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Shen Yuan wakes to a cacophony of noise.

It’s a wall of screaming and chaos, sometimes low and thunderous, sometimes high and screeching like a thousand voices in pain. A door slams open and shuts repeatedly, the walls creak. Somewhere in the background something topples over and breaks.

Shen Yuan feels each impact. His entire body is sprawled across the floor -- a floor, he’s not sure where he is -- so every rumble throughout the building feels like it’s moving through his body, a body that feels suspiciously tiny---

Where am I?

The noise stops.

Shen Yuan opens his eyes.

It’s deathly silent. In his delirium, Shen Yuan doesn’t take much notice.

It’s dark, but he can make out that he’s on an unfinished wooden floor. The boards are distorted from water damage and covered in small, irregular pieces of paper, some torn and some intact, each covered in spidery ink. He doesn’t recognise the letters.

Wherever he is, it stinks.

He closes his eyes. Each eyelid feels like lead. Shen Yuan feels like absolute shit.

For some reason, his back is burning and his head is fogged over with a deep-set tiredness that Shen Yuan is somewhat used to, having a chronic illness (or two, or three). But it’s different now. There’s something inside him, sapping his energy away. It feels…. cold?

Am I dead?

Shen Yuan, with great effort, sits up. The papers rustle underneath his hands. In places, they’re actually quite damp. When he touches his finger together, they’re sticky. There are a few pots dotted around him where the liquid seems to mostly originate from. In the dark it’s hard to tell what it is, but given the metallic smell it could be blood. If he had the energy, he would shudder in disgust.

The room is small and cramped. A squat, old-fashioned desk sits lopsided a metre and a half away, covered in papers and scrolls just as disheveled as the pile he’s lying on. It looks like the impact of whatever happened earlier ruined a perfect circle, or an attempt at one, messily painted on the papers around him.

With no windows, the only light source comes from the single entrance into the room where a door barely hangs off its frame. Past it, a staircase leads upwards into somewhere else that seems light and airy, at least compared to this stinky little basement.

“Where the fuck am I,” Shen Yuan croaks in a voice that is much too high.

He blinks.

“Um,” he tries again.

What! It’s so high?! He sounds like a little boy!

Panicked, he pats his sticky hands all over his face. Is his head suddenly larger, or are his hands suddenly smaller?!?

A mechanical voice rings in his ears.

[Activation code: “Stupid author, stupid novel!”]

What.

He sits there, frozen in confusion until a blue screen pops in front of him. He flinches violently. The voice pipes up again and cheerfully explains to Shen Yuan that, yes, he is dead, and yes, he is in another world. The explanation is printed out neatly in a generic font in mid-air. It does not reply to him when he rasps out a few key questions:

Where is he? Why is he a kid again? What the hell happened to him before he woke up?!

[User Shen Yuan is bound to esteemed wife #152 Wu Qian's twin brother, Wu Yuxian! On the rest, Host-dada need not worry! Contact with power-source has not been made, so no key actions are required. Entering hibernation mode until power-source has been located. Sleep mode will be entered in three… two… one…!]

A pleasant series of notes plays as the voice fades away into nothingness.

Wu Yu-what? Wife? Twin brother? What?

Shen Yuan blinks. Okay then. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen.

He’s probably dead in his original world. He’s not sure how to feel about that, so he’ll compartmentalise it and deal with it later. For now, Shen Yuan will deal with the most pressing problem: he has no idea where he is, he is injured and probably ill, and he’s a kid… For some reason. Much to his chagrin.

In his seated position, he wavers slightly. Shen Yuan almost falls backwards, but he catches himself just in time. His hands stick on the paper. He’s exhausted, but Shen Yuan doesn’t want to stay in this room when he doesn’t know what these symbols are for or if magic is even real in this world.

He scrambles up, hissing at the sting in his back.

Let’s get this over with.

 


 

The house is completely empty.

He was scared at first, thinking that maybe he was a slave that had been locked in the basement as punishment or for experimentation, but after peeking around the corner of each room in the reasonably-sized estate, there isn’t a single soul to punish him for leaving.

The house is in a strange mix of ancient Chinese styles, the kinds that Shen Yuan has seen in TV dramas or on the occasional school field trip. Whatever had been so noisy when he woke up completely wrecked the place. Each window has been torn to shreds, decorative pots lie in shards strewn across modestly ornate rugs, and splintered chairs and tables are on their sides in odd places around each room.

He tries to find a mirror, but they’ve all been smashed. The pieces are small enough that it’s hard to get a good picture of his face, other than the fact that he is absolutely filthy, which is something he already knows. His hair, loose and unusually long for a child, is matted with blood. Each step he takes leaves a little smudge of red. He’s sure that almost his entire body is covered in smudges of blood, and Shen Yuan doesn’t think that it’s all his. Whatever had been in those pots had surely spilled on him when he was unconscious.

Now that he’s in daylight, Shen Yuan notices that his hands and arms are covered in the same messy scrawl on the papers he’d woken up on. His robe is torn at the shoulder and there’s more there as well. For a moment, they seem to twist and writhe together over his skin. When Shen Yuan blinks a few times at them, they settle back in place. He wonders if he’s just delirious.

Shen Yuan shudders at the implication of why he was down there and lights a silent candle in his heart for whichever poor soul was shoved down there by his guardians.

He stops at one of the bedrooms.

It’s decently sized, with two beds and a large window that looks out onto a courtyard. The furniture and bedding is tossed around and mostly broken or torn, but Shen Yuan can imagine that it would have been a cozy place to spend his evenings. Well-used toys spill out of an overturned chest, and scrolls and books sit in a pile of wood near what probably was a small writing desk.

Shen Yuan shivers at the draft that a tear in the rice paper window lets in.

The beds are small. A bedroom for two children.

For some reason, Shen Yuan wants to cry.

 


 

There are voices coming from the front courtyard of the estate.

Shen Yuan is examining a torn wall scroll in the entrance hall when he hears them. He’s been trying to learn any details about the family that had lived here before he takes off on his own, but he’s not too familiar with ancient Chinese.

The moment he hears the voices, Shen Yuan sprints into a nearby tea room with doors that are miraculously still intact, save for a tear in the paper that’s conveniently at eye level.

A door creaks open but he doesn’t hear any footsteps. It’s rather unsettling. He can’t see anything from where he is.

“Disgusting.”

A man’s voice.

“The level of demonic energy here is extremely high,” another says mildly. His tone is even and calm, not betraying any of the disdain that the first did. “I’m not surprised the townsfolk didn’t dare visit and see what the cause of the blast was.”

“I’ve heard of this woman before. I thought she’d killed herself decades ago,” the first voice sneers. “That mayor is lucky we were passing through. This level of energy could have attracted an entire army of those beasts we encountered earlier if they’d left it for even a day.”

They fall silent. Shen Yuan’s heart thuds in his chest.

So there’s at least two people here. That’s not good. Especially when Shen Yuan in his weakened state doesn’t stand a chance if they decide to kidnap him.

“Let’s get this over with,” the first voice drawls.

There is no sound or warning when they step into Shen Yuan’s line of sight. Two tall figures, a vision of ancient scholarly elegance, stride silently through the hallway in long voluminous robes. Long, pin straight hair flows down their backs.

Shen Yuan gawks. They’re…. beautiful? Normal people don’t look like this. They walk past Shen Yuan’s hiding spot and stop a few metres down the hall.

The taller one, dressed in dark blue and grey robes, frowns. It looks wrong on him, as if he is someone used to smiling. His eyes, framed by strong black brows, are dark and concerned as they examine the ruined tapestry that Shen Yuan had been staring at earlier. The man’s face is open, not hidden by strands of hair like his companion. It’s easy to read, at least from Shen Yuan’s position.

“The Wu family,” the man reads from the tapestry slowly and carefully, as if memorising the name. “I know Shidi wishes to return home swiftly, but we will have to inform the mayor of what has happened here.”

This man believes he has stumbled upon a tragedy. No one should have survived what happened here. They’re probably both cultivators hired by a nearby village to exterminate whatever force did this. It probably says something about this family’s reputation too - no one came to check on little Shen Yuan at all?!

Alright then, Shen Yuan concedes, I guess I’m just alone in this world.

But cultivation sounds fun! Having a dead family is useful, probably. Maybe he’ll masquerade as a sad, weepy orphan and go join a sect or something.

The shorter man, in green and white robes, sighs.

“Shidi, do you sense anything?” the taller man murmurs, turning to his companion. “It’s getting thicker the further we move inside. It’ll be difficult to investigate just on aura alone. We may have to examine each room.”

The green-robed man turns his nose up, looking unimpressed. “Zhangmen-shixiong doesn't sense anything? There’s at least one of those beasts nearby. You’ve spent too long shut away in your office, I’m sure your Shizun didn’t neglect your training that much.”

The taller man blinks a few times. His frown relaxes until only his brow is lightly creased in concentration. After a moment, he directs a fond smile to his companion.

“As always, Shen-shidi is right. Xiao-Jiu’s sense for demonic energy has always been unmatched by anyone.”

“Xiao-Jiu’s” sneer deepens, transforming his otherwise delicate and pretty face into something ugly and reproachful.

The taller man’s smile disappears in an instant. He opens his mouth to say something but seems to decide against it, putting his hand on the hilt of his sword and turning away.

“I will take care of the beast,” the taller man says. His tone is as even and calm as when they first entered.

From his hiding place, Shen Yuan feels like he is watching a soap opera. He’s a little too relaxed watching this display, because when the taller man begins to take long, confident steps in Shen Yuan’s direction, he freaks out.

Why are you coming here?! Stupid cultivator, I’m not a demon!

Shen Yuan whips around, looking for a window or maybe a secret tunnel behind a painting that he can jump through.

He stares.

Nestled in the remains of an expensive looking table and chairs is an enormous slug.

Shen Yuan stares harder.

The slug shifts around, looking a little awkward. It is as long as Shen Yuan is tall. It also has a mouth. And teeth. Long, spikey, hideous teeth.

Shen Yuan, against his better judgement, shrieks in terror.

The monster shrieks back.

WHOOSH!

A wave of icy blue spiritual energy slaps into Shen Yuan from behind. The first impact he registers is the energy burning into the wound on his back. The second is his body slamming into the wall, dragging down the last remnants of a scenic painting that Shen Yuan had not stopped to admire. The third, he crashes into a pile of splinters that were once a side table and a vase.

Shen Yuan lays there, stunned.

It takes a while for the pain to register. His back is on fire. It hurts so much he’s almost paralysed.

The last image Shen Yuan sees before he passes out are two tall figures hovering over him, one of them with a sword poised to strike.

 


 

Shen Yuan wakes up.

It’s a much better experience than his last time waking up. He’s in a bed, for one. He’s only in a little bit of pain too, and it doesn’t smell like pools of old, congealed blood.

Shen Yuan blinks awake in a small bed in a small room that smells like warm tea. Dim morning or evening sunlight filters in through a high paper window. He’s been changed into a soft thin robe. He doesn’t get much of a chance to examine further, because a man sweeps inside and does a double take.

He recovers his composure immediately.

“Hello there,” the man says. “How are you feeling?”

His voice is steady and warm. It matches his appearance entirely, and Shen Yuan knows immediately that he’s a healer. He holds back a snicker, because he looks like every single cliché of a video game support character - from the gentle smile, to the practical bun, and of course the sleeves tied all the way up so he doesn’t get any fluids on them when he’s elbow deep in his comrades’ intestinal cavities.

Shen Yuan isn’t sure how he’s feeling. He’s woken up somewhere different from where he’d started, again. And in terms of his body, he’s certainly felt a lot better. Besides the fatigue and dizziness, it’s mostly the cold swirling sensation in his chest that’s bothering him. He’s unsure what to make of it.

The man is holding a small bundle of cloth that he places on a side table before settling into a chair besides the bed.

When Shen Yuan somehow manages to sit up, despite being unable to hide a flinch at the painful stretch of skin over his back, the smile that the man gives him is positively radiant.

It’s surprising. The nurses in the hospital were never this nice, but Shen Yuan realises immediately that this is probably because he is a child. In fact, how old is he supposed to be?

“May I take your wrist?” The man is gesturing towards Shen Yuan’s arm. He offers it wordlessly.

The man grips his wrist lightly, and Shen Yuan shivers as spiritual energy cycles through his body.

So that’s what that feels like. Interesting.

The man’s mouth twitches. He lays his arm back lightly onto the bed sheets before giving it a comforting pat.

“Let’s make some introductions,” he says gently. “You are in the medical ward of Qian Cao Peak of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. My name is Mu Qingfang. I am the lord of this peak and it’s my job to get you as healthy as possible. Could you tell me your name?”

Shen Yuan stares at him.

Cang Qiong?

“Cang Qiong Mountain?” Shen Yuan rasps.

Mu Qingfang smiles patiently. This man is good with children. “We are in Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Have you heard of us before?”

Shen Yuan is silent for a little too long, because Mu Qingfang looks concerned and one of his hands darts forward to take his wrist once more.

“Perhaps you… some water…”

The words fade away.

Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. The sect that terrorised the protagonist of that shitty web novel he’d died reading. The one that was razed to the ground by a womanizing homicidal maniac.

“Oh dear! Are you alright?”

Shen Yuan curses his fate.

His eyes roll into the back of his head.

 

Chapter Text

It takes only a second after killing the beast for Yue Qingyuan to realise something is wrong.

“What are you doing?!” Shen Qingqiu hisses. He’d followed close behind after the first blast broke through the door.

Shen Qingqiu is not behind him anymore; he’s on his knees in a mess of wood and ceramic. There’s a child in his arms, and Yue Qingyuan stumbles backwards in shock.

“I didn’t…” His gaze flicks rapidly between the child and the remains of the beast. “I didn’t mean to--”

“You didn't what?” Shen Qingqiu snaps. “You didn’t aim directly at the child? You certainly didn’t bother opening the door to check, did you?”

He adjusts his grip on the child, supporting their head on his knee, and furiously channels spiritual energy into their wrist. Shen Qingqiu visibly takes a breath to begin another tirade, so Yue Qingyuan takes the moment to compose himself.

“Are you that much of a buffoon that you did not sense two presences in that room? I can’t believe the Sect Leader would make a mistake such as this. I’m surprised this child is still alive! Does this shidi have to do everything himself?”

Yue Qingyuan had truly only sensed one. He’s been foolish again. It’s difficult to not let a wave of self loathing wash away his ability to think clearly, but he has harmed an innocent this time, only a child. Although he refuses to acknowledge it, he is always reckless when he is with Xiao Jiu.

The child looks terrible, with ugly dark stains soaked into their underrobe and caked into their endless, scraggly hair. It’s blood, he realises, and his heart skips a beat. He held himself back on the energy he sent forth earlier, but even a small amount can do significant damage to one with no cultivation. Some part of him panics that he had been responsible for all of this, but the child stinks of demon blood. More disturbingly, every inch of visible skin is covered in demonic sigils.

Yue Qingyuan kneels down and places two fingers lightly on an arm. He pales rapidly.

“Why does he…?”

It makes sense that he did not sense this child so easily. If he did not know their appearance, he would have thought they were a demon.

“It’s the fault of that woman,” Shen Qingqiu says coolly. “These are clear signs of demonic cultivation. The blood, this unnaturally long hair, these symbols, all of these were crafted to attract a demon. To sacrifice a human it must have been a powerful contract, though it must have failed. I’m surprised there is anything left.”

Yue Qingyuan nods once, accepting the theory immediately. It’s not merely through reading that Shen Qingqiu knows these details. His shidi had made this evaluation in the scant few minutes that they had been in the room. It pains Yue Qingyuan to think of the experiences that would have led to this level of expertise.

“Madam Wu must be caught,” he decides.

“Not now. We must take this child to Mu Qingfang immediately,” Shen Qingqiu commands sharply. “None of the healers around here will know how to deal with this, and I certainly don’t trust you. Check the rest of the building and we’ll leave at once.”

 


 

“...An immortal demon way.”

“What is an immortal demon way?” Shen Qingqiu asks, irritated.

Mu Qingfang shakes his head. “I’m not sure. The child said other things while he was sleeping too. My head disciple mentioned a river of sorts…”

“And you did not get their name?”

Mu Qingfang smiles ruefully. “The poor boy fainted before he could answer. I understand we require more information to understand his condition, but I believe it’s best we let him rest for now.”

“Tch,” Shen Qingqiu chides. “Send for me immediately when he wakes.”

He leaves Qian Cao Peak in an elegantly executed swirl of green and white silk and flies immediately to Qiong Ding Peak. The few disciples he sees in the inner chambers of the main building duck their head and scuttle away the moment they notice his presence. Like Qing Jing Peak, there is not yet a head disciple to escort guests personally.

Yue Qingyuan is sitting at his desk. He is looking up from his papers before Shen Qingqiu opens the doors. He hadn’t even knocked.

“Good morning, Shen-shidi,” the sect leader says pleasantly. His eyes curve up into a smile. “Or perhaps it is noon now? I must admit, with all of the preparations for the conference I often lose track of time these days.”

Shen Qingqiu ignores the small talk. “Did you inform that village of Madam Wu’s demise?”

Yue Qingyuan nods, straightening up to talk cultivation matters. “I sent someone with a message and instructions to stay away from the area. We can only hope that they’ll abide by our advice until it’s safe to re-enter.”

“I don’t see why anyone would willingly go there. The layout was all over the place,” Shen Qingqiu sniffs. “And the rest of the family?”

“Nowhere to be found. Though I believe that Madam Wu’s husband had long since been absent. There are two other children left unaccounted for.”

“I see.”

Shen Qingqiu ruminates on this as Yue Qingyuan summons a disciple to fetch tea. When he takes his first sip, Yue Qingyuan catches his eye and smiles gently. The tea is exactly how he likes it. Shen Qingqiu looks away.

“How is the child?” Yue Qingyuan asks.

Shen Qingqiu sets down the cup and flicks his sleeves out behind him. He takes a single breath to centre himself.

“This is what I came to discuss. That child was used as the vessel for the summoning of a grand demon. I am here to request a chance to test some techniques that I have read about recently to aid in their recovery.”

The cup in Yue Qingyuan’s hands pauses midway to his mouth. His gaze is calm but evaluating.

“Did Mu-shidi ask you to do this?”

Shen Qingqiu bristles. “No.”

The smile on the sect leader’s face fades slightly as he lowers his cup onto the table. His eyes grow distant.

“Shen-shidi is still practicing demonic cultivation?”

A thousand biting comments immediately spring to the peak lord’s mind. He wants to wipe off that idiotic look on Yue Qingyuan’s face. Honestly, you’d think Shen Qingqiu had just told him his wife died!

Shen Qingqiu looks Yue Qingyuan in the eye. “Sect leader, I’m sure you would have noticed if I were summoning demons onto Qing Jing peak to sign blood pacts. A little energy manipulation here and there hardly counts as demonic cultivation. With the amount of demonic artifacts that the disciples bring in each week, it’s a necessary practice.”

When Yue Qingyuan doesn’t reply right away and continues to look like a gormless idiot, Shen Qingqiu huffs and ploughs on with his request.

“Mu-shidi, being a pure and righteous cultivator, is not as well-versed in demonic cultivation as I am. Most people would write that child off as ruined for life. I would give them a chance at something better.”

Shen Qingqiu stops to take a sip of his tea.

“If sect leader has forgotten, this master went through something similar when his shixiong invited him to join this sect,” he adds.

Yue Qingyuan’s sad look has collapsed into something so pathetic and miserable that Shen Qingqiu has to take out his fan to separate himself from the mess sitting across the table.

“Xiao Jiu, that would be lovely,” Yue Qingyuan says softly. “My apologies, I didn't mean to undermine your authority on the matter. I hope you will work together to support the child in their recovery; you may tell Mu-shidi that I have given you permission. Cang Qiong will take in anyone, regardless of background, as long as they show potential.”

Shen Qingqiu tries not to laugh.

 


 

When Shen Yuan wakes up, a pretty shijie in the same colour robes as Mu Qingfang is wiping down the bedside table with a soft rag soaked in an ointment that smells like the inside of an old apothecary. He feels absolutely boneless, still exhausted despite probably having slept a few more hours, so when the shijie screams the moment she meets his gaze, he just watches her in dazed confusion.

That’s a little rude shijie, Shen Yuan is sure he’s not that ugly!

The shijie stares at him with wide eyes before stumbling back. The cloth flutters from her hand to the ground. She is trembling.

“Are… Are you alright?” she whispers, terrified.

When Shen Yuan opens his mouth and croaks an affirmative, she flattens herself against the wall.

“Ex-Excuse me!”

The young woman disappears through the door, pushing past a few concerned shixiongs that had heard their martial sibling screaming a few seconds ago. They too stop at the threshold and stare at Shen Yuan.

Shen Yuan blinks back. The tallest of the group of three rapidly paling young men looks deeply disturbed as he turns to his siblings and says, “Fetch Shizun immediately.”

Two of them disappear leaving the taller one to stand there, watching Shen Yuan with rapt attention. As if Shen Yuan is a feral beast that might snap at him at any moment. As if!

He notices a single paper talisman plastered on the outside of the door, now wide open. The characters are so loopy and abstract that he can’t make heads or tails of it.

“What’s happening?” Shen Yuan rasps. He attempts to sit up but it feels like something cold and heavy is sitting on his chest and he’s feeling a little dizzy. The moment he moves, the young man seems to go even paler.

“Please stay still,” he says firmly. He doesn’t let Shen Yuan meet his eyes, instead preferring to stare at the space directly to his right. “Our Shizun will help you when he arrives.”

So much for bedside manner.

Somehow, Shen Yuan manages to doze in bed for a full two minutes before Mu Qingfang brushes past the young man, who looks visibly relieved.

The peak lord has a barely visible crease in his brow as he bustles in, carrying the same cloth bundle as he had before. Compared to the disciples, Mu Qingfang appears flawless, his skin almost glowing with the huge quantity of spiritual entity he must carry in his body. Shen Yuan can’t help but stare a little. It’s so much more obvious when the peak lord is standing next to other, more normal people.

“Thank you for keeping an eye on our patient, Zhang Yishan. Please send someone to fetch the Qing Jing peak lord. I’ll have a word with you later, for now do not let the other disciples speak of what occurred until I say otherwise.”

He says this quickly, placing the bundle on the table and sending the disciple a look that Shen Yuan cannot see from his position. Zhang Yishan’s face clouds over with uncertainty, his gaze seemingly unable to tear itself from Shen Yuan’s face, before he bows deeply and books it down the hallway, leaving just Shen Yuan and Mu Qingfang in the private ward.

He closes the door silently and turns back to Shen Yuan, side stepping the cloth on the floor. Mu Qingfang settles in the chair and offers him a perfectly serene smile. His long, dark hair is still up in a neat bun and his sleeves are no longer tied. Shen Yuan wonders what he had been doing before this.

“I’m sorry, you must have been frightened,” the peak lord says pleasantly. “Did you sleep well?”

Shen Yuan nods. He tries to get up again, but the cold weight is on his chest again, stopping him from taking the deep breath he needs to find the energy to hoist himself up. He tries to just go for it and braces his arms against the bed, but the compression on his chest means the effort to breathe becomes almost painful. It’s as if he’s straining against something.

He collapses back down in a shallow huff and watches the ceiling spin above him.

“You don’t have to get up,” Mu Qingfang soothes. A warm hand finds his wrist and he feels the tingling feeling of spiritual energy rushing through his body once more. He shudders and coughs as another hand feels his forehead. Mu Qingfang’s hand is burning hot.

“It’s--” Shen Yuan coughs. “M-My chest…”

It's difficult to get the words out. He’d been okay when he was calm, but now that he’s noticed the weight, it’s a struggle to get his breathing into a workable rhythm. The weight climbs up from his chest, slow and sticky like treacle as Shen Yuan takes quick, stuttering breaths.

It’s almost at his throat when Mu Qingfang murmurs a quiet word of apology and moves his hand from his forehead to his sternum, slipping his fingertips just under the front of his robe to touch bare skin.

The touch is scorching.

The soothing smile drops from Mu Qingfang’s face and his eyes close. A much stronger wave of spiritual energy prickles up Shen Yuan’s arm. The peak lord’s face is one of intense concentration. Shen Yuan continues to shiver and gasp as the cold, sticky feeling in his chest retreats slightly, whisked away by the energy cycling around his body.

“Don’t panic,” Mu Qingfang tells him calmly. “Breathe with me, starting now.”

His smile is back on his face, though his eyes stay closed. Mu Qingfang leads him through a breathing exercise that Shen Yuan is eventually able to keep up with as the constricting weight fades into something more manageable. It’s not all over his chest anymore now, just pressing dully on his sternum, and Mu Qingfang’s energy takes away from its coldness a little.

After a few minutes of silence save for the breathing of Shen Yuan and Mu Qingfang, the peak lord removes his hand from his chest. The hand stays on his wrist, though the flow has tapered down into a small and steady stream.

“If this happens, you should follow that exercise,” Mu Qingfang advises, opening his eyes once more. “It’s likely this will happen again, but stay calm and my head disciple or I will help you through the rest of it.”

That was… horrible. Shen Yuan didn’t sign up for this. Did he transmigrate into a defective body?

“...What was it?” Shen Yuan’s voice sounds small and pathetic.

Mu Qingfang’s mouth twitches into a smile, but his eyes don’t match. He is silent for a moment. Then he tilts his head, as if he’s made a decision of some sort.

“Now that you are awake, won’t you tell me your name?” he says kindly. “Once we are properly introduced to each other, we can introduce you to my shixiong and he can explain everything. I’m afraid this peak lord is not qualified enough to do the explanation justice.”

Shen Yuan blinks up at him, struggling to make sense of the diversion in the subject.

“What is your name?” Mu Qingfang repeats.

“Sh...Shen Yuan,” he rasps without thinking.

The peak lord smiles widely.

“Nice to meet you, Shen Yuan.”

That’s not his name in this world. He’s a son of the Wu family, the twin brother of the tragic beauty Wu Something-or-Other…

He’s dead. Isn’t he?

Shen Yuan can’t think straight. He’s bone tired. He feels like the world is drifting around him as the image of a smiling Mu Qingfang and the bundle on the bedside table sways back and forth. He closes his eyes and his consciousness drips away.

 


 

“Are you awake?” The question comes out stilted, as if through gritted teeth.

Shen Yuan stirs and takes a deep breath. His lungs feel gloriously, gloriously free.

“Shen-shixiong,” Mu Qingfang’s voice calls softly. “Be gentle with him, please. He’s barely had the chance to get his bearings, and the energy will surge when he wakes.”

A cold hand forms a light grip on Shen Yuan’s wrist. There’s a short silence where he almost falls back asleep, before someone gives a short sigh.

“Child, you must wake,” the first voice says, a little more gently this time. “Open your eyes.”

The man sitting by Shen Yuan’s bed is clad in layers and layers of green and white robes. From the waterfalls of translucent silk, an arm is stretched out, the material revealing only a pale and long-fingered hand holding Shen Yuan’s small wrist between three fingers. His face is small and heart-shaped, with two deep, dark eyes staring straight into his.

Shen Yuan feels something in him shrink away in fear. His arm twitches away instinctively, but the grip holds firm. The man watches him passively as Mu Qingfang steps into a view. He’d been standing at the foot of the bed, but now hovers a few feet behind the green-robed man.

“A-Yuan, my shixiong is here to examine you. This is Shen Qingqiu, the peak lord of Qing Jing Peak.”

Shen Qingqiu!

Instinctively Shen Yuan’s heart begins to race. His arm twitches away again and a small frown appears on the man’s face.

The main villain of Proud Immortal Demon Way is frowning at him!

“I swear I will not hurt you,” Shen Qingqiu says slowly and seriously. “This master is very familiar with the ways of demons, and I know you have met one. If you listen to what I have to say and work hard, you can move past it and become a cultivator here at Cang Qiong.”

Demons?

Something dark and terrible rises in his chest. Luo Binghe had been a demon. Shen Qingqiu had flung him into the abyss the first moment he could with not a care in the world. He’d read chapters and chapters of the wicked things he had done to the vulnerable Luo Binghe, and though it had been fiction at the time, the sudden reality of it is horrifying.

“Will you accept my help?”

Shen Yuan, with great effort, sits up and glares at Shen Qingqiu. How could someone so despicable sit here and offer someone help like this?

Shen Qingqiu glares right back. “Speak, child.”

Instead of speaking, Shen Yuan shudders violently.

Deep in his chest, the coldness he’d felt earlier resurfaces and expands. It fills up his entire torso until it bubbles into his throat. He gags. He can’t breathe.

A light swish of silk is the only warning Shen Yuan has before Shen Qingqiu lets go of his wrist and slaps a hand hard into his back.

Shen Yuan coughs up a mouthful of blood.

The drops dance all over the sheets, an alarming flower of scarlet soaking into white cotton. Shen Yuan almost retches at the metallic tang of it in his mouth, and another mouthful spills into his lap.

There’s a light gasp before Mu Qingfang steps forward and places a hand on his shoulder, funneling a clear stream of spiritual energy into Shen Yuan’s body. It mixes into the cold and churns it up into something uneven and lukewarm. This time, it doesn’t tamp down the cold, but helps it expand outwards until it’s tickling at his fingers.

Shen Yuan begins to tremble. A string of red saliva drips from his mouth. He doesn’t want to swallow it anymore, or he’s going to be sick. Shen Qingqiu’s fingers fly back to Shen Yuan’s wrist.

“Mu-shidi, stop,” he commands sharply.

Mu Qingfang hesitates. He steps back to look on silently with a furrowed brow.

If he had thought Mu Qingfang was brimming with energy, this man has it rolling off of him in waves. But instead of giving him spiritual energy, Shen Qingqiu’s fingers tighten at his wrist until it’s almost painful. Immediately, the coldness compresses into a cold, hard pellet that presses hard into his diaphragm. The feeling of the vacuum left in his chest makes him pitch forward in surprise.

Shen Qingqiu’s other hand finally darts forward and holds Shen Yuan upright at the shoulder.

“What does it feel like?” he asks, and leaves no room for argument.

“C-Cold,” Shen Yuan manages to cough out. “It’s... smaller.”

Mu Qingfang is staring openly at Shen Yuan. “They were normal for a moment,” he says, dumbfounded.

“This method is only temporary, and I have not been able to record the prolonged effects of the technique within a human body. I compressed it into a core, but it will probably come undone in a shichen or so,” Shen Qingqiu mutters.

At the mention of a core, the leader of Qian Cao Peak flinches. His eyes widen slightly in alarm and he opens his mouth to speak, but his gaze flickers to Shen Yuan and his expression smooths out into one of neutrality.

“I’ll have a disciple fetch what we need to clean up,” Mu Qingfang says, and steps outside.

Shen Yuan, still slightly shivering, silently pleads to Mu Qingfang not to leave him alone with Shen Qingqiu. The man in question releases his grip on Shen Yuan’s shoulder and Shen Yuan has to catch himself with shaky arms before he falls face first into a lap of rapidly cooling blood.

The lord of Qing Jing Peak draws back to settle into the chair once more, as agile as a cat withdrawing to pounce once more. The man watches him serenely as Shen Yuan scoots back to rest against the headboard of the bed. Shen Yuan looks back uneasily.

“What is your name?” Shen Qingqiu asks.

Shen Yuan, feeling incredibly undignified, wipes his mouth with his hand weakly.

“Shen Yuan,” he says, eyes falling down to his bloodied lap.

Shen Qingqiu’s eye twitches.

“Is that so? I noticed that Mu Qingfang called you that as well. Is your name not Wu Yuxian?”

Shen Yuan stares at him. What does he say to that?

Shen Qingqiu raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Perhaps you do not want to associate with that identity anymore. Given what happened to your family and your estate, there is not much of an identity to come back to.”

Smart talking bastard, Shen Yuan thinks. As if he would dignify him with an answer!

He glares down at his hands. From the corner of his eye, he sees the peak lord blink once, before looking away and fixing his gaze on the bundle on the bedside table. A shadow passes across Shen Qingqiu’s face before it clears again into perfect blankness.

“This is the chance for you to reinvent yourself,” he continues. “Cultivation is something all people can learn, regardless of their birth or history. I will call you Shen Yuan as well, if that is what you wish.”

It takes a few seconds for the words to register. Shen Yuan lifts his head and gapes at him. The man gazes back at him, his eyes glittering with something that Shen Yuan might dare to call amusement.

How evil.

“Shen Qingqiu,” Mu Qingfang says, announcing his return. He is carrying a small bronze mirror and several cloth rags. A tall, bookish-looking girl with a long face scuttles in behind him with a small wooden basin of steaming water. She places it on the bedside table and bows thrice, once to Mu Qingfang, once to Shen Qingqiu and once to Shen Yuan before she makes herself scarce.

Mu Qingfang watches her go fondly. “A-Jiao insists on bowing to the patients, no matter how often I scold her for it.”

Shen Qingqiu snorts. He gets up from the chair and steps to the foot of the bed, giving Mu Qingfang space to move in and clean the blood from Shen Yuan’s face. He sits there and lets it happen, feeling like he is six again and his mother is cleaning him up after he fell over in the garden.

The warm memory calms down the shivering, and with the coldness now compressed into a tiny pellet, he feels almost normal.

“A-Yuan,” Mu Qingfang says, wringing a bloodied cloth into the basin. Shen Yuan breaks out of his daze. “We’ll have to change your sheets and get you new robes, but before that you will need to look at yourself.”

What?

In the corner of his vision, Shen Qingqiu shifts. The mirror is in his hands.

“Do not be alarmed when you see your reflection, Shen Yuan,” Shen Qingqiu says grimly. “If you accept my help and do as I say, you will be able to live a normal life without this affliction. If.”

When Shen Yuan nods hesitantly, he hands Shen Yuan the mirror. A glimpse of bright red flashes at him as he fumbles with it.

In the mirror, Shen Yuan watches his pupils shrink to pinpricks.

Each pupil is surrounded by an iris of burning, demonic red.

Chapter Text

The Qian Cao disciples seem to be really interested in Shen Yuan.

He’d find it a little disconcerting if he’d been able to catch a glimpse of them for more than a few seconds, but the few times that they had attempted to deliver food just to gawk at him has really told Shen Yuan volumes about what the state of his eyes means for him.

Shen Yuan says “attempted”, because according to Mu Qingfang the only disciple that’s qualified enough to deliver him food is Xu Jiao, the head disciple of Qian Cao Peak. Anyone else that tries to deliver him water or snacks is chased away by Xu Jiao who offers a few choice words to anyone that comes even slightly close to his door.

Those moments are some of the only times he hears her speak. Xu Jiao is very quiet. Each time she enters she bows solemnly to him, which Shen Yuan awkwardly returns in kind. Good thing his back is completely pain-free now.

She serves tea just as silently when Shen Qingqiu visits again with Mu Qingfang, a couple of hours after he wakes up the next day.

With all four of them in the private ward, it’s beginning to feel a little cramped. Xu Jiao seems to be aware of this so she stands in the far corner and makes herself as small as possible as Mu Qingfang and Shen Qingqiu settle into chairs by his bed.

Shen Yuan is feeling a lot better. He sits on the edge of the bed, still wearing the light sleeping robes that Xu Jiao had given him the night previously.

After letting Mu Qingfang encourage Shen Yuan to take a few sips of tea, Shen Qingqiu places down an empty cup and draws himself up in his seat.

“After some thinking, I have come to a conclusion on how Shen Yuan should be treated in the coming months.”

Mu Qingfang eyebrows rise. “Does Shen-shixiong not want to run it by this master first before telling our patient?”

Shen Qingqiu slips a fan from his robes and snaps it open, fluttering it in front of his face. It is pale blue, with blossoming plum branches painted delicately across each panel.

“Qingfang-shidi, this will mostly be educational. There is nothing I will say that will be particularly shocking. We may have a conversation afterwards on the topic of Shen Yuan’s general health, but unless I am mistaken, Qingfang-shidi is not particularly well-versed in demonic cultivation, and this master does not want to explain himself twice.”

Mu Qingfang blinks once and takes a sip of his tea. “Of course, Shen-shixiong. Please continue then.”

Shen Qingqiu nods, looking satisfied. He rises from the chair and begins to pace around the room absentmindedly before launching into a lecture. He speaks in a steady, measured tone, one that he probably uses when giving classes to his students.

“Demonic energy is not compatible with the human body. If left unchecked, it manifests as resentment. Although through demonic cultivation one can learn to harness it for many different uses and avoid this manifestation, the precursor to this is that one has a strong core to contain the energy and maintain a demonic core.

“Shen Yuan does not have demonic veins, and this master will not allow him to cultivate them either,” Shen Qingqiu says. “This master was able to manipulate the demonic energy into a core for him, but without spiritual energy to reinforce its boundaries, this will only be temporary. Even the most seasoned demonic cultivator has difficulty maintaining the balance of this energy.”

Mu Qingfang watches him lecture with mild curiosity as if this is something he is only mildly familiar with.

There’s so much for him to learn in this world, so Shen Yuan does his best to follow Shen Qingqiu’s every word. Spiritual veins…? He’ll have to ask about it later. If the villain will let him, that is.

“Luckily for Shen Yuan, we do not want to keep the balance; we want to remove it completely,” Shen Qingqiu continues. “Allowing too much demonic energy to manifest in your body will alter your mood and your health, and will only lead to your demise.

“I believe the reason that Shen Yuan was able to survive this is because his spiritual root was exceptionally strong. He may have even started cultivating at an extremely early age to be able to facilitate the amount of demonic energy that he is harbouring inside of him, though any progress is now likely to have vanished.”

Shen Yuan listens to all of this with a curl of dread in his stomach.

“What… What did I survive?” he says quietly. “How did the energy get there?”

Shen Qingqiu pauses in his step. He is facing the door so Shen Yuan can’t see his expression, but it's clear what Mu Qingfang’s thinking with the immense sadness that flits across his face.

He feels sorry for him.

In the countless days that Shen Yuan had spent in hospitals when his condition was at its worst, his family members would take weeks off of work to watch him fall in and out of consciousness. He’d wake up, delirious from medication and see them achingly sad but trying to hold it back, just like this.

It’s difficult to look at, so he focuses on his hands instead. He wrings his hands to try and work off some of the nervous energy. The coldness in his chest flares up, but only for a second.

“A-Yuan had a large reservoir of demonic energy placed inside his body,” Mu Qingfang says gently. Shen Yuan is in the body of a young child, so the answer is probably too grim for them to explain in detail. “When he wakes up each morning, the natural cycle of energy around his body will quicken, and the energy will manifest further into the episodes that he has experienced over the past few days. When he sleeps, it will slow down and pool around his central dantian. If we leave him like this, he is likely to perish. Before that, it may affect your mood and your ability to live normally.”

The peak lord smiles at him encouragingly. “When Shen Qingqiu condensed the energy in your body into a core, your eyes returned to normal for a moment. Because of that, I think there’s hope. If Shen Yuan works hard to remove this energy, he can live a normal life as if nothing had happened.”

Shen Qingqiu sighs and floats back into his chair.

“This will not be easy,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Shen Yuan must meditate for several hours each day and make use of spiritual tools and pills to aid in expelling the demonic energy from his body. At the same time, I will help him with his cultivation personally until his condition stabilises and he can train with his fellow disciples.”

Mu Qingfang nods approvingly at Shen Qingqiu, who eyes him with vague distaste.

It’s an unspoken invitation for Shen Yuan to study on his peak. Shen Yuan should be thrilled to study cultivation under such a powerful master, but he knows the kind of teacher that Shen Qingqiu is. Will Shen Qingqiu lock him the woodshed too?

It must show on his face because Mu Qingfang chuckles. “Are you scared? A-Yuan has nothing to worry about. Our Shen Qingqiu is the second in command of Cang Qiong, and a very capable teacher. Soon you will have many martial siblings to rely on, and not just on Qing Jing as well. A-Jiao has taken a liking to you.”

Shen Yuan’s gaze wanders to Xu Jiao, who gazes steadily back at him.

She gives him a thumbs up.

Huh.

 


 

With the way that Mu Qingfang and Xu Jiao seem to fuss over him, it feels like it’s his first day of school.

He’s given some new clothes. The boots are a little stiff, but there’s an outer robe this time, in pale green and made from a fabric that is only slightly less soft than the inner robes he has been lounging around in for the past week. It feels really good to not be practically naked for once, although all of these new layers feels a little excessive.

That morning, Xu Jiao does his hair.

The comb she uses is carved from jade, small and dainty. Shen Yuan has no idea how she is able to tame the extravagant length of hair that has been blanketing his back all this time. It has a slight wave to it that leads to a horrible itchy feeling on his neck that Shen Yuan does not know if he will ever get used to.

Ah, and they probably won’t let him cut it, will they? This is going to be a pain.

Xu Jiao ties it up into a high ponytail with a green ribbon and the relief is so wonderful that he audibly sighs. Xu Jiao looks very amused.

“Good hair,” she says.

Mu Qingfang takes Shen Yuan’s pulse at least three times before he lets him leave with Shen Qingqiu.

“Are you looking forward to a change of scenery, A-Yuan?” Mu Qingfang asks him. “It must have been boring laying in bed all day.”

“I can’t wait,” Shen Yuan tells him. No point holding back.

Mu Qingfang, for some reason, finds this hilarious.

When Shen Qingqiu arrives, Mu Qingfang hands the peak lord a familiar cloth bundle that disappears into a voluminous turquoise sleeve almost immediately. Shen Yuan really wants to know what that is.

Shen Qingqiu catches him staring.

“Don’t do anything foolish on our way back, child,” he says coldly.

Whatever excitement Shen Yuan had for leaving Qian Cao trickles away. Even that girl that screamed at him earlier had a better bedside manner than this. Shen Yuan is an invalid, dammit, be nice!

He’s not exactly in top shape yet. After Xu Jiao helped him get his robes on, Shen Yuan felt a wave of dizziness that had him wavering in place until the head disciple made him sit down and drink tea. The coldness would flare up every now and then too, though Shen Qingqiu visiting a few times each day to re-condense the demonic energy inside his body helped dramatically. Apparently, Mu Qingfang and Xu Jiao weren’t able to do this manoeuvre.

The peak lord would breeze in every three hours, utter a bored and lofty “Good morning” or “Good afternoon,” and arrange himself neatly in the chair by Shen Yuan’s bed. The first time, Shen Qingqiu held out his hand until Shen Yuan, confused and hesitant, placed his hand in Shen Qingqiu’s. The man’s hand jolted back as if burned, and then he snapped at Shen Yuan that he needed to hold his wrist and nothing else.

That hadn’t earned the peak lord a lot of points. Isn’t he like, six, or something? Cut him some slack, please! Use your words next time!

The following sessions would be held in absolute silence, save for the initial greeting and when Shen Yuan, in a fit of bravery, or perhaps boredom, once tried to ask him what the man had done that day. Shen Qingqiu had rolled his eyes and said, “Quelling the endless penchant for stupidity that seems to be plaguing this mountain from the inside out.”

Alright then.

Mu Qingfang smiles at Shen Yuan and pats him lightly on the head.

“It seems we are finished here for now. I’ll leave you in Shen-shixiong’s care until our next appointment, Shen Yuan. Shen-shixiong, as agreed, I will visit in a week to check up on his health, but do let me know if there are any immediate concerns and A-Jiao or I will fly over.”

Shen Qingqiu sniffs. “I am confident that Shen Yuan will be fine under my care. See you in a week, shidi.”

Shen Yuan is able to get in a quick bow of thanks to Mu Qingfang before Shen Qingqiu says, “Close your eyes.”

Shen Yuan does not feel like arguing, so he follows the order. He hears a quiet rustling of fabric, and then a smooth, silk band is tied over his eyes. Shen Yuan flinches in surprise.

“Don’t move,” Shen Qingqiu’s voice comes from above as he ties the last knot. He sounds mildly irritated. “This will prevent others from seeing your eyes when we travel. It will also seal enough of the demonic energy so that only those touching you will be able to feel it unless they have built up an extremely strong sense for it.”

Then Shen Qingqiu takes both of his shoulders and steers him through the door and what he assumes to be several corridors and hallways. There are no stairs, which surprises Shen Yuan until he realises that this is the most likely place out of any on the mountain that will have people who struggle with walking up a few steps. Shen Yuan does not hear a single other person besides himself and Shen Qingqiu. Mu Qingfang must have ordered them all away.

The air outside is cool and crisp. Shen Qingqiu makes him walk a few more metres away from the building before he stops suddenly, and removes one hand from his shoulder.

There’s a quiet grating sound and then a soft hum.

“We’re--Are we flying?” Shen Yuan stutters out.

There’s a pause. “Yes,” Shen Qingqiu says, sounding unhurried. Shen Yuan’s jaw drops. “I will lift you up, so stay still. I’m not in the mood to catch you if you fall.”

He’s picked up by the armpits and lowered slowly down onto Xiu Ya (!!!). He doesn’t know how to arrange his feet properly on such a narrow surface, but Shen Qingqiu keeps a firm grip.

The moment they start moving, it’s hard for Shen Yuan not to squirm in excitement.

“Be still.”

Shen Qingqiu’s voice must be augmented with spiritual power to be heard over the sound of the wind as their speed picks up. He’s sure they’re shooting through the sky by now. Shen Yuan had of course read the descriptions of Cang Qiong in Proud Immortal Demon Way - Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had exhausted almost every synonym for “beautiful” and reused them a hundred times over. He’s tempted to lift the cloth off of his face and peek, but with Shen Qingqiu holding him he doesn’t dare.

The grip on Shen Yuan tightens slightly as they descend. When they come to a stop, Shen Yuan smells green leaves, faint incense and the fresh scent of dew. Shen Yuan wonders if Luo Binghe is there already. Ming Fang and Ning Yingying too, he thinks, remembering the early chapters from the book.

“You may step down,” Shen Qingqiu says. The grip on him lightens until it’s barely there at all. When he tries to balance himself and take a step to the side, a sudden wave of dizziness takes him and he stumbles.

He’s caught by Shen Qingqiu and pulled upright before he can faceplant into the ground. He hears the peak lord sigh, but the hands do not leave his shoulders.

Shen Qingqiu does not let him remove the blindfold until he’s gone up two flights of stairs, one stone and one wood, as well as picked his way across what he guesses to be a very elaborate rock garden. Why didn’t they fly over this, Mr Shen? Is this part of his diabolical plan to make Shen Yuan fall on his face?!

They’re inside of a building when Shen Qingqiu tugs lightly at the knot on the back of his head and the blindfold falls away.

It’s a cosy entranceway for a modestly sized house. Of course, it's a mismatch of ancient Chinese styles just like his “birthplace”. Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky wouldn’t have done his research on something as insignificant as the setting for his terrible novel.

Shen Qingqiu’s sword is now sheathed at his side. He leads Shen Yuan through a spotless reception room. The house grows less minimalist and more and more cluttered the further they head inside. The walls fill up with extravagant paintings of landscapes and wildlife. Drawers and shelves groan with the weight of scrolls and books, and small little nick nacks like small jade carvings and strange-looking artefacts are tucked in among them.

It’s honestly a little messy.

Shen Qingqiu stops at a door with a paper talisman in the centre. He opens it and sweeps Shen Yuan inside and gestures towards a small bed tucked in the corner.

“You will lie down until you have regained some of your strength. I will be working in the other room. Alert me if anything changes.”

It’s neat and a little dusty, with a low desk and an empty bookcase. Not bad. And to be frank, lying down sounds wonderful right now.

“What does it do?” Shen Yuan points at the talisman. He’d seen it on the door in Qian Cao as well.

Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes.

“It suppresses demonic energy. If an object carrying demonic energy is placed inside its area of effect, those outside of it should not be able to sense it. In this case, Shen Yuan, you are that object.” Shen Qingqiu’s mouth twitches into a slight grimace. “Tomorrow we will begin to work on how you can suppress it yourself.”

Huh? Why aren’t we getting rid of it instead of suppressing it?

When Shen Qingqiu starts glaring at him, Shen Yuan realises he said it out loud.

Shen Qingqiu scowls and straightens up. He beats a closed fan into his palm, which he seems to have procured out of nowhere. Shen Yuan balks. Is he going to get hit?

“Why are you questioning this master? It will take years to remove all of this energy unless we work on your cultivation at the same time. Be patient.”

This seems like a lot of work. Why is Shen Qingqiu, the selfish and jealous villain, willing to spend so much time and energy on him? Does he want to impress the pretty jiejies in the brothel with stories of him taking in a lowly orphan child and turning them onto the path of righteousness?

Visiting Shen Yuan three times a day for the past week must have wrecked his schedule. Isn’t he supposed to be running lectures and lessons as well? Not to mention peak lord meetings and all of the admin work that goes with it. Why not leave Shen Yuan for dead, or just sic him on Mu Qingfang, who had seemed rather intrigued by this whole demonic cultivation thing? He’d heard them discuss the techniques through the door every now and then, but Shen Qingqiu didn’t seem to be very forthcoming with his tricks.

Shen Yuan makes sure to do his thinking in his brain this time. The thoughts and questions run through Shen Yuan’s mind until he’s dizzy. He doesn’t realise he’s listing to the side until Shen Qingqiu’s hand darts out and grabs his right shoulder.

“Sleep,” he says, face and voice impassive, before leaving and closing the door silently behind him.

 


 

Shen Qingqiu lifts his head when he hears a sound from the child’s room.

When he breaks the seal on the door, the energy that leaks out is significantly more potent than what he’d felt in Mu Qingfang's private ward. The child’s eyes move wildly beneath his lids, and the extra bedsheets he requested from Shang Qinghua the week previously have been thrown into disarray.

Memories of blood coughed up in the night and sheets hastily stripped from cramped beds in Qing Jing’s disciple’s quarters flit through Shen Qingqiu’s mind.

The child makes a small, sad sound.

Silently, he enters the room and places two fingers on one of the boy’s splayed out arms. The resentful energy flows easily into Shen Qingqiu. Demonic energy like this will always follow the path of least resistance, and the peak lord had long grown adept at manipulating the receptiveness of his system to its flow.

He limits himself to only one before he tapers off the stream and leaves the rest to rejoin the fledgeling core in the boy’s torso, nestled right next to what Shen Qingqiu believes to have once been the very early stages of spiritual core formation.

What an oddity for someone his age.

When Shen Qingqiu leaves the boy and walks through the gardens, the demonic energy brings with it a familiar feeling of nausea. He doesn’t have a demonic core for it to attach to, so Shen Qingqiu uses spiritual energy to dissipate it into his flesh. At least he will know the source of his bad mood this evening.

He flutters his fan in front of his face.

“Ming Fang, go to the kitchens and fetch lunch for two. Leave it on the porch.”

“Yes, Shizun!”

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan needs a plan.

He’s read plenty of transmigration novels with protagonists that had him almost tearing his hair out in frustration, from overpowered blockheads, to weedy pathetic harem masters, to the occasional oblivious heroine charming mysterious nobles in vague fantasy settings (he’d read those in secret).

Shen Yuan isn’t going to be stupid like those guys. He’s not going to slip his cover or not recognise this awfully written, tropey world for what it is. He’s going to not only play the part as this snotty kid, but also deftly avoid anything that will prevent him from escaping the timeline of Proud Immortal Demon Way unscathed and living in a quiet cottage somewhere in the dimensional rift.

Not to mention get rid of this demonic energy as fast as possible, even if he has to rely on the main villain, because Proud Immortal Demon Way barely mentioned anything about demonic cultivation for him to know how to do it himself!

Shen Yuan sighs and rolls over in his new bed. He’s got a lot cut out for him, but he shouldn’t complain. At least he’s not dead.

It's not too bad, he thinks, remembering some of those awful anime he’d wasted his life watching, at least there aren’t video-game mechanics in this one. Imagine if he had to worry about points--

A blue screen pops up in front of him, partially illuminating the dark room and hurting his eyes.

[Ping! User will be pleased! The System rewards the User with B-Points for performing actions that improve the plot and depth of the world!]

Shen Yuan groans.

“I thought you were in sleep mode,” Shen Yuan mutters. He turns his head to smoosh his face into the pillow. Ah, that’s much better. The lights from those screens are just too damn bright!

[Display brightness adjusted to 60%! System’s main functions are in sleep mode, but the user interface can be temporarily rebooted to provide basic help services.]

Shen Yuan grumbles into his pillow. He does not open his eyes. “Tell me about these stupid points, then.”

[User Shen Yuan’s goal is to help the Protagonist earn coolness points. If User’s B-Points fall below zero, User will be transported back to their original body. Please work hard, host-dada!]

If he goes back to his original body, he’ll be dead. Shen Yuan groans again. Maybe he’s in hell already.

“How many do I have now?”

[User Shen Yuan’s B-Points: 0. User may earn points during missions. Best of luck!]

Well, that makes sense, he supposes. What else can he grab from the system while it’s here and the scum villain isn’t watching him like a hawk? Dinner had been so intense that Shen Yuan didn’t feel like he could let his guard down even once, for fear of Shen Qingqiu biting his head off if he put a single finger out of line.

“System, can you tell me more about whose body this is?”

[User Shen Yuan is bound to esteemed wife #152 Wu Qian's twin brother, Wu Yuxian!]

Wu Qian, Wu Qian… Now that Shen Yuan isn’t completely disoriented from whatever interdimensional travel got him here, the name actually rings a bell.

Wu Qian was the star of the only wife plot that mentioned demonic cultivation, outside of Shen Qingqiu’s teenage dabblings brought up at the peak lord’s public cancellation in Jinlan City. The only times it would come up outside of her chapters were in the filler arcs about disputes in the harem where Wu Qian would use demonic energy to sabotage the efforts of her fellow concubines to win Luo Binghe’s favour.

If Shen Yuan remembers correctly, Wu Qian’s mother was in the secret family business of demonic cultivation. After their father was killed by a vengeful former acquaintance, Madam Wu became twisted in grief and decided to secretly raise her two youngest children, the twins, as the perfect sacrifice for a powerful demon that she could use to get her revenge on the world.

She ended up picking the unknowing Wu Yuxian as the sole bait, as he had an exceptionally strong spirit root, which Madam Wu hoped would bag her an extra strong one to decimate anyone that had ever wronged her and her husband. Wu Qian’s elder brother, who had also trained in the family business, attempted to stop the ceremony but due to the fear of an energy backlash from interrupting the contract-making process he was forced to take Wu Qian and flee the mansion, never to see his mother or little brother again.

Shen Yuan knew this backstory in quite a lot of detail, because Wu Qian would always tearfully recount it to Luo Binghe mid-papapa, which honestly was still better than Liu Mingyan mourning her deceased older brother. It was something he’d always found a little weird, despite her being his favourite wife character.

Wu Qian and her older brother ended up wandering the land as rogue cultivators to get by. She’d met Luo Binghe when she attempted to summon Luo Binghe to bind him into a contract to save her brother from some mid-level demons near the interdimensional rift, which had resulted in hijinks almost immediately because Luo Binghe had been in the middle of papapa with Sha Hualing.

As long as you had the right set-up (sacrifices included), enough demonic energy, and a spiritual energy contract that wasn’t too ambitious in its conditions, you could summon any demon if it was weak enough.

Airplane had probably watched a few too many documentaries on satanic cults, because the demon summoning mechanic doesn’t work well in xianxia at all. Airplane had explained in the author’s notes that Binghe was half human, so contracts wouldn’t work on him as he could use his own spirit energy to nullify them. Why is it so easy to summon the protagonist in the first place?! He’s a powerful demon lord, isn’t this a plot hole?

Shen Yuan remembered he had actually been rather intrigued by this one, until Luo Binghe’s excess of demonic energy kept causing Wu Qian’s clothes to fly off every other page and the plotline inevitably devolved into more and more papapa until she was barely mentioned again.

God, Airplane, can’t you put some pride into your work once? If Airplane was here right now, Shen Yuan would find it difficult not to throttle him.

So Shen Yuan had woken up in a summoning circle. He feels a gross sense of fascination from it. The summoning must have failed if he was still here, because he supposes they would have eaten him if it did work. Or something.

He pumps his fist silently in the darkness. He’s a character that was barely mentioned by name! That means he might be able to get through the plot without being involved with it at all. God, imagine if he’d been stuck in the body of Shen Qingqiu, that poor bastard. No limbs or tongue lost for Shen Yuan in this life! He rolls around the bed happily, already getting excited for how he’s going to decorate his cottage once he gets off of Cang Qiong Mountain.

Light spills into the room as the door opens suddenly, revealing an incredibly pissed off and fully dressed Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Yuan instantly pulls his sheets up to his nose.

The peak lord glowers at him. Shen Yuan pulls them up higher. He definitely isn’t hiding!

“I can hear your ruckus from my room,” Shen Qingqiu says coldly. “Go to sleep. You will wake up at sunrise to practice the meditation techniques I taught you this afternoon.”

If Shen Qingqiu doesn’t poison his breakfast, he’ll finish his planning during meditation tomorrow.

 


 

The thing with meditation is that you’re not supposed to think, so that throws Shen Yuan’s plans out of the window. Shen Qingqiu can tell when his mind starts wandering; the man taps him on the head with his fan or gives him a firm reprimand even without bothering to look up from his paperwork, so Shen Yuan actually has to concentrate, it’s so annoying.

“Do not sulk. Meditation is the first step to achieving longevity and spiritual enlightenment,” Shen Qingqiu says, reading through a missive without skipping a beat. “After this we shall work on your physical cultivation.”

“...Yes, Shizun.”

Everyday, he sits at the foot of Shen Qingqiu’s desk and meditates.

The first time Shen Yuan walked into Shen Qingqiu’s office, he had been absolutely staggered by the height of the piles on the peak lord’s desk. Is this not the Clear Calm Peak? Looking at the stacks of books, scrolls and papers that teeter back and forth on the desk, it seems to be more like the Administrative Chaos peak! If Qing Jing is this bad, he wonders what the An Ding peak lord’s office looks like.

To give him some credit, Shen Qingqiu does seem to be doing it all alone, and he has to look after Shen Yuan at the same time as well… To Shen Yuan’s surprise, he starts to feel a little sorry for the scum villain. He’s not sure if the man even sleeps. More often than not, Shen Qingqiu is at his desk working ceasely through document after document with the utmost concentration and in absolute silence.

Noone knocks at Shen Qingqiu’s door for a social visit or even a quick discussion on sect affairs. Not even Yue Qingyuan, who favours him most, who Shen Yuan is realising was right there in the Wu estate along with Shen Qingqiu, and was the one that whacked Shen Yuan with a big wave of spiritual energy and made him pass out. He’s surprised that this calm big-brother type would have made such a stupid mistake in hitting him, a poor defenceless child!!

One day in his boredom, Shen Yuan decides it would be fun to use this time to silently plot his revenge on the Cang Qiong sect leader. Maybe he’ll put salt in his tea.

A fan wacks him on the head.

“It seems that Shen Yuan cannot focus this morning,” the peak lord growls. “Run ten laps of the Chun Courtyard, and be quick about it.”

As he huffs and puffs around the private courtyard, Shen Yuan can’t help but revel in all of the energy this child’s body was able to gain in the past week, only from meditation, bland food, and periodic energy manipulation courtesy of Shen Qingqiu. He wasn’t able to do this in his original body!

When Mu Qingfang visited and performed a check up of Shen Yuan, he was extremely pleased in the physical progress that he had made, and said that he was looking forward to reporting to the sect leader on Shen Yuan’s condition. It’s a shame that it had ended awkwardly.

“Did he ask you for this report?” Shen Qingqiu asks Mu Qingfang right over the top of his head. Shen Yuan once again feels tiny surrounded by tall elegant peak lords in the body of a child.

“He asked me for a report after the last peak lord meeting, Shen-shixiong.” Mu Qingfang’s face changes, dimming down from a pleased and almost playful countenance into something calm and wary. “I recall that you left early that day, so I would presume that Shen-shixiong would not have noticed.”

Shen Qingqiu frowns. “Why did he not request a report from me? We are both working together to heal Shen Yuan, are we not?”

Mu Qingfang smiles uncertainly. “I’m afraid that I cannot explain his reasoning, but this Mu Qingfang will inform Zhangmen-shixiong that A-Yuan is recovering well with the help of Shen-shixiong.”

Shen Qingqiu watches the peak lord dip into a respectful bow in silence with an inscrutable expression on his face.

Mu Qingfang continues, “I must return to my other patients, but do let me know how the artefacts work alongside your own techniques.”

The temperature of the room drops dramatically; Shen Qingqiu’s gaze turns freezing and Mu Qingfang stiffens immediately. Shen Yuan, who had removed the top half of his robes for Mu Qingfang’s examination, starts to shiver.

With his mouth hidden behind his fan, Shen Qingqiu looks as motionless as a statue.

"This master will update Mu-shidi on the child’s progress at the next peak lord meeting,” he says. “Shen Yuan, for goodness sake, put your clothes back on.”

And that was that.

Yue Qingyuan’s going to get chewed out again. Shen Yuan is not surprised. The scum villain was known for arguing with him, especially when the sect leader undermined his authority as the second in command. Whenever it inevitably happened, Shen Yuan hoped he wasn't in firing range.

On the fourth lap of his punishment, he notices Shen Qingqiu has moved outside to lounge on a raised platform at the edge of the courtyard. He is reading a book, and seems to be ignoring Shen Yuan entirely. Shen Yuan knows better by now. He probably gets a kick out of watching his disciples suffer through his punishments. Shen Yuan will show him, he’ll finish these laps before Shen Qingqiu can even finish his chapter!

He speeds through the next two laps. He notices that Shen Qingqiu has lowered his book. His dark eyes watch him attentively. It makes Shen Yuan feel a little nervous, so he runs even faster. Is he doing something wrong?

His legs start to burn, and he begins to gasp for breath as his seventh lap draws to a close. It’s hard to get a full breath without slowing down, but Shen Yuan pushes through it, suppressing a cough as his chest feels like it’s getting tighter and tighter.

A hand lands on Shen Yuan’s shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.

“That’s enough,” Shen Qingqiu says. He seems to have teleported from his spot. The hand moves to take his wrist and the tightness in Shen Yuan’s chest recedes until he feels only a little winded instead of like he’s going to suffocate on nothing.

Shen Yuan stands there, wavering and gulping air down.

“Go meditate over there,” the man says, gesturing towards the platform on the opposite side of the courtyard. A woven mat is laid out already. “Focus on your awareness of the energies moving inside of your body.”

Shen Qingqiu releases him and walks calmly to his seat.

Shen Yuan tries not to let himself sag or tense too much when assuming a proper meditation position. So that was resentful energy that had sabotaged him just now. He tries not to let it get to him, but the constant threat posed from a pool of demonic energy hanging out in his body is not exactly relaxing.

Shen Yuan almost opens his eyes when a soothing, melodic song floats over from the other side of the courtyard. It’s so pleasant to listen to, and Shen Yuan has only been used to silence these past two weeks. He lets it wash away his worries, and for the first time today, Shen Yuan’s mind quietens down completely.

 

 

*

 

 

“Shen Yuan, come here.”

His legs are still numb when Shen Yuan jogs over.

“Don’t run, it’s unbecoming,” Shen Qingqiu chides. “Sit down.”

He kneels down on the polished wood in front of Shen Qingqiu and resigns himself to more numbness.

Shen Qingqiu has a small pile of books next to his seat, stacked up neatly next to a covered guqin and the cloth bundle that Shen Yuan had seen earlier. His heart jumps a little in excitement.

He watches Shen Qingqiu pick up the bundle and place it between them. With one quick tug at a knot on the top, the bundle flops open to reveal three small objects.

The first is a thin bracelet made up of shining strands of silver. They twist together elegantly into the image of a slender dragon curled around one’s wrist. A small hook in the tail connects it at its nose. In the mouth of the dragon is a lustrous pearl.

The second is a crude statue of a tiger with a blunt, snarling face. It’s a tarnished bronze, and has a dull sphere of jade embedded in each eye.

The last object is a small clay bottle. Its bottom is round and it narrows at the top as if only small amounts should be poured from it at a time. It is stopped at the top with a small cork.

Shen Qingqiu, a picture of serenity, watches Shen Yuan examine the objects.

“What purpose do you think these objects serve?” he asks.

The dark eyes watch him, ever so unnerving. “W-Well,” Shen Yuan stutters. He was never the one to raise his hand in class. “I saw--I mean, this disciple saw them in Qian Cao Peak. Are they medical tools?”

Shen Qingqiu dips his head.

“Yes. But these do not aid the body; they aid the spirit. Mu Qingfang intended to suppress and remove the demonic energy from your body with these tools.”

Shen Yuan sits up straight. “But you won’t? I mean, Shizun won’t use them?”

Shen Qingqiu casts his gaze over the objects. His hand lifts and hovers over the bracelet.

“Shen Yuan may use this. This pearl is called the Moon Cleansing Heaven’s Eye. It will passively absorb demonic energy when he wears it and convert it to spiritual energy, but it does not absorb it at a rate that will prevent others from sensing it if Shen Yuan does not control the energy within himself. This is merely a long term aid to remove a portion of the resentful energy in your body.”

His hand waves over the statue and the clay bottle before returning neatly to his lap to join his other hand.

“I do not believe that the other two are appropriate for Shen Yuan’s use. I am merely showing them so that you will know to avoid them. They put undue stress on the body and have the potential to damage the user’s cultivation.”

A silence falls between them as Shen Yuan waits for Shen Qingqiu to expand. When he doesn’t, Shen Yuan asks for himself.

“Why would Mu Qingfang recommend them, then?”

Shen Qingqiu takes a fan from his sleeve and flicks it open, covering the lower half of his face. His gaze wanders the courtyard. The sun is warmer now -- it’s almost noon. The strong light seems to bounce off of Shen Qingqiu’s skin and light-coloured robes, making him appear to glow more than usual.

“Cultivators are often terrified at the prospect of losing their purity. For some, it is worth the… suffering that these artifacts would entail, just to remove the resentful energy as quickly as possible. Shen Yuan will learn how to suppress and expel his energy through demonic cultivation instead. I believe it is a much more elegant solution, especially for one carrying the quantity that you do.”

Oh! That makes sense! Given Shen Qingqiu’s criminal past with demonic cultivation, of course he’d know to use it to remove the energy from his body when the time came to shed his past as a slave and become an untouchable righteous cultivator.

“Did Shizun use demonic cultivation to remove the demonic energy from his body, then?” Shen Yuan asks him, curious as to how the peak lord will react.

“I don’t recall saying that I ever had demonic energy in my body,” the peak lord says mildly, fluttering his fan. “Take care not to spread misinformation around the peaks. Now, put on the bracelet. I must prepare for my evening classes.”

Shen Yuan, amused, thinks nothing more of the artifacts left in the possession of Shen Qingqiu or his Shizun’s past as he slips the silver bracelet onto his left wrist, and admires the way it glints in the sunlight.

 

 

Chapter Text

On the second day of his second week, Shen Qingqiu places a stack of books on Shen Yuan’s desk and tells him to read them by dinner. The stack consists of a lengthy cultivation manual, some poetry anthologies, and a short but incredibly detailed book on demonic cultivation.

Shen Yuan was a little too scared to tell the peak lord that he couldn’t read them, but upon opening the book of poetry, he’s incredibly pleased to realise that it isn’t as difficult as he’d expected.

He’s a little slow at first, but upon seeing a character and concentrating for a time, the meaning just seems to pop up in his mind. It seems as if he is more in tune with this body than before - the reading ability and probably some other skills held by the original Wu Yuxian are at his disposal now, when before he struggled to read even the simple wall scroll in the hallway of the Wu estate.

Wu Yuxian had been an avid reader going by the pile of tattered books in his room. They could equally have belonged to his sister, but given what he knows about her, Shen Yuan has his doubts.

Shen Yuan is incredibly bored, confined only to the Bamboo House with only meditation to pass the time, so he devours all of them at record speed as his reading ability grows faster and faster with each sentence. Who would pass on the opportunity to read books on magic, demonic or not?

The demonic cultivation manual has no author on the front or on the inside, but it looks like an original copy and is incredibly interesting -- small, neat notes are written in the margins and beautiful, though sketchy, illustrations show how a cultivator could confine resentful energy into a core and veins to run alongside their own network of spiritual ones, all through the use of their own spiritual energy.

The three effects of absorbing demonic energy into one’s flesh are also laid out.

  1. The soul: Worsen temperament and intensify emotion; in extreme cases, personality change or soul-shifting (Shen Yuan wasn’t sure what that meant).
  2. The spirit: Damage or destabilise existing spiritual cultivation base; in extreme cases, fatal qi-deviation or complete obliteration of cultivation base.
  3. The body: Fever and disruption of the natural order of the body; in extreme cases, death or bleeding from the seven apertures of the human head: the eyes, ears, nostrils or mouth.

These effects would be lasting, unless the demonic cultivator slowly purged themselves of the energy using techniques described earlier in the book and refrained from all further usage, or dual cultivated with another person untainted with demonic energy.

The final chapter of the book is a heavy criticism of pills and exorcist tools, explaining that the sudden removal of demonic energy from one’s core through exorcism would in all likelihood damage nearby spiritual veins or destabilise the user’s core and cause frequent qi deviation, whereas using pills to suppress the energy would also slow spiritual energy and cause illness in the soul and body.

The cultivation manual is also fascinating, though he feels like he knows quite a lot of it already with the amount of wuxia webnovels he’s read. The poetry was a little boring, but he forces himself through it, because he honestly has nothing better to do.

When Shen Qingqiu returns from a peak lord meeting that day, he finds Shen Yuan waiting awkwardly by the door.

“Spit it out, child,” he says, rolling his eyes as he swans down the corridor towards his office. Shen Yuan trails behind him.

“Shizun,” he says meekly, clasping his hands together and struggling to keep up with his short little legs. Curse this scum villain, walking so quickly with his supermodel legs! “Can I… May this Shen Yuan have more books to read?”

The peak lord’s stride stutters for only a moment. When he reaches the door to his office, he turns back to assess Shen Yuan with a frown.

“Has Shen Yuan finished the books this master asked him to read?” he asks curtly.

Shen Yuan nods. “I finished them this morning.”

The man’s eyebrows rise higher than he’d ever seen them. Shen Qingqiu’s face clears suddenly and disappears from view as he quickly steps into the office and shuts the door in Shen Yuan’s face.

Through the door, he says, “This master will select more books for Shen Yuan after he performs qigong in the courtyard for one shichen.”

Shen Yuan almost cries in despair.

 


 

The third week brings Shen Yuan’s first attempts at demonic cultivation and Shen Qingqiu begins to condense the demonic energy within Shen Yuan only once a day instead of three.

Just like his first time attempting to meditate, Shen Qingqiu sits with Shen Yuan in the middle of his office, out from behind his desk for the first time in days.

He walks Shen Yuan through the differences in sensation for spiritual and demonic energy, though emphasises that it would feel different for everyone. Shen Yuan knows that for him demonic energy is like cold, burning lava, whereas his spiritual energy feels smooth and liquid like warm honey.

It turns out that when Shen Qingqiu is not touching him to compress the demonic energy, Shen Yuan will shed some level of demonic energy no matter what, though the quantity will vary greatly depending on the remaining level of spiritual energy Shen Qingqiu used to form a barrier energy around his core. With his core only being condensed by Shen Qingqiu once a day, he’s letting out such a large quantity that the peak lord wrinkles his nose whenever he enters the room.

A truly skilled demonic cultivator will not shed any demonic energy unless they allow it.

It’s difficult for Shen Yuan to get the trick to pulling the resentful energy inside of himself. It takes him a day to even begin to control it, and even by then he’s only able to pull it towards him slightly by a few inches.

“For now, Shen Yuan will practice this every day,” says Shen Qingqiu, his long legs folded into a meditative position to match Shen Yuan’s. His posture is impeccable and looks almost effortless, not wavering even slightly. “Once you are able to maintain your own core, you will be able to attend lessons and classes with the other students, and eventually move into the disciple quarters.”

Shen Yuan makes a face. Does that mean he’ll have to share a space with a bunch of spoiled brats?

Shen Qingqiu’s mouth twitches. Evil!

A few days later, Shen Yuan is meditating by Shen Qingqiu’s desk when he hears the quiet rustling of silk. He doesn’t think much of it; the peak lord often takes sips of tea between letters, or shifts to gaze out of the window, as if lost in thought. He’d spent so much time in the same room as him that Shen Yuan can almost predict when he will finish his tea and ask Shen Yuan to make a new pot.

“Open your eyes,” Shen Qingqiu says.

If Shen Yuan had not been under the near-trance like meditative state he had held for the past hour, he would have reeled back in surprise. The peak lord has moved to kneel right in front of him. Two dark eyes peer directly into his.

“Refocus your energy.”

Shen Yuan realises what must have happened. He must have focused his energy enough that Shen Qingqiu thinks his eyes could have returned to normal! He forgets himself and beams at Shen Qingqiu, who blinks back unimpressed, then allows his eyes to slip to half-mast as he does his utmost to pull the cold, wavering energy pooling in his body into his centre.

Shen Qingqiu leans forward minutely for a moment, a small crease appearing on his brow. He stands up to walk to a nearby shelf. “You may take a break,” Shen Qingqiu says absently.

Shen Yuan lets out a long breath as he relaxes. Although he is not using his body physically, the mental energy it takes to tap into the demonic energy is immense. Shen Qingqiu had assured him that over time, and as his spiritual energy increased, suppressing resentful energy would become an almost unconscious habit.

He falls asleep the moment he hits the pillow most nights, unless Shen Qingqiu gives him a book that he finds particularly interesting. Shen Qingqiu had given him a book on the history of Huan Hua Palace this morning, so Shen Yuan knows he’s going to have to try his hardest not to fall asleep on top of it and have Shen Qingqiu scold him again for having smudged words printed all over his face at breakfast.

“You have made good progress.” Shen Qingqiu retrieves a mirror and a few books from the shelf and arranges them so the mirror is propped up against them, directly in Shen Yuan’s line of view.

Shen Yuan blinks at his reflection. Two red irises glow eerily back at him, and he feels himself wilt.

“It didn’t work at all?” he asks in a small voice.

“It did not,” Shen Qingqiu informs him as he sits down behind his desk once more. “Continue the rest of your session in front of this mirror, and inform me when your eyes return to normal. I expect you to do this by the end of today.”

Shen Yuan’s jaw drops. The end of today?

Shen Qingqiu raises an eyebrow and picks up a brush. “Stop gawking at me. If you don’t make progress today, I’ll rescind your book privileges until the end of the week.”

The peak lord begins to compose a letter. Shen Yuan looks down and grumbles to himself.

“What was that?” Shen Qingqiu looks up from the paper. His gaze is frosty, and Shen Yuan half wants to cower away.

Shen Yuan keeps his head down. His hands clench into fists.

“Tell me what you said,” Shen Qingqiu says flatly.

“I said, that’s not possible,” Shen Yuan mumbles. “I can’t do that today.”

The Peak Lord’s emotionless demeanour morphs immediately into one of mild irritation. "Why not?"

“I’m not strong enough yet. I only just started!” Shen Yuan glares at his hands. Is this man pretending to be stupid?

Shen Qingqiu is silent as he upends his brush and places it in its jade stand. He looks Shen Yuan in the eyes, his back straight as a rod, and says, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending. This master believes Shen Yuan can do it, so don’t disappoint me.”

Surprisingly enough, Shen Yuan is able to suppress the energy from his eyes one hour after dinner time. In the mirror, his eyes dim gradually into a reddish brown. The moment he realises he’s done it, his concentration breaks and they revert back to red immediately. Shen Yuan still has a whole lot of work ahead of him before he’ll be able to do this in his normal life.

Despite losing his results, the image of his natural eye colour is still bright in his mind.

Shen Yuan makes a rather embarrassing excited sound and pumps his fist into the air. He immediately looks to Shen Qingqiu, expecting the Peak Lord to praise him for completing his impossible task.

Shen Qingqiu frowns at the book he is currently picking through at his desk. He doesn’t bother looking up. “Don’t look so surprised. This master told you that you could achieve this.”

With a great puff of air, Shen Yuan flops backwards onto the bamboo mat. He immediately has a headache. Once again, he is forced to admit that he has much to learn from the Peak Lord of Qing Jing.

The Peak Lord doesn’t scold him for showing such a lack of decorum, but he does poke a fan into his cheek when Shen Yuan begins to fall asleep. Fine, fine, he’s going to bed, don’t be so fussy!

 


 

“Shen Yuan, cover your eyes and go to your room.”

When he looks up from admiring his god-awful calligraphy, he sees that Shen Qingqiu is no longer relaxed on the other side of the desk; he is sitting bolt upright and glaring at the entrance to the room, directly behind Shen Yuan.

“What?” he says.

Shen Qingqiu directs his glare to Shen Yuan. “Your room. Now.”

His words are short and clipped. A direct order. Shen Yuan blinks at him in surprise. Did he do something wrong?

CRASH.

Shen Yuan flinches. It’s coming from the door. When he turns to look, a hand lands on his head and forces it back to its original position, staring at the wall ahead.

Shen Qingqiu is suddenly standing between Shen Yuan and the door, with his arm reaching back to prevent Shen Yuan from moving into view.

“Wha--”

“Hush,” the peak lord tells him.

The door swings open, and at the sound of footsteps Shen Yuan feels the grip on his head tense then relax.

“Did your master not teach you to at least knock?” Shen Qingqiu growls at the door.

“Show me that thing behind you.”

This person is a man for sure. His tone is low and menacing, sending a clear threat, and Shen Yuan suddenly feels a bit scared for this intruder because Shen Qingqiu will surely rip them apart for showing such insolence to the lord of Qing Jing Peak!

“I don’t have to show you anything,” Shen Qingqiu snaps. Fingernails dig into Shen Yuan’s head. “If you want to raise a complaint against me, then wait until the next peak lord meeting. Leave my peak at once!”

There’s silence. The person in the doorway audibly shifts and the grip on Shen Yuan’s head tightens to the point of pain. He’s tugging at the strands of hair on his head. Shen Yuan’s sure that Shen Qingqiu doesn’t even know what he’s doing.

His heart immediately starts thudding.

Shen Qingqiu’s scared, and Shen Yuan doesn’t want to admit it, but that scares him a little too.

“Liu-shidi, you dare…!” Shen Qingqiu chokes out.

Liu-shidi? He tries to turn his head but Shen Qingqiu’s grip is ironclad.

Liu as is in Liu Mingyan? Is this Liu Qingge, the tragically dead older brother? No wonder Shen Qingqiu was on guard from the moment he stepped inside. These two despised each other with all their being, enough to the point that Shen Qingqiu would kill him later on in the Spirit Caves.

Shen Yuan hears a low, grating sound.

“So the lord of Qing Jing peak is colluding with demons,” Liu Qingge says, sounding unimpressed and a little disgusted. “I’m not surprised.”

“There are no demons here.” It’s the most furious Shen Yuan has ever heard him. “Leave, or I will inform Yue Qingyuan that you have gone rogue enough to attack me in my own home!”

“Don’t try to fool me. I can sense one right here. I thought my disciples were merely spouting rumours. I can’t believe that I thought better of you, Shen. Qing. Qiu!”

There’s a second of silence before Shen Yuan is shoved into the table, hard. The corner of the desk digs into his stomach and winds him for a good moment, but his head snaps around and Shen Yuan is immediately presented with the thrilling image of two powerful cultivation masters caught in a deadlock.

Shen Qingqiu managed to summon Xiu Ya from its stand fast enough to block against the attack, but Liu Qingge is pressing forward with enough force that he is forced to take a step back.

It’s a contest of strength. Shen Yuan knows who will win.

“At least wait until we’re outside, you bastard!” Shen Qingqiu snarls. His eyes are wild. He’s livid. He’s clearly trying to control his strength, afraid of damaging his house. Or maybe the dazed Shen Yuan sprawled out behind him, Shen Yuan realises with wonder, which is quickly muted by the very real fear that he could be skewered right where he stands.

Shen Yuan blinks and Shen Qingqiu is flung across the room, Xiu Ya clattering uselessly as he collides into a shelf and obliterates it completely, knocking battered books and scrolls everywhere.

He blinks again, and the glowing, razor-sharp tip of Cheng Luan hovers right in front of nose.

Shen Yuan’s heart jumps in his chest.

He’d meet Liu Qingge’s eyes, but Shen Yuan can’t do anything but stare at the extremely sharp edge pointed at him. Pure, unbridled fear rises up within him. He’s going to die. There’s nothing he can do.

The core of resentful energy swirling inside of him pulses once, then twice, as if fighting against the barrier that Shen Qingqiu had placed around it, until something twists painfully and it rushes out to flood his entire torso.

The demonic energy burns icily and furiously within the confines of his chest. His eyes must be shining like beacons.

Violent tremors rack Shen Yuan's body.

“What is this?” Liu Qingge asks incredulously. Shen Qingqiu, still lying prone on the floor, stirs.

Shen Yuan coughs. A mouthful of blood comes with it, which trickles out of his mouth and down his neck. He doubles over and gags as another rush of blood bubbles into his throat.

It runs thickly down his chin as the demonic energy burns and burns.

“P-Please…” Shen Yuan tries to beg, all dignity lost, hyper-aware of the sword hanging in front of his face.

On the other end of the sword, Liu Qingge stares. His face, surprisingly beautiful for a revered war god, scrunches in confusion.

“You brute! Leave here at once!” Shen Qingqiu bellows. He apparates into Shen Yuan’s line of vision, batting Cheng Luan out of Liu Qingge’s hand with a burst of spirit energy.

Shen Qingqiu’s hair is a mess, his robes are disheveled, and he’s sporting a small bruise in the right corner of his brow.

As Cheng Luan skids across the floor, Shen Qingqiu does as well. He flies towards Shen Yuan and scoops him to his chest with both arms, crouching close to the floor. A slim hand searches feverishly for the opening to Shen Yuan’s robes before it slips underneath to make direct contact with his chest.

The demonic energy within Shen Yuan immediately quiets down to a simmer. Shen Yuan’s tremors become smaller and smaller until he’s left shivering in Shen Qingqiu’s arms. Shen Qingqiu’s other arm pulls him to rest his head on his shoulder. Overcome with a rush of fatigue and dizziness, Shen Yuan lets him.

“...Is he your son?” Liu Qingge demands.

If he wasn't vomiting blood, Shen Yuan would probably laugh.

Shen Qingqiu’s nostrils flair with rage.

“What nonsense are you speaking?! He is a victim of demonic cultivation,” he hisses. “I am helping him, so leave!”

Liu Qingge’s brow furrows. “He looks like you--”

Get out!” Shen Qingqiu screeches. His eyes shine as he summons his sword from the ground with spiritual energy. It moves through the air in a perfect arc to hover over his head, angled towards Liu Qingge like the claws of a praying mantis.

The war lord’s expression grows complicated. Liu Qingge turns to summon Cheng Luan to his side and looks over his shoulder to give Shen Qingqiu and the child in his arms a last lingering look.

“I’ll fetch Mu Qingfang,” he says gruffly, and disappears down the hall.

Shen Qingqiu sags as Xiu Ya floats down to the floor, ever so slowly.

After the minute of chaos, the silence left behind is deafening.

It takes a few moments for Shen Qingqiu’s breathing to slow down, and for Shen Yuan to realise that Shen Qingqiu is still holding him. He thinks about attempting to squirm free when he hears a voice faintly down the hallway leading out of the room.

“Shizun! We heard the noise, are you alright?”

No-one shows up in the doorway, so it must be one of the disciples shouting in awkwardly from the entrance.

“I am alright,” Shen Qingqiu says, straightening up immediately and raising his voice down the hall. “Don’t come here unless I say otherwise.”

When he hears the front door close, Shen Qingqiu visibly relaxes. He exhales slowly through his nose and then quirks an eyebrow at Shen Yuan, who realises he’d been staring.

Shen Qingqiu lifts up a sleeve and wipes the blood off of Shen Yuan’s face, leaving great red streaks on the fabric when he moves it away. It’s a little embarrassing, but Shen Yuan is much too tired to protest.

“Who… Who was that?” Shen Yuan asks. He probably shouldn’t let Shen Qingqiu know that he knows exactly who he is.

“The largest idiot of them all,” Shen Qingqiu mutters. He wrinkles his nose in distaste. “Don’t waste any more of your energy on that man. Focus on the energy inside of yourself. It’s leaking everywhere.”

They sit there quietly, Shen Yuan attempting to reign in his demonic core, and Shen Qingqiu helping him, until the fatigue grows too much and he dozes off.

The next morning, Shen Yuan wakes up in bed clean and feeling significantly better, and wonders if he imagined Shen Qingqiu stroking his hair as he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan wakes up, gets ready for the day and stares at himself in the mirror.

In the year that he’s been on Qing Jing, his face hasn’t changed that much. He’s still not sure of his age but from looks alone, Shen Yuan might hazard to guess that he’s maybe nine, but he could be shorter than average.

He’s definitely carrying some baby fat, but he’s not too upset with his appearance. It’s only a matter of time until he’ll (reluctantly) go through puberty and see what he’ll actually look like for the rest of his life, so why fuss too much about it now?

All those months ago, Liu Qingge had said that he looked like Shen Qingqiu. It’s weird to admit, but he can kind of see the resemblance. Like Shen Qingqiu, his features have a hint of scholarly delicateness to them, with a thin nose, slender brows and a small pointed chin. Even his hair tone is similar, but Shen Yuan’s hair has a slight wave to it that tumbles down his back in a high ponytail, whereas Shen Qingqiu’s is as straight as a pin.

In the mirror, he watches his mouth pull into a charming grin. With big, clear eyes and dressed up in his Qing Jing robes, Shen Yuan looks like a well-raised young master from a noble family.

His eyes are brown!

After knocking and waiting for a murmur of assent, Shen Yuan skips into Shen Qingqiu’s office. He used to shuffle in meekly and look anywhere but Shen Qingqiu until he was spoken to, but it’s been quite a few months since Shen Yuan realised that the peak lord will let him get away with a lot more than he lets on, though maybe with a lukewarm scolding or two.

That’s why Shen Yuan’s going to try his luck.

Shen Yuan bows politely.

“Good morning, Shizun,” he says pleasantly. “May this Shen Yuan attend classes with the rest of the students today?”

The peak lord looks him up and down, his lack of emotion and flawless appearance despite the early hour radiating an air of cold, scholarly beauty. His long, pale green sleeves are tied up to reveal soft, flexible arm bracers and an ink painting of the Cang Qiong mountain range lays beautifully rendered below him. A brush in his hand hovers over a small dish of red pigment. “No,” he says calmly.

Shen Yuan watches, mouth agape, as the peak lord returns to adding red streaks in the sky of his painting to create the beginnings of a breathtaking sunset, as serenely calm as if he hadn’t just delivered the most infuriating news in Shen Yuan’s short (transmigrated) life.

“But Shizun, look at my eyes!” Shen Yuan knows he must look undignified pointing at them, but he’s trying to make a point. “I woke up with my eyes brown again. I’m not giving off even a wisp of demonic energy, you must be able to feel it!”

Shen Qingqiu switches brushes and adds a few more details into densely forested foothills. “Your eyes are not completely brown.”

Shen Yuan feels himself puff up in indignance. “They’re reddish brown! That’s just how they are!”

Shen Qingqiu looks up, his eyes narrowing into a mild glare. “Do not take that tone with me. I am your Shizun, and the peak lord of Qing Jing Peak. You will not leave until I allow you to for your own safety. Have more patience.”

Shen Yuan had been exceedingly patient! He had worked hard on his cultivation and done his best to keep out of Shen Qingqiu’s way for months. He was hardly ever scolded now, and if so it was just for the most petty of things, like if Shen Yuan had an undignified expression on his face or if he ate his food too slowly.

He just wants someone his age to chat to! How is he supposed to begin his grand adventure like this?!

After Liu Qingge crashed his way into the Bamboo House, Shen Qingqiu became even more vigilant about keeping Shen Yuan away from the rest of the Peak. What happened to studying with the rest of the students, or even just being able to take a simple walk?! He’d asked Shen Qingqiu for a tour of the Qing Jing once, but the peak lord had told him that he’d gotten a good enough view of it when they flew here from Qian Cao.

Shen Yuan isn’t sure if Liu Qingge was punished or not, but he’ll give it to Shen Qingqiu - being on the pointy end of Cheng Luan had certainly scared Shen Yuan into not complaining about staying in the Bamboo House for several months, but surely the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak doesn’t want little Shen Yuan running around under his feet until the end of time.

“A-Yuan may not attend classes today,” Shen Qingqiu says flatly, as if replying to the rant in Shen Yuan’s head. The man’s face smooths completely as he continues inking in his painting. “Take a seat. Zhangmen-shixiong will pay us a visit this morning.”

Shen Yuan’s frustration gives way to mild confusion. “...Shizun couldn’t get out of it this time?”

Shen Qingqiu’s brush stills for a moment, then continues in its movement. Shen Qingqiu sighs. He looks extremely put upon.

“No,” he says. “I was asked in a very… unique circumstance. It is no matter now.”

Shen Yuan dips slowly into a half-bow, the picture of a perfect disciple deferring to his master. “Shizun, this disciple will go prepare some tea for the sect leader’s arrival. In the meantime, this Shen Yuan hopes you will reconsider your decision and let me go to classes this afternoon.”

“You’re not going,” Shen Qingqiu replies firmly. He closes his eyes and breathes through his nose slowly. “My decision is final. Stop wasting my time.”

“But Shizun--”

“Be quiet,” Shen Qingqiu snaps.

“I’ll just sit in the back, I won’t cause any fuss!” It comes out in an embarrassing whine.

It’s the peak lord’s time to puff up, and his brush slams down on the table, spattering yellow-green ink onto a nearby stack of blank parchment. The man’s eyes flash, and Shen Yuan almost takes a step back.

I will not repeat myself--”

Someone knocks at the front door.

Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu freeze.

When Yue Qingyuan enters his shidi’s office, he sees two figures, a master and his disciple, sitting together serenely at a neatly laid out table. In the back, he sees his shidi’s desk is immaculately clean, with a beautiful painting laid out to dry.

The sect leader smiles back at them, equally as serene. He must have been hearing things.

 


 

Yue Qingyuan has the unique talent of saying exactly the opposite of what Shen Qingqiu wants to hear.

After Liu Qingge’s visit, Shen Qingqiu had written a letter of complaint to Yue Qingyuan. The sect leader’s reply must not have been satisfactory, because the moment he had read it, Shen Qingqiu had gone an alarming shade of puce. The peak lord had immediately summoned his sword and forced Shen Yuan to go to his room, before flying off presumably to Qiong Ding peak.

It was several months before Yue Qingyuan would visit Qing Jing personally, at least while Shen Yuan was living here.

Yue Qingyuan had greeted him as Wu Yuxian on their first official meeting, despite Shen Qingqiu writing ahead and informing him that he was going by Shen Yuan now. When the sect leader took a sip of tea from the freshly brewed pot prepared by Shen Yuan and remarked that it must be a rare salted variety, Shen Qingqiu did not bat a single eyelid.

He had made sure that Shen Yuan was present for every one of those meetings. Not because Shen Qingqiu just wanted his company, mind you -- Shen Yuan is convinced that he uses him to prevent Yue Qingyuan from delving into more personal topics that the peak lord found either terribly boring or absolutely infuriating.

Yue Qingyuan would visibly hold himself back from calling Shen Qingqiu pet names in front of Shen Yuan, and every time he wistfully looked out of the window after a scathing comment from Shen Qingqiu, he would snap himself out of it when he realised that Shen Yuan was staring.

It’s no different this time. Yue Qingyuan settles himself into his chair as Shen Yuan pours the peak lords tea, and watches Shen Yuan fill a cup for himself with only a ghost of consternation on his face.

On the sect leader’s agenda today were the following points:

 

1. A gift!

Yue Qingyuan did not come empty-handed. In his hand is a basket of perfectly shaped pears. They seem to gleam with ripeness, and when he places them lightly on the table, a deliciously fresh scent rolls directly into Shen Yuan’s nose.

“I am glad they interest you, A-Yuan,” the sect leader chuckles lightly. “If you like, I’m sure your Shizun won’t mind if you take these to the kitchens and peel some for us to eat.”

“Shen Yuan will peel them here,“ Shen Qingqiu announces, thwarting Yue Qingyuan’s plans to get him alone immediately.

The peak lord takes a sip of tea and bores his eyes into Shen Yuan’s back as he scuttles off to fetch a plate and a small knife.

Yue Qingyuan tries a few times to engage Shen Qingqiu in useless pleasantries while Shen Yuan attempts to prepare them. It’s surprisingly difficult. Shen Yuan had not eaten a lot of fruit that he had to peel himself in the last few years before he died - they’d either come pre-sliced in a plastic package or one of his family members would peel them for him.

When he presses the knife against the pear, the knife sinks in way too quickly and before he knows it he’s beheaded it dramatically. When he tries again, controlling his strength this time, the peel comes away uneven and lumpy. Shen Yuan begins to cry internally at the prospect of serving such an ugly pear to the two elegant peak lords beside him.

“Oh, give it here,” Shen Qingqiu mutters and snatches the knife from him.

Shen Yuan pouts as Shen Qingqiu transforms two pears into a plate of beautifully arranged and evenly cut pieces.

 

2. A book.

Shen Yuan is munching on a delicious slice of pear when Yue Qingyuan asks Shen Qingqiu for his opinion on a book that he lent the peak lord at the last peak lord meeting.

“Forgettable,” Shen Qingqiu says after a long sip of tea. “Shen Yuan read it yesterday. Give the sect leader your opinion, Shen Yuan.”

Shen Yuan straightens up. He recites Shen Qingqiu’s comments exactly, a somewhat scathing but well-balanced critique, but adds, “I enjoyed the passage on the seven-legged blood-eating rock lemur. It was very cool. Monsters are cool.”

At Shen Yuan’s addition, Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrow twitches.

Yue Qingyuan looks a little dismayed at Shen Qingqiu’s dismissal, but when Shen Yuan speaks he brightens up. He pats Shen Yuan lightly on the head, and retracts his hand when Shen Qingqiu begins to glare.

“I am glad you are such an avid reader, A-Yuan. You will do well at Qing Jing Peak, I’m sure. If you enjoy that topic, perhaps you could specialise your studies in monsters when you’re older. When you begin night hunts, you might even meet one yourself.”

He can do that?! Shen Yuan looks to his Shizun for confirmation with wide, sparkling eyes. Shen Qingqiu sighs and snaps open his fan.

“This master will procure more books on the subject. What do you have to discuss next, Zhangmen-shixiong?””

 

3. New Disciples.

The meeting moves onto more serious sect matters. Most of this flies over Shen Yuan’s head, and he continues to eat through the rest of the pear on the table. When they begin to discuss the next disciple choosing, Shen Yuan pays attention once more.

“I understand that Qing Jing only has a few inner disciples so far. Does Shen-shidi intend to choose more in this next round?”

Shen Qingqiu flutters his fan. “This master is willing to take on another disciple if they are worthy. I will make no promises.”

The sect leader makes a sound of agreement. “That makes perfect sense, Shen-shidi. It would also be prudent to begin thinking of a candidate for a head disciple.”

“There is no one that this master is interested in as of yet.”

Yue Qingyuan dips his head, accepting Shen Qingiu’s statement graciously.

“It is early to be thinking on such a matter, but I know that Shen-shidi has been working hard, so it would benefit him to have someone to share his workload with. Of course, I am here to support Shen-shidi in the meantime, but I do worry.”

Shen Qingqiu performs his own, incredibly repressed, version of a grimace at the sappiness of Yue Qingyuan’s rambling.

Shen Yuan can tell the difference between his expressions now. It’s a key to survival in the Bamboo House.

He ponders the whereabouts of Ming Fan. Surely Shen Qingqiu will select that cannon fodder as his head disciple soon and then he’ll be coming in everyday as Shen Qingqiu’s glorified receptionist. If Shen Yuan is still living here, it’ll be awfully cramped.

Shen Yuan corrects his posture when he realises that Yue Qingyuan is watching him with a soft contemplative gaze. The sect leader smiles mysteriously at him, then moves onto the next topic on his agenda.

 

4. Shen Yuan’s progress.

“How has A-Yuan been doing recently? I believe he has grown a little taller.”

Shen Yuan sits up straight. He has?

“In terms of his recovery, he still has some ways to go,” Shen Qingqiu replies, after some moments of thought. “This master is concerned that he would struggle if he were to live the normal life of a disciple at this moment.”

Yue Qingyuan looks surprised. “Some ways to go? It has been quite a few months since he was first taken under your care. Perhaps we might need to do something drastic, as it can’t be good for anyone to harbour so much demonic energy inside their body.”

Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrows quirk upwards at this.

Yue Qingyuan continues, “We should raise this with Mu-shidi immediately. Shen-shidi, is it not possible to have the child perform the technique that you used?

Shen Qingqiu stiffens. “No,” he says quickly.

Yue Qingyuan frowns. “Is it a lack of materials? I will send for anything that shidi needs - Shang Qinghua should be able to procure even the most obscure of items to create the array--”

“Shen Yuan will not undergo that ritual,” the other man says, his voice low. “He is progressing well enough with the techniques I am teaching him.”

Yue Qingyuan falls silent for a while. His eyes are downturned, and Shen Yuan thinks he looks like a lost puppy. Shen Qingqiu is sitting stiffly, and with a mechanical motion, he takes another sip of tea.

“...And that is demonic cultivation, correct?” Yue Qingyuan asks quietly.

“Yes, it is demonic cultivation,” Shen Qingqiu grinds out. “I thought Zhangmen-shixiong was already aware of this.”

Yue Qingyuan quickly moves on.

 

5. AOB.

The rest of the visit becomes irreparably awkward. Shen Qingqiu immediately fell into a mood the moment Yue Qingyuan mentioned demonic cultivation, only replying to the sect leader’s questions in the briefest, most clipped of tones, so Yue Qingyuan excuses himself almost immediately afterwards.

Shen Yuan wonders if he imagined that Yue Qingyuan was standing a little less taller as he left than when he first came in.

Shen Qingqiu’s gaze is distant, fixed vaguely on the dish on the table where the corners of the remaining pear slices are beginning to turn brown. Yue Qingyuan had taken one, but Shen Qingqiu did not eat a single slice. The peak lord’s hand flexes and relaxes periodically around the cup in his hand.

Shen Yuan does not move either. He wouldn’t dare to unless he was excused. It’s easy to compare him to a frightened animal when he’s like this; any sudden action would cause him to lash out, and if Shen Yuan remains silent and out of the way, it would only be a matter of time before Shen Qingqiu retreats somewhere quiet to calm himself down and lick his wounds.

Shen Yuan remains seated as Shen Qingqiu rises from his seat, face blank. He summons his sword to his side, and begins to move silently towards the door. Shen Qingqiu stops.

“Shen Yuan, clean up,” he says. His voice betrays nothing except for a slight roughness that is slowly smoothed out as he continues speaking. “Give Xu Jiao my regards during your appointment today. You will spend the rest of the day meditating and copying the passages I set yesterday.”

Shen Qingqiu takes a step, then stops again. He does not bother turning around. “If Yue Qingyuan or Mu Qingfang ask to perform any sort of treatment on you, you must inform me immediately. Do not let them touch you without my permission.”

The peak lord disappears from the office like a ghost, leaving Shen Yuan to his contemplation at the peak lord’s words. Shen Yuan wasn’t privy to whatever behemoth that Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan were skirting around, but he isn’t stupid.

There’s another solution to having an excess of demonic energy that doesn’t involve demonic cultivation, besides the artifacts that Shen Qingqiu had hidden in some obscure corner of the Bamboo House. He wouldn’t be surprised if he’d destroyed them, to be honest. And Shen Qingqiu doesn’t like this other solution either, so Shen Yuan will believe him on this one too. Even though Shen Qingqiu is technically the Scum Villain and his past self would probably choke at the thought of trusting him, Shen Qingqiu hasn’t done anything but help him recover with the utmost care. He’ll trust Shen Qingqiu over Yue Qingyuan, and even Mu Qingfang, at a push, when it comes to getting better.

And now he has to admit it - his health still has room to improve. It’s been a while since he’s coughed up blood, but his chest still feels tight sometimes when he wakes, and when he’s feeling particularly sad or frustrated, it can be difficult to keep reign over the swirling core of resentful energy in his chest.

Having a bounty of spiritual energy had taken care of most of the small things, though. He bets he could run a marathon like nobody’s business, and he can do walking handstands (!!!), and even somersaults!

In the early days, after he’d made some good progress in his spiritual cultivation and in the rare moments where Shen Qingqiu gave him a break, Shen Yuan would sometimes just run around the private courtyard and revel in his newfound bodily strength with an uncontrollable smile on his face, jumping around everywhere and probably looking like a complete idiot. Shen Qingqiu would only sigh from the patio, and occasionally scold him if the breeze from Shen Yuan’s running turned a page in his book.

Shen Yuan takes a slice of pear and eats it at a leisurely pace, reminiscing at the memory.

Even when he was a kid in his past life, he’d never been allowed to go crazy like that. His parents would always worry about aggravating his conditions, so they’d just force him on boring nature walks with regular breaks and lukewarm thermoses of tea. It’s probably why he had such a bad view on exercise in his past life. He’s sure that all of this running around will get old quickly.

Suddenly, Shen Yuan drops his half-eaten slice on the table in horror. Xu Jiao is visiting today, and he’d completely forgotten about it. He needs to tidy this place up!

 


 

“Shen Yuan’s body is getting stronger,” Xu Jiao says in her usual deadpan way, releasing his wrist. The examination is in Shen Qingqiu’s office, one of the largest rooms in the Bamboo house. Shen Qingqiu had given them permission to use it during previous appointments.

Shen Yuan rubs at his wrist, working away the tingly feeling. “Jiao-jie, can you tell my Shizun that I’m well enough to go to classes now? You don’t feel anything strange about me, right?”

He gives her his shiniest and most pitiful eyes possible. Xu Jiao looks up from the small pouch of medicine she had been sorting through. Her face does not change in the slightest.

“I will ask my Shizun to have a word with yours. I do not sense any demonic energy from you. Have you begun to expel the energy yet?”

When Shen Yuan shakes his head, Xu Jiao’s eyes widen slightly.

“Shen Yuan must have made much progress in his cultivation this past year to be able to hide such a quantity.” She looks vaguely fascinated. Definitely Mu Qingfang’s head disciple.

She reaches out her hand again towards Shen Yuan’s wrist and Shen Yuan lets her take it. He’s proud that he doesn’t shiver as Xu Jiao sends another thread of spiritual energy straight into his chest cavity. It circles several times around his spiritual core and the thick layer of spiritual energy that encases the compressed core of demonic energy. Xu Jiao doesn’t even come close to breaching this before the thread dissipates and she releases his wrist once again.

“I am impressed. Shen Yuan has so much spiritual energy that containing it must not strain him at all. Now he should work on his physical cultivation,” she says steadily, poking one of Shen Yuan’s thin, noodly arms.

Shen Yuan pouts. He looks down at his hands. They’re small and pale, with small smudges of ink from the calligraphy he had practiced while waiting for Xu Jiao.

He sighs.

“I just want to go outside,” he says in a small voice. “I don’t have any friends. It’s so lonely here.”

A small frown appears on Xu Jiao’s face. It seems she is easily swayed by children.

“I am your friend,” she says. “There are many on Cang Qiong who would like to meet Shen Yuan as well. Do you think no one has noticed that your Shizun has been busy looking after you this past year? Your Shizun is right to introduce you to them slowly, as some of them may not understand you straight away. Have patience, Shen Yuan.”

Shen Yuan pouts even more. “That’s what Shizun said.”

Xu Jiao taps his nose, making him scrunch it up immediately. “He knows more than both of us,” she says simply.

Shen Yuan sneezes.

 


 

The sunlight through the paper windows dims down to a soft yellow-orange as the day moves from early evening into dusk. Shen Yuan kneels in the entrance hall to the Bamboo House.

It’s not because he wants to greet his Shizun when he comes back. It’s highly likely that Shen Qingqiu has run off to a brothel for the night and won’t come back until the early hours of the morning. Instead, Shen Yuan is going on the hunt.

If he’s bored, he might as well find entertainment somehow!

Shen Yuan suppresses his spiritual energy to conceal his presence, and stills his movements completely. Using his cultivation-enhanced hearing, he senses quiet footsteps crunching lightly into gravel. They are slow and careful, as if the person is carrying something heavy or fragile. The gravel turns into light thunks against wood. They’re going up the stairs.

Shen Yuan is gracious; he lets his target place down their object before he uses spiritual energy to leap forward and yank open the door in less than a heartbeat.

A small boy shrieks dramatically and falls backwards.

Shen Yuan does not help him. Instead he watches impassively from the doorway as he tumbles down several wooden steps and lands on the gravel path. A small cloud of dust puffs out comically from the impact.

A covered tray of food lies at Shen Yuan’s feet, just past the threshold. It’s a very familiar sight. Shen Qingqiu would ask him to fetch the food that would be left there periodically throughout the day, but if Shen Yuan hung around near the entrance to try to catch sight of whoever delivered it, he would usually be scolded and forced to do a handstand in the corner of the office while Shen Qingqiu ate his dinner first.

The kid leaps up with a surprising amount of energy and glares at him.

“I--I wasn’t scared! How dare you!” The ugly, childish fury on the boy’s face confirms Shen Yuan’s suspicions immediately. “I will be telling Shizun about this as soon as he returns!”

The boy looks absolutely baffled when Shen Yuan does not cower away like the other students

Instead, Shen Yuan feels a wide and toothy grin spread across his face. This is hilarious! It’s Ming Fan, the future head bully of Qing Jing Peak. And he’s just as tiny as him!

Chapter Text

Ming Fan’s high ponytail is severe and slightly askew with two short wispy strands sticking out stubbornly from his temples. His pale green robes and his hair are covered with fine white dust, and his face is about an average level of attractiveness.

The book had described Shen Qingqiu’s head disciple as being remarkably ugly. In Proud Immortal Demon Way standards, with incomparable beauties walking around every other chapter, Shen Yuan supposes that ‘just average’ might mean the same as ‘ugly’ in relative terms. Shen Yuan wonders where he would fit on the scale. He was twin brothers with one of the wives, and the wives all had to be attractive, right? But if attractive meant average, then---

“Hey!” the much-younger-looking-than-he-expected cannon fodder shouts. His hands clench at his side in anger and his voice gets higher and higher pitched. “Don’t ignore me! Stop staring at me like you’ve never seen another person before! Apologise right now!”

Shen Yuan feels a surge of annoyance. “Be quiet,” he snaps in a voice that's honestly almost as high pitched as Ming Fan's.

Ming Fan gapes at him, as offended as if Shen Yuan had marched right up to him and spat in his face.

Shen Yuan blinks. He hadn’t meant to say that. It seems he’s spent so much time with Shen Qingqiu that he’s started to copy his mannerisms.

Might as well use it to his advantage.

Shen Yuan puffs himself up, straightening his spine, and attempts to give off the same frosty air as his Shizun. “Don’t cause such a fuss outside of the bamboo house,” he says cooly. “It was a simple mistake.”

Shen Yuan’s act only seems to make Ming Fan even more furious. A finger points at him, shaking in fury. “You won’t even apologise!” he squeaks. “Don’t think that just because Shizun likes you that you can be rude to your shixiongs!”

Shen Yuan’s eyebrows shoot up. “Shixiong?” he says, confused.

Ming Fan is older than him? He looks about the same age. The other boy is maybe a little taller. Ming Fan scowls.

“Yes! I came to this peak one moon before you! Shizun wouldn’t tell me why he wanted two meals instead of one, but I’m not stupid! I’m the only disciple that Shizun has allowed to deliver things to the Bamboo House for the past year!”

Shen Yuan’s mouth hangs open. He and Ming Fan arrived at Cang Qiong around the same time then. Of course he’s not Head Disciple yet. He’s not even a teen yet. So does that mean Luo Binghe and Ning Yingying haven’t arrived yet at all?

He stands there, struggling to immediately understand the implications of this, before Ming Fan huffs and begins to brush off the dust from his disheveled robes. When he’s done the best he can, Ming Fan begrudgingly drops into a half bow, as if abruptly remembering his manners.

“My name is Ming Fan. My family owns a tea plantation at the base of Cang Qiong mountain. I am their fourth son,” he says through gritted teeth.

Feeling mildly amused, Shen Yuan makes his own introduction. Shen Qingqiu had made him practice his bows, so this one should be almost perfect. He cups one hand in the other and raises them to chest level.

“This one greets Ming Fan,” he says evenly. “My name is Shen Yuan.”

“Shen…” The other boy repeats. When Shen Yuan straightens up, he seems to see something in Shen Yuan’s face that has him looking with even more scrutiny. Ming Fan takes a step forward, his brow furrowing and his mouth falling into a tremendous frown. “Are you… Are you Shizun’s--”

Shen Yuan,” he hears from the far end of the gravel path.

Shen Yuan goes as pale as a sheet.

Oh.

Oh, shit.

Shen Qingqiu storms through the front court with long strides and elegant sleeves billowing out behind him, barely sparing Ming Fan a glance, before he grasps Shen Yuan’s arm and pulls him inside of the house.

The front door is left open for a moment, giving Shen Yuan a view of Ming Fan peering at them with intense fascination, before Shen Qingqiu gives him a frosty glance and Ming Fan drops immediately to his knees in a reverent bow covering himself in dust once more.

“This lowly disciple greets--!”

Shen Qingqiu slams the door in his face. Shen Yuan flinches at the sound.

When the peak lord turns back to Shen Yuan, his eyes are wild with anger and something else, his pupils almost shrunk to pinpricks. Shen Yuan stares back, terrified.

“What. Are. You. Doing?” Shen Qingqiu asks through gritted teeth.

Shen Yuan is lost for words. The man glares at him.

“Sh-Shizun,” he stutters, finally bending under the peak lord’s stare. “I… I just wanted to talk to--”

“You’ll have plenty of time to talk later,” Shen Qingqiu snarls, “because that brat is going to tell the whole mountain that he met the idiotic child living with the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak.”

A wave of frustration suddenly washes over him, and Shen Yuan’s heart thuds in his chest as he tries to avoid cowering under the full heat of Shen Qingqiu’s glare. He straightens up and does his best to glare back.

“Why is that so bad? Can’t we tell them the truth?” he yells back. Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrows knit together into an even deeper scowl, but he doesn’t interrupt as Shen Yuan continues to speak. “What’s so shameful about me that you must hide me like this? You know that I can control myself. Aren’t I doing enough?”

Shen Yuan’s voice cracks. He feels his mouth wobble and his eyes begin to water. He really is a child again.

“Haven’t I done enough?” Shen Yuan whispers to the ground as he tries but fails to stop big, fat tears from spilling down his cheeks.

The hand on Shen Yuan’s arm releases, leaving behind a pink mark on his wrist. He lets it fall to his side. Shen Qingqiu’s mouth twists, but he says nothing.

“I...I just want to be normal.” Shen Yuan uses his freed hand to try and wipe the tears away, but they keep coming. Why is he so sad all of a sudden? There’s a lump in his throat, and he can’t stop himself from hiccuping and sniffing as big, dramatic sobs wrack his entire body.

He’s just… He’s so lonely here. He’s stuck here, in this weird land, without anyone to talk to. Waking up in a whole new body with a weird version of Google Translate holding a ransom over his head and a bunch of demonic energy threatening his life at every waking moment isn’t a holiday for him. The hours spent alone aren’t making the anxiety and restlessness easier, even when he tries to distract himself with studying or meditation, and Shen Qingqiu isn’t exactly forthcoming with casual conversation or comfort.

His family always knew how to comfort him when he got too stressed and upset. His meimei would always give the best hugs. He misses them so, so much and he’s never going to see them again. 

“I--I want my sister,” he sobs. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widen.

Embarrassed, Shen Yuan covers his face with trembling hands. He’s really losing it, isn’t he?

“Control yourself,” Shen Qingqiu says sternly, at Shen Yuan’s continued weeping.

When he dares to look up, Shen Qingqiu looks incredibly uncomfortable. Without the righteous anger bolstering him, Shen Qingqiu looks like nothing more than an emotionally stunted man confronted with a crying child with no idea of what to do next.

Shen Yuan tries to get a better hold of himself and focuses on the peak lord’s feet while he tries to take several stuttering breaths. He sees Shen Qingqiu’s right-hand move and fails to stifle another flinch.

It lands lightly on the top of Shen Yuan’s head, shocking Shen Yuan so much that he loses his focus and a fresh wave of tears fall from his eyes. His bottom lip wobbles even more.

“There’s no need to cry,” Shen Qingqiu says gruffly, in a way that reminds Shen Yuan of Liu Qingge. Shen Yuan can’t even begin to wonder what the man is thinking. He wonders what kind of punishment he will receive for his outburst.

“This master…” The peak lord trails off. “This master will think about what you said. For now, clean yourself up and come eat your dinner.”

The hand lingers on Shen Yuan’s head a moment more before it lifts away as Shen Qingqiu moves past him to open the front door. Ming Fan had of course run off by now. Shen Yuan watches in teary-eyed shock as the peak lord stoops down gracefully to pick up the tray of food.

When he straightens up, Shen Yuan could have sworn he had a little pink in his cheeks.

“What are you staring at?” Shen Qingqiu scolds him. “Go wash your face, this master is not going to wait for you all day!”

And somehow Shen Yuan’s tears stop, just like that. This man is just too unpredictable!

 


 

A week and a half after Shen Yuan’s little outburst, Ming Fan is asked not to deliver dinner to the Bamboo House. Instead of eating bland food from the Qing Jing kitchens, Shen Qingqiu makes Shen Yuan dinner in the small kitchen at the Bamboo House.

And he hadn’t only cooked it -- Shen Qingqiu had butchered the meat himself.

The first time this happened Shen Yuan would have keeled over in shock if he wasn’t already running off of the adrenaline he’d gained from watching Shen Qingqiu scream at Liu Qingge for leaving an ugly beast to bleed out on his front lawn.

The man was just as honourable as Liu Mingyan had lamented in the novel.

“And why has Liu-shidi seen fit to grace us with his presence this morning?”

The man straightens up and clenches and unclenches his fists at his side. He’s glaring down at Shen Qingqiu’s feet.

“I have come to… apologise,” Liu Qingge mumbles.

Shen Qingqiu quirks an eyebrow and fans himself lazily. “And what is that for, Liu-shidi? For breaking into my home? Believing the gossip of your blockheaded disciples? Maybe for the priceless tomes and antique furniture that you so graciously destroyed? Would you like to apologise for putting back Shen Yuan’s progress by several weeks, or perhaps the mental suffering that he went through after almost being run through with that over-decorated needle?"

Although the peak lord’s face remains perfectly serene, the speed of his fan increases with each of the War God’s crimes until the resulting breeze causes the strands of hair framing his face to flick back and forth.

Shen Yuan feels the breeze from where he stands a few feet behind him. He’d nervously hidden behind his Shizun the moment Liu Qingge had entered the room.

“Which one are you apologising for, shidi?” Shen Qingqiu asks lightly.

Liu Qingge’s head hangs even lower. “I… All of those things,” he says sullenly.

“Hm,” Shen Qingqiu says, and steps aside. Shen Yuan immediately wants to scramble away after the sudden loss of his hiding place, but is immediately caught in the intense gaze of the man in front of him and freezes stiff.

Liu Qingge is absolutely stone-faced. It’s quite terrifying. The man bows deeply at the waist until his hair obscures one side of his face.

“For harming you and your home… I am truly sorry,” Liu Qingge says gravely.

Shen Yuan’s eyes widen. He’s so serious! It’s not like he died or anything! He’s just going to be a little wary of standing close to him for a while, that’s all!

Shen Yuan’s arms are plastered to his side. All of a sudden, he doesn’t know what to do with them.

“It’s--It’s okay,” he stutters.

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. His fan is moving so quickly its movements are barely visible to the naked eye. “It is not okay.” His voice is cold. “Accept his apology with grace, but do not let anyone do what he did and say it is okay.

The Peak Lord of Qing Jing and Second in Command of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect punctuates “okay” with a violent snap as he closes his fan. Shen Yuan flinches. Liu Qingge does too, but he does not break form.

When Shen Yuan does not pipe up straight away, Shen Qingqiu gives him a stern look.

Shen Yuan reluctantly directs his gaze back to the bent over Liu Qingge. He hopes his back doesn't hurt from holding it for too long. “Um! I--This Shen Yuan accepts your apology. It is nice to finally meet you… Liu-shishu.”

Liu Qingge closes his eyes and slowly rises up. The man takes a sharp, controlled breath and the frown on his face grows even deeper. He immediately drops into a bow in Shen Qingqiu’s direction.

“I am… This Liu Qingge apologises to Shen Qingqiu for...misunderstanding him.” The words come out both fast and slow and he glares a hole in the floor, as if it is exceedingly difficult for Liu Qingge to get the words out.

The fan in Shen Qingqiu’s right-hand twitches, the only sign that tells Shen Yuan that his Shizun is surprised by his shidi’s actions. Do you really think this poorly of Liu Qingge, Shen Qingqiu?! He did break into your house and accuse you of treason, of course he’ll apologise to you as well!

“I did not mean to undermine the recovery of your…” Liu Qingge’s gaze darts between the two of them, “...Disciple,” he grinds out. “I…I would help Shen Yuan recover by giving him something I found during my last excursion.” At Shen Qingqiu’s silent evaluating look, he grimaces and straightens up. “I will take my leave.”

Liu Qingge then attempts to make a swift getaway through the front door. Shen Qingqiu follows equally swiftly, sees the carcass ruining the view of his beautiful front garden, and starts screeching.

Liu Qingge, veins pulsing in his temple, had visibly held himself back from launching into an argument with him and flown off to Bai Zhan after muttering that it would help with Shen Yuan’s cultivation, leaving Shen Qingqiu and Shen Yuan to stare down at the weird, hideously deformed chimera that Liu Qingge had bestowed them with.

The Peak Lord of Bai Zhan from then on had taken to gifting Shen Qingqiu the carcasses of beasts whose flesh were well known for having nourishing or cleansing properties every other month or so.

The dinner that day would always be absolutely delicious, at least compared to the normal bland and nearly meatless fair they would usually eat. It was always soup, but he supposes it’s not surprising that the peak lord’s repertoire is so limited. He’d probably never had to cook during his time at the Qius with a legion of the noble family’s chefs to cater to him, and Shen Yuan thinks that cooking would hardly be on the Qing Jing curriculum.

His Shizun serves the Winged Snow Boar that Liu Qingge had slapped on their doorstep this month in a thin, clear broth lightly flavoured with ginger, with a generous helping of meat and wood ear mushroom. Shen Qingqiu has the weirdly magical ability to turn a very small amount of ingredients into something incredibly delicious.

Maybe it is magic. The moment Shen Yuan takes a sip, he is sure his eyes must be sparkling with delight because Shen Qingqiu looks vaguely satisfied as he takes the first spoon of his own.

Shen Yuan really does feel extra nourished after eating these weird creatures. It’s like Liu Qingge predicted he would need the extra energy over the next few days when he gave them this particular beast. Tomorrow morning Shen Yuan is going to make his sparkling debut on Qing Jing Peak in the first class that Shen Qingqiu had decided was the most suitable for him. He isn’t nervous at all!

While Shen Yuan desperately tries to remember the directions to the classrooms Ming Fan had given him during his tour of Qing Jing Peak a week ago, Shen Qingqiu refills Shen Yuan’s bowl without spilling a single drop.

“Be sure to finish the assigned reading,” his Shizun says mildly.

Silly man. Shen Yuan had finished the reading on the day he set it!

 


 

Wang Xizhi is halfway down the path between the disciples’ quarters and the classrooms when he spots a little boy peering awkwardly down the small side path that leads down to the Cold Pool.

He is one of the cutest children Wang Xizhi had ever seen; he’s a little short and scrawny, but his face is round and soft with big, doe-like brown eyes and a small mouth pulled into a confused frown. Dressed up in fresh green robes, he must be one of the newest additions to the peak.

He stops at a distance and watches him take a few steps towards the Cold Pool. He stops and shakes his head (causing his high ponytail to jostle around almost comically), then marches down the main path and stops again, visibly deliberating something in his head.

“Hello there, shidi,” he calls out. “Do you need some help?”

When he speaks, the little boy snaps his head around. His eyes grow bigger as he begins to close the distance between them and he takes a step back, as if scared. One tiny hand rises to his mouth, and the boy begins to nervously chew at the nail on his thumb.

When he stops right in front of him, his eyes seem to get even bigger as he cranes his neck up to look at him. Wang Xizhi resists the urge to awww at him.

“My name is Wang Xizhi. You may call me Wang-shixiong,” he says in a soft voice that he usually reserves for the small, scared animals that the other disciples often bring to him in a panic. “What’s your name?”

The little boy bows with perfect posture. He must come from a good family. “This one’s name is Shen Yuan. Nice to meet you, Wang Xizhi-shixiong,” he says in an adorable attempt at imitating their Shizun’s overly formal and elegant way of speaking.

Wang Xizhi gives him an encouraging smile, and inwardly begins to wonder why he has never noticed such a cute shidi like this running around before. It’s been a little while since the last disciple choosing, after all.

“If it’s no trouble, could Fang-shixiong please help me find the classrooms?” the little boy asks him shyly.

“Of course,” Wang Xizhi coos at him. He holds out a hand and little Shen Yuan takes it. He notices that it is a lot colder than his. Oh dear, is he sick?

As they walk down the path, they bump into Zhu Wen, another outer disciple who also likes getting to her classes early in the morning. She absolutely melts after seeing Shen Yuan and takes his other hand. Together they lead Shen Yuan all the way to a classroom where a beginners calligraphy class is scheduled to be held by one of the senior outer disciples.

They give him a gentle nudge into the room, but Shen Yuan hovers around the threshold and peers around uncertainly at the small group of younger disciples, only a few years older than him. Many of the students stare back at him, showing not a single hint of recognition on their faces. Some of them turn and whisper to each other.

The boy turns back to Wang Xizhi and Zhu Wen and cocks his head, confused once more. “Is this the Poetry class?” he asks.

Wang Xizhi blinks, before crouching to Shen Yuan’s level. “No, this is a calligraphy class,” he says kindly. “Did A-Yuan not receive a timetable for his classes yet?”

Shen Yuan looks taken aback, then visibly distraught. His mouth wobbles and Wang Xizhi has to restrain himself from pulling the boy into a hug.

“Are there no poetry classes today?” the small boy asks pitifully.

Zhu Wen and Wang Xizhi share a look.

"Oh, A-Yuan, there is, but it's an advanced class--” Zhu Wen cuts herself off and Wang Xizhi stares when the little boy’s face brightens.

“That’s where Shizun told me to go this morning!” He grins up at the two of them and hops from foot to foot as if itching to run somewhere. “Would Zhu-shijie and Wang-shixiong please take me to that class?”

Wang Xizhi gapes. “But… But that’s our class…”

He trails off when Shizun breezes past them with a collection of marked essays under his arm.

“Hurry up. Tardy students do not have the right to attend,” their Shizun sniffs.

Wang Xizhi and Zhu Wen follow their Shizun in stunned silence as Shen Yuan skips along in the peak lord’s footsteps.

When they reach the classroom and Wang Xizhi sees that Shizun had arranged for an extra desk and an extra booster cushion for little Shen Yuan to sit on, his mind fills with question marks. He looks at his shimei and sees the same thoughts reflected back on her face. In fact, the entire class seems to be staring at this child, who seems to be completely oblivious and vibrating with nervous energy.

Just who is this kid!?

Chapter Text

Outside of the Bamboo House, Shen Qingqiu and Shen Yuan basically ignore each other.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t meet his eyes once during class, except for when he hands him back an essay at the end and says “Not bad,” in a quiet voice before swiftly moving on to deliver a scathing critique to the poor disciple next to him. He gets lots of stares from the other students for that, but he tries not to let it get to him.

It’s like having his mother work in the same school as him - Shen Yuan doesn’t want the peak lord to go around embarrassing him in front of his new friends by scolding him for leaving a drop of soy milk on the table after breakfast, so he’ll stay clear away thank you!

He walks to his classes alone and walks from his classes to the library alone. Or alone as he can get, because apparently after his first few days of attending classes, Shen Qingqiu changed his mind and ordered Ming Fan to accompany him wherever he went when he was outside of the Bamboo House.

Shen Yuan had almost kicked up a fuss and argued with him, but when Shen Qingqiu reminded him of Liu Qingge’s friendly visit, he decided to keep his mouth shut. For obvious reasons, Ming Fan is kept in the dark as to why he has to spend his precious personal time with Shen Yuan so he’s especially bitchy and not at all pleasant to spend his time with.

Oh well, he’s a kid. Shen Yuan’s sure he can get through this just like he gets through the rest of his problems.

“Are you so weak and stupid that Shizun thinks you can’t walk on your own? Why do I have to do this?” Ming Fan whines as they walk out of a beginner’s calligraphy lesson.

Shen Yuan ignores him.

“What family are you even from? I don’t know any famous Shens… Besides Shizun of course,” Ming Fan mumbles as they tune their qins in the back of the music practice room

Shen Yuan ignores him.

“Why do you live with Shizun? Are you too good to live with the rest of us disciples?” Ming Fan yells when he has to decline an invitation from the other junior disciples to poke at a dead frog that they’d found behind the kitchens to walk Shen Yuan home instead.

Shen Yuan ignores him, but only after a moment of hesitation, because he kind of wants to go poke the frog too.

“Why are you always going to the library so much? It’s so boring!”

Shen Yuan actually gapes at that one. The future head disciple of the scholarly peak doesn’t enjoy reading? How does this even make sense?

Noticing the reaction, Ming Fan blushes and walks a little faster down the path, so Shen Yuan has to hop a little to keep up. “Look! I like reading as much as the next kid, but I’d rather work on my sword fighting, okay?”

“Why didn’t you go to Bai Zhan then,” Shen Yuan mutters, mostly to himself.

Ming Fan blushes even harder.

“I--It would be an honour to study under Liu Qingge. He’s a hero! Did you know that I got to see Cheng Luan in person once? He flew right over me into the Bamboo House. I bet you didn’t even notice because you were too busy reading.

Oh my God, Shen Yuan thinks helplessly. The stupidity radiating from this boy is almost too much to handle. He almost can’t take it.

As stupid as he is, Ming Fan sticks to his duty of getting Shen Yuan home safe as diligently as ever.

One afternoon, Ming Fan gets pulled into a conversation by one of his future lackeys on what sheath design they would want for their spiritual sword, while the other lackey decides to get the jump on Shen Yuan and send him sprawling into the dust. The books in his arms fly everywhere, leaving Shen Yuan feeling like the nerdy protagonist of an American high school movie.

Lackey Numbers One and Two laugh hysterically while Ming Fan whips around and stares at Shen Yuan. He looks mortified.

“Serves you right, newbie!” Lackey Number One cackles. “Maybe you should stop walking around with your head so high if you can’t even dodge a hit from me!”

“Yeah! Serves you right!” Number Two squeaks.

Shen Yuan is not amused. That was a first edition Central Plains Bestiary he’d been carrying - the Qing Jing librarian is going to kill him. He’s not looking forward to the next time he stops by his table to ruffle his hair, that’s for sure.

Plus, that stupid kid hit him in the stomach and it hurts!

“Stop that right now!” Ming Fan’s voice is impressively loud. He shoves Number Two away and offers Shen Yuan a hand to get up, awkwardly refusing to meet his eyes and delivering a glare at the lackeys instead. Shen Yuan reluctantly accepts it.

Lackey Number One, the tall weedy one, deflates and begins pouting like the little child he is.

Lackey Number Two bristles. “Why not? Weren’t you saying that he needs to be cut down a peg? He’s a disciple like us, why is he walking around like he’s too high-born to play with us? He just sits in the library all day and gets to spend all of his time with Shizun! We should push him again!”

When Shen Yuan catches Ming Fan’s eye briefly, the boy looks incredibly embarrassed and whirls back to the other two disciples.

“Shizun told me that Shen Yuan is recovering from illness and that I should make sure that he gets home safe every day. Don’t go pushing him around! Our Shizun, a Peak Lord ordered this. Do you want to get thrown off of the peak?”

His face is beet red when he grabs the front of Lackey Number Two’s robes and shoves him into the other one. They two boys struggle upright and bow their heads, looking appropriately cowed.

“I told both of you that already,” Ming Fan continues ranting, “and I said that other thing in private, Tang Yao, can’t you keep your stupid mouth shut for more than a day?!”

Tang Yao looks like he’s about to cry.

Shen Qingqiu told Ming Fan that? Really? That’s a little… Is that why all of the other disciples have been so nice to him? Because their Shizun told them to?

After the two cannon fodders run off, Shen Yuan is shocked when Ming Fan stalks towards him and begins to slap him lightly all over.

“What are you doing?” Shen Yuan cries, squirming away and feeling like an affronted maiden.

“I can’t let Shizun see that you got pushed over,” the boy grumbles. “Help me get all of this dust off before Shizun notices.”

Shen Yuan sighs and begins brushing off the dust too. He’d like to avoid the main villain kicking up a fuss. When Ming Fan slaps him lightly in the stomach, he yelps and doubles over. That lackey hit him harder than he thought. That’s what happens when you subject ten-year-olds to intense physical training everyday without break!

Ming Fan jolts back. His eyes are wide and begin scanning Shen Yuan’s body all over. “Are you hurt?”

Shen Yuan straightens up. “I’m fine,” he says stubbornly, and adjusts his belt to make it a little looser.

Ming Fan looks sceptical. “Do I need to take you to Qian Cao? I don’t think Shizun will complain if you’re late getting back if it’s for your health.”

“No! Stop freaking out,” Shen Yuan replies hotly. He thought this was supposed to be a new life, is he going to be constantly accosted by groups of people overly invested in his health in all of his reincarnations?

He thinks he looks okay now. His robes might need to be rearranged, but he’s not doing it out here. Shen Yuan starts walking home.

“Oi!” Ming Fan’s voice gets closer as he runs to catch up. “You’re walking the wrong way. It’s down this path.”

Shen Yuan feels his face grow warm before he turns around and marches in the right direction. Why is he so concerned about saving face in front of a ten-year-old?

 


 

The more Shen Yuan thinks about what Shen Qingqiu told Ming Fan, the more all of this makes sense. He’s never been the kind of guy to completely avoid all human contact, but the intense interest that seems to drive everyone to approach him is beginning to get irritating, especially when he just wants to sit under a nice sunny tree and read the latest book he’d taken out of the library.

He knows he said he wanted someone to talk to, but this is too much after a year of isolation!

“Are you an outer disciple, A-Yuan? I haven’t seen you in the dorms before.”

Song Pao had sat down closest to him with a book of her own, under the guise of studying for her next essay. Shen Yuan hadn’t seen her turn a single page. She and her friends had been asking him questions since noon.

Shen Yuan keeps his nose stuck in his book. He’s using it as a shield, because being surrounded by this gaggle of enthusiastic teenagers is honestly overwhelming.

“No Song-shijie, I live with Shizun,” he says, taking special care to sound as polite and cultured as possible. He really wants to avoid leaving any bad blood on Cang Qiong behind when he runs off to build his cottage.

The group of disciples surrounding him had been chatting and giggling amongst themselves, but after the revelation that he lived with their cold and impersonal Shizun, they all fall silent and gape at him in wonder.

“Why do you live with Shizun?” Song Pao asks eagerly. “Are you a relative of his?”

“Um,” Shen Yuan says cleverly. He feels himself blush and hides himself even further behind his book.

He hadn’t gotten too far into creating his fake Qing Jing disciple back story. He should have asked Shen Qingqiu to help him out before making his debut - Cang Qiong’s head tactician should be able to spin something clever out of all of the mixed signals he’s been giving everyone! He’ll ask him over dinner tonight.

A strong gust of mountain wind blasts into Shen Yuan’s face. The book does nothing to stop it, the pages flipping back and forth wildly and causing his eyes to tear up as the breeze irritates them.

Song Pao, taking no notice of the place she’s just lost in her book, looks suddenly and bafflingly distraught. “Oh no, A-Yuan… Is it something… bad? Is Shizun helping you with it?”

Shen Yuan stares back at her. A stray tear runs down his cheek. What is she talking about?

“Are you ill, A-Yuan?” one of the outer disciples whispers loudly.

“Did he rescue you from somewhere?”

“Could you parents not look after you anymore?”

He scrubs the base of his palm over his face, trying to clean the tears away, but they’re quickly replaced by several more. God, why are they watering so much? Does he have a pollen allergy or something?

Song Pao’s eyes glitter in sympathy. “A-Yuan, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t have to,” she says softly.

“Yeah, A-Yuan, let us cheer you up!”

A box of sesame encrusted pastries is shoved under his nose. His watery eyes widen in shock. They look so beautifully arranged and they smell wonderful. Shen Qingqiu never let him have any of the sweets that the sect leader gifted to his Shizun. They would have hindered his recovery, apparently.

“I… I can have one?” Shen Yuan whispers.

“You haven’t tried these before, have you?” someone above him says. “My brother sent them, they’re my favourite!”

He shakes his head. “I haven’t had any sweets yet,” he mumbles distractedly.

Shen Yuan is so focused on the pretty designs stamped into the pastries and the sweet paste oozing so enticingly from each one that he doesn't notice the entire retinue of disciples around him wilt. Even Wang Xizhi and Zhu Wen, the eldest of the group, look miserable.

“You didn’t even get to eat sweets before coming here?”

“He didn’t eat any pastries?! What does he eat with his tea then?”

“He’s so small, they probably starved him!”

Someone wails in anguish. Shen Yuan doesn’t hear them. Hypnotised, he raises one small hand and tentatively reaches for one of the sweets.

“Alright everyone! Stop crowding him!” Ming Fan shouts, finally stepping out from his spot on the other side of the tree. He’d been struggling through a lengthy tome in preparation for their next assignment on cultivation philosophy. Shen Yuan has the same assignment. Even though he’d apparently been well-read enough for poetry classes with the older students, Shen Qingqiu had decided that most of his other classes should be with the same people in his cohort. Shen Yuan hadn’t really cared. Why would he volunteer to do more work?

Ming Fan shoves past the disciples to stand in front of Shen Yuan, his arms crossed and chest puffed out. Though he’s only ten, the energy he seems to be giving off makes everyone calm down a little and break into their own smaller groups.

Ming Fan takes the box of pastries and shoves them back into the hands of the particularly generous disciple who had offered them. “Shizun won’t be happy if we feed him unhealthy food. Keep them to yourself.”

The disciple bows his head and slinks off, but not before looking at Shen Yuan with big, pitiful eyes one last time.

When the delicious pastries leave his vision, Shen Yuan snaps back to reality and glares at Ming Fan. “I wanted one!”

“Not my problem. Ask Shizun’s permission if you want sweets,” Ming Fan grunts as he slides down the tree trunk next to Shen Yuan to get back to his book.

As if! He’s probably just going to be eating watery soup, plain rice and steamed vegetables for dinner today. Again!!

 


 

Just like the young people of his original world, fads come and go. Shen Yuan is just another one of those fads. Instead of flocking around him, the disciples go back to gossiping about things other than Shen Yuan. They’ll just stare at him a little instead, and whisper something to their companions when they spot Shen Yuan down the path or see him sitting on the grass to soak in the fresh air before returning to the stuffy Bamboo House. Ming Fan rolls his eyes each time.

A few of the older ones do try to ask Shen Yuan in a roundabout way how he came to Qing Jing and his relationship with Shizun, but Shen Yuan just looks down and tells them that he doesn’t want to talk about it. It's a highly effective method at getting them to back off immediately. They usually offer him a light head pat before walking off with a face that would make you believe they’d just kicked a puppy by accident.

The younger ones are a little more insistent when they invite him to the dorms or to eat dinner in the canteen, but Shen Yuan politely declines and tells them that he doesn’t want to upset Shizun by making him eat alone. They always get a little wide-eyed after that for some reason.

With the hustle and bustle of class, assignments and a Ming Fan whining in his ear, Shen Yuan just doesn’t have the energy. Stop putting on the act, people! This little Yuan-er knows you’re all only doing this for Shizun’s sake!

The library is the best place to rest, because the Qing Jing Librarian is so strict that if their cultivation-enhanced hearing senses a single word from someone’s mouth, an enchanted brush and paper floats immediately to that person’s table and the offender is forced to copy the library rules ten times. If they try to leave without doing it, the paper plasters itself to their faces so they’re forced to walk blind until the librarian enforces it in person. It sounded absolutely terrifying when Ming Fan smugly explained all of this before his first visit.

Shen Yuan wasn’t attending the physical cultivation classes yet, so Ming Fan would drop him off at the library, sprint off to his own lesson, and sprint back to take him home at the end of the day, grumbling the entire time.

After a full week of spending too much time reading through the fiction section, Shen Yuan sneezed after getting a face full of dust from one of the bookshelves in the far corners of the building and hid himself behind it, terrified of being punished.

Instead of storming in with a big paper fan to wack Shen Yuan with, the librarian cheerfully meandered over with a cloth duster, patted Shen Yuan on the head, and got to work wiping down the shelves that Shen Yuan had previously been poking his nose into.

Shen Yuan, extremely quietly and carefully, backed away.

When he isn’t in lessons, Ming Fan is forced to sit at a nearby table and pass the time every time Shen Yuan wants to work diligently on his next piece of work or just read for fun.

In the first half an hour Ming Fan usually works almost as diligently as Shen Yuan. The next two hours would then show a steady decline in Ming Fan’s concentration as he would start flipping back and forth in the book staring at the illustrations. Sometimes he copies them in his notes, but sometimes he doodles his own weird, macabre creations. Shen Yuan could have sworn that he had seen a few scruffy portraits of their elegant Shizun in those sheafs of paper as well, but whenever he tried to take a peek, Ming Fan would blush and slam a book over the top of his drawings. If the librarian didn’t suddenly appear by Ming Fan’s desk to scold him for the noise, Ming Fan’s lackeys would wander in and then the real antics would start.

Today, Ming Fan is balancing a brush on his upper lip and wiggling his eyebrows, to the hysterical and perfectly silent laughter of Number One and Number Two. Shen Yuan, who had started the reading for the intimidatingly long Ethics essay that Shen Qingqiu had set them that morning, gives them the side eye.

Children, honestly. Shen Yuan had survived high school and, miraculously, even his bachelor’s degree. He’ll show them how real studying looks! If this material was on anything except magic Shen Yuan would probably be asleep with his head on his desk, but that’s besides the point!

The books stay interesting on his second full day in the library, too.

And the third… He’s a little tired and probably shouldn’t have skipped out on sleep to get his essay plan done, but he’s just getting ahead and saving time for later, that’s all!

On the fourth, Ming Fan actually starts reading a book properly instead of reading the same page over and over again for hours. The lackeys don’t come to his table. His progress is pitifully slow, but so is Shen Yuan’s.

On the fifth day, three days before the deadline, Ming Fan is beginning to look like his soul is leaving his body. Shen Yuan can sympathise. He’s got a first draft, but he knows it’s not acceptable enough for Shen Qingqiu, who will probably rip it apart and insult him personally in a matter of seconds. He’d seen it happen to the other students right in front of his face. There’s always a first for everyone, and Shen Yuan doesn’t think he can take that blow to his confidence any time soon.

On the sixth day, Shen Yuan is proud that he can keep his eyes open… Only just, but still!! It’s better than Ming Fan, who is once again sitting at his desk with a mountain of books and staring dejectedly at the pages of notes on Shen Yuan’s desk. Some of the other disciples stare at the piles of paper on Shen Yuan’s table too as they walk to their own desks. He tries not to think too hard about why because he needs to finish rewriting his… Rewriting his...

When did he close his eyes?

...

Shen Yuan jolts upright. Nope! Not sleeping here!

He feels a lurch of dizziness when he leans over and taps Ming Fan on the shoulder, who until then had been staring at a sheet of paper with a single character written on it for the past twenty minutes.

Ming Fan doesn’t kick up a fuss when Shen Yuan drags the both of them outside to the grassy clearing in front of the library where several groups of disciples have settled for a quick study break or to have cultured, scholarly discussions on whatever subject they deem sophisticated enough. One of the senior disciples will probably moan at them for leaving their stuff on the table later.

He crouches on the grass and stares at the scenic mountain vista visible from all around Qing Jing. He’s so used to it now that he feels nothing. His brain feels like it’s been scooped out of his skull and then slopped back in with an extreme lack of care. Shen Yuan places his hands over his eyes and revels in the coolness of his fingers.

He hears Ming Fan flop onto the grass next to him.

“Shen Yuan.” Ming Fan’s voice is dull. One arm is slung over his eyes, obscuring his face from view.

“What,” says Shen Yuan.

“Shen Yuan… Um.” Ming Fan sounds suddenly very flustered. “Can I ask you something?”

“What is it.”

A hint of pink escapes from behind Ming Fan’s arm. “Can you teach me how to study?”

Pfft.

Ming Fan shoots up, his face bright red, and glares at him. “I knew you’d be like this! D-Don’t make fun of me! We’ve just never had an essay this long before! There’s…. There’s too many books! I usually just do it all the day before,” his hands fly to the grass and start tearing it up, creating an ugly dent in an otherwise idyllic mountain bluff, “I-I don’t know how, I can’t concentrate--”

Shen Yuan holds up a hand. “Okay,” he says.

Ming Fan stares at him in disbelief. “You’re not going to refuse? You’re not worried” he says incredulously, “about our rivalry?”

Pfft.” Shen Yuan doesn’t stop there. He starts laughing. “Hahaha, rivalry, what?

Ming Fan splutters.

“We’re rivals!” he insists. “Everyone says so! Our grades are the best!”

Their grades are the best? Well, maybe for his and Ming Fan’s generation. Shen Yuan barely understands the grading system and hadn’t really cared to ask the other students what they got after their assignments were handed back. They’d usually just ask what he got, Shen Yuan would blurt it out and then he’d run off to the library with a very irritated Ming Fan huffing and puffing behind him.

Shen Yuan sighs and places his hands over his eyes once more as he feels the beginnings of a headache.

God, he’s tired. He doesn’t even know why he’s been trying so hard. He’s been so focused on learning that hasn’t been focusing on what’s been going on around him. Shen Yuan supposes he just wants to be prepared for whatever is out there in the world. He’d originally cursed being in Cang Qiong of all places, a place that would be razed to the ground in not too long, but it’s Shen Yuan’s best chance to make sure he knows enough to survive later on. It’s not like he’ll have anyone to fall back on once he abandons the sect.

“You know, for a kid you’re so boring.”

Shen Yuan uncovers his eyes and glances at the boy next to him. Ming Fan has flopped back down. He twizzles a single blade of grass between his fingers and stares up at the sky. Shen Yuan copies him. It’s a little cloudy today.

“All you do is sit in the library,” Ming Fan continues. He sounds mildly offended “You don’t try to talk to anyone at all. Do you really just want to sit in the dark reading books all day?”

Ah, this again. Here Shen Yuan was thinking he’d blown his cover. “This is Qing Jing. I thought that was why we’re all here.”

“I mean, yes, but… reading from books isn’t all of it.”

“I… “ Shen Yuan furrows his brow. He stares down at the grass swaying back and forth in the late Spring breeze.

One of the groups of disciples across from them bursts into amused titters. They're gossiping about a disciple from Wan Jian Peak who had apparently burnt all of his textbooks after studying in the spiritual forge to try and save time during one of his practical projects.

“I don’t have a family anymore,” he says, deciding to be honest. “I need to know enough so I can protect myself. That’s why I’m studying so hard.”

“Hm.” A pause. “You’re an idiot.”

Like with the other insults that Ming Fan had thrown his way, Shen Yuan doesn’t dignify that with a response. In the corner of his eye, Ming Fan crosses his arms. He mumbles something that gets lost in the wind.

Shen Yuan turns to him. “What?”

Ming Fan’s face scrunches up so much it looks almost comical. He coughs. “You… You do have family now. Qing Jing Peak is your family.” He looks like he immediately wants to vomit.

Ming-shixiong, that was actually… kind of sweet?! Shen Yuan opens his mouth to reply, but he’s not sure what to say.

Ming Fan’s nostrils flair and he scrambles upright. Loose blades of grass stick to his back. His hands tear up even more as he hunches over and starts blushing. “No, shut up! Don’t say anything. Just… Just hurry up and teach me how to make notes like yours!”

A week later, Shen Yuan watches Ming Fan get his essay back from Shen Qingqiu. The peak lord stops briefly at his table to hand him the sheaf of paper, then raises an eyebrow.

“Better than the last,” Shen Qingqiu says blandly, and moves swiftly on.

Ming Fan’s eyes immediately become large and shiny. He clutches the paper to his chest, creating large crumples as his grip tightens and begins to shake.

“Thank you,” he whispers to Shen Qingqiu, who is already on the other side of the room and either doesn’t hear him or chooses to ignore him completely. Probably the latter.

It takes a lot for Shen Yuan not to burst into laughter right there in the middle of the classroom but he can’t hold back an undignified snort.

His classmates watch him, charmed. This kid usually never smiles! They all thought he was depressed!

 

Chapter Text

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?

 

Chapter Text

Mu Qingfang is so nice. It’s been so long since he’s had an appointment with him instead of with Xu Jiao. His smile is so warm and comforting. Xu Jiao’s nice too, but it’s a little embarrassing how much he relaxes after tensing up under examination, all from Mu Qingfang drawing back and just beaming at him.

He just wishes it was under slightly different circumstances. Maybe without a frozen Shen Qingqiu watching the entire process without uttering a single word.

The man doesn’t even blink. His gaze remains on Shen Yuan, but he seems to not focus on him. His eyes are fixed on somewhere in the air between them. He doesn’t look mad. He’s just… tense. Like he’s lost in thought.

Can you not do that with your face pointed at Shen Yuan, please? It’s making him nervous.

Shen Yuan can’t help but stare back at him until Mu Qingfang releases Shen Yuan’s wrist and straightens up. After a questioning look from Shen Yuan and an answering nod, Shen Yuan slowly shrugs on the top half of his inner robes. He has to take his time with it. His limbs feel heavy, and his mind is foggy enough that he has to focus on getting his arms into each sleeve.

He has a slight fever. Shen Yuan’s familiar enough with it to recognise the cold, shivery feeling he has for what it is. It’s got nothing to do with the core of demonic energy pressed compactly into his sternum. It feels as inert and stable as ever.

“Despite being blessed with a large amount of spiritual energy, Yuan-er has exhausted himself,” the man says gently. “If he did not have his... affliction, he would have merely experienced a little more fatigue than normal, but as such a significant quantity was being directed into alleviating his affliction and not making up for the energy deficit in his flesh, Yuan-er fainted and lost control of what little there was preventing the resentful energy from causing damage to his system.”

Mu Qingfang casts a quick glance at the unresponsive Shen Qingqiu. “He also seems to have caught a cold. I recommend a period of bed rest and some regenerative elixirs.”

“This disciple is sorry,” Shen Yuan croaks, “for inconveniencing Mu-shishu with something as small as fatigue. I promise it won’t happen again.”

Shen Yuan coughs a little, and a cup of tea is immediately pressed into his hands by the peak lord. He wonders if Ming Fan ran off to make it before he was sent back to Qing Jing Peak with his head hanging low. Poor kid. He didn’t mean to scare him.

The doctor gives him a scrutinising look. “I appreciate your apology, Shen Yuan, but I can’t let you leave my ward until you inform your Shizun and I why you were so exhausted. Would you care to fill us in?”

Shen Yuan coughs again and takes a sip of tea. “I...I suppose I couldn’t sleep,” he mumbles. He didn’t think it was so bad he’d faint though.

Mu Qingfang gives a small nod. He looks like he’s doing calculations in his head. “For how long?”

Shen Yuan thinks for a moment. “A few weeks.”

“A month. Shen Yuan has not been sleeping well for at least a month.” Finally, Shen Qingqiu is looking at Shen Yuan properly. His eyebrows slowly draw together, breaking the mask that had been on his face since he woke up.

Mu Qingfang frowns. “I’m surprised you did not collapse sooner. How much were you getting each night?”

Ah, this is embarrassing. Shen Yuan grimaces. “I… Sometimes nothing. Maybe a shichen or so.”

Mu Qingfang draws himself up to his full height and raises an eyebrow. It’s super effective! Shen Yuan starts sweating.

“And you didn’t intend to speak of it until you collapsed?”

Shen Yuan frowns and stares down at his cup. “I...I suppose I was… too scared to?”

Shen Qingqiu looks away. The movement is uncharacteristically quick. Mu Qingfang examines the other peak lord for a moment, his face not betraying anything, before he turns to Shen Yuan and a reassuring smile spreads across his face once more.

“Your wrist, please.” Shen Yuan complies, and Mu Qingfang performs another probe with his spiritual energy.

When he releases his wrist, he says, “I don’t sense anything that would cause sleep deprivation for so long. This master doesn't feel anything amiss besides a cold and a lack of spiritual energy. Perhaps Yuan-er was simply stressed - this master knows just the pill to improve your sleep and calm your mind. If Yuan-er and Shen-shixiong will just wait a moment, I will be right back.”

Mu Qingfang brushes out of the room without sparing him or Shen Qingqiu another glance. The door closes softly behind him. Shen Yuan rests against the headboard, feeling a sudden strong urge to curl up and go to sleep. He’s definitely gotten taller. He doesn’t remember his feet reaching this far down the bed before.

“You were scared,” Shen Qingqiu says.

For the first time since he’s woken up, Shen Yuan looks at Shen Qingqiu and Shen Qingqiu looks back.

Shen Qingqiu’s appearance is as flawless as always, save for a single wayward strand curling and brushing against a thin eyebrow instead of following the elegant flow of hair framing his face. Just a simple brush of fingers would move it out of the way, but Shen Qingqiu either hasn’t realised or doesn’t seem willing to do so.

His lips are pressed together into a thin line. His dark eyes are heavy with something, but Shen Yuan can’t tell what, even after over a year of living with him and getting used to the peak lord’s ticks. Maybe he’s mad?

“I’m sorry,” Shen Yuan says.

Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrow twitches. His gaze falls downwards for a moment and his lips part slightly, but no words leave them.

When the silence gets too awkward, Shen Yuan shifts uncomfortably.

“Could Shizun please tell me what happened?” he asks politely.

The peak lord closes his eyes. “Ming Fan informed me that you fell into a pond while you were… playing. He said you would not wake up. When he brought you to the Bamboo House, you began to bleed from your nose.”

So Shen Qingqiu didn’t find out about Ming Fan’s secret hideout. Shen Yuan sighs in relief. He’d actually had fun there, and having a livid Shen Qingqiu tell off Ming Fan for that on top of all of this would probably crush Ming Fan’s psyche beyond recognition.

Shen Qingqiu clears his throat. He retrieves a fan from his sleeve but keeps it closed and loose in his hand as he moves his gaze away from Shen Yuan and focuses on the wall in front of him.

“Shen Yuan. I understand this master may sometimes seem… unapproachable.” The peak lord visibly swallows. His eyelids flutter briefly, but his face remains otherwise blank. “You should not be too scared to tell me when you need help.”

A light grimace appears on the man’s face before the fan flicks open, leaving only the man’s eyes and nose visible.

“This master has been here to support you since you came to Cang Qiong. Do not take that lightly. I...I have an interest in your well being.” Quiet shockingly, the peak lord’s voice grows weaker and weaker and the fan is held up higher and higher until he trails off completely and only his eyes are visible. 

Shen Yuan stares.

Shen Qingqiu is… genuinely upset.

He’s upset that Shen Yuan pushed himself too hard and collapsed like a complete idiot.

Shen Yuan can’t believe that he’s suddenly harbouring such warm feelings towards this man. This villain, who had picked a filthy Shen Yuan out of the broken, bloody cesspit of the Wu Mansion, had single mindedly nursed Shen Yuan back to health without anyone else forcing him, and was now struggling through the most awkward heart-to-heart chat that Shen Yuan had ever experienced. And his Dad back in the real world was pretty awful with these kinds of things, so that’s saying something.

It’s actually a little cute. Can he say that?! The main villain is cute! He’s sitting here, frozen, while Shen Yuan keeps staring and staring at him, and he hasn’t said a single thing -- is that the tip of his ear going pink?

“I understand, Shizun.” He can’t help but smile as he says it. “This Shen Yuan will tell Shizun when he is not feeling well.”

“This is an order from your Shizun, I expect nothing less. Even if he stubs his toe, Shen Yuan should be ready to tell me even the slightest thing that bothers him,” Shen Qingqiu says. He relaxes slightly but does not lower his fan until Mu Qingfang returns with suspiciously perfect timing.

 


 

Shen Qingqiu interrogates Mu Qingfang on the ingredients and purpose of the pills for an obnoxiously long time. The doctor looks visibly relieved when he sends Shen Qingqiu away.

Shen Yuan spends three days under observation in Qian Cao. He tries to relax, but thinking about all of the work that must be piling up in his absence makes it a challenge. It’s a good thing Xu Jiao visits him a lot while he’s there. She brings him fruit sometimes, and on one awkward visit, she brings another disciple with her who initially just stares at him with wide eyes while Xu Jiao and Shen Yuan talk.

“Shen Yuan, I have to ask. I heard you are living with the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak.” The disciple had been restless and jittering in his seat the moment he’d entered. “Does Shen Qingqiu have a new pet?”

Shen Yuan raises an eyebrow. “No?”

The disciple blushes. “Sorry. I just heard it from some of my classmates. Apparently they were talking to someone at Qiong Ding, and they said that a while ago your Shizun couldn’t come to meetings because he had to train his new pet.”

Huh? “A pet?”

The disciple nods vigorously. “A demonic pet. Apparently he brought it back from a mission.”

Shen Yuan shakes his head. “I haven’t seen any pets, demonic or no. I don’t see any reason why Shizun would want one anyway. He’s busy enough.”

The boy scratches his cheek and looks a little embarrassed. “Well, it was just a rumour. I’ll have to tell my friends. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about the affair the Qing Jing Librarian has been having with the Xian Shu Librarian either?”

Shen Yuan gasps. “An affair?”

The disciple’s eyes light up. “Yes! You know that sometimes libraries need to request books from other libraries, right? Well, apparently someone saw…”

Shen Yuan listens with rapt attention as he fills him in on all of the current Cang Qiong gossip. He’d hear the Qing Jing disciples talk about it sometimes, but he’d usually never stuck around to get a good idea of what they were talking about.

Apparently Wei Qingwei, the Peak Lord of Wan Jian Peak, had a wife that he refused to talk about with anyone and the Peak Lord of Gui Shou Peak had accidentally injured himself while feeding his newest beast. He’s currently kicking up a fuss in one of Qian Cao’s other private wards. Shen Yuan would love to pay him a visit and learn more about the beast that almost chewed his arm off.

Shen Qingqiu has the lion’s share of the rumours, mainly about his relationship with Yue Qingyuan. Some of them say they are sworn brothers and some of them say they are actual brothers. Others claim that Shen Qingqiu blackmailed the sect leader into letting him join Cang Qiong and that Yue Qingyunan is frightened of him.

One rumour is particularly disturbing: an insinuation that Shen Qingqiu is a scorned ex-lover of Yue Qingyuan, and that’s why he’s so mean. Shen Yuan actually shivers in disgust. Those two old coots? Don’t they know that Shen Qingqiu runs off to brothels every other night?

“...No. Just no,” he mutters. “That will never happen. What about Shang Qinghua?” Shen Yuan asks, thinking of his traitorous ways in the original novel. Is he in contact with Mobei-Jun now, before the plot of the story has even begun?

The disciple looks surprised that he even mentioned him. “The peak lord of An Ding? He’s been keeping to himself for the most part, I’m not sure if he’s done anything out of sorts recently.”

The Qian Cao disciple, who Shen Yuan learns is named Hua Tuo, is very regretful when he has to excuse himself for a lesson, but he promises to meet with Shen Yuan again when he has the time. Shen Yuan agrees enthusiastically. Xu Jiao, who had been quietly munching on a slice of melon the whole time, raises her brows and says, “So Shen Yuan likes to gossip too.”

Shen Yuan blushes.

 


 

After his final check up, Shen Yuan is surprised when Mu Qingfang settles into the chair by his bed instead of bidding him goodbye and legging it to his next appointment. It’s noon, and Shen Qingqiu isn’t due to pick him up for several hours.

It freaks him out even more when Mu Qingfang smiles gently and insists that Shen Yuan make himself as comfortable as possible. He even offers to get him a chair of his own, but Shen Yuan declines and says the bed is comfortable as it is, thank you. Not as nice as his bed in Qing Jing, which has lovely smooth sheets and a totally era-inappropriate down-stuffed pillow (good job Airplane), but it’s perfectly fine.

The time in between the man flagging down a disciple in the corridor and a warm cup of tea being pressed into Shen Yuan’s hands is occupied with small talk that for some reason makes him slightly uneasy. It’s only inane questions about how Shen Yuan’s doing in lessons and what his favourite pastimes are, but he can’t help but wonder why Mu Qingfang is even asking him all of this in the first place. Why is he still here? Doesn’t he have patients to save?

“A-Yuan, do you feel like you’re settling well into Qing Jing?” Mu Qingfang asks suddenly.

The peak lord’s eyes are gentle as they scan over Shen Yuan’s face. Feeling mildly threatened, Shen Yuan doesn’t know what to do besides nod.

“I’m glad. And your Shizun, my shixiong, has been treating you well?”

Shen Yuan nods. The cups are varnished red clay, and the warmth of it makes his hands slightly sweaty.

Mu Qingfang smiles broadly. “I’m glad.”

Shen Yuan offers him a tentative smile in return.

The man’s smile dampens down a little, but he holds his gaze steadily as he places his cup down and folds his hands in his lap. “A-Yuan, I thought you and I could chat a little now and then. If you have any fears or worries, I would be glad to hear them. This master promises that these chats would be completely confidential. I won’t even tell your Shizun what we talk about if A-Yuan does not want me to.”

Shen Yuan blinks at him for a few moments, his face a polite mask hiding the sheer bewilderment he is feeling. Why do you want to chat with a scrawny little kid? Aren’t you a grown man? What does he have to tell this man that he would actually find interesting?

Instead of asking these questions out loud, Shen Yuan dips his head. “Thank you, Mu-shishu,” he says robotically.

A few moments pass in silence, as if Mu Qingfang was expecting him to say something more than just a polite thanks.

The doctor’s smile is as warm as ever. “I understand that A-Yuan must have experienced a lot even before coming to Cang Qiong. It must have been very confusing for him back then. Perhaps A-Yuan could tell this master about it?”

Shen Yuan feels his eyebrows shoot up. Before Cang Qiong?

When Wu Yuxian was in the Wu Mansion being raised as bait before being flung into a summoning circle and left for dead? It’s not exactly a nice thing to talk about. Shen Yuan certainly doesn’t want to think about what happened to that poor kid in the slightest, and he wasn’t even the one going through it. He’d just woken up in the aftermath covered in blood and bruises, with a gash in his back and a huge quantity of demonic energy that must have been just as much of a pain to get in there as it is now to get it out.

Mu Qingfang looks completely unperturbed by Shen Yuan’s silence. “Perhaps we should start somewhere smaller. Did A-Yuan have any siblings?”

Wu Yuxian had a twin sister and an older brother. They’re still alive somewhere, but they’re only kids right now. They can barely even look after themselves let alone charge money for their services as rogue cultivators like they were when they showed up in the novel. He finds himself sighing through his nose and closing his eyes briefly as a wave of pity for those two washes over him. Why does he suddenly feel so sad for them? He doesn’t even remember his older brother’s name. This world is cruel, and there’s probably thousands of kids slumming it in the streets just like they probably are.

He just… For Wu Yuxian’s sake, he hopes that they’re not suffering too much.

“I had two,” Shen Yuan says eventually.

“What were their names?” Mu Qingfang asks softly.

Shen Yuan shakes his head and looks away. He can’t give a complete answer, so he’ll just feign being too upset to speak. He’s already halfway there, it’s not that hard.

Mu Qingfang's smile is tinged with sadness. “What about your parents?”

A father murdered in revenge and a crazed mother who sacrificed him to a demon. What a lovely conversation topic.

“I… This disciple doesn’t think Mu-shishu would want to hear about them,” he says awkwardly, looking away from the uncomfortably piercing gaze in front of him.

“This master is interested in anything Shen Yuan has to say, but he understands it must be difficult to speak about. It’s good to not dwell on it too much, but this master thought that it would be good for Shen Yuan to speak of it even once.”

Shen Yuan unconsciously hunches over the cup in his hands and stares down at the swirling liquid.

He really hasn’t spoken about what happened to him with anybody since he came to the peaks. Not even Shen Qingqiu. That man had taken one look at him and been able to deduce all of the details he’d need to get Shen Yuan on the mend, and apparently had decided that talking about the past like this was absolutely useless. He’d been thankful for it, obviously. Shen Yuan had woken up there and dealt with the after-effects, but he sure as hell doesn’t remember anything that happened before that. Those memories had died with Wu Yuxian.

Mu Qingfang takes a sip of his tea and continues, ”Memories and thoughts can be confusing if we leave them swirling in our heads, and if they are left unchecked, they may even manifest into nightmares. I understand that Shen Yuan has had difficulty sleeping.”

There’s that same knowing look in Mu Qingfang’s eye, something he’d caught a flash of when he’d woken up in Qian Cao a few days earlier. Was that the whole purpose of this? To work out why Shen Yuan wasn’t sleeping?

Is this… therapy?

Too bad there’s not really anything to give Shen Yuan therapy over. He supposes it makes sense to do it now, when Shen Qingqiu isn’t in the room and when Shen Yuan is pretty much recovered.

“I’m not having nightmares,” Shen Yuan says quietly. “That’s not why I wasn’t sleeping. At least, I don’t remember them if it was.”

Mu Qingfang closes his eyes in serene acceptance. “Whatever they are, I’m sure Shen Yuan would feel better if he spoke about his worries to someone he trusts.”

Shen Yuan’s head shoots up. He waves a hand wildly in front of him. That’s not why he’s not speaking! Please don’t hate him, Mu Qingfang! The man watches him, bemused.

“I trust you, Mu-shishu! I’m sorry, I… I just can’t talk about it right now. This disciple hopes Mu-shishu doesn’t think of him as rude.” Shen Yuan stumbles through his words in his haste. He bows his head again and takes a sip of tea to shut himself up.

Mu Qingfang doesn’t try to fill the silence and takes a sip from his own cup.

“Sorry,” Shen Yuan blurts out again once he’s finished swallowing.

He is immediately buffeted with a radiant smile from Mu Qingfang. It’s so genuine that Shen Yuan relaxes immediately. “There is no need for Shen Yuan to apologise nor any need to feel embarrassed no matter what he feels about his situation. This master only hopes that he will one day make peace with it for his own sake. I will advise Shen Yuan-er to do his best to follow the prescriptions I informed your Shizun of, and if things do continue to be difficult, this master will speak to you on the subject again. Feel free to visit if you would like to get something off of your chest, even if it seems insignificant.”

“Shizun told me to tell him even if I stub my toe,” Shen Yuan offers with a nervous grin.

The doctor’s eyes are filled with mirth when he lifts a hand to cover his mouth politely. “He told you that, did he? Your Shizun is very wise.”

 


 

When Shen Yuan returns to Qing Jing, he corners Ming Fan immediately behind the dorms and apologises.

“I’m happy that Shizun didn’t find your hiding place either. This Shen Yuan won’t do it again,” he finishes giving the other boy a firm pat on the shoulder.

Surprisingly, Ming Fan looks like he’s going to cry again. “It was my idea, we’d already brought you down by the time we realised we’d have to explain and then they just assumed, and--well, I didn’t correct them. I--I didn’t want to get the others thrown off the peak.” Ming Fan’s nose is beginning to get a bit snotty. He wipes his nose on his sleeve as he glares down at the dusty ground with his shoulders hunched high. “Tang Yao threw water on you to wake you up as a joke, but then you didn’t wake up, and… Shizun, he probably would have… W-When your nose started bleeding, I was so--”

He cuts himself off with a choked noise and Shen Yuan feels even more guilty.

He slaps Ming Fan on the back, hard. Ming Fan staggers forward and coughs, shooting Shen Yuan a confused glare.

“Look kid, it’s my fault for not sleeping properly for the last month,” Shen Yuan says, shrugging. “I’m just happy you found me. What if I collapsed when I was by myself? You should be cursing my existence, not crying about it.”

Ming Fan glares at him properly now. “Kid?

That’s more like it. Shen Yuan beams at him. “That’s right!”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have saved you,” Ming Fan grumbles. He turns as if he’s going to stomp back to the dorms, then hesitates and turns back. He gives Shen Yuan an accusatory glare.

“How did you even get here without getting lost? Come on, I’ll walk you back,” he mutters.

Ming Fan’s hand jerks out to grab Shen Yuan’s wrist. The boy starts tugging him along the path back to the Bamboo House, but the grip on his arm is surprisingly gentle. A thought comes to Shen Yuan’s mind suddenly, and a bolt of worry shoots through his chest.

“Ming Fan,” he says. He stumbles slightly on a wayward rock, and Ming Fan slows his pace but doesn’t look back. “You didn’t--You didn’t sense anything weird, right? When I was asleep, I mean.”

The other boy’s head cranes around to give him a weird look. “No,” he says. Shen Yuan beams at him and Ming Fan’s head snaps back. “Don’t make fun of me,” he huffs.

Problem solved! Shen Yuan’s secret lives to see another day. He can’t begin to think about what would happen if the rumour that Shen Yuan had demonic energy inside of him spread over the peaks. When he thinks about Hua Tuo, and the gusto with which he’d told Shen Yuan all of those scandalous secrets, Shen Yuan can imagine that the story of the Qing Jing Peak Lord practising demonic cultivation with his new ward would be spread around with just as much excitement.

It’s not a comforting thought in the slightest. Shen Yuan can’t predict how much the protection of the Sect Leader and Second in Command would do for him. What if it spread to other sects? Would they have to kick him out to save face?

He takes a deep breath. No use thinking about it now.

Shen Yuan hasn’t told Ming Fan yet that Shen Qingqiu’s planning to make them copy out A Gentleman Cultivator’s Code of Virtue one hundred times the next morning. He’ll surprise him with it tomorrow. He’s sure his reaction is going to be priceless.

 

Chapter Text

“How can you be my rival if you can’t even put up a fight?” Ming Fan barks.

They’re in the only courtyard in Qing Jing dedicated to physical cultivation. Most of the others were beautiful, tranquil spaces with artfully placed vegetation and works of art to better inspire the future young scholars of Cang Qiong, but this one is a near-empty walled yard. The bare ground is marred with a few divots and scars from disciples practicing with their spiritual weapons and not bothering to clean up after themselves.

At the moment, Ming Fan and Shen Yuan look more like battered street children rather than cultured future gentlemen. Shen Yuan wipes his face to try and get rid of some of the dust he’d acquired from faceplanting after receiving a flying kick from Ming Fan. It doesn’t work.

“I want to take a bath,” Shen Yuan moans.

Ming Fan rolls his eyes. “Come on, get up! Don’t think so much when I’m moving in to hit you!”

Behind him, someone laughs softly. Ming Fan sees whoever it is over Shen Yuan’s shoulder and straightens up. “Wang-shixiong,” he says in a much more composed voice after dropping into a bow. He’d put his ponytail into a bun, but it’s a complete mess now. “What brings you here?”

Shen Yuan copies his bow and gives Wang Xizhi a tired smile. “Hello Wang-shixiong. We can move somewhere else if you’ve come here to practice. We wouldn’t want to disturb you.”

Wang Xizhi raises a hand to cover his mouth, his eyes curving slightly. “I am here to practice, yes. Some of us senior disciples will be going out on a mission soon. I was hoping to brush up on my skills before the real thing.”

Shen Yuan and Ming Fan look at each other, then stare at their shixiong with big eyes. A mission? Bai Zhan disciples seem to be sent off to beat up different creatures almost every day, but it’s rare that Qing Jing Peak disciples get the chance to leave the mountain.

“What are you going to do?” Ming Fan asks.

“Just some fierce corpses in a quiet village, I believe. The Bai Zhan peak lord already eliminated them on his way back from another mission, so we’re heading there to perform rites and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Shen Yuan rolls his eyes. Typical Liu Qingge, taking care of the fun part and leaving the scholars to pick up his slack. Wang Xizhi begins walking to the small building at the edge of the courtyard, built solely for holding training equipment. Shen Yuan and Ming Fan follow like two ducklings.

“There’s no need to stop training just because this shixiong is here,” Wang Xizhi continues goodnaturedly. “In fact, I was thinking you could help me.”

He pulls out three wooden training swords and hands one to both of them.

Wang Xizhi brandishes his own elegantly in front of him. “Would you two like to practice with me?”

Ming Fang raises his sword in the air and hollers. Shen Yuan sighs.

 


 

A week after Shen Yuan returns to Qing Jing, Shen Qingqiu carries out Mu Qingfang’s first prescription.

He’s flung immediately into physical cultivation lessons with the rest of the disciples. Apparently exercise may help Shen Yuan sleep more soundly, presumably by tiring him out. Shen Yuan’s surprised that they’d recommend it so soon after him collapsing, but combined with the pills it somehow works and Shen Yuan’s back to getting a reasonable amount of sleep each night.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t give him back the night pearl right away, but it suddenly appears on his desk after Shen Yuan wheedles and whines about it a few weeks after he comes back. Not that he even uses it that much when he gets it - between traditional scholarly pursuits, spiritual cultivation and physical cultivation, Shen Yuan has barely any time to catch up on his own reading for pleasure or stress himself out by thinking about the future too much.

He’s going to bed with a lot more bruises now. Ming Fan seems to have taken it upon himself to beat Shen Yuan up during every sparring session under the guise of helping Shen Yuan out. Between swordplay with Wang Xizhi, martial arts with Ming Fan and lessons from the outer disciples, Shen Yuan builds a solid base of physical cultivation to match his spiritual one. The first time he wins against Ming Fan is in a lesson supervised by one of the senior outer disciples. Shen Yuan can’t even believe it. He just stands there panting heavily, so tired that he can barely hold up his sword as some of the disciples not currently trying to knock each other unconscious turn and whoop at him. Shen Yuan just blinks back, uncomprehending. The supervising senior disciple watches with clear interest as Ming Fan springs up and proceeds to destroy Shen Yuan in their next three rounds.

Shen Yuan eventually gets taller and slightly less twig-like, so Shen Qingqiu has to send for new robes to be made. When Yue Qingyuan asks Shen Qingqiu how long it will be until Shen Yuan moves from the Bamboo House, Shen Qingqiu adeptly changes the subject, to Shen Yuan’s puzzled but reluctant relief. He’s not going to complain anytime soon. He’s seen the dorms, and compared to that living situation, Shen Yuan’s practically living a life of luxury.

Ming Fan doesn’t have to escort Shen Yuan around anymore, but it doesn’t change how much he drags Shen Yuan around the peak. Shen Yuan pokes plenty of frogs, he tries eating food with the other disciples in the canteen (it’s worse), catches a Thousand Rainbow Beatle after spending a whole afternoon hunting for one with Ming Fan, and somehow gets to know almost all of the disciples on Qing Jing Peak.

One particularly embarrassing event for Shen Yuan was when Shen Qingqiu ordered the canteen to prepare noodles for dinner. After the peak lord choked his way through an explanation as to why he ordered them, Shen Yuan realised they were for his birthday. Shen Yuan had completely forgotten that he’d told Shen Qingqiu the date of his previous life’s birthday when he first arrived on the mountain. He’d been so caught up in his daily adventures as a disciple that he hadn’t been keeping track either. Overcome with surprise, blue-tinged memories of past birthdays and a sudden amount of gratitude for the increasingly uncomfortable man sitting across from him, Shen Yuan couldn’t help but sob into the bowl until Shen Qingqiu awkwardly patted his head and warned him not to oversalt the broth.

A year and a half passes and Shen Yuan is surprised at just how happy he is.

 


 

Shen Yuan wants to move, but he can’t.

The room is pitch black, but he knows -- he knows -- that something is there. Just out of reach, just there in the corner of his room. He wants to shudder, wants to coil away and scream, lash out, do anything, but he can’t. He can’t move a single muscle.

It watches him. Its gaze burns an icy sinkhole into his chest, pinning him down and burning, until the pressure turns sharp and rakes through his torso like the claw of some gigantic beast, tearing into his back and opening up an old wound that he hadn’t thought about in years.

It hurts so much and he can’t move. Shen Yuan can’t even cry out in pain as a cold hand clamps onto his neck, its long, ragged nails digging into his skin. He can’t breathe when it drags him to--

It's taking him to---

Shen Yuan shoots upright with a gasp.

He looks around wildly. The room is just barely illuminated by the oversized xianxia moon, diffused softly through the rice paper window panels. His cultivation is not yet at the stage where he can see in the dark, but it’s good enough that he can tell it isn’t there.

Whatever that was.

There’s a layer of cold sweat all over Shen Yuan’s body. He feels gross, but more than that he feels distinctly unsettled. He’s never had a nightmare like that before, at least one that he could remember.

The wood floor is cool underneath his bare feet before he pulls on his socks. He slides open his door and pads out of the room. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he just can’t be in that room anymore. Not right now. He’d stopped taking the pills months ago, but he finds himself wishing for them again.

The Bamboo House is completely silent, but not completely still. Down the corridor, a dim, dancing light spills through the open door of Shen Qingqiu’s main office.

Driven by a sudden urge for human contact, even if it's just a scolding, Shen Yuan finds himself standing in the doorway. It takes a second for his eyes to adjust.

An elegant man sits at his desk illuminated by a single candle, a calligraphy brush dancing over a sheet of parchment.

Shen Qingqiu is considerably less dressed than usual. To Shen Yuan’s bleary and untrained eye, it looks like the peak lord is wearing only an inner robe and a simple outer robe. Something thin that would usually be lost amongst translucent silks and the coarser outermost layers, but still comfortable. More than enough to cover someone modestly in Shen Yuan’s original world, but the difference is striking.

He has only ever seen Shen Qingqiu wrapped up in countless layers of gauzy silk, never showing a hint of unnecessary skin, the clothing adding a bulk and presence to his body that befitted his status as a powerful peak lord.

He sits there at his desk with his hair confined to a loose braid instead of tumbling down his back, no outfit to conceal the slightness of his frame, and no bracers to pad out the thin, pale wrist held out in the proper writing position.

His Shizun looks so… small.

“Shen Yuan.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice is slightly hoarse. “Will you explain to this master why you are awake at this hour?”

Shen Yuan startles a little. He had wandered in through the doorway and stood there staring, probably wavering on his feet. He hadn’t even combed his hair. How embarrassing.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he says quietly. Shen Yuan’s voice is hoarse too. He feels a little guilty for interrupting this man with his nonsense again, but he knows that Shen Qingqiu would be more upset if he didn’t tell him.

“I see,” says Shen Qingqiu. His eyes remain downturned, focused on the work on his desk. It looks like a seating plan of some sort. Instead of being piled equally and haphazardly with both complete and unfinished work, the desk is mostly tidy from Shen Yuan cleaning up the Bamboo House that evening, so Shen Qingqiu must have begun working on this within the last half hour or so.

The flame of the candle puts the features on one side of the peak lord’s face into high relief. Flickering shadows tickle his high cheekbones and hug the shadows under his eyes.

Shen Qingqiu is paler than usual.

There is a brief pause which begins with Shen Yuan shifting uncomfortably and ends with Shen Qingqiu fluttering his lashes, as if coming back to himself.

“I see,” Shen Qingqiu repeats. “If it will help him, Shen Yuan may sit here and assist me in preparing for the Conference to be held on Qiong Ding Peak five moons from now.”

Shen Yuan gapes. The surprise quickly gives way to gratitude though, because the thought of laying down in that oppressive room and having that presence pin him down onto his bed -- it’s not something he wants at all.

Shen Yuan takes a seat at his usual place adjacent to the desk. He tries not to wilt at the wave of exhaustion he feels. He knows he can’t sleep even if he tries. A blank scroll and a clean brush slide into his vision.

“Compose a letter to the Sect Leader of Tian Yi Overlook and inform him that he may bring two additional guests.”

The two of them work in silence and the pile of papers on the desk grows larger and larger until Shen Yuan can’t stop a large, undignified yawn.

“You may return to bed,” Shen Qingqiu says quietly. It feels like the room is a little lighter. The first few rays of sunlight before the day begins proper.

Perhaps it is to match the stillness of the room, or the time of day; Shen Yuan rises from his seat as silently as possible and bends at the waist into a respectful bow.

“Thank--”

“Your eyes,” Shen Qingqiu says.

Shen Yuan blinks at him and straightens up, stupefied. “What?” he asks.

For the first time that night, Shen Qingqiu maintains eye contact with Shen Yuan for more than a second. His dark gaze is serious, his posture as straight and unwavering as bamboo, had been from the moment Shen Yuan had entered.

“Do not let me see them like this again, or I will have to forbid you from attending lessons once more.” The peak lord rolls the brush handle between his thumb and forefinger, the perfectly pointed tip never wavering. “If you are seen in public with such an obvious demonic signature, this master will be forced to answer to the Sect Leader and Mu Qingfang. Do not let that happen, or this master is concerned that he will not be able to vouch for you or these techniques any longer.”

One of Shen Yuan’s hands flies up to brush over the corner of his right eye. Are they red again? It must have been difficult for Shen Qingqiu not to notice the glow in such a dark room. With a hint of dread, Shen Yuan realises that he’d broken the streak he’d held for a year now, and he hadn’t even realised it.

“I--Yes, Shizun, I understand. This Shen Yuan will be more vigilant from now on.”

“If you are having difficulties in maintaining your control, inform me immediately. I am skilled enough to take the edge off of any flare ups.” Shen Qingqiu sighs and closes his eyes. He looks exhausted. “Your cultivation has almost progressed to the peak foundation establishment level. When you reach it, I will help you perform a technique that will lower the chances of this happening again. For now, go to bed and revise the demonic cultivation manual in your free time tomorrow.”

“Yes, Shizun.”

When Shen Yuan returns to his room he assumes a meditative position and evaluates the state of the energies within himself. The barrier that he had placed around the demonic energy is as strong as ever.

He resurfaces from it to the sound of birdsong. It’s finally sunrise. In the mirror, his eyes are the same cherry brown as always.

It doesn’t reassure him as much as it used to.

 


 

Yue Qingyuan waits for them by the Rainbow Bridge as Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu walk leisurely towards the stables.

“Shen-shidi, Shen Yuan,” the sect leader says by way of greeting. He looks a little windswept, as if he heard that Shen Qingqiu was leaving only a moment ago and had flown there from his peak immediately. “I hoped to bid you farewell before you leave.”

Shen Qingqiu, who was absentminded and silent on the whole way from the Bamboo House, immediately looks as alert as if he had just stumbled upon a fearsome predator. The tension in the peak lord is so great that Shen Yuan wouldn’t be surprised if Xiu Ya appeared in his hand.

“This Qingqiu greets Zhangmen-shixiong,” Shen Qingqiu says evenly, gazing at Yue Qingyuan warily. He places a fist in his palm and bows. Shen Yuan bows in unison. When he straightens up, a peaceful smile has appeared on Yue Qingyuan’s face.

They had packed lightly for this trip. Everything they might need was in a qiankun pouch squirreled away into the Peak Lord’s sleeve. Shen Yuan had watched him pack in an awed silence as each item disappeared inside. Shen Qingqiu hadn’t seemed to mind or care that he was there. Magic is just cool, okay?!

“We are grateful for the send off,” Shen Qingqiu continues blandly. “You must excuse this shidi again for leaving the peaks on such short notice.”

Yue Qingyuan dips his head, his smile unwavering. “I understand, shidi. Qingqiu-shidi is admirable in going the extra mile for one of his disciples, so please have a pleasant trip. Meanwhile, we in Cang Qiong will await your return. I hope that nothing will prevent you from being present for the disciple choosing in two weeks.”

It takes at least one li in the carriage down a rocky mountain road afterwards for Shen Yuan to realize the implication of another disciple choosing.

“Yingying!” Shen Yuan gasps, his eyes flying open. He’d been dozing against the window.

Shen Qingqiu’s dark eyes flick from the window to Shen Yuan. “Who is that?”

His mouth snaps shut. “Nothing!”

 

*

 

The trip was uneventful. It wasn’t a holiday, but it did have the air of a reluctant camping trip, on both Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu’s part.

Shen Qingqiu decided to begin the next stage of Shen Yuan’s rehabilitation, and absolutely insisted it couldn’t be done anywhere near Cang Qiong. When they kneel down in a small clearing of a forest near the dimensional rift and Shen Qingqiu properly explains what he’d like Shen Yuan to do, he immediately understands why.

Shen Yuan needs to use both his spiritual energy and demonic cultivation to expel a large amount of demonic energy from his body. If a righteous cultivator walked into the Bamboo House and felt it, they’d immediately sound the alarm for a demonic invasion of Qing Jing Peak.

Shen Qingqiu explains that his cultivation is now high enough to begin to slowly reduce the core of demonic qi in his body. He shows him how to form a channel of energy to remove it safely, and when they’re done the core has reduced by about a quarter, Shen Yuan is exhausted, and the clearing feels as if thirty demons had all set up camp there for a week. If anyone stumbled upon it later, they’d think it was just some demons from the rift causing some trouble, so Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu could just leave it without any fuss, but the peak lord goes a step further and removes the energy using an artifact that he removes from his sleeve.

It takes Shen Yuan a few seconds for him to recognise it. It’s the miniature bronze lion statue that Mu Qingfang had given them years ago -- Shen Qingqiu hadn’t destroyed it after all. The peak lord places it in the centre of the clearing on top of a few quickly drawn talismans, directs Shen Yuan to stand very far back, and all of the demonic energy disappears from the air in the blink of an eye with a loud hissing noise. The faint smell of ozone permeates the air.

The lion statue's eyes glow faintly red as Shen Qingqiu slides it back into his sleeve with mild distaste.

Shen Yuan stares at the space that the lion statue had sat in. The talismans are slightly singed. “Mu-shishu wanted to use that on me?”

Shen Qingqiu frowns. “Yes. It’s much too violent to be used on a person. In this situation, it’s perfectly fine.”

“Interesting,” he hums.

The peak lord eyes him, unimpressed, before turning to leave the clearing. “Shen Yuan is as verbose as always.”

Shen Yuan blushes.

 


 

Something he finds even more interesting is that the second that they leave Cang Qiong, Shen Qingqiu immediately relaxes.

It’s not just in the way he holds himself. The peak lord buys a stick of tanghulu each for Shen Yuan and himself when they return from the wilderness to civilization.

The peak lord also buys a few books for himself: a book of amateur poetry, and a bestiary focused on the lands in the far West, the latter of which Shen Yuan had spent enough time staring at that Shen Qingqiu had to stop and see what all of the fuss was about. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t look at him when he slips it into his qiankun pouch and says that it’s for the library.

When they book a room at an inn for the night, Shen Qingqiu speaks to the innkeeper like a normal person, and when she makes small talk, Shen Qingqiu actually humours her for longer than a few seconds.

It’s so strange. The moments where Shen Yuan usually sees Shen Qingqiu talk the most in Cang Qiong are in the classroom or when he’s coldly critiquing his students. Or when he’s talking to him, he supposes. Any other time he seems like he’s fast tracking through all of the options to leave the conversation as quickly as possible, especially when Yue Qingyuan visits.

Shen Yuan wonders what kind of man Shen Qingqiu would be if he didn’t spend all of his time cooped up in that office in Cang Qiong. Would he not have turned out to be the villain? For some reason, he feels a little sad.

But Shen Qingqiu isn’t a villain now, is he? He’s cold and maybe errs into the realm of verbal abuse when he’s criticising his students, but Shen Yuan hadn’t seen anything overwhelmingly cruel from his Shizun. The most physical he’d seen him get with anyone was whacking them with his fan. He’d done it to Shen Yuan too, and it wasn’t a blow that was meant to cause pain.

When Luo Binghe comes to the peaks, Shen Qingqiu will cause him unspeakable pain for years. And then Luo Binghe will grow up, capture his Shizun in the Huan Hua Water Prison and torture him to death. Even Yue Qingyuan won’t try to save him until it’s too late.

Shen Yuan feels sick. It doesn’t have to end up like that, right? He’d been planning to run away from the peaks as soon as he could -- he’s still planning to, he doesn’t want to die along with the rest of Cang Qiong -- but maybe he could stop Shen Qingqiu from hurting Luo Binghe enough for none of this to happen in the first place. He’s friends with Ming Fan now, too. It can’t be that hard, can it? Shen Yuan goes to bed with a worried pit in the bottom of his stomach.

Shen Qingqiu notices that Shen Yuan is uncharacteristically quiet when he wakes up the next morning.

“Your sleep worsened last night,” Shen Qingqiu says over breakfast. The room has two beds, but Shen Qingqiu opted to meditate on top of his. The two of them are sitting at a low table near the window.

The man watches, his face passive, as Shen Yuan hesitates. “It was because of my own foolishness,” Shen Yuan offers. “This disciple was trying to determine the answer to a question that he has been struggling for a while.”

The peak lord’s eyes lower as he takes a sip of tea. He’s abstaining from breakfast this morning too. Apparently coach rides aren’t pleasant on a full stomach, but he makes sure that Shen Yuan eats anyway. “And what question is this? Perhaps this master can answer it for you.”

Shen Yuan hesitates again. When the peak lord looks up and raises an eyebrow, Shen Yuan decides to just blurt it out before he loses his nerve. “Are all demons inherently evil?”

Shen Qingqiu blinks, but doesn’t pause before saying, “This master does not believe so. Both humans and demons have the capability for doing great evil and great good. Although the two sides have great differences, only the weak and ignorant would draw such conclusions without evidence.”

Shen Yuan is speechless.

When he doesn’t reply, his Shizun’s gaze shifts to the window. The morning light brushes over him softly. The meditation had given Shen Qingqiu a barely perceivable glow that would disappear soon enough or until he willed it away.

“One must judge an individual not by their birth, but by their actions. Only those who commit unspeakable acts with the knowledge of doing so can be called evil. Those are the individuals that deserve to be despised.”

Shen Qingqiu sighs quietly and swirls the remaining tea in his cup, before drinking the rest. He gently sets the empty cup on the table.

“I suspect you may feel that the demonic energy inside of you makes you lesser than your martial siblings,” Shen Qingqiu says steadily, turning once more to look Shen Yuan in the eye. “I assure you that this is not the case. Shen Yuan has not done anything wrong by finding himself in his situation. If he wished to, he could live the rest of his life with an amount of resentful energy inside of him. He could use it to do many useful things. The only warning this master will give is that others may not be so understanding.”

Shen Yuan looks down, stunned. It takes a few moments before he can speak.

“Thank… Thank you, Shizun,” he says quietly. “I will think about what you said.”

He can’t stop the slight tremble in his hands as he refills Shen Qingqiu’s cup. Shen Qingqiu does not hate demons. And yet, he threw Luo Binghe into the abyss and left him for dead. Why would he commit such an unspeakable act himself?

 


 

Ning Yingying doesn’t show up.

Shen Yuan was heartbroken. He realised he’d gotten the timeline wrong when he stood with Shen Qingqiu during the disciple choosing a week after they returned from their trip. It’s got to be the disciple choosing next year that Ning Yingying comes - Ming Fan isn’t nearly old enough to be one year away from kicking the protagonist around with his lackeys. He’s actually pretty tame right now, to be honest.

So alas, no cute shimeis here, nor anyone worth anything at all according to Shen Qingqiu, who hovered on the platform with the other peak lords for all of five minutes before sighing and flouncing away with Shen Yuan in tow.

Yue Qingyuan was left smiling helplessly as all of the other peak lords present craned their necks to stare at the back of the boy doing his best to keep up with the Qing Jing Peak Lord.

"I did not know that Shen-shixiong had a son,” Wei Qingwei says mildly, stroking his beard.

“I’m not surprised,” Qi Qingqi whispers darkly behind her fan to the senior disciple that she had brought with her. “All of those nights off the mountain had to amount to something eventually.”

“Yuan-er is a nice boy,” Yue Qingyuan says firmly to the other peak lords, his smile never wavering. “I would do my best to keep my eye on him, if I were you. He may be attending our meetings one day.”

The group of peak lords suppress their eyerolls at their Sect Leader immediately leaping to Shen Qingqiu’s defense. All except for Shang Qinghua, who is starting to look a little pale.

Yue Qingyuan’s smile turns into a small frown. “Shang-shidi, are you alright? I see you have already picked some new disciples already. I’m sure you won’t miss out on too much if you retire to your peak for the day.”

The Lord of An Ding Peak jumps. “I’m--I’m fine, Zhangmen-shixiong,” he chokes. “But you’re right, I might head back. I… I have some plans I need to look over.”