The first thing Yue Qingyuan remembers is scorching pain running through his entire body, and red, everything is red.
(The last thing he remembers is a sad smile on a familiar face—wrong, how did he ever think—)
His consciousness flickers in and out. At times he feels the cold floor of the Ling Xi caves under his cheek, at times he feels the sturdy iron of a sword hilt in his hand, at times he feels his sweat-soaked, tattered robes clinging to his skin. His throat feels scratchy, as if he has screamed himself hoarse, even if Yue Qi had never yelled at anyone before, that was more of Xiao Jiu’s—
(“It’s Qingqiu, Zhangmen-shixiong,” two different souls who share the same face have told him, numerous times, and Yue Qingyuan—
“Are you stupid?” He can almost hear Xiao Jiu sneer, like he used to, sneer and scoff and huff, yet still choosing to stick to Yue Qi, and acting like he did a favor for him. Which was in no way untrue, but Xiao Jiu never truly believed him.
Yue Qingyuan is going to be late again.)
The pain gets worse before it gets better. Yue Qingyuan doesn’t remember it hurting this much, but maybe his younger—former—self was less aware of what was happening to him. He welcomes the pain with open arms.
He’s unconscious when his shifu and the Qian Cao people come for him; his soul and qi finally stabilizing enough for him to be safely removed from the Ling Xi caves. He’s on forced bedrest for a month, tucked away in the inner infirmary of Qian Cao Peak like a dirty secret, with only the head disciple in the know. Mu Qingfang was already appointed to be the next peak lord when Yue Qingyuan had joined Can Qiong Mountain Sect, and he’s exactly how Yue Qingyuan remembers him.
Mu Qingfang is not an unpleasant company, but the waiting is torture. Doing nothing is agonizing. Useless, his brain reprimands him. Xiao Jiu is out there, stuck with the Qiu—while Yue Qingyuan never got to learn what exactly happened there, he knows it’s anything but pleasant.
After getting discharged, it takes Yue Qingyuan five long, long months to get his shifu to trust him again. At the first opportunity to go on a night hunt he brushes off his fellow disciples, telling them he will follow a different lead. As the head disciple, they believe him.
The next day the townsfolk tell Yue Qingyuan all sorts of things—tall tales, half truths spun to be more compelling as stories, tidbits that seem to be true—about the massacre of the Qiu clan. Following more and more concerning rumors he traces the steps of Wu Yanzi and—presumably—Shen Jiu. He sends back a talisman to Qiong Ding, and no one comes after him.
Yue Qingyuan chooses to believe his shifu believes in him. He will accept any punishment, as long as he will get his Xiao Jiu back. Nothing else matters.
Wu Yanzi is smart, and he is good at disguising his messes as accidents, but Yue Qingyuan is persistent. A couple of days later Yue Qingyuan catches wind of Wu Yanzi’s companion: a new disciple.
(I shouldn’t be this happy about it, Yue Qingyuan thinks. But he can’t help the relief washing over him. He can still clearly recall the face Xiao Jiu made when he drove his sword through his supposed master, splattering Yue Qingyuan’s robes with blood. He has never forgotten it; he doesn’t think he ever will. Even if this lifetime turns out to be different, Yue Qingyuan doesn’t want Xiao Jiu to ever experience that again.
Sometimes Yue Qingyuan ponders about fate and strings and the possibility of getting a second chance, and thanks the gods for it. He certainly doesn’t deserve any redemption, but Xiao Jiu deserves to be free. He would lay his life for Xiao Jiu, offer it so it would be Xiao Jiu’s to take, over and over, if he got the chance. He would never ask for forgiveness.)
Yue Qingyuan stumbles upon Xiao Jiu by sheer coincidence. He has been under the assumption that Wu Yanzi is ahead of him, but apparently they got held back or something came up, for which Yue Qingyuan couldn’t be any more grateful.
Yue Qingyuan is looking for an inn to stay the night at when he spots a lanky, slim figure slipping past some vendors—a figure that’s achingly familiar.
Xiao Jiu snarls at him, calls him a “noble cultivator who is above mere street rats” and flinches away when Yue Qingyuan steps closer to him. Xiao Jiu composes himself a few beats later, and Yue Qingyuan is almost convinced he imagined it.
But he’s certainly not imagining the way Xiao Jiu’s gaze wavers, snapping from left to right, body tense like the string of a bow, ready to snap—Flee? Fight? Use the very same sword he protected Yue Qingyuan with in their other lifetime, and drive it through Yue Qingyuan?
(Yue Qingyuan is never sure if he should call it “other lifetime”. But this is without a doubt his second chance, and the first life of Xiao Jiu. He sometimes wonders if there are worlds where they never have the unfortune to meet Qiu Jianluo, where Yue Qingyuan is saner, wiser, less stupid, less reckless; if there are worlds where he gets to stay with Xiao Jiu, maybe for a lifetime.)
Xiao Jiu curses Yue Qingyuan with all his might, and Yue Qingyuan happily takes it. As long as Yue Qingyuan has Xiao Jiu in his sight, he can try to keep him safe.
At the slightest sounds Xiao Jiu’s body goes rigid, and his hand seemingly subconsciously moves towards his sword.
(The sword is a crude thing, so unlike the refined Xiu Ya, but that’s all he’s got. But Xiao Jiu not at Cang Qiong Mountain Sect is unthinkable; Yue Qingyuan will get on his knees and beg for Xiao Jiu to get to come with him.)
“Xiao Jiu,” he starts, but he is cut off with a snarl.
“Don’t call me that, you don’t get to call me that,” Xiao Jiu spats, eyes clouded by anger, and hurt, so much hurt. “Xiao Jiu is dead. He died when you left him rot at that place.”
Yue Qingyuan tries again. He has to get this right. “Wu Yanzi inconvenienced Huan Hua Palace and they don’t forget easily. There’s only so much time till he—”
“I don’t need your pity,” Xiao Jiu hisses, and turns away.
He can’t lose him again. Yue Qingyuan can’t lose him again. Impulsively he reaches out, and his fingers close around Xiao Jiu’s wrist. “Come to Cang Qiong with me.”
A slight tremor travels though Xiao Jiu’s body. His hand is shaking.
“Come to Cang Qiong with me,” Yue Qingyuan repeats, this time firmer.
Xiao Jiu tears his arm out of his grip, but he doesn’t make a move to leave. But it seems like some tension has left his body.
“Xiao Jiu—” he calls without thinking.
Xiao Jiu straightens up, but he doesn’t turn back, nor does he start walking away.
“Don’t push your luck, Yue Qi.”
It's not forgiveness, but it's a start.