It starts so simply that Yue Qingyuan almost misses it.
“You need to keep a tighter grip on your student,” Liu Qingge says as he walks out the door. “Next time, I won't break up the fight.”
Shen Qingqiu smiles. “Liu-shidi, I have no idea what you're talking about. Surely, none of my students would ever cause any sort of problems for you.” He hides his face behind his fan.
Liu Qingge snorts and walks out.
Yue Qingyuan blinks. Up until now, it had been a typical Peak Lord meeting, which is to say, he gently and firmly herded the most talented cultivators of Cang Qiong into being noble, respected leaders with varying degrees of success. Reports were made, trips were planned, and several complaints about certain lords skipping out on their paperwork were carefully ignored.
He should look the other way on this as well. Shen Qingqiu has his own students, manages them his own way, and as of now, is fairly beloved by all of them. If he has a problem, surely he will handle it.
And yet, if there is a chance to be of assistance ...
“Shang-shidi,” he says kindly to the one lord not lucky enough to have escaped yet. “Would you care to walk with me?”
Shang Qinghua's face, bearing its now standard look of furtive guilt, gulps and nods. “Yes, Shixiong.”
The air outside is light and warm, a breeze of spring that blows petals through the trees. It's a lovely day.
“Would you happen to know what student Qingqiu-shidi is referring to?” Yue Qingyuan asks when he deems he is sufficiently away from more curious ears. “I had not heard of any troubles lately.”
“Ah,” Shang Qinghua says, looking off to the side. “Well, it's nothing much. I think Liu-shidi might be exaggerating the issue. I'm sure it's under control.”
“Nevertheless,” Yue Qingyuan says and smiles gently. “I would like to know.”
“Lei Zhihao,” Shang Qinghua blurts out. “He has some issues with other people. Possibly everyone here. But I'm sure Shen-shixiong knows what he's doing.” Yue Qingyuan thinks he detects a note of doubt in the last sentence.
Lei Zhihao, he thinks, and then it is no surprise.
Too old for normal admittance, the student arrived one day on Cang Qiong and was inexplicably taken in by Shen Qingqiu. Some said it was due to him seeing something of himself in the rather quiet, cold young man and perhaps wished to make him blossom into the warm, caring teacher he was now. Others said that it must have been some form of blackmail, for hadn't Shen Qingqiu come out after a very long conversation with Lei Zhihao, looking rattled and pale?
Yue Qingyuan had shut that talk down immediately, but his own curiosity had lingered, especially as Lei Zhihao progressed in his studies.
It is of course, true that everyone on Cang Qiong has some area they are skilled in. Some have exceptionally beautiful writing, others play music that dances in the listener's ears. Some are warriors, others scholars. But all that remain do so because of their talents.
And he had heard that Lei Zhihao was talented indeed. Gifted in cultivation, able to grasp anything he put his mind to, he quickly rose to the top of anyone's rankings, official or otherwise. But Yue Qingyuan had also heard rumblings, mild discontent, and even a few hints that Shen Qingqiu never should have taken the young man in.
He stopped those words as well. Whatever decision Shen Qingqiu made, he had made it perfectly clear that nothing would stop him from making it.
“Lei Zhihao,” he says. “I don't believe I've ever had an issue with him.”
A pair of eyes that watch him one day, he sees. They follow him the entire time he speaks and there is a chill down his back. The young man says nothing and turns away before Yue Qingyuan is finished.
This is the first time he meets him and it feels like a ghost has appeared before him.
“Not in this world,” Shang Qinghua mutters, and clamps his mouth shut when Yue Qingyuan looks at him.
Yue Qingyuan begins to watch Lei Zhihao more closely.
It is not hard. He has always paid more attention to Shen Qingqiu than he should have, strictly speaking, but Xiao--
He stops himself.
Shen Qingqiu. He needs his help. Always.
So he sits in on Shen Qingqiu's teachings, patiently overlooks Luo Binghe's occasional appearance and the dark cloud of jealousy that looms around him. Luo Binghe must know that Shen Qingqiu has chosen him over anyone else. Over the past, over memories, over mistakes and regrets and a guilt that eats you alive day after day.
Shen Qingqiu has chosen to be happy.
He smiles at his students, laughs with them, teases Luo Binghe until the boy blushes, looking nothing like the demon he is.
Lei Zhihao, on the other hand...
He ignores everyone. He rarely speaks and when he does, he isn't surprised that Liu Qingge has a hard time keeping his students from fighting him. The words are vicious, cold, cutting.
They are nostalgic and Yue Qingyuan doesn't want to look at Lei Zhihao sometimes, runs away when it's too familiar, too reminiscent of a young man before he woke up one morning and forgot what Yue Qingyuan was to him.
He always feels eyes on his back when he leaves, and the dreams that come on those nights judge him for it.
Yue Qingyuan always returns the next day.
“I don't like him,” Luo Binghe says on one of those days, when Shen Qingqiu is reciting poetry to his students, who sit mostly in rapt attention, or in one particular case, complete disinterest. “Shizun is too kind.”
“I'm sure your teacher is only doing what he thinks is best,” Yue Qingyuan says. “Helping him out the way he helped you.” And forgave you and loved you, when all of us wanted you cold in the ground for what you did...
Luo Binghe looks at him, the aura around him almost choking in its intensity, and there is a red tinge to his eyes. “Well, he can't have Shizun's body,” he says. “I won't let him.” He stands up, seeing Shen Qingqiu shoo the students away, and the aura almost disappears at once as the sweet disciple he once was comes back to hang on Shen Qingqiu's shoulder.
“What?” Yue Qingyuan says.
Yue Qingyuan realizes two weeks later that he might technically be considered to be hiding.
There are duties he should be performing. He is the sect leader, the one in charge of keeping Cang Qiong running. Without him, he is fairly certain that the entire mountain will descend into chaos and Peak Lords starting wars and getting kidnapped and reeking of demonic energy left and right with explanations he'd rather not hear.
But there is a pain in him that he thought he had gotten rid of, a longing that he was sure had been forever snuffed out the day that Shen Qingqiu woke up and immediately ran off with Luo Binghe. He had quietly given up then, gave him his blessing, his support, his love as a friend, but not a lover. Never that.
Lei Zhihao has brought all of it back to him and--
No, Yue Qingyuan thinks. You must release it. It wouldn't be fair to anyone. Shen Qingqiu, having finally found a place to belong where he is loved. Luo Binghe, calm and at peace with the world. Lei Zhihao, deserving far better than to be someone's second choice, a replacement for something they can never have.
Perhaps he sensed that in Yue Qingyuan, saw that his heart would only ever belong to one man and realized that he couldn't compete with that. But to then break his heart upon Shen Qingqiu--
There's a knock at the door and Yue Qingyuan doesn't even have to open it to know who it is.
“Zhangmen-shibo,” Lei Zhihao says, bowing deeply. “I hope this disciple is not unwelcome. I would hardly dare to presume upon your hospitality.” Every word is perfectly delivered, as polite as it is deeply cool.
Yue Qingyuan takes a step back. “All disciples of mine are welcome,” he says. “Though they generally give more notice.”
Lei Zhihao smiles thinly, an expression far too old and knowing for such a boyish face. “But I thought that the lords of Cang Qiong were fond of dropping in uninvited. I'm certain Shen Qingqiu misses you,” he says.
“Shen-shixiong,” he corrects mildly. “We have not forgotten our respect here.”
“Of course,” Lei Zhihao says. “I had just not seen you in Shen-shixiong's classes lately. Did you find them too dull? Or maybe you found something better to move on to?”
He has granted Shen Qingqiu a great deal of latitude in the way he conducts himself with his students. He does not grant that same freedom to his disciples, particularly those that manage to find the very sharpest pain in his chest and push against it.
“That is quite enough, Lei-shidi,” he says. “Whatever decision I have made in regards to your teacher is none of your concern. Nor is any decision that he has made.”
Lei Zhihao scoffs. “What are you trying to say? Afraid to just speak your mind? I wouldn't think the great leader of Cang Qiong would be so weak as to hide what he truly thinks.”
Yue Qingyuan pushes back his rage, controls it until the fire in him has cooled and he can say, in tones just as icy as Lei Zhihao's, “Then let me make this perfectly clear. Leave him alone and let him go. Just as I did.”
There is a moment where Lei Zhihao's mouth closes, and his eyes bore into Yue Qingyuan's.
“Yes,” he says. “I knew I was right.” His voice is bitterly resigned, even as it grows louder. “He's such a fool. He was certain you would figure it out and he asked me to give him time, to let him handle it, and if you guessed—but you didn't.” He starts laughing, a harsh thing that rips out of his throat and makes the pain in Yue Qingyuan spread throughout until everything hurts.
"Lei Zhihao--" It's all Yue Qingyuan can say. It doesn't sound right anymore.
“Loyalty really is nothing to you, is it? It's a coin you spend to get yourself higher in life. I should have known better.”
“Loyalty,” Yue Qingyuan whispers, and doesn't know if anyone can hear him. The hurt has reached his head, turned it into something unbearable, and yet he presses on ahead through it. “No--”
“I hate you so much,” Lei Zhihao says. “I never should have come back.”
It can't be—it is, he knows in every drop of blood and breath and bone in his body who it is, but it can't--
“Don't you dare call me that!”
And the world around him finally collapses as everything Yue Qingyuan's been trying to deny comes roaring back and he has to say something, but he can't, he's choking on all the words that could be wrong, could drive Xiao-Jiu further away, he has to say something, he can't let him leave--
“Oh, shit,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I told you to wait for me.”
“If anything happens to him because of you, you will regret it.”
“Don't you threaten Shizun!”
“Binghe, now is not the time--”
“Quiet,” Yue Qingyuan says and mercifully all three of them fall silent. Now that he's not about to fall into a Qi deviation (and it was so close, he thinks, it would have been so easy to take that way out), he's able to breathe and let himself fall into the familiar comfort of the Sect Leader role. Just let everyone explain, listen, and then make your judgment then. Don't rush into things.
Don't pretend you're not responsible for all of this.
“Shen Qingqiu,” he says and two heads turn towards him. Well, this is going to be terribly confusing. “The current Shen Qingqiu,” he amends, seeing Xiao—Lei—Shen Jiu scowl.
“Yes,” he says.“And no. It's hard to explain.”
“Shizun doesn't have to.” Luo Binghe is right next to him, glaring at Lei Zhihao, who's studiously ignoring him. “He doesn't owe them anything.”
“Yes, I do,” Shen Qingqiu says. “But--” He hesitates. “It's--”
“He doesn't need to know everything,” Shen Jiu says. “Just that you stole my body and I wound up in this one and all of the gods in this world and the next want to see us suffer.”
Shen Qingqiu pauses. “That's actually a fair assessment,” he agrees. “Except that I didn't really mean to take your body.”
Shen Jiu turns his glare to Shen Qingqiu, who actually wilts a little. Comparing the two, Yue Qingyuan thinks, it seems so strange to think that he ever could have thought this Shen Qingqiu was the same one had been friends with, had abandoned, had fallen in love--
“Your intentions don't matter,” Shen Jiu snaps. “You still ended up taking what was mine. My body, my life, everything I worked for—you didn't even have to lift a finger to get.”
“Yes, he did,” Luo Binghe says before Shen Qingqiu gets a chance to open his mouth. “Shizun went through a lot to get to where he is now. He fought for it, he suffered a lot.”
There's a tear falling down his cheek. “And--” Luo Binghe says, going quieter, “some of it--”
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu murmurs. They're staring into each other's eyes.
Yue Qingyuan is grateful for Shen Jiu's interruption. “Fine. Get out,” he says. “None of this has anything to do with you anymore. You'll just get in the way.”
“No,” Luo Binghe says, tearing himself away from Shen Qingqiu. “Not until you promise that you won't try to get your body back from him.”
“Don't worry,” Shen Jiu retorts. “I don't even know how I got into this one. So you can stop whining. Your precious thieving Shizun is safe.”
“I can make this up to you,” Shen Qingqiu says quietly. “I can tell them the truth. Who you are—who I am--”
“You really are that stupid.” Shen Jiu smiles at him coldly. “You really think anyone would believe you? Or me? They'd just think we're possessed and try to get rid of us both.”
“No, you're right. They wouldn't want to get rid of you. The nicer Shen Qingqiu, the better one. The beloved Shizun that saved the Peak and is just so kind and loving and it was so sad that he lost his memory but maybe it was a blessing because look at him now.” Shen Jiu sneers. “No one wants the old one back.”
“I do,” Yue Qingyuan says softly. "I always did."
Shen Jiu shakes his head. “Then you're just as much of a fool as him.”
“Yes,” he says and lets his gaze just rest on Shen Jiu.
Yue Qingyuan thinks he hears Shen Qingqiu mutter “I'm not the only idiot here,” and perhaps that should have been another clear sign that this wasn't his Shen Jiu. That one would have never said what he really thought so quietly.
“Look,” Luo Binghe says, grabbing Shen Qingqiu and pulling him to his feet. “I don't like you at all.” He's staring directly at Shen Jiu as he's saying it. “Actually, I'm sure that given time, I'd probably hate you.”
“Likewise," Shen Jiu says. "Cang Qiong has grown far too weak in my absence. It's clear how far they've fallen if they let their peak lords consort with demons."
Luo Binghe doesn't rise to the bait.“But--" He stops and softens his eyes as he looks at Shen Qingqiu. “There's a place for you here. Shizun made it this way. He accepted you just like he accepted me and you must have known that or you wouldn't have put up with him telling you what to do for as long as you did.”
“He only did it because--”
“He did it because he knows you,” Luo Binghe says. “And because he wants Zhangmen-shibo to be happy and if it means he's got to put up with you for that to happen, he'll do it.”
Yue Qingyuan winces. How this must bite at Shen Jiu, who would rather Luo Binghe show him contempt, anger, anything but sympathy. It's the perfect sort of revenge.
“Just leave,” Shen Jiu says. “Just—just go.” He looks defeated.
Luo Binghe shrugs, and tugs at Shen Qingqiu, who's trying to hide a small grin behind his fan.
“And stop skipping classes,” Shen Qingqiu calls as he goes out the door. “I know you know all of this, but you still have to do it.”
“I hate them both,” Shen Jiu says once the door shuts.
“I love you,” Yue Qingyuan says and leans over to kiss him.
It takes Shen Jiu by surprise as he flinches slightly, and Yue Qingyuan thinks that once again, he's done the worst possible thing. He opens his mouth to apologise, to try to say meaningless stupid words but Shen Jiu doesn't push him away or snarl like he's sure he would.
He kisses back. Keeps kissing and grips Yue Qingyuan's shoulder like he can't bear to let it go.
Shen Jiu pulls away eventually, slower than Yue Qingyuan would have guessed. “I still haven't forgiven you,” he says quietly. “I don't know if I ever will.”
“I know.” Yue Qingyuan knows Shen Jiu, knows how badly he's hurt him, and knows that he may never find the right words to say that will fix everything. They probably don't exist. “I'm still sorry.”
“Yes,” Shen Jiu says. “I believe you might be.”
Yue Qingyuan wants to kiss him again. He doesn't. There's a brooding thoughtfulness to Xiao-Jiu right now, and he wants to know what that means.
It's silent for some time.
At last, Shen Jiu speaks. “I don't want you dead.”
Not quite what he expected. “Thank you?” Yue Qingyuan says. “I don't want you dead either.”
Shen Jiu lets out a grunt of frustration. “You don't understand--” he says. “I had this dream.”
“A dream?” Yue Qingyuan prompts when it looks like Shen Jiu isn't going to continue, only just stare at something only he can see.
“I don't know if that's what it was,” he confesses. “It could have been something that happened somewhere else. Or to someone else.” Shen Jiu grimaces. “The point is that you died and it was my fault and if it happens again, I will never forgive you.”
“I see,” Yue Qingyuan doesn't, not really, but it doesn't matter because Shen Jiu is kissing him again, pushing him against the chair before climbing on top of him, and it's fierce and painful and perfect.
He lets his hands run through Shen Jiu's dark hair, so long and lovely and it doesn't matter what body Shen Jiu is in as long as he lets Yue Qingyuan hold him, run his fingers soothingly down his shoulders, his back, everywhere he can reach and feel his heat.
He's holding Xiao-Jiu.
Shen Jiu is letting him.
Then Shen Jiu's hands are reaching into Yue Qingyuan's robes, exploring him as well. They rest upon his heart, and Shen Jiu bends his head, lets it rest there, listening to it beat. Yue Qingyuan thinks he hears it in his own head, a pounding that only grows as Shen Jiu pulls away, lets his hand drift until it rests upon Yue Qingyuan's cock.
It won't take long. He's waited forever for Shen Jiu and he doesn't know how long he'll have him, so he'll take anything, everything that he's willing to give. He lets his hand wrap around Shen Jiu's cock, gently strokes it and watches as Shen Jiu arches back.
He'll remember this for the rest of his life and for once, that thought doesn't hurt.
Yue Qingyuan holds on through the touch of Shen Jiu's hands, waits because even though it is Shen Jiu's hands wrapped around him, he can't come before him.
Xiao-Jiu comes first, always.
And he does, beautifully, enough to make Yue Qingyuan also release, as Shen Jiu's head drops to Yue Qingyuan's shoulder. He's letting himself rest on him, isn't leaving.
Yue Qingyuan lifts a hand, lets it rest upon Shen Jiu's head, stroking it, until Shen Jiu's breath grows softer, deeper.
He's sleeping for once, in a man's arms. Yue Qingyuan follows him down, holding the bit of trust tightly to his heart. This is the Xiao-Jiu he knows. How could he have ever doubted that?
He knows he may wake tomorrow to find that Shen Jiu has fled, spurred by his own demons that can't be slain with a sword. No matter. If Yue Qingyuan has to give up his name, his reputation, everything he's worked for to follow him into the Abyss itself, he'll cast them aside without regret.
He won't make the same mistake twice.