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More precious than jade

Chapter Text

              When the young boy first stumbled into the library, Shen Yuan was immediately struck with how cute he was. Bangs framed his small face, and big puppy eyes sat above baby-fat cheeks. His disciple robes were a little dirty but were otherwise donned with care and respect. He looked like a total sweetie-pie.

              Shen Yuan quietly watched him as he sweeps the library. He was meticulous in his cleaning, reaching deep into the hard to reach corners with his soapy rag, dragging it across the floor once, twice, three times. As careful as he was, he also worked quickly. The entire time, Shen Yuan could hear him mumbling choice passages from the sect’s rules. How diligent, Shen Yuan thought fondly, sighing softly.

              When the boy got to Shen Yuan’s shelf, he does not bristle like he normally would when others approached him—not that anyone had thought to even spare the jade bi pendant a glance in the last several decades. The boy picked him up with careful hands, so very, very gentle, as he wiped a cloth across the wood.

Right as he was setting him down again, the boy stared at Shen Yuan with curious eyes. The boy smiled down at him. Something that had long been forgotten inside of Shen Yuan twisted.

              It was already late in the day when the boy came in, and Shen Yuan observed the shadows elongating through the library window with regret. The boy lit candles as he continued his work, weaving in and out `of Shen Yuan’s sight as he continued his task, never once pausing for rest. When the boy was finally done, the darkness had invaded completely, night plundering the once bright library. Shen Yuan watched as the boy wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, smiling down at his handiwork even as his knees trembled with exhaustion.

              If Shen Yuan could still frown, he would. This was the first time seeing the boy, but he had silently watched this library for many, many years. The cleaning of the entire library should not have been forced on one disciple alone, and not so late in the evening. Whoever assigned this job to the boy knew that it would take hours—precious hours that would eat into the boy’s sleeping schedule.

              Shen Yuan could only watch as the boy walked by him, extinguishing each candle as he went by. Grey smoke curled up into scarce beams of moonlight. The boy slid the door to the library shut. And Shen Yuan was alone once more.

 

              Shen Yuan had trouble keeping track of time. The curse made it difficult. Sometimes he could be clearly conscious for an entire day, other times he would come to awareness and the season had changed. He knew that he had been cursed for a very long time—at least a few hundred years—but he could not have said exactly how many.

              But he knew that it had only been a week since he had last seen the boy when he stumbled into the library once more.

              This time, the boy was even more palpably exhausted. His robes were still well put together, but they were perhaps a little dirtier than they had been before. Dark circles hung like overripe mandarin oranges underneath his eyes. His bangs were clumped together, fused with sweat and grime from neglecting a shower.

              Shen Yuan watched the boy set down the two heavy barrels at the library’s entrance, the late evening sun reflecting in the sloshing water. Just as he had before, he swept the library before reaching for the cleaning rag. As he scrubbed at the floors, Shen Yuan noticed how the poor boy’s hands were shaking with tiredness.

              “You should rest.”

              The boy startled, immediately dropping the rag as he stood up frantically. Shen Yuan didn’t know who was more shocked at his voice, the boy or himself. How long had it been since he had spoken to someone aloud? How long ago had it been that someone had heard his voice?

              The boy, not seeing the origin of the voice, hastily grabbed at his broom. Shen Yuan felt a sliver of respect at the control the boy had over his emotions—no fear leaked onto his face as he brandished the broom like a weapon.

              “Who’s there?”

              Shen Yuan wanted to chuckle, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to scare the poor boy.

              “I’m here! On the shelf!” he called out, trying to sound as friendly as he could.

              Just like a puppy, the boy’s head tilted in confusion. He approached the shelf upon which Shen Yuan had spent the last few decades cautiously, the broom held aloft in front of him. If Shen Yuan still had eyes, he probably would have rolled them.

              “I promise I mean no harm,” he added, voice softening even further, “I am no great danger.”

              The boy reached out hesitantly, confusion, awe, and disbelief flitting in equal measure in his eyes.

              “Is this…you?”

              The boy’s index finger stroked down Shen Yuan’s smooth side. If he could still shiver, he was sure he would have. It had been so long since anyone had touched him—since he’d allowed anyone to touch him—a touch that was deliberate, a touch that knew who he was.

              “…yes.”

              The boy frowned.

              “You are…a jade bi pendant?”

              Shen Yuan cleared his metaphorical throat.

              “This master is indeed a jade amulet. I am called Shen Yuan.”

              “Shen…?” The frown had not left the boy’s face. “Do you belong to Shizun?”

              At this, Shen Yuan could not help but huff slightly indignant.

              “I do not belong to anyone,” he said gently. This must be a lot for the boy to take in, after all. Magical talking amulets were not easy to come by.

              “What is your name, little disciple?”

              The boy retracted his hand, before flushing. He bowed his head quickly, back perfectly straight. Precious, Shen Yuan thought.

              “This lowly one is named Luo Binghe!”

              Shen Yuan hummed thoughtfully, before responding after a moment.

              “An excellent name.”

              Luo Binghe peaked up at the amulet through his sticky bangs, shock again flickering across his face at the compliment. Shen Yuan couldn’t help but notice it, something sick filling up the back of his thoughts.

              “You should rest,” he told the boy again, worry unintentionally seeping into his voice. “Luo Binghe is still young. Sleep is important for growth and for maintaining good health and cultivation.”

              The boy tilted his head further in the bow, so Shen Yuan could not see his expression as a silent pause stretched between them.

              “…this lowly disciple thanks Shen-laoshi for his concern, but this one must clean the library as punishment.”

              Shen Yuan audibly scoffed.

              “For what is Binghe being punished for?”

              Just as he had suspected, Luo Binghe’s back straightened, his whole body becoming rigid and tense. The young disciple obviously cycled through his words before he said them.

              “This lowly one…displeased his Shizun.”

              Shen Yuan pretended to hum thoughtfully.

              “Hmm. Your Shizun sounds incompetent.”

              “Shen-laoshi—!” Luo Binghe stuttered.

              Many years ago, in another life, a life when Shen Yuan was not an amulet, a life where he had a family and a body, he had struggled with expressing himself. He was easily embarrassed, and his older brothers often teased him. Being an amulet for a few centuries didn’t change a person, but that much time certainly wore away at his youthful inhibitions. When he spoke, it was genuine worry which laced his voice.

              “Are you alright?”

              Luo Binghe blinked, his lips parted ever so slightly in a quiet gasp. Not for the first time, Shen Yuan wished he had arms. This poor boy was long overdue on a hug. He let out a long sigh.

              “Binghe, go rest. I promise you won’t have to clean the library.”

              Luo Binghe seemed to come back to himself.

              “But—”

              “Go!” Shen Yuan interrupted quickly, “don’t you listen to your elders? I command you to leave and rest.”

              “But…” Luo Binghe protested again, much weaker this time.

              “You’re receiving an order from a magical talking pendant,” Shen Yuan reminded him, “I’m an ancient relic. I have powers beyond your imagining! I promise it will all work out.”

              Unbidden, Shen Yuan found his voice softening even further.

“Not all of your burdens are for you to carry alone,” he murmured, wishing all at once that the small platitude was true. His own life could be an entire exhibition on how those who should have been there for him had not been, but that did not mean this poor boy should suffer a similar fate.  

              The whistling of the evening cicadas filled the air.

              “Shen-laoshi…” Binghe stared down at him, eyes wide, voice barely a whisper, “…who are you?”

              “What?” Shen Yuan heard Binghe mumble something, but unfortunately for him, jade pendants didn’t have a cultivator’s ears. Binghe blushed to the root of his hair. A white lotus, Shen Yuan thought.

              “Thanking Shen-laoshi! This one will go rest now!”

              With that, he ran out of the library.

               And that might have been the end of it, but Shen Yuan had made two promises. Shen Yuan never went back on his promises, and a chance to fulfill both of them appeared not long after Luo Binghe left.

              Shen Yuan heard them first. He saw them second. One of the windows next to his shelf looked out on the western courtyard. It allowed him to admire the blooming sunset, red and pink and peaceful, on the horizon, but it also let him see anyone approaching the library.

              A disciple, slightly older than Binghe, was dragging said disciple roughly by the arm. His eyebrows were pinched in anger and annoyance, while Binghe’s face was open in obvious distress.

              “It could not have taken you so little time to clean the library, you filthy dog. What an ungrateful mutt, not serving Shizun’s easiest task! You little—”

              Shen Yuan’s heart clenched. This treatment was absolutely unacceptable. He didn’t even have to think about the repercussions of his decision, indignant anger overtaking him.

              The older disciple dragging Luo Binghe, who was head disciple Ming Fang, threw open the door to the library.

              “See, look at the state of this pla—” Ming Fang’s smug voice cut off abruptly when he looked inside. Luo Binghe stumbled after him, panting hard, glancing around when he heard Ming Fang stop speaking.

              The library was sparkling. The floor was immaculate, the dusk light reflecting off its surface in shimmering glow. All of the scrolls were organized, pushed in flush with one another. Not a speck of dust or dirt could be seen in the entire library, even under the long shelves.

              For a moment, Shen Yuan enjoyed the way the older disciple gawped like a beached fish. Luo Binghe looked just as shocked, but his eyes immediately turned towards Shen Yuan’s shelf, that fiery gaze landing on the jade pendant laying innocently between two piles of scrolls.

              If Shen Yuan could still wink, he would have. But, alas! Jade amulets did not have eyes.

              Luo Binghe straightened, before rigidly bowing to his shixiong, shouting a thank you, and leaving.

              What a sweet boy, Shen Yuan couldn’t help but think blearily. He was smart, certainly. He deserved better than this harsh treatment. He slipped under, thinking that this was the way to live. Without regret. Helping others…helping Luo Binghe.

 

              Shen Yuan regained awareness of the library in the afternoon. He did not know how long he had been…incapacitated. Hopefully it hadn’t been days.

              He watched idly as young disciples came in to fetch books on Early Core Formation and other cultivation techniques. Sometimes, he could extend his gaze out ever so slightly and read along with them. He had read a considerable amount of cultivation methodology and information on monsters and demons by doing this, although he was limited to the whims of whomever opened books close to him in the library. It was sad and ironic to be placed in a renowned library for decades and be unable to read his choice of books. He wept in his heart.

              The evening came quickly over the peak, the hustle and bustle of Qing Jing disciples winding down as they all retired to their sleeping quarters. Shen Yuan admired the moon as she rose over the bamboo forest, shafts of moonlight glimmering in the cooling air.

              Shen Yuan’s awareness sharpened as he sensed a figure creeping down the hallway to the library. If he could still smile, he would, as he recognized the figure. Amused, he watched the familiar ponytail bounce past his window, eventually slipping through the door. As the disciple came closer to Shen Yuan’s shelf, a beam of moonlight illuminated his strikingly cute (but also handsome!) features.

              “Binghe!” Shen Yuan greeted. “It is good to see you—”

              Shen Yuan cut himself off as he noticed that what he had initially taken for shadows playing across Luo Binghe’s face where in fact bruises. Before Shen Yuan could say anything else, Luo Binghe immediately bowed, hands outstretched in respect.

              “Thanking Shen-laoshi for cleaning the library last night!”

              “Luo Binghe,” Shen Yuan said, ignoring his thank you and bow, “how did you get those bruises? Are you alright? Are you in any pain?”

              Still bowing, Luo Binghe stiffened, a detail that Shen Yuan did not miss. Straightening quickly, the young disciple looked sheepish.

              “Shen-laoshi should not worry over this lowly disciple,” he replied, big eyes looking off to the side at the rows and rows of fully stacked shelves. Shen Yuan had never felt more indignant in his entire life.

              “Luo Binghe, pick this one up, if you could.”

              Immediately, the disciple reached out towards the jade pendant. Carefully, as if Shen Yuan were made of glass (which he most certainly wasn’t!) he lifted him off of the shelf, the pendant resting heavily in his palm. With his other hand, he brushed the red cord wrapped around Shen Yuan to the side, his gaze almost reverent.

              For a moment, Shen Yuan basked in the sensation of being held. While he could not necessarily feel anything, he did have the ability to choose whoever could pick him up and wear him. Being held by another soul, even just in their palm, was intimate for him. It had been a very long time—decades, if not over a century—since he had last allowed someone to even touch him.

              Then, Shen Yuan pulled on his reserves of spiritual energy. He had used up a good portion cleaning the library so quickly yesterday, but his powers stemmed from protection and healing. Smoothing over a few bruises would not be enough to deplete him to such a great extent that he would need to…go under, again. Shen Yuan reached through Luo Binghe’s meridians, admiring their purity as he went, and healed the poor boy’s wounds. In addition to the visible bruising on his face, Luo Binghe’s ribs were bruised, and a cold anger took over Shen Yuan as he healed whiplashes on his back.

              Luo Binghe gave a shaky sigh when he was done. Holding up the jade pendant to eye level, Binghe bowed again, although it was slightly awkward. When he raised his head, there were tears glimmering in his eyes.

              “Shen-laoshi, thank you, this disciple doesn’t deserve—”

              “Indeed, Binghe certainly does not deserve this harsh punishment,” Shen Yuan interrupted, voicing the thought he had had only last night, and that had been before he had discovered the extent of the disciple’s abuse.

              At this, the tears that had been standing in Luo Binghe’s eyes fell, streaming down his puffy cheeks. Rage burnt hot and bubbly within Shen Yuan. How dare they do this to this pure white lotus?

              This could not continue.

              “Luo Binghe, it has been many decades since I’ve left this library,” he began, a plan forming in his mind, “and this master finds he misses the sun and the outdoors,” a blatant lie, he was next to a window, “would Binghe mind if I were to accompany him in his discipleship?”

             Luo Binghe furiously wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve, before bowing to the amulet in his hand.

              “This one would be honored to assist Shen-laoshi!”

              Shen Yuan hummed in affirmative.

              Hesitantly, as if he couldn’t believe what was happening, Luo Binghe slowly pulled the red cord around his neck, the jade amulet sliding down his outer robes to rest on his chest. A slow smile spread across his face. Shen Yuan felt something inside him blossom.

              Another jade pendant already hung from Luo Binghe’s neck. Although it was hidden underneath his inner robe, Shen Yuan could sense its presence. It had no spiritual power, but he could feel the pulse of something completely different coming from the (albeit, fake) jade pendant—likely a strong emotional association.

              “I see I’m in the company of a pendant even more precious than I,” Shen Yuan observed honestly.

              The happy look on Binghe’s face was interrupted by an expression of embarrassment.

              “My mother gave me this jade pendant,” he explained, pulling it out of his robes. It clinked softly against Shen Yuan, and his old heart melted. Luo Binghe started slightly as Shen Yuan’s words fully sunk in.

              “But Shen-laoshi is also very precious!” Luo Binghe exclaimed, before blushing to the roots of his hair.

              Shen Yuan chuckled.

              “No need for any of that, Binghe. This master is quite happy where he is.”

              Yes, Shen Yuan thought as Binghe made his way out of the library, narrating the names of the different buildings and courtyards, this one is worth the chance.

              Shen Yuan’s happiness was short-lived, however, as Luo Binghe continued walking by the disciple’s living quarters and up to a small shack.

              “And this is where I sleep!” He said with the same enthusiasm as he had anything else.

              “Binghe,” Shen Yuan whispered, dread pooling even more in his chest, “why are you living in a woodshed?”

              “There are no more rooms available in the disciple’s quarters for this one,” Luo Binghe nodded, the bright glint in his eyes fading, “so this one must live here instead.”

              The anger was back, pressing mindlessly at Shen Yuan.

              “How dare they,” Shen Yuan seethed. This was not something that he could so easily fix. Even if he were to spend a huge amount of energy recreating a decent bed for Binghe, there was still limited space within the shed. He could maybe make the shed bigger? But adding on to something was always more difficult than taking away—Shen Yuan would have to go under for a long time, and he didn’t want to abandon Binghe for an unknown amount of days.

              “…Shen-laoshi?”

              Binghe’s eyes were wide as he stared down at the bi pendant he held in his hand. Shen Yuan had to quell another wave of rage at the earnest expression.

              “I’m sorry Binghe,” Shen Yuan was only an amulet, but still his voice strained, “even I can’t help with this.”              

              Instead of sighing like Shen Yuan thought he would, Binghe smiled brightly down at him instead.

              “Thanking Shen-laoshi for the consideration!”

              Ah, Shen Yuan thought as his heart swelled, what am I going to do with this boy.