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what is this feeling (so sudden and new)

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.thirteen, part two

 How did it come to this?

Shen Jiu isn’t really sure. He only knows he had been arguing with Liu Qingge, that boorish idiot, when—a sudden movement derails his thinking. 

 

“Oh,” he gasps, softly. But Liu Qingge hears it, that bastard.

“Finally admitting defeat?” The other teen says, smirking.

“As if!” Shen Jiu retorts, maintaining his dignity and arrogance. “I still haven’t come yet. How long did it take Junior Liu, hmm?”

Liu Qingge snarls at the reminder of his most recent loss. He redoubles his efforts.

Shen Jiu holds on, reciting a dry encyclopedia within his mind, staving himself from orgasm. 

It works, kind of, anyway, until Liu Qingge lowers his head to bite.

Brute.

 

.one

Listening to Yue Qi(ngyuan), testifying against Wu Yanzi, agreeing to be in the same school—that whole debacle had been his first mistake. His next had been choosing the empty desk by the window. Halfway into the period, the door slammed open. Some boy ran into the room, still in his sports uniform.

 The teacher sighed, not even bothering to turn from the chalkboard. 

“That’ll be another detention, Liu Qingge.”

‘Liu Qingge’ had grunted, moving to stand in front of Shen Jiu, glaring. Shen Jiu returned it, the heated gaze prickling uncomfortably at his skin. This staring contest would have likely continued for the rest of the class but giggles from some girls at the back soon filled the room. The teacher whirled around, his chalk snapping in half.

 “Sit down, Liu Qingge!”

“He’s in my seat!” 

“There’s two chairs at each desk! Just take the other one!”

And so Liu Qingge did. Shen Jiu smirked at the other teen, proud of the victory. He wouldn’t yield to anyone. 

“You’re in my seat.” Liu Qingge barked during the break period, after the exasperated teacher had eagerly escaped.

“Doesn’t have your name on it,” Shen Jiu jeered, his finger tracing the line of the desk.

And that’s how it started, a messy angry brawl right on the floor of the classroom. Shen Jiu had come out the better of it since Liu Qingge had thrown the first punch but fixing his reputation with the teachers, after, had been a bitch and a half. 

Shen Jiu didn’t like pandering but he had goals. As a scholarship student, he’d have enough challenges being admitted to the top universities—he needed those recommendations!

So Shen Jiu did his best to dispel that disastrous first impression and instead maintain the gentlemanly scholar facade he’d crafted for himself when reading about the elite Cang Qiong boarding school. He even managed to never let it slip...except, that is, when that thug was around. 

He didn’t see Liu Qingge often; the youth was one grade below and they only shared the one elective class but...that was more than enough.

Sparks flew every time they met.

He wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, about the other teen that brought on such strong emotion. Was it his inability to wear the correct uniform? The brash swagger? The muscle and broad shoulders Liu Qingge had? (The constant visits from his loving family?)

It didn’t matter. Shen Jiu hated all of it.

As the months passed (and Yue Qingyuan brought out his disappointed face), Shen Jiu learned to curb himself. He limited his hostility to sneers and taunts, mindful of the teachers’ attention, only hissing barbs when he knew they weren’t listening.

Liu Qingge didn’t like it.

“Coward! Prissy stuck-up!” The other teen yelled, one day, as he ran across the courtyard, fed up.

He stood in front of Shen Jiu, panting, his fists clenched.

“Junior Liu,” Shen Jiu replied, keeping his gaze on his book. He couldn’t afford to retaliate here; there were too many eyes on them. “Did you need something?”

“Fight me, damn it!”

 “Such things aren’t allowed, Junior Liu.” Shen Jiu responded, shaking his head, the very picture of a well-meaning upperclassman imparting advice.

“Like you care about such things! You’re only saying that because you know you’ll lose!”

“You shouldn’t let your emotions control you so, Junior Liu.” He said, fingers not quite tearing the pages of his book. “That could get you into real trouble...”

And it had, but not with Shen Jiu.

 

.two

“Bet he won’t dare to talk back now!”

“Kick him again!”

“He deserves more than this!”

“Hahaha, you’re right.”

 “You got that brick, man?” 

Over the distant chatter, a familiar sound echoed—it broke through his exhaustion, his muscles instinctively tensing to fight.

Blearily, Shen Jiu turned his head, glancing towards an alleyway.

He had only been there due to his third mistake: deciding to intern at the Qing Jing research institute, on top of cramming for exams, participating in club activities and fulfilling his duties as class representative. Like so many other nights, he had left Qing Jing at the crack of dawn, planning to return to the dorm for a few much-needed hours of sleep before class began.

Anyway, he probably should have kept walking. In any other circumstances, Shen Jiu would have but the tone of that growl was so damned recognizable that he couldn’t help but look.

There were seven boys there, brandishing weapons, a few kicking at something on the ground.

It was slate-blue.

Not something, but someone.

Without thinking, Shen Jiu moved. He barreled into the one with the brick, throwing his heavy knapsack at another, before gathering dirt into his hands. He was never one to play nice.

“Ow!”

“What the hell!”

“You fucker!”

He didn’t quite make it unscathed; a blow from one attacker left him almost dazed as his head was slammed into the wall.

But Shen Jiu prevailed.

Eyes poked, groins kicked, and noses broken, he grabbed ahold of Liu Qingge, almost entirely supporting the other’s weight, and ran.

They made it just inside the school gates before Shen Jiu collapsed.

 He woke to accusations.

 “...that other boy’s fault! Picking on our poor son, who’s only thirteen—“

 He blinked, confused, the familiar ceiling of the infirmary overhead. He couldn’t speak, his tongue oddly heavy and a pounding ache in his head.

 Yue Qingyuan came into view, taking his hand.

 But not his side.

“Xiao Jiu...you really—? Liu Qingge...you know...better than—“

Shen Jiu tried to scowl, to snatch his hand back, annoyed that he couldn’t say anything but more frustrated that even Yue Qingyuan immediately believed the worst of him. He forced himself to sit up. He wasn’t going to lie there and take it! But he was immediately dizzy; the change in position caused him to vomit.

Exclamations filled his ears. The pain in his head worsened, every sound becoming a harsh, shrill, buzz.

 The light is so bright, Shen Jiu idly thought as he pitched forward, noting a slate-blue blur out of the corner of his eyes.

 “I’m sorry for doubting you, Xiao Jiu.” Yue Qingyuan later apologized, guiltily. “It was rather brave of you to save Junior Liu. Well done.”

Shen Jiu scowled, his mouth full of the candied hawthorn the other had brought. He turned away.

Well done indeed! His actions had resulted in a minor head bleed and a hospital stay! He would be so far behind now! How the hell was he supposed to catch up on everything?!

This, admittedly, became less of an issue than he had thought it would. First Qing Jing research institute contacted him, offering assurances that his position was safe. Next, Qi Qingqi came to visit—which was annoying—but she offered to take up his class representative duties.

 “It’s only temporary,” she frowned. “I don’t like sucking up the way you do, Shen Qingqiu.”

After her were visitors from his various clubs: literature, music, and martial arts. Every one of them insisted that his absence wouldn’t be too much trouble, that Shen Qingqiu should take his time to rest and recover. He inwardly sneered at the lot of them. Nice to see he didn’t mean anything to any of them!

...only that’s not quite true. If it were, that should have been the last time he saw any of them. But, they came back, again and again, bearing cards and gifts.

As did Qi Qingqi, only she provided copies of the assignments he missed, a much more useful offering. Not that it mattered. Yue Qingyuan took it all from him, scolding that he was supposed to ‘rest from mental and physical activities, per the doctor’s orders’

It was awful being in the dark with little to do, unable to turn on the television or even read. He absolutely hated it, vowing to buy a phone as soon as he was discharged.

On the fourth day, the door opened after Yue Qingyuan had left. Shen Jiu yawned, expecting a nurse with medication, or a technician to be taking his vital signs. 

He was wrong.

Instead, a bruised, scowling face greeted him.

Shen Jiu almost didn’t recognize the other at first, thrown off by the lack of his usual sports uniform.

“Thanks.” Liu Qingge grunted, his arm in a cast. He looked off to the side as if unwilling to acknowledge the person he’s showing gratitude to. “But I didn’t need it.”

“Hah!” Shen Jiu laughed. “Big words from someone I had to princess carry!”

“Y-you did not!” Liu Qingge bellowed, his ears red. “There’s no way a twig like you is strong enough—“

“Strong enough to win where you failed!” Shen Jiu sneered.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah!”

“Then fight me!”

“Gladly!”

Liu Qingge looked taken aback, his eyes wide, mouth stupidly hanging open..

 “...really? You said no before.”

“Because you asked me in public on school grounds, you idiot! What else am I supposed to say?”

“Oh.” Liu Qingge kept his gaze on the ground, shuffling his feet. “So...I know how to get to the roof—“

“Time and place, moron! This is not it!”

“...later, then?”

Shen Jiu nodded. 

Liu Qingge left.

But then he came back, the next night.

“What the hell did you think ‘later’ meant?” Shen Jiu snapped. “I have a head injury and you have a broken arm and three fractured ribs!”

And the one after that.

“Well it’s not my fault you didn’t know the first rule of fighting: protect your head!”

 And something changed.

“Why the hell do you look so sour?”

“You try being cooped up here with nothing to do!

“I’m here, too!”  

“But you can read! That is, if you know how...”

“Of course, I do!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah!”  

“Prove it!”  

“I will!”

But not really.

 

.three

Shen Jiu grinned with triumph. The metallic taste of blood had never been so sweet. He pinned Liu Qingge to the ground, gleefully rubbing the other’s face into the dirt.

“So much for your family’s famed martial arts, hmm?”

“You used dirty tricks!” The other boy shouted, spitting out leaves. “That silly footwork—“

“It’s called aikido, you barbarian!”

“Whatever, you prancing snob!”

Liu Qingge got his hands underneath him, trying to roll out. Shen Jiu followed, linking their ankles.

 His efforts resulted in a reverse in their positions—only this time they faced each other.

“Hah!” Liu Qingge yelled, his face uncomfortably close. “That stuff can’t help you now!”

Shen Jiu scowled back at him, feeling something.

He didn’t know how to describe it. Weeks ago, when they had begun meeting in the woods to fight and Shen Jiu had first been trapped, there had only been panic. 

Now, though...it was almost...like he felt...secure?

His breath caught.

That couldn’t be right.

“Hey! You in there? Did I knock some sense into you?”

“What ‘sense,’ Junior Liu?” Shen Jiu immediately sneered. “For you to do so would imply you had any of your own!”

“You—!”

Life went on.

(But that new emotion didn’t leave.)

Summer came. He took the train over on weekends so they could keep fighting.

(He couldn’t just let it end, not when Liu Qingge currently had the lead!)

“You must be Shen Qingqiu,” a cool voice noted one day, as he left the bathroom. “I almost didn’t recognize you without the...head swelling. You can call me, ‘Mama Liu,’ if you like. We don’t stand on ceremony here.”

A tall woman, with Liu Qingge’s eyes, looked him up and down, scrutinizingly. 

He stilled, hyperaware of the bandages around his newest injury, a souvenir from his most recent fight with Liu Qingge. Why was someone else in the Liu Household? Hadn’t Liu Qingge told him everyone would be out?! He wouldn’t have agreed to stay and tend to his scrapes otherwise!

“Are you Shen Qingqiu or not?” The woman suddenly barked, sliding into a martial stance.

“Yes, I am,” he replied, ducking his head. ”We...”

What the hell was he supposed to say? Did Liu Qingge’s mother know that he and their son only met up to beat the living shit out of each other? Would she chase him out of the house if she knew?

‘Mama Liu’ suddenly smiled, a brash, bright thing.

“It’s alright...my husband and I never thanked you for saving our boy. I’m so happy my son finally made a friend...stay for dinner, won’t you?”

A friend? Him? Hah!

 Naturally, he refused, offering apologies, citing the late hour, the need to catch the last train back, his mandatory presence at Qing Jing the next day...

 He escaped that time, angrily texting Liu Qingge after, about the supposed emptiness of his house.

But he still went during the weekends in the summer, to fight the other boy.

And, once, or twice, he even agreed to eat at their house.

(Liu Mingyan was a welcome change, an adorably shy toddler, rather different from the rest of her family) 

Anyway, it’s not like it meant anything. 

 

.four

Another year.

Amused, Shen Jiu watched as the tenth girl ran from Liu Qingge, sobbing.

‘Happy Confession’ Day (May 20th) always brought so much entertainment.

“No peach blossoms for Junior Liu, this year either, hmm?” He said, patting the other’s shoulder in mock-comfort. “What a shame. I suppose the family line ends with you...what will Mama Liu say?”

“Shut up!” Liu Qingge yelled. “It’s—I don’t...what business is it of yours anyway?!”

“Three of those rejections were my fellow club members! You couldn’t wait, Junior Liu?” Shen Jiu answered, pretending to be exasperated. “We have a contest scheduled.”

“A girly contest! Why the hell does anyone care about poetry readings!? You feminine asshole! You should be like a real man and—!”

“Because real men make women cry?”

“That’s—I—stop talking, damn it!”

“Make me, you fake,’” Shen Jiu had teased, quickly stepping out of reach. He gleefully ran from the incensed teen, laughing. He slowed as he reached the clearing in the forest where they had fought the past two years. He then turned, flush with triumph.

 But Liu Qingge didn’t bother with fists. He unexpectedly barreled into him, directly knocking Shen Jiu onto the ground.

“I am a real man!” Liu Qingge shouted, above him, straddling the other. “Those girls...they’re just—I‘m not—“

Shen Jiu raised a brow. Was the younger teen still hung up on that? His words had only been meant as a joke...but if it really bothered Liu Qingge... He frowned inwardly, dismissing the half-formed thought. Why wouldn’t Shen Jiu take advantage? It wasn’t like they were friends.

“Can’t even say anything in defense, huh?” Shen Jiu sneered. “Just admit it, you’re a freak. What kind of fifteen year old boy drives away every girl that comes to confess?” He laughed scornfully. “Such a virgin! Do you even know what to do with a girl?”

Liu Qingge grew bright red.

“I-I...it’s...”

“Or is it an equipment issue?” Shen Jiu smirked. “I see...you’ve been compensating! No wonder Junior Liu is so aggressive that even the martial arts club threw him out! You limp-dicked—“

The other teen snarled, his hands around Shen Jiu’s throat. That should have been his biggest concern, the restriction of his airway—but it couldn’t be, not when Shen Jiu suddenly noticed something else: the warmth simmering at the base of his spine. He froze. His head swam but not from the lack of oxygen.

He observed, as if from far away, that Liu Qingge quickly retreated, rolling off of him.

“It’s not like you‘ve accepted any of the girls that confessed to you,” the teen growled. 

“Because I have standards,” Shen Jiu automatically replied, raising his chin high though still flat on his back, heart racing. He sat up, swallowing, thankful for the jacket tied around his waist.

He was done playing around.

What was he doing, wasting time like this? Shen Jiu had more important matters...like club activities, his studies, his internship and...his most recent election to vice-president of the student council! How could he forget about something like that?! He was relying on that position to get him places! The clock was ticking; he was less than two years from completing his secondary education. Without a family background to smooth his path, Shen Jiu had to work hard...he couldn’t afford distractions.

He stood.

“Goodbye, Junior Liu.”

And then he left.

Because he had things to do.

(Like cramming for final exams; July wasn’t that far off.)

He wasn’t running away.

Before he knew it, the summer holidays had arrived.

 The realization bothered him; he wasn’t content, as he had been the years before, to stay in the dorm shuttling between Qing Jing and Cang Qiong...occasionally glaring at Yue Qingyuan...taking the train to spar with Liu Qing—what he used to do didn’t matter. He would be more productive this time around.

That’s all that counted.

He didn’t look at his phone. Instead, Shen Jiu kept his gaze on the ground as he marched, decisively, to Qing Jing, backpack in hand.

“What is this? You changed your mind? You want to go on the expedition?”

Shen Jiu nodded, the very picture of polite deference.

 “You’re right—the amount of flora and fauna left undocumented on Bailu Mountain? The chance to explore an ancient crypt? I’d be a fool to pass it over.” 

He bowed his head, demonstrating remorse, and waited.

“Fine! Get your stuff and sit on the bus, quickly now, we can't be late!” His mentor shouted.

The amount of insect bites he got over that summer was ungodly.

But the overall benefits gained from such a trip was worth it.

Really.

(That was why he had went, after all. It had nothing to do with the fact they had no cell reception.)

 

.five

 The new school year left him with no time to worry about silly things.

 There was so much to do.

“You’re different,” Qi Qingqi observed, one day, with her usual tact. “I don’t like it.”

He tapped his pen to the paper, expecting her to leave. She did that kind of incomprehensible thing more and more often as of late. He didn’t really think about why she kept dropping condemnations before running off because such things didn’t concern him; he only cared that she left.

 Only this time she didn’t. Instead, she plopped down next to him at his usual table in the library, smacking her gum. 

He frowned. He couldn’t study like this! But he wouldn’t leave either, not when it would make him seem weak. Should he be mean? Attempt to drive her away? But that wouldn’t turn out well; he had enough of an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the student council. It helped that Yue Qingyuan was president but since the older boy would graduate in the spring...better not to make more enemies. 

“What’s not to like?” Shen Jiu finally asked, turning with a bright smile.

“You’re so frustrating!” She answered. “I really want to kick you in the balls.” 

“I can’t think of a reason for any member of the student council to feel dissatisfaction,” Shen Jiu pursed his lips sorrowfully, subtly crossing his legs. “The school initiatives have never looked better; our most recent event had great success. I expect the sports festival will—“

“That! Right there! Just...” Qi Qingqi groaned, slumping onto the table. “Sssstop, damn it.”

He tilted his head in confusion. For once, it wasn't even a pretense.

She snorted, waving her arms about her head. “You...are working...like, actually working and...you don’t stop!” She gestures at the finished stacks of student council paperwork around him, at the projects and countless essays completed weeks in advance.

“And that’s a bad thing?” 

“No...but your suck-up tendencies are like a thousand times worse than last year!” She blinked suddenly, looking away. “And...you were more...real, before. I’d take sarcastic asshat Shen Qingqiu any day over the weird plastic smiling doll sitting next to me.”

He stared at her, speechless.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Or that Wei Qingwei and Mu Qingfang wouldn’t, either? The student council isn’t entirely blind!” She huffed. “So...just...go talk to Liu Qingge, you fucktard!”

 “W-what does Junior Liu have to do with...?”

You would know better than me! He’s been moping and you’ve been weird—it doesn't take an IQ of 200 to figure it out!”

“I—it’s not...” 

“Lemme guess. You got your feelings hurt, right? But it’s probably your own stupid fault since Liu Qingge—“

The bell blessedly rang just then.

Shen Jiu gathered his papers and ran for it. And by it, he meant the afternoon assembly. He was a top student; it’d look terrible if he wasn’t on time!

...he should have just been late.

Then he wouldn’t have been made to sit on the damn stage!

  

.six

“...introducing the chair of the sports festival committee, Liu Qingge!”

What?!

Shen Jiu brought his attention back to school principal, cursing silently.

 The sports festival would be a disaster! Who the hell thought Liu Qingge should be in charge of organizing it?! There would be numbers! And talking! The teen didn’t have any social skills! The potential sponsors would probably throw him out of their offices...if he even made it there! The teen could barely go anywhere without getting lost—he used to take the train to Liu Qingge for a reason, rather than the other coming to him—

“—Qingqiu?”

 “Yes,” he said, giving a polite nod, showing that he had been attentive, how silly for anyone to think he could be otherwise, since he was seated on this godforsaken stage as vice-president of the student council.

“Good! So it’s settled.”

Shen Jiu froze.

The principal gestured that he should stand, pulling him next to Liu Qingge...who was still in the wrong uniform but taller now, enough that he was equal in height with Shen Jiu. 

He didn’t like it.

“I can’t imagine how marvelous it’ll be this year, with the two of you at the helm!” The principal said, teeth gleaming, his hands clapped on both of their shoulders.

...the two?

As in him and Liu Qingge?!

But there couldn’t be any time for his freak-out, not now, with everyone watching.

Shen Jiu put on a polite smile, pulling Liu Qingge’s hand into his for an awkward shake.

“I look forward to our cooperation.”

After a long moment, Liu Qingge tightened his grip, baring his teeth in his best rendition of a smile, but said nothing.

When the principal dismissed them, Shen Jiu eagerly left for the safety of the student council room.

His hand throbbed. He rubbed it, feeling strangely warm.

It’d probably bruise.

 

.seven

His hand might not but his jaw definitely would, after the punch Liu Qingge threw.

The other student council members had left the room only minutes before, suspiciously quick, Mu Qingfang practically dragging Yue Qingyuan out the door.

He should have realized.

“You wimp!” The teen yelled, after, gearing up for another punch. “Too scared to face me!”

“I am not!” Shen Jiu shouted back. “You just aren’t worth my time!”

 Liu Qingge immediately staggered back as if Shen Jiu had dealt him a physical blow.

At the look in the other boy’s eyes, Shen Jiu felt...nohe didn’t. 

He didn’t feel anything. 

Why would he?

 “Anyway, that’s not relevant now,” he said, straightening. “If the sports festival isn’t a success—“

“That precious reputation of yours will be ruined?”

“—it’ll look bad for the school.” He asserted. “I understand this isn’t something you’re interested in, Junior Liu, so I won’t force you. I’m more than happy to do all of the work—“ 

“No.” Liu Qingge grunted, crossing his arms. His lips were set in a stubborn pout, the kind that Shen Jiu knew so well from their many arguments...but he still had to try. He couldn’t imagine working with the teen. 

“You’d get your share of the credit; no one would know—“ 

I would. Honor is important...but I guess a snake like you wouldn’t understand.”

Shen Jiu wanted to scoff. Honor...what good would something like that do, against the likes of Qiu Jianluo or against the Wu Yanzi’s of the world? This latest show of naïveté was only more proof that he had been right to cut Liu Qingge out of his life. He didn’t have time to play around with children.

“No,” he simply agreed. “They don’t teach about honor on the streets.”

 “—what?”

“Forget it; you wouldn’t understand.” He said, waving his hand dismissively. He headed back to his desk. “If you’ll excuse me, I have even more work to do now...”

“I said I’d do my part!” Liu Qingge shouted, fists clenched. 

“Fine. Take a seat and start pulling the numbers from last year’s expense report. We’ll need them to make this year’s—“

The clatter of a chair interrupted his words, a scowling teen now sitting across from him.

“—budget.” Shen Jiu finished, turning aside. It had been silly of him to try and purposely drive the other boy away, when his inability to sit still was more than enough to make him leave.

He’d give Liu Qingge ten minutes, tops.

 

.eight

Shen Jiu yawned, some hours later, finally done sorting potential sponsors, organizing the decoration and publicity committees, and creating a basic template for their poster. He stretched. Then he reached into his bag for something to drink or eat. 

But nothing was there. 

He frowned, glancing at his watch. It was late. Most places would be closed...he began to scoot his chair back, thinking of the the nearest convenience store when he felt something pleasantly cool on top of his head.

He looked up.

“Here.” Liu Qingge barked. “You like that weird white tea, don’t you? I have food, too.”

Surprised, Shen Jiu took the can and sat up. His mouth was dry and he could always scold the other teen after...

“How much—?”

Liu Qingge scowled. “I don’t want your money. Just shut up and eat.”

He shoved the mass of paper aside, placing containers of congee, some vegetable dishes, and meat, lots of it, onto the desk.

 Then he dug in. After a moment, Shen Jiu also began eating.

There was no point letting the food go to waste... 

And somehow, this became the new normal. They stayed in the student council office every day that week after classes ended, working.

 It wasn’t horrible. He only had to correct Liu Qingge’s work twice.

But the next part was.

 

.nine 

“Would you hurry up! We need to go, the next sponsor’s office closes in an hour...” 

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get your panties in a twist, I’m coming!”

“Let me remind you, we wouldn’t be rushing like this if you hadn’t insisted on navigating—!” 

“I said I‘d pull my weight, didn’t I? It was my turn—!”

“Not when you get us lost, stupid! At least play to your strengths and—!”

A sudden chuckle broke through their argument. 

Shen Jiu and Liu Qingge slowly turned...that was an unusual sound.

“They’re just like we were at that age, aren’t they?” An elderly woman said to a nearby man, elbowing him. She sighed. “Young love...”

The teens grimaced at each other, simultaneously, before stomping off—only Liu Qingge, as expected, went entirely the wrong direction. Shen Jiu forced himself to stop, then grabbed the other’s arm, pulling him the right way, and ran towards Xian Shu’s publishing offices.

...he only noticed, after, when the madam president took the form, winking and smiling at them, that their hands were intertwined.

 Liu Qingge flushed red, stammering, and tried to yank his hand back but Shen Jiu wouldn’t let go. This lady’s mood swings were infamous; if this accident made the damn woman sign the form...

She laughed, gave them her signature and said they’d make good ‘BL cover art,’ whatever that meant.

Shen Jiu didn’t want to think about it; he didn’t care, not with the last sponsor successfully obtainedHe happily let go of Liu Qingge’s hand only to find his own caught. He cursed, in the privacy of his head, swearing to punch the teen later. The madam president giggled, waving for them to leave.

When they were both in the elevator, Liu Qingge finally released his grip. His face was off. 

“Why’d you keep holding my hand?” Shen Jiu demanded. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Liu Qingge suddenly coughed, his expression changing to a deep scowl.

“...it was for her, right? To get on her good side?” He grunted, looking away. “It would have looked bad, if you let go right after.”

Shen Jiu was speechless. Liu Qingge had noticed?! Maybe the brute did have social skills...not that they compared to Shen Jiu’s of course—he was smart enough to know that a signature was a signature; the madam president couldn’t withdraw her financial support after, not without inviting bad publicity. 

The elevator doors opened.

“Next time, I’ll just let you go the wrong way!” Shen Jiu threatened, after they’d both exited the building. “Keep up or be left behind.”

“...next time? There aren’t any sponsors left—“

“You know what I mean!” He huffed, moving quickly.

But Liu Qingge caught up, and insisted on holding his damn hand, the rest of the way back to the school.

Shen Jiu hated it.

Really.

  

.ten

Okay fine, he didn’t hate it.

He’d take Liu Qingge awkwardly twining their fingers together, any day, over this.

“What!? You think just because I’m a girl, I should be in charge of decorating? You sexist—“

“I’m just saying—“

 “Please, let’s not fight, I’m sure Junior Qingqiu didn’t mean—“ 

“...I’m going to go back to my workshop; none of you need me, right? Yup, that’s where I’ll be...”

 “There you go, defending him again! What the hell, Senior Yue?”

“Wait for me, Wei, I’ll go with you; I’m sure the infirmary could use me for something—“

“I’ll do it.”

 Everyone stopped, looking towards the open door of the student council room.

“Junior Liu?” Yue Qingyuan asked, brows furrowed, still between Qi Qingqi and Shen Jiu. “...you?”

“Yes.” 

You’ll decorate?” Shen Jiu scoffed. “All by yourself? Like I said, Qi Qingqi should do it; she has a large following—“

“Wait, that’s why you wanted me to do it?”

“Why else?!”

“Well—I—what about your clubs, huh?" 

“They’re already involved! The martial arts club is preparing for an exhibition, the music club will be playing music and the literature club is the one making the damn banners!”

“...oh.”

“I said I’ll do it.” Liu Qingge insisted. 

“You can’t do it alone!” Shen Jiu shouted, over Yue Qingyuan’s shoulder. “There’s too many things to hang!”

“...then we’ll all help out,” Mu Qingfang said, still edging towards the door. “There’s twelve of us here. I’m sure with our combined influence that—“

In the end, they managed to successfully decorate Cang Qiong for the sports festival.

And somehow, Liu Qingge also became an honorary student council member, but that part’s not very important....neither was it important who nominated him.

(The room was oddly quiet when he wasn’t there.)

 

.eleven

“Hey, you should sign up.” Qi Qingqi whispered, nudging him and pointing to a form.

“Why should I? I’m one of the organizers; I’m doing enough as it is—“ Shen Jiu snapped, not bothering to lower his voice.

“Look, just do it, will you?” She breathed out, speaking the next few words very quickly. “I’m-really-sorry-about-before.”

“So? What does that have to do with—?” 

“Huan Hua’ll be coming to compete against our school; their head teacher’s a perv who likes staring at girls’ skirts, waiting for a nice breeze.” Qi Qingqi explained. “If you help me leave their sports team in the dust, I’ll owe you one, okay?”

“...Fine.” Shen Jiu agreed, after more pleading and a promise to bring sweets from one of the best bakeries in the city.

He then strode off, ignoring the horrified look Liu Qingge gave him.

 Shen Jiu had integrity!

He would have done it anyway, even without the pastries. He never minded putting perverts in their place; the sweets were just an ‘inconvenience fee’ from the mess Qi Qingqi stirred up over decorating.

...he maybe should have thought harder about why Liu Qingge looked horrified.

Or looked at the roster, just once. 

Then he wouldn’t have been so surprised when the baton hand-off came and Liu Qingge was at the other end.

(They somehow didn’t fumble it. It was a near thing.)

  

.twelve

“It’s over!” Shen Jiu cheered, laughing in relief, sprawled on the ground, after hauling the last of the boxes back to the storage room.

Liu Qingge laid next to him, panting.

“...yeah.” He said, sounding strange. “It is.”

Shen Jiu closed his eyes, thinking of all the things he could do with the free time he had now, since the sports festival had finally come to an end only...he couldn’t think of anything? 

That couldn’t be right...did he really have so little in his life, other than his studies, his club activities, his duties and his research? Did he have nothing to look forward to?

He sat up suddenly and became dizzy, slumping back onto the ground but then something warm caught him, pulling Shen Jiu upright.

He didn’t bother to open his eyes. He just rested against the warm surface. The smell of sweat, of sunlight, of the outdoors, was so familiar—it was definitely Liu Qingge. 

And Shen Jiu should have wriggled free, should have protested and yelled or even cursed, but he didn’t.

 ...because he was exhausted, obviously.

That’s all it was.

 

.thirteen, part one

“Your endurance sucks.” Liu Qingge said, after a long silence, as they lay there, in the dark.

 “It does not!” Shen Jiu argued tiredly. “You’re just—“

 “Does too,” Liu Qingge retorted. “I ran the tail end of that marathon and—“

“Yeah! That’s exactly it! You ran the end of it! Who got the baton to you, huh? Who made up for that slacker who ran before us?!”

“—carried all these boxes up—“

“So did I!” Shen Jiu scowled, thinking of how he should get back at the rest of the student council for leaving them with all the heavy lifting, those jerks.

Him, he meant. Not them.

 What did he care, if Liu Qingge tore something? 

“Still,” the other teen said. “Your stamina is crap.”

“Like yours is any better!” Shen Jiu sneered.

“It is too!” 

“Yeah?" 

“Yeah!”

“I’ll believe it when I see it!”

“Then you better keep watch!” Liu Qingge shouted, keeping one arm around him but his other...was suddenly Undoing! His! Pants!

(His own, not Shen Jiu’s. There was an inexplicable sense of relief mixed with disappointment.)

Shen Jiu blinked.

 “What are you doing?!” He hissed, not blushing.

“Proving you wrong.” Liu Qingge replied, panting, already stroking. “Bet I can outlast you.”

“You perverted piece of—“

“So, Senior Shen is the limp-dicked—“

“I am not! You just wait!” He shouted angrily, shoving his hand inside his own pants.

...and then, somehow, he came first.

Naturally, he had to challenge Liu Qingge to a rematch. 

They cleaned themselves up as best they could and left, legs shaking, for Liu Qingge’s dorm room.

It was a strategic choice; Liu Qingge lacked both a roommate and, better yet, a nosy interfering senior that could burst in on them.

Head hazy with the aftershocks of release, Shen Jiu pulled himself together once they arrived, glaring at Liu Qingge. 

“You could have cheated, earlier.”

“Hah! That’s rich! Accusing me—“

“No, really.” Shen Jiu insisted, knowing somehow that this was a terrible idea but going through with it anyway. He was confident he could win this. “People know themselves best; it’s easy to hold back. The real trick is if you can do the same when it’s someone else.”

“What are you saying?” Liu Qingge asked, suddenly tense.

“What do you think?” Shen Jiu sneered. “Oh wait, that’s right, you don’t think at all! You idiotic—“

Liu Qingge lunged at him, tackling Shen Jiu onto the bed.

“Oh, I think plenty,” he said, teeth bared. “I’m just not sure if you can take it, you delicate—“ 

And that’s when Shen Jiu turned them over, so that he was on top. He then ran his hand against Liu Qingge, up and down, squeezing rhythmically until the infuriating boy couldn’t speak.

“You lost!” Shen Jiu exclaimed, with glee, triumphant.

“I won't be the only one,” Liu Qingge snarled, his hand already around Shen Jiu. He curled his fingers.

Chapter Text

 one.

There’s a boy in his seat. That’s where everything starts.

 ...but not really.

 

two.

 

 

 

“And it wouldn’t be fair, you must understand,” the voice crackled through the speakers, a few weeks before the start of junior middle school. “Student Liu, a person with your ability is—“ 

Whatever. Liu Qingge lowered the volume on his phone. He didn’t need more useless flattery, especially when it was obvious he wouldn’t even have the chance to join. It seemed that yet another club was afraid of him, that he would be denied membership, once again, for being stronger than the weaklings he would be going to school with.

Cowards, he spat inside his mind. Why didn’t the slackers work harder, if they were so scared of being beaten?! But he didn’t voice any of these thoughts. Neither did he hang up. His parents had impressed on him the value of school as well as the ability to follow some semblance of social norms; he wouldn’t let them down like that. He only wished—and it was stupid he knew—that he could find someone who wasn’t frightened of him, someone striking and bold who matched him blow for blow.

“You’ll find someone, darling,” his mother assured him, later that day, as he took his frustrations out on a training post. “I did, after all!”

He grumbled at her, a series of formless indistinct sounds that she immediately understood. She hugged him, smiling. “No, you will. You just won’t expect it, when it happens.”

And, like always, she was right.

He really didn’t expect it. That fateful exchange of glares in late autumn where neither one of them backed down—it had only brought annoyance, at first. That was his desk, after all! There were lots of other seats in the room! Why couldn’t the condescending, girly-looking transfer student choose somewhere else to sit?! Liu Qingge‘s hackles raised when the boy wouldn’t move but he didn’t see Shen Qingqiu as much of a threat, let alone a worthy opponent. 

Not then, anyway.

That came later, when the older teen got on his last nerve, daring to taunt him. Liu Qingge immediately let his fists loose, expecting the smarmy nerd to cower.

But he hadn’t. Instead, that sissy gave him such a good fight that Liu Qingge couldn’t resist going back.

And that became a problem.

Because Liu Qingge loved the thrill of it, the strange exhilaration that came from finally having someone fight back, someone who never resorted to unfair numbers or weapons and best of all, someone who never gave up.

(Of course, Shen Qingqiu’s sharp tongue probably classified as a weapon in and of itself but that was different somehow...he was something else when he spat out such fierce barbs, his face severe and jaw high. And the accompanying look in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes...the one that hinted of violence and promised danger...it never failed to make the blood in Liu Qingge’s veins sing.)

He wanted more.

So, when the teen began refusing to fight him, Liu Qingge sulked for weeks on end. There was no fun in punching someone who wouldn’t hit back! He grit his teeth, fuming, and started doing stupid things like picking fights with street gangs. His parents became worried at his growing recklessness. But Liu Qingge didn’t explain; he wouldn’t even know how to begin. After constant badgering, he only muttered that there was some smug asshole at school giving him trouble.

...and that’s why there was such a large misunderstanding, later. It was weird though; how could his parents ever think he was being bullied?! They only stopped when they saw the expression on his face, as Shen Qingqiu was loaded into the ambulance.

Papa Liu sighed. Then he cleared his throat, overriding some useless senior frantically giving the emergency personnel directions. “Take him to one of our family hospitals,” he instructed the driver. He then continued, glancing at Liu Qingge. “And take our son with you; he also needs medical care.”

He didn’t. He and Mu Qingfang had been close friends growing up; he knew how to tape his ribs and make a splint. But his mother nudged him and in the ambulance Liu Qingge went. His father shut the door after, explaining to someone outside that there wasn’t room left in the vehicle. Not that Liu Qingge really paid attention; he was too busy watching the medics provide Shen Qingqiu with emergency care.

“Your friend will be fine,” one woman said, as they drove closer to the hospital. “He’s a fighter.”

And she was right.

About the second part, at least.

There was something off about the first statement; Liu Qingge didn’t know what it was, yet, but he was sure he’d figure it out.

Eventually.

 

three .

“...where stops and stays our force?

I’ve lost my battle horse.

O where can it be found?

It’s buried underground.

Meet or part, live or die,

We’ve made oath, you and I.

Give me your hand I’ll hold,

And live with me till—“

Shen Qingqiu coughed loudly, interrupting him. He looked away, red tinging his cheeks. Liu Qingge frowned. Was Shen Qingqiu becoming ill again? The teen shouldn’t be...the doctor had only placed him in the hospital for observation. Besides they hadn’t even fought yet, not once. He peered closer. Maybe it was a trick of the light? He moved to put the volume of poetry down on the chair, so he’d have his good hand free, in case something happened. But the book fell onto the floor instead, the sound strangely loud in the small room, so much that it startled Shen Qingqiu out of his thoughts. At once, he appeared completely normal, his lips curling into that familiar sneer. 

“Fine,” he grudgingly admitted. “I guess you can read. Typical of a brute, though, to pick a poem from the warring era!”

“It’s manly!”

“Says you! That...the last part, it—“ but then the other boy stopped, grimacing.

“—what?” Liu Qingge asked after a long moment, annoyed, when Shen Qingqiu failed to continue. He didn’t get what the issue was.

“Nothing.” Shen Qingqiu unhelpfully answered, scoffing. “I couldn’t expect someone as ignorant as you to be familiar with the poem’s larger cultural connotations.”

What the heck did that mean?

“...it’s about battle? Isn’t it? About soldiers fighting together?”

“And that’s why you read it like that?”

“Well...yeah. I mean—I guess.” Liu Qingge glared at the book. He had chosen that poem because it felt right, somehow, in a way, none of the others had. When he first found the poem, he had read it aloud to himself and had immediately thought ‘Yes.’ He still felt that way, even now, though he still didn’t understand what he was agreeing to or even accepting...

Shen Qingqiu scowled, gesturing for Liu Qingge to go. “Leave the finer things in life to those who can appreciate them, you savage. You and poetry...it’s like seeing a pig in a dress.” Liu Qingge insulted the other boy in return before storming out, frustrated that he couldn’t resolve this argument the way they usually did, with blood and bruises.

...but he still came the next night and every following night until Shen Qingqiu was discharged. 

And he still didn’t understand why.

Not that it mattered.

Liu Qingge got what he wanted soon enough: he and Shen Qingqiu met in the woods to beat each other up constantly.

And they continued to do so, even when the school year ended. 

 

four.

“You didn’t invite your friend to stay for the night?” His mother asked, halfway through the summer. She then shut one eye, grinning.

Liu Qingge vaguely wondered if she had attempted to put on makeup again but said nothing—some battles really weren’t worth it. Instead, he just shook his head. “He’s got things to do. He already left.” 

“That boy!” Mama Liu huffed, her eyes suddenly normal. “I can’t imagine what would be better than—“

 Papa Liu coughed loudly and elbowed her in the side. Then he came closer to Liu Qingge, clapping him on the back.

 “You’re doing well, son.” He said. “I was worried for a bit, there; you’re a lot like your mother...but it’s good that you’re not as...anyway, the kid probably won’t get scared off. Keep it up!”

“But I’m not doing anything.” Liu Qingge protested, unsure of what his father meant. Had his parents discovered his fights with Shen Qingqiu? Was his father cautioning him not to use his full strength?

Hah! He wouldn’t do that! For one, it’d be a disservice, for one thing, to both himself and Shen Qingqiu...and...and...the other boy didn’t need him to play at being weak, anyhow! Liu Qingge scowled, remembering how the other teen had just used some trick to toss him over his shoulder. The asswipe wouldn’t stop gloating over his most recent win; he even stayed for dinner so he could pull faces at Liu Qingge when his parents weren’t looking. Liu Qingge clenched his jaw. He wouldn’t fall for it next time—! A sudden yelp broke through his thoughts. He glanced at his parents to see Papa Liu rubbing his shoulder and wincing.

“What are you saying, dearest?” Mama Liu asked, glowering at her husband. “What’s wrong with our son being like me? My approach works! If it had been up to you—!”

Liu Qingge quickly turned around and left; his parents were being weird again. Then he started back towards his room, trying to decide how to adjust his training regimen for the next week, until Shen Qingqiu came to fight again.

“Ge!” Liu Mingyan suddenly called, wobbling towards him. “Shen-ge gone?" 

Liu Qingge sighed. Then he carefully bent down to pick her up.

“Yes.” He replied. “But he’ll be back.”

And sure enough, Shen Qingqiu came by the next Friday, like he had almost every week thus far.

(The one time Liu Qingge attempted to take the train to Cang Qiong had been a disaster. He hadn’t enjoyed the phone call he had to make. Shen Qingqiu had laughed long and hard, endlessly mocking him for being stranded in some little town.

“Are you done yet?!” Liu Qingge finally shouted into the phone, when this had gone on for an hour, causing some freak wearing thick makeup to jump. He glared at the passerby, motioning for them to move along.

“Haha haha...okay, okay. Where did you say you are again?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

“Mo! Village!”

“What was that? I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of your own ineptitude...”

“Godammit, Shen Qingqiu!” Liu Qingge had bellowed, cracking the phone screen in his anger. “You fucking—“

“—god of mercy?” An unexpected voice said, coming up behind him. It was Shen Qingqiu, in the flesh. He raised a brow, smirking. “You don’t have the money to go home just yet, Junior Liu. It wouldn’t hurt you to be nicer.”

It had taken all of Liu Qingge’s self-control to not strangle the other teen then and there...but he eventually made sure Shen Qingqiu got what he deserved the next time they fought.) 

When the summer break ended, they returned to fighting in the forest behind the school.

And so, life was good.

...until Shen Qingqiu became weird, anyway.

 

  f ive.

Or, maybe, it was Liu Qingge who was strange.

At first, he wasn’t sure.

Liu Qingge only knew that he‘d never liked any of the girls, that he found their makeup and perfume off-putting and absolutely hated it when they draped themselves over him, their painted nails clicking. What’s worse is that the frequency of such things increased as ‘I-Love-You’ or ‘Happy Confession Day’ drew closer. He sought Shen Qingqiu out more and more, itching to rid himself of their everything.

And so, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that just a few days before that horrible May 20th, he couldn’t help but notice that Shen Qingqiu smelled better. The other boy’s scent was clean and light, with faint undertones of almond oil, bamboo and his favorite tea-leaf. The realization made Liu Qingge distracted, so much that Shen Qingqiu easily toppled him to the ground. His stupid brain then idly noted that warmth of the other teen against him was nice too, all lines and lean muscle.

For a moment, Liu Qingge couldn’t breath. He didn’t want to think. He immediately remembered the crude jokes boys made in the locker room, the cruel whispers he’d heard adults say and some of the awful comments online.

He couldn’t be like that, could he?! For one, it could reflect badly on Liu Mingyan; she’d be made an outcast by association—how would she learn to protect herself if people wouldn’t spar with her? And, secondly, what of his parents?! This would damage the reputation of the company they had painstakingly built after eloping and leaving their families! They didn’t talk about the early years much but he knew it must have been difficult. Liu Qingge cursed his inability to show proper filial piety. He wouldn’t let them down like this! His parents had lovingly raised him to be a Liu, heir to one of the most upstanding security companies in the country, a monster on the sports field, a famed practitioner of their family martial arts—!

The bell rang.

Shen Qingqiu said something, then got up to leave. Liu Qingge stood and went to class but he didn’t feel any better than he had on the ground; he remained confused and upset and angry at himself and Shen Qingqiu and the girls. 

So, when that day finally came around and girl after girl came up to him, ‘confessing their love,’ Liu Qingge’s mood only grew worse. And then Shen Qingqiu sneered, calling him a fake man.

All Liu Qingge could see was red. Because he wasn’t! He wasn’t like that!

(He couldn’t be, not when it would mean destroying his family.)

Incensed, he chased after the other boy, tackling him to the ground. But then, something ominous stirred below. Liu Qingge hastily rolled off of Shen Qingqiu, desperately hoping the other teen hadn’t noticed.

But maybe Shen Qingqiu had. Because the other teen left and didn’t come back. Worse yet, it didn’t stop there; Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t so much as look at him for the rest of the year, let alone answer his phone. And that was good, because then Liu Qingge couldn’t fall deeper into this weirdness but that was also bad, because the sudden gaping hole in his life, in his daily routine was so damn large that Liu Qingge couldn’t figure out how to patch it.

And so, when the second week of the summer break rolled around without a visit or even a sarcastic emoji, he printed a map to Cang Qiong and brought extra train fare. After some missteps, Liu Qingge arrived. He then roamed the dormitories, scowling, before deciding to camp out in front of Shen Qingqiu’s room. The other teen had to return some time. 

But he didn’t.

Morning came. Frustrated, Liu Qingge went to find the senior student that often nervously orbited Shen Qingqiu. Surely that stalker knew where the other teen had gone! And he did. Because Shen Qingqiu told him but not Liu Qingge.

“He’s on a research field-trip,” Senior Yue explained, sighing. He stared off into the distance, his chin in his hands.

“Xiao Jiu—ah, sorry,” he coughed, suddenly. “That is—I mean—Junior Qingqiu won’t be back until the school year starts.”

Liu Qingge growled. That coward—! He stomped away, out of the building, planning to leave the campus entirely but his parents met him at the gate. Their identical frowns made him stumble—had they somehow found out...?

“We don’t mind you growing up but you need to be safe!” His mother chided, covering Liu Mingyan’s ears. “Did you use protection at least?” 

Protection? Liu Qingge paused, confused. Mama and Papa Liu knew his self-defense capabilities were high; why...?

“Where’s Shen Qingqiu?” His father asked, an odd tightness around his mouth. “I need to have a word with him...”

“He’s not here!” Liu Qingge shouted, his frustration spilling over. “He went on a trip!”

“So that scum just left you, right after—?” Mama Liu clenched her teeth. “Ooh! When I get a hold of him—!”

Papa Liu jerked his head, motioning for his mother to be quiet. Then he turned to Liu Qingge. “Where did he go, son?” 

“With Qing Jing, to some stupid mountain.” He spat.

 “You mean...the Bailu mountain expedition?” His father looked astonished. “But they left weeks ago! I arranged the security rotation myself —“

“...he didn’t tell me he was going.” Liu Qingge admitted, scrunching his eyes; they felt strangely hot. “I—“ 

His parents drew him close, ruffling his hair, then pulled him into the car. Liu Mingyan yawned and went to sleep in her car seat, ignorant of the heavy mood.

“I’m...I think...would it bother you if...” He stopped, afraid.

 “You can tell us anything,” Mama Liu urged.

“I think I—he makes me feel—I want...” Liu Qingge whispered, knowing he wasn’t making much sense. He hid his face and took a deep breath. “I’m not...going to start wearing dresses or anything, Shen—he’s just—I don’t—the girls—I wish—“ Liu Qingge dug his nails into his palms, frustrated. He tried to explain. “I didn’t—my body just reacted on its own! It’s not like I’ve felt that way with anyone else! But, but I think he noticed because now he won’t call me back or—“

“Reacted—?” Papa Liu interrupted, voice faint. “To what, exactly?”

Liu Qingge blushed. 

“We were sparring and—“

“Wait!” Mama Liu whisper-shouted. “You two aren’t already together?!”

Together—? Like dating?

Liu Qingge’s brain screeched to a halt.

 

six. 

After a really embarrassing talk with his parents on the drive back, Liu Qingge hid in his room, not looking at the books his mother insisted on giving him.

But he felt better now, better than he had in a long, long time. He felt so relieved, learning that it was okay to feel the way he did. His parents supported him and there wouldn’t be any harm to Liu Mingyan’s prospects or even the Liu family’s reputation, because, as it turned out, society wasn’t as terrible as he thought. 

(Liu Qingge had the news articles to prove it. They were well-worn by the end of the summer.)

As for Shen Qingqiu though...Liu Qingge still didn’t know what to do. His mother insisted a well-landed roundhouse kick to the jaw would help but his father had only laughed, shaking his head. 

“It’d be best if you just talked to him.” Papa Liu then said. “But it seems like that kid’s got such a thin face...”

And that was the problem, wasn’t it?

 

s even.

The school year came.

Shen Qingqiu continued to avoid him, burying himself in paperwork. Day after day, Liu Qingge watched, silently, as the other boy sat in the library. His presence didn’t go unnoticed. The pop of gum startled him and Liu Qingge instinctively turned and slid into a martial stance, ready.

A girl, the source of the sound, snickered. “Qi Qingqi,” she said, before trying to tug him out of the library and into the hall.

Liu Qingge followed quietly; he didn’t want Shen Qingqiu to notice him. Once they were a safe distance away, he stopped, glaring.

“That’s my name.” She explained, a wry smile on her face. “You going to shake Shen Qingqiu out of his funk?”

“What do you care!?” Liu Qingge shouted, fearful that someone had noticed; he knew the fallout wouldn’t be as bad as he had initially thought but he still wasn’t ready for everyone to know

(He wasn’t ready for the possibility of Shen Qingqiu hating him, turning away with disgust.)

“I’m on the student council with him. Do you know how tiring it is to be cooped up in a room with that for hours, multiple days a week?”

“That—?”

“The pod person Shen Qingqiu replaced himself with.” She tossed her hair. “It’s related to you, isn’t it? Because you two are...” Qi Qingqi gave a short laugh, linking her pinkies together.

Liu Qingge felt as if his heart stopped. She knew. This girl from his class knew but she didn’t look creeped out—that meant his parents and the news articles were right, it wouldn’t be that bad...

She didn’t wait for a reply, continuing to smack her gum. “Look,” Qi Qingqi said, serious. “I know how to fix this. Request to be the chair of the sports festival committee.”

“Are you joking?” Liu Qingge snorted, calming. “No one in their right mind would pick me—“ 

“And that’s why it’ll work! The principal isn’t stupid; he won’t want you but he can’t just say no, not with the clout your family has. So, he’ll have to assign a co-chair.” Qi Qingqi grinned. “And it’ll probably be someone on the student council, someone good at schmoozing, at organizing...”

“I don’t—“

 She rapped her knuckles on Liu Qingge’s chest, clearly annoyed he didn’t understand. “Your co-chair could be Shen Qingqiu, dumbass!”

 Oh

“Just do your part, okay?” Qi Qingqi said, exasperated. “I’ll make sure he’s the one picked.”

 So Liu Qingge applied, aggressively shouldering his way into the principal’s office and dropping his family name. He didn’t like it. But if it worked...

 

e ight.

Only it didn’t seem to, not at first.

Liu Qingge had been so angry at the other boy’s continued avoidance; he hadn’t been able to hold himself back, to muffle the condemnation he had kept silent for so long.

“You wimp!” He yelled, readying another punch. “Too scared to face me!”

“I am not!” Shen Qingqiu shouted in reply. “You just aren’t worth my time!”

Liu Qingge flinched. Those words...they hurt more than any kick Shen Qingqiu had ever landed, more than any blow anyone had ever given him.

But the sudden flash of regret in the other boy’s eyes made up for it.

And, somehow, things got better.

(Liu Qingge really wanted to know what was up with that comment about the streets, though.)

It was different working with Shen Qingqiu side by side like this rather than fighting but he didn’t mind. Liu Qingge liked getting to spend time with him; he got chances to see other sides of the teen he’d never noticed before.

Like the twirling. 

It hadn’t been obvious in class but Shen Qingqiu had this habit of manipulating his pen, pencil, whatever, between his fingers while he thought. And that was fine. What wasn’t was how the motion drew attention to his pale, elegant hands. Liu Qingge kept forcing his gaze back to the numbers and eagerly escaped at least once each afternoon to buy food, grateful for the ready excuse.

...so, naturally, he was even worse off when he actually got to hold Shen Qingqiu’s hand. It was so bad that the sensation, the feel of the other boy’s fingers against his, sparked something in Liu Qingge. The memory came back in full force, when he was in bed that night.

He didn’t sleep. He couldn’t, not when his recollection was vivid, so much that he could almost smell Shen Qingqiu...he reached lower and groaned. Red-faced, he stripped the sheets when he was done. He fetched new ones from the closet, horrified at his lack of discipline. Worse than that though was the guilt. Shen Qingqiu deserved better than to be used as something so crude as fap material—him and Shen Qingqiu, whatever they were, it was more than that, undoubtedly something larger than his stupid hormones!

 Not that his body agreed. Every night that week, Liu Qingge’s anguish grew along with his knowledge of the dorm’s laundry services. So the next Monday, when Liu Qingge heard angry shouts from the student council room and realized Shen Qingqiu was in the middle of it, he volunteered. 

(Un)fortunately, the paper-cuts Liu Qingge got from all the decorating did wonders in curbing his nightly thoughts.

(His hands stung like a bitch; it wouldn’t be comfortable to jerk off until they healed.)

 

n ine.

“I—he agreed?” Liu Qingge squawked, some days later, finally paper-cut free. 

“You heard him! But I’m not surprised, not after the fuss he kicked up about making you an honorary member!” Qi Qingqi replied, hands on her hips. “So, I made sure he’s right after you, got it? Add oil, Junior Liu! I‘m counting on you to resolve this!”

He couldn’t believe Shen Qingqiu said yes. But maybe, the other teen didn’t know what it meant? Liu Qingge sank into the chair, touching his forehead to the desk.

That had to be it...but if it wasn’t... He flushed, thankful no one could see his face.

1314: one life, one world. A commitment to be together forever

Supposedly, every year, the thirteenth and the fourteenth person to compete in the sports festival, the very end of the mixed gender marathon relay event, would be a fated pair—so long as they successfully passed the baton, anyway. It was one of the stupid traditions that old schools tended to have, a legend meant to make girls giggle; that’s what Liu Qingge had always thought. He didn’t bother with that kind of superstitious nonsense.

And Shen Qingqiu didn’t seem to, either...? Liu Qingge frowned, realizing that Qi Qingqi only had Shen Qingqiu include his name. The students hadn’t spoken about where the older teen would be in the line-up so Shen Qingqiu probably hadn’t thought the 1314 this year would be them

Liu Qingge wouldn’t say anything, though. He’d just go for it and if they happened to not drop the baton...he groaned. If they didn’t, what the hell should he do then?!

 

t en.

After a long phone call with his parents, Liu Qingge put the dumb superstition aside and decided to write a speech.

It didn’t go well. 

Finding the right words was a struggle, a fight he couldn’t seem to win. He deeply regretted trashing every written confession he had received; it would have been nice to have something as a reference. The only upside was that he had no energy left afterwards to mess his sheets. 

Each night, he’d scratch a few words on a much-abused piece of paper before crumpling it into a ball and throwing it into his trash bin. Then he’d do it again.

When the eve of the sports festival came, Liu Qingge still didn’t have a speech. Sighing, he rubbed his forehead and decided to just write everything that came into his head; he figured he could pick out the better parts after—and that worked. The issue is what came after, when he tried to practice.

“I just want you to know that...I like—punching you. It’s very satisfying to bruise that womanly face of yours,” Liu Qingge read aloud. “Also, your taste in tea and just food in general is weird; I don’t get why you hate flavors.” He continued, taking a deep breath. “But...it wasn’t bad to work with you...even now I can’t stop watching your hands, and the way you smell isn’t terrible, and...I’m...when I get to spend time with you, I feel—“

Face burning, he tore the sheets of paper into pieces, then swept them off into a drawer before throwing himself onto his bed.

How could he say these things to Shen Qingqiu when he couldn’t even bear hearing himself say them?!

After a few hours spent with his head buried underneath the pillows, Liu Qingge pulled himself together. So, he wasn’t good at words—and why should he be? Liu Qingge was a man of action, he decided, balling his fists. And he’d...he’d just...do what?

 He didn’t know.

Liu Qingge grumbled, remembering the days when they only beat each other up. Everything was so much simpler then. He forced himself to sleep.

He’d need the energy for tomorrow.

 

eleven.

“Pssst!” Qi Qingqi whispered, beckoning Liu Qingge into a corner as the festival came to a close.

“What?” He asked, striding over unhappily. Liu Qingge regretted taking her advice. Shen Qingqiu did know of the tradition, it seemed since the other teen hadn’t spoken to him, not once, when it was over.

“The student council’s going to throw an after-party.” She grinned. “It’s gonna be legendary!”

 “So—?” Liu Qingge glowered, his arms crossed. 

Someone has to pack everything up. It might as well be you and Shen Qingqiu—it’s not like you guys would enjoy it. The rest of us won’t be able to help; we’ll be getting ready.”

Liu Qingge began to protest—she was right, he didn’t like parties but that didn’t mean he’d be a willing pack mule—but Qi Qingqi placed her hand over his mouth, shaking her head.

“Don’t you see what a good opportunity this’ll be?” She asked. “You’ll be with Shen Qingqiu alone...in a dark quiet room...”

And so, Liu Qingge gave in.

 

twelve .

While they both lay on the ground in the dusty storage room, the silence went on and on.

Liu Qingge was uneasy. For a brief moment, he considered his parents’ advice but decided not to even try ‘confessing his feelings.’ Last night had made it clear how well that would go. Thinking, he gnawed at his bottom lip.

...come to think of it, he’d never desperately wished that Shen Qingqiu would return his feelings...he’d only not wanted to be hated or avoided. As a matter of fact, it would be more than enough for Liu Qingge if they only continued spending time together. And if he could just think of an excuse...he furrowed his brow. Then he had the perfect idea: to use Shen Qingqiu’s competitive tendencies against him.

 “Your endurance sucks—“ but it wouldn’t if we trained together, side by side, instead of just beating on each other...you wouldn’t be such a wimp, that way.

Only he never managed to get that far. Shen Qingqiu immediately began to argue and he couldn’t help but do the same; the routine was too familiar.

In the brief lull that followed, Liu Qingge tried again.

“Still,” he said. “Your stamina is crap...” and I can’t imagine you being okay with not being as good as you could be, you prickly pompous second-generation brat. To make it fair, we should use my family’s training hall—“

But then Shen Qingqiu gave him that sneer and started talking and moving (away!) and Liu Qingge panicked, shoving his hand in his pants.

(It was his own. He didn’t try for Shen Qingqiu’s; he wasn’t some creepy rapist.)

Shen Qingqiu immediately went still but Liu Qingge continued because it wasn’t like he could stop, not now, when he’d already set this weird impulse into motion. He was never one to back down. And the sounds Shen Qingqiu made as he came while shifting against Liu Qingge...that was what brought him release.

(It was a thousand times better than the memory of holding Shen Qingqiu’s hand. He had a sudden moment of despair for his laundry.)

After, Liu Qingge felt strangely light. He hadn’t expected this, but he knew Shen Qingqiu hated losing—he wouldn’t return to avoiding him. As expected, the other teen insisted on a rematch. So, they supported each other the way back to Liu Qingge’s dorm room, their legs weak, and did it again...

Only this time, they touched each other. It was Shen Qingqiu’s idea, an insidious scheme that made Liu Qingge lose and embarrassingly fast. So, he then came up with an idea of his own, for them to ‘compete’ at the same time.

...that was a (brilliant) mistake.

 

thirteen .

“Wow...you really are a brute, aren’t you?” Shen Qingqiu laughed scornfully. He then rubbed the remains of Liu Qingge’s dignity, the white messy evidence of his most recent loss into Liu Qingge’s stomach, sneering.

Liu Qingge let him. It was hard to do otherwise when he was so drained. Shen Qingqiu was, as always, a conniving little shit; his latest trick was trash talk...and Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t fucking stop spewing such filth, not when it was so obvious that the words sparked some live wire in Liu Qingge, causing him to come, over and over again. 

He absolutely hated it.

(How could he beat Shen Qingqiu’s advantage?! It wasn’t like he could do the same! He wasn’t any good with words!) 

Liu Qingge groaned as Shen Qingqiu’s hands dipped lower, the other boy’s nails nails scraping against the barest edges of his thighs.

“No, I take it back, you’re worse than that—you’re an animal! Only beasts would be so eager to merely rut against—“

Frustrated, Liu Qingge snarled and finally shut Shen Qingqiu up...with his mouth.

The clash of teeth was a strange echo of the fights they used to have. The thought encouraged Liu Qingge and he dug his teeth into Shen Qingqiu’s lip, drawing blood.

It was oddly sweet. 

His head swam; the words from his many failed speeches ran through his mind and Liu Qingge immediately dove into Shen Qingqiu’s mouth, sharing the taste, forcing those thoughts away—this was easier; confessing was risky. Shen Qingqiu pushed him back, panting, his cheeks fiery red.

“Y-you—!”

“Wuss.” Liu Qingge smirked. “You talk big but can’t even handle something like that, huh?” He then pointedly glanced down at Shen Qingqiu’s growing arousal before bringing his own against it and wrapping his hands around them both.

“Uh—!” Shen Qingqiu bit his lip to muffle the sound and Liu Qingge grinned—that was the same spot he had nipped earlier. Scowling, Shen Qingqiu soon stopped and began pulling at Liu Qingge’s nipples. He hissed but didn’t protest; instead he only upped the pace.

As they drew closer to the edge, Liu Qingge had to crush their mouths together, muffling the words threatening to bubble out.

(I’m enjoying this because I like you, he wanted so badly to say. And it would be great if you felt the same but it’s okay if you don’t, I won’t ask that of you; just don’t ignore me or run away please, please, please...)

That day, they hadn’t been able to determine a ‘winner’ for that last ‘fight.’

And so, ‘this’ became the new routine.

They sometimes did fight, as in actually fight the way they used to, but it always turned into whatever the hell this was, their bodies chasing after release. Liu Qingge couldn’t lie; he liked that too...but...he missed their spars, missed actually getting to talk with the other teen and mourned for the lost opportunity to train with Shen Qingqiu.

But he didn’t know how to stop.

Liu Qingge had never taken drugs but he imagined it must be like this, falling deeper and faster without hope of an exit. He’d wake in the morning with vivid lewd dreams and sleep, remembering what they had gotten up to that day.

And that was a problem.

Because now, they only met up to do this. More than anything, he hated himself for starting this whole mess, because he knew that what he felt for Shen Qingqiu, and what he really wanted with Shen Qingqiu was so much more. But it wasn’t like he could tell  Shen Qingqiu that...right?

(One night, after Shen Qingqiu fell asleep in his room, Liu Qingge couldn’t help but open his desk drawer to glance at the fragments of that long-ago confession. Then he decisively shut it, hands trembling.

‘This’ wasn’t great but it was better than nothing.)

 

fourteen.

A few months before winter break, Liu Qingge opened his door to Shen Qingqiu on his bed, peering at some scraps of paper, a specific desk drawer open.

Liu Qingge’s heart stopped.

Then he sprang into action, tackling Shen Qingqiu onto the ground, reaching for the pieces. But the other boy wriggled away, keeping his grip on the remains of Liu Qingge’s draft, smirking and began to read.

‘“...when I get to spend time with you, I feel different. The world is better. Other people aren’t so insufferable and it’s a lot easier to hold back on punching them...you make my life brighter—“ The other teen swallowed, hard and then kept going, the scorn gone. “...and I’ve never met anyone that makes me feel the way you do. I want to spend my life with you...”’ Shen Qingqiu looked away, coughing, and blinked multiple times before he flung the fragments aside.

An awkward silence followed. They remained like that for some time, Liu Qingge’s arms still tight around Shen Qingqiu’s lower back. He didn’t dare to move or even breathe; the other teen hadn’t kicked him away not yet, but he could, with disgust, leaving, never to return. Liu Qingge couldn’t bear the thought.

“...how...sappy. I see the peach blossoms finally came for Junior Liu, hmm?” Shen Qingqiu finally said, his voice oddly thick. “Mama Liu will be most pleased. Enlighten this senior, what daughter in law will the Liu family heir be bringing home?”

Liu Qingge didn’t get it.

Shen Qingqiu continued, sneering. “Is it Qi Qingqi? What a good match! She’d be the perfect counter to your brutish self—have you already picked a date?”

The misunderstanding suddenly became all too clear to Liu Qingge. He tried to explain. “I—it’s not—“ 

“Oh, I see.” Shen Qingqiu laughed, if Liu Qingge could call it that—the jagged edges were ugly and frightening. “Is it a business arrangement? What a good collaboration the Qi and Liu families have set up—I should have realized earlier; it’s such a natural progression, what with the fashion industry’s leading company already making the outfits for the top security company in the country! Why not join the two together!”

“I—you don’t understand—!“

“Oh, but I do. Girls are romanticsthey just love receiving confessions and what better way to generate good press about the merge than to have you do it in public!” Shen Qingqiu ranted. “Your speech sucks! It’s too generic, you piece of shit! If you want it to be more believable, you should fucking personalize it—“

“I did!” Liu Qingge shouted, pulling himself up until they were face to face but Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t look at him, his head to the side, his hair hiding his expression. Liu Qingge began reciting the next part, the speech long burned into his memory. “‘...even though you’re a total asshole that plays dirty tricks and enjoys boring things.”’

“What—?” Shen Qingqiu turned to look at him, the wet streaks on his face shining. 

“‘Or, I guess it’s ‘because of’ since I can’t imagine you otherwise—I like you as you are. We fit well together and...”’ Liu Qingge winced, recalling what came next. He took a deep breath, speaking quickly. “...if-you-think-so-too-we-should-date-it’ll-be-okay-I-promise-I’ll-kick-all-the-bigots-in-the-teeth-but-if-not-I-won’t-push-you-just-please-let-me-be-a-part-of-your-life—“

He stopped at the sudden touch of Shen Qingqiu’s lips against his. The kiss they shared was slow, gentle and sweet.

(The head-butt that followed, soon after, was absolutely none of those things.)

Chapter Text

(1) water: breaking through barriers to something better

Alone in the bathroom, Shen Jiu applied a wet towel to the bruise on his forehead, scowling. Now, after the fact, he could freely admit to himself that bashing their heads together had been a bad idea—but he hadn’t known what else to do; that sudden rush of joy and relief had been so strong and fast—!

The door opened.

“Here,” Liu Qingge grunted, offering an ice pack.

But Shen Jiu didn’t take it.

Instead, he sneered, his eyes glittering with scorn just as he had practiced in that cracked windowpane so many years ago, when he was an unfortunate street child fostered by the Qiu family. Affection meant weakness—he knew that better than anyone else; it was what made him urge Yue Qi to run all those years ago, rather than risk being caught to free him...but Shen Jiu was older now and wiser by far...he wouldn’t allow this, whatever it was, to progress—not until he knew it wouldn’t prevent him from reaching his goals, anyway.

(If nothing else, he had to make sure Liu Qingge’s feelings were deeper than his, that he held the power in their relationship so he wouldn’t be the one offering to be left behind...)

Frustrating as always, Liu Qingge tilted his head to the side in response before frowning at him, as if he knew somehow what the other teen was thinking.

Deepening his sneer, Shen Jiu arrogantly tilted his chin up. He then held the pose, forcing himself not to swallow nervously.

Ridiculous! Liu Qingge knowing his scheme?! Hah! It was an illusion; the other teen was just too thick, too stupid to pick up on the minute cues that Shen Jiu gave off, that was all. His mask was flawless.

(It had to be. He suppressed the pounding of his heart, wishing he could glance in the mirror to make sure but that, in itself, would have been a dead giveaway.)

“Oh.” Liu Qingge said.

And then he left.

Outraged, Shen Jiu threw the towel onto the ground, snarling, before running, the bathroom door slamming behind him.

But, he unexpectedly crashed straight into Liu Qingge, the both of them toppling onto the floor. A dull thud sounded and Shen Jiu raised his head, tracing the sound to a small jar of bruise balm that had fallen onto the ground.

“Oh,” he said, stupidly, inadvertently echoing Liu Qingge.

The other teen hadn’t left, per se, he had only gone to fetch a better alternative.

Huh.

Strangely, he suddenly felt warm.

(Maybe he was getting sick?)

“I...you wouldn’t answer me earlier but...it’s pretty obvious now that you like me too.” Liu Qingge then insisted, his face pink and cheeks puffed out.

“I—! Don’t be r-ridiculous, y-you—!”

Shen Jiu tried to refute this statement as best he could but he could only splutter. And stammer. And...in short, his response was completely undignified and very embarrassing; the less said about it the better.

(It wasn’t all bad, anyway—Liu Qingge had confessed first, after all, so Shen Jiu definitely held the high ground here.)

And so, since Shen Jiu was unable to form anything resembling an intelligent argument, he ended up agreeing to date Liu Qingge.

(Only, he wouldn’t let their relationship go public—because Shen Jiu wasn’t sure how long this would last and when it did end, because all good things ended, he had to make sure that it did so on his terms.)

In any case, not much changed. Like before, he sat in class, studied for exams, fulfilled his club duties, went to his internship, attended student council meetings and just spent time with Liu Qingge.

And...he couldn’t believe he was saying this but it was nice; they would spar or discuss stupid requests that had been turned into the student council or fighting techniques Shen Jiu had considered or just sit side by side, working on separate things, without needing to talk at all.

Okay and yes, they occasionally kissed. And did other things.

(Qi Qingqi gave him weird smirks now and then, especially when one or the other was limping but Shen Jiu chalked it up to the unknowable existence that was her gender. He really didn’t like the idea of it being anything else.)

 

(2) earth: stability and determination

‘Happy Confession Day’ came around again. But Liu Qingge found it more tolerable; it was interesting how tight Shen Qingqiu’s expression became with every heart-felt confession he received.

After the twelfth or so girl, Shen Qingqiu began spitting taunts and Liu Qingge went along with it, easily allowing the other teen to drag him into a little-used storage closet.

When they finished, they used the sanitary wipes they had taken to carrying around, righted their clothes and left. Shen Qingqiu walked quickly, a pink blush dusting his cheekbones. Liu Qingge followed, and together they walked down a back hallway so they could return to the common areas without anyone knowing.

But then, a voice echoed from the stairwell just around the corner.

“—and I’ve always admired you, Senior Yue!”

Shen Qingqiu froze, his face some odd blend of emotions that Liu Qingge couldn’t read. So he stopped, too, unsure and wary.

“Won’t you accept my confession? We’ll be at the same university next year...in the same course, even! It must be fate—“

Shen Qingqiu turned the opposite way, his feet loud on the tiled ground, uncaring of the noise. Liu Qingge followed, ignoring the murmurs behind them.

The other teen had never been so fast; Shen Qingqiu was down one hallway, then up a flight of stairs, at the end of another hallway, and then just up one flight of stairs after another until he was out of sight, the door to the roof ominously swinging behind him.

Liu Qingge ran.

The image he saw as he exited the stairwell, of Shen Qingqiu standing on the rooftop, his face tilted up towards the sky, tension clear in the line of his back... Panting, he flung his arms around Shen Qingqiu, suddenly afraid.

As time passed, the shadows of the clouds moved but not Liu Qingge.

He didn’t dare; in that moment, Shen Qingqiu had seemed so...like he was an Immortal from those stupid fantasy dramas that was about to...

It began to rain.

And finally Shen Qingqiu deflated, weary and blessedly present in Liu Qingge’s arms.

“...what are you doing,” The other teen mumbled, his voice dull and flat.

Like always, Liu Qingge went with his gut.

“...hugging my boyfriend.”

Shen Qingqiu‘s ears went red. Then he turned to Liu Qingge, insulting him and calling him ‘such a girl.’

In doing so, he relaxed and looked much better, almost exactly like his usual self. They headed inside. But Liu Qingge made sure to stay with him. Just in case.

 

(3) wood: growth

He watched. Then he made his move, seizing the opportunity. With assumed confidence, he strode over to the balcony, squaring his shoulders.

“...Xiao Jiu?” Upon seeing him, Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widened, then brightened dangerously, as if they held tears.

“...congratulations.” Shen Jiu said, taking a large step back. As vice-president and incumbent president, he had worn a nice suit for the graduation ceremony—one that had eaten most of his savings; he wasn’t going to let it be ruined just because Yue Qingyuan was being weepy.

(He wouldn’t be able to afford the dry cleaning bills...)

“I didn’t think you would come.” The graduating senior said, his eyes wet.

“Don’t you know how bad that would look?” Shen Jiu replied, his arms crossed. “The soon-to-be president of the student council not seeing off the former president...”

“Well, I’m just...surprised you approached me when I was alone and that you’re actually speaking to me. I—you’ve been—and I didn’t understand why—“

Yue Qingyuan took another step forward but Shen Jiu retreated just in time, far out of arms reach.

“It’s not important,” he began, taking a deep breath. “I...forgive you.”

“...what?”

“I...it’s...I know what happened, Qi-ge. I’ve known for a while...and I can’t blame you. Not really.” Shen Jiu admitted awkwardly, his hands forcibly relaxed at his sides. “It’s not your fault that you got run over by a car after leaving me with the Qiu’s and ended up in a coma. I-I’m glad that the one who hit you turned out to be some nice wealthy and lonely old man that was more than willing to pay the hospital bills and adopt you as his heir. And I was...happy, I guess...that we were able to meet again...even if it wasn’t the way I thought we would...and I’m sorry for always holding what happened over your head—“

Yue Qingyuan ran towards him, his arms outstretched but Shen Jiu somehow managed to dodge, barely escaping.

Then he booked it back to Liu Qingge.

“We can go?” The other teen...his boyfriend...asked, a plate of Shen Jiu’s favorites from the desserts table in his hand. He looked so uncomfortable in his three piece suit that Shen Jiu wanted to mock him.

But he didn’t.

“Yeah,” Shen Jiu answered, feeling more solid and sure than he had in a long, long time. “I’m done.”

 

(4) wood: death, the almost-ending
“And, in other news, another misfortune at the elite Cang Qiong Academy.” The newscaster intoned, looking grim. “Officials are still investigating to see whether this most recent death has any relation to the demise of a scholarship student reported last week...”

[In some other universe, Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky scowls after reading his rough draft. He considers his life choices and then deletes the last paragraph, deciding that it isn’t fair to make the characters suffer just because he’s had a very bad few weeks...even though it’d be interesting in a morbid way if the inadvertent death of one served as the trigger for the actual suicide of a second character...and as for the unfortunate boyfriend left behind? Well...

In the end though, he rewrites his BL school boy romance into something entirely different, a BG dog-blood novel about the clash of businessman: Proud Domineering CEO Way. And Shen Qingqiu temporarily lives to become a scum villain while Liu Qingge, that first-rate cannon fodder, dies very early...]

 

(5) earth: no death, yay

“The Liu Security Corporation will be hosting the Summer Gala this year,” his mother said.

Liu Qingge grunted, only half paying attention to the phone precariously balanced on his shoulder as he prepared the next batch of laundry. He knew that this meant something, that it was a significant accomplishment since most of the top families viewed his as ‘new money,’ but he also really didn’t want to go; he wasn’t looking forward to Shen Qingqiu sneering down his nose at him while surrounded by his similarly arrogant scholarly family.

“You’ll be of age soon so it’s best you attend...but you don’t have to stay the whole night, dear! Just—“

“—bring Shen Qingqiu,” His father interrupted. “He—“

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea...” Liu Qingge replied. Were his parents stupid or something? It wasn’t like the smarmy prat needed an invitation—he was old money and undoubtedly belonged to one of the ‘original’ top one hundred families that liked to scoff at his and whisper behind their backs.

(...not that Shen Qingqiu had never discussed the subject with him but it was obvious to anyone with eyes.)

“Do...you not want him to go with you? It was only a suggestion!” Mama Liu yelled. “Did something happen? I understand if—“

“No!” Liu Qingge shouted as he put the basket of laundry down, trying to organize his thoughts. “We’re good, really good...”

Because they were—Shen Qingqiu smiled more even though he always tried to hide it and recently, he seemed freer, somehow... Things were perfect, actually, if Liu Qingge didn’t think about how Shen Qingqiu had wildly laughed when he had hesitantly mentioned meeting the other’s parents, or about how the other teen was so hung up on his grades and reputation that he didn’t want others to know... Liu Qingge shook his head, frowning.

(He didn’t dare think the words ‘Shen Qingqiu was ashamed of their relationship.’ It had hurt more than enough the first time.)

“Then?” His mother asked impatiently.

“I just don’t think he would want to—“

“But I can’t imagine why,” Papa Liu retorted. “It’d be a good opportunity. Connections are—“

“But it’s not like he needs them!” Liu Qingge shouted. “He’s an obsessive nerd with a strong family background!”

He didn’t understand why even his own parents were feeding into Shen Qingqiu’s weird overachieving snob thing, not when they’d never pushed him, their own son, to succeed like that!

(Was that their way of telling him that he wasn’t meeting their expectations? Was that the real reason they liked Shen Qingqiu so much?)

For a long moment, the only sound from the phone was static.

Then his father coughed awkwardly.

“You...just...listen to your Pops, okay? Invite him.”

“But—“

“That’s an order.”

Bewildered, Liu Qingge gave the phone a disbelieving look. But it had no answers for him, just a mocking dial tone.

 

(5.5) earth: stability through balance, or A+ parenting

“I think you were being too harsh on our boy,” Mama Liu scolded.

Wincing, Papa Liu rubbed his shoulder. This woman—! She always went for his bad one!

“So it’s better that he not bring his poor scholarship student of a boyfriend to the biggest event of the season, then?” He continued, retreating a safe distance. “How well do you think that would go over? I thought you liked him!”

“But if he lied, then it would entirely be his own fault! Leading others astray like that—!”

“Shen Qingqiu is ambitious, not stupid.” Papa Liu said, waving a hand. “I doubt they’ve ever talked about it...besides...our boy’s like you, love; the first impression is the only impression and it’ll take a damn miracle to change it!”

“You—!” She shouted, attempting to drop kick him to the ground.

This time, he dodged; her kicks were a lot more lethal than her playful jabs at his shoulder. Then he fought back.

...business as usual in the Liu Corporation, all of the personnel thought, sighing over the strange dog food that their co-CEO’s favored.

Hopefully the successor would be a little more ‘normal.’

(Alas, that was not to be. If anything, they were worse.)

 

(6) metal: money and conviction

Arm in arm with his boyfriend, Shen Jiu moved with confidence, his hair and clothing impeccable. High-society wasn’t something he could rightfully claim admittance to, not yet, but one day—!

“You okay?” Liu Qingge frowned, bumping his shoulder.

Aware of all the eyes on them, Shen Jiu maintained his mask and gently smiled. “Naturally.”

This wasn’t how he wanted to be known, as the scandalous accessory to the Liu family heir rather than on his own merits, but, if he was honest, he would have hated being hidden away even more.

(He’d done that with Yue Qingyuan, unwilling to be known as the ‘charity case.’ Enough was enough.)

As they walked around the ballroom, he kept his shoulders straight and head high, noting each and every person who sneered in his direction. The ones who attempted frontal assaults, however, those received special places on his mental list.

Like this woman.

“Shen Qingqiu, was it?”

He bowed his head politely, waiting.

“You know...I do think I’ve heard of the Shen family,” the society matron began, her eyes glittering. “But...a son with the character ‘qing’ in their name—“

“We’ll be going now. Nice meeting you.” Liu Qingge scowled, tugging him away.

Frustrated, Shen Jiu allowed it; he couldn’t let the sharks circling smell any blood in the water, not now, with his position so precarious.

Once they were a safe distance away (and Liu Qingge stopped dragging him,) Shen Jiu pulled the other teen out a side-door, his fists clenched.

“What is wrong with you?” He whispered.

But Liu Qingge didn’t reply.

Shen Jiu gnawed his lip, deeply annoyed. This was the tenth time! Honestly, did Liu Qingge think he couldn’t fight his own battles or something?! It was kind of ridiculous how the other teen had abruptly interrupted every conversation where the other person tried to use his low status against him...unless it was because Liu Qingge had been ashamed of him...

Shen Jiu took a few steps back, swallowing the lump in his throat. Fine. Nice to know the brute had some understanding of the social order; breaking-up would just be a matter of time, then wouldn’t it? Better to be the dumper now, then rather than the dumpee. Shen Jiu lamented the ill-timing of such a thing but it couldn’t be helped.

“Dating was a bad idea.” He stated, flatly.

Liu Qingge’s face displayed no shock; a fact in and of itself that meant Shen Jiu had been right. Then he crossed his arms, looking away. “Yeah.”

“Good,” Shen Jiu said, stifling the sniffle, of all things, that was threatening to come out. God, he’d become weak. He turned to go.

But then...

“You gonna join up with your snotty family now?” Liu Qingge suddenly asked.

“What?!” Shen Jiu snarled, rounding on him. The heck was this development?! Did Liu Qingge have to rub in the fact that he didn’t fucking have a family background?!

“That’s why you’re ditching me, after all!” Liu Qingge roared. “Isn’t it? So sorry for disgracing that perfect image of yours! That family of yours must be real angry you’re hanging around a ‘new-money upstart’ like me!”

Wait, what...?

Face red, Liu Qingge kept moving his mouth but Shen Jiu didn’t pay any attention to the noises coming out, his mind whirling.

Had the other teen actually thought...? Was that why...? So Liu Qingge wasn’t ashamed of him?

“Hey,” Shen Jiu interrupted, laughing, a strange feeling in his chest as if his shirt was two sizes too small. “It’s kinda cute how stupid you are. Let’s get back together.”

The other teen stared at him, mouth hanging open.

“Unless,” Shen Jiu smirked. “My gutter-snipe origins and probable-whore mother bothers you?”

“What?! Of course not! But...” Liu Qingge tilted his head to the side, brow furrowed. “That can’t be right...all the wealthy children in our generation have the character ‘qing’ and your name—“

“Fake. It’s not safe to use the one I was born with. Long story.” Shen Jiu shrugged, remembering Wu Yanzi‘s threats at the hearing and the consequent god-awful name on the new identity papers the lawyers had drawn up. 

“But you’re in Cang Qiong—!”

“As a scholarship student!” He rolled his eyes, sneering. “I don’t work that hard for the fun of it, you moron!”

“Then, when I talked about meeting your parents...?”

“They’re most likely dead or imprisoned,” Shen Jiu scoffed.

“Oh,” Liu Qingge looked down, shuffling his feet. “But you didn’t want to tell anyone about us; hell, just getting you to come with was—I thought you were ashamed of me!”

“No, it was—I...” Shen Jiu began but then stopped. He coughed awkwardly, trying to think of a good reason but none came to mind.

(It wasn’t like he could just say, “I wasn’t really sure how long it was going to last but was trying to make sure so that no matter what, people believed that I was the one who dumped you,” after all.)

Nervous, he ducked his chin down towards his collar but Liu Qingge caught him and pulled their lips together.

Bliss.

Or at least, the closest thing Shen Jiu had found to it. But then, a niggling thought emerged.

He broke off the kiss, panting.

“It...really, uh, isn’t a problem? I mean, my background is less than stellar; your family won’t be receiving any benefits—“

“Fuck ‘benefits!’” Liu Qingge shouted. “My parents eloped! They don’t care about that shit and neither do I!” Then he swallowed, intertwining their fingers. “I was just worried, I guess, that you were going to have this disapproving old money family and that you would have a fiancé—“

At that, Shen Jiu kept his face blank but it must not have been enough because Liu Qingge immediately backed away, furious.

“You have a-a fiancé?!”

“Not, not really,” Shen Jiu explained. “It was only a verbal agreement—“

Liu Qingge’s face darkened.

“And I would never marry or even date her anyhow!” Shen Jiu yelled. He then bit his lip, thinking. “I...it’s impossible between me and her, okay?!” He clutched his hair, the word ‘incest’ caught in his throat. “I-I can’t tell you why, not now, but—“

“Okay,” his (hopefully once-again) boyfriend said, blinking, his eyes suspiciously shiny. “I trust you.”

And it seemed that Liu Qingge really did.

Because he didn’t ask for any more details.

Instead, he helped him fixed their appearance and then they rejoined the party and circulated with the guests.

But Liu Qingge, that goddamn piece of work began each conversation the same.

“This is my boyfriend.”

And dragged him on stage when his parents did introductions.

(Not that either action made Shen Jiu have any fuzzy emotions. Like at all. He also definitely didn’t blush.)

 

(7) metal: abundance in friendships and relationships

“You applied to MTX University?” Liu Qingge asked, tugging the brochure from Shen Qingqiu’s hands.

His boyfriend snatched it back, scowling.

“Yes. So what? You don’t think I’ll get in?”

“No,” Liu Qingge answered, frowning. “I just want to know where the next set of maps I’ll be printing should be.”

Shen Qingqiu raised a brow, questioningly.

“...unless you don’t want me to visit?” Liu Qingge then asked, scratching his head.

“I...it’s a distance away...” Annoyingly endearing, Shen Qingqiu bit his lip before snarling, “I’ll be busy, with classes, you know! I won’t be able to come get you from whatever little town you get stranded in—!”

“I’ll just bring extra train fare,” Liu Qingge interrupted.

After a year and a half of dating, he understood his boyfriend—he’d never get tired of that—well. Shen Qingqiu was an odd mess of contradictions, dainty yet rough and arrogant but insecure.

“Anyway, it wouldn’t make a difference to me.” He continued. “You could go overseas and I’d still come to visit.”

His boyfriend’s face then twisted, a fact that made Liu Qingge inwardly scowl. Whoops. He had forgotten how Yue Qingyuan had abruptly left to study in a different country; it seemed the older boy hadn’t taken whatever Shen Qingqiu had to say at the graduation ceremony very well.

He came up beside Shen Qingqiu, squeezing his hand.

“I love you,” he confessed, solemnly. “I’d suffer a thousand losing fights for you.”

After a brief pause, Shen Qingqiu swatted at him furiously, shouting, “I—what the fuck?! Who wants to be told that?! You-that would make you such a weakling! A complete moron! A battle-maniac who doesn’t know how to use his brain! You piece of—!”

But Liu Qingge didn’t pay it any mind. The specific tint of the color on his boyfriend’s face meant that his hours spent practicing those words hadn’t been wasted.

...later that night, as they both lay in bed, Liu Qingge closed his eyes and heard:

“Idiot. I-I love you, too.”

And, hiding his face in the pillow while pretending to be asleep, Liu Qingge smiled.

 

EXTRA, pt 1:

After far too many months of Shen Qingqiu’s repeated refusals, he hopped on multiple trains one weekend, deciding to simply surprise him. He then idly walked around the campus of the university, with his gift in tow, headed toward his boyfriend’s dorm.

There, Liu Qingge stopped, his mouth hanging open to a very weird sight before him.

It was Shen Qingqiu.

But not.

For one, he was wearing clothes his boyfriend wouldn’t be caught dead in and his hair was a mess. More importantly, his expression was...softer...somehow, and his bearing was gentle in a way that Shen Qingqiu had only ever feigned to be, and...the feeling it gave off...it was like the warm light of a fireplace—oh god, that girly hobby was infectious, what the hell—to his boyfriend’s usual fireworks display.

He swallowed uneasily. Should he call for an exorcist...?

Another student ran up to the not-Shen Qingqiu while almost tripping over his own feet. The clumsy man managed not to fall but spilled his bag of melon seeds all over the ground in the process. The ridiculousness helped break the daze Liu Qingge was in and he snorted, loudly, turning away.

Shen Qingqiu, the correct Shen Qingqiu, stared back at him, unamused.

“Looking to trade up?” His boyfriend asked bitterly, nodding towards the look-alike. “I’m not surprised; everyone likes him better.”

“Are you two...?” Liu Qingge ignored Shen Qingqiu’s vinegar, asking the relevant question—the resemblance was way too close—but then stopped, catching himself.

But his boyfriend was able to fill in the gaps.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t care.” Shen Qingqiu replied, his mouth tight. “It doesn’t matter. He has a fucking loving family at home and is, haha, exactly what you thought I was, a wealthy second-generation young master with faaaar less baggage; so—“

“He looks like he’d be easy to fall in love with,” Liu Qingge began.

Gritting his teeth, Shen Qingqiu threw his hands in the air.

“Good! Great! Of course you fell in love at first sight! I told you not to come visit, you—!”

“And like he’d be less of an asshole, but you know what...?”

“What!” Shen Qingqiu snarled, rounding on him.

“...he doesn’t look like he’d be as fun to fight with.” Liu Qingge finished, thrusting his gift into the other’s arms. “Happy anniversary, you prat.”

“Y-you petty thug! That’s all you care about, huh?” Shen Qingqiu scoffed.

Liu Qingge resorted to his usual methods of dealing with Shen Qingqiu’s nonsense and shut him up.

With his mouth.

It worked wonders.

 

EXTRA, pt 2

Mildly concerned, Shen Yuan noted that Shen Qingqiu had been less aggressive, lately. Not that he minded, of course! It had been a strange experience to be glared at and most probably hated by someone who looked so similar to him, so really any change from that was more than welcome...but Shang Qinghua had claimed it meant that the other student had likely devised some scheme to kill him and take his place.

“There can only be one, Cucumber-Bro!” His friend had wailed. “Don’t dieeeee! Who will edit my rough drafts?!”

(He really needed better friends.)

Like any sane person, Shen Yuan didn’t usually agree with Shang Qinghua’s thought processes but, this time, he was just a tiny bit worried.

And, to be honest, that probably showed. He’d never been very good at hiding how he felt.

“I’m not going to eat you,” Shen Qingqiu greeted him, one fine morning, while standing just outside his door.

After, Shen Yuan stared up at him from the ground, where he had collapsed, clutching his chest in surprise.

“What—?”

Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes, then pulled him onto his feet.

“I...” he looked away, his cheeks faintly tinged pink. “...thought-you-were-going-to-steal-my-boyfriend-sorry-for-being-a-dick.”

Aghast, Shen Yuan shouted back at him. “But I’m straight, dammit! Ah!” He then realized how bad that sounded. “Not that I mind people that are gay; I’m just not...”

Clicking his tongue, Shen Qingqiu stared back at him.

“Okay, fine, whatever. I’m sorry, okay?”

Shen Yuan nodded but he still felt bad about his kinda insensitive comment. “I forgive you; wanna come in and eat?”

But then he felt worse.

He should have just said, “Thanks!” and shut the door, Shen Yuan roared in his heart, only seconds later.

“How the hell do you live like this? This place is a pig sty!”

“I don’t—“

“And this...the food’s expired! Throw it out, you imbecile! You want food poisoning or something?”

“O-of course not—“

“And it’s no surprise you look like a slob! Don’t you iron any of your clothes?”

Shen Yuan stood in front of the hurricane, frowning. “Look, I think it’s better that you leave—“

“And have the university I spent so much effort applying to be disgraced with the news story, ‘student dead by trash avalanche?’ No thanks!”

Shen Qingqiu pushed him aside and Shen Yuan fought back as much as he could, but the other student knew martial arts. Inevitably, he fell onto the ground. There, he racked his brains, unsure of what he could say or do, to make this overbearing mother-in-law leave! So, Shen Qingqiu had apologized, great. That meant he was trying new methods to torment him, instead?!

“Get up.”

“Umm...”

“There’s enough trash on the floor. I don’t need you adding to it.”

So, Shen Yuan was thrown into his computer chair as Shen Qingqiu began tossing his things about. He buried his head in his hands.

...and some time later, he peered through his fingers to see a neat and mostly clean room with multiple trash bags piled near the door.

Huh.

Shen Yuan looked around, amazed. His clothes were on hangers, his books and various knickknacks were on shelves and his fridge was actually clean! He stood, walking and poking at a few items, feeling as if he was in a dream. Then he picked up an old photo from a shelf, smiling.

“Thanks,” Shen Yuan said. “I thought I’d lost this.”

Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes at the photo, lifting his chin. “Who’s the brat?”

“Just some kid I used to tutor,” Shen Yuan answered absentmindedly, tracing a curl of Luo Binghe’s hair.

“He looks like trouble,” Shen Qingqiu sniffed disapprovingly.

“Don’t be silly,” Shen Yuan retorted. “He was a lovely little white sheep—“

“More like wolf in sheep’s clothing!”

“Would you stop! You’ve never even met him—“

“I don’t have to; it’s obvious, look at his conniving little eyes—“

Shen Yuan took a deep breath and put the photo down before ungracefully shoving Shen Qingqiu out the door.

...yet somehow they managed to become friends and, amazingly, stay friends even when, years later, Shen Qingqiu ruthlessly mocked him.

(“Hahaha! I was right!” His terrible friend gloated as Shen Yuan tried to drown himself in cheap beer.

It didn’t work. He ended up giving his bottle to Shen Qingqiu; the few moments it took him to drink it were blissful silence.

But then the teasing began again.

So he handed his friend yet more beer.

“Okay! You were right!” Shen Yuan shouted after they ran out of alcohol. “Help a bro out! You’re a gay man; tell me how do I make him...I don’t know, chase after someone else?!”

“You want *hic* to make him stop?” Shen Qingqiu asked, swaying.

“Yes!” Shen Yuan fumed.

“Kay...let me get this bent...you want that ‘innocent’ little brat of yours...” Shen Qingqiu snickered. “To stop being such a pain in your ass!?”

Shen Yuan grit his teeth but nodded, hoping for something even vaguely helpful.

No such luck.

“Then, hahaha, educate him about the importance of lube!” Shen Qingqiu gleefully shouted, loud enough that his neighbors gave him side-eyes the rest of the year.)

It probably helped though, that Shen Yuan got him back at his wedding.

(“Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge’s love story is truly one for the ages...really indescribable! So, as best man, I won’t even try; I’ll just have Liu Qingge read off a few words,” Shen Yuan said, smiling broadly at the wedding guests, before smirking at Shen Qinqiu.

The day of the long-awaited revenge had come—!

“I like punching you,” Liu Qingge began, his delivery smooth thanks to long hours under Shen Yuan’s tutelage.

In those first few seconds, Shen Qingqiu only raised an eyebrow, glancing at Shen Yuan semi-pityingly, as if to say ‘Is that the best you can do?’

But Shen Yuan didn’t care; he only pressed ‘record’ on his phone, waiting...

And sure enough, it was glorious.

As Liu Qingge continued, Shen Qingqiu’s smile stiffened and his face transitioned from pale to red and then puce. Even better, his hands shook before tearing into the oh-so-carefully chosen tablecloths.

Finally, it was Shen Yuan’s turn to smirk. He smiled behind his phone, so happy that he had devised such a perfect plan. It had been simple, really...

Fact #1: Shen Qingqiu cared about his image.

Fact #2: Heartfelt declarations freaked him out.

Fact #3: Liu Qingge had a long ago-written confession speech that was precisely that.

So, having Liu Qingge read off such a thing at such a large public event where Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t be able to do anything but suffer...?

It was truly the perfect revenge.)

 

Though Shen Qingqiu, being the asshole he was, happily returned the favor.

With interest.

 

(“What the fuck?!” Shen Yuan roared, after Shen Qingqiu sent him a link to a popular web novel, ‘Spring Skyscraper of Carnal Regret.’ “Did you write this?!”

“Don’t be silly,” Shen Qingqiu chided. “I conduct private research and help run a multimillion international company—I don’t have time for things like that...I only placed a few words in very receptive ears...I must say though, they really exceeded my expectations. Hahaha, isn’t it rather good?” Laughed the voice over the phone.

“You—!”

“It’s so popular that Xian Shu Publishing is even offering to bring it to print!”

Faced with this latest information, Shen Yuan was shocked speechless. Bad enough this poorly-disguised RPF was already generating massive hits online...but to actually be sold in brick and mortar stores—!

“This can’t be legal!” He screamed.

“Of course it is!” Shen Qingqiu gloated. “The disclaimer says there’s no relation or resemblance to any living persons!”

“Your mother, there’s no—!”

“That reminds me,” Shen Qingqiu said. “I had an advance copy sent to Luo Binghe; it should be arriving at his office any time now...”

Shen Yuan didn’t bother to listen to the rest; he was too busy running, desperately hoping that he could intercept the package.

But he was too late.

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe purred, a smile on his face that sent shivers down Shen Yuan’s spine. “Won’t you indulge me..?”)

His sex life was never quite the same, after that.


EXTRA, pt 3:

Restocking his tray, the waiter raised an eyebrow. The shadow hadn’t moved. Just behind the door of a side entrance, the strange man still remained, silently observing the noisy proceedings.

Not that such a fact was anything new—the observer had been there since the beginning of the wedding banquet. More impressively, he hadn’t twitched once, not even when the crazy drunk lady’s voice rose yet another octave.

“To the grooms!” She yelled. “The women of the world thank you for not inflicting yourselves upon us! God knows we couldn’t handle your bullshit!”

He gave the watcher a quick look-over again but decided, as he had so many times before, that it wasn’t worth calling security. The man had on an expensive watch and tailored suit, so he couldn’t be some creepy weirdo off the streets, but neither was he a wedding-crasher—he couldn’t be, not when he hadn’t had even a sip of wine or a bite to eat...which meant that he was there for something else—a clear vulnerability...hmm...

The waiter considered his options and weighed the temptation of such an opportunity against his resolution to be a better person. Should he use such a resource to his advantage...?

“Hurry and fetch more wine, Meng Yao!” The manager hissed over the earpiece, interrupting his thoughts. “Pour it down that woman’s throat if you have to; just shut her up!”

Mumbling his assent, he moved away from the man in black, mentally shrugging.

He was currently a waiter, not a bartender, but even he knew that, in life, there were stories that went untold and secret heartaches that would remain precisely so. And sometimes, he thought, whistling, it was even for the better.

(Zewu-jun...)