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Shen Yuan’s finding it hard to sleep properly.

It’s not that he doesn’t sleep at all. He’s able to fall asleep at the usual time, but for some reason he’ll wake up breathless a few hours later. Shen’s Yuan’s mind will be too unsettled to fall asleep again right away, so he’ll just lay there, staring up at the ceiling.

If he’s particularly restless, he’ll use a small night pearl to do some light reading for whatever class he has the next day. It’s as simple as channeling in a small stream of spiritual energy, and then it glows as bright as a lantern.

Channelling his energy like this is something he’d only been able to pick up recently from attending lessons on spiritual cultivation. Shen Qingqiu had been frustrating slow in letting Shen Yuan take part in all of the classes and training sessions that a typical Qing Jing disciple would, but when he had announced that Shen Yuan would begin attending group meditation sessions with the rest of his cohort he had almost jumped in delight.

The new techniques helped clear his head of the fogginess that he would otherwise be blinking through in the library, and the qi manipulation exercises are particularly fun, especially when they get to practice sending leaves flying around -- without slapping them into other people’s faces, sorry Ming Fan -- but it doesn’t help his physical fatigue in the slightest.

One evening, Shen Yuan stumbles while kneeling at the table for dinner. It’s only small. His foot slips a little, and his knee isn’t as stable as it could be, so he collapses onto the seat in an awkward little slump. He hadn’t been paying attention. His limbs have been feeling so clumsy these days. It doesn’t help that he’s gotten a little taller recently.

Shen Qingqiu is not amused in the slightest. He sends him to bed immediately after dinner, and doesn’t even let Shen Yuan clear the table to leave the dishes outside for Ming Fan like he usually does.

The next day, Shen Yuan returns from the library and finds Shen Qingqiu at his desk as usual. A small night pearl is in front of him, resting in a small dish that would usually be used to hold ink. Shen Qingqiu is not working on anything. He reclines in his seat, relaxed, and fans himself lazily. His gaze is steady and calm as he focuses on Shen Yuan.

Shen Yuan gets a strange sinking feeling.

“Shen Yuan,” his Shizun says slowly. “Would you care to explain to me how you acquired this without my knowledge?”

He does his best not to show anything on his face when he bows respectfully. “Answering Shizun, Sect Leader Yue gave that pearl to me as a gift. This Shen Yuan is sorry for not showing it to you.”

Shen Yuan hadn’t asked for it or anything. He’d been coming back from the library and had it handed to him when he bumped into the Sect Leader as he hovered outside of the Bamboo House waiting for Shen Qingqiu’s return. Shen Yuan had always thought it was a little weird. You’re the sect leader, can’t you just summon him to your peak? Why waste effort and time just waiting here?

While Shen Yuan mumbles through a reluctant invitation to come inside for tea, Yue Qingyuan claps his hands together suddenly and his smile brightens.

Shen Yuan trails off and stares incredulously as the Sect Leader pulls a box from apparently nowhere. It’s painted red and exquisitely decorated. Some parts are even inlaid with gold. It looks like a box for a noble woman’s jewelry. Seeing Cang Qiong’s dignified and noble sect leader so excited with this box in his hands, it’s almost disturbing.

“A-Yuan, take this box and give this to your Shizun. Please inform him I will visit again tomorrow and that this Qi-ge is sorry he could not visit him on his birthday.”

‘Qi-ge?’ Shen Qingqiu’’s birthday? ...Alright. It’s not like the book would have given him a birthday special or anything, so it’s not surprising that Shen Yuan hasn’t heard anything of it.

The sect leader then slips a night pearl into Shen Yuan’s sleeve and winks. Shen Yuan is left flabbergasted. “I’m sure this will pay A-Yuan enough for his troubles. This will allow him to read at all times, even when it gets dark.”

Yue Qingyuan practically skips off towards the Rainbow Bridge. Shen Yuan’s eye twitches. He stares down at the box as he brings it inside to place it on Shen Qingqiu’s desk. He doesn’t dare open it. In this world, anything could be enchanted. What if Yue Qingyuan wanted only his shidi to open it and he got punished?

Shen Qingqiu comes home later than normal that day, even a little while after the time they would usually eat dinner. It’s rare for him to be away so long in the daytime. Shen Yuan had left his portion of food on the table, still under the enchanted tray cover that would keep it warm and held in stasis.

When Shen Qingqiu sees the red box, he eyerolls so hard that Shen Yuan gets worried that he’s going to faint.

He then remembers to relay the message that Yue Qingyuan asked him to. Shen Qingqiu opens his fan and silently scoffs to himself behind it. He can only tell because the man’s shoulders jolt upwards minutely and he clears his throat before moving on.

Shen Qingqiu settles at the desk and lifts the lid. He doesn’t scold Shen Yuan when he scuttles over to look. Instead of fine jewelry, the box is filled with the most beautiful and delicate pastries that Shen Yuan has ever seen, even coming from the modern world where factories do most of the work. He hasn’t seen this kind before - they’re delicate and flakey, with a paste filling dotted with something that looks like rose petals and the top dusted very lightly with gold.

“Have them if you want,” the man says unaffectedly, giving the pastries a final disinterested look before replacing the lid. “This master won’t have any. They’re worthless.”

Shen Yuan ignores the snide comment. This man’s ungratefulness means that Shen Yuan can finally eat something truly sweet!!

Shen Yuan eats two that night. The first bite was so rich that he immediately ran to make tea to wash it down. They’re extremely sugary and the flavour is overly fragrant for his taste, but it must be his child’s palate - they’re absolutely delicious, and he hums with delight when he finishes.

Shen Qingqiu is still eating his dinner when Shen Yuan decides that he’s had enough.

“Make a fresh pot before you leave for bed,” the peak lord says after patting his mouth lightly with a napkin. Shen Yuan, of course, complies.

Shen Qingqiu’s fan is open the moment that the sect leader knocks on the door the next morning. Both of Yue Qingyuan’s hands are occupied, not with a box, but two simple sticks of hawthorne tanghulu.

This time Shen Yuan is the one rolling his eyes. Once at Yue Qingyuan’s dopey smile, then twice at Shen Qingqiu, who looks like he really wants to eat the tanghulu but obviously doesn’t want to lose face in front of his shixiong.

Even though Shen Qingqiu doesn’t let him past the threshold, Yue Qingyuan’s eyes curve into almost crescents. “It is virtuous to uphold tradition, Xiao Jiu. Happy birthday, and may you live a long life,” he says fondly.

“What tradition, what virtue is there to be gained from celebrating a day we chose at random when we were idiotic children?” Shen Qingqiu hisses. “Don’t be so ridiculous. Get back to work, you fool.”

In a demonstration of cultivation excellence, Shen Qingqiu is able to snatch the two tanghulu and shut the door in Yue Qingyuan’s face in less than the blink of an eye. Shen Yuan thinks he catches a flash of pink on Shen Qingqiu’s face as he storms off to his study and leaves Shen Yuan to watch as the rice paper window silhouette of Yue Qingyuan lingers for a moment, then disappears down the stairs from the Bamboo House.

When he goes to help himself to another pastry before he leaves for his calligraphy lesson, Shen Yuan is not surprised that three more pastries are missing from the box.

Shen Yuan feels the urge to roll his eyes even now. He hadn’t seen a single crumb of that tanghulu either. Shen Yuan doubts that Yue Qingyuan would do anything even close to this on any of the other peak lords’ birthdays. Why can’t these old men just eat noodles and talk to each other like normal people?

He’s distracted from his musings when the present-day Shen Qingqiu snaps his fan closed on his palm. He looks vaguely annoyed and he levels a mild glare at the night pearl in the centre of his desk. He’s probably pretending it’s Yue Qingyuan.

Shen Yuan can’t help but crack a smile at the thought. He can read this man like a book.

“Don’t look so pleased that the Sect Leader has shown you favour. It means very little in the areas where it matters,” Shen Qingqiu says coldly after noticing his expression and fixing him with his dark gaze once more. “I am disappointed, Shen Yuan. I know that you have been staying up to read. Your current level of cultivation is not advanced enough to miss out on sleep. I will withhold this artifact for now and you will sleep each night until I deem fit to return it to you again.”

So Shen Qingqiu went into his room and found the pearl that the Sect Leader had gifted to him. Invasion of privacy much?!

Shen Yuan ducks his head. “Yes, Shizun,” he says contritely.

He doesn’t think that Shen Qingqiu will appreciate him making excuses if he tells him that he was waking up for no reason. He’d probably scoff at him as well. It’ll go away soon enough.

 


 

It doesn’t get better.

“Come on,” Ming Fan says, dragging Shen Yuan along yet another path lined by bamboo trees. They all look the same. If Shen Yuan tried to find his way back home from here, he’d get lost immediately. Especially now. He'd be surprised if he got even an hour of sleep last night. It’s the worst it’s ever been.

“I said come on, are you stupid? You’re so slow!”

Shen Yuan blinks slowly at him. He’d stopped walking, and he hadn’t even realised. “Where are you taking me again?”

Ming Fan frowns deeply. His grip on Shen Yuan’s arm tightens. “It’s a secret. If you keep tripping over and stopping, I’m not taking you anywhere, ever again.”

He does trip over a few more times, which Ming Fan graciously ignores, before they arrive at their destination.

It’s yet another idyllic and beautiful natural nook in Qing Jing Peak - a misty, clear pool that reflects the sky like a mirror, disturbed only by a clear and eerily quiet waterfall feeding into it over a roughly hewn cliff face. Flat rocks line the edge of the pool, with small, white petaled flowers and round-leafed plants springing out from between them. It’s quite pretty, but the water is probably freezing. He’s surprised Shen Qingqiu hasn’t made him mediate under this yet.

“This way,” Ming Fan says, tugging Shen Yuan around the edge of the pool. Shen Yuan has to watch even more closely to make sure he doesn’t slip on the rocks wet from the waterfall's spray.

They reach the cliff face. It’s quite high at about four or five times his height. As they get closer he notices two pairs of boots and socks hidden behind a large rock, protected completely from any spray that could ruin the material.

Ming Fan begins kicking off his boots too.

“Hurry up and take yours off,” he says quickly once he’d hidden them behind the rock too. “Come on, they’re waiting.”

Shen Yuan had watched him in a daze. Who? Ming Fan sighs and pushes him to sit down on a nearby rock.

“You look so miserable and stupid all the time. It’s so boring,” he grumbles as he pulls off Shen Yuan’s shoes. “So you should come here with us from now on. I haven’t been able to a lot, because I’ve been having to look after you, so I hope you’re grateful.”

They’re both barefoot when he shoves Shen Yuan towards the cliff.

“Climb up,” Ming Fan barks.

He squints up at the top. Climb…? The rocks are wet, and he’s scared of heights, and is there really anything worth seeing up there? Being on Xiu Ya that one time was different, he’d been in the arms of an immortal master who knew what he was doing. Heights are a lot scarier when he has to rely on himself!

“Come on, I’ll show you,” Ming Fan says with only a mild sneer. He brushes past him and starts climbing up the cliff face with all of the vigour that only a ten-year-old child could possess. Ming Fan looks over his shoulder and sticks out his tongue.

Shen Yuan sticks out his tongue in response.

Ming Fan then grins and climbs further and further at a diagonal until he’s almost brushing the waterfall, and then…

He disappears.

“Ming Fan!” Shen Yuan calls up, alarmed. “Ming Fan? Where are you!”

“Just climb up! It’s not hard or anything, so hurry up!” He hears Ming Fan’s voice from the waterfall. “And don’t make too much noise!” Ming Fan shouts, completely contradicting himself. “Don’t be a baby!”

Shen Yuan might be imagining it, but he thinks he faintly hears two children laughing.

Shen Yuan sighs. He rolls up his sleeves. He’s probably not had the right amount of sleep to attempt this, but he’s got some cultivation under his belt, so who cares?

He gets quite close to the edge of the waterfall and impressively high (at least to Shen Yuan) before his fear catches up to him.

“Nope,” Shen Yuan whispers. He closes his eyes and flattens himself against the rock. “Nope, nope, nope. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.

Don’t think about the cold, unforgiving rock beneath him. Just don’t!

The waterfall spray is much stronger where he is, and the rocks are much more slippery. His hair and clothes had slowly become more and more soaked the more he climbed. His hands are getting stiff from the cold. Please don’t cramp!

“Over here,” he hears Ming Fan say. He slowly turns his head to his left and presses his right cheek against the ice-cold rock.

Through the waterfall, Shen Yuan sees the rippling image of Ming Fan, a blur of colours blending and distorting with the flow of the waterfall. He’s crouching on something. He can’t make out his face at all.

A hand sticks out of the water parting it into two streams. Shen Yuan stares at it. Can he take it? Will he drop if he lets go with one hand?

Shen Yuan takes a few sharp breaths through his nose before reaching out and grasping the hand. It tugs him forward quickly. Shen Yuan’s right hand slips from the rock, and he lets out an embarrassingly high squeak. A hand grabs his shoulder, and another two tug at the front of his robes. A third somehow takes his leg, and suddenly Shen Yuan is pulled through the waterfall.

There are a few disoriented moments in which all he hears is the waterfall, quiet crackling and the sound of obnoxious laughter.

He’s completely drenched. His hair is plastered onto his face and water is pouring off of it in rivulets into his mouth and eyes. When he scrubs his face clear with a shivering hand his sleeves are heavy with moisture.

“Th-There’s a c-c-cave here?” Shen Yuan chatters through his teeth.

Ming Fan and his two lackeys are laughing so hard they’re struggling to take in air. They’re equally drenched, and a pool of water is quickly forming around all four of them. Shen Yuan is trembling like a wet kitten.

Well, he’s completely awake now. He somehow survived and now he’s in a surprisingly large cave with three ten-year old boys, a small fire and a small mountain of snacks.

“If you tell Shizun about this place, I’ll kill you,” Ming Fan wheezes on his side.

“He’ll kill you, he said -- ahahahaha!” one of the lackeys parrots. It’s the taller, skinnier one. “D-Don’t tell Shizun, hahahaha!”

The shorter, stockier boy sits up. His smile drops from his face immediately. His eyes go big. “Please don’t tell him,” he begs him, his bottom lip quivering. “Shizun would have our hides if he found out.”

Shen Yuan stares at him with wide eyes. “O-Okay,” he stutters. He’s not going to contest that claim, and he doesn’t condone manslaughter.

After they’re done laughing, Ming Fan pulls Shen Yuan’s soaking outer robes off of him and forces all of them to sit back around the fire.

The two boys introduce themselves as Tang Yao and San Danzhu respectively.

“My family makes pastries,” San Danzhu says.

“My parents are silk spinners,” Tang Yao chirps.

“This is our hideout,” Ming Fan announces proudly. “When I first joined the peak, a senior disciple showed me this place before he left. Now it’s all ours. We have our own stash of snacks because Danzhu’s family sends him too much to eat by himself.”

It feels weird for Shen Yuan to be so friendly with the kid that punched him in the gut a few months ago, but he guesses as an adult he’ll have to be the better person. He introduces himself as Shen Yuan, and that he was ill before so he has to stay with Shizun for now.

“What does your family do?” Tang Yao asks eagerly. “Anything cool?”

Shen Yuan opens his mouth. And shuts it again. What should he say? He can’t exactly say that they’re a bunch of good-for-nothing demon summoners, can he?

“They’re dead,” Shen Yuan decides to say. He’s not technically lying, so…

For some reason, the faces of all three of the boys on the other side of the fire fall. An uncomfortable silence falls over all three of them. Tang Yao looks a little ashamed and San Danzhu looks restless. Ming Fan’s face is unreadable. It’s a little unnerving.

“Your name is ‘Shen’,” Tang Yao blurts out. “Are you Shizun’s relative? Is that why you had to come here?”

The boy cowers away when Ming Fan immediately glares at him.

Shen Yuan shakes his head. Ming Fan watches him closely as he chews on one of the cakes.

“If you were his relative, I think that Shizun would introduce you formally as his guest. He kept you secret for a long time,” he says thoughtfully.

Ming Fan was clearly curious about the fact this whole time, but he’d decided not to ask Shen Yuan for any more information outright. Shen Yuan thought kids were supposed to be curious to a fault. This kid is shiftier and more perceptive than Shen Yuan gave him credit for. He should probably be a little more careful with how he acts around him.

The heavy atmosphere is dispelled when San Danzhu seems to think it’s really funny to chase all three of them around the cave with a big stick.

When they see that Shen Yuan quickly gets too tired to dodge it, they form two teams to play xiangqi using an extremely water-damaged set that Ming Fan had uncovered from a small pile of rubble and probably some bat droppings (hopefully not). The Ming Fan-Shen Yuan combination proves deadly, and when Tang Yao gets bored of losing, they move onto zhua guai with some knucklebones and a small bag of beans.

Shen Yuan is surprised how much fun he has. Whenever he’s laughing he sees Ming Fan turn towards him with a small, satisfied smile. He finds himself laughing quite a lot, especially when Ming Fan almost screams in frustration and kicks at some rocks a few metres away when the bean bag lands on his head after he’d been so close to turning all of the bones over.

San Danzhu is taking his turn playing when Shen Yuan sneezes.

He feels really tired. It’s like all of the fatigue he’d felt before had piled back onto him in a single moment. His robes are almost dry, and the fire has really helped, but he’s still cold too. Especially in his torso area.

He sneezes again.

“Don’t get sick,” Ming Fan says, suddenly right next to him. Shen Yuan jumps. Even he knows the reaction is delayed. “Go sit closer to the fire.”

“I’m not sick, I’m just cold,” Shen Yuan shoots back.

“Idiot.”

“No, you.” Shen Yuan sticks out his tongue. He can’t resist. Ming Fan responds in kind.

“You’re the one that’s stupid, you should have sat here earlier,” he says. He tugs Shen Yuan away from watching San Danzhu. Tang Yao looks up at them briefly before returning to egging San Danzhu on.

Ming Fan and Shen Yuan settle crosslegged by the fire.

It really is warmer there. Heat radiates off of it so readily that Shen Yuan can’t help but huddle closer and until Ming Fan tugs him back and says something about burning his eyebrows off.

Unbidden, his eyes slip shut. He’s just a little… tired.

Shen Yuan’s mind is so foggy. His spine feels like jelly. He wavers a little and feels himself lean on Ming Fan’s shoulder as the muscles in his body give way. He thinks Ming Fan won’t mind. It’s a bit pointy, but it’ll do.

“Hey,” he hears Ming Fan say, but before he knows it, he’s fast asleep.

 


 

Shen Yuan drifts awake to the sound of quiet sobbing.

“Control yourself,” he hears Shen Qingqiu say quietly. “There’s no use crying now. Your shishu said that he will be fine, so stop with the dramatics.”

The crying dies down to stifled hiccups.

It smells like warm tea. The sheets are slightly coarser than he’s used to, as if they’ve been washed so often that they’ve lost some of their softness. The detergent they use has a slight medicinal tinge to it.

Shen Yuan sneezes.

“Sh-Shen Yuan?” The voice cracks. It’s Ming Fan’s voice. Shen Qingqiu hushes him.

The sneeze wakes him up quite a lot, so it’s not as difficult as it could be to open his eyes a crack and see two blurry fingers, one sitting and one standing.

Shen Yuan blinks a few times, and his vision clears.

Shen Qingqiu is in a chair, his back straight and as still as a statue. The peak lord’s dark eyes stare into Shen Yuan’s impassively, his face a cold mask in stark contrast to the flushed, splotchy face of the boy standing next to him. Ming Fan looks like he’s been crying for hours. When Shen Yuan meets his eyes, he looks like he’s going to start sobbing all over again.

Shen Qingqiu touches Ming Fan’s shoulder very lightly, his gaze leaving Shen Yuan’s momentarily. “Fetch Mu Qingfang and inform him that his patient is awake.”

Ming Fan nods jerkily and bolts out of the room. A room that Shen Yuan has seen before.

Shen Yuan is in Qian Cao, in the same private ward that he’d woken up in on his first day in Cang Qiong. The sense of déja vu is almost overwhelming. What happened while he was asleep?