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Liu Qingge stared at the empty set of his husband’s robes on the forest floor and wondered (with very distant but ever approaching panic) what he was supposed to do now. He bent down and picked up Xiu Ya where it was lying abandoned in a very worrying fashion.

 

“A-Jiu?” He said, as if that might suddenly make the man appear before him.

 

The robes wriggled.

 

Liu Qingge stepped forward even as his hand tightened on his sword.

 

Maybe his husband had been shrunk and was now trapped in his oversized robes?

 

That had happened to Liu Qingge once a few years ago and was (to this day) a source of great hilarity for Shen Jiu.

 

Liu Qingge endured the teasing and re-telling of the story at least once a year if only for the laughter it managed to draw out of his usually icy husband even now.

 

In all honestly, Liu Qingge’s recollection of those two weeks he had spent at the size of a regular housecat weren’t bad, in fact they had been overwhelmingly good. He had spent the majority of his time being carried around and petted by Shen Jiu which had been… surprising. His husband usually didn’t have much patience for animals nor children. However when it was a pet-sized Liu Qingge Shen Jiu had been determined to pamper him like the most spoiled of lapdogs even if he would never admit to it.  

 

Shen Jiu had, and seemed to take great delight in, making him a substitute bed with a soft pillow and an even softer scarf for a blanket. He had kept Liu Qingge right there by his side every night, fingers resting just so they brushed the pillow while he slept or meditated. He had also taken care to feed him regularly with small portions of whatever he knew Liu Qingge liked for all that his spiritual energy was intact and he could practice inedia unheeded. In fact, his husband had seemed to very much enjoy the whole experience and had gotten snappily worried anytime Liu Qingge had disappeared out of his sight for too long.

 

After the effects had worn off he had wondered if he should get Shen Jiu a pet and had suggested it at the time, but Shen Jiu had just wrinkled his nose and told him he very much did not want to have to look after a messy little creature that would require endless attention, so that idea had been dropped.

 

On one level it should have been humiliating to be carried about and cossetted that way, but in actuality Liu Qingge had rather enjoyed the whole experience. It had been nice being so pampered and spoiled and having the softest portion of Shen Jiu’s energy fixed on him.

 

He wonders if now the same thing has happened to Shen Jiu. They had been separated very briefly on this nighthunt and by the time he had tracked the other down all there was was this pile of robes (and whatever was wriggling inside of them). If his husband had been shrunk he can look after him, though he does think he would probably end up doing a worse job than Shen Jiu which is a funny thought considering his husband isn’t what one would call soft nor indulgent.

 

Liu Qingge decides not to dawdle any longer and marches quickly over to the robes to scoop them up in one easy motion. Whatever lump is wriggling stops doing so.

 

“Shen Jiu, is that you?” He peels away layers of the silk to reach whatever the wriggling thing was. He sincerely hopes it’s his husband and not a stray animal though the thought of his husband in any scenario leaving any of his robes behind is so unbelievable as to render that possibility almost useless.

 

Liu Qingge frowns at the continuous lack of response and the fact that whatever (whoever. The lump that has starting rapidly moving again is person shaped) is evading being revealed by squirming a lot on his hold.

 

He sticks his hand into the robes to grab what he’s quite sure is his husband and ends up hissing in pain as his hand is bitten hard.

 

Still, it won’t be the first nor last time Shen Jiu has bitten him, so he doesn’t pull back even as the teeth dig in harder, just rips away the final layer of fabric separating them and comes face to face with… his husband?

 

It must be. Not shrunk. Well certainly smaller just not in the way Liu Qingge was expecting. But who else could it be glaring at him with resentful green eyes and blunt teeth digging in hard enough to draw blood.

 

“Shen Jiu it’s me, Liu Qingge.” He says.

 

The (now child) Shen Jiu just glares harder and bites even more deeply. Blood is beginning to drip out around the small teeth.

 

“I’m not going to hurt you.” Liu Qingge tries, “Let go of my hand and I’ll put you down. Don’t run or I’ll chase you.”

 

Shen Jiu keeps glaring but very very slowly he unclasps his jaw from Liu Qingge’s hand.

 

Liu Qingge puts him down and immediately moves to intercept his husband when he (expectedly) tries to sprint away in the opposite direction.

 

“I said not to run.” He frowns.

 

The child stumbles in their now far too big robes, looks up at Liu Qingge, and then immediately ducks their gaze to the floor and goes to their knees, ducking their head, “This slave is sorry-“

 

“Stop.” Liu Qingge scowls even more fiercely. He hates that. Hates it so much he feels a little distinct bloodlust cloud his senses.

 

Shen Jiu is still kneeling.

 

“Hey.” Liu Qingge goes to crouch before him and then decides to just sit down on the forest floor. Shen Jiu keeps his gaze down at the ground but Liu Qingge can sense him watching in his peripheral vision. “You’re not a slave. Not anymore.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t look like he believes him.

 

Liu Qingge decides to explain things as quickly as he can. He’s not good at telling children’s ages and Shen Jiu is presumably even smaller than his actual age due to malnutrition, but his husband has always been intelligent and he’s sure he was a quick child too. Even a short and bad explanation is better than none.

 

“You’ve been de-aged back to childhood by the looks of it. And it doesn’t seem like you still have your memories. You’re normally an adult like me.”

 

Shen Jiu looks up at him sharply then and then down at the robes he’s swimming in.

 

Liu Qingge can sense the next question he wants to ask but doesn’t want to verbalise.

 

“My name is Liu Qingge. I’m a cultivator.” Shen Jiu’s eyes snap to his sword, “I’m your husband.”

 

Shen Jiu can’t hide his shock. His eyes find Liu Qingge’s face and then suddenly he’s throwing himself back and scrambling away.

 

“Wait no!” Liu Qingge wants to punch himself, “When you’re an adult! I said we’re the same age normally!”

 

Shen Jiu stops trying to crawl away but still shoots Liu Qingge a deeply suspicious look.

 

Liu Qingge has had years to deal with all iterations of his husband’s moods so being on the receiving end of that suspicious look doesn’t perturb him, especially as the effect has been dulled by his husband being tiny.

 

He wonders what else he should say, is there anything that would make Shen Jiu stop looking at him like that?

 

“Prove it.” A small voice suddenly pipes up sharply.

 

Liu Qingge looks at the small Shen Jiu who meets his gaze evenly with narrowed eyes.

 

My husband is so brave. Is Liu Qingge’s first thought. Shen Jiu looks so resolute even after being in such strange circumstances. He’s never met anyone braver than his husband.

 

“What can I do to prove it?” He asks.

 

Shen Jiu stays silent.

 

Liu Qingge can almost hear his husband’s caustic voice “How should I know? I’m the one at a disadvantage, how can I be expected to answer all your questions?”.

 

He concedes to that.

 

“I can tell you what I know about you at this age, I wouldn’t know if you hadn’t told me this. Your name is Shen Jiu, Jiu the character for nine. I don’t know when or where you were born because you said you didn’t know. You were sold to a group of slavers when you were younger than six but older than three. You said you were worth a bag of rice.” Liu Qingge tries to keep his voice even but he can’t help the anger that colours his tone. He hates it. Hates it viciously. “How old do you think you are now?”

 

Shen Jiu didn’t shuffle forward and he kept glaring, but his posture had loosened very very minutely.

 

“Are you going to hit me?” Is what he unexpectedly asked. His voice was hard and defiant, something flinty in his eyes.

 

“What?” Liu Qingge stared. “Why would I do that?”

 

Shen Jiu made a gesture with his sharp chin to Liu Qingge’s bitten and bleeding hand.

 

“This is nothing.” Liu Qingge says dismissively. He focuses a little qi on the area and shows Shen Jiu the closed-up wound as he brushes away the dried blood, “You’ve given me worse for less.”

 

Shen Jiu frowns but Liu Qingge can sense a little interest in his body language.

 

“One time you broke three of my ribs and dislocated my knee in a spar.” Liu Qingge elaborates.

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes widen a little.

 

“I heal fast.” Liu Qingge continues.

 

Shen Jiu is still staring at him. His posture hasn’t lost its distrustful edge and Liu Qingge isn’t sure what else to do to convince him. He doesn’t exactly have any hard proof on him of their relationship that he believes would convince this child Shen Jiu.

 

He considers things and then makes a decision.

 

“Here.” He takes a gold coin out of his qiankun pouch and leans over to place it on the ground in front of Shen Jiu who immediately snatches it up, “You can make this a knife using qi, right? You told me you could do it even when you were a child. Keep it on you. If I do something you don’t like, use it.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks at him and then looks down at the coin before closing his fist over it and clenching hard the way Liu Qingge knew he would. He untenses slightly more.

 

“You have your own supplies.” Liu Qingge tells him, “In your sleeves.” He gestures to the way the wide swathes of fabric pool on the ground, “You usually keep money and food on you, medicine too.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks at him and then his hands immediately begin rooting through the sleeves of his too-big robes.

 

“We’re in the forest near the Liu estate.” Liu Qingge continues to explain as he watches Shen Jiu pull out money, check it over and put it back before proceeding to do the same with the food and medicine supplies, “That’s where you live. We should go back so we can figure out what happened and get you turned back into your true age.”

 

Shen Jiu looked at him. He still looked deeply distrustful. But he also looked like he wanted to ask something. Liu Qingge knew that look.

 

“You can say whatever. I won’t hurt you no matter what you say. You can say anything you want to me or about me.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t look like he believes him but he eventually does open his mouth to speak, “This lowly slave-“

 

“Don’t call yourself that. You’re not a slave.” Liu Qingge couldn’t help but say.

 

Shen Jiu’s mouth clicked closed.

 

“Sorry.” Liu Qingge said. “I shouldn’t have interrupted you. That was rude.”

 

Shen Jiu looked at him as though he was an animal that was performing tricks entirely contrary to its nature. A fish walking on land and reciting poetry perhaps.

 

“You said before that the two of us are… married.” It came out as more of a question than a statement, the voice was quiet and more hesitant than Liu Qingge could ever remember hearing his husband.

 

“Yes. When you’re older.”

 

Shen Jiu stares down at the leaf litter, “How long?”

 

“Our marriage?” At Shen Jiu’s nod Liu Qingge answers, “Twelve years in three months.”

 

That makes Shen Jiu snap his head up, “Twelve years?” He sounds completely disbelieving.

 

Liu Qingge nods, “It’s not so long for immortals.”

 

Shen Jiu once again looks away, “We’re both immortals.” It once again sounds a little like a question. His voice wavers slightly.

 

Something in Liu Qingge aches keenly.

 

“Yes, we are.”

 

Shen Jiu fingers the coin in his hand, rolling it around his fingers in a surprisingly graceful movement for all that it’s the kind of low-class fidgeting Liu Qingge couldn’t imagine his husband ever doing. It’s while moving that the bracelet that is now far too big for his skinny wrist slips down from where it had been caught on his upper arm to almost slide completely off his hand.

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes widen as he holds his arm unnaturally still, staring hard at the bracelet on his skinny wrist. “What-“ His voice is very soft, hesitant and maybe even a little scared.

 

“That’s yours.” Liu Qingge says with some pride. Shen Jiu had never taken the bracelet off since he had accepted Liu Qingge’s proposal and every time he saw it on Shen Jiu’s wrist it pleased him in a way he couldn’t quite explain in plain words. “It was my grandmothers.” He explains for the benefit of a still shellshocked Shen Jiu, “I gave it to you when I proposed marriage and you accepted.”

 

Shen Jiu snaps his head up to look at him, “You wanted to marry me?”

 

Liu Qingge nods.

 

Shen Jiu once more looks down at the bracelet and then his skinny fingers go to rub at the fabric of the too big robes he’s draped in, they clench hard on the embroidery and then one goes back to the bracelet, clasping over it and pressing it into the skin of his wrist hard enough that it turns white.

 

“If we go back to the Liu estate we can also get clothes that fit you.” Liu Qingge offers. “The bracelet it too big now so I can carry it until we find a way to make you an adult again, or you can hold onto it if you would prefer.”

 

Shen Jiu looks up at him. There’s something vulnerable in his gaze. As a child he’s much easier to read than an adult. Liu Qingge wants to protect him so badly.

 

“I’ll keep it.” Shen Jiu says and Liu Qingge feels a rush of affection,

 

“We can fly there.” Liu Qingge takes out Cheng Luan, “You have your own sword but you won’t be able to use it now since you’re so small. Give me your wrist.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t move any closer.

 

Liu Qingge berates himself a little internally, “To check your spiritual energy.” He explains, “Maybe you’ll still have your golden core if you’ve been de-aged.”

 

Shen Jiu gets up to his feet then and trips over the robes on his first step.

 

“Careful.” Liu Qingge rushes forward to steady him. Shen Jiu doesn’t shove his hands off, just presents his wrist.

 

Liu Qingge carefully presses two fingers to his pulse point.

 

“No golden core.” He affirms, “Your body has been de-aged entirely. How old do you are roughly?”

 

Shen Jiu hadn’t answered before but now he looks down at himself and speaks, “Ten.” He says.

 

“How do you know?”

 

Shen Jiu points to the back of his right wrist. There’s a scar there.

 

Liu Qingge looks at the scar. It’s the first time he’s seen any visible blemish on his husband’s skin in a place that isn’t normally covered by clothing.

 

“You don’t have that anymore.” He says, “You erased all your scars using cultivation.”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes widen at that, “I can do that?”

 

“You’re a good cultivator.” Liu Qingge says with not a little pride. He then gestures to Cheng Luan, “If we ride my sword together it’ll take less than half a shichen to reach home. Or if you would rather walk I can carry you and it’ll take around a day. If you want to walk on your own it may take two days. We can make camp out here tonight.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at the sword and then at the bracelet and then finally at Liu Qingge.

 

In the end he points to the sword.

 

Liu Qingge wouldn’t have minded any option, but this is the one he prefers if only that he wants to know what’s happened to Shen Jiu sooner rather than later.

 

He steps onto the sword and then reaches out a hand to Shen Jiu, “Do you want to stand on your own or for me to carry you?” The robes are a hindrance but Liu Qingge is sure his husband is nimble enough even at this age to navigate one sword ride with them on. Besides, he’s certain that trying to remove or alter them would only provoke a worse reaction from Shen Jiu.

 

“I’ll stand.” Shen Jiu decides. Liu Qingge likes how quickly he made a decision.

 

“Here.” He helps Shen Jiu onto the sword carefully. The shoes his husband is wearing are now far too big for him, but he manages to stand fairly steadily all things considering. Like this he only comes up to just below Liu Qingge’s waist.

 

Liu Qingge swallows hard against any feeling he has, “I’m going to hold onto you.” He warns and Shen Jiu tenses slightly but makes so move to shove away the arm he wraps around those stiff shoulders, “Hold on tight.” He warns and Shen Jiu does so, clenching his small hands in Liu Qingge’s robes as the sword rises high above the tree line and then rockets off.

 

There’s a gasp from the small figure and when Liu Qingge looks at him his eyes are wide and fixed on the miniature landscape below him. Shen Jiu then looks up at Liu Qingge and their eyes meet. His husband’s small face is alight with awe instead of suspicion and it once again makes Liu Qingge ache a little.

 

The flight to the Liu estate is quick and Shen Jiu keeps his balance admirably well the entire time. When they touch down in his husband’s private courtyard he only wobbles very slightly when he gets off the sword for all that Liu Qingge can imagine that his knees are weak. That must have been the first time he had ever flown on a sword.

 

“This is your courtyard.” Liu Qingge explains.

 

My courtyard?” Shen Jiu looks around with wide eyes.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Do you live here too?”

 

Liu Qingge nods, “Sometimes. I have my own courtyard, but I spend a lot of time here. I’m also the Peak Lord of Bai Zhan so I spend time at the Sect too.”

 

Shen Jiu frowns and bites his lip, “So this is just mine?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu peers around with obvious interest.

 

“There shouldn’t be anyone here right now since we’ve been away and you don’t have personal servants living here.” Liu Qingge says, “Look around if you want. I’m going to get my Uncle, he’s a healer, so he can check what’s wrong.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him, “You’re leaving?”

 

“I can send someone else. Would you prefer that?”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t answer.

 

Liu Qingge thinks that’s answer enough in and of itself.

 

“I’ll get someone else to do it.” He walks to the entrance of the courtyard so he’s still in view of Shen Jiu and flags down a passing servant, asking them to fetch his Uncle and some clothes for a child.

 

“Who was that?” Shen Jiu asks when Liu Qingge comes back.

 

“A servant.” Liu Qingge says, “Their name is Chang Yi.” He adds in case Shen Jiu wants to know. He often does about things like that.

 

Shen Jiu makes no comment and instead stares once more at the floor, “How did we meet?” He asks.

 

“At Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.” Liu Qingge says, “We were fellow head disciples. You left the sect and gave up being Peak Lord to marry me.”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes snap up to him and there’re things in his gaze that Liu Qingge can read easily though he doesn’t quite understand where they’re coming from. Awe and confusion and pleasure and consideration.

 

“I-“ Shen Jiu stops himself and instead gestures to the courtyard, “This is mine?”

 

“It belongs to you. That means no one can come in without your approval.”

 

“Does that mean you too?”

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge said simply.

 

“This is your family home?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu chews his lip. He points to the entrance to his receiving room, “What’s this?”

 

“Your receiving room, it’s where you receive visitors. You have a more private sitting room next to your bedroom.”

 

Shen Jiu is still chewing his lip, “I live here alone?”

 

“Yes though I’m here a lot.” Liu Qingge says.

 

“What about when you’re not?”

 

“Then you’re here alone.”

 

Shen Jiu frowns, “Why do you have your own rooms?”

 

“What?”

 

“You said you have your own courtyard. Why?”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t really know how to answer, “My courtyard has been mine since I was old enough to move out of my parent’s rooms. When we became engaged you moved out of the Sect to the estate and this became your courtyard.”

 

“Why didn’t I move in with you?”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t really know how to answer though he does his best anyway, “My courtyard isn’t large since I never spent much time there even before leaving to the Sect. It wouldn’t have had enough space to accommodate the both of us and our separate sets of servants. Therefore it made more sense for you to have your own courtyard.” Though thinking about it Shen Jiu doesn’t have any servants so it actually could have worked though Liu Qingge hadn’t known that. His parents occupy one courtyard together but theirs is the size of four of the smaller courtyards put together, at least.  “It’s normal.” He settles on saying, “Spouses usually have separate courtyards in estates like this.”

 

Shen Jiu tenses a little, “I’m small right now.” He says very hesitantly, “You should stay here.”

 

There’s something in his presentation that looks more like a vulnerability that’s put on than anything else, but Liu Qingge doesn’t mind. If this was his adult husband it would be a look that’s almost coy accompanied by his fluttering fan and maybe a tug to his sleeve. Or maybe he’s seeing too much.

 

As it is this version of Shen Jiu just looks impossibly small and alone in his oversized robes in the middle of his too big courtyard.

 

“As long as you want me, I’ll stay.” Liu Qingge affirms, “It’s like that when you’re an adult too.” He adds.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes. You tell me when to come and go. You can be very bossy.”

 

The huff that gets is very familiar and makes him smile.

 

“Come on.” Liu Qingge holds out his hand more instinctively than anything else, “I can show you around.”

 

Shen Jiu actually places his small hand in his with very little hesitation and when Liu Qingge tightens his grip his small husband squeezes back just as hard.

 

Yes. This is Shen Jiu. This is my husband. Liu Qingge thinks with certainty.

 

He takes him inside.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu had that look on his face as he spoke to Zhang XuLi that Liu Qingge had only just begun to recognise as meaning “I’m very polite and you’re sure I care very much whilst in reality I don’t care at all and are in fact bored out of my skull”. Shen Jiu was far politer now, married to Liu Qingge, than he had ever been at the Sect. Back at the Sect Liu Qingge imagined Shen Jiu wouldn’t bother to speak to someone like Zhang XuLi at all, a relative only by marriage and distant as they were anyway.

 

Liu Qingge, to be frank, didn’t know why they were even here and didn’t particularly want to be. He huffed to himself internally as he walked over to where Shen Jiu was still enduring Zhang XuLi speaking at him with a look of faked interest on his face.

 

Shen Jiu turned and before Liu Qingge could say anything smiled and took Liu Qingge’s arm, “Husband.” Liu Qingge blinked, he had never had Shen Jiu call him so familiarly in public before, “Have you had the chance to greet Cousin Zhang yet?”

 

“No.” Liu Qingge said plainly. He turned to Zhang XuLi, he couldn’t remember ever speaking to this person before in his entire life.

 

“Cousin Liu.” Zhang XuLi greeted him fully and properly, perhaps overly considering he was their junior, “I have heard of your ascension to Peak Lord of Bai Zhan, congratulations.”

 

Liu Qingge nodded in acknowledgment and when Shen Jiu pinched him under the cover of his wide sleeves grunted out a, “Thank you.”

 

The look of shock he got for the actual acknowledgement could be considered a little rude if he were inclined to think in that direction.

 

“Husband, let me get you some refreshments.” Shen Jiu gave him another pinch and Liu Qingge had no idea what that was supposed to mean.

 

“I’ll come with you.” Even dealing with a Shen Jiu intent on pinching him was far better than having to listen to Zhang XuLi make small talk.

 

“Of course.” Shen Jiu lowered his eyes demurely in a way he never did when they were in private or back at the sect.

 

With a very polite “Excuse us” to Zhang XuLi they were set free.

 

“You could stand to be more polite.” Shen Jiu said, expression pleasant but voice cutting and quiet as they walked away, “That person is related to the Emperor on their mother’s side.”

 

“So?”

 

Shen Jiu gave him a look, “I don’t know why I bother.”

 

“Why are you being so polite? These people don’t matter.”

 

Shen Jiu smiled in a way that showed he was gritting his teeth, “You may think that but you’re thinking in terms of yourself. Of course they mean nothing to you but your Liu clan is something else, hmm?”

 

“I know one of my Uncles married into this family and that’s why we have to be here at all.”

 

“So you would be rude to your Uncle’s family?”

 

“I don’t remember ever meeting this Uncle before.” Liu Qingge said honestly.

 

Shen Jiu sighed in exasperation and made a subtle gesture to a man standing on the other side of the room.

 

Liu Qingge nodded in recognition. “I’ve fought him before. Good defence but lacks the initiative to take advantage of weaknesses.”

 

“Wonderful, I’m so glad Qingge is able to provide this oh-so-important context.”

 

Liu Qingge wanted to roll his eyes but didn’t. He and Shen Jiu had just had their second anniversary of marriage and he predicted being able to spend far more time together now that he had ascended to the position of Peak Lord. Now he could leave the Sect even more frequently whenever he chose to. For the first two years the time they spent together, while not minimal, was certainly perhaps not as much as average newlyweds though Shen Jiu never seemed upset about it.

 

“You said you wanted refreshments, do you want tea?” Shen Jiu wasn’t the biggest fan of drinking alcohol, especially not in public, so the wine being circulated wouldn’t appeal.

 

“Preferably.”

 

“They never have good tea out at this kind of thing but I’ll go ask for some. Wait here.”

 

Shen Jiu gave him another smile that denoted rolled eyes. “This one will wait patiently for husband to return.” He said with feigned over the top politeness. Liu Qingge couldn’t help a snort of laughter before he turned and walked off.

 

He was still a little unsure of how he was here today, only that Shen Jiu had decided to come and told Liu Qingge he couldn’t go without him. Normally he never came to these things. Gatherings between families were distinctly not his forte and after he had left for the Sect he couldn’t think of the last occasion he had been forced to go to an event like this one. Maybe his own wedding was the last occasion he could think of and during that he hardly spoke to anyone who wasn’t Shen Jiu.

 

He was honestly surprised Shen Jiu had even wanted to come, as far as Liu Qingge knew he hated small talk and interacting with people as much as Liu Qingge himself did and yet here he was, mingling and keeping that polite expression of interest on his face as the shichen ticked on.

 

When Liu Qingge finally returned with some tea he knew Shen Jiu wouldn’t scoff at the other was being spoken to by someone else. Shen Jiu had his fan up, blocking the most of his expression and from what Liu Qingge could see of his eyes he looked relaxed and passive though when he spotted Liu Qingge those same eyes widened in what looked to be eagerness.

 

“Husband.” Shen Jiu said with more enthusiasm than Liu Qingge would have honestly expected from him. He took the tea, shot him an entirely too coquettish look from under his lashes and said “Thank you.” In a voice that was… well, it wasn’t a tone Liu Qingge thought he had ever heard before.

 

Shen Jiu sidled closer to him and leaned into his side, sipping the tea and giving him that look. In all honesty he was looking at Liu Qingge the exact way the most enamoured concubine would look at their Lord the morning after a night together. Shen Jiu never looked at Liu Qingge even when they did spend the night together.

 

“Liu Qingge!” The person who had been speaking to Shen Jiu suddenly said with far too much enthusiasm, “I was just speaking to your lovely husband, I could never have imagined Liu Qingge of all people to have caught the eye of someone so beautiful.” They laughed an ugly guffawing sound.

 

Liu Qingge was barely paying attention, his entire focus was on his husband who was leaning on him so he caught the way Shen Jiu’s eyes flashed slightly.

 

When Shen Jiu opened his mouth it was to give the most uncharacteristically flirtatious laugh Liu Qingge had ever heard outside of those few times he had been to a brothel (all times entirely incited by Shen Jiu both before and after their engagement) as he stared up at Liu Qingge like… like Liu Qingge was the very sun in the sky. “It is this one who is lucky.” Shen Jiu smiled and it was such a soft expression Liu Qingge didn’t know what to do or how to react.

 

Whoever this other person was coughed which broke whatever mood had been created immediately.

 

Liu Qingge glared at them.

 

“This one just remembered that he has something to discuss with his husband.” Shen Jiu kept his eyes on Liu Qingge as he said it and that smile stayed in place, “Please excuse us.”

 

The other person said something, some meaningly acquiescence or whatever as Shen Jiu took Liu Qingge’s hand, laced their fingers together and lead him away into the gardens.

 

“What did you-“

 

“Ugh!” Shen Jiu made a noise of pure disgruntlement, “What an idiot.”

 

“Who?”

 

Shen Jiu gave him an absolutely withering look, “The person we were just speaking to.”

 

“Who were they?” Shen Jiu was still holding his hand.

 

“That was your third cousin through marriage! How do you not know that? They’re the second in command of some small sect to the North.”

 

“Right. What did you have to speak to me about?”

 

“Nothing in particular, I would just rather not have to be stuck talking to that person anymore.”

 

“Fair enough.” There was a stone bench and Shen Jiu walked over to sit down with Liu Qingge following.

 

 “You were very… affectionate before.” He finally said, the curiosity overwhelming him.

 

“That idiotic piece of trash was making all kinds of stupid comments, you’re superior to them in every way so I don’t know where they possibly get the impression that they’re qualified to say anything about you.”

 

Liu Qingge frowned, “What did they say?”

 

Shen Jiu waved a hand dismissively, “You’re ridiculously impressive, anyone can only grind their teeth in silence or desperately fabricate some fault of yours.” He slants his gaze across to Liu Qingge, eyes glinting in the low evening light, “Martial talent, family background, looks and bearing… ultimately what do you think they could possibly pick on, hm?”

 

Liu Qingge honestly doesn’t care so he just shrugs.

 

“Empty headed idiot.” Shen Jiu reliably rebukes him, hitting at his arm very lightly with his fan, “I’ve tied my life to yours now so you can no longer live only for yourself! You have to live for me too!”

 

“So what do I do?” Liu Qingge asks

 

Shen Jiu huffs, “You don’t have to do anything.” He says and his voice is a little dark when he continues, “Leave it up to me.”

 

Liu Qingge is honestly confused as to how his question on Shen Jiu’s sudden desire for intimacy turned into this.

 

Still, he reaches for Shen Jiu’s hand and finds himself not rebuffed. Instead he grips his hand back hard.

 

“How long are you staying at the estate?” His husband asks, scooting closer to him very very slowly.

 

“A few months.”

 

“Mm.” Shen Jiu comes closer still. “You should stay at my courtyard.” He all but demands.

 

“All right.” Liu Qingge doesn’t bother to argue. He never does anymore.

 

It’s sometimes surreal to think back to how he and Shen Jiu could only argue instead of speak as disciples. It’s not that Shen Jiu is less aggressive now but the whole context and understanding of that aggression has shifted. Besides, Liu Qingge considers himself to be fairly aggressive as well, he’s not sure how he’d manage with someone who didn’t scratch or bite or call him an idiot and whack him with their fan. When he fights back Shen Jiu gives as good as he gets.

 

Liu Qingge considers the nature of fighting back. There has to be a purpose for it. Fighting for nothing more than pleasure is certainly valid, Liu Qingge often spars for that purpose but fighting with Shen Jiu…

 

He doesn’t want to fight because he’s frustrated or angry or wants Shen Jiu to admit he’s wrong. He wants to fight with Shen Jiu only if it’s important, only if it makes things better in the end.

 

Now, Shen Jiu edges close enough to lean his head on Liu Qingge’s shoulder as a tumble of other voices enter the garden from the main party. He snuggles into him and while in this strange uncharacteristically affectionate mood he’s in, shifts himself so he’s close enough that he’s almost in Liu Qingge’s lap.

 

“Qingge.” Shen Jiu looks up at him still with that expression on his face, “Say something funny.”

 

Liu Qingge frowns, “What kind of funny?”

 

“Oh? You already have a whole repertoire shored up to select from?”

 

“No, I mean-“ Liu Qingge breaks off in frustration, “You’re always asking me to do impossible things.”

 

“Impossible? With husband’s ability how could anything be impossible.”

 

You can’t just ask me to be funny!”

 

“I asked you to say something funny, not to be funny. I, at least, know your limits.”

 

“You!”

 

“Do you remember on our wedding night.” Shen Jiu drops his voice, smirks and leans in, “I told you to finish and you sounded just like you do now, “I can’t just because you’ve asked me too!”.” Shen Jiu sighs in dramatic faux exasperation. "Qingge should learn to believe in himself. Or simply to listen to me more effectively, either option is good." 

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t know what expression he’s making but apparently it’s enough for Shen Jiu to completely loose it.

 

His husband is actually fairly expressive in his own childish way. He cries and laughs and shouts often but Liu Qingge has noticed its only in his company. Around everyone else he puts on his esteemed scholarly mask and uses his fan to conceal any other hint of expression that could bleed through.

 

Now Shen Jiu laughs and laughs and laughs. A proper laugh that doesn’t look put on and that’s somehow the exact moment a group of the younger members of the party happen upon them.

 

“Oh!” Whoever it is that’s exclaimed isn’t a member of the Liu clan since Liu Qingge doesn’t recognise them. He automatically considers the whole group irrelevant.

 

Shen Jiu on the other hand stops laughing with what looks to be effort and moves away from Liu Qingge to a more proper distance. He’s flicked open his fan but he’s holding it slightly lower than usual so his mirth flushed cheeks are partly visible.

 

“Apologies!” One of the girls in the group’s eyes flick between Liu Qingge and Shen Jiu, “We interrupted! We’ll leave!”

 

The rest of the group throws them glances but dutifully traipses away with a lot of heavy-handed whispering.

 

Liu Qingge frowns, “Do you want me to do something?”

 

“Hmm?” Shen Jiu lowers his fan, closes it, and functionally tucks it back into his belt.

 

“About them.” Liu Qingge explains, “They’re likely going to spread whatever rumours they want. If you want me to-”

 

“And what kind of rumours would they spread?” Shen Jiu looks amused, “That we’re far too affectionate? Pushing the limits of propriety even two years into marriage? Oh the horror.” Shen Jiu look remarkably unconcerned, “Spreading rumours that despite his stoic exterior Liu Qingge is peerlessly talented at making his spouse laugh? That he’s likely a wonderful lover? How will your reputation ever survive?”

 

“I thought you hated rumours.”

 

“They’re not all bad.”

 

“Wait,” Something abruptly occurs to Liu Qingge, “Did you do this on purpose?”

 

“Laugh at you?” Shen Jiu smiles, “That’s almost always involuntary, Qingge is simply too funny.” He leans in, “Now kiss me and let’s go home.”

 

And how could Liu Qingge argue back?

 

*

 

His Uncle barely looks perturbed by the small (even smaller looking now that he was wearing children’s robes) Shen Jiu who watches him with narrowed distrustful eyes and edges ever closer to Liu Qingge during the examination. Liu Qingge doesn’t think he’s even doing it intentionally, the movement to lean into Liu Qingge’s space seems more subconscious than anything.

 

He wonders if after all these years maybe there’s still some part of his husband that recognises him even with all those memories gone. Maybe his body recognises him even if his mind doesn’t. Or maybe he’s simply the person he knows the best right now and therefore his naturally largest distrust for everyone else is winning.

 

“The effects of the pollen and the de-aging are harmless.” His Uncle finally says as he packs up his things, “Give it a week, maybe two, and you’ll be back to normal.” He tells Shen Jiu who nods very slightly.

 

“Thank you.” He answers, very carefully politely in a voice that’s different from the one he had been using with Liu Qingge before.

 

His Uncle shrugs, “No trouble. Qingge, did you manage to pick up any wild buttermilk weeds?”

 

Liu Qingge suddenly remembers the weeds.

 

“Here.” He pulls out the qiankun pouch full of the weeds they had collected before they had gotten separated and this had happened.

 

His Uncle nods and without another word is gone.

 

“Are you hungry?” Liu Qingge asks. Shen Jiu could be very particular about food and even as an immortal adult he very rarely went long without eating.

 

Shen Jiu looked hesitant but he nodded.

 

Liu Qingge got up, “I’ll send for some food. What do you want?”

 

Shen Jiu’s gaze was very intense for such a small child, “It doesn’t matter.” He finally said.

 

“It matters to me.” Liu Qingge honestly replied, “Do you want meat? Steamed buns? Rice? Noodles? Vegetables?”

 

Shen Jiu hesitated.

 

“I’ll ask for a variety.” Liu Qingge decided. He left for the door but was stopped by a sudden tug to his robes.

 

When he looked back at Shen Jiu he found the other had retreated and their hand was curled into a fist on their lap but Liu Qingge got the message loud and clear.

 

“Come with me.” He requested. Phrasing it more softly than maybe he would have usually and not sure if it truly made a difference.  

 

Shen Jiu looked up at him and then got up easily. Liu Qingge reached for his hand and wasn’t shoved away.

 

“Do you want to see anyone?” He asked as they went to the entrance of the courtyard to signal for a servant, “Grandmother is in the estate, muqin and fuqin are away and Mingyan is at the Sect, but Third Aunt is here. Mingli will arrive back tomorrow.”

 

Shen Jiu looked a little overwhelmed by the names, “I don’t know any of these people.” It was meant to sound cutting but came out sounding deeply insecure. Liu Qingge ached.

 

“Later then. I’ll tell you who everyone is while we eat.” He said, calling over a servant and giving them a list of foods to send for from the kitchens.

 

Shen Jiu clung to his hand and stared the entire time.

 

“Is there anything else you want?” Liu Qingge asked him after he had finished ordering the food, “Sweets?”

 

The servant smiled, “Maybe some tanghulu for Young Master Shen?”

 

Liu Qingge didn’t ask how the servant had already managed to ascertain that this was Shen Jiu. It was likely the entire estate knew by this point.

 

He looked down at Shen Jiu who didn’t look liable to say anything.

 

“Tanghulu.” He decided, “And some dragons beard candy. Tangyuan too, red bean and sesame filling.”

 

The servant smiled and with a nod left.

 

“Is that good?” Liu Qingge asked Shen Jiu who was still staring at the ground.

 

“Is that what I eat when I’m older?” Is what the child version of his husband asked.

 

Liu Qingge nodded, “You like sweets.” He tries to think of something more to say, “When we go out I always buy you some from the markets if we’re in a new town.”

 

Shen Jiu seemed to absorb that knowledge easily. He kept a hold of Liu Qingge’s hand.

 

“You like me a lot.” He says it very slowly.

 

Liu Qingge frowned, “Of course.”

 

“Twelve years is a long time.” Was Shen Jiu’s next strange sentence.

 

“Not so long for immortals.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded. He looked up at Liu Qingge as if scrutinising him for a second. “I want to sleep.” Is what he said. It sounded vaguely defensive as if he expected he wouldn’t be allowed to.

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge pointed to the inner rooms of the courtyard, “You can sleep in your bedroom. I’ll get you when the food comes.”

 

“Where will you be when I’m asleep?”

 

“Where do you want me to be?” Liu Qingge asked.

 

There was a long pause.

 

“By the door.” Shen Jiu said, “Of the bedroom. Outside.”

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge agreed easily.

 

“You’d have to sit on the floor.” Shen Jiu warned. Or maybe challenged.

 

Liu Qingge shrugged, “I’m a cultivator. I can sit on the floor.”

 

Somehow Shen Jiu’s eyes flickered to the cuff of his robes then. Liu Qingge followed his line of sight and found his husband was staring at the blood stain left behind after his hand had been bitten.

 

“It’s no problem.” Liu Qingge said.

 

Shen Jiu looked up at him and nodded.

 

He even looked like he somewhat believed him.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu ate voraciously.

 

It was surprising considering how his husband ate as an adult. An adult Shen Jiu ate slowly and very carefully. Daintily even, with perfect manners. This small Shen Jiu stuffed everything he could into his mouth as quickly as he could. He inhaled most of the food, eating beyond the point of satiation to look almost uncomfortable.

 

Liu Qingge didn’t try to stop him. He just watched as Shen Jiu seemed to forget the world around him and focus entirely on eating.

 

The ache was back, deep in his chest. He loved his husband so much it hurt, and he hated the world so much for hurting him that that hurt too. It was extraordinarily unfair. How could someone Liu Qingge valued so highly have been abandoned and abused so cruelly at such a young age?

 

“Good?” He asked when Shen Jiu finally slowed down slightly.

 

That thin child face looked at him with those large green eyes as if only just now realising that Liu Qingge was there with him.

 

Surprisingly Shen Jiu didn’t hide the way Liu Qingge thought he might. Instead he smiled. Very slightly but honestly.

 

It struck Liu Qingge suddenly that he had expected Shen Jiu to be embarrassed by his eating habits but in fact why would he be? His husband had been sold into slavery where food was scarce and likely everyone he knew ate the way he did if faced with such a feast. He wasn’t some young master who had to abide by table manners, he had grown up in a different world.

 

Liu Qingge swallowed hard, “If you want more just let me know. Or you can ask any of the servants yourself and they’ll get you what you want.”

 

Shen Jiu looked at him again with those eyes and then nodded quickly.

 

“How are you so rich?” Shen Jiu asked as he licked sauce off his fingers.

 

Liu Qingge didn’t know how to answer that question.

 

“My family has been fortunate for a long time.”

 

Shen Jiu hummed, “So you grew up rich?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And your parents did too?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“How rich is your family?”

 

Liu Qingge honestly wasn’t sure, “I don’t know.”

 

“Could you eat like this every day?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“For the rest of your life?”

 

Liu Qingge considered it, “Yes.” He answered. Unless something catastrophic happened to the whole family he doubted they would be unable to eat. Besides; “Most of the family are immortal, not many eat every day.”

 

“Oh.” Shen Jiu stops eating for a second, “What about me?”

 

“You eat every day. It’s habit. When we’re together we always take all meals together.”

 

“What if I’m not with you?”

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “Then I likely won’t eat.”

 

Shen Jiu considers it, “What else do we do together?”

 

“Nighthunt.” Liu Qingge answers easily, “Travel. You like local legends and sightseeing.”

 

Shen Jiu frowns, “It sounds very… easy.” He pokes consideringly at the last uneaten piece of chicken, “How do you make money?”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t really know what to say to that either, “I don’t.” He answers.

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes narrow, “Then how is your family so rich?”

 

Liu Qingge, embarrassing as it may be, doesn’t actually know the answer to that. He knows that in the sect he tends to hand off his kills to someone else to use for elixir making and the like. Many beasts have powerful properties. Maybe money can be made from that but in his family he’s never sought to keep his kills unless requested by someone for something specific. Liu Qingge suddenly realises that he’s never once tried to make money before in his entire life.

 

“My grandmother knows.” He finally answers, “And some of my other relatives help keep the accounts. You help as well.”

 

Shen Jiu is still frowning. “How can you not know where your money comes from?” He asks, he sounds deeply critical.

 

Liu Qingge crosses his arms, “How do you make money?” He asks before realising that it’s an incredibly stupid question to ask and that he’s being ridiculous. He’s fallen back into the style of childish bickering he and his husband find as their norm, he’d forgotten that this isn’t that Shen Jiu.

 

“I beg for it or I steal.” Shen Jiu says simply.

 

Liu Qingge had not known that. He had never known that his husband had begged on the streets for money. He’d known that he was sold into slavery but (stupidly maybe) he had never wondered what it was that his husband had actually done while he was a slave before he was sold to the Qiu family. He just imagined that time as blank space since Shen Jiu never spoke much about his day to day then.

 

He swallows hard, “You never told me that.”

 

Now a flash of panic crosses Shen Jiu’s face. Liu Qingge thinks he can track where his thoughts are going even without any verbal confirmation.

 

“I don’t care.” He says shortly, “It’s terrible that you had to do that to live but I don’t care that you did it.”

 

Shen Jiu looks down at the food. His hand is trembling very slightly. Liu Qingge doesn’t know what to say to make things better. He has the distinct feeling that he’s ruined something but he doesn’t know how or what.

 

“You know I’m a slave.” Shen Jiu says quietly.

 

“Was a slave.” Liu Qingge said firmly, “When we met you weren’t a slave anymore.”

 

Shen Jiu stares down at the table, “When did you find out I was a slave?”

 

“After we married. Many years ago now.”

 

“After?”

 

“It didn’t change anything for me.” Liu Qingge says forcefully.

 

“Did I tell you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu pokes listlessly at that last piece of chicken again, “I-“ He stops, “What else do we do together?” He ends up asking.

 

Liu Qingge is glad the conversation is moving on, “When we’re in the estate you help me with peak management like lesson plans or paperwork. You read me poetry sometimes or play the qin.”

 

Shen Jiu nods slowly.

 

“We spar together.” Liu Qingge says, “And we talk about things.”

 

“What kind of things?”

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “Whatever. Intersect news, family gossip, thoughts on random things, you have a lot of opinions.”

 

“You like talking to me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu picks up the piece of chicken and starts to eat it despite looking like he’s almost full to the point of being sick.

 

“Will you stay tonight?” Shen Jiu asks.

 

“If you want me to.”

 

“I want to sleep here.” Shen Jiu gestures to the floor cushions in his sitting room.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t understand that considering Shen Jiu had slept in the bedroom earlier so presumably finds nothing wrong with that room but he nods anyway, “If you want.”

 

“Will you stay here?”

 

“Where do you want me in the room?” Liu Qingge asks.

 

Shen Jiu points to the door that leads out into the courtyard, “Can you sit there, with your back against the door.”

 

Liu Qingge nods, “Alright.”

 

Later after the food has been cleared away Shen Jiu directs Liu Qingge to sit with his back against the door. Then he drags the floor cushions to a corner of the room and curls up there. From his position he’s within reach of Liu Qingge but blocked at the back by solid wall and has Liu Qingge between him and the door. It’s a good defensive position.

 

Liu Qingge watches as he husband curls himself up into the smallest ball he can and aches again, somewhere deep in his bones.

 

He sits there and meditates lightly, keeping watch all night, and like that he can sense the way Shen Jiu wakes several times only to stare at him before falling back asleep and then waking up again not long after. All in all it’s not a peaceful night of rest, but the next morning his husband doesn’t complain, doesn’t even yawn. He just asks if there’s any food.

 

When breakfast arrives he falls on it just as voraciously as he had the night before.

 

Liu Qingge’s ache doesn’t dissipate.

 

*

 

“Fuck you!” Shen Jiu yells, “Get out! Just leave!”

 

He looks so angry though Liu Qingge can’t even reliably say this is the angriest he’s ever seen him.

 

Maybe if it was a year ago he would have left but Liu Qingge doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to let Shen Jiu bait him into being angry enough to leave. He wants… he wants Shen Jiu to tell him what’s wrong and let him fix it.

 

Besides, things have shifted a little after that time Shen Jiu told him to get out and Liu Qingge left the room but sat outside by the gate of his courtyard for a week. When Shen Jiu had come and dragged him back indoors with gentle hands but a flurry of angry words there had been a settling to his husband that he knew had meant something had changed. Shen Jiu was mercurial certainly, but once he made his mind up he was se, and it seemed that by sitting outside and not leaving Liu Qingge had cemented something between them.

 

He’s seen Shen Jiu when he’s so vulnerable he almost can’t stand it and with the knowledge of what he looks like when he cries, how can he let the other drive him away with only a few words?

 

“Why are you so angry?” Liu Qingge asks. He stays a reasonable distance away. Any movement closer when he’s in this state would lead to Shen Jiu freezing up and fleeing or fighting as if it’s for his life.

 

“As if someone as empty-headed as you could even comprehend it if I told you.” Is Shen Jiu’s response, equal parts a devastating insult and also a… window. Into how he feels. He thinks Liu Qingge won’t understand even if he tells him.

 

“Is it something important?” Liu Qingge asks, not allowing himself to be baited by some petty insults, “Is it something I can do something about?”

 

Shen Jiu’s face spasms, “Fuck you.” He says again.

 

“You can tell me.” Liu Qingge insists, trying to speak the way Mingyan had told him to try and “coax his angry spouse” though that’s really not how he sees this interaction. It’s not coaxing, it’s trying to talk and they’re two very different things.

 

“There’s an art to it Ge.” Mingyan had said very seriously, despite the fact that she was still very much a child, bringing out a stack of small bound books that looked to be romance novels, “Jiu-ge is complicated, let me tell you what you should do…”

 

Shen Jiu looks away furiously, “It’s you. You’re the problem. You need to leave.”

 

“If I’m the problem tell me what I did and I’ll change.”

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “You can’t. You can’t do anything.”

 

“I can’t if you don’t give me a chance.”

 

Shen Jiu is still looking away and his fists are clenched tight, “I had other offers you know.” He says, voice low, “I had other proposals. You… I wasn’t so desperate that you were my only option.”

 

“What?” Liu Qingge both doesn’t understand how the topic had moved to this and also feels a roiling in his own chest at the thought of Shen Jiu choosing someone else.

 

“I received a proposal from someone else a week before we wed.” Shen Jiu is still looking away as though there’s something incomparably interesting on the floor.

 

Liu Qingge turns it around in his mind, running over the nuance of that sentence, and somehow his brain only catches on one thing.

 

“You chose me.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t say anything but now that Liu Qingge has said it out loud he knows it to be true.

 

“You said no. You refused them and married me because you wanted to.” Liu Qingge never minded that Shen Jiu married him more out of obligation than true desire but now… he knows. Shen Jiu, ever overthinking ever careful ever prudent Shen Jiu, measured Liu Qingge against the other options and found him to be the best one.

 

Liu Qingge has always been a winner. He has never lost before in any real way but this victory, significantly important as it is, he hadn’t even been aware of.

 

“Hey.” Liu Qingge feels light and all for that Shen Jiu is a capricious, infuriating, impossible person, Liu Qingge is unbelievably fond of him and wants nothing more than for Shen Jiu to like him and be happy with him. So he tries again, “What can I do?”

 

“Why aren’t you angry at me?” Shen Jiu asks, his posture and voice are stiff, “You always used to be angry when we were disciples. If I spoke to you then the way I’m speaking to you now we would have fought. Why are you so different?”

 

“I didn’t know you back then.” Liu Qingge says honestly.

 

“What’s the magical difference?”

 

“I know you now and I like you.” Liu Qingge replies, “I’m not going to be angry at you.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t relax, “What would it take? For you to be angry at me?”

 

It would be hard. Liu Qingge doesn’t say but he thinks it. Any despicable thing Shen Jiu could do to him now would likely make him more sad than angry. And that… is an emotional shift he hadn’t been completely aware was happening.

 

“I don’t know.” Liu Qingge answers honestly. He decides to try something else, “Have I ever gotten angry at you since we’ve been married?”

 

“Last month on that nighthunt when the triple headed snake was-“

 

“Not that kind of anger.” Liu Qingge can’t help but cut in with a little familiar exasperation.

 

Shen Jiu looks away but Liu Qingge knows he’s acknowledged his point through the way his body language has relaxed slightly.

 

“I was frustrated then.” Liu Qingge continues.

 

Shen Jiu presses his lips together.

 

“I was frustrated because you almost got seriously hurt because you didn’t listen to me.” Liu Qingge holds out his hands, “It’s different.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t say anything but Liu Qingge sees it as answer enough. He had gotten more frustrated in the beginning about Shen Jiu’s inability to say he was ever wrong but now he saw that… well did that matter as long as Shen Jiu did know didn’t it? As long as they both ended up on the same page it was fine, the petty nuances didn’t matter.

 

“You don’t get angry.” Shen Jiu unexpectedly says, “But that doesn’t mean you never will. I know you’re capable of it, how can I just sit back and live like it’ll never happen?”

 

I don’t know. Liu Qingge thinks. But I don’t want you to be scared of it.

 

He approaches Shen Jiu slowly, “Do you still want me to leave?”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t say anything.

 

“Hey.” Liu Qingge comes closer still, “I promised I would never hurt you.”

 

There are a lot of other things he could say, things that swirl around his mind though they rarely take centre stage. Things like “why can you always get angry at me but not the other way around” things like “why do you still not trust me. I’ve been trying so hard” things like “I don’t know how to do this, tell me what I need to do” things like “I like you so much it makes me feel insane I want you to never be upset ever again” things like “I don’t know how to use my words the way that you can, so how can I convince you? What would work? You run rings around me in these arguments and I feel like I never say what it takes for you to really listen”.

 

There was a long pause that stretched out further and further like heated sugar syrup ready to be blown into pleasing shapes. It stretched taut and then just at the moment it could have snapped Shen Jiu finally spoke.  

 

“You don’t have to leave.” The tone is off hand deliberately kept open-ended, phrased like a suggestion rather than a serious want. Shen Jiu didn’t fidget, he never does, but something in his stance betrays some restless energy.

 

“I won’t leave.” Liu Qingge walks even closer and Shen Jiu doesn’t move away, just lets him edge into his space, “Do you want me to send for some dinner? You haven’t eaten yet.”

 

Shen Jiu shrugs carelessly and crosses his arms, “Do what you want.”

 

“I’ll send for food.”

 

When he comes back from having done so Shen Jiu is sitting down. He looks so… small and dejected and not at all angry now.

 

“You can shout at me.” Liu Qingge feels the need to say, “If it makes you feel better then I don’t mind.”

 

Shen Jiu huffs humourlessly, “How far do I have to push you?” He says which makes no sense to Liu Qingge.

 

Liu Qingge frowns and sits down next to him, “What do you mean?”

 

“You’re so… you can’t be this easy.”

 

“Easy?”

 

Suddenly Shen Jiu is reaching out and grasping his hand hard, “If I tell you to leave don’t listen to me. I never say what I really mean so you need to stay.”

 

Liu Qingge nods and squeezes Shen Jiu’s hand back, “Alright.”

 

Shen Jiu nods in that way that shows that while he’s not completely appeased Liu Qingge has said the right thing for once.

 

As the seconds tick on Shen Jiu slowly moves, so slowly it can be denied, to finally lay his head on Liu Qingge’s shoulder. He turns so his face is hidden away, tucked into Liu Qingge’s embrace.

 

He mumbled, words caught in Liu Qingge’s shoulder, “I didn’t mean it.”

 

“It’s alright.” Liu Qingge wrapped an arm around Shen Jiu’s shoulders in turn.

 

“It’s not.” Shen Jiu makes a slightly frustrated noise, “Don’t let anyone treat you like I do. If anyone else speaks you to the way I do, you should break them.”

 

Liu Qingge has to snort at the strange hypocrisy of the sentence, “Sure. Just not with you.”

 

“Yes. Not with me. After all,” And here Shen Jiu pauses before continuing, “You promised me.”

 

“I did.”

 

There’s a long silence.

 

“Are you not going to ask?” Shen Jiu finally says, a familiar defensiveness already beginning to colour his voice though Liu Qingge hasn’t even opened his mouth yet,

 

“About what?”

 

“Why I was so angry. Why I act like that. Why I’m like this.”

 

“No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “We’re good now. Does it matter?”

 

“So empty-headed.” But it sounds like a well-worn endearment more than a criticism.

 

“Do you want to tell me?”

 

Shen Jiu seems to think it over. “What if there’s no real reason? What if I’m just like this.”

 

“That’s fine.” Liu Qingge keeps holding his husband, “We’re married. You can get angry if you want. Just as long as you-“ He stops because he’s not sure how to articulate his next point. He wants to tell Shen Jiu that the other can get angry as long as he never cuts Liu Qingge out, gives up on them, looks away and mentally leaves the way he’s seen with one of his Aunts and her husband.

 

Though he doubts Shen Jiu ever would. The other isn’t that type. Shen Jiu would fight him to the death rather than turn emotionless eyes at Liu Qingge as if the other means nothing to him. Shen Jiu is a fighter to the core and it’s the one thing Liu Qingge can count on, can trust in.

 

“As long as I do what?” Shen Jiu probes.

 

“As long as you talk to me.” Liu Qingge answers. “And let me talk to you.”

 

Shen Jiu takes a deep inhale, “That’s it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You’re not asking for much.”

 

“But it works. We’re good now because we talked.”

 

Shen Jiu laughs and though it may be a bitter humourless sound it’s still a laugh, “In a manner of speaking.”

 

“If it works we should keep doing it.”

 

There’s another pause.

 

“I get so angry sometimes.” Shen Jiu says. It comes out hesitant though not soft. “I can’t even control it. I feel so furious I can’t do anything but shout or…  fight even if I don’t even want to. It’s just a feeling but it’s as if it’s controlling me, like I’ve been possessed.”

 

“Mm.” Liu Qingge has certainly experienced rage before. Maybe not quite the way Shen Jiu is describing but sometimes on a hunt or in a good fight a familiar bloodlust will start to cloud his mind.

 

“So don’t listen to me.”

 

“I’ll only listen when you want me to.”

 

Shen Jiu hits him though not hard, “Terrible answer!” He says, indignant, “How will you know when that is?”

 

“Don’t you believe I know you by now? Enough to be able to tell.”

 

Shen Jiu looks away, “I don’t even know myself most of the time.” He says, it comes out quiet and even more hesitant.

 

“Hey.” Liu Qingge tugs at him so they’re forced to face each other because this next part is important, “I want to be good to you. I never want to make you uncomfortable and I never want you to hate me for whatever I do. How can I do that?”

 

Shen Jiu’s mouth does this little wobble, so small it’s barely noticeable, “You could never.” He ends up saying, “I could never hate you.”

 

“You did before.” Liu Qingge points out.

 

Shen Jiu’s expression morphs into something that’s almost a pout although Shen Jiu really isn’t the kind to do that, “I didn’t know you before.” He says, unconsciously echoing what Liu Qingge had said earlier. Once he realises, he scowls deeply.

 

Liu Qingge can’t help his smile.

 

“No one likes your smug face.” Shen Jiu said waspishly, turning away with a little huff and obviously sulking. Liu Qingge likes him so much it’s almost incomprehensible.

 

“You chose to marry me.” Liu Qingge can’t help but say, smile not abating.

 

“I was obviously touched in the head then.” Shen Jiu makes a face, “I could have been Lord of Qing Jing peak but instead I’m here, forced to interact with you of all people.”

 

“You chose to be here.”

 

“Smug bastard.” But Shen Jiu now has a smile tugging at the edge of his mouth.

 

“We get on.” Liu Qingge emphasises, “As long as we can talk, we’ll be fine.”

 

Shen Jiu laughs again and this time it’s a real one, “I never thought I’d hear the Bai Zhan brute espouse the importance of verbal communication in conflict resolution.”

 

Liu Qingge leans in closer and likes the way Shen Jiu goes ever-so-slightly cross eyed to take him in.

 

“You like long words and speaking about things.” Liu Qingge says, “We can do that if it’s good for you.”

 

“Is it good for you?”

 

“It’s no hardship.” Liu Qingge hesitates but then barrels forward, “I’m not great at it.” He admits, in some subconscious sense aware that he wouldn’t have been able to speak like this years ago, “So… be patient.”

 

Shen Jiu softens completely, the last of winter thawing to drip off his face as spring blooms anew, “Of course.” He kisses Liu Qingge and when he pulls back there’s a proper smile on his face, “Be patient with me too.” He says, it’s still quiet and uncertain but he says it. He’s asking for things. Asking for things that he thinks will be given to him and that’s… it’s good. It’s very good.

 

“You’re an optimist, aren’t you?” Shen Jiu says, not a question in any real way, “You might look all hard and act all rough, but you do think the best of people and the best of things.”

 

Liu Qingge hums, “I’ve never really thought about it.” The conversation is moving into the safe lazy exploration that it often does when the two are together and things are good.

 

He relishes in it, in being faced with a situation and fixing it and making it better in a real tangible way that matters. He’s known as terrible with words but he fixed this didn’t he? He fixed it so well Shen Jiu is practically in his lap talking casually with him like nothing had happened.

 

“Hm.” Shen Jiu leans his head back down on Liu Qingge’s shoulder, “I’m a pessimist.” He says decisively, “Life has proved itself to be nothing more than hardship and suffering time and time again.”

 

Liu Qingge thinks it over, “So I’m an optimist and you’re a pessimist?”

 

Shen Jiu snorts, “It’s not quite that simple. If you were truly the kind of person to skip around and proclaim the world to be a fundamentally good place I wouldn’t be able to stomach it.”

 

“What do you think?”

 

“I think the world is harsh and terrible things happen without oversight. Who checks other people’s behaviour? Are we meant to simply trust in everyone’s individual set of principles? I certainly don’t, in the world we live in all people are fundamentally selfish and that is the way they should be. Only those powerful enough to be gods or stupid enough to die are willing to consider others before themselves.”

 

Liu Qingge considers it but before he can say anything Shen Jiu speaks again.

 

“Do you trust most people?”

 

Liu Qingge shakes his head, “I trust people if they haven’t done anything to prove themselves untrustworthy.”

 

“Like me?”

 

“You’re not untrustworthy but when we first met…” Liu Qingge considers it, “You’re the most trustworthy person I know.” He finally says, “But only if you want to be.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“You’re the most loyal person I know and certainly the most helpful.” Liu Qingge continues, “But only if you want to be.” He finishes with.

 

“Isn’t that true of everyone?” But Shen Jiu has properly relaxed now, leaning against Liu Qingge and fingers playing with the edge of his sleeve.

 

“No. Some people don’t have the capacity for it if they thought in that direction.”

 

“Hmm… so my husband is pleased by me?” Shen Jiu has slid right into coquettish, a mood he doesn’t bring out often but when he does… there’s nothing that makes Liu Qingge feel more wanted, more needed, more valued, than when Shen Jiu pouts and tugs and cajoles him into doing whatever it is that he wants.

 

For all that Shen Jiu is eternally difficult, eternally complicated, his wants and needs are paradoxically simple. All he wants is to be comfortable, to eat well and sleep somewhere warm and have companionship when he wants it. All he wants is to have what he wants, to have the choice to have it. To ask for things and have them be given. To make his own choices even if the choice is to ask Liu Qingge to check his decisions. Shen Jiu had seemed so complicated at first and that hasn’t quite abated. In many ways he’s the most convoluted person Liu Qingge knows but at the core… isn’t he the simplest person Liu Qingge knows?

 

“I’m always pleased by you. Even when you’re being a nightmare.” And the hard-won smile on Shen Jiu’s face makes it all feel worth it.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu is the most important person in Liu Qingge’s life. He’s his husband, someone who Liu Qingge chose and who has chosen him back. Their bond has been quietly and steadily built over many many years until it’s at the point when Liu Qingge thinks of him first before anything else. One part of his attention will always be trained on Shen Jiu no matter what happens, even if the other weren’t a child and were instead an adult. Even if he can look after himself there will always be a part of Liu Qingge that will be trained to watch out for him.

 

That’s why when Shen Jiu somehow manages to summon Xiu Ya to himself with a clumsy application of untrained spiritual energy Liu Qingge is already reacting before his mind has fully registered what’s happened. He sprints across the courtyard and throws himself between Xiu Ya and Shen Jiu, perhaps a little overdramatic in his panic, to let the sword sink into his shoulder instead of bisecting his small untrained husband in two.

 

“Are you alright?” Liu Qingge pats Shen Jiu’s arms with a little worry.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t answer, just stares with wide uncomprehending eyes at the sword stuck in the flesh of Liu Qingge’s shoulder.

 

“You’re bleeding.” Is what he says, hand trembling as it comes up to point at Liu Qingge’s shoulder, “Why did you do that?”

 

“It’s fine.” Liu Qingge slides Xiu Ya out of his flesh without even wincing, making sure to keep his expression even in front of small Shen Jiu. “See?” With an application of spiritual energy the wound closes and he wipes away the blood with his sleeve.

 

“Why did you do that?” Shen Jiu repeats, his voice is shaky.

 

Liu Qingge frowns, “If I didn’t you would have been hurt and you can’t heal like I can right now.”

 

Shen Jiu stares down at the floor.

 

Liu Qingge can’t tell exactly what he’s thinking so instead he cleans off Xiu Ya and presents it to his husband, “This is your spiritual sword. You must still be linked despite your limited spiritual energy though I expect that connection is volatile right now.”

 

Shen Jiu stares at the sword and makes no moves to touch it. Liu Qingge holds it closer, “It’s your sword.” He repeats.

 

“I hurt you.” Is all Shen Jiu says, gaze flickering between Liu Qingge’s shoulder and the floor, “Aren’t you angry?”

 

“No.” Liu Qingge keeps holding out Xiu Ya, “If you don’t want your sword I can put it back in its stand.”

 

Shen Jiu nods and Liu Qingge turns to do exactly that, putting Xiu Ya in its place of pride on the wall.

 

“Be careful when summoning it.” Liu Qingge warns, “If I wasn’t here you could have gotten hurt.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t say anything and when Liu Qingge turns back around his gaze is once more trained on the floor.

 

It’s a while before Shen Jiu speaks again.

 

“You said we met at Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.” It comes out as a statement rather than a question.

 

Liu Qingge nods, “Yes.” He’s impressed that Shen Jiu’s managed to remember everything he’s said but not surprised. His husband is obviously sharp even at this age.

 

“You said I was Head Disciple.” Shen Jiu says it a little hesitantly.

 

Liu Qingge realises that at this age with no exposure to cultivation Shen Jiu likely doesn’t even know what that means.

 

“There are twelve peaks on the mountain. You were the chosen successor to be the leader of the second highest ranked peak, Qing Jing, which is the scholarly peak.”

 

Shen Jiu looks very curious, “What about you?”

 

“I’m the peak lord of Bai Zhan peak. It’s the seventh ranked peak and is known for its battle prowess.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks, “So I was higher ranked than you?”

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge says simply.

 

Of course in reality the ranking between the peaks is a little more complex than that and the status of each peak lord is dependent on more factors than simple peak hierarchy. But in all honesty Shen Jiu understands all this nuance far better than Liu Qingge does and he doubts he’d be able to explain it well enough to be comprehensible to a child Shen Jiu so he doesn’t muddy the water further with more explanation. Besides on the face of it it's true, the fact that when Shen Jiu joined the sect he was already Liu Qingge shixiong despite his late start, worse cultivation, abrasive personality... Liu Qingge looks back at himself and wonders why he thought he knew so much when in reality he knew nothing. 

 

Shen Jiu seems to digest that knowledge, “You said I left the Sect to marry you. If I stayed, I would have become head of the second peak?”

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge answered.

 

“Is the Sect really rich?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Again, it’s more complex than that between the peaks and their lords and so on but on the most basic level Cang Qiong Mountain is the strongest sect amongst the Four Great Sects and while not the wealthiest is certainly able to hold its own. Liu Qingge has never really considered the Sect as wealthy or not before.

 

Shen Jiu stares down at the table and then over to the window and out at the tree in his courtyard. He doesn’t say anything for a long time and then finally when he does speak it’s to say something unexpected.

 

“I must have liked you a lot.”

 

It throws Liu Qingge a little before suddenly he finds himself flooded with warmth and satisfaction.

 

He’d never properly considered it that way before but it’s true, isn’t it? Especially if Shen Jiu himself is saying it. Shen Jiu had been so opaque to him at the beginning, showing vulnerability only for that to be a scant first layer to deeper feelings. To Liu Qingge he had been incomprehensible with his past only becoming more confusing and mismatched until he had finally learnt the full truth from his husband’s own mouth. Only when Shen Jiu had let Liu Qingge begin to understand him had they reached a point where Shen Jiu’s actions, while still being so far removed from the way Liu Qingge himself thought and behaved, made sense.

 

Liu Qingge can’t help but smile, “I’d hope so.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him now with what seems to be naked curiosity, “What was our wedding like?”

 

This Liu Qingge can answer easily, “I can show you. We had a wedding portrait done.”

 

He gets up and goes into Shen Jiu’s bedroom and from the chest at the foot of the bed retrieves the rolled-up silk backed scroll on which their wedding portrait had been rendered.

 

Shen Jiu watches as Liu Qingge spreads the scroll out on the floor, unrolling it completely and weighing it down at the corners so it lies flat to reveal the painted image of the two of them.

 

He reaches out a small hand and traces it over the image of his face, not touching the paper, just hovering a whisper of distance above.

 

In the rendering he’s not smiling but neither is Liu Qingge, no one smiles in wedding portraits anyway. It’s formal with Liu Qingge and Shen Jiu sitting on chairs next to each other in their elaborate red robes. Shen Jiu’s fingertips linger above the huadian on his forehead and then trace the elaborate gold ornament in his hair before moving on to the vibrant wedding reds, the colour preserved by being kept in this chest away from the light for all these years.

 

“You look almost the same.” Is what he ends up saying, gesturing to Liu Qingge’s carefully rendered face.

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “We’re immortals. We don’t age.”

 

“At all?”

 

“Slightly, but not very noticeably and we can stop it completely if we want.”

 

“Do I look like this as an adult?” Shen Jiu asks.

 

Liu Qingge nods, “There are more portraits of you.” He reaches into the chest and pulls out some of the other portraits done of his husband over the years. Most are by Mingyan who is a far better artist than he is.

 

Liu Qingge had tried to paint Shen Jiu a few times over the years but the results had been so embarrassing that it had led to more laughter and gentle mocking than anything else. He had always assumed that Shen Jiu had thrown all those attempts away but now that he’s pulling out stacks of carefully stored paper he finds some of his own pieces wrapped up with alongside the others. The especially embarrassing ones too.

 

The ache in his chest is back but it’s somehow sweeter than before. Not really an ache, more of a tug.

 

“This is me?” Shen Jiu looks at the portrait done by Mingyan of him sitting at the tea table under the tree in the courtyard. In the portrait he’s looking down reading a book and his face is soft as it ever gets. He looks beautiful.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Hmm.” Shen Jiu leafs through the paper. When he reaches the ones done by Liu Qingge he sends him a questioning look.

 

Liu Qingge flushes painfully, “Those are by me. I thought you threw them away.”

 

Shen Jiu smiles slightly, it’s just a small curve to his mouth but it makes Liu Qingge happy. How many causes would Shen Jiu have had to smile when he was truly at this age?

 

“You’re not very good.” Shen Jiu (unnecessarily) points out.

 

Liu Qingge crosses his arms, “You don’t have to tell me. I know.”

 

Shen Jiu hums, “But I kept them.”

 

Liu Qingge can hear what he’s saying underneath. I must like you a lot.

 

I like you too. Liu Qingge thinks to himself as he watches Shen Jiu trace his fingers over his terribly rendered features, done by Liu Qingge’s own clumsy hands. I like you so much.

 

*

 

“Do you want to see the rest of the estate?” Liu Qingge asks after they had eaten lunch.

 

Shen Jiu as an adult could spend days in his courtyard amusing himself by doing whatever he usually did (reading, sitting, meditating and snarking at Liu Qingge to name a few of the activities) but as a child he seemed more restless. Liu Qingge understood that; children needed more stimulation than adults and that was likely why he found Shen Jiu staring out the window rolling that same gold piece Liu Qingge had given him through his fingers again and again in an unceasing fluid motion.

 

Shen Jiu turned towards him at his words, “Can we?” He had changed into a fresh set of clothing after having actually slept in his day clothes last night.

 

Shen Jiu as an adult could be strange about clothing, sometimes sensitive to Liu Qingge taking off his clothes when making love or even occasionally unsettled by his husband watching him change too closely. Though other times he would coquettishly welcome the staring if he was in the right mood. When he was in the wrong mood though…

 

To Shen Jiu layers of clothing were important, the more and the richer the fabric the better. His husband hated showing bare skin unless it was just the two of them. Liu Qingge had never seen him show more than an uncovered wrist to anyone else but him over the years. Well, apart from that one time when Mingyan had appeared unannounced and barged in while the two of them were… the less said about that occasion the better.

 

Since it was a touchy subject even after many years together, Liu Qingge had decided to let this young Shen Jiu decide whatever he wanted with his own clothing and hadn’t commented on the fact that he hadn’t changed out of his day robes for sleep. Maybe a young Shen Jiu didn’t even know there was a distinction between day and sleep wear. Either way, yesterday he had handed him the pile the servant had delivered and told him he could wear any set whenever he wanted.

 

The clothing is all in Liu clan colours, likely belonging or used to belong to one of his younger cousins. It fits almost perfectly. Shen Jiu is very small for his age.

 

As they leave the courtyard Shen Jiu’s hand suddenly finds his and worms its way inside the curl of his fingers. It’s rather unexpected. Shen Jiu is rarely effusive as an adult unless they’re alone or he’s making a point. Maybe he was naturally sticky as a child. It’s a sweet thought.

 

Liu Qingge grips his hand back and when he glances down at Shen Jiu the other is looking away. Liu Qingge smiles to himself and doesn’t say anything.

 

The Liu estate is large. It takes a while even for Liu Qingge to walk the length of it and this time they’re going slow as he points out the different areas.

 

“That’s great uncle’s courtyard, it’s empty most of the time since he’s always away. You like him, he travels a lot and has good stories.”

 

Shen Jiu eyes dart around as he takes everything in, “Your family is very big.” He says rather cautiously.

 

“Your family too.” Liu Qingge points out.

 

That gets him a sharp look and Shen Jiu chewing on his lip for a long moment.

 

“Do they like me?” He asked suddenly, very quietly for it to almost be inaudible.

 

Liu Qingge gets that ache again, less nauseatingly prominent than before but no less present. It’s such an out-of-character question for his husband too, Shen Jiu doesn’t care what people think about him. He doesn’t care if the whole world hates him but here he is, looking as though he hopes desperately that his husband’s family likes him…

 

“Of course.”

 

Shen Jiu looks up at him and there’s something so vulnerable in his expression it makes Liu Qingge desperately wish he was an adult again because only as an adult could he sweep his husband into his arms and kiss that expression off his face. He was terrible at comfort but at least when Shen Jiu was an adult he knew how to confront those feelings head on in reliable ways.

 

Would this Shen Jiu respond well to being touched? So far he had voluntarily held his hand but he hadn’t tried to cling to Liu Qingge the way he sometimes did as an adult. He didn’t curl up against him at night or huffily plant himself in his lap when he wanted attention. Liu Qingge didn’t want to push for too much from this younger version that felt so fragile.

 

Liu Qingge crouched down so he was eye level with Shen Jiu, “This is your home. Everyone here treats you well. If anyone hurts you, I’d kill them.”

 

Shen Jiu stares at him for a long moment and then suddenly his mouth wobbles and he throws himself forward to collide with Liu Qingge.

 

It wasn’t quite an embrace. It was almost like he was trying to hide himself inside of Liu Qingge, tucking his head under his chin and pressing hard against his body as if to hide himself under the shade Liu Qingge produced.

 

Liu Qingge rested a hand gingerly on Shen Jiu’s skinny shoulder, “Is this alright?” He asked, “Tell me if you want me to stop.”

 

Shen Jiu gave one very brief nod that Liu Qingge could only make out because he could feel the quick movement of his head.

 

Liu Qingge took the permission and very carefully wrapped his arms around Shen Jiu, drawing his husband’s body to him as if he could shield him completely.

 

“As long as I’m alive I won’t let anyone hurt you.” He said slightly gruffly. He felt protective over Shen Jiu normally but like this when he was so small and vulnerable and with fresh memories of living in slavery, the impulse was ever magnified.

 

Shen Jiu had woken up in an unfamiliar forest in a set of too big robes with a strange man who claimed he was his husband. He had then been taken away to a large estate when only yesterday he must have remembered begging for coins on the street. It was unbelievable that he could remain so calm and adapt so easily in the face of that.

 

Liu Qingge wanted to grab his husband and cup his face and tell him he was the bravest person he knew but he also wasn’t sure how appropriate that would be with this Shen Jiu so instead he just held him tighter and kept silent and still and tried to project some of the strength he knew Shen Jiu liked.

 

“Is there-“ When Shen Jiu finally spoke his voice cracked slightly, Liu Qingge knew the direction of his thoughts immediately and intimately.

 

“There’s no one else here.” Liu Qingge said with certainty, “It’s just us.”

 

Shen Jiu fell silent again and let himself be held.

 

“Is there anything you want to do?” Liu Qingge asked after he felt enough time had passed for Shen Jiu to collect himself, “We can go back to your courtyard or we can go anywhere else you would like.”

 

“I want to go to your courtyard.” Shen Jiu said, voice a little muffled where he was still pressed against Liu Qingge’s body.

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge straightened up, “Do you want to walk, or I can carry you?”

 

Shen Jiu looked at him, “Do you carry me as an adult?”

 

Liu Qingge thought about it. A riot of images rushed through his mind; cradling Shen Jiu in his arms when he was hurt, his husband clinging to him with his legs around his waist and arms around his neck when they were intimate, piggybacking him when he sometimes claimed he was too tired to walk, having Shen Jiu draped over him just to be difficult...

 

“Yes.” He answered.

 

Shen Jiu considered it for another second, “Will there be anyone around?”

 

Liu Qingge thought about it. From here to his courtyard wasn’t too far a walk, and if they came across anyone he could always use the rooftops to travel.

 

“We don’t have to see anyone.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded and then, in a shockingly childish gesture, reached up his arms to be picked up.

 

Liu Qingge felt something in him melt and he leaned down to quickly scoop Shen Jiu up. He held him perched on his hip the way he had done with Mingyan when she was very small.

 

Shen Jiu looped his arms around Liu Qingge’s neck and settled his head on his shoulder. It was uncharacteristically trusting for the person his husband was. He could never have imagined that as a child Shen Jiu would have taken to him so quickly.

 

The journey to his courtyard was empty of other people which made sense. Everyone was likely purposefully giving them space.

 

Once at his courtyard Shen Jiu tapped him to ask wordlessly to be let down. It was strange, even if this version of his husband was unfamiliar Liu Qingge still felt that open line of unspoken communication between them. That channel still existed unobstructed by the lack of memories, and it made it easy for him to put Shen Jiu down the way he wanted and trail him as he explored Liu Qingge’s courtyard. He didn’t remember it even being this easy with his younger cousins or any other child, he couldn’t imagine it could be this easy with anyone but Shen Jiu.

 

“Your courtyard is very empty.” Shen Jiu commented critically as he wandered the bare rooms.

 

The difference (Liu Qingge easily accepted) was quite stark. Shen Jiu’s rooms were tastefully decorated with different pieces collected over the years. Liu Qingge’s rooms were a place for him to sleep in between nighthunts before he had gone to the sect. And then once he had married Shen Jiu he began to spend most of his time in the other’s courtyard anyway, rendering this set of rooms almost superfluous. Even when Shen Jiu was angry with him, he rarely banished him to sleep alone. Even a furious Shen Jiu would keep him in his courtyard though perhaps relegated to a different room.

 

Liu Qingge shrugged, “I don’t spend much time here.”

 

“Then why do you still have them?” Shen Jiu looked at him with his head cocked slightly, “If you spend all your time with me then what’s the point in these rooms?”

 

Liu Qingge can’t say he has a ready answer to that.

 

“You should get rid of them and just live in my rooms.” Shen Jiu says very seriously, crossing his arms and planting his feet like he’s ready for a fight, “Why won’t you?”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t have any kind of real objection to that. There isn’t any specific reason why he’s kept his courtyard apart from inertia. Or maybe tradition, but then again who would care?

 

“Is that what you think?” He asked.

 

“Yes.” Shen Jiu set his expression even more resolutely, “You should just live with me. We’re married. What kind of married people have separate houses? People will think you don’t like me.”

 

Liu Qingge had never heard that perspective before. He stared down at this tiny, resolute Shen Jiu and wondered.

 

“Do you think I don’t like you enough?” He asked.

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes narrowed but he didn’t yell or stomp away. He marched up to Liu Qingge and grabbed his hand, “You said you liked me.”

 

“I do. I love you.”

 

Shen Jiu’s mouth wobbled again and he looked away.

 

When he spoke he sounded deeply resentful, “You should live with me.”

 

Liu Qingge could do nothing but agree.

 

*

 

The next day his grandmother sent over a message in the morning requesting that they take lunch with her.

 

Shen Jiu had slept just as badly last night in the same configuration as he had the first night; Liu Qingge leaned back against the door with him in the corner. However he still didn’t look tired or worn out. Liu Qingge wondered how he had ever thought Shen Jiu was a spoiled young master.

 

He presented the invitation to Shen Jiu and asked for his opinion.

 

“If you don’t want to then we won’t go.”

 

Shen Jiu looked down at the short missive and then back up at Liu Qingge.

 

“What do you want to do?”

Liu Qingge thought about it, “Grandmother likes you. You spend quite a lot of time together usually so she likely wants to make sure you’re fine.”

 

“You’ll be there?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Shen Jiu’s hands were clenched so hard on the paper it crumpled slightly.

 

“Does she know?”

 

“Know about what?”

 

“That I was a slave?” Shen Jiu doesn’t sound particularly pressed by the prospect, though if he’s asking it must be something on his mind.

 

Liu Qingge has the sudden queer thought that this is a Shen Jiu before certain other biases were forced upon him. Of course Liu Qingge doesn’t care that Shen Jiu was a slave, it means nothing. But not everyone will think that way. Not everyone will so easily accept their union if the vast disparity of their social positions was revealed. For all that there’s no practical difference between Shen Jiu being a slave before joining the Sect versus Shen Jiu being the disowned son of distant nobles after joining the sect it’s still something people will have opinions about. Shen Jiu had told Liu Qingge when he had told him not to tell anyone and Liu Qingge never has if only to make life more comfortable for his husband.


“No one else knows. You told me not to tell anyone.”

 

Shen Jiu nods consideringly, “What will we eat?” He next asked.

 

 “What do you want to eat?”

 

“Does grandmother,” He spoke the address very hesitantly and carefully as if sounding around an unfamiliar word, “Not eat?”

 

“She usually practices inedia.” At Shen Jiu’s questioning look Liu Qingge explained, “Using spiritual energy in the place of food. But if we’re taking a meal together she will eat.”

 

“Can we eat before we go?” Shen Jiu asked.

 

It was a strange request but Liu Qingge didn’t question it. “I’ll send for some food now.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded but kept most of his attention on the missive, staring at the simple characters like they might reveal some other meaning, though he wasn’t frowning consideringly the way he would as an adult. Liu Qingge couldn’t imagine what he was seeing in the plain words but reading into things, that was Shen Jiu to the core, so he left him to it to go and went to call for the food.

 

When he returned Shen Jiu was still staring down at the missive, brow furrowed.

 

“That’s the way she usually writes.” Liu Qingge felt the need to explain, “Straightforward with no unnecessary courtesies.”

 

Shen Jiu looks up at him and suddenly Liu Qingge can read his expression and he wants to hit himself. That’s the way Shen Jiu looks when he’s unsure and embarrassed about it.

 

Can Shen Jiu read?

 

Liu Qingge wracks his brain, they’d never discussed it, but he assumed that if Shen Jiu was currently in the stage of his life of living on the streets then he likely can’t read. Liu Qingge is an idiot.

 

Liu Qingge sits down next to him and Shen Jiu doesn’t move away. “It says “Come to my courtyard for lunch, tell the servants if you have any requests for food”.”

 

Shen Jiu looked up at him with sudden and not inconsiderable panic, “That doesn’t sound like something to say no to!”

 

“That’s just the way she sounds. She won’t be upset if we say no.”

 

“What if she is?”

 

“Then it’s my fault.”

 

“What if she wants to punish us for it?”

 

Liu Qingge frowns, that’s very unlikely to happen but he still answers, “She won’t. But if she does then it’s my fault so I’ll take the punishment.”

 

Shen Jiu reaches out and tugs at him, pulling at his sleeve in a way that could be seen as beseeching on another person but to Liu Qingge in that moment, considering the circumstances, just reads as… so sad, “What if she wants to punish me?”

 

Once again Liu Qingge finds this an extraordinarily unlikely possibility. Mostly because saying no to a lunch invitation isn’t something that would anger anyone in his family and also because Shen Jiu is now a child with no memory of their clan anyway, how could any decision be his fault? No matter what happens it’s Liu Qingge’s responsibility and it would be so even if Shen Jiu was an adult by his side.

 

“Then I’ll take your punishment for you if it comes to that.”

 

Shen Jiu tugs at him even more insistently, “What if she wants to beat you?”

 

Again, this is extremely unlikely. Even so Liu Qingge tries to reassure in his own way.

 

“I can take a beating; you’ve seen how fast I heal. If it’s a choice between me and you, I don’t care about being punished. You’re a child right now and even if you weren’t I promised you I would never let anyone hurt you.”

 

Shen Jiu glares at him. His eyes are reddening and he presses his lips tightly together as he turns away. He looks deeply aggrieved but Liu Qingge can see the deeper uncertain emotions within him.

 

He doesn’t say anything, though his fingers keep the part of Liu Qingge’s sleeve he has in his grasp held tight.

 

“Do you want me to say no?” Liu Qingge asks.

 

“No.” Shen Jiu’s voice cracks and he swallows, “Say yes.”

 

Liu Qingge looks at his upset husband. What should he do? What would make him feel better?

 

“Do you want to take a bath before the food comes?” He asks.

 

Shen Jiu looks at him. His eyes are still red and his lip is wobbling though Liu Qingge can see the way he’s furiously trying to repress it, “What?”

 

“A bath. I can prepare one for you. Do you want that?”

 

Shen Jiu just kept staring at him.

 

Did he not know what a bath was? Would he ever have cause to take one before? Adult Shen Jiu loved hot baths; he could soak for hours very happily. Had Shen Jiu at this age ever had a bath before?

 

“Here, follow me.” Liu Qingge led Shen Jiu into the bedroom where part of it had been sectioned off with privacy screens to shelter the tub. “I’ll fill this up with water and then heat it with spiritual energy and you can soak in the hot water. You enjoy doing this.”

 

Shen Jiu stared at the wooden tub but then nodded suddenly and eagerly.

 

Liu Qingge picked up the tub. It was heavy and unwieldy to carry but still relatively easy all things considering. Shen Jiu didn’t like having servants in his courtyard so he would usually fill it up himself using a bucket to bring in the cold water from the pump outside.

 

Liu Qingge preferred to save himself the multiple trips so when he did this for Shen Jiu he would carry the tub outside, fill it up, and then bring it back. Shen Jiu had made fun of him more than once for the way he looked carrying the unwieldy thing but he would always thank Liu Qingge in his own way, beckoning him closer with that sly smile.

 

Shen Jiu followed him as he took the tub to the pump and filled it.

 

“That’s a lot of water.” Shen Jiu commented, voice quieter than usual.

 

Liu Qingge nodded as the tub slowly filled up.

 

“Do you like doing this too?” Shen Jiu questioned, leaning in to look at the steady stream of water.

 

Liu Qingge shook his head, “I don’t mind bathing with you but doing it alone is boring to me.”

 

“I do this alone most of the time?”

 

Liu Qingge nodded and now that the tub was full he picked it up and carried it back inside with Shen Jiu trailing him, “Yes. You make a whole song and dance of it.” He edges into the bedroom and then behind the privacy screens, managing not to slosh any water onto the floor as he does it. All the various scoldings over the years he’d received from his husband for spilling water on the floor have certainly engendered some care in him.

 

Once the tub is back in its place he places a hand in the cold water and warms it quickly so it’s Shen Jiu’s preferred temperature of too hot.

 

“Here, is this good?”

 

Shen Jiu edges forward and tests the water with his fingers. His eyes widened, “It’s hot.”

 

“Is it hot enough for you?”

 

“It can be hotter?”

 

“Yes, you normally like it at this temperature.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded slowly. He was back to chewing his lip.

 

Liu Qingge went to the shelves by the bath and pulled out Shen Jiu’s box of bath oils, “Here. You can put whichever one you want or more than one in the water. It makes it smell good.”

 

Shen Jiu took the box into his hands looking a little overwhelmed, but like Liu Qingge knew would happen he quickly regained his composure and began pulling out the different bottles and examining them.

 

“The soaps to wash your body and hair are here.” Liu Qingge retrieved a different box. He pulled out the variety of glass bottles and jars and had to admit he felt slightly lost. “You usually do this yourself, I’m not sure which is for your hair and isn’t.” He took out a vaguely familiar looking jar and opened it to sniff, “This one is for your hair.” He said firmly. After a few more test sniffs he pointed out the ones for body and face and so on.

 

Shen Jiu stood there surrounded by the little bottles and jars and looked at Liu Qingge like he both wanted him to stay and leave.

 

“I’ll bring you a fresh change of clothes. The towels to dry yourself are over there.” Liu Qingge pointed, “If you need me call for me.” Shen Jiu normally liked to bathe alone unless it was a special occasion or he was in a particularly seductive mood.

 

“Wait!” Shen Jiu’s voice was a little panicked. When Liu Qingge focused on him he flushed and looked away, “Do I bathe with clothes on or not?”

 

“No clothes.” Liu Qingge said, “Don’t worry, I’ll stay by the door. No one will come in. I’ll make sure of it.” This seemed to be the right thing to say becaue Shen Jiu settled completely.

 

He then turned towards the bath which Liu Qingge took as his cue to leave and help grab another set of clothes before loudly telling him he was tossing them over the privacy screen.

 

He heard a soft sound of acknowledgment and the sound of water splashing in response.

 

Once he was sure nothing bad was going to happen (like his husband spontaneously drowning himself in the bath) he went to the door and closed it behind him, leaning against it to guard against anyone coming in. This was familiar. When they travelled and were staying in this or that inn Shen Jiu always had him keep guard when he bathed, usually he had Liu Qingge sit right up next to the bathtub just in case.

 

Liu Qingge leaned his head against the wall and let the sounds of Shen Jiu splashing around soothe him. He hoped this made him feel happy. He hoped this was something that could bring Shen Jiu some joy.

 

Liu Qingge felt like he was stumbling around in the dark. He missed his Shen Jiu keenly, the one that remembered him and spoke to him about how he felt with little reservation. He didn’t want to upset this small Shen Jiu. He didn’t want to hurt him more than he had already been hurt. He just wanted to look after him.

 

When the knock on the main door of the rooms came and the food was delivered Liu Qingge took it and set it out on the table before going back to the bedroom and knocking on the door to get Shen Jiu’s attention.

 

“The food’s arrived.” He said. When the splashing sounds stopped he felt the need to add, “Take your time.”

 

There was no verbal acknowledgement so he continued, “I’ll be in the next room. Tell me if you need anything.”

 

Not too long later Shen Jiu emerged. He was dressed and still looked a little pink from the heat from the bath. He also smelled like his favourite scents so it seemed his tastes had remained mainly consistent even as a child. It was a familiar scent that reminded Liu Qingge of spending time with Shen Jiu when the other was soft and pliant. It was the kind of scent with good memories attached.

 

“Here, have something to eat.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded and sat down at the table next to Liu Qingge. His wet hair flopped against his clothes, soaking them in a way that must be uncomfortable.

 

“I can help you with your hair.” Liu Qingge said. Young Shen Jiu’s hair was short, just hanging under his ears and slightly uneven as if someone had hacked at it roughly with a blunt knife.

 

Shen Jiu looked at him and then nodded quickly before turning back to the food.

 

Liu Qingge got up and from his husband’s drawers produced a familiar comb. When he went to brush Shen Jiu’s hair there was no protest but a slight raising of his shoulders at the likely unfamiliar sensations before his husband relaxed into it.

 

It was very strange, taking care of his husband as a child. Objectively it was a strange thing to do for all that Liu Qingge found it almost instinctive once he put away the ever-present fear of making a mistake. Even if he did make a mistake Shen Jiu would forgive him, that was what the other was like.

 

Shen Jiu seemed like the type to hold a grudge and he absolutely was, but Liu Qingge had noticed with a strange creeping sensation over the years that when it came to him Shen Jiu would forgive absolutely anything. It was an uncertain power he didn’t want to test and it confused him sometimes despite the fact that it had been proved enough times that he couldn’t doubt it’s veracity.

 

No matter what he did; get them grievously lost on a nighthunt, somehow get Shen Jiu horribly injured through circumstances only slightly beyond his control, destroy some or other thing Shen Jiu was working on in his carelessness, accidentally order food the other hated. No matter what, Shen Jiu would snap at him and glare a little but at the end of the day he would forgive and on they would go with Liu Qingge’s mistakes as nothing but another footnote in their ever-lengthening history together.

 

Looking back Liu Qingge can see how that unique trait had been the lubrication that saved their relationship from implosion more than a few times at the beginning. Liu Qingge had been stumbling through on nothing more than half-baked assumptions and blind faith for the first few years and Shen Jiu would give him nothing concrete, but in turn he would forgive and forgive and forgive everything Liu Qingge did or said. Stupid comments, careless actions, uncouth handling… all of it swept under the proverbial rug as Shen Jiu dragged them forward together, refusing to leave Liu Qingge behind no matter what.

 

He combed through the wet hair carefully, the way he sometimes did when Shen Jiu was an adult and there was so much more hair to deal with. He made sure to be gentle and to dry it a little more with a towel he had fetched. As a child Shen Jiu’s hair was brittle and more than a few strands fell out despite his careful ministrations.

 

They sat in silence as Shen Jiu ate though not quite as desperately as he had the day before.

 

When it came to the last egg custard bun Shen Jiu reached for it as Liu Qingge knew he would, it was his favourite, but instead of eating he handed it to Liu Qingge.

 

Liu Qingge took it feeling touched by the gesture. This was Shen Jiu. His husband who made sure his only kindness was offhand and casual. In response he easily split the bun in two and handed the other half back to Shen Jiu.

 

“I know you like these.” He explained, “I don’t like sweet things that much so we should share.”

 

Shen Jiu looked at him and nodded before delicately nibbling his half. It seemed that when Shen Jiu wasn’t voraciously hungry or worried about getting enough food he reverted back to a naturally delicate style of eating.

 

Liu Qingge couldn’t help himself. When the food was done he nudged Shen Jiu gently. More gently than he would have if the other was an adult, “How are you feeling?” It was a question he had only started asking after he married adult Shen Jiu and they began to talk more openly.

 

Young Shen Jiu looked at him like he had no idea what that meant.

 

“Are you happy?” Liu Qingge asked, pressing for something he wasn’t sure of.

 

Shen Jiu frowned, “I’m not hungry.” He said with some hesitation, “The bath was nice and I’m not cold.” He looked at Liu Qingge like that was answer enough.

 

Liu Qingge wanted to hold him so badly.

 

“Can I hug you?” He asked seriously.

 

Shen Jiu looked at him but nodded quickly and in the next second his small husband was in his arms. Liu Qingge wanted to wrap him up tight and stop him from getting hurt ever again. He wanted Shen Jiu to have felt happiness so many times it was an easy emotion for him to distinguish. He never wanted him to feel hungry or cold ever again.

 

Small Shen Jiu clung back to him, tiny fingers digging into his shoulders the exact same way they did as adult Shen Jiu. The familiarity was nice.

 

They hugged for a little while before it was time to go to grandmother’s courtyard for lunch.

 

Shen Jiu held his hand as they walked and seemed more spirited today. He peered at all the different courtyards and training fields with great enthusiasm and when they passed a group of Liu Qingge’s cousins he watched a little wide-eyed as they waved and greeted them without making any move to come closer.

 

“They know who I am.” Shen Jiu said, small hand squeezing Liu Qingge’s.

 

“Of course. We’ve been married for twelve years and you’re very recognisable, even as a child.”

 

Shen Jiu looked at him as they got ever closer to his grandmother’s courtyard. It was a look Liu Qingge knew well. It was one of hidden apprehension where Shen Jiu wanted reassurance but would never ask for it.

 

He stopped them walking. There was no one around so he felt Shen Jiu would feel comfortable speaking.

 

“Is there anything you want to say?” He asked, “You can tell me.” He tried to gentle his voice a little for all that he knew it wouldn’t make much difference.

 

Shen Jiu looked at him intensley before looking away at the ground, “When did you promise not to hurt me?”

 

“What?”

 

“Before, you said you promised not to let anything hurt me. When did you promise me that?”

 

“On our wedding day. Before we married too. A few times after.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded for all that his gaze remained fixed on the floor, “Am I-“ He stopped and then he met Liu Qingge’s eyes again, “Can you carry me? I’m tired.” It was unexpected but not unwanted.

 

With no hesitation Liu Qingge reached down and picked Shen Jiu up to settle him against his hip.

 

Shen Jiu leaned his head against Liu Qingge’s shoulder and stayed silent.

 

*

 

Liu Qingge had watched Shen Jiu and his grandmother interact many times over the years. The two of them got on well and usually talked at length.

 

Today’s lunch was quiet.

 

Shen Jiu sat very straight in his seat and ate very little. He also ate very slowly, using his chopsticks very very carefully. Liu Qingge had the sudden thought that he didn’t even know if Shen Jiu knew how to use chopsticks. The previous times he had eaten since becoming a child he had used his hands, ignoring all and any utensils.

 

He snuck a glance at his small husband out of the corner of his eye and observed the trembling way he held his chopsticks all the way at the bottom.

 

He made sure not to look to obviously.

 

Liu Qingge wasn’t the biggest conversationalist to begin with and his grandmother only asked a few general questions before things settled into comfortable silence. It didn’t bother Liu Qingge that the meal wasn’t one with a lot of speaking, but he could see that Shen Jiu looked like he wanted to fidget and was stopping himself. The silence was making him uncomfortable.

 

Liu Qingge put down his chopsticks quite abruptly once he made sure Shen Jiu wasn’t doing more than picking at his food, “Grandmother, we’ll take our leave now.”

 

She didn’t look surprised, just smiled slightly, “Come and see me once the pollen has worn off. I miss my talks with our Shen Jiu.”

 

Shen Jiu looked up at her, surprise which always looked like distrust colouring his features, before he once again quickly looked back down.

 

“Do you want to go?” Liu Qingge asked. He held out a hand.

 

Shen Jiu nodded and took the offered hand. He didn’t say anything else but he thanked grandmother politely in a quiet voice.

 

Liu Qingge didn’t know what to do. It was obvious Shen Jiu was uncomfortable but he wasn’t sure how to fix it. Maybe he just seemed uncomfortable because he was having to adjust to so much being different in such a short space of time. Of course adult Shen Jiu would do it with enviable ease but this Shen Jiu was ten and had only lived on the streets or with parents he didn’t remember.

 

Liu Qingge nudged Shen Jiu gently, “In a few days you’ll be back to normal, do you want to go travelling until then? I can take you to your favourite places.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him with a little surprise. “We could do that?”

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “We’ve seen most of the estate and if you don’t want to I don’t see any point in meeting anyone else here.”

 

Shen Jiu looks down at the ground and then at Liu Qingge out of the corner of his eye. “I want to do that.” His voice is quiet.

 

The quietness unnerves Liu Qingge slightly. He’s used to a Shen Jiu who will fight him on everything and tease him and bicker about useless things while condescendingly proclaiming that he’s right. He’s used to a Shen Jiu that will push and push and push at him until he either bends or pushes back. That’s the way they operate and Liu Qingge likes it.

 

There are still flashes of that of course but this Shen Jiu is very quiet. It’s fine though. This Shen Jiu is small in an unfamiliar setting with people he doesn’t recognise around him. Of course he’d be quieter. Regardless he’s still Shen Jiu.

 

“How are you feeling?” Liu Qingge asked.

 

Shen Jiu looked up at him and then away, “Can I answer later?” He asked. His voice was very careful.

 

“You can do whatever you want.” Is Liu Qingge’s ready response. It’s one of the things he says to adult Shen Jiu fairly often.

 

Shen Jiu gives him that look again but then turns away once more.

 

Once back at Shen Jiu’s courtyard Shen Jiu makes for his bedroom, “Stay out here.” Is what he says and the familiar bossy tone calms Liu Qingge slightly.

 

“Alright.”

 

Shen Jiu goes into the bedroom and closes the door.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t want to eavesdrop on whatever private thing he’s doing so he goes back into the outer chamber and wonders where he should take Shen Jiu on their trip. He makes a mental list of some of Shen Jiu’s favourite places that are minimally dangerous. Shen Jiu is small with limited spiritual energy at his disposal and no way to use Xiu Ya. Safe places are important.

 

Liu Qingge thinks it over and then, considering the fact that Shen Jiu hadn’t eaten much at lunch, sends for some more food just in case.

 

When the food arrives he knocks on the bedroom door to let Shen Jiu know and not too long later the door slides open and Shen Jiu comes out to sit down and eat.

 

“Were you hungry?” Liu Qingge asks.

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “Not really.” He peeks up at Liu Qingge as he says it. The subtext is easy to read “I won’t turn down food if it’s here.” He seems more relaxed now and when he asks his next question it’s even without a hint of hesitation or shyness, “Are we going soon?”

 

“When do you want to leave?”

 

“When can we leave?”

 

“We can go now.” Liu Qingge says.

 

Shen Jiu nods, “Can we go after I finish eating?” His voice is still careful but the way he looks at Liu Qingge has softened a little.

 

“Sounds good.” Liu Qingge stands up, “I’ll go pack some supplies, eat as much as you like.”

 

“It’ll just be us, right?” Shen Jiu asks and Liu Qingge makes a noise of confirmation.

 

“Good.”

 

It’s so quiet it’s almost inaudible.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes are alight with emotion as he watched the way the luminescent falls splashed onto the sparkling rocks below. The herd of silver-tipped star deer drank from the water and padded around on their graceful limbs.

 

“You always think this place is beautiful. No matter how many times we come.” Liu Qingge comments.

 

He feels more relaxed out here with Shen Jiu, watching him and his sweet childish awe at all the things he hasn’t had the chance to see yet. Liu Qingge was lucky enough to be with Shen Jiu to see this with him for the first time and now he’s lucky enough to be here with Shen Jiu witnessing his honest reactions all over again.

 

“How many times have we come here?” Shen Jiu asks, turning back to look at Liu Qingge who shrugs in response.

 

“Three I think.”

 

“Hmm.” Shen Jiu sits with his knees bent and he rests his cheek on them as he watches the beautiful glowing landscape below.

 

“You like it?” Liu Qingge asks, coming forward to sit next to him.

 

“Yes. I like it.” Shen Jiu looks out with an unreadable expression, “What do I call you?” He suddenly asks.

 

Liu Qingge considers it, “You used to call me Liu-shidi at the beginning. We were at the sect together and I was your junior martial brother so that was natural. After we got married you still called me that sometimes if you were teasing, but more often you call me Qingge. Sometimes husband. If you’re in a mood you might call me bèn dàn.”  

 

Shen Jiu snorts at that.

 

Liu Qingge smiles and continues, “Maybe bǎobèi if you’re drunk.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him with that strange wondering expression that reveals he has no idea what direction his life has taken and doesn’t understand the older version of him any more than he would a stranger, “Drunk?”

 

“You can be a very clingy drunk.”

 

Shen Jiu sniffs imperiously and looks away.

 

“You’ve called me everything under the sun after all these years.”

 

“Twelve years is a long time. It’s older than I am.”

 

“Mn.” Liu Qingge tries to think of something to say, “Time doesn’t matter as much when you’re immortal.”

 

“What do you call me?” Shen Jiu asks. He seems more open now, uncurling from his previous position to lean into Liu Qingge’s space.

 

“A-Jiu mostly.” Liu Qingge looks down at his hands, “Xīngān sometimes.” 

 

That prompts a little noise as a reaction.

 

“I love you a lot.” Liu Qingge feels the need to say. He wants this small Shen Jiu to feel that, to know it. To know that he’s not alone anymore and Liu Qingge will do anything and everything for him. The way Shen Jiu talks about his childhood is never in depth unless somethings happened to infuriate him to revealing some terrible detail or other.

 

It’s not like I’m worth any more than a single sack of rice so who could even blame you for leaving me? You can just get out! Get out and leave! I know you don’t want to stay anyway!

 

Or if it’s very late at night and it feels like it’s only the two of them awake in the whole world and Shen Jiu has woken up from a nightmare and can’t do anything more than cling to Liu Qingge and beg for him to make endless promises.

 

Don’t leave me. Don’t hurt me. Don’t touch me. No, touch me. Never leave me. Don’t stop loving me. Never hate me. Don’t be angry at me. Don’t hit me. Promise me you’ll never hit me.

 

Those nights always break Liu Qingge’s heart, shattering it anew, and he’ll hold Shen Jiu just as tightly as Shen Jiu holds him and promise and promise and promise until Shen Jiu is once more quiet in his arms.

 

The next morning Shen Jiu always pretends it never happened.

 

Liu Qingge had made the mistake once of trying to bring it up. This had been a long time ago, maybe only three years into marriage when he was still feeling around the shape of his new husband. It was a difficult time, mostly because Shen Jiu was finally beginning to relax enough around him that Liu Qingge was really getting to know him. His husband hates vulnerability in any form; physical, emotional and all the rest. It had offended Liu Qingge who took it too personally at first and was too young and desperate and… inexperienced to know how to handle Shen Jiu the right way.

 

So when the first of his husband’s nightmares and subsequent crying fits had happened all those years ago Liu Qingge had panicked. After Shen Jiu had cried himself out he had laid awake all night worrying and watching him and wondering what to do. The next morning when Shen Jiu woke up Liu Qingge had asked if that happened often and if he was okay. He had then made the even more fatal mistake of asking if Shen Jiu wanted to see a healer. He had thought that nightmares and incoherency like that couldn’t have been normal.

 

Shen Jiu had frozen. His reddened eyes had narrowed and then he was shoving Liu Qingge away and hissing at him, making all kinds of insane accusations about Liu Qingge looking down on him and being embarrassed by him and so on. Liu Qingge had been unprepared and immediately defensive the way he later realised Shen Jiu had counted on him to be. His husband didn’t know quite how to handle care, could more reliably manage anger, so he was goading Liu Qingge into a state he felt better prepared to deal with.

 

The fight had only ended when Liu Qingge had both promised never to tell anyone about it and also to never speak of it again. And he hadn’t. He had never asked again and slowly as the years had gone on Shen Jiu stopped freezing and finding a way to run away the moment he woke up the morning after one of those nights.

 

Now his husband will curl into him and allow Liu Qingge’s rudimentary comfort though his eyes will narrow resentfully and Liu Qingge will ache as he knows that that resentment is channelled inwards.

 

Shen Jiu has never volunteered detailed information of his own will and Liu Qingge has never asked but from those promises coupled with his own scant knowledge he can infer things easily enough.

 

After everything he’s gathered during twelve years together he wants this small Shen Jiu to know he’ll never be alone and unloved ever again.

 

“Say it again.” The small Shen Jiu turns towards him and that vulnerability is back on his face.

 

“I love you.” Liu Qingge repeats, “You’re the most important person to me.”

 

Shen Jiu’s mouth wobbles dangerously and then he’s looking away and his shoulders hitch slightly.

 

“Can I touch you?” Liu Qingge asks.

 

Shen Jiu nods wordlessly as his body continues to shake.

 

“Say that again.” He says in a thick voice as Liu Qingge gathers him into his arms.

 

“I love you. You’re my most important person.” Liu Qingge says evenly.

 

Small Shen Jiu buries his face in Liu Qingge’s neck and weeps.

 

Liu Qingge aches as he holds Shen Jiu all the closer. Those words have an effect on adult Shen Jiu too. Hearing that Liu Qingge likes him more than other people, likes him the most, considers him the most important, is one of those potent and heady phrases that sparks something in his husband.

 

There are things Shen Jiu says to Liu Qingge too that produce quantifiable effects but they’re mostly things that this small Shen Jiu can’t say. This young Shen Jiu barely even knows him anyway. They haven’t spent that long together in actuality. Liu Qingge holds him tight and hopes that somehow Shen Jiu can feel how sincere he is.

 

It takes a long time for Shen Jiu to stop crying and once he’s done he almost immediately begins to drop into sleep, having cried himself out. His eyes droop and his head nods though he makes a valiant attempt to stay awake.

 

Liu Qingge feels very very fond.

 

“You can sleep.” Liu Qingge says, “I’ll carry you.”

 

Small Shen Jiu looks shattered and easily tucks himself into Liu Qingge.

 

“You smell nice.” He says very quietly, almost inaudibly.

 

Liu Qingge smiles.

 

“You’ve said that before.”

 

“Mmn. I’m always right.” Shen Jiu says sleepily but not without some of his usual tone seeping into his voice.

 

“Yes. You are.” Liu Qingge agrees.

 

When his husband falls asleep in his arms he feels nothing but lightness, stealing over him and painting the evening in an warm glow.

 

*

 

“What does it feel like?” Shen Jiu’s voice was languid in the way it only got after sex, liquid spilling over Liu Qingge’s senses, coating the deepest parts of him in a sugary glaze.

 

“Hm?” He shifted Shen Jiu slightly where the other was lying cuddled on top of him, “What does what feel like?” His own voice was equally as slow.

 

Shen Jiu didn’t say anything for a long time. His fingers traced over the muscles of Liu Qingge’s chest, proprietarily following the peaks and dips of flesh and skin. Liu Qingge felt his eyes grow heavy at the petting. It was nice. One of his favourite things in fact, the way Shen Jiu would get; pushing and pulling into his space and touching him like this, the way no one else did or dared to do.

 

Shen Jiu pressed his lips to his collarbone, replacing them quickly with his teeth and worrying an indented mark into the skin. Liu Qingge hissed slightly at the sting.

 

“Feral.” He commented, mostly a joke as Shen Jiu finally put those sharp teeth away.

 

“Very necessary.” Shen Jiu said in his usual dismissive tone, the molten energy of earlier already beginning to harden. He smoothed his graceful fingers over the mark he had made, “You’re leaving on stupid sect business for weeks. Be grateful I don’t bite you again.”

 

“Why do I have to be bitten for sect business?” Liu Qingge asks around a yawn, his arm is still looped around Shen Jiu’s waist and he pulls the other closer still, relishing the way Shen Jiu allows it without even the semblance of a fight. He wouldn’t mind Shen Jiu fighting back a little, he mostly likes it, but right now he’s tired and sure Shen Jiu is too.

 

“It’s the longest you’ll be away.” Is Shen Jiu’s baffling response.

 

Liu Qingge frowns, “I’ve been away for longer before.”

 

“Never on a mission like this.”

 

“What’s so different this time?”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t answer for a while, nails digging into the bruise he had worried in with his teeth earlier. Liu Qingge doesn’t prompt him. If there’s one thing he knows about Shen Jiu, it’s that if he doesn’t want to answer he won’t.

 

“It’s diplomatic.” Shen Jiu finally says.

 

“So?”

 

“So, when you leave on long missions you usually don’t see let alone speak to another person for all the time you’re away.” Is Shen Jiu’s continuously baffling response though he’s often like this. Liu Qingge simply doesn’t understand the way he thinks and most of the time doesn’t try to puzzle it out on his own.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Who are you taking the mission with?”

 

“Qi Qingqi.”

 

“Hm.” Shen Jiu’s nails once more find the rapidly darkening bruise.

 

“You should come.” Is Liu Qingge’s sudden thought, “You’re not bad at diplomacy.”

 

Shen Jiu’s nails stop digging into the mark.

 

“I’m not a member of the sect.” He finally says.

 

“You’re married to me. Why shouldn’t you come?”

 

There’s a long pause.

 

“Do you want me there?”

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge pulls Shen Jiu so he’s properly sprawled across his chest and they’re almost nose to nose. Shen Jiu allows it fully and even leans in.

 

“I’m not going to come.” Somehow that liquid quality is back to his voice. “It sounds like it’ll be a tiresome and ultimately fruitless venture.” Shen Jiu leans down and kisses Liu Qingge, long and sweet but not hard, before turning back to worrying another mark into his neck with those sharp teeth.

 

He then pulls back so he’s seated on top of Liu Qingge, straddling him in a familiar position that warms his blood. It’s a slow and sweet heat, sated already by their earlier activities and Liu Qingge doesn’t mind much about chasing it. This is maybe the only area in his life where he’s happy to simply… give in. Lie back and let someone else do the work, take the weight, lead the way. Whatever Shen Jiu wants, he’ll take it.

 

He migrates his hands very slowly to Shen Jiu’s hips and is gratified by the way the other lets him and even shifts slightly in his grip, as if inviting him to hold harder. Shen Jiu never used to let him touch him like this. It’s nice to think about how much has changed, how much ground Liu Qingge has managed to shore up over the years.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t make any moves to increase the intimacy. He doesn’t make any moves to try and entice Liu Qingge into tangling him again, so Liu Qingge’s instincts slowly fade back into that slow syrupy place as he watches the vision his husband makes sitting astride him.

 

“What are you thinking?” Shen Jiu asks.

 

“You’re beautiful.”

 

His husband predictably colours in a flattering and surprisingly sweet way.

 

“What are you thinking?” Liu Qingge asks right before Shen Jiu can overthink the compliment and turn to run or hide.

 

Shen Jiu turns his face away but his body is pliant in Liu Qingge’s hands, “Remember our wedding day? You were so empty-headed.”

 

Liu Qingge flushes in understandable outrage at the slight, “So rude.” He digs his fingers into Shen Jiu’s hips and internally delights in the way Shen Jiu just sniffs instead of trying to pull away.

 

“I was rude when you married me. Surely you can’t still be surprised.”

 

“Mn. I like it.”

 

“You like rude people? It makes sense considering you’re the rudest, most uncouth, brutish-“ With a shriek Shen Jiu finds their positions flipped so Liu Qingge is now the one pinning him down.

 

“You’re awful.” Liu Qingge says, he can feel his own smile tugging at his mouth.

 

“Oh? Awful? Then pray tell, why is the great Liu Qingge still here?” Shen Jiu’s eyes are half-lidded in that way that shows he’s won. Won what Liu Qingge doesn’t know, never really knows.

 

Liu Qingge resists the urge to bite back and instead leans down for a kiss that’s well-received and even (dare he say it) happily returned.

 

“Before,” Liu Qingge says when he pulls back, “What were you asking?”

 

Shen Jiu furrows his brows slightly, voice still sex-soft when he answers, “What?”

 

“You asked what it felt like, what were you asking?”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes widen and he blinks before a real smile, rare and precious as it is, creeps onto his face.

 

“It’s not important.” He says and then he’s leaning up to kiss Liu Qingge again and that’s the end of the conversation, punctuated by both of them losing their trains of thought.

 

*

 

Liu Qingge watched the way his husband’s eyes flitted over the different wares for sale in this market with that familiar fondness. Shen Jiu loved street markets when he could walk with Liu Qingge and point at whatever he wanted only for it to be summarily bought and handed to him no matter the age. It was funny… when they were disciples Liu Qingge had thought Shen Jiu to be grossly materialistic and now he saw his husband’s quiet delight in shopping for and collecting trinkets to be a charming quirk. Love could really colour a picture entirely differently, couldn’t it?

 

“Do you do this for me when we’re married?” Shen Jiu asked, mouth full of tanghulu while he eyed the stall selling dragon’s beard candy.

 

Liu Qingge nodded. Shen Jiu’s hand was small and warm in his. Walking with him was infinitely comfortable.

 

“I want dumplings.” Shen Jiu suddenly said, pointing imperiously at a stall to the left.

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge nodded his head towards the half-finished stick of tanghulu, “Are you going to finish that?”

 

Shen Jiu considered the tanghulu carefully and then without saying anything handed it to Liu Qingge. “You can have it.” He said flippantly.

 

Liu Qingge smiled as he took it. He didn’t like tanghulu but he wouldn’t be the one to tell Shen Jiu that and devalue the other’s gift. Tanghulu was Shen Jiu’s favourite and here he was giving half to Liu Qingge. It was… Shen Jiu was so good.

 

On their way over to the dumpling stall She Jiu got distracted by another stall selling little trinkets. Carved figures of animals and some rough jewellery pieces but his small husband was visibly intrigued, leaning forward to take a closer look at the wares.

 

“Do you like any of them?” Liu Qingge asked.

 

Shen Jiu shook his head, “I want the dumplings first.” He said.

 

The stall owner laughed and it sounded a little forced, “What a sweet child.” He said and it sounded really quite insincere.

 

Liu Qingge frowned and missed the eye-contact Shen Jiu had made with the stall owner and the smirk he sent his way. Shen Jiu tugged on his sleeve, “I want a closer look.” He said.

 

Liu Qingge shrugged and conceded easily, “Go ahead.”

 

Shen Jiu let go of his hand and spent a little while looking over the wares, taking interest in some carved wooden statues of different animals. His small husband picked up one of a fox.

 

“Do you like it?” Liu Qingge came forward to ask.

 

Shen Jiu hummed to himself and then nodded.

 

Liu Qingge looked at the stall owner, “How much?”

 

“Ah for this, handmade, two gold pieces.”

 

Shen Jiu scoffed, “Two gold pieces? How stupid do you think he is?” His eyes were narrowed in a familiar way, “This isn’t worth a single copper coin let alone two gold pieces.” From this angle Liu Qingge couldn’t quite see Shen Jiu’s expression.

 

The stall owner opened their mouth before clicking it shut and gritting their teeth, “The young master is of course correct. This one was not trying to seem greedy.”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes were still narrowed, “Not trying? You succeeded anyway.” Liu Qingge was always impressed by his husband and in this case he was amazed by how well the child from only a week before had learnt to speak this way. Shen Jiu spoke like he had grown up a young master, with full confidence and enviable poise.

 

A week ago he was living on the streets. Liu Qingge thinks to himself with some incredulity.

 

The shop keeper is still trying to look pleased to be serving them though his expression is strained. “This one meant no offence.”

 

Shen Jiu turns with a superior sniff and goes back to retake Liu Qingge’s hand. “I want dumplings now.” Is what he says and they leave the stall behind easily enough. When it comes time for Liu Qingge to order Shen Jiu tugs on his sleeve again, “Two portions.” He says before pausing, “Three.” He finally settles on.

 

Liu Qingge isn’t quite sure what Shen Jiu will do with three portions of dumplings but he orders anyways. It’s hardly a wild expense and if Shen Jiu wants a frankly unreasonable amount of dumplings for one child he can provide easily.

 

Once the dumplings have been handed over in their little bowl Shen Jiu took them and immediately pointed to a different stall.

 

“Dragon’s beard.” He declared and Liu Qingge wanted to roll his eyes but didn’t, instead just told Shen Jiu to wait there and walked off to get his husband what he wanted.

 

As he ordered he looked back to see if Shen Jiu had wandered off and inexplicably found him handing off the bowl of dumplings to what looked to be two young girls, dirty ones at that, who were sitting on the ground at the corner of the market square. They took the food eagerly and with that Shen Jiu turned and walked back to the spot Liu Qingge had left him at.

 

Liu Qingge made sure to look away before his husband could spot the fact that he had seen the whole interaction.

 

When he returned with the dragon’s beard he asked Shen Jiu, “What happened to the dumplings?”

 

“I ate a few. But I didn’t like them.” Shen Jiu said loftily as he took and started eating the candy, “So I threw them away.”

 

Liu Qingge didn’t look at the two girls. He looked at his husband who was stuffing his mouth with spun sugar and felt something inside of him ache anew.

 

“That stall owner. The one with the wooden animals.” Shen Jiu says in between bites, “He tried to cheat you.”

 

“Mm. Good you were here.” Liu Qingge says with some undeniable indulgence.  

 

“Hmph.” Shen Jiu turns up his nose, “Would you beat him up if I asked?”

 

Liu Qingge snorts, “For trying to overcharge us and then having to be humiliated by you?”

 

“He’s not a good person.” Shen Jiu suddenly says very gravely, he looks up at Liu Qingge and something in him beckons him closer, “He’s… bad.” He says as though revealing a great secret.

 

“Bad?”

 

“A pervert.”

 

“How do you know?” Liu Qingge had seen their entire interaction right in front of him, how did Shen Jiu reach that conclusion?

 

“I saw him.” Shen Jiu hesitates and his hand squeezes Liu Qingge, “He was talking to a girl.” Shen Jiu makes a little noise, “It’s gross.”

 

Liu Qingge puts a hand on the hilt of Cheng Luan, “Do you want me to do something?”

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “No point.” He says, suddenly sounding angry and resentful, “Even if you get rid of him there will always be people on the streets. You can’t save them all, better that they learn for themselves how to stay safe. Only the strong survive so protecting the weak is useless.”

 

“That’s brutal.”

 

“Life is brutal.” Is all Shen Jiu says. He then looks up at Liu Qingge, “Do you think I’m a bad person?” He suddenly asks.

 

Liu Qingge frowns, “No.”

 

Shen Jiu turns his attention to his sticky hand and the remnants of the dragons beard still clinging to his fingers, “You should learn how to keep yourself safe too.”

 

“I have you, don’t I?”

 

Shen Jiu looks back at him, “Is that how we work?”

 

Liu Qingge nods, “I trust you, you help me. That’s how we work.”

 

Shen Jiu seems to be considering something deeply, “You said you love me.” He says slowly, “Does that… did you love me when we married?”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t hesitate, “Not the way I do now. Love changes. When we got married, I liked you.”

 

“How is that different?”

 

“Love is more intense. But it changes as well.” Liu Qingge can feel Shen Jiu’s small child hand in his own and gives it a squeeze as he continues to speak, “The first few years were very intense. I wanted to be around you all the time and I wanted to touch you constantly.”

 

“Oh. Do you not want that anymore?”

 

“It’s less desperate. I want to be around you and touch you but it’s less… before it felt like it hurt if I couldn’t have you.”

 

Shen Jiu frowns, “So you don’t like me like that anymore?”

 

“It changes. You’re my favourite person, the person I’m closest to certainly, and I like to have your support and talk to you and spend time with you even if we’re not touching or doing anything.”

 

“Hm.”

 

“Love changes.” Liu Qingge continues, “At the beginning it’s all passion but then as time goes on we become family.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t say anything for a long time.

 

“Hey.” Liu Qingge squeezes his hand again, “What are you thinking?”

 

Shen Jiu chews his lip, “Do you really think I’m good?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Shen Jiu asks questions like this as an adult too and Liu Qingge has learnt over the years that they’re not only traps, though they certainly perform that ever-important function. They’re also simply as they appear to be no matter how mocking the tone; plain requests for reassurance and validation that Shen Jiu could never ask for in a straightforward manner.

 

“I’m a bad person.” Shen Jiu says it like its plain fact and Liu Qingge knows that this is something he believes even as an adult. Shen Jiu holds his own apparent immortality as a pillar of his very being. Over the years of being his husband Liu Qingge has begun to puzzle it out on his own, this impulse that he could never understand because it was so foreign from everything he believed about the world.

 

“I’ve learnt that there are different kinds of bad people.” Liu Qingge says because he has, and this is the kind of answer Shen Jiu wants, not the platitude of “I believe you’re good” that Liu Qingge is always too happy to bestow. Shen Jiu doesn’t want it too easy; he wants real consideration because only in effort can he see truth. “There are bad people that seek to do bad. They go into the world and they plainly choose to do bad for its own sake. Then there are people that are bad in a reactive way because they feel they have no choice. There are also people who do bad things in an opportunistic way, they won’t go actively creating chaos but in small ways if they have a choice to do good or bad they’ll choose bad.”

 

“Give an example of each.”

 

Liu Qingge feels that familiar fondness. Who else but Shen Jiu pushes him this way to think and explain and use his brain? Everyone else assumes he’s strong enough that there’s no point.

 

“The first would be a serial murderer who kills because they enjoy it and for no other purpose. The second would be the person who steals money for medicine because they’re sick and they don’t want to die. The third would be someone who, if they caught the person stealing the money, would choose to have that person tortured and killed even if the loss is no issue to them.”

 

“You think the thief shouldn’t be punished?”

 

“If it’s no harm to you and they have a good reason you shouldn’t be so harsh. Thievery shouldn’t be encouraged but people don’t want to die. It’s not a good thing to do but it’s not evil.”

 

“What about… a master that chooses to beat their slaves. Do you think that’s bad?”

 

“Yes, beating servants at all is bad. If they commit such severe infractions they should simply be dismissed if they likely would be anyway.”

 

Liu Qingge hadn’t thought about it at all when he was younger. The Liu clan weren’t one that beat their servants, but they also didn’t have any rules outlawing physical punishment. It was just a… non-issue. One Liu Qingge had never had to confront because the Liu clan servants never did anything severe enough to be beaten for.

 

Liu Qingge had never had to face that moral issue until he had married Shen Jiu and finally had his beloved husband’s whole history spread out in front of him. The thought of Shen Jiu being beaten by his “master” as a child made him sick with rage, but that was hypocrisy because he’d never once considered the issue of beating servants before. Beating people who couldn’t fight back or leave. He’d never thought beating people was bad but of course he was coming from his own cultivation-centric perspective. If one couldn’t take a beating then how could they take a battle? Disciples were disciples and physical chastisement made sense to him.

 

Did it make sense for common people? When pain was so much worse and injuries could debilitate someone for months on end? This Liu Qingge wasn’t sure about.

 

Shen Jiu frowns, “Which kind of bad you think I am?”

 

“I don’t think you’re bad at all.”

 

“So you think I’m good?” Shen Jiu doesn’t sound like he believes him.

 

Liu Qingge considers it, “I think you can be even if you don’t want to be. But it’s not something that you want to let yourself be. I don’t think you’re bad, but you’re not only good. You’re human so you’re both.”

 

Shen Jiu’s mouth has fallen open slightly, “Twelve years.” He suddenly says.

 

“En.” Liu Qingge agrees, “It’s a long time.”

 

Shen Jiu looks back at his sticky fingers, “It’s not that long.” Is what he finally says, “I’m sure we could… it could be longer.”

 

*

 

Liu Qingge wasn’t sure what had happened, but one moment he was sitting alone in a private dining room waiting for his husband to come back from buying something from a shop nearby while lifting the tea the serving girl had just poured for him to his lips, and the next moment the cup was being knocked from his hand and the serving girl had been caught around the neck by an icily enraged Shen Jiu.

 

“What did you put in the cup?” Snarled Shen Jiu, he shook the girl like one would a small animal and the she shrieked.

 

“What-“ Liu Qingge didn’t get the question out before Shen Jiu had snapped again.

 

What did you put in the cup?!” Shen Jiu shook the girl harder before pinning her to the table with that hand around her neck. His eyes were narrowed and he looked absolutely incensed.

 

The girl choked and instead of answering turned pleading eyes on Liu Qingge, eyes that were filling with tears, “Immortal Master,” She didn’t look at Shen Jiu once even with the tightening grip he had on her neck, “Please!”

 

Liu Qingge looked at his husband, “What’s going on?”

 

Shen Jiu ignored him, “What did you put in the cup?” His voice was back to coldly furious instead of truly explosively angry as it had been before.

 

The girl coughed and finally turned her gaze away from Liu Qingge.

 

“I’m not asking again.” Shen Jiu’s grip grew all the tighter and the girl’s eyes bulged out of her head.

 

She scrabbled at Shen Jiu’s hand for a second, coughing and spluttering and choking as she did.

 

Liu Qingge frowned at the cup on the floor, going to pick it up and sniffing at the remnants of the spilled liquid. He didn’t smell anything in particular. He turned to look at Shen Jiu and found his attention still fixed on the girl.

 

Shen Jiu must have loosened his grip very slightly because the girl suddenly answered in a rush. “It was an aphrodisiac! Very weak! Barely anything that could affect the Immortal Master! This lowly one swears she did not mean any harm-“

 

“Who ordered you to? What kind of aphrodisiac? Where did you get it?” Shen Jiu’s questions came fast and furious, though Liu Qingge could see he was calming after having received an answer.

 

The girl was crying, “Three drops of the nectar from the Fruit of Everlasting Passion. This lowly one bought it from Auntie Ling in the market, she has the stall at the end of the western square opposite the fruit stand.”


“No one ordered you to?” Shen Jiu finally looked at Liu Qingge and the two made eye-contact.

 

Liu Qingge frowned and made a gesture to indicate he didn’t believe it to be an assassination attempt though he was unnerved that he hadn’t even noticed the sabotage.

 

Shen Jiu turned back to the girl, “What were you doing putting an aphrodisiac in my husband’s cup?”

 

The girl was heaving for breath, hands having come up to clutch at the hand Shen Jiu had around her neck, “Please.” She begged, “Immortal Master, spare this lowly one! This one did not-“

 

“What did you think you could hope to gain?” Shen Jiu’s eyes were narrowed, “What do you-“ Then something seemed to dawn on him because he abruptly cut himself off and his eyes narrowed even further, “Oh.” His voice was very soft and all the deadlier for being so, “I see.”

 

“A-Jiu-“

 

“Qingge go outside.” Shen Jiu said. His voice was very blank.

 

Liu Qingge frowned and came closer, “You.” He barked at the girl, “What kind of server poisons their guests?”

 

“The ones that are doing so for advantage.” Shen Jiu’s lips were pressed together in a thin white line, fury in the shadows around his eyes. He turned once more to Liu Qingge, “Go outside. This master will join you in a moment.”

 

Liu Qingge could feel the girls’ pleading gaze on him but he didn’t bother to look. Shen Jiu wouldn’t kill her, likely he would question her further and scare her a little but he wouldn’t kill or maim her.

 

He nodded, “I’ll wait outside. Not for long though.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded, almost distracted, and then he tilted his cheek towards Liu Qingge in a gesture too obvious to ignore though he had never once done so in front of another person before.

 

Liu Qingge couldn’t hope to refuse and dropped a quick fleeting kiss on his husband’s cheek before turning and leaving the private room and then the inn. Outside he waited, looking up at the sky and contemplating the fact that his observational skills had very much degraded if he hadn’t noticed something being mixed into his tea.

 

Shen Jiu appeared outside not too long after and with a dismissive flick of his hair gestured Liu Qingge to walk away with him.

 

“Was the aphrodisiac what she said it was?” Liu Qingge thought to ask as they walked.

 

“No.” Shen Jiu made a face of disgust, “Whatever charlatan sold her the nectar was either ignorant themselves or knowingly deceiving her. It was nothing more than some average flower sap, no special properties at all.”

 

“Did you see her mix it in?”

 

“I saw her tuck something into her sleeve when she was taking the tray into the room.”

 

“The nectar?”

 

“It would have had approximately no effect on you.” Shen Jiu rolled his eyes, “What an idiotic scheme.”

 

“Did you think it was poison?”

 

“That was my first instinct, that she may have been paid off by someone to poison you for whatever benefit, but it seems that wasn’t the case. It was just some stupid little girl trying to trap you.”

 

“Trap me?”

 

“If you ever take a single concubine, no matter the excuse, I’ll cut off your eyelids, dig your eyes out of your skull and feed them to you.”

 

Liu Qingge can’t help but snort, “Of course.”

 

“I mean it.”

 

“That would be entirely expected.” Liu Qingge means it too, he expects that if he goes back on his word a single time with Shen Jiu to be found dead not even the next day. His husband is resourceful that way.

 

“That’s what she wanted.” Shen Jiu makes a sound Liu Qingge can’t puzzle out, “To her… credit she didn’t know you were already married. All she saw was a single, wealthy, powerful Immortal Master and thought that if only she could find a way to share a night together and even have your child maybe she would have managed to claw her way out of her common life.”

 

“I don’t understand that.”

 

“The brothel women call it trapping a man with child.” Shen Jiu says very primly.

 

Liu Qingge blinks, “That sounds terrible.”

 

“It’s not a completely awful plan.” Shen Jiu somewhat paradoxically says, “If she wasn’t trying her luck with you I might have commended her for her ambition.”

 

“It’s dishonest.”

 

“So Qingge takes issue to being trapped? What if I had been the server with the aphrodisiac?”

 

Liu Qingge considers that an absolutely nonsensical thing to discuss.

 

“It’s you so of course I wouldn’t care.”

 

“Oh, Qingge wouldn’t care to be trapped? Just because it’s me?”

 

“I like being married to you.” Liu Qingge says simply, “So why would I protest to the methods? It’s still us.”

 

“Isn’t it still dishonest?”

 

Liu Qingge considers it and nods.

 

Shen Jiu looks away at that nod, “Most people are dishonest aren’t they? There are far worse bases on which to start a relationship. Everyone needs an heir.”

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “I’ll survive without one.”

 

“Will you?” Shen Jiu now slants him a sly look.

 

“I never expected to have children. Nor to get married. My Liu clan has enough branches and members that it will continue regardless, Mingyan may also have children yet.”

 

“Mm.” Shen Jiu has drifted closer though he won’t touch Liu Qingge in public unless he was proving some point, “That girl would have been lucky to trap you.”

 

It’s a compliment if a rather strange and convoluted one.

 

“Though I have to say that if she did manage to dose you with an aphrodisiac I would have kicked her to death.” Shen Jiu continues rather conversationally, “And for your idiocy in not noticing the trap I wouldn’t hesitate to kick you to death too.”

 

Liu Qingge snorts, “It would take a long while to kick me to death.”

 

“Husband thinks I couldn’t manage it?”

 

“I’m sure with determination you could achieve anything you set your mind to.”

 

“Oh?” Shen Jiu’s expression has turned a little coquettish, “But wouldn’t Qingge rather have me help him with his predicament? If the options are being kicked to death or having your husband relieve you then which would you choose?”

 

“What kind of question is that?”

 

Shen Jiu almost pouts though as always he’s icy and impossible, “One that Qingge should have no difficulty answering.”

 

Liu Qingge feels somewhat torn between laughter and incredulous scoffing. It’s a state that only Shen Jiu ever manages to pull out of him.

 

“You’re the most difficult person I’ve ever-“

 

“Well,” Shen Jiu moves away in a smooth motion, “Then I suppose that if we ever find ourselves in that situation Qingge has made his choice, he should prepare for a slow and painful death.”

 

Liu Qingge can’t hold it back anymore. He starts to laugh, loudly and openly. No one else has ever made him laugh like this. “You’re he best.” Is all he managed to say, “Do you want to find somewhere else to eat?”

 

Shen Jiu is very easily taken by compliments and as Liu Qingge had predicted he looks very pleased, “Fine. Let’s go to the next town over.” He tosses his hair over his shoulder again, flicking it in a way that Liu Qingge found hopelessly attractive. He never could have imagined he would like someone so fussy, so pretentious and pedantic and difficult.

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge pulls out his sword, “What did you say to her in the end?”

 

“I told her that her aphrodisiac was trash and that if she really wanted to play this game she should be smarter about it.” Shen Jiu sniffed as if in disgust, “As if she thought she would ever be able to catch you. What a joke. I told her she better lower her expectations and that if she ever looked at you again I would kill her.”

 

“I doubt we’d ever see her again.”


Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, “We better not.”

 

“You didn’t strangle her too hard?”

 

“She’ll live.” Shen Jiu flicks his hand dismissively, “If you want to play a dangerous game you should be prepared for the results.”

 

Liu Qingge reached out a hand for Shen Jiu and when his husband came back into his hold he pulled him onto his sword with him, “You prevented me from being kicked to death at my husband’s own hand so I’ll make it up to you by carrying you on my sword.”

 

Shen Jiu’s expression wavered and then he was laughing too, he leaned back into Liu Qingge and laughed, hitting him with his closed fist in his mirth, “Of course!” He looked so much softer when he laughed, so much lighter and happier when there was a smile on his face and mirth in his eyes, “You should thank me more!”

 

“I will.” Liu Qingge took a chance and leaned down to kiss Shen Jiu quickly, on the tip of his nose, “Thank you.”

 

Shen Jiu blinked at him and them hmphed, “As you should!” The way he sounded and he was he moved as he turned away was so childish Liu Qingge felt a burst of fondness he couldn’t hope to supress.

 

He rested his chin on Shen Jiu’s shoulder in his own rather childish gesture and revelled in having so much of what he loved within easy reach; Shen Jiu in his arms, Cheng Luan under his feet and the wind in his hair.

 

*

 

“Let’s spar.” Liu Qingge suggests.

 

Shen Jiu looks at him out of the corner of his eyes which are narrowed in an infinitely familiar expression.

 

Liu Qingge marvels at the fact that while his husband as a child was certainly different in a lot of ways, he was also the same in many more. It’s as though he never stopped being this child and instead simply donned more skins on top, transforming his façade into something peerlessly elegant while the person inside remained the same.

 

“Spar?” Small Shen Jiu questions.

 

He still watches his words slightly around Liu Qingge though it’s far less so than before.

 

Liu Qingge nods, “We spar together as adults.”

 

“How often?”

 

Liu Qingge thinks about it, “If we’re together then every other day, it depends.” He feels the need to add, “It’s not always serious fighting. Sometimes it’s just-“ And he makes a gesture that’s meant to encompass the playfighting that often involves them rolling around on the ground together with Shen Jiu biting him.

 

Small Shen Jiu takes in the gesture and then in a dry tone completely reminiscent of his older self he says, “Play-fighting?”

 

Liu Qingge nods and Shen Jiu looks thoughtful.

 

“Do you always win?” He asks.

 

Liu Qingge shakes his head, “You win sometimes.”

 

“But less than you?”

 

Liu Qingge nods.

 

Shen Jiu tilts his head to the side as he looks at him.

 

It’s a gesture that older Shen Jiu doesn’t really make. In fact, there are quite a few things this small Shen Jiu does that seem to have been put to the wayside on his journey to adulthood, buried under the layers and layers of faces adult Shen Jiu has learnt to wear.

The head tilt is one of those things and the way he chews on his lip when he’s thinking is another. Adult Shen Jiu bites his lip sometimes but only behind the cover of his fan or sometimes when they’re together in bed.

 

“Why do you spar with me so much if I don’t win?” Shen Jiu asks with genuine curiosity.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I’m worse than you so what do you get from it?”

 

“We have different styles.” Liu Qingge says easily, “I’ve learnt a lot from fighting you. You don’t have to lose to learn something from another person.”

 

Small Shen Jiu frowned then nodded, “Okay. Let’s spar.” He looked at Liu Qingge and even crossed his arms, “I don’t know any cultivation fighting and I don’t have a sword like you.”

 

These were both good points. Fighting Shen Jiu right now would be on a field that was far too uneven. Liu Qingge considered it.

 

“I’m not going to use Cheng Luan.” He says, patting his sword where it hangs at his back, “And we won’t make it a straight fight.”

 

“You should try and catch me.” Shen Jiu says then. His eyes are glinting the way they do when he gets an idea he likes.

 

Liu Qingge nods, rapidly getting into the idea, “Let’s say half a shichen of time.”

 

Shen Jiu nods, “You have to give me a head start.” He says seriously.

 

Liu Qingge acquiesces easily, “I’ll count to twenty. Go.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him once more before he darts away, almost incomprehensibly fast for his tiny form, and disappears between the trees.

 

Something like a smile tugs at Liu Qingge’s mouth as he loudly begins to count.

 

After the count is done he sets off into the woods after Shen Jiu. His husband doesn’t have a strong qi signature anymore so tracking him that way won’t work. Instead Liu Qingge has to track the old fashioned way, following signs of life and physical markings which is somehow extraordinarily difficult. Shen Jiu is adept at covering his tracks but Liu Qingge isn’t the War God for nothing. He’s been hunting deadlier demonic beasts for years.

 

Though, he has to privately concede to himself with a little humour, that there’s nothing deadlier than his husband.

 

When he finally tracks his small husband to a particularly tall tree he’s quite sure he had climbed, he wonders for a second how he should go about getting Shen Jiu down.

 

In the end it’s superfluous since Shen Jiu gets out of the tree first, making the first move, as his husband so often does, to attack. Shen Jiu is like that, if there’s one thing he can’t stand, it’s to be cornered. Liu Qingge thinks he would rather chew off his own arm than let himself be backed into a dead-end.

 

Liu Qingge dodges back as small Shen Jiu swipes at him, the coin he had given his husband all that time ago turning as powerful as a sharpened blade under an inexpert application of rudimentary qi.

 

Shen Jiu takes the opening and then he’s off again, sprinting away to duck into the underbrush.

 

Liu Qingge rights himself and follows.

 

Chasing Shen Jiu is of course easier without any kind of head start but it’s also uniquely challenging in that Shen Jiu is quick and slippery. He crawls under bushes, ducks into tree hollows, slips through fallen logs, and above all stays one step ahead of Liu Qingge.

 

With time running out Liu Qingge finally manages to snag the edge of Shen Jiu’s clothing between his fingers but his husband just slips out of his outer robes and flips that same gold coin between his fingers, using it to put distance between the two of them, turning to face Liu Qingge while breathing heavily.

 

Liu Qingge stares Shen Jiu down with equal intensity. Of course he could simply use brute strength but he doesn’t want to just barge past his husband’s defences, it wouldn’t be fair especially considering how well Shen Jiu has done to defend against him so far.

 

Shen Jiu looks weary but there’s a light in his eyes that Liu Qingge recognises. His husband is having fun. Or well, of not fun then he’s certainly enjoying himself to some degree.

 

“If I can’t pin you in the next ten seconds you win.” Liu Qingge says.

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes narrow and he nods, once quickly, before flipping that coin between his fingers.

 

Liu Qingge moves first.

 

Shen Jiu ducks under his arm and his coin knife catches Liu Qingge’s hand, slicing open a cut on his palm and shredding part of his sleeve. It’s powerful for what it is, and he finds himself impressed as he ducks under his husband’s defence.

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t go down easy. He bites Liu Qingge’s neck hard enough with his tiny sharp teeth that Liu Qingge finds himself moving back which gives Shen Jiu enough time to scramble away.

 

They face each other again, Liu Qingge with blood on his hand dripping down his sleeve and a throbbing point under his jaw.

 

“You lose.” Shen Jiu says then, keeping his ready stance. “That was ten seconds.”

 

“Fine.” Liu Qingge straightens up and flexes his hand, directing some of his qi to heal it. “That was good.”

 

“It was?” Shen Jiu has come close now. He’s smiling, looking as pleased as he ever does.

 

“It was.” Liu Qingge confirms, “How did you learn to do that trick with the coin? You never told me.”

 

Shen Jiu shrugs, “I don’t know.” He admits, “I’ve always been able to do magic like that.” He flips the coin between his fingers,

 

“That’s impressive.” Liu Qingge says, “You do it instinctively?”

 

Shen Jiu shrugs, “No one ever taught me.” It sounds defensive, a little mulish.

 

Liu Qingge nods, “Are you hurt? I can help heal you.”

 

“I’m not hurt.” Shen Jiu has wandered over to his outer robe and put it back on. Once he was done he came back to Liu Qingge and sidled up close to him, “Why haven’t you healed that?” He asked, pointing to the teeth marks Liu Qingge had forgotten about.

 

“I forgot.” He says honestly, reaching up to touch the mark. It’s a habit. Shen Jiu hates having marks left on him but occasionally bites or claws at Liu Qingge after which he’s made clear he wants his husband to keep the marks. Of course it’s vastly different with small Shen Jiu but he supposes he’d been in the habit all the same.

 

“Hm.” Small Shen Jiu tugs at his hand until Liu Qingge laces their fingers together, “You should heal things faster if you can.” He scolds. “You shouldn’t leave things like that.” It’s the most Shen Jiu thing he’s heard in a long time.

 

“Mm. I’ll remember that.” Liu Qingge squeezes his small husband’s hand, “Let’s go get some food.”

 

Shen Jiu nods eagerly. Far more eagerly than his older self ever would have.

 

“I liked it.” Shen Jiu suddenly says as they’re walking, “I see why older me wants to spar with you.” He considers it, “Do you know how to turn a coin into a knife?”

 

Liu Qingge shakes his head.

 

“I’ll teach you.” Shen Jiu declares magnanimously. “You should know how to do anything I can do if you’re married to me.”

 

*

 

They reach the end of the first week and Shen Jiu is still small.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t worry.

 

“Uncle said maybe two weeks so it’s fine. You’ll turn back when you turn back.” He leans back on his elbows.

 

Shen Jiu bites his lip and swings his legs. They’re sitting side by side on a cliff’s edge looking out at the resplendent natural view.

 

“Don’t you miss him?”

 

“Who?”

 

“Me, the older me, your husband.”

 

“You’re still you.”

 

“It’s not the same.” Shen Jiu stares hard at the drop below them, “I’m not the same.”

 

“It’s fine.” Liu Qingge emphasises, “And you’re similar enough.”

 

“I can’t do what he can.” Shen Jiu had an odd tone to his voice, a strange inflection that made Liu Qingge start to feel a prickling of unease of what his husband could be overthinking about now.

 

“We’ve done all the same things together; travelled, sparred, talked. It’s the same.”

 

“Didn’t you used to do… married things with him?”

 

“Married things?” Liu Qingge feels like he’s missing something.

 

“Fuck.” Shen Jiu spits the word out a little, the resentment colouring his voice completely, “Didn’t you used to fuck him?”

 

The language shocks Liu Qingge but he tries to keep his expression steady. He doesn’t want to scare Shen Jiu off. He’s learnt over the years that the initial explosion is always followed by an emotional downturn. Shen Jiu gets angry but doesn’t feel good about it and the best thing he can do is to act as though he’s not unnerved.

 

Liu Qingge twists so he’s facing Shen Jiu, “You sound upset about that.” He keeps his voice very even.

 

Shen Jiu eyes remain resolutely trained on the drop below them while his body stays turned away, “It’s not good.”

 

“What do you mean?” Liu Qingge asked.

 

“Fucking. It’s not a good thing to do.”

 

Liu Qingge thinks of how skittish his husband will get sometimes and feels a white-hot flash of fury. Was it already a problem? At this small Shen Jiu’s age? Could the world be that cruel? He knew that… Shen Jiu had told him and he knew, but already? So young, so small, so fragile? He chokes on his anger for a second.

 

“What makes you think that?” Liu Qingge asks, voice still as deliberately even as he can keep it.

 

Shen Jiu is still looking away, “The older girls talk about it. The slavers as well. San-jie was sold to be a concubine for some gross old man. Sometime you hear screaming from the brothel. Or you’ll find some bleeding person in an alley.”

 

“Has anything like that ever happened to you before?”

 

Shen Jiu shook his head quickly, “No. I promise.” Something about the way he says “I promise” makes Liu Qingge think they’re not on the same page.

 

“It’s okay if something happened.” He says, trying to emphasise how true it is, “I would never be upset or angry at you. But I’ll kill whoever touched you.”

 

Shen Jiu finally looks back up at him, “But I won’t be clean. Won’t you be upset your husband is dirty?”

 

“I don’t care about that. I care about-“ Liu Qingge doesn’t know how to phrase it but he tries, “No matter what happened I would never be upset or angry at you. I love you.”

 

Shen Jiu frowns, “Is that what love is?”

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge says decisively, “I love you. I would never be upset or angry at you.”

 

Shen Jiu chews his lip again, “I’m clever.” He finally says, “Nothing like that’s ever happened to me.”

 

Liu Qingge feels something inside of him uncoil.

 

“It’s different when you love each other.” Liu Qingge says with certainty, “It’s not bad, I promise.”

 

Shen Jiu is still frowning but he doesn’t look as though he immediately rejects that notion.

 

“I’m a boy so I can’t have children anyway.” Shen Jiu digs his fingers into the ground on either side of him, “So if we fuck then it’s because you want to.”

 

“You want to as well.” Liu Qingge points out.

 

Maybe it’s an unbelievable notion for this small Shen Jiu but Liu Qingge’s husband has jumped him more than a few times over their years together. He knows he isn’t just silently enduring their bedroom activities. Though it’s true that Shen Jiu uses intimacy in a different way than he does. To Liu Qingge coupling is an activity that allows them to say “I love you” in a physical way, the language he’s more proficient in any case. Besides it feels good, and Liu Qingge supposes he’s simple in the sense that he likes things that feel good.

 

Shen Jiu sees intimacy as a power play. He uses it to reassure himself, to seek physical comfort when his thin face won’t allow him to simply ask for touch. He uses it to say things to Liu Qingge, to express anger and upset and passion and care. To vent his feelings and assert his dominance when he feels off-balance. He uses it as a way to reaffirm their connection and the unique positions they both occupy in their partnership. He uses it to bribe, to coax, to convince, to fight, to hurt and all the rest.

 

Small Shen Jiu hums. He doesn’t say anything. 

 

“I do miss him.” Liu Qingge admits, “But he’s you so it’s fine. I would never resent you being here for something as stupid as wanting to have sex.”

 

“What if I never turn back?”

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “It’s a little early to be worrying but if you didn’t turn back then I’d just keep looking after you. We’re immortals, we have all the time we want.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at Liu Qingge for a long while before turning his attention back to the drop.

 

They sit in silence for a little bit before Shen Jiu breaks it.

 

 “Do we do it a lot?”

 

Liu Qingge isn’t sure if this is appropriate to talk to a child about, but he supposes… Shen Jiu is still  Shen Jiu at the end of the day, and by the sounds of it has already had a lot of exposure to the terrible sides of sex at this age. He knows more than a child of his age should, more than Liu Qingge knew certainly. Besides, this Shen Jiu exists in somewhat of a vacuum, he’ll turn back into adult Shen Jiu soon. This isn’t a child who needs to be carefully raised, this is just another state of Shen Jiu. When he turns back this conversation will mean very little.

 

“Never if either of us doesn’t want to.” Liu Qingge says firmly.

 

To be honest his desires are far more reliable and regular than Shen Jiu’s. Liu Qingge wants it anytime it’s suggested and even when it's not. He certainly has a bigger appetite and a willingness to try anything while for Shen Jiu there are certain acts more off-limits than others.

 

“Once a week?”

 

Liu Qingge shrugs, “It changes. Sometimes it’s every day for a few weeks. Then not for a month. Then a few times a week for a while and then not for months. It depends on what we’re doing and how we feel.”

 

“Oh.” Shen Jiu looks surprised but not all that invested now that he has an answer. He looks back down at the drop, turning his attention to the bottom of the cliff. “If I fell from here, how long would it take for me to hit the ground and die?”

 

Liu Qingge looks down as well, “Not too long. Maybe only as long as it took to count to twenty. But I wouldn’t let you hit the ground.”

 

Shen Jiu looks at him with a challenge in his gaze, “Oh?”

 

“Oh.” Liu Qingge affirms which makes Shen Jiu smile slightly.

 

“You have your sword so you can fly down and catch me.” His legs continue to swing.

 

“When you’re older you have a sword too so you can also catch yourself.”

 

Shen Jiu makes a sound of affirmation, “I can catch you too.”

 

“You have. You’ve saved my life more than a few times before.”

 

Shen Jiu blinks and looks at him with surprise before smiling in genuine pleasure.

 

They sit in silence for a little while longer before Shen Jiu speaks, “Did I tell you I have a friend?”

 

“A childhood friend?”

 

Shen Jiu nodded, “His name is Yue Qi. I call him Qi-ge. He’s a slave like me.” He hesitates for a second before continuing, “Did I speak about him? Do you know what happened to him?”

 

Liu Qingge has to shake his head, “No. You’ve mentioned a Qi-ge before.” Before being once when Shen Jiu was drunk enough that he didn’t remember it the next day. “But I don’t know what happened to them after you came to the sect.”

 

Shen Jiu’s deflation is obvious, the most obvious emotional reaction Liu Qingge has seen from him so far even including his tears.

 

“He’s dead then.” Is what Shen Jiu says. Is all Shen Jiu says. He sounds blank, disappointed beyond belief, sad but not surprised.

 

Liu Qingge isn’t sure what he can do but it turns out he doesn’t have the chance to start talking because the communication talisman he keeps in his sleeve heats up to alert him of a new message. He pulls it out and as expected it’s a request from Zhangmen-shixiong to return to the sect.

 

Liu Qingge sighs, “I have to go back to the sect. Do you want to come with me, or I can drop you back at the estate?”

 

“I’ll stay with you.” Is Shen Jiu’s immediate response.

 

It warms Liu Qingge, the earnestness of that answer. The amount he’s managed to build this relationship with Shen Jiu, even small and distrustful as he is.

 

*

 

“A-Jiu? Are you okay?” Liu Qingge knocks harder on the door of Shen Jiu’s bedroom.

 

He’s been away at the sect for over three months and on returning to the estate had been immediately told by Mingyan that Shen Jiu had secluded himself in his courtyard for almost that entire period.

 

“I haven’t seen him once Ge!” Mingyan was pouting. Shen Jiu really indulged her too much, she only seemed to be getting more childish as the years went on, “I went over to his courtyard a week after you left and his gate was closed. He hasn’t been out since.”

 

Liu Qingge frowned, “Has he been eating?”

 

“I asked Grandmother and she said he told her he was going into seclusion to cultivate.”

 

 “Hm. Thank you for watching over him.”

 

“Go and see him! I bet he missed you!” Was Mingyan’s next rather enthusiastic comment.

 

Liu Qingge didn’t bother to correct her. It wasn’t as though he thought Shen Jiu disliked him. Shen Jiu very obviously liked him, even a little, but the other was self-sufficient to an almost alarming degree. He wasn’t sure if Shen Jiu did miss him when he left or if he was so busy thinking and doing his own thing that it was very much “out of sight out of mind”.

 

Liu Qingge had realised quickly after marriage that Shen Jiu very much did not need him around in a practical sense. At first it had been something that had pleased him because he couldn’t imagine how a clingy spouse would fit into his own lifestyle.

 

Now he sometimes wished in a rather incomprehensible way, even to himself, that Shen Jiu relied on him a little more. Just a little.

 

The gate to the other’s courtyard opened easily under his touch and he entered to find that the plants looked overgrown. Shen Jiu didn’t like having servants in his space unless he could directly supervise them, so of course if he had gone into seclusion the entirety of the space would have been left untended to.

 

He marched himself through the rooms, still well-maintained through cleaning talismans yet clearly untouched, to the door of Shen Jiu’s bedchamber.

 

Now that he was knocking it reminded him of the days of their engagement, Shen Jiu had gone through periods of unwellness then and Liu Qingge hoped nothing had happened when he was gone. Shen Jiu had never quite gotten sick like that since they had married but illness was just like that, it tended to strike unexpectedly.

 

Of course maybe the other was simply cultivating as he had said but somehow... Liu Qingge didn’t think so.

 

“A-Jiu?” He knocked again, “Can I come in?”

 

There was no reply.

 

“I’m coming in.” He announced before going to open the door. It proved harder than he expected and when he finally pushed it all the way open with a heavy creak, he found that a chest of drawers had been moved in front of it almost as a barricade.

 

The room was dark. Curtains had been drawn over all the windows to block out the light and the air was musty as if it had been allowed to remain stale for many weeks.

 

Shen Jiu’s bed had been pushed right up into the corner of the room and he could see nothing more than a lump of blankets on it.

 

“A-Jiu?” He asked again, cautiously.

 

The lump moved and a hand emerged.

 

“When did you start calling me that?”

 

Shen Jiu’s voice is croaky, disused. The skin of his hand is pale and sickly looking.

 

“You’re unwell.” Liu Qingge says, “I’ll be back.”

 

He leaves and flags down a servant for some tonics and nourishing foods. He feels a little flare of mingled anger and disappointment directed inwardly. He knows Shen Jiu gets ill like this sometimes and if not him then who will look after his husband? No one else in the family apart from Grandmother has the authority to walk into Shen Jiu’s courtyard if the gate is closed. Who else could check on him? Make sure he’s alright?

 

When he comes back it’s with a beat of self-recrimination that he tries to shove aside and replace with useful action.

 

“A-Jiu, I’m going to open the windows.” He narrates as he moves towards the curtains and pulls them aside, opening the windows and letting in the light and fresh air.

 

“When did you start calling me that?” Shen Jiu ask, and Liu Qingge realises he is repeating the question for a second time. It’s the first thing he’s heard his husband say to him since they parted months ago.

 

“I don’t know.” He admits. “The brothel women call you A-Jiu. I can stop if you don’t like it.”

 

Shen Jiu doesn’t answer.

 

“Do you want me to stop?”

 

Shen Jiu makes a noise that really could mean anything.

 

“Have you eaten?” Liu Qingge walks over to the bed and his heart aches at the way Shen Jiu looks so unwell.

 

“Where have you been?” Shen Jiu asks, voice still rusty, “You were gone a long time.”

 

Liu Qingge aches anew, “There was a lot of business to sort out at the sect. I should have written.”

 

Shen Jiu pulls himself free from his pile of blankets and Liu Qingge immediately reaches for his wrist. His husband surrenders it easily for the familiar routine of meridian checking that Liu Qingge performs near every day they’re together.

 

“Your meridians don’t seem stronger.” Liu Qingge frowns, “Did you manage to cultivate at all?”

 

Shen Jiu makes a little noise that could in some senses be considered a laugh, “You’re so…” He doesn’t continue.

 

“What is it?” Liu Qingge frowns at him. When She Jiu becomes like this he’s somehow even more opaque than usual and yet infinitely vulnerable. “What are you thinking?”

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “I’m not thinking.” It sounds like it’s meant for himself more than for Liu Qingge, “I should have thought less.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Shen Jiu just shakes his head again, face turned away in a predictable fashion.

 

“Hey-“ Liu Qingge is cut off by the sound of the servant knocking on the main door to the rooms so he gets up to go.

 

When he comes back with the food and tonics Shen Jiu is in the same position staring at nothing. His eyes are deadened.

 

“Here.” Liu Qingge passes him a cup of revitalising tea, “Go slowly if you’ve been practising inedia.”

 

Shen Jiu takes the warm cup and something in his face spasms.

 

“What does it feel like?” He asks, voice croakier than before somehow.

 

“What does what feel like?” Liu Qingge feels a sudden surge of déjà vu then as though this is a conversation they’ve had before though he can’t remember what comes next.

 

Shen Jiu stares at the steaming liquid in the cup and doesn’t take a sip.

 

“Happiness.” He finally says, “What does it feel like?”

 

Liu Qingge can’t deny that he feels a little baffled, “I don’t know how to answer that.”

 

Shen Jiu’s hands clench on the cup, “Try.” Is all he says.

 

Liu Qingge wracks his brain. He ends up sitting next to Shen Jiu on the bed.

 

“It feels good.” He settles on, “Hopeful. Peaceful. Everything is good and you feel… warm.”

 

“Do you feel it?”

 

“Yes, I feel it.”

 

“How often?”

 

Liu Qingge has never thought about it before, “Almost every day.” He settles on, “But it’s… I think that’s more contentment. Happiness is intense; when something particularly good happens.”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes have closed as he listens to him speak.

 

“You feel content every day?”

 

“Yes. Almost.”

 

“What does it feel like?”

 

“Good.” Liu Qingge struggles, “I don’t know. What does it feel like to you?”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes are still closed.

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt it.” He says. His voice is soft.

 

“But… you look happy sometimes. You sound happy. I-“ Liu Qingge cuts himself off from saying “I thought I make you happy”.

 

“I keep looking for it.” Shen Jiu says. His voice is still very soft, very delicate, very gentle, very unlike normal. “Something good will happen and I’ll think to myself, I’ll ask myself “Am I happy? Is this it?” but I don’t feel anything. All the good moments… it feels as though I’m going through the motions, watching myself from the outside, I can see happiness but I can’t hold it, can’t feel it, can’t find it. I keep looking for it.”

 

Liu Qingge swallows hard, “What can I do? To help?”

 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, “I don’t know.” It’s a shockingly honest answer.

 

There’s a long period of silence.

 

It unnerves Liu Qingge slightly to think that all those moments he shared with Shen Jiu that he considered incomparable moments of joy together; the times when Shen Jiu shrieked with laughter or the two were out doing something with smiles on their faces or just lying next to each other in bed talking softly… if Shen Jiu really meant that all of that was just going through the motions for him…

 

“You said that you keep trying to find it. So you’re trying.” Liu Qingge breaks the silence and starts to speak. Slowly with increasing confidence as he continues, “That’s the most important thing. You’re trying and whatever I can do to help, I’m here.”

 

Shen Jiu opens his eyes, “What do you think you can do?”

 

Liu Qingge steels himself. “I can do whatever you need.”

 

He likes Shen Jiu so much that he doesn’t even really know what to do with it. Shen Jiu is funny and challenging and the time that they spend together is mostly fun for a lack of a better way to put it. Shen Jiu is fun with his endless commentary and competitive streak. He’s interesting with his different viewpoints and ready arguments. He’s attractive in every way to Liu Qingge, every way that matters. Even when he’s infuriating and impossible he's attractive. Liu Qingge still likes him, still likes what they have together and wants to do whatever is required to keep it and make it better.

 

Shen Jiu coughs, clearing his throat. “Hold me.” It comes out weaker than the order it’s meant to be, but Liu Qingge doesn’t say anything, he just moves closer and takes Shen Jiu into his arms. The other smells musty, uncared for and neglected, and it makes him ache all over again. Or maybe the ache simply never left.

 

Once held, Shen Jiu raises the tea to his lips and begins to sip.

 

“Let’s go on a nighthunt.” Liu Qingge says with certainty, “Once you’ve eaten and have had a bath and a nap. It’s been too long.”

 

“Mm.” Shen Jiu leans back into him, “What if I want to stay here?”

 

“Can I stay with you?”

 

Shen Jiu’s face is turned away so Liu Qingge can’t see his expression but his husband leans even more weight back into his arms. It’s answer enough.

 

“Xīngān.” Liu Qingge murmurs against Shen Jiu’s hair and feels the way his husband trembles slightly in his hold. “Are you cold?” He asks in response to the slight shaking.

 

“Yes.” There’s a pause, “Hold me tighter.”

 

Liu Qingge does so without complaint.

 

“It’s alright if I’m not happy.” Shen Jiu says, almost a whisper, “I’m comfortable.” It sounds as though he’s speaking mostly to himself.

 

“You should get to be anything you want to be.” Is Liu Qingge’s reply.

 

Shen Jiu snorts a laugh, “What a privileged answer.”

 

“Mm.” Liu Qingge noses against his cheek, “Have some broth.” He nudges the tray closer.

 

Shen Jiu finishes the tea and sets the cup back onto the tray with a little clink. He then picks up the bowl of warm broth.

 

“Don’t you have more questions?” He asks.

 

“About what?

 

Shen Jiu sips the broth, “You question me far too little.”

 

Liu Qingge takes the bowl when it seems Shen Jiu is done, “What do you want me to ask you about?”

 

“I don’t want you to ask me.” Shen Jiu picks at some slices of persimmon, overripe to a sickly sweetness the way he likes that Liu Qingge can’t stand. The smell permeates the air, syrupy and cloying. “But don’t you want to? It’s strange that you don’t.”

 

“Why would I do anything you wouldn’t want me to?”

 

“That’s not the way that people think.” Shen Jiu squeezes the permission slice until it collapses into a pulpy mush between his fingers. “Even the people that say they like you… that say they care about you… they’ll still do what they want, not what you want.”

 

“I wouldn’t.”

 

Shen Jiu’s fingers are sticky with juice and he puts them to his mouth to suck on. It makes Liu Qingge feel something predictable that feels wrong and almost perverse in the current atmosphere.

 

“What if I was dying? And I told you not to save me, what would you do?”

 

Liu Qingge’s stomach does a nose-dive like he’s just freefallen off his sword, “I would save you.”

 

“So you’d do what I wouldn’t want you to?”

 

“You want to live.” Liu Qingge’s voice comes out more frantic than he maybe means, “I know you. You don’t want to die.”

 

Shen Jiu sighs, “I don’t know what I want.” He says, his voice is back to soft, “I sometimes feel like I never know what the right thing to do is, what the right thing for me to do is.”

 

“I think you’re doing alright.” Liu Qingge thinks of the right thing to say in this situation, “You married me. I think that was the right decision.”

 

Shen Jiu unexpectedly starts to laugh even though Liu Qingge was being a hundred percent serious, “You would call that a correct decision, wouldn’t you?” He picks up another slice of persimmon and takes a bite before putting the slice back on the plate.

 

Liu Qingge decides to play along. He never knew how to, never knew it was a thing he could even do, that people did, until he was married to Shen Jiu and all those conversations built a rapport that the other dragged him into. Coaxing and coaching him how to tease and be teased back and play along sharing ridiculous words and sentiments until he had never felt closer to another person in his entire life. Layers and layer of inside jokes and shared experiences and random words that connected him to memories of laughter and intimacy in an instant.

 

“Of course I would. I’ve benefitted, haven’t I?” He means it to be light-hearted, teasing in the way that Shen Jiu is so proficient in.

 

“Have you?” Shen Jiu doesn’t look at him, studiously staying turned away, “What have you gotten from me? I’m a terrible choice in all respects; I’m neither kind nor wealthy nor good at cultivation-“

 

Liu Qingge opens his mouth to protest but Shen Jiu continues before he can even hope to interrupt.

 

“I’m not from a good family and I have no useful connections. I’m difficult to deal with and I make you look after me like this.”

 

The self-recrimination makes Liu Qingge feel uncomfortable, protective and unsure of what to do. Shen Jiu gets in moods like this sometimes but never quite so… strongly.

 

“I like looking after you.” Is what Liu Qingge offers and hopes it’s good enough, “I always enjoy spending time with you.”

 

“Mmn.” Shen Jiu doesn’t sound convinced so Liu Qingge just resolves to prove it over the years they’ll have together until it’s nothing more than an undeniable fact of life.

 

“It’s not happiness.” Shen Jiu suddenly says, “I want- I don’t know, but it’s not happiness.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“What I keep looking for. It’s not just happiness.”

 

“Do you feel happy now?”

 

Shen Jiu huffed, “I feel disgusting. I need to bathe.”

 

“But do you feel happy?” Liu Qingge pressed his point, arms flexing around Shen Jiu. He knew what he wanted to hear and the best part was he knew Shen Jiu wouldn’t give it to him unless it was real.

 

“Mm.” Shen Jiu turned to finally face him, “You were away a long time.”

 

And there in that statement Shen Jiu has said everything Liu Qingge wants to hear.

 

He can’t help his smile and squeezes Shen Jiu even more closely in his arms, “I like holding you.” He says, “You’re soft.”

 

“Are you saying I’m too fat?”

 

“No? Why would you think that?” As usual Shen Jiu’s thoughts have run off in unimaginable directions but he sees that his husband is smiling. It’s a tease.

 

Liu Qingge can’t do anything but smile back helplessly. “You’re a nightmare.”

 

Shen Jiu’s own smile widens, “Yet you’re still here? Doesn’t that make you a particular brand of fool?”

 

“You’re soft.” Liu Qingge says in defence, “And you usually smell good, not right now but-“

 

And here he’s cut off by Shen Jiu slamming a cushion into his face.

 

“You’re the nightmare!” His husband is beautifully indignant, alive and awake and flushed with emotion.

 

Liu Qingge retaliates by trying to snatch the cushion back and before they know it the two are roughhousing, tumbling off the bed and continuing to wrestle on the ground until Shen Jiu has finally haphazardly pinned Liu Qingge.

 

His husband’s hair is unbound and messy, tangled from the months lack of care and current tumble over the floor, and his teeth are bared in that way that’s just slightly too aggressive for playfighting. Liu Qingge loves the intensity. With Shen Jiu everything matters and Liu Qingge loves that.

 

“Ha!” Shen Jiu lords his victory over him in a way that was infuriating in the sect but now Liu Qingge finds somewhat cute for how childish it is. “Say you’re inferior!”

 

Liu Qingge is sure his face is far too soft for the moment, “If that’s what you want.”

 

Shen Jiu bites his lip then, mood suddenly changing though not for the worse. “I… I don’t know what I want.” He admits, it sounds like a deep confession for all that Liu Qingge doesn’t quite understand the context. “So... you have to make sure to always do the right thing for me.” It comes out in a rush, “And if I’m going to do the wrong thing you have to tell me and help me. You’re my husband so you have to.”

 

“I will.” Liu Qingge promises sincerely.

 

“I think I make bad decisions.” Shen Jiu admits, it sounds so uncharacteristic and honest (which is also uncharacteristic) that it throws Liu Qingge for a loop slightly, “You need to make sure I don’t.”

 

“Of course.” Liu Qingge promises, “But you should also do what you want.”

 

Shen Jiu leans down so his face is now resting in the crook of Liu Qingge’s neck, “I don’t want to think.”

 

“Alright.” Liu Qingge wraps his arms around Shen Jiu, “If you want.”

 

His husband doesn’t say anything further, just lets himself be held and fed and watered and cared for in the only way that Liu Qingge knows how.

 

*

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes are wide as they approach the sect.

 

“Which one was my peak?” Is the first thing he asks.

 

“Qing Jing is that one.” Liu Qingge takes a little detour to point it out.

 

From above Qing Jing is all gentle mist and never-ending green punctuated by the sound of gentle music. It feels slightly surreal to Liu Qingge to remember all those times he would come to Qing Jing to fight and bother Shen Jiu when they were disciples. He had hated the other back then. It’s… so much has changed.

 

When he thinks about Shen Jiu’s personality it’s actually a little funny to think about how well he had fit in on Qing Jing. Shen Jiu was in many ways the complete antithesis of Qing Jing’s peaceful exterior, the refined scholar was just another face of his husband’s and one that he wore especially well. Well enough that Liu Qingge saw it as enough facet to his person rather than a mask like Shen Jiu did.

 

Maybe that’s one of the reasons Liu Qingge had enjoyed provoking the other so much back then; Shen Jiu was always a good fight but breaking the other’s mask was… addictive. Underneath the scholar Shen Jiu was a wild animal to his core and he fought like one. Liu Qingge had always disparaged him for it until his entire opinion on the other was shifted and then he liked it as much as everything else. Shen Jiu was like no one else he had ever known. In so many ways he was superficially the very kind of person someone like Liu Qingge, noble-born and honourable to a fault, was meant to dislike and he had. Almost on sight and viciously.

 

However, Shen Jiu also had a plethora of good qualities, ones that no one could disparage. One that Liu Qingge, in particular, prized. He had never known before Shen Jiu that someone could be such a mess of seeming contradictions, that people could be so complex and multi-faceted and yet still make sense.

 

“It’s nice.” Shen Jiu says before making a haughty little sniffing noise, “The Liu estate is nicer though.”

 

Liu Qingge presses his lips together to restrain his smile, “You like home better?”

 

“Mm.” Shen Jiu eyes Qing Jing from above critically, “It’s not bad.” Is his final judgement, “But it looks fake.”

 

Liu Qingge frowns, his sword moving slowly and lazily on this tour, “In what way?”

 

“The more perfect something looks on the outside usually the worse whatever it’s hiding is.”

 

Liu Qingge considers Qing Jing peak again, “I don’t know about anything hiding on Qing Jing.”

 

“Of course you wouldn’t.” Shen Jiu says rather predictably.

 

“Hey.”

 

Small Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, “You’re not that type.” He says, “It’s good.”

 

“You’ve managed to figure me out so quickly then?”

 

“You don’t make it hard.” Shen Jiu takes one final look at Qing Jing, “If I was meant to be in charge, then who is now?”

 

“Wang Qingling. They were a disciple alongside you, the next highest rank I assume.”

 

“Mm.” Shen Jiu nods to himself.

 

“Do you really think there’s something bad going on?” Liu Qingge asks sincerely. Shen Jiu has always had good instincts and as a child that doesn’t seem to have changed. Pessimistic of course but not without good reason.

 

“There’s always something.” Shen Jiu nudges Liu Qingge to keep flying, “The cleaner something looks the more that there’s something rotten underneath.”

 

“I don’t mind Wang Qingling. They’re alright.”

 

“It might not be them.” Shen Jiu is still looking around as they fly, taking in the whole of Cang Qiong, “If all immortals are like you then they should be fine.”

 

“A compliment from you?”

 

“Hmph.” Shen Jiu huffs but leans further into Liu Qingge, “Which one is your peak? Are we going there?”

 

“No, I have to report to the Sect Leader so I thought we’d go straight to Qiong Ding unless you want to wait on Bai Zhan?”

 

“I’ll come with you.” It’s a predictable response by now. Liu Qingge wonders how much longer he and child Shen Jiu would have to spent together before his small husband becomes comfortable enough to be in unfamiliar places without him.

 

“That’s Bai Zhan. We won’t stop but just so you can see.”

 

Shen Jiu craned his neck before making a little noise of dissent, “It’s very bare. Like your rooms at home.”

 

Liu Qingge can’t help his amusement, “I suppose so.”

 

“Is the Sect Leader nice?” Shen Jiu asks as they approach Qiong Ding.

 

“Yes. I respect him very much.” That hasn’t changed though Liu Qingge will sometimes feel a little… unsettled in Yue Qingyuan’s presence. Never anything bad nor overt, only that occasionally the Sect Leader will stare at him as though he wants desperately to say something.

 

He never does.

 

“Will he mind if I’m with you?”

 

“No. But I’ll send ahead word just in case.” Liu Qingge landed on Qiong Ding and waved over one of the disciples walking past as he helped Shen Jiu off Cheng Luan.

 

“Go tell the Sect Leader I’ve arrived to see him and that I’ve brought my husband with me.”

 

The disciple’s eyes snapped to Shen Jiu who looked back impassively. The disciple blinked and their mouth dropped open slightly, “Will Liu-shishu’s husband be joining him and his… son later?” They sounded slightly strangled.

 

“What nonsense are you spouting?” Liu Qingge scowled. He didn’t have a son, what kind of rumours were being spread now?

 

Shen Jiu cleared this throat, “This one is Peak Lord Liu’s husband who has been de-aged.” He’d lost his normal childish tone and his voice is suddenly shockingly refined, his tone even and his gaze icy. Not quite the way he is as an adult but… when did he learn to do this? Has it just been by observing others?

 

“Ah.” The disciple bows. “Greetings to Peak Lord Liu’s esteemed husband.”

 

Liu Qingge appreciates how respectful the disciple is being and also appreciates how Shen Jiu has neatly cleared up any misunderstandings that Liu Qingge wasn’t even aware were arising.

 

“This disciple shall go inform Shizun.” And the disciple runs off.

 

“They thought I was your son.” Shen Jiu says as soon as they’re gone, his voice is back to normal.

 

“Why in the heavens would they think-“

 

“That would be the normal thing to think when someone shows up with a child and says their husband is coming. If they had really assumed I was your husband I think you should have been more offended. What kind of pervert has a child for a husband?” Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow in a rather devastating fashion.

 

“Fine fine. Even at ten you’re smarter than me, is that what you want to hear?”

 

Shen Jiu smiles in a fashion that’s rather harder to pry out of his older self especially in public, “Do you say that a lot?”

 

“Every so often depending on how moody you’re being.” Liu Qingge ignores the indignant noise Shen Jiu makes and reaches for his hand in a way that feels entirely natural now, “I forgot earlier, but you and the Sect Leader had a strange relationship when we were all disciples. You barely seemed able to stand him but he really liked you.”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes widen and then narrow. His small hand finds Liu Qingge’s and curls their fingers together in a gesture that could be seen as rather… proprietary.

 

“What do you mean he liked me?” His tone is deeply suspicious and the way his body edges towards Liu Qingge’s speaks of a call for reassurance.

 

“He favoured you a lot, but you didn’t like him back. I never found out why.”

 

“Are you stronger than him?”

 

“No.” Liu Qingge admits, “Though I’m strong enough that if anything happened I would be able to get us out easily.”

 

Liu Qingge is certainly arrogant about his abilities though not quite enough to claim his own superiority over Yue Qingyuan, the strongest cultivator of their generation. He had only fought the other once, as a disciple, and had been so thoroughly beaten he had never forgotten it. Yue Qingyuan is the measure he considers for strength, the only opponent he can stand losing to and not take it as a personal slight. After all, he’s the sect leader and has earned Liu Qingge’s respect a hundred times over.

 

Shen Jiu nods at his answer.

 

“Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.” Liu Qingge assures.

 

“I know.” Shen Jiu squeezes his hand even harder, “You said you respected him a lot.” There’ something like a question in his tone.

 

Liu Qingge waves a hand somewhat dismissively, “This was all so long ago and you never spoke of it after we married. You’ve never even been back to the sect since so I forgot. He’s a good Sect Leader and martial brother, we’ve never had any problems.”

 

Shen Jiu nods. He seems unsure but not unhappy or truly scared. He predictably sticks close to Liu Qingge as they make their way through the peak, passing the various Qiong Ding disciples who stop to bow respectfully and call out their greetings.

 

“What are you thinking?” Liu Qingge asks as they make it closer to the Sect Leader’s study.

 

“I’ll tell you later.” Shen Jiu says quietly, his eyes darting to the various decorations before finding Liu Qingge’s to give him an uncertain look.

 

Liu Qingge nods and squeezes his hand in confirmation. As long as they can talk it’ll always be okay. He truly believes that.

 

When they get to the Sect Leader’s study the man in question is already standing. “Liu-shidi.” He greets, “I heard that you were bringing your husband with you and that he has been… de-aged?”

 

“Yes.” Liu Qingge says at the same time Yue Qingyuan’s eyes that had been scanning the room behind him finally land on Shen Jiu who is half-hidden behind Liu Qingge’s body.

 

Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widen and his usual unimpeachable countenance falls apart.

 

“Xiao Jiu, is that you?”

 

Liu Qingge almost can’t look at his face, there’s so much emotion on it. More emotion than he thinks he’s ever seen from the Sect Leader before.

 

Shen Jiu is still mostly behind him but Liu Qingge can feel the way he’s restlessly clenching and unclenching his hand in his grip.

 

“It’s me, Xiao Jiu it’s Qi-ge.”

 

Qi-ge? The Qi-ge that Shen Jiu mentioned? He turns to look at Shen Jiu whose eyes are wide.

 

“Qi-ge?” It comes out very hesitantly.

 

“Xiao Jiu.”

 

“Qi-ge?” Shen Jiu lets go of Liu Qingge’s hand and edges forward very slightly.

 

“Xiao Jiu, it’s me.”

 

“Qi-ge!”

 

Yue Qingyuan’s reaction to Shen Jiu’s enthusiastic call is instantaneous. His eyes fill with tears and a smile, bigger and more honest than anything Liu Qingge has ever seen from him before, breaks across his face.

 

“Xiao Jiu.” His voice is wondering, “Xiao Jiu it’s really you…”

 

“Qi-ge got so big!” Shen Jiu suddenly rushes forward, outside of the bubble of protection Liu Qingge can provide, and flings himself at Yue Qingyuan, “You’re a Sect Leader! You look so strong!” He’s far more effusive than he’s ever been before with Liu Qingge in the past week.

 

“Xiao Jiu.” Yue Qingyuan’s voice is reverent and he clutches Shen Jiu close like it would physically pain him to let go.

 

“He was affected by the pollen from the flower of ever-lasting youth.” Liu Qingge feels the need to say.

 

He’s not quite sure what’s happening but has enough wits to put together that Shen Jiu and Yue Qingyuan did in fact know each other before their time in the Sect. Knew each other from childhood in fact, and that puts so many things, so many interactions and small pieces of information, together in a way that fits.

 

How did they know each other? If Shen Jiu was a slave… did they meet on the street one day just by chance? Yue Qingyuan’s background is also slightly opaque and the rumours were that he was from a declining noble house or the especially talented son of wealthy merchants if he wasn’t noble. How did they ever meet and what happened between them?

 

Shen Jiu; icy, difficult, impossible, closed-off Shen Jiu is clinging to Yue Qingyuan like he never wants to let go. Like he’s never shrugged off anyone’s touch and tried to run from even Liu Qingge. 

 

He feels somehow separate from the whole scene in a way that’s suddenly disconcerting.

 

Yue Qingyuan nods somewhat distractedly to his explanation as he continues to hold Shen Jiu, “Have you been at the Liu estate the past week?” He asks Shen Jiu who nods enthusiastically.

 

“It was nice, the food was really good. Do you have good food in the sect? Can I see your sword?” The questions come quick and fast. Liu Qingge stands back and tries to quash his own irrational feelings of jealousy.

 

He reminds himself that as an adult Shen Jiu had chosen him again and again of his own free will. As a child they’ve only gotten to know each other during the past week and Yue Qingyuan is his closest friend from this period of life. Of course it makes sense that Shen Jiu would prefer Yue Qingyuan’s company.

 

Liu Qingge has never felt jealous of Shen Jiu’s affections before. This is an entirely new experience. All through the years he’s been spoiled by the fact that Shen Jiu barely looks at other people let alone entertains them. And now he’s clinging to the Sect Leader like it would also physically pain him to let go.

 

“I’m married now.” Shen Jiu says with some authority, “To Liu Qingge.” He pronounces his name carefully, “I left the Sect to marry him.”

 

Liu Qingge isn’t sure why Shen Jiu is telling Yue Qingyuan things he must obviously know.

 

Yue Qingyuan just smiles, “Xiao Jiu did.” And then the Sect Leader takes a deep breath, “Liu-shidi is a good man and a valued martial brother.”

 

Liu Qingge isn’t sure what to do with the praise but it seems to mean a lot to Shen Jiu who nods seriously and looks back at Liu Qingge with an expression of contemplation on his face.

 

“Why haven’t I visited you since we married?” Shen Jiu then begins asking, speaking quickly and poking Yue Qingyuan is the cheek with a pointy finger, “What happened to you?”

 

“Ah.” Yue Qingyuan’s focus is entirely on Shen Jiu and watching it makes Liu Qingge realise… Yue Qingyuan’s attention is very rarely on anything. It’s a strange realisation to have but it’s the truth, Yue Qingyuan is always on some level distracted and the full force of his attention is never channelled into one thing. Liu Qingge had never realised that before now.

 

“It was my fault.” Yue Qingyuan says, acting as though Liu Qingge isn’t even there, “I made Xiao Jiu hate me.”

 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, “I wouldn’t really hate you.” He says, “You were probably just really annoying so I didn’t want to see you. We’re immortals now anyway,” His eyes flick over to Liu Qingge, “Twelve years must have passed really quickly.”

 

“Mm.” Yue Qingyuan stares at Shen Jiu like a man starved.

 

“So you’re lucky this happened.” Shen Jiu says, poking Yue Qingyuan again, “If I was grown up right now I would ignore you for a while longer.”

 

“Xiao Jiu can do whatever he wants. Qi-ge will accept it.”

 

“You’re just as soft as always.” Shen Jiu says but he sounds fond.

 

“Xiao Jiu should stay on Qiong Ding with Qi-ge until the pollen wears off-“

 

Liu Qingge finally cuts in, crossing his arms in front of him, “Shen Jiu is my husband, he should stay with me.”

 

Yue Qingyuan smiles but there’s something steely in the expression and it abruptly looks far far faker than Liu Qingge ever would have known before today, “Liu-shidi should know that at this age Xiao Jiu is most familiar with me, it would be better for him to stay with someone he knows.”

 

That’s not necessarily wrong but Liu Qingge hates the thought of it, “He’s stayed with me the past week with no problems.”

 

Yue Qingyuan nods, “And Liu-shidi has done an excellent job of caring for him, but it would likely be good for Xiao Jiu to stay with someone who is familiar to him at this point in his life.”

 

Liu Qingge looks at Shen Jiu, at the way he so easily hugs Yue Qingyuan when Liu Qingge had been treated so carefully for days. He swallows. He doesn’t want to let Shen Jiu out of his sight. He doesn’t want to lose his husband because that’s what it feels like though the thought is nonsensical.

 

“He’s my husband.” He repeats and at this Yue Qingyuan’s smile drops a little.

 

“He’s a child. He’s not anyone’s husband.”

 

Liu Qingge makes a sound of frustration, “That’s not what I meant! He’s my family!”

 

“He’s mine as well.” Yue Qingyuan responds.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t know what to say to that. Family? Are they actually related? He looks at Shen Jiu who is biting his lip, neither obviously happy nor unhappy at the conflict. His husband meets his eyes though all Liu Qingge sees in them is uncertainty.

 

He won’t be happy when the pollen wears off. He thinks to himself. His husband will be furious with him for handing him off to Yue Qingyuan like he’s a piece of luggage to be loaned out when he’s in this state.

 

He will, right? Liu Qingge doesn’t know what truly happened between him and Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu always seemed to barely be able to tolerate the favouritism when they were disciples but right now he’s sitting on Yue Qingyuan, little hands clinging at his robes, looking like there’s nowhere he’d rather be.

 

“I don’t know why the two of you fell out.” Liu Qingge says evenly, “But Shen Jiu is my husband and when the pollen wears off he will not be happy to have spent the time in your care without his consent.”

 

“It’s not without his agreement.” Yue Qingyuan frowns lightly, “Xiao Jiu wants to stay with me.”

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t argue against that point, “Shen Jiu at ten may be fine with it but my husband wouldn’t want it.” He says bluntly, “The pollen will wear off and I’m not leaving him alone with you now only for him to change back and find himself alone with you as an adult.”

 

Yue Qingyuan pauses at that.

 

There’s a moment of stalemate.

 

Shen Jiu shifts as he takes in the tension.

 

“Liu-shidi is of course also welcome to stay on Qiong Ding as well.”

 

It’s a compromise and Liu Qingge should take it, but he doesn’t want to.

 

“We can stay on Bai Zhan.” Liu Qingge argues back. He knows he’s being slightly petty. Maybe more than a little petty but this is his husband and he thinks that after twelve years he knows at least a little of what Shen Jiu wants, “We can come visit tomorrow if that’s what he wants.”

 

“He should stay with me.” Yue Qingyuan repeats.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t know how to make his point any clearer, “I don’t know what’s happened between the two of you.” He says very evenly, “But since we married you haven’t seen each other. It won't be pleasant for him to change back and have you there.”

 

Yue Qingyuan’s mouth tightens, “I understand that, but if Xiao Jiu wants to stay with me he should.”

 

Liu Qingge thinks he can see some desperation there. Whatever bond the two of them had it must have been Shen Jiu who ultimately broke it which makes it all the more important for him to make sure to respect what adult Shen Jiu would want.

 

Liu Qingge is about to open his mouth again when suddenly Shen Jiu steps away from Yue Qingyuan.

 

“I’ll go with Liu Qingge.” He says, voice back to careful. His eyes flit between the two men and relief Liu Qingge didn’t know he needed crashes through his body.

 

“Xiao Jiu-“ Yue Qingyuan sounds heartbroken but he cuts himself off, “If that’s what you want.” He finishes gently.

 

Shen Jiu nods, “I can come see you tomorrow.” He then walks over to Liu Qingge and takes his hand. It’s something of a public declaration.

 

“Zhangmen-shixiong,” Liu Qingge keeps his voice as respectful as he can. He doesn’t want to mix sect and private relationships to an uncomfortable level, “What did you call me here to tell me?”

 

“Ah yes,” Yue Qingyuan is back to distracted only this time Liu Qingge can see what his attention is actually on which is Shen Jiu standing at his side, “I have a mission for you. Let me give you the details…”

 

“Why did you choose to stay with me?” Liu Qingge asks, ultimately curious, as they fly to Bai Zhan.

 

Shen Jiu frowns at him, “You’re my husband.” Is all he says.

 

It’s a rather nonsensical thing for a child to say but within it is wrapped up an endless string of meaning.

 

Liu Qingge thinks he can hear some of it.

 

You’re my family. We swore vows to each other. It’s different. Qi-ge’s not my husband. You were with me the past weeks. You were there the whole time.

 

Shen Jiu really is the same no matter what age he is.

 

“You really don’t know why we no longer speak?”

 

Liu Qingge shook his head, “You never told me. I never asked.”

 

“Don’t you want to know?”

 

“It’s your own business.”

 

“But it’s your husband and your Sect Leader who don’t like each other.”

 

“If you want to tell me you will.”

 

“You wouldn’t ask?”

 

“No.”

 

“Hm.” Small Shen Jiu looks down at the moving landscape below them, “When you found out I was a slave, was it because I told you?”

 

Liu Qingge thinks back to that conversation.

 

Shen Jiu had held himself as though he was ready for a fight, but he had been so fragile and yielded so easily to Liu Qingge’s touch, clinging desperately as if he was afraid he would be shoved away. That was the truth of his husband wasn’t it? He was independent to the core and he didn’t need anyone else to survive; if Liu Qingge had listened and rejected him Shen Jiu would likely have sneered back and left and he would never have seen him ever again. But even if his husband doesn’t need him, he still wants him and Liu Qingge wants that too. Shen Jiu can and will live without him, but he wants Liu Qingge enough to try and keep him, physically hold him close as if he would ever leave.

 

Liu Qingge had already had his own half-baked suspicions as to Shen Jiu’s past. Slavery wasn’t one of them but certainly it made enough sense that it had slid easily into his perception of the other. In fact, the biggest thing it had changed for him was just how impressive his husband was. Liu Qingge knew that Shen Jiu wasn’t as good a physical cultivator as he was, he knew he was weaker with a worse spiritual route and prone to qi deviation though that had improved since they were disciples. Shen Jiu was also better at reading into human behaviour and all that came with that. So to think that he had come from nothing and still… it was impressive and Liu Qingge felt that keenly.

 

“Yes.”

 

“How did I tell you?”

 

“I don’t know why you decided to tell me but one day you took me aside and did.”

 

“Just like that?”

 

“We were travelling and one day you told me.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“I didn’t ask why you decided to tell me, it didn’t seem important at the time.”

 

“Mm.” Small Shen Jiu leans back into Liu Qingge as they begin to descend onto Bai Zhan peak, “You don’t mind?’

 

“No.”

 

Shen Jiu as a child seems to believe his words more readily now than he did as an adult.

When Liu Qingge had told Shen Jiu in that inn that he didn’t care Shen Jiu had nodded but there was something in his presentation that told Liu Qingge that he didn’t believe him. Liu Qingge hadn’t minded, he had been determined to prove himself and therefore Shen Jiu’s distrust didn’t grate. It made sense. In fact, suddenly, everything to do with Shen Jiu had made an awful amount of sense.

 

Liu Qingge hops off his sword onto his peak and helps Shen Jiu down.

 

“This is my Bai Zhan peak.” He says, gesturing to the (admittedly barren) landscape around them.

 

It’s late and starting to get dark so he’d landed right by his abode since he doesn’t see anything more happening this evening than dinner and sleep. There will be time for a longer tour tomorrow, “This is my house. You came to Bai Zhan once or twice as a disciple but you’ve never seen the Peak Lord’s house before. I’ll go get us some food, do you want to come with me or stay here?”

 

“I’ll stay here.”

 

“You can wait inside if you’d like.”

 

Shen Jiu nodded easily and walked off inside while Liu Qingge went to the kitchens. He turned back for a second to watch the way Shen Jiu decisively shut the front door behind him.

 

When he came back and walked up to the house, he couldn’t even move to open the door before it was suddenly wrenched open from the inside.

 

“Qingge!” He found himself tackled to the ground by a now adult Shen Jiu who was wearing nothing but some of Liu Qingge’s own spare outer robes left on his peak, obviously having tossed aside the children’s clothing after he had turned back.

 

Shen Jiu pressed him into the sun warmed ground right outside his house, the remnants of their dinner scattered around them from where Liu Qingge had dropped the tray when he’d been knocked down, as the sun cast the very last of its glow across the peak.

 

“Qingge.” Shen Jiu nuzzled into his neck and then kissed him hard. He was crying too, just a little, and it alarmed Liu Qingge slightly.

 

He sat up, bringing Shen Jiu with him, “Are you alright? Any pain?”

 

“No.” Shen Jiu lunged to kiss him again, just on that familiar edge of too aggressive, “You perfect idiot.” He murmured against his lips, “I like you so much. You’re so stupid.”

 

Liu Qingge didn’t have time to say anything before he was being dragged upright and then inside his house where the door was kicked shut behind them.

 

Shen Jiu pressed him against the wooden door, still kissing him, before shucking off the outer robe, leaving him completely naked, and dropping to his knees to tug on the ties of Liu Qingge’s trousers.

 

The whiplash was shocking, “Wait.” Liu Qingge didn’t have time to say anything else before his cock was enveloped by Shen Jiu’s warm mouth. “Hah.” His head thumped back against the door. His eyes screwed shut. Shen Jiu hardly ever did this for him, it was a rare activity and one that he enjoyed rather too much.

 

He didn’t last long.

 

When he had finished in Shen Jiu’s mouth, feeling the way his husband swallowed around his cock, and was slumped back against the door bonelessly Shen Jiu stood and ushered him into the bedroom before pushing his unresisting body down on the bed and curling up against him like a pleased cat.

 

Liu Qingge stared unseeingly up at the ceiling and could think of nothing but how happy he was that his husband was back. He’d had Shen Jiu with him all along of course but he’d missed the adult version dearly for all that maybe he hadn’t quite realised how much until this moment.

 

Shen Jiu sounded deeply pleased as he continued to nuzzle against Liu Qingge, “You’re perfect.”

 

Liu Qingge wasn’t sure what he’d done to deserve the praise.

 

“I thought I made so many mistakes.” He said as the thought back over the past week.

 

“No. You did everything perfectly.”

 

“You felt safe then? Happy?” Liu Qingge moved to tug Shen Jiu closer so the two of them were nose to nose. His husband was smiling, face alight and bright.

 

“Yes.” Shen Jiu leaned over to kiss him again, “You did everything right. I didn’t know anyone could treat me so well. I was so happy to be married to you.”

 

“Hm?”

 

“As a child I was very taken with you.” Shen Jiu has a smile in his voice that’s gone in his next sentence, “It’s lucky I was ten. Only a little older and I wouldn’t have been able to stand being in the same room with you at all.”

 

“That’s fine. If not me then Mingyan could have helped, or grandmother, or anyone else you would feel comfortable with.” Yue Qingyuan came to mind.

 

Shen Jiu kisses him again.

 

“Do you remember everything?” Liu Qingge asks.

 

“Yes.” Shen Jiu rests his head on his chest and snuggles in even more determinedly, “How did you become like this? Sometimes I can barely believe the way you were as a disciple compared to now. Do you remember how hard you used to make things for me?” Shen Jiu leans up to look at him and there’s mirth in his eyes, “Do you remember when you chased me to the Warm Red Pavilion and tried to start a fight?” Shen Jiu somehow looks deeply, honestly amused, “What was it you said then? Beat me? “With your ability?”” Shen Jiu laughs, “So much arrogance from Liu-shidi! I wanted to put my hands around your throat and strangle you!.”

 

Liu Qingge can’t help his flush, “You didn’t make things easy for me either!” He protests though this was twelve years and what feels like several lifetimes ago, “Always setting ambushes and using tricks to trip me up!”

 

“You should thank me.” Shen Jiu is still smiling, “Don’t you want to be the greatest warrior of all time? If you can’t survive a few tricks then can you ever claim that?”

 

Liu Qingge groans before he thinks of something else, “I can’t believe you remember what I said to you in the brothel. That was so long ago.” There’s something in the subtext of that. Something like “even if I hated you, you were still important to me, important enough to remember”. Maybe deep emotion is just that, non-dependant of the actual feeling it is not so easily dug out by whoever. Maybe all those feelings come as one pre-ordained set and you have to feel all to feel any. Or maybe Liu Qingge isn’t meant for thinking too deeply.  

 

Shen Jiu flushes and narrows his eyes though it’s all for show, “Not everyone is such a deficient blockhead like you!”

 

“Vicious.” Is Liu Qingge’s comment.

 

Shen Jiu just laughs again, “You were perfect.” It’s unexpected praise, too precious and unusual.

 

Liu Qingge really doesn’t think he’s deserving of such intense praise, he certainly doesn’t think he’s perfect or had behaved perfectly but Shen Jiu is smiling so prettily and when he smiles like this (far too rarely) he looks sweet and soft in a way that is infinitely precious.

 

“You were a very easy child.” Liu Qingge offers as he slings his other arm around Shen Jiu and holds him close.

 

He had taken care not to touch him as often as a child just in case and it’s nice to be here and able to touch the adult Shen Jiu as much as he wants. He and Shen Jiu have had twelve years to define and scratch at their boundaries, here he doesn’t have to be afraid of getting it wrong.  

 

His husband snorts an amused noise at that, “You might be the first person to ever think that.” He lifts himself up on his elbows so he’s leaning over Liu Qingge now “I was a menace as a child. Dozens of street children can attest to it.” He looks so light. Liu Qingge has never heard him sound so light about his past in any context.  

 

“Mm?”

 

“I used to threaten people with bricks.” Shen Jiu tosses his hair dismissively but somehow he looks proud which makes an answering feeling well in Liu Qingge, “And of course I would win every fight.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Still think I was an easy child?”

 

“You were easy with me.”

 

Shen Jiu leans in further so they’re nose to nose, “And my husband was the strongest person I had ever seen before, so strong and so committed to making sure I was comfortable. Always catering to my needs, always giving me choices, always doing whatever I wanted and asking after my feelings even if I couldn't answer. ”

 

He kisses Liu Qingge again and this kiss is long and filled with enough love that Liu Qingge feels it spill over him. He wraps both arms around Shen Jiu’s neck to bring him closer.

 

“You’re perfect for me.” Shen Jiu says softly when he breaks away, so soft its more like he’s just breathed the words into Liu Qingge’s mouth. “How are you so perfect for me? How is such a perfect person right for such a vicious and resentful person like me?”

 

“You are both vicious and resentful.” Liu Qingge agreed easily.

 

“The worst!” Shen Jiu raised a hand to hit at him playfully and Liu Qingge caught it easily. His husband narrowed his eyes, “If you think I’m so resentful you should be more afraid of my remembering this slight!”

 

“I like how vicious and resentful you are.” Liu Qingge said with full honesty.

 

Shen Jiu blinked at him, wind taken out of his sails. “With how honourable the mighty Liu Qingge is I find that hard to believe.”

 

Liu Qingge used his free hand, the one not still holding Shen Jiu’s fist, and cupped his cheek in his palm, “Believe it.” Is all he said.

 

“Hmph. I wonder how my husband got so used to my nature.” But Shen Jiu has already softened. His smile is back, not that it ever really left.

 

“We’ve been together a long time.” Liu Qingge offers, he feels slightly dazed by the open affection. Shen Jiu has certainly been sticky and affectionate with him before but not often like this, so open and sweet and with a smile on his face that doesn’t seem to be fading.

 

“Twelve years is not such a long time for immortals.” Shen Jiu quips before leaning down to kiss Liu Qingge again.

 

“Mmn,” Liu Qingge’s voice is breathless when they break apart, “We’ll have many more.”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes soften completely, and it almost changes his whole face. He’s so beautiful Liu Qingge almost can’t stand it. He likes him so much. 

 

“Yes, we’re immortals after all.”

 

His husband kisses him again. Long and sweet and Liu Qingge’s head spins and his heart swells. He loves Shen Jiu so much.

 

“That means we have forever.”

 

*

 

"What are you thinking?" 

 

“You always ask me this.” Shen Jiu’s reply is sharp but he seems faux annoyed rather than actually irritated, “How are you feeling? What are you thinking? It’s as if my husband has no skill in reading my moods.”

 

“Would you rather I get it wrong? It’s easier to ask.”

 

“And if I lie? Nothing’s forcing me to tell the truth.”

 

Liu Qingge nods, “I suppose so.” The two of them are walking side by side, hands almost brushing with every movement. This is one of the best ways to talk to Shen Jiu, when they’re moving and not looking at each other. “Are you going to lie?”

 

Shen Jiu’s fan hasn’t been flicked open and it rests in his left hand, he taps it on his other hand as they walk.

 

“I feel fine.” He finally says, “What about you?”

 

“I feel good.” Liu Qingge tries his best, “I’m excited to finally fight the six-headed sand snake.”

 

“I could never have guessed.” Shen Jiu’s voice is extremely sarcastic but he’s smiling and no longer tapping his fan as restlessly.

 

“Are you?”

 

“Excited to watch you fight it? Does Qingge really want me to answer that? What kind of response is he expecting?”

 

Liu Qingge rolled his eyes, “It’s just a question.”

 

“I am beside myself to watch you fight the six-headed sand snake. This husband cannot contain his excitement. He’s vibrating with anticipation.” Shen Jiu’s voice was maddeningly blank but his eyes were alight, “Truly there is nothing else this-“ He cut off with something like a shriek as Liu Qingge grabbed him and clapped a hand over his mouth.

 

“You’re so annoying.” Liu Qingge said and he knew his mistake as soon as the words were out by the way Shen Jiu’s eyes narrowed. The next moment his hand had been bitten hard.

 

Liu Qingge winced but didn’t pull away, “Your teeth are too sharp.” He said accusingly, “It’s unnatural.”

 

This time it was Shen Jiu’s turn to roll his eyes. “Husband has caught me.” He said dryly, voice muffled by Liu Qingge’s hand, “You married a demonic beast, not a human. Congratulations, Qingge finally figured it out, it took him long enough.”

 

“It would explain a lot.” Liu Qingge says in as thoughtful way as he could manage, unable to stop himself from smiling as Shen Jiu’s eyes slowly got more and more outraged.

 

“You!” Shen Jiu finally managed to shove Liu Qingge’s hand off and practically jumped him, no finesse to his movements whatsoever to knock Liu Qingge back onto the ground, “I hate you!” Shen Jiu spat, one hand going to Liu Qingge’s hair and pulling hard, “You’re the worst! I should never have accepted your proposal! I should have-“

 

“I love you too.” Liu Qingge couldn’t stop his smile.

 

It stopped Shen Jiu’s rant halfway although he didn’t lose the sharp look to his face, “You called me a demon! You need to make it up to me!”

 

“Alright, what do you want?”

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes narrowed further but then he was smiling, a familiarly mean expression that got Liu Qingge’s blood up, “Hmm, let me think about it.”

 

Shen Jiu looked resplendent above him, brilliantly self-assured of his position in Liu Qingge’s life, his right to demand and push for what he wanted no matter what. Comfortable to be difficult and impossible and rude. Liu Qingge liked him so much.

 

“Whatever you want I can do. Who else could?” Liu Qingge said with a familiar and well-worn arrogance that had changed shape as the years had ticked on.

 

As Liu Qingge had grown older he had also gotten more comfortable in his own ways. Comfortable to not always let his pride speak first, to admit weakness, to concede for the bigger picture. Shen Jiu was important to him, his relationship with Shen Jiu mattered and he liked the way they were. He had nothing to prove to his husband. Shen Jiu knew he was strong, likely knew his abilities as well as he himself did and would fight to the death to defend him.

 

So for Shen Jiu Liu Qingge was only arrogant in the way that he knew his husband liked, to project strength and immovability, rather than as a shield to outside perception he could never control or a raised platform to set himself apart from all others.

 

“Hmm,” Shen Jiu’s look was thoughtful, still sharp, “Of course, Liu Qingge is singular in all ways. Certainly the best, I would accept nothing less.”

 

And it was true. Or at least it was true to Shen Jiu. For all that no one criticised Liu Qingge as much as his husband, it was also true that no one thought of him quite so favourably as that same man. Shen Jiu knew Liu Qingge so well, knew him at his worst and best and most and least impressive and still thought there was no one better, so Liu Qingge could be assured that it could only be the truth.

 

After all, there’s nothing so comfortable and transformative as being known fully, the way you know yourself, and being liked for it.

 

“Xīngān.” Liu Qingge doesn’t equivocate so even when they play around like this there’s still an aspect of seriousness to it, “You only need to name what you want.”

 

Shen Jiu smiles, brilliantly in that way that makes him look so much younger, “I know.” He ducks his head so he can press his lips to Liu Qingge’s, “I will.”

 

And there wasn’t a hint of lie to it.