Shen Qingqiu stands over the bloodied, cooling body of Liu Qingge, and sighs, tapping his fan against his jaw.
"You always have been an idiot," he scolds, though the corpse is far beyond hearing him. "This is only what you deserve for attacking me," he adds, though it had hardly taken much retaliation to strike the man down, which leaves nothing but a sour taste in his mouth. It should have taken more. It should have been hard, killing the sword-god of Bai Zhan Peak, but it had only taken one reflexive burst of defensive qi to fell the man.
Liu Qingge's blood creeps across the stones of the cavern, towards Shen Qingqiu's boots, and he steps back, with a sigh.
"I should probably go tell someone," Shen Qingqiu says, resignedly, "before you start to rot and stink up the place," and leaves him to be someone else's problem.
The next day breaks over Shen Qingqiu calmly-- he awakens in his own bed, and rises and doesn't indulge in eating. The death of his fellow peak lord the previous day had disrupted his plans to enter seclusion, but Ming Fan seems unsurprised that he's returning to the caves today, promising that none will bother him and that the boy they'd been tormenting would not go a single day without discipline.
He's certain the boy made the same vow yesterday, but Ming Fan has always been eager to please, excited to keep his place as Shen Qingqiu's disciple secure, so he just nods serenely and carries on as planned.
It isn't until he's settled in at the caves that he feels the qi deviation-- another idiot? he thinks, and doesn't know how right he is until Liu Qingge, wild-eyed and spitting blood, stumbles into his chosen room and kills him as he stares, absolutely gobsmacked.
As his blood runs red across the floor, Shen Qingqiu curses whoever left Liu Qingge's ghost in the caves.
He wakes up in his bed.
Shen Qingqiu stares at the pale canopy rippling softly above him, and feels his chest, where no mark has been left by the sword he clearly remembers running through him.
"Am I dead?" he asks the canopy, hoarsely, and pulls himself from bed in a daze, wandering out in front of his bamboo house. Ming Fan, coming up the path, stops and stares at him, and Shen Qingqiu stares back, then looks down at himself, in only under-robes and hair undressed."... Shifu?" the boy said, uncertainly, eyes cast down to his teacher's bare feet as Shen Qingqiu looks up.
"Ming Fan," Shen Qingqiu says, "what was I planning on doing today?"
His disciple, confused, raises his head and answers, "Were you not going to enter seclusion in the Ling Xi caves?"
"This master is not feeling well," he declares, and Ming Fan might possibly say something like "no shit" under his breath; he ignores it, and tells him, "I am going to rest instead."
His bed is soft, and warm, and not where he fell asleep, because he did not fall asleep. Shen Qingqiu had stayed up late into the night, staring at a volume of poetry and reading not a word of it; then, without closing beforehand, his eyes pried themselves open to a dawn-lit room, and his qi jitters through him, anxiety and anger creeping through him.
He was already certain something was wrong before, but now--
This has to be Liu Qingge's fault somehow. The man must have cursed him with his dying breaths, let out some kind of twisted attack that trapped Shen Qingqiu in an unending dream.
Ming Fan and the other disciples only had faces because he knows them, he tells himself, and rides down the mountain in a hastily-prepared carriage, to see the blank faces in the streets, the people he doesn't know incomplete, as dream magic cannot make them.
He disembarks into a busy street, with unfamiliar faces all around him.
Shen Qingqiu awakes in his house, though it's not the house he fell asleep in, and feels his qi immediately skew, prickle, spike through his skin. He dies of a violent qi deviation before he can even climb out of bed.
Shen Qingqiu becomes aware, and feels deadened and drained, as if he were still-- as if--
He'd fled his nightmare long ago, left it a burning ruin behind him. It seems a new one has visited upon him, and he hardly wants to open his eyes. He cannot open his eyes. He died, he remembered dying, he'd died *twice*, and yet--
He opens his eyes, and stares at the canopy.
It takes several more of the same day for him to drag himself out of his bed.
Ming Fan bounces excitedly at his heels, completely unconcerned and unaware of the torment his teacher is going through, until Shen Qingqiu snaps at him to go do something useful, out of his sight. The boy looks hurt, and Shen Qingqiu cannot care.
He goes to Mu Qingfang, who looks alarmed to see him voluntarily appear upon Qian Cao Peak. He holds himself tensely still as the man dubiously tests his pulse, his breath, his meridians, and then sits back, observing him seriously.
"I don't know what's wrong with you," he says.
Shen Qingqui draws in a breath, and flips his fan open, to hide his furious urge to overturn the room. Then what good are you! he curses in his heart, then why did I come here! he screams inside his head, and says aloud, voice too tight to be called serene, "Oh?"
Mu Qingfang spreads his hands. "Your qi is unsettled, but hardly in danger of deviating unless you do something rash. Your body is healthy enough, though you could likely benefit from a few more meals than you are currently taking. You have no injuries that I can perceive." And he would be able to perceive any injury, he does not say, but they both know it is true.
Shen Qingqiu realizes several seconds too late that his free hand has lifted, clutching his robes over where Liu Qingge had run him through, when he hadn't yet realized he was trapped in this day. He drops his hand, sharply, but the wrinkles in his clothes stay
With his sharp eyes, Mu Qingfang watches Shen Qingqiu, and asks, "Will you tell me why you thought you needed to come see me?"
"Mmn. I simply thought it best to consult with you before entering seclusion," he lies, and can almost convince himself Mu Qingfang doesn't see through it. But does it matter if he does? The man won't remember.
He has control, he realizes, over this day.
Not in its entirety, of course. He has no more control over the other peaks than he does normally, no more control over the weather, the bamboo forest, the mice in their holes-- but he has control over himself. True control, because he will bear no consequence.
Unless this day will be the day that this cycle breaks-- he thinks, every day, yet none of them are, and slowly he fears it less and less, feels freed to do whatever he wishes.
He spends one horribly satisfying day raging at Yue Qingyuan, and wakes up feeling only a little sick at the way Yue Qingyuan had sat silently accepting the treatment, without defending himself, as meek as a beaten dog.
He spends the day after that tormenting that little beast, and wakes up the next day still feeling sick. He hasn't looked at Luo Binghe in the many same-days since, and reasons to himself, it's only because he wouldn't remember it. What use, to punish others, when it wouldn't stick? Only for his own pleasure, then, and he had better things to do on this eternal day than kick that mongrel while he was down.
The day that follows, he ruins his reputation entirely by inviting Yingying to play chess, eat sweets, and chat aimlessly with him at his house, and awakens the next day feeling refreshed by a pleasant time spent with his favorite disciple.
But she won't remember that, any more than the victims of his rage will remember their punishments.
Shen Qingqiu is not lonely.
Months have passed, and since the first few days, he's not died again, nor really faced any hardship. He's not lacked for companionship, when he has been willing to seek it out, and he's not lacked for solitude-- though he hasn't approached the caves that had spelled his end on the first cycle, before he'd even known anything was different.
And it's not that his actions have repercussions.
Because they still do not.
In fact... he's beginning to wish they did.
He feels like a ghost, unmoored from the people around him, resentful of their happiness and how he cannot change them. He could throttle the mongrel to death, watch his face turn red then white then blue, and sit back and only feel disgusting when the little monster pops back up at the edge of his awareness a bare few hours later. He could stab Yue Qingyue through the heart, and watch him sigh Oh, Little Jiu without anger as he died, and waste the next day sobbing into his pillow as the bastard sits, alive and well, at the peak of his own mountain.
In fact, as far as he knows, the only death that takes is the one that steals over Liu Qingge each afternoon, tearing himself apart and throwing himself into his own grave.
Maybe that's it, he thinks to himself, standing in front of Ling Xi caves. This started the day that Liu Qingge died. It has always been the day Liu Qingge died. Perhaps he was not so far off, those many weeks ago, when he'd guessed it was that man's fault.
He doesn't hold much hope for it, because he's done so very, very many things, and none of them have broken him out of the circle of this day, his steps always bringing him back to where he started. He holds even less hope as he takes a breath, flicks his fan open at his side, and stalks into the caves.
It occurs to Shen Qingqiu once he's inside that this might not be an entirely good idea, as Liu Qingge's qi roars to unsteady, monstrous deviation ahead of him. But it's hard to believe that it matters. Even if he dies, he'll wake up in his bed, won't he? So, steeling his back, he marches forward, and confronts the man whose death may trapped him in this endless half-life.
"You're an idiot," he scolds the man, and sidesteps a wild swing. Honestly. He hasn't even needed his sword; expecting Liu Qingge, knowing he'd attack, has really made this trivial. Had he really died to this?
Blood is frothing at the man's mouth, though, and he's not stopping. He'd hoped he could exhaust the deviation out of him, redirect his qi into something he's familiar with-- he'd hoped to avoid anything more intimate.
But, he reasons to himself, mouth twisting into a grimace, what does he have to lose? A few hours at the end of this day, before it starts again?
So he slides in past the man's sword, light as a leaf on the breeze, and presses a hand to his chest, the guard on his fan enough to hold back the blade threatening to swing back on him, though the wood won't survive the encounter.
The moment he pulses a spike of his own energy against Liu Qingge's qi, the man collapses into him, knocking them both to the filthy stone ground as if his strings have been cut; a rock has placed itself under Shen Qingqiu's head, and with a bright spark of pain, his thoughts vanish from him.
He wakes up under his white canopy, and sighs, letting his eyes close again. Of course. He'd probably died again. It was only what he deserved, for his stupid, stupid guess. How could Liu Qingge, wild with qi deviation, be the root of this?
"Fuck," he whispers, and startles when cloth rustles to the side of his bed, eyes snapping open and head snapping to the side--
"Shifu!" Ming Fan squeaks, looking like he just woke up from a doze of his own. "You're awake!"
This is different, he thinks, dazedly staring at his disciple.
"-- let me go fetch," Ming Fan says, and doesn't finish the sentence before he's out of the house like a bow from an arrow.
By the time the fetched people arrive, Shen Qingqiu has arranged himself nobly, pulling himself out of bed and into proper robes, wincing at the tender pain in his scalp when he pulls his hair upwards and instead carefully braiding it over his shoulder-- better than loose and wild, at least-- and coming to grips with... maybe... perhaps...
It feels unreal, and he stares at his reflection in the bronze mirror, dazed anew, until another reflection appears behind him--
He flinches, and the reflection behind him flinches as well, and he spins swiftly to find Yue Qingyuan behind him.
"You," he says, blankly, and looks past him, to the open door, the other men lingering in his space-- but they are only Mu Qingfang, and Liu Qingge, and the last looks haggard but quite fully alive.
"... Huh," he says, and barely notices Yue Qingyuan gently guiding him back towards his bed.
They know he saved Liu Qingge's life.
Yue Qingyuan is looking at him with unbearable softness. I knew you were good, his gaze seems to say, and Shen Qingqiu can't bear to look him in the eyes after a bare glance at him, no matter how tenderly he lurks at his bedside. It's embarrassing, and, frankly, a little revolting, that Yue Qingyuan thinks he has to forgive Shen Qingqiu when his little Jiu had been the first betrayed.
Mu Qingfang, who doesn't remember the last dozen times Shen Qingqiu had sought him out over the past day, is swift and businesslike in his assessment of his health, touching him as little as possible-- fingers on his wrist, a touch to the back of his head, a pulse of soothing qi to restore his apparently drained energy, and the healer departs.
Liu Qingge haunts the room like a ghost, glaring at Shen Qingqiu like he's a puzzle and all Liu Qingge has in his pretty skull is solutions that involve swords. It's disquieting, but less so than how Yue Qingyuan looks at him, and so Shen Qingqiu focuses his attention on the idiot whose life he saved.
Will he again be accused of an attack? He wonders. He wonders more when Yue Qingyuan finally gets the hint that he's not wanted here, and leaves him alone with Liu Qingge.
There's a long, uncomfortable silence as Liu Qingge lingers by his desk, and Shen Qingqiu is about to break it himself-- demand that Liu Qingge either speak or leave-- when the man does the former without prompting.
"Did you mean to?" he asks, which takes Shen Qingqiu a moment to process.
Mean to...? Save him, Of course. His head injury is making his thoughts slow, and he scowls, at himself, at the other man for the stupid question.
"No, it was an accident that I stabilized your qi," he says, sourly sarcastic, and Liu Qingge's lips tighten into a frown.
"... It didn't seem accidental," Liu Qingge says, after another uncomfortable pause, and Shen Qingqiu realizes that Liu Qingge missed the sarcasm. Ah. Well. He had known the man was an idiot, hadn't he?
The other man's frown deepens, as does the line between his eyes, when Shen Qingqiu giggles. Shen Qingqiu doesn't see what his face does next, because he buries his face in his knees, and laughs and laughs and laughs until tears run down his face. So stupid, this stupid man, all his brain used for swords so he can't even tell when someone means to save his life--
The sound of the door closing drags his head up, chokes his laughter in his throat-- but it's just Liu Qingge fleeing. Probably made uncomfortable by his long-time enemy laughing like a madman. Oh well.
Shen Qingqiu lays back in his bed, and closes his eyes, and tries to muffle his light-headed laughter behind his sleeve.
The next day, Ming Fan appears at his door, looking confused and bearing a slender box-- "He said to give this to you," the disciple says, and Shen Qingqiu opens the box to find a fan-- one with steel guards, elegantly engraved and strong enough to block a sword.
He lifts it, and flicks it open; the painting on it is entirely not to Shen Qingqiu's taste, fierce tigers entangled in battle, but he suspects he knows who would have seen it and chosen it.
"Thank you, Ming Fan," he says, dismissively, and turns away from his disciple, a complicated feeling in his heart. Does he think one fan is enough payment for his life? it seems to say, but at the same time-- It's enough to block his sword. It's a direct-- a better-- replacement for the one Liu Qingge had destroyed in the cave.
"Huh," he says to himself, softly, and tucks it into his belt.