fend off every attack properly?

 

Many of the Qing Jing disciples later ask him about his connection to the future Sect leader in scandalised gossipy tones. Shen Jiu grits his teeth and keeps his mask on. He longs for the day he can snap the way he wants to, can be as icy and cold and frigid as he wants without having to pander to anyone while he’s still so weak.

 

Stupid Yue Qi. Doesn’t he understand? Now any rank Shen Jiu receives will be attributed to favouritism. Now people will look too closely at him. Look too closely at his weak cultivation and qi deviations and suspicious family background. Maybe Yue Qingyuan the Head Disciple  of Qiong Ding peak and future Sect leader can afford to be scrutinised but Shen Jiu is still filthy and the more people look the more danger there is of people finding out.

 

Shen Jiu lies in his bed that night and furiously tries to picture a day when he’s so powerful, so high above everyone, so untouchable that he’s beyond explaining himself or answering questions. A day when his status as an unimpeachable immortal cultivator is so entrenched that no one could dare even speak to him without his consent.

 

One day. One day.

 

He suffers a bad qi deviation a few days later and more than the pain in his meridians is the furious stinging in his eyes from his tears (frustration he tells himself but it’s more likely despair).

 

*

 

“My disciple has been busy in my absence, no?”

 

Shen Jiu keeps his voice respectful, “Yes Shizun. This disciple has followed your instructions.”

 

“Hmm, this master would like a demonstration of your progress.” Shizun motions and Shen Jiu settles into a ready stance.

 

The hot sun beats down.

 

“Again.” His master commands.

 

Shen Jiu does it again.

 

And again.

 

And again.

 

His legs are shaking. His arms ache. His head is spinning.

 

“Again.”

 

Is this torture? He wonders slightly hysterically as he sweeps through the same movements. Does Shizun mean to test my resolve? Is this all a big test? Is this a test of endurance?

 

Shizhun isn’t even watching.

 

“Again.”

 

Shen Jiu is stubborn to a fault. He has enough pride to tie a knot and hang himself with it. He knows deep down that that pride would be his downfall. It has almost led to his death in the Qiu household. Shen Jiu would rather be beaten to death than kneel and beg. He often lacks pragmatism. He lacks an ability to bend. He just breaks and breaks and breaks.

 

“Again.”

 

He’ll stand until his legs buckle under him. He’ll kneel until his bones crumble to powder. He’ll fight until he drops dead.

 

This isn’t something to be proud of.

 

“Again.”

 

Shen Jiu feels so nauseous he almost sways in place but he keeps going.

 

When Shizun finally releases him it’s to a feeling of… emptiness. Everything has been sucked so thoroughly out of him that he doesn’t even have the presence of mind to think about what had just happened and if there’s one thing Shen Jiu can always be counted on to do, it’s to think.

 

He practically crawls his way to the woodshed and falls asleep in a daze.

 

Break. I’d rather break than bend. But then I’ll die. I’ll die. I…

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t dream.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu feels as though he stands at the precipice of something. What, he doesn’t know for sure, but he knows he’s hit a turning point in his life. It’s interesting… he’s never considered whether or not he’s been at turning points similar to this one before. In all honesty Shen Jiu has always considered his life as an arrow shot from a quiver he didn’t position. It goes and goes and goes and he has no choice but to allow it to burn its course with no input from himself.

 

But for the first time he has a… choice?

 

It’s not so much a choice as a series of difficult realisations coupled with a just as difficult questions attached.

 

Shen Jiu’s life in the Sect is good. He has almost nothing to complain about. He gets all the food he wants and a warm, clean place to sleep. Illness is easily treated and he is being taught how to cultivate. Shen Jiu is far stronger than he’s been at any other point in his life. His cultivation will turn his body into a living weapon and one day it may come to the point where he will never again need to eat or sleep. Those all too undignified human concerns will no longer bother him.

 

Shen Jiu’s life in the Sect is good.

 

Life in the Sect also comes with too many responsibilities to name. He has a duty to the Sect of course but also… knowing so many others and having them know him means he is in a position where other people expect things of him. He chafes under it.

 

In truth all Shen Jiu wants is to be left alone. To be strong and powerful and left alone.

 

But in the Sect he has to contend with rumours he was too green when he entered to stop from forming. He has to please his capricious dangerous Shizun. He has to make sure his martial siblings respect him while also concealing the truth of his origins. He has to dodge Yue Qi who he hates as much as he still cares for.

 

He had spilled blood in Qi-ge’s name. Does that mean nothing? Maybe. What’s a little more blood to the ocean he had spilled and left behind him? Or maybe not left behind. Maybe Shen Jiu himself drips blood in a never-ending stream wherever he goes, maybe others can see it, maybe they can smell it…. But no that’s foolish. No one knows what he truly is. Not even Qi-ge.

 

His own past fills Shen Jiu with a crooked pride as much as it does a deep disgust. He looks at those around him sometimes and feels a strange superiority, at surviving when they surely would have died. At beating the odds as thoroughly as he had. Liu Qingge wouldn’t have lasted a day in the Qiu household. Shen Jiu shouldn’t take pride in it but he does.

 

So. A crossroads.

 

Shen Jiu sits in his favourite pavilion and looks out at the beautiful landscape of the peak. He doesn’t consider himself the kind of person who would just give up. If he was he’d already be dead. But… maybe he needs to rethink his plans. He can’t be complacent. He needs to consider the worst-case scenario.

 

Just because he’s on Qing Jing peak with a reputation as a stuck-up young master doesn’t mean that he’s safe. Maybe he was an idiot before who had relaxed far too easily but just because he has a dry bed and a full belly and the tentative illusion of respectability, it doesn’t mean he can let himself forget what he is. Until he rises high enough to be untouchable, he’s still vulnerable. He may be on the mountain but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

 

Shen Jiu’s problem is… well he has a multitude of problems (he considers with some dark amusement) but the most pressing is that if his bid to become Head Disciple and Peak Lord fails then he doesn’t have any back-up options. He doesn’t have a wealthy family that will take him in or exemplary cultivation that will allow him to strike out on his own. He’d have to stay on the peak under the control of another Peak Lord and… well that’s infinitely dangerous. He’s currently living under the thumb of a Peak Lord and it leaves a lot to be desired.

 

He needs more plans. Failure to plan is planning to fail. He needs more options.

 

Most of his life Shen Jiu has had to do deeply distasteful things in the name of survival. Some of them couldn’t even be considered worth it in the moment because what incredible benefits did survival really give him? But not dying is a more ingrained instinct than anything else. Maybe it’s a foolish optimism. Maybe it’s because despite all facts to the contrary he’s still that stupid little slave boy who held an idiotic hope in his heart that there could be better things ahead. That someone would come back for him.

 

If Shen Jiu can live out the rest of his days comfortable with a degree of respectability then he should count that as a victory. He had come from nothing after all and already clawed his way so far.

 

Besides, aren’t the rules different for Immortal Masters? It’s true that family background is still relevant but once power is an intrinsic part of a person, once someone can command a spiritual sword with a hand gesture and fly then shouldn’t those petty concerns no longer matter?

 

Shen Jiu is not an idiot and that means that he understands that it isn’t that easy. Unfortunately, even Immortal Masters have to consider petty mortal matters. Especially if they come from nothing with weak cultivation and no hopes for improvement.

 

Only those who were already truly privileged could leave the mortal world behind.

 

Shen Jiu had been an ignorant little fool when he joined the Sect, following the one person he would always love even if he hated him.

 

*

 

“What kind of men are the best to marry?” He asks.

 

The women hasten to answer, almost tripping over themselves in their haste.

 

Shen Jiu had always considered himself a fairly knowledgeable person, both in scholarly terms but also when it comes to the rather more plebian problems that he’s personally dealt with before. This emphasis on marriage has never been something he was even aware of before so this is both new and… interesting.

 

“Honourable.” One of the women says immediately, drowning out the others who all immediately rush to agree, “Honourable men take responsibility and hold themselves to account.”

 

“A strong sense of duty.” Another agrees.

 

“Not too clever.” Giggles one of the younger girls.

 

“Romantic. Someone who can fall in love, so not too jaded.” Another adds.

 

Shen Jiu blinks. None of these traits are ones that he would have considered so crucial.

 

“Won’t an honourable man balk at marriage to a prostitute?” He asks, honestly curious.

 

“You would think so,” One of the women laughs, “But honourable men are the easiest to trap!”

 

“Trap?” Shen Jiu asks with some confusion. He’s normally quicker on the uptake than this but he’s finding himself stumped by all this.

 

“The best way to ensure marriage as a whore is to trap the man.” Another one of the ladies says seriously, “There are three ways to do this,” She holds out her fingers as if to list them off, “The first is by falling pregnant with their child.”

 

The women hum and nod consideringly.

 

“That’s the most reliable.” The same woman continues, “If they’re honourable then they’ll take responsibility and marry you then so as not to leave their child alone and unacknowledged.”

 

Shen Jiu hums. To him that sounds like a rare occurrence.

 

“The second.” The woman continues, “Is if they are the type that is waiting for marriage or considers sex something that should only occur between spouses.”

 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, “They wouldn’t be in a brothel if they did.” He snarks.

 

The girls titter and there is a chorus of agreements.

 

The woman who had been speaking smiles gently, “I knew a girl who managed it. Sometimes men come to brothels with friends or for business deals even if they might not want to. In this case the young man grew extremely drunk, enough that he forgot himself and indulged. The next morning when he realised what had happened he took responsibility and married her.”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyebrows have raised dramatically, “I don’t think that would be common.”

 

“No no the young man’s family would undoubtedly object even if they’re of the same mindset. That’s why it would only work if they had a degree of independence or if their marriage isn’t all that important, the fourth son for example.”

 

Shen Jiu hums, “And the final?”

 

At this one the woman looks a little embarrassed, “Ah well…”

 

The girls all laugh and another one cuts in to say it, “Love of course! If they love you they’ll marry you. Like Ming-jie.”

 

Shen Jiu hums, “Surely that would be one of the more common ones? Men fall into their feelings frequently.”

 

“Ah you would think so, but love is not as reliable as duty or honour. There’s no guarantee that they would still treat you well after you marry and with your living dependent on your husband’s favour to establish yourself within the household that’s important. As long as they’re honourable they’ll make sure you’re not mistreated.”

 

Shen Jiu thinks to himself, “What about guilt?” He asks, there’s something bubbling inside of himself, “Would guilt work to shackle a husband?”

 

The women consider it.

 

“Not ideal.” One of the women says, “Of course as a last resort it’s not bad, but guilt on its own… it means they won’t trust their own judgement because they know they can be wrong. Too much risk they’d listen to other people.”

 

Shen Jiu sits there and listens as this random brothel jiejie casually plucks out a thorn that had been digging into his heart for years.

 

“Guilt has its benefits but it’s neither as strong as love nor as reliable as honour.” Another woman continues, “At least with love they’ll try and make you happy, guilt is more a way for them to control their own behaviour rather than act in ways that would be good for you.”

 

Shen Jiu wonders how he feels, would he rather not have asked? But no, this is good. This is necessary.

 

He takes another sip of his tea, “Then the right man to marry is honourable to a fault, not that intelligent, preferably in love with you or has the potential to develop those feelings, independent from their family to some degree and maybe even waiting for marriage.”

 

“Don’t forget sexually attracted to you!” One of the other girls says and before long the whole room is laughing.

 

When Shen Jiu returns to Qing Jing peak and endures a little more of his Shizun’s quiet tortures he barely even feels them, instead so caught up in considering all he had learned and trying to acclimatise it to his plans.

 

*

 

If there is one thing Shen Jiu can take pride in it’s his brutal self-awareness. He knows himself and he knows himself well. Therefore he knows he’s not a kind person, not alluring nor sweet nor gentle. He’s abrasive and prideful rather than humble and soft. He has an icy temperament and a genuine streak of well-earned arrogance. He’s ruthless and unconcerned with things such as moral rules and limits.

 

He has nothing to recommend himself when it comes to love.

 

However…

 

Shen Jiu knows his looks are pleasing enough and… enticing when it comes to marital activities. He’s had that painful and horrifying lesson hammered into him over the course of one awful, torturous year he can’t remember without leaving himself in cold sweat and nausea. The scars from that year persist doggedly even now and he hates it and hates his looks to for landing himself in that position. (Maybe if he was uglier, features less delicate, figure less… provocative he would have been safe. But no. There was always going to be something else. No slave is ever safe.)

 

Either way the truth of his own allure is something he’s not (can’t afford to be) unaware of and indifferent to.

 

It’s also something he’s never tried to leverage before. He’s too scared of the consequences. Too scared of what it might trigger. Too scared of that pathetic side of himself that proves that Qiu Jianluo was right. Was right to treat him that way. Was right about him.

 

No.

 

But survival…

 

Is it worth it? Is his pride and dignity worth it?

 

Yes.

 

But…

 

Shen Jiu struggles.

 

He goes to his lessons and tries not to think too hard about his ill-fated marriage plan. He works as hard as he can for the position of Head Disciple  while it’s dangled just out his reach. Being Peak Lordis the ultimate goal and Shen Jiu won’t accept failure. He can’t. But… but if he fails…

 

He sleeps in the woodshed for most of that month.

 

*

 

Qing Jing peak is the only one without an official Head Disciple .

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t know what to do.

 

He hasn’t been sleeping well or eating much. He’s exhausted and nauseous and there’s a constant drumbeat of fear at the back of his mind. He does his best to keep his act up but the cracks are showing. He can feel them and it’s pissing him off.

 

Shen Jiu knows what his two most damaging traits are and no matter how hard he tries he can’t set the pride and anger aside. It’s too much a part of him.

 

All of this introspection isn’t good for him. It leaves his qi unbalanced and his equilibrium thrown off and if there’s one thing Shen Jiu hates about himself it would be how little control over his own mind he seems to have. His thoughts spin off in all directions, memories assault him constantly and it’s only through pure force of will he can keep marching forward.

 

Maybe that’s why he jumps at the opportunity to take a mission away from the Sect without a second thought. He can barely hold on any longer and if his face cracks wide open it would be best to do it somewhere where no one would see.

 

He doesn’t realise Liu Qingge has heard about the mission and volunteered to take it with him until the other is literally chasing him down on his sword.

 

“What are you doing?” Shen Jiu asks harshly, “This is my mission.” He was hoping he might be able to make some money on the side.

 

“I thought I could help.” Liu Qingge looks stiff and uncomfortable but he soldiers forward, “I’m stronger than you.”

 

Shen Jiu grits his teeth and tries to restrain himself from screaming.

 

“Such arrogance.” He hisses and tries to restrain himself from clawing stupid lordly Liu Qingge’s eyes out.

 

The man in question actually takes a step back, “I didn’t mean-“

 

“I don’t care.” Shen Jiu says coldly and turns to leave, “This is my mission. I’m leaving.”

 

Unfortunately the stupid brute follows.

 

*

 

“Can you stop!” Shen Jiu hisses at Liu Qingge after the braindead piece of trash had chased off the third common person he was trying to question.

 

Liu Qingge just frowned, “I’m not doing anything.” He argued (uselessly).

 

“Yes you are! You’re swinging around that stupid sword and glaring at everyone in sight! Now shut your idiot mouth or I’ll cut out your tongue!” Shen Jiu took his extreme loss of composure as the evidence for how irritating Liu Qingge’s brand of stupid was.

 

The man in question glared hard but Shen Jiu didn’t wait to see if he’d say something else, instead just turning and marching off to at least try and get some information.

 

Thankfully this time his marital brother stayed far away so when Shen Jiu was gently questioning one of the farmers on what they had seen he answered readily enough. His wife then emerged from their house bringing his lunch and (on seeing Shen Jiu) burst into a flurry of tongue clucking and fussing.

 

“Ah! Give me that!” She snatched the packed lunch she had handed to her husband back out of his hands, “Immortal Master! Please let me give you this!” And with that she bowed low enough that her hair flopped over her head and almost touched the ground as she presented him with the packed food.

 

“No, please get up.” Shen Jiu grabbed her elbows to drag her up, “Your husband deserves his lunch.” He said with some amusement.

 

The woman rolled her eyes and elbowed her husband, “This oaf! He deserves nothing but my scorn.”

 

“Oi! My own wife!” The farmer’s tone was playful however and when she turned towards him he quickly kissed her on the cheek with prompted a blush and a flurry of more protests.

 

“Well then Immortal Master.” The woman said after she was done scolding her unrepentant husband, “Please let me invite you into my home so this one can cook you a meal.”

 

“There’s no need.” Shen Jiu said indulgently. See, around Liu Qingge he was a snake. With his Shizun he was trash. With Yue Qi he was a regret shaped as a person. But with the common people he was Immortal Master (for all that he wasn’t fully immortal yet), someone to be admired and revered. “This master simply wants to help in regards to the troubles this region has been facing.”

 

The woman nodded seriously, “Yes yes, ah laogong laogong did you tell the Immortal Master?”

 

“I did I did. Of course I did.” The man says.

 

“Hmph, well just making sure!” The woman huffs then turns to Shen Jiu with a smile, “Immortal Master, please at least accept this one’s offer of tea.”

 

Shen Jiu opens his mouth to say no, but then thinks about having to go back to Liu Qingge and his mistrust and his stomach turns.

 

“This master would be happy to accept.” Is what he ends up saying.

 

The woman beams in delight and the farmer nods before turning his attention to his packed lunch. After a quick goodbye they head off in the direction of the woman’s house. On the way she calls out happily to everyone she passes and seems extraordinarily eager to show off Shen Jiu and the fact that he was going to her house to have tea.

 

The other villagers she passed reacted with appropriate amounts of awe and jealousy.

 

Shen Jiu wondered if they would feel the same if they knew he was nothing more than an escaped slave.

 

He forcibly pushed that thought away.

 

“Come in come in. It’s not much but please sit please sit.” The woman fussed around the small house. It was clean but the floor was dusty in the way all common people’s abodes were. Shen Jiu looked around and wondered if in an alternate life he would have lived somewhere like this.

 

He sometimes thinks he can remember the impression of chickens clucking and a mud floor and thatched roof if he casts his mind all the way back but his past is murky and he doesn’t want to try.

 

“Ah,” The woman’s small exclamation draws his attention back to her and when she sees his attention she flushes painfully, “Immortal Master, this one is sorry but it seems I’d forgotten that our last fire-starters have broken. I was mean to go to the market in two days to get more but I’m afraid I have no way of heating water.” She looks desperately embarrassed and Shen Jiu feels a twinge inside of him. After all he knows that feeling of inadequacy intimately.

 

“What do you need to catch alight?” He asks.

 

She gestures to the small fire pit. Its appearance is familiar to Shen Jiu. He lived in this world for most of his life before the Sect anyway.

 

But before he didn’t know what he does now.

 

He concentrates his qi in his fingertips and sets the kindling alight with a brief application of his spiritual energy and then watched self-satisfied as the fire begins to grow.

 

His cultivation may be unstable and nowhere near the level of his peers but he can do this.

 

The woman’s eyes are wide and she falls into a babble of praise and gasps as she sets the kettle on the stand to heat.

 

“You said you are going to the market in two days?” Shen Jiu asks and the woman nods rapidly as she bustles around getting out a tea cake and breaking off a very tiny chunk of it.

 

“Yes yes. This one apologises that this is the only tea this one has that is fit for an Immortal Master.” The woman says as she scoops the tea leaves into cups, “This one hopes it is to your tastes. My sister-in-law visited a big city last year and brought this back.”

 

“This master is sure it will be perfectly adequate.” Shen Jiu assures. This tea is likely one of the most expensive things this household owns. His stomach does that thing again.

 

Instead of paying attention to it he pulls two fire-talismans out of his qiankun pouch and imbues them with a little spiritual energy before handing them to the woman, “These will do to start a fire until you are able to make it to market. You only need to rip it in half to activate.” He explains.

 

The woman beams and thanks him profusely then turns to relating all the gossip she can about the village and its inhabitants while Shen Jiu listens. It’s provincial gossip. Who’s marrying who, who is being blessed with children, who is having a girl and who a boy. Which children seem clever and so on.

 

Shen Jiu listens as the woman goes on and on and on.

 

“And my husband and I have been trying for children for more than a year now.” The woman is saying mournfully, “But we haven’t been blessed. It’s been hard.”

 

Shen Jiu feels a little surge of sympathy and then suddenly the brothel women’s words start to echo in his mind. Trap him with a child.

 

He purses his lips. He’s no fertility expert and knows little about health but… to non-cultivators children are the most important thing non-dependent on if they’re royalty or servants.

 

“Here.” He pulls some healing herbs out of his qiankun pouch, “These are general healing herbs. Brew them as you would tea. If your reason for not having children is internal then maybe these would help.”

 

The woman accepts them, almost falling over herself in her thanks.

 

“No need.” He assures as he takes a last sip of tea, “Many thanks for the tea.”

 

He then gets up and leaves before he can do anything else stupid and unadvised. What was he thinking? Oh that’s right. He wasn’t thinking properly.

 

He curses himself as he leaves the village behind. He’s far too sentimental and foolish. Now that he has something what does he think? He’s safe enough to share it with everyone he meets? Shen Jiu can’t afford that kind of kindness, even now. But he always… he always has the stupid urge to give to people like her, the poor worn down women he encounters so often on these missions.

 

He hates himself. Giving doesn’t make him feel good. It just makes him feel foolish.

 

Stupid stupid stupid. This is why all the proverbs say wealth can never last beyond three generation. Because as soon as you manage to make something you go off and give it all away like that. Frittering all your hard-earned blessings like an idiot.

 

Shen Jiu glares hard at the ground as he marches away.

 

Maybe? No. No he won’t let his mind go in that direction because as soon as he does… But that woman had been so eager for children. Is she the type that would sell them for extra rice when the winters get too hard? Would she hit them? Starve them? Use them? If Shen Jiu met her children would he hate them for being born lucky?

 

He thinks he already does and she doesn’t even have children yet.

 

These countryside people… he would have been one of them. If things had been different. If that woman had been his mother, would he have been happy? Never sold and instead happy to live this provincial life. Shen Jiu stops walking and leans against a tree, tipping his head back to try and quiet it of his racing thoughts. He hates his own mind for doing this. For thinking so much in directions he doesn’t want no matter how much he tries to stop it.

 

If he had grown up like this he… would he be a different person? Less cutting? Less bitter? Less… himself. Worse at survival. Likely he would have died quickly. At least the person he is now can survive. Shen Jiu hates himself but he also doesn’t want to be anyone else.

 

At least now Shen Jiu can reach higher. Higher and higher and higher. He’ll keep reaching. Keep climbing. Keep being audacious and wanting better and better and better. Everyone on Qing Jing thinks he’s descended from some kind of gentry. He can light a fire with his qi, he doesn’t have to wait for market day to buy new fire-stones.

 

Shen Jiu… he doesn’t know which option is actually is actually better and what does that say? Maybe he would be happier with… smaller concerns. With a smaller safer life.

 

He screws his eyes closed. This is stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. He’s already managed to climb so high. This is so stupid.

 

Shen Jiu pinches himself roughly over his clothes to drag himself out of his thoughts and turns to continue marching forward.

 

He has a job to do.

 

*

 

It’s on the way back from the mission that things go wrong (the way he was sure they inevitably would).

 

Look, it’s not as though Shen Jiu is an optimistic person. He lives by the motto of prepare for the worst and expect the worst.

 

But can’t he have one fucking day of peace.

 

Liu Qingge crouched down with his arms wrapped around his midsection as if he’s in pain and his eyes are screwed shut, “It’s hot.” He groans.

 

Shen Jiu watches dispassionately from a safe distance.

 

“What happened?” He asks sharply.

 

It’s not his fault Liu Qingge had suddenly dipped out of sight on his sword on their way back to the Sect and when Shen Jiu (after too much effort spent searching) finally found him it was in this state of disarray.

 

“Hah, I-“ Liu Qingge shuddered violently, “Hot, hot hot hot.”

 

Well, that clears up absolutely nothing.

 

Shen Jiu walks forward briskly since Liu Qingge doesn’t seem to be particularly violent and judging by his symptoms, he’s already ruled out most contagious ailments. He grabs the other’s wrist and checks his spiritual energy.

 

“You seem unsettled but there’s nothing particularly-“ He cuts off with a shriek (not that he would every admit it) when Liu Qingge tackles him to the ground, eyes bright and alive where they stare down at him.

 

Shen Jiu bucks wildly but Liu Qingge is stronger and pins his hands above his head.

 

“Shixiong. Shen Jiu.” The man seems inebriated as he snuffles against Shen Jiu’s throat.

 

“Get off me!” Shen Jiu continues to try and squirm but Liu Qingge doesn’t let up, just nuzzles harder.

 

“GET OFF!” Shen Jiu ends up almost shouting, feeling at the verge of qi deviation.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t seem to hear him.

 

“Shixiong.” He murmurs again, “Pretty. So pretty.”

 

Shen Jiu, with great effort, manages to get one hand free and with a panicked application of spiritual energy he slams his fist into the side of Liu Qingge’s head and knocks him out.

 

The man collapses on top of him.

 

Shen Jiu pants like he’s been running for his life.

 

He feels like he has.

 

He feels like he’s been fighting for his life.

 

Whore. His memory snarls at him, self-righteous in its application of the slur.

 

But no.

 

No no no.

 

Shen Jiu is a cultivator now. He’s a disciple of Qing Jing peak. He’s not a fucking slave.

 

Liu Qingge lies there unconscious and even through his disgust Shen Jiu reaches across to take his wrist gingerly in his fingers, feeling out his spiritual energy. It’s… roiling. In a way that is certainly not natural. Shen Jiu’s brow furrows as he probes further.

 

He feels himself slowly relaxing as he considers the ailments that could have befallen Liu Qingge. It’s easier like this, when he can carefully think through perfectly explainable reasons. Spontaneous desire is something different but this is easy. If there’s a reason he can ferret it out, he’s read every book on Qing Jing peak and he’s not a fucking idiot. If it’s solvable he’ll solve it and everything will be okay.

 

He probes Liu Qingge’s qi and then begins to examine his skin to check for any traces of bites or pollen.

 

He’s in the middle of sorting through Liu Qingge’s silky sweep of hair when the other stirs and strong arms latch around his waist, pulling him back.

 

“Let go of me!” He hisses.

 

A face nuzzles against his back, “So pretty.” A voice slurs, “Shixiong.”

 

Shen Jiu ignores it valiantly. He’s fine. He’s fine. Liu Qingge isn’t being too forceful. This is fine.

 

He reaches across and, in a simple move he tries not to take too much pleasure out of, he easily knocks Liu Qingge out.

 

“Not so fucking strong are you?” He sneers as he shoves the limp body off of him, “Disgusting!” He shakes himself as if to shake the feel of Liu Qingge off of him and then moves back and sits some distance away from his Shidi’s body.

 

“What is wrong with you?” He mutters as he considers Liu Qingge’s limp form.

 

It has to be some kind of lust drug from the way he’s been acting. Shen Jiu frowns to himself as he thinks.

 

Where on earth did his idiot Shidi-

 

Ah.

 

If he remembers rightly (and he does of course) there’s a field of Everlasting-Desire blossoms to the West. That must be what has infected his Shidi, the pollen is potent though not particularly strong and if the idiot flew too close then… Shen Jiu glares at the unconscious body of his martial brother and swears creatively within his own mind.

 

But it’s strange. The Everlasting-Desire blossom should only affect someone if they’re already attracted to the other person. But that… does that mean? That really can’t mean…

 

That’s of course when Liu Qingge wakes once again.

 

Is this man’s skull made of rock? Why can’t he just stay down?

 

This time Shen Jiu tries to dodge the first lunge but is too slow. Liu Qingge catches him with strong arms around his waist. He struggles valiantly but is no match for his Shidi’s strength. As he accumulates his spiritual energy to strike again he realises his Shidi is… just doing what he did before. Nuzzling into his hair and neck. Calling him pretty and beautiful and his hands aren’t moving anywhere dangerous from their current position still caught around his waist.

 

Shen Jiu stops trying to move.

 

“Liu Qingge?” He says cautiously, testing the waters. He’s running low on spiritual power and if he could get Liu Qingge off him without having to knock him out again that would be preferable.

 

In response Liu Qingge groans dramatically and grinds his hard length against Shen Qingqiu’s back.

 

Shen Qingqiu feels every single one of his nerves come alight like a cat whose fur is standing on end.

 

“Stop!” He snarls.

 

Liu Qingge stops.

 

“Pretty.” He mumbles but his hips have stopped moving.

 

Shen Jiu pauses.

 

“Liu Qingge?” He asks again.

 

The man in question moans like… like some fucking brothel worker.

 

“Get off me.” Shen Jiu tries. And then because he knows he lowers his tone and says, “I want to see your face.”

 

Liu Qingge moans again and releases Shen Jiu easily.

 

Shen Jiu takes the opportunity to get free and before Liu Qingge can protest he knocks him unconscious again with a sharp pinch to the pressure point on the back of his neck.

 

Well…

 

If Liu Qingge has encountered the Everlasting-Desire blossoms that’s not actually a terrible thing. Certainly not the worst thing. The flower doesn’t actually require dual cultivation for the effects to be alleviated though that’s the preference. In fact… Shen Jiu eyes him, he should be able to simply wait and eventually the pollen will leave-

 

Liu Qingge wakes up and lunges at him.

 

Shen Jiu fights back viciously and manages to knock him out once again but he’s furious. Absolutely incensed. And exhausted. Also exhausted.

 

Presumptuous piece of shit! How dare he think Shen Jiu is some convenient whore to vent his lust on! He’s hardly powerless!

 

You are. You’re powerless. What do you think you can-

 

SHUT UP. Shen Jiu tries to snarl but it’s not enough. The voice continues and he wants to snarl and scream and burn the whole fucking landscape to ash.  

 

I’m not powerless. I’m not. I’m not-

 

Liu Qingge groans in his sleep.

 

The resentment Shen Jiu feels is something fierce.

 

He’s furious and he’s always furious to some degree but right now he’s also deeply exhausted. Literally in the sense of his spiritual energy but also mentally and maybe even emotionally.

 

He looks down at the passed-out figure of Liu Qingge and the only thing he wants to do is shatter the other as thoroughly as Shen Jiu has been shattered time and time again in his lifetime.

 

Liu Qingge is a privileged young master who Shen Jiu is sure has never been properly reprimanded ever before in his entire life. The other is a shining star, the pride of the Sect, first born loved son of the prestigious Liu family that prize honour above all else.

 

Shen Jiu sneers.

 

Honour? What fucking honour? Liu Qingge has been pawing at him and speaking to him like he’s some….

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t want to think about it and the resentment is only growing.

 

Liu Qingge says he’s honourable. Liu Qingge then disparages him constantly for his lack of honour, calling him a cowardly cheating lecher that uses wicked tricks to claw his way ahead. Shen Jiu doesn’t disagree but what grates is the way Liu Qingge thinks he’s so much better. Just because of his birth and innate talent. Just because some confluence of fate gave him an easy upbringing and comfortable life he thinks he can judge Shen Jiu. The Liu are a clan that prize honour and-

 

Honourable, stupid and sexually attracted to you.

 

Shen Jiu freezes.

 

But no… He… He can’t…. That’s-

 

Liu Qingge groans again.

 

Shen Jiu’s thousand tiny slights are all of a sudden set alight. Salt is viciously rubbed into all his wounds. Resentment explodes into a roaring tempest.

 

Fine. Fine.

 

He tears at his robes, shoving them off his shoulders and ripping them at the neck and around his waist. He shoves his trousers off but leaves his under robes on and works to sully the material with dirt and a little blood.

 

Is he petty enough? Mean-spirited enough? Enough of an ugly blackened liar to do this?

 

Yes.

 

Yes he is.

 

Fine. FINE.

 

He presses bruises into his skin with little effort, one eye on the still passed-out figure not three cun from him. He worries marks into his neck with his nails and summons heaving tears with very little effort.

 

Once a street rat always a street rat. He thinks as he bites his lip hard enough to break the skin and smears his tears and blood around his face. Fuck you Liu Qingge, I’ll ruin you.

 

If you think I’m such a fucking snake I’ll hold up a mirror to your stupid brutish face right back.

 

*

 

When Liu Qingge blinks his way into consciousness it’s to the image of someone’s naked back. There are livid bruises and what look to be… claw marks from nails down their skin. The person it mostly unclothed with only a few pieces of torn fabric covering their intimate parts.

 

He levers himself up and the figure jerks away from him.

 

He clears his dry throat, “Excuse me-“

 

And then the figure turns toward him.

 

It’s Shen Jiu.

 

Watery eyes stare back at him. His Shixiong’s face is flushed and tear stained. There are bruises on his neck and chest and he’s naked apart from the torn remnants of his clothes.

 

“Who did this?” Liu Qingge asks, his stomach is roiling and his veins filled with ice. “Who did this to you?!”

 

Shen Jiu shuffles away from him, shaking his head and not replying.

 

“Shen Jiu!” Liu Qingge reaches forward and grasps the other man’s arm which prompts a gasp and… and… and the bruises on Shen Jiu’s arms perfectly match the shape of his own hands.

 

Liu Qingge lets go as if burnt.

 

“I-“ He thinks he might throw up, “Shen Jiu-“

 

His shixiong does nothing but his breath hitches and… not even that time when Liu Qingge had broken his leg in a spar had prompted more than a glare and gritted teeth.

 

Liu Qingge feels numb. The evidence is in front of him but he doesn’t know how to put the pieces together. He… he’s not a coward but for the first time in his life he’s desperately afraid.

 

Shen Jiu sniffles and Liu Qingge’s stomach clenches at the way the other looks so delicate and vulnerable without their usual layers and layers of carefully buttoned up robes. He can see more skin than he’s ever seen before and… and he shouldn’t even be looking.

 

He rips off his outer robe quickly and tosses it to Shen Jiu. Then with his head ducked so he doesn’t have to look at the other he takes out Cheng Luan and reaches it up to cut off his hair.

 

“What are you doing?!” Shen Jiu suddenly screeches.

 

“I have dishonoured you. My own honour is forfeit.” Liu Qingge says firmly. But before he can slice off his ponytail Shen Jiu’s hand closes around his own and stops him.

 

“Don’t.”

 

Liu Qingge can only nod.

 

Shen Jiu drops his wrist and moves back. He’s wrapped in Liu Qingge’s outer robe now and his face is tacky with tears and smears of dried blood from what looks like a bitten lip.

 

Liu Qingge aches.

 

“Whatever I can do I will do for you.” He moves to his knees and presses him forehead to the ground in a deep kowtow, “My life is yours.”

 

*

 

Shen Jiu watches Liu Qingge and doesn’t even feel smug.

 

At first there was a flash of pleasure but now…

 

“That’s a stupid thing to say!” He can’t help but snap, “You can’t just give your life to someone else! What if I demanded you kill yourself?!”

 

“Then I would kill myself.” Liu Qingge answers simply.

 

Shen Jiu stares at the man on his knees in front of him and wants to punch him in the face. The fury is back now and it’s even more vicious than before. The one thing that rings in his head is ungrateful. And once it does he knows it’s true. Liu Qingge is ungrateful.

 

An idiot.

 

A stupid empty-headed ungrateful idiot.

 

How dare he?! How dare he just throw away his life like this. Like it’s worth nothing. Only someone so truly privileged who hasn’t experienced a moment of hardship would devalue their own existence so completely. Shen Jiu would never put his life in the hands of another. He had fought too hard for the wretched thing to begin with.

 

“You…” His voice shakes with anger, “You can’t just- get up! Get up! Don’t kneel!”

 

Liu Qingge gets up as Shen Jiu marches forward and grabs the other’s arm, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?! You can’t just place your life in other people’s hands, and for what?”

 

“For honour. I transgressed.” Liu Qingge sounds so… sure. So confident.

 

It’s not even true! Shen Jiu want to spit.

 

Instead he squeezes Liu Qingge’s arm harder, “You’re an idiot! A stupid empty-headed idiot and you aren’t allowed to kill yourself! That’s a coward’s way out.” He sneers.

 

Liu Qingge nods and ducks his head, “I will present myself to the Sect Leader for judgement.”

 

Shen Jiu’s brain shatters, “No! Absolutely not! You will not do that! Don’t you dare!” His grip tightens, “Promise me! Promise me you won’t tell anyone about this.”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t say anything for a moment but then nods, “I promise.”

 

Shen Jiu relaxes, “What is honour anyway?” He can’t help but say, “You call to it, bow to it, crawl for it but honour won’t keep you safe. It won’t feed you. It doesn’t make you powerful. It’s just a…. concept. An empty promise most don’t keep. Why are you such a slave to something that isn’t real?”

 

That gets a reaction from Liu Qingge at least, “Actions have consequences.” He says shortly, “My honour ensures that I hold myself to those consequences.”

 

“So?” Shen Jiu questions caustically, “What’s the point? No one else does so you can be the only one uselessly holding yourself to these standards. I can assure you that I doubt there’s a single other person who would uselessly offer their life to me right now.”

 

Liu Qingge frowns seriously, “They should.” He says brusquely, “For an action such as this one you deserve recompenses.”

 

“So you can keep your honour?”

 

Liu Qingge shakes his head, “I don’t have any honour anymore after what I did.” He says with a tone that makes Shen Jiu feel… uncomfortable.

 

He wanted to make Liu Qingge feel bad. He wanted for the other to feel the way that Shen Jiu had been made to feel again and again in his life. He didn’t want to collect Liu Qingge’s life or have the other at his beck and call. It was too weighty. This wasn’t what he wanted.

 

“Let’s pretend it didn’t happen.” Shen Jiu said, he let go of Liu Qingge’s arm and turned away, “No one else knows and you’ve promised not to share it. I won’t either. It’ll be like it never happened.” He draws Liu Qingge’s robe more tightly around himself and finds that he likes this option the most. Liu Qingge will privately feel guilty for his stupid honour and Shen Jiu can take some pleasure in that at least.

 

“I-“ Liu Qingge stops and there’s the sound of him clearing his throat. Shen Jiu doesn’t look back as he gathers up his torn clothing and Xiu Ya where it’s resting on the ground. “I still want to pay for my actions.”

 

“You can do that by not telling anyone about this.”

 

“That’s not sufficient, I need-“

 

“No. No, all you’re doing is asking me to punish you so you can feel atoned.” Shen Jiu’s hands clench on his sword and he keeps his body turned away, “I don’t owe you that responsibility. If I don’t want to do anything you should listen to me if you truly feel you owe me so much.”

 

Listen to me. Just listen to me if you want to atone.

 

How many times had Shen Jiu said that before to someone else?

 

How many times had they refused to listen?

 

His fists clench.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t say anything else so Shen Jiu thankfully counts this conversation as over. He’s exhausted and still angry and honestly just wants to go back to Qing Jing peak but… even Qing Jing peak isn’t completely safe.

 

He squeezes his eyes shut and does his best to tamp down on everything he’s feeling, trying to picture his mind as the surface of a smooth lake. He’s above it all and if only his fan hadn’t been ruined during the mission he would have it in hand to give that extra sense of security between him and the outside world.

 

Whatever. He was an idiot to let his petty impulse for revenge on Liu Qingge lead to this impossible farce. Shen Jiu (not for the first time) regrets that he’s a person made almost entirely of hatred and anger who is willing to stab himself in the chest just to graze someone else.

 

That’s a stupid impulse he also needs to get rid of. Somehow.

 

Somehow.

 

Shen Jiu muses, slightly darkly, on the way to the Sect that all he seems to have done in the past few weeks is identify the thousands of ways that he as a person is lacking.

 

Wonderful.

 

He ignores any look Liu Qingge tries to send him as he turns his back on the other and retreats to his own peak.

 

*

 

The only good thing about Shizun’s tortures are that they keep his mind too occupied to think properly about anything but the task at hand. Or maybe that’s actually a bad thing because it’s become very much apparent to Shen Jiu that he just doesn’t think.

 

“Disciple Shen’s brewing skills haven’t improved.” Shizun intones as Shen Jiu sits there with even more godforsaken tea dripping down his face.

 

“This lowly disciple apologises to Shizun, praying for Shizun’s forgiveness.” Shen Jiu says in a tone he hopes is humble and nowhere near the gritted teeth expression of hatred he wants to make.

 

“Hmm,” And then Shizun asks one of their… dangerous questions. The type that Shen Jiu has been somewhat successfully dodging since he came to the Sect only because he’s had exceptional experience with being goaded in more vulgar ways than this, “Why does this disciple believes he deserves this Master’s forgiveness?”

 

If Shen Jiu could say what was actually on his mind he would say something like this: “You fucking cunt, you know I don’t give a shit about your forgiveness the same way you don’t give a shit about forgiving me. Why the fuck are we even playing this stupid farcical game? What kind of fucking sick pleasure do you get out of this, fucking sadistic piece of shit. The minute I’m strong enough I’ll fucking murder you myself”.

 

Because Shen Jiu very obviously cannot say that he instead keeps his head to the floor in a kowtow and says, “This disciple only wishes to please Shizun, if this lowly one is lacking praying Shizun tells this disciple how to please Shizun.”

 

It’s ridiculous.

 

Both of them know the other isn’t being sincere and yet here they are. Play-acting. Or whatever else this is.

 

“Mmm, this master accepts this disciple’s apology.” Qing Jing’s sadistic piece of shit of a Peak Lord says as if they’re truly being magnanimous, “However it still seems as though my disciple has their mind somewhere else.”

 

“This lowly disciple thinks of nothing but Shizun.”

 

“Hmm.” That noise was the last one Shizun made.

 

So there Shen Jiu had to stay. On his knees with his forehead pressed to the floor because until Shizun told him he could he couldn’t get up and certainly couldn’t leave.

 

Shen Jiu almost had to admire his Shizun, this kind of torture was certainly more sophisticated than simply hitting him. Pain was pain. Unpleasant but easy. This subtle play of power dynamics enhanced by the edge of discomfort was something different entirely.

 

Shen Jiu, as a person who had experienced a wide range of torture in his life, had to say with certainty that this was the worst kind. Especially because he was ostensibly no longer a slave and was therefore technically allowing himself to be subjected to this kind of treatment. There was also the fact that as a disciple of Qing Jing Peak he had a certain image to live up to and that image had a certain cachet of expectations attached to it. Unlike when he was a slave, being forced to kneel and having tea poured on him would now be embarrassing.

 

Being punished as a slave had never really been humiliating in quite the same way. Partly because it wasn’t a choice in any way but also because he hadn’t been anything or anyone that other people expected anything from. Other people in the Qiu household for example had never looked at Shen Jiu being beaten by Qiu Jianluo and allowed that to change their perception of Shen Jiu. He was just a vehicle for some expression of Young Master Qiu’s. To others, the treatment said very little about him. Maybe that he was a bad slave but what did being a good slave even mean?

 

“It seems that this disciple’s mind is still wandering.” Shizun’s voice was like the toll of an unpleasant bell signalling terrible things.

 

“No Shizun, this disciple’s mind is focused on Shizun.”

 

“Oh? Then what does this disciple think Shizun wants right now?”

 

“This lowly one would not presume to know what a venerated Immortal Master such as Shizun would want.”

 

“Mm. Shen Jiu may go.”

 

“Many thanks to Shizun.” Shen Jiu got up neatly and pretended that his hair wasn’t still damp with tea before swiftly exiting the bamboo house.

 

This time when he went to his special spot in the woods he took the time to punch a tree until his knuckles were bruised and his head felt a little clearer.

 

“Fuck.” He allowed himself to say out loud (just once and very quietly) before spitting out some blood onto the floor from the wound he had made while biting his tongue earlier.

 

Shen Jiu’s problems remained very much the same. His cultivation wasn’t progressing fast enough, his position as Head Disciple and therefore his future and standing in the cultivation world wasn’t secured and most of all he still wasn’t safe. He may be eating better here and have a roof over his head but he still wasn’t safe.

 

Fuck. This time he confined the cursing to strictly in the privacy of his mind.

 

Shen Jiu punched the tree one more time for good measure and thoroughly splits open the skin of his knuckles, allowing blood to start pooling in the wound.

 

Well, if that wasn’t an apt metaphor for his life currently then what was?

 

*

 

“A-Jiu! Just in time! We received a new letter from Ming-jie, look look!” The girl ushers him over and Shen Jiu allows himself to relax in the only space he really feels comfortable in, “Come and read it for us! A-Jiu has such a lovely voice!”

 

Shen Jiu dutifully takes the letter and scans the first few lines before his eyes widen, “Ming-jie has been elevated to the position of first wife.”

 

“What?!” The nearest girl leans close so she’s almost in Shen Jiu’s lap, “First Wife!” She practically shrieks and the rest of the room isn’t any better.

 

“I suppose First Wife is the best place to be.” Shen Jiu says rather dryly.

 

“The best!” One of the girls swoons dramatically.

 

Another one laughs, delighted, “I knew Ming-jie could do it! The most beautiful! Most intelligent!”

 

The girls dissolve into a happily chattering rush.

 

“It’s almost impossible to become the First Wife if one wasn’t married in first.” One of the women explains to Shen Jiu, “And since First Wife is the one who manages the inner household which includes finances, days the husband spends in the bedchambers and so on it’s a position that ensures complete power.”

 

“Finances.” Shen Jiu muses over that, “Presumably that means the First Wife would control the servants since she controls their wages and rewards”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“Hmm.” Being First Wife sounded like a fairly cushy position though, “Presumably judging by Ming-jie it is possible to be usurped from your position though?”

 

“That’s an exceptional thing A-Jiu, we wouldn’t be so excited if it wasn’t!”

 

Shen Jiu absorbs this and mindlessly adds it to his growing catalogue of knowledge about marriage that he hadn’t known would be so important and yet here he is. Somewhere in the back of his mind this knowledge coalesces and winds itself Shen Jiu’s own fears and need for more plans, more avenues, more methods of escape, though ultimately it’s not something he consciously takes in.

 

Instead, he smiles at the women in the room and takes a cup of spiced tea from them, “Would jiejie like me to write back on all of our behalf?”

 

*

 

Meetings between all the Head Disciples of the next generation are unequivocally terrible. For Shen Jiu that is. Mostly because Qing Jing still hasn’t formally chosen a Head Disciple so every time the meetings occur Shen Jiu has to wonder if this will be the time he’s told by Shizun that his time is up. Qi deviation is always threatening during those times.

 

Technically the rest of the Sect doesn’t know that his Shizun is a sadistic monster so for all intents and appearances Shen Jiu is the next Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak.

 

That’s only in appearances though and the lack of stability is wearing Shen Jiu out like an old bar of soap.

 

Still, the best weapon he has is both competence and being so icy he’s untouchable and beyond reproach. It’s an image he’s done so well to curate that his fellow Head Disciples normally don’t even try and bother him. Enough of them are even wary of him.

 

That’s why it’s a surprise that when he slides into his seat Liu Qingge appears out of what feels like nowhere and takes the one next to him. It’s the first time he’s seen the other since that disastrous mission and if nothing else he has to note with some satisfaction that Liu Qingge doesn’t look all that great. In fact the other looks paler than usual with dark circles under their eyes though they don’t seem to have lost their usual resolute air.

 

When Liu Qingge meets his eyes it’s steadily and there’s… something else. Shen Jiu doesn’t know how to understand it.

 

“Shen-shixiong.” Liu Qingge greets with a salute and far more respect than he ever has before.

 

Is guilt making him… respectful? Is this how he acts after believing he’s forcibly taken someone while in the mindless grasp of some lust spell?

 

Shen Jiu nods and salutes back. “Liu-Shidi.” He allows.

 

Liu Qingge seems to relax into his seat.

 

It’s all very strange.

 

When Shen Jiu turns his attention back to the room at large he notes with distaste that everyone is staring. He hates it.

 

Snapping open his fan he gestures to Yue Qingyuan, “If everyone is present we should start the meeting.”

 

The meeting proceeds from there in its usual aggravating fashion. Shen Jiu doesn’t… dislike it, but he doesn’t like it either. He doesn’t like the mistrust he’s faced with. He doesn’t like the pandering, the politics, the carefully crafted insults. He’s good at it but that doesn’t mean he likes it.

 

He especially doesn’t like Yue Qingyuan. Yue Qingyuan who is always staring and watching and drawing attention to him. Yue Qingyuan who every time he so much as turns towards Shen Jiu reminds him of the worst parts of his life and how far he still is from rising above them.

 

For these obvious reasons when it comes time for the meeting to end Shen Jiu rises quickly and turns to leave, which is of course when Yue Qingyuan calls after him.

 

“Shen-shidi.” He calls.

 

Shen Jiu is forced to stop because right now at this unstable junction he can’t just stalk off and ignore the other the way he wants to. He’s not well-established or safe enough to be visibly rude to the future Sect leader in public.

 

(If Yue Qingyuan just told him why he didn’t come back. If he told him why he didn’t bother then… then Shen Jiu would forgive him. Shen Jiu is weak at heart and that’s all it would take. Just an explanation and he would roll over and forgive. Gods he’s pathetic.)

 

“Yue-shixiong.” He stays stiffly from behind his fan, eyes darting to the exit and unfortunately cataloguing that many of the other disciple haven’t left and are instead still hanging around. Ostensibly to listen in and gather gossip about the next Sect Leader and whatever the fuck Shen Jiu is to him.

 

“Shen-shidi, you should stay a while. We could have tea, this shixiong could send for some snacks.” Yue Qingyuan has an entirely open hopelessly entreating look in his eyes.

 

Shen Jiu could hear the future whispers from here.

 

He absolutely could not accept. Was Yue Qingyuan an idiot? Did he not understand what this kind of thing sounded like?

 

On the other hand, he couldn’t refuse too abruptly. He had to find a way to do it to save both of them face. Shen Jiu resisted the urge to bury his face in the paper of his fan and scream until every negative emotion in him had bled out. His eyes once again darted to the exit and somehow met Liu Qingge’s gaze. He looked away quickly but caught the way the other’s brows furrowed.

 

He looked back at Yue Qingyuan who was still looking at him like… that.

 

Why can’t you understand? Shen Jiu thought with no little frustration. Not now! Not here! Not like this!

 

Then suddenly: “Shen-shixiong.” Liu Qingge stood at a respectful distance while interrupting their “conversation”, “The last mission we were on. I need to speak to you about it.”

 

Shen Jiu felt a thrum of despair through him.

 

“Ah Liu-shidi, could this perhaps wait?” Yue Qingyuan asked, if Shen Jiu were to say he would say the other’s smile looked a little strained.

 

“I’m leaving the Sect for two weeks tonight, so no.” Liu Qingge replies bluntly.

 

There is absolutely nothing Yue Qingyuan can say to that and Shen Jiu is skilfully removed from that tangle by a combination of Liu Qingge’s reputation for being criminally blunt (only tolerated by his impeccable background and skills) and Yue Qingyuan’s own manners which are far beyond reproach.

 

Shen Jiu has a moment to think about how absolutely side-splittingly ironic it is that the one in the room with the most manners is the former slave. That a former slave will be allowed to ascend to Sect Leader of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Of course, Yue Qi isn’t just an ordinary slave, he’s always been special. Better.

 

No wonder he left Shen Jiu behind.

 

“What was it Liu-shidi needed?” He asked once Liu Qingge and he had left the building behind and were in relative privacy. There were already around four different responses (mostly sharp and cutting) he was ready to give if Liu Qingge wanted to bring up the end of their last mission.

 

“Nothing.” Liu Qingge said.

 

Shen Jiu blinked, for once too surprised to hide it immediately.

 

“I saw you looked uncomfortable so I interrupted.”

 

Oh.

 

Well.

 

Shen Jiu hides himself behind his fan, “I see.”

 

“I’m visiting my family.” Liu Qingge then says absolutely unnecessarily.

 

Shen Jiu has no idea what to do with that information though… Liu Qingge might be a brute and annoying in every respect but he’s still the next Bai Zhan Peak Lord and undoubtedly powerful and important. Now that he’s begun treating Shen Jiu with a little more respect and courtesy Shen Jiu won’t stab himself in the foot by refusing it.

 

“I wish you a safe visit.” He offers, somewhat stiffly because he’s still a little confused but it makes Liu Qingge nod in a rather satisfied manner before the other abruptly turns on their heel and marches off.

 

Shen Jiu stands there for a little while longer and tries to fit the different dimensions of what just happened together in his mind but finds himself entirely unable to.

 

With a mind still awash in confusion and slight trepidation he returns to Qing Jing Peak.

 

*

 

“Shen Jiu.” Shizun sounds out his name very slowly. Very carefully as well. Shen Jiu would even say it sounds like Shizun is rolling the sound around their mouth slightly. He hates it instinctively but keeps the respectful mask on and doesn’t say anything.

 

“Shen Jiu. Jiu as in…”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t twitch but his heart is thudding furiously.

 

“The character for wine Shizun.”

 

“Is that so? This master had always imagined it to be the character for nine.”

 

Shen Jiu keeps his head bowed and expression impassive but his thudding heart is a painful runaway horse.

 

Shizun continues before he has to say anything to that, “This master has been considering courtesy names.”

 

Shen Jiu holds his breath.

 

“Since the next generation are to be named Qing this master quite liked the sound of Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu. What does my disciple think?”

 

This time Shen Jiu can’t hide the spasm and he knows Shizun sees it by the self-satisfied poison that drips into their eyes.

 

“This disciple is honoured.” He says, he’ll take it. He’ll take it and hate it but he’ll crawl over hot coals to be safe. He can stand a name. Even if it’s a name he hates he can take it. He’s earned it by now.

 

“Qiu.” Shizun says thoughtfully, eyes sharp, “Autumn is this master’s favourite season, did this disciple know?”

 

“No Shizun, this humble disciple did not.”


“Mmn, Qiu. There was a fairly large noble family surnamed Qiu once upon a time.” Shizun continues.

 

Shen Jiu freezes.

 

“This master isn’t clear on what led to their downfall but down the mountain the common people tend to rise and fall quickly, isn’t that right?”

 

Shen Jiu can’t answer. His tongue is thick. His stomach roils. His chest is a nest of snakes.

 

“Us cultivators are different. Certain things are less important.” Shizun tilts their head as they regard Shen Jiu who is kneeling. Who is always kneeling, “Does my disciple agree?”

 

“Yes Shizun.” Shen Jiu’s body answers on its own without his conscious input.

 

“It’s good that this master’s disciple understands.” Shizun looks at him, really looks at him and Shen Jiu knows with full confidence then that Shizun has been able to see through him from the start. All the way through to his ugly rotten centre. Shen Jiu wouldn’t be ashamed of who he is if the world didn’t keep turning around and telling him he’s wrong. He wouldn’t care about what he’s had to do to survive if the people he has to live alongside didn’t call it shameful.

 

Shen Jiu knows what he is.

 

He’s a survivor.

 

It’s hard to remember why that’s a good thing.

 

It must be a good thing.

 

Because… because otherwise he’d be dead.

 

Shizun is still looking.

 

Shen Jiu licks his lips to wet them, to give himself time to recover from how dry his mouth feels, “This disciple understands Shizun.”

 

“Cultivators stand above mortals. Away from the common people. Untouched by the petty affairs that trouble others.” A long pause, then, “My disciple looks so fierce right now.”

 

“This lowly disciple apologises; it is not this one’s intention to look any way that is displeasing to Shizun.”

 

A hum.

 

“Where does my disciple go when they descend the mountain so regularly?”

 

Shen Jiu’s breath catches.

 

“If my disciple becomes Peak Lord then what will follow them? Who will follow them? Who will be looking for them?”

 

Shen Jiu is once again frozen.

 

“If Shen Jiu becomes Peak Lord then will anyone come looking for him?” Shizun is still looking, “If Shen Jiu becomes Peak Lord, if he becomes Shen Qingqiu, what will happen? This master is not accomplished in divining the future, could my disciple provide some insight?”

 

Shen Jiu trembles very minutely, “This disciple does not presume to tell the future.”

 

“My disciple is so modest. So reticent.” And then in a whip quick movement Shizun throws their cup of tea on the ground before Shen Jiu. It shatters on impact, small shards of porcelain embedding themselves in Shen Jiu’s hands and causing cuts as well as drenching a large portion of his robes in lukewarm tea.

 

Shizun gets up.

 

“Clean that up.” Is all they say before they leave the room.

 

Shen Jiu sits there in the mess for a few more moments, allowing the tremble to suffuse his limbs until his teeth chatter before he moves to start cleaning up the smashed cup. In a paradoxical way the cleaning gives his mind something to focus on and in fact helps ground it.

 

Maybe I was always meant to be a slave if this is my reaction to manual labour. Shen Jiu thinks with some bitter hysteria as he picks the small shards out of the ground and then finds a cloth to bundle them up in and wipe up the tea.

 

By the end of it he’s bled on both that cloth and his robes too so he needs to dispose of them. Somewhere far away from the disciple’s dorms lest any rumours spread.

 

With soft footsteps he leaves Shizun’s house through the backdoor and takes the back way through the forest to the woodshed. He has an extra peak uniform stashed there and it’s out of the way, good to clean up in. He shivers as the cold uniform sticks uncomfortably to his skin.

 

Once in the woodshed he strips as quickly as he can despite the shaking and jerky movements he can’t control. His fingers are too unstable to do up the ties of the new uniform and he’s still bleeding so he sits down heavily on the floor of the woodshed in his inner robes and tries to calm his racing heart and upset mind. He can’t qi deviate, he won’t allow it, he can’t he can’t he can’t he can’t-

 

He recognises as his vision gets spotty that it’s too late.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu wakes up on the floor of the woodshed. He’s not sure how much time as passed but his meagre cultivation has managed to seal up his tiny wounds at least.

 

His body aches and his head is pounding, but whatever qi deviation overtook him is over now so all he needs to do it clean off the blood, put on his new robes and leave.

 

He does so easily.

 

It’s morning outside. Very early morning. Earlier than most of the peak wakes up.

 

He leaves the woods, walking steadily as he makes his way to one of the many streams that wind their way through Qing Jing. Once there he drops to his knees and takes a deep drink of water followed by a thorough splashing of his face.

 

He looks down at his reflection and is all of a sudden brought back to himself as Wu Yanzi’s disciple. He’d sat by many streams trying to recover himself from Qi deviation in those years too.

 

All this way and nothing has changed.

 

The thought is desperate enough to have him kneeling there unseeing for a while.

 

He’s not going to survive this. Shen Jiu considers himself to have fairly good instincts and he has a feeling he won’t survive this. If nothing else eventually a qi deviation large enough will end him.

 

Maybe cultivation was the wrong path to begin with. Maybe slamming his head against that brick wall all these years was truly fruitless.

 

This won’t be worth it unless he becomes Peak Lord. This won’t be worth it unless he can climb all the way to the top. Any indignity, any foul act, any chance and he’ll do it, take it, overcome it.

 

But if he’s doing all he can and still…

 

Shen Jiu sits there until he knows he can’t avoid anything any longer before getting up to return to Shizun’s house for morning instructions.

 

“Disciple Shen,” Shizun looks at him and it makes shivers go down Shen Jiu’s spine, “This master has decided that disciple Wang will attend today’s Head Disciple’s meeting to represent Qing Jing Peak.”

 

Shen Jiu nods and leaves so he can go qi deviate somewhere in peace.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu is sitting at his favourite pavilion staring out at nothing when Liu Qingge finds him.

 

“Shen-shixiong.” The other calls.

 

Shen Jiu turns. It’s not a conscious decision to do so.

 

“Your fellow peak siblings said you were sick.” Liu Qingge says as he strides forward, “That’s why you weren’t in the meeting today.”

 

Shen Jiu turns back to look out at nothing again. He doesn’t have the energy for this. His whole body feels laden down by lead, every limb too heavy to move and yet still too heavy to sleep.

 

“You look sick.” Liu Qingge says brusquely.

 

Shen Jiu should ask if there’s anything in particular he’s here for.

 

“Shen Jiu.” Liu Qingge takes a deep breath, “I have something important to say.”

 

There’s a rustle that sounds like paper before a second rustle that sounds like the same piece of paper being tucked away and then a cough.

 

“Shen Jiu, look at me.” There’s a pause, then, “Please.”

 

Shen Jiu turns around back to Liu Qingge, once again without his full consent.

 

The other is frowning which is customary but when they catch Shen Jiu’s gaze they flush slightly.

 

“Shen Jiu.” They say his name like they’re angry at him. “I have wronged you incomparably and for the sake of your honour would seek to take responsibility.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks slowly. His eyelids are also heavy.

 

“I am named Liu Qingge, first born son of the Liu clan and with this,” Liu Qingge steps forward and suddenly clasped around Shen Jiu’s wrist is a beautiful bracelet, shining brilliantly with precious gems, “I make my intention of marriage clear.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks down at the bracelet. His brain is working so slowly.

 

He looks up at Liu Qingge, “Marriage?”

 

Liu Qingge nods looking very serious, he’s still scowling, “Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu looks down at the bracelet and thinks distantly of all the different paths his life could have taken, all the different paths it could still take.

 

He looks back at Liu Qingge who’s still scowling, whose gaze is fixed somewhere to the left of Shen Jiu’s head.

 

Shen Jiu looks down at the bracelet again. The gems wink in the low fading light. They dazzle him, certainly nicer than anything he’s ever seen or even touched before in his entire life. He brings his other hand up and brushes his fingertips along the gems. There’s a buzz at the back of his mind.

 

“Yes.” He says, voice quiet, “I accept.”

 

Liu Qingge’s scowl is at once banished and suddenly he’s smiling. Shen Jiu doesn’t think he’s ever seen the other smile before.

 

Honourable, stupid and sexually attracted to you.

 

Rich, powerful and well-connected too.

 

Jiejie, I’ve trapped the perfect husband.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu fingers the bracelet around his wrist as he falls asleep in one of the private rooms in Qing Jing Peak’s healing pavilion. This is in fact a perfect place for him to hide but also not practical in the sense that being sick too often would have him considered of weak constitution. Shen Jiu has not suffered through countless qi deviations alone shaking on the floor of the woodshed for others to consider him weak.

 

Either way this is a rare treat. The fact that he is now “sick” means that he can finally get some peace and quiet.

 

Besides, now… does it even matter what others in the Sect think?

 

Liu Qingge had left quickly after his proposal. Shen Jiu wasn’t sure where he had gone. He honestly would have difficulty believing that whole sequence wasn’t a strange dream if it wasn’t for the bracelet on his wrist. So he twists it around his thin skin again and again, pulling it taut and digging in grooves.

 

Truly Liu Qingge is the only person that would propose like that and then practically run.

 

Shen Jiu… said yes.

 

Shen Jiu’s right-hand clasps over where the bracelet sits on his left wrist and digs it hard into his skin.

 

Shen Jiu is going to marry Liu Qingge.

 

The image is ludicrous. He can’t help laughing a little and then a lot and then he’s practically breathless with it as he flops on his back with his left wrist held close to his chest.

 

This bracelet is the most valuable thing he’s ever seen in his entire life and certainly the most valuable thing he’s ever touched and now owns. He owns it. Shen Jiu bites his lip to stifle another laugh.

 

With this bracelet he could descend the mountain and disappear. He could carefully prise each gem out and make their money’s worth all the way from here to the coast. He could get on a ship and leave going far far away. Far enough that the memories can’t even catch him anymore.

 

But that would be leaving Yue Qi behind.

 

But… but Yue Qingyuan doesn’t need him. Logically the man did quite well without him in his life, absent from Shen Jiu for all those years he had sleepwalked his way into being Head Disciple of Qiong Ding Peak and next in line for Sect Leader. Shen Jiu has done absolutely nothing that actually helps the other man and he doubts that will change

 

Shen Jiu stares up at the dark ceiling.

 

Marriage to Liu Qingge.

 

He laughs and this time stuffs his own fist into his mouth to muffle the sound.

 

*

 

The next day Liu Qingge comes to Qing Jing Peak and all but barges into the healing pavilion to see him.

 

“You’re still sick.” He says, frowning.

 

The one of Shen Jiu’s peak mates who logically would have had to admit Liu Qingge into the pavilion lingers in the background. Shen Jiu very studiously does not make eye contact with them.

 

“Yes.” Shen Jiu says simply.

 

“Hmph.” Liu Qingge frowns and crosses his arms, “We have things to talk about.”

 

“I am not so sick that I won’t be able to engage in simple conversation.” Shen Jiu’s voice is relatively light, “Come in and sit down.”

 

Liu Qingge does so, closing the door behind him and in the process all but slamming it in the face of the poor disciple whose job it was to man the healing pavilion.

 

He then strides across the room before realising there’s no where he can sit apart from on the same bed Shen Jiu is currently lying in.

 

“Sit down.” Shen Jiu motions with a hand.

 

Liu Qingge hesitates another moment before sitting down.

 

“Have you told anyone about us getting married?” Shen Jiu asks with not a little curiosity. He truly does wonder what Liu Qingge might have told others; did they approve? Disapprove? React with horror? Laugh? Encourage him? Is this a random whim? A deeply thought-out plan? Where did this come from?

 

Liu Qingge nods, seeming to relax now that the subject is one he can engage in easily. He’s bad at conversation, Shen Jiu notes. It’s not something he had ever consciously realised before, that Liu Qingge is actually socially awkward. It makes him feel rather pleased in all honesty.

 

“When I visited home I spoke with my Grandmother and she told me to propose. The bracelet I have given as an engagement gift is hers.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks and looks down at the bracelet again, “Does she know who I am?”

 

“I explained all the circumstances to her.”

 

Shen Jiu’s stomach sinks, “You promised you wouldn’t tell anyone!” He can’t help but spit, getting out of bed in a flurry of angry movement.

 

“I know.” Liu Qingge does look shame-faced, “And I promise that I did not and will not tell anyone else.”

 

“What did you tell her?” Shen Jiu asks.

 

“That I was affected by a lust-inducing plant and made advances towards you. I told her that you wanted me to forget the incident. I asked her for guidance.”

 

“And she advised that you propose? After hearing that?”

 

“I told her I wanted to propose, she advised that that was the correct course.”

 

“You said… when you proposed you said you wanted to take responsibility,” Shen Jiu is unsure of what he’s pushing or even if this is a good idea but he can’t stop (that’s another one of his bad qualities), “Take responsibility for what? I’m hardly a pure maiden whose innocence you ripped away. You know that, I visit brothels-“

 

“I went to the brothel.”

 

“What?” Shen Jiu stands there in the room with Liu Qingge’s unnervingly intense stare on him and just feels… lost, “What do you mean you went to the brothel?”

 

“I have been unfair to you.” Liu Qingge says, “Since the mission where I incorrectly accused you of attacking me I realised that I have been unfair to you. I have been trying to make amends. I went to the brothel because… I wanted to know if I was wrong about this as well.”

 

“When was this?” Shen Jiu asks through what feel like bloodless lips.

 

“I made the stop before I went back to my family home. They told me you only go for entertainment and company. They told me you are very kind.”

 

“Why would they tell you any of that?” Shen Jiu’s stomach is churning, “You must think me some kind of impotent fool to go to a place like that for company, I won’t-“

 

“No!” Liu Qingge stands up and his tone is angry, “I don’t think that!” He looks frustrated for a second, like there are things he’s trying and failing to say, “I’m trying-“ He breaks off with a frustrated sound before launching right back into it, “I want to say that I was wrong about you! And I know you’re not a lecher and I want to take responsibility for what I did! Not just on the mission but everything! I was wrong!” When he’s done he’s breathing heavily and then looks at the ground awkwardly though his fists are clenched.

 

“You want to marry me.” Shen Jiu confirms.

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge says.

 

“To make up for everything you did?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Will I be your first spouse?”

 

“I have no other spouses and no plans to take any more spouses after you.” Liu Qingge says seriously.

 

“Would I live in your family home or here since you’ll become Bai Zhan Peak Lord?”

 

“Wherever you prefer.”

 

Shen Jiu has tried his best with the Sect. Maybe it’s time to cut his losses.

 

“Your family home then.”

 

That makes Liu Qingge smile a little and even nod. Approval from the Bai Zhan brute? Will wonders never cease? “My family will happy to hear that.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yes, it means I will spend more time at the estate. They will like that.”

 

Shen Jiu snorts, “I see.” He should maybe start behaving more alluringly towards Liu Qingge, more coquettish and flirtatious and apt to gaining the other man’s affections but… well Liu Qingge and he have known each other for years at this point. It’s quite stupid to change his entire way of behaving now and hope the other believes him.

 

Liu Qingge has asked him to marry him knowing what he knows about Shen Jiu. Knowing their long history of arguments and fights.

 

“I will resign from the Sect then.” Shen Jiu says and that makes Liu Qingge start a little.

 

“You don’t have-“

 

“You just told me you are happy for me to live at the Liu estate, you do realise that would be impossible if I remained a member of the Sect and Qing Jing Peak?”

 

“Ah.” Liu Qingge is still frowning but Shen Jiu recognises the look as one that denotes the fact that Liu Qingge doesn’t understand details more than anything else.

 

Besides this is good. Him leaving the Sect for Liu Qingge is just another thing he can hold over the other’s head if needed.

 

“I assume by your abrupt proposal that there will not be a courting period.” Shen Jiu said. His knowledge on marriage was slim (only bulked up in recent months) but he was fairly sure there was supposed to be some kind of courting period.

 

Liu Qingge looked at the floor at that, arms crossed and fists clenched. Shen Jiu thinks that he would have drawn his sword if he that was at all appropriate.

 

“I- we- courting, I can court you.” Liu Qingge spat the words out like they were physically painful. If Shen Jiu had enough energy he might have been offended.

 

In actuality he still hadn’t fully absorbed what in the Heavens was actually going on so he just smiled thinly, “Not necessary.” He decided.

 

Liu Qingge shifted in place very slightly, “Then… should we?”

 

“Should we?” Prompted Shen Jiu, he was slightly entertained to know where this was going to go. That was good that he could still find some amusement from all this but it really was amusing. Somehow Liu Qingge had gone from that absolute idiot of a fellow disciple who he hated to his future husband.

 

Shen Jiu could be forgiven for the confusion.

 

“We should do things quickly.” Liu Qingge settled on.

 

Shen Jiu raised an eyebrow, he wished he had his fan on him, “In a rush are you?”

 

“I- the soonest auspicious date.” Liu Qingge practically spat out, “We should- my family will arrange things.”

 

Right. Shen Jiu looked at his practically trembling figure. He looked either as though he was vibrating with anger or as if he was simply so tense it had begun to bleed out into his bodily functions.

 

Shen Jiu sighed to himself. Right. This was still Liu Qingge, future husband or not it was still Liu Qingge.

 

Well, he should at least see how far he could push this.

 

“I like this bracelet.” He said, “I want more jewellery.”

 

Liu Qingge actually looked relieved at having some kind of instructions and nodded stiffly before abruptly turning and leaving.

 

Shen Jiu sat back down on the bed.

 

What on earth was that?

 

Although… judging by the sound of things Liu Qingge would still spend time at the Sect while Shen Jiu would live at his family home. Liu Qingge wasn’t planning on having any other spouses (or so he said) so that left Shen Jiu solely in charge of those affairs. Even if Liu Qingge did marry again by that point Shen Jiu would have had the advantage of time to establish himself within the Liu household.

 

Good. That was good.

 

Any way this could end up going Shen Jiu was sure that on balance being Liu Qingge’s husband was a better deal that staying on Qing Jing Peak. He wasn’t giving up, he was examining the alternate options, being smart about it. He was being smart about things.

 

Shen Jiu looked back down at the bracelet.

 

But I wanted to be powerful on my own. Some small tiny stupid part of him whispered. I wanted to be an Immortal Master.

 

Shut up. Shen Jiu strongly rebuked that part. You can’t do anything if you’re dead! Think for once! You won’t survive in this Sect no matter what you do!

 

He still felt disquieted as he sat there and it was a pit his stomach that wouldn’t leave. He didn’t trust Liu Qingge, he wasn’t even sure he liked Liu Qingge, in fact he was sure he didn’t. But he was going to marry the other and... and…

 

Get a hold of yourself! He scolded himself. You were going to marry Qiu Haitang too! Do you remember that? Your life has never been within your own control anyway so why are you acting like such a sentimental fool right now? So what. So what! So what! I’ll keep living and I’ll be comfortable and I doubt Liu Qingge will be a demanding spouse either way.

 

Hot tears burn at his eyes but Shen Jiu refuses to let them fall. He’s above this. Above petty emotions. He’s traded a thousand tiny things in his life, both important and not, for the chance to claw himself forward just a little more. This is another one of those moments. He’ll marry Liu Qingge and the other will put him up in the Liu estate and he’ll be able to keep living comfortably.

 

If he’s very lucky, maybe everyone will forget about him and he’ll finally be left alone.

 

*

 

The next day Liu Qingge once again barged in at an absurdly early time.

 

Before Shen Jiu could say anything the other thrust a bag at him.

 

“Here. For your health.”

 

Shen Jiu blinked and opened the bag, reaching inside to find several… roots? No, these were three-layered golden ginseng. Incomparably valuable and by the looks of the dirt still clinging to them… freshly harvested.

 

“Where did you get this?” He asked.

 

Liu Qingge seemed able to answer this readily at least, “I heard there’s a field near the Southern border to the demonic realm that has a lot of natural ginseng.”

 

Shen Jiu blinked up at him, “You- you idiot! That field is infested with Six-legged plain cats! They’re so venomous they can kill with a single swipe of their claws! What were you thinking?!”

 

Liu Qingge nodded, “I had to defeat several of them to get the ginseng.”

 

“You-“ Shen Jiu glared hard, “How am I supposed to marry you if you’re dead?! Stop being an idiot and rushing into fights!”

 

Liu Qingge seemed rather pleased by all the yelling. Shen Jiu chalked it up to him being braindead and left it at that. “Give me a knife.” He ordered.

 

Liu Qingge pulled a small dagger out of his belt and passed it over.

 

Shen Jiu took it and quickly began to skin the muddy root in his hand and then as soon as it was done he popped the whole thing in his mouth to suck on.

 

“What are you doing?” Liu Qingge sounded scandalised.

 

Shen Jiu rolled his eyes and spoke around the ginseng root, “The ginseng needs to be peeled fresh and then as soon as it’s done it needs to be sucked on in its entirety.”

 

Liu Qingge was staring at him wide-eyed like he’d never seen anything like Shen Jiu before. At Shen Jiu’s raised eyebrow he flushed a little and pulled another bag from his qiankun pouch.

 

“Here. Tell me if you like them.”

 

Shen Jiu continued to suck on the root, feeling a rushing of vitality flood his system, as he took the bag and opened it to find… jewellery.

 

A lot of jewellery.

 

He pulled out a string of freshwater pearls and then a lilac jade bangle.

 

He looked back up at Liu Qingge who was staring intently at the floor.

 

“I like it.” He said, honestly. “Thank you.”

 

Liu Qingge smiled, “Okay. Do you want more?”

 

Shen Jiu examined the facts that had just become apparent to him. First of all that Liu Qingge was in fact rather attentive, at least before their wedding, and willing to do things to help him such as getting the ginseng root. He was also willing to do what Shen Jiu asked him too.

 

“No.” He shook his head, “Thank you, for this.”

 

“You’re still sick.” Liu Qingge said seriously, “We can’t marry if you’re sick.”

 

Shen Jiu raised an eyebrow, “Is there already an auspicious date?” He asked around the root, spit pooling in his mouth.

 

Liu Qingge shook his head, “Not until you’re better.”

 

Shen Jiu hummed around the ginseng, “I suppose I should try and get better quickly then.”

 

Liu Qingge nodded, “Should I bring you to Qian Cao peak?” He asked.

 

Shen Jiu shook his head in response, “No. It’s alright.”

 

Liu Qingge nodded sharply then, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

 

And with that he left.

 

Shen Jiu sat there in a pile of priceless gems and even more priceless ginseng root and had the strangest feeling he might actually be making the right decision.

 

*

 

“Stop it.” Shen Jiu fussed, batting away the tonic that Liu Qingge was trying to pass him, “I’m not sick anymore!”

 

“Take it.” Liu Qingge insisted, pushing the tonic even more firmly towards Shen Jiu’s mouth.

 

“No!” Shen Jiu continued to evade his future husband’s attempts to shove yet another disgusting health-saving tonic down his throat.

 

In the past week of being engaged to Liu Qingge Shen Jiu had learnt several things about his future husband. All of them were somehow simultaneously surprising and yet also not at all a shock.

 

The first was that positive reinforcement worked wonderfully on him. Shen Jiu only had to praise Liu Qingge’s actions once or express approval at something he had done briefly for that to become a regular thing. Case in point: the ginseng and now daily health tonics and cure-alls his future husband tried to push onto him.

 

The second was that Liu Qingge was absolutely abysmal at using his words and in fact saw the world in such simple black and white it was actually more alarming than irritating. It actually worried Shen Jiu a little, the fact that Liu Qingge believed everyone was as honourable or at least followed the same strange unspoken rules that he did. Maybe that was the case within the Liu family and to some extent the case within the Sect but he had tried to picture Liu Qingge attempting to navigating ordinary life for a second and had to stop himself. He wouldn’t last a week.

 

Shen Jiu had agreed to marry an idiot.

 

As illustrated by the current moment and health tonic.

 

“Of for Heaven’s- just give it to me!” Shen Jiu snatched the small glass bottle away from Liu Qingge and turned it over in his hands, “What even is this? You can’t just give me things and expect me to drink them when I don’t even know what they are.”

 

Liu Qingge blinked at him, “I’m not sure what it is. I got it from Qian Cao peak, it’s for increasing vitality.”

 

Shen Jiu sighed, “You don’t know what it is?”

 

“No.”

 

“Right, from now on every time you bring me something that you’re unsure of you’ll drink half of it, we’ll wait a shichen and if you’re not dead then I’ll drink the rest.”

 

Liu Qingge blinked again and then nodded. Very slowly.

 

“Wonderful.” Shen Jiu tossed the bottle back to him, “Drink up.”

 

Liu Qingge grumbled a little but did so, opening the bottle and tipping half of it down his throat.

 

It’s a miracle he’s survived this long. Shen Jiu thought with some horror.

 

“If you’re not sick anymore then we can talk to your Shizun.” Liu Qingge said (rightly).

 

Shen Jiu wondered if it would be worth it just pretending to be sick again. He wasn’t even sick in the first place. He had just wanted to be alone.

 

But once this was done; once Shen Jiu had officially given up his place at the Sect he would be free. Well, not free as of such. Though as the days go on its becoming very much apparent that Liu Qingge is a rather better option than his scummy Shizun.

 

His Shizun who hadn’t sent anyone to check on him the past week he’s locked himself up in the healing pavilion. His Shizun who never had any intention of making him Head Disciple. His Shizun who knows who he is which is a clear reason as to why Shen Jiu has to run as far as he can.

 

If his Shizun had just known he was slave that would have been fine, but the other knows about the Qius. If they know about the Qius they know about Wu Yanzi and if they know then… then… fuck. Shen Jiu can’t stay here that’s for sure.

 

“Alright.” Shen Jiu gets out of bed, “I need my robes, can you pass them to me.”

 

Liu Qingge nods and gathers up a pile of clothing and a hair ribbon. Well, he’s not completely useless is he?

 

He hangs around while Shen Jiu gets dressed, lingering by the window and occasionally darting glances over. He’s like a large animal, Shen Jiu notes. But trainable at least.

 

Once dressed Shen Jiu goes to leave but Liu Qingge catches his hand before he can, “We’re engaged.” Is what he says stiffly in reply, “And wear these.” He thrusts the jewellery that he had gifted him earlier so Shen Jiu leaves the room weighed down with enough jewels that it verges slightly on obscene.

 

“What are you planning to do after we speak to my Shizun?” Shen Jiu asks.

 

Liu Qingge nods seriously, “We’ll go back to my family home.”

 

“Just like that? What if there are things I need to do?”

 

“Then we’ll do those things first.” Liu Qingge says with great certainty.

 

Right. He’s… like that. Liu Qingge is often very much like that.

 

“Well, there’s nothing else I have to do so once we speak to my Shizun we should leave.” Or at least Shen Jiu should get out pretty sharpish, “Do you have permission from your Peak Lord?”

 

“Shifu isn’t on the peak right now, he doesn’t care if I leave or not anyway.” Is Liu Qingge’s incredible assertion.

 

Shen Jiu scowls to himself. Well, it’s not a bad thing. They’ll have to make a quick escape anyway before Shen Jiu’s Shizun bodily tries to throw him off the peak. It’s either that or welcoming the decision with open arms and an ambiguous smile. Shen Jiu honestly doesn’t know. He can never try to predict what Shizun will do. It’s unnerving.

 

Liu Qingge thankfully doesn’t ask him if there’s anyone else he needs to say goodbye to. Honestly he quite likes how thoughtless this man can be. He’s utterly guileless. It’s nice. No games, no doublespeak, no pleasantries. Simple to deal with.

 

And hopefully once Shen Jiu is married to him he’ll be the only person Shen Jiu has to deal with for the rest of his life.

 

The walk they do through the peak with their clasped hands sparks the expected whispers. Honestly Shen Jiu would expect nothing less. But this is good. He doesn’t want to go around telling everyone individually. He just wants there to be no question.

 

Besides… there really is a little pride at having caught Liu Qingge. Despite everything it’s still Liu Qingge. He may be rude but he’s undoubtedly talented with the money and breeding to back it up.

 

You’re making the right decision.

 

Shen Jiu looks up at the door to Shizun’s house and repeats that one sentence to himself again and again.

 

*

 

“Hmm, I’d like to speak to Shen Jiu alone.” Shizun has sat there, totally placid as they listened to Liu Qingge tell them they were marrying Shen Jiu and then Shen Jiu saying that they were going to leave the Sect as a result since they were marrying into the Liu family.

 

Liu Qingge looked at Shen Jiu with that look he was starting to recognise and reluctantly enjoy. It was the look that said, “is that okay with you?” as if Shen Jiu’s opinion was somehow the most important thing. The amount of pride it gave him to nod in response and have Liu Qingge leave then and only then was monumental.

 

Once Liu Qingge had left the room and the click of the front door sliding shut sounded Shizun leaned back in their chair, lazily fingering their cup of tea.

 

“My disciple really is clever.” Shizun said and there was almost something admiring in their tone, “Liu Qingge. First born of the Liu clan.” Shizun made a lazy gesture, “A very beautiful bracelet.”

 

Shen Jiu kept his head ducked and didn’t move his hand to cover the bracelet. He was proud but moreso unnerved by the way Shizun was speaking.

 

“Very very clever… But, of course, my disciple always thought they were clever did they not?” Shizun taps their nails against their cup of tea in disconcerting little plink pinks, “Actually, perhaps not my disciple any longer? Liu Qingge’s spouse to be.” Shizun sighed, a soft sound like an Autumn leaf hitting the ground, “I have to admit… this I was not expecting.”

 

Shizun looked at them. That awful penetrating look, “Shen Jiu would have been Head Disciple, this master had already decided, though if this disciple cannot weather a few upsets then maybe it’s best that the role does not go to them.” There’s a lilt to Shizun’s voice. Bait. It’s bait. But… but even if it’s bait maybe there’s something good the other end?

 

Shen Jiu’s heart did a flip. He chanced a look at his Shizun and they made awful eye-contact.

 

“Did my disciple truly think this master was so capricious?”

 

Shen Jiu swallowed thickly.

 

“Of course, if my disciple is to leave the Sect then there’s nothing for it.” Shizun smiled then and it was an awful smile.

 

“Shizun.” Shen Jiu wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. He wasn’t even sure what he could say.

 

Shizun’s smile widened, “Well, if my disciple does make the decision not to leave the Sect in the end…” And they leaned forward, cup in hand, “I wonder what my disciple is willing to do to make it up to Shizun?”

 

It was at that moment that a few things happened at once.

 

The first was that there was the sound of raised voices from outside, Liu Qingge’s familiar brusque tone for one. The noise made the already unsettled Shen Jiu jerk which caused the table holding the tea set to rattle alarmingly. Then Shizun dumped the cup of tea over his head at the same time the teapot fell off the table and smashed on the floor.

 

Liu Qingge burst into the room in response to the crash.

 

Shen Jiu knelt there, dripping with tea with his Shizun’s hand poised with the upturned cup above his head. The tea dripped off his hair past his eyebrows to look like a facsimile of tears down his cheeks.

 

Liu Qingge’s scowl was ferocious. He marched up and in one swift move had dragged Shen Jiu none to gently up off the floor. He then partly shoved Shen Jiu’s slightly frozen figure behind his own.

 

With that he bowed very minutely, “Does Qing Jing’s Peak Lord release Shen Jiu from the Sect?” He asked brusquely. Shen Jiu dripped tea onto the floor in annoying little pit-pats.

 

Shizun looked up at Liu Qingge from where they were sitting.

 

Shen Jiu felt a little like he was in one of those dreams where everyone knows the script but at the same time nothing seems to go right. Where you’re waiting for someone to say what they need to but they don’t. He wondered a little blankly if this meeting really was useless.

 

“Does Qing Jing’s Peak Lord release Shen Jiu from the Sect?” Liu Qingge repeated and this time there was a tone to it.

 

Shizun was still looking at Liu Qingge, that awful penetrating stare, but Liu Qingge didn’t even flinch.

 

“Yes.” Shizun said eventually, “This master releases Shen Jiu from the Sect.”

 

Liu Qingge nodded roughly, “Then we’re done here.” His grip on Shen Jiu’s arm gentled slightly as he dragged him out of the room and then the house.

 

Once they were out in the fresh air he retrieved a handkerchief from his qiankun pouch and began to roughly dry Shen Jiu’s hair. At Shen Jiu’s look he coloured, “Sorry.” He all but snapped before handing the handkerchief back to Shen Jiu to do it.

 

“What was that noise from outside?” Shen Jiu asked, the frozen feeling starting to dissipate the further away from Shizun’s house they were getting.

 

Foolish foolish foolish. He almost… well, there was no use in dwelling now.

 

“Your peak mates are nosy.” Liu Qingge said shortly before darting a look at Shen Jiu, “I told them we’re getting married.”

 

“Good.” Shen Jiu by this point is dried off and hands back the handkerchief.

 

“Your Shizun is… difficult.” Is all Liu Qingge says as he takes it and puts it (damp and dirty) back into his qiankun pouch.

 

“Don’t let anyone hear you say that.” Shen Jiu says dryly. It feels like he’s waking up or rather sobering up from a long period of drunkenness.

 

Liu Qingge snorts, “You’re not a member of this Peak anymore anyway.”

 

The emotion that strikes Shen Jiu then isn’t grief because Qing Jing had never quite felt like home for all that he had loved it. But it’s… maybe grief for an entire expected future lost.

 

As usual (thankfully) Liu Qingge doesn’t notice.

 

*

 

“Your family is… nice.” Shen Jiu says as he settles onto the bed in the courtyard in the sprawling Liu estate that Liu Qingge has led him to. At this point he’s only met Qingge’s parents and grandmother very very briefly. Barely an exchange of three words, but they had been very strangely kind.

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “They like you.”

 

Why? I’m an inherently unlikable person. Is not what Shen Jiu says; instead he just thinks it as he sinks down into the soft bed, far softer than his bed on the peak.

 

“How many servants do you want?” Liu Qingge asks then, from where he’s sat himself down on a chair by the door.

 

Shen Jiu blinks at him. He… preferably he doesn’t really want servants. He wants to have his own space with no one interfering. He was a servant before and knows exactly how conniving and spiteful they can be. He doesn’t want anyone like that in his space.

 

“Do I have to have servants?” He asks. He already feels a little off balance in this new space especially surrounded by the sprawling Liu clan.

 

Liu Qingge looks at him as though… well as though Shen Jiu has done something entirely against his expectations, “You don’t want servants?” He confirms.

 

Shen Jiu nods and tries to make the move look haughty but he just feels out of his depth so he’s briefly concerned that it comes out hesitant and weak.

 

It strikes him suddenly that if he’s going to marry Liu Qingge then the other is going to see him in all states going forward and that there are only (realistically) so many masks he’ll be able to keep up. It’s a deeply unsettling thought.

 

“Do you like this courtyard?” Liu Qingge asks then.

 

Shen Jiu looks around the room. The other rooms that he’d seen are well-proportioned and filled with tasteful furniture. More than that there’s a pretty space of garden outside with several flowering trees.

 

He nods, “Yes.”

 

Liu Qingge seems to relax, “Good. This is your courtyard, if you want to change anything you can.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks at him, “This is mine?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu looks around the room again, gaze alighting on the walls and polished wood furniture, “Just mine?” He confirms.

 

Liu Qingge frowns but nods again, “Yes. If you take servants there are servants’ chambers attached on the far side but without them you’re the only one who will be living here.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him in naked surprise. Liu Qingge said you not us. That means Liu Qingge will presumably live somewhere else and these chambers are Shen Jiu’s alone.

 

He’s never had his own space before. Well apart from the woodshed. This is infinitely better than the woodshed.

 

“Alright.” His fingers pat at the sheets of the bed a little restlessly, the only move that betrays how fast his heart is beating or how out of his depth he feels.

 

This is his.

 

Nicer than Qiu Haitang’s chambers were at the Qiu estate.

 

Liu Qingge leaves shortly afterwards to go sleep wherever it is that he does at the estate. Shen Jiu walks him out and then once he’s gone he runs his hands over the gate that marks the entrance of the (his) courtyard. Once that’s done he makes his way through all the rooms, one by one, running his fingers over furniture and peeking into empty drawers and dressers. They’re shadowy in the gloom but tasteful and pretty and all his.

 

Just out of curiosity he makes his way back outside and around the back towards the servants’ quarters. They’re obviously not as opulent and the furniture is nowhere near as rich but they’re still nice. Actually, they’re very much comparable to the dorms at the Sect. Is this how Liu Qingge grew up? How could he stand living on Bai Zhan Peak? Was it a great culture shock for him or is he just so mindless that he barely notices his surroundings? How… privileged.

 

Shen Jiu returns back to the bedchamber and gets back into the infinitely comfortable bed. It’s the most comfortable place he’s ever slept before and (after making sure he’s completely alone) he allows himself to properly snuggle deeply into the sheets, wrapping himself up completely like a dumpling and sighing happily.

 

Shen Jiu can stand to shed his masks and give up his dignity to Liu Qingge in exchange for all this. Besides, the other lives in a different courtyard, will presumably become the Bai Zhan Peak Lord, and is fairly reticent to begin with. Shen Jiu imagines that after marriage he’ll settle down here and the two of them will rarely see each other moving forward.

 

After burrowing for a while Shen Jiu gets back up and piles several pieces of furniture against the only door in the room before moving his bed to the corner so it’s enclosed by walls on two sides. It’s his room. He can do whatever he wants to it. Then he bundles himself up in the sheets and falls into an unprecedentedly peaceful night of sleep.

 

*

 

The next day when Liu Qingge comes servants announce his intentions and arrival beforehand. That gives Shen Jiu ample time to move the furniture away from the door and get himself into a fit state to see other people. The servants also don’t try and intrude. Just knock on the door and tell him before retreating back outside.

 

When Liu Qingge walks in this time he looks a little shame-faced. Before Shen Jiu can ask he speaks, looking at the wall, “I apologise. It’s not… courteous for me to just come in here whenever I want to. The servants will announce me from now on.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks at that but can’t help the way his body becomes soft with relief in response. No one can barge in without him knowing about it. Not even Liu Qingge.

 

“Good.” Shen Jiu directs Liu Qingge to sit down at the small table and then does the same. They’re in what looks to be the receiving room portion of Shen Jiu’s courtyard. He likes it a lot. “You barged in on me a lot in the healing pavilion.” He points out.

 

Liu Qingge crosses his arms roughly and scowls, “That was in the Sect.”

 

“Mmm.” Shen Jiu is about to ask for some tea when a servant comes out of nowhere and plops a whole tea tray down on the table. They even try to pour before Shen Jiu waves them off. He doesn’t need anyone pouring his tea. In fact he’d prefer to pour his own tea.

 

“You really don’t want servants do you?” Liu Qingge asks in a strange tone as Shen Jiu gracefully pours out the tea himself into their two cups.

 

“No, I like having my own space.” Is what Shen Jiu ends up saying.

 

“What about meals? Your courtyard has a kitchen, would you prefer having cooking done here or somewhere else?”

 

Shen Jiu is coming to the abrupt realisation that if he wanted to, he really could seclude himself away in this courtyard.

 

“What does the rest of your family do?” He asks. From what he’s seen of the estate so far it’s huge. He can’t imagine the whole family eats together often or even uses a single kitchen.

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “It depends. If there’s an event then we might eat together as a family. Sometimes people share meals, like my parents and grandmother and I might if I’m visiting. I tend to eat in my own courtyard.”

 

“For efficiency’s sake?” Shen Jiu quips.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t disagree.

 

Ah.

 

“I’ll eat with you.” Shen Jiu decides.

 

Liu Qingge’s mouth pops open for a second before he seems to shake himself, “Okay.” If Shen Jiu was liable to think so about the other he would say they almost seem eager, “I’ll come and escort you over to my courtyard when it’s dinner time.”

 

Shen Jiu nods. He remembers all the gossip and discussion with regards Ming-jie; how husbands dote when it’s early in the relationship before it fades away. It’s a golden time that’s necessary to establish the relationship and feelings of fondness. Shen Jiu may not have to compete with other spouses right now but he still sees some benefit in at least trying to engender some feeling of warmth towards him from the man that after marriage will for all intents and purposes own him.

 

Despite what a fraught history the two of them have they’ve come this far haven’t they?

 

“So is there anything you’d like me to do?” He asks then because experience has shown that it’s better to be straightforward with Liu Qingge. Any attempts of playing coy inevitably won’t work.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean, am I supposed to just live here until the wedding? Is there anything you’d like me to do?”

 

Liu Qingge seems to consider that, “We could go on a nighthunt.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks at him, “We could?” It comes out as more of a question than he would have liked.

 

“Yes we could. My family gets mission requests from the nearby area. We could go see if there are any good ones. We could go tomorrow.” Liu Qingge seems to be rapidly gaining steam.

 

Shen Jiu is… surprised. Maybe it sounds stupid but he had assumed that after leaving the Sect his life as a cultivator was over. But he supposes he had forgotten that the Liu family is a cultivating one and that Liu Qingge is also a cultivator who boarders on obsessive with his craft.

 

“Alright.” Is what he ends up saying. He has Xiu Ya. He.. he can be Liu Qingge’s spouse and an Immortal Master at the same time. Maybe. Maybe he can.

 

“Good.” Liu Qingge nods very seriously before abruptly looking as though he’s remembered something and from nowhere produces another disgusting bottle of tonic.

 

“What is that?” Shen Jiu asks, openly wrinkling his nose.

 

Liu Qingge just shrugs, opens it and downs half, then passes the bottle to Shen Jiu. “It’s one of the Liu clan’s tonics, I don’t know what’s in it but I’ve been drinking it for years. It’s good at strengthening meridians.”

 

Shen Jiu looks down at the bottle and without thinking twice brings it to his lips and drinks the rest.

 

*

 

It’s two weeks later after he and Liu Qingge have been on countless nighthunts (that haven’t gotten any easier but also somehow a lot easier) that the first visitor arrives.

 

He and Liu Qingge still fight constantly but there’s a different tone to it now, he would say their fighting verges more on bickering and Liu Qingge doesn’t seem to take any of his insults seriously anymore no matter how much Shen Jiu means them. Though of course Shen Jiu assumes that it’s rather normal to assume that if someone agreed to marry you they don’t really think you’re the stupidest man to ever walk the earth.

 

Of all the people to darken the Liu doorstep from Cang Qiong Mountain Sect Shen Jiu wouldn’t have bet that much money on Shang Qinghua. He certainly would have bet some money, but honestly his first pick had been… well it was foolish to hope anyhow. What good had hope ever done anyone anyway? Stupid.

 

Shang Qinghua was welcomed in by servants to his elegantly decorated receiving room after Shen Jiu had told them he would receive the visitor. The servants also informed him that someone could be called to fetch Master Liu if needed. Shen Jiu had waved them off, Liu Qingge was off doing whatever he did when he left the estate (he really didn’t spend all that much time here at all) and Shen Jiu had no idea how his erstwhile husband-to-be’s presence would help at all with Shang Qinghua.

 

“Shang Qinghua,” He greeted from behind his fan as the other was directed to sit down opposite him and the servants brought in a tea tray and some snacks. He let them serve this time knowing that there are benefits to cultivating a certain image.

 

By the sharp flash in Shang Qinghua’s expression before it melted back into his usual harried passivity he knew it was working.

 

“Shen-shixiong.” Shang Qinghua greeted back.

 

Shen Jiu fanned himself lazily, “No need for that, we’re no longer martial siblings.”

 

“Ah yes, Shen-gongzi’s departure from the Sect was certainly a surprise.”

 

If Shen Jiu cared more he would dig at that, ferret out what gossip could be found and turn it over until it could be used to his advantage. As things stood, he really… didn’t care. At this point only Liu Qingge’s place within Cang Qiong anchored him to it. Well, that and… someone else. Someone that obviously didn’t care enough to come.

 

And now Shang Qinghua was the first person visiting him.

 

Shen Jiu took a delicate sip behind his fan.

 

“Qingge,” He took some pleasure in using the other’s name so casually. Shang Qinghua certainly snapped to attention, “Proposed marriage.” And in the most unromantic way possible while Shen Jiu was half out of his mind which he wouldn’t mention to Shang Qinghua, “And I accepted. Since I am marrying into the Liu clan I decided it would be beneficial for myself to leave the Sect to dedicate myself fully to my new family.”

 

Shang Qinghua nodded, “Of course of course. Shen-gongzi is so filial!”

 

Shen Jiu lowered his fan a little and fixed Shang Qinghua with his most piercing look, “It’s nice to receive Shang-gongzi’s visit. Was there a particular reason for it?”

 

“No no! Just a social visit.” Shang Qinghua laughs in a way that is probably mean to be disarming but is instead extremely irritating. Especially since Shen Jiu knows it’s all a mask that isn’t fooling him one bit. He doesn’t trust the other at all, but what does that matter? He doesn’t have to worry about Shang Qinghua and his stupid machinations anymore.

 

“Hmm, then,” And here Shen Jiu doesn’t let up on his look, boring holes into Shang Qinghua with his eyes until the other looks visibly uncomfortable, “I would implore Shang-gongzi to keep an eye on Qingge in the Sect.”

 

Shang Qinghua looks back at him and for once he doesn’t blink guilelessly, instead he just nods, “Of course. Shen-gongzi may not be a member of Cang Qiong Mountain any longer but this Qinghua will always consider him a martial brother.”

 

What bullshit.

 

Whatever, either way it’s good to have Shang Qinghua in his pocket. With a little distance Shen Jiu can read the other like an open book; opportunistic, ruthless and ambitious to the core.

 

“Then this one will endeavour to treat Shang-gongzi the same.” He takes another sip of tea, “Please try the snacks, they’re delicious.”

 

Before Shang Qinghua leaves later he slides a letter out of his pocket and onto the table, “This one was also asked to deliver this when he revealed he would be visiting Shen-gongzi, apologies that this one almost forgot.”

 

Shen Jiu thanks him and calls for the servants to see him out. As Shang Qinghua is escorted out of the gate Shen Jiu knows he doesn’t imagine the expression of absolute envy on the other’s face.

 

He hides his smile behind his fan and returns to his chambers.

 

The servants have already cleaned away the old tea and replaced it with a fresh pot and new snacks. Shen Jiu sits himself down, feeling pleased, and reaches for the letter.

 

He reads it once.

 

He reads it twice.

 

On the third read it’s crumpled in his hands and somehow stained in blotchy wet patches.

 

He doesn’t bother to read it a fourth time, instead just crumpling it further in his hands until his qi inadvertently sets it alight.

 

Watching the ashes fall off his fingers doesn’t make him feel any better. Instead he just feels all the more empty and furiously, disgustingly alone.

 

*

 

“Shen Jiu!” Liu Qingge is knocking heavily at his door, “It’s dinner time.”

 

Shen Jiu stares listlessly at the dark ceiling where he’s lying alone in his bed and wonders if he can just… not. He’s exhausted.

 

“Shen Jiu.” Liu Qingge is doing something more akin to banging now, “Are you awake?”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t answer.

 

“Are you okay?” The banging has become rather frantic, “Are you sick?”

 

That’s another thing, Liu Qingge seems to have come to the assumption that he’s frail or else is always at risk of falling ill. He certainly seems constantly mindful of him being sick.

 

“Can I come in? Shen Jiu?” There’s a second before Liu Qingge says rather loudly, “I’m coming in.”

 

Shen Jiu wonders if he should feel any way about the other barging their way in. He finds that he doesn’t really, there’s no annoyance, no irritation, no anger or betrayal or indignant fury.

 

Just… emptiness.

 

Liu Qingge comes inside in a flurry of movement.

 

“You’re sick.” He declares as soon as he sees Shen Jiu’s listless body.

 

He then marches outside and says some things to a servant that Shen Jiu doesn’t pay attention to.

 

A little while later he’s back with a tray laden down with dishes and small glass bottles. More tonics.

 

“Here. Sit up.” Liu Qingge commands as he comes closer.

 

Shen Jiu stays lying down. He feels rather pathetic.

 

“Here.” Liu Qingge sits down on the bed and with a surprisingly gentle arm around Shen Jiu’s shoulders draws him into sitting up before trying to thrust a warm cup of… some murky liquid into his hands.

 

“I’m not sick.” Shen Jiu finally says, his voice is scratchy.

 

“You look sick.” Liu Qingge says seriously, “Don’t worry, I brought tonics and I asked the servants to include a list of their ingredients.” He then hands Shen Jiu a piece of paper which is indeed a list of ingredients.

 

Shen Jiu can’t help it. He bursts out laughing.

 

“You-“ He can’t stop laughing and doesn’t even know what he’d say if he did manage to calm down enough to speak.

 

So he just laughs.

 

And laughs and laughs until he has tears in his eyes and his stomach is aching.

 

Finally he manages to calm himself and abruptly realises that he’s managed to somehow end up leaning against Liu Qingge who hadn’t moved from his position after sitting Shen Jiu up.

 

He looks at the other and finds their gaze unnervingly fixed on his face.

 

“What?” He asks, suddenly self-conscious for no apparent reason, “Have you never seen someone laugh at your idiocy before?” He sniffs and snatches the cup from Liu Qingge before downing it.

 

Almost immediately unnatural warmth spreads through his whole body. It feels good.

 

Liu Qingge just rolls his eyes, “You’re so contrary.” He mutters before handing him another small bottle that Shen Jiu dutifully drinks because at this point why not?

 

He’s a little hungry now and points to the food as he drinks since his mouth is occupied.

 

Liu Qingge huffs but passes the dishes over anyway.

 

“Do you feel better?” He asks a little while later after Shen Jiu has finished eating.

 

Shen Jiu decides not to bother saying again that he’s not sick.

 

“Better.” He confirms as Liu Qingge passes him another tonic.

 

Liu Qingge just nods and watches closely as he drinks it before grabbing his wrist and sending a burst of qi through his meridians.

 

“Your cultivation is better.” He says approvingly, “The tonics are working.”

 

Shen Jiu hums. He hasn’t really been paying all that much attention to his cultivation recently; that thing which had been immeasurably important to him falling by the wayside slightly as he settled into his low-stakes life as Liu Qingge’s future husband.

 

“Shang Qinghua visited me today. If you didn’t already know.” He tells Liu Qingge.

 

Liu Qingge frowns at that, “What? Why?”

 

Shen Jiu makes a face as he reaches for another persimmon slice, “He’s debilitatingly ambitious, I think he’s hoping to keep a somewhat positive relationship with me in the hopes of securing some kind of advantage with you in the Sect. You’re both going to be Peak Lords and with how much effort he’s put into obtaining his position I’m not surprised.”

 

“Effort?” Liu Qingge prompts.

 

“Oh I don’t have proof but I don’t trust that little rat three cun, he wasn’t even Head Disciple until the previous one was killed by that “ice demon”.”

 

Liu Qingge frowns, “You think Shang Qinghua killed his way to his position?”

 

Shen Jiu shrugs, he feels lazy with the food and rather spoiled. Like a cat that’s been petted just right. It’s making him a little more verbose than he would usually be with Liu Qingge.

 

“No proof.” He repeats, “But I wouldn’t be too surprised.”

 

Liu Qingge hasn’t stopped frowning, and in an effort not to make his future husband do something stupid like run off and begin accusing Shang Qinghua of crimes Shen Jiu just rolls his eyes and tugs at the other’s arm until they look at him and stop scowling quite so fiercely.

 

“If the Head Disciple of An Ding Peak was so incompetent Shang Qinghua of all people managed to take him out he deserved it. He may have some skills but he’s not a manipulative genius. Not yet anyway.” Shen Jiu mutters the last part.

 

“You shouldn’t have to guard against attacks from your martial siblings.” Liu Qingge argues.

 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes again, “Oh grow up shidi.” He drawls the address sarcastically, “Until the position of Peak Lord is established it’s all fair game, everyone’s fighting for stability.”

 

Liu Qingge looks like he doesn’t understand that.

 

“Oh for Heavens- Liu Qingge! Are you really so strong you’ve never once been weak in your life? Has there ever been a moment where you’ve doubted you’d be Peak Lord of Bia Zhan Peak? Probably not thinking about it…” Shen Jiu trails off as he muses that point before picking steam back up in his annoyance, “You,” He pokes Liu Qingge for emphasis, “Have never had to worry about your place in the world, even if things in the Sect didn’t work out for you, you could just go home to your loving family in its luxurious estate and keep doing what you love! Which is killing things. You’ve never had to be concerned about your future in material ways and it certainly shows.”

 

Shen Jiu decides he’s had enough with berating Liu Qingge for now and reaches for another slice of persimmon. It’s very sweet.

 

“I- what do you mean by stability?” Liu Qingge asks.

 

Shen Jiu looks at him and finds that he’s utterly unable to find anything beyond genuine confusion and curiosity in his features.

 

He doesn’t reply to the question, “You’re actually listening to me speak for once.”

 

Liu Qingge frowns, “You never spoke like this to me before.”

 

Shen Jiu supposes that’s not wrong.

 

“Since you’ve decided to tie your life to mine you get the privilege of hearing my unfiltered thoughts.” He says, half-sarcastic and half-truthful.

 

Liu Qingge just nods, “Alright.” He doesn’t seem particularly put off by that.

 

Hmm. Alright then.

 

“I’m tired.” Shen Jiu says rather abruptly, “I’m going to go to sleep.”

 

Liu Qingge nods easily and gets up to go, “If you’re sick, we shouldn’t nighthunt tomorrow.” He looks bitterly disappointed.

 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes and waves an imperious hand, “You can go, I’ll just rest here.”

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge seems to have perked up. Shen Jiu almost wants to snort with laughter, the other really is easy to deal with, aren’t they? “My sister Mingyan wants to meet you.” Liu Qingge says then, “Should I tell her she can come tomorrow if you’re feeling better?”

 

“While you’re out?”

 

“Does it make a difference if I’m here or not?”

 

Shen Jiu supposes not, “No, not really.”

 

“Okay. I’ll be going then.” And Liu Qingge leaves abruptly, taking the tray with him.

 

Alright then.

 

*

 

Liu Qingge’s sister is nothing like him.

 

For one she’s actually polite. She’s also much younger than him, not even in her teens currently with the softness of baby fat and the awkwardness of growing limbs yet to settle. The main thing she has in common with Liu Qingge is her face, they look startling alike. Enough that if you were to put them side by side in a few years their features may be night indistinguishable.

 

Shen Jiu interprets that as a sign that Liu Qingge possesses laughably delicate features for the kind of coarse person he is which is undeniably ironic and funny. Therefore seeing Liu Mingyan’s face has put him in a rather good mood.

 

There’s also the fact that the girl is young and unthreatening to the extreme. She also seems to want to talk exclusively about literature peppered with questions about how he and Liu Qingge had met.

 

“We were part of the same Sect and as Head Disciples of our respective peaks our paths consistently crossed.”

 

“What was your first impression of Ge?” Liu Mingyan asks, all wide-eyes with one cheek propped up on her hand. She’s become surprisingly relaxed as the tea had been drunk and by now has lost a shocking amount of propriety.

 

Shen Jiu sits up straight and sips properly. He… well. It’s not as though Liu Qingge doesn’t know what he thought of him at first sight. In fact the two of them had gotten into enough arguments at that point that Shen Jiu is entirely aware that the other thought of him as an arrogant, lazy young master without a drop of martial talent in his body.

 

“I thought Liu Qingge was bull-headed as they came.” He says rather too bluntly and then regrets being honest.

 

Surprisingly Liu Minyan doesn’t look put off by that. In fact she’s leaning in even more, “Really? What changed your mind?”

 

Shen Jiu can’t really say that anything is all that different now. He still considers Liu Qingge bull-headed as they come and lacking a single tactful bone in his body. He just thinks that perhaps the lack of social graces isn’t so much a negative thing anymore. So when did his opinion on Liu Qingge change…

 

Well. It’s hasn’t really.

 

He can’t say that though, “Hmm, I suppose the two of us began to get… closer after we did several missions together.” If Shen Jiu has his way no one else is going to learn about Liu Qingge’s stupid sex pollen and honour-breakdown episode. It’s just too humiliating for everyone involved.

 

“You and Ge are very different.” Liu Mingyan says bluntly.

 

Shen Jiu has to nod at that, though he does so graciously from behind his fan.

 

“Ge used to mention you a lot.” She then said which was… surprising.

 

Shen Jiu had no idea what to respond to that.

 

Liu Mingyan just continued heedless, “He used to talk about how the two of you would spar and he would never say you also argued but I could tell.”

 

Shen Jiu has no idea what to do so he doesn’t nod or deny it. He just stays silent.

 

“It’s good,” Mingyan then moves on to say, “That you and Ge can fight. I don’t think Ge would ever be able to marry someone he had to watch his words around. Ge also finds it impossible to respect someone unless they have martial skill.”

 

“Is that so?” Shen Jiu says rather critically.

 

Liu Mingyan shrugs and manages to make a graceless gesture look elegant, “I don’t think he’s right to think that way but that’s just the way he is. He almost made a girl that Fuqin and Muqin tried to introduce him to cry.”

 

“I can certainly believe that.” Shen Jiu said dryly.

 

“Mmm, I always thought Ge would do best with someone who was also a cultivator and who would fight him. Or at least tease him. People are far too serious around him!” She gets rather passionate then and her resemblance to Liu Qingge is uncanny.

 

“No one wants to tease him?” Shen Jiu asks with some amusement.

 

“He should have people teasing him. He needs more friends.” She declares.

 

Since the conversation is becoming rather candid on Mingyan’s end Shen Jiu feels as though maybe he can ask a few questions that have been on his mind.

 

“I’m… surprised your family is so open to this match. No one had even met me before.” Shen Jiu ventures.

 

Mingyan just shrugs again, “We had all heard of you before. Ge really doesn’t speak of many people. And it really shocked everyone that he was the one that wanted to get married, I know Fuqin and Muqin thought he never would and that he would be all alone forever.” She fixes him with a rather serious look, “Ge isn’t good at taking care of himself, he once got speared through the stomach by a Giant Sword Beatle and insisted he didn’t need to go see a healer and then tried to take part in the cultivation conference we were hosting. He walked out into the arena with a hole in his stomach before anyone could stop him and defeated the third son of the Du family! He then tried to insist he could fight another match! Fuqin had to knock him out to get him to the doctors!”

 

Shen Jiu can’t help it. He starts to laugh and he really can’t stop.

 

“So you have to marry him.” Mingyan says seriously, “Who knows if anyone else will? If this is our Liu family’s only chance then we have to take it!”

 

“Your only chance to see your brother married off?” Shen Jiu asks with some amusement.

 

Mingayn nods, “Yes and maybe the only chance we have to see him settled. Ge travels too much, he’s always going and going and going. We’re lucky if we see him once a year! Now he’s engaged to you and he’s been at the estate for almost a month already!”

 

Oh heavens. Listening to this from his family’s perspective makes Liu Qingge sound rather pathetic. Shen Jiu loves it.

 

“So your family approves of me because they’re hoping I’ll knock him out and take him to the healers if he gets gored again?”

 

“He’s taking you with him on his nighthunts.” Mingyan points out. She’s so young but also so serious, “He always refuses whenever someone else tries to accompany him. One times he left on his own to go hunt Venomous Hawk Wasps and went missing for three months! No one had any idea where he was.”

 

“It sounds as though he just runs into a lot of trouble.” Shen Jiu points out though the stories really do track with the way Liu Qingge behaves. He had gone to get that ginseng hadn’t he? In fact, Liu Qingge’s approach to challenges seemed to be one where he thought he was innately invulnerable. Arrogant to the core.

 

Although… Shen Jiu had noticed that on their nighthunts the other wasn’t completely braindead. He did have a keen understanding of tactics that he employed when figuring out how he and Shen Jiu should work together to dispatch targets. Though when he worked alone Shen Jiu had noticed that he focused on his own overwhelming strength and skill as his foremost prong for attack rather than anything more sophisticated.

 

“The most trouble.” Mingyan agreed readily and then immediately asked, “Has Shen-gege really read all three volumes of Xiu Yinyong’s auto-biography of their travels in the Demonic Realm?”

 

Shen Jiu raised atneyebrow at suddenly being bestowed the title of “Shen-gege” but didn’t bother to try and argue against the beloved young mistress of the Liu clan and Liu Qingge’s even more beloved and obviously precious younger sister. It must be nice to be so cherished from birth.

 

“I have.” He answered placidly from behind his fan, “Does Liu-guniang wish to discuss them?”

 

“Call me Mingyan.” Liu Mingyan commanded. Or rather suggested. Despite her obvious status she was a little too young still to command anyone. Although remembering Qiu Haitang… Sometimes Shen Jiu wondered (honestly) what Haitang would have done had she known the truth of Qiu Jianluo’s character. Would she have tried to protect him? Would she have thrown herself in front of Shen Jiu the way she always insisted she would?

 

If anyone bullies you Jiu’er only needs to tell me! Haitang won’t let my Jiu’er be bullied by anyone!

 

Ah Haitang, but what if it was your own brother pushing me down? What would you do then?

 

He shook off the useless train of thought and went back to his conversation with Mingyan.

 

She was easier to deal with than Qiu Haitang at least.

 

*

 

“Stay down!” Snapped Shen Jiu as he evaluated their situation.

 

It really wasn’t good.

 

“Leave me.” Liu Qingge winced as moving jostled his broken legs, “You can go and-“

 

“Absolutely not!” Shen Jiu used a blast of qi and a well-placed talisman to fend off the herd of demon spiders heading towards them and in the brief pocket of peace grabbed Liu Qingge by the arm and (rather roughly) dragged him into a tiny cave. He used another two precious talismans to create a barrier over the entrance and then when he was sure no spiders would be able to get through turned back to Liu Qingge’s legs.

 

He clucked his tongue, “I don’t suppose you know how to walk on your hands?” He asked with maybe a tad more sarcasm than was appropriate.

 

Liu Qingge snorted through gritted teeth. It was obvious he was in pain. Shen Jiu contemplated withholding the pain-relieving herbs just out of spite since Liu Qingge was an idiot who had managed to get his own legs broken.

 

He then reached into his qiankun pouch and pulled out the herbs anyway.

 

“Chew these.” He commanded before turning back to the hasty barrier. There were spiders on the other side, he could see them. But for now secluded behind the barrier their qi wasn’t easily sensed so they weren’t in immediate danger of being overwhelmed. But this situation really wasn’t ideal.

 

He was just revising his plan when he sensed Liu Qingge stirring behind him.

 

“Didn’t I tell you to stay still?” He snapped, “No wonder Mingyan is so worried about you whenever you go off!”

 

“Mingyan worries about me?” Qingge blinked, completely poleaxed.

 

Shen Jiu rolled his eyes, “Idiot.” He muttered, “Now stay still and don’t do anything stupid. I’ll figure out a way to get us out.”

 

“You should just-“

 

“If you suggest I leave you one more time I’ll kill you myself!” Shen Jiu threatened.

 

Firstly if Liu Qingge died that would mean no more wedding and that would mean Shen Jiu would be cut completely adrift. Secondly he was hardly going to leave. Perhaps if it was a truly a life or death situation but these were just some stupid oversized insects. Shen Jiu was a fucking tactician, if he couldn’t outsmart some spiders then he deserved death.

 

“If I can’t outsmart some fucking insects then I deserve to die right here.” He actually says out loud. It’s the kind of talking aloud that he had gotten used to doing all those years he had spent alone. Whispering to himself alone after Qi-ge left in those quiet moments he was thrown to the side, as if to remind himself he’s still alive, still human, still capable of independent thought and speech. Still allowed independent thought and speech. He of course never does it in front of other people, is careful not to come off as though he’s actually lost his mind, but it’s still a habit.

 

Liu Qingge makes a snort of amusement in response.

 

Shen Jiu can’t help but jerk a little as he realises that ah yes, the other is here. He didn’t say that just to himself. He put it into the space between him and Liu Qingge. How had he forgotten that the other was there?

 

“I’ll leave it up to you then.” Liu Qingge says apropos of nothing and actually leans back against the small cave’s wall and practically relaxes.

 

Shen Jiu is too affronted to even say anything.

 

“Lazy.” He says in reprimand though he doesn’t really mean the admonishment all that much. After all, Liu Qingge is the furthest thing from actually lazy.

 

Liu Qingge didn’t respond apart from a small huff while Shen Jiu focused on trying to figure a way to draw the spiders away from their location.

 

“You really wouldn’t leave me?” Liu Qingge asked, breaking Shen Jiu’s train of thought.

 

“Of course not! And I’m getting increasingly insulted that you think I would.” Shen Jiu glared at the spiders beyond the barrier, “If you think I’m such a backstabbing snake why did you even want to marry me?”

 

“It’s not backstabbing if I’m asking you to go.” Liu Qingge said.

 

Shen Jiu gritted his teeth, “Shut up.”

 

“And I don’t think you’re a snake.”

 

Shen Jiu didn’t respond, just went back to his thinking and made the decision to ignore everything Liu Qingge said from that point onwards.

 

When he finally found a way to imbue a talisman with enough spiritual energy to draw the spiders away he allowed himself a vicious grin of triumph.

 

“Ha! Stupid spiders. Of course I’m superior.” He sniffed imperiously.

 

“Good job.” Came the unwanted praise from his biggest headache.

 

“Shut up Qingge.”

 

*

 

“For the guestlist how many of your family will be attending?” Liu Qingge asked.

 

Shen Jiu put down his cup very carefully.

 

Well. He couldn’t say he hadn’t eventually been expecting this. He’d dodged other concerns easily enough, fabricating his eight characters and letting the Liu family handle all the planning and preparation. An auspicious date had been chosen. He’d been fitted for his wedding reds.

 

He supposes it’s time for one more lie though it’s better if he can spin it to be as close to the truth as possible.

 

“I don’t plan on having any family attending.”

 

Liu Qingge frowned at the table, “Do they really disapprove of you cultivating that much?”

 

Shen Jiu wants to laugh. He doesn’t.

 

“Does it matter if anyone from my family attends or not?”

 

“No.” Liu Qingge says in his usual blunt way.

 

Shen Jiu nods very slowly. Maybe one day he’ll tell Liu Qingge about his history, maybe he never will. Either way he’s not safe enough until they do their bows to even slightly risk it.

 

“I won’t have any family attending.” Shen Jiu says decisively.

 

Liu Qingge nods though he doesn’t look pleased. It worries Shen Jiu slightly until the other opens their mouth and reveals a surprising fact; they’re not upset with Shen Jiu but for him.

“If they treat you this way about something like this then they shouldn’t come anyway.” He glares at the lacquered table top, “It’s not fair.” His fierce eyes then find Shen Jiu’s, “I don’t care anyway. Neither does my family. About the dowry. It doesn’t matter.”

 

Shen Jiu blanches. The dowry. What the fuck is… what’s a dowry? It’s an unfamiliar word. He feels stunningly out of his depth for a moment and doesn’t know what to do. It’s a terrifying feeling.

 

Liu Qingge must sense his apparent unease because in an uncharacteristic move he continues to speak, trying to reassure in that clumsy way of his, “No one cares if your family has disowned you. Or if you aren’t bringing material things into the marriage. It doesn’t change anything in my eyes. It wouldn’t.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks. He doesn’t understand and he thinks that perhaps he doesn’t want to. Let Liu Qingge think him disowned, it’s better than the truth.

 

Liu Qingge glares back down at the table, “There’s nothing about your family background that would change anything for me.”

 

It’s a bold statement and one that Shen Jiu doesn’t want to test.

 

But he… he still wants to push something. If Liu Qingge is being this unusually verbose he should use it. He should… he should make sure this is the right choice and the better one wouldn’t be to grab everything that isn’t nailed down and make a run for it while he still can.

 

Shen Jiu licks his lips before saying, “Alright.”

 

A silence elapses.

 

He clears his throat, “I have a hypothetical question for you.” This is a mistake but he can’t help himself and besides, this is important. Well… important for when it comes to appeasing Shen Jiu’s own fucked up neuroses.

 

Liu Qingge nods in assent to answering.

 

Shen Jiu stares down at the table, “When we’re married if… if someone wanted to hurt me what would you do.”

 

“I’d protect you.” Is Liu Qingge’s prompt answer.

 

His Shizun’s voice echoes in his ears.

“If my disciple becomes Peak Lord then what will follow them? Who will follow them? Who will look for them?”

 

“What if I deserved it?” He asks.

 

Liu Qingge answer is still prompt, “I would still protect you. You can be rude but no one is allowed to hurt you if you offend them.”

 

Shen Jiu stares hard at the table, “What if you thought I deserved it?”

 

“I’d still protect you. No one is allowed to hurt you.” Liu Qingge insists.

 

“Even if you felt like I deserved it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu chances a look at Liu Qingge’s whose eyes are fierce and boring into him. He looks away almost immediately, “You wouldn’t let anyone else punish me?”

 

“When we’re married we’re a team.” Liu Qingge says firmly, “If someone wants to punish you they should punish me too.”

 

That throws Shen Jiu for a loop, “What?”

 

“You heard me.”

 

“I- but you- what if you don’t like me?” Shen Jiu says. He’s not even convinced Liu Qingge likes him all that much now.

 

“What does like have to do with it? Anyway, I do like you.”

 

“Yes but… what if you stop?”

 

Shen Jiu has seen it. Has maybe even felt it. Love and loss. No one that has ever claimed to love him has ever kept loving him. His own parents had sold him to slavers. Qiu Haitaing if she still lived was surely cursing his name. And Qi-ge… Yue Qi was lost to Yue Qingyuan and the lofty heights he could climb without Shen Jiu as an unwanted weight around his neck.

 

Love is easy. He’s seen it in brothels. The closeness that makes people desperate and hungry for each other until it fades and you’re left bereft and dried out. Once the love goes there’s nothing left and nothing is worth it.

 

Shen Jiu knows himself. He’s an inherently unlikable person. He can count on one hand the number of people in his life that have actually liked him without caveats or incentives. Even if Liu Qingge likes him now, it’ll fade and then what will he be left with? Love and like and lust are just feelings with nothing solid underpinning them. They ebb and flow and fade and while he is sure he’ll be able to handle the emotional aftermath the fact that his life could now hinge on someone’s regard is horrifying. Especially as he’s never been able to crack the secret to keeping it at any point in his life previously.

 

He needs something more than just that. He’s not sure what form it’ll take or what it even is but… maybe he’ll recognise it if he hears it.

 

“What does like have to do with it?” Liu Qingge repeats his previous point fiercely, smashing through Shen Jiu’s tangled thoughts in his usual bull-headed manner, “Even if I stop liking you what does that have to do with anything? You’re still my husband and still deserve my respect and consideration. Whether or not I like you won’t stop me from shouldering your burdens and protecting you. We’re a team whether we like each other or not.”

 

That makes Shen Jiu’s head snap up.

 

“What would you do if I was a criminal? If I had done terrible things? If someone came to take vengeance and right wrongs against me?” His words tripped into each other. Messy and horrible and too real. He wanted to snatch them out of the air and stuff them back inside himself, somewhere dark where they belonged.

 

Liu Qingge is still scowling but it’s comforting in its familiarity, in its intensity. He’s taking this seriously at least.

 

“I would protect you. And if I couldn’t then I’d shoulder punishment with you. I’d do my best to do right by you.”

 

“Would you believe I did it?”

 

Liu Qingge frown deepens, “What’s this hypothetical crime?”

 

“Murder? I don’t know.” Shen Jiu shrugs in a move too graceless to be truly casual.

 

Liu Qingge considers it, “I would ask you if you did it.”

 

“If I said no?”

 

“I’d believe you.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t know if he can let himself believe that.

 

“And if I said yes?”

 

Liu Qingge considers it, “I’d ask you why.”

 

“What reason do you believe would be sufficient to exonerate me?”

 

Liu Qingge’s fingers tap on the table, moving in a restless pattern, “If someone was trying to kill you and you defended yourself.”

 

“If they were trying to hurt me?”

 

“That to. You shouldn’t just let people hurt you. You should defend yourself.”

 

That’s the most Liu Qingge type thing he’s ever heard. It’s… calming.

 

“And then what would you do? If I gave you a reason. Would you believe me?”

 

“I’d believe you.” Liu Qingge says seriously, “And I’d defend you.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t know if he believes it. If he can believe it.

 

“What would you do if I didn’t have a reason? If I just did something bad for no reason?”

 

“I’d still try and do right by you. I’d do my best not to let anyone hurt you.”

 

“Still?”

 

“Still. That’s my duty. My loyalty is to you as my spouse, that means no matter what I have to do right by you.” He continues with surprising passion, “It doesn’t matter if I like you, if I think you’re wrong, I still have to be good to you.”

 

There’s a pause and then he continues with, “I wouldn’t let you needlessly hurt people in front of me but I don’t think you would.”

 

“You’d protect me?”

 

“I’ll always protect you. As best I can.”

 

“Then I won’t need to hurt anyone.” It comes out as more of a whisper than anything else, soft and stupid.

 

It’s also too close to an actual admission but Shen Jiu can’t even bring himself to regret it as Liu Qingge stays seated opposite him.

 

Shen Jiu keeps his gaze on the window as he drops his next words into the space between them, “You… do you promise not to hurt me?”

 

“Of course.” Liu Qingge says. There’s a very clear obviously underpinning the words.

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “What does that mean? What does not hurting me mean to you?”

 

Liu Qingge frowns and seem unsure.

 

“To me,” Shen Jiu says, his heart is pounding but he tries to school his voice into something smooth, “It means you won’t beat me, lock me up, restrict me food or the like. If you promise not to hurt me you should promise not to do all of that.”

 

When he darts a look at Liu Qingge’s face the other looks completely askance, “I would never do anything like that!”

 

“If that’s true then there’s no issue with promising is there?” Shen Jiu replies.

 

Liu Qingge meets his eyes and swallows thickly, there’s some expression on his face Shen Jiu doesn’t understand but Liu Qingge dutifully opens his mouth, “I promise never to beat you, lock you up or restrict your needs in any way. I promise to… never knowingly do something that would cause you harm.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him. Properly looks at him.

 

Liu Qingge meets his gaze and though he’s now scowling his eyes are clear and resolute.

 

“Alright.” Shen Jiu doesn’t know if he can bring himself to say something like “I trust you”. He doesn’t know if it’s true so instead he just leaves it at that.

 

Even so the other doesn’t leave, doesn’t ask any more about his non-existent family, doesn’t question his strange inquiries, doesn’t try to comfort with more cheap, empty words.

 

And maybe that’s all they were, cheap empty words and promises.

 

Shen Jiu clutches them close anyway.

 

*

 

Yue Qingyuan visits a week before the wedding.

 

Liu Qingge’s family had invited all the Head Disciples of their generation (including Shen Jiu’s replacement) as well as the majority of Liu Qingge’s peak mates. Therefore Shen Jiu knew that even if Yue Qi managed to avoid the Sect gossip he would still have received official confirmation of the rumours in the form of the tasteful invitation.

 

The future Sect Leader of Cang Qiong Mountain is led by servants to Shen Jiu’s personal receiving room. They’re polite of course and direct him to sit opposite Shen Jiu at the small tea table. Superficially it’s like the time Shang Qinghua had visited but unlike Shang Qinghua Yue Qingyuan doesn’t look consideringly at the rich furniture and the number of servants. Instead as soon as he enters the room his eyes catch on Shen Jiu’s face and don’t leave. His gaze is painful, staticky, heavy in a way that Shen Jiu struggles to ignore.

 

Still, his voice is as even as it always is.

 

“Did Xiao Jiu receive my letter?” Yue Qingyuan asks after the typical pleasantries, even forgoing some of them. There’s a thrumming tension to him that pulls at Shen Jiu in a way that’s entirely instinctive.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t bother to protest the name. The tea they’ve been served in his receiving room is ash and blood in his mouth.

 

He feels the other’s stare on him and imagine he knows what they’re thinking.

 

Once a gutter whore always a gutter whore. I recommended you to the Sect, watched you climb your way to Head Disciple only for you to throw my favour aside and sell yourself to Liu Qingge for a pretty set of rooms and some servants.

 

It’s not like that! He wants to protest. I’m not like you! I can’t thrive the way you can, the best I’ve been able to manage is survival! You’ve climbed so high; I could never catch up. You have to understand!

 

He sits silent as the shame boils in his stomach.

 

“Yes.” He finally answers.

 

The letter. The stupid fucking letter that Shang Qinghua passed on him, filled with nothing but polite inquiries into his wellbeing. Nothing but fake platitudes. Surface level shit. After the history they shared… well Shen Jiu doesn’t relish remembering where he came from but he assumed that for Yue Qingyuan maybe he was more than a notch in the long road towards the glittering heights the other was steading climbing to.

 

He was wrong. The letter proved it. He was a mistake for Yue Qingyuan to politely atone for and then summarily distance himself from.

 

He hadn’t wanted him at the wedding. Thought that it would hurt too much but didn’t know how to protest it. He had imagined the pain of doing his bows to Liu Qingge with Qi-ge in the crowd and thought he would throw up. But still, maybe it could be punishment. For what exactly he’s not sure but at this point he’s sure he’s broken as many promises to Yue Qingyuan as he keeps accusing the other of doing to him.

 

“Then… how is Xiao Jiu?”

 

“Fine.”

 

Another excruciating pause.

 

Why is there guilt? Why is it cloying in the back of his throat? Why is it curdling in his stomach? What does he have to feel guilty for? He tries to reach for fury to cover it up, always the easiest way, but anger feels too far out of reach.

 

He suddenly wishes Liu Qingge were here, to take the attention away and sit by his side and… and never say anything underhanded or… coy. He wants the simplicity, the idiocy, the bull-headed-ness, the insults flung back and forth, the safety in knowing the other will take his meanness and roll his eyes and huff something back. He wants Liu Qingge to sit next to him and look at Yue Qingyuan and ask “Why are you here?” in that way that he never could.

 

“This… Qi-ge was surprised to hear of your betrothal to Liu Qingge.”

 

Don’t. Don’t please don’t.

 

“He proposed. I accepted.”

 

“Yes, ah-“

 

“You kept saying I should learn to get along with him better.”

 

Yue Qingyuan’s body practically hardens with excess tension. Shen Jiu feels it bleed into him. He’s suddenly terrified.

 

“Xiao Jiu.” And Yue Qingyuan reaches across the table and grabs both Shen Jiu’s hands in his own, “You’re marrying Liu Qingge.”

 

“Yes.” Shen Jiu doesn’t rip his hands away like he should.

 

The room is empty apart from them. No servants. No interlopers. No Sect siblings. No slavers. No fellow slaves.

 

No one to witness the impropriety.

 

Just them.

 

“Xiao Jiu.” And Yue Qingyuan ducks his head, eyes closing as if in pain.

 

Shen Jiu leans forward as if drawn by a magnet, “What’s wrong?” He asks instinctively, the words coming out as if out of his control, “Are you hurt?”

 

His heart cracks in his chest like an egg and spills out between the two of them. His concern is a marker, so obvious too obvious, and Yue Qingyuan knows doesn’t he? He knows that despite what walls Shen Jiu tries to put up, sliding his fan in as a physical barrier, he’s still so weak as to fall to his knees for this person.

 

“Xiao Jiu.” Yue Qingyuan’s hands clench down on his, “Forgive Qi-ge, he waited too long.”

 

Shen Jiu stiffens, “What nonsense are you spouting? Waited too long? What are you saying?” His heart is pounding in his chest.

 

“Qi-ge meant to come earlier, soon after you left the Sect with Liu Qingge but I was too afraid. I’m always too afraid.”

 

“You-“

 

“Xiao Jiu.” Qi-ge’s head come up and his eyes are glassy with tears, “I’m sorry.”

 

“What- what are you apologising for?” Shen Jiu asks almost shrilly, his voice high and uncomfortable.

 

“Xiao Jiu, forgive me.”

 

“What are you saying? Forgive you for what?” Shen Jiu feels his own eyes sting which he hates. Is Qi-ge still asking forgiveness for not coming back? Is that what this is? Why ask again? Why ask now? Why come here and-

 

“Don’t marry him.” The grip on his hands have become just the right shade of painful, “Don’t marry Liu Qingge.”

 

“What?” Shen Jiu says through what feel like bloodless lips, “What are you-“

 

“Marry me instead.”

 

Shen Jiu reels back as if struck but with his hands still clenched in Yue Qingyuan’s he doesn’t get far.

 

“Or don’t marry me! It doesn’t matter. Just- just stay with me.” Qi-ge’s face is painfully open. Desperation written into every line, “Please. I know I’ve done so much wrong. I know what I did was unforgivable and I know I shouldn’t have come here now but I couldn’t stop myself. Marry me or don’t marry me I don’t care. Whatever you want! I can leave the Sect if you want and we can be together, as long as we’re together.”

 

Shen Jiu is frozen. He has no idea what his expression is but Qi-ge’s grip doesn’t lessen and his face stays as earnest.

 

“I-“ He stops, stutters, tries to collect himself but finds it impossible. His heart has lodged itself between his ribs in an effort to beat out of his chest and now is wedged uncomfortably, stuck between two hard shards of bone. “I- how- what do you-“

 

“Xiao Jiu.” And Qi-ge’s eyes slide shut, one of his hands brings Shen Jiu’s up to his face to press to his cheek, “Please.”

 

There are two things Shen Jiu has always known about himself as unequivocal pillars of his very being:

The first is that he dislikes most everyone.

The second is that he loves Qi-ge with a devotion that is and has always been terrifying in its intensity.

 

He trembles like a butterfly with its wings trapped in a clumsy child’s fingers. Like a moth in a lantern, flapping desperately against the glass.

 

Be smart! He has always yelled, berated, cajoled, pleaded with himself. Make the right decision.

 

He trembles.

 

Qi-ge’s eyes open.

 

Shen Jiu knows what he should ask. He should ask, once more, one last time why Qi-ge never came back for him.

 

He can’t bring himself to.

 

He can’t.

 

But he… he needs… he needs to ask something. He won’t allow himself to go so easily without it.

 

(Maybe he’s already made his choice. Maybe he already knows it. Maybe maybe maybe.)

 

He swallows thickly.

 

“Qi-ge.”

 

The other lets out a deep sigh at the address, as if a huge weight has been lifted. As if they’ve atoned and been forgiven. As if their past mistakes have been wiped clean.

 

(Shen Jiu will forgive. He always does. He’ll forgive but he won’t forget and he’ll spend the rest of his days holding it over the other’s head but he’ll forgive. He’s easy that way. He’s always been too easy for this person that way.)

 

“Qi-ge.” Shen Jiu says again, tasting the address. Nostalgia and the taste of love like old tainted blood floods his mouth and he chokes on it, “Qi-ge.”

 

“Qi-ge is here.”

 

Shen Jiu had always though Qi-ge was the only person who could ever truly understand him. When they were children before the Qius of course that had been true. Who had been by his side but Qi-ge? Who had seen Shen Jiu through every hardship, every emotion, every slight of his young life and stood next to him regardless?

 

Then the Qius happened and Shen Jiu had to live a whole new life without Qi-ge for years. And then Wu Yanzi for years more. A lifetime it felt like that exposed him to things beyond what they knew as street children begging for spare coins. In those years so many things had happened that he’d wanted to tell Qi-ge about, planning out conversations and talking out loud sometimes when he was sure he was alone.

 

Then he saw Qi-ge again and when they stood opposite each other over Wu Yanzi’s corpse Shen Jiu saw how big the gap had become. It was a gap of experience, of hardship and pain untold on both sides. They weren’t the same people anymore. So much now separated them and the shared secrets that could have bridged the gap were withheld.

 

Shen Jiu always thought that if there was just one person who would be on his side it would be Qi-ge.

 

“Qi-ge, if… if I committed a crime… what would you do?”

 

It’s not so much a hypothetical as a certainty. The other certainly knows at least the horrifying outline of what Shen Jiu has done.

 

“Xiao Jiu, why are you asking? What’s wrong?”

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “Nothing’s wrong. I just want to know, what would you do?”

 

Qi-ge frowns, “If you committed a crime?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Xiao Jiu… I don’t see why you would ask that.”

 

Shen Jiu restrained a huff of annoyance, “It doesn’t matter why I would ask. What would you do if I was accused of a crime?”

 

“Accused? So you mean you haven’t done it?”

 

Shen Jiu hadn’t even registered he’d used the word accused.

 

“You don’t know if I’ve done it or not.” Shen Jiu settled on saying, “But you know people are saying I did it.”

 

Qi-ge paused for a second before answering, “I would ask you if you did it.”

 

“What if I said no?”

 

“Then of course I would believe Xiao Jiu.”

 

“What if I didn’t have any evidence that I didn’t do it and the people accusing me had evidence that I did.”

 

Here Qi-ge frowns, “Then… I suppose we would have to look at the evidence.” Yue Qingyuan looks back at him, hands still clasped, “I’m sure we could find a way to deal with the evidence and come to a solution that satisfies all parties.”

 

Spoken like a true Sect Leader.

 

“What if they wanted me punished? For my crimes? Would you believe me if I said I didn’t do something? Would you defend me no matter what?”

 

Yue Qingyuan looked troubled, “Xiao Jiu I don’t see how this is helpful-“

 

“Just answer the question!” He snapped.

 

“I… I would do my best to make sure Xiao Jiu is never hurt of course.”

 

“So you wouldn’t believe me?”

 

“Xiao Jiu it’s not that easy.”

 

No.

 

No it’s not is it?

Make the right decision. Make the smart decision.

 

“I care about Xiao Jiu so much.” Yue Qingyuan says earnestly, “Xiao Jiu should never doubt that.”

 

And what is your care? What is your love? Untethered feeling that gives me nothing. I want… no I need… I don’t know. I don’t know but it’s not this. It can’t be this, this hurts too much. Is it meant to hurt this much? If it feels like this forever can I survive it? I just want to live. Is living always meant to hurt this much? Why does living always hurt so fucking much?

 

Shen Jiu couldn’t help the tears then. The miserable fucking tears for all the miserable fucking years he had sat here waiting and waiting and waiting for nothing.

 

“Please go.” He said because he knew he would make so many mistakes if he didn’t say it. He never knew if he was making the right decision but he knew that letting Yue Qingyuan stay right now would be the wrong one.

 

“Xiao Jiu-“

 

“Go. Just go.” He wasn’t even angry. Anger was… impossible. Too much energy. Too much everything. Shen Jiu was a fighter to his core but for once he didn’t want to fight anymore, he wanted the other person to fight. He wanted to be fought for. He wanted that much effort bled into him as he felt he was always haemorrhaging into the world around him.

 

Stay. A part of him cried. Please stay. Tell me again! Tell me you want me again! Tell me why you didn’t come back! I promise I’ll forgive you! I promise I’ll never say another word again! If you stay one last time and tell me again we’ll run away together I promise!

 

I love you too! I love you so much!

 

Please just stay! I never say what I really feel! You know this you’ve always known this so please. Please.

 

Please stay.

 

 

By the time he looked up Yue Qingyuan was already gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tears came thick and fast. Impossible to hold back. Ridiculous and painful and stupid and foolish and every one was a mistake he could never take back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time passed quickly. The world outside the windows got dark. The tea was long cold. Shen Jiu was still alone.

 

 

 

 

 

“Shen Jiu?” There was someone knocking on the door, “Shen Jiu are you there?”

 

The knocking persisted, “Shen Jiu? Can I come in?”

 

Shen Jiu stared at the door through teary eyes. He knew who would be on the other side. He knew… he could say no and they would go. They would go but… they would be back at dinner time to escort him to their courtyard to eat or bring him a tray of food in bed because he was sick again. He was sick again. He could go lay down in bed and they’d bring him stupid little tonics and talk too loudly and fight stupid monsters for stupid ginseng he had never asked for.

 

An ache, sharp and piercing, sliced through his chest. It burrowed into him and his eyes prickled and ran anew.

 

He got up and made it to the door with quick steps and his face disgustingly tearstained to pull it open in a sharp movement that felt too rushed, fast so he couldn’t second guess himself, and too desperate.

 

But he was, he was desperate. So desperate.

 

“Shen Jiu what-“

 

He grabbed Liu Qingge hard around the waist. They were around the same height but he bent his head and pressed his face hard into the other’s chest, his nose colliding painfully with the muscled body under the fine clothes, hiding his tears and muffling the sobs. He gripped hard enough to hurt, hands clasping behind their back and holding their body close.

 

“Shen Jiu.” Liu Qingge’s voice was an exhale, “Are you cry-“

 

Shen Jiu squeezed harder in warning.

 

Liu Qingge didn’t finish that sentence.

 

He just stood there and let Shen Jiu hold him and hide.

 

After a while he carefully wrapped his arms around Shen Jiu’s back.

 

“What happened?” His voice was gruff, “Who do I have to fight?”

 

Shen Jiu huffed something almost a laugh between the tears. He didn’t answer that question because there was no good answer. Who did Liu Qingge have to fight? No one. No one but Shen Jiu himself who made bad decisions and couldn’t stop making worse decisions and driving himself deeper and deeper into his own personal torment.

 

Of course, a lot of the misfortune in his life was just that, misfortune that was randomly allocated by whatever fucked-up gods deemed Shen Jiu the unlucky recipient. But… he had always thought that perhaps there had to be something else. Something intrinsic to him that invited all of this. After all, look at Shizun. Look at Qiu Jianluo. Look at even Liu Qingge himself. All these people had hated him on sight and in Liu Qingge’s case he’s still not entirely sure why they changed their opinion.

 

“Shen Jiu?” Liu Qingge’s voice was uncharacteristically hesitant, “Is there… anything I can do?” The offer sounded awkward in Liu Qingge’s voice. Action was what characterised the man Shen Jiu was currently clutching; he wasn’t built for soft inquiries or questions but… he was trying anyway.

 

He was trying very hard.

 

Trying hard to… change himself. Change himself to make Shen Jiu comfortable.

 

Shen Jiu squeezes his eyes even more painfully shut.

 

“Stay.” Is all that he manages to chokes out and then immediately hates himself for it. He would pull away if Liu Qingge didn’t hear and then immediately squeeze him closer. He’s holding him so tight now Shen Jiu wouldn’t be able to pull away even if he wanted to.

 

“Alright, I’ll stay.”

 

Liu Qingge leads him back into the small sitting room just off his bedroom and wraps him in a blanket, bundling him up just as tight as he was holding him earlier. As if the answer to dealing with someone else’s fucked up feelings are to physically find a way of holding them together. “Are you hungry?”

 

“No. Stay.”

 

“Alright. I’ll stay.”

 

“Don’t say anything.”

 

Silence reigned.

 

Liu Qingge wrapped an arm around him over the blankets and Shen Jiu wriggled an arm out and clutched back hard enough to bruise.

 

If you leave me I know it won’t hurt as much. Not as much as this. Nothing can hurt as much as this. But please, please still don’t do it.

 

Please.

 

Please don’t leave me behind.

 

*

 

“A-Jiu A-Jiu!” He was practically mobbed as he entered the brothel, “Everyone! A-Jiu is here!”

 

The questions came in thick and fast Where had he been? Had he really left the Sect? Was he really getting married?

 

He waited until he had been settled into a private room before he answered.

 

“Yes, it’s true. I’m getting married to Liu Qingge.”

 

“Ah! How exciting!” One of the women claps her hands, “When he came all those months ago and asked about you I had a feeling!”

 

Another girl snorted, “What feeling? He was obviously in love with our A-Jiu even then.”

 

“Ah A-Jiu I hope you’re not angry that we told him what you really do here. We had a feeling about what he wanted and A-Jiu it’s better not to disadvantage yourself for that. Men don’t like to marry those that frequent brothels and in this case we thought it would be better to tell the truth.”

 

Presumptuous. It’s Shen Jiu’s fault. Would Liu Qingge still have tried to take responsibility without the truth? Perhaps not. Perhaps right now he’d still be trapped on Qing Jing Peak surrounded by Shizun and with only the woodshed for comfort.

 

Shen Jiu knows his pride would never have permitted he tell Liu Qingge the truth anyway even if the other had asked.

 

“I’m not angry.” He says.

 

“Oh good!” The mood immediately brightens, “Ah A-Jiu he’s so handsome! Not as beautiful as A-Jiu of course but still so handsome!”

 

“Yes!” Another girl swoons, “Such a pretty face.”

 

The girls dissolve into complimenting Liu Qingge’s fair features. It gives Shen Jiu a little burst of pride that he doesn’t understand. It’s not as though he is Liu Qingge. What does he care if others think his future husband is handsome?

 

“And he’s going to be a Peak Lord isn’t he?” One of the women pipes up, obviously remembering what Shen Jiu himself had told them about Liu Qingge, “And the Lius are a powerful family!”

 

“Ah A-Jiu really picked right.”

 

Shen Jiu just hums and sips his tea, adapting an entirely unimpeachable mien, “We’re not marrying for advantage.” Well he was, Liu Qingge certainly wasn’t. Though no one really knew that did they?

 

“Of course not! A-Jiu could do so much better! Almost a Peak Lord himself! So romantic that A-Jiu gave it up for his love… Ah, but if it was one of us… A-Jiu really picked right. If he’s Peak Lord that means he doesn’t have to compete to be the heir and that solves so many problems.”

 

“Oh that’s true that’s true!” Another woman says.

 

“In fact, it means he won’t have to take another wife to have children either!”

 

“Oh yes.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks at that. He’d never… he’d never considered any of this before.

 

“He told me he wouldn’t marry anyone else.”

 

“And A-Jiu can be sure that’s not just an empty promise.” One of the older women says sounding very self-satisfied.

 

Not the heir… no wonder Liu Qingge’s family have been so casual about him marrying Shen Jiu. He’s not the heir so he can do what he wants.

 

That makes… sense.

 

“But A-Jiu still shouldn’t come to the brothel anymore.” One of the ladies looks at him very seriously, “I know things are different for you with your man than they would be for us but still… he won’t be pleased, all men are the same.”

 

“Qingge was actually the one who told me to come.” Shen Jiu says very evenly, sipping his tea.

 

That prompts another flurry.

 

“Such trust!” One of the ladies gushes, “A-Jiu’s future husband truly adores him!”

 

Shen Jiu really doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s not a matter of trust. He’s not sure why it’s not but it’s just… not. He and Liu Qingge; they don’t work that way. It’s different for them.

 

He’s not sure how to explain it but these strange things the ladies talk about like wooing your husband with coquettish actions and ensuring favour don’t quite apply. Maybe it’s because Liu Qingge is right, maybe when it comes to them it’s not about like.

 

Liu Qingge’s actions aren’t strictly dependent on emotion; that uncertain ephemeral thing Shen Jiu doesn’t know how to manipulate successfully. The other’s actions remain consistent non-dependent of other factors and that stability is… good. Shen Jiu has no idea how to explain that thought however so he just steers the conversation to other small talk until Liu Qingge arrives to pick him up.

 

“You could have waited outside.” Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow behind his fan, “No need for you to run into the brothel and debase yourself.” The last part is teasing and the girls titter.

 

Liu Qingge is flushed in embarrassment but his gaze is steady, “I said I’d come pick you up. And it’s not a debasement if we conduct ourselves respectfully.”

 

The women all begin to coo at that.

 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes though it’s mostly for show, “Take me home then. Let’s get out of the jiejie’s hair.”

 

Liu Qingge nods resolutely and holds his hand out, “Come on.”

 

Shen Jiu follows him out with the girls calling out raucous goodbyes and well-wishes behind him.

 

“You should come back and visit again.” Liu Qingge suggests as they fly back to Liu estate.

 

“Not too shameful? You’re sure I won’t embarrass you awfully?”

 

“You don’t do anything shameful.” Liu Qingge says shortly, “And what others think doesn’t matter if that’s the truth.”

 

Shen Jiu wants to sigh. Of course this person thinks like this.

 

He doesn’t but tuts a little behind his open fan and doesn’t reply.

 

*

 

The wedding ceremony is opulent and well-attended in a way that makes Shen Jiu feel deeply satisfied. He bows to Liu Qingge in his elegantly embroidered red robes and looks back at the wreckage of a life that he had managed to claw his way free from with an unprecedented amount of smugness.

 

It’s even better when he has Liu Qingge’s hand in his because Liu Qingge is wealthy and powerful and now Shen Jiu is his husband and therefore also wealthy and powerful and part of an indisputably good family.

 

From the gutter all the way here. Shen Jiu focuses on nothing other than the vicious satisfaction he feels. He sneaks a peak at Liu Qingge out of the corner of his eye and finds the other looking back at him, an uncharacteristically soft look on their face.

 

In actuality he still doesn’t have a clear idea of why Liu Qingge wanted to marry him. It was an opportunity that he took with both hands and its led them here. But he still… for honour? But if it were for obligation why is he smiling at Shen Jiu as he leads him to the wedding banquet?

 

“What are you thinking about?” He ends up asking as they sit down next to each other, surrounded by Liu Qingge’s immediate family.

 

Qingge hums, “Not too much.” He admits and blushes as he says it.

 

Shen Jiu snorts and pokes at his husband’s (husband’s) arm through his rich wedding robes, “So empty-headed! Marriage is a moment one should remember for the rest of their life! In years time when you look back on today you’ll feel ashamed.”

 

“Well what are you thinking about.” Liu Qingge challenges, he even elbows him in retaliation for the poking.

 

“Hmm, I suppose right now I’m thinking that this veil is rather heavy.”

 

“Is it uncomfortable?” Liu Qingge immediately reaches for it and Shen Jiu swats his hand away.

 

“Don’t take it off now!”

 

“I wasn’t going to! I was going to… adjust it.”

 

“You don’t sound very sure about that.”

 

“If it’s uncomfortable then you shouldn’t wear it.”

 

“It’s not as though I can just take it off now! It’s not uncomfortable anyway, just heavy. Honestly the head piece is more uncomfortable.”

 

“Oh, what does it look like?”

 

Ah yes with the veil Qingge hadn’t seen it yet.

 

“It’s gold, you’ll see it later.”

 

Qingge made a noise in response.

 

“What about your robes?” Shen Jiu asked.

 

“What about them?”

 

Shen Jiu rolled his eyes and elbowed Liu Qingge, “Are they uncomfortable?”

 

“They’re not bad. Not much ease of movement.”

 

“Ah yes, wedding robes aren’t the best for fights are they?”

 

Liu Qingge made a face at him, “You’re so sarcastic.”

 

Shen Jiu rolled his eyes under the veil which Qingge obviously couldn’t see, “Alright, let’s say you had to fight right now. Say that a… Black Moon Rhinoceros Python rampaged inside, what would you do?”

 

Liu Qingge considered that very seriously, “What weapons do I have?”

 

“Obviously Cheng Luan, you can summon your sword. But all the guests are here and you can’t injure any of them. Oh and no one but you can fight, everyone but you are… paralysed. What are you going to do?” Shen Jiu already knows how he’d answer this stupid little scenario and was already strangely excited for Liu Qingge to give some terrible strategy that would cause maximum collateral damage. He would then poke him again and make fun of it and Liu Qingge would snap back and they would fall back into familiar bickering.

 

However before Liu Qingge can answer Madam Liu speaks up, “You two seem to be having a very interesting conversation and I hate to interrupt but perhaps it’s time for you to go to the bridal suite.”

 

It shocks Shen Jiu back into the fact that yes, they’re here at their wedding and everyone is here and he and Liu Qingge are talking about nonsense.

 

Liu Qingge makes some kind of noise and turns to Shen Jiu, “Are you ready to go?”

 

Shen Jiu hums, “Why not.”  

 

Liu Qingge reaches a hand to him and Shen Jiu takes it, letting Liu Qingge help him up and lead him out. On their way they pass the table where their martial siblings are seated. Yue Qingyuan isn’t there.

 

As they pass, he hears Qi Qingqi say something that sounds like, “You know, I actually expected this all along. They could always get under each other’s skin like no one else.”

 

“Now that you’ve actually said it Qi-shimei…” Wei Qingwei replies and that’s the last thing Shen Jiu hears before they leave the hall and the bubble of noise closes behind them.

 

“We’re going to my courtyard?” Shen Jiu confirms.

 

Liu Qingge nods, hand tightening over Shen Jiu’s for a second.

 

After they’ve walked for a little while and are firmly alone in the dark of the estate Liu Qingge turns to him, “Is the headpiece still uncomfortable?”

 

“A little.” Shen Jiu admits, his hair has been scraped back and his scalp aches.

 

“Here.” Liu Qingge reaches over and in one smooth (and decidedly non-traditional) move pulls the veil off and tucks it into his belt before reaching for the hairpiece.

 

“What are you doing?” Shen Jiu asks.

 

Liu Qingge’s gaze is very focused as he works at removing the headpiece, “You said it was uncomfortable, why not get it off sooner rather than later?”

 

“You don’t even know what you’re doing.” Shen Jiu half-scolds as Liu Qingge struggles.

 

Liu Qingge scowls, “I’ve almost got-“

 

“Here.” Shen Jiu adds his own hands to the mix and goes through the strange ordeal of both his and Liu Qingge’s fingers touching and tangling as they try to work the set of combs and ornaments out of his hair. When it’s finally free Liu Qingge leans back looking very self-satisfied.

 

“There.” He sounds almost smug. “How do you feel?”

 

“Fine.” Shen Jiu reaches up a hand and pats his now unbound hair, rubbing at where the ache on his scalp is the worst, “I look ridiculous now.”

 

Liu Qingge steps back and takes him in without the veil, properly for the first time, “No, you look fine.”

 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, he hmphs and crosses his arms, “Just fine?”

 

“Nice.” Liu Qingge supplies, “You look nice.”

 

“I should hope so.” He reaches and grabs Liu Qingge’s hand in a move that doesn’t feel quite natural but also doesn’t feel unnatural either. It’s something in between, half-unfamiliar yet also strange and surreal. “After all the time they spent on my makeup this morning.”

 

That prompts Liu Qingge to peer closer at his face, “You’re wearing makeup?”

 

“You’re the worst.” Shen Jiu sniffs, “Awful. My husband is so inattentive to my looks.”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t respond with the retort he expects. Instead the other looks at him and his face is back to strange and soft.

 

“Husband.” He says, the word comes out odd and unfamiliar.

 

Shen Jiu pushes through anyway, “Husband.” He responds, half a challenge and half a reply.

 

Liu Qingge turns back forwards to keep leading them down the path but Shen Jiu catches a hint of his expression illuminated by moonlight and he’s smiling.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu is naked.

 

It wasn’t a state he was all that unfamiliar with though he still hated it. The vulnerability. The openness. The fake intimacy that it created which was only a prelude to degradation.

 

The fact that Liu Qingge was also naked was the only thing he could focus on to keep his head from ringing. His eyes zeroed in on a scar that marred the otherwise perfect skin of his hipbone. It was dark enough in the room that the scar was more a shadow than anything else.

 

Liu Qingge shifted slightly where he was sitting within reaching distance from Shen Jiu on the red-festooned bed. The paper decorations fluttered slightly with every slight movement they made and cast garish shadows on the walls.

 

His husband (husband) must have noticed his gaze on the scar because he suddenly said, “From the Horned Badger Rook.”

 

Shen Jiu looked up slowly, like his head was swimming through molasses, “It looks deep. Why didn’t you use your cultivation to remove it?”

 

That was the first thing Shen Jiu had done when his cultivation got good enough, erase every scar and shameful trace of his past from his skin that he could between his limited abilities and any medicine he could get his hands on. Now the only scars deep enough from then to still mar his skin could be written off as nighthunt causalities.

 

Liu Qingge shrugged, the movement causing his now unbound hair to shift across his bare shoulders. He was… beautiful. In the way that statues are beautiful. Far away and unimpeachable. Shen Jiu didn’t care about looks that way but he couldn’t deny that Liu Qingge was beautiful. His features were pleasing and symmetrical, his body was well-formed and without any obvious flaws, his hair was luscious, his skin luminous in the candlelight.

 

Shen Jiu didn’t care about those things. He cared about the way Liu Qingge looked strong, strong enough to fight and win and keep winning.

 

He cared about the scar.

 

“I was stupid on that hunt.” Liu Qingge replies, “Careless. So I kept the scar to remind myself not to be arrogant.”

 

“Was it a long time ago?”

 

Liu Qingge nods, “One of my first solo expeditions.”

 

“Mmn.” Shen Jiu hummed in acknowledgement.

 

He knew they needed to get moving. They were undressed and on the bed and it was time to… to do it.

 

He reached for Liu Qingge and the other obliged by shifting closer. Shen Jiu rested his hand on Liu Qingge’s cheek. The flesh was soft, smooth.

 

He would have sold for record amounts as a slave. Was his sudden hysterical thought.

 

He curled his fingers and brought the other’s face closer. He didn’t know what he was going to do but he knew it was something. Kiss him maybe? Could he do that? He’d never kissed anyone before.

 

His hand trembled.

 

“Are you alright?” Liu Qingge’s gaze is too honest. Too open. Too delicate. He hates it. Where did the Liu Qingge he first met as a disciple go? Had the other truly changed so much? Was he always like this and Shen Jiu just unable to see it? The Liu Qingge he knew back then would have pressed him down without a word, he was sure. He was sure so why…

 

“Stop talking.” Was all he managed. By this point his hand was shaking enough that he could see the corresponding trembling movement in Liu Qingge’s hair.

 

Fuck.

 

“I’m not-“ Shen Jiu didn’t know how he could explain himself, “I-“ He stopped. He had no idea what he could say, “Come closer.” He demanded and Liu Qingge obligingly shuffled closer. Their knees bumped and then the skin of their thighs met.

 

Shen Jiu had to snatch his hand away from Liu Qingge’s face because the slight shake had travelled to infect his whole body.

 

“Hey, are you-“

 

“Shut up.” Shen Jiu glared at the red embroidered bedspread. It was beautiful. Elegant and rich and obviously expensive. If he had found something like this as a child it could have bought him all the way out of slavery. Or maybe not, Shen Jiu hadn’t known much of anything when he was a child apart from the most basic differentiation between cheap and expensive. Maybe he wouldn’t know what it was worth and would have wasted it.

 

Silence reigned. Shen Jiu’s breathing sounded too loud. He hated that too.

 

“I-“ Shen Jiu stops and forces his body to stop trembling. It takes more effort than he wants to admit, “I’m fine.” He says evenly, “Let’s continue.”

 

He should have prepared himself beforehand so Liu Qingge could just slip inside with minimal fuss. That was his own fault. Careless. Could he somehow pretend he was too drunk? Tired? Find some way to put it off for tomorrow and quickly get himself ready beforehand?

 

“You’re still shaking.” Liu Qingge pointed out and with three words managed to shatter Shen Jiu’s flimsy façade.

 

“I’m fine!” He all but shouted, “Stop stalling! Just put it in-“ He reached out in an effort to- to do what? Grab Liu Qingge’s dick and shove it inside himself? He’s not sure but either way he was going to do something.

 

“Shen Jiu-“

 

“Stop talking.” He commanded and hated the way his own voice sounded so weak. Why couldn’t he- why couldn’t he keep it together? He needed to get Liu Qingge’s dick inside of him. He needed to consummated the marriage, make this official. Make the protection and the future he had banked his safety on official.

 

“Shen Jiu.” Liu Qingge’s voice was firmer this time and his hand reached forward and grasped Shen Jiu’s own, “Stop.”

 

“No! We are going to fucking consummate this marriage if I have to-“

 

“You’re shaking.” And Liu Qingge’s voice was insultingly soft. A parody of softness because the other didn’t know what softness was. Shen Jiu was sure he didn’t know what it was even if he was doing a convincing imitation of it now.

 

“Stop saying that!” Shen Jiu all but yelled and then unable to help himself he shoved Liu Qingge hard, “Stop!”

 

“If you want to fight we can spar instead.” Liu Qingge said evenly, maybe with a little eagerness, “Do you want to fight?”

 

“We have to-“

 

“We can just say we did.” Liu Qingge says with far more casualness than this deserves, “No one will question us.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him and Liu Qingge’s gaze is steady.

 

“Do you promise?” Is what he ends up saying.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I promise.”

 

And with that promise Shen Jiu slumps a little.

 

“I-“

 

“Let’s go spar-“

 

“No. I don’t want to spar.”

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge settles easily. Shen Jiu is envious over how causal and natural he can look sitting there completely naked while Shen Jiu is entirely too aware of every bare inch of skin and the fact that someone else can see it.

 

“Pass me a robe.” Is what he ends up saying, bringing his legs up and curling over them to hide himself from sight and not looking at Liu Qingge.

 

There’s the sound of shifting and footsteps and then Liu Qingge is back and Shen Jiu takes the proffered robe without looking at him.

 

“Can I touch you?” Liu Qingge asks after he’s put it on.

 

Shen Jiu should say yes so he does.

 

Immediately one of Liu Qingge’s arms is sliding around his shoulders and he shifts closer so they’re pressed together. This is okay. This is fine. This doesn’t set any of Shen Jiu’s stupid instincts alight.

 

Just because, he leans onto Liu Qingge’s shoulder to prove to himself that he can.

 

They sit there side by side for a long long time until with a wave of his hand Liu Qingge puts out the candles and they simultaneously decide to lie down side by side and try for sleep. Liu Qingge’s arm is still around him and Shen Jiu doesn’t try to get rid of it because he thinks it might feel even worse not to have it there. To be all alone and cast adrift after such an embarrassing display.

 

“I’m sorry.” Shen Jiu says into the darkness a while later. So quietly he’s sure Liu Qingge won’t hear it if the other isn’t already asleep.

 

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, Shen Jiu can’t be honest with himself about which one it is) the other does hear.

 

Shen Jiu hates it (or maybe… maybe maybe he doesn’t).

 

“It’s alright.” Liu Qingge replies.

 

Shen Jiu closes his eyes tighter, “I- I’m not-“ He doesn’t even know what he wants to say.

 

“It’s alright if you’re nervous.” Liu Qingge says very quietly, “After what I did before, I’m not surprised.”

 

After what he did before?

 

Oh fuck that stupid sex pollen thing.

 

“That’s not it.” Shen Jiu says, “That’s-“ He’s not going to tell Liu Qingge the truth. He’s never going to tell Liu Qingge the truth. It’s too ugly, too embarrassing, it says too much about who he is in all the worst ways. “It’s not you.” He settles on. As if it could be Liu Qingge. Liu Qingge who had stopped when he asked while in the throes of the pollen. It could never be Liu Qingge carving wounds that deep into him that they persist even now, “I didn’t get to say no. Before. A long time ago.” Is what he ends up saying. “And it wasn’t- I- not with you. It’s not you.”

 

He can’t believe he said that out loud.

 

Liu Qingge stiffens.

 

“Don’t.” Shen Jiu says. His voice comes out weaker than he wants it to.

 

“I won’t.” Liu Qingge says immediately. And then, “I never want to do that.” That second part comes out quieter, hesitant and if Shen Jiu could believe it then he would even say it sounds almost pained.

 

Shen Jiu takes a breath and breathes out his first instincts which are always to snap and claw and run and hide. Instead he focuses on the strength of Liu Qingge’s arm around him and how that doesn’t feel threatening or uncomfortable. How, instead, it feels grounding and safe. How novel. How strange. It’s enough to calm him for now.

 

“You would never let anyone hurt me, right?” Shen Jiu says. He ignores the almost desperate delivery. Somehow, in the dark after losing his face completely in front of Liu Qingge he can do that.

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge’s voice is strong. Resolute in a way Shen Jiu wishes he could be.

 

“And you- you would never leave me, right?”

 

“I would never, I swear it.”

 

“On your honour?” The tone comes out a little wrong but Liu Qingge doesn’t point that out.

 

“Yes. On my honour.”

 

“Swear on something else as well.” Shen Jiu adds a little hysterically.

 

“My life-“

 

“No! Not that. Something- my life. Swear on my life.”

 

“Your life?” Liu Qingge sounds shocked and his arm clenched around Shen Jiu.

 

“If you lose your honour than what use is my life?” Shen Jiu wonders aloud. Liu Qingge obviously doesn’t understand what he’s saying by the questioning noise he makes that Shen Jiu doesn’t reply to.

 

“Swear on my life you’ll never betray me. You’ll always do right by me.” Shen Jiu prompts.

 

“I swear.” Liu Qingge says easily.

 

Shen Jiu wonders how secure you have to be in your own character to swear vows so easily.

 

“Alright.” And then Shen Jiu takes a deep breath. A calming full one and says, “Stay still. Don’t move.”

 

And then he crawls out of Liu Qingge’s embrace and reaches for the clamshell container of unguent on the table by the bed. It’s dark so Liu Qingge can’t really see but either way he still does it under the blanket. Reaching down with slickened fingers and prodding at his hole. It’s tight and uncomfortable.

 

“Tell me a story.” He commands, wincing at the sting of forcing in another finger, “What was the hardest hunt you’ve ever been on?”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t question it. He doesn’t do anything but oblige, telling the story in his usual cursory way although Shen Jiu notes distantly as he forces in a third finger that he’s drawing out the details as much as someone like him can.

 

“What was your easiest hunt?” He asks as he tries his best to stretch himself with the three fingers. It hurts but at least his own hand is familiar and he’s doing it on his own terms and Liu Qingge’s voice is placid rather than lust-filled. This is fine.

 

“I once travelled to the coast and hunted the Triple Finned Diver Fish.” Liu Qingge’s voice is brusque as usual though softened by his own effort. But no matter what he’s unthreatening. Entirely unthreatening. It’s Liu Qingge. He’s empty-headed enough that he probably has no idea what’s even going on right now.

 

“Your favourite meat. Your favourite dish. Colour. Sword stance.” Shen Jiu says with desperation and he fits in a fourth finger just to make sure it inevitably hurts as little as possible, “I don’t care just keep talking.”

 

Liu Qingge obliges and he moves the fingers in himself as he bites his lip and screws his eyes shut.

 

It hurts though that hurt is lessening as the seconds wear by and Liu Qingge’s calm almost-monotone continues to fill the room with noise that disguises the sound of slick fingers moving and the subsequent lewd squelching. Shen Jiu has never done this and had it not hurt before like someone was trying to break him in half though he’s aware it’s not really supposed to. He keeps going until the sting lessens and the ache fades and it just feels like nothing much but pressure and fullness.

 

When Shen Jiu is sure he’s stretched enough he cuts Liu Qingge off with a question, “Are you hard?”

 

“Excuse me.”

 

“You heard me.”

 

There’s a momentary pause.

 

“No.”

 

“Get yourself hard.” Shen Jiu commands and then he screws his eyes shut and adds a quiet, “Please.”

 

Liu Qingge makes a grunt of acknowledgement and doesn’t ask questions. As he complies Shen Jiu gets out from under the covers and crawls his way to where Liu Qingge has been lying on his back in the same position Shen Jiu left him the entire time.

 

“Don’t ask me why.” It comes out suspiciously close to a plea.

 

“I won’t.” Liu Qingge says though his voice is a little strained.

 

“Are you hard?”

 

“I am.” Liu Qingge’s voice is even more strained now and Shen Jiu doesn’t question it. He just gets up on his knees and scoots his way up Liu Qingge’s prone body, feeling gently. When his hand brushes Liu Qingge’s hard dick the other hisses.

 

“Sorry.” Shen Jiu whispers. Something about the atmosphere has got him feeling a certain… way. His own dick is slightly full but nowhere near properly hard between his legs and he doubts he’ll get fully hard but that’s not the main concern. The main concern is making sure Liu Qingge comes inside of him.

 

He positions himself but then right before Shen Jiu is about to lower himself onto Liu Qingge’s dick he stops.

 

The other is shadowy in the dark but he can make out the bare outline of their features.

 

“Is this okay?” He suddenly can’t help but ask. Liu Qingge is hard but sometimes… sometimes Shen Jiu had been hard back then and if he does this when it’s not okay then what does that say about him?

 

“It’s alright.” Liu Qingge’s voice is surprisingly gently. Unusually gentle. “Do what you want.”

 

“What I want?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What do you want?”

 

“I want- I want you to feel good.”

 

And with that Shen Jiu lowers himself down.

 

It feels the same as it did before all those years ago but also fundamentally different.

 

Liu Qingge groans loudly but there’s no laugher, no dismissive grunt, no sudden flash of pain from a strike to the face.

 

“Okay?” Shen Jiu asks, his voice is wobbly. He blinks back stinging eyes.

 

“Good.” Liu Qingge says, “Very good.”

 

No hands come to grip his hips, no hands tugging his hair, no proprietary touch to his chest or waist.

 

“Don’t-“ Shen Jiu’s voice breaks and he hates it but he keeps going because he’s already split himself open on Liu Qingge’s cock, already bowed for him in front of Heaven and Earth. For the first time he’ll get back what he’s giving with this act. He’ll get his courtyard and a steady supply of good food and entertainment and Liu Qingge’s sword to his cause.

 

“Don’t call me a whore.” He says. His eyes are closed so even in the dark he won’t have to see Liu Qingge’s expression. He’ll regret this when it’s over but for now moving on Liu Qingge’s cock he feels as though this act here with this person allows him scope for this vulnerability. He knows if the other calls him a name now it’s something he won’t be able to recover from.

 

Besides…

 

Liu Qingge won’t laugh at him. That’s not what the other is like. Their character would never allow it in this kind of moment. Their principles, stupid honour, values and all the rest. Shen Jiu believes that if nothing else.

 

“Don’t laugh at me. Don’t tell me I want this. Don’t call- don’t say anything like that.” He continues to move, riding Liu Qingge’s cock in a practiced motion he had thought he would have forgotten. It doesn’t feel good or bad for him. It’s just a physical act. Just the body. Like sparring or running or hard labour or a sprained wrist after sword practice. Just physical.

 

Liu Qingge is panting, “I won’t- I won’t I promise.”

 

Shen Jiu clenches down hard and doesn’t say anything else. The sex still doesn’t feel good but it doesn’t feel bad. It doesn’t hurt at least and Liu Qingge is familiar; his face, his voice, his body. Nothing about him is strange or threatening. His hands stay away from touching Shen Jiu’s bare skin, instead clenching in the sheets by his sides.

 

“Don’t touch me.” Shen Jiu says as he pants, not because Liu Qingge is actually touching him but because he wants to say it. Just in case. Because he knows the other will listen. “And can you just hurry up and come already?”

 

“Don’t say it so openly!” Liu Qingge is flushed painfully down his neck, his skin hot under Shen Jiu’s touch, and it makes Shen Jiu unexpectedly laugh.

 

“Your cock is literally inside of me.” He clenches down again just because he can, “If I can’t speak openly now then when can I?”

 

The other’s flush is a fetching pink across their nose, Shen Jiu can see it even in the darkness like a beacon. Heavens he looks more like a bullied wife than Shen Jiu does. Liu Qingge groans and Shen Jiu can’t tell if the sound is arousal or embarrassment.

 

“I’m getting tired.” Shen Jiu snaps (he could never have imagined using this tone during this act before but somehow it feels natural right now), “Come on.” He clenches down again.

 

Liu Qingge is still blushing and here it gets even darker, “You can’t just tell me to! I can’t finish on command!”

 

“Some people pay money to be ordered around in the bedroom.” Shen Jiu points out snippily.

 

Liu Qingge looks as though he wants to be anywhere else, “I’m not one of them!”

 

“Really?” Maybe it’s how the mood has become so strange, even rather light after everything that makes Shen Jiu lean forward so their faces are close together and his hands can crawl up Liu Qingge’s chest to hold his shoulders, “Qingge wouldn’t pay for those services?”

 

“I’m married to you! I would never pay for anything from anyone!” Liu Qingge retorts indignantly. He sounds so grievously offended at the thought that it throws Shen Jiu for a loop.

 

Shen Jiu can’t help laughing. Suddenly, in a strange rush, this isn’t scary anymore. Now, his fears and apprehension feel rather far away. After all this is just Liu Qingge and this is just his own body and Liu Qingge’s body and if Shen Jiu told Liu Qingge to lie on his back and not touch him he would. He is.

 

“Good.” Shen Jiu leans forward even more so their faces are inches apart and closing his eyes tight he closes the distance and places a quick kiss on Qingge’s lips. Their mouths bump against each other a little awkwardly but when he pulls back Liu Qingge looks… pleased.

 

“I will never hurt you.” Liu Qingge promises solemnly (or at least as solemnly as a man can when he has his cock in his husband), “I promise.”

 

“I know.” Shen Jiu says and he realises abruptly that it’s true. He does know. He’s always known on some level that Liu Qingge would never hurt him like this. After all, he would never have dared do that stupid sex pollen prank on him if he was actually scared of him. Liu Qingge… Liu Qingge is the furthest possible person from any ghost that haunts Shen Jiu’s past. There’s not a single thing he and Qiu Jianluo have in common or if there is Shen Jiu can’t see it. Shen Jiu can’t imagine two more disparate people.

 

“If you want to follow through on that just come already!” He bitches, poking at Liu Qingge’s cheek with one pointy finger.

 

Liu Qingge closes his eyes and breathes in deep, “Okay. Okay just- can you- the way you were moving at the beginning. Can you do that?”

 

Shen Jiu slows down and tries to match that same grinding pace.

 

“And can you- can you kiss me?” Liu Qingge’s eyes are screwed shut and his voice is tender and high pitched.

 

Shen Jiu feels something inside of him finally give way, thaw out, crumble. There’s no way to describe it but if Liu Qingge’s eyes were open he would see the way Shen Jiu melts and leans forward to comply.

 

After maybe a minute of lazy kissing and grinding Liu Qingge makes a strangled little sound and Shen Jiu feels a spurt of heat inside of him.

 

Good.

 

Good it’s done.

 

A sense of accomplishment rolls over him and he pulls himself carefully off Qingge’s cock to reach for a clean cloth to wipe up with.

 

Liu Qingge catches his hand and then immediately retracts his touch, “Can I touch you?” He asks.

 

Shen Jiu nods, exhausted, “Yes. You don’t have to ask. I’ll tell you when I don’t want you to.”

 

Liu Qingge nods and sits up, gathering Shen Jiu close with one arm with the other goes to pick up the cloth, “Do you want to do it yourself?”

 

Shen Jiu huffs and leans into Liu Qingge’s hold. It’s warm and smells safe, “You can do it.” He says rather drowsily, “I’m going to sleep.”

 

Liu Qingge huffs a little laugh, “Alright. Go to sleep.”

 

“Mmm.”

 

It’s later as Shen Jiu is drifting off that he hears Liu Qingge low soft voice in the dark room.

 

“Husband.”

 

*

 

When Shen Jiu wakes the first thing he’s aware of is a familiar (if lower level) ache in his lower back and a disconcerting soreness (also painfully familiar). He panics for a second, waking up all at once in an awful rush but keeping himself as still as possible just in case there’s someone there with him. His breathing is as even as he’s trained himself over the years and very very slowly he cracks open his eyes just enough to see but not enough that anyone will be able to tell he’s awake unless they’re watching him closely.

 

The room is… oh. He’s in his bedroom. In his courtyard in the Liu estate.

 

Shen Jiu allows his eyes to open fully and they fall on the still sleeping figure of Liu Qingge. He’s curled up on his side with an arm flung out, fingertips almost brushing Shen Jiu’s own shoulder. He had fallen asleep in Liu Qingge’s hold, he wonders when they separated during the night.

 

He turns over on his side so he’s facing Liu Qingge and looks properly at the other. He’s naked though mostly covered by the blanket and the skin that Shen Jiu can see is smooth and pristine. No bitemarks, no bruises, no painful indents. What they did last night… it looks as though it didn’t even happen. Or at least no evidence remains on Liu Qingge’s skin.

 

Shen Jiu lifts up the blanket and looks down at himself. He also looks pristine.

 

He looks back at Liu Qingge. He’s not sure what to think.

 

The other chooses that moment to wake up. His brow furrows very slightly and then his eyes open and he’s awake. No yawns, no squinting, no nothing. Just asleep and awake in a seamless transition.

 

“Good morning.” Liu Qingge’s voice is husky. Those fingers resting near Shen Jiu twitch slightly as though they’d like to close the distance.

 

Shen Jiu shifts forward very very slightly and Liu Qingge’s touch brushes his arm.

 

When he looks back to his husband’s face the other is smiling.

 

“It’s early.” Shen Jiu says, probably slightly uselessly. The light is blue-tinged outside. Just breaking dawn most likely.

 

“Mmm. We can sleep more.” Liu Qingge’s fingers move to stroke themselves down the back of Shen Jiu’s arm. His face is completely unguarded and his cheek is squished against his pillow. With his hair down around his face he looks so much younger than he normally does.

 

“Are you still tired?” Shen Jiu asks, he allows the gentle touch and even moves further into it. Before when… the mornings after were often worse or just as bad as the nights themselves. This softness is novel and wonderful.

 

“Not really.” Liu Qingge’s raspiness is dissipating with each word, the husk of sleep melting away, “You?”

 

“Not really.” Shen Jiu echoes. It feels like they’re in a strange liminal space. A bubble. Somewhere easy and perfect where the outside world can’t look in.

 

Liu Qingge smiles properly, his eyes crinkle and his cheek squishes even more, beauty mark shifting with the movement.

 

Shen Jiu watches, mesmerised. He might still be half-asleep because as always Liu Qingge is beautiful but this time it finally seems to be striking him properly.

 

“Are you-“ Shen Jiu isn’t sure how to continue so in lieu of that he just shifts closer and in a move that he can hardly believe he wriggles his way onto Liu Qingge’s arm so it cushions him and lies his head on his husband’s bicep. “Are you feeling good?” Is what he ends up asking.

 

Liu Qingge’s smile doesn’t dissipate and his arm curls so it’s holding Shen Jiu, that seems to be answer enough to his question. The two of them shift in tandem until Shen Jiu is curled up by Liu Qingge’s side, “Here.” The other begins circulating qi through his meridians, “I should have done this last night, our cultivation could be damaged.”

 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, “Only if dual cultivation is something that emotionally unsettles you.” He says dryly, “I don’t have any internal conflict over our wedding night, my conscience is clear.”

 

Liu Qingge shifts a little and Shen Jiu isn’t looking at him so he doesn’t catch whatever expression is on his face.

 

That’s why when Liu Qingge speaks it’s a surprise though it probably shouldn’t be.

 

“Last night you… don’t have to force yourself. Dual cultivation isn’t something I care that much about.”

 

Shen Jiu stiffens, the bubble bursts and he feels… once again unsettled and… maybe even afraid. Somehow he’s gotten to the point where Liu Qingge’s opinion is one that matters to him. Somehow he’s now at the point where Liu Qingge’s disapproval, his hate, his… the loss of his like will hurt.

 

Shen Jiu curses himself. Foolish foolish foolish. This was the one thing he should never have done. He’s an idiot. An idiot stupid stupid stupid stupid.

 

“We… we could try it the other way if you prefer?” Liu Qingge suddenly suggests, voice characteristically brusque, “With you entering me?”

 

Shen Jiu freezes completely, “What?” He’s sure he misheard.

 

“You heard me.” Liu Qingge says, he doesn’t withdraw his arm but he’s also tensed now.

 

“I-“ Shen Jiu stops, “I’ve never done that before.” He says. He’s already showed so many of his cards at this point, peeled back so much of his skin to reveal his ugly tar-filled interior. This is nothing in comparison to splitting himself open for Liu Qingge.

 

“Then we can do it together.” Liu Qingge says very resolutely.

 

Shen Jiu closes his eyes and turns his face firmly into Liu Qingge’s bare skin.

 

“You smell nice.” He whispers because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly say.

 

Liu Qingge laughs and it shakes his body which jostles Shen Jiu as well.

 

“I want to do that.” Shen Jiu says abruptly after the shaking stops.

 

He really wants to do that. Though maybe not for the reasons apparent. He wants Liu Qingge vulnerable under him, voluntarily becoming subservient for him, on his knees willingly for Shen Jiu. That’s what he wants. He wants to break Liu Qingge open, he wants to make the other cry and scream and lose their composure so completely that they’ll beg. That’s what he wants in a white-hot rush that he’s never really felt before.

 

“Alright. Then we’ll do that.” Liu Qingge says with certainty.

 

Shen Jiu likes that. He likes that certainty and resoluteness. He likes the way Liu Qingge makes decisions and doesn’t equivocate on them, doesn’t pull back and put the responsibility into Shen Jiu’s hands. He likes the way the other makes the decisions that Shen Jiu can poke and prod and argue with and amend after.

 

“Alright.” Shen Jiu turns his face into Liu Qingge’s neck where the skin is soft and fragrant. His breath must tickle because his husband shivers a little. “I’ve still not properly met your parents and your grandmother.” Is his next random musing.

 

“They wanted to give you space in case they scared you off before the wedding.” Liu Qingge says, maybe even with something wry in his voice. Range Shen Jiu didn’t know he had, “I told them you’re not the type to scare easily.”

 

“Hmm did you? And why do you think that?” Shen Jiu asked, maybe even teased.

 

Liu Qingge hummed, “You never stopped arguing with me, not many people do.”

 

“Because you’re insufferable and most people don’t want to invite further interaction.” Was Shen Jiu’s dry reply.

 

Liu Qingge snorted another laugh, “You were never afraid of me.”

 

“Of course not! Who do you think you are?” Shen Jiu reached up a hand to slap at Liu Qingge’s shoulder, “So arrogant!”

 

“We could have dinner with my parents and grandmother if you want.”

 

“As long as everyone’s convinced I won’t run for the hills now that we’ve done our bows.”

 

“They were being strange about it.” Liu Qingge said, “I didn’t understand it.”

 

Shen Jiu thinks back to his conversation with Mingyan and thinks that maybe he understands it better than Liu Qingge does.

 

“Hmm, well either way I think I’m in too deep to run now.” His eyelashes brush Liu Qingge’s skin as he blinks, “And I think the offer of future marital activities is rather tempting…”

 

He throws it out there, partly as if to assure himself he can, and is rewarded by Liu Qingge’s blush which spreads down his neck and across his chest in an irritatingly even flush. The great Liu Qingge can’t even blush blotchily, it’s an affront to his aesthetic.

 

Shen Jiu feels a yawn work its way up his throat then, “Hmm, I’m tired. I’m going to sleep.”

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge’s arm stays where it is and with his nose still in the junction between Liu Qingge’s throat and his shoulder Shen Jiu drifts off to sleep.

 

*

 

“I have no idea why you also wanted to be tied down.” Shen Jiu says rather critically as he adjusts the silk ties around Liu Qingge’s wrists, “This feels rather advanced for your first time.”

 

“I want to try it.” Is Liu Qingge’s absolutely unilluminating response.

 

“Fine fine. It’s your decision so don’t cry to me if you don’t end up liking it.” Shen Jiu finishes up the ties where they have Liu Qingge’s wrists drawn together and attached to the bedframe. The rest of his body is free so it’s hardly very intricate bondage nor is it actually effective, Liu Qingge could break the ties in his sleep. Shen Jiu admires his handiwork. “Not too tight?”

 

Liu Qingge flexes, “It’s fine.” He says dismissively.

 

“Hmm.” Shen Jiu steps all the way back and as a boon to his (rather… appreciated) husband he doesn’t use his fan to cover his face and instead this time when the self-satisfied smile spreads Liu Qingge gets to see it in its entirety.

 

His husband must appreciate it if one is judging the wide-eyed flushed look he gets in response.

 

“You look lovely.” Shen Jiu says eying him up and down. The whole picture because Liu Qingge is his. His husband. Belongs to him. Willingly here for him with his hands tied above his head, spread out for Shen Jiu and no one else will ever see this or get to have this.

 

And because of all those facts Shen Jiu strides forward with total confidence and fists a hand in his husband’s hair to drag his gaze up.

 

“Qingge. Husband. I’m going to make you feel so good.”

 

Liu Qingge’s blush is a deep pink now and has spread across his cheeks to his ears. His face is practically radiating heat.

 

It fills Shen Jiu with an arrogance that little else does.

 

His hand flexes in Liu Qingge’s hair, “Who do you belong to?” He asks as if drunk, drunk on the obedience and his own feelings; incomprehensible and coalescing into a pleasurable knot in his lower stomach.

 

“You.” Is Liu Qingge’s ready answer.

 

Shen Jiu’s smile is wild, free in a way he had never truly allowed himself before.

 

“Yes. Husband.”

 

Liu Qingge’s flush is dark and his eyes almost watery but when they meet his they’re clear and resolute as always.

 

“Husband.” He answers.

 

Shen Jiu dives in, ready to drown.