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The Phoenix and his Dragon

Chapter Text

Blood.

Blood.

There was so much blood.

It covered his face, his hands. It was in his mouth, the taste of it, a choking metallic in the back of his throat. He had to get it off. Shen Jiu wanted to run, but his waist was sore, and he was throbbing between his legs. He dragged himself to a wash basin to scrub it off, but it wasn’t enough. The water had quickly turned a dark pink, but he was still drenched in the stuff. The pond! There was surely enough water in the pond to get all of this off.

He half stumbled and half crawled to the pond and threw himself inside. The water cool clean felt good on his skin. Washing off the stickiness and the grime. Making him himself again. Clearing his mind.

The memories came back to him like the first raindrops before the storm, slowly, then a torrent all at once. While out in the town, he met a cultivation master who wanted to take him in as a disciple. Ecstatic, he immediately went to Qiu Jianluo to ask permission to follow the master. How stupid! Of course, Qiu Jianluo would never allow him to leave. He didn’t know what he had expected. Then the worst happened.

When he was younger, he had taken it for granted that he and Yue Qi would both become alphas. Yue Qi had shown alpha traits right from birth, but Shen Jiu still held the hope that his own traits would present later. Then when he reached the age when most had already presented, he had quietly resigned himself to being a beta. Yet never in his imaginings, had he thought he would turn out to be an omega.

There could be no other turn worse than this. Except presenting in the presence of Qiu Jianluo. He didn’t remember anything that happened after feeling an initial gush of slick leak from him, and then Qiu Jianluo’s surprised face, deep breath, and reaching hands.

And now he awoke to this.

It seemed there was no one left alive in the Qiu household. Where the women had gone, he had no idea; all the corpses he spotted were men.

He had to get himself to the kitchen. Make himself a concoction to hide his scent. As for preventing his heat in the future…

He already knew which herbs to look for. For once in his life, he was thankful for his shitty past which allowed him to meet all manners of unsavory people. Doubtless, no respectable person would know of all those herbs and tricks to hide the scent, stop heat, abort burdens, prevent pregnancy.

First, he would hide his scent, take some clothing and money, then burn the rest of the house down.

--

Shen Jiu was wrong. There was at least one person still alive in the house. When he went back through the house to look for things he wanted to take, walking back through it stirred his memory. He had originally awoken in Qiu Haitang’s room, with her passed out on the floor beside him, but he had been too focused on the blood to notice. He decided, after he dragged her body outside, he would set the house on fire. This was as much as he could do to cover his tracks before someone would inevitably approach the house.

The full grounds he had to cover were not insignificant in size. The Qiu’s had been a prosperous merchant family with a pavilion for every legitimate sibling of the First Wife, servants’ quarters, and storerooms. He did his best to ensure the trail of oil he made from building to building remained unbroken. It helped that they were almost all made entirely of wood.

When the job was done, he kowtowed four times to the burning compound. He held no gratitude to beasts, and Qin Jianluo and his like were beasts. These bows were not for them, but for those who sheltered him when they too were weak.

A foot planted itself on his back, pushing his face into the dirt. He violently threw it off and got up, ready to attack.

It was Wu Yanzi, the cultivator who said he would take him in. He laughed boisterously at Shen Jiu.

“If you kneel in the dirt for anyone, you will spend the rest of your life on your knees, is that what you want Shen Jiu?”

Shen Jiu stood up straight before bowing to Wu Yanzi, “This student will take master’s words to heart.”

He would never willingly kneel to those who were unworthy again. To those he knelt for, from now on, he would exact a heavy price for the honor.

“Then let’s go my devoted disciple.”

The remaining servants crawled out of whatever hole they’d hidden themselves in, staggering out of the compound. Shen Jiu watched as the flames climbed higher, consuming the buildings and blazing in full strength.

It was—. It was all so terrifyingly easy. The torture he’d endured these years, who knew it was so simple to end it. These walls that boxed him in, these doors that held him back, had they always been so easy to destroy?

Shen Jiu was ready to leave, he really was. But his feet wouldn’t move.

“What is it? Who are you waiting for?”

The smoke and overwhelming heat of the fire stung his eyes, causing a shimmering trail to run down his face.

Shen Jiu shook his head and his feet were free to move again. He tossed Qiu Jianluo’s sword into the fire. Something cut loose inside of him, dying. Even if there was someone he was waiting for, they would never come. Who would come for him? The only person who could save him was himself.

“I’m done waiting.”

--

Wu Yanzi proved to be a scoundrel in every sense of the word. He was more of a pugilist than a cultivator. Owning no golden core nor able to teach Shen Jiu how to form one, not an immortal by any means. But his martial skills were formidable, and his knowledge of dark cultivation techniques was enlightening.

Under his tutelage, Shen Jiu mostly learned the finer details of how to kill, steal, and commit arson. As well as how to dally with women and take advantage of calamity to profit. While Shen Jiu did not ‘properly’ cultivate, he was now confident in his abilities to defeat low level cultivators. It was no longer easy to bully him.

Despite the fact that his ‘master’ was a disgusting alpha who wouldn’t hesitate to push Shen Jiu down if he ever found out that Shen Jiu was not a beta, but an omega, life was not too bad. By day, they schemed and stole, by night he slept in the soft embrace of the lovely girls at the brothel. Their warm bodies kept his dreams mostly clear.

Though occasionally, he dreamt about Yue Qi and none of them were good. Nightmares about Yue Qi being killed, about Yue Qi’s legs being broken and bleeding to death, about him freezing outside the magistrate’s office trying to plead for Shen Jiu’s life. He always woke up covered in sweat from the horror of those.

It hurt to be abandoned, but Shen Jiu almost hoped it was the case. That Yue Qi had abandoned him and wasn’t such an idiot as to get himself uselessly killed.

But that probably wasn’t the case. Yue Qi would never abandon him. He was someone with such stupid honor, even in their circumstances.

They used to kneel together in the market as children, in front of a tablet written in their own blood, begging for alms to bury their parents, to survive, to treat their sick mother, the number of reasons were many. But Yue Qi was never able to fake any tears even for the sake of feeding themselves. Perhaps he had died of starvation because he refused to beg.

Whatever method Yue Qi died by, Shen Jiu dreamed that he would scour the earth to search for Yue Qi’s remains to give him a proper burial. And if he was still alive, Shen Jiu would walk through fire to save him from his misery.

But unfortunately, dreams were dreams, and reality was reality, and the reality was that he was currently in the middle of robbing the Liu estate. A new bride was entering the tertiary Liu house tonight which meant the secondary estate had been left relatively unguarded.

The Liu family was a huge and powerful noble house, their strength perhaps even rivaled the emperor. Even in the secondary estate’s most humble corners, there were treasures to be found. Even the children’s toys were made of precious metals.

He knew because he in the middle of was looting the playroom. Most of the children and their nursemaids would be in their bedrooms by now, if they were still at the secondary estate, and not out celebrating at the tertiary household. It was, therefore, a good place to loot but looking at all the toys felt like a thin wire thrumming beside his heart. Small sharp pains constantly pricked at him.

These noble children played with things that could have fed him and Yue Qi for months. While he and Yue Qi begged on the streets only for their ‘earnings’ to be taken away from them at the end of every night.

“Hey!” Came a child’s shout from behind him. Shen Jiu quickly pulled himself from his thoughts and hurriedly turned around to see a little lordling standing behind him. The child was about seven years old. His clothes were made of fine silk and intricately embroidered. Yet those fine clothes and even his hair was currently covered in mud. The child leapt at him with his fists out trying to strike Shen Jiu. Shen Jiu easily dodged the clumsy lunge, shifting his weight to the left as he took a quick sidestep. He looked frantically around the room for a hiding place, if Wu Yanzi saw the child, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill him just to eliminate any witnesses.

Shen Jiu grabbed the child and hurriedly stuffed his handkerchief into the child’s mouth to muffle any noises he might make. One of the child’s flailing fists hit his face and it hurt. Badly.

The child was abnormally strong. Shen Jiu threw him into a chest at the side of the room and hastily made his exit. Someone would soon come looking for the little lordling. This was a playroom, surely his nursemaid would think to come and look here during her search. Just as Shen Jiu was about to jump out the window. The child smashed open the wooden chest, sending splinters flying from the impact of his small fists.

“So that’s what actually being taught cultivation could accomplish,” he mused before he fled.

--

The close call that night did not stop him from eventually following Wu Yanzi into robbing yet another noble estate. A smaller estate belonging to a minor noble with less protection. Most of the residents had left for a competition held by the Emperor with only a few guards in the front that he and Wu Yanzi easily disposed of. Presumably the best guards were in the back, expecting thieves to enter that way. Or perhaps this noble spent more on his possessions than his employees.

Despite belonging to a minor noble, estate was sprawling and contained many very valuable items to steal. He entered through the roof of the largest pavilion he could find. The rooms he’d stumbled in now must belong to the master of the house. They were the grandest of rooms he’d seen yet. Everything was kept in impeccable order. The closet contained silks and satin. Every piece of clothing seemed acceptable for royalty. It was all beautiful. Even the bed curtains had gems woven into them. The jewelry boxes were brimming, just one box should be enough to feed him for a year. So clearly, he’d be taking that.

There was movement from outside. Shen Jiu stiffened, but it only seems to be the guards shuffling.

In the study he found some cultivation manuals neatly placed on the shelves. He stuffed it into his robes. He’d really struck the jackpot here. If these things were simply left in the open, think of the things the owner of the room actually thought to hide. He renewed his search with a much more careful eye, checking inside the mattress, in the rafters, under vases. Under the pillows on the bed he found an intricate white jade phoenix pendant. He couldn’t take his eyes off of it. It felt cool and smooth. It felt like it should belong to an empress. Before he knew it, he had put it on his belt.

He looked at himself in the gold mirror. It didn’t suit him. He looked like a charlatan playing prince. He smiled bitterly. It didn’t matter if this jade piece didn’t become him. It couldn’t stop him from wearing it. Its owner wasn’t here to take it off him. And even if the owner was, he would not let them. So what if he didn’t suit the pendant. He wanted it. And he would take it. He threw a teapot at the mirror and knocked it over.

“Hey! Did you hear that?” A guard shouted from outside.

“Yeah! It came from inside!”

Crap. He’d forgotten.

It’d be of no use to hide when he’d so obviously caused a disturbance, but it wouldn’t hurt to surprise the guards. He jumped up to the rafters. He was prepared for when the guards burst inside, jumping down right on top of them. It only took him a few strokes to kill them both.

Time to go, before reinforcements came. He hid the bodies behind a privacy screen and headed to the storehouse for the kitchen. It was laughably easy to enter. He needed to find herbs to replenish his supply, and perhaps there would be some good wine or valuable foods available as well.

A groundsman had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting his blade when he came back too early. Shen Jiu was stealing the Da Hong Pao from the kitchen and gathering herbs to replenish his stock of omega trouble related supplies.

He didn’t even hesitate. As soon as he heard footsteps behind him, he had turned around and slashed him down. It was just an old man. White haired and wrinkled from age, bones prominent all over. He took a moment to think about what he’d just done.

A shadow blocked the light from the doorway. Shen Jiu stiffened for a moment and pretended to not see, then he sprang forward to attack. The boy met him blade to scabbard and stood his ground. With their faces so close together. Shen Jiu had a clear look at the boy’s face.

It was Yue Qi! Shen Jiu could see that Yue Qi recognized him because his face paled and his eyes widened. Shen Jiu sprang backwards from the shock and ran out of the kitchen into the courtyard from the other door. He moved as quickly as he could, expecting Yue Qi to follow him. Once outside he grabbed a beacon talisman from the corpse of a guard and released it.

He turned around to see that Yue Qi had indeed, followed him out.

“Don’t come any closer!” Shen Jiu shouted at him in panic, holding his sword out at Yue Qi.

Yue Qi, the dunce, was still in shock and continued walking towards Shen Jiu with his hand reaching out. Shen Jiu was filled with a sense of dread as he watched Yue Qi’s mouth open to call out to him.

From behind him came a low mocking laugh and the heavy alpha smell of Wu Yanzi. “It seems you are capable of fear, my disciple. Who is this boy that makes my dauntless disciple so panicked?”

Yue Qi’s face seemed to belie a deep sadness and betrayal, making Shen Jiu want to scoff. Shen Jiu gave Yue Qi a hard stare, before turning his body with his sword still pointed at Yue Qi, to bow to Wu Yanzi. “Master, it’s not that I’m scared of him. I was not thorough in my duties and allowed this guard to release a beacon signal and call for help. I’m worried reinforcements will soon hurry over.”

Yue Qi seemed to finally understand the situation because he closed his mouth and refrained from calling out.

Wu Yanzi made a sound of derision. “If you were going to allow them to live, then why didn’t you just cut their hands off. Normally, you’re quite meticulous,” he said, in a mock-saddened voice. “This master is disappointed,” he continued, “Await your punishment later. I’ll deal with this little lord now.”

Shen Jiu lowered his head, “Master, it is all this worthless disciple’s fault. Let us leave before reinforcements come.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I can at least deal with this one little lord.”

But even if they wanted to leave, they wouldn’t be able to. Yue Qi raised his sheathed sword and stood in their way. He eyes were red as they trained themselves on Shen Jiu, his voice was strained and hoarse, but firm, “You can’t leave.”

Shen Jiu shot him a glare before focusing again on Wu Yanzi.

Wu Yanzi took in Yue Qi’s appearance, leaning back and folding his arms like a buyer at a meat market, eyes sweeping up and down. He looked at Yue Qi’s sword and then at the jade pendant at his waist, “Yue estate’s colors. Not only that, but a noble jade pendant and Xuan Su sword. It can’t be, the true heir to the Lord title of Yue, Yue Qingyuan?”

Shen Jiu was stunned, he could only blink for a second before urging Wu Yanzi again, “Master, since he’s the heir, killing him would a great deal of time and effort. It would better if we escaped now, before the others come!”

Wu Yanzi laughed without mirth, “Yue’s little heir might be well trained, but I won’t be scared of one small noble. Besides, he’s the one who’s asking for pointers. Let this master teach the little lordling a lesson!”

Shen Jiu’s chest was filled with worry until he saw the two fight. Yue Qi could handle his own, the tricks Shen Jiu’d attempted to use to protect him were laughable. Yue Qi hadn’t even drawn his blade yet and he was dealing blow for blow with Wu Yanzi. But Shen Jiu couldn’t put his mind at ease, because traveling with Wu Yanzi for almost three years now, he knew the bastard resorted to dirty tricks if he felt like he couldn’t win by normal means, or if it would be too hard to.

Poison needles, dark talismans, all sorts of evil tricks were at Wu Yanzi’s disposal. Underhanded and sneaky they be, but they were effective against every single person Shen Jiu had seen Wu Yanzi use them on. Even experienced cultivators were not immune to Wu Yanzi’s tricks let alone a now pampered Yue Qi.

Which is why, when Wu Yanzi tried to use his dirty tricks against Yue Qi. Shen Jiu drove his sword through his teacher’s back. Blood splattered all over Yue Qi’s pristine robes.

He’d really done it now. He killed his own teacher, essentially his father. If there was such a thing as Heaven or karma, it would never leave him alone. Perhaps he would in turn be slaughtered by his child or student, never to reap the benefits of filial piety.

While his teacher was a despicable alpha, he had still offered him a different future than the Qiu’s. Shen Jiu’s future was simultaneously advanced and hindered by Wu Yanzi, but all things considered, the positives outweighed the negative. But he could not allow himself to forget, it could have easily gone the other way. If the scoundrel knew he was an omega, the amount of cursing he would have done at that bastard’s grave would have been immeasurable. But that had not happened.

But even then.

It was best to forget the things you could not change.

Shen Jiu let go of the sword and pulled Wu Yanzi off Yue Qi.

Yue Qi grabbed Shen Jiu’s hand and ran. They ran until Shen Jiu felt like puking and pulled at Yue Qi to stop or slow down. Neither could easily catch their breaths, so they leaned on a tree to recover.

After some time, and Shen Jiu sufficiently calmed down, he turned a scrutinizing gaze to Yue Qi’s demeanor. Yue Qi’s clothing was of high quality, and it was true what Wu Yanzi said, it had the appearance of belonging to a noble family. The jade pendant at his waist looked like something Shen Jiu would never be able to afford in ten lifetimes. Yue Qi’s cultivation was high, his stance regal and magnanimous. He looked healthy and pampered.

It felt like something had a tight grip on his heart and his chin wanted to tremble, his eyes stung, and he wanted to swallow, but it felt like there was a rock in his throat. He could not stop his brow from furrowing.

Yue Qi was not dead. Nor was he suffering like Shen Jiu had imagined.

Of course.

Shen Jiu knew this would be the case. Or something similar. Who was so stupid as to go back to a place of danger when he could eat three meals a day and attempt to attain immortality.

This kind of easy-going, luxurious life was the obvious choice, he didn’t know why he felt the way he did. Which he couldn’t even identify. What is this feeling. It surely isn’t disappointment because this kind of choice was so obvious as to be laughable.

There was perhaps only one error in Shen Jiu’s word choice. This was not Yue Qi, but the little lord Yue Qingyuan.

Yue Qingyuan did not seem capable of speaking first, his face red and full of unspoken emotions.

Shen Jiu would start then. “So, you’re nobility now?”

Yue Qingyuan startled and seemed to finally remember something. He paled and became dejected, still unable to speak.

Shen Jiu continued, “You became the heir to the Yue estate? Not bad. Why didn’t you return for me?”

Yue Qingyuan couldn’t meet his eyes, “I…”

Shen Jiu waited patiently, but Yue Qingyuan’s answer never came.

He smiled politely at Yue Qingyuan, “Why don’t you continue? I’m waiting. I’ve waited for so many years. It won’t make too much of a difference to wait a little longer, so please continue. No matter how long it takes for you to compose an answer, please continue.”

But how could he expect Yue Qingyuan to answer him. Shen Jiu already knew the answer and it was nearly unspeakable. How could you admit to breaking your promise? That maybe that promise which meant so much to one person, meant nothing to you. Shen Jiu forced his eyes to smile too.

He crossed his arms in front of his chest and tilted his head in mockery of an inviting gesture.

It seemed forever before he heard Yue Qingyuan say in a low voice, his gaze still firmly on the floor, his stance repentant, “Qi Ge has let you down.”

It hurt.

It fucking hurt.

Bullshit, that he already knew the answer.

Bullshit, that it was laughably obvious.

It still fucking hurt.

But just as swiftly as that sharp searing pain stabbed him in the chest, it was replaced with cold fury. That furious smile of his was pasted right back on. He wanted to bite his cheek or vomit blood to the point that he felt as if he could taste its metallic flavor at the back of his throat.

In the beginning he was a rat who had to endure humiliation and beatings. Then he’d been a rat who had to scurry in the sewers and be harassed by all who laid eyes on him. And so, no matter what, he was still a rat, hiding his face and running in fear. He could never walk in the light. He could only waste his life away, squandering his time. Yet Yue Qingyuan was a phoenix reborn, a carp who passed the dragon gate.

He smiled sweetly at Yue Qingyuan and laughed lightly. “Sorry, sorry,” Shen Jiu mocked. Shen Jiu turned his gaze down demurely and inclined his head coyly. He let out another light laugh and amused sigh, “You only know how to apologize.”

He could not keep smiling any longer and turned sternly to Yue Qingyuan. “Those words are worth nothing to me,” he said coldly.

There were good people, normal people, and bad people and they were born that way, with the majority falling into the category of normal people, those who are shaped by those around them into good or bad. And then there was Shen Jiu, who was born bad. He could not find it in himself to care for others who had nothing to do with him. If an old man was to lie dying in front of him, he would expend no energy to save him unless it would benefit Shen Jiu in the future. If Shen Jiu had to step on another person to rise up, he would not hesitate to do it. Shen Jiu finally realized that he sat firmly in the category of bad people because—.

Because in this instance, he found himself thinking—of this person, who was the only person in the world he had cared about—he found himself thinking that he would rather see the Yue Qi in his nightmares who had died in some obscure corner of the world, remains cold and abandoned, than this dignified and powerful Yue Qingyuan with his boundless future.

The sight was too much for him, he needed to go somewhere by himself and think.

“Goodbye. Yue Qingyuan.” He turned away, intending to walk further into the forest.

Yue Qingyuan blocked his path. “You can’t go,” he said in a hoarse voice with his arms widespread as if simply stepping in front of Shen Jiu could stop him from leaving.

Shen Jiu just scoffed and walked around Yue Qingyuan, but Yue Qingyuan moved in front of him and refused to budge.

“What do you want?” Shen Jiu asked. “Don’t you have some place to be, little prince?” What did he want, wasn’t it enough to have broken Shen Jiu’s heart?

“Come back with me,” Yue Qingyuan said softly, but firmly.

Shen Jiu was shocked, he didn’t expect Yue Qingyuan to say such a thing, but he was intrigued.

“Why would I?”

“Let me take care of you Xiao Jiu.”

Shen Jiu’s back stiffened, “Don’t call me that!”

“I can feed you, clothe you, put a roof over your head. I can promise you one half of every good fortune I receive. You don’t need to wander the streets anymore.”

“I don’t wander the streets! I don’t need your help. Not to mention, who knows when you decide your promise is too heavy to keep and kick me out.”

“Xiao Jiu!” Yue Qingyuan exclaimed as if he was being wronged. He suddenly quieted and fixated his gaze one Shen Jiu’s waist. Shen Jiu followed his gaze down and saw that he was looking at the phoenix pendant that he’d put on his belt earlier.

“Come home with me!” Yue Qingyuan repeated.

“Oh, I see.” Shen Jiu said flatly, “You want me to return with you so you can deal justice for my theft.”

Shen Jiu took the pendant off his belt and tossed it at Yue Qingyuan. “Take it back, I don’t need it.” Besides, there was an entire jewelry box in his bag. What was one pendant.

Yue Qingyuan closed his hand around the pendant like it was the most precious thing ever. “It’s not like that, Xiao Jiu. I truly only want to care for you."

“I told you not to call me that, Yue Qingyuan.” Shen Jiu repeated his formal name deliberately to establish the distance between them. “I needed your help years ago. What can you do for me now? What will you take me back as? Your little brother? Your servant? What role will I fill in this little fantasy of yours?”

Yue Qingyuan was quick to reply, “My brother of course.”

Shen Jiu wanted to laugh hysterically, no matter how appealing that sounded, even he knew what an impossible story that would be. “Tell me how that will go, Yue Qingyuan. ‘Hi father, you have another son you knew nothing of?’” Shen Jiu said mockingly. “Or perhaps, ‘Hi father, here is an orphan I’m sworn brothers with, I swear he’s not a bad influence. He didn’t mean to rob our house and murder our guards.’ I can only imagine how well that’d be taken.”

“I--.”

Shen Jiu could see that Yue Qingyuan was speechless again, he could not stop himself from scoffing, “You never think things through Yue Qingyuan. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Yue Qingyuan was silent again, quietly turning stones over inside his head, always intent on finding that impossible answer. Shen Jiu shook his head and turn around to walk the other way.

Yue Qingyuan grabbed his arm saying, “You can be a house scholar. My father is constantly looking for future officials to raise. If I teach you your letters, I’m sure you would do well. Your future would be bright. You could work for the emperor one day.”

It was so tempting to say ‘yes’. And it was just as tempting to say ‘no’. It seemed like saying ‘no’ would hurt Yue Qingyuan and serve him right. It would also be quite a boost to Shen Jiu’s pride and dignity to swat away the hand that was extended to him in apology and pity. Shen Jiu needed no one’s pity. He had spent years being the weed under people’s feet, and he had risen time and time again when they tried to extinguish him. He needed no one’s pity. He closed his eyes.

But what was pride. Could it feed him? Clothe him? Shelter him? Give him power and wealth? What need did he have for this thing called pride?

But he still wanted to say no.

“Beg me,” he said instead, opening his eyes.

“What?” Yue Qingyuan asked, as if he couldn’t believe his ears.

“You heard me. Get on your knees and beg me to come with you,” Shen Jiu replied. There was no way Yue Qingyuan would do it. A man’s knees were made of gold. Yue Qingyuan’s had always been, even when they were orphans. Shen Jiu supposed, in the end, he had said ‘no’.

And then Yue Qingyuan sank to his knees in front of Shen Jiu’s eyes, “I’m begging you, Xiao Jiu. Come home with me.”

Shen Jiu swallowed in shock, “You--.” The sight of Yue Qi kneeling in front of him frightened him so, he didn’t know what to say. He only wanted Yue Qi to stand back up.

“Xiao Jiu, please come home with me.” Yue Qi held up three fingers to heaven and vowed, “I promise you that if my father will not allow you to stay, then I will go with you. I will not let you be alone again.”

Shen Jiu’s hands itched to pull Yue Qi up. “I don’t need you to make such a promise.” He turned away, he couldn’t continue looking any longer, “I’ll go back with you. Get up.” From the corner of his eyes, he could see the joy on Yue Qi’s face, no-doubt-glad that now, he had a chance to redeem himself.

It was a much better look than his misery. Shen Jiu closed his eyes, a maelstrom of emotions surged inside him. Yue Qi’s obviously happy face infuriated him. Or rather, his reaction to it infuriated him. It meant he’d already forgiven the bastard. Even though he’d abandoned him. Even though he was the only person capable of hurting Shen Jiu—and had done it. He’d already forgiven him. He, who would kill people nowadays, for less than looking at him funny.

Yet even now, he wanted to drag down Yue Qingyuan. Pull him back into the mud and smear dirt all over that perfect visage.

He may have forgiven Yue Qi, but he still wasn’t a good person.

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu’s days of kneeling were not behind him. He knelt to Yue Qi’s lord father. He knelt to his new master, Qing Jing-Shifu. Yue Qi’s proposal went more smoothly than expected. His father did really seem eager to foster new scholars and was quite willing to accept Shen Jiu without prejudice to his background, but his three spouses seemed disapproving, glaring at Shen Jiu from the moment he entered the estate.

The official story Yue Qi told his parents was that they were fellow orphans in slavery and while Yue Qi managed to escape to find his parents, Shen Jiu was sold and sold and sold and eventually sold to Wu Yanzi who forced him to help with the robbery here, but when he saw that Yue Qi was in danger, he turned on Wu Yanzi and saved Yue Qi. It wasn’t entirely false. He hadn’t bothered to tell Yue Qi about slaughtering the Qius and he never will.

From the time he spent silently on his knees, he was able to observe the entire hall. It was filled with rare treasures. Coral displays, valuable paintings, priceless furniture, the hall felt more like a palace to Shen Jiu than a lord’s hall.

Lord Yue was handsome, if old. He could see what Yue Qi would look like in a few more decades. The man’s face was kind and gentle. He likely couldn’t handle his own harem which is why the deceased third wife was able to switch Yue Qi out at birth with a slave child and potentially had a hand in the death of Yue Qi’s birth-mother as well. The woman had been put to death, of course, after her betrayal was discovered.

The current First Wife was a beautiful woman with sharp eyes that seemed to pierce through Shen Jiu and then aimlessly direct itself somewhere behind him. She had previously been the second wife, but looking at her elegant and domineering aura now, he never would have guessed it. He supposed it had been seventeen years since Yue Qi’s mother had died.

The current Second Husband was also a striking beauty, handsome in every sense of the word. Flawless skin, large expressive eyes, a sweet submissive gaze directed downwards, fan held delicately in front of his face.

The new Third Wife on the dais was the youngest and most vibrant, barely more than a few years older than Yue Qi. She held her head high and openly glared at Shen Jiu, arms crossed and lips curled into a scowl, full of pride and arrogance. She probably felt like she owned the world at this moment, high on the power of her youth. She had recently married not more than a year or two into the family. What did it matter when she married, there were two more ahead of her in rank, and short of divorce or death, she would remain third. And even then, third or second, what did it matter if you were not First. He would never do that to his children if he was to marry. He would be First or he would be none. 

Yue Qi’s many siblings also filled the room. Yue Qi was the only child between the original First Wife and Lord Yue while the current First wife had two kids with Lord Yue, but both were betas. The current Second Husband had one child with Lord Yue, also a beta. Yue Qi said the two had grown the child like a radish from the earth. Third Wife had yet to have any. They stood in order of rank according to the status of their mother, with exception of Yue Qi who was standing beside Shen Jiu at the moment. There were two children at the very far end of the dais, essentially off the dais entirely, the deceased Third Wife’s alpha child who she had hoped would inherit when the First Wife’s child had turned out to be a beta and the beta slave child who Yue Qi was switched with at birth. Yue Qi’s return had meant that one child was supplanted from the family succession and the other was essentially no longer part of the family. Shen Jiu would keep a close eye on both. They would likely mean as much harm to him as they did Yue Qi, perhaps even more because Shen Jiu didn’t have the fortune of blood ties to Lord Yue to keep him safe from foul play.

Shen Jiu was quite flattered to have been such a commodity as to merit a family gathering, though perhaps that had more to do with the fact that the estate had just been robbed and guards were murdered than Shen Jiu himself, though little did they know, he was also involved in much of that as well. He was forced to return almost everything he’d stolen except for what he’d buried in the mountains and the herbs he’d already hidden in his clothing.

Shen Jiu was grateful when he was finally allowed to rise. Being made to kneel for so long did not bring any happy memories; whether it was kneeling to beg for money to give their slavers when they were young or kneeling in Qiu Jianluo’s study for hours on end waiting to be beaten, none of them were good memories.


He was meant to sleep in the scholar’s quarters with five other students. It was uncomfortable. Not because they were all crammed into a room, but because they were all males and all alphas and betas. Something about that made him deeply uncomfortable. He couldn’t rest.

So he snuck out to bury some of the remaining valuables he had with him. There was no moon that night and the darkness made him feel like a thief yet again. Trapped in the dark, protected by the night. He already had an idea of where he would hid his things and it was close to some herbs extremely essential to his existence as Shen Jiu, beta future scholar.

There was an area near the kitchen which seemed well protected from the rain and was unlikely to wash up when a downpour occurred.

There was no one in the area this time of night, just a few guards. Really, the estate had basically learned nothing. Though he supposed, this time all of the very capable Yue family members and attendants had returned in full force and having guards was as about as useful as not. If the Yue family could not fight, then how could outside guards do any better.

Though the quality of the patrolling guards had marginally increased, he still found it a simple matter to dodge them.

He didn’t even have to wait long for the coast to clear. He made the hole deep enough for him to feel comfortable about its safety even in the case of a strong storm. Just when he’d finished burying his bag, Yue Qi called out from behind him, “Xiao Jiu!”

Shen Jiu hurriedly plucked a wild flower from the ground and rose.

“I told you not to call me that!” He objected.

Yue Qi ignored his words, “What’s that, shidi?” He asked, pointing at the wildflower in Shen Jiu’s hand.

“Oh? This? I found a weed beside the kitchen wall so I plucked it.” He had a mischievous idea, “If you want it, here.” He handed Yue Qi the wildflower and walked away.

He wanted to turn around to see Yue Qi’s expression, but he could still feel Yue Qi’s eyes on his back as he left. Perhaps another time. But maybe it was nice Yue Qi couldn’t keep his eyes off of Shen Jiu.


It was the next day, the shining sun had begun to rise, but he still had not slept. He spent the first day of lessons with one eye open and the other at half-mast. The only solace he had was that his master did not hold it against him as he was new and still unaccustomed to this kind of life. It was also not a difficult class since he had been placed with the seven-year olds.  

But he was still pulled aside after class by Qing Jing-Shifu.

“I know that life is still quite unfamiliar to you here, but you must at the very least be alert during my classes. Anything else can be pardoned in my case, but if you slack off in this area, you will find me to be very unforgiving.”

He bowed to his master. “Without a doubt master, this will not happen again.”

This was opportunity that he might never receive again, he would not waste it. He needed to find something that would help him sleep. Luckily, martial training was right after morning classes. He threw himself into training his body, running laps until his legs gave out. Then it was cultivation lessons. Then dinner. It was pretty nice fare. Doubtless, not as bountiful or of the same quality as what was served to Yue Qi, but it was good. It tasted nice and filled his belly.

The scholar’s dining hall was a moderate sized room with about forty students of all levels. The chairs were stools made of wood with brown cushions to soften the seat. The tables were long with the majority of students sitting in the main body of the hall and a kind of high table at the front of the room with the most senior scholars sitting there. Even though he studied with the seven-year olds, he sat with students his age.

He sat in silence at the table, focused on eating his meal and observing the surroundings. Many students looked at him with dislike. He kept his guard up and stayed silent.

“I heard that boy was a thief,” he heard a boy at the far end of his table whisper loudly.

It took all of his will-power to not stiffen.

A braver boy didn’t whisper at all and called out, “Didn’t you hear? He and the young-master-of-suspicious-origins were slaves together. Thief? For all we know he was a whore.”

The boy looked directly at him as he said those words. “Perhaps he’d spread for his legs for us, my brothers,” the boy continued.

Shen Jiu was furious, but he held it in. He had just arrived. There was no use becoming involved in something that could get him kicked out, but he committed that boy’s face to memory. He would not let this slight go unpaid.

He took a deep breath and smothered his anger. He smiled gently and laughed instead. “Shixiong,” he addressed the boy, “such crass words are not to be said at dinner. If an outsider didn’t know better, they would think that you were the one who was taken in off the street. Such words should only come from those of ill-breeding.”  

The boy’s face turned purple with rage and Shen Jiu’s smile widened. The one who remained unaffected won the fight. He laughed inside, what need was there for fists when these scholars were so easy to provoke.

The boy shut up and angrily returned to his dinner.

The rest of dinner proceeded smoothly. It was only after, that things hit a snag. The students cornered him outside of the dining hall. They were looking for a fight.

He considered his options. One: fight, of which there were three possible consequences. The first being: he would beat them all and then be punished, but perhaps win their respect for his abilities. The second: he would beat them all and then be expelled. The third: he would beat them all and then convince the teachers that he didn’t start the fight and the other students would be punished. It wasn’t impossible, especially with Yue Qi’s support. Option two: Run and escape all official consequences entirely.

He scoffed even as he thought it. Run from a fight? Over his dead body. If he submitted, then they would forever harass him. His abilities far surpassed these soft pampered scholars, he would definitely beat them if push came to shove. And if he couldn’t win by fair means, then he had dirty.

But if they kicked him out… Despite that outcome being only one of the possible consequences, how could he ignore that it was the most likely. He had a chance to walk in the light. He was walking in the light, was a simple thing like winning one small battle worth being dragged back to the darkness?

He would not run.

But he could not fight.

“Shixiongs. Shijies.” Shen Jiu greeted, “I was going to go see Yue Qingyuan for tea,” it would only benefit him to remind them who stood behind him. Yue Qingyuan was no small fish for them to insult. He was the heir, the future lord. To hurt Shen Jiu was to hurt Yue Qingyuan and even if Shen Jiu was kicked out tomorrow, life would undoubtedly be difficult for them as well. “Would shixiongs, shijies join me? I was hoping to see you all together.” Shen Jiu politely bowed his head before facing them with his legs arranged to be in the subtlest defensive stance he could manage.

By the looks on their faces, they had forgotten who supported him. Some of them didn’t quite seem to understand the implications of his words yet, but their more astute colleagues were sure to slip away if anything was started.

One shixiong stood out, “Coward! Can’t you fight your own battles?! Or maybe you’re Yue Qingyuan’s whore.”

Half clever, half not. Smart enough to understand the implications of his words, not enough to smooth the situation over.

It was also sad that the most hurtful thing they could think of, was to accuse him of being a whore, but he wasn’t so enlightened as to be immune to it, so perhaps his own reactive anger was pathetic as well.

“This shidi would not mind fighting if everyone was to agree not to involve any elders. It would be unfortunate to disappoint Lord Yue or Master Qing Jing.”

One of the more blood thirsty seniors spoke up, “You swear you won’t involve Young master Yue?”

Shen Jiu smiled politely, “If seniors were willing to promise not to blame this junior for being discourteous, then this shidi is willing to prove he can indeed fight his own battles.”

They looked at each other. Some came forward.

“Shidi, we’ll see you back at the sleeping quarters. This shixiong is tired,” they excused themselves.

The shixiong who called him a coward and a several others remained. “Let’s go to the woods west of the manor then.”

Shen Jiu was stupid if he allowed them to choose the location. “I think it would be more respectable to use the training grounds. In case anyone was to chance upon us, I can say that I have asked seniors for a few pointers.”

They begrudgingly accepted Shen Jiu’s logic.

The fight started out fairly one sided. Shen Jiu had to resort to some tricks, but for the most part he simply relied on the fact that he was so much faster than all of them. Unfortunately, he was exhausted. It was not as if he had not fought most of his battles exhausted. In fact it was rare for him to be able to fight a battle in the best of conditions, but all it took was for him not to pay attention to one of the seniors behind him for the battle to turn.

Shen Jiu was crazy to have thought he would win. Even these meagers scholars had a leg up on him. They’d had the chance to properly cultivate and even if not all of them had formed a core, at least one was bound to have become near to. The only comfort he had was that most of them were incapacitated. Considering it was almost ten to one, he had not done too badly. But what did it matter, a partial win was still a loss.

He was beaten black and blue. The last thing he saw before he faded into a blissful embrace of black was a pair of white boots.


He awoke to the calming scent of chamomile and lavender. The bed felt so soft, as if he could sink into it and come out the other side of the earth. He felt warm and protected. Coming to, was a slow process. When he finally opened his eyes and things came into focus, he could see that at his bedside was Yue Qi.  

He properly opened his eyes and looked around the room. These were the rooms he crept into when he was stealing valuables! They did not belong to the master of the house, they belonged to Yue Qi! The teapot he’d thrown at the mirror had been replaced. The mirror, freshly polished. He tried to get up.

Yue Qi woke up and hurried to stop him, “Xiao Jiu! Don’t move, the physician says it will take you a few days to heal completely.”

“Don’t call me that!” Shen Jiu had to reprimand yet again. “Why am I here?”

“I thought it would be better for you to recuperate in my room than in the scholar’s sleeping quarters. How can I trust them to leave you alone after what happened?”

Shen Jiu paled as he finally realized what Yue Qi said, “A physician examined me?”

“Yes, of course. The state that you were in—No, even if you were not in such a state, I would be crazy to not ask the physician to examine you.”

“I—,” Shen Jiu swallowed. “What did they say?”

“He said that your injuries were not life threatening, nor would they bring lasting consequences, but that it would still be several days before you recovered.”

“He didn’t mention anything else?” Shen Jiu asked.

“No.” Yue Qi said, looking at him suspiciously, “Why? Is something else the matter?”

Yue Qi manhandled Shen Jiu, turning him this way and that, diligently examining him for some hidden injury.

Shen Jiu shook him off. “No. Nothing is the matter.” He pulled away from Yue Qi’s questing hands. “Don’t touch me.” He scooted further away from the edge of the bed in an attempt to escape Yue Qi’s grip, “Did he know who I was?”

Yue Qi looked at him quizzingly. “Yes? Maybe? I don’t know what he was told. I didn’t mention anything.” Yue Qi seemed thoroughly confused, “Besides, everyone knows who you are. What’s the matter?”

Shen Jiu didn’t know what kind of open-minded thoughts the Yue Household had, but he didn’t see any omegas in the house and if they found out he was one, he didn’t want to know what would happen to him. If the physician didn’t look or didn’t care, then that was fine.

Just to be sure, in case he needed to defend against an unseen enemy in the future, “What was the doctor’s name?”

“Mu Qingfang.”

It was no name Shen Jiu had ever heard before. “I understand.”

Yue Qi got up and filled a porcelain cup, “Here Xiao Jiu, this is Tiehuolan tea, Mu Qingfang said it would be good for you.”

Shen Jiu quietly accepted the cup, lost in his thoughts.

It would not do, to wait for the other shoe to drop. He needed to find out exactly what Mu Qingfang knew and then use any method necessary to keep him quiet, if he knew too much. “Where can I find this physician?” He asked Yue Qi.

Yue Qi climbed onto the bed and grabbed him again, “There’s something wrong isn’t there?” Yue Qi’s brow was furrowed in worry.

Shen Jiu tried to move away from Yue Qi. “I told you, ‘no’. Don’t make me get off this bed Yue Qingyuan!” Shen Jiu threatened as he struggled again Yue Qi’s hold.

“Ok. Ok. I’ll let go. But you must promise me to tell me if you’re hurt.”

Shen Jiu nodded, “Yes, yes. I promise.”

“If you want to meet Mu Qingfang I could simply call him back. Or you could wait, I asked him to check on you in few days.”

Shen Jiu wanted to meet Mu Qingfang secretly, to suss out exactly what kind of man he was and what it was that he knew.

“No. That’s fine.” Shen Jiu made up an excuse, “I was just wondering how I would be able to call for the physician in case anyone else was hurt.”

“Well, you can just tell any of the servants to call him for you,” Yue Qi answered. “I wouldn’t want you running outside the estate, even if it is just to the neighboring hill. If anything bad were to happen, you should stay where it’s safe, or ask someone else to go.”

Shen Jiu stared at him in disbelief. What an impact a few pampered years had on Yue Qi. He could hardly believe that this was the kind, hard-working Yue Qi who was telling him to just order others to do things for him.

“So, you had a servant fetch the physician yesterday?”

Yue Qi cleared his throat and averted his eyes. “It was much too late yesterday to bother others, and no one would be as fast as me. I fetched him myself.”

Shen Jiu tried to appeal to him with logic. “What if it’s much too late the next time too. Shouldn’t I know where to find the doctor?”

“If Xiao Jiu is hurt, he should not stand on courtesy.”

Shen Jiu glared at Yue Qi.

Yue Qi cleared his throat, “I suppose that it couldn’t hurt to know where the doctor lives.”

Apparently, the man was quite close by and would naturally visit every few days to see to the members of the Yue estate.

With that out of the way, he remembered the other important matter. “What will happen to me now?”

“What does Xiao Jiu mean?” Yue Qi took his cup from him and refilled it.

“For fighting.”

“Well, this Qi Ge supposes that Xiao Jiu will have to train harder and refrain from involving himself with other skirmishes.”

Shen Jiu held back from telling Yue Qi to stop calling him ‘Xiao Jiu’.

“Though, after today, Qi Ge seriously doubts that anyone else will dare to pick on Xiao Jiu,” Yue Qi continues.

“What do you mean?”

“The students responsible for harassing you are to be expelled today.”

“What?!” Never would have Shen Jiu expected this to be the way events went. The most unlikely of consequences was coming to pass. “But they—.” Well, it was true that they were the ones who started it and they were the ones harassing him. But he didn’t need favor to fall from the sky in this manner. If he was disliked before by the scholars, he would be hated now. Not to mention, he did imply to those seniors yesterday he would not involve Yue Qi in this matter.

“It wasn’t one sided,” he said slowly, “I fought back.”

Yue Qi gently scoffed. “Even if it was meant to be a friendly match, who would believe that, with over ten of them and one of you? Even if you provoked it—.”

Shen Jiu shot Yue Qi a dirty look.

Yue Qi continued as if he didn’t see it, “As seniors they should have known when to stop. To have sent you into the state I found you in, is unforgivable. They are in the hall right now. I doubt the punishment will be anything less than expulsion.”

Shen Jiu attempted to get off the bed again.

Yue Qi embraced him with both arms to prevent him from leaving. It hurt, there seemed to be cuts and bruises all over his body. They really did beat him up quite badly.

What was he doing? Was he really trying to get up to rush to the hall and plead for their innocence? He didn’t explicitly promise them he wouldn’t involve Yue Qi. And even if he did, this could not count as him involving Yue Qi. Yue Qi had involved himself.

He was not so magnanimous as to rush off and save poisonous snakes that could very well turn around one day and bite him. It would be like raising scorpions in the garden. Sure, there was the chance that they would be grateful and become assets, but in case they proved to be enemies, wouldn’t it be easier to vanquish a weak devil before it grew strong?

Wasn’t it really their fault for beating him into a pulp, to the point where he could not defend them from Yue Qi in the moment? A good person would surely rush to the hall and let by-gones be by-gones, even if they weren’t truly sure whether the storm had passed yet or not. But hadn’t Shen Jiu decided he wasn’t a good person?

Truly, what did he owe them? He was not so kind as to rescue those who could stab him in the back later in life.

But. Helping them might earn him the regard of his other peers, perhaps even his teacher’s admiration for having been so noble as to rescue his seniors from expulsion. Or would it paint him as a naïve fool? Then there was also the inconsistent nature of public opinion.

The regard of others was a fickle thing, something to have today and lose tomorrow. There was no use in trying to win hearts and minds when they were already set against him. It was like throwing yourself headfirst against the mountainside, would it change shape, or would you simply die. If he truly wanted their respect, it would not be too late to earn it when he had more effort to spare, more of his own power behind him.

It would still look very bad to his peers… unless… he had the excuse of being deathly ill. He stopped struggling, “Did you say I would need to be in bed for several days Qi Ge?”

Yue Qi froze. He looked at Shen Jiu with bright eyes, brimming with happiness, but he chose to say nothing about the cause.

Shen Jiu tired of waiting. “Let me go. And let’s make it a week.”

Yue Qi stood up and struggled to contain his smile, “Whatever Xiao Jiu says.”

“Don’t call me that!”

Not even Shen Jiu’s reprimand could stop Yue Qi’s happiness. Shen Jiu sighed, “And make the proper excuses to my teacher for me please.”

 Shen Jiu spent the rest of the day ordering Yue Qi around.

“Get me my books so I can study.” He demanded as he sat on the windowsill.

“Read me this passage, my eyes are tired.” He said while he laid down.

“Explain this bit to me, the author’s meaning is too obscure.” Shen Jiu requested as he juggled loquats Yue Qi had fetched for him.

“I’m hungry, get us dinner.” He commanded when his stomach growled.

Yue Qi bore it all without complaint.

After dinner he brought Shen Jiu his medicine. It was unbearably bitter. Shen Jiu wanted to spit it out but gulped it down as quickly as he could to avoid the taste.

Yue Qi presented him with candied lotus seeds. “Have some, it’ll help with the taste.”

And it really did.

“You can have as much as you want tonight, for your exceptional tolerance in being kept inside this room all day.”

Shen Jiu felt a little resentful at being babied, but it also felt really great to be spoiled so.

And then it was time for bed.

Yue Qi took off his coronet and let down his hair. He removed his outer robes and slid off his shoes. Yue Qi was always a sight for sore eyes, but now he was a stunning. It was a huge surprise that suitors were not breaking down his door. Why weren’t there ten millions maids pasted to the windows, trying to catch sight of Yue Qi disrobing?

Even Shen Jiu found himself mesmerized until Yue Qi made as if to get on the bed.

“No,” he found himself saying.

“No?” Yue Qi asked.

“No,” Shen Jiu replied, “you can sleep in the chair.”

Yue Qi chuckled and came closer.

“I mean it!” Shen Jiu wrapped the blankets around himself.

“Xiao Jiu, I don’t understand. We’ve slept on the same bed countless times when we were younger.”

Shen Jiu frantically tried to find a reason, “That was then, and this is now.” He could claim that it was improper, but then why did he sleep with the students yesterday? He really didn’t have a good reason.

“Xiao Jiu, you’re not making sense. The bed is wide enough for the both of us. What reason could you have for refusing to sleep beside me?”

‘Many!’ he wanted to say, just none he could think of right now.

Shen Jiu gave up on finding a good reason, “It doesn’t matter. You sleep in the chair or I will.”

“I—.” Yue Qi frowned at him and then gave up. He sighed, “That’s fine Xiao Jiu, you can have the bed. I will sleep on the Ta couch.” Yue Qi went to a wardrobe and set up the Ta couch for sleeping. A strange warm feeling settled into the pit of Shen Jiu’s stomach, it suffused him with something akin to contentment.

“Good night, Xiao Jiu.”

Blah, the bastard is trying to wear him down. “Good night. And don’t call me that!”

Shen Jiu could hear a soft laugh from Yue Qi’s general direction.


He slept so well he didn’t wake until the next day, slowly resurfacing to varied scents of delicious food.

Yue Qi’s gentle smiling face came into focus. “Dim sum and tea. I wanted you to try many different dishes.” The sunlight behind Yue Qi framed him with a halo, giving him the appearance of a fairy or saint.

Shen Jiu yawned and stretched. He set out a soft moan, his body was quite sore.  “Qi Ge?”

If it was possible, Yue Qi’s face softened even further, his voice low and tender as he helped Shen Jiu sit up, “Good morning Xiao Jiu.”

It felt so good to snuggle into Yue Qi’s embrace as if they’d never grown up or been separated. This dream was so much more vivid than any he’d ever had. The attention to detail was remarkable, the soft bed, the delicious smells, the singing of the birds, Yue Qi’s warmth and kindness. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. Yue Qi’s comforting hand was rubbing soothing circles onto his back. Yue Qi started humming a lullaby he’d sung to Shen Jiu when they were little. Shen Jiu let out a content sigh and burrowed deeper into Yue Qi’s arms, inhaling his calming scent of chamomile and lavender. He’d heard rumors that there were things such as sweet dreams, but he’d never had any himself.

He’d never had any himself. Shen Jiu’s heart raced.

He pushed Yue Qi away and hissed in pain. That confirmed it, this was no dream.

He was angry at himself for allowing a simple caring gesture to make him delusional. And scared at his own reaction.

Yue Qi had the nerve to look hurt when he was the one who took advantage of Shen Jiu’s semi-awake state.

Yue Qi hid his face and gracefully rose. He took a moment to shake out his sleeves.

Shen Jiu’s eyes were fixated on Yue Qi’s back, his stance poised and elegant.

Yue Qi’s voice was steady and soft, “Xiao Jiu, don’t let the food get cold. I have some business to attend. I’ll have someone bring you—.” Yue Qi paused, hesitating. “I will be by later to bring you your medicine,” he decided, before quickly leaving.

Shen Jiu took deep breathes to calm his heart. The way he reacted was nothing to be alarmed about. He already knew he’d forgiven Yue Qi. So what if he allowed himself to be held like he was a child again, it had been an eventful few days. It was moment of weakness. Just a single moment of weakness. It didn’t mean anything. He straightened up and walked over to the table.

It would not do, to think too deeply about things that did not merit thinking.

Upon seeing the spread on the table, he could not stop himself from releasing a sound of awe, “Wah, what a delicious feast just for little old me.”

There must have been twenty different dishes just for him. The hot ones still had little wisps of steam rising from them. He would never be able to finish such a bountiful amount.

“Ah,” he sighed, “the only thing that could improve this meal is a jug of wine.”

Hmph, there must be a hidden jar somewhere in these rooms. Yue Qi was a stern and virtuous lad before but having lived such a decadent life for several years, he must have succumbed to a few vices. The last time Shen Jiu had gone through these rooms, he’d gone through them with the delicate hand of a robber, but this time, with no fear of guards bursting into the room or repercussions, Shen Jiu cackled to himself, he would leave no mat unturned nor corner unexplored. He would start with the backrooms!

 As soon as he had made his resolve, his stomach growled. Well, perhaps a hearty meal first and then exploring after.

He’d barely finished turning one room inside out, when a knock came from the door.

“Scholar Shen, this servant begs leave to enter and clear away breakfast,” a girl’s voice called out.

He froze for a moment. This was bad, he was supposed to be bedridden and very ill. He scrambled to dust himself off and put himself in order. He ran and climbed back onto the bed then drew the bed curtain closed.

“Come in.”

He heard the quiet slide of the door opening and the rustle of skirts. He could just make out the shape of two servant girls through the curtain. They moved quickly and with elegance.

“Scholar Shen, would you like these servants to bring snacks? Lunch has been delayed today from… internal troubles.”

He made his voice soft and weak, “Yes, bring snacks, but I don’t want lunch.” He didn’t want anyone else interrupting his fun. “Please do not disturb me for the rest of the day.”

“This servant will obey.”

They brought in many dishes of treats and snacks. Egg tarts, sesame cakes, fried durian, pumpkin pancakes, candied fruit, dried squid, mung bean cake and numerous dishes he didn’t even recognize.

Shen Jiu rushed over to the table when they left. He was eager to eat them all. He tried one of all of them before heading back to search the rest of the rooms. Unfortunately, there were no candied lotus seeds, but the sticky sesame candy was scrumptious. He ate far more of those than he should have before he finally returned to searching the rooms. Just in case he hadn’t had enough though, he brought the plate with him.

Yue Qi turned out to be quite boring in the vice department, there were no naughty books nor anything suspicious. Just books about useful things and not so useful things alike, military strategy, ethics, cultivation. He could spend the whole day reading, not just exploring.

He’d gone through several compartments in the suite and came to the conclusion that Yue Qi’s rooms were quite sparse, not that there were few treasures, but in that every ornament seemed to be in perfect balance with the room, nothing to be found in excess.

Eventually his stomach began to complain, he must not have been accustomed to the rich foods from this morning. He groaned and his face twisted in pain. It felt like someone had dug a sharp knife into his abdomen and was twisting it. He staggered towards the bed, but his knees gave out from under him and he collapsed. A fit of coughing caught him and when his took his sleeve away, it was spattered with blood.

And he ended another day fading unwillingly into the dark.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Someone held his wrist lightly. The world was one big blur of loud noises and pain.

His head was cradled in large warm hands. Uncomfortable droplets of water dripped onto his face leaving rivulets behind.

He felt his body pulled into a warm hug.

“…poison…”

Someone was rocking him back and forth.  

“Is…alright?!”

Why did everything hurt so much?

“…poisoned?”

His head felt like it was filled with stones, weighing his him down, bouncing around and pounding his head from inside.

“…the other students…”

He was in such agony.

“…intruders…”

Words flowed in and flowed right out.

“…robber…”

Someone took his outer robes off making him shiver.

“—I came back.”

He heard the muted sound of someone crying.

“—should have told you— sorry –did come back—.”

Maybe it was him, from the immense torture he was in.

“Good Xiao Jiu.”

His mouth was held open and he could faintly taste a bitter liquid on his tongue.

“Sweet Xiao Jiu,” cried a shaking voice. “Won’t you please drink your medicine?”

Beyond reason, even in his haze of pain he was struck with the urge to smack that person upside the head.

“…drugged.”

Fluid filled his mouth, but he had no strength to do anything about it. Something soft met his lips pushing the bitter medicine in. A hand gently massaged his throat to urge him to swallow.

He was enveloped in warmth and then he knew no more. Chamomile and lavender, such a comforting scent.


“Not bad. Not bad,” said a sagely voice.

Shen Jiu did not want to open his eyes, it felt too painful to move them. 

He felt a thin bony hand on his wrist, taking his pulse.

“Sir Mu, will he recover?”

Sir Mu pulled Shen Jiu’s sleeve down to re-cover his wrist and returned Shen Jiu’s hand to the warmth of the blankets.

“The worst is past. I would ask Young master to not be so anxious. It would be helpful to soothe some of Student Shen’s pains with internal energy. I will leave that to you, Young master.”

Now that Shen Jiu thought about it, wasn’t Sir Mu that physician who examined him previously as well?

He struggled to open his eyes and only managed an aborted gesture.

Yue Qi rushed over to his side. “Shh, shh,” Yue Qi hushed him. “You’re still hurt Xiao Jiu. Let Qi Ge ease your aches.”

A steady stream of internal energy flowed into him, warming him from inside. It lulled him back to sleep.


When next he woke, he was finally alone.

Almost.

A man wearing a physician’s attire was in the room.

“Sir Mu?” Shen Jiu croaked, throat and mouth dry.

The man turned around. His eyes were wrinkled and wise, giving the appearance of an old man, but his movement was of a much younger man.

“Scholar Shen, please refrain from moving and reopening your wounds.”

“How long…?”

“Scholar Shen has been asleep for five days.”

Well, now.

“What happened?”

“You were poisoned with the Blood Star powder.” Sir Mu poured him a cup of water. “Luckily, this is quite a well-researched poison with a simple antidote. Young master also found you quickly and the internal damage was not fatal.”

“What is the antidote?” As soon as Shen Jiu inquired, he realized how inappropriate it was to ask the doctor for the secrets of his livelihood.

“If Scholar Shen is interested, then this physician will leave his prescription here.”

Sir Mu bowed and was about to take his leave.

“How was I poisoned?”

“Replying to Scholar Shen, it was likely ingested in food. Blood star poison is fast acting and severe. This physician believes it was in the dish of sesame sticky candy that Scholar Shen ate.”

Shen Jiu was utterly disquieted by how Sir Mu was addressing him. Such a respectful way of speaking directed towards him, it was a first.

“Was it really only that dish?”

“Begging your pardon, Scholar Shen?”

“The servants brought in many snacks, was that the only dish that was poisoned?”

“Young master Yue didn’t mention any other dishes present in the room.”

Wahhh, he had to marvel at himself. Was there any bigger idiot than this Shen Jiu? Where there is favor, there is jealousy. He should have exercised more caution. But it was too much to ask him to never eat or to always wait for Yue Qi to test his food.

“Sir Mu, allow me to seek guidance, is there a way to prevent poisoning in the future.”

Sir Mu chuckled, “Scholar Shen, you kid too much. Besides dedicating your life to the study of poison, it is impossible to avoid it if a person wishes you harm. Even then…” he trailed off. “However, this humble physician would suggest that Scholar Shen request a Repelling Scents hair pin from Young master Yue. It is capable of detecting most common poisons.”

“This humble physician begs leave.” Sir Mu gave him a deep bow.

“Sir Mu, please don’t be so courteous. I dare not accept such your bow.”

Shen Jiu continued cautiously, “Sir Mu… May I ask why you’ve offered me such respect.”

Sir Mu looked at him with confusion, opening his mouth and then shutting it. He seemed uncertain if he wanted to continue.

“This physician is not sure if it is his place to say…”

Shen Jiu urged him on, “Please continue.”

“This physician has heard that Scholar Shen and Young master Yue shared a childhood and were recently reunited. Scholar Shen was then accepted into the Yue Household. Seeing as Scholar Shen’s age is quite young…” Sir Mu trailed off again. “Is Scholar Shen aware of Young master’s regard?”

No, he was not aware, what did this physician mean, “His regard?”

“I…”

Shen Jiu caught on. There may be other things Sir Mu was implying, but the most obvious one was that Shen Jiu was an omega and Yue Qi wanted to fuck his brains out.

“Ah, so you know,” Shen Jiu said.

“I know?”

“Yes, that I’m a beta and unsuitable for Young master Yue. Please don’t worry Sir Mu, I know my place.” If you want to hide a fox, why not call it a rabbit?

Sir Mu raised a skeptical eyebrow, “A beta?”

Shen Jiu thickened his face and met Sir Mu with calm eyes.

“Yes, well.” Sir Mu breathed out a sigh, “That’s fine. That’s fine. Might I suggest that if Scholar Shen were to ever meet an omega, he should read the medical journal ‘Of things pertaining to nature’.”

Shen Jiu wanted to laugh, what a silly title.

“Things of that nature…” Sir Mu seemed to find it difficult to speak clearly, “Matters pertaining to…”

Sir Mu cleared his throat, “All in all, private things are private things and the only person who has the right to that information…” Sir Mu stopped again.

Sir Mu seemed to be trying to say that Shen Jiu’s secret was safe with him, and not only as a favor, but some kind of ethical obligation.

“This physician supposes, he would like to advise Scholar Shen that such a big secret, it will all be revealed eventually. It might be better to reveal it sooner than later. Young master Yue definitely won’t let Scholar Shen be wronged.”

Shen Jiu smiled softly. It was true, such a big secret could only be revealed once. If it must be revealed, then he would choose the moment he could reap the most benefit from it. And if he could, Shen Jiu would only reveal it on his deathbed. Why cut off his own wings now, at the time when he was finally free from his cage.

“Thank you, Sir Mu, for your treatment and your discretion.” The man was illogically kind. If he kept his word, then Shen Jiu was fine for the moment. But that did not mean Shen Jiu could lower his guard, he wasn’t even safe in Yue Qi’s chambers and information was an everlasting hidden dagger. Shen Jiu allowed his worries to ease a small fraction because all signs seemed to point to Sir Mu being an eccentric sage loyal to his own morality, uncaring for societal concerns.

Shen Jiu heard a door opening.

Yue Qi returned from wherever he was. He looked awful, as awful as it was possible for him to look anyway. His form slender and graceful with face of an immortal silently and tragically suffering, Shen Jiu wished he was half as beautiful.

“Xiao Jiu!” Yue Qi cried as he hurried over to Shen Jiu’s bedside with outstretched arms.

Shen Jiu did his best to dodge but failed. Yue Qi consumed him in a near painful embrace.

Sir Mu coughed lightly, but Yue Qi didn’t seem to notice.

Shen Jiu tried to struggle, but his muscles had no strength.

“Get off me,” he managed to eek out.

“Xiao Jiu, I was so worried. If you—.” Yue Qi just squeezed him more tightly.

Shen Jiu renewed his struggles with increase fervor.

“Don’t do that again, Xiao Jiu.”

Shen Jiu snickered, “Do what? Be poisoned? I don’t think that’s up to me.”

Sir Mu cleared his throat, “Young master, I’ll leave the prescription here. Scholar Shen will be on bedrest for the next three days and I ask that he refrain from exerting himself for the next two weeks. He is to continue taking this prescription for the next six months. I will be back in two days to examine him.” Sir Mu sucked in a deep breath before cautioning, “Young master Yue, please do not aggravate Scholar Shen’s illness by treating him carelessly.” Sir Mu spoke rapidly and left just as swiftly.

Yue Qi did not seem to notice, instead burying his face in Shen Jiu’s hair.

Shen Jiu viciously pinched the soft flesh on Yue Qi’s side. At the very least it provoked a twitch from Yue Qi, but he was not relinquished. Shen Jiu decided to wait out this bout of sentimentality.

Yue Qi finally pulled away so he could speak to Shen Jiu, “Xiao Jiu. I will send you away.”

Shen Jiu searched Yue Qi’s eyes for any hint of a jest, but he seemed sincere.

Yue Qi’s eyes were bright with unshed tears, “Being beside me will only hurt you. I cannot protect you yet. There are too many enemies within these walls. I will bring you back when I become the Lord.”

Shen Jiu’s lips twitched. You’ll protect me when you become a Lord? He raised a brow in disbelief. You can’t protect me now, but you think you’ll be able to protect me when you’ll have even more enemies and jealousy at my privileges will be even more severe? Yue Qi. Oh, Yue Qi. Always making promises you can’t keep.

Shen Jiu shook his head, “So what? You’ll wait for me to die out of sight? At least with you here, you can call the physician. If you send me away, what recourse will I have in the event that someone else considers me their enemy. If you’re a danger to me, then I’ll die from our acquaintance either in your sight or out of your sight.”

Yue Qi’s face contorted in some unknown conflict of emotions, “Xiao Jiu, you’re willing to stay beside Qi Ge?”

Shen Jiu was tired of dealing with Yue Qi.

“I’m going to sleep.” He nodded at the chair bedside the bed, “You can sit over there.”

“Xiao Jiu…”

He gave a silent ‘Don’t call me that!’ and then pretended to fall asleep. He could feel Yue Qi’s eyes on his face, so he rolled over.

So, the snacks were likely poisoned. He’d only been at the Yue estate for less than two weeks and he’d spent the majority of that time period unconscious. And now he had to solve his own attempted-murder mystery. How useful would Yue Qi be in finding the culprits? Could the man even imagine what was meant to happen in the bedroom? Even when they were living on the streets, Yue Qi was the most naïve person Shen Jiu had ever met.

Whoever it was, had access to poisons and hence was a danger not just to Shen Jiu, but Yue Qi and the Yue estate at large.

But Shen Jiu had no idea where to start, he was behind a curtain the entire time those servants came in to clear breakfast away and set out snacks. He could not entirely claim both servants were female let alone attempt to recognize their faces. He also didn’t know which snacks were poisoned nor who or when they cleared away those snacks. Silly as it might be, it was a good thing he enjoyed the sticky sesame candy so much he took a plate with him or they might not have been able to deduce the general outline of what had happened. He would need to tell Yue Qi everything he knew, in case Yue Qi had any insights. It would also potentially alert Yue Qi, in the case that the person who poisoned Shen Jiu meant Yue Qi harm.

As for Shen Jiu’s next steps, was his only option to keep any eye out and wait for the guilty party to strike again?

If there was something he was relatively confident about, it was that the poisoning was not motivated by his fight with the now-expelled students because those students presumably were in the hall at the time that he was poisoned, and if it was a student seeking vengeance on behalf of his less intelligent friends, judgment was not passed yet at that time and they had no real reason to poison Shen Jiu. To be quite frank, he’d only been at the Yue estate for two nights and was likely not poisoned for anything he’d done, but who he was.

Or who he was affiliated with…

Yue Qi, you idiot. How was he so oblivious living in a viper’s nest. Shen Jiu vowed to learn everything he could about this household. Who lived here, who visited, all of the who, what, when, wheres and whys, he would know them like the back of his hand.

One good thing had resulted from this, Shen Jiu didn’t need to pretend to be bedridden. But all that time wasted being asleep was infuriating. All this time spent lying down doing nothing. Shen Jiu made a decision. He sat up quickly.

“Yue Qi!” He called and then groaned. Painful. No more sudden movements.

“Xiao Jiu!” Yue Qi exclaimed, leaping out of his chair to hasten over to Shen Jiu’s side.

Shen Jiu waved him off, “Bring me my books, I want to study.”

Yue Qi smiled fondly, his eyes wrinkling. Was the man a fool? Why was he always smiling? Shen Jiu found himself blushing and unable to look at Yue Qi directly. 

“While Qi Ge’s heart warms to see Xiao Jiu so diligent, it would be better for Xiao Jiu to rest.”

Shen Jiu was not touched. If he was to continue lying down, he’d die of restlessness, and he said as much to Yue Qi, but Yue Qi refused to fetch Shen Jiu’s books and Shen Jiu was in too much pain to collect them himself.

How to convince Yue Qi?

“You can read them to me then…” Shen Jiu glanced at Yue Qi from the corner of his eyes, “like when we were children.” He was banking on Yue Qi’s longing for the past to push through his concern for Shen Jiu’s reluctance to lie still.

Yue Qi seemed uncertain, but Shen Jiu knew he’d won. “I suppose that would be alright…”

Ah, guilt, what good friends we will be.


And now we ask the age-old question, ‘Is Shen Jiu capable of making friends?’

As far as he could remember, there were only two people in the world for whom he had positive feelings and as far as he could tell, they were also the only people who held him in any good regard.

But as for everyone else, if he didn’t hate them, then he didn’t care for them.

It was just so hard to pretend to be nice. He tried to study Yue Qi’s actions, but whenever Yue Qi caught sight of Shen Jiu, he’d turn all of his attention toward Shen Jiu instead, which made for very little research material.

Today was the first day he was allowed out of Yue Qi’s rooms and he was eager to spend his free time understanding the workings of the estate, but he encountered obstacles at every turn. Nearly everyone was looking at him with judging eyes, whispering in front of his eyes and speaking behind his back.

“His childhood friend? More like his bedside companion.”

“It is improper.”

“He’s slept in Young master Yue’s room for nearly two weeks now, isn’t this enjoying the honeymoon before the wedding?”

“What wedding? The most he can aspire to is bed maid.”

Shen Jiu feared that even if Sir Mu could vouch for his conduct, no one would believe it.

“Did you hear what Young master Yue did for him? An entire class was dismissed. I heard even the Chang family’s son was expelled.”

“They say even if you beat a dog, you should see who its master is.”

Shen Jiu didn’t know whether to be amused or angry. Amused because they think so highly of Shen Jiu’s position in the household or angry that they called him a dog and Yue Qi his master. As for their low estimation of his abilities… sure ten to one was hard, but he was confident in his ability to meet all of those lazy students one to one!

…definitely angry.

Stepped out of the alcove, “What did you say?!”

They gasped as if it was oh so surprising that they were overheard, “Scholar Shen!”

“Greetings, Scholar Shen.”

It was two servant girls running their mouths in their free time.

“Who did you say was a dog?”

One of the girls dropped to her knees and the other knelt down beside her.

“Begging Scholar Shen’s forgiveness, these servants were—. We were—.”

“We were idling when we should be working. Scholar Shen, please punish us lightly.”

Shen Jiu wouldn’t mind a fight, or at least beating them up until their legs were broken, but they were only two servant girls in the end. However, his anger wouldn’t easily be quenched.

“Five slaps each.”

One girl turned teary eyes towards Shen Jiu. “Scholar Shen?,” she asked in a shaking voice.

“You heard me. Five slaps.”

The other girl pinched the first. “Thank you for your mercy Scholar Shen,” she said and slapped her own face five times. She did not withhold her strength, her cheeks were bright red with only these fives slaps. If it was Shen Jiu, he would not have put as much force as she did into striking herself.

The first girl shot him another beseeching look, holding his eyes for a moment before slapping her own face five times. Her cheeks were barely tinged pink.

Somethings were just not fair, but who was he to begrudge someone their own small attempts at being clever, “Don’t let me catch you spreading rumors again or it won’t be such a light punishment.”

Pink cheeked girl looked at him with indignant eyes, mouth trembling from Shen Jiu’s terrible abuse. The look was quite becoming on her with her big doe eyes and glistening cherry lips, if she turned such a gaze on him before, perhaps even he would be willing to indulge her.

The other girl pulled her up and bowed to Shen Jiu, urging the other one to bow too.

Were all noble houses filled with beautiful servant girls? Now that Shen Jiu had a better look at her face, he could see that even with her bright red cheeks, the other girl looked more like a beauty after a run than how Shen Jiu would look after such a punishment, probably something akin to a monkey’s butt.

“Begging your leave,” said red cheeked girl, “Scholar Shen we must attend to the new concubine.”

He dismissed them.

There was new concubine? Wasn’t that a big event? Shen Jiu really had no idea what was happening in this estate. Maybe he should have asked a few more questions.

He sighed.

Fine. So he was bad at making friends and his mind was small and his heart cold, so what. It just meant he had to find another way of finding out the current situation at the house, did everything need to be conveyed through words? Most things were more honestly assessed by hiding in the rafters and eavesdropping anyway, going through letters, rifling through possessions, those sorts of things. The evidence couldn’t lie like people could.

“Scholar Shen,” a cool detached voice spoke from behind Shen Jiu, “come with me.”

Shen Jiu turned around, “Qing Jing-Shifu!” Did Qing Jing-Shifu see what Shen Jiu had done? “I—”

Qing Jing-Shifu looked at Shen Jiu with indifference and then walked away. He was almost to the end of the hall before he turned around. “Didn’t Shifu just tell you to come?” He asked before continuing around the corner.

Shen Jiu ran after him.


It felt very awkward. Qing Jing-Shifu led him to a very elegant suite of rooms and then ignored him in favor of going to his desk.

“Grind the inkstone.”

Shen Jiu knew how to do that, he’d done it countless times for Qiu Jianluo.

“It would be best if you forget about any petty issues that come up.”

Qing Jing-Shifu picked up his brush.

“I—.”

“Silence until spoken to, is a good virtue for children.”

Shen Jiu shut his mouth.

Qing Jing-Shifu’s strokes were firm and steady, his delicate wrist held parallel to the table.

“I don’t know what kind of life you’ve lived before or what kind of relationships you have with those around you, but the past is the past; relying on it to support the future is unstable and allowing it to hold you back is unwise.”

Shen Jiu felt maligned, he was not trying to rely on Yue Qi’s influence to survive. “Shifu, I—.”

“Humans are inconsistent and trying to understand their subtle movements is like studying the fall of the dice, too little and you have the wrong picture, too long and you realize it’s all the same. Knowledge, understanding, training, is like building a house of bricks; it will shelter and serve you in the future. Will you build your house of sand, to be rebuilt time and time again, or of bricks, so you have a firm place to stand?”

Shen Jiu didn’t understand, “Shifu, I… don’t understand.”

“Good. Evil. Is that humanity? Such absolutes. Jealousy today, devotion tomorrow, hatred yesterday.” Qing Jing-Shifu finished his work and picked up a handful of sand to release over his writing. “Let it go.”

“Let it go?”

“It is this Shifu’s hope that Scholar Shen will dedicate himself to his studies. Scholar Shen has passed the optimal age of cultivation by a few years and it is unlikely he will ever fulfill his potential.”

Shen Jiu resented that statement; his accomplishments and failings were his own. Age was nothing to determination.

Qing Jing-shifu continued to write, each stroke deliberate and careful. “With such a steep climb, it is best not to look behind or beside and embrace a singular devotion to rise.”

Shen Jiu really didn’t understand. Was he being encouraged or scolded?

Perhaps it was both.

Qing Jing-shifu held up the scroll he had just written. It contained three characters.

“This is Shifu’s gift to Scholar Shen.”

Flowing. Clarity. Autumn. Shen Qingqiu.

“It is this teacher’s hope for your future. Shen, so no stone will stop you nor cage contain you. Qing, that your heart is calm and free from regret. Qiu, for it is late, but it is not winter. It is change, just as you can.”

Qing Jing-Shifu was giving him a courtesy name. But…

‘Qiu,’ what an awful word, let alone one that should be in his name. Would it be possible to deny this honor?

Impossible, it would be like spitting in his teacher’s face. Is the only option to accept his tormenter’s name as his own?

“But words are words and worth little without intentions. Even if I offer these three words to Scholar Shen, if they do not reach your heart then they will do you little good.”

Oh, what was ‘Qiu’ but a dead family. Qing Jing-Shifu was giving him a new meaning, a new life, a new name.

Shen Jiu knelt and touched his forehead to the ground, “Thank you, Shifu. This student will take your intentions to heart and bring honor to this name.”

“Good. Rise.”

Qing Jing-shifu handed Shen Jiu the scroll.

“As my good and righteous student, it would not do to bring unnecessary rumors to our name. I trust my student will act with propriety in the future and be careful of wandering eyes.”

“Yes, Shifu.”

“You may go.”

Shen Jiu bowed and prepared to leave.

“Oh, tomorrow you are to study with the advanced class. I trust you will do your best to keep up.”


Qing Jing-Shifu’s words were as much a reprimand as they were a vote of confidence. Strangely, Shen Jiu found himself wanting to prove to Qing Jing-Shifu that his faith was not misplaced. Shen Jiu found a quiet corner to sit and study.

He became so immersed in the text that he didn’t realize the sun had set until he found himself unable to see the words anymore.

Someone set a cloak about his shoulders, “Xiao Jiu, come back to the room, you can read by candle inside.”

Yue Qi. Qing Jing-Shifu had subtly warned him earlier about being seen with Yue Qi. And even if Shifu hadn’t said anything, Shen Jiu did not intend to stay in Yue Qi’s room any longer now that he wasn’t on bedrest. But Yue Qi likely wouldn’t let him be without a fight.

“I—.” What would be the best way to persuade Yue Qi so that he wouldn’t have to argue with him for an entire night. “I… want to become more acquainted with my peers. I will be sleeping in the Scholar’s quarters tonight,” Shen Jiu said.

Yue Qi smiled placatingly, “That’s fine, Xiao Jiu. Why don’t you just come over and use the room to study. You can always return to the Scholar’s place to sleep at night.”

That gentle smile wouldn’t fool Shen Jiu. That was the smile Yue Qi would always use when he thought Shen Jiu was being unreasonable and was humoring him in the moment, but knew he would win in the end. It was a smile that meant Yue Qi thought Shen Jiu would give in eventually.

Well, not today! “Don’t call me Xiao Jiu!” Shen Jiu chided.

He lifted his chin, “They’re scholars, aren’t they? I’m sure everyone else is still awake and studying too!” And then he ran away.


Sleep would not come.

It seemed that unless Shen Jiu was at death’s door he could not sleep in this large manor. He tried to sleep on his side, his back, even one attempt on his front, but try as he might, his brain would not shut down. In the distance he heard the faint sound of a guqin. He gave up. If he could not sleep, then trying to sleep was a waste of his time.

At least then, he would spend it studying.

He took a candle outside and found a sturdy tree to lean against and read. With the sound of the rustling leaves, the splendor and harmony of the water garden, and the faint melody of the guqin, it felt like a dream-like, heavenly moment, the kind that made your heart swell up in some unknown longing and gratitude.

It was a pleasant way to spend his night. He did not feel so exhausted by the time morning came.


Qing Jing-Shifu was paying him special attention today, by scolding him over everything.

Earlier it was about Shen Jiu’s clothing, then it was about his writing posture, then it was about Shen Jiu’s brush grip and now he was upset at Shen Jiu’s stance.

“You have poor basics, my child.”

He used a fan to strike the back of Shen Jiu’s knee, causing him to buckle.

“It is a child’s lesson to remember to not lock your knees.” Qing Jing-Shifu shook his head at Shen Jiu.

“You are excused from all other activities today. Your goal is to hold this stance until dinner and not faint. If you can do so, come to the classroom at dawn. If you can’t, you may go to the Lantern Festival tomorrow instead of class.”

Wasn’t this more of a punishment for doing well and reward for slacking off? What come to class at dawn versus going to a festival? Wasn’t a festival better?

Qing Jing-Shifu raised a scolding eyebrow at Shen Jiu’s silence.

“Thank you, Shifu?”

Qing Jing-Shifu opened his fan with a snap and fanned himself as he walked away.


It was painful. Really painful. He’s quite certain that this counted as exertion. Who knew standing in place would be so hard. He really wanted to lock his knees. His arms were so tired they were shaking, his muscles really wanted to just stop already. But Shifu wanted him to hold this stance. While it seemed illogical, he was pretty sure the reward was meant to be ‘come to the classroom at dawn’ and not the Lantern Festival.

Pain, pain, suffering, and agony, he’s miserable. Ah, Shifu come back. Let this student lie down.

This student is sorry. Please come back Shifu.

It wasn’t just his arms; his stomach had been in pain for about the last hour. He’d broken out in cold sweats and his sword was slipping. Shen Jiu renewed his grip, but the sword was still slipping. Ah, his insides felt like they were on fire. He couldn’t do it.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it.

Master please come back.

His vision was grey like pools of sand were forming in the sky, the world was fading. Not again.

Shen Jiu closed his eyes and tried to calm his heart. His body felt like lead, it was too heavy for him to hold it up. The ground was coming up to meet him, he knew it, but when he reached it, it didn’t even hurt. It felt like he was going to bed.

His master’s voice came from the darkness, “You disappoint me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Lavender?

Yes.

Chamomile?

Yes.

Bed so soft, one could die in it?

Yes.

Those eyes he could feel boring into his face?

Yue Qi.

Shen Jiu kept his eyes closed. Pretending to still be sleeping, he rolled over and turned his back to where he knew Yue Qi was sitting.

He could tell by the ringing of the bell that it was the hour of the snake. He had—.

Snake!

Shen Jiu shot up.

If it was the hour of the snake, then he was late!

He had to—.

He had nowhere to be.

“Xiao Jiu?” Yue Qi asked softly with worry. “Xiao Jiu, you’ve been studying so diligently lately, but I hope you won’t neglect your health like this in the future.”

Shen Jiu turned to look at him with dull eyes. Did Yue Qi really have so much free time that he could always be at Shen Jiu’s side when he awoke?

Shen Jiu sighed, he didn’t even have the energy to tell Yue Qi to stop calling him ‘Xiao Jiu’.

What was he to do now?

His eyes stung.

So what.

So what.

So what if Qing Jing-Shifu thought he was a disappointment?

Qing Jing-Shifu was a disappointment of a teacher.

What kind of reward was waking at dawn, or punishment was attending the lantern festival?

The man was obviously just…

Shen Jiu glanced at Yue Qi who was hovering out of concern yet again.

The man was just trying to make sure no suspicious orphans were clinging to the Noble Heir of the House.

Fine, Qing Jing-Shifu. I’ll bear your oh so terrible punishment. If you’re so terrified I’ll taint your immaculate heir, just watch what kinds of things I get to when I put my mind to it.

“Yue Qi, accompany me to the Lantern Festival.”

Yue Qi’s eyes widened in surprise, but he was quick to reply, “Yes, of course. I have a few meetings to attend this morning, but I can take you in the afternoon.”

And what would Shen Jiu do in the meantime? Think about how he wasn’t in class?

“No. I want to go now.”

Yue Qi looked at him disapprovingly, “Xiao Jiu.”

“Fine. I’ll go alone.”

Yue Qi acquiesced quickly, “Fine, fine. I understand. You get dressed and then we can go out. I’ll let the attendant know I’ll be indisposed today.”

Yue Qi stepped out and a maidservant stepped in.

“Scholar Shen, please allow me to assist you.”

The girl’s back was straight as she bowed to Shen Jiu and stayed bent until he acknowledged her.

“Fine.”

She rose slowly, keeping her head lowered and eyes to the ground. Every movement was deliberate and measured, she made bowing look poised. She brought out a tray with robes Shen Jiu had never seen before, snow white with light green accents. They looked to be of a very fine quality.

He finally caught sight of her face, it was red-cheek girl, one of the girl’s he’d punished before. He was instantly wary. Who knew what kind of resentment she secretly carried in her heart. If she wanted to harm him, now was her chance. But as soon as he thought it, he chided himself for being so fearful. If she did want to harm him, why would she do it here, where she was alone and Yue Qi just outside the door. Her arms were so thin, they seemed to have no strength at all. If she had any martial prowess, why would she choose to serve as a maid? She could not harm him.

“Young master Yue made these for you. If it pleases Scholar Shen this servant will dress the scholar in these robes.”

Shen Jiu hesitated, he kept important herbs in his clothing, to ensure he would never be without in case any accidents were to occur, but he was good for the next week and he could always restock these clothes too.

Shen Jiu nodded, new clothes were only something to be thankful for in any case, but he was not keen on physical contact, so he requested, “Please refrain from touching me.”

She bowed again in acknowledgement of his words, eyes still trained on the ground, “Of course, Scholar Shen. This servant will obey.”

She was very skilled, not once did her hands directly touch him or his inner robes. After making him presentable she affixed a pendant to his waist. It was the white jade phoenix pendant he’d stolen from Yue Qi’s rooms before. His mood soured.

“It doesn’t suit me, take this off.”

Red-cheeks bowed again, “This servant thinks the pendant looks like it could belong to no one else. But even if Scholar Shen does not want it, I’m afraid Young master Yue insisted.”

Shen Jiu laughed and replied, “What does it matter what he wants? I’m the one wearing it and I’m telling you I don’t want it.”

Red-cheek had not stopped bowing and remained so as she pleaded, “This servant begs Scholar Shen to have mercy on her.”

She probably thought she would be in trouble if Yue Qi felt like she’d disobey him, she obviously didn’t know Yue Qi that well, the man would let a mosquito suck his blood if it pleaded for its life. “Forget it. It doesn’t matter. I’ll give it back to Yue Qi myself. Tell him to hurry up.”

She bowed again before turning around and leaving, back straight, body constantly level as if she was floating.

Shen Jiu tried sitting with his back straight and limbs elegantly posed. He would live up to the title of scholar, exude its essence so well that no one would remember where he came from.

When Yue Qi walked through the door, his eyes widened and jaw nearly dropped, but his mouth didn’t quite open. Yue Qi took a deep breath and closed his eyes to compose himself before attempting to speak, but Shen Jiu acted first.

He handed the white jade pendant back to Yue Qi, “I don’t want it, someone will accuse me of stealing it.”

Yue Qi frowned at him, “Xiao Jiu, we’re going out to play today, don’t say such dark words.”

Shen Jiu shook his head. “Do what you want with it, but you can’t force me to wear it.”

Yue Qi sighed and put away the pendant.


 

The streets were bustling, each stand brimming with people. The boisterous crowd ooh’d and ahh’d at the street dancers, Yue Qi had even prepared some money to offer the dragon dancers. It was an extravagant affair. Food, dancing, entertainment, riddles posted to be answered for prizes, Shen Jiu didn’t know where to go first.

“Here Xiao Jiu, why don’t you give it to those dancers there?” Yue Qi handed him some money and nodded towards the dragon dancers just a bit farther down the street.

“How will they take it when they’re holding those poles?” Shen Jiu asked.

In front of them was a stall selling candied fruit, “I can eat candied fruit instead.”

The stall was managed by an old man, eyes covered by skin sagging with age, Shen Jiu gave him the money and requested, “Three sticks please old man.”

Candied fruit was delicious.

“Young master! Young master!” A wizened old lady waved at him, “Come buy my ornaments, every one of them has a thousand uses.”

Shen Jiu looked around, the only person that looked like a real ‘Young master’ was Yue Qi, but her eyes were obviously on Shen Jiu.

“Me?” He asked, pointing at himself.

The older lady nodded and beckoned him over, “This old lady’s eyes are never wrong. Young master, you look like someone who needs a Repelling Scents hair pin.”

Repelling scents… Shen Jiu looked at her with suspicion, this was the hair pin Sir Mu told him he needed in order to detect poison.

“Young master, don’t look at me with such eyes, this old lady is too weary for such flirtations. You should turn such eyes to the young man beside you, he looks like he needs it.”

Shen Jiu looked over at Yue Qi, the man was blushing a faint red, but nothing about his facial expression indicated anything amiss.

“You should use this to pin up your hair, Young master. Pair it with a coronet and it will be beautiful and useful.”

The old lady held out the pin for Shen Jiu to assess, she even showed them a simple coronet to pair it with.

The pin would be more useful to Yue Qi than Shen Jiu to be quite frank. The man was way more trusting than Shen Jiu hence much more prone to eating poisoned goodies. And if he died, what was Shen Jiu’s status in the world? It was a good item to have, but as for the reliability of the merchant…

The old lady smiled at him in a way that reminded him of a kindly old grandmother. Her eyes while benevolent seemed to be full of hidden strength, someone not to be trifled with.

Fine, he could always check its authenticity with Sir Mu later. “I’ll take it. Yue Qi, pay her.”

“Thank you, thank you, Young master,” the old lady bowed and shook her clasped hands several times in gratitude.

Shen Jiu wandered off while Yue Qi took care of things. A little farther down was another old man selling pumpkin pancakes, Shen Jiu’s mouth watered around the candied crabapple he was already eating, he could just imagine the taste of the fluffy treat and the texture of the sesame seeds sprinkled atop.

“Xiao Jiu, your hairpin.” Yue Qi handed Shen Jiu the hairpin they’d just purchased. It was a simple thing, not so simple as to be called shabby, but simple enough that people would think it looked modest. It suited Yue Qi quite well.

“Don’t call me that. You wear it, Yue Qi. I don’t want it.”

“Ah,” Yue Qi remarked with a hint of confusion. “But I think this would be quite useful for Xiao Jiu to have…”

Shen Jiu rolled his eyes, Yue Qi knew nothing about what would be useful for himself, but he presumed to know what would be helpful for Shen Jiu?

“Can’t you consider a gift from me to you?”

Yue Qi’s elegant face blushed, which made Shen Jiu want to blush as well. What was such a handsome face doing in such an indecent way. Shen Jiu felt like he’d witnessed something lewd.

“Xiao Jiu wants to gift me this hairpin?” Yue Qi asked again to confirm.

Why was Yue Qi making this so much more embarrassing then it had to be? It wasn’t really Shen Jiu’s to give anyway, Yue Qi paid for it. Shen Jiu nodded just to move things along.

“Then this—" Yue Qi stopped before continuing, “Shixiong will accept it,” Yue Qi said. “As long as Xiao Jiu will accept this ring.”

Yue Qi pulled a ring off his pinky and handed it to Shen Jiu. It was a tasteful thing, silver with an oval blue gem at the center. Shen Jiu wanted it immediately. And yet, he felt like he should put up some token resistance.

Why? It was a free ring, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t he just say, ‘thank you’?

“Thank you,” he said.

Yue Qi blushed even harder. Shen Jiu couldn’t bear to look at his face any longer. Yue Qi caught Shen Jiu’s hand and put the ring on his pointer finger. The man’s face was so red, Shen Jiu was worried he’d stopped breathing, but he was one to talk, his cheeks felt like they were on fire too. Yue Qi needed to wear a veil if he was going to continue such shenanigans.

“Xiao Jiu, could Qi Ge trouble you to change out these hairpins?”

Fine, whatever. It’s not like Yue Qi had a mirror to help him see, did he? It was just a hairpin.

He helped Yue Qi and then remembered he should be upset. He stomped on Yue Qi’s foot, saying “Don’t call me Xiao Jiu and you’ve no right to that other title either!”

Urgh. What was wrong with him? Something about Yue Qi constantly made him act like he was five.

Ah, whatever, forget about it, there were sweets to be eaten.

He rushed over to the pumpkin pancake stand and handed Yue Qi the other two candied fruit sticks.

“Old man, how much for a pumpkin pancake?”

Shen Jiu checked to make sure Yue Qi was opening his wallet.

“Eh, old man, give me a discount, I’ll buy five.”

The pumpkin cakes were hot, and they warmed his hands. Shen Jiu gave Yue Qi the other four to hold.

Shen Jiu scarfed it down as if he’d been starving. Yue Qi reached over and brushed some crumbs off of Shen Jiu’s cheek. “Xiao Jiu, you’re not a child,” he said in unbelievably kind and gentle voice, “be more careful when you eat.”

Shen Jiu couldn’t stop himself, he pouted, “Don’t call me that!” As soon as he realized that he did, he flushed in embarrassment and ran to the dragon beard’s candy stall.

He pretended nothing happened as they continued to travel.

Red bean buns! He ran off towards the stall.

Ah, thank you Shifu for this day off. The red bean bun made him sigh in pleasure. The deep-fried durian was mouth-wateringly good. A little bit of mouth-blisteringly good, but that was fine. And the sweet rice bean cake was so tasty he nearly cried. He would have some of the durian cake next.

They stopped in front of a stand of lantern riddles and Shen Jiu nearly choked in shocked, coughing violently.

Yue Qi rubbed his back, “Xiao Jiu, slow down. Slow down. The food will still be there after you finish chewing.”

Yue Qi handed him a waterskin, “Drink some water, Xiao Jiu.”

Shen Jiu waved him off.

Weren’t these riddles too simple? Wouldn’t the stall owner go bankrupt?

‘If you had one Jin of feathers and one Jin of rocks, which would weigh more?’

‘What is the word that becomes shorter after adding two more letters?’

‘What question can you ask all day and receive a different answer each ke, but still be correct?’

Well, he would answer them all and bankrupt the stall.

“Yue Qi, hold this.”


 

It was almost dark already and all he’d done was run around eating and answering riddles. Not to mention he was very disappointed there were no more, he was pretty certain they’d been to all of the riddle stalls already. Shen Jiu sighed, now what were they to do until it was time to watch the fireworks? And then what were they to do after, he really didn’t want to return to the estate tonight.

Thinking all of these things, he released a sigh.

“Xiao Jiu, what’s wrong? Did you want some candied lotus seeds? I brought some from the house.”

Shen Jiu just sighed again and held his hand out.

Lotus seeds were so fun to eat and they were calming too. Shen Jiu sighed, Qing Jing-shifu was disappointed in him, he still hadn’t solved the attempted murder, he hadn’t even had time to question any maids or going spying through the estate. Perhaps it was a waste that he spent so much time reading and trying to catch up with the stupid advanced class. Putting him in there was just another way to drag him down, why didn’t he see it before? He really wanted to lie down and cry, but the tears wouldn’t come, and if they did, he’d never let them fall.

What was he to do now? If his teacher didn’t like him then he had no chance of advancing any further. It was all Yue Qi’s fault again, pulling him forward and holding him back. He just wanted to see the man suffer for a bit.

“Yue Qi, buy me a lantern, I want to walk with one later.”

Shen Jiu glanced over at Yue Qi, his face seemed to be going through some happy acrobatics before settling on a suppressed grin. Of course, Shen Jiu couldn’t even administer torture correctly, who knew what was going on inside Yue Qi’s head.

“Yes. Is there a specific one you want?”

He felt a spark of malicious will. What kind of lantern would be impossible or near impossible to find at this time of day or ever?

“Bring me a lantern…,” an impossible task, something so difficult as to have no answer, “that is the embodiment of our relationship.”

Yue Qi was confounded and deeply troubled, Shen Jiu could tell by the way his brow furrowed and that constant gentle smile wavered.

Just to rub it in, Shen Jiu added, “There is a right answer.”

Shen Jiu smiled inside and waited a moment before sending Yue Qi off, “You should go and look for it now. The deadline is tonight after all.”

Shen Jiu was conflicted watching Yue Qi, the man had packages on top of packages in his arms from the prizes Shen Jiu had won today, yet somehow the man was still graceful. It was simultaneously amusing and infuriating. As for Shen Jiu’s mission, Yue Qi should have known it was an impossible task, but he still nodded solemnly and took off to find it. It made Shen Jiu’s heart ache just a little. Well it was fine, when Yue Qi inevitably came back with the wrong answer, Shen Jiu would only lightly berate him before letting the matter go.

“Shidi! Is that you?”

Shen Jiu didn’t entirely recognize their faces or voices, but judging from their attire, they were students from the advanced class. What did they want with him? They walked up to him as if they were his friends.

“Qing Jing-shifu is terrible, isn’t he?” The tallest one said.

“I can’t believe you didn’t attend class today.” Another one said, laughing.

“Qing Jing-shifu is hard on you, but I can’t believe you skipped class like that.”

“The man is awful.” A short one said.

“Always picking and prodding.” They all nodded in agreement.

Shen Jiu remained silent, still not certain of their intentions. It was unlikely they changed their minds about him simply because he was receiving criticism from Qing Jing-Shifu. He stared at them impassively.

The short one laughed nervously and scratched his head, “These shixiongs were wondering if shidi would like to join us at the Warm Red Pavilion, come be free.”

If this was a plot, it was a good one. They didn’t know his vices, but they’d struck one.

“I hear they’re asking riddles as well, and the person who can guess the Amber Fairy’s riddle will have the privilege of spending the night with her.” One said to another.

“They say no one has ever guessed the answer to her riddle since she’s posed it.”

Well, it would take Yue Qi quite a while to get back anyway, just a peek couldn’t hurt.

“This shidi will have to trouble his shixiongs to treat him.”


 

The Warm Red Pavilion was the nicest of all the brothels he’d ever been to. It was obvious it catered to a higher class than his. The hanging silks were opulent, perfume wafted through the air without inundating the senses. If it was possible to call a place like this refined, it was refined. However, no matter how nicely everything was dressed, Shen Jiu knew what kind of things went on behind the scenes. In this age, with nothing to protect its workers, no one went into this profession without being forced or dire need.

A sultry musical chorus of, “Young masters,” greeted them as they walk in. One slender young girl latched herself to his arm. He resisted the urge to throw her off.

From the side, Shen Jiu noticed the shortest shixiong went to speak to the Madam. They glanced his way, so he pretended to be deeply interested in the slender girl’s bosom.

“Come on, shidi! They have our usual room for us.”

These shixiongs were indeed ‘Young masters,’ the private room that had been reserved for them was opulent and estimating from the outside, it seemed like the largest room as well. Shen Jiu would know, he spent sometime robbing buildings like these. There were incense sticks throughout the room, steadily burning down, releasing a rose like scent. Their smoke created a haze in the room. It was really uncomfortable.

There were plenty of windows meant to let the inhabitants look down at the masses, but they were closed, which was a shame because of what kind of day it was. He opened one to see. He was right, the sight of all the lanterns hanging all over the street from shop to shop was quite a sight. The people milling about below only added to the visual.

He also noted it was the third story, not too bad a drop. Turning back into the room, he looked for the hidden door intended for the servants to enter and leave discretely, but he could only see the main double doors they had just entered. The room contained one enormous divan at the far end.

Did these shixiongs fuck together too?

“Shen-shidi, come sit and drink with us.”

He pulled himself away from the window and sat down beside the one who called him over, hereby known as short-shixiong. A servant came by and closed the window. The incense was making his head hurt. A girl tried to sit on his lap, but he declined. Musicians had set up shop in the corner. The pipa player suited his ears very well.

“Shen-shidi, these shixiongs are sorry we haven’t welcomed you earlier. But as you know, you were indisposed,” said short-shixiong with a small smile.

A few seniors sniggered.

Shen Jiu kept his face blank. Well, even if some of them wanted to be his friends, there were many more who did not.

“Let us offer you a toast to truly welcome you to the Yue estate.”

Short-shixiong handed him a cup of wine.

The blue gem on the ring Yue Qi gave him turned a cloudy red.

Well.

That couldn’t mean anything positive, could it?

If he rejected the cup without drinking it, these seniors would likely call him distrusting, disrespectful, and ungrateful. If he was to drink it, then he would be entirely at the mercy of their intentions. He couldn’t drink it and he couldn’t reject it.

He scoffed inside. Who did these people think Shen Jiu was? Were these his only two options? He would give them a taste of their own medicine.

He smiled and stood up, “Shixiongs, this shidi is grateful for your kind intentions.” He raised his cup to them with both hands. Then with his foot he tripped one of the fawning girls behind him, he used one hand to ‘help her’ onto his short-shixiong’s lap and with the other he switched his cup.

What kind of street scams did he not try in his youth? It was laughably easy to distract them.

The idiots then guffawed heartily at how clumsy the serving girl was. The only regret that Shen Jiu had was that the girl was now being groped, but she didn’t seem to mind, so it didn’t matter.

He checked the ring to make sure this cup was safe. Now let’s see what that cup of wine was meant to do.

He held his wine cup in a toast, “To brotherhood!”

“To brotherhood!” They chorused before one of them drank the cup of tainted wine they’d originally offered him.

“Da Ge, would you like to try the Amber Fairy’s riddle?” Asked one of the girls.

Shen Jiu had been so tense since entering the brothel, he’d forgotten the reason he’d come in the first place.

A few shixiongs whooped in assent.

The sound of the pipa faded into the background as he focused on the girl’s words.

“I wait quietly for you all your life.

A few, wait quietly for me all their lives.

Some fear me, some desire me, and some live quietly knowing me.

Whether you dread coming home to me or look forward to meeting me,

My dedication is always rewarded.”

“Uhhh,” came a moan to his left. It was short-shixiong, the senior who he’d switched his cup with. He was sweating profusely, his face was bright red, his eyes glassy, mouth open and drooling. It was time, he was glad for the excuse to leave the rose scented incense behind.

Ever the picture of a dutiful shidi, he stood up to help his shixiong. “Shixiongs, let me bring this shixiong to a room to rest. It seems the alcohol tonight was a bit much.”

If they were all aware of what short-shixiong meant to do, then they would likely attack him now, in which case, he could just jump out the window. If they were innocent, they would let him cart away this very helpless shixiong. But no one even seemed to be paying attention to him, they were all trying to guess the Amber Fairy’s riddle.

He dragged short-shixiong away to an empty room, even that room had the rose scented incense burning. Short-shixiong was panting heavily. He wouldn’t die before Shen Jiu had a chance to interrogate him, would he? The Madam might be in cahoots with the man, perhaps she’d have an antidote. He tied short-shixiong up with the rope from the bed curtains and went to find her.


 

It was half an aphrodisiac and half a sedative! There was no antidote, the only thing to do was wait it out. He grimaced with disgust at the lecherous bastard currently tied up and rolling around on the floor in a self-inflicted manufactured heat.  

Revolting.

Was there anything more despicable than a rapist?

True, in Shen Jiu’s case, the man hadn’t managed to do anything to him, but even a would-be rapist kept alive would do the world no good. Maybe he should just mercifully kill the man now, before he had a chance to open his mouth and Shen Jiu would have to cut his tongue out.

Shen Jiu left the room before he could find out what kind of things he would be willing to do to a man who was tied up and drugged out of his mind. The drug would only last an hour or so, it wasn’t too long. He would go drink with his seniors, useless and petty they might be, but at least they weren’t rapists. And he could find out what the rest of the estate thought about Yue Qi. There were plenty of reasons to foster a tolerating relationship with his seniors.

A barely a tenth of an incense stick had burned and he regretted his decision so very much, no matter how productive the information gathering session was. The only comfort he had was that the wine was delicious, and he wasn’t paying. But he stuck it out, every single miserable second. Why were people so disgusting?


 

Short-shixiong had passed out and lay in a puddle of drool and other bodily fluids. It seemed the drug’s influenced had passed. Shen woke the worm up with a bucket of cold water he’d had the girls bring. Short-shixiong sputtered awake.

When he caught sight of Shen Jiu, his panicked face morphed into one of arrogance, hatred, and derision. Arrogance was an ugly look on humans, Shen Jiu had seen it in many faces and not one had a good end.

“Why?” Shen Jiu asked.

“Because you’re a whore.” Shen Jiu scooped some water out and tossed it in short-shixiong’s face.

“Why?” Shen Jiu asked again.

“Because I wanted to know what it’d feel like to be Yue Qingyuan, dick in your hot loose pussy.” Another splash. Short-shixiong was beginning to look more like a wet fish than anything.

Where did these noble young men learn such words.

“Why?” Shen Jiu asked again.

“Because I hate you!” Screamed short-shixiong.

Now that, Shen Jiu could believe. Hatred, jealousy, those were understandable emotions. But what a wicked way to try and express that hatred. Short-shixiong could have just killed him, it wasn’t entirely impossible with the current level of Shen Jiu’s abilities, but he set out to break him in a manner wholly unforgivable.

This could not go unanswered. He could kill this shixiong, but that would probably get him kicked out. He could let this shixiong go for now and torment him slowly, but that was an awful amount of work. He could turn him over to the estate, but would Shen Jiu really get justice?

There was also the point that a would-be rapist kept alive would do the world no good. Such disrespect for the rights of others would persist throughout short-shixiong’s life, who knows how many victims the man would have in the future? It was best he be taken care of now.

Shen Jiu stood up and looked down at him, “You choose, I cut off your dick, or I kill you.”

Short-shixiong finally seemed to realize what kind of position he was in because he paled to a ghostly ashen hue.

“Help! Help!” Short-shixiong screamed desperately.

Shen Jiu considered kicking him until he shut up, but it was a little fun to hear him frantically shrieking like that. Even someone heard him, at the pitch he was screaming, no one would recognize his voice. Not to mention, inside these walls, how many people have screamed for help and gone unanswered?

Surprisingly, someone did burst through the door.

Yue Qi! He held a silk handkerchief to his nose and a lantern in his other hand. He always did have the worse timing.

“Get out,” Shen Jiu said.

Yue Qi’s eyes flickered between Shen Jiu and the short-shixiong tied on the floor. “What is going on here? Why is Chang-shidi on the floor?”

Shen Jiu turned to look at this Chang-shixiong. He’d been to a Chang residence before, to steal of course, they kept their omegas deep inside the residence, underground, some had lived their whole lives inside that dank basement, just waiting to be given away, married off, traded for some small favor. “Chang, huh? I suppose it’s good name for a rapist, it doesn’t merit passing on.”

Yue Qi’s hand tightened around his handkerchief, “Rapist?”

“None of your business, go away.”

“Young master, save me!” Chang-shixiong decided this was the moment to interrupt, as if Yue Qi was capable of turning a blind eye to any situation. “This whore wants to kill me!”

Yue Qi froze, “What did you call Xiao Jiu?”

Chang-shixiong opened his mouth.

Yue Qi advanced on him. Shen Jiu stood between them.

“Xiao Jiu, stand aside.”

Shen Jiu did not move.

“I can take care of my own problems.”

“This student is a student of the Yue estate, he isn’t your problem Xiao Jiu, he’s mine.”

That was logical.

Besides, whatever Yue Qi chose to do, Shen Jiu could exact his own revenge after. He stood aside. He didn’t even protest when Yue Qi untied the bastard and helped him stand up. Chang-shixiong sobbed in relief.

“Pick up your blade,” Yue Qi said, his tone cold and ruthless.

Chang-shixiong paled yet again and tried to beg Shen Jiu, “Shen Ge, save me! Shen Ge, I was wrong.”

Shen Jiu scoffed, “Pick up your blade.”

Chang-shixiong bent and picked up his blade. He made one last plea.

“Shen Ge forgive me! This was all because the First Wife asked me to!” He ran toward Shen Jiu, intending to hug his leg, but Yue Qi didn’t give him the chance to reach Shen Jiu.

Blood sprayed across Shen Jiu’s face and new white robes.

Shen Jiu was accustomed to blood, he was used to death, but he’d never seen Yue Qi—. He couldn’t move from shock. Yue Qi hadn’t even drawn his sword, he’d just used a single punch to—. What? Rip the heart of someone? Yue Qi’s gentle face, caring eyes, and kind mouth were such a contrast to what he’d just done.

“Xiao Jiu, are you alright?” Yue Qi grabbed his shoulders and turned him this way and that to look him over. “Did he touch you?”

Yue Qi pulled him into a bone-crushing hug.

This was nothing. If Yue Qi thought this was Shen Jiu in danger, then he was an idiot. Shen Jiu’s arms finally recovered their strength enough for him to push Yue Qi away.

“I’m fine. Let go of me.”

“I was so worried when I couldn’t find you Xiao Jiu. If someone tries to kidnap you, yell for me!”

Yue Qi’s eyes were red and glistening with unshed tears.

“I wasn’t kidnapped,” Shen Jiu said slowly, so there would be no mistake, “I walked here with my own two feet.”

“Then don’t follow strange people to strange places!”

Strange? Wasn’t he your shidi?

Shen Jiu blinked out of his stupor, poor Yue Qi. He didn’t realize what he’d done yet. When the morning sun rose, Yue Qi would regret it so much. His poor Yue Qi who couldn’t harm a fly. Had he ever killed a man before?

Shen Jiu remembered the lantern in Yue Qi’s hand, he tried to smile for Yue Qi. He resolved to tell Yue Qi ‘good job’, no matter how badly he failed.

“What are you holding?”

“Oh,” Yue Qi blushed again.

Shen Jiu tried to smile encouragingly.

“I brought you a phoenix lantern.” Yue Qi held it out for Shen Jiu to take. “You asked for one that’s the embodiment of our relationship. It’s because Xiao Jiu brings me peace with his presence, good luck, and prosperity. Just as the phoenix brings new beginnings, Xiao Jiu makes me feel reborn again.”

Shen Jiu turned away, what was this soppy mess saying now, he blushed deeply without knowing why.

Yue Qi continued with his embarrassing monologue. “Xiao Jiu is a phoenix capable of leaving everything behind. No matter who comes to drag him down or smother him in mud, he will rise brighter, fiercer, stronger. If the phoenix chooses, not even the gods can tie him down.”

Shen Jiu searched Yue Qi’s eyes for the answer to the questions stirring inside him now, but he couldn’t read him.

Shen Jiu felt a gush of slick escape him. He stiffened. What was happening? He took suppressants just this morning and even if he hadn’t, he was still set to last for another three weeks.

Shen Jiu slowly backed away, towards the door. “You did well. Great answer. I have to admit your abilities are unparalleled.”

Yue Qi advanced a step forward for every step Shen Jiu took backwards.

“What’s wrong, Xiao Jiu?” Yue Qi asked, frowning in worry.

“Nothing is wrong. I just want to rejoin the students. You should—.” Shen Jiu was about to say, ‘come with,’ but thinking about it, those students would not bring Yue Qi any good and were much more likely to lead Yue Qi down improper paths.

“You should go home for now. I’ll come back later.”

His back was against the door now, but he needed to pull them open. Yue Qi was too close for Shen Jiu to step forward.

Yue Qi breathed in deeply, “Xiao Jiu, do you smell that? It smells so sweet.”

Shen Jiu cursed his own vanity. Why did he have to accept new clothes today of all days?

Yue Qi sniffed the air like a dog, “Xiao Jiu, don’t you smell it? It smells—.” Yue Qi closed his eyes with an expression of rapture, “I’ve never smelt anything like it before. My gut tells me it smells like an omega. But I normally hate that smell.”

Yue Qi wrapped his arms around Shen Jiu and held him close, sniffing at his nape, “I think it’s coming from you.”

Shen Jiu shoved him away, “It must be from all the omegas around here.”

“No…,” Yue Qi said slowly, “it smells more real than that. These Red-Passion incense sticks are meant to simulate the smell of an omega’s heat to arouse alphas, and to trigger an omegas heat to make them more susceptible to pleasure, but this brothel has no omegas.”

Shen Jiu’s eyes widened. The stupid incense sticks? After everything, this is what would expose him? Over his dead body.

“Though the Amber Fairy is an omega, but no one has ever met them,” Yue Qi continued.

Shen Jiu hurriedly said, “I’ve met them. This is their scent.”

“Xiao Jiu?” Yue Qi asked and then shook his head in amusement, “Of course, Xiao Jiu would be able to solve the riddle.”

“Anyway, so I’m going to spend the night here. You should return home.”

Shen Jiu turned around to open the door, but Yue Qi had grabbed his wrist.

“I can’t let you do that Xiao Jiu. Lust will impair your cultivation.”

He needed to get out of here. His hands were beginning to tremble and he’s sure a wet spot would soak through his robes pretty soon.

“Xiao Jiu,” asked Yue Qi in his gentle, gentle voice, “are you alright?”

Shen Jiu’s eyes nearly fluttered shut from hearing Yue Qi’s voice beside his ear. He turned around in panic.

“What do you want Yue Qingyuan? Can’t I spend one night here? Are you just trying to assert your dominance? What do you want from me? Do you want me to be your omega? Spread me open and make me call you Alpha?”

Shen Jiu nearly choked from how much his body was deciding it was very into his words.

He kept his voice as harsh as possible and his eyes accusatory, “Will you be satisfied if I call you Alpha?”

Shen Jiu grabbed the hand that was holding his wrist and tried to pull it between his legs to emphasize his words, but he’d forgotten about the robes he was wearing and instead their hands met cloth. The heat, it was getting to him. He didn’t know how much longer he’s be conscious of his actions and not just a ball of need.

He used Yue Qi’s momentary shock to escape to the room with the other scholars, Yue Qi wouldn’t be able to try anything with so many eyes. And there were all those windows to jump through as well. Plus, that room was hazy with the incense sticks, no one would be able to sort out Shen Jiu’s scent in there.

However, thinking about it. There was no where he could go that would be safe. He didn’t have his own room at the estate, even if he did, what would he do about the smell travelling. He couldn’t trust Yue Qi because he wasn’t sure if Yue Qi would protect him or decide the best way to make his wayward friend come to heel was to fuck some obedience into him with the help of a bond. It was strange considering he’d almost been raped here, but the brothel was the safest place to be.

Urgh, they did all fuck together. Shen Jiu got an eyeful of several naked butts when he entered the scholar’s room. He tried to keep his eyes covered as he ran towards the window on shaky legs. He knocked over some candle holder and then he went through the wall.

He didn’t see clearly since he’d had his eyes covered, but he was pretty certain the wall rotated open and then swallowed him in.

“I don’t think you answered my riddle.”

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu survived.

It was his skill. He had no luck. He had no family. He had no schooling.

But he could survive.

Against violence, against scorn, against indifference, against all odds, against— no one-but-him, hoping for his survival.

Even the things that boys did in the dark, when there was no such thing as justice, to those they could push down, he survived. There was no indignation, no pain, no trap, he could not live through. Besides the direct intention to kill him, Shen Jiu would not easily die to an accident. So, while the wall had swallowed him whole, there was nothing to fear. He uncovered his eyes.

The hidden corridor was dark. It was free from the scent of the Red Passion incense. A handsome young man with a vermillion mark held a lantern, the warm light coated him in a bronze halo. His eyes were bright and smiling with interest.

Shen Jiu prided himself on his ability to perform. To have enough composure to act like he belonged anywhere, even if he clearly didn’t.

Lifting his chin in an arrogant manner, “Who are you?” Shen Jiu demanded, as if he wasn’t the one who had stumbled into some strange place.

The young man’s laugh chimed like music, “Shouldn’t I be the one to ask who you are? These are my rooms.”

Wary and not entirely sure how to answer, Shen Jiu kept quiet. If it was a waiting game to see who would answer first, then out of sheer spite, Shen Jiu would always win. He did not fear silence.

The young man did indeed tire of it first. His eyes scanned Shen Jiu before landing on the lantern Yue Qi had given him and asked, "What a lovely lantern, is it for me?"

 “No,” Shen Jiu answered immediately, clutching the lantern closer to himself.  

Shen Jiu grimaced as another gush of slick slide down his leg. His knees felt weak and about ready to collapse.

The man stepped forward in an elegant flow of motion, before leaning in and gently inhaling.

"You're an omega," the man said, after a slight pause, "Omegas generally don't come here unless they're looking for a good time..." He smiled at Shen Jiu, his eyes bright with curiosity, "Are you here for a good time?"

That question—. Shen Jiu searched the man's eyes for any hidden intentions, but he could find nothing. It felt like this was a moment when the best answer was a simple answer. There was no point in denying the man's initial statement. Taken at face value, the actual question was benign.

"No."

His lips twitched into a pout, a tease of amusement, "Ah, well. I suppose you don't have to answer the riddle then."

Straightening, the man turned his back to Shen Jiu and glanced over his shoulder, his eyes shining with mirth. Like a quiet song, "I'm bored. Will you keep this lonely courtesan company?"

Shen Jiu hesitated. All he really wanted to do was find an unoccupied room and lock himself inside until his heat passed.

The man's smile said that he knew exactly what Shen Jiu was thinking, "I won't touch you, if that's what you're worried about."

Shen Jiu bowed, "Then allow this humble scholar to trouble you." What choice did he really have? He had nowhere to go.

The corridor split into many pathways, but they followed the one that lead to a set of stairs.

Walking was becoming difficult. Shen Jiu could feel his skin heating and a flush slowly building on his face. His body felt heavy. At least this area of the brothel was mercifully clear of the incense.

The man led him to a spacious room. It contained a large four-poster canopied bed in the center. There were also three desks, one on each side of the room except from the side with the door. The furnishing overall was sparse yet lavish, the theme of the room seemed to be air and open space. Three walls were almost entirely made of large sliding doors that were open, each leading to a balcony overlooking a different section of the city. The view was beautiful. Shen Jiu could not stand it any longer, who was this man? 

He broke the quiet, "This humble scholar's name is Shen Jiu. Gentleman is..."

"Ning Xu," the young man said in his melodic voice.

Shen Jiu supposed the emperor would not go about announcing himself as the emperor, so he supplied the unstated designation. "Amber Fairy of the Warm Red Pavilion."

Ning Xu inclined his head indifferently, "I suppose some people call me that."

They observed each other in silence. Shen Jiu's primary concern was assessing the intentions of this Amber Fairy.

Deciding he'd had enough, Ning Xu turned his back to Shen Jiu. He gestured at a chair beside a low wooden table, saying, "Please sit and have some tea."

The heat inside him was slowly building to a burn and Shen Jiu's knees were about to give out, so he was grateful for the excuse to sit down.

Gracefully, Ning Xu poured Shen Jiu a cup of osmanthus tea. Sitting across the table in front of Shen Jiu, Ning Xu looked over at him expectantly.

Shen Jiu was still unable to ascertain this man's motives, but to be polite, he raised the cup in acknowledgment. The gem on the ring Yue Qi gave him, then turned from clear dark blue to vibrant bright red.

His eyes shot sharply to Ning Xu's face.

Exclaiming cheerfully, "Ah! I was caught!" Ning Xu smiled brightly at Shen Jiu.

A grimace broke out on his face, Shen Jiu could not restrain the disgust in his voice, "Why?"

"Oh, don't look so angry. It wouldn't have hurt you." Ning Xu tilted his head as if to think more deeply about it, "Probably."

Shen Jiu was speechless.

Snapping his fingers in triumph, the man's eyes lit up, "As recompense, I'll do this for you." Ning Xu, turning to a small table at the side, brought out an incense stick from the drawer and lit it.

"Here," he said, setting it on the table in an ash pot. "Breath this. It should clear up the effect of the Red-Passion Incense."

Shen Jiu could only stare at the man in disbelief. After an attempt to drug him, did this man really expected Shen Jiu to comply?

"Ah. You still don't believe me." The man said dejectedly, before brightening yet again. "No worries. I'll breathe it in first!"

Closing his eyes, he leant over the incense and deeply inhaled.

"See?" Ning Xu asked, looking at Shen Jiu with earnest eyes.

A warm wave shook Shen Jiu's body into a shiver. If he didn't do anything, perhaps something worse would happen. Shen Jiu reluctantly leaned down and inhaled. The effect was immediate. The man was right. Shen Jiu's head was finally clear, and his body felt like a weight had been lifted from it as the heat began to dissipate. He closed his eyes in relief.

Ning Xu’s melodic voice interrupted Shen Jiu’s moment of reprieve, “You can have some if you’d like, what do you think? I made them both, Red Passion Incense and their counterpart, Blue Clarity.”

While Shen Jiu was not one to turn down useful things, keeping that beside him would be akin to carrying a heavy axe at his waist, when he was far more proficient at the sword. It was likely to be used against him, than to serve any real purpose for him.

Ning Xu took Shen Jiu’s silence as resentment, “Are you still upset? If I didn’t drug you, someone else would have. Besides, it’s only an imitation heat.”

Rolling his eyes behind closed lashes, Shen Jiu counseled himself to be patient. As expected, Ning Xu continued speaking on his own after a moment of silence.

"I would apologize for trying to drug you, but I don't really regret it." Ning Xu said softly, a bit wistfully. "There are very few people around me that I'm willing to actually experiment on."

Shen opened his eyes, focusing on Ning Xu's face. Wait, could this man be the supplier of the drug Dead-Senior had slipped Shen Jiu? "Are you the one responsible for earlier as well?"

The delicate angle of the man's head and wide eyes screamed innocent-confusion, "...Earlier?"

Was it truly not him? "It doesn't matter," Shen Jiu verbally dismissed. The man's actions just now, spoke louder than any words he could use. "I know what kind of person you are anyway."

"Someone like you?" Ning Xu said sharply, offended.

Shen Jiu looked at him coldly, "I don't drug strangers."

"But you would. If it benefited you," Ning Xu's expression softened and now held the peace and gentleness of a person who was trying to soothe another. Like he pitied Shen Jiu.

"I'm not a good person," the reply came off of Shen Jiu's tongue like a well rehearsed response. So, what. It was true. He was not a good person.

That stupid condescending gentle smile again. "It's ok. I would too."

"You did," Shen Jiu shot back.

Now a infuriatingly amused smile, "You don't even know what it was meant to do."

Shen Jiu scoffed, "Does it matter?"

"I suppose it doesn't."

And then his smile turned sad, and Shen Jiu had the feeling that Ning Xu wasn't actually talking to him anymore. Or that the man was replying to a question Shen Jiu had not asked.

"You can stay here until you feel better." Ning Xu rose in one fluid movement. Before walking over to a desk to tinker with some powders and herbs, effectively dismissing Shen Jiu.

It would be logical, to be wary of the man, since he blatantly tried to poison Shen Jiu. And yet, if Shen Jiu had such a thing as intuition, it would say, this man meant him no harm. Shen Jiu was to him like an egret to a water buffalo. Easily disposable, but inconsequential. It was safer than most places. It could even be said, if Shen Jiu was careful, he potentially had much to gain.

The sun had long set even before Shen Jiu had arrived, but the night view full of stars was breathtaking and being here felt like a reprieve from a long chase. His eyelids were becoming heavy.

Abruptly, Ning Xu's voice came from beside him, "Why don't you sleep here?"

Shen Jiu wanted to recoil in surprise, but he held his body still. "...Why?"

They looked at each other. While Shen Jiu was closely observing the man's face, Ning Xu's eyes were indecipherable.

"I'm lonely," is what Ning Xu finally said.

It still wasn't a good reason. "How can I trust you?"

Firmly, as if he was telling Shen Jiu a Truth, "I don't lie. And I don't regret. I promise not to drug you without your knowledge."

What was it called when you looked into someone's eyes and they looked into yours, but you had the feeling neither person truly saw the other?

Ah.

Fruitless.

Shen Jiu gave up. If this imitation-heat was over then he should return, nothing good could result from staying here for a night. Shifu, Yue Qi, the seniors… "My peers will be jealous,” Shen Jiu said aloud, “life will be worse."

Ning Xu smiled like Shen Jiu had told him something amusing before realizing Shen Jiu actually meant to deny him. The polite curve remained, and the head tilt returned, "Do you care? You seem like someone who would prefer their envy to harmony."

Shen Jiu was silent. Ning Xu was not wrong. Why should he beg for their approval, when he would never have it.

"You could tell them...” turning around, one long delicate finger pressed to his lip, every action controlled like a well-executed dance performed by Ning Xu, “I don't even ask for your coin. Won't tales of your prowess be rampant then."

It—. To say such a thing would benefit his image was dubious. It could just as easily be said—. In the back of his head, Shen Jiu could hear Yue Qi's voice saying, "Lust will impair your cultivation." Yes, he could just as easily be called immoral. Perhaps even Qing Jing-Shifu would be—.

Qing Jing-Shifu.

What did he care for anyone's opinion? This was a place to sleep.

He bowed politely, "This humble scholar thanks the Fairy for their kindness."

--

Shen Jiu awoke before the sun rose. At the side of the room Ning Xu was still working on some project.

He quickly left through one of the windows to avoid going back through the incense laden halls.

"I'll keep these windows open for your return Scholar Shen," Ning Xu called out after him.

--

As Shen Jiu walked to Yue Qi's room to reclaim his old clothes, he lingered for a moment near the training grounds, a lump-like feeling settling in his chest.

There was no point in dwelling on things that could not be changed.

“Scholar Shen,” a man’s voice called out softly.

Immediately there were two instincts warring within Shen Jiu, one to turn around and the other to run away. He turned around.

It was Yue Qingwei, Yue Qi’s alpha older brother, the child of the currently deceased, original-third-wife, Madam Wei. She had been gifted a cup of poisoned wine for the crime of switching Yue Qi with a slave-child and also causing the death of Yue Qi's mother. The tall and burly young man held a handkerchief up to his nose, as if Shen Jiu stank.

“Please don’t misunderstand me, but you should bathe before returning next time. The scent of the brothel is all over you,” Yue Qingwei said gently.

The second-young master was a buff and muscled young man. He had the build of a blacksmith, arms and legs thick and strong. Very much the essence of five big (two hands, two feet, one head) three thick (neck, waist, legs), but his face was that of a gentle giant. If one looked sideways at Yue Qingwei, he could be said to be handsome, but Yue Qi was obviously the more appealing of the two brothers.

Shen Jiu swallowed his instinctual offense at being told to bathe, and replied, “Thank you for your guidance, second-young master.”

Yue Qingwei shook his head, waving off Shen Jiu’s words, “I dare not accept such a title. Wei Ge is fine.”

“Wei Ge?” Shen Jiu asked tentatively.

‘Wei Ge’s’ smile was sweet and gentle, his eyes wrinkling slightly with a mild fondness. It reminded Shen Jiu of Yue Qi. Perhaps gentle smiles reminiscent of sunlight a family trait.

“No.” Shen Jiu did not need anymore ‘Ges’ in his life, before he could register his own words, they arrogantly slipped out, “I want to be ‘Ge’. Let me call you, ‘Wei Di’.” He closed his mouth, but it was too late.

Eyes opening wide at Shen’s words, the second-young master laughed heartily at Shen Jiu’s audacity and said, “Yes. That’s fine. Xiao Shen Ge. You can call me ‘Wei Di’.”

‘Wei Di’s’ own words seemed to amuse him to no end, and he continued laughing raucously.

Catching his breath, ‘Wei Di’ cautioned Shen Jiu, “Just make sure neither First Madam nor Lord Yue hear you call me as such.”

Yue Qingwei was an abnormal person.

This abnormal person did not entirely aggravate Shen Jiu’s nerves.

"Xiao Jiu!"

If Shen Jiu had been walking anywhere, he would’ve walked faster, but as it was, he was in the middle of a conversation with Yue Qingwei. Yue Qi reached him in no time at all.

"Big brother," Yue Qi greeted Yue Qingwei as he neared.

Yue Qingwei had obviously been uncontrollably tickled not even a moment ago, but by the time Yue Qi arrived, Yue Qingwei’s face was careful mask of humility, "How can I dare accept such a designation. To call me ‘Da Ge’ is too much." He bowed respectfully to Yue Qi, who bowed even more deeply.

Impeccably polite, “’Da Ge’, is, of course, ‘Da Ge’ to Qingyuan. Please do not reject this greeting.”

Yue Qingwei insisted on maintaining the balance between the two, saying, “Young master, please call this one, Qingwei.”

They seemed well occupied with each other. Shen Jiu quickly excused himself.

“Xiao Jiu!”

Yue Qi grabbed his arm, turning Shen Jiu to face him.

“Xiao Jiu, where did you go last night? I searched for you all night.”

Now, he looked carefully at Yue Qi. He looked like he had not slept the whole night, hair near unkempt, clothing the same as it was yesterday. Shen Jiu felt a pang of guilt.

“I stayed at the warm red pavilion. Like I told you. I had a date with the Amber Fairy.”

Yue Qi’s expression darkened, “I forbid you from sleeping outside. If you’re uncomfortable sleeping with the other scholars, you can just sleep in my room, but no more staying outside.”

Shen Jiu was rendered near speechless, “You—,” Yue Qi’s words were like suffocating vines sprouting tendrils trying to entangle Shen Jiu and capture him, “forbid me?”

 “As a scholar in my household, you should comport yourself with greater dignity. Consorting with,” Yue Qi paused, choosing his words carefully, “the like that frequent the Warm Red Pavilion, or… those who make a living there, is unbecoming of a future scholar.”

Shen Jiu fought to hold his tongue, even biting the inside of his lip to restrain himself, but this was just his Yue Qi and he was just Shen Jiu, “With the power of ‘your’ household, what will you do if I refuse? What if I say, ‘I’ll sleep there every night?’ What will you do to me? Kick me out? Have me whipped? How dare you forbid me?” The words escaped from him in a torrent, dam holding his dark and most insecure and useless thoughts, collapsing under the weight of all his unspoken words. Let alone Yue Qi, Shen Jiu was shocked and mortified at his own utterances.

He could not put the words back inside him, but he could stop the rest from escaping. But his emotions would not let him be, the indignation, the helplessness, the endless longing—.

The wounds in his heart clawed at his chest, demanding to be released and strike. It choked him, boxing-in his words as much as it was trying to make him let them out.

“Where were you when—,” escaped his lips.

Shen Jiu closed his eyes. He couldn’t bear to look at Yue Qi’s face any longer, with that horrible expression that suggested he knew what was best for Shen Jiu, that he was doing this in Shen Jiu’s best interest. Where was this care when Shen Jiu was at the Qiu’s, when Shen Jiu had said not to chase after Shi Wu?

Shen Jiu tried to breathe deeply and calm his emotions, but it didn’t work.

He really had to say, “You think you have the right to say anything like that to me, Yue Qingyuan?” He bit his tongue, swallowing his next words. You abandoned me all those years ago, his heart cried out. If only he had the right to say those words, but it was like reaching for a phoenix when you were a rat. Instead he eked out, “If you kick me out because of this. I’ll take it as— as if we never met again.”

Shen Jiu’s words were cold, but inside, his heart burned with the heat of a dying star. Every word was a stab at himself. Who was he hurting? Who was he reprimanding? It must be himself for being so stupid as to think— as to think the gap between him and Yue Qingyuan was any less than the gap between the earth and the heavens.

Yue Qingyuan’s mouth was agape with tragedy, horrified by Shen Jiu’s ingratitude.

“Forget it,” Shen Jiu said, turning away.

--

After bathing and reclaiming his clothes, while he knew that his fate as a scholar was over, he still went to class. What else was there for him to do?

It was still interesting. He couldn’t bring himself to regret coming even when Qing Jing-Shifu looked at him, his eyes oh-so disappointed, full of judgment at his unworthy disciple. Slouching, he looked out the window to avoid looking at Qing Jing-Shifu.

“Shen Qingqiu, see me after class.”

Well, now. So much for not looking at Qing Jing-Shifu.

Time passed quickly and before he knew it, class was over.

"Follow me," Qing Jing-Shifu ordered him, walking briskly towards his study.

Shen Jiu reluctantly trailed after.

No matter what Qing Jing-Shifu had to say, Shen Jiu would not be repentant. The standards originally were unattainable anyway. No matter how Qing Jing-Shifu would look at him, Shen Jiu would not cower. He didn’t care what Qing Jing-Shifu thought about him. What were thoughts? Could they feed you?

When they arrived in his office, Qing Jing-Shifu directed him towards the ink stone, bidding Shen Jiu to grind.

Shen Jiu did not understand this form of punishment, but he obliged, if only to see what would happen. Over time, he lost track of how long he had been grinding in the quiet of the study, just watching Qing Jing-Shifu write.

Abruptly, “I'm afraid my student will misunderstand me, if I don't say a few more words.”

Qing Jing-Shifu’s words disturbed the peace Shen Jiu had found in the mindless action.

Making sure Shen Jiu was looking at him before he continued, “If you could endure it, then you were ready for more. If you could not, then you needed some rest anyway. Neither outcome was meant as punishment.”

Student and teacher looked at each other in silence. Shen Jiu was surprised the man had spared so many words just to explain his actions to Shen Jiu.

“Do you understand?”

Vaguely. Shen Jiu understood vaguely. Qing Jing-Shifu expected a verbal answer, so, “Yes.”

Qing Jing-Shifu just sighed, “There’s a teacher, a friend of mine. His school is the strictest school I know of. He expects a lot from his students and will only accept those who are highly recommended. I only send one every few years to him myself. I think, next year, I can send one.”

Qing Jing-Shifu looked meaningfully at Shen Jiu. Did he want Shen Jiu to help this student? What did Shen Jiu have to offer? Which student would be so lucky as to attend? Could it be Yue Qingyuan?

“Do you understand, Shen Qingqiu? Work hard. Expect as much from yourself as I expect from you.”

Shen Jiu’s eyes opened wide, jaw dropping in surprise, “Shifu…”

“It’s difficult for you, but you need to continue to come to the Advanced class. You have a lot of ground to make up for at your age. Most of the students at the other school will be younger than you, but their ability already surpasses most adults. Do not tarnish my name. Of my students, I have only allowed 4 to take my ‘Qing’.”

Shen Jiu was still speechless, only capable of repeating, “Shifu…”

He allowed his body to express what he could not. Kneeling down and pressing his forehead to the floor, he said, “Thank you.” To be held in such high regard, when he’d done nothing to deserve it, to be told he was worthy, when he obviously wasn’t, even if it was just Qing Jing-Shifu’s delusion, he was still grateful.