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Yue Qi twitches and shudders, his Shizun hauling him into the spirit caves with swears on their tongue. They do something with him. With his sword.

(“Be careful Qi-ge! Don’t do anything stupid,” Xiao Jiu had said. Sorry Xiao Jiu, Qi-ge was very, very stupid.)

The rocks shift, the cave seals him in. No. NO. He needs to get out, he needs to find Xiao Jiu. He needs to save him, he promised . That’s what this was all for!

Yue Qi lashes out, he carves and tears at the rock, he breaks and bleeds and howls like a wounded animal. Xiao Jiu!

Everything is too much and not enough. He needs to get to Xiao Jiu, he needs to save him.

Yue Qi’s soul is bound to Xuan Su. This saves his life.

(It ruins everything else)

-----

Shen Jiu is in the Qiu manor. He is there like he has been for years now, twisting his finger around the red string around his wrist. His soulbond, his link to Qi-ge. 

Channeling just enough Qi so that he can see the bond, feel it, but no one else can. Shen Jiu looks at the red string when he sleeps in the cold, hard shed. He holds it tight while Qiu Jianluo beats him, whips him, steps on him, laughs at his pain.

As long as he has this string he can endure. This red is proof. Proof that they are connected. That no matter the distance Qi-ge’s heart still beats, he still lives. Proof that Qi-ge will come back and save him. That he’ll find him again no matter what happens.

Shen Jiu is still in the Qiu mansion. He is still enduring, still waiting, still holding on to this one tangible piece of hope he has. The one thing no one can take away from him.

The one thing he thought could never be taken away from him.

Thought, but now it’s wrong. He can still feel the tie around his wrist, still see it, but it’s not red anymore.

With numb horror words he’d learned flit through his mind. Everyone, even lowly slaves, knew how soul bonds worked. Those without a soulbond simply did not (yet) have a soulmate. They hadn’t been born yet so they remained untethered. (Whether their soulmate would be born while they still lived was a different matter entirely.) Those with red strings were soulbound, the string leading up, unfailingly to their other half. Those with black strings though...those with black strings…

Shen Jiu stares at his wrist. At the black thread hanging there limp. Black like dried blood, like something rotten, like something DEAD.

Black strings meant that their soulmate had died. Black is what happened when the bond was severed. It wasn’t impossible for a bond to be severed with a spiritual weapon, or special artifact, or curse, but it was universally acknowledged that a black soulbond was cause for mourning.

Shen Jiu has waited. Shen Jiu has hoped. Shen Jiu has endured.

Now, Shen Jiu’s soulbond is black. Now, Shen Jiu knows.

He knows his Qi-ge is dead and that's why he hasn't come for him won’t ever be coming for him and he's waited so long for nothing and-

The black string cuts him like a brand.

Shen Jiu snaps.

The Qiu mansion burns that night.

-----

Yue Qi comes to in bits and pieces. His rationality returns slowly as his Qi deviation settles. Yue Qi has been trapped in the Spirit caves, mid-qi deviation for over a year and finally, finally he manages to pull himself back together. 

Only to look down and find that his thread is black.

He nearly goes into another Qi deviation on the spot.

Because Xiao Jiu is dead . He took too long and Xiao Jiu died while he was trapped in these caves and he doesn't even know how long it's been!

Upon leaving the LingXi caves Yue Qi goes rushing to the Qiu mansion because he has to know. He has to check. He has to be sure .

All he finds is a burnt out husk and the town's stories about how the manor burned and every man was slaughtered.

Yue Qi stops.

He stares.

Finally he turns around and returns to the sect.

There's nothing left. According to the locals the blaze took place sometime during his Qi deviation. Xiao Jiu is dead and it's all his fault. He failed him.

He doesn't know why he's even living now.

Without Xiao Jiu, is there even a point?

-----

Life continues on. Yue Qi, now Yue Qingyuan, fulfils his duties. The seasons change and the Immortal Alliance Conference arrives.

Everything is routine enough until a rogue cultivator starts killing and harvesting disciples. Yue Qingyuan goes to investigate, flying through the forest and runs into the last person he thought he would ever see again.

Everything gets confusing. Some parts in too sharp detail and others murky and slow like a vague surrounding of a dream already half forgotten even as it happens. But the facts boil down the same.

Shen Jiu is alive. (Shen Jiu is working with an evil cultivator. What is left of him, of the boy Yue Qingyuan once knew?) Wu Yanzi tries to kill Yue Qingyuan, but Shen Jiu gets there first. (Blood is staining Shen Jiu’s hands. He interfered for Yue Qingyuan and stabbed down through his own teacher’s back.) Yue Qingyuan can’t stop staring. (This was supposed to be impossible. His thread was black . But Xiao Jiu was in front of him now. But Yue Qi had still failed him.)

Shen Jiu looks at him. Looks at his "Qi-ge". Looks at the fine robes, the long hair, the proud unbending posture. Looks to where Yue Qi's soulbond should be. Looks at this fine young master. Looks at his Qi-ge who wasn't dead after all (but obviously he was. This wasn't Qi-ge. Not anymore.) Looks at the shock on his face.

"Head Disciple, huh? So this is why you didn't come back?"

Qi-ge (not his Qi-ge) doesn't say anything. The silence is damning.

"If you have anything to say I can wait. I've waited years. A bit longer will hardly make a difference now."

Shen Jiu doesn't know why he goes with Yue Qingyuan. He doesn't know why he agrees to go to Cang Qiong Sect. (That's a lie. He knows. He wants answers so desperately, he wants his soulmate, he wants his Qi-ge! But, Qi-ge is dead.)

What's the point? Qi-ge is gone. Now there is only Yue Qingyuan, the upstanding head disciple of Qiong Ding. Next in line to be leader of the entire sect. This young master who has no need for a dirty worthless slave as a soulmate. Who realized how good he had it and what a weight Shen Jiu was. Qi-ge died when he cut off their soulbond and abandoned Shen Jiu to the gutters where he belonged.

But Shen Jiu is weak.

Shen Jiu is weak and he hates himself for it, but he wants to know why. He wants, he needs the answer. He needs to hear Yue Qingyuan say it. Say that he chose to leave Shen Jiu behind because he realized how much better off he was without him. That once he pulled himself up so high he couldn't possibly touch something as lowly and foul as Shen Jiu. Those words will burn, but he needs it. Needs that burn, because Yue Qingyuan may have chosen to cut off their soulbond, but he never cauterized it and Shen Jiu has been bleeding out ever since.

So Shen Jiu puts up with it. Puts up with sneers at his age and crippled spirit veins. Puts up with the entitled young masters and snobby instructors. Puts up with sleeping in the woodshed to feel even a modicum of safety. He throws himself into learning. He'll take every advantage and opportunity he can get and use it to claw his way up out of the filth. But he's not like Yue Qingyuan with his clean image and warm smiles (warm smiles for everyone else anyway). The filth still clings to Shen Jiu and everyone makes sure he knows they can see it, smell it. That they'll never find him worthy of even a glance or feigned politeness.

The worst part is interacting with Yue Qingyuan. (With the man who killed his Qi-ge to become who he is now.)

Not with Yue Qingyuan himself (oh no, that upstanding young master had no connections with something like him after all), but with what's left of Qi-ge. Because when Shen Jiu comes face to face with Yue Qingyuan is when Qi-ge's ghost makes itself known. It's like when Yue Qingyuan cut the soulbond he cut Qi-ge's throat with it and all that Qi-ge, his Qi-ge, ever was clutched onto that dragging dead thread and broke down until there was nothing left but guilt. That guilt is all that's left of his Qi-ge and seeing it in Yue Qingyuan's face, seeing his Qi-ge's corpse staring out from behind this prized disciples eyes is torture. All that this ghost can say now is sorry, staring at him mournfully through this stranger's eyes.

Sorry isn't what Shen Jiu wants. Sorry isn't what Shen Jiu NEEDS.

But that's all that the walking corpse can say. Anything else, everything else, is broken and gone and useless.

So Shen Jiu keeps bleeding. He is hemorrhaging, but he has been for years now. 

Qi-ge keeps apologizing. A broken ghost with only these words left.

There's a dead black string on both their wrists.

Shen Jiu can't cauterize the wound without the words Qi-ge seems incapable of saying. Shen can't close things off with that tiny flicker of hope that Qi-ge won’t just finish crushing. Without those words he can neither seal the wound nor mend it, let it heal.

So his soul bleeds and bleeds and bleeds.

Is it any surprise then, that his soul bleeds away and another comes to take its place?