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The Life and Times of An Ding Peak's Head Disciple

Chapter Text

From the outside, An Ding Peak was seen as a place for cultivators who were not good enough to end up anywhere else. While cultivation was practiced, as it was on the entirety of Cang Qiong Mountain, the emphasis on martial practice and swordplay did not compare to other peaks. This often led to the thought that An Ding was for unambitious, pitiful paper pushers, who ultimately would amount to nothing.

This could not be further from the truth.

Cao Zhi, third son of a minor noble family, had little to no ambition. He was the only member of his family that could consider cultivation as a path in life, and was strongly recommended to do so by his parents. Wouldn’t it be great to have a cultivator in the family? 

Keeping this in mind, and always willing to follow the whims of his family, Cao Zhi had partaken in the Cang Qiong Mountain entrance exam with as little fanfare as possible. While the knowledge that Cang Qiong Mountain was the most powerful sect of the four major sects was somewhat off putting to Cao Zhi, he wanted to appease his parents and not go out of his way to find another sect. 

Upon completing the exam, which was very intense for something that amounted to stair climbing and digging holes, Cao Zhi had been approached by an An Ding disciple and offered to join the peak.

And now here Cao Zhi was, on a peak that involved more hardwork than Cao Zhi ever wished to complete. 

Who said logistics was easy, ah? They lied. 

Day in, day out, Cao Zhi was forever busy with something.

“Cao-shidi, go check the ink stores.” Always an awful command to hear, because that meant the ink stores on An Ding were low and a request needed to be submitted immediately and with priority to Shizun. 

“Cao-shidi, there’s been a commotion on Bai Zhan.” Wasn’t there always a commotion on Bai Zhan? Why did this shidi need to take care of it? Find someone else to fix whatever had been broken. (Cao Zhi would, without fail, go to check. It was easier to follow someone else’s command than to think of something to do for himself.)

Always, always, “Cao-shidi, can you check this?”, “Cao-shidi, I heard something happened over on such Peak, go check that”, everyday, without fail.

Let it be known, Cao Zhi would have gone to cultivate somewhere else had he known An Ding Peak would be so demanding. 

It must be noted: the energy on An Ding was always high. Anxious disciples running about, uniform in where they needed to go and never causing a disruption, but constantly worrying about tasks that needed to be done. 

Mandatory cultivation, eating, and relaxation hours were a blessing every disciple looked forward to. Schedules were staggered and personally put forth by Shizun to ensure that An Ding was always ready and running if anything were to happen elsewhere in Cang Qiong, while also guaranteeing that disciples were cultivating, eating, and resting as needed.

Relaxation hours, in Cao Zhi’s opinion, were the best part of the day. Cao Zhi learned from older disciples that, before Shizun had implemented them, minor qi deviations from stress were common. There was no balance in An Ding Peak disciples’ lives, and everything would steadily pile on top of their shoulders until it came crashing down into a qi deviation. 

Disciples would use the relaxation time for many different things: reading, meditating, a quick nap, visiting friends, or whatever was desired. No work was allowed to be done during the relaxing period; if a disciple was caught working, that disciple would be punished by running a few laps around the peak and mandatory rest! 

No one would catch Cao Zhi working during that time, absolutely not. It was the only period where he truly got to live out his unambitious desires. He would take this time to practice the qin, nap, or make tea and admire the tree peonies. On good days, he would both play and drink tea under his favorite breed, the Champion Black Jade. 

The only person, it seemed, that these rules did not apply to was Shizun.

Cao Zhi felt many things concerning his Shizun, but mostly that if anyone required a relaxation period, it was him. 

‘Shizun! Go run some laps, then take a mandatory rest!’ Cao Zhi wanted to say, but chose to keep his mouth shut. 

Shizun was one of the most high strung individuals Cao Zhi had ever met, if he were honest. Always jittery, always mumbling, always on the move. 

If Cao Zhi were to run into his Shizun, he would hear the oddest things. 

“Ah, truly, my children are the best!” After asking around, Cao Zhi confirmed that Shizun had no children, bastard or legitimate. He was still unsure as to who these children were.

“Shen Qingqiu, righteous bastard, asking for Fuzzy Fire Moth silk strings!” Cao Zhi could understand this complaint. As a qin player himself, he recognized the desire for the wonderful Fuzzy Fire Moth silk string, but acknowledged how pricey they were. Even as a minor noble, the strings were quite expensive! And buying new strings for every qin on Qing Jing Peak? Much too costly! 

Most confusing were words that Cao Zhi, who considered himself quite read for someone who did not like to read, could not recognize. Often, placed somewhere in sentences with no rhyme or reason, Shizun would say things such as fuck, NPC, this shitty system, or other nonsense. 

Like many disciples on An Ding, Cao Zhi had learned not to question his Shizun’s eccentricities, but rather embrace them silently with some judgment. 

Disciples outside of An Ding, however, could not do the same. 

Yes, An Ding may seem unambitious to them from the outside, but it was very not so! Cao Zhi did not mind being called lazy or uninspired, because he knew his personality, but implying that his fellow disciples were? Implying that Shizun was anything but hardworking? 

That was not allowed. 

Cao Zhi would admit to doing a few underhanded things in his ire. Sticky talismans surreptitiously stuck to the back of gossiping disciples, a tricky plant suddenly appearing and tripping a bad mouthed outsider - the slight irritation it caused others brought Cao Zhi much joy. 

Having dealt with many hardships himself in the form of never ending work, Cao Zhi gained a lot of respect and pride for An Ding. So much so, in fact, that he wished to take some of his Shizun’s and fellow disciples' hardships upon himself to ease their burdens.

He was unambitious, yes! And often, in his earlier days as a disciple, he would actively avoid high traffic routes on An Ding so he could not be called upon to do work. But now he understood the importance of work.

Think of his poor Shizun! An Ding Peak had no head disciple. No one desired to take on an extra load of work on top of what they already had to do, and Shizun had yet to pick someone to suffer.

With this in mind, Cao Zhi started doing little things to hopefully make his Shizun’s life easier.

There was no desire to become head disciple! Oh no, do not believe so. Rather, Cao Zhi felt that if Shizun was feeling less high strung, the energy on An Ding Peak as a whole would become more relaxed, and Cao Zhi could live his life as a cultivator easily. 

In the morning, Cao Zhi would bring his Shizun tea. After much trial and error, he found that Shizun favored light, floral, and sweet teas. Usually, Cao Zhi would make Shizun a cup of chrysanthemum tea; on days that were especially harrowing, like when Bai Zhan and Qing Jing had a particularly nasty spat between disciples, Cao Zhi would brew a special cup of osmanthus tea.

Throughout the day, if Shizun was puttering around and not working in the Peak Lord’s Leisure House, Cao Zhi would check his stores of melon seeds and refill if needed. A Shizun that had snacks readily at hand was a happy Shizun, Cao Zhi firmly believed. 

It wasn’t much, but Cao Zhi liked to believe it helped. He didn’t do big things, like organizing Shizun’s paperwork or writing missives, as he failed to understand Shizun’s organization system. Best to just leave it alone and let Shizun work at it himself. 

For his fellow disciples, Cao Zhi had gained a reputation for being a cute, helpful shidi. He was willing to take on boring, repetitive tasks that took hours to complete. He would offer to grab the mail from the bottom of the peak. He would agree to be a runner and find wayward disciples if extra help was needed for something. 

As long as the work did not require heavy lifting, because Cao Zhi was unfortunately quite short and weak compared to many others, Cao Zhi could be found helping around whenever. 

The joke was on the other disciples! They dreaded the paperwork, but Cao Zhi relished in it! It was much easier to write missive after list after missive after list, or ensure that orders were correct, than to check stores or lug items up and down the peaks like a mule. 

Truly, Cao Zhi had it quite easy.

The only disciples he could not assist as much were the four most trusted inner disciples. These four disciples were sent out to the other peaks, three peaks per disciple, to do rounds themselves. Discreetly checking the peaks’ storage, preparing information for Shizun on what he should expect to hear from the other Peak Lords. They helped Shizun avoid receiving too many complaints from the Peak Lords when they realized they were running out of one thing or another, as Shizun could provide proof that orders had been already placed to replenish what was lost. 

Cao Zhi did not envy them.

Unfortunately, all of his helpfulness came back to bite him in the ass.

On an otherwise insignificant spring day, it was announced that Kong Hou-shijie was leaving An Ding Peak to explore other avenues as a cultivator in the world.

Everyone was very teary-eyed that she was leaving, but supported her full-heartedly and wished her well in her future endeavors. A grand feast was held at dinner, with An Ding taking a ‘do not disturb us or else’ break to celebrate her final day as a disciple of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.

Kong-shijie’s departure resulted in tears for a reason other than missing her, as well: a free inner disciple space that no one wanted was suddenly open. Kong-shijie, who was one of Shizun’s first disciples, managed the rounds for Qiong Ding, Qing Jing, and Wan Jian Peaks. 

The day after she left, Shizun gathered all the disciples into a clearing and informed them that, at the end of the day, a new, super lucky disciple would be taking over Kong-shijie’s spot!

Cao Zhi swore he felt the temperature of the peak drop. 

Hours later, after dinner but before his mandatory rest time, Cao Zhi felt the temperature drop more.

Outside of his dorm at the Leisure House stood Shizun, who was being surreptitiously watched by other disciples. 

“Shizun,” Cao Zhi said with trepidation. “What do you require of this disciple?”

Shizun clapped his hands together, a large smile on his face. “Xiao Zhi! Wonderful, so great to have you here.” He said this as if he were not standing in front of Cao Zhi’s door… “I just had a little something I wanted to discuss with you, in private,” a pointed look was directed to the disciples watching, “if you don’t mind.”

Cao Zhi shook his head and felt his stomach sink. “This disciple would be glad to follow, Shizun.”

With a pitchy “Great!”, Shizun scurried off to his Leisure House, not bothering to check if Cao Zhi was behind him.

Shizun! Cao Zhi wanted to complain. You may be the shortest of the current generation of Peak Lords, but your legs are still longer than this poor disciple’s! He hurried behind Shizun at a pace that was somewhere between a walk and a run, feeling quite undignified. 

Once inside, Shizun sat across from Cao Zhi at a low table. 

“I’ve heard many things from your shixiongs and shijies!” Shizun said. He grabbed a handful of melon seeds before carrying on. “Imagine my surprise when they swarmed me today, telling me about how helpful you are around the peak, and how you even do things for this master! I always wondered who was leaving tea around here but never bothered to ask because it was never poisoned,” Shizun said with a laugh. 

Cao Zhi felt a cold sweat on his back and a burning desire to demand the names of everyone who offered him up like a Pearl Bounce Pig on a platter to Shizun. 

“I was quite ambitious when I was a disciple, myself. For, well, reasons, yes, but that’s not the point!” Shizun said, oblivious to Cao Zhi’s plight. “I’m glad to see that drive in someone else!”

Shizun took a breath and another handful of seeds.

Don’t say it Shizun! Cao Zhi thought. Not the dreaded words of ambition. Cao Zhi swore he was the most unambitious disciple on An Ding, it was true! Everything he did was motivated by his desire to be able to do nothing! There was no drive to do - to do something as Shizun seemed to imply!

“For this reason, I really think you’d do great as the new inner disciple to take over your Kong-shijie’s place! Isn’t that great! I really think you’d do wonderful, from everything I’ve heard!”

Too excited! Take back the excitement Shizun! Cao Zhi did not want this outcome.

With a polite smile, Cao Zhi said, “This disciple is very thankful for the consideration, Shizun.”

Let it never be said Cao Zhi was anything but filial. He joined a cultivation sect at his parents’ request, and now he was taking an inner disciple spot at his Shizun’s. Truly, no one could be more dedicated than Cao Zhi.

“Love to hear it,” Shizun said. He drummed his fingers on the edge of the low table. “Tomorrow you’ll do your regular duties while I draw up a new schedule for you, then we’ll go from there. Sounds fine? Yeah, absolutely fine. Glad we had this talk.”

Cao Zhi wanted to say they didn’t talk much and that it certainly did not sound fine, but he kept those thoughts to himself.

Shizun’s eyes widened, blinking in an exaggerated manner. “Ah, look at the time! It’s so late and you’re such a little disciple, you need to go to sleep! You’ve got many things ahead of you!”

Cao Zhi took this as his chance to leave. “This disciple thanks Shizun for the opportunity and promises to perform well. Shizun will not be disappointed.” Internally, Cao Zhi wished that Shizun would find someone who was more ambitious and deserving than Cao Zhi and find him lacking, and then appoint that someone else to inner disciple instead. “This disciple will take his leave. Bidding Shizun good night.”

Pleasantries given, Cao Zhi left the room and returned to his small dorm at the Leisure House. The entire way there, he cursed his fellow disciples. When the other inner disciples leave, may all of you be picked! May your workload increase ten-fold! May your breakfast be extra bland in the morning!

If he cried bitter tears until he fell asleep, that was between him and his pillow.

Chapter Text

In the time that he had become an inner disciple, Cao Zhi had learned many things.

One:

Qing Jing Peak was a hellscape. Despite rumors that Shen Qingqiu was a demon in disguise, scum of the earth - or whatever nasty thing one could think of - Cao Zhi had never run into the man. Rather, every time he went there, it was Qing Jing’s head disciple that was sure to be a bother.

“Cao-shidi,” said the bother. “I noticed every time you come here, you try to avoid me.”

Cao Zhi paused, refusing to turn around. “Good morning, Ming-shixiong. I didn’t mean to. It is nothing personal, I assure you.”

It was very personal! These storage checks were supposed to be discreet! How was Cao Zhi supposed to ensure that Qing Jing had all of its cultivation manuals in good condition, no broken qins, and plenty of simple medicines for minor scrapes, when he was being hounded by Ming Fan! 

Ming Fan failed to notice Cao Zhi’s inner turmoil. “Good.” He squared his shoulders in an unbearably haughty way, pulling out of the slouch Cao Zhi often saw him in. “I have a request that cannot be ignored.”

“And what would that be?” Cao Zhi withheld a sigh, turning to face Ming Fan.

“The strings on my qin are wearing down, I require new ones.” 

When Ming Fan remained quiet, Cao Zhi kept in a scream. That was not a request! That was a statement. ‘Can’t you go into town and buy your own?’ he wanted to yell. He knew Ming Fan was from a wealthy family, it wouldn’t be impossible. 

Cao Zhi took a deep breath. “Understood, Ming-shixiong. This shidi will have some for you by tomorrow.”

“Make it so,” Ming Fan said, then turned and left.

At least say goodbye, asshole! The deep hate Cao Zhi felt for Ming Fan, ah, if he could just give him a painful shake… let him have a taste of what An Ding disciples go through… 

Of course, by the next day, Cao Zhi made sure Ming Fan had his strings as requested. 

Two:

The Qiong Ding head disciples were weird. As weird as the Sect Leader, Yue Qingyuan, but not as weird as Shizun, if Cao Zhi had to explain.

Already, Cao Zhi had mixed feelings about Qiong Ding, because an unfortunate amount of their funds went towards Yue Qingyuan buying frivolous items for Shen Qingqiu. Shizun complained about it enough that Cao Zhi had a feeling this had been going on even before the current generation of Peak Lords ascended. 

The head disciples were twins, Quan Hao and Quan Liang. Like Ming Fan, they tended to follow him around and be generally bothersome. Unlike Ming Fan, they were actually helpful. Every now and then, Cao Zhi wondered if Qiong Ding disciples had any work, because all they did when he was here was stick to him.

While Cao Zhi acknowledged that, yes, his job was supposed to be discreet storage checks, he appreciated the assist. Any chance that Cao Zhi had to be just a little lazy, he would take! 

If the twins wanted to go through the storage themselves while Cao Zhi supervised them, who was he to say no? It wasn’t like Shizun would find out. 

Quan Hao was very thorough with counting and listing, and Quan Liang was well-organized. The two of them together were able to tackle Cao Zhi’s job and cut down the time he needed to spend checking functions on Qiong Ding. 

With the extra time he had available, he would occasionally indulge the twins in a game of weiqi, or drinking a cup of tea and enjoying some snacks. 

Cao Zhi couldn’t remember Kong-shijie mentioning anything like this. In fact, he was pretty sure Qiong Ding was the most stressful peak for her, as the head disciples were like menacing shadows; in the chance she ran into them, they would stand there, silently, watching as she did her work and being generally unhelpful.

He was glad this wasn’t the case for him.

Three:

Wan Jian Peak was a blessing. No complaints from this disciple, none at all. He never ran into Wei Qingwei, but sometimes Cao Zhi would hear him in the weapons forge. 

When Cao Zhi entered the peak, he would be greeted by the head disciple, Song Yanmei, and that would be it for their interactions.

And four:

Paperwork with Shizun.

Every evening, without fail, after dinner but before resting hours, Shizun would summon him to the Peak Lord’s Leisure House.

This didn’t happen with any of the other inner disciples! Why him! Cao Zhi wanted to laze about and do nothing until it was time to sleep, okay?

Nevertheless, he would show up and assist Shizun.

“Ah,” Shizun said.

Cao Zhi looked up from the request for more bamboo. He had been quite focused, as new terms had to be drawn up between Cang Qiong Mountain Sect and the merchant who provided bamboo that was, in Shizun’s terms, ‘mostly cultivator-proof’. Barring extreme damage (in this case, Liu Qingge barging into Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo house and breaking the door, demanding action be taken after the latest fight between their disciples), the bamboo provided was resistant to weather damage, heat damage, and general mess. 

Shizun’s hand hovered pitifully over an empty bowl. “I’ve run out of melon seeds! How am I supposed to cope with all this paperwork?” His hands pressed against his face, arranging his features from handsome to comical. 

Ignoring his Shizun’s dramatics, Cao Zhi said, “Worry not, Shizun. This disciple has prepared some melon seeds in his bag.” He rummaged through the pouch at his side and pulled out a paper bag full of seeds.

Releasing an excited squeak much like a small animal, Shizun made a few grabbing motions with his hands before taking the bag from Cao Zhi.

“Xiao Zhi, you little blessing, you! What would this Shizun do without you?” With that, he poured the seeds into his little dish and returned to his paperwork.

Despite the rhetorical nature of the question, Cao Zhi answered internally: Nothing! You would do nothing without me! You would whine and mope before sprawling over your paperwork, bemoaning your lack of melon seeds! You’ve done it before and I refuse to let you do it again! 

 

Sometimes, there would be deviations from the norm. Today was one of those deviations.

It must be noted, once a month, on the day before the monthly Peak Lords meeting, An Ding’s inner disciples were supposed to do a quick, final check through of their respective peaks’ storage levels and report back to Shizun, so he could be prepared for any sudden requests that may come up.

Cao Zhi arrived at Qiong Ding first, skipping breakfast and praying Shizun didn’t notice so he could avoid punishment. Waiting for him were Quan Hao and Quan Liang, standing at attention in their Qiong Ding greys. Even this early in the morning, during breakfast hours, the twins were unfairly put together! Tall, handsome faces in a serene expression, only able to be told apart visually by the side they split their hair on. It was too early to look this fine! 

Poor Cao Zhi, he barely combed through his hair, thinking he looked presentable enough...

Before he could greet them, Quan Hao held out a packet of parchment. 

“Didi and I have already checked,” he said. Quan Liang gave a quick, affirming nod beside him. 

“Ah, thank you,” Cao Zhi said, taking the parchment from Quan Hao. He thumbed through it, skimming the contents for any irregularities, and was happy to find none. “Thorough, as always.”

There was a brief moment of silence, Cao Zhi trying to figure out what to say next or wondering if he should just leave, when Quan Liang suddenly spoke up.

“We prepared tea.”

As if on cue, Cao Zhi’s stomach growled. Bashfully, he accepted to join the brothers for tea, heading to their usual spot underneath the silver maidenhair tree.

The impromptu breakfast was a quiet affair, interrupted only by the sounds of eating and drinking. Quan Hao made sure that Cao Zhi never wanted for tea in his cup, and Quan Liang kept his plate full until Cao Zhi said he could eat no more.

It was wonderfully pleasant, and Cao Zhi ended up being glad he skipped breakfast on An Ding so he could enjoy this. 

Full and sated, Cao Zhi bid the twins goodbye and thanked them again for making his life easy.

Leaving Qiong Ding, Cao Zhi thought, this was the dream! This was exactly what he wanted from life! The chance to have his work already completed and instead take time for the simple things, like good tea and food. 

Qing Jing Peak was blessedly quiet when he arrived. Yes! Cao Zhi cheered inside. Today, he recalled, Qing Jing was on a training mission at Shuang Hu City, investigating a murder case. 

For Cao Zhi, this meant a blessedly Ming Fan free experience. Good riddance to that brat! If even it was only this one time, Cao Zhi would take what he could get.

Humming to himself, he took his time to check Qing Jing’s storage.

Oh, a few qin had light damage, likely from rough handling? Easy to make a note of, since there was no Ming Fan bothering him!

Was more Liger Balm needed? Yes! Recorded with ease, because Ming Fan wasn’t there to be a nuisance!

On and on, Cao Zhi made note of anything his Shizun would need to be aware of. When he finished, Cao Zhi came to one conclusion:

Ah, it might be possible he missed Ming Fan’s obnoxious presence.

Though Qiong Ding’s and Qing Jing’s rounds were out of the norm, Wan Jian Peak’s check in went quite as normal. Cao Zhi made small talk with Song Yanmei, saw a rare glimpse of Wei Qingwei walking from a forge to who knows where, and did his rounds without interruption. 

When it came time for his evening paperwork session with Shizun, Cao Zhi was feeling somewhat chatty.

“Shizun,” he said, glancing over the balance sheet in his hand, “what do you know of Qing Jing Peak’s mission in Shuang Hu?”

No, he was not worried about Ming Fan. Ming Fan was a very rude disciple that Cao Zhi had no desire to see again, definitely not.

“Hm?” Shizun looked up from his notes. “Ah… Ah? Shuang Hu? Is that… No, hm… A demon?” He muttered to himself for a few moments, which Cao Zhi elected to ignore because, well, it was best to do so for one’s sanity. 

“Oh!” Shizun finally exclaimed. “Yeah, yeah, there’s a, hm, suspected skinner demon in the area. Really nasty stuff. I remember now.”

‘Really nasty stuff’, huh… Cao Zhi, for his peace of mind, sent good thoughts out to everyone from Qing Jing working on the mission. If he sent extra thoughts to Ming Fan, no one would know.

Shizun made a curious noise. “Interesting, I haven’t noticed that - well, no, he hasn’t…” 

Cao Zhi considered interrupting and asking Shizun what he was talking about when Shizun took the chance to say, “Xiao Zhi, have you noticed Yue-shixiong being extra, how should I say this, doting? Towards Shen-shixiong?”

Cao Zhi pondered this for a moment before shaking his head. “No, Shizun. Why?”

Shizun nibbled on the tip of his brush. “It’s just - I’m looking over Qiong Ding’s accounts and there’s been extra money spent on things like tea and treats and whatnot. Pretty minimal but more than usual.”

Ah, okay. Cao Zhi’s cheeks reddened slightly. “This disciple admits he may know the cause. Head Disciples Quan Hao and Quan Liang… They,” he trailed off. Should he really admit this to his Shizun? “They like to take tea with this disciple, every now and then.” 

“Oh?” Shizun laughed a little, leaning in towards Cao Zhi. “Is that so? Don’t worry, this master doesn’t mind. I never wro- realized that Xiao Zhi bonded with Qiong Ding’s head disciples.”

Cao Zhi blushed further. “They are quite nice and helpful, and the tea is good.”

Shizun hummed and returned to his work. Cao Zhi waited for his face to cool down before returning to his.

Shizun! What are you so interested in! Having a tea and snack break with Qiong Ding’s head disciples can’t be that fascinating! 

Cao Zhi forcefully threw himself into his work, hoping the numbers would numb his mind from whatever Shizun was attempting to imply. 

See if Cao Zhi would ever be chatty again! Silence only from here on out!

Chapter Text

Cao Zhi, on route to Qing Jing Peak, noticed that there was more activity around Cang Qiong than what he typically experienced.

Unsure of what happened but also unwilling to ask, Cao Zhi carried on as normal.

Upon reaching Qing Jing, Cao Zhi realized that Ming Fan was nowhere to be found. Instead, the peak was in an odd sort of dignified disarray - disciples were hurrying at a quick walking pace with single minded focus to… somewhere.

Well, Cao Zhi figured, if there was an emergency happening, he would know. Maybe there was something weird in the air.

Hopefully, because everyone was out and about, Cao Zhi would be able to complete his rounds in peace.

The tense energy on Qing Jing unsettled Cao Zhi as he checked the various storage houses on the peak, but he didn’t let that stop him from completing his job in a timely manner. Best to be quick about it and just get it over with than to linger! Ignorance is bliss! 

Perhaps he would learn a new qin piece, Cao Zhi mused. Something quick and light would be best.

Lost in his thoughts on the way to the bamboo storage, Cao Zhi was surprised when he ran into someone.

“Apologies!” he said quickly. “This disciple was not paying attention to his surroundings.”

He looked at who he bumped into and. 

Oh no.

Oh no.

Okay, it needed to be on record that Shen Qingqiu was prone to qi deviations. Everyone knew this, but they never talked about it. 

While he never ran into the man, Cao Zhi had seen Shen Qingqiu before! He knew what to look for if he ever saw Shen Qingqiu on Qing Jing!

No wonder Qing Jing Peak was in a tizzy! Their Shizun shrunk! He was smaller than Cao Zhi, okay? 

Small Shen Qingqiu gave Cao Zhi a disgruntled look. His hair was pulled back messily and his once pristine green and white robes were now marred with dust.

“Shen-shibo!” Cao Zhi barely refrained from wailing. “This disciple sincerely apologises. Begging forgiveness.” He took a second to take in the situation. If Qing Jing disciples were running about, perhaps they lost their Shizun? If Shen Qingqiu was in front of him, post qi deviation but without a checkup, did Mu Qingfang need to be called? Cao Zhi was quick on his feet, he could do it! “Pardon this disciple, he will summon Mu-shishu immediately.”

Cao Zhi turned halfway before a small hand grabbed his sleeve.

“No!” cried Small Shen Qingqiu. “That’s not - I’m not that bastard Shen Qingqiu!”

Only just managing to maintain a calm facade, Cao Zhi shrieked inside. Not only did Shen Qingqiu shrink because of a qi deviation, he also lost his memories! What was this poor disciple to do?!

“Okay,” Cao Zhi said. He turned back to face Small Shen Qingqiu. “May this disciple ask who you are then?”

“Shen Yuan!” A sharp, stern voice said. From the grove off to the side, at the edge of the bamboo warehouse, emerged an elegant man with sharp, beautiful features. Clasped in a white knuckled hand was a fan, and Cao Zhi swore he could hear the wood creak under the pressure.

That must be Qing Jing’s Peak Lord, Shen Qingqiu.

So, in front of him - Shen Yuan… was not? Shen Qingqiu?

Was he, judging from the likeness of the two… And the vehemence of which Shen Yuan denied being Shen Qingqiu… No, it couldn’t be.

Shen Yuan was Shen Qingqiu’s son?

Thoughts and theories blazed through Cao Zhi’s mind. Outwardly, he kept a placid expression. “Greetings, Shen-shibo.”

Shen Qingqiu spared a sharp glance in his direction, keeping his focus on Shen Yuan.

Because of how close Shen Yuan stood near Cao Zhi, Cao Zhi could hear him muttering underneath his breath. Of everything he said, which was delivered quite quickly, Cao Zhi was impressed by how fast Shen Yuan could talk, one sentence stood out in particular:

“Can’t believe I was caught, fuck, I don’t want to go back and deal with this scummy bastard and Mu Qingfang, ah, stupid system.”  

Fuck! That was a word Cao Zhi knew very well! Yes, the meaning was unclear and Cao Zhi quite honestly believed it was a word Shizun had made up and said when frustrated, but! The proof was right here, it was a word! Perhaps it was a very strange dialect? Did Shizun and this Shen Yuan come from the same place? 

Now there were more interesting thoughts to consider: Shen Yuan was Shen Qingqiu’s son? Shen Yuan spoke the same dialect as Shang Qinghua? Shen Yuan, Shen Qingqiu, and Shang Qinghua were perhaps from the same place? Had Shen Qingqiu, alleged scum (not that Cao Zhi would ever say such claims aloud), actually been abandoned by a scum wife, who he didn’t know was pregnant, and she had a child kept hidden away until he suddenly ran into said child? 

Ah, he… was getting a bit outlandish. Best to reel the thoughts back in and pay attention to his surroundings.

“Come,” Shen Qingqiu said.

It was not a suggestion, Cao Zhi noted. He gripped Shen Yuan’s wrist with his free hand and practically dragged the poor boy away.

He was somewhat concerned, but Shen Yuan didn’t show any signs of pain, rather only frustration. 

Cao Zhi gave himself a mental shake to clear his thoughts.

It would be best to just ignore everything that happened, yes. Nothing out of the ordinary here. 

He returned to his task of checking the rounds, and decided that he would play his favorite comfort pieces on the qin rather than stressing over learning something new.

 

Due to the sheer amount of paperwork, today’s concerning the budgets of all the peaks, Cao Zhi took dinner with his Shizun.

He managed to forget about the excitement of the day for the most part, until Shizun hissed ‘shit’ underneath his breath after dropping a piece of fish on the floor beside him.

“Oh,” Cao Zhi breathed. He glanced up at Shizun. “Pardon the disruption, but this disciple has a question.”

Shizun, hastily blowing on the fish before stuffing it in his mouth, waved his hand in a gesture to continue.

“Shizun, this disciple met a strange disciple today on Qing Jing Peak.”

Shizun seemed to freeze in place, and gave Cao Zhi a wide eyed, frantically curious look.

“A strange disciple? On Qing Jing?” he parroted.

“Yes. This disciple was reminded of Shizun because of the dialect he spoke.”

Shizun released a shaky breath. “Dialect? This master didn’t realize he… spoke in a strange dialect…” He pushed his food around the bowl, looking pensive.

“Begging forgiveness for sounding rude,” Cao Zhi said. “This disciple merely meant one of the words said, specifically, ‘fuck’, reminded him of Shizun.”

Shizun, who had unfortunately been taking a sip of tea, quickly spit it out. Cao Zhi grabbed a hand towel to wipe it up and let Shizun finish spluttering. 

“Fuck? Are you certain that is what you heard?” Shizun moved his hands in short, aborted motions, unable to convey his surprise in another way. Cao Zhi subtly moved any breakable objects out of his way. “Oh - also, don’t say that word. It’s a bad word, cute children like you shouldn’t say it.”

“This disciple is certain, and will refrain from saying that again.”

“Good, good.” Another shaking exhale. Shizun gulped before asking, “Did you… happen to catch that disciple’s name?”

“Mn, this disciple did,” Cao Zhi said. “He is called Shen Yuan.”

Placing his face in his hands, Shizun pressed heavily on his temples. “Shen? Shen Yuan?” He started talking to himself. “I didn’t write… Is it the same? Liquid? No, there’s also… It could be different… But maybe?”

Shizun, Cao Zhi whined internally, would it kill you to finish a sentence? This disciple is extremely curious and wants to know what you think but does not want to ask! Be more coherent! 

“Ah, aha,” Shizun said, seeming to come to a conclusion. “Maybe we come from the same, uh, town. This master would appreciate it if, maybe, Xiao Zhi could go to Qing Jing Peak tomorrow and? Grab Shen Yuan for him?”

Cao Zhi wanted to cry a little. He finally met Shen Qingqiu and he was very beautiful but very scary looking, okay? And to get to Shen Yuan, he would have to face Shen Qingqiu! No, this disciple refuses!

“Of course, Shizun,” Cao Zhi complied. 

Perhaps, if the gods look favorably upon him, this disciple would be able to pick up Shen Yuan and not run into Shen Qingqiu again. 

Chapter Text

Before dealing with the mess that would be going to Qing Jing Peak and collecting Shen Yuan, Cao Zhi decided to do something he had never done before.

Unannounced, he went over to Qiong Ding with the intention to visit and maybe have breakfast with Quan Hao and Quan Liang.

As far as he knew, the head disciples didn’t do… anything. Like, probably, considering their position, they did in fact have a fact job to complete. However, Cao Zhi wanted to point out, the evidence he had was that they did nothing except help him do his rounds.

Furthermore, Yue Qingyuan was very close to Shen Qingqiu. It was one-sided, as far as Cao Zhi knew from Shizun, but still. It was possible that Quan Hao and Quan Liang could shed some light on the subject of whether or not Shen Yuan was Shen Qingqiu’s son.

He arrived on Qiong Ding without notice. Breakfast was currently in session, so Cao Zhi made his way over to the dining hall.

Upon entering, Cao Zhi noticed many things. 

Qiong Ding’s dining hall was much nicer than An Ding’s. There was aesthetic, floral art against the back wall, and tables were in neat rows. Unlike An Ding where barely managed to not overlap, the tables were set for four people and evenly spaced apart. Cao Zhi would admit he was a little jealous.

At the head of the hall where the sect leader should be sitting, Yue Qingyuan was nowhere to be found. Near the head seat, however, was a table where Quan Hao and Quan Liang sat.

Ignoring the few curious and judging stares from various disciples, Cao Zhi made his way to the head of the room.

“Hao-shixiong, Liang-shixiong,” he greeted, drinking in the sight of their shocked faces. “May this shidi join you?”

It wasn’t often - never that Cao Zhi could recall, actually - that he was able to surprise them. They continued to stare at him, eyes wide and mouths open, showing off perfectly straight teeth. 

Cao Zhi simply tilted his head to the side, waiting.

Managing to regain some form of normalcy, the twins nodded their heads in tandem and gestured for Cao Zhi to take a seat in front of them. 

Cao Zhi sat and enviously looked at the table in front of him. Even the typical meal served on Qiong Ding was of better quality than that of An Ding! This was discrimination! Why do they get to eat such things!

Saying nothing and letting no change of expression show on his face, Cao Zhi allowed Quan Hao to pour his tea and Quan Liang to fill his plate.

Cao Zhi started eating, continuing to ignore the eyes he felt on his back.

“Shixiongs, this shidi has a question.” Not bothering to wait for a response, as he knew they would hear him out, he continued, “I was doing my rounds on Qing Jing Peak yesterday when I came across a curious situation. There was a interesting disciple - Shen Yuan. This shidi was wondering if you knew anything?”

Quan Hao and Quan Liang shared a long, quiet look. They raised an eyebrow. Quan Hao shook his head. Quan Liang shrugged. They turned back to Cao Zhi.

“Shizun has been withdrawn since yesterday,” Quan Liang said. “Mu-shishu came to visit, and said many things.”

Say more! Cao Zhi yelled internally. Go on! This shidi is desperate to know!

“We only overheard small portions,” Quan Hao said, continuing from his brother. He brushed a hand through his hair. “Shen Yuan is not Shen-shishu’s son, as you were wondering.”

Disappointment briefly coursed through Cao Zhi. There went that theory. “But?” 

“But he is definitely related, somehow.” Quan Liang rolled his shoulders, leaning back. “That is all we heard. We had duties to attend to.”

What duties! What the hell do you do! Cao Zhi had certainly never seen the two of them doing anything but helping do rounds, eat food, drink tea, and play games! Tell this shidi more about your duties!

“I see,” Cao Zhi said.

Breakfast carried on with idle conversation after that, with Quan Hao and Quan Liang telling him about different items or people around the dining hall. It was a pleasant time, and Cao Zhi appreciated being able to get to learn more about the peak his two friends resided on. It occurred to him that he didn’t know much about Qiong Ding, nor about Quan Hao and Quan Liang’s particulars in life. 

With how much he enjoyed following his impulse to visit Quan Hao and Quan Liang, Cao Zhi considered doing this more often. Perhaps he’d even invite them over to An Ding?

 

After the delightful meal on Qiong Ding, Cao Zhi finally made his way over to the dreaded Qing Jing Peak.

Please, he prayed. Please, please, please look favorably upon me and help me avoid Shen Qingqiu! 

He approached Qing Jing with trepidation, on the lookout for Shen Qingqiu.

When Cao Zhi realized Shen Qingqiu was nowhere in sight, he relaxed marginally. For now, he was safe. 

He couldn’t explain why he was so wary to run into Shen Qingqiu - they’re initial interaction wasn’t even that bad. Maybe it was the man’s intimidating beauty, maybe it was the reputation that surrounded him. Cao Zhi wasn’t sure. Whatever the reason, his nerves were buzzing with how much he stressed about facing Shen Qingqiu.

His stress, however, did not help him from turning a corner and finding himself in front of Ming Fan.

Cao Zhi clenched his hands at his sides and considered making an undignified retreat, when Ming Fan said, “Cao-shidi! This shixiong hasn’t seen you in so long!”

So long, my ass, Ming-shixiong! This shidi saw you a few days ago! 

“It has been some time, Ming-shixiong. How are you?” Please don’t answer, this disciple does not care, Cao Zhi bemoaned. 

“Good.” A smug look crossed Ming Fan’s plain face. He placed his hands on his hips, spreading his feet slightly, and took on an extremely haughty stance. “Shizun has tasked this disciple with a very important task, I mustn’t be disturbed. So,” he waved a hand dismissively, “as much as I have missed our talks, this shixiong will be taking his leave.”

Good riddance! Go! Shoo! See if this shidi cares! 

Before he could bid Ming Fan farewell, a small person came around the other corner of the building.

Shen Yuan! Exactly who Cao Zhi was looking for!

“Shen-shidi, there you are,” Ming Fan said. 

‘There you are’? It didn’t seem like you were looking for him, Ming-shixiong! Is this your important task? Minding your shidi?

Shen Yuan grunted, before noticing that Cao Zhi was standing there.

“Oh! It’s the shixiong from yesterday…” Shen Yuan said. He bowed his head towards Cao Zhi. “This disciple apologizes for making a commotion yesterday,” Shen Yuan said. “He was disoriented and promises to behave like a proper Qing Jing disciple henceforth.”

Ah, so cute! Shen Yuan was just a little disciple, hearing him speak in such a mature manner, it really was too cute! You make this disciple want to pinch your cheeks! 

Cao Zhi smiled and waved away Shen Yuan’s concerns. “No worries, shidi. This shixiong understands. If you ever need help from An Ding, ask for Cao Zhi, okay?”

He was too cute to ignore! This disciple enjoyed being lazy, but he would make an exception for you!

---

Shen Yuan felt quite embarrassed for how he acted yesterday when he realized he was on Cang Qiong Mountain, but he had reasons, okay?

How would you react if you suddenly woke up to an electronic voice in your head welcoming you to a new life? Poorly! Horribly! Especially if it's a life of some random, no-name NPC in a novel you had just been cursing!

Imagine, you wake up in a thin bed instead of the chair in front of your computer, hearing some cutesy but patronizing Google Translate voice talking to you!

[System reboot activation successful! Thanking customer for patience.]

What?

[Dear Customer, through technical issues with the System Company, we have granted you VIP status. Benefits include:

- No OOC lock.

- Free reign over background generation, within parameters.]

So, not free reign. Make up your mind, system!

The cheery yet robotic voice continued on.

[No points will be rewarded or taken away, but missions will be given. Deviations from missions that alter key plots of the story will result in punishment protocol.

Thank you for your service! System is available for your needs 24/7.]

That still hadn’t explained shit! 

Shen Yuan had asked many things.

Name? Shen Yuan, which made it easy as he didn't need to learn a new name to respond to.

Where was he? Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.

How did he get to Cang Qiong? He was found by Peak Lord Shen Qingqui with fever on the side of the road. Something compelled the man to bring him here.

What peak was he - wait… Shen Qingqiu? Scum villain Shen Qingqiu? Destined to become a human stick Shen Qingqiu? Him?

The system replied, [Yes.]

And with that, Shen Yuan had run off.

The system had been plenty annoying, going on about how he needed to return to the Bamboo House to be checked by Mu Qingfang and properly meet Shen Qingqiu.

Fuck that!

And then he ran into some random NPC.

The same NPC he was in front of now, shame-faced.

No longer trying to escape in a panicked run, Shen Yuan took the time to see who was in front of him. And! No fair!

This NPC was way too attractive! Shouldn’t he be annoyingly average or ugly so he didn’t challenge the stallion protagonist, Luo Binghe? 

Dressed in An Ding Peak blue (what was someone from An Ding doing on Qing Jing?), the teenager from yesterday watched Shen Yuan with a small, pleasant smile on his pale, oval face. What Shen Yuan noticed most was the four beauty marks, striking against his skin - two by the right eye, two on the lower left side of his mouth. And his eyes! An endearing willow leaf shape, the color of a deep blue.

Truly enchanting! Such a young master type!

Hey, shitty Airplane, if there was an NPC that looked like this, why didn’t you go into their looks? 

Probably because he was An Ding cannon fodder… As far as Shen Yuan could recall, the only character in all of Proud Immortal Demon Way having come from An Ding was the treacherous Peak Lord, Shang Qinghua. 

Shen Yuan hadn’t seen what his own appearance was yet (except that he was Shen Qingqiu adjacent?) - perhaps he was also this good looking?

He side-eyed Ming Fan. The cannon fodder bully was notorious for his piteous, boot-faced looks… Truly, Shen Yuan couldn’t look that bad… 

Zoning back into the conversation, Shen Yuan responded to Cao Zhi. “Okay, Cao-shixiong.”

Curse this child body! He could see it in Cao Zhi’s eyes! He thought Shen Yuan was cute! No, no, no! Shen Yuan was a grown man, okay? He was not cute. Look away, shixiong. 

“Actually, Shen-shidi,” Cao Zhi said, voice trailing off.

Shen Yuan hummed. “Yes?”

Cao Zhi looked off to the side with an awkward expression. “Could you ask your Shizun if you could come with me to An Ding Peak? My Shizun wishes to meet you.”

What? Repeat that? Shang Qinghua, that skeevy traitorous rat, wants to meet with him? Shen Yuan? Something wasn’t adding up… 

Uncertainly, Shen Yuan said, “This shidi can ask.” 

He looked up at Ming Fan, curious to see if he would say anything. Ming Fan looked blankly back at him. Right… 40 IQ, there was probably no thoughts going through that brain.

Something sparked behind his plain eyes. “Oh, this shixiong will take care of it. Run along, little shidi.”

Ming Fan! It could not be more obvious that you are trying to get rid of this one! Fuck you! 

Shen Yuan sniffed delicately. “Very well, this shidi will come with you.”

Cao Zhi lifted a hand and covered his mouth, but Shen Yuan could still hear an airy giggle. “Thank you, we will take our leave now.”

They bid Ming Fan goodbye and left.

Cao Zhi wasn’t the chatty type, which sucked because Shen Yuan was bursting at the seams with questions. Mostly, he was trying to figure out why the hell Shang Qinghua, of all people, wanted to meet with him.

It couldn’t be that - no… 

Was he another transmigrator? But how would he find out? Maybe this was all some nefarious plot. Shen Yuan couldn’t be sure.

---

“Shizun,” Cao Zhi called from outside the Peak Lord’s Leisure House. “This disciple has completed your request.”

The sliding door slammed against the frame, pushed upon with such fury. Shizun stood in the doorway, hair mussed about and face openly conveying frantic curiosity.

“Well, where is he?” Shizun demanded.

Reaching behind himself, Cao Zhi gently coaxed Shen Yuan forward. “Here, Shizun.”

“Wow,” Shizun said. “You really do look like Shen Qingqiu! You could totally be his son, if I didn’t know better!”

With that, not allowing Shen Yuan to get a word in himself, he grabbed the poor boy’s wrist and dragged him inside, calling, “Don’t wait up for me, do what you want!” out to Cao Zhi.

Do what you want, ah? Well, this disciple considered listening in on the conversation, but truly… That was a lot of effort. He wasn’t like Quan Hao or Quan Liang, who were eager to eavesdrop given the chance, surprisingly. 

Perhaps today he would play the qin under a newly bloomed peony tree, the Fairy Princess blossoms looked quite nice this time of year. 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan shook his hand out from Shang Qinghua’s grip, curling his lip in distaste. 

He then took in his surroundings. 

The house was… something. 

Papers littered the floor, tables, chairs - everything, really. There was a box full of scrolls in one corner, a box of ink pots in another, and brushes strewn about in random areas. Blankets were draped over chairs and styled as a nest on the bed, which was partially visible from an open door to the right. 

Shen Yuan would be honest: this was not what he imagined the house of Cang Qiong's traitorous Peak Lord to be. Where was the meticulous organization? The pristine insides that covered up the nasty plots Shang Qinghua was scheming?

He squinted at Shang Qinghua.

This man, too, didn't look anything like the secretly vicious mastermind that Shen Yuan pictured. His brown hair was somewhat messy, his guan askew, he had ink stains on the hems of his robes, his fingers, and even his face. He had slight bags under his eyes, and an obviously nervous countenance. 

Shang Qinghua wringed his hands, glancing around anxiously. 

"Does," Shang Qinghua said haltingly. "Does Proud Immortal Demon Way, uh, mean anything? To you?"

Shen Yuan inhaled sharply, turning to face Shang Qinghua proper. "You - so, you are another transmigrator!"

Poor, poor fellow transmigrator, Shen Yuan thought. Destined to live in a traitor's body, destined to die. This old man is lighting a candle for you!

Shang Qinghua wailed in relief. "I am! I really am! Oh, I thought I was all alone! When did you get here?"

Shen Yuan said, "Two days ago."

Shang Qinghua wilted. "Ah, wow. That's nice..." His face expressed something between jealousy and depression. 

Damn, okay. Tell me you've been here awhile without telling me, Shen Yuan thought.

"Anyway," Shang Qinghua said, physically shaking his head to rid himself of the pitiful mood. He sat down in front of a low table and motioned for Shen Yuan to follow suit. "What was your ID? Would I know you?"

Sitting, Shen Yuan said with a small amount of pride, "Peerless Cucumber." Not to brag, but he was a pretty notorious black powder fan! His essays and critiques on PIDW would garner many views and responses! 

Shang Qinghua gasped, smiling. "Cucumber-bro! My favorite anti-fan! You helped pay so many of my bills, bro!"

Hah? Repeat that? 'My' favorite anti-fan? 'My' bills? Then - that would mean - this shitty NPC Peak Lord was -

"You're Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky?" Rage filled Shen Yuan. Clenching his fists and barely holding back from hitting Shang Qinghua, he said, "You shitty hack author! You - you ruined such a good thing!" He could choke this man, ah! Kill him right here! He ruined a perfectly good protagonist, he did!

"But you paid for everything despite me 'ruining it'," Shang Qinghua said, a hint of smugness coloring his voice. "If I remember correctly, you bought VIP access to all of my chapters and paid for the highest tier on my crowdfunding page." Snarkily, he finished, "Thank you for your patronage, young master."

Oh! This man! Thinking so highly of himself! Where had his cowardice gone, who was the smug person in front of him! 

"Well," Shen Yuan sniffed. "I was just waiting it out until you bored of your stupid wife plots and endless papapa and wrote something good again, with proper worldbuilding and character growth."

Shang Qinghua waved his hands, shooing away Shen Yuan's comments. "Try saying that to all the merch of my son you bought… And eh, the people didn't want that. I like, totally had plans for a more proper story but, you know, you have to write what sells." He snaps and points finger guns at Shen Yuan. "And porn? Shit sells quick." He didn't necessarily look happy about this as he said it.

Shen Yuan huffed, wanting to defend himself. Binghe was a great character with potential, okay? The ideal stallion protagonist! Then he frowned, because. It was true. Harem novels could be found any and everywhere, with truly good stories hidden in between. "... Fine."

Time to move on to other things, then, before Shen Yuan got too heated.

Switching topics to his newly transmigrated life, Shen Yuan said, “Well, I'll admit, I’m glad I got here before Luo Binghe joined the sect.” Unfortunately, he was also, according to the system, around fifteen years old and still had hardly entered puberty. He really… didn't want to go through that, again. Either way, perhaps he'd age out of the sect and could travel the world before the plot picked up?

Shang Qinghua choked. “Uh, no? Bro? My son is definitely on Qing Jing right now…” He pulled a bowl over to his side, filled with seeds, while Shen Yuan processed this information.

After a few seconds, he sputtered, “Wh- How? I haven’t seen him yet? He’s not even in the woodshed, I checked.” Shen Yuan made sure, okay! He had no plans to die!

Shitty system, why didn't you mention anything!

The system, [...]

Unaware of Shen Yuan's internal tirade, Shang Qinghua said, “Mm, ah, you see, you can’t kill more for this, Cucumber-bro, but… It’s just after the Shuang Hu City arc, do you remember?”

“Do I - are you seriously asking me if I remember?" Who was Shen Yuan but the reader that likely knew the story better than the author! "Of course I do! What does the skinner arc have to do with this?” As far as Shen Yuan recalled, the skinner arc went straight into Shen Qingqiu's murder of Bai Zhan's Peak Lord, Liu Qingge, in the Lingxi Caves.

Shang Qinghua shovelled a handful of seeds in his mouth. “Well, okay, so it was only in my notes but like, there was this other scene…” He trailed off, pondering what to say for a moment. “My son walked in on - hm, something he wasn’t supposed to, yeah? And of course Shen Qingqiu punished him… He’s currently kneeling on the highest peak of Qing Jing.”

A dark feeling ripped through Shen Yuan, beyond anger. What! Was! This! Shitty! Author! Doing! To! Poor! Binghe! Did he not torment him in PIDW enough? Did he really write probable notes upon notes of other ways to torture the poor white lotus before he blackened in the Endless Abyss?! Unnecessarily cruel! Shitty Airplane! 

“Woah, woah, hey! Drop the murderous look, yeah? It’s scary on your face! Children shouldn’t be so scary!” Shang Qinghua looked bullied, eyes watering and shaking a little. He continued attempting to placate Shen Yuan, saying, “A-Anyway, he’ll be down in a day or two, I think. You’ll see him soon, stop worrying.”

Stop worrying? Fuck you! Shen Yuan was allowed to worry! Luo Binghe had already gone through a year or so of abuse at the hands of Qing Jing Peak already! 

System, Shen Yuan cried, what can I do to fix this!

[Fix the nonsensical plot. Have fun finding hidden plot points. Do not deviate from key plots. Fill plot holes.]

Fuck you!!! How was Shen Yuan supposed to ‘have fun’ but also not deviate from key plot points? There were many that could be considered ‘key’, so what all are you talking about?

[Figure it out yourself.]

Stupid! Shitty! System! If this one could, he would wring your pitiful neck! 

Shang Qinghua, seeing Shen Yuan’s dark look, hastened to explain. "You have to understand, even though I wrote things like, bam, bam! One thing right after the other, there was technically like, huge gaps between things! No one cares about the time between cool scenes! I wasn't writing some slice of life novel, no! I was an action packed author." He frantically waved his hands. Shen Yuan, thinking through the haze of his anger, thought that he resembled a small, frightened animal. 

“Explain,” he said, gritting his teeth.

“Oh boy,” Shang Qinghua sighed. He ate a handful of seeds. “Hm… If I remember my timeline correctly… Ah, Shuang Hu happened maybe, hm, a week or two before you showed up?” Another handful. “From there, it’s about two or three months until Shen Qingqiu decides to cultivate in the caves, and then, oh wow, do I remember?”

You better remember, Airplane! Keep talking! Shen Yuan gritted his teeth more.

Another handful, and a sigh. “Ah, it’s probably two or three years from there that Sha Hualing comes in. Cultivating in isolation takes time, okay! And then it’s pretty quick from there, because my son will be, uh…” He trailed off, grabbing yet another handful of seeds.

A hamster… Shen Yuan thought. “‘Your son’ will be seventeen.”

“Yes!” Shang Qinghua nodded. “So a year after that will be the Immortal Alliance conference, then boom! Endless Abyss!” Quietly, he added, “And, after the sect finds out I betrayed them, a few months after, I will…”

Shen Yuan, suddenly morose, let Shang Qinghua become quiet. He frowned. “Did your system not offer you a chance to change things?"

Shang Qinghua shook his head. “No, my system is very - well, it’s mean. I must stick to key plot points and ‘carry out my character arc’, which. I know my character arc very well.”

Releasing a shaky sigh, Shen Yuan tried to think of something to say. He, too, was supposed to stick to key plot points. Would Shang Qinghua’s death be considered one of them? Or could he help change the fate of his fellow transmigrator? Yeah, okay, Airplane might be a shitty author, but he didn’t deserve to die! Or, well, die again. Die like how Shang Qinghua died.

Forcing a laugh, Shang Qinghua said, “But it’s okay! For now, I’ll enjoy my days by my king’s side! And spend time with all my children, watching them grow.”

“Airplane-bro,” Shen Yuan said. 

Silence persisted after that. What could he say! There was no way to lift the mood, both Shang Qinghua and Shen Yuan were now feeling the depression that came with the looming threat of death! Shen Yuan, as a disciple of Qing Jing Peak, was surely to die after Luo Binghe returned fully blackened! And Airplane, his fate, set in stone! 

Truly, the two of them were deserving of pity.

Fuck you, system! How could you put us in a situation like this! A thousand knives to your heart! 

As if summoned to lift the mood, the door opened to reveal An Ding’s little head disciple, Cao Zhi. 

“Pardon the intrusion, Shizun,” he said politely. “This disciple worried that refreshments would be needed and prepared some.”

“Yes, please!” Shang Qinghua said with some desperation. Anything to drive out the sad mood would be appreciated!

Granted entrance, Cao Zhi brought over a tray of tea, some snacks, and a bowl of seeds. 

“Please enjoy, this disciple will take his leave,” Cao Zhi said.

Shang Qinghua clapped in excitement. “Oh, Xiao Zhi, you spoil this master! Go, have fun doing - well, doing whatever it is you want to do!”

With a nod, Cao Zhi left.

Eager to take a drink and change topics, Shen Yuan took a cup of tea and said, “Isn’t Cao Zhi, like, way too good looking to be some random NPC? Especially from An Ding?” He took a sip and was pleasantly surprised to find that the tea was floral and sweet. Though not proper, he quickly drank more.

After finishing his own tea, Shang Qinghua hummed. “You know, now that I think about it, he really is…” Tapping his chin, Shang Qinghua mused, “I certainly don’t remember writing a character like that. In fact, when I picked him up at the entrance exam, I’m pretty sure he looked something like this...?” 

Shang Qinghua scrounged around for a scrap sheet of parchment, ink, and brush. He drew a quick, shaky image in a cute style of someone who - Shen Yuan didn’t know how to say this kindly…

“That’s not Cao Zhi.”

“No!” Shang Qinghua said. “I swear it is! Look, I even put the two little beauty marks by his mouth! He really had that, like, background hentai-protagonist look, okay! He really looked like an NPC! He was cute but in that offhand way you think a scrappy dog is!” Shang Qinghua whistled. “I don’t know when it happened, but he really had a glow up! Like he’s the protagonist of his own story, or something.” Taking a handful of seeds, he said, “He still doesn’t compare to my son, though. Or my king…”

Interesting. So it appeared that background characters could become more prominent? And that prominence led to them becoming a full-fledged, good looking character?

How much book logic did this world follow? And how much actual world logic? 

Suddenly feeling burdened by the pressures his shitty system had put on to him, Shen Yuan took an egg tart and munched on it.

A couple of minutes passed in silence, Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua taking the time to enjoy what Cao Zhi brought them.

Offhandedly, Shen Yuan said, “Ah, I miss the internet…”

In the same manner, Shang Qinghua replied, “Same, bro.”

What poor, pitiful transmigrators they were!

System, Shen Yuan thought, is there any way to access the internet just through you?

System, [No.]

Fuck, this second chance at life sucked! Shitty system! Zero out of ten stars!

Chapter Text

Cao Zhi saw a visible lift in Shizun’s mood after his talk with Shen Yuan.

The day after the two met, when Cao Zhi was double-checking some terms and conditions with Shizun concerning local businesses, Cao Zhi had asked, “How was meeting Shen-shidi?”

Shizun’s excitement was palpable. “Good! I never realized I would meet another tra- uh, traveler from my town! It is very, very far away, so it was surprising that Shen-shizhi ended up here!” A soft smile crossed Shizun’s face. “But, this master is very happy to have him here.” He blinked, and looked faux-stern. “Not that you should ever tell him that! He’ll get a big head! I know it!”

“Mn.” Cao Zhi prayed for Shen Yuan. He seemed like a sweet, mature boy and his Shizun… was a lot. 

Since Shizun was so happy being able to spend time with Shen Yuan, Cao Zhi was hopeful that Shen Qingqiu might be willing to part with his disciple every now and then. If, of course, Shen Yuan wanted to meet with Shizun.

He looked up from his work and watched his Shizun purse his lips, buzzing some type of particularly awful tune, and perform an awkward hand-wavey dance.

Shen-shidi, Cao Zhi thought, this one understands if you decide to never come back.

 

Part of Cao Zhi’s position as an inner disciple required him to go down the mountain and personally meet with some of Cang Qiong’s vendors, and potentially scope out new merchants to contract. 

Today was one of those days where he was going down to renew a contract and order new supplies, because Shen Qingqiu had finally worn Shizun down into buying new strings for Qing Jing Peak’s qins.

If Cao Zhi happened to snag some new strings himself? That was his business.

No, it was not the Fuzzy Fire Moth silk strings that Shen Qingqiu initially requested, but instead a very nice Spiked Frigid Worm silk string set. Though cheaper than Fuzzy Fire Moth silk strings, which were known for their clear, crystallic sound, Spiked Frigid Worm strings were a nice second choice.

The smooth sound they provided! The translucent quality they had! Ah, Cao Zhi could not wait until he got his hands on these strings. 

Cao Zhi was thankful that the merchant he was renewing and updating the contract with was one that had been selling to Cang Qiong since before Shizun ascended to Peak Lord. The couple who ran the string shop was old, bent at the back with years of work. 

They expressed appreciation for Cang Qiong being such a faithful customer, who didn’t abuse their privilege as a sect to try any outrageous discounts or benefits. 

“For a small extra fee,” the woman said, patting Cao Zhi’s hand with her little wrinkled one, “take these crystal strings here, yes? Give them to that young Peak Lord in green, hm? Such a good boy. And here, for you,” she said, reaching into her pocket and placing some candied ginger in his hand. “It’s my favorite.”

“Thank you,” Cao Zhi said, smiling. 

Yelling mentally, Cao Zhi thought, the strings! The fanciest strings! For Shen Qingqiu? ‘Such a good boy’? If you say so… 

Why not treat this good boy to some nice strings, hm? Just ginger candy for Cao Zhi, even though he was the one who did all the hard work in figuring out contract details.

With jealousy and tears in his heart, Cao Zhi ate one of the candies.

They finalized the new contract and Cao Zhi internally weeped at the 'small fee' (Shizun would for sure take it from Yue Qingyuan's personal account, rather than the sect's). The old man brought the Fuzzy Fire Moth strings in a special pouch, passing them to Cao Zhi with great care.

With a grunt, he patted Cao Zhi’s hand and also gave him candied ginger. 

Do you see this young man and his inclination towards yin energy and think to give him ginger? Is that it? Cao Zhi lamented. 

 

The path from the lower mountain town to Qing Jing was much nicer than the one to An Ding, Cao Zhi noticed. Flowering trees lined the road, and the path was well-walked. Unlike the An Ding road, which was rocky and a general hazard to travel, this was practically a scenic route! Cao Zhi appreciated the colorful blossoms, varying in shades of red, white, and pink. 

Before becoming a cultivator, Cao Zhi had wanted to curate his own garden. His family was well off enough, and he was the youngest of all his siblings, that he could get away with selling some products here and there, and let gardening be his main occupation. Seeing areas such as this, with incredible natural beauty, made warmth and desire spread through Cao Zhi.

He was, at the end of the day, a man with few ambitions. He wanted to live an easy life. What he did now - cultivating, handling business ventures, dealing with troublesome peaks in a sect - it was never something he imagined doing.

However, he was also a doormat. Cao Zhi preferred not to think for himself. If he was told to do something, or even just suggested, Cao Zhi would quickly do it.

Perhaps, he thought while nearing the entrance to Qing Jing, when he was tired of this cultivating life and he became near immortal, he would retire and start his own garden. Peonies, preferably, as they were his favorite.

Upon entering Qing Jing, Cao Zhi looked for Ming Fan to direct him to Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo house. Usually the little brat would be hanging around causing some sort of mayhem, but today it seemed he was off doing something else.

Failing to find Ming Fan, Cao Zhi glanced around for another disciple that would be able to help him.

Off to the right, almost too fuzzy to be made out properly, was Shen Yuan. And he was with - ah, who was that? A new disciple? But the entrance exams were some time ago… 

He walked over to them, hoping to get both help to the bamboo house and just to greet Shen Yuan, maybe feel out his thoughts on Shizun.

As he neared, he saw them more clearly.

Too cute!

A sheep!

Whoever that little disciple was, he was much too cute! 

Qing Jing Peak, release that disciple into Cao Zhi’s hands! He would take good care of him, feed him well, and offer many headpats and cheek pinches! He was much too cute! 

Shen Yuan, while an adorable disciple in his own right, paled somewhat in comparison to this other Qing Jing disciple.

Dressed in soft whites with slight green hues, this disciple truly looked too pure! His dark hair was curly, messy in a way that made you want to brush it out and put in elaborate hairstyles. His cheeks, too, were like little dumplings.

The two weren’t facing him. In fact, Shen Yuan was leaning just over the other disciple’s shoulder, close enough that his hair brushed the other’s back, and was pointing to something in front of them both. They were talking in low tones, quiet enough that Cao Zhi’s meager cultivation couldn’t pick up.

Gently clearing his throat to alert them of his presence, Cao Zhi greeted, “Hello, shidis.” 

Shen Yuan visibly jumped in place, appearing much like a startled kitten. And the other disciple! His wide eyes and slightly open mouth, face surrounded by fluffy hair, really looked like a sheep! 

“G-greetings, Cao-shixiong,” Shen Yuan said. His hand slid to cover the book in front of him. “How can this disciple help you?”

Trying to keep his gaze from being too obvious on the little sheep at Shen Yuan’s side, Cao Zhi said, “I was hoping you could escort me to Shen-shibo.” Glancing at the other disciple he asked, “And who might this be?”

The little sheep blushed. “This one is Luo Binghe!” 

Inside, Cao Zhi sobbed. What a cold name for such a warm boy! Ah, Luo Binghe was so cute! Come, let this shixiong pinch your cheeks!

Lifting his sleeve to cover his face, Cao Zhi said, “Hello, Luo-shidi.”

An understanding look entered Shen Yuan’s eyes. 

Hey! Shen-shidi! What are you understanding! 

Cao Zhi tilted his head to the side, silently questioning.

“Oh,” Luo Binghe said. “We can take you to Shizun…” He sent a questioning gaze towards Shen Yuan, who nodded in affirmation.

Standing, he pulled Luo Binghe up and placed the book in his hands, saying, “This shidi will continue to help you next time, Binghe.”

Woah, Shen-shidi! Cao Zhi wanted to shout. Aren’t you being way too familiar right now? Already calling him by name alone? Isn’t that a little disrespectful? You’re moving way too fast! 

With a soft blush, Luo Binghe took the book and glanced at Shen Yuan through his long lashes. “Thank you, shidi.” 

Happily, Shen Yuan patted Luo Binghe’s head.

Cao Zhi watched on in a daze. This was real life, yes? Not some blossoming companionship in a romance novel? 

“This way, shixiong,” Shen Yuan said, as if everything that just occurred was nothing out of the ordinary. He started to walk off, Luo Binghe following along like a loyal little sheep.

Truthfully, the sight of the two of them… was really too cute, Cao Zhi thought.

Trailing behind them, he watched as the two little disciples walked by each other, lost in their own worlds. Every so often, Binghe would look at Shen Yuan with starry eyes before coming back to himself, and suddenly seem a little down.

Poor little sheep, Cao Zhi thought. What thoughts have you down? Quick, tell this shixiong. 

As they neared the bamboo house, Cao Zhi noticed something strange under Luo Binghe’s sleeve. Was that - a bruise? Probably from training too much, ah. What a dutiful disciple.

Before alerting Shen Qingqiu of his presence, Cao Zhi turned to his two shidi. Reaching into the pouch at his side, Cao Zhi grabbed a small bottle of medicine. “Here, this shixiong noticed some bruising on his shidi. This is topical, so please just rub it on the injury, hm?”

Shen Yuan appeared grateful and Luo Binghe was near tears, thankful. He brushed away their thanks, telling them to be responsible next time and pick some up from stores at the back left peak on Qing Jing.

“Mu-shishu works hard to make sure every peak is supplied with medicine for small scrapes and bruises for these reasons, please don’t let his work go to waste,” Cao Zhi said. 

The two nodded, and looked so cute that Cao Zhi could not resist giving their heads a small pat before waving them off. 

Now alone, he nervously looked at the door. This would be his first time interacting with Shen Qingqiu, more than just the passing glances he'd had before! Shen Qingqiu was an immortal beauty! He was a man with a cruel reputation! He was ‘such a good boy’! What was Cao Zhi to except when finally, truly meeting this man?

“Shen-shibo,” Cao Zhi called. “This disciple is Cao Zhi, from An Ding Peak. This disciple has come with a delivery that must be handled directly.” 

For a moment, there was silence. Then the door slid open to reveal Shen Qingqiu. 

He was immaculately dressed; his green and white robes were ornate without being ostentatious. His long, dark hair was carefully held back in a half knot, half down fashion. His countenance was cold but not uninviting, and he looked down at Cao Zhi with neutral eyes.

Yes, looked down, because Shen Qingqiu was nearly nine cun taller than this disciple! How unfair, to be so beautiful but so tall! Everything Cao Zhi aspired to be.

Shen Qingqiu raised a single delicate eyebrow.

Gripping the pouch at his side, Cao Zhi said, “This disciple was sent on a mission down the mountain to Cang Qiong’s qin vendor. They provided silk strings of the highest caliber and informed this disciple to give them to you.” Cao Zhi, with care, pulled out the bag with the strings. He held them out towards Shen Qingqiu. “These are Fuzzy Fire Moth silk strings.”

Humming lightly, Shen Qingqiu took the bag from Cao Zhi. With slender fingers, he gave the outside gentle, absent-minded strokes. “This master will give the owners his thanks when he next descends the mountain.”

And with that, Shen Qingqiu spun around, returning to his home and leaving Cao Zhi on the doorstep. 

Shen Qingqiu, truly a mystery to Cao Zhi. He was somewhat envious of the Peak Lord’s natural aloof manner.

Copying Shen Qingqiu, Cao Zhi spun around (though he only managed a less dignified result) and made his way back to An Ding Peak.

Chapter Text

Cao Zhi, in a fit of pique, entered his Shizun’s house alone and unannounced. 

On this day, the Peak Lords were hosting their monthly get together. While not every Peak Lord was in attendance, the An Ding Peak Lord’s presence was always required; who else would take the minutes, discuss the budgets, and shoulder complaints?

Knowing that Shizun was gone, Cao Zhi intended to raid his Shizun’s Leisure House for his missing blanket.

A few nights previous, Cao Zhi had spent the afternoon doing work with Shizun, left for dinner, grabbed a blanket from his dorm, and returned to Shizun’s house to continue going over papers. As the time bled from late evening into the dead of night, Shizun had ushered Cao Zhi into a spare room and forced him to sleep.

In the morning, Cao Zhi finished what little work was left for him to do, then went to breakfast. He forgot all about his blanket until he headed to bed that night and realized, ah, oh no. He left it with Shizun.

But Shizun was not there to grab it for him, no! Of course the one day he required his Shizun’s assistance for such a little matter, there was a Peak Lord meeting!

And so, Cao Zhi made the executive decision to sneak around the Leisure House uninvited and snatch back his blanket.

There was only one problem: the Leisure House had a surprising amount of spare rooms. Unfortunately, Cao Zhi was too tired at the time to recall what path he took from the main working area to the room he slept in, so he was forced to individually check each and every room.

One door after the other, it went as follows:

Open, check, nothing was found, close. 

Cao Zhi was about to close the sixth door when the air started to chill, and a ripple appeared in the middle of the room.

Wary, Cao Zhi hid just behind the door. He remained far enough back not to be seen, but was still able to maintain a good view of the room.

The ripple turned into a dark portal. From it, a demon with very human features emerged.

His light skin was slightly tinted blue, his hair was dark and straight, he wore a heavy cloak and trousers, and his brow bore the mark of a heavenly demon.

Cao Zhi’s breath caught in his throat.

How had this demon bypassed all of Cang Qiong’s wards?

Cao Zhi’s hand twitched by his side, itching to grab something. He had not thought to grab his bag when leaving his dorm, so that was not an option. As well, Cao Zhi had no sword or other weapon.

It was just him and the demon.

Taking careful breaths to not alert the other of his presence, Cao Zhi did his best to assess the situation.

The demon seemed disoriented. He closed the portal with a shaking wave of his hand. Something dark dripped from the hem of his cloak; Cao Zhi presumed it was blood.

The demon stumbled over to the spare bed and collapsed.

Cao Zhi watched, tense.

For many moments, the demon did nothing except lay there and breath. Once, he winced and clenched his side.

Why, Cao Zhi wondered, would an obviously wounded demon come here?

He could not come up with a reasonable explanation.

As time continued to pass, Cao Zhi’s body started to strain from how still and tense he stood. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep this up.

Regrettably, he had not brought anything with him that would be useful to confront the demon. As well, he couldn’t just walk away and leave. 

Either way, whatever decision he made would result in the demon being notified that someone was there.

Cao Zhi’s limbs started to shake. It was not from the stress he was under, Cao Zhi realized. Rather, the temperature of the room had once again dropped.

Having dropped his guard for a moment, Cao Zhi had failed to notice a critical change: the demon was aware that he was watching.

Looking back at the injured demon, Cao Zhi’s heart nearly stopped in shock.

The demon had stood from the bed, staggering in place.

A sword of black ice formed in the demon’s hands.

This was it, then.

Cao Zhi had no way to warn his Shizun or fellow disciples of the threat on their peak. Of the threat in their Shizun’s own home.

Injured or not, this demon - a heavenly demon - posed too much danger to be handled by a mere disciple.

Poor Shizun, Cao Zhi thought. He may not even find my dead body before he, too, is killed.

The demon raised the sword and formed two identical, icy copies at his side.

He aimed its tip straight for Cao Zhi’s heart.

Cao Zhi's heartbeat thundered in his ears. 

 

Suddenly, “My king!” a familiar shrieky voice cried. 

Unexpectedly cutting through the tension, barreling into the room, came Shizun. 

Fresh from the Peak Lord meeting, arms clutching a bag stuffed full of paper, Shizun stood in front of Cao Zhi to protect him.

To protect him from… his king?

“Shizun?” Cao Zhi whispered.

Shizun stayed facing forwards, looking at the demon head-on. He shook in place. Cao Zhi couldn’t tell if it was from fear or from the cold.

The demon watched Shizun. His eyes flickered between Shizun and Cao Zhi, before finally setting back on the former. 

“Shang Qinghua,” the demon said. He sounded almost questioning, something between confused and neutral.

“Not him,” Shizun said. His voice quivered. “You don’t - not anyone on Cang Qiong.” He prostrated himself before the demon. “Punish this servant as you see fit, but he promises that - that all his hard work has not been compromised! His disciple will - see reason.” 

Cao Zhi couldn’t see his Shizun’s face, but he could hear the tears in his voice, heard the droplets hitting the floor. “Please, my king.”

The demon observed Shizun. Silence persisted. He banished the swords.

Cao Zhi grit his teeth and lowered his gaze. “This disciple saw nothing. He will keep his mouth shut. If this disciple is to be found lying, may the heavens strike him.”

Shizun turned to look over his shoulder, pitifully saying, “Xiao Zhi…” 

The demon seemed appeased. He made no motion to leave the room, instead settling back on the bed. 

Shizun glanced at him and, finding no denial, returned to stand. His gaze jumped between the demon and Cao Zhi.

Releasing a long, slow exhale, Cao Zhi said, “This disciple will take his leave. Shizun, please take care.” 

 

Cao Zhi went out of his way to avoid his Shizun. He still completed his tasks as an inner disciple, but it wasn’t the same.

He was sure Quan Hao and Quan Liang had noticed how despondent he was during their breaks.

It was - hard. To wrap his head around everything. Shizun, his hardworking Shizun, colluding with demons? Enough to call one ‘my king’, without looking very threatened? Was not Shizun, as Peak Lord, supposed to be unquestionably loyal to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect?

This complicated things for Cao Zhi as well. Despite the general over-the-top everything about his Shizun, he really did like him. Shizun was a good person who took care of his disciples, cared for their health, and treated them like family. His Shizun was the reason for An Ding Peak pride - people may look down on An Ding, but everyone on the peak knew their worth. Shizun made sure everyone understood how essential they were to Cang Qiong, that even if others believed they weren’t hardworking, those who mattered knew. 

Shizun had pleaded for Cao Zhi’s life.

It was this pride for An Ding, this love for his Shizun, the promise that he made for Shizun to the demon, that kept Cao Zhi’s mouth shut. He wouldn’t go to Yue Qingyuan and tell him that his Shizun had allied himself with demons and was acting as a spy. But he also wouldn’t talk to his Shizun, not yet. Cao Zhi was too upset and confused and hurt to do anything but cry or yell if he were to confront Shizun.

It was for the best, he knew, that right now he existed around Shizun peripherally, rather than take an active position in his life.

Burdened by these heavy thoughts, Cao Zhi walked to the Peak Lord’s Leisure House. He ignored Shizun’s watery eyed stare as he entered. For the sixth night in a row, he collected his paperwork to complete on his own before going to bed.

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua was kind of having the worst week of his life. Second life?

No, actually, both lives. Even death wasn't this bad.

Like, Shang Qinghua would really rather not dive deep and be introspective and everything but, yeah.

It was… tough. Seeing Cao Zhi come into his house every night without fail, silent and never paying Shang Qinghua attention… it really hurt. And even when he couldn’t see Cao Zhi he was still - present. He was there in the tray of tea and snacks provided by a random disciple, yet was made exactly how Cao Zhi did it.

What was worse, Shang Qinghua had no idea what to say or do to rectify the situation.

He didn't expect his king to just show up unannounced! Imagine his shock when his system suddenly spouted warnings while he was casually strolling about after a meeting! Blaring on and on about breach of protocol, and if he didn't fix the problem soon it would result in him returning to his original (very much dead and decomposing) body!

To really just send the point home that his day was going to be as shitty as possible, he arrived to a scene that made him want to cry:

His king pointing swords at his little boy, his Xiao Zhi!

Never before had Shang Qinghua gone against his king's will so explicitly, but he refused to let anything happen to Cao Zhi.

It was hard to explain. Other than Mobei-Jun, Shang Qinghua hadn't felt any strong attachments to the people of this world. There was very much a sense of otherness he felt when interacting with people. Being here was like - like you go to work, and everyone would be friendly with you, and you would be friendly back, but there was no substance. It was all surface level.

Then came Cao Zhi, his little NPC that grew into something more.

An Ding Peak hadn't even had a head disciple character, okay? It wasn't necessary when Shang Qinghua planned to kill off the original version of himself and then destroy the entire Cang Qiong Mountain Sect!

So when this little boy waltzed into his life and Shang Qinghua heard about all the little things Cao Zhi did from various disciples, he felt something stir in his heart.

Didn't Cao Zhi remind him of himself? Yes, however he was much less underhanded… There was no sabotaging his fellow disciples in order to climb ranks in the peak hierarchy, but rather a genuine desire to help.

A desire Shang Qinghua felt personally; if you put the work in now, you could rest easy later.

Hard work to be lazy, that was the dream! Shang Qinghua just wanted to live, in peace! And maybe stare at his king's manly sculpted chest and not die! 

But no. Mobei-Jun just had to show up, injured of all things, and threaten Cao Zhi.

Sure, Shang Qinghua managed to de-escalate the situation, but after the fact he definitely had a very long cry about it. Thankfully, his king was sleeping off his injuries and didn’t have to listen to Shang Qinghua have a total breakdown. 

In between him crying, it must be understood: the system had seen fit to punish him.

For what! It was unnecessarily cruel. Yes, okay, his position as spy between demons and Cang Qiong was outed, which went against the plot, but it wasn’t like Cao Zhi was going to tell anyone! Even if Cao Zhi hadn’t sworn on his life, Shang Qinghua would trust him to remain quiet.

The pain that had ripped through him was unbearable - Shang Qinghua nearly bit his tongue in two. Cultivation helped heal him so there was no sign of it in the morning, but it wasn’t like Shang Qinghua would be forgetting the system’s shitty punishment protocol any time soon. Over something he couldn’t even control! 

The morning had been fine, for lack of a better word.

Quietly, his king had asked, “Who was he?”

Shang Qinghua couldn’t tell if Mobei-Jun was assessing a threat, or jealous, or curious, or what. His stone cold expression and colder voice made it really hard to tell, okay! 

“Aha,” Shang Qinghua had replied. “Xiao Zhi is my little disciple, he’s such a good boy. He’s helped this servant handle so much work, especially when this one is busy doing things to help you, my king!” He clasped his hands together and said, “So, my king, rest assured you can trust him! Xiao Zhi really won’t do anything.”

Mobei-Jun hadn’t bothered to reply. He merely hummed, and moved to sit up.

From there, Shang Qinghua had assisted Mobei-Jun with caring for his wounds (while worrying his king would hit him for getting to close, or something), and then Mobei-Jun left.

And now, nearly a week later and suffering from total radio silence with Cao Zhi, Shang Qinghua was at the end of his rope.

He decided to confront the one person he felt could really help him in this situation. Who could really give him an honest, harsh answer on what to do. Who understood a situation like this intimately. 

Knocking lightly on the door, Shang Qinghua called, “Shen-shixiong? It’s, ah, Shang Qinghua. From An Ding Peak.” Fool! He knows this. “Ahaha, you already know that, though… Could you? Open up please? This one has come with an urgent question.”

He waited in front of the bamboo house, straining his ears for any sound. After a couple minutes passed and he heard no footsteps or any sign of life, Shang Qinghua decided this was a bust. Time to wallow some more and figure out where to go from here. 

About to retreat back to An Ding, Shang Qinghua watched Shen Qingqiu exit from the bamboo house’s private garden.

“Oh!” he cried. “Shen-shixiong! Hey!”

Shen Qingqiu sneered. 

Ah, Shen-shixiong… don’t you know that look is super intimidating?

He kept walking, passing his house, and Shang Qinghua scrambled to follow. 

“No, wait!” he said. “It’s seriously urgent! You know I wouldn’t come here without a reason, come on!”

Shang Qinghua could tell Shen Qingqiu wanted to snap at him but held back to maintain his aloof appearance. Yeah, you think you’re so slick, but this author knows who he wrote! 

Didn’t make him any less scary… 

“What,” Shen Qingqiu ordered, coming to a sudden stop.

Shang Qinghua tripped behind him so he didn’t run into the Peak Lord.

“Okay,” Shang Qinghua started, gathering his bearings. “I got myself into this really awful situation that I think you could give me some advice on. Crazy, right? Me, coming to you for advice?” He gave a self-deprecating laugh.  “Anyway… so, my disciple. You know him, Cao Zhi. I really - see him as family of sorts.” Waving his hand, Shang Qinghua said, “I never expected that - ah, anyway… He… well, he and I had a falling out, kind of. He found out something about me that really… hurt him. And he’s really upset. But we haven’t talked about it?” Shang Qinghua tugged on the ends of his hair, finishing, “And also I don’t really know if I want to talk about it. But it’s definitely like? Kind of my fault and a problem? So I think we have to, you know? To clear the air.”

For a moment, all that could be heard was the wind passing through Qing Jing. Then, quietly, Shen Qingqiu said, “Nothing is worse than when you have been betrayed with no explanation. Talk to him.” 

Then he left.

Shang Qinghua didn’t know what to say. It was - okay, so that was exactly what he came over to hear, but. He also? Didn’t expect Shen Qingqiu to actually answer? Sure, Shen Qingqiu didn’t know that Shang Qinghua knew that he was talking about his history with Yue Qingyuan but like.

Ah, his character was really too complex! 

Shang Qinghua psyched himself up, slapping his cheeks. “You heard it from Shen Qingqiu, suck it up! Go talk to him!”


---

 

Unaware of Shang Qinghua’s dilemma, Cao Zhi had his own conversation with Quan Hao and Quan Liang. 

He knew, having built a rapport with them over his time as an inner disciple, that he could trust them with his troubles. Even though he would have to be vague about it, he was going to try and get his point across, and let the twins understand a little on why he was so down during his last visit.

Quan Hao and Quan Liang had led him to a private clearing, in the middle of a plum tree grove behind the Sect Leader’s quarters. They let him gather his thoughts together as they settled, placing food and drink around them, quiet and patient. 

After a few moments, Cao Zhi felt okay to speak. Haltingly, he started with, “As you know, this shidi has not been himself recently.” He took a deep breath. “Shizun - this shidi’s Shizun - this shidi experienced -” he cut himself off. 

Cao Zhi could feel his eyes watering, and he blinked quickly to hold back frustrated tears. At his side, he felt something pushing against his arm. 

Looking down, he found Quan Hao passing him a handkerchief. He gave a small smile. “Thank you, this shidi apologises.” 

“Do not apologise,” Quan Liang said, Quan Hao nodding alongside him. “Take your time.”

Cao Zhi took those words to heart and tried again. 

“Between my Shizun and I,” Cao Zhi said, speaking slowly, “there has been a growing rift. It has only been for this past week, but it is impossible not to notice.” He frowned. “I’m very upset with Shizun. At first, I worried that I would only end up yelling if I tried to talk to him. But now, I wish he would initiate the conversation.” 

He took a sip of his tea, ruminating over his thoughts and feelings over the week. “Shizun, whenever I encounter him, only stares at me. He never tries to open his mouth, or even dares breathe.” Cao Zhi bit his lip. “But it was Shizun that hurt this disciple, and all I want is an explanation as to why.”

Quan Liang placed a large, comforting hand over Cao Zhi’s own. 

With a thoughtful noise, Quan Hao said, “Perhaps your Shizun doesn’t know what to say. From what this shixiong has experienced, he is not the best at explaining himself.” He frowned. “He may also be expecting you to broach the issue, but that is only speculation on this shixiong’s part.”

“Well,” Cao Zhi sniffed, “this shidi hopes that is not the case.”

Quietly, he added, “I miss spending time with Shizun. But until he - he at least helps this disciple understand, I can’t trust him. I don’t like not being able to trust my Shizun.” He sighed. “I know he is a good person, but…” 

Thankfully, Quan Hao and Quan Liang didn’t try to pressure him into details. They accepted his explanation as it was, and let Cao Zhi air out his thoughts.

After finishing the tea and snacks, they had reached a conclusion. If, in the next day, Shizun had not attempted to reach out to Cao Zhi, Cao Zhi would initiate the conversation. 

He could only hope his Shizun would be receptive to his questions. Cao Zhi was tired of the distance between them, even if it had only been a week. 

It was trying, and he sometimes felt as if the air chilled around him when he knew nothing was there. In the corner of his vision, he would see a dark, icy sword.

Though he wasn’t sure talking with Shizun would alleviate him from these terrors, Cao Zhi was hopeful that it would grant him peace of mind.

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua felt a little like how Yue Qingyuan must feel when he tried to placate Shen Qingqiu by buying him gifts.

See, yes, Shang Qinghua was preparing to talk with Cao Zhi and say whatever needed to be said. 

He was not above, however, throwing in a little incentive to maybe help the talk go okay.

He wasn’t going to force it on Cao Zhi! Merely… Once he’d said his piece, if he happened to give Cao Zhi a gift, it should speed up the forgiveness process, yeah?

Shit, this was a bad idea. It never worked for Yue Qingyuan.

But! Shang Qinghua was different okay! This was a one time offense and he was going to explain himself, unlike the extremely misfortunate character he wrote! 

Yes, the offense was pretty damning. Being found out as a demon spy wasn’t exactly a good thing. That’s what the gift was for!

Shang Qinghua was proud to say he knew his little disciple very, very well. Sometimes, he would stop and listen to Cao Zhi play the qin under a tree peony. It was very beautiful, very aesthetic, and Shang Qinghua would perhaps, one day, if he got the chance to take a break between the work his king and Cang Qiong heaved upon him, sit with Cao Zhi and just relax and listen to him play. 

And so Shang Qinghua bought a small peony plant. It was the most expensive one, and it had some special properties that definitely were cultivation novel bullshit and not real peony stuff so it must have been one he wrote in for a wife plot. Which one? He honestly couldn’t say.

But! Hopefully! Cao Zhi would like it! 

He went about his day with higher anxiety than usual. In the back of his mind he could hear Shen Qingqiu repeating, ‘Talk to him,’ ‘talk to him,’ on and on. There was no backing out, okay? If even the scum villain tells you to talk, then you have to! 

Because he was so anxious, time passed at a rate somewhere between insanely fast and too slow. Pick a speed! This one just wants to make it through dinner and get to talking to his disciple, okay! Either be slow about it and let this master stew in guilt, or be quick and let him feel like he didn’t have enough time to think of what to say!

He really didn’t know how he was going to get through this conversation… 

 

After dinner, Cao Zhi stopped by like clockwork to pick up his portion of the missives and complaints. 

Shang Qinghua could feel himself shaking. 

Come on, this was no time to be a chicken! 

Ah, chickens were actually pretty scary… no! Stop getting distracted to put off talking to Cao Zhi! It’s now or never!

“Xiao Zhi,” Shang Qinghua called weakly. His throat was dry, and he gave a pitiful attempt at clearing it.

Cao Zhi didn’t turn around where he stood in front of the door, but it was clear he was listening.

“Please, come sit with this master,” Shang Qinghua said. “I really… yeah.” 

Shang Qinghua berated himself. ‘Yeah’? Say something more! Be more clear! 

Thankfully, it seemed to be enough to get Cao Zhi to follow his pleas. 

His head disciple returned to the table, setting his papers aside. He stared attentively at Shang Qinghua, but still refused to say anything, clearly waiting.

Shang Qinghua cleared his throat again. “Right… This master has hurt his disciple. It - it’s truly the worst thing this master could have done. He never wanted his disciple to find out that he was working with demons!” Shang Qinghua bit his lip. “Though, perhaps it would have been worse if you found out what I was doing later in a different situation.” He started to imagine how Cao Zhi would have reacted if he found out Shang Qinghua was a spy at the Immortal Alliance Conference. The picture in his head wasn’t pretty. Perhaps it was for the best he found out now.

“This master doesn’t have to explain himself,” he told Cao Zhi. “But he wants to. This master - I want you to be able to trust me again. You shouldn’t be afraid to trust your Shizun,” he said, growing quiet.

Cao Zhi continued to watch him. For a moment, Shang Qinghua gathered his thoughts.

“What you saw that day - even I wasn’t expecting it,” Shang Qinghua admitted. “Not that that helps explain anything but. Please understand, this one experienced something very traumatizing as an outer disciple and just wanted to live.” He gave a sad laugh. “And so I decided to sell myself out to demons, isn’t that sad?”

Waving a tired hand, he continued, “I told Mobei-Jun that if he didn’t kill me, I would do my best to rise in rank, become a Peak Lord as I am now. We - I wouldn’t say we have a good relationship, but I do respect my king…” He pressed his hands against his mouth, thinking of what he could get away with saying. “My king really isn’t that bad… I don’t give him, like, budgets or anything, or attack plans, or super bad specific stuff he could use to destroy Cang Qiong on a whim but. He does have some insider knowledge if that makes sense.”

Unnerved by the silence but unable to stop talking, Shang Qinghua said, “I know when I promoted you to inner disciple, I compared you to me, saying I saw ambition in you that I saw in myself. I - well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. My ambition was to live, and to rise in ranks purely to live, and I did some things I’m not proud of but I am happy where I am.” 

“You have to believe that I truly do care for each and every one of you,” Shang Qinghua said. “I refuse to let my king hurt you.”

Slowly, Cao Zhi nodded. Shang Qinghua breathed a sigh of relief.

“Listen, my ambition led me to work with demons, but you… We’re very different, and maybe I shouldn’t have compared us like that. Not that you knew, but still. I don’t want you to think back and reflect poorly on yourself, you’re a good boy,” Shang Qinghua finished.

There were a few beats of silence, where Shang Qinghua desperately waited for Cao Zhi to say something.

Finally, Cao Zhi spoke. 

“This disciple thanks Shizun for his explanation, it has been enlightening,” he said diplomatically.

What the hell was Shang Qinghua supposed to make of that! He opened his mouth, but was cut off by Cao Zhi raising a hand.

“Apologies for being rude, but this disciple is not finished,” he said. 

He tapped the edge of the table, pensive. “This disciple, though never having experienced such a situation himself, can understand the desire to live and cannot fault Shizun for the decisions he made under duress. It is not wrong to want to live instead of die, this one thinks.” Thoughtfully, he added, “It is because of that decision that this one was able to meet Shizun. Though what occurred to lead us here was not - ideal, to say the least, this disciple is happy we are talking about it.” 

Cao Zhi steepled his fingers against his chin. “Also, I do not believe we are so different. This disciple has one goal in life, that Shizun knows very well: to live easily. Part of this disciple’s burdens is seeing the weight of work press down on Shizun’s shoulders. It may be unconventional, but,” Cao Zhi swallowed and closed his eyes, “this disciple would like to assist Shizun in working with Mobei-Jun.”

A cry of “No!” burst from Shang Qinghua’s lips before he could stop it. “I can’t let you do that!” 

He would not let his little Cao Zhi be dragged into demon politics! He would not let him face the fear that came with knowing you were a traitor to your sect and everyday you could be found out! 

“You will,” Cao Zhi said firmly, defiant in a way he had never been before. “This disciple was tired of the chasm torn between us by a lack of trust! And now that you have explained, this disciple can understand to a certain degree.” Gripping the edges of the table tight, Cao Zhi said, “Begging Shizun to understand, this disciple cannot handle seeing you everyday struggling under the work you must do!”

Cao Zhi let go of his usual genial demeanor, leaving Shang Qinghua to see the anguish clear on his face. It made something pang in his heart. 

“Cao Zhi, you don’t know what you’d be getting into…”

“Did you know what you would be getting into when you first started working for demons?” Cao Zhi demanded.

Yes? No? It was complicated? Though he had kind of written about it and imagined it, it was what he expected but also so much harder? 

Cao Zhi took his silence as an answer. “This disciple is not often bold, nor does he like to go out of his way to do much work. But this disciple would rest easier if he knew could alleviate Shizun of some of his burdens.” 

It warmed Shang Qinghua to know that his disciple cared for him enough to want to help him. But it also hurt, so so much, to know that Cao Zhi had been quietly worrying about him. Yes, Shang Qinghua knew that Cao Zhi had some worry for him because of how much he took care of this poor transmigrator, in between all the tea and snacks and sneaking in extra work that he thought Shang Qinghua didn’t notice but. Worrying to this extent? It was daunting to realize that someone could care about Shang Qinghua this much.

In either life, he had never had someone like that before. In his first life - ha! As if his family had cared. They had their own issues with their divorce and work, Shang Qinghua was just a minor blip on their radar. And it wasn’t as if he had any friends or anything. He was just a loner who wrote tens of thousands of words a day and used strangers online to give him attention.

And here - other than his king, who had cared for him before? It wasn’t as if Shang Qinghua was going out of his way to make meaningful attachments, true, but still. Yes, he cared for all his disciples, but he knew they would all eventually leave. He wanted them to live their best NPC life but - he still saw them all as his characters, not as anything concrete in their own right. 

But Cao Zhi… he really was becoming family, huh. It was clear that Shang Qinghua’s care for his disciple wasn’t one-sided.

“This disciple has no particular feelings towards demons,” Cao Zhi said, pulling Shang Qinghua from his thoughts. “And so will have no prejudices to overcome when working with them.” Dropping some formality, he continued, “I don’t promise to - to help spread information about Cang Qiong. As well, my only practice in any form of trickery is inconveniencing disciples who speak poorly about An Ding, so I cannot promise to be helpful in such matters. But I can help with paperwork and making deals, you know I am very good at that.”

It was true, Shang Qinghua agreed. If Cao Zhi had any shred of ambition, he would have made a hell of a disciple on Qiong Ding Peak. 

Seeing that Cao Zhi was not going to back down, Shang Qinghua conceded. “This master will discuss with Mobei-Jun if he feels it best to have you join the ranks, so to speak.” Before Cao Zhi could pipe up, he lifted a finger and said, “But! This master will also be the one giving you work! He will decide what you can and cannot do.” 

He closed off saying, “And, if one day this master were to be found out, you must promise him that you will say you were forced into this!” 

Shang Qinghua was not going to let anything happen to the one disciple he truly cared for, okay?

Cao Zhi frowned, furrowing his brows intensely. “This disciple cannot promise anything, apologizing to Shizun for impertinence. But he promises to take Shizun’s words to heart and consider them.”

Shang Qinghua wanted to shake him. Listen to your Shizun, damn it! 

This talk was not going how he expected at all. It wasn’t bad, necessarily. In fact, the outcome was better than expected. But also worse, because now he was dragging Cao Zhi into his demon spying shit. Not ideal, exactly, but better than if Cao Zhi said he never trusted him again.

Was it selfish of Shang Qinghua to prefer having Cao Zhi collude with demons and trust this Shizun of his, rather than for Cao Zhi to hate him? 

“If this master cannot change your mind,” Shang Qinghua said vaguely. “Ah, my disciple has truly grown up, he is starting to rebel!” He wiped a fake tear.

Laughing weakly, Cao Zhi said, “Not so. This disciple simply trusts his Shizun, and hopes his Shizun can trust this disciple.”

Shang Qinghua felt as if his heart had been pierced. What an astonishingly filial disciple! What did Shang Qinghua do to deserve him?

“Truly, you do too much for this master,” Shang Qinghua said. 

Suddenly, he remembered his gift.

Was it really necessary anymore? After all, he already had Cao Zhi’s forgiveness and more… 

Well, he had bought it for his disciple, so it couldn’t hurt to give it to him.

“Don’t leave yet,” Shang Qinghua said before Cao Zhi could attempt to move.

Rummaging around his qiankun bag, Shang Qinghua quickly tried to find the gift. It was a whole plant, how hard could it be to find? 

His fingers finally found purchase against the edge of a ceramic pot. “Aha!”

Pulling it out, Shang Qinghua said, “Admittedly, this master thought our talk was going to go very differently. Not that I’m unhappy with the outcome! It’s just, I thought I might need a little gift to, ah, make things go smoother…”

“You… were going to bribe me?” Cao Zhi sounded unimpressed.

Shang Qinghua felt sweat beading on his temple and gave a pitiful chuckle. “Not exactly? Kind of? This master just wanted you to forgive him quickly? I really didn’t like not being able to work and talk with my favorite little disciple, okay! I was definitely going to bribe you!” 

Cao Zhi gave an amused huff. “This disciple will gladly accept the bribe.”

Hey! No teasing this master! 

“Cool, cool,” Shang Qinghua said. He tried to ignore how sweaty his hands were as he fumbled around the pot. “So, I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I do know it’s a peony, and you like those, so,” he trailed off, placing the plant on the table.

“Oh, Shizun!” Cao Zhi said, delight filling his features. “This is a Do Tell peony! Oh, they’re so wonderful. If imbued with life essence or cultivation energy, these flowers can do amazing things! You can either speak a message into them that they will relay, or have them listen in on conversations!” Tilting his head, he continued, “Though the downside is the effect only lasts for a day. Beyond that, they lose their ability and just become a normal peony.”

Cao Zhi flushed. “Oh, begging Shizun’s pardon, this disciple didn’t mean to ramble.”

Shang Qinghua waved his hands, dismissing the apology. “No, no! This master is glad to see his gift was well received, ah! I really had no idea what was so great about this flower! I kind of just bought the most expensive one at the stall…”

“I see,” Cao Zhi said. “Thanking Shizun for the bribe.”

This disciple! Shang Qinghua did not realize how much of a bully he could be! How could he continue to tease this master! 

Cao Zhi reached over to his side, grabbing the papers he picked up earlier.

“If Shizun doesn’t mind,” he said, glancing at Shang Qinghua from lowered eyes. “May this disciple work with him until it is time to rest?” 

In offering, Cao Zhi pulled out a clear covered dish of melon seeds from his bag.

This Shizun takes it back, his disciple is too cute and free to tease at any time! As long as it means you continue to spend time with your father - ah, your Shizun! He gleefully took the seeds from Cao Zhi.

Setting the dish on the table, Shang Qinghua pulled over his own, much larger, stack of papers, and placed it in front of him, readying to work. “This master does not mind.”

Chapter Text

Part of being a good disciple now engaged in traitorous activities, which was something Cao Zhi never realized he would be, was having at least some understanding of who he was working for. Before bothering his Shizun with endless questions, Cao Zhi wanted to be at least a little knowledgeable and have specific things to ask, rather than just generals.

Ah, this was so much work, Cao Zhi kind of wanted to give up already... But he’d seen his Shizun spend many sleepless nights in the Peak Lord’s Leisure House, working himself to the bone, and would prefer if he could see Shizun take a break for once.

With this in mind, Cao Zhi went to the peak he felt best suited to fit his needs: Qing Jing.

Cao Zhi had attempted to find any material on demon culture, demon politics, or even just demons in general in An Ding's library but… the less said about the place, the better. It seemed to mostly contain ledgers of Peak Lords passed, as well as various trade agreements and business deals with some of Cang Qiong's longest standing vendors. Useful, yes, but the place was in horrible disarray and it was terribly obvious that Shizun was the only person who regularly went through there; his own workplace was in the same state.

As well, Shizun's personal library was bereft of any helpful texts. The only thing Cao Zhi was able to find were first edition manuscripts of various romance novels. 

Therefore, the scholars' peak was his next destination. 

He would, unfortunately, have to ask Ming Fan for assistance to enter Qing Jing’s library. While on a technicality it was open to the public for any disciple, there was a lot closed off that could only be accessed through an inner Qing Jing disciple. 

Heading up the peak, Cao Zhi found a welcome sight.

“Luo-shidi!” he called, waving a hand at the startled disciple. Ah, look at that little sheep! He hadn’t seen Luo Binghe too recently, but good to see he changed little. He seemed to be taller and perhaps his body a little more filled out, but that was all. 

“Hello, Cao-shixiong,” Luo Binghe said pleasantly. He flashed a bright smile, and Cao Zhi felt especially tempted to pinch his bao-like cheeks. “Is there anything this disciple can do to help you?”

“Ah, yes,” Cao Zhi said. He stepped into pace with Luo Binghe, walking with him up to Qing Jing. “This shixiong was wondering if Luo-shidi would not mind taking him to Head Disciple Ming Fan? I have a request that requires his assistance.”

Luo Binghe missed a step. “Oh, I don’t think I can help you with that,” he said hesitantly. “Ming-shixiong has been demoted and is spending time in the Hall of Reflection. Ning-shijie is currently head disciple…” 

Cao Zhi was surprised. What had Ming Fan done that warranted Qing Jing’s Hall of Reflection? It was meant for serious offenses, where one wrong move would get you exiled from the sect. Yes, he knew Ming Fan could be a bully, but to this extent? Cao Zhi frowned. 

Nonetheless, he carried on, amending, “This disciple simply needs an inner disciple for assistance. If shidi would not mind directing him to Ning-shijie?” 

Luo Binghe perked up. “This shidi does not mind!”

Cheerfully, Luo Binghe led him through Qing Jing, engaging in idle chitchat with Cao Zhi.

Last he saw, Luo Binghe was studying reading with Shen Yuan. How was that going? Oh, absolutely fine, it turned out. Luo Binghe had, in fact, done so well in reading, he had moved onto writing, and was now one of the best calligraphers in his age group!

Understood, and how was shidi’s cultivation coming along? Amazingly, it seemed. Perhaps in a couple years, Luo Binghe would be getting his sword from Wan Jian! What an amazing feat! This Cao Zhi had not received his sword, and he’d been a disciple of Cang Qiong for eight years! Admittedly, he did not actively try for a sword, nor did Shizun pressure him into getting one. For now, practice swords worked.

Actually, speaking of Shen Yuan, where was he? Oh, the little sheep blushed, how sweet! He's taking etiquette lessons with Shen Qingqiu, ah? How wonderful! Family bonding time, it seemed. Cao Zhi was glad to hear it.

Soon they reached a training field that hosted a pretty young woman, diligently practicing sword forms. Her hair was done in two cute but elaborate buns, though it was starting to come loose from the motions she seemed to be putting it through.

“Ning-shijie!” Luo Binghe yelled, waving excitedly. 

The disciple stopped after completing her form, turning towards them. “Luo-shidi! Hello!” She dropped the sword carelessly on the ground. “Have you finished your chores? Oh, and who’s this?”

“This shidi has,” Luo Binghe said, patting the pouch at his side. “And this is Cao-shixiong! He has a question for you.”

“Indeed,” Cao Zhi cut in. Politely introducing himself, he said, “This one is Cao Zhi of An Ding Peak. Greetings to Ning-shijie.”

“Oh! Hello! This one is Ning Yingying, head disciple of Qing Jing!” Ning Yingying said vibrantly. “I’ve heard of you from Ming-shixiong! It’s nice to meet you, you’re much prettier in person!”

Hey, what had Ming Fan been telling you? Had he said anything bad about this disciple?

“Shidi is glad he does not disappoint,” Cao Zhi settled on saying. Moving on, he said, “This disciple was wondering if Ning-shijie could assist him in accessing the Grand Library?”

Ning Yingying clapped her hands together. “Yes! I haven’t had to use my new inner disciple abilities to help anyone into the library, this is so exciting!”

She grabbed his wrist, pulling him along. 

Ah, Ning-shijie! Are we close enough for you to be grabbing this one so casually? 

Cao Zhi didn’t say anything, letting himself be dragged along. He briefly looked over his shoulder, giving Luo Binghe a slightly bewildered wave of goodbye. Smiling, Luo Binghe waved back before returning to whatever he had been doing before Cao Zhi interrupted. 

Ning Yingying chattered their whole way there, asking various questions and pointing out random things she enjoyed about Qing Jing Peak. 

Over there was her favorite bamboo grove! It looked like many of the others on Qing Jing, but apparently had a hidden pond she liked to play music by.

Don’t tell Shizun, she had whispered, but Ning Yingying preferred playing the pipa over the qin. Sure, she didn’t get that many qin assignments compared to other disciples, but she’d rather not play at all!

Cao Zhi wanted to tell her that he was fairly sure Shen Qingqiu knew this, as the Peak Lord was very observant and clearly indulged her by lessening the amount of qin playing she did. However, as a qin player, he felt a little slighted and said nothing. May she continue playing the qin, whether or not she likes it! She’ll understand the beauty of playing it one day, hopefully.

“We’re here!” she sang, as if Cao Zhi had not noticed them approaching the large building. Disciples came in and out. Nearly all of them were of Qing Jing, but Cao Zhi noticed a couple Qian Cao disciples scattered throughout. 

She walked him in, passing many shelves and tables full of concentrating disciples, and to the sliding doors that separated the rest of the library from the public. Touching a talisman to the door, she turned to him saying, “Okay! This shijie has opened the doors for you! Please don’t take anything out of that section of the library, or else there will be consequences!” She laughed cutely, folding her hands together. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call on this disciple! Bye bye, have fun!”

Ning Yingying proceeded to run off. 

Meeting her was a bit of a whirlwind, but she was already leagues better to interact with than Ming Fan. Sure, Cao Zhi had no real ill will towards the former head disciple but. Well. Clearly, some people are just better suited for the job. Ning Yingying seemed a little flighty but overall very invested and good at what she needed to do.

Finding himself mostly alone, as not many disciples appeared to need the more restricted section of the library, Cao Zhi took his time browsing the shelves.

There was a surprising amount of literature on all sorts of things. Various types of cultivation, fighting forms, extremely in depth encyclopedias on different plants and beasts - whatever one needed, if it was an advanced topic, it could surely be found here. The library truly lived up to its position on the scholarly peak. 

After half a shichen, Cao Zhi finally found what he needed. Sprawling shelves contained all manner of literature on demons, from specific clans and leaders to the broader topics that Cao Zhi was interested in.

He hated reading but, ah, the things he did for his Shizun.

Preparing himself for a lengthy studying session in the library, Cao Zhi started grabbing books concerning demonic culture and politics. 

Chapter Text

Beyond the general hierarchy of demons that every cultivator learns about, Cao Zhi came to know many ins and outs concerning demons he never expected to.

First, an in-depth understanding of demon politics. There was, of course, the obvious notion of 'strongest demon is the demon in power' that all cultivators maintain. However, as Cao Zhi had come to find, it was more than that.

The base hierarchy came into play: the more humanoid the demon was, the higher up in nobility they tended to be. They didn't necessarily need to be powerful, but their blood almost guaranteed they would be.

If a higher noble demon wasn't powerful, however, they were an excellent choice for another demon to use to marry into status.

Of course, to be able to marry into that status if a demon wasn't of the same blood class or higher (highest, of course, being Heavenly Demons), demons had to engage in a tournament with the entire bride-to-be's family and prove their might. While winning wasn’t required, demons tended to prefer if their intended was powerful enough to hold their all for a period of time. And if they were to beat the entire family? That was a whole other status changer that Cao Zhi didn’t want to consider.

Which brought Cao Zhi to the second, extremely important, thing he'd learned:

Fighting was integral to demon culture. He knew this on a surface level, but it was another thing to deep dive into altogether. It was part of mating rituals, power seizes, pack bonding - anything one could think of involving the makeup of society as a whole, fighting was involved. Even demons on the lowest rung of the ladder, who were equivalent to plants and animals with only the drive to survive and no true conscious mind, understood this basal need to fight. 

Perhaps because at the most bare-bone, instinctual level, demons were part of a survivalist society? Cao Zhi likened it very much to doing whatever it took to make ends meet at all times. He found no literature on the luxuries of demon society, nothing that referenced leisurely noble pleasures.

Sure, there was plenty of discussion on fun things demons do, which, yes, tended to include fighting in some capacity, but other things did exist. Beast taming, demonic artistic pursuits that were nearly equivalent to the four arts, and various types of games that could be played to pass time. 

It really added an aspect to understanding demon culture and society from a human perspective that Cao Zhi had never really considered. In fact, he would not hesitate to say that many cultivators, and humans as a whole, did not think of these things. 

Demons tended to be reduced to the lowest of the lows; many considered all demons terrible monsters who only lived to glut themselves on human flesh. And while for many demons that escaped into the human world, this could be true, it wasn’t true for all demons. 

Cao Zhi felt he had a solid base for understanding demon culture now, and would only ask Shizun about different nuances pertaining to the northern Mobei Clan when necessary.

Unfortunately, Cao Zhi had come to find, because fighting was just a common part of demon life, it was important to diplomatic matters as well. He wasn’t sure how Shizun handled it, because his Shizun was not a fighter in any capacity, but.

This poor disciple was going to need to pick up the slack on training! Cao Zhi believed in doing the bare minimum to maintain his cultivation, okay? He wasn’t going to train anymore than he needed to, because that cut into the time he could be doing more important things, such as admiring new peony blooms or practicing his qin. 

Clenching his fists, he determinedly thought: It’s for Shizun! Remember, do it for Shizun! Only the best for Shizun! 

 

---

 

Shang Qinghua roamed around An Ding, wondering what he could do to show Shen Qingqiu his thanks. If it wasn’t for the other Peak Lord, Shang Qinghua may have never gained the courage to talk to his little disciple, and where would that leave him? Sad! Pitiful! Forever wondering if Cao Zhi hated him or not! 

And so, for saving his relationship with Cao Zhi, Shang Qinghua felt it was only right to bestow a gift unto Shen Qingqiu. 

Nothing that Yue Qingyuan would gift him, no, that would only gain Shang Qinghua looks of derision from Shen Qingqiu, and he definitely didn’t want that.

The scum villain of his was scary, but maybe Shang Qinghua wanted to be his friend! He was helpful, and maybe, perhaps, he could help add some depth to his character! 

His system dinged in warning, reminding him of his mission to stick to the plot.

Which! Fuck off! Didn’t this author plan to write extensively about the pains that Shen Qingqiu had gone through in his past? It wasn’t his fault that his readers weren’t interested in more than a two-dimensional villain who met a bitter end! 

Shang Qinghua planned to stick to the plot! Just… if it happened to be more in line with the fantastical plot Shang Qinghua had once imagined writing, who was he to say no? 

It was his story! He could do what he wanted, shitty system or no shitty system! 

While he puttered about, thinking, Shang Qinghua also checked in with various disciples like any good Shizun should. Here and there, disciples who could handle heavy lifting were running about, complaining on and on that some Bai Zhan disciple or other had destroyed portions of the dorm when getting into a training spar. 

… Shang Qinghua really felt that pain of being a pack mule for the peaks. Power through, children! One day, the other peaks will realize how necessary you are to running Cang Qiong! 

… Well. No. But if he told himself that enough, maybe one day he would feel appreciated as a Peak Lord rather than just a runner that did the other Peak Lords’ biddings. It was hard work, okay! He didn’t intend for An Ding to be the backbone, hell, the entire skeletal system and nervous system for Cang Qiong! 

Anyway. It was not the time to get into his head about how underappreciated An Ding was, because! There was another, very misunderstood and underappreciated man unknowingly awaiting Shang Qinghua’s friendship and gratitude!

He settled on giving Shen Qingqiu some basic haw candy. He tended to keep it around for his hallmasters to give disciples, and it was something Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t question him handing over as thanks.

As well, Shang Qinghua knew it wouldn’t get turned down because Shen Qingqiu had an incurable sweet tooth! Of course, he couldn’t reveal that by giving him the tanghulu he knew Shen Qingqiu secretly preferred, so this would have to do.

He had briefly considered giving Shen Qingqiu some of Cao Zhi’s favorite honey plum candy, but decided against it as he figured the acquired taste of the plum inside would be off putting to Shen Qingqiu’s delicate palate. 

 

Shang Qinghua stepped down on Qing Jing, briefly checking the decorative pouch at his side to ensure that none of the haw candy broke on the way over.

All good? Great! Now… time to find Shen Qingqiu.

He wandered about the peak, idly glancing over the disciples to see what they were doing. Oh, Ning Yingying and Luo Binghe were talking under a blossoming tree? Wonderful, it was good to see his story was still on track even with all the changes that had been occurring! Ah, was that Shen Yuan running over?

Best to avoid his Cucumber-bro for now, he didn’t want to get distracted and miss his chance to talk to Shen Qingqiu… 

It took longer than he liked, but Shang Qinghua finally ran into the man leaving one of Qing Jing’s teaching halls.

“Hey!” Shang Qinghua yelled, running over to Shen Qingqiu. “Shen-shixiong! It’s your Shang-shidi! I have something to tell you!”

Shen Qingqiu, surprisingly, stopped at Shang Qinghua’s call. He looked a little disgusted at the undignified manner in which Shang Qinghua used to get his attention, but whatever. Shang Qinghua was essentially this man’s creator, he could do what he wanted! If he wanted to yell a bit, he would! 

“Hi, one moment,” Shang Qinghua said, panting. 

Shen Qingqiu’s face grew more pinched, but he made no move to leave. Success!

Having caught his breath, Shang Qinghua gave Shen Qingqiu an uncharacteristically serious look. “Shen-shixiong, this one wants to sincerely thank you for your advice two days ago.” He lowered himself into a deep bow, showing as much respect as possible without crushing the treats at his side, intending to prove to Shen Qingqiu just how much this really meant to him. “Without your short but honest words, this one may have never spoken with his disciple. You have helped save this one’s relationship with his disciple from becoming something irreparable.”

He unclasped the pouch and, still bowing, held it out towards Shen Qingqiu. “Please accept this one’s gift as a form of deep gratitude! It may not be much, but this Shang Qinghua took much time to consider what would be a practical and appreciated gift to give to his shixiong.”

Quietly, almost hesitant, Shen Qingqiu took the small bag from Shang Qinghua’s hands.

Shang Qinghua dared not lift himself from the bow until Shen Qingqiu had accepted his thanks. He could hear Shen Qingqiu open the pouch, humming considerately. 

“This shixiong is gratified to hear that his shidi listened to his advice,” Shen Qingqiu said. There was a rustling sound, before he continued with, “Lift yourself from that unsightly bow. Your form is bad; you’re lucky this shixiong is willing to accept your thanks.”

Knowing that Shen Qingqiu was merely flustered from such a rare, sincere form of thanks, Shang Qinghua didn’t take his words to heart. He knew his bow was in top form! This one did nothing but prostrate himself in front of others to get ahead in life, okay? 

Standing, Shang Qinghua smiled. “This shidi cannot express enough how thankful he is, and will continue to profess his thanks however shixiong feels necessary.”

A hint of red dusted Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks, and he furrowed his brows. “Do not, excessive thanks is unnecessary and unappreciated.”

Ah! It got the exact response that he wanted! He knew that his little villain had a cute side! “Understood, shixiong. This one will cease his efforts.” 

Considering how much time had passed and knowing what work awaited him, Shang Qinghua said, “This shidi is sorry to cut this short, but thanks shixiong for listening and for his help once more. However, this one must return to his peak.”

With an indifferent flick of his fan, Shen Qingqiu covered his face and sent him off with one last, considerate look. 

It seemed like Shang Qinghua was now on Shen Qingqiu’s radar. For better or for worse, who knew! 

Shang Qinghua was making his way off Qing Jing Peak when he ran into his little disciple. 

He knew Cao Zhi was going to be off peak today, but he didn’t realize that meant he would be on Qing Jing! 

“Xiao Zhi!” Shang Qinghua said, waving enthusiastically. “Come walk with your Shizun!”

Cao Zhi looked just as surprised to see Shang Qinghua, and hastily made his way over. 

“Shizun,” he greeted politely, falling into step with Shang Qinghua.

“What were you doing over here? Visiting friends? I thought you were going to head over to Qiong Ding to see Quan Hao and Quan Liang when you made the request to spend the day off An Ding,” Shang Qinghua rambled. 

Cao Zhi shook his head. “No, this one merely wanted to do some research to be more informed on what we discussed yesterday.”

Ah! Cao Zhi! You make this Shizun of yours want to cry, what a diligent disciple! Truly, he could not have asked for better!

“Well,” Shang Qinghua said, a giddy expression crossing his face. His Cao Zhi was really the best! “If you need any specifics, don’t hesitate to ask this master!”

Cao Zhi gave a soft smile. “Mn, this disciple will be sure to consult his master when needed.”

They spent the walk back to An Ding in conversation. Shang Qinghua mostly rambled on and on, with Cao Zhi occasionally chiming in, about whatever topics crossed his mind at the moment. 

Briefly, Shang Qinghua reflected on Shen Qingqiu. He wasn’t sure he could - redeem the man, or something of that sort but. 

Without him, Shang Qinghua wouldn’t be having this casual, delightful talk with his disciple. 

For now, haw candy would have to do. In the future, Shen Qingqiu would be forced to bear the full brunt of Shang Qinghua’s friendship. He was truly grateful, okay! He needed to show it somehow.

Maybe at the next Peak Lord meeting, Shang Qinghua would change things up and actively seek Shen Qingqiu out before he could escape. Perhaps they could get tea and snacks together! 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua slid open the door to one of his various side rooms. Last night had been quite a long one; he and Cao Zhi had been reviewing Peak budgets when Cao Zhi noticed a concerning discrepancy, leading to a hectic time of trying to figure out if someone was wrongfully using Cang Qiong's money or if there had been a temporary change in finances that no one told Shang Qinghua about.

A quick summon of Chao Xian's Peak Lord cleared up the drama: one of the many beasts on the peak had given birth to little beasties. However, no one had known that the beast was pregnant. Thus, sudden and unexplained funds.

Shang Qinghua berated the Chao Xian Peak Lord. How could he treat this master so poorly! You unnamed NPC, this one is your father! Show your respect! Don't take from the sect's funds and throw this one into a panic, that is just rude! Explain yourself quickly and before a problem arises, next time! In fact, let there be no next time at all!

All said and done, the problem had been dealt with but it was very late in the night. Shang Qinghua decided that it would be best to have Cao Zhi stay over instead of returning to the dorms.

And now! He could try and scare his cute disciple who was fast asleep! 

"Xiao Zhi," Shang Qinghua sang. "This master had a mission for you and has come to wake you up! No time to be lazy!"

Cao Zhi was cocooned in his blankets, one limp hand barely peeking out from the nest to prove that there was a lifeform in there. It twitched slightly at Shang Qinghua’s voice, but no other movements were made.

That didn’t garner the surprised jumping-out-of-bed-and-maybe-yelling reaction Shang Qinghua hoped for… 

Shang Qinghua opened his mouth to continue being a nuisance when the blankets started to shift. From inside, a small messy head poked itself out, and the hand still inside the blankets popped out to rub Cao Zhi’s eyes.

His little disciple looked like a baby otter rubbing its face! How cute! System, take a picture! 

[No. (¬_¬)]

Fuck! You! Can this master have nothing nice?! 

Shang Qinghua was cut off from his internal griping when Cao Zhi softly said, “Shizun?”

Ooh, this Shizun wants to pinch your cheeks! 

“Yes, it’s Shizun,” Shang Qinghua said. He stood in the entryway of the room while Cao Zhi continued to wake up. “Like I was saying, I have a mission for you! And I’ve got an extra uniform for you on your desk so you don’t have to go out and wear yesterday’s outfit.”

Cao Zhi hummed, still half-asleep. He blinked, removing himself from the blanket cocoon. “A mission?”

Shang Qinghua clapped his hands together. “Yep! Your shijie, Tian Mengmeng, is taking a trip with some Xian Shu Peak disciples to work on some, hm, information gathering tactics. The town they’re going to just so happens to have a couple of businesses I needed to check in on and maybe update contracts with, but! With you here and going with them, problem solved!” 

Cao Zhi nodded in understanding. “Then, this disciple will get ready. Good morning, Shizun.”

“Good morning!” Shang Qinghua said, waving his hand as he exited the room.

Now that he had some free time before doing a little work for his king, because he finished a good amount of his paperwork concerning Cang Qiong stuff, Shang Qinghua figured he could check in with Cucumber-bro. 

He had only seen his highest paying (anti) fan once, but! Surely they could make a great connection! Though because he was an outer disciple of a different peak, it would be a little hard to explain why some Peak Lord was meeting with him, even if they were from the same - ehem - hometown.

Eh, that was a problem for future Shang Qinghua if it ever arose.

Shang Qinghua waved at Cao Zhi again when he left for the dining hall, bidding him to have fun on his mission and treat himself to something nice while he was in town. 

With the coast clear and his own breakfast eaten (if one could consider a handful of seeds and two cups of the strongest caffeinated tea he owned breakfast…), Shang Qinghua made his way over to Qing Jing Peak to visit Shen Yuan.

Oh! And maybe to say hi to his new best friend! 

 

Qing Jing was very calm at this time of day. Most disciples were starting meditation, as Qing Jing disciples ate later than most disciples to ensure no one fell asleep on a full stomach. Shang Qinghua didn’t know how they did it… 

That didn’t mean every disciple did this though; younger ones who were still new to meditation had a bit of wiggle room, as Shen Qingqiu or a hallmaster - the more common option -  often had to oversee the meditation themselves. 

Shang Qinghua, of course, made sure Luo Binghe in PIDW never had any assistance when attempting morning meditation, outside of the few times Ning Yingying came to join him. How did his son survive? On the protagonist’s halo alone! His son was the best, okay! Top tier stallion! 

Shang Qinghua let his thoughts wander as he made his way up to the bamboo house. 

“Shen-shixiong, good morning!” Shang Qinghua greeted. “It’s your Shang-shidi! I have a little request for you, if you would open the door!”

Inside, Shang Qinghua could hear someone fumbling about.

Shen Yuan opened the door. “You.” 

Shang Qinghua smiled, saying, “Yes, me. Where’s your Shizun?”

Shen Yuan squinted his eyes at him. Wow, he really looked like Shen Qingqiu in this moment! Shang Qinghua just knew Shen Yuan would grow up to be the same type of immortal beauty. Would he be just as scary, or…? 

“He’s getting ready,” Shen Yuan said.

Ah, that’s right… Shang Qinghua never explicitly wrote it, but he did consider Shen Qingqiu to be one of those people who seemed aloof and cool, but actually slept in late and woke up with the worst kind of bedhead. The kind of person who needed a nice, quiet morning and a cup of tea to wake him up. 

“Did you actually have something to request from Shizun?” Shen Yuan said, stepping aside to let Shang Qinghua into the house.

“Oh, yes!” Shang Qinghua said. “Though I also came here with the intention of stealing you away for a little bit, just to talk about some, hm, important things.”

Shen Yuan nodded in understanding.

They took a seat at the low table. Shang Qinghua eyed what Shen Yuan had been eating for breakfast before he got here, in case he wanted to snatch some for himself. The table was set with various assortments of sweet and savory items, though it seemed Shen Yuan had opted more for the latter. There was an untouched serving of youtiao that Shang Qinghua felt his mouth water over, and he sent it wanting looks.

“That’s for Shizun,” Shen Yuan said, eyes closed and sipping his tea. “He wakes up best when he eats something sweet.”

“I know,” Shang Qinghua said, quiet enough that Shen Qingqiu shouldn’t pick it up. “I did write him, Cucumber-bro.”

Shen Yuan flushed a little, frowning. “Well, it never came up.”

Their conversation was cut off by Shen Qingqiu emerging from his room quite like a sloth; he slowly opened the door, slowly blinked as he took in the two people sitting in his main room, and slowly raised a hand to cover his yawn before realizing that yes, there were two people. Not one.

Shang Qinghua delighted in observing Shen Qingqiu’s face turn red. He could practically hear the steam coming from his fellow Peak Lord’s ears. Gleefully, he watched as Shen Qingqiu quickly groped around for a fan and, not finding one, covered the lower half of his face with his sleeve before glaring. 

Oho, Shen-shixiong, at least you came out fully dressed! Imagine meeting with this master in such an impolite way! 

“Shang-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu hissed. “What are you doing here?”

Shang Qinghua reached for a rice noodle roll, answering, “This shidi had a request for you! Two actually.” He took a bite. Ah… it was filled with vegetables, huh… “First! This shidi was wondering if he could snatch Shen-shizhi for a little bit, since we come from the same town and all, and this one would just like to catch up with someone a little familiar.”

Shen Qingqiu continued to glare, but didn’t object. That’s a win in Shang Qinghua’s book.

“Second!” He dipped a second rice noodle in some sauce, then dipped a little more because. Yeah, bland. “Do you have anything planned around this time next week? Any missions? Any demanding paperwork?”

Shen Qingqiu remained quiet. 

“Cool!” Hey, you’re still very intimidating, Shen Qingqiu! Please answer this author! “You, me, a cup of tea and some treats! There’s a nice teahouse I like to visit, we’re going to go and I’ll treat you.”

Without letting Shen Qingqiu respond to that request, Shang Qinghua stood and grabbed Shen Yuan by the wrist. Tugging the protesting transmigrator along, Shang Qinghua called over his shoulder, “Enjoy your breakfast, Shen-shixiong! This shidi will return your disciple soon!”

 

---

 

Cao Zhi stood at the entrance to Xian Shu Peak. He knew better than to try and go in, not wanting to be shocked by the wards, so instead he simply pressed his (never used) inner disciple pass to let Qi Qingqi and her head disciple, Liu Mingyan, be aware of his presence. 

A few minutes passed in silence. Cao Zhi appreciated the time he had to enjoy his surroundings. The entrance was surrounded by artistically placed plum trees, which had bloomed beautifully. The blossoms dropped a few petals whenever the wind passed through, creating an enchanting effect that Cao Zhi admired.

“Shixiong?” A voice came from the side, startling him. 

A tall young woman stood there. She was exceptionally beautiful, even with half her face covered. 

Ah, Cao Zhi realized, this was the apparent beauty of Cang Qiong, Head Disciple Liu Mingyan!

“Greetings, Liu-shimei,” Cao Zhi said. “This one is Cao Zhi of An Ding Peak. My Shizun requested I meet with Tian Mengmeng-shijie and journey with you on your mission.” 

Liu Mingyan returned the greeting, then Cao Zhi continued. “Rest assured, this shixiong will be no bother and will be conducting his own errands. Shizun thought it best that this disciple join you as we are heading to the same location, and did not wish for this disciple to be alone.”

Liu Mingyan appeared contemplative. “Shixiong is rather small, it is best he be protected,” she said. Her cheeks tinted a light pink and she smiled.

Cao Zhi was somewhat offended.

Small? This one! Okay, yes, he was small! 

But you! Aren’t you just unnaturally tall? Younger than your shixiong and yet standing six cun taller? How rude! Shrink! 

Though… Cao Zhi would admit, it was preferable to be protected. He did not have a sword of his own, nor did he like to fight. As well, he was rather slim and unsuited for any sort of heavy lifting. 

Barely withholding a grumble, Cao Zhi said, “This shixiong will be in your care.”

Together, the two of them waited at the entrance, Liu Mingyan assuring that her Shizun and the disciples coming along, as well as Tian Mengmeng, would be there soon. 

She asked Cao Zhi random questions about himself that he didn’t mind answering, though he couldn’t see why she wanted to know. How did his interactions with the Quan twins affect her? It was easy to talk about them, however, so he responded. Her eyes were rather bright as the conversation drew on. Was she planning on using this knowledge to befriend them?

Eventually, everyone else showed up. Qi Qingqi politely acknowledged his presence, and Cao Zhi bowed in turn. 

He left Liu Mingyan to instead meet up with his fellow An Ding disciple.

Tian Mengmeng was older than him, having been of the same group as former disciple Kong Hou, but still rather friendly. He didn’t see her very often, as she preferred to stick to the peaks she managed or Xian Shu to spend time with friends. 

She was also, at times, a very excitable person. This helped her get along with many people, but Cao Zhi would occasionally become tired if he spent too long in her presence. How could one person have that much energy? Much better to rest and be quiet. 

When they arrived at the town, a quaint place at the base of the mountain known as Lanshan, Cao Zhi split from the group. Qi Qingi had pulled him aside, informing him of where and when they should meet if he intended to join them on the return trip. Cao Zhi, who definitely did not bring enough money to afford an inn for one night, thanked her and assured he would be there.

The meetings with the businesses Shizun sent him down for went quick. 

The first business, one that sold specialized camellia oil, had nothing they wanted to renew. In fact, they barely looked over the contract before deeming it fine and sent Cao Zhi on his way, saying that if he didn’t need anything now, it would be best to go, rest assured the shipment would be there when it was supposed to be. 

The second business meeting took longer, though not because there was any negotiating. They were one of the many suppliers used for Qian Cao, specifically providing dried orchids for immunity boosting teas. It wasn’t the most in demand product for a cultivation sect, as many disciples cultivated their core to the point where their health wasn’t in question unless outside forces became involved. However, the owners did more than sell dried orchid petals; they also provided various medical services. What caused the meeting to take time was that it seemed the world was intent on embarrassing Cao Zhi, as the owners were adamant that Cao Zhi take some san qi. They refused his refusal, and, since it would be rude to protest his elders, Cao Zhi eventually bent to their whims and took a jar. 

Thankfully, Cao Zhi still had time to explore Lanshan before needing to meet back with Tian Mengmeng and the Xian Shu Peak group. He recalled that Shizun said he should get something nice, and so took the time to enjoy meandering through the market.

Somewhat hungry, Cao Zhi decided to treat himself to a couple skewers of shao kao, then went off to find something simple for his Shizun.

A simple but heartfelt trinket, perhaps? Shizun was a rather clumsy and cluttered individual, it wouldn’t be smart to get him something breakable or easy to lose… 

A shop towards the middle of the market came into view, and Cao Zhi recalled the manuscripts he saw in Shizun’s library. He went in, picked out some xuan paper, internally cried over the cost as he handed over almost all of his money to the merchant, then left with his heart somewhat full.

Hopefully Shizun would appreciate this. It was hard coming by such nice paper, okay! 

Right as he was going to make his way to the teahouse, Cao Zhi spotted a small vendor that was nearly easy to miss. They were selling many different hairpins, but there was a set of two that caught Cao Zhi’s eye.

They were wooden and presented a phoenix and peony design. The two pins were practically identical. Who better to gift these to than Quan Hao and Quan Liang? 

Without thinking beyond that, Cao Zhi immediately bought them. What better to represent their relationship than the wealth of a peony and the virtue of phoenixes? Truly, these hairpins symbolized the three of them well. 

Pockets empty of money, Cao Zhi headed to the teahouse, hoping someone would take pity on him and buy some tea and snacks.

Chapter Text

Cao Zhi returned to An Ding Peak with Tian Mengmeng, stomach full of good tea and snacks. Truly, the best kind of food was the free version! 

Tian Mengmeng talked the whole way there, jumping from topic to topic. She went over everything from the exclusive book club that apparently exists on Xian Shu, to the minor details involved in sword care. Cao Zhi didn’t really gain anything from what she said concerning that, because it was mostly excited chatter about her new sword.

Oh well. This shidi may not understand, but he supports you! 

When they arrived at the peak, it was just before their set dinner time. Many outer disciples were running about, completing whatever chores they had set or engaging in their own relaxation time, depending on which schedule they received from Shizun.

It was nice to return to An Ding when it was relatively calm; no one was rushing around because something had been destroyed somewhere else, or a fight broke out, or anything similar. 

Cao Zhi parted ways with Tian Mengmeng, who cheerfully waved him off when she spotted some of her friends. He decided, before eating, he would drop off Quan Hao and Quan Liang’s gifts in his room then visit Shizun to give him his gift.

Since it was so calm, he decided to take the leisurely route to his dorm. Along the way, there was a path of beautiful Rosy Cheeks peonies. They were a specific breed that Cao Zhi quite enjoyed, because they were known to commonly cultivate into flower spirits when given the time and chance; their natural ability to cultivate made them especially likely. The very best part of these flowers, however, were that they had the passive capability to understand compliments. When spoken to with kind words, their white petals would start to turn pink from the inside out. It was such a glorious sight to see!

They didn’t bloom for long - it was part of the reason these plants took so long to cultivate if desired. Rosy Cheeks could only be appreciated for a couple of weeks at most. Cao Zhi made sure to take his time and compliment each tree, watching as each little flower blossom became as rosy as their name implied. 

By the time he finished admiring the flowers, Cao Zhi realized he was about to miss dinner. He rushed to his dorm, gently set the twins’ hairpins on his small desk, and put Shizun’s xuan paper very carefully into his pouch. 

Dinner wasn’t much, but if he wasn’t with Shizun, there was a chance some disciple would rat him out for skipping and he’d get in trouble! 

The only reason he was able to get away with skipping breakfast these days was because Shizun knew he was often spending the morning with Quan Hao and Quan Liang! 

After a mad dash to the dining hall, Cao Zhi worked up a nice appetite, but ate quickly. He needed to be sure he could catch Shizun before the Peak Lord got too into his work. 

 

In front of Shizun’s Leisure House, Cao Zhi softly announced his presence for letting himself inside. As of recently, unless the door was barring Cao Zhi entry, he didn’t have to wait for Shizun to call him in. It was quite nice, as Cao Zhi could come and go freely from the Leisure House and take whatever he needed, whenever. 

He found Shizun pacing the floor, pushing scrolls around the back table, clearly trying to find something. Every couple of seconds he would stop, inspect a scroll, shake his head, and continue. 

Cao Zhi waited for him to find what he was looking for but, after an arguably too long amount of time passed where Cao Zhi stood in the doorway and Shizun’s efforts remained unfruitful, Cao Zhi decided to clear his throat. 

Shizun jumped an impressive amount in the air, releasing a high-pitched startled noise, and dropped a couple of scrolls on the ground. 

He spun around so quickly he almost lost his balance, and, when catching sight of Cao Zhi, said, “Xiao Zhi! Don’t scare me like that! I didn’t know you were there! Warn this master next time!” He drew one hand through his hair and placed the other on his sternum, breathing heavily. 

Cao Zhi felt a little bad and wilted in place. “This disciple apologizes, Shizun. He noticed Shizun having trouble and, instead of waiting politely, accidentally disturbed Shizun terribly instead.”

Shizun pouted before bounding over and giving Cao Zhi a pat on the head. “No, it’s alright. Ah, you’re not wrong you see. This master was - well, what I was looking for clearly isn’t here, so I should probably give up.”

Shizun started absently rubbing Cao Zhi’s hair. The feeling was nice, so Cao Zhi let him do it while asking, “Is there anything this disciple can do to help?”

Shizun clicked his teeth and pursed his lips, thinking, before shaking his head. “Uh, no? I don’t think so… This master met with Shen-shizhi today and had a very nice talk but - Shen-shizhi is very well-versed in, hm, horticulture? Agriculture? What is it when someone like, really gets plants? Anyway,” Shizun sighed, “he was asking this one about a specific, rare plant and I was trying to find information on it, however!” He sent a pitiful look over to his very full of scrolls, very messy back table. “Clearly that didn’t work out…” 

Cao Zhi placed Shizun’s hand in his and gently removed it from his head. “Shen-shidi is part of Qing Jing Peak, no? And directly related to Shen-shibo, at that. This disciple would hope his access to the Grand Library would be enough to sate his curiosity.”

“Yeah,” Shizun said, staring off into the distance. He shook his head and looked at Cao Zhi with bright eyes. “Yeah! You’re right! That’s a great idea! He’ll - honestly, he’ll probably think about it himself soon enough, but if he doesn’t, I’ll bring it up next time we meet!”

Cao Zhi nodded, figuring that was good enough. Shen Yuan had a good head on his shoulders. He was a cute yet mature little disciple, and Cao Zhi figured he would be smart enough to solve his own problems. And, looking at his Peak Lord skipping over to the fallen scrolls, probably much faster than Shizun could.

He loved Shizun, really, but he… was really quite an eccentric figure. 

“Shizun, this one did not come here just for work,” Cao Zhi said after he made tea and plated some melon seeds. He settled at the low table, waiting for Shizun. 

“No?” Shizun said, peering over his shoulder questioningly. “What else could you come here for? To spend time with this master? Don’t you do that basically every evening, anyways?”

Cao Zhi smiled and shook his head. “No, it is about this disciple’s mission with Tian-shijie and the members and Peak Lord of Xian Shu.”

“Right, right,” Shizun said, sitting in front of Cao Zhi. “I do need that mission report, yeah. Go ahead, lay it on me.” He sat there, appearing much like a very attentive hamster as he munched on seeds. 

“Indeed,” Cao Zhi said. Rolling the events over in his thoughts, he settled on explaining the bare minimum. No need for Shizun to know about him being politely teased in the teahouse by all the women nor about the san qi… “There were no changes made to either terms of service. Both discussions were swift, and the businesses seemed pleased with their continued service for Cang Qiong. The disciples of Xian Shu were pleasant, and appeared to handle their mission with ease.” 

Shizun nodded sagely.

Hey? Shizun? What air are you trying to affect right now? This disciple knows there is nothing sage about you - are you gleaning something from this disciple’s report that you shouldn’t be? Answer quickly, Shizun! 

“Great to hear,” Shizun said. He took a sip of his tea. 

“As well,” Cao Zhi said slowly. He glanced at Shizun under his lashes as he reached into his pouch. “This disciple will admit… Shizun said to spend time in the markets and that this disciple should buy something nice.” He pulled out the xuan paper. “This disciple did buy something nice, but as a gift for Shizun.”

Shizun’s eyes widened and his eyes became shiny. Cao Zhi passed him the paper. 

“When perusing the personal library, this disciple noticed Shizun had a few first manuscripts of novels, and thought Shizun might appreciate some xuan paper to write on himself.”

Shizun swallowed, eyes jumping from Cao Zhi to the paper and back. “This - isn’t this too much? Xiao Zhi, I told you to buy something nice for yourself, not for this master. You didn’t have to!” 

Cao Zhi shook his head. “This disciple didn’t have to, no, but wanted to. Shizun deserves nice things for everything he does for Cang Qiong. Even something like this, this disciple hopes he can show Shizun his sincere appreciation.”

Though Cao Zhi expected it, he was still surprised when Shizun started to cry. 

“You truly are too good for this old master,” Shizun blubbered. He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve, wiping his eyes and blowing his nose. “You’ve been so nice to me, and I? Don’t know what to do with it? You really are the best disciple a master could ask for.”

Cao Zhi smiled. “This disciple just wants Shizun to be happy.”

He waited for Shizun to calm down, refilling his cup of tea and adding more melon seeds to the bowl. 

A happy Shizun, Cao Zhi thought, is a Shizun that enjoys leisurely things, and does work without being stressed. A happy Shizun results in a happy Cao Zhi, who will have plenty of time to relax under flowering trees and play the qin. 

Right as Shizun had finished crying, only releasing an occasional sniffle, the room began to chill. 

Cao Zhi tensed, but Shizun appeared unaffected; he was simply expecting what was to come next. 

To the side of the room, dark energy swirled into a portal.

Cao Zhi started seeing dark ice swords form in the corner of his vision, but knew they were a product of his imagination. 

He signed up for this - he wasn’t going to let residual fear stop him from being helpful for Shizun. 

From the portal emerged the same heavily-robed, tall demon from before. 

Somewhere between cheer and fear, Shizun cried, “My king!”

Not wanting to appear as familiar but still respectful, Cao Zhi settled on greeting the demon with a polite, “Mobei-Jun.” 

Mobei-Jun stared at the two of them. 

To Cao Zhi, he gave a grunt of acknowledgement. 

To Shizun, he - to Shizun -

Cao Zhi wasn’t sure what he was seeing. Mobei-Jun’s eyes - there was an emotion in there that Cao Zhi would describe as - soft?

It was hard to tell, as Cao Zhi hardly knew the demon beyond almost being killed by him, and Mobei-Jun had a naturally reticent countenance, but. 

If Cao Zhi wasn’t mistaken, wasn’t it Shizun’s home that Mobei-Jun chose to come to when injured? Didn’t that show a deep sense of trust?

It really appeared that this Mobei-Jun felt something for Shizun beyond that of merely a master controlling his pawns. 

Caught in that line of thought, Cao Zhi almost missed when Mobei-Jun grabbed Shizun by the scruff of his nape and pulled him up from the floor.

Cao Zhi wanted to protest but - ah! These mixed signs!

And, if he were to protest, what if Mobei-Jun hurt him instead? It wasn’t as if Cao Zhi trusted the demon yet.

Mobei-Jun dropped Shizun, who plaintively whined, “My king!”

“We’re leaving,” Mobei-Jun said. His voice was as cold as the air around him.

“Yes, of course!” Shizun said. He went to enter the portal before abruptly stopping, turning to Cao Zhi. “I guess I’ll - see you whenever I come back?”

“No,” Mobei-Jun said. “He’s coming.”

Ah?

“Ah?” Shizun echoed externally. “O-of course, my king…”

Having no choice but to follow, Cao Zhi stepped behind his Shizun, praying that whatever occurred beyond the portal wouldn’t result in him dying. Being a spy was much more than he ever wanted! This was already too much, but it wasn’t as if he could withdraw his servitude now.

Chapter Text

The Northern Territory of the Demon Realm was an exceptionally icy area, meant only for the demons with natural affinities or thick skin that lived there. Cultivators, on the other hand, would feel the cold seep into their skin no matter how far along in cultivation they were. True, those who have achieved Early-stage Core Formation and beyond could regulate their internal temperature to essentially not feel the cold, much like Shizun was doing now, but.

Those who were in Late-stage Foundation Establishment? Like Cao Zhi?

Yeah. Not a great time.

Beyond the natural frozen landscape that was the Northern Territory, the Mobei Clan ice palace that Mobei-Jun presided in was exactly as the name said: an entire palace fortress made entirely of ice. 

Were there reinforcements of some sort involving demonic cultivation and presumably a type of stone to keep the structures up? Definitely. 

Though the roofing of the palace was ice, the walls were a light-colored bedrock that were carved in intricate designs. There were many columns that extended farther than Cao Zhi could see, made up of a beautiful mix of ice and rock. On the wall nearest to him, Cao Zhi could see tapestries made of silk and gemstone depicting triumphant scenes of battle and bloodshed, and one on the opposite wall that showed a Fur-Tipped Ice Stone Dragon. It was fascinating to see, as Cao Zhi had only read a single line about it in his research; the legendary demonic race was made of Boundary Demons that protected the Northern Territory, until all but one was killed by the Mobei Clan. The final one, defeated by an ancestor of Mobei-Jun, retreated into the deepest recesses of the North, beyond that of the lands the Mobei Clan had claimed and into an area so icy even demons with an ice affinity tended to avoid it.

Ah… Thinking of all of this ice really cemented the fact that Cao Zhi was very cold. 

He turned his attention over to Shizun and Mobei-Jun, who seemed to be in a very one-sided discussion. Shizun was emphatically waving his hands and saying something, while Mobei-Jun stared blank-faced in return. Shizun seemed to grow more anxious as the conversation drew out and Mobei-Jun only grunted in response, starting to glare. 

Cao Zhi was having a hard time focusing on anything they were saying, as he was quite busy trying to retain his body heat. 

He really should have spent more time focusing on cultivation. He thought Late-stage Formation Establishment was enough, okay? It wasn’t like he was in a rush to break through his bottleneck and achieve Early-stage Core Formation! Every disciple who managed to do so and had some modicum of martial ability would be sent to Wan Jian Peak and made to attempt a sword retrieval! No thank you! That would force this disciple to - to do something other than spend his time doing nothing! He may end up like one of those meatheaded Bai Zhan disciples if he gained a sword! 

Well, no… At his core, Cao Zhi would always be an unambitious man. It would be impossible for him to receive his sword and suddenly become a training obsessed fool. Still, it was something he thought about and figured best not to tempt fate. Who knows what could happen? Not this disciple. No rush to cultivate here, absolutely none. The bare minimum was all he would do, indeed.

Until now, of course. Cao Zhi promised to take his cultivation practice more seriously during training hours on An Ding, okay? No more pretending to meditate if he could get away with it, nor doing a single practice of sword forms to make sure he still remembered them. This disciple promised to be more diligent! 

That was, of course, if he was able to make it out of the Northern Territory alive. It seemed like the Mobei Clan Palace may kill him before then… 

As he thought this, a large, heavy object draped over him. Grabbing the edges to keep it from sliding off, Cao Zhi was surprised to realize that a dark blue fur-lined cloak had been placed over his person. It was obviously Mobei-Jun’s - though Shizun was taller than Cao Zhi, he wasn’t large enough to warrant such a difference in clothing size. Cao Zhi was practically drowning in the cloak, and probably looked quite undignified. 

Cao Zhi would accept some loss of face, however, if that meant he could be warm. 

He tuned back into the world around him, finding Shizun standing in front of him with a worried expression.

“Shizun?” Cao Zhi asked through clattering teeth. “Is everything alright?”

“Is everything - Is everything alright?” Shizun questioned back, laughing incredulously. “This master thinks what should be asked instead is are you alright, Xiao Zhi?” Wringing his hands, Shizun’s tone turned despondent. “This master forgot that you hadn’t formed your core fully yet… I mean, I didn’t realize you would be showing up in my king’s palace with me either, but… I really should have been more prepared! My king usually gives me his cloak to keep me from freezing so I’ll stay useful, but I can regulate my temperature enough that I’d really prefer my favorite disciple have it and not freeze to death, you know. Though he’s off to grab me one now, even though I said I’d be fine. I’m really going to start thinking he cares…”

There was important information to take away from Shizun’s quick words: Mobei-Jun usually gives Shizun his cloak? And he’s finding Shizun another cloak now? 

It added another piece to the picture Cao Zhi was painting of the demon in his mind… 

Also, favorite disciple? Ah, how sweet of you, Shizun! You are also this disciple’s favorite Shizun! Ignore that you are his only, for this one is sure you would be his favorite no matter what! 

Feeling warm from Shizun’s words and the cloak around him, Cao Zhi said, “This disciple thanks Shizun.”

Shizun brushed away his thanks. “Now, I was talking with my king about what we’re doing here. I was very firm! We can’t stay too long - it’ll be suspicious if we’re both off An Ding without warning! So I hope you’re ready to stay awake the whole night…” Shizun scratched his cheek and sighed. “Really, I still would have preferred if you didn’t agree to engage in this whole traitorous thing but it will be nice to pass the time with someone who will actually work and talk with me.”

Huh? 

“Does Mobei-Jun not assist you?”

Shizun shook his head, paused, then shrugged. “No? Sometimes? Most of the time he sits next to me and leans against his fist. Then, when that fist grows tired, he switches to the other one. Other times, he will do work, though not for long. It’s nice to know that my king trusts me to do the work but… it’s so nerve-wracking for him to just sit there and watch!”

… As the lord of this land, judging from his title, shouldn’t Mobei-Jun be helping out more? Wasn’t it a bit much to entrust all the duties of the northern demon court to Shizun? Cao Zhi was quite glad he had elected to help Shizun, rather than stay out of his business. Suddenly, he understood the numerous sleepless nights Shizun seemed to have a little more.

 

It was exactly as Shizun described:

The two of them sat and worked. Shizun delegated various scrolls and missives to Cao Zhi that he deemed important but not requiring intricate knowledge of Northern Territory politics. They mostly resulted in budgets and trade demands. 

Behind them, on the bed - because, it must be noted, Mobei-Jun had them working in an office situated with a daybed - Mobei-Jun lounged and watched them.

Didn’t it get boring? Shouldn’t you be helping out, as the lord? This one has many questions, ah! 

Of course, Cao Zhi remained silent to avoid any sort of punishment that may arise. He had self-preservation instincts! 

Thankfully, paperwork was paperwork whether demonic or human. Though it took a little time to familiarize himself with demon currency - gems! Precious gemstones! Treated as casual money! - he was able to do his work with little problem.

The time passed with Shizun muttering under his breath, Shizun handing Cao Zhi some sort of paper to look over, and Cao Zhi adding those papers to his pile of completed work. It was soothing and familiar, and therefore easy to get into a headspace where hours went by with little fanfare.

Though, notably, Mobei-Jun was a constant source of anxiety in the back of his mind. At the start, Cao Zhi swore he could feel sweat beading on his neck from fear; how was he to know whether or not Mobei-Jun would suddenly pull a sword on him? It seemed this fear was for naught, however, because Mobei-Jun spent his time leaning on his fist and staring at Shizun with half-lidded eyes rather than scheming anything nefarious. 

When the sun barely peeked through the windows, Mobei-Jun suddenly stood and disrupted the workflow Cao Zhi found himself in. 

“Time to go,” Mobei-Jun stated, opening a portal. He made no move to enter it himself. 

“Of course, my king!” Shizun said, shooting up from his seat. He took a moment to rearrange all the work on the desk, then nodded. “Everything seems to be in order! Hopefully you find this servant’s work adequate?”

Mobei-Jun grunted. 

Shizun swallowed heavily, laughed, and said, “Yes, always… This one would never disappoint his king. And!” He clapped a hand on Cao Zhi’s shoulder, dragging him towards the portal. “Two servants truly is better than one! Look at how much work we got done, my king!”

“Satisfactory,” Mobei-Jun said, though his face was so impassive it was hard to tell if he was actually satisfied. 

Shizun visibly brightened at that. “Glad to hear it, my king! Bye bye, now! Please do not hesitate to summon this servant whenever!”

Waving at Mobei-Jun, who only stared in response, Shizun tugged Cao Zhi through the portal. 

This disciple didn’t get a chance to say any parting words, Shizun! What if Mobei-Jun thinks this one is rude?

When the portal disappeared behind them, Cao Zhi found himself back in Shizun’s main room. Their work was exactly where they had left it, and the paper Cao Zhi gifted Shizun still remained on the desk. Shizun’s handkerchief from before laid on the floor, forgotten from earlier. 

Shizun released a heavy exhale. “Oh, it was so good to have you there! The work got done so much quicker! Though this master will have to get you up to speed with the finer details of Northern Territory politics so you can manage more specific tasks.”

He walked over to the desk and grabbed a handful of melon seeds that had been left in the bowl. “And! My king didn’t even hit me once! Maybe things are starting to look up for this master!” 

Cao Zhi was nodding along, until he realized.

What? Repeat that?

The picture that had slowly been painting itself in Cao Zhi’s mind was suddenly finished, revealing a very clear image.

Mobei-Jun definitely felt something for Shizun - and that something was not a master caring for his servant! It was beyond even friendship! 

However, this disciple would be having a stern talking to with Mobei-Jun. Or, well, as stern as he could get while still cowering internally, as Cao Zhi still couldn’t be sure Mobei-Jun wouldn’t injure him for some slight. 

But it was clear to Cao Zhi that what Mobei-Jun was doing was not working! This one only noticed because he recently studied up on demon culture, and that included mating practices, okay? Shizun was obviously not on the same page!

In fact, while it was plain to see that Shizun was fond of Mobei-Jun, he was also very afraid of the demon! That should mean something! 

Next time, for sure, Cao Zhi would simply ease Mobei-Jun into the idea of human courting practices, instead of demonic. Hitting people was not the way to go! His Shizun was a gentle creature that needed tender and careful handling, okay?

Chapter Text

Since Cao Zhi could go a day or two without sleeping, he decided that, instead of resting, he would head over to Qiong Ding Peak and enjoy breakfast with the Quan twins. 

He took a brief detour to his room to pick up their gift. He spent a moment pondering how he wanted to give it to them: as is? Or in a pouch? Or something else?

Ah, didn’t he have? 

Yes!

In the back of his storage cabinet, Cao Zhi found an old lacquered jewelry box he made. His older sister was quite fascinated with making jewelry and boxes to hold it, and before he joined the sect he made a box with her.

Alas, it ended up taking a lot more effort than he was willing to do all the time, so he only made the one. 

It was made of a dark wood that he painstakingly painted with Spring Serenade peonies, a breed he had obsessed over when he was younger. They still fascinated him now, because when grown correctly they produced the sweetest song during the springtime, but he found he preferred playing his own music over listening to a flower. 

Still, the box was in good condition and perfect for holding the hairpins he bought, so it would do. 

 

Finding Quan Hao and Quan Liang was surprisingly easy; he caught them right as they were heading into the dining hall.

“Hao-shixiong, Liang-shixiong!” Cao Zhi called their attention, giving a small wave when they turned around.

Pausing to wait before the dining hall, they appeared surprised and delighted to see him which made Cao Zhi happy. And! He was about to surprise them more! It was a good look on the twins, who tended to affect a more affable disposition than anything else. 

“Cao Zhi,” they greeted simultaneously. Quan Liang continued with, “What brings you here?”

Cao Zhi smiled, coming to a stop in front of them. “This shidi wanted to visit his shixiongs,” and eat Qiong Ding’s much tastier food, he added internally, “and give them something.”

Quan Liang tilted his head to the side, questioning, while Quan Hao asked, “Give us something?”

Cao Zhi hummed in affirmation. “After dining, I will give it to you.”

The twins looked at each other, speaking through expression only in that twin-only way they could that Cao Zhi would never understand, before nodding towards Cao Zhi. 

The two head disciples led him inside the dining hall, with none of the disciples batting an eye at the now familiar group. At this point, Cao Zhi was a well-known honorary Qiong Ding guest disciple during meal hours. Some disciples even greeted as he passed, to which Cao Zhi politely returned. 

Once they sat at the front table, Cao Zhi allowed Quan Hao and Quan Liang to fill his plate and cup like always. It was routine at this point; if Cao Zhi made any attempts to do it himself, his hands would be lightly pushed away and he’d end up being admonished by one of the twins. He was the guest, he should be taken care of, they’d always say. So, at this point, he let himself be pampered. Who was he to say no? It was quite nice, anyhow. Being a little spoiled never hurt, okay?

When they finished eating and engaging in idle conversation, where Cao Zhi learned about the latest gifts Yue Qingyuan had tried passing off to Shen Qingqiu and which disciple had done some scandalous thing or other, the twins guided Cao Zhi to the plum tree grove they frequented. 

There, they sat on a stone bench and stared at Cao Zhi expectantly. He could practically feel the curiosity emanating from the twins, and let out a light giggle. 

His hand hovered over the pouch at his side, and he suddenly felt sheepish. “Let this shidi explain himself first…” 

Pulling the pouch in front of himself, he waited for the twins to make space for him to sit between them on the bench. Once settled, he continued. 

“When I went into town recently on orders from Shizun, I found a small vendor selling many trinkets. There, I saw a gift that made me think of us.” He folded his hands over the pouch and smiled at his lap, too embarrassed to look at the twins. “I admit… My laziness has been detrimental to really making friends during my time here. Though I have many acquaintances through the disciples of my peak, I was never really close to any of them. I much preferred to spend my time between the flowers or playing my qin.”

He took a moment to breathe, feeling himself grow flustered. Why? He had spoken about many feelings with the twins before, what made this different? Was admitting he used to be friendless that difficult?

The twins watched on, and he felt their warmth pressing against his sides. He took comfort in it as he collected his thoughts. 

“Having become an inner disciple, and meeting you two properly, it has really changed my life. And when I was in town, I found a gift that I felt symbolized the three of us, and wanted to give it to you.”

He reached into the pouch and pulled out the lacquered box. “Please do not mind the craftsmanship, I made this when I was young.” Having said that, he let Quan Hao pull the box from his hands.

Cao Zhi anxiously watched as Quan Liang reached over him to open the box, listening as the twins gave a quiet but noticeable intake of breath at the hairpins inside. 

“They’re beautiful,” Quan Hao said, pulling one out. He made an aborted movement with his arm, then suddenly looked thoughtful. “Will you assist me in putting it in?”

“Mn,” Cao Zhi said eloquently, flushing.

It is not that big of a deal, he yelled internally. Calm down! 

He reached up to remove the pin currently in Quan Hao’s guan, who thankfully stooped down a little to make it easier, and replaced it with the phoenix and peony hairpin he had gifted instead. Cao Zhi checked to make sure it was properly in place before nodding, feeling the heat strengthen in his cheeks. 

He turned towards Quan Liang, wanting to see him with the pin in, only to find the twin holding the identical hairpin and regarding Cao Zhi with wide, expectant eyes. 

Ah?! You too, Liang-shixiong?! 

Closing his eyes and exhaling heavily, Cao Zhi held his hand out for Quan Liang to pass over the pin. With a small, happy noise, the other did so.

Cao Zhi repeated the process with Quan Liang, and finished with the same careful lookover to ensure proper placement. 

He turned his head left and right, pulling his hands towards his chest because he was unsure what to do with them, and was met with a soft-faced twin on either side. The two of them - expressing something like that - with his gift that he placed in their hair - it was too much!

Abruptly, Cao Zhi stood and bowed at the twins. “This shidi sincerely hopes Hao-shixiong and Liang-shixiong appreciate his gift! Unfortunately, this disciple has duties to attend to and must be off!”

Without looking back at the twins nor waiting for them to say anything in return, Cao Zhi ran off back to An Ding. 

 

His internal monologue was a mess.

Why did it feel so intimate to - to change their hairpin? Why did the air feel so charged? It was just a gift! Cao Zhi just wanted something to commemorate their friendship! Not - not some weird, unexplainable tension that left him feeling flustered! 

His thoughts continued in a jumble all the way back to his dorm, where he pressed himself against the door and slid to the ground. 

Cao Zhi covered his face with his hands, feeling a little like screaming.

Truly! What were the twins thinking, ah? They were the ones who made it weird! Next time, oh, next time - Cao Zhi didn’t know what he would do, but he would certainly make them feel as flustered as he did! Or, he would try, but still! How rude! This shidi just wanted to give them a gift but! Ugh! 

The mental cart wreck he was spiraling into was halted by someone calling his name outside his door. 

Taking a moment to gather himself and appear presentable, Cao Zhi opened the door to find one of his shimeis. 

“Cao-shixiong,” Xu Lihua, one of the newest disciples with a cute round face, greeted, following with, “This shimei came to announce that a shipment of disciple robes for Qing Jing Peak has arrived. The carriage is waiting for you at the entrance.”

He smiled and gave her a gentle pat, careful not to ruin her buns. “Thank you for letting this shixiong know.”

She returned the smile with her own bright one and ran off, presumably to complete whatever task she had next. 

This was good! Focusing on an assignment rather than - whatever just happened! - would be good for Cao Zhi. 

He knew all night his thoughts would probably be plagued with repeating the entire meeting but, for now, Qing Jing! Focus on Qing Jing!

 

Cao Zhi, having finished travelling with the horse-drawn carriage to Qing Jing and dropping off the robe shipment, wandered around the peak looking for Shen Yuan. 

He missed seeing the polite disciple! He wanted to know how he was doing, especially after learning Shizun had talked with him yesterday. Even just a quick check-in would do. 

Cao Zhi found Shen Yuan near a practice field, doing some light training with Luo Binghe. 

The little sheep disciple was fumbling his stance, falling into Shen Yuan, who caught him and showed the correct motions instead. Luo Binghe copied, not perfect but a little better, and Shen Yuan corrected him again. 

It was so cute watching them work together! It really was like watching a sweeter, smaller Shen Qingqiu in action! A tiny Shizun and a diligent disciple! 

It was funny, though, Cao Zhi thought, because Shen Yuan was the shidi, right?

Oh well, not too important. Some people were better at cultivation than others!

He felt a little bad interrupting them, but still called out, “Luo-shidi, Shen-shidi, good afternoon.”

The two disciples stopped and rounded to face him. Luo Binghe looked a little put out before realizing that Cao Zhi was the one who interrupted, and waved. Shen Yuan politely returned his greeting. 

“Cao-shixiong,” Shen Yuan said, approaching Cao Zhi with Luo Binghe not far behind. “May this shidi inquire about your presence? This one thought your rounds on Qing Jing were next week.”

Ah, what a knowledgeable shidi! 

“Shen-shidi is correct,” Cao Zhi said. “This shixiong doesn’t mind answering. I’m here because there was a new shipment of robes.”

“Ah,” Luo Binghe said, flushing a little when Cao Zhi and Shen Yuan turned their attention to him. “This one… this one got into a fight with some disciples… And may have ruined some clothes… This shidi apologizes for causing trouble.”

Cao Zhi waved off the apology. How could he not? He could practically see Luo Binghe’s little sheep ears drooping pitifully! 

Shen Yuan appeared partially indignant. “Maybe if they hadn’t been bullying you, you wouldn’t have needed to fight them,” he said heatedly. “Binghe did nothing wrong.”

Luo Binghe’s cheeks pinkened more. “Shidi…” 

“It’s really alright,” Cao Zhi said, though internally he was upset to hear that his cute shidi was being bullied. It sounded like Luo Binghe had a handle on it, though, so he didn’t step in. Hopefully, they had dealt with the problem in its entirety and wouldn’t have to put up with more bullying in the future. However… 

“Here,” Cao Zhi said, reaching into his pouch and pulling out a few premade talismans. “These are some basic sticking talismans. I tend to use them when I hear disciples bad mouthing An Ding, which occurs often enough that I always keep some on hand. Use them for yourself, hm?” He smiled as he passed them over. 

“Thank you, shixiong!” Luo Binghe said, eyes shining lightly. 

Eh? No need to cry, shidi! It’s not that deep! Though, with the weird way his day had been going, Cao Zhi couldn’t be too surprised if Luo Binghe burst into tears over something as simple as this.

“Ah, thank you,” Shen Yuan said. 

A normal reaction! Thank you, this shixiong knew he could count on his cute level-headed shidi to be wonderfully normal! 

Right as Cao Zhi was going to take his leave, wanting to let them get back to training, Shen Yuan pulled an awkward expression. 

“Shixiong, this may be a little out of nowhere,” he said haltingly. 

“Yes?” Cao Zhi encouraged.

“Have you… ever seen Liu-shishu?” Shen Yuan asked.

Blinking at the total non-sequitur, Cao Zhi responded, “Ah, this one has seen Liu-shishu once or twice, yes.”

There was a moment of silence while Shen Yuan deliberated over what he wanted to say next. 

Whatever Cao Zhi expected, it most certainly was not Shen Yuan asking, "Liu-shishu… isn’t he pretty?"

Nevermind! This shixiong cannot count on Shen-shidi! How could you disrespect your shixiong’s trust like this, ah? 

Still, Cao Zhi took a moment to consider the question. "Eh? I guess… Aren't all the Peak Lords beautiful though?" Especially your Shizun… Cao Zhi thought. Though perhaps pretty wasn’t the best word for, say, Yue Qingyuan or his Shizun. The former was more classically handsome, while his Shizun could firmly be described as cute.

Shaking his head, Shen Yuan said, "No, I mean. His nickname is War God. Shouldn't he be more, you know, rugged?" 

Cao Zhi noticed Luo Binghe frowning in the background, kicking the dirt around him. 

This one can practically smell the vinegar, shidi! Do you really not like hearing your shidi talk about ‘rugged’ or ‘pretty’ men? 

He had to refrain from laughing before answering Shen Yuan.

"... Shen-shidi, Liu-shishu has quite the musculature compared to some Peak Lords. Could you elaborate? This shixiong is confused,” Cao Zhi said civilly. 

Shen Yuan opened his mouth, closed it, then sighed. “Never mind, this one thanks shixiong for answering."

“Of course,” Cao Zhi said. “If that is all, this disciple will be taking his leave. Please return to your training and take care!”

Luo Binghe practically sprang back up in excitement, quickly saying goodbye and taking Shen Yuan by the hand to return to the practice area. 

Ah, really… Those two were so cute. 

After such a weird day, Cao Zhi wanted to return to An Ding and do nothing but play the qin. It was what he deserved, okay! First the twins, then some weird questioning about Liu Qingge of all people - really! What kind of day was he having? A relaxing qin piece next to his favorite tree peony would be the perfect fix to righten his mood. Also, perhaps, a nap. Maybe his lack of sleep was getting to him. 

Yes, actually, now that he thought about it, a nap sounded just right.

Chapter Text

Ever since Cao Zhi had dined over on Qiong Ding with the Quan twins a few days ago, he'd been all out of sort.

Shang Qinghua couldn't explain it.

Cao Zhi would sit, do his work as normal, then suddenly - vibe shift! His face would turn bright red! Then, in the next second, stone cold! Cao Zhi would furiously shake his head, pat his cheeks, then get back to work. A few minutes later? Repeat process.

The first time it happened, it was so distracting Shang Qinghua was a little ashamed to admit he forced Cao Zhi to work somewhere else.

It wasn't like he didn't try to inquire, okay?

But Cao Zhi stuttered and flustered so intensely that Shang Qinghua couldn't get a single word from him!

So he gave up trying. 

Thankfully, Cao Zhi seemed to get it under control. Sure, he'd still get somewhat lost in thought, stare off in the direction of Qiong Ding, then come back to himself, but he wasn’t being a distraction.

This master would take what he could get, okay?

He did poke at his system and asked if it knew anything about what was going on, to which it only snarkily replied, [Wouldn't you like to know? ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)]

Yes! I would like to know! It's why I asked! 

Being teased sent Shang Qinghua into a bit of a rage, but come on! That was uncalled for! He just wanted to make sure his cute little son was alright!

 

Now, however, wasn't the time to be thinking about Cao Zhi and the general weirdness surrounding him lately.

No, today! Today he was going to treat Shen Qingqiu to tea and snacks at his favorite tea shop!

If Shen Qingqiu hated it? 

… Shang Qinghua might cry, honestly.

But! It was the best shop for sweet, floral teas and delicious treats! He specifically chose it because it sold the best tangyuan! 

Be amazed, Shen Qingqiu, this author is going to ply you with desserts until you are best friends!

He hummed the entire way to Qing Jing. 

It was nice to know that he could leave his peak in the capable hands of his inner disciples while going off to make merry with another Peak Lord. As long as there was a suitable amount of warning time, An Ding could really be a smoothly run ship! What dedicated and intelligent NPCs he had! And Cao Zhi - well, who else would be handling most of the paperwork Shang Qinghua did right now? 

He definitely was not feeling any anxiety about leaving his peak for a day while relaxing in a tea shop, not at all. 

He could definitely do this.

Alright, he was a workaholic, okay?! How else would this author manage to write over ten thousand words a day just to pay for bills? How else would this master manage the entirety of Cang Qiong if he didn’t keep up that work ethic?

Yes, he believed in his disciples. He knew they were competent! It was just… he felt bad taking a day off to spend it with the scum villain he wrote but…

Shang Qinghua deserved nice things! He would treat himself! No going back! 

For real, there was no going back. 

Shang Qinghua realized he had already arrived in front of the bamboo house; he could see Cucumber-bro peeking at him from around the corner. Shang Qinghua gave a little finger wave. Shen Yuan frowned at him, waved, and ran off to - somewhere. Probably to go keep being Luo Binghe’s best friend, who knew. Cucumber-bro, even without the mission given to him by his system, was a bit obsessed with the protagonist. 

Like, who buys every body pillow, figurine, official and unofficial book cover, keychains, prints - honestly, anything one could think of, Shen Yuan had bought some version of Luo Binghe! 

Ah, at least Shang Qinghua knew that he would treat his son well. Keep up the good work, Cucumber-bro! Make sure Cang Qiong stays alive and well in the future, once the protagonist is blackened! We’re all counting on you!

Shang Qinghua was pulled from his thoughts when the door to the bamboo house opened, revealing a primly dressed Shen Qingqiu. 

“Shen-shixiong!” Shang Qinghua greeted cheerily. 

Like the classy Peak Lord he was, Shen Qingqiu quietly regarded him and flicked open his fan. 

“Right,” Shang Qinghua said. He poked his fingers together, saying, “So, I’ve got a carriage ready for us! I’ll be driving it, of course, aha, you can take that scary look off your face, you won’t have to sit with me the whole ride…” 

Though, if this master had his way, one day Shen Qingqiu would choose to ride in the carriage so he could hang out with Shang Qinghua, his best friend! One day! 

 

As expected, the entire way to the tea house was silent. Outside of the carriage, Shang Qinghua would open and close his mouth, thinking of various ways to start a conversation with Shen Qingqiu, but never going through with it.

And it wasn’t like Shen Qingqiu tried to say anything! It was silent as fuck in the carriage! Not even a hint of movement! 

This one is starting to think you fell asleep in there, Shen-shixiong! 

In front of the teahouse, Shang Qinghua fidgeted. Before entering, he said, “So, this is my favorite teahouse, aha…” Quieter and to himself, he added, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, what if you hate it on principle?”

“This master won’t hate it,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

Ah! Curse a cultivator’s ability to hear! 

Without being asked, Shen Qingqiu elaborated. “I have attended this venue before. It is… acceptable.”

Acceptable?!

That’s practically a glowing review from you, Shen-shixiong! This author managed to do something right! 

It made sense that Shen Qingqiu had been here before, now that Shang Qinghua thought about it. It was the only place near Cang Qiong that sold the sweetest drinks and treats one could want. Of course resident sweet tooth Peak Lord Shen Qingqiu would have tried it out. 

They settled themselves at a free table in an emptier corner of the establishment that faced a simple but beautiful little garden, with Shen Qingqiu taking the initiative to order osmanthus tea. 

Good choice! However, that meant Shang Qinghua would have to order the snacks! Was this a test? Ah… 

He glanced at Shen Qingqiu, gulped, and decided to go with, “Ah, may we get some hawthorn balls? And lotus seed tangyuan?” 

Hearing no dissent, the order went through. 

It was unnervingly quiet while they waited for the food to arrive. Shen Qingqiu lightly fanned himself while admiring the garden they sat by, whereas Shang Qinghua was practically sweating through his robes.

Where did his confidence go! Where was the Peak Lord who boldly requested this meeting? Gone! Not a trace to be found! 

He was startled by someone placing a tray of tea in front of him, followed by a different tray full of food. 

Then, again, alone and silent. 

Shen Qingqiu took a cup of tea, savored it, then placed it down. 

His finger traced the rim of his cup, before saying, “What are you plotting?”

Ah? Be thankful this one hadn’t taken a drink yet, shixiong! He may have spit it out on you, and no one wants that! What a shocking question to ask! Out of nowhere!

Nervously, Shang Qinghua fiddled his fingers. “Aha, plotting? What, uh, what makes you think this one is plotting anything?”

Way to sound guilty, ah! 

Shen Qingqiu hummed, peering at Shang Qinghua from under his lashes. “This one is curious as to why his cowardly shidi has suddenly requested to spend time in his presence.” 

Ouch, way to be blunt and call it like you see it, Shen-shixiong… 

Shen Qingqiu folded his hands in his lap. “This shixiong knows you are scared of him, and thus can only wonder: what plot have you concocted concerning this master?” Tilting his head to the side, he asked, “Are you planning to ply this master with sweets and conversation?”

“Aha, if that doesn’t work for Yue-shixiong, I don’t know why it would work for me,” Shang Qinghua said. 

Alarms were blaring in his head. Found out! Discovered! Shen Qingqiu may not know the reason yet, but he absolutely knew that Shang Qinghua was using his fondness for sweets against him! 

Shen Qingqiu just raised his eyebrows, taking another sip of his tea. With a delicate hand, he took one of the hawthorn balls and ate. 

“I’m just lonely?” Shang Qinghua said. 

“And you decided this master would be best to alleviate your loneliness?” Shen Qingqiu’s voice sounded incredulous, which. 

Yeah… Shen Qingqiu wasn’t really anyone’s first choice when it came to befriending people. 

Taking a sip of his tea, Shang Qinghua considered what to say. 

“Yes? Listen, you really do scare me,” Shang Qinghua admitted. Shen Qingqiu had already pinged him as a coward, it wasn’t like Shang Qinghua could change his mind when he was right. “But - of every Peak Lord? You really are the best. Yue-shixiong… has his own thing going on, and I’d rather not get involved with him. If you don’t mind this one saying,” Shang Qinghua said, getting a little heated at the topic, “Yue-shixiong is really bad at handling funds! And! Being around him without really being listened to, even when I try to help him, it’s really awful! I’d end up being frustrated all the time if I tried to be his friend! If he doesn’t listen to my suggestions on sect matters, why would he on personal ones?”

Shen Qingqiu snorted indelicately. His face was clearly amused as he took a bite of another hawthorn ball. 

Ah, you would know all about that, wouldn’t you… Shang Qinghua thought. Not that he could say anything without Shen Qingqiu becoming deeply suspicious and being yelled at by the system. Best to keep the rest of his thoughts on Yue Qingyuan and all of his shortcomings to himself and move on. 

He needed to prove that Shen Qingqiu was the best choice! 

“Wei-shixiong only cares about weapons and his disciples, who also only care about weapons. Trying to talk to him is like talking to a weapon instruction manual.” Shang Qinghua pulled a disgusted face. “This shidi really would rather not…” 

He took a bite of tangyuan before continuing. 

“Qi-shimei scares me more than you, kinda.” Enough said. “Liu-shidi is a total meathead. Look at me!” Shang Qinghua gestured at his body. “I’m totally soft! He’d try to whip me into shape - probably literally! I can’t handle that. I’m already stressed enough with managing all of Cang Qiong’s affairs, ah…” 

Best not to go off on a tangent. Quickly, he moved on. “Mu-shidi is as busy as I am, but has to deal with people all the time rather than paperwork. I’d honestly feel really bad if I bothered him.” 

In the same vein, he continued listing out the reasons why the other Peak Lords just wouldn’t make the cut. Partially, it was because they were all really pointless NPCs after Mu Qingfang! They were barely a thought, if at all, in PIDW! Why would he want to get to know them now? 

Once he finished his slight rant about the other Peak Lords and why he just couldn’t befriend them, Shang Qinghua shovelled in a few tangyuan and awaited Shen Qingqiu’s judgement. 

Shen Qingqiu drank a cup of tea. 

Shang Qinghua sweated. 

Shen Qingqiu delicately grabbed yet another hawthorn ball. 

Shang Qinghua realized he was probably not going to be eating any of those this time around, considering Shen Qingqiu had practically decimated the plate on his own. At least Shang Qinghua knew what to order if they came here again? Pending Shen Qingqiu’s approval, of course. 

Finally, when Shang Qinghua thought he wouldn’t be able to bear the tension anymore, Shen Qingqiu spoke. 

“This master will not be accepting any friendship from you.”

Shang Qinghua felt disappointment flood him.

“However,” Shen Qingqiu said lightly.

Shang Qinghua, stiffening, anxiously anticipated Shen Qingqiu’s next words. 

“This one will not say no to meeting with Shang-shidi here on occasion.” He took the last hawthorn ball. “The food is mediocre, as is the tea, but this shixiong will not say no.”

Hey? Would it kill you to say it straight that you enjoyed yourself and everything you had here? Be lucky this Shang Qinghua knows the ins and outs of your character! 

Nonetheless, relief flooded Shang Qinghua. That was a yes! He wasn't being rejected!

“This master admits to being interested in learning about his shidi,” Shen Qingqiu said, resting his hands in his lap after finishing his tea. “He is not as much of a coward as he portrays himself to be. This one is curious to find out what else his shidi is hiding.”

Aha, well, it’s not like this one could reveal everything to you, Shang Qinghua thought.

“So? Want to make this a monthly thing?” Shang Qinghua said, finishing his tea as well. 

“Acceptable,” Shen Qingqiu said. “However, this shixiong is planning on entering secluded cultivation within a month’s time, and will be unavailable for a period of time.” He raised a shrewd brow. “This shixiong would hope that, if his shidi is serious about his feelings, he will be offered a meeting here once he leaves seclusion.”

Shang Qinghua nodded his head furiously. “Of course! This shidi will prove the sincerity of his friendship, do not doubt that! Once you come out of seclusion, I’ll treat you to whatever you want!”

Within reason, Shang Qinghua mentally added. If it was outside of reason, well, Shang Qinghua had access to Yue Qingyuan’s personal funds. If the money disappeared under Shen Qingqiu’s name, who was Yue Qingyuan to say no? Anything to support his ‘Xiao Jiu’... 

Shen Qingqiu seemed pleased with Shang Qinghua’s statement. 

Internally, Shang Qinghua rejoiced. Success! He was really doing it! He was really going to become friends with his scum villain! Potential redemption arc, let’s go! Their friendship was going to be so epic, Shang Qinghua couldn’t believe it was really happening. 

Chapter Text

Despite coming to terms with the fact that Cao Zhi was, perhaps, maybe, potentially, the one who made things weird when he gifted Quan Hao and Quan Liang their hairpins, Cao Zhi had yet to work up the nerve to actually meet with them again. 

However, the monthly Peak Lord meeting was inevitable, and therefore his rounds at Qiong Ding, Qing Jing, and Wan Jian were inevitable. 

Cao Zhi worked himself into such a state of nerves that he could hardly eat breakfast. There was a noticeable tension surrounding him that was visibly making the other disciples wary; one brave shidi even approached him to ask if everything was alright, only for Cao Zhi to not respond in his usual polite manner, but rather make a weak, pained noise! 

It seemed - it might be that - Cao Zhi was starting to realize that maybe -

Quan Hao and Quan Liang were very attractive, okay! It was something he knew peripherally, as many people on Cang Qiong were beautiful or handsome or however to call it - but! 

Seeing them, with the pins he gifted them in their hair, with the pins he put in their hair like - like a lover! 

Ah!

Cao Zhi could practically feel the steam coming out of his ears, the redness of his cheeks visible in his lower vision. 

These two, they were his first true friends in the sect, and he! He was attracted to them! And now that he realized this, how was he to cope? How was he supposed to act around them? 

They could not find out that Cao Zhi liked them, okay?! 

Quan Hao and Quan Liang were the best friends Cao Zhi could ask for, and he didn’t want to ruin that. Already they did so much to help him, between making sure his rounds were practically completed before he showed up, to making sure he was well fed and never wanting for tea, to simply just hearing him out and sharing the latest gossip! 

Cao Zhi couldn’t mess that up for himself, so. Unless Quan Hao and Quan Liang said or did something to make it obvious that they returned his feelings, Cao Zhi would be tight-lipped about his own. 

This attraction he felt would not hinder his friendship with them! Cao Zhi promised to continue being the best friend he could be, and that was that. 

Heart and mind settled, Cao Zhi made his way over to Qiong Ding Peak. 

The twins, like normal, stood at attention while waiting for Cao Zhi at the entrance. Unlike normal, the twins wore the new hairpins. Cao Zhi felt his heart flutter just a little.

Gulping, Cao Zhi prayed that his flushed face wasn’t obvious as he greeted the twins. “Hao-shixiong, Liang-shixiong, good morning.”

They returned his greeting and flanked his sides, guiding him over to a nearby pavilion already prepared with a tray of tea to discuss the rounds they completed for him. Quan Hao provided the supply lists, what the warehouses would need, and budgets, while Quan Liang handed Cao Zhi a scroll filled with requests for what Qiong Ding and what Shizun could expect to be brought up in the meeting tomorrow. 

Really, these two… They were just so, so helpful which was not helping Cao Zhi’s heart. 

Realizing he felt affection - a lot of it - for them was awful, honestly! If they kept treating him so well, Cao Zhi didn’t know what he would do with himself! 

Before he needed to leave, Cao Zhi stood and fidgeted in front of the twins. 

“Shixiongs,” he said. “This one… this one will be going away for a period of time. I have realized that I need to advance my cultivation, and will be taking the steps to breakthrough to the next stage as I am currently at a bottleneck.” 

Quan Hao and Quan Liang nodded in sync, silent but understanding. 

“This disciple didn’t want you to think something had occurred to him without notice and to worry needlessly,” Cao Zhi said. “When I return, I hope to be a stronger shidi you can be proud of.”

“We are already proud of you,” Quan Hao said. His stoic face softened into a light smile, and he stood to pat Cao Zhi on the head. 

Quan Liang stood as well, placing his hand on top of his brother’s. “For someone so small, you do a lot of hard work. If you continue to work hard, this shixiong sees no reason not to be proud of you.”

Cao Zhi felt a spike of indignation but said nothing, accepting the teasing and praise for what it was. 

“Thanking shixiongs for their kindness, this shidi promises to continue to work hard,” Cao Zhi said softly. 

Ah, they really had that kind of image of him in their mind, huh? This lazy, lazy disciple - hardworking? 

For now, perhaps. With all the events happening in his life - colluding with demons, becoming an inner disciple - Cao Zhi must seem like someone with ambition. However, he truly awaited the day where he could sit back and do nothing. 

He knew the twins knew this; it wasn’t something Cao Zhi kept a secret. Without much heat, he would often complain about the amount of work he had to do on An Ding, especially when Bai Zhan disciples got into some sort of snit with Qing Jing’s, or something happened that required a lot of sudden attention on Qian Cao. 

And yet to still see him as someone to be proud of, it was very nice. 

Really… These two were bad for Cao Zhi’s heart. 

He felt his face flushing. Cao Zhi reached up and lightly grabbed each of their wrists, not pulling their hands away from his head, but also not forcing them to stay there. 

Cao Zhi felt Quan Hao pat his hair again. 

“Come see us once you breakthrough, hm?” Quan Liang said, taking his hand away. Quan Hao followed suit.

Cao Zhi placed his hands back at his sides, fisting his robes. “Mn.” 

 

Qing Jing’s rounds weren’t very demanding, though being there did remind Cao Zhi that he hadn’t seen Shizun since he left to meet with Shen Qingqiu. He wondered how that went…? 

Having a little extra time before needing to head over to Wan Jian, Cao Zhi sought out his favorite disciples. 

He found Ning Yingying first. He waved at her from afar, not stopping to talk because she was busy instructing a calligraphy class to a dozen disciples and thought it best not to bother her. She excitedly returned his wave before returning to teaching. 

He watched her for a moment. It was so different from what he’d heard of Shen Qingqiu’s methods. While Shen Qingqiu was very hands off and preferred having his hallmasters do all the teaching even when he was present - except for the advanced qin class which Cao Zhi heard he taught to three disciples with relish - Ning Yingying was the opposite. 

She flitted between the disciples, correcting their posture and brushes, checking their ink to make sure it was ground properly, and giving advice on what they had written. 

It was nice to see Ning Yingying in her element. While he only just started getting to know Qing Jing’s head disciple and they didn’t talk often, it was apparent that she was meant for this position. 

Ming Fan… was a bit of a bully, or more than a bit if him still kneeling at the Hall of Reflection was any indicator, and very stuck in a pretentious young master headspace. While he was very good at paperwork and making tea, Cao Zhi knew that teaching wasn’t his forte. 

Because he grew up well-learned, Ming Fan struggled with connecting to disciples that were not of the same standing and education. 

That was what made seeing Ning Yingying excel so refreshing. Cao Zhi wasn’t entirely sure of her history beyond her being taken in young and doted on by Shen Qingqiu, but her ability to teach and assist disciples of varying levels in even just this calligraphy class was admirable. 

On An Ding, where elder disciples teaching their juniors was optional and usually left to the hallmasters, Cao Zhi knew he would never be able to teach. 

That… Yeah, that would be too much effort on top of everything he already did. Cao Zhi knew his limits.

He found Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan training - though, honestly, it looked more like playful wrestling. 

Though Luo Binghe looked momentarily agitated over being interrupted and Shen Yuan flustered at being caught, the two greeted him happily and politely. 

“This shixiong is only checking in,” Cao Zhi said. “He will not disturb you for long.”

“It’s fine,” Shen Yuan said. His cheeks got pinker, and Luo Binghe stared at his face with great intensity. “We got a little off track from training, anyway, so it is for the best that shixiong came over.” 

Luo Binghe seemed to sag with Shen Yuan’s statement, before perking up to his usual genial excitement. 

Ah! This sheep!!! 

Don’t worry, Luo-shidi! This shixiong appreciates your efforts to bond (and romance?) your shidi, and will not interrupt for long! 

You would be so cute together, don’t say this shixiong never did anything to support you! Cao Zhi thought. 

“Very well,” Cao Zhi conceded. “Nonetheless, this shixiong must be off. Continue to train hard.”

He waved and walked off, listening as Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe returned his goodbyes. Shen Yuan gave a shout as Luo Binghe dragged him off with fervor to return to practicing. 

Ah, work hard, Luo-shidi! This one knows your efforts won’t be in vain, it’s clear that Shen-shidi likes you as well, Cao Zhi thought. 

 

Wan Jian Peak was empty upon arrival, and for a moment Cao Zhi worried before he remembered Song Yanmei told him that she would be trying to receive her sword the last time he completed his rounds. 

Mentally, he cheered her on. Song Yanmei was head disciple of Wan Jian for a reason, it was doubtless that she would receive a powerful sword that reflected her status. 

There were no disciples running about while checked around the peak to make sure everything was in order, though he could hear a couple classes in session and some disciples working away in the weapons forge.  

 

Having completed everything, Cao Zhi returned to An Ding Peak and headed straight for the Leisure House. Hopefully Shizun would be there and not off dealing with an unexpected urgent matter. 

Cao Zhi slid the door open, revealing a harried Shizun sitting at his desk, face held in his hands and mumbling away. 

Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge’s names came up a few times, leaving Cao Zhi to wonder if something had happened between the two Peak Lords recently that he missed out on. 

“Shizun,” Cao Zhi said, breaking him from his stress-induced trance. 

Shizun abruptly jerked in place, wide eyes frantically glancing around the room before landing on Cao Zhi. 

“This disciple apologises for the intrusion,” he said, walking over to the desk and seating himself in front of Shizun. He pulled out the papers from his rounds. “This one has completed his work, and was curious to know how the meeting with Shen-shibo went.”

Shizun absentmindedly took the papers from Cao Zhi, humming in response. “Ah, good, actually. I was surprised, but I really think we’re going to be friends! Though, it might be a little hard with the things he has planned, I won’t give up,” he said vaguely. 

Cao Zhi nodded in response. “This disciple is glad to hear.” He folded his hands anxiously in his lap. “Shizun… This disciple wishes to be useful for Shizun,” Cao Zhi said with some remorse, “but found himself being hindrance instead when we departed on our… night quest.” 

Shizun looked like he wanted to interrupt, but Cao Zhi kept talking. 

“Because of this, this disciple requests that he be allowed to breakthrough his bottleneck in secluded cultivation at the Lotus Pavilion,” Cao Zhi said, bowing respectfully. 

“First Shen-shixiong, and now you?” Shizun said, despairing. “Of course, yes, permission granted, but remember! You are cultivating for yourself, not just to help this master! If your only reason is in some attempt to be - useful to me, you’re enough as is, okay?” 

“This one understands, Shizun,” Cao Zhi said. “Having been idle for so long, content with where he has been, this disciple has not worked hard on his cultivation. However, this one acknowledges that to pursue the goals he has - living a life free of trouble, growing peonies and playing the qin - he must reach a level where such goals are reasonably attainable. Therefore,” he said, remaining in his bow, “this one is cultivating for himself, first and foremost. Assisting Shizun, of course, is a welcome benefit.”

Shizun gave him an appraising look before nodding. “Ah, okay, you can stop explaining yourself, this master understands. Get out of that bow, you don’t need to be so formal, alright?” he said, gently grasping Cao Zhi’s shoulders and pulling him up. “Go on, be safe when cultivating, hm? This master doesn’t know what he would do if his favorite disciple ended up deviating alone with no one to know.”

“This disciple will take care and promises to know his limits,” Cao Zhi said, standing. “If that is all, this one bids Shizun goodbye and wishes tomorrow’s meeting goes well.”

He waited for Shizun to dismiss him before leaving the Leisure House.

There was nothing he needed to bring but himself to the Lotus Pavilion, so Cao Zhi decided to head straight there. 

Though he knew the way, as all An Ding disciples did because learning the lay of the peak was required upon entry, Cao Zhi had never actually been to the pavilion. 

It was quite beautiful. A pond of lotus flowers surrounded a pavilion fit for one person. Inside the pond was a myriad of koi fish, adding to the relaxing atmosphere surrounding the place. Entering the pavilion, Cao Zhi noted that there were many talismans to ensure a quiet, protected environment. 

Truly, it was the best area for cultivating in isolation. 

He sat in the center of the pavilion, coming to rest in the lotus position, and breathed deeply. He felt the qi flowing through his meridians as he tuned into his surroundings. At peace, Cao Zhi settled into his mind, letting the flow of energy wash over him, becoming attuned to the warmth in his dantian, and attempted to reach the next stage of cultivation.

Chapter Text

The feeling reaching Early-stage Core Formation was almost indescribable. Cao Zhi felt a rush of power through his meridians, and a noticeable strengthening of his dantian. It was pleasant, almost tingly, and filled Cao Zhi with warmth. Then it faded. 

Thankfully, Cao Zhi had cultivated to the next stage without issue. The question was, however, how long did it take him to cultivate? It was impossible to judge just by looking at the surrounding koi pond and lotuses; they were stuck in a permanent state of perfection, unable to wilt in the winter or die from old age. They appeared the same as they did when Cao Zhi entered his isolated cultivation. The only difference he could tell immediately was that the sun was lowering as evening drew on, where it had been higher when Cao Zhi started cultivating.

Removing himself from the lotus position, Cao Zhi stretched and considered where to go from here. Surely, visiting Shizun and letting him know he broke through? 

Ah, and…

Cao Zhi felt his face heat a little. 

Hadn’t he promised to see the twins?

Seeing them so late in the day… Wouldn’t it be better to just see them tomorrow? But Quan Liang did request he come to Qiong Ding once he experienced his breakthrough, and…

This is too much for this disciple to be thinking about right now! Cao Zhi thought. One step at a time, don’t get ahead of yourself! 

He lightly patted his cheeks to center himself. First - Shizun. From there… he would figure it out. 

 

Heading to Shizun told him very little about how much time had passed. The peonies he frequented appeared to be at the end of their blooming period, which - considering they had been in the middle of it before he started cultivating? It meant as little as a week but up to many years could have passed. 

Ah, but… Cao Zhi certainly didn’t feel older.

And - well… It wasn’t like Cao Zhi could grow anymore. 

Everything was at the same height as when he left it. 

He took a relatively untravelled path to the Leisure House to avoid any disciples, not wanting to be distracted on his way to Shizun. 

Arriving, Cao Zhi hesitated. Normally, he would enter without introduction. But because an undetermined amount of time had passed, what if Shizun wasn’t used to that anymore? What if Shizun had changed his policies and Cao Zhi would have to call out every time before entering? 

Perhaps it would be best to just announce his presence and wait for Shizun to invite him in. 

… If, of course, Shizun was on the peak.

Considering the time of evening Cao Zhi presumed it was, there was a chance that, if desired, Mobei-Jun had taken his Shizun for an excursion into the demon realm. It wasn’t like they knew when to expect Cao Zhi, okay? 

Settling his nerves, Cao Zhi said, “Shizun, it is Cao Zhi, requesting entry.”

Because the Leisure House was heavily warded to keep anyone from knowing what was inside - beneficial when one worked with demons or had long nights of frustrating paperwork and needed to scream a little - Cao Zhi couldn’t tell if Shizun was coming to the door. 

Thankfully, the door slammed open with vigor.

“Xiao Zhi!” Shizun cried, elated. 

Shizun’s appearance, too, kept Cao Zhi in the dark. His hair was in the same barely brushed half-up style he favored and he still had bags under his eyes. His outfit was the same as it always was, though there were a few ink stains on the sleeves this time around. 

“This disciple greets his Shizun,” Cao Zhi said, smiling. 

“Come in, come in,” Shizun said with sweeping gestures, leaving the doorway so Cao Zhi could enter. 

The main room was different from before. Boxes upon boxes of various peak robes were shoved into one corner, and lists were scattered about the table. There was a multitude of scrolls, some haphazardly opened, against the back table, along with a box of ink and brushes. 

“Don’t mind the mess, aha,” Shizun said, settling at the table. “You made it just in time for the new disciple selection! It’s in a week! Super exciting, haha…” 

Shizun! You could not sound less excited if you tried! This one understands that An Ding has been given a monumental amount of work, but please! At least fake it better! 

Cao Zhi, keeping his thoughts to himself, went to make tea and plate some melon seeds before sitting with Shizun. Shizun brushed away different papers from the table, uncaring of where they landed. 

“Oh, I missed this,” Shizun said, rubbing his hands together eagerly. “No one treats this master as well as you do,  Xiao Zhi!” He took a handful of seeds. “So, ah, I guess I should ask but I can kind of tell just from how you look, how did it go?”

“Very well, Shizun,” Cao Zhi said. He poured tea for himself and Shizun. “This one experienced no complications when breaking through stages, and has successfully formed his golden core.”

Shizun gave a happy little clap. “That’s so good to hear! And so quickly, too, it’s only been around a year! You haven’t missed much. Ah, though I’m sure Xu Lihua will be happy that she doesn’t have to do your job anymore… Well, I mean, she didn’t do paperwork with me but - yeah,” Shizun trailed off. 

Cao Zhi internally thanked his Shizun for being so talkative. He didn’t even have to ask the questions pressing at his mind! Shizun went and answered them unknowingly! 

Shizun continued speaking, sipping tea and eating seeds between sentences. “Honestly, this master is glad that your breakthrough went well. Did you know Shen-shizhi tried to cultivate too quickly and experienced a severe qi deviation? He knew better! But! Pressure from outside forces, this master knows…”

A spike of worry flashed through Cao Zhi. “Is Shen-shidi alright?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, this happened like, a month after you entered isolated cultivation, he’s doing fine now,” Shizun said, waving a flippant hand. His expression became bothered. “Though, he really worried a lot of people! You wouldn’t know, but Shen-shixiong was planning on entering the Lingxi Caves to cultivate that same month, but almost didn’t because of how affected Shen-shizhi was. The man was at his side every day playing the qin and keeping Shen-shizhi alive and well with Mu-shidi!” Shizun ate a handful of seeds, and his countenance relaxed. “Shen-shixiong entered seclusion anyway, thankfully, but he went there with his qin! He mentioned something about wanting to work on musical cultivation more, as if he’s not already the best musical cultivator in Cang Qiong, psh. Though that’s a good thing, considering…”

Shizun trailed off, leaving Cao Zhi wanting. Considering what?! This disciple wants to know! How can you be so loose-lipped but tight-mouthed, ah?

“This one is glad to hear that Shen-shidi is doing well,” Cao Zhi settled on saying. He finished his cup of tea and folded his hands in his lap. “Shizun, this disciple was wondering if he could visit Qiong Ding this evening? This one promises to work extra tomorrow to cover missed work.”

“Oh, sure,” Shizun said. He started picking up the papers he left scattered around the table. “Go ahead, have fun, visit your friends. Don’t worry about playing catch up or doing extra hours or something, this master is capable of doing work on his own, haha. What do you think I did before you came along, hm?” 

Cao Zhi nodded. He decided that if there was extra work available, he would complete it. If he could not find any offhand, however, he would do as Shizun instructed and not worry about it. 

This one just had his breakthrough, he could afford to be lazy! 

 

Qiong Ding in the evening was wonderfully different from Qiong Ding in the morning. The peak was cast in a golden hue that highlighted the elaborate buildings and accentuated the decor and plants spread throughout. 

Since he had no idea where the twins were at this time, Cao Zhi decided to find a random disciple and ask for their whereabouts. 

It took more time than Cao Zhi expected to do this; was every disciple on the peak busy so late in the evening? Or perhaps they were settling in their rooms, getting ready for the night. 

Thankfully, there was one older disciple walking around that Cao Zhi managed to intercept. 

“Greetings,” Cao Zhi said. “This disciple apologizes for interrupting you, but wondered if you knew the location of Hao-shixiong and Liang-shixiong?”

She looked at him with a discerning gleam in her eye. “Shidi is looking for the head disciples? They are in their room right now, this one can take you there.”

“Thanking shijie,” Cao Zhi said with a light bow. He started to follow her, minding the path they took in case he needed it for future reference. “This one is Cao Zhi of An Ding Peak.”

She gave a light hum. “I know. This one is Li Yilei.”

So Cao Zhi was known on Qiong Ding without even meeting everyone, huh… Even though a year passed with no visits, they could recognize, huh… Truly, his presence during meals at Qiong Ding was more prominent than he thought. Though, the name Li Yilei did sound a little familiar to him. Perhaps the twins had mentioned her in passing? He seemed to recall that they referred to her with fond annoyance… 

They approached a nice but simple house. Li Yilei banged on the door, pushing Cao Zhi behind her until he was out of view, and said, “Open up! I know you’re in there, come on out. Your shimei brought you a gift!”

After a minute, the door slid open to reveal the twins, obviously in night robes but with their disciple robe thrown on top for modesty. 

“What could you possibly be bothering us about now, hm,” Quan Liang said. His tone was somewhere between cold and teasing. 

That was - hey, you’ve never spoken to this disciple like that! Wasn’t that a total tonal shift from how you treat this shidi?

Quan Hao stood next to his brother, raising an eyebrow. 

“You’ll be really happy with this gift, trust me,” Li Yilei said. She stepped aside to reveal Cao Zhi. 

The change was visible:

The twins’ faces lit up, and they left their room to surround Cao Zhi. Li Yilei moved off to the side completely, allowing them the chance to focus only on Cao Zhi and not worry about her being in the way. 

Li Yilei said, “Anyway, you can thank me later by buying me ten skewers next time you go to town, okay? No less! But more, if you want, this shimei won’t say no.” She left after that. 

The twins ignored her, but Cao Zhi made sure to say goodbye even if no one acknowledged him. 

Finally, he focused on the twins hovering around him, saying, “Good evening, Hao-shixiong, Liang-shixiong.”

Quan Hao held Cao Zhi’s shoulder, checking him over. “You are well?”

“Mn.” Cao Zhi smiled, hoping to alleviate any worries he may have had. “This shidi cultivated carefully, ensuring a clean breakthrough.”

Quan Liang took his other shoulder, smiling in relief. “This shixiong is glad to hear it.” 

The twins looked at each other before returning their attention back to Cao Zhi.

Quan Hao said, “Would you like to come in?”

Quan Liang gestured to their room.

Cao Zhi felt his face erupt in flames. Come in? To their room? Sure, they were asking just as - as friends, but. This late in the evening! 

Someone will think things if they see this disciple, shixiongs! Too risky! 

Though, admittedly, Cao Zhi was curious as to what their room looked like… 

Gulping, Cao Zhi shook his head. “This one apologizes, but I only came to let you know I safely cultivated to the next stage. I must head back to An Ding.” 

Quan Hao and Quan Liang looked disappointed, but didn’t protest. Instead, they took turns giving him a pat on the head. 

“We see,” Quan Liang said. “Thank you for letting us know.”

“We’re proud of you,” Quan Hao said. “Soon, should we expect to see you with a sword?”

“Haha,” Cao Zhi said, stepping back a little. “Definitely not… That’s too much for this shidi. Maybe in a few years, but for now this one would like to appreciate where he is now and nothing else.”

They nodded, giving him one final pat on each shoulder. 

“We wouldn’t wish to keep you from An Ding,” Quan Hao said, though his tone was colored with something upset. “Bidding shidi good night.”

Quan Liang echoed the sentiment. 

“Good night, shixiongs,” Cao Zhi said, not understanding the weird tension surrounding them, and unable to do anything about it. He gave a smile and wave before turning around, heading back to An Ding. 

Once off Qiong Ding Peak, Cao Zhi allowed himself a small moment to break face. He let out a light screech.

Quan Hao! And Quan Liang! Really invited him to their room! In their night robes! Only hastily covered by their more proper disciple robes! They - did they not think about how they looked! How it would look with this shidi there! 

If Cao Zhi was less of a proper man he might’ve - perhaps he would’ve - there was a big chance he would have taken them up on the offer, okay! And then maybe thought about it for the rest of the night, but! Cao Zhi was a gentleman! 

… Though, he would think about what he saw all night, anyway. It was very tempting, okay? Cao Zhi was still young, and his attraction was fresh! It was too much for him. 

He would need to be rid of his flushed face before reaching An Ding, in case someone saw him and started asking questions they didn’t need answers to. 

Chapter Text

Cao Zhi dithered over how he should respond to the missive in front of him. 

It wasn’t often that An Ding Peak had to deal with land dispute problems; that was more for Qiong Ding, specifically the Sect leader, to be concerned about. However, because the land dispute was actually between two businesses - one that provided textiles for Cang Qiong versus one that provided for Tian Yi Overlook - it fell on An Ding to judge the dispute. There was too much money involved! Sure, Yue Qingyuan approved the budgets, but the ones who figured it all out were An Ding! 

And now! Because Cang Qiong was tasked with figuring out if they had the budget to compensate the businesses and send funds to end the dispute, or if they should drop their current provider and let someone else pick them up, Cao Zhi was going through the receipts dating back! Two! Hundred! Years!

Why couldn’t Yue Qingyuan take initiative and do this himself, hm? Wasn’t he the Sect Leader? And, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t see this missive. Cao Zhi was going to have to write out a response and then give it to Yue Qingyuan, who would then make the judgement as to whether it was a good choice or not!

How about you save time and make the decision yourself, ah?!

Cao Zhi took a deep, relaxing breath. 

Calm, calm. 

The dispute was only happening because an Elder Tree Devourer had ravaged the picketed fence that marked the boundaries of where the two businesses’ land was. Further adding to this problem, there was an old feud between the business owners that only ended when they were each picked up by a great sect, though the Tian Yi Overlook provider was apparently still sour that their competition was chosen by the most prominent sect. 

Calm. 

Petty mess aside, Cao Zhi found no reason as to why Cang Qiong Mountain Sect wouldn’t be able to compensate the businesses and establish a new boundary. It was a little out of the way, but the business accounted for nearly sixty percent of all their textiles; it would be too risky to drop them and find a different provider. 

Writing this out - hours of work! Watered down into a paragraph! The woes of paperwork, truly too much effort sometimes - Cao Zhi moved on to the next problem. 

While reading over the letter, which was simply a request to consider buying a newer, better product, Cao Zhi started to feel a chill in the room.

A familiar chill. 

Briefly, fear flashed through him. 

Just like the first time, he was alone in his Shizun’s Leisure House. What if, for some reason, Mobei-Jun attempted to kill him?

But, no. That was just Cao Zhi’s fear talking. A bad first impression was a lasting impression, but Cao Zhi promised himself he would work through it for the sake of his Shizun. And, potentially, for the sake of his Shizun’s relationship.

Since he would be alone with Mobei-Jun, Cao Zhi was going to take the chance to talk to him about… courting. 

Properly courting. 

Not hitting his Shizun, really. 

His Shizun was a delicate man who needed a delicate, guiding hand. Not a heavy one! 

Cao Zhi set the letter down on the table, patiently waiting for Mobei-Jun to exit the portal. 

The demon stepped out, regally dressed as usual. He truly cut an immaculate figure, now that Cao Zhi took the time to acknowledge him. 

Though the partial state of undress was questionable, Cao Zhi recognized that it was common in demon culture to be less modestly clad than humans, and thus stayed quiet. 

As well, he’d heard Shizun’s murmurs in their late night paperwork sessions. Shizun may be afraid of Mobei-Jun, but he did find the demon lord attractive, so. Perhaps it was the show of chest that did it for him?

Cao Zhi imagined, for a brief, brief moment, that Quan Hao and Quan Liang dressed like this.

Ah…

Yes, Shizun, this one understands the appeal now. 

Bowing respectfully, Cao Zhi greeted, “Good evening, Mobei-Jun.”

Mobei-Jun said nothing back. Glancing at him through long lashes, Cao Zhi figured Mobei-Jun was trying to ascertain Shizun’s location. 

“This disciple apologises,” Cao Zhi said, “but Shizun has a dinner meeting with Sect Leader Yue.”

The dinner meeting was… not a fun one. 

Shizun, frustrated that Yue Qingyuan was still spending money on Shen Qingqiu even though the other Peak Lord was currently in seclusion in the Lingxi Caves, went over to give the Sect Leader a piece of his mind. 

Doubtfully, Yue Qingyuan would listen to him. 

At least it would give Shizun a chance to vent, even if it was to an non-listening ear. 

Removing himself from the bow, Cao Zhi looked at Mobei-Jun. “This one is not sure as to when Shizun will return, but promises it will be within a shichen.”

Shizun would tire of ranting, after all, because he knew ultimately nothing would change. Yue Qingyuan would say some sort of placating words and send Shizun off. 

How the twins could deal with that man… Cao Zhi would never understand. He hadn’t even properly met him, but was frustrated by him. So wishy-washy! So frivolous! 

This one may be a noble, but even he knew not to throw around money and gifts to someone who wasn’t there and appeared not to want them in the first place! What a waste! 

Mobei-Jun frowned.

Before he could leave, Cao Zhi said, “Mobei-Jun, this disciple has a request for you, concerning Shizun. Will you hear this one out?”

There was a considering silence, to which Mobei-Jun eventually nodded. 

Without needing to be asked, he took a seat in Shizun’s normal spot at the table, across from Cao Zhi. 

Right… Cao Zhi had never faced the demon lord head-on like this. Sitting face to face, Mobei-Jun somehow appeared more intimidating. There was a light chill radiating off of him, and his face was stoic. His posture, as well, was rigid and imposing. The sheer bulk of Mobei-Jun alone was off putting when Cao Zhi looked at him this closely. 

You’re doing this for Shizun, you’re doing this for Shizun, Cao Zhi reminded himself. 

Taking a deep breath, Cao Zhi centered himself. 

“This disciple admits that he knows of your feelings for Shizun,” Cao Zhi started. He almost flinched in fear, anticipating Mobei-Jun’s response. 

Mobei-Jun leaned back, raising a judgmental eyebrow. “Oh? This lord did not realize he was being subtle.”

Ah, aha, about that, Mobei-Jun… how does this one say it… 

“By this one’s understanding, according to your customs, you are not,” Cao Zhi agreed. “However, this disciple must emphasize that it is by demonic customs.” 

A shrewd gleam entered Mobei-Jun’s eyes. “Speak clearly,” he demanded, though he seemed to know where the conversation was going. 

Cao Zhi barely refrained from clearing his throat, which suddenly felt tight. 

Doing! This! For! Shizun! Remember that! 

“Shizun, for all the work he has done for you and the Demon Realm, still operates according to human customs,” Cao Zhi explained. “Though he is a unique individual that this disciple cannot promise to understand all of the time, this one can confidently say that courting Shizun as a human would, would be most beneficial.”

Shizun, forgive this one for what he is going to say next!

Cao Zhi, starting to sweat under the intensity of Mobei-Jun’s gaze, said, “It is clear to this one that Shizun is attracted to you, as he has heard Shizun mention various things this one dares not repeat. However, this disciple also knows that Shizun is afraid of you.”

Mobei-Jun’s countenance became dark, his shoulders noticeably falling. 

Cao Zhi thought, isn’t it obvious? Or did you just assume Shizun was like that when being courted?

Dismissing his thoughts, Cao Zhi continued explaining. “Though not sure to the extent, this disciple heard Shizun mention that you would regularly hit him.” Cao Zhi frowned. “Humans don’t… do that. It is considered a form of aggression or of dislike, often, for us. It has caused Shizun to fear you and fear being hit by you.” 

Mobei-Jun frowned, briefly glancing at his hands braced against the floor, before looking back at Cao Zhi. 

“Instead,” Cao Zhi mused, “Mobei-Jun should consider a more gentle touch, like a pat on the head. It shows a job well done, and Shizun would be appreciative of the affectionate gesture.”

Cao Zhi certainly enjoyed it himself, and enjoyed patting others on the head. It was simple, not always romantic, but a great way to start. Hopefully, with enough time, Shizun could be eased from the fear of being hit. 

“Though,” Cao Zhi said, “you must also be clear about your intentions with Shizun. Explain to him that you were not hitting him out of a place of malice, but rather out of custom - resulting in a source of misunderstanding. It is not this disciple’s place to say how Shizun will react, or if he will accept your apology, but it is a good place to start building a more solid relationship.”

Mobei-Jun huffed, appearing to contemplate what Cao Zhi said, then nodded. 

Cao Zhi considered various courtship rituals humans observed, thought what would best be applied to Shizun, and relayed them to Mobei-Jun. 

“If this one recalls correctly, you already give Shizun clothes when in the Demon Realm, yes?”

A blue blush crossed Mobei-Jun’s cheeks, but his facial expression remained cold. “He is small and unused to the cold. He also looks good in this lord’s clothes.”

Shameless! How bold of you to say that! 

Cao Zhi, himself, grew pink in the cheeks. It was embarrassing to hear someone say something like that so casually!

“Right,” Cao Zhi said, floundering in an attempt to collect his thoughts. “Going with that process, have you considered giving Shizun some articles of clothing to wear outside of the Demon Realm? Something more casual, or light? For everyday wear?”

Cao Zhi did not know what he would do if he was faced with a Shizun wearing clothes he suggested Mobei-Jun give. Die of embarrassment? Be happy that Mobei-Jun listened to him? Be proud of Shizun for starting a proper courtship with the demon lord? 

“... No,” Mobei-Jun said simply, though his tone implied that it was something he was thinking about now. 

Moving on, then! This one does not want to know what you are imagining! 

“Jewelry, as well, is an exceptional courting gift,” Cao Zhi said. “Especially gold, or perhaps gems you favor?” Mobei-Jun was currently wearing a pair of earrings with a blue gem and various colorful beads in his hair, all different cool colors, which made Cao Zhi think that the Mobei Clan might have a specific theme going on. “Though his ears are not currently pierced, this one is sure you could convince him. Otherwise, bracelets and rings will do.” 

Cao Zhi may be biased, but his Shizun deserved nice things! And if those nice things were being draped in expensive jewelry, well, who was Cao Zhi to say no. 

A look of hunger crossed Mobei-Jun’s face when Cao Zhi mentioned piercing Shizun’s ears. In the future, Cao Zhi just knew he would be seeing Shizun with a pair of earrings. 

Begging Shizun’s forgiveness now, Cao Zhi thought. 

“Finally,” Cao Zhi said, “food. Shizun enjoys all types of food, particularly that which is easy to eat. With melon seeds, Shizun will be very pleased.” Cao Zhi held up a finger. “However! That does not mean any food will win Shizun over. If he discusses something he particularly likes, remember it. If you have the ability to cook, make it yourself. If you do not, take him to the finest restaurant where he can enjoy the best meal.”

Cao Zhi, finished, settled his hands in his lap. “That is all this disciple has to say. Thanking Mobei-Jun for his consideration and patience.”

Truthfully, Cao Zhi had not expected that Mobei-Jun would be willing to hear him out at all, nor for this long. It was a miracle! One that Cao Zhi lived through unscathed! 

Mobei-Jun, straightening from his leant-back posture, gave a sharp nod. “This lord appreciates your wisdom and will… consider it, going forward.” 

“Mn,” Cao Zhi said. He bowed. “Begging Mobei-Jun to take care of my Shizun.”

Mobei-Jun scoffed. “As if I would do anything less.” 

Cao Zhi lifted from the bow with a smile on his face. “Still, I had to make it known.” Thinking about other demon customs he read, Cao Zhi said with minor hesitation, “When the time comes for you to marry my Shizun - if he accepts! - this one will be facing you for Shizun’s honor.”

Cao Zhi knew he wasn’t the most threatening cultivator, or human in general, but he would do his best to observe demon culture. He had already made so many requests of Mobei-Jun to disregard his courting customs to instead focus on human ones, it was only fair that Cao Zhi recognized this. 

Face betraying no feeling, Mobei-Jun nodded. 

Hopefully he took Cao Zhi’s claim seriously? Probably… 

Unsure what to say next, Cao Zhi opened his mouth to ask if there was anything Mobei-Jun needed now.

At that moment, however, the Leisure House’s door flung open and Shizun came in, whining, “Xiao Zhi, pity this master! Yue-shixiong was obtuse as ever! Don’t tell him I said that, though.”

Cao Zhi could see the moment his Shizun registered just who all was in the room: 

Shizun’s face grew pale, and a look of surprise overtook his face. 

“My - my king!” he cried. “Ahaha, what are you doing here? This one wasn’t expecting you…” 

Mobei-Jun stared impassively at Shizun, then stood. 

He walked over to the shivering Shizun, glanced at Cao Zhi from the corner of his eye, then lifted his hand. 

There was a brief, hesitating moment. Shizun jerked in place, clenching his eyes tight. Cao Zhi watched with bated breath. 

Mobei-Jun lightly placed his hand on Shizun’s head, only for a couple seconds, then removed it. 

Shizun stared up at Mobei-Jun in shocked confusion. 

“I’m leaving,” Mobei-Jun said. 

He opened a portal, and, before stepping in, threw his cloak to Shizun who scrambled to grab it. In the next moment, he was gone. 

Shizun stared at the space where Mobei-Jun was, the cloak in his hands, Cao Zhi, then back to the cloak. 

“My king,” Shizun said. “It’s not even that cold. Does… he want me to wash this?”

… Cao Zhi tried to help, okay! Mobei-Jun, it was on you to figure it out from here! Didn’t this one tell you to be clear in your intentions, anyway? Saying nothing and just giving Shizun your cloak - that was not the way to go! 

Cao Zhi sighed, returning his attention to the paper he put down earlier. He knew Shizun would have questions as to what Mobei-Jun was doing there but for now, Cao Zhi was tired. 

In the future, remember, Cao Zhi did this for you, Shizun! All the trouble Cao Zhi went through for you, repay it tenfold! 

This one wants weeks of no work! Only music and flowers and relaxation, do you hear? 

Chapter Text

Rounds on Qing Jing Peak were much easier with Ning Yingying as head disciple.

In the two years she had taken over - though, admittedly, for one of those years Cao Zhi was in seclusion - the time it took to review storage drastically decreased. 

For the most part, his rounds had returned to the discreet storage checks that they were always meant to be. There was no haranguing, no poking about and bothering Cao Zhi while he worked, and no requests that were technically outside of the scope of what Cao Zhi was supposed to do that he did anyway. If interrupted, it was only ever by Ning Yingying having a light conversation with him, or Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan coming over to say hello.

The latter happened less often; Shen Yuan was tasked with whatever chore available until Shen Qingqiu exited his isolated cultivation. It was very lucky for him, Cao Zhi had overheard from some disciples, as Shen Qingqiu had seriously considered disciplining Shen Yuan within an inch of his life! Only the experience he faced with his qi deviation saved him from such an intense punishment. 

Because Luo Binghe was Shen Yuan’s shadow, it was rare that he parted from the other. There was the occasional older Qing Jing disciple who would pull Luo Binghe away to do other things, or moments where Shen Yuan finally convinced Luo Binghe to focus on himself and work on his cultivation, but for the most part? Always hovering. From what Cao Zhi could garner, Shen Yuan’s qi deviation had really affected the poor sheep. 

Mentally, Cao Zhi cheered him on. Use this chance to dote just the right amount and make Shen Yuan fall for you even more, he thought. 

In fact, the last time he completed his rounds before the monthly Peak Lord meeting, Ning Yingying had pulled him aside! 

Excitedly, she had pointed at Shen Yuan who was diligently sweeping the stone path leading to the Grand Library, and to Luo Binghe who was watching like a concerned maiden nearby. 

“Did you know,” she had whispered conspiratorially, “that Luo-shidi has been making food for Shen-shidi everyday since he qi deviated? Ying-er wants to try a little, but Luo-shidi runs off before she gets a chance!”

She spun a story of magnificent feasts that Cao Zhi was incredibly jealous of.

Why couldn’t he have his own Luo Binghe to feed him?

That line of thought had prompted him to go visit Quan Hao and Quan Liang so he could bask in the food of Qiong Ding Peak. 

Today fell in line with the days that Ning Yingying would come over to talk to Cao Zhi. She was always very respectful when doing so; she would only come over when Cao Zhi was either visibly not busy, or about to leave because he finished. 

This time around, she came over the instant he finished his rounds. He had noticed her tailing him towards the end, when he was doing his final checks on the medical storage facility. 

Smiling, he greeted her. “Good afternoon, Ning-shijie.”

“Good afternoon, Cao-shidi!” she returned excitedly. Playfully, she batted his shoulder, saying, “I told you to call me Ning-mei! You don’t need to be so formal!” 

“This one acknowledges the request, but respectfully declines,” Cao Zhi said. This had been a one-sided effort on Ning Yingying’s side to get Cao Zhi to drop the honorifics, though it wasn’t getting anywhere. She was very determined, however. 

It was very cute when he declined her, because she would puff her cheeks out and pout much like an offended toddler. It made Cao Zhi want to pat her on the head and give her sweets to appease her. 

Before she could continue to insist that calling her meimei was fine, Cao Zhi said, “Is there anything Ning-shijie needs from this disciple?”

She shook her head. “Mm, no! Well, actually, yes! But I don’t need it, I just want to offer it!” Her eyes grew wide. “Ying-er heard from Liu-shimei that you’re really good at playing the qin! Why did you never tell me?”

Unsure where the conversation was going, Cao Zhi said, “Ah… It never came up, so I never thought to say anything.”

Ning Yingying hummed, quickly moving on. “Well, you should’ve said something anyway!” she huffed. 

How would this one have said anything? Ning-shijie, do you expect this one to just say, ‘Ah, the storage units are in good condition. By the way, this one was thinking about playing a new qin piece today.’ What an awkward change of topic! How unnatural! This one could never! 

Cao Zhi decided to say nothing and let Ning Yingying continue to get to - well, whatever her point was. 

“Even though Shizun isn’t teaching the Advanced Qin Class right now, we sometimes still play together to keep our skills up.” Ning Yingying paused for a moment, frowned and shivered, before returning to her usual pep. “I don’t want to think about what Shizun would do if we didn’t! But! Ying-er talked with Lu-jie and An-jie and we all decided that I would ask if you wanted to join us today!”

Oh, actually, that sounded really nice. 

It had been a long time since Cao Zhi had played the qin with anyone, let alone someone who was up to his caliber. The instrument wasn’t something that was ever practiced on An Ding Peak, and there was no one who offered to play with him. It wasn’t like he kept it a secret that he played the qin, so he assumed that no one felt comfortable joining him, or perhaps no one had the ability to do so. 

Another issue was that Cao Zhi simply wasn’t bold or willing enough to offer himself to a different peak just so that he could play some music. In that case, it was best if he just practiced and played on his own underneath the flowers. 

Sometimes it could be lonely, yes, but it was mostly relaxing. 

This offer though? Perfect! Exactly what he’d been waiting for! And he knew that Shen Qingqiu personally favored these three disciples and their qin playing ability - it was why they were the only ones in the Advanced Qin class. 

Eagerly, Cao Zhi replied, “Yes! I will gladly join you!” Then, thinking for a moment, he deflated. “Ah, but, I did not bring my qin with me.”

Ning Yingying bounced in place and clapped happily, dismissing his despair. “Not a problem! We have an extra qin that is super high quality, you don’t need your own!”

Excited at the prospect, Cao Zhi nodded. 

Ning Yingying grabbed his wrist and started to pull him along a winding path through a bamboo grove, heading to a part of Qing Jing that Cao Zhi had never been to. When Ning Yingying finally stopped, Cao Zhi took in his surroundings. 

It was a cute pavilion nestled in a small clearing, surrounded by large stalks of bamboo. There were strategically placed rocks and ornamental flowers that helped create a relaxing ambience, all in light shades. 

Inside the pavilion sat two Qing Jing disciples that Cao Zhi had never seen - presumably, these were An-jie and Lu-jie. 

One disciple stood. She presented an imposing figure, with sharp eyebrows over sharper phoenix eyes. She was surprisingly broad, and Cao Zhi could tell from a glance that her hands were well callused from more than just qin playing. 

She bowed in greeting. “This one is Lu Yuexi, thanking Cao-shixiong for joining us.” 

In turn, Cao Zhi said, “This disciple is delighted for the chance, Lu-shimei.” 

After her stood the other disciple, who was much like Ning Yingying in that she could be best described as cute. Her peach blossom eyes were framed by long lashes that gave her a particularly young look, and her cheeks were plump and slightly pink. It made Cao Zhi want to give them a little pinch! 

Ah, really, Qing Jing had such cute little disciples. Like Luo Binghe! The cutest sheep of them all! All An Ding had was himself and Xu Lihua - everyone else was practically an ox! All the physical labor An Ding necessitated made it hard for the disciples to maintain a cute, round, youthful look. Thankfully, Cao Zhi’s small stature allowed him to avoid that hard work and focus on easier tasks like paperwork. Truly a blessing. 

Imagining himself with muscles… Gross. He’d be a step away from being a Bai Zhan brute! That’d be awful. 

Returning himself to the situation at hand, he focused on the disciple who introduced herself as An Caiyun.

Addressing her, Cao Zhi said, “Again, this disciple is thankful that An-shimei allowed for this one to join.”

Ning Yingying had disappeared for a moment, though when that happened Cao Zhi didn’t know, and came back with a qin in her arms. It was then that Cao Zhi noticed there were only three qins prepared in the pavilion - they were truly unsure if Cao Zhi would agree, it appeared. 

She set up a spot for him, creating a half circle for everyone to sit. 

An Caiyun and Lu Yuexi sat first, beside each other, leaving the last two spots for Ning Yingying and Cao Zhi. Ning Yingying settled next to Lu Yuexi and stared expectantly at Cao Zhi, patting the spot next to her. 

Gracefully, Cao Zhi sat. 

“Today, I was thinking we could play First Encounter, since it has been popular lately,” Lu Yuexi offered once they were all settled. There was a beat of silence before she released a light gasp. “Oh, but I did not bring the notation. Cao-shixiong, do you know the piece?”

Cao Zhi nodded. “Ah, yes. Sometimes Shizun will bring me pieces to play that he particularly wants to listen to. Recently, that was one. Though not too well, I am proficient enough at playing the piece that I should be able to follow along.” 

Ning Yingying nodded. “That’s good enough for Ying-er! We’re only here to practice, mistakes are okay!” 

Agreeing, An Caiyun echoed Ning Yingying. “It’s okay if we need to stop at any point,” she added. “Shixiong need not be afraid to speak up.”

What a delightful group of disciples, Cao Zhi cried internally. 

With a breath and a look, they started the piece. It was exceptionally easy for Cao Zhi to get lost in the music. Though relatively new to playing it, he made up for any slights with passion. The emotion, to Cao Zhi, drove the piece. There was something about it that filled him with longing. It pulled at his heart, enchanted his senses, drawing him into a wonderful playing experience. 

It was with some reluctance that Cao Zhi stopped when the piece came to an end. 

Their session continued with critiques and suggestions, repeating certain parts over and over until they felt it was just right, and replaying the piece when desired. 

At the end, Cao Zhi was tired but sated. It really had been too long since he had anyone to play with like this, to learn from properly in such a way. It made him miss being at home with his tutor who would indulge him in his indolence but was still stern when necessary. The experience provided by that tutor really set Cao Zhi’s love for the qin in stone. 

Ah, the longing this piece generated made him nostalgic. 

The Qing Jing disciples stood, and Cao Zhi followed suit. Together, they thanked each other for a session well done and thoughts about what to play next time. 

Before he could dismiss himself, Ning Yingying said, “Cao-shidi, that was wonderful! Really! You should join us again when you get the chance! We meet this time every week or so, it would be great to have you here.” An Caiyun and Lu Yuexi agreed wholeheartedly. Continuing, Ning Yingying mused, “I wonder when Shizun returns if he would be willing to host you as a guest disciple for class? Ah, if Shang-shishu agrees, that is!” 

It would be nice if he could have a proper teacher once more, Cao Zhi thought. Though he wasn’t so sure Shen Qingqiu would be willing to let him join. Nonetheless, he conceded. “This one would be grateful if Ning-shijie would make such a request to Shen-shibo.”

“Then it’s decided!” Ning Yingying cheered. “Come play with us again soon!” 

She ushered him off, not bothering to clean up where they had been playing. They weaved back through the path she brought him in with, though this time Cao Zhi paid careful attention to where they went. If he wanted to return, it would be best if he knew the way. 

At the entrance of Qing Jing, where Cao Zhi could see Shen Yuan sweeping and Luo Binghe lingering nearby on the many stairs leading to the peak, Ning Yingying bid him goodbye. 

“Ying-er knows you need to get back to your Shizun, but really think about the offer, hm? And I won’t forget to ask Shizun if you can join us!” she promised. 

Faced with her exuberance, Cao Zhi smiled. “This one thanks Ning-shijie for the opportunity. And, rest assured, I will be back. I missed being able to properly practice my qin,” he admitted. 

With an excited noise, Ning Yingying gave Cao Zhi a quick, friendly shoulder shake that Cao Zhi swore rattled his brain around with how aggressive it was, then ran off. 

Ning Yingying… was stronger than she looked, huh. 

Smiling to himself - and rubbing his shoulder, because wow, her grip hurt - Cao Zhi made his way back to An Ding Peak to report his rounds to Shizun. Already, he was anticipating next week and what he could play with his own qin when given the chance.

Chapter Text

Cao Zhi awoke to his door being thrust open and Shizun singing, “Good morning, Xiao Zhi! This master has so wonderfully come to wake you up on this fine day so we can get started with some work!”

Emerging from his blankets, Cao Zhi internally griped. 

How can you be so cheery this early, ah? Shizun, where did your perpetual tiredness go? So suddenly you are wide awake and bothering this disciple, how cruel, how cruel indeed. After everything this disciple has done for you, ah, and this is how you repay him… 

Shizun, because he had some tact, left the room to allow Cao Zhi to get ready for whatever he planned today. With half-hearted effort, Cao Zhi pulled his hair back into a low ponytail rather than his usual high one because he didn’t feel like raising his arms too high. He was that tired, okay! Then he dressed, complaining about how many layers he had to put on immediately after waking up. Why couldn’t he just throw on his disciple outer cloak over his night robes, hm?

A hastily dressed Quan Hao and Quan Liang flashed through his mind. Suddenly, Cao Zhi was feeling more awake. 

He left his room, confronted with a very vivacious Shizun. 

“Oh,” Shizun said, tone surprised. “Your hair is very cute! Trying something new?”

No, Shizun, this one just felt rushed by you barging into his room and was too lazy to do his usual hairstyle. 

Blank-faced, Cao Zhi said, “Of sorts, yes.” 

Shizun pursed his lips and nodded. “Maybe I should try something new?” 

He patted his bird-nest that could hardly be called hair. Cao Zhi honestly wasn’t sure how often Shizun brushed it. His hair was constantly frizzy, and it didn’t help that Shizun was prone to pulling on it when deep in thought or very stressed. 

Hm… perhaps he should nudge Mobei-Jun into buying a comb for Shizun? Or even brushing Shizun’s hair for him, that would be very romantic.

Setting that thought aside for later, Cao Zhi asked, “What are we doing today, Shizun?”

Shizun did a little dance in place. With great excitement he said, “We are going on a little trip! Just you and me, and technically we’re not leaving the sect, it’s just a trip around all the peaks, but still!” 

Cao Zhi tilted his head to the left, trying to make sense of why Shizun would need him on a ‘trip’ around the mountain range. “Shizun, this disciple is wondering as to what purpose this trip entails?”

Shizun completely ignored his question. “Let’s get going, we’ve got so much to do and so little time to do it.” 

That said, Shizun led him to the outskirts of An Ding Peak, where no one but the Peak Lord was supposed to go. There was a light barrier erected, so subtle it was easy to miss if one didn’t know to look for it. This barrier was one of the twelve cornerstones of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, established soon after the sect was founded to keep intruders out. It detected malicious entities or uninvited visitors; these days, it typically repelled rogue cultivators practicing dark methods, individuals attempting harm or assassination to sect members, creatures not part of Chao Xian Peak who got too close to the mountain, or demons who tried to enter the peak.

Apprehensive, Cao Zhi said, “Shizun… This one isn’t sure he’s supposed to be here.”

Uncaring of his hesitancy, Shizun flapped a hand in his direction. “If you weren’t supposed to be here, why would I bring you, hm? Trust this master.”

… If Shizun said so… 

Shizun pointed at the seal script on the ground. “See this? These are what we’re trying to find on each peak. They make up the basis of the protective barrier that surrounds the sect, and are the strongest points of that barrier.”

He stepped to the edge of the seal. “You can’t see it, but this master is channelling energy into the barrier causing certain things to become visible.” He waved Cao Zhi over. “Come, this is a teaching moment. Try it yourself.”

Cao Zhi looked at the seal, looked at Shizun, then stepped forward. Carefully, he channelled qi through his meridians, down to his feet, and let it enter the seal at the ground.

Lines appeared in his vision, spread far enough out that Cao Zhi couldn’t see where they started or ended. He released a gasp. 

“Shizun, what is this?”

“These are the ley lines of Tian Gong Mountain that Cang Qiong uses to feed the barrier. The lines directly fueling the barrier are visible to whoever looks for them and no one else.”

Shizun retreated two steps, Cao Zhi following quickly and cutting off his flow of energy. The lines disappeared. 

“So, you were asking what this trip was all about,” Shizun said, returning to Cao Zhi’s earlier question. “Well! You see, we’re going to head to each peak and check out the seals, until we’ve put enough energy in each one that we can see the ley lines even when we’re not feeding some qi into the main source, yeah? Then we’ll make our way around the Rainbow Bridge.” Shizun settled his hands on his hips, leaning back on his heels. “This is why we need to be quick about it. If we take too long, all the energy we’ve put in will start to fade, and we’ll have to start all over.”

This made sense to Cao Zhi. However, he still didn’t understand why they were doing this. Wasn’t checking the barrier health something that the Peak Lords, specifically the Sect Leader, should do? Why leave it to An Ding - furthermore, the Peak Lord and an inner disciple only - to do the job? That was a bit much, even considering everything else the sect made An Ding Peak do.

Cao Zhi posed his queries to Shizun, succinctly summed up as, “Why are we the ones checking the seals and ley lines?”

The air seemed to change, a certain tension appearing out of nowhere. Cao Zhi was thrown off-kilter and couldn’t explain why, filled with a sense of foreboding. 

Shizun smiled serenely. “Why, we’re trying to find the weakest point in them, Xiao Zhi.”

Icy shock speared its way through Cao Zhi.

There was only one reason as to why they would need to find such a thing.

He knew - 

He agreed that he would work with Shizun to help spy for Mobei-Jun but he never - 

Every time he did something, it was always just paperwork! It was practically a mirror image of what he did on An Ding, just centered around a different group! This was -

Shizun was actively finding a way to break demons into the sect. To hurt the sect. 

Cao Zhi almost wanted to back out, to say this wasn’t what he signed up for but - it was, wasn’t it. Shizun had even tried to get him to rescind his offer, probably because Shizun knew that Cao Zhi wasn’t built to do something like this, to partake in something that could result in the serious harm of his fellow disciples. 

Reminiscent of how Mobei-Jun presented himself, Shizun regarded him with an unrecognizable impassive, borderline cold expression. 

Cao Zhi could practically hear his thoughts: Are you willing to take up the task?

Gulping and clenching his robes, ignoring the sweat beading on the back of his neck, Cao Zhi said, “Alright. Please instruct this one on how to recognize weak points in ley lines.”

Shizun’s smile was sharp but pleased. However, there was also something sad, like he had been hoping that Cao Zhi would quit helping but was upset that wasn’t the case.

“See this light color,” Shizun said, moving on as if there had never been any reason for tension in the first place. He replaced his foot back near the seal and waited until Cao Zhi did the same. “The brightness indicates strength. This is all the same, and this area is also the brightest.”

Truly, it was very bright. Cao Zhi tried to memorize the strength of this shine so that he could use it to refer to other areas in the ley lines as they went around the mountain range. 

Shizun stepped away, walking towards the entrance of An Ding. “What we’re looking for will be noticeably dim - a point in the ley lines that has been neglected and soon to break. If it were to actually break, Yue-shixiong would know immediately and fix the problem right away with Shen-shixiong. See,” Shizun said, in full teaching mode, “it is possible to see the ley lines without needing to put energy into each cornerstone. However, if were to put it directly into the lines, we could potentially overflow what outside energy they could handle and cause any weak points to crack and break apart. That would cause much suspicion, which is what we’re trying to avoid.”

Cao Zhi gave a firm nod, understanding the need for discretion. He didn’t like it, a part of him very much did not want to do this at all, but he persevered for Shizun. 

It took a few hours, but Cao Zhi and his Shizun managed to access each peak and find their seal, infuse it with qi, and leave with no one any the wiser. With each seal having been fed some of their energy, Cao Zhi was able to see the ley lines with little problem. 

This was the most important part, Shizun informed him with much emphasis, because they only had about three hours before the qi they put in ran out on An Ding and they would have to start all over. 

Perhaps to an outsider, the sight they made was comical. Cao Zhi ran slightly behind Shizun as they trekked across the Rainbow Bridge, seemingly looking around at nothing. To them, it was a race against the clock, having to quickly take in the ley lines starting from the lowest peak and working their way up to Qiong Ding. 

Surprisingly, though Shizun was making an effort to check the ley lines, he walked in a very determined path. It was apparent to Cao Zhi that Shizun had some idea as to where the weak point may be, but perhaps Shizun didn’t know the exact coordinate. 

Nearing the end of the Rainbow Bridge between Qiong Ding and Qing Jing, as well as getting dangerously close to the end of their time limit, Cao Zhi noticed a discrepancy in the ley lines. 

It was a small spot right in the middle of the bridge, featuring a slightly dimmer portion of the ley line connecting the two peaks. 

Shizun clearly hadn’t noticed it. For a moment, Cao Zhi considered not saying anything, hoping that Shizun would deem the search futile if so. 

However, that would be extremely unfilial of him and could be considered treachery against his spy position, so… 

Pointing at the spot, Cao Zhi said, “Shizun, this disciple believes he has found what we are looking for.”

Shizun followed the path of his finger, squinting. Once he found the area, he jumped in place, grabbing Cao Zhi’s shoulder. “Yes! That’s exactly it! Good job, Xiao Zhi!”

A burst of pride clashed with the dread that had been settling itself in Cao Zhi. 

Logically, he knew he needed to get used to this. It wasn’t like he could avoid such things, considering the line of work he had put himself in. Just like his fear of Mobei-Jun attempting to kill him, this too would be something he would have to get over. 

Turning towards Shizun, Cao Zhi asked, “What now?”

“Now,” Shizun drawled, rocking back and forth. “Now, we go back. We’ve done all we can.” Shizun smiled and gave him a pat on the head. “I’m not going to tell you what the exact purpose of this was, or give you any specific dates to look out for. This master apologizes for being selfish, but he wants you to have some plausible deniability, hm?”

Cao Zhi thought, this one can handle Shizun being selfish sometimes, if it is to protect this one. He smiled at Shizun. “This disciple thanks Shizun for looking out for his well-being.” 

Shizun barked out a sardonic laugh. “Looking out for your well-being? Ah, Xiao Zhi, you really are too good for me. Dragging you into this mess… Of course I will do anything I can to protect you. I can’t keep everything I do from you, of course, but what I can, I will. If nothing else, knowledge of the ley lines will be useful for the future.”

Cao Zhi conceded to Shizun’s point, but thanked him again nonetheless. It was the disciple’s job to follow the will of his teacher, and if that will was to engage in treachery? This disciple would follow. Shizun, for all the hard work he put Cao Zhi through, had always been good to him. Cao Zhi was just doing his duty to repay him, even if it was more than required. 

At the end of all this, Cao Zhi thought, all this disciple wants is a long, long break. For himself and for Shizun, a break from dishonest deeds and hard work. Cao Zhi wanted to see Shizun with no bags under his eyes, without stress lines on his face. For himself, Cao Zhi imagined retiring to a nice garden… 

Yes, once this was all over - whatever ‘this’ entailed - he would take a well-deserved break. 

Chapter Text

It was a rare day that Yue Qingyuan was down the mountain for emergency sect business.

Cao Zhi, knowing that the twins would be busier than usual because now all the matters of Qiong Ding fell onto them, went over to their peak for a little breakfast visit. 

Not that he wanted to bother them or anything! Just - give them a little reprieve from the stress that came with having to handle a whole sect! Even if they were only handling things for a short while!

Cao Zhi imagined, for a single, shameful moment, a more salacious form of stress relief…

He came to a physical stop, turning bright red at the turn his thoughts took.

How could he - at such a moment! On his way into Qiong Ding Peak! How was he supposed to face the twins now! Best to just turn around and head home, ah. 

Continuing on, Cao Zhi made his way to the dining hall. Hopefully by the time he arrived his face had cooled to its normal shade, or was only pink enough to hint at exertion rather than… well, rather than what Cao Zhi had been thinking about. 

At the front of the hall, as expected, were Quan Hao and Quan Liang. Making his way towards them, Cao Zhi returned greetings to any Qiong Ding disciple who said it to him first, and gave a more familiar response to Li Yilei when she waved at him. 

By the time that Cao Zhi reached the twins, he had a spot ready for him to sit with a plate full of food and a cup full of tea. Graciously, he sat. 

“Good morning, Hao-shixiong, Liang-shixiong,” he said, taking a delicate sip of tea. “This disciple hopes he is not being too bold in insisting on a morning visit.” 

Quan Hao raised a curious eyebrow. Cao Zhi had never posed worry over visiting them before, so he could understand the confusion. 

Quan Liang said, “Good morning, shidi. Is there something we should be worried about? Are we being secreted away from our very important work, hm?” 

Blushing at being called out, Cao Zhi set his cup down with a slight huff. “Forgive me, I only intended to give you something else to focus on this morning before you would have to return to your work. It must be tough, handling what has been left behind by the Sect Leader.”

Leering, Quan Hao said, “Something else to focus on indeed.”

Cao Zhi felt his skin prickle under Quan Hao’s gaze. That - were they actually turning him down? Feeling put out, Cao Zhi said quietly, “If this shidi is unwanted, I will take my leave.” 

Before Cao Zhi could move to get up, Quan Hao grasped his arm to keep him in place. “Forgive your shixiong, he didn’t mean to tease you so much.” 

Quan Liang rolled his eyes. “Ge has no filter, ignore him.” He took a bite of a soup dumpling and gave his brother a pointed look. 

Feeling unsure but deciding to listen to Quan Liang’s words, Cao Zhi remained. 

Despite that moment at the beginning, the rest of breakfast went fine and as usual. Though the twins were a little more likely to take a quick snap at each other - it seemed the intensity of work was getting to them, as Cao Zhi thought - things were mostly amiable. 

When they finished, Cao Zhi said with some hesitation, “I want to take a little bit more of your time.”

Quan Hao nodded, immediately on board with whatever Cao Zhi wanted to do. 

Quan Liang, equally, appeared ready to abandon his work. “We needed a break more than we thought,” he said, a touch embarrassed. 

Cao Zhi smiled, happy that he could give the twins a reprieve from their work and wasn’t being a nuisance. 

Thinking about what they could do, Cao Zhi tapped his chin. Tilting his head to the side, he said, “Ah, wasn’t there a small waterfall you found about a month ago…?” 

He remembered the twins telling him about it quite clearly. For a few days after he had scoured the ley lines with Shizun, he had looked particularly wan. The twins, trying to cheer him up, suggested various manners of places they could go for Cao Zhi to rest. However, instead of visiting the waterfall, they chose to sit beneath the plum trees, resulting in Cao Zhi playing a game of weiqi with Quan Hao while Quan Liang dozed against the trunk. 

Finding this agreeable, the twins both hummed affirmingly and stood, Cao Zhi doing the same. 

 

Before they could reach the waterfall, there was a rock outcrop. The formation the rocks were in was a bit hard to navigate, the twins warned, so Quan Hao took the lead and Quan Liang stayed behind, leaving Cao Zhi safely in between the two of them.

Right when Cao Zhi went to take a step off the rock, the mountain gave a tremendous shake. He fell onto Quan Hao and could feel Quan Liang wrap an arm around his waist, both securing him in place. 

Embarrassed at his fall, Cao Zhi placed his hand on Quan Hao’s chest - it was very firm! - and pushed back into Quan Liang - who was also very firm! - to right himself. 

“This one apologizes for his clumsiness,” Cao Zhi said. “However… what caused such a commotion?” 

Quan Liang carefully removed his arm, and Quan Hao kept his arms braced towards Cao Zhi in case he fell again. 

Frowning, Quan Hao said, “Unsure.”

Quan Liang, who had the highest vantage point atop the rocks, turned his head to make sense of what occurred. Finally, his eyes widened when he noticed something. 

Pointing off into the distance, Quan Liang said, “There. Is that smoke?” 

Suddenly on alert, Cao Zhi and Quan Hao stared off in the distance where Quan Liang directed them.

It was subtle, further down the mountain but - yes, there was smoke. It was steadily becoming more prevalent. 

As Cao Zhi thought that, faint yells could be heard. He realized what they were staring at. “That’s the Rainbow Bridge!” 

Quan Hao inhaled sharply. His eyes narrowed. “Intruders.” 

To Quan Liang, he said, “I’m going to check the barrier. You go help down there.”

To Cao Zhi, “Stay out of sight and stay safe.”

A pit was opening in Cao Zhi’s stomach, filling him with guilt and dread. He had an inkling that he knew what to expect down there. 

Receiving a nod from his brother, Quan Hao took off towards the back end of Qiong Ding. 

Quan Liang picked Cao Zhi up from under his shoulders and placed him securely on the ground. Gruffly, he said, “Stay here.” 

Cao Zhi, upset, replied, “No!”

Quan Liang frowned, taking in the noticeable lack of weapons on Cao Zhi’s person, and said, “You won’t be safe if you come.”

Cao Zhi refused to listen to reason. He needed to see - he needed to understand what he had helped his Shizun cause. He needed to know if anyone was hurt, or - or - 

“I don’t care,” Cao Zhi said with finality. He started to run to the entrance of Qiong Ding. To Quan Liang, he called, “Either come with me and protect me, or don’t!” 

 

On their way down the mountain, they ran into Ning Yingying and Ming Fan. 

Stopping in front of the two frantic Qing Jing disciples, Cao Zhi said, “What are you doing here?”

Distressed, Ning Yingying pointed off to the path further ahead on her right. “We’re going to the Lingxi Caves to get Shizun! There’s demons invading the sect!”

Behind her, Ming Fan nodded vigorously. 

Perhaps summoned by Ning Yingying or by the trembling of the mountain peak, Shen Qingqiu stepped into view on the path. 

Sharply, he said, “What is this about demons?”

Pointing a shaking finger to the Rainbow Bridge, which was still obscured by smoke, Ming Fan said, “Down there! Demons have broken into the sect! We’re trying to hold them off but I don’t know how much longer we can!”

Shen Qingqiu frowned, placing a hand on his sword. Without another word, he took off towards the bridge. 

Briefly, the remaining disciples looked at each other, then followed him. 

Relief filtered in at the back of Cao Zhi’s mind. Hopefully, with Shen Qingqiu here, casualties would be minimized! 

 

At the Main Hall where Qiong Ding met the Rainbow Bridge was a brigade of demons. They destroyed the bridge where it branched off to the other peaks, leaving Qiong Ding disciples and those who had arrived to see what was happening stranded. At the forefront of the invasion was a demon girl who appeared human-like and younger than Cao Zhi, draped in red veils and silver jewelry and bells that barely managed to cover her properly. 

Some larger, threatening demons were heckling the crowd of disciples, though Cao Zhi couldn’t make out what they were saying. He was too busy scanning the crowd of disciples to see what injuries there were, trying to understand the damage he assisted in creating. 

Fortunately, it seemed that the worst Cao Zhi could see were scrapes and bruises - the demons who were there weren’t aiming to kill. 

Had Shizun left them the instruction to intimidate but not kill? What was the reason - to exploit Cang Qiong’s weakness when the Sect Leader was gone, or?

Cao Zhi couldn’t make sense of it. 

He finally tuned in to what was happening around him as Shen Qingqiu landed in front of all the disciples. This seemed to embolden the group; everyone who had been cowering or struck by fear now came to surround the invading demons. 

Cao Zhi could tell the moment the demon girl realized she was outclassed. 

Her posture changed to appear more demure, where before it had been domineering. In a simpering voice, she said, “Forgive this Ling-er. I didn’t come here to fight, but rather to test the ability of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. This one has heard many great things, and wanted to see for herself.” 

Cao Zhi withheld a scoff. Whatever her original intention was, it wasn’t this. 

Though - perhaps, if her initial plan fell through, this was what Shizun told her to fall back on? This type of excessive praise, the posture she took on - it was very in line with Shizun when he was being purposely deferential in a situation he disliked. 

At that thought, Cao Zhi frowned. How much did Shizun work with these demons, what was the scope beyond that which Cao Zhi knew? On one hand, he was thankful that he was left out of these proceedings; he wouldn’t have been able to handle the guilt if he knew everything. On the other… It felt like Shizun didn’t trust him. 

Shizun said he was being selfish when keeping Cao Zhi out of the picture, but wasn’t this a bit much?

Considering how Cao Zhi reacted now, though, with his meager assistance in this matter yet still feeling culpable… 

Cao Zhi’s heart was torn. 

Shen Qingqiu elegantly waved his fan, verbosely saying, “You wish to test us, yet you come when our most formidable Sect Leader is away. You claim no intention to fight, yet you intimidate and wound our disciples and destroy our Rainbow Bridge. What, then, was your intention if not to harm with reckless abandon?”

The demon frowned, upset she was caught in her lie. Considering her opponent, she said, “So you must be the Xiu Ya Sword, Shen Qingqiu. Ling-er apologizes for her unruly subordinates and begs the immortal master’s forgiveness.” 

Shen Qingqiu appeared unmoved by her statement, merely continuing to fan himself with disdain. 

“Having caused such destruction, can you cast your judgment now?” Shen Qingqiu asked. 

Ling-er shook her head, affecting a pitiful expression. “Oh, no, this Ling-er cannot. Compared to you we are so few, and what happened was by accident. Ling-er is unable to make a judgment from that.” Smiling, baring her sharp teeth, she said, “Though, Ling-er has just thought of a solution: Why not hold a competition? Three representatives, against each other one on one?” 

Shen Qingqiu must have found this amenable, for he said, “Agreed.”

Cao Zhi watched with great stress as a demon with one arm and a jagged sword stepped forward, announcing himself as Elder Du Bi. 

Thankfully, Shen Qingqiu saw fit to face this demon himself. 

The match was quick and ruthless. With some upset, Cao Zhi watched as Shen Qingqiu swept low to kick dust into the demon elder’s eyes then slash at him with the famed Xiu Ya sword while the demon was in disarray. 

Though Cao Zhi wouldn’t consider fighting this way, he found it permissible. Yes, it lacked some honor. But for the sake of fighting against those who wrongfully invaded, what did it matter? In the end, Shen Qingqiu remained unharmed and secured a win for Cang Qiong. 

Ultimately, the less injuries that occurred, the better Cao Zhi could rest and have peace of mind. Already, he knew tonight would be an uneasy one filled with guilt.

Upset over the easy win, Ling-er said, “Only one person goes per round; the next representative will be me.” 

Shen Qingqiu scanned the crowd, trying to find someone to send against her. 

At this moment, Cao Zhi was extremely grateful for his short stature. Though fighting against Ling-er or whoever came next may help assuage him of some guilt, because then he would have actively been in combat with the problem he helped create, he knew it would be a futile effort. Cao Zhi was weak and had no weapon - the outcome was decided from the beginning. 

Behind him, Cao Zhi felt Quan Liang jolt forward, intending to offer himself. Before he had the chance, from the group of disciples closer to the front came out Liu Mingyan. Bowing in front of Shen Qingqiu, she only stepped into the match when he gave her permission to face Ling-er.

Worriedly, Cao Zhi watched their match. Though he hardly knew Xian Shu’s head disciple, they were acquainted now and she was nice. Arguably, it was worse that he knew the person who could be hurt than if it was some disciple he didn’t. 

Liu Mingyan was known throughout Cang Qiong for not just her beauty, but also her martial prowess. It came hand-in-hand with being the sister of the War God, Liu Qingge. Specifically, from what Cao Zhi had overheard from those who had seen it, her style appeared as if it were a ribbon dance. It was delicate but devastating. 

Here, she showed off those exact moves. Cao Zhi could tell it was twisting and beautiful even through his haze of nerves. Ling-er fought back in a similar style, though it quickly became obvious to Cao Zhi that she outmatched Liu Mingyan.

Wringing his fingers together, Cao Zhi stared anxiously. No bloodshed occurred, but Liu Mingyan was visibly starting to tire. 

With a sweep of one of her veils, Ling-er ended the match. Liu Mingyan collapsed, dropping her sword and falling with little grace to the ground. 

Using great effort, Liu Mingyan stood and drifted towards Shen Qingqiu. Bowing, she said something that Cao Zhi could not hear over the jeering demons, who were excited after Ling-er won the match. In the end, all Cao Zhi could see was Shen Qingqiu waving her off with a flick of his hand and Liu Mingyan returning to the crowd.

Soon, the demons’ cries quieted. Smugly, Ling-er said, “The next match will determine who is victorious.” 

From the demons emerged a demon so large, even at this distance Cao Zhi had to crane his back a little. He was much more formidable in appearance than Elder Du Bi who only wore furs and shoulder armor, or Ling-er who wore decorations and veils. This demon was covered in pointed armor and dragged a giant sledgehammer that was intimidating to look at. 

A foreboding feeling filled Cao Zhi. 

Gesturing to the demon, Ling-er said, “Because Ling-er is kind, I warn everyone that Elder Tian Chui wears poisoned armor. Though we demons are unaffected, for humans it is not the same. For humans, there is no cure.” She gave a taunting giggle. “If you choose to concede, this Ling-er will not judge.”

The foreboding grew into a well of panic. Whoever faced Elder Tian Chui - it was impossible that someone powerful enough to safely face this demon was in the crowd! Only Shen Qingqiu had the ability, and he had already gone once!

Again, Cao Zhi felt Quan Liang move behind him. 

With a clammy hand, he grasped Quan Liang’s wrist. “Please,” he begged, but was unable to finish his sentence. Please don’t go? Please live if you do? Please be safe? Please stay by my side and protect me? 

Quan Liang stared at him for a moment, and it was a moment long enough for Shen Qingqiu to pick his victim. 

In the quiet arena, Shen Qingqiu said, “Luo Binghe, come forward.”

Stricken, Cao Zhi watched as Luo Binghe - his cute little Qing Jing sheep, barely grown into adulthood now - stepped forward. 

He watched as Shen Yuan frantically grasped at Luo Binghe’s arms in alarm before a sharp look from Shen Qingqiu stopped him.

He watched as Ning Yingying, overcome with emotion, held Ming Fan and shook her head. 

There was a sense of disquiet as Luo Binghe walked to the front. 

It wasn’t unknown that Luo Binghe went from a disciple with poor cultivation ability to someone with great ability - truly, he was one of the best for his age - but against this demon, Elder Tian Chui?

It was unfair. 

Luo Binghe addressed the Qing Jing disciples behind him with a smile, Cao Zhi wishing he could hear what was said so he too could be comforted, then stood without fear in front of the demon. 

For a moment, there was silence. 

Then, Elder Tian Chui slammed his sledgehammer into the ground, creating a rippling shockwave that even Cao Zhi felt. From the beginning, it was clear that Luo Binghe was outmatched. 

He took hit after hit, thrown carelessly around, becoming more bloodied. With each one, Cao Zhi felt himself becoming more distraught. 

If he hadn’t pointed out the weakened ley line to Shizun, could he have prevented this? Would he have been able to put off this invasion by even a short while, enough to keep this from happening? 

A hand covered Cao Zhi’s eyes, shocking him from his guilt-induced stupor. 

Quietly, leaning down to Cao Zhi’s ear, Quan Liang whispered, “Don’t watch.” 

He was a warm presence against Cao Zhi’s back. With a shuddering breath, Cao Zhi weakly scrabbled at Quan Liang’s hand, feeling the distressed desire to see the result of his treachery. 

Surprisingly, another hand took hold of his, making him pause. “Stop.”

Quan Hao? 

What? Wasn’t he supposed to be back at Qiong Ding, checking the barrier? 

As if he heard Cao Zhi’s thoughts, Quan Hao said, “Liang-di, when Shizun returns, we must inform him of the anomaly. Here, there was a fissure in the ley lines that allowed the demons entry while we were at our weakest.” 

Cao Zhi felt Quan Liang nod. 

Then, the Main hall grew silent. After a beat, there was uproarious laughter. 

Elder Tian Chui yelled, “Admit defeat! Right now you still live, but if you stay this elder will end you!” 

A voice that Cao Zhi thought was Shen Yuan yelled back, “He’ll win!” 

Such surety…! 

With his hands trapped between Quan Hao’s and his eyes still covered by Quan Liang, Cao Zhi had no way of knowing what was happening. The only sound he could make out was that of the match resuming, and a sudden shocked noise echoing through the crowd of demons and disciples alike. 

To his side, Quan Hao said, “That disciple…” His hands fell away from Cao Zhi’s. 

Quan Liang, too, removed his hands. 

There, in the arena, Elder Tian Chui laid face down. Luo Binghe stood victorious before him. 

Wasn’t it just moments before that Cao Zhi saw him being beaten to death before Quan Liang covered his eyes? Here, now, Luo Binghe appeared no longer the cute sheep that Cao Zhi knew but a warrior. He was bloody and injured but standing strong. 

When the shock finished passing through everyone, cheers from the disciples rang out. 

In the arena, Ling-er berated Elder Tian Chui, kicking him while he was down. Shen Yuan ran up to Luo Binghe, fluttering about with great excitement. Luo Binghe, in return, looked down bashfully. 

Ah, there was the sheep Cao Zhi knew… 

Before he suggested to the twins that they should leave, perhaps start clearing away the demons that had now lost, Elder Tian Chui made one last bid for victory.

He lunged at Luo Binghe. 

Shen Yuan leapt in front of Luo Binghe, stretching out his arms to cover him, closing his eyes tight. 

Shen Qingqiu flashed in front of Shen Yuan, stabbing through Elder Tian Chui. 

Then, to Cao Zhi’s shock, Liu Qingge appeared behind the demon elder, stabbing through him as well.

Elder Tian Chui’s body fell to the ground, dead.

Both sides came to a stand still. 

With a pained voice, Ling-er said, “This Ling-er has made a miscalculation. Today, we will take our leave without goodbye while we still live.” 

Liu Qingge released a cold laugh that could be heard throughout the Main Hall. “Leaving now, after all this?”

She sneered at him and ran off. 

Nearby disciples, feeling heartened by Cang Qiong’s win and Liu Qingge’s arrival, chased after them, attacking the demons making their way down the mountain. 

The Main Hall became a cacophony of noise. Cao Zhi could see Liu Mingyan surrounded by various disciples, though mostly those of Xian Shu Peak. 

Luo Binghe, too, was surrounded and cheered at, though his attention was swallowed up by Shen Yuan, who still spoke to him with intense enthusiasm and pride. 

Shen Qingqiu regarded Liu Qingge with disdain, but they engaged each other in conversation. 

“So that’s it,” Cao Zhi said. He watched as Qian Cao disciples started to take over the scene, checking in on the other disciples. 

Cao Zhi knew once he returned to An Ding, there would be endless amounts of work. 

Seeing what he caused - he deserved to be buried in work. A few sleepless nights was nothing compared to the harm he brought to Cang Qiong.

Yes, he didn’t know the exact scenario that would happen. Shizun spared him that. But nonetheless, knowing the hand he had in this…

It filled him with despair. 

Over the horizon, figures flew to the Main Hall. It was the remaining Peak Lords, Cao Zhi realized. 

“Mn, it’s over,” Quan Hao said, grabbing Cao Zhi’s shoulders. “Are you okay?”

Cao Zhi wasn’t one of the ones who fought, why ask him? Because no, he wasn’t okay, but it wasn’t as if he could say why.

“Are you?” he said instead. 

Quan Hao narrowed his eyes but let Cao Zhi avoid the topic. “Yes. Liang-di?”

“I’m fine, ge,” Quan Liang said. He took hold of Cao Zhi as well. “Cao-shidi, I swear, if you ever run off like that again…” 

Cao Zhi let out a watery laugh, unsure of what to say. “This one apologizes, but I can’t promise it won’t happen.” 

Quan Liang sighed. “I see.” He let go and walked around to stand next to his brother. “We have to go.” He gave Cao Zhi a pat on the head. “Take care of yourself, hm? Get some rest. You’ll be busy with all this, soon enough.”

Cao Zhi nodded. Copying Quan Liang, Quan Hao too gave him a pat on the head. “Take care, shidi.” 

Having said their goodbyes, the twins left. 

Before he had a chance to take in everything alone, Shizun pushed through the crowds and arrived in front of him. 

“Xiao Zhi!” he said frantically. He grasped at Cao Zhi’s shoulders, held Cao Zhi’s face between his hands and turned it left and right, then returned to his shoulders. “Are you - are you alright?”

Hearing his Shizun say that… His Shizun that was worried for him, but his Shizun that knew why all of this happened, his Shizun that was the reason for it… 

All the emotions that Cao Zhi had held back burst forward. He started to cry. 

Clasping the front of his Shizun’s robes, he sobbed uncontrollably. After everything that happened - the crushing guilt that filled him knowing he assisted what turned out to be the partial destruction of Cang Qiong and multiple disciples getting hurt, the fear of watching the matches, the knowledge that the only person who he could turn to about this was his Shizun who had even more part in this problem - he felt like he earned at least this. 

Shizun brushed a hand through his hair, soothing him. “Oh, my son. My poor, poor child, Xiao Zhi. Shh, it’ll be alright.” 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua ran his hand through Cao Zhi’s hair and rubbed his back in gentle circles, feeling the sobs temper into harsh breaths without any tears. 

Hastily, Cao Zhi stepped back and wiped his eyes. He bent into a small embarrassed bow. “This disciple apologizes for being so unsightly and clinging to Shizun,” he said. 

Really, apologizing for that… Your Shizun has definitely done much worse in front of people with much less cause - mostly to be a nuisance, honestly. Trust this author, you are quite forgiven. 

“It’s been a long day,” Shang Qinghua said softly. He reached out to grab Cao Zhi’s elbows, lifting him from the bow with a gentle touch. “And, if you ever feel like you must release your emotions without judgment, this master will always be here for you.”

Cao Zhi gave him a hesitant, watery smile. “Thanking Shizun for the offer.” 

It was the least this one could do! Shang Qinghua wanted to yell. Literally the bare minimum! 

He personally couldn’t understand the turmoil in his Xiao Zhi’s heart right now. For the most part, his status as the creator god of this world kept him at a distance from basically everyone. Why should he care what happens to this X-shixiong or that Y-shizhi when he already wrote the outcome of Luo Binghe merging the realms and destroying Cang Qiong? Moreover, for so long it had only been Shang Qinghua and Mobei-Jun. 

Shang Qinghua’s Shizun hadn’t cared for him, nor had his fellow disciples. Even now, hardly any of the Peak Lords felt anything for him beyond oh, that one’s useful in a pinch. Though, hopefully, that notion would change with his friendship with Shen Qingqiu. 

Which - a total side note that Shang Qinghua wanted to consider, looking over at Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge - look at that plot change! There they were, talking! Liu Qingge was alive! He seemed very emphatic about whatever he was saying to Shen Qingqiu who was, conversely, annoyed but listening. 

That had never happened! Liu Qingge should have been six feet under by now! 

Nudging the system, Shang Qinghua asked, “So, uh, how is the plot progressing? Is it on course?” 

There was an electronic whirring noise, followed by, [Yes.] 

Hey! That was a vague response! 

An issue started to crop up, one that Shang Qinghua realized he didn’t know too much about. 

See, he had written many, many drafts. 

Cucumber-bro thought he knew everything about anything in PIDW which - wrong! Sure, he probably knew the monster and plant lore better than Shang Qinghua, but Shang Qinghua was the author, alright. 

His characters had depth. His story had layers beyond that which Shen Yuan could even imagine. 

And it seemed, perhaps, just maybe, that this world was more in line with one of his many, various, random drafts rather than the final written version. 

Cool! Kind of. Shang Qinghua was playing a bit of a guessing game with his own world, at this point. Considering that some drafts were full-blown scenes and ideas where others were barely thought out sentences on a napkin… 

Anyway, back to his original thought: Him. Mobei-Jun. Shang Qinghua really didn’t care for anyone else except for his king, so whenever he had to pass along confidential information or kill off a few disciples on a mission, what did it matter? This master slept just fine. 

His soft-hearted son, however… It was clear that the guilt between caring for his sect and caring for Shang Qinghua was tearing him apart. If it grew too large, it could become a serious heart demon. 

Hm, something to think about later, Shang Qinghua supposed, feeling a seed of worry take root in his stomach. 

With the tender but sad moment coming to pass, Shang Qinghua started to take notice of what all was going on around him.

Tents were being pitched around the Main Hall and Qiong Ding Peak which - honestly, yeah, that made sense. Sure, Shang Qinghua used his pitiful cultivation to fly here with Mu Qingfang and Qi Qingqi and the unnamed Peak Lord NPCs, but a lot of the disciples on the peak right now couldn’t fly. Essentially, they were trapped. The amount of time that it would take to haul everyone back to their rightful peak? Beyond colossal, way too much effort. 

Shang Qinghua dreaded imagining that. Could he even do such a thing? Thankfully, there were hardly any An Ding disciples over here anyway… 

He peeked over to Cao Zhi, who had gathered his bearings and was making his way over to the protagonist.

Ah, that’s right, Shang Qinghua thought. Luo Binghe’s Protagonist Charm had attracted his cute little son into its gravitational sphere… 

Though, with the way Cucumber-bro was monopolizing Luo Binghe’s (very willing to be monopolized by Shen Yuan) attention, it was unlikely that Cao Zhi would be able to get a word in edgewise. 

Eh, not Shang Qinghua’s problem. Cao Zhi would soon figure out it was a futile effort to get between those two. Instead, he took the time to assist in pitching tents and lament the work over on An Ding that he still had to do. 

Which! Was only going to grow from here! 

It must be noted that the invasion went off perfectly. Exactly as he had written it! Shang Qinghua would admit that he was a little worried something might have changed due to the nature of Cao Zhi popping up out of nowhere and becoming a more prevalent figure, as well as the fact that Shen Yuan was - well, in the story at all, honestly. 

Alright, to speak clearly, Shang Qinghua was worried that Shen Yuan was going to take Luo Binghe’s place in the tournament because it was clear that Cucumber-bro took some sort of psychic damage whenever the protagonist was in pain. 

Hey, you read the story, bro! You know how it goes! Stop trying to change it more than you already have, this author can’t take it! Shang Qinghua cried internally. It was getting a little hard to follow along, okay?

But, because the invasion went so perfectly, ah… 

There was a lot of work to appear in Shang Qinghua’s future:

Having to deal with Yue Qingyuan once he returned from the Super Important Emergency Sect Business; the increase in paperwork that would deal with everything from increased resource buying, to treat injuries and damages, as well as making sure they had all the materials to fix the Rainbow Bridge as quickly as possible… 

Awful! Yes, Shang Qinghua did this to himself, knowing the consequences of his actions, but! He didn’t want to do it! 

At least he would have his very helpful head disciple Cao Zhi to help him.

For tonight however, it would probably just be Shang Qinghua working alone. 

Once again looking at Cao Zhi - who was talking to Liu Mingyan, now - it was obvious that his disciple was tired. The redness around his eyes from crying was plain to see, and his skin was paler than any shade that could be considered healthy. Even at such a distance, Shang Qinghua could see a slight tremor in his frame. 

No, it would definitely be best to let Cao Zhi rest early tonight. The strain of the day was too much, and Shang Qinghua wouldn’t be surprised if Cao Zhi just needed a listening ear and a long night of sleep. 

However… if Cao Zhi decided to push himself into work… 

Hm, not exactly the coping mechanism Shang Qinghua would suggest? Been there, done that. Died because of it, really. Hiding from your problems by drowning yourself in work really doesn’t, uh, do anything except make you more miserable. 

Take it from this author, sincerely, Cao Zhi. Best to just work through the emotions now and confront the feelings than to push them down and let them fester. It could create so many problems in the long run. 

The final tent was pitched, and Qian Cao disciples started herding people into the medically-designated areas with great speed. Shang Qinghua, himself, made his way over to the single, large An Ding tent that was put up. 

Scanning the crowd for Cao Zhi, Shang Qinghua found him huddled with the other head disciples who were on Qiong Ding Peak. 

Liu Mingyan, Ning Yingying (and wasn’t that a shocker! His pitiful IQ damsel-in-distress wife-to-be character, now in a position of power and thinking for herself!), Quan Hao, Quan Liang, and Cao Zhi all stood around each other, talking seriously. 

Shang Qinghua let out a small giggle at the sight of them. He really didn’t write PIDW taking into consideration the varying heights of people, so most of his characters ended up being rather tall. 

Seeing Cao Zhi and Ning Yingying like this - arguably, the two shortest people he knew - both of whom were dwarfed by the other three disciples, it was quite funny. 

Mostly, though, Shang Qinghua felt light at the knowledge that his son had such a wonderful support system. Shang Qinghua could not have said the same for himself at that age - hell, he couldn’t say the same for himself now! - so it was nice to see that Cao Zhi had someone out there for him in this time of need. 

Entering the tent, Shang Qinghua immediately wanted to turn around. 

Somehow, already…

There, on a desk in the middle of the floor… 

Stacks of paper, all awaiting his approval and signature. 

Perhaps Shen-shixiong needed an escape from Liu Qingge? Surely, the man must be so annoyed by the other, he is contemplating killing him… 

Worry not, Shen-shixiong. Your best friend, Shang Qinghua, will gladly come save you out of the goodness of his heart. Definitely not because he is avoiding paperwork! 

Chapter Text

Cao Zhi knew the moment he finished speaking with all the head disciples on Qiong Ding, he would be cornered by the twins. He could see their concern for him plain on their face; even Liu Mingyan and Ning Yingying sent him a few questioning glances throughout the conversation. 

Cao Zhi… knew he didn’t look the best. Nor did he feel the best, honestly. 

Though he was comforted by Shizun, it ultimately didn’t help him in the long run. The guilt lingered, and all Cao Zhi saw in his mind’s eye was the smoke rising from the Rainbow Bridge as he stood on the rock outcrop, the demons invading the sect, and the injured disciples (especially Luo Binghe’s battered, bloody, but somehow still standing body) in the aftermath. 

If only he hadn’t pointed out that abnormality-! 

But, he thought, if he didn’t point it out, Shizun would have been working all alone to find it later. If Shizun had been discovered, there would have been no saving him from the consequences. 

In the end, Cao Zhi did what he had to. 

However, could he keep doing this? Could he continue helping his Shizun engage in treacherous acts against Cang Qiong Mountain?

He wanted to help Shizun, he really did. 

At the core of everything, Cao Zhi wanted Shizun to work without burden, so that he could work without burden. Cao Zhi wanted an easy life. 

The first step, to Cao Zhi, was helping Shizun in all tasks. 

The second… Perhaps it was silly, in light of everything, but it was to get Shizun to marry Mobei-Jun. Who better to care for Shizun and let him live unburdened than a lord who loved him very, very much?

Mentally, these seemed quite easy to complete.

In reality?

The few books Cao Zhi had read in his life involving spies had been nothing like this. Perhaps it was a mistake to base his idea of being a spy around romance novels, but - surely, he thought, they had to be based in some truth! Yes, there was always the feeling of regret that came when the love interest found out they were a spy but… Where was the guilt that the protagonist felt when torn between two sides they cared for?

Cao Zhi wanted to know, because he was drowning in it!

And there was no polite way he knew to remove himself from this situation - it would mean disappointing Shizun, and he couldn’t have that. His guilt would only increase exponentially if he did.

Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on who was on which side of the equation - Cao Zhi could not get behind anything involving injuring or killing members of Cang Qiong. With what occurred tonight - with how unfazed Shizun was, with what happened to his own people! - it was clear to see that this was a common part of being a spy.

For once, Cao Zhi was afraid of what his Shizun was capable of. 

He knew, of course, that Shizun really… didn’t have any friends. The weird thing he tried to get going on between him and Shen Qingqiu aside, he knew Shizun was lonely. Mobei-Jun came around when he could, but he and Shizun had a lot of misunderstandings between them, and when it came to it, Mobei-Jun was the lord of the Northern Territory, and wasn’t always available.

It was hard to be steadfastly loyal and feel regret for the actions taken against those you worked for when one was consumed by loneliness, and the only source that spared you from that feeling was on the other side.

For Shizun, the loneliness showed in the long, late nights that stretched into morning, doing thankless paperwork without pause even as the candles burnt out. In the moments when Cao Zhi would do simple things, like offer him another bowl of melon seeds and Shizun would be so surprised, as if wondering why someone would do such a thing for him. 

In the one instance where Shizun wept alone at his desk, nursing a cup of plum wine. Mourning for a life long past, from what Cao Zhi could understand. His Shizun wanted to be a writer, who lived with a family that loved him, and was well off enough that he didn’t worry about making ends meet. 

Cao Zhi had led Shizun to bed that night, draping Mobei-Jun’s cloak over Shizun and left behind hangover cure pills. 

At that time, Cao Zhi realized he knew nothing of his Shizun’s history. He also knew he would really do his best to support Shizun, in anything. He wished to be Shizun’s anchor, his unwavering reminder that someone was always there to remind him that he was cared for.

This, though.... This was too much for Cao Zhi. 

Worryingly enough, Cao Zhi felt that this invasion was just a precursor for something more awful.

And yet, there was no way for him to back out, knowing what little he knew. He was stuck. 

Cao Zhi was shocked from his thoughts when hands grasped his shoulders. 

“You’re not in a state to be alone,” Quan Hao said, raising a hand to Cao Zhi’s forehead. He frowned. “Come with us.”

Without letting Cao Zhi respond, Quan Liang took his hand and aided him along, taking Cao Zhi towards the tent that had been set up for Qiong Ding’s head disciples in front of the Main hall. 

While walking, Cao Zhi tried to pull away. “I have to go back to Shizun,” he explained. “He needs me to help with work.”

Harshly, Quan Liang said, “You will be of no help to Shang-shibo like this.” For a brief second he looked ashamed of his outburst, but then his expression softened. “Cao-shidi… Zhi-er, please, let us take care of you. You’re shaking.”

Cao Zhi nearly stopped breathing at the familiar way Quan Liang called him. It was almost unbearably intimate. And - shaking? He was? 

He glanced down at his hands, seeing them shake. He felt the tremors through his body.

Ah, he was. 

Quan Hao wiped a finger across his cheek. “And crying. Come, Zhi-er,” he pulled open the entrance to the tent, “sit on the bed and let us tend to you.”

Cao Zhi swiped at his face, ridding himself of the lingering tears and trying to get himself back under control. Right now, he was such a mess!

How could the twins be so kind to him, with what he’d done? They didn’t know, of course, nor should they ever, but… Cao Zhi felt as if his guilt permeated the air around him, tainting everything. Couldn’t they tell he was trouble? That something was wrong, and it was he who had caused it?

Somewhere in between opening the tent and thinking these thoughts, Cao Zhi had been settled on the bed, Quan Hao sitting in front of him with their knees brushing, and Quan Liang refurnishing the mat with pillows and blankets to be more comfortable for the three of them. 

Quietly, Cao Zhi said, “This… I can’t accept this.”

"You will,” Quan Liang said, tone brooking no argument. 

Quan Hao, reaching into a qiankun pouch, pulled out a dark wooden comb from the lacquered box Cao Zhi had given them the year before. He was surprised to see it, and found it in even better condition than when he gave it to them. 

These two… Really, they were too good for him.

Quan Hao reached a hand up to brush the stray hairs from Cao Zhi’s face, lingering against his cheek. Cao Zhi allowed himself the selfish movement of leaning into the touch, taking in the warmth of Quan Hao’s large hand and the feeling of his sword-callused fingers and palm. 

Staring up at Quan Hao through his lashes, Cao Zhi said in a near silent voice, “If in the future… If you learn something about me that is despicable, can we still be friends?”

Quan Hao’s face gave an indecipherable twitch before he gave a sharp, affirming nod. Simply, he stated, “Always.”

From behind, Quan Liang ran a hand through Cao Zhi’s hair. “What could Zhi-er ever do to make us hate him? Even the most despicable thing, you must have a reason to have done it. These shixiongs will understand, and forgive you.”

Hearing such sweet words from Quan Liang, and feeling the tender touch of Quan Hao, it was too much for Cao Zhi.

The events of the day were starting to get to him, as well as all the emotional turmoil he went through. As Quan Hao and Quan Liang took turns combing through his hair and pulling it into a loose braid, Cao Zhi’s eyes started to grow heavy. Between one blink and the next, with the soft conversation of the twins around him, Cao Zhi fell asleep.

Chapter Text

The less said about what happened in the morning, the better.

Fortunately, Cao Zhi properly saw and met Yue Qingyuan. He could now put a clear, handsome face to a name when both he and Shizun were frustrated with the Sect Leader and his egregious spending habits.

Unfortunately, Cao Zhi properly saw and met Yue Qingyuan when waking up while tangled between Qiong Ding Peak’s Head Disciples Quan Hao and Quan Liang.

 

It took two weeks, but An Ding Peak returned to its usual levels of casual hecticness. In that time, Cao Zhi experienced something he never had before and never wanted to again:

Qian Cao Peak. 

Back when he first became an inner disciple, Cao Zhi thought Qing Jing Peak was the worst. That was, in part, due to Ming Fan’s bratty entitled nature constantly bothering him, but still. Compared to Qian Cao? 

Qing Jing was a breeze. 

Cao Zhi had no time to think about anything other than the chaos that consumed the Qian Cao. 

He knew, peripherally, that the medical peak was akin to An Ding in the fact that they were both swamped with work at all hours of the day, but. 

See, An Ding, while busy, was a lot of logistic work interspersed with heavy lifting. It was tiresome and no one really wanted to do any of it, but it got done. A lot of the time they were looked down upon because it seemed like life was easy on An Ding (which it very much was not), but everyone from the peak knew better. 

Qian Cao? It was, to Cao Zhi, the worst possible place. 

Everyone looked tired. Their demeanors were somewhere between terrifyingly pleasant to extremely snappish. Somehow, there managed to be a new injured person coming in every few minutes. Cao Zhi didn’t even know it was possible! For the most part, it appeared to be Bai Zhan disciples mixed with many Wan Jian disciples every shichen or so, with the occasional other peak disciple somewhere in between. 

Dealing with irritated, injured people - some who cried, some who swore they knew more than the Qian Cao disciple treating them, some perfect patients - was much, much worse than doing physical or paper work in Cao Zhi’s opinion. Paperwork didn’t talk back, alright? Sure, it was annoying and sometimes the requests were outlandish, but at the end of the day it had to bend to Cao Zhi’s will. 

If he chose to burn the paper to ashes to get rid of it, there was no medical ethics code holding him back. 

Cao Zhi had only been on Qian Cao for six shichen (most of which was spent tracking various storage levels and compiling need-to-buy lists) but everything he saw made him want to drop his placid demeanor and absolutely lose it. Some of the injuries were so - so foolish! Some people were unnecessarily rude even as they were being treated!

Admittedly, Cao Zhi had only ever been on Qian Cao for a routine checkup once or twice, and never for any injuries. He managed to avoid many problems due to the sheer nature of his laziness - hard to get injured if he did absolutely nothing! 

 

The entire stint on Qian Cao culminated in him being the one ranting to Shizun about his frustrations, for once. It was quite nice, to be honest. Shizun was an excellent listener; he portrayed just the right emotion and exclaimed at all the perfect moments. 

Cao Zhi did not expect his rant about Qian Cao, however, to result in Shizun pulling him aside after a relaxing period of qin playing. 

“So!” Shizun said giddily, clapping his hands together. “With everything you said to me that night, one thing really stuck out: ‘Should’ve ground their bones to dust, then they would have nothing to complain about’! It was really fierce!” 

Ah… he did say that, didn’t he… It was about a particularly nasty Bai Zhan disciple Cao Zhi didn’t know the name of, but recognized from the sheer amount of times he had tripped or stuck a sticking talisman to them. If they were going to break a bone then complain about how the Qian Cao disciple was handling it, well, perhaps Cao Zhi felt a little mean-spirited and said something not that nice. It was years of frustration that had built up, okay? 

Oblivious to his thoughts, Shizun carried on. “Now, it’s a bit of a weird thought pattern that I had - you said dust, and then I thought about actually grinding the bones to dust, but then I thought about what a hassle it would be to clean, which led me to - okay, follow along here - cleaning dusters! Specifically, weaponized ones!”

W-Weaponized… cleaning dusters?

Confused, Cao Zhi said, “This disciple apologizes to Shizun, but he does not understand.” 

Shizun inhaled and exhaled quite sharply, raising and lowering his arms with the breaths. “Right, so, let me explain this clearly.” He shook his whole body, as if trying to physically shake off the confusion Cao Zhi felt. “To get rid of dust - which you mentioned in your rant, kind of - you need a duster thing. Well - I remembered, wasn’t there one that is a weapon and can be used to clean? I checked around Wan Jian and found out that yes! There is!” 

Proudly, Shizun reached into his qiankun pouch and whipped out a horsetail whisk. 

Cao Zhi cocked his head, still confused. His Shizun… wanted him to clean? Using a fly whisk? Cao Zhi wasn’t sure how much dust a ‘weaponized cleaning duster’ made from horsetail hair could remove, but he would try his best… 

“Okay, this master can see you’re still confused,” Shizun said. He looked to the sky for a moment, biting his lip. “Ignore everything I said, I guess. Let’s restart.”

Figuring that would be the best course of action, Cao Zhi nodded. 

Shizun held out the horsetail whisk. “Hi, hello, so good to find you with your qin. Here, Xiao Zhi! This master has brought you a present!” 

Bemused, Cao Zhi took the whisk. “This one thanks Shizun for the gift.” Holding it, Cao Zhi found it was actually quite nice. The hairs were an extremely fine white color - from what creature exactly, he didn’t know - and the handle was a dark ebony wood. The contrast was beautiful and pleased Cao Zhi. 

Waggling his finger, Shizun said, “Ah, but that’s not all! This little thing may seem like it doesn’t do much, but it actually does quite a lot! Very like you, Xiao Zhi.”

… Should? Cao Zhi thank Shizun for the comparison? He opted to stay silent, unsure what to say.

Shizun settled into his teaching mode, where his eyes became a little glassy and his tone informative as he focused on everything he wanted to impart. “I really think this works for you for a few reasons. One of them is that this is a rather peaceful weapon; it requires wrapping, sweeping, poking - a lot of martial moves that aren’t aimed to seriously injure or kill. It’s got some spiritual meanings too, to purify things and clear away the evil energy.”

Now, Cao Zhi understood. 

“Shizun wishes for me to train with the horsetail whisk?” He traced his fingers along the designs of the handle. It seemed like a waste to fight with such a beautiful thing… 

“Yes!” Shizun cheered. Then he calmed. “However, this doesn’t get you out of sword practice.”

Cao Zhi frowned. He kind of hoped it would. He didn’t like sword fighting, and… recent events made him even more leery of martial practice and sword practice. The thought of partaking in either usually resulted in nightmares about the invasion. It meant that Cao Zhi had recently done everything he could to avoid those classes. 

Did it clash with his agenda to get stronger for himself and to help Shizun? Yes. But Cao Zhi was putting his need to rest over this, for once. 

After a few sleepless nights that Cao Zhi spent doing paperwork while wracked with guilt, he realized he couldn’t keep going on like that. Things that bothered him - that reminded him of the invasion and his assistance in the matter - would just have to be disregarded for the moment for the sake of his own mental health. 

Selfish? Maybe. But it was what he chose to do. 

“Think of it this way,” Shizun bargained. “You’ll have two - three, if I can get you trained in musical cultivation - ways to protect yourself. One violent, one non-violent. I’m not even saying that the sword has to be your main weapon! You just need to know how to use it.” Shizun’s expression became somber. “After everything I’ve experienced, and what this master saw at the Main Hall, I realized… I can’t lose you.” He gave a light shrug. “If that means pushing you to protect yourself, I will.”

Faced with Shizun’s sincere care for his well-being, Cao Zhi was left speechless. He knew Shizun cared for him, but to this extent? Confronted by such a heartfelt, stern feeling of protection? 

‘After everything I’ve experienced’, his Shizun said… It seemed like he must have lost something or someone he cared for… 

Cao Zhi gulped, tightening his grip on the whisk. “If Shizun feels it is best, this disciple will learn how to use the horsetail whisk in martial ways.” Surely, he could bother Song Yanmei the next time he did rounds on Wan Jian to see if she knew anyone who had mastered the weapon. 

Shizun smiled, relieved. His body visibly relaxed, tension that Cao Zhi didn’t realize was being held receding. “Oh, this master is so glad to hear that.” 

There was a beat of silence where Shizun said nothing and Cao Zhi inspected the whisk further, that was interrupted by Shizun saying, “Ah, would you be willing to indulge this master a little more?” 

Cao Zhi, curious, nodded. 

Shizun pointed to Cao Zhi’s qin that was still set up by the Happy Days peonies he had been sitting nearby. It was a deliberate choice; long enough exposure to the peonies created temporary feelings of calm and relaxation, which Cao Zhi wanted to experience without straying into other thoughts. 

“I’d like to take a small rest,” Shizun said. He patted a patch of grass then laid down, resting his head on his arms.”There’s a lot of work to do, but… It’s been so long since I’ve got to just listen to you play.”

Cao Zhi hummed in acknowledgment, getting into position behind his qin. Preparing his hands above the strings, he asked, “Any requests?”

Shizun let out a soft sigh, nestling deeper into his arms. “Ah… How about Huaxu Yin?”

Hm, a lively piece. If Shizun wanted to rest, Cao Zhi wouldn’t have personally picked this song, but what Shizun requests, Shizun gets. Without further words, Cao Zhi started to play.

Chapter Text

Before gently forcing his friendship onto Shen Qingqiu this fine day, Shang Qinghua wanted to check in with his fellow transmigrator. 

It’d been a month or so since the invasion, and longer since they’d last spoken, so Shang Qinghua figured it wouldn’t hurt to give Shen Yuan a little visit. 

He moseyed around Qing Jing Peak, trying to find him. 

In the training area? Nope. Just some random disciples. 

Around or in the Grand Library? Also no. But Ning Yingying was in there, consoling a near-weeping Ming Fan over an essay of some sort. 

The bamboo grove? Ah, should’ve known: No. 

Shang Qinghua was tempted to give up at this point. If Cucumber-bro didn’t want to be found, then so be it! This master would stop searching! 

As he came to that conclusion, Shang Qinghua stumbled upon a pitiful looking protagonist surrounded by a few sweet Qing Jing jiejies. 

“Oh, Luo-shidi, it’s okay,” X-shizhi said. She sounded somewhere between amused and sympathetic. 

Y-shizhi piped in with, “Yeah! Don’t worry, in a couple days Shen-shidi’s punishment will be over and you’ll get to see him.”

Z-shizhi nodded. “You know that Shizun worries a lot about Shen-shidi considering they’re family… You may not like it, but Shen-shidi really did upset Shizun when he tried to jump between you and that demon! Imagine if he had’ve been poisoned by the armor!”

Luo Binghe wailed, tears falling dramatically as if he were a shoujo character. “This disciple - this disciple wouldn’t know what to do if that happened!” 

Shang Qinghua took this time to back away, unnoticed. 

Internally, he cheered. Thank you useless exposition gods for letting this author find out relevant information from totally random characters! 

Also, Luo Binghe… His manly, unbeatable protagonist… Cucumber-bro had really bent him that much, ah.

… That was Shen Yuan’s problem, not this one’s, Shang Qinghua thought. 

Resigned to the knowledge that he would not be seeing Shen Yuan (Shang Qinghua assumed he was kneeling on the highest peak, knowing how Shen Qingqiu tended to dole out punishments), Shang Qinghua made his way over to the bamboo house. 

 

Shang Qinghua figured if it worked once, going to the same tea house as before would work again. 

Was the carriage ride as silent as before? Yes! Though that was because Shen Qingqiu had a particularly dark look on his face even before Shang Qinghua greeted him, meaning Shang Qinghua didn’t even attempt to start a conversation. He was just going to let Shen Qingqiu stew in his problems until they arrived and had good tea and food in front of them. 

He managed to snag the table they sat at last time. The garden was especially beautiful; summer was just beginning, and everything was shimmering in natural sunlight and fully bloomed. Really, Shang Qinghua couldn’t ask for a better view!

Hopefully that, as well as the food and tea, would be at least a little helpful in lifting Shen Qingqiu’s mood. 

Last time… Hm, well, perhaps a similar but slightly different order would be best?

When a person came around to take their order - after giving Shen Qingqiu a glance to see if he’d speak up - Shang Qinghua said, “We’d like some osmanthus tea… Hm, as well as lotus seed buns, sesame tangyuan, and some egg tarts!” 

The server left without Shen Qingqiu refusing any part of the order or adding anything, so Shang Qinghua figured he did a good job. 

Shen Qingqiu fanned himself in short, agitated flicks.

Shang Qinghua stared, trying to figure out what was going on in his mind. Was it about Luo Binghe? The invasion? Shen Yuan’s punishment? Just disciples being rowdy? Did he wake up on the wrong side of the bed?

No need to be silent, shixiong! This shidi has a willing ear! 

The moment the trays of food and tea were placed in front of them, Shen Qingqiu snatched a tangyuan and ate it with a look of vexation. 

Then another one. 

Fascinated by Shen Qingqiu’s angry bites, Shang Qinghua remained quiet and poured tea for both of them. 

Inelegantly, Shen Qingqiu downed the tea as if it was cheap alcohol. 

He set the cup down with a harsh clack. 

“That - brute! Oh, the nerve of Liu Qingge,” Shen Qingqiu hissed. He snapped his fan shut and jabbed it towards Shang Qinghua. “Do you know what he’s done?” 

Shang Qinghua opened his mouth to answer. Shen Qingqiu pointed the fan in his direction again. 

“Silence, this shixiong knows you do not. I refuse to listen to your inane guesses.”

Ah, how rude… 

Releasing a frustrated huff, Shen Qingqiu said, “He brought the carcass of a Pastel Handed Witch to my doorstep! Still bleeding! And merely stared at this master, saying nothing beyond a meager, barbaric grunt! And then left!”

Shang Qinghua wondered, just how long had Shen Qingqiu been keeping this inside? He really seemed to want to rant about this to someone… 

Though, it was arguably strange behavior from Liu Qingge. Admittedly, Shang Qinghua didn’t plan much for his character - he was always meant to be a pretty boy destined to die. He had built him up some, but realized he would be too much competition for his protagonist, so! Bye bye Liu-shidi! Liu Qingge living this time around… Shang Qinghua couldn’t really guess what he’d do or how he’d think. 

The creature he brought tickled something in Shang Qinghua’s brain, however. 

Poking at his system, Shang Qinghua asked, “Hey… The Pastel Handed Witch… Doesn’t it help settle and improve cultivation when eaten?”

There was a moment of silence before the system dinged. [Yes.]

Hoho, check that out! Shang Qinghua did remember some of his creatures! 

It appeared that Liu Qingge brought the body to Shen Qingqiu with helpful intent which was - huh… Unexpected and quite thoughtful of him. 

Paying back debts, perhaps? Since Shang Qinghua assumed that Shen Qingqiu saved Liu Qingge with his qin in the cave. 

Hm, but Liu Qingge thought Shen Qingqiu tried to kill him that one time when they were disciples… Shouldn’t it cancel out?

Ah, Shang Qinghua really didn’t understand his own character. Haha, oh well. 

Shang Qinghua jolted when he felt Shen Qingqiu’s fan dig into his shoulder with a sharp poke. 

“Are you even listening,” Shen Qingqiu said, pouting with furrowed brows. 

“Oh,” Shang Qinghua said. The other Peak Lord must have been speaking this whole time… Oops. “Sorry, Shen-shixiong, this one was just thinking about the merits provided by the Pastel Handed Witch.”

That seemed to stop Shen Qingqiu short. He stared at Shang Qinghua, pulling his fan back and opening it in front of his face. 

Glancing off to the side, Shen Qingqiu said, “This shixiong knows well what the meat of the Pastel Handed Witch provides.” He cleared his throat. “I would thank Liu-shidi for his gracious gift if he had not left it bleeding on my doorstep.” 

Shang Qinghua got the feeling Shen Qingqiu would not, in fact, thank Liu Qingge at all. But yeah, he understood that dead creatures staining the bamboo house stairs could be a problem. 

Nodding, Shang Qinghua said, “This shidi understands. Begging forgiveness for not paying attention.” 

Shen Qingqiu gave a delicate sniff. “You will be forgiven if you pay for this meal.” 

… Wow. 

Well. He did say he’d treat Shen Qingqiu to whatever he wanted once he left seclusion, didn’t he?

Shang Qinghua mentally noted to send the receipt to Yue Qingyuan.

Tapping his chin and eating an egg tart, Shang Qinghua mused. “It really is confusing why Liu-shidi would do such a thing… Taking in your relatively hostile history with each other, ah, this one really can’t imagine what drove this sudden change.” Other than saving Liu Qingge from death by qi deviation, of course. Not that Shang Qinghua was supposed to know that. 

Shen Qingqiu didn’t address the reasoning. “Truly, the brute’s mind is impossible to navigate and understand. Ever since - that time, he has been bothering this master nonstop. I tire of his presence. He shows up more to Qing Jing than his own peak!” 

Ah, wow! That really… Hm. It made Shang Qinghua think many things. 

Drinking another cup of tea, Shen Qingqiu's shoulders visibly shifted with his breaths. “I tire of this topic.”

You're the one who brought it up! Shang Qinghua wanted to yell.

Shen Qingqiu flicked his fingers in Shang Qinghua’s direction. “Does shidi have anything he wishes to vent about?”

Oh, so, so many things, Shen-shixiong, truly. But they would be here for days if Shang Qinghua spoke all of his grievances. 

“Hm, other than the fact that my meeting with Yue-shixiong over budgets and reconfiguring Cang Qiong’s defense didn’t go so well, uh, no? Though I do have a few things I want to ask you,” Shang Qinghua said. Best to keep the topics light. 

Shen Qingqiu needed to reach friendship level 10 before Shang Qinghua started spilling any deep thoughts, okay? They weren’t there yet! 

Shen Qingqiu gave a light hum. “This shixiong will mention the defense plans to Zhangmen-shixiong as long as Shang-shidi provides this one with documentation.”

That - that was actually really thoughtful? And nice? And unexpected? 

Shang Qinghua teared up lightly. If Shen Qingqiu did this… It would really fast track his plans instead of countless months - perhaps years! - of frustration pitching idea after idea to Yue Qingyuan. 

Thank you for using your power over Yue Qingyuan for good! Shang Qinghua weeped inside. 

“Of - of course! When we get back to Cang Qiong! Rest assured, this shidi will - whatever you need, I’ll hand it over!” Shang Qinghua stammered, excited. 

“Very well,” Shen Qingqiu said. He ate the last tangyuan. “What did you wish to ask?”

Shang Qinghua perked up, pleased that this was going so well. “Ah, hopefully nothing too much? I just… My cute little disciple, Cao Zhi, you should know him… He’s really good at playing the qin! And I feel bad that An Ding doesn’t really offer any classes or anything to assist him.” Shang Qinghua sighed, sipping his tea. “I basically give him whatever I want to listen to and have him learn it… Anyway, this shidi has been looking into ways for Xiao Zhi to protect himself.” He waved a flippant hand. “What with everything that happened, I really need to step up his training. He’s - ah, a little lazy, but I find it cute so I let him get away with doing nothing.” 

Shen Qingqiu listened, nursing his tea. “Speak clearly.” 

Shang Qinghua cleared his throat. “Right, right. Basically, Xiao Zhi… Really isn’t into martial anything. If he was any less willing to fight, I figure he’d be a pacifist fit for Ku Xing Peak.” Glancing anxiously between the table and Shen Qingqiu, Shang Qinghua requested, “This shidi knows you are the foremost cultivator that practices musical techniques on Cang Qiong. Would you be willing to teach Xiao Zhi?”

There was a beat of silence, Shang Qinghua nervously sweating through it. 

With a put upon sigh, Shen Qingqiu said, “Ying-er made a similar request a week ago. She told this master about how Cao-shizhi has been playing alongside the rest of my advanced students and wished for me to take him on as a guest disciple.” Looking at Shang Qinghua, Shen Qingqiu said, “I refused her request.”

Lifting a hand to keep Shang Qinghua from speaking, Shen Qingqiu continued. “However, that was simply because I do not anyone tainting my class. We have an established structure I do not want interfered with. Ying-er is free to let Cao-shizhi join in on practice outside of lessons, and I let her know this.” He steepled his hands. “This shixiong is amenable to teaching Cao-shizhi musical cultivation, provided he meets this master’s standards and can keep up with the lessons.” 

He grabbed an egg tart, took a bite, and washed it down with a sip of tea. “I had wished for Ning Yingying to study such techniques under me, but it seems she is more suited to physical pursuits.”

Ah, Shen-shixiong, no need to sound so disappointed… You wouldn’t know, but Ning Yingying was initially destined to pursue a much different kind of physical cultivation path! Be happy with the way she is going now!

Disregarding that, Shang Qinghua was extremely thankful. He really was desperate to get Cao Zhi to study various ways to protect himself, and wanted to find paths that Cao Zhi could take without hating and trying to avoid it. Shen Qingqiu really was the best musical cultivator around - the only others Shang Qinghua could think of was a handful of wives Luo Binghe got with around four thousand chapters into PIDW. 

He knew Shen Qingqiu was harder on male disciples, but hopefully Cao Zhi’s cute, small appearance would keep everything pleasant.

Hm… 

Imagining future lessons between the two, Shang Qinghua thought, Power through, Xiao Zhi! It is for the betterment of your life! 

Bowing lightly, Shang Qinghua said, “Thanking shixiong for his benevolence! This shidi will ensure that Cao Zhi is prepared, and assures shixiong of his disciple’s ability. Shixiong will not be disappointed.” He lifted himself from the bow, smiling.

Shen Qingqiu raised a single eyebrow. “This master will be the one to cast final judgment.”

Ah, Shang Qinghua was sure Shen Qingqiu would pass Cao Zhi’s ability. His cute son was really very good at playing the qin! 

The rest of their time in the tea house passed amicably. Shen Qingqiu shifted the discussion to more general Cang Qiong-related topics, and more specific topics concerning all the work Shang Qinghua did on An Ding Peak. 

It seemed he really was making good of his comment to learn more about Shang Qinghua and all he did!

Though, Shang Qinghua made sure to stay purposefully vague on some things. It wouldn’t do to have Cang Qiong’s Chief Strategist finding out that he was a spy for demons! Not yet, at least. Just needed to get through the Immortal Alliance Conference, then all bets were off and Shen Qingqiu could do as much speculating as he wanted. 

 

When they finished the tea and food, returning to Cang Qiong with full stomachs and lighter hearts, Shang Qinghua guided the carriage back with a smile. 

Success! Slowly but surely, he was breaking down his prickly scum villain’s walls and turning him more into the three-dimensional character he was always meant to be. 

Cheering and giggling to himself, Shang Qinghua thought: Friendship levelled up with Shen Qingqiu! 

Chapter Text

While Shizun was out with Shen Qingqiu trying to become friends with the other Peak Lord, Cao Zhi decided to make the most of his day.

First, show the twins the whisk Shizun got him. It was very nice and deserved to be shown off! He also figured they would appreciate knowing he had a way to protect himself, considering their reactions when - well, when the whole invasion of the sect was going down. 

It was a bit of an awkward time to head over; Cao Zhi went to Qiong Ding during his rest period, whereas he normally went either in the morning for breakfast, or after breakfast for his rounds. Due to this, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect upon arrival. 

Hopefully, it would not be Yue Qingyuan. 

After what Yue Qingyuan saw… What he might have wrongfully inferred… Best to avoid the Sect Leader at all costs. 

At such a time, shouldn’t Yue Qingyuan be busy with work in his office anyway? For sure, for sure, Cao Zhi had nothing to worry about. (He still worried about it.)

Qiong Ding Peak was bustling with activity when he entered; disciples were rushing about, training, or partaking in various classes that Cao Zhi could see happening in a few buildings.

There was no sight of the twins, however. Perhaps they were off on a mission…? 

Before giving up on his search, Cao Zhi decided to check a few of the places the three of them frequented. The twins had let him know that those areas were low traffic and relatively unknown, which made it the perfect place to visit and remain unbothered. Knowing Quan Hao and Quan Liang like he did, Cao Zhi tried to deduce where they could be. 

The plum tree grove was an automatic rule out. That was a space for relaxing meetings between the three of them only; the twins told him themselves that they didn’t plan to ever go there on their own. The dining hall also made no sense to consider. It was plain to see that no one was eating on Qiong Ding at this time.

That left… Hm, a few ideas. The pavilion (though why they would be there, Cao Zhi couldn’t think of a reason), a more hidden training ground, their room, or the waterfall they had mentioned before. 

Or they could be teaching a class? 

Ah… Picturing Quan Hao and Quan Liang in front of attentive little disciples, round cheeked with wide eyes, hanging on to their every word… 

Q-Quan Hao… and Quan Liang… Taking care of children…

Cao Zhi felt his face flare up with a blush. Imagining such a thing…! It was too much for his heart! It was somehow such a pure image but it really - it got his blood racing… 

He shook his head. Stop thinking about it! Move on to other things! 

Ignoring a few weird, curious looks from Qiong Ding disciples, Cao Zhi wandered around the peak in search of the twins. 

He started with the pavilion he’d spent time with them at before and found nothing, as expected. 

From there, he searched the training grounds. The main ones were easy to dismiss; Cao Zhi could see they were already full of training disciples, none of whom were Quan Hao or Quan Liang. 

It took some effort, but he managed to work his way around to more obscure areas. Every now and then he would pull aside a Qiong Ding disciple who could help point him around, making sure he was going in the right direction and wasn’t accidentally retracing any of his steps. 

The path one of the disciples had pointed him towards was somewhat hard to follow - it was covered in roots, rocks, and leaves. Though, notably, the leaves were clearly trodden upon, meaning Cao Zhi wasn’t ending up in a deserted area. 

And there - there were the twins! He could hear their voices, though they were just out of his range of sight. He also heard the metallic clashes of swords hitting against each other, affirming the thought that the twins were spending this time training. 

What he arrived to find - ah… It was… 

They had stripped down a layer, still modestly dressed, though not acceptable for company. Their hair was askew and held in a different style than usual; instead of their normal half-up half-down style held by a guan, their hair was entirely pulled back into a high ponytail held by ribbon. 

Though, it seemed Cao Zhi had arrived at the perfect time. 

The ribbon holding Quan Liang’s hair loosened, dropping to the ground in a gentle floating manner. Quan Liang’s hair - as if in slow motion - fell, cascading down his shoulders and back until it hung loosely in all of its long, luscious glory. Stray hairs clung to his face due to the sweat that was there. The sweat that Cao Zhi watched run from his chin, down his neck, over his clavicle and into his robes where just a hint of chest peeked out. 

Stop looking! Cao Zhi mentally slapped himself. Get it together! How inappropriate! 

He turned his attention to Quan Hao, who appeared particularly handsome with a victorious smirk on his face. He held his sword confidently, pointing it at his brother in a move that - had it been a real battle - would have ended his life. Quan Hao, too, was affected by their training. His robes were roughed up and he too was perspiring, taking heaving breaths that drew Cao Zhi’s attention to his well-defined chest as well… 

Perhaps! It was! A bad idea to come here! 

Cao Zhi felt his face heating up to a point that couldn’t be healthy. It was as if nearly all the blood in his body pooled itself in his cheeks! 

So distracted by his impassioned thoughts, Cao Zhi didn’t watch where he was and stumbled into a tree, drawing the twins’ notice.

“Who’s there,” Quan Liang said, tone suspicious and harsh.

Embarrassed, Cao Zhi revealed himself. In front of him, the twins had taken a defensive stance, which dropped when they realized who they faced. 

Quan Hao stared, surprised. “Cao-shidi? What are you doing here?”

“Ah,” Cao Zhi said. He fumbled his words, thoughts too flustered to be coherent. “I - This one - Shixiongs, you - Please… Please give this shidi a moment to collect himself!” 

Cao Zhi hid his face in his hands and took a few calming breaths. 

He took a few more. 

Feeling that he could finally think properly and that his face was no longer a searing red, Cao Zhi removed his hands. 

The twins, much to his distress, merely looked amused by his reaction. 

How mean…! 

Clearing his throat, Cao Zhi restarted. “This shidi wanted to visit his shixiongs, and show them something this one received.” 

Their expressions changed from amused to curious, and they approached him closer. Against his sides, Cao Zhi could feel their warmth and - it was - the effects of their training was very - it was very prevalent and hard to miss! 

Please move away! You are making it very hard for this disciple to think! You may not know it, but this one is having indecent thoughts! 

To his left, Quan Liang asked, “What did Cao-shidi wish to show us?”

To his right, Quan Hao said, “Cao-shidi looks particularly flushed. Are you feeling alright?”

Cao Zhi lightly bat at Quan Hao’s (very, very firm!) arm, frowning up at him. Petulantly, he said, “Don’t tease me!” 

Quan Hao laughed, brushing a hand through the hairs that had escaped his ponytail. “Alright, alright, forgive your shixiong.” He waved a hand towards Cao Zhi. “Go on, we’re curious about what you brought.”

Brightening up at the mention, Cao Zhi reached into the qiankun pouch made specifically to store his horsetail whisk. Much like the whisk itself, it featured dark and light colors in perfect harmony and was simple but beautiful in design. 

Pulling out the whisk, Cao Zhi explained, “My Shizun thought I needed to work on my martial abilities so I could protect myself after, you know…” Ignoring the pang of residual guilt that sparked through him, Cao Zhi continued. “He figured that I wouldn’t want something super dangerous - you already know how I feel about sword practice - and came to the conclusion that this horsetail whisk would be best!” 

The twins nodded, understanding the logic. With a surprising amount of intent, they studied the whisk in Cao Zhi’s hands. 

“It really is a fine weapon,” Quan Liang concluded. “I’m used to seeing Ku Xing’s Peak Lord and head disciple bring one with them whenever they descend the peak, but theirs are so plain compared to this.”

“Indeed,” Quan Hao concurred. “Shang-shibo made the right choice, picking this for you.”

Though Cao Zhi hadn’t doubted his Shizun’s ability to pick a weapon befitting him, he felt reassured that the twins agreed it was good. 

Quan Liang tilted his head to the side, and Cao Zhi became acutely aware of the hair brushing against his shoulder and back. 

Unaware of Cao Zhi’s thoughts, Quan Liang asked, “So, do you know how to use this?”

“Oh,” Cao Zhi said, collecting himself. “Ah, no, this one does not…” He placed the whisk back into its pouch. “However,” he said, stepping back and facing the twins properly, “I’m heading over to Wan Jian Peak to see if Song-shijie knows of anyone who can teach me.” 

Quan Hao hummed, nodding slightly. “Understood.” He glanced at his brother, who returned it, and then looked back to Cao Zhi. “Then, we won’t keep you.” 

“Thanking shixiongs,” Cao Zhi said. “Truly, I didn’t intend to stay long. I just - This shidi wanted you to be the first to know…” 

Cao Zhi trailed off. Saying it out loud now felt a little foolish. What did it matter if the twins knew before anyone else that he had received a new weapon? One that he had no clue how to use? Wouldn’t it have been more impressive to show off once he had a grasp on some of the techniques?

Quan Hao gave a light laugh. “Ah, Cao-shidi really is too cute.”

Cao Zhi’s cheeks pinked. 

Quan Liang gave them a light pinch, shocking Cao Zhi. “Indeed, Hao-ge. The cutest.” He placed a hand on Cao Zhi’s shoulder. “Thank you for letting us know. Keep us up to date with your progress, hm?” 

Quietly, Cao Zhi nodded. 

Appeased by his agreement, Quan Liang removed his hand. “If that’s all,” he said, “then Hao-ge and I are going to return to training.”

Quan Hao pat the top of Cao Zhi’s head. “Mn. Visit us soon?”

Cao Zhi, unthinkingly, responded, “Of course.” 

Having said their goodbyes, the twins returned to the field they were training in, doing light stretches before they began to clash swords. 

Cao Zhi let them go back to training, turning around to make his way over to Wan Jian. 

Internally, he felt harried. Had - it really felt like - didn’t it seem - were the twins? Were Quan Hao and Quan Liang especially friendly? Very, ah, forward? Almost? 

What was Cao Zhi supposed to make of this?! 

Chapter Text

Onto the second thing Cao Zhi planned to do today: Visit Song Yanmei and see if she knew anyone who could teach him how to fight with the horsetail whisk. 

The walk from Qiong Ding to Wan Jian was refreshing and extremely necessary for Cao Zhi to get his thoughts into order. 

At the end of his visit with the twins, it really seemed like… Ah, the energy… Cao Zhi wasn’t sure how to describe it. 

The moment before lightning strikes, when there was something in the air that made the hair on your skin rise in anticipation - that feeling. But in a good way?

Cao Zhi physically shook his head side to side. He wasn’t making sense! 

Rationally, think rationally! You’re turning into Shizun - absolutely incomprehensible! 

He patted himself on the cheeks, centering his thoughts. 

When Quan Liang pinched his cheeks and called him cute, when Quan Hao agreed and gave his head a pat… And back then, during the invasion when Cao Zhi was consumed by guilt, didn’t they intimately call him ‘Zhi-er’? They hadn’t done it since, however… 

If they did it again… 

Cao Zhi wouldn’t be opposed. 

Really, putting all these actions together - Cao Zhi was going to think the twins liked him, or something! 

But, he reminded himself, they had always acted like this towards him. Yes, it was a little more informal and playful now, but they had always been attentive towards him and familiar. It was what made them such great friends!

Cao Zhi worried he was projecting his feelings on the twins and trying to see what he wanted to see: his feelings reciprocated. Perhaps the best course of action from here would be to wait and see what the twins would do.

He had already - In the name of friendship, he - Some time ago, now, he had given them the matching hairpins, which was typically a romantic gesture. If the twins interpreted it as such, wouldn’t they want to give him something back? Cao Zhi had yet to receive any sort of gift from the twins.

Nodding his head and taking a deep breath, Cao Zhi decided: If Quan Hao and Quan Liang felt any sort of way about him, he would wait for their words or action. If nothing of the sort occurred, then clearly he was just imagining their feelings were anything more than friendly. 

Having stewed in his thoughts for so long, Cao Zhi was surprised to find that he had already arrived outside of Wan Jian Peak and was standing at the entrance, receiving confused looks from Wan Jian disciples passing by. 

Sheepishly, Cao Zhi entered and started searching for Song Yanmei. He had a general idea of where to find her; ever since she had received her sword (a massive saber she portentously named Chi Shui), she spent many hours training across Wan Jiang against various weapons to test her ability. The crux of the matter was finding which area she was training at, specifically. 

With a helpful comment from a passing disciple, Cao Zhi found Song Yanmei practicing long range, handless attacks with her sword against unmoving but massive logs of wood. 

He was almost afraid to interrupt her. 

Hesitantly, in a moment where nothing happened and attempting not to startle Song Yanmei so he could avoid being accidentally stabbed through, Cao Zhi called, “Song-shijie, this shidi has come to make a request.”

Song Yanmei jolted in place, surprised, but that was all. Thankfully, Cao Zhi remained unharmed. 

Looking to Cao Zhi, Song Yanmei recalled Chi Shui to her side, placing it back in its scabbard and giving a friendly smile. “Oh, little Cao-shidi has come to greet his shijie when not doing rounds! How unexpected. What can I do for you?”

Fiddling with the qiankun pouch on his side, Cao Zhi said, “Greeting Song-shijie. Ah, I was wondering - Shizun has given me a weapon that I am unsure how to use. Do you know of anyone that does?”

Having said that, he pulled his horsetail whisk out of the bag. 

Contemplatively rubbing her chin, Song Yanmei leaned into Cao Zhi’s space and studied the whisk. 

Leaning back, she placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head to the side. “Well,” she drawled. “My first thought was to send you to Ku Xing, but I don’t think those pretentious bastards know anything about how to properly use these for combat. They’re probably too busy using them to ‘cleanse the bad energy’ on the peak, which I’m pretty sure is a euphemism for them smoking it up and needing to clean the air.” She clicked tongue. “Right, so, I do think I know someone. Give shijie a moment, hm?”

Unsure of what to say, Cao Zhi nodded. Admittedly, this was the longest amount of time he ever interacted with Song Yanmei. If she wasn’t busy in the forge, she was off training, doing missions, or teaching. Beyond greeting him at the entrance every now and then when he came for rounds, which only resulted in short but polite conversations, they really didn’t talk. 

She was… very blunt, Cao Zhi concluded. 

Patiently and only feeling a little awkward, Cao Zhi waited for Song Yanmei to return. He spent his idle time fiddling with his whisk and considering new pieces to play on his qin. Something with high intensity? He preferred playing softer songs, but perhaps a change was due. It wouldn’t do for him to become stagnant. 

 

Song Yanmei returned with a very tall Wan Jian disciple, dressed in light brown and white robes - lighter than the typical Wan Jian style of dark brown and grey. 

Gesturing to the disciple, Song Yanmei introduced, “This is Xiao Yanling. While the spear is her favored weapon, she is well-versed in martial fighting with a horsetail whisk. Even more so, she specializes in using the whisk in conjunction with a jian, if you find yourself wanting to learn that.” 

Considering the offer for a moment, Cao Zhi shook his head to decline. “Thanking shijie for the offer, but I’m only looking to study the whisk for now.”

Song Yanmei gave a single nod before grasping her sword’s hilt. “Well, if that’s all, I’m going to get back to training.” She waggled her fingers, turning back to the training field. “Just follow all of Xiao-shimei’s instructions, hm?”

“This shidi will endeavor to do his best,” Cao Zhi responded, though was unsure if she heard. 

Bowing to Xiao Yanling, Cao Zhi said, “This shidi, Cao Zhi of An Ding, puts himself under your tutelage. Hopefully I will not disappoint.” 

Righting himself, Cao Zhi saw Xiao Yanling cover her mouth with her sleeve, giving a single, dainty laugh. 

“No need to be so polite,” she said. Her voice was surprisingly high and pleasant for someone so tall… “I think the best place to learn would be the open field past Shifu’s house. If you’ll follow shijie?” 

 

The field Xiao Yanling brought them to was simple but nice. The grass was uniform, and small flowers and rocks created an outline of a ring. It was not a proper training area by any means, but was perfect for Cao Zhi. Being able to practice in nature’s beauty… That was ideal.

Pulling out her own horsetail whisk, Xiao Yanling held it neutrally in front of her. 

She ran her hand against the body of the whisk, saying, “Though at first the horsetail whisk may appear beautiful and gentle, that is just a front. The reality is that the weapon is quite hard and strong, making it ideal for protection.” 

She started to move, explaining as she went along. “There are twenty-four movements to the horsetail whisk, consisting of forms  of dusting, picking, and sweeping.” 

She returned to her neutral position. “However, I’m not going to teach you those now.”

Internally, Cao Zhi was quite thankful. Even the very little that she just demonstrated… it seemed quite hard! 

But! 

He was committed! 

Shizun wanted him to do this, the twins were expecting updates, and… well, Cao Zhi wouldn’t mind being able to protect himself with such a beautiful weapon. 

Also, perhaps when the time came and if he had good enough control over the whisk, he could use it against Mobei-Jun when he fought the demon lord for his right to be with Shizun. 

Ah… Something to consider far in the future.

To Xiao Yanling, he said, “This shidi understands and respects Xiao-shijie’s judgment.” 

Xiao Yanling smiled. “Good, this shijie is glad. However, I still wish to impart some knowledge upon you before ending our first meeting.”

Cao Zhi nodded, awaiting her teaching. 

She held the whisk out, parallel to the ground. “This is a soft weapon, as you know.” She started to do the same movement as earlier, but did more than she showed before. “Every movement you make is dependent on you being in tune with your qi. You have reached Early-stage Core Formation, yes?”

“Ah, I have,” Cao Zhi said. Though that was all he reached - he had yet to attempt for Mid-stage Core Formation and beyond. That amount of effort… For now, it was too much. He had other things to focus on that were more important. Having a golden core, as meager as it was, was enough. 

“Good,” Xiao Yanling said, continuing through her motions. “As I said, being in tune with your qi is the first step. Your mind must not be in turmoil. The horsetail whisk is a sensitive spiritual weapon, and can pick up deviations in mood and disruptions in qi easily, ruining its effectiveness. Which brings me to my final point: Your movements must be in tune with your intentions.” She came to a halt, returning to face Cao Zhi. “No hesitations, no wondering what your next move will be - it is a fluid, precise weapon. Imagine that it is a representation of a swift, smooth wind and a flowing river.”

Though easy to understand at a surface level, Cao Zhi knew that properly learning the martial forms to the horsetail whisk would be extremely difficult. 

Internally, he chanted, Persevere, persevere, persevere! Do it for Shizun, do it for yourself!

Aloud, he said, “I understand.”

“Very good,” Xiao Yanling said. She put her whisk away. “Though short, that is all I am teaching you today. It is the foundation to mastering the horsetail whisk. If you forget any of these things, you will be unable to handle the weapon. Come back in a week or so, okay? Send a letter if anything comes up.” 

Finding Xiao Yanling very pleasant and polite as a teacher, Cao Zhi figured he would not mind learning under her. She was very straightforward, but didn’t seem like she was going to try and push his limits beyond what he could handle. 

Nodding, Cao Zhi said, “This disciple thanks Xiao-shijie for imparting her knowledge. I will come back in time, unless otherwise called upon.” 

Xiao Yanling laughed again. “Ah, please, you really don’t need to be so polite. Though it’s very cute, I admit.” She gave a short wave. “Until next time, then! Do you need me to see you to the entrance, or?”

Cao Zhi declined, and returned her goodbye. She left him alone in the field. 

He considered the horsetail whisk in his hands. Seeing what Xiao Yanling did today… Really, it was quite graceful, fluid, but obviously powerful. He had never imagined himself as such; in his mind, Cao Zhi was more of a dough that was being prepped to steam: soft and malleable.

Putting the whisk back in its pouch, Cao Zhi found himself surprisingly excited to train. In the future, when he could master this weapon and make his Shizun proud… Perhaps he would engage the twins in some friendly sparring?

Chapter Text

Deep breaths, Shang Qinghua told himself. Deep, deep breaths. 

He stared down at the document in his hands, hoping his gaze would become so scathing hot that it would set the paper ablaze instantly. 

Unfortunately, the paper remained unaffected. 

Clenching his jaw, Shang Qinghua cursed Yue Qingyuan. 

Okay, and maybe his past life self, just a little.

Listen, if he had known that writing in the Immortal Alliance Conference was going to take so much paperwork, even though the event was nearly still a year away, then he would have written something different! 

Ah, well, perhaps not. Without that arc, how else was his protagonist supposed to be pushed into the Endless Abyss and become horribly blackened? 

Still… 

This was too much! Instead of, oh, he didn’t know, delegating the work to multiple people, Yue Qingyuan decided to slap it all on Shang Qinghua! 

Dealing with the budgets? Sure, that was his usual job, no problem. 

Everything else? Abso-fucking-lutely not! Shang Qinghua did not sign up for this! 

Instead of Zui Xian Peak figuring out who would supply what food and alcohol, it was Shang Qinghua’s duty to plan out Cang Qiong’s part in the banquet! 

And! And! Instead of Chao Xian Peak creating a detailed list of what beasts would be best to inflict upon the victi- disciples participating in the event, that too was Shang Qinghua’s job! 

You know what Shang Qinghua hated doing? Research! Why do you think PIDW was so all over the place? He knew it wasn’t perfect! He started doing research for it at first to make sure it was the perfect story, okay? He didn’t like it, but he did! It’s why the Endless Abyss Arc was so beautifully gruesome! But once readers started only coming for the wife plots and sex scenes and nothing else really? Shang Qinghua could make up whatever he wanted and not worry about how much sense it made! 

But no! Now he had to whip out various bestiaries and encyclopedias and whatnot to make sure that what creatures he offered would be acceptable!

(This list, of course, would not account for anything that happened or appeared the moment the Endless Abyss opened, but that was not Shang Qinghua’s concern.) 

Thankfully, the one thing Shang Qinghua didn’t have to worry about was drawing up lists of which disciples from what peak were attending the event. That was entirely dependent on the other Peak Lords; Shang Qinghua’s only job was to compile that list together much closer to the actual conference. And no An Ding disciples would be participating! They had other things to worry about - it was surprising just how many of his NPCs went off to take imperial examinations instead, which conveniently occurred around the same time. 

His son, of course, would not be allowed to participate at all. First of all, Shang Qinghua knew for a fact that Cao Zhi had no interest in fighting, let alone partaking in a competition that revolved around killing things. Second, Shang Qinghua was not going to risk any injury to Cao Zhi’s cute little head, alright?

On that note… He was, admittedly, on the fence about letting Cao Zhi participate in planning the break in at the conference. 

It was just - 

Ah, his sweet disciple’s reaction to the invasion of the sect… Really wasn’t ideal for being a spy. 

There had to be some other demon-related job he could do! That made him feel like he was being a spy without getting into the more, hm, questionable and problematic parts of the job. Like being a demon-cultivator liaison, or something!

Shang Qinghua knew that once the Endless Abyss opened up at the conference, Cao Zhi was going to take every death personally, as if he were the one to kill them directly. Instead of accepting the deaths as extreme consequences to the conference! Every disciple who participated knew they had the potential to not make it out alive, alright?

The hardest thing was - for Shang Qinghua, at least - figuring out how to not get caught. The OG Shang Qinghua was outed as a spy and bam! Executed. Sure, Shang Qinghua had initially (very unfortunately, very terrifiedly) planned for such a reveal, but now? How was he supposed to leave his son behind? Or, even, his (soon to be) best friend behind?

He worked hard to build a rapport with Shen Qingqiu, okay? He was in it for the long haul, now! No human stick scum villain! Clearly, Liu Qingge living this time around was a sign that things were going in the right direction… right?

Anyway, disregarding Shen Qingqiu, Shang Qinghua honestly… wasn’t ready to leave Cao Zhi behind. 

With Cao Zhi - it was like - it was like having that one cousin or little sibling or child that just loved you unconditionally, that you desperately cared for and wanted nothing bad to happen to. 

Yes, Shang Qinghua had planned various contingencies in case he was caught, as according to the plot, so that Cao Zhi had deniability to knowing anything regarding treacherous acts with demons. In fact, he had contingencies in case he wasn’t caught, if he was caught but could get them to ignore it - all manner of plans. 

For once, the system was really helpful and kept a small notes app-esque log of all of his plans. It was just that many. 

Long, long, story short, Shang Qinghua thought, he actually wanted to live.

The end goal… The end goal, at first, was to make it through the plot and get sent home to his original body. Perhaps drop PIDW all together, find something else to write, who knew. 

But now? He had more attachments in this world than back at home. 

Cao Zhi meant so, so much to Shang Qinghua, and he didn’t want to see him hurt. His tears at Qiong Ding’s Main Hall that day, it really put things in perspective for Shang Qinghua. 

Shen Qingqiu? Again, in it for the long haul! The system already said he could attempt this route as long as major plot points were achieved! Apparently, pickle pot Shen Jiu wasn’t one, but the Water Prison Arc was. Shang Qinghua would deal with that when he got there. Essentially: redemption arc, baby! 

And… his king, Mobei-Jun… 

Recently, things had been different. Shang Qinghua couldn’t explain it. Mobei-Jun was nicer, somehow. He wasn’t hit three times every time they met! In fact, he wasn’t hit at all! 

Though Mobei-Jun still stared a lot. Silently. Glare-y. 

Seeing him like that though, just staring, with no violence… Ah, it really showcased just what a perfect specimen his king was!

Really, Shang Qinghua thought, if you keep acting like this, I’ll catch feelings, my king! 

With that thought, the room temperature dropped and Shang Qinghua became forcibly aware of his surroundings. 

He dropped the paper in his hands, long since ignored, and stood in anticipation for Mobei-Jun. 

Appearing when thought about, it was as if Mobei-Jun had some sort of connection to come at just the right moment! 

Mobei-Jun regally stepped out of the black portal that had formed, then called the energy back to himself. 

He stared at Shang Qinghua, who stared nervously back. 

Today, his king really went all out! 

There were extra braids in his hair held by elaborate jewelry, and he wore ear cuffs alongside his usual earrings.

Mobei-Jun also forewent the skintight drop shoulder long sleeved top he usually wore, opting for only his nicest cloak. Meaning - meaning! 

Shang Qinghua got a faceful of Mobei-Jun’s tits! 

How could he not look? They were just out there! Perfectly sculpted, somewhere in between plump but firm… Shang Qinghua knew if he touched them, they would have just the right amount of give for a good squeeze but would be so cold. 

Realizing he was staring quite disrespectfully, Shang Qinghua quickly moved his eyes up to Mobei-Jun’s face. 

The demon lord’s expression was - amused? Affronted? Shang Qinghua couldn’t really tell! Mobei-Jun had such a stone cold face! But there was a certain quirk to his eyebrow that changed his expression just slightly, leaving some emotion for Shang Qinghua to try and read that differed from the norm. 

“My king,” Shang Qinghua said, nervously. Hopefully he hadn’t been caught staring! Unlikely, ah! Who was he kidding! “What - uh, what brings you here?” 

Internally, he bemoaned the work that was going to be added onto what he already had to do. Couldn’t Mobei-Jun have just waited a couple more days? When things were more relaxed? Work never quits, Shang Qinghua griped. 

“Wanted to bring this,” Mobei-Jun said gruffly. He lifted his hand, tapping the ring on his finger. 

Apparently it was an interspatial ring, because it glowed lightly and out came - a trunk? 

“Take it,” Mobei-Jun said, holding the trunk against his impeccable chest. 

Scrambling to grab it from Mobei-Jun, Shang Qinghua said, “Right away, my king!” 

For a moment, Shang Qinghua stood there holding the heavy trunk and stared at Mobei-Jun, who glared in return. 

Finally, Mobei-Jun said, “Open it.”

“R-Right! Of course, one moment,” Shang Qinghua said, glancing around for an open area in his room that could hold the trunk without anything getting crushed. Ah - there! In the corner. 

Shang Qinghua scurried over, bending to delicately place the trunk on the ground. He gave a nervous peek at Mobei-Jun, who stood in stoic silence. Okay, okay, just open the trunk. 

“No dead body, no dead body, please no dead body,” Shang Qinghua chanted under his breath.

He opened the trunk and found - clothes? Jewelry? 

Sweat built up on the back of Shang Qinghua’s neck. W-Was he supposed to clean and polish all of this? Was Mobei-Jun treating him as someone who got only cast offs to throw out? Though, Shang Qinghua ran a hand over one of the dark pants at the top of the trunk, these clothes seemed really nice and new. 

Peering over his shoulder, Shang Qinghua questioningly called, “My king?” Gaining Mobei-Jun’s full attention, Shang Qinghua continued, pulling out some of the clothes and holding it close. “If this servant may ask, why have you given me all this?” 

Mobei-Jun slowly stalked forward until he stood directly behind Shang Qinghua, who could feel the cold that radiated from the demon. He shivered. 

Mobei-Jun leaned down, and Shang Qinghua swore he could feel every hair of his king’s that fell against himself. When Mobei-Jun’s mouth was level with Shang Qinghua’s ear, he said, “I want you to wear it.” 

Shang Qinghua gulped. His king - ! His voice was such a pleasant, low rumble, Shang Qinghua didn’t know how to feel with it spoken so closely to his ear!

Then the words registered. Indignation filled Shang Qinghua. 

Mobei-Jun, are you saying this master has a bad wardrobe?!