Liu Qingge descends from the heavens, with one destination in mind.
How long had he been gone? It felt like nothing, like less than a blink, but he could not forget the unfortunate circumstances in which he had ascended.
Shen Qingqiu's hands on his chest, pouring agitated qi inside of Liu Qingge's strained meridians, attempting to desperately to save him. "Liu Qingge, you absolute bastard," he says, tears dripping down his furious face. "Don't you dare die!"
Liu Qingge had not died.
But he was not sure if Shen Qingqiu knows this. He's not sure if any of their martial family knows this.
Liu Qingge comes back to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. And... comes to a halt.
Something is wrong.
Liu Qingge goes to Qing Jing Peak. Everything is still. Everything is silent. It is like there have been no disciples here for generations. The grass has grown tall. Unruly.
"Shen Qingqiu?" Liu Qingge calls out.
There is no response.
Liu Qingge wanders this peak, dread building in his belly. He finds Shen Qingqiu's bamboo hut abandoned within a bamboo forest that had not been there before.
Everything is settled with a thick film of dust. Abandoned.
Liu Qingge flies to Qiong Ding Peak, unable to think in words, dreading what he would find.
But Qiong Ding Peak is populated.
There are disciples in their uniforms. Disciples that don't recognize him as their shishu, the Bai Zhan Peak Lord. It’s like he's a stranger to them all.
(Liu Qingge does not recognize their faces. None of them.
And that's wrong, isn't it? He should know at least a few of Yue Qingyuan's disciples.)
"Where is Sect Leader?" Liu Qingge demands.
The disciples look rattled, suddenly unsure.
"L-Liu-shishu?" says one disciple in disbelief. An older boy.
And, after a moment, Liu Qingge recognizes him, with a dawning sense of horror. This boy was Shen Qingqiu's head disciple. But it's been many years. This boy is now a man.
Liu Qingge nods.
The man's entire contenance wobbles. "Shizun has been in seclusion for a long time."
"Shizun," Liu Qingge repeats.
The man hesitates. "After... after Shifu... went away, the disciples of Qing Jing Peak were distributed to other Peaks. This one was lucky to be taken in by Sect Leader."
Liu Qingge finally learns what has happened to Yue Qingyuan.
He doesn't like it.
It seems that Yue Qingyuan has hid himself away in one of his offices. It smells musty inside. As though Yue Qingyuan had not thought to open a window in several decades.
Hm. It looks as though there are mushrooms growing along the hems of Yue Qingyuan's robes.
Yue Qingyuan stands up so quickly, that his chair fall over against the floor with a clatter. "L-Liu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan says, sounding faint. He stumbles forwards, as though walking was something foreign to him.
Yue Qingyuan places his hands on Liu Qingge's cheeks, as though not understanding what he is seeing.
Somehow, Yue Qingyuan's hands feel as though they have withered.
"Sect Leader," Liu Qingge says. "Where is Shen Qingqiu?"
And something within Yue Qingyuan breaks. Fat tears trickle down his cheeks. "Liu-shidi," he says, voice hoarse and mangled. "Liu-shidi, you cannot take your vengeance. Xiao Jiu is gone."
"I am not here for vengeance," Liu Qingge says. "Shen Qingqiu saved me--he managed to save me."
And Yue Qingyuan only weeps more. "You're too late, Liu-shidi. Xiao Jiu is dead," he says, finally, even as Ming Fan retreats from the room. "Xiao Jiu has been dead for many years now."
And the world falls apart beneath Liu Qingge's feet.
Liu Qingge learns what had happened in the years he was gone.
Shen Qingqiu had teetered out of the Lingxi Caves, soaked in blood, agitated qi clinging to him. He looked like he had been in a fight. He looked as though he had barely left this fight.
When Liu Qingge's body could not be found, it was obvious to the other Peak Lords what had happened.
Of course, it wasn't really obvious, as they had all come to the wrong fucking conclusion. Even Yue Qingyuan, who had tried in his own way to always protect Shen Qingqiu, believed that Shen Qingqiu murdered Liu Qingge, leaving only blood stains behind.
(As if Shen Qingqiu could murder him in such a violent way! As if Shen Qingqiu could tear his body apart to leave nothing behind!)
After, there had been a demon invasion. Shen Qingqiu did fine. So did one of Shen Qingqiu's disciples, a child who had gone missing later on.
(Liu Mingyan had lost her round, which is a bit disappointing. She would have grown up in the years he was away. She must have grown stronger by now.
How many years of Liu Mingyan's life had Liu Qingge missed?)
It was a simple thing. The other Peak Lords cast Shen Qingqiu out, binding his cultivation.
And then Shen Qingqiu died, killed by a woman claiming to be his fiance. Claiming that Shen Qingqiu had once been her family's slave.
(But this didn't make sense either.
Why would Qiu Haitang's family allow her to be engaged to a slave in the first place? Why would Shen Qingqiu let her live if he killed off everyone else?)
In the end, Liu Qingge is disappointed.
"We were a martial family," Liu Qingge says. "You have always favored Shen Qingqiu. Why did you not protect him?"
But he gets no more answers.
He did not really expect any.
Liu Qingge is told that he can stay. That Cang Qiong Mountain sect is still his home. That he would be welcome whenever he was able to come visit.
But it just did not sit right with him.
How could they do this? How could they have let him go?
Liu Qingge does not want to stay here. But neither does he wish to return to the heavens.
Perhaps it's a stroke of luck that Liu Qingge delays himself for so long that Shang Qinghua of all people comes to see him.
"Liu-shidi!" Shang Qinghua, looking as small and harried as Liu Qingge remembered.
There's something else he remembers. Shen Qingqiu had once accused Shang Qinghua of being a spy, of working for a demon.
And Liu Qingge hadn't taken it seriously. No one had taken it seriously.
And now Shen Qingqiu is gone.
Liu Qingge grabs Shang Qinghua by the throat and picks him up, so that his feet are left dangling in the air. "You," Liu Qingge says. "You better not be a traitor. You better have not had a hand in this."
It would make sense. To get rid of the sect's tactician. It'd be something a spy and a traitor would do.
Shang Qinghua shakes his head furiously, fingers clawing uselessly at Liu Qingge's hands.
Liu Qingge lets him fall to the ground and turns away.
"W-wait," Shang Qinghua says, crawling in the dirt and going so far as to hug Liu Qingge's thighs. "There's something you need to know!"
There is a new ghost king, one who did not trouble himself with humans.
Fallen Leaves Gather and Scatter.
"And," Liu Qingge says steadily, not breaking eye contact with Shang Qinghua, daring the little rat to say something more, "what do you want me to do about this ghost king? Aren't you a cultivator?"
Shang Qinghua laughs nervously. "Well... You see..."
Liu Qingge reaches out to shake him one more time.
"Fallen Leaves Gather and Scatter might be Shen Qingqiu!"
"Tell me more."
And so Shang Qinghua does.
It's almost nostalgic.
Shang Qinghua and Liu Qingge go to a town just full of ghosts. Just this time, they are not here to eliminate ghosts. They are here to look for Shen Qingqiu.
Liu Qingge eyes Shang Qinghua warily. "Cultivators allowed this?"
Shang Qinghua shrugs. "The cultivation sects aren't how they used to be."
The town is said to be filled with ghosts. That’s what Shang Qinghua had said. But there are also living people here, not at all disturbed by the dead. There are so many women, so many children. They live together with the ghosts--happy, and unbothered by this.
Shang Qinghua takes Liu Qingge to a central building, one that so resembled a brothel.
It isn't a brothel, but it is filled with flowers.
The women grow quiet at their appearance. Quiet and still. Smiles slide off of their faces.
"Is... Is Shen Qingqiu here?" Liu Qingge asks.
One woman rises to her full height. This height is not terribly impressive, but her posture is. She is an older woman, her hair more white than not. "What do these immortal cultivators require here?" she asks, her voice so very cold. "You are not welcome here."
"Please," says Liu Qingge. "I need to see him. It's my fault all of this happened. I need to make it up to him."
"Liu Qingge," says a familiar voice. "Even you cannot reverse time."
Liu Qingge turns around sharply.
And Shen Qingqiu is right there.
So many things have changed. So many things have remained the same.
Liu Qingge approaches him, taking Shen Qingqiu's hands into his own. It should not be surprised that Shen Qingqiu is cold to the touch, like a corpse. There is no heartbeat. There is no breath.
"Shen-shixiong, this shidi is so sorry," Liu Qingge says. "I came back as soon as I could, but it was much too late."
Shen Qingqiu blinks, surprised. He draws away from Liu Qingge's touch and instead holds himself, wrapping his arms around his waist, as though to comfort himself. "You'll find that we are no longer part of the same martial family."
"We will always be part of the same martial family," Liu Qingge insists. "The others might have disappointed you, but I will not abandon you. Not after I found you again."
Shang Qinghua, the little rat, attempts to sneak away. But he's very noticeable.
"Shang-shidi has disappointed me less than you," Shen Qingqiu says, which is actually quite cutting. The rat? The traitor? Really? "Shang-shidi, have you brought your new manuscript for me to read?"
"Oh!" Shang Qinghua says, hurrying to remove a simply bound book from a qiankun pouch. "I've used your recommendations for this revision. I hope it's better now!"
Shen Qingqiu accepts this slim volume. "Hmm. We shall see about that," he says doubtfully.
Liu Qingge whirls upon Shang Qinghua. "You knew."
Shang Qinghua smiles nervously and inches behind Shen Qingqiu for protection. "Well," he says, a little bit squeaky. "You know... I'll just be over there."
And, very not subtly, Shang Qinghua leaves. As if Liu Qingge wouldn't recognize demonic qi when he felt it.
The sudden change of temperature is also a big hint at what's happened.
So, Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu. Alone, together.
(The ladies had scattered when given the opportunity. Most of them had been alive anyway. They wouldn't be able to do anything if a god and a ghost fought.)
Calmly, Shen Qingqiu sits at a low table. He pours them both a cup of tea. "What are you really here for, Liu Qingge?"
Liu Qingge sits across from him, unable to tear his eyes away. "You."
Years and years had dulled Liu Qingge's memory of Shen Qingqiu somewhat. But he is entirely sure that this Shen Qingqiu is sharper and more brittle than before. His eyes are rimmed with red. He is almost translucent, so very pale.
Shen Qingqiu smiles, though there is no warmth to it. "You may try to kill me, but you will never be able to find my ashes."
Liu Qingge shakes his head. "Not here to kill you. I am here for you, because you were wronged due to my disappearance. I will make it up to you. I will make it all up to you."
"How?" Shen Qingqiu says, baring his teeth. "How can you possibly make it up to me? Liu Qingge, I am already dead!"
Liu Qingge reaches across the table, taking Shen Qingqiu's hands (cold, so very cold) into his own. Then he brings Shen Qingqiu's hands even closer, to the curve of his mouth, and kisses his fingertips, never breaking eye contact with Shen Qingqiu.
"I could hear your prayers," Liu Qingge says. "Allow me to grant them."
And Shen Qingqiu remains there, very still and very small. But he does not draw away.
Within Shen Qingqiu's ghost city, there is a shrine to the martial god Liu Qingge.
There are many candles burning brightly, candles that burn day and night. The painting of Liu Qingge had been done by Shen Qingqiu's own hand, Liu Qingge is certain. There is even a small statue that Liu Qingge suspects Shen Qingqiu made.
This is an intimate space. Clearly, Shen Qingqiu took care of this shrine carefully.
Here, Shen Qingqiu looks strangely ashamed. The flickering candles almost make it seem like there is some color to his face.
Every day they had been separated Shen Qingqiu had prayed to him. Every single day. Without fail.
Here, within this shrine of Shen Qingqiu's creation, Liu Qingge falls to his knees and worships Shen Qingqiu.
He would do this as long as it takes. He would do this every day.
Liu Qingge would not be separated from Shen Qingqiu. Never again.