Liu Qingge vaulted the wall as best he could with his spiritual energy sealed and his leg broken. It would have been an admirable landing considering those factors if he hadn’t crashed into someone else on the other side, going down hard and knocking the wind out of the both of them.
He also would have apologised if the voices of his pursuers hadn’t then cut through the smoky night air.
“Where did he go? Fucking Liu piece of shit.”
Liu Qingge claps a hand over the figure he’s currently unintentionally pinning to the ground’s mouth to stop them from saying anything. Angry green eyes glare back at him and his hand is summarily bitten hard.
Liu Qingge winces and tries to convey with his face that this is temporary measure and that he doesn’t want to get bitten again.
“He’s too injured to have gone far.”
He gets bitten again and the figure starts to squirm angrily, almost succeeding in bucking him off.
“Fine I’ll go left. You take right.”
With that the voices finally move away.
Liu Qingge takes a breath of relief and has a moment of peace before his hand is bitten again.
He rips his hand off the person’s mouth, “You didn’t have to bite me that many times.” He says vaguely accusingly and it’s definitely not the first thing he should have said after landing on them and holding them captive but he’s not in a good mood and to be fair he tends towards “taciturn” at his best.
“Ah yes of course.” The person (a young man, maybe the same age as him or close enough) has a surprisingly silky and refined voice when taking into account the viciousness of the bites, “I should have let xiansheng pin me to the ground and restrain me with no recourse.”
Liu Qingge does concede that the biting makes sense in context.
“I apologise.” He says before rolling off the young man, “I am currently escaping pursuers and didn’t want you to sound an alarm. I’ll leave now.” He tries to get to his feet and stumbles painfully. His broken leg and possibly broken arm are starting to catch up with him.
His contemplation on how he should best try to escape the Borderlands and make it back to Cang Qiong with no spiritual energy and not much ease of movement is broken by the figure who has now stood up and revealed himself to be of the same height.
“You’re a cultivator?” He’s frowning and looking Liu Qingge over contemplatively.
“Yes.” Liu Qingege answers simply, “But my spiritual energy has been sealed.”
The frown deepens, “I see.” The gaze roams him over once more before the boy locks eyes with him again, “Do you have any money?”
Liu Qingge didn’t. Well, not really.
“Why?” He asked in a clipped tone.
The other rolled their eyes, “I’m trying to decide if it would be worth helping you.” He says with surprising honesty.
“I’ll be fine.” Liu Qingge says dismissively and turns back to the wall, trying to decide how best to scale it without aggravating his injuries. He’d just decided on doing a run up when he finds his arm grabbed and caught by the boy.
“Don’t be stupid. I recognised the voices of those demons looking for you. They’re powerful and this is their territory. You’re also deep in the Borderlands right now, closer to the demon realm than the human. With no spiritual energy and those injuries you’ll be caught the minute you step out of this courtyard.”
Liu Qingge had to concede that this person wasn’t wrong.
“I’ll take you back to my room and help you until you heal for a price.” The figure said.
Liu Qingge thought it over, “You said those demons were powerful. And you seem to live here. So why would you risk it?”
The boy hummed, his green eyes were very sharp, “Maybe whatever price I demand will be worth it.”
Liu Qingge considered it. If it was money the boy wanted then he could certainly provide that. While he didn’t have any on him right now he was wearing a bracelet his grandmother had given him that was undoubtedly valuable and he could always go home and get money before coming back to pay the man. Besides, even being Liu Qingge, he had to concede that the chances of him getting back to Cang Qiong Sect unscathed were very slim.
“Fine. I don’t have money on me right now but I can always pay you back later.” Liu Qingge said seriously.
The boy looked him over again with those sharp eyes before holding out a hand, “Your hair crown.” He demanded.
Liu Qingge didn’t have an attachment to this particular item so took it out with no reluctance and handed it over. His hair (now down) spilled across his shoulders. It was annoying.
The boy turned the crown over in his hands before nodding satisfied and gesturing for Liu Qingge to follow him. He didn’t offer to support him which Liu Qingge was grateful for. He already felt weak enough without having to be carried.
The boy led him through a back door, up a creaky flight of stairs and then through a small back entrance into an opulent looking room.
“Here.” He gestured for Liu Qingge to sit down on a low day bed and then dragged a privacy screen over from by the main bed to create a private space, “I’ll splint your leg now. Do you have any other injuries apart from it and your arm?”
Liu Qingge found himself vaguely disconcerted that the man was able to tell his injuries so easily, but decided it wasn’t worth making comment about and instead began to take off his shirt to allow the boy to treat the wounds on his chest from one of the demon’s claws.
The boy was a consummate professional, wiping down his injuries with ease and not sparing a blush for his bare chest. It was a refreshing alternative to being treated on Qian Cao peak where all the disciples seemed to titter and go red at the sight of his uncovered skin.
Once the injuries were taken care of the boy went off and came back with some tea and plain food.
“Eat.” He gestured, “How long will your spiritual energy be sealed?”
Liu Qingge was in the middle of taking a large bite of the cold mantou so he swallowed first before answering, “I can try and break the seal but it will damage my meridians. The best would be to wait for it to fade.” He scowled at the thought of being so vulnerable, “A few days, maybe more.”
The boy looked him over critically, “Your broken bones won’t heal fast until you have access to your qi?”
Liu Qingge nodded. He didn’t question how this boy seemed to know so much about cultivation, he seemed the learned sort and by the looks of the room also fairly well-to-do.
“In that case you might have to stay for a few days.” The boy chewed his lip, “If you stay behind the screen when someone comes in it should be fine. I don’t have any clients today and no one will bother me but tomorrow.” He trailed off, frowning but then gave Liu Qingge an imperious look, “Finish the tea and go to sleep. You better heal fast so you can pay me back.”
Liu Qingge didn’t reply but it didn’t seem to matter to the boy who left and only came back a little while later to take the empty tray and bring a blanket.
Liu Qingge fell asleep rather easily all things considering and when the pain from his injuries eased he realised the boy had put some pain-relief herbs in the tea.
When Liu Qingge woke he felt disorientated for a split second before he realised where he was. He was unsure if he should make any noise to alert his host but the conundrum was averted in the next second when the boy came around the side of the privacy screen.
“You’re awake.” He was holding a tray of food, “Good. You slept for a long time.”
“I feel better.” Liu Qingge said as he helped himself to the food and tea.
“You should. I put some expensive healing herbs into that tea last night.” The boy said. His voice was caustic but at odds with the fact that he had done it at all.
“I’ll pay you back.” Liu Qingge made sure to say which relaxed his companion a little.
“I have a client coming in less than a shichen. You have to stay in the room unfortunately since I have nowhere else to put you but if you stay behind the screen and stay silent it’ll be fine.”
Liu Qingge swallowed a mouthful of tea, “You said that last night. What kind of client?”
“What kind do you think?” The caustic tone was back.
At Liu Qingge’s continuing lack of recognition the boy raised an eyebrow, “You really don’t know?”
Liu Qingge shrugged.
The boy rolled his eyes, “This is a brothel. What kind of client do you think I’d have?”
“This is a brothel?” Liu Qingge hadn’t noticed.
The boy barked a laugh, “So the young master really had no idea?”
“I’ve never been in a brothel before.” Liu Qingge explained.
The boy made a little “huh” noise at that and seemed to think for a few moments, eyes roaming Liu Qingge’s face. “Is it bad for your cultivation?” He asked after a little time, sounding genuinely curious.
Liu Qingge considered the question seriously, “It could be.” He said, “But it’s not so much the sex itself. Dual cultivation is a valid form of cultivation. It’s that sex and the strong emotions attached can upset a person’s internal equilibrium and lead to a greater risk of qi deviation.”
That was probably the most he had ever said at once in a long time but the boy looked curious and he had saved Liu Qingge’s life. Right now he had a debt to pay and Lius always paid their debts in full. Besides the boy looked… nice when he was thinking. When he wasn’t scowling or making that superior face then he looked really quite… pretty.
“I see.” The boy hummed to himself before standing abruptly, “I have to get ready.” He said decisively before fixing those sharp eyes on Liu Qingge again, “I would appreciate it if you didn’t watch while I was working. I might have to charge you extra for that.” And with that he left to a chorus of Liu Qingge spluttering.
When Liu Qingge heard the sound of the door opening and the boy’s solicitous tone (so different from what he’d heard from him so far) he shut his eyes tight and covered his ears with his hands. It was only fair. The boy had saved his life and if he didn’t want Liu Qingge to see him working then Liu Qingge would respect that. Besides, he was already taking a big risk by sheltering him. It was only right and proper to give his wants the consideration they were due.
He stayed with his eyes shut and his hands covering his ears until he felt someone tap his shoulder.
He looked up, slightly startled, to see the boy dressed in a thin green silk robe. There were marks on his on his neck and the parts of his chest that were visible.
“Couldn't bear to watch the show? Offended your delicate sensibilities, young master?” the boy asked, and his tone was half mocking in jest and half something uglier.
Liu Qingge answered honestly, “You told me not to look so I didn't.”
The boy’s eyes widened in surprise and he pursed his lips before spinning abruptly on his heel and turning away, “Lucky for you my performance tonight was really quite good. Enough to earn some luxury items for dinner. Be grateful.”
When he came back around the privacy screen holding a tray in his hands Liu Qingge could see that he hadn't been exaggerating. The tray was piled high with delicious looking sweets; small pretty confectionaries and the like. The kind of thing they would serve at the Liu estate for no reason at all. Maybe even the kind of thing his little sister would turn her nose up at for being too sugary and summarily send the whole tray away.
Liu Qingge didn't say any of that, instead he shifted aside slightly on the day bed so that the boy could sit down, placing the tray between them. The boy swept a hand over the tray magnanimously and Liu Qingge picked up a small pink pastry and popped it in his mouth. Having seen that he'd eaten the boy proceeded to pick up his own pastry and eat. He watched Liu Qingge like he was the hostess of some grand party and Liu Qingge was the guest of honour whose reactions must be observed for any hint of disapproval.
They stayed like that for quite a while as Liu Qingge picked at the tray and the boy ate with far more enthusiasm. Liu Qingge chanced to look at him with the silk robe on. The diaphanous material revealed his body more easily to the eye that he had seen previously and he could see that the boy was thin and delicate, almost bird boned.
He really was pretty with that long dark sweep of hair and those green eyes that didn't seem so sharp now that he had filled himself up on sugar and was sitting in that semi-translucent robe. He looked like the kind of person that wouldn’t have been so out of place at one of the grand estates Liu Qingge visited with his family, full of young masters and mistresses wrapped up in beautiful fabrics and making barbed comments at each other from behind painted fans. He wondered if the boy had a fan.
“What's your name?” He asked. It almost seemed a little late now to ask.
The boy raised an eyebrow as if he was also questioning how they’d gotten to this point without knowing names. “Shen Jiu.” He answered, “And may I know this virtuous young master’s name?”
The address seemed very sarcastic and by the boy’s small smirk it was meant to be. Liu Qingge rolled his eyes, “Liu Qingge.” He answered shortly.
“Mmm, and if the young master tries to duck out of repaying me I could go to the Liu family for payment?” He asked then with that strange sly look he sometimes wore.
Liu Qingge nodded, “Yes. If you show them my hair crown or,” And here he took off his bracelet, the one from his grandmother, and handed it over, “This bracelet they’ll listen.”
The boy held the bracelet delicately in hands that trembled slightly, “This is… a very nice piece.” The gems glittered in the low candlelight.
Liu Qingge shrugged, “It’s yours now.”
The boy blinked, mouth open before turning back to the bracelet. When Liu Qingge looked back down at the half-eaten tray he missed the way Shen Jiu’s gaze shifted as he observed the strange young master he had saved and squirrelled away in his room.
Shen Jiu had another client the next day. Once again Liu Qingge covered his eyes on his ears and sat behind the privacy screen until Shen Jiu came around to get him. He didn't get any special snacks this time but he did have a small jar of plum wine he offered to share but which Liu Qingge waved off. He wasn’t interested in drinking and instead sat there while Shen Jiu sipped his wine and stared at nothing in particular.
Liu Qingge noticed the rougue sain on Shen Jiu’s cheek in the shape of a pair of lips and regarded it curiously. On a whim and because a slightly drunk Shen Jiu was a little squinty-eyed and rather... soft-looking he reached out with his thumb to rub it off.
Shen Jiu blinked but allowed him to do so.
“Where did the rouge stain come from?” Liu Qingge asked.
Shen Jiu gave him a look like he was particularly stupid, “Who else but my client?”
Liu Qingge blinked, “Your client wears rouge?”
Shen Jiu raised an eyebrow, “Well-to-do women do love their cosmetics.”
“Your client was a woman.” Liu Qingge has to admit he is very shocked.
“Why is that surprising?” Shen Jiu is giving him that look like Liu Qingge is a particularly interesting exhibit, like he’s watching him and is not quite sure why he does what he does but is amused and intrigued by it anyway.
“I thought women didn’t visit brothels.” Is Liu Qingge’s reply and it’s true.
He had always considered brothels the purvey of old slimy men and young equally slimy men. Those people that treated sex like it was cheap and disrespectful. Those spoiled young masters he had been forced to spend time with as a child until his cultivation advanced to such a level that the label prodigy was no longer sufficient and he could safely ignore the world around him with no repercussions; blanketed by his own superior standing and skills.
Shen Jiu looks at him in complete incredulity for a second before bursting into laughter. He laughs so hard it bowls him over and he has to wave a hand in front of his face for several moments while Liu Qingge watches him.
“You thought-“ Shen Jiu cackles again, “Ah virtuous young master Liu!” He snorts loudly before finally collecting himself enough to speak, “Does virtuous young master Liu believe women do not feel sexual desire?”
Liu Qingge had never thought about whether or not women experienced sexual desire before so he shrugged, “I’ve never heard of a woman visiting a brothel.” He explained and that was that.
Shen Jiu had stopped laughing and was looking at him thoughtfully. The alcohol had brought a flush to his cheeks that was pleasing to look at and his eyes were bright.
“Interesting. Do the young mistresses you know not visit brothels?”
Liu Qingge knew it was probably meant to be a tease but he considered it seriously, “No. It would be improper. It is improper for men to visit brothels as well but women face more consequences for being ruined.”
That was what Mingyan had told him once with a flushed unhappy face after a boy had told her she was being improper by walking around without a chaperone. Liu Qingge had challenged the boy to a duel and soundly thrashed him and no one had dared talk to Mingyan like that again. But still. It was something he was aware of.
“Hmm. That’s why I prefer women.” Shen Jiu said thoughtfully, “They know what it feels to be powerless. They’re nicer.” His fingers tap on the empty wine jar, “I’ve never been hurt by a woman before.”
Liu Qingge considers it, “When I first joined the sect,” He says, “I was challenged to a spar by the head disciple of Qing Jing peak. She broke all of my ribs and my arm. That hurt.”
Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow, “And did you win?”
Liu Qingge nods.
Shen Jiu leans forward and Liu Qingge wonders if he could call him playful, “And what did you do to her?”
Liu Qingge shrugs, “I won and she lost her place as head disciple.”
Shen Jiu blinks, “Just like that?”
Liu Qingge nods, “I think she was embarrassed since I was her junior. Her skull was also cracked in two places and it took time for her to recover.”
Shen Jiu barks an almost surprised laugh, “And that’s what you do to each other in your righteous sect?”
Liu Qingge shrugs, “It’s sparring. It’s not real hurting.”
“Hmm.” Shen Jiu looks thoughtful for a second, “Do they ever beat you?”
Liu Qingge frowns at that, “We have punishments for infractions like being struck with the discipline ruler or whip.”
“Who decides the punishments?” Asks Shen Jiu, sounding really too curious.
Liu Qingge has never really considered this before. He had also never been punished properly before.
“The peak lord. Or the hall master. Or the senior disciple.”
“That sounds like a lot of people.” Shen Jiu says, tipping the jar to tilt on its side with one elegant finger.
“They have to have a reason.” Liu Qingge says, “And with cultivation the wounds tend to heal fast anyway.”
“Hmm.” Shen Jiu tips the jar this way and that. He doesn’t say anything more.
After a while the conversation continues once more onto other subjects.
Shen Jiu was a cutting person with endless criticisms on the world that he could share and Liu Qingge wasn’t the most talkative person at the best of times.
Somehow they made it work.
The routine continued for the next three days during which Shen Jiu seemed to relax in increments around Liu Qingge which only made him more aware of how tense the boy had been when they had first met.
Around day five Liu Qingge was meditating and feeling out his meridians in his usual spot behind the privacy screen when the door banged open.
“Please xiansheng. Not so rough! The madam said-“
“I’ll pay the madam triple.” Came the slurred reply, “Now get on the fucking bed.”
Liu Qingge froze abruptly, shocked by both the violence and the suddenness. Previously any work that Shen Jiu had done had been pre-arranged and from what Liu Qingge could gather he had many regular clients who came at predictable times. While the brothel had a downstairs area where clients could walk in and pick someone up, Shen Jiu had never been chosen by virtue of being popular enough to always have been pre-reserved.
“As xiansheng wishes.” Shen Jiu said solicitously, the submission in his tone a marked contrast from the way he spoke to Liu Qingge.
There was then the sound of a strike meeting flesh and a pained noise. Liu Qingge clenched his fist. He didn’t know what to do. He knew he shouldn’t reveal himself. He still didn’t have access to his spiritual energy and he knew it would just cause trouble if he burst out and beat this guy up. At the end of the day physical violence couldn’t solve everything but….
There was another pained noise.
Liu Qingge grit his teeth.
What kind of useless was he that he couldn’t even help his friend now? His friend was in pain. How could he sit here and listen to this and let this happen? How could he let Shen Jiu be hurt so callously while he was in the same room as him?
Another pained noise.
If Liu Qingge punched the man and knocked him out the man would report it to the brothel. Shen Jiu would get into trouble. Shen Jiu had told him not to make trouble for him. That at all costs that was the one thing he shouldn’t do; make trouble for him.
Liu Qingge closed his eyes. He didn’t know what to do. He opened them again and found himself unintentionally peering right through the gap between the two panels of the privacy screen.
Shen Jiu was looking right at him from where he was under the large man on the bed. Their eyes met and Shen Jiu scowled and mouthed, “COVER YOUR EYES GO AWAY.”
Liu Qingge was still torn but with a sinking stomach he did as requested. If the best thing he could do was listen to Shen Jiu then he would do that.
This time when it was over Shen Jiu let him know by throwing something at him. The cushion hit Liu Qingge square in the head and cause him to open his eyes and take his hands off his ears.
Shen Jiu stood unsteadily and when he walked towards him he was limping slightly. There were exposed bruises all down his chest and he was in the same green silk robe but he hadn't closed it properly so it gaped open, showing off far too many painful looking marks.
Liu Qingge didn't know how to respond so he responded with anger.
“Why didn't you let me do something?” He demanded. He would have hit that man. Knocked him out. Killed him if needed.
Shen Jiu sneered, "What did you think you could do? A brute like you only knows how to do one thing and that's break things, you can't fight everything.”
Liu Qingge burned but… he darted a look at Shen Jiu’s bruises. Well, he wasn’t the one who was hurt. “You're right.” He said and left it at that.
The wind seemed to have gone out of Shen Jiu’s sails. He came closer and ended up sitting down on the day bed with that same tray’s worth of distance between the two of them.
“No snacks today.” He said with a funny little sniff, “But don't even try and be ungrateful, I've treated you very well so far but this isn't a premium inn.”
Liu Qingge looked at the boy next to him. At the proud tilt to his head and the way his hair spilled over his shoulder. At his delicate shoulder blades and even more delicate wrist peeking out beneath the cheap green silk. He looked at how straight he sat but how thoroughly he’d been violated less than a quarter shichen before.
Liu Qingge isn’t sure what to say so he talks about something safe, “I think my spiritual energy is wearing down the seal. It should only take a few more days.”
Shen Jiu nodded, “Good, feeding and caring for you is expensive work.” He turned his nose up imperiously, “My life will be a lot easier once you’re out of my hair.”
Liu Qingge vowed to himself there and then that he would never let his person be hit ever again if he was there and could prevent it. It was solemn vow with all the seriousness the Liu clan could be mocked for by other less righteous families. But right there and then Liu Qingge promised himself that he would keep Shen Jiu as safe as he could for as long as he could.
His desires and future plans began to reshape and coalesce into something more solid as he sat there. If Shen Jiu permitted it Liu Qingge would find more tangible ways to help him than simply money or jewellery.
Before Liu Qingge could say anything else the boy in question had heaved himself up and stumbled over to the basin of water. Without any thought to propriety he dipped a cloth into the water and reached his hand up under his robe to begin cleaning… down there.
Liu Qingge blushed and looked away. He wondered if that meant Shen Jiu had come over to speak to him before he had even cleaned up, just throwing on the robe. He had certainly seen the other in more compromising positions than currently as he washed up under the robe but there was something more intimate about this.
“What do you want as payment?” He ended up asking gruffly as a distraction, “You haven’t named an amount.”
Shen Jiu continued his cleaning and finished before answering, turning back with an interesting expression on his face.
“A lot.” He said, he walked forward back to his position on the daybed and regarded Liu Qingge carefully, “I want to be able to buy out my contract with his brothel.” He spoke very slowly and properly as if every word carried unimaginable weight.
Liu Qingge blinked. “Do you not like it here?” He asked.
Shen Jiu gave him a look as though he considered him a particularly dense brand of idiot, “What do you think? You think I enjoy being a whore?”
Liu Qingge wasn’t sure how he had mis-stepped, but he attempted to correct himself, “Your other clients seem okay?”
Shen Jiu narrowed his eyes at him and in a voice so caustic it could slough flesh right off bone he snapped back a reply, “You think just because I’m a well-treated whore it changes the fact that those people have bought me? That I’m basically a slave?”
“No, no I- after today I can understand-“
“You think that because today is the first time you’ve seen violence you can now understand? That as long as people are nice to me then it’s alright? But if they hit me it isn’t? It’s all the same. To me it feels just as bad if they hit me or they don’t.” Shen Jiu stood up and marched across the room, picking up the cloth before abruptly throwing it back down into the bowl in a fit of pique. Liu Qingge had the sudden thought that he needed to fix this sooner rather than later before it became even worse.
He stood and crossed the length of the room in two strides to bring him by Shen Jiu’s side.
Liu Qingge caught his wrist, an instinctive move he couldn’t suppress, “I’m sorry if I offended you. That was not my intention.”
Shen Jiu’s green eyes narrowed again before he seemed to release some tension with a sigh. “You’re just a privileged young master.”
“Yes. You’re right.” Liu Qingge readily agreed. It hadn’t been until the past few days that he had begun to realise just how much, it wasn’t until Shen Jiu had stumbled into the room today with that client that Liu Qingge understood what it was like to feel powerless.
Shen Jiu looked at him again and then nodded before sitting down on his bed. He didn’t pat the spot next to him but Liu Qingge sat down anyway regardless that this was where the client had been entertained not even a full shichen previously. He was equally as oblivious to the wide-eyed look that earned him from Shen Jiu which was followed by a narrowing of eyes as if Liu Qingge had passed a test he didn’t know he had been set.
“Why don’t you just run away?” Liu Qingge asked.
“They would send people after me and like I said we’re deep in the Borderlands. I couldn’t make it out alone. The best thing I could do is buy out my contract and then leave.”
“How did you end up here?”
“You ask a lot of questions.” Shen Jiu said with a raised eyebrow but he answered, “I was a slave and I escaped my previous owners. I had nowhere to go and after being caught again I ended up at this brothel.”
Liu Qingge nods. An escaped slave. That must have been difficult. Slavery is not a practice the Liu clan endorses but he knows other noble families who do. Liu Qingge has always found the practice distasteful but… it’s not as though he’s tried to do anything about it before. That stings him with shame.
“I confess I expected young master Liu to be more horrified by my past.” Shen Jiu says with the sideways look.
Liu Qingge shrugged in reply. He considers something, “Wouldn’t it be better if I paid for your contract and then took you out of the Borderlands so you don’t have to worry about travelling out?” The hazy form of his plans is beginning to solidify. If Shen Jiu wants to leave that is overall good for what Liu Qingge wants as well.
Shen Jiu seems to pause then, “What?”
“I’ll do it.” Liu Qingge adds.
Shen Jiu is looking at him like he doesn’t understand him but he nods slowly, “I would like that.” He says.
Liu Qingge nods decisively now that it’s been decided, “Good. Be ready to leave soon then.”
That night when he goes to sleep he feels strangely… light.
The next morning when he wakes he ventures outside of the privacy screen to find Shen Jiu picking around the messy room. He helps him clean up just because it seems like the chivalrous thing to do and he’s been increasingly struck by the urge to do things for Shen Jiu. Things like helping him strip his sheets or carry his laundry or put away his clean robes. Things like brew the tea for him (badly) and press the tray of snacks over to him so he can fill up.
Shen Jiu endures this treatment stoically and seems pleased to be able to order around the “young master” at least.
When the room is clean Shen Jiu walks over to the bedside table and opens the bottom compartment to reveal a small shrine. Since Shen Jiu has done this in full view of him Liu Qingge knows that it’s tactic permission to come closer and observe. He watches as Shen Jiu lights a stick of incense and even takes out some crumpled joss money to burn at this small altar.
“For my brother.” Shen Jiu says without prompting.
“I have a younger sister.” Liu Qingge adds for no real reason he can come up with, just that he wanted to share as well.
“He left me as a slave to go become a powerful cultivator so he could come back and rescue me.” Shen Jiu ducks his head as the smoke from the incense curls lazily upwards, “He died somewhere along the way. He never came back.”
Liu Qingge kneels beside him and presses his arm to Shen Jiu’s. After having lived together in this man’s space for the past week he feels like… maybe he knows him. In fact Liu Qingge may even say that he knows Shen Jiu better than he knows most others in his life. Liu Qingge is not a particularly effusive or friendly person. He doesn’t have many friends. He has those he respects but not anyone that he shares true closeness with even in his family.
“I’m sorry.” Liu Qingge say, unsure of what else he could say.
Shen Jiu shakes his head, “It was stupid to think that one small slave boy could have made his way to some Sect and convinced them to take him in and teach him. Stupid. If I got caught after running away then he definitely did. I was always the smarter one.”
Liu Qingge nods and since he doesn't know what to say he follows instinct and says nothing at all. He has dealt with more insecurity the past week than he ever has before.
Shen Jiu presses his arm back hard, “If you betray me I’ll track you down, rip out all your fingernails and cut off your ears.” He says almost conversationally.
Liu Qingge doesn’t mean to laugh but he can’t help the small snort.
When Shen Jiu looks at him this time it’s with that sly expression and nothing but amusement underneath.
Liu Qingge’s spiritual energy finally breaks through the seal ten days after he had been rescued by Shen Jiu. It’s been a long time but he immediately grabs his sword and hops aboard in the tiny courtyard where he had first met Shen Jiu. His arm and leg are already mostly healed, his powerful golden core pulsing in his chest, and he ignores the lingering ache in favour of speed.
“Here.” He hands Shen Jiu Cheng Luan’s scabbard, “To promise I’ll come back. Three days.”
Shen Jiu stands there in the tiny courtyard in the early morning light holding the scabbard and becoming a tiny pinprick in the distance as Liu Qingge rockets off. He’s coming back and he needs to travel as fast as he can to the Liu estate and back if he wants to make the three days.
His grandmother had looked over Liu Qingge’s dishevelled appearance, lack of scabbard, lack of hair crown, lack of bracelet and request for several bags of gold taels with her usual calm contemplation.
She had then handed him a qiankun pouch filled with enough gold to purchase the town the brothel stood in twice over.
“Don’t spend it all at once.” She said with a slight smile.
Liu Qingge had nodded and hopped back onto his sword as several of his uncles and aunts gaped after him.
“I’m here to purchase Shen Jiu’s contract.” Liu Qingge tells the madam. “Go get it.”
She looks him over carefully. He still looks messy but his wealth and standing is stamped into his every motion and movement.
She leaves and returns with a piece of paper. Liu Qingge wonders how ownership of another person can be signified by something so fragile.
“Of course young master. May I ask how you became acquainted with our Jiu’er?” The madam does not relinquish the contract.
Liu Qingge shrugs, “Does it matter? I want to buy his contract. I have gold. How much?”
The madam’s pasted on smile stays, “I’m afraid Jiu’er is rather expensive-“
Liu Qingge digs a hand into the qiankun pouch and pulls out an overflowing handful of gold taels.
“Good?” He asks.
The madam blinks in shock. At this brothel far out here in the Borderlands wealth like this isn’t normal. In fact this callous handful is enough to purchase the whole brothel and everyone in it.
“Ah ah Young Master…”
“Okay I’m going to go get him.” Liu Qingge reaches forward and plucks the contract out of her hands before walking away, the flimsy paper held between his battle-calloused fingers.
Liu Qingge takes the front way up to Shen Jiu’s room this time. It’s his first time walking down the faux-ornate corridor to Shen Jiu’s room. It’s one of the best rooms in the brothel. That makes sense. Shen Jiu is smart enough to get himself a good room.
“Shen Jiu.” Liu Qingge bursts in without knocking and finds his friend standing there with a ready bag slung over his shoulder. He’s holding Liu Qingge’s scabbard in his left hand.
“Are we going now?” He asks mildly. He reaches out to hand Liu Qingge his scabbard.
“Yeah. I paid.” Before anything else he passes Shen Jiu the contract. His friend looks down at the paper and a queer expression crosses his face.
“Hmm.” He rolls it up and puts it in his bag.
Liu Qingge grabs Shen Jiu’s hand then to lead him out and ends up not letting go as the whole brothel watches them walk out.
“Jiu’er.” The madam calls him and Shen Jiu turns to give her a genuine smile.
“Ah Jiu’er.” The madam stops any protests she may have had and instead strokes a hand over Shen Jiu’s hair, “Good luck.”
Shen Jiu smiles brilliantly and when Liu Qingge helps him onto his sword his sleeve slips down enough that he can see his grandmother’s bracelet fastened securely on that slender wrist.
“So where are you taking me?” Shen Jiu asked as they shared some dumplings from a street stand at the first human village they had stopped at after leaving the Borderlands.
Liu Qingge swallows his dumpling, “I could take you to the Liu estate or to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. I’m part of Bai Zhan peak and I have my own quarters. You could stay with me.”
Shen Jiu tilts his head, “Aren’t I a little old for cultivation?” He doesn’t sound particularly bitter though he doesn’t sound happy either.
“Do what you want. You have a spiritual foundation. You could live with me. Or there’s a city at the foot of the mountain. You could live there. I would get you somewhere to live.”
“You’re certainly going above and beyond.” Shen Jiu commented.
Liu Qingge shrugged, “You saved my life. I owe you a debt.”
“Hmm.” Shen Jiu eyed him with some interest, “I pick your sect.”
“Okay.” Liu Qingge pushes the dumplings towards Shen Jiu, “Here.”
“Trying to fatten me up before you have you wicked way with me?” Shen Jiu asks which makes Liu Qingge choke on both his tea and his immediate protests.
When he looks up to glare at Shen Jiu the other is laughing so maybe it’s okay.
Shen Jiu shrieks a little when Liu Qingge abruptly drops the altitude of his sword.
“You brute! Unmannered! Idiotic!” Shen Jiu hits at his stomach with one hand while the other is still wrapped securely around him.
“I told you to hold on.” Liu Qingge says while Shen Jiu continues to spit vitriol at him. He doesn’t really mind; the vitriol is even quite funny after a time, like a spitting feral cat when you first pick it up.
“Hmph.” Shen Jiu huffs and it really is a funny sound.
They land on the peak after nightfall. It’s dark and there’s no one else around.
“I don’t think I’m allowed to have guests.” Liu Qingge says as he leads him through the dark grounds to a well-sized room off the main disciples’ quarters. “I’ve never asked so I’m not sure.”
Shen Jiu rolls his eyes so hard he almost hurts himself.
“I’m taking the bed.” Is what he answers. Flying by sword had been tiring even if he was only a passenger.
“I want the bed.” Liu Qingge says rather petulantly.
They squabbled quietly for a bit and end up sharing the bed.
A week later Shen Jiu comes to the conclusion that cultivation sects are ridiculous. He’s been on Bai Zhan peak for several days and after Liu Qingge had given him one of his uniforms no one had even tried to protest it. (Well maybe one or two at the beginning but after being thoroughly beaten by Liu Qingge they had stopped.)
The so-called Bai Zhan peak lord isn’t even around.
So since Bai Zhan peak is a little desolate (though still one of the nicer places Shen Jiu has ever stayed with a library and free food he gorges himself on) he requests that Liu Qingge take him down the mountain at the end of the second week.
“Okay.” Liu Qingge holds out a hand and Shen Jiu does the (now familiar) little hop onto his sword.
“Is there anything you need?” Liu Qingge asks when they alight in the city.
“Not in particular.” Shen Jiu covers the bottom of his face with his sleeve, “But I think I’m getting a little tired of Bai Zhan’s offerings. Besides,” He flicks his sleeve as he walks away and Liu Qingge instinctively goes to follow, “It’s boring without you around. Those fellow disciples of yours don’t even look at me and there’s not all that much to do now that I’ve exhausted the library.”
“Hmm,” Liu Qingge considers it, “That makes sense.”
Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, “I’m glad you think it makes sense.”
“I’ll buy you some books.” Liu Qingge decides and Shen Jiu sniffs a little.
“See that you do. And some tanghulu.”
After their little shopping excursion Shen Jiu makes an important stop (with a flushed Liu Qingge in tow).
“Brothels are excellent hubs of information.” Shen Jiu says seriously, “And if you’re good to the jiejies they’ll repay you.”
“It’s not proper.” Liu Qingge said stiffly as they stood across the street from the Warm Red Pavilion.
Shen Jiu rolled his eyes, “You lived with me in a brothel in the same room I was entertaining clients in for almost two weeks. You’ll live through a visit. Besides, the virtuous young master Liu wasn’t having any plans of doing anything improper was he?” He leans in close and relishes the way Liu Qingge chokes and coughs on his words. Ah this young master is so easy to rile up and so utterly unthreatening with all his stupid strict principles.
“Fine. Let’s go.” Liu Qingge straightens himself like he’s about to go to war and marches forward to the entrance of the brothel while Shen Jiu follows at a more sedate and rather amused pace.
Amusement. That was good. The one thing Shen Jiu had done his best to cultivate over the years. A sense of distant almost indulgent amusement at life. Trying to never take anything too seriously and instead stepping back and viewing his life for the cosmic heavenly tragedy it was and all the funnier for it. In Shen Jiu’s life when something went wrong it went wrong and experience had taught him that if he thought too deeply about things then it would destroy him. He had tried to change his fate so many times only to be sucked deeper into a whirlpool of suffering.
He’d had that thought once when Qiu Jianluo was beating him and he was waiting desperately for Yue Qi to come back. That it was almost funny how someone as insignificant as himself could attract the deep hatred of young master Qiu. Almost as though there was something about him that offended on sight.
The laugh he had let out had unnerved Qiu Jianluo to the point that he had stopped the beating. It had been the first piece of good fortune Shen Jiu had experienced in a long time.
Then not even a full two months after escaping the Qiu household after the time young master Qiu had tried to rape him he had found himself caught by more slavers and sold to a brothel. It was so ironic he wanted to laugh.
So he did.
The brothel wasn’t so bad all things considering. In the Borderlands he was a particularly rich offering once the grime had been scrubbed off. Young and untouched and pretty; he had quickly become popular enough to command some power even with his status as a technical slave. Sex was easy enough even with how distasteful it could be. His truly abusive customers were rare and those who tended to spend on him were the types that wanted to luxuriate in his beauty, not ruin it.
So, from another pit Shen Jiu had clawed his way up and up until he was the brothel’s top earner with the nicest room and enough freedom to go for walks on his own and choose enough of his own customers to be comfortable. He helped the madam with the books and became indispensable enough that he was rarely forced to do anything he didn’t want to do.
He could have lived like that forever. Having run from being made a whore only to have learned to luxuriate in the life of being a whore.
Of course there were levels to this as there were levels to being a slave. Being a kitchen slave was different than being a lady’s maid which was different from being an alley whore which was different from being a concubine. At the end of the day though it was just different flavours of ownership but still, Shen Jiu was young and tenacious enough that he could keep clawing his way forward.
His life had continued in that strange pattern until Liu Qingge crashed into him, knocking his trajectory off course. Now Shen Jiu is free but still doesn’t have anywhere to go. He could leave anytime he wanted, Liu Qingge had proved himself to be that special kind of privileged and powerful that bred naivety. Shen Jiu could bleed him dry before the other even realised.
But for now he was fine not tempting fate further.
“Madam.” He greets the lady of the brothel, “Could me and my friend perhaps trouble you for a table and some tea.”
The madam checks the Bai Zhan peak uniforms at the same time her eyes catch on Liu Qingge’s expensive hair crown and even more expensive bearing before flickering to the priceless bracelet still fastened around Shen Jiu’s wrist.
“Of course young masters.” She says smoothly, “Please come in. Let me call some of my girls to entertain you.”
Shen Jiu smiles prettily at her but he knows when she sees him she recognises that he’s a little filthier than the pristine young master by his side. It’s something about a look or a walk or the tone of one's voice. Shen Jiu can always tell a fellow street rat no matter how clean they scrub themselves. It looks like he’s still recognisable as well.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means he knows how to charm the girls sent to their table and probe them for gossip and local stories. He laughs at their colourful descriptions of the Cang Qiong disciples that are brothel regulars and only laughs harder at the expression of complete disgusted disbelief on Liu Qingge’s face.
“Cang Qing disciples? Improper!” Is his only comment.
The girls titter and laugh and end up spending most of their time cooing over how pretty young master Shen is and how “serious” his friend.
They leave several hours later after Shen Jiu had prompted Liu Qingge to leave behind a hefty purse. As they fly back to the peak Liu Qingge finally comments on their excursion.
“It was… good. I did not know that was what the common people thought of Huan Hua Palace.”
“Hmm, or that the people think the demon that has been stealing children wasn’t actually vanquished and is back?”
“I will talk to the sect leader about that.” Liu Qingge says firmly, “It should have been dealt with by Qing Jing peak and if they have lied about-“
Such a serious young master. Shen Jiu found his amusement rising anytime he even looked Liu Qingge’s scowl. How could someone who knew so little about life be so hard?
“So quick to jump to accusations!” Shen Jiu can’t help but reach up with a hand and pull Liu Qingge’s ponytail.
Liu Qingge huffs at the contact but doesn’t protest overly much and when they alight on Bai Zhan peak he helps Shen Jiu put away all his new books and then leaves him alone so he can read.
Obviously this state of affairs couldn’t last forever. It comes to a head one day when Bai Zhan’s wayward Peak Lord finally comes back.
Shen Jiu is dragged out alongside Liu Qingge (who looks his usual amount of irritated) to kneel in front of the man.
“So Liu Qingge brought someone to come live on Bai Zhan peak?” The Peak Lord raises an eyebrow, “And did not inform me?”
“This one did not know how to contact Shifu when they were away.” Liu Qingge says, not sounding guilty in the least.
The peak lord hums and from Shen Jiu’s experience a hum like that from a powerful man is not a good sound, “And he is dressed in a disciple’s uniform because…”
“This one only has uniforms to lend him.” Liu Qingge explains.
The disciples that surround them look like they’re impressed by his daring. Shen Jiu internally despairs that this stupid man has to always be so infuriatingly honest and straightforward. He couldn’t talk his way out of a pile of wet paper.
“So my disciple masqueraded an unknown individual as a Bai Zhan disciple and allowed him to live on our peak and believed there would be no adverse consequences?”
Liu Qingge seems to be considering that, “This disciple did not think about it.”
Now the looks of the people around them have become rather more incredulous than impressed.
“This individual will have to leave Bai Zhan peak as they are not a disciple.” The peak lord says and Liu Qingge nods at that though he doesn’t look pleased. Shen Jiu isn’t surprised. He knew this couldn’t last forever and he and Liu Qingge had already discussed having him move down the mountain. They just hadn’t gotten around to it.
“And Disciple Liu will receive fifty strikes for not considering the consequences of his actions and his deception.”
Liu Qingge accepts this very easily and even Shen Jiu has to admit that with the other’s cultivation it’s not all that harsh a punishment.
“And his guest will receive the same amount.”
At this Liu Qingge stands up looking visibly upset, “That’s not fair.” He argues, “He’s not a disciple. The decisions and fault were mine.”
The peak lord doesn’t reply apart from a wave of his hand to direct someone to restrain his wayward disciple.
Liu Qingge snarls, “He’s not a cultivator! He might die!”
The peak master just shrugs in a rather dismissive gesture, “Then Disciple Liu should have considered the consequences of his actions.”
Shen Jiu considers this turn of events rather in line with his general luck. It makes sense for this to be how he dies (if that is what is going to happen) and he does somewhat agree that fifty strikes from a trained cultivator might likely kill him.
He wonders if he should beg for his life.
But by the look of this man it would not make a difference. This peak lord intends to use him as a lesson to his top disciple and most likely to the rest of his peak as well. What’s Shen Jiu’s life in the grand scheme of things? He’s just one orphaned gutter rat. What does he matter to the lives and development of the young masters and mistresses of this righteous sect?
He fingers the coins in his sleeve and feels the weight of the bracelet around his wrist. He’s sure he can kill his way out if necessary and the bracelet will do a good job to feed him while he tries to carve himself a new life.
He darts a look at the visibly furious Liu Qingge and wonders what the consequences to him will be when his guest ends up murdering some of his martial brothers and sisters. He’s sure it can’t be so bad, although by the callous treatment he’s currently receiving he’s not sure.
Said young master is still arguing passionately for him.
“I’ll take his punishment.” He says hotly, “I can take a hundred strikes.”
“And who is this disciple to question my judgement?” Asks the peak lord mildly, “Is he the master of this peak or am I?”
Liu Qingge doesn’t respond. Instead his brow wrinkles as he frowns hard.
Then suddenly his sword is in his hand, “You won’t take back your punishment?” He asks lowly.
The peak lord shakes his head, “This one has made his decision.”
“Then I, Liu Qingge, issue a challenge for the position of Peak Lord.”
Shen Jiu can’t help his mouth from dropping opening slightly. This is… for him?
The peak lord doesn’t react simply humming and giving a brief nod.
Shen Jiu is dragged away to the edge of the wide training field while the two opponents stand opposite each other. Shen Jiu wants to shout, wants to stop Liu Qingge because he’s challenging his peak lord, an immortal master with decades upon decades upon a century of experience and while Liu Qingge is good, very very good, how can he beat him?
But there’s another part of him that’s vicious and hungry and being fed by this display, by Liu Qingge putting everything on the line for him. Maybe it’s only for principle and honour’s sake; it’s certainly the stupidest thing he’s ever witnessed, but it’s more than anyone else has ever done or even been able to do for him. Maybe Qi-ge would have wanted to protect him, Shen Jiu certainly believes that, but what could his poor Qi-ge do? He was just a slave with no special powers.
Liu Qingge stands tall and strong with his hair blowing slightly in the wind and his sword shining almost brightly enough to blind and when he strikes it’s with enough strength to make the ground tremble.
Shen Jiu can’t stop himself from watching. Even when he knows it would be the perfect moment to slip away and save himself, he still watches.
Liu Qingge has put everything on the line for him.
When Liu Qingge wins, the blade of his sword pressed against his shizun’s neck, Shen Jiu feels the vindication thrum through every part of him.
“You seem to be an expert at causing trouble.” Shen Jiu comments as he and Liu Qingge move their things out of the disciple’s room into the peak lord’s house, “And I don’t like this house.”
Now that one peak lord has unofficially stepped down it’s time for all of them to do the same. Thankfully head disciples have already been chosen for every peak so it’s a simple matter of wrapping up affairs. Bai Zhan peak is the only place where the new peak lord is chosen by who can fight and defeat the incumbent one. Now that Liu Qingge has kicked off the process there is nothing to do but for the other peak lords to move on.
Liu Qingge considers the house, “What kind of house do you want?” He asks.
Shen Jiu looks around the barren space critically, “Somewhere more comfortable looking. And I don’t want to be surrounded by a desolate wasteland. I want a… bamboo forest.”
“I can plant bamboo.” Liu Qingge concedes.
“Good. And a back terrace that I can drink tea on. Big windows. All wooden. Tasteful furniture. This place looks like a prison.”
Liu Qingge nods, “You can do the decorating.”
“Hmph. Good.” Shen Jiu sits down on the bed and frowns critically, “This bed is too hard.”
Liu Qingge presses down on the mattress with his hand, “It’s softer than the bed in the disciple’s quarters.”
Shen Jiu sniffs, “And you’re not a disciple anymore. If this bed remains this way I’ll move into the Warm Red Pavilion.”
Liu Qingge scowls, “No. I don’t want to visit you there.”
“Awww, is virtuous young master Liu scared of the jiejie’s teasing?” Shen Jiu faux coos.
Liu Qingge glares but doesn’t protest, “I’ll get a new bed.” He says before turning to empty the contents of one of their qinakun pouches on the floor, “We need to go back to the Liu estate to visit my family and let them know about my ascension. I promised them I would visit if I became peak lord.”
Shen Jiu wonders when they became a “we”.
He decides not to think on it.
Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, “So cocky.”
“My little sister is also thinking about becoming a disciple so we can collect her and bring her back.” Liu Qingge adds.
Shen Jiu turns up his nose, “Well I certainly hope she’ll be better company that you.”
Liu Qingge doesn’t react to the insult, “We can leave for Liu estate tomorrow. I can fly us there.”
“Fine. But you should give some instructions to the other disciples before you leave. They’ll tear the peak apart otherwise.”
Liu Qingge nods shortly and leaves to either do that or go beat up some practice dummies. It’s unclear but either way Shen Jiu rolls his eyes and goes to the attached kitchen to make some tea before preparing ingredients for dinner. He then finds an interesting looking book and sits down to read.
It’s later that it suddenly occurs to him (as he’s making dinner) that he doesn’t know when he became a wife.
The idea percolates around his mind for a while but ultimately as he and Liu Qingge are eating dinner he concedes that he would much rather be a wife than a whore or a concubine and by the way the other watches him… well he’s happy to be the spoiled Liu-furen for now.
Liu estate is opulent. So opulent it’s deeply intimidating.
Shen Jiu can’t help the way his hand clutches back at Liu Qingge’s where the man had grabbed it to stabilise him after they had alighted his sword. He thinks the other man likes holding his hand because he doesn’t let go.
They walk through the large entrance and past the various courtyards and training grounds to what looks like a central hall.
“My family will have gathered now that they know I’m here.” Liu Qingge explains, “We will greet my grandparents and my parents. And some Uncles and Aunties I suppose.”
“Do they know who I am?” Shen Jiu can’t help but ask as they draw closer and closer to the opulent looking building.
“I don’t think so. But it’s fine. I won’t let anything bad happen.” Liu Qingge says firmly and against his better judgement Shen Jiu believes him. He had fought a peak lord and won for him anyway, what does one more battle mean?
“Greetings to grandmother and parents.” Liu Qingge says abruptly as they enter. Shen Jiu almost colours at the borderline rude address and the way Liu Qingge is still holding his hand.
The woman seated in the place of prominence who must be his grandmother laughs.
“Ah Qingge still hasn’t changed. So is my beloved grandson here to give us some good news?” The woman asks.
Liu Qingge nods and bows (still holding Shen Jiu’s hand which forces him to bow alongside him with the eyes of the entire hall upon them), “Yes. This one has ascended to Bai Zhan peak lord.”
“Very good.” His grandmother says and her tone is teasing, “Is there anything else?”
Liu Qingge frowns, “No.”
“Mmm. I suppose a little more time then.” The matriarch sighs slightly, “Ah and I was so excited. Now,” And she’s smiling, “Please introduce us to your friend.”
Shen Jiu’s hand is held all the way through the introductions and up to lunch. Liu Qingge doesn’t explain how they met apart from the fact that Shen Jiu had saved his life which had drawn approving nods from everyone in attendance.
Shen Jiu wonders how there can be an entire family as wealthy and evidently powerful as the Lius who are all of the same mind as Liu Qingge.
He tells him so when they are later settled into rooms in Liu Qingge’s old courtyard which is beautiful and tasteful and obviously had been designed and decorated by someone else. If Liu Qingge had his way there would be a bed and an array of weapons and nothing else.
As he sits on a low table in the courtyard under a blossom tree sipping a delicious blend of tea he wonders at his strange fortunes. What will happen next? Will he ascend to heaven? Will a ghost king strike him down? Will he find out that Qi-ge has been alive with amnesia this entire time?
It turns out that what ends up happening is Liu Qingge bullying him into another spar. It has become an almost daily thing now that Shen Jiu can’t say that he particularly likes but is good for him. For both of them. Liu Qingge fights far too straight and to the book, he usually wins through his naturally superior strength. When facing a wily opponent like Shen Jiu who is so much weaker he flounders and comes close to failing a few times.
Shen Jiu is an innovative fighter; even with his low unpractised cultivation and lack of former training he can work around Liu Qingge’s blows and press his advantage more times than he should be able to.
He uses his (personally) much appreciated coin trick to force Liu Qingge back and on a whim grabs the handle of his sword, getting close enough to bush his lips over Liu Qingge’s cheek as he pressed his advantage, and twisted the other’s wrist forcing him to drop Cheng Luan.
“Don’t get distracted Qingge.” Shen Jiu had said, almost a coo.
Liu Qingge was beet red but still tried his best to rally even without his sword.
The two of them ended up tussling on the ground and that was the position that Liu Qingge’s mother found them in when she came to collect them for dinner.
“Oh my.” She said, hand lifted delicately to her mouth, “Well, I’m glad the two of you are getting time alone.”
It was at that moment that the realisation dawned on Shen Jiu that it wasn’t just him who was considering his place in Liu Qingge’s life to be rather… wife-like.
On the way to dinner Liu Qingge seemed amendable to even holding his hand again with very little prompting from Shen Jiu bar a few nudges.
His mother confirmed every suspicion he had by telling him how nice to was to see Qingge “with someone” and that he had been so “solitary” before. Shen Jiu spared a second to wonder if this whole family was touched in the head for thinking that it was acceptable for their first-born son to cavort around with just anyone. Shen Jiu was self-aware enough to know that he possessed none of the qualities that would make him a good match for someone like Liu Qingge. He was not well-connected nor independently wealthy nor a strong cultivator. In fact, the Liu family should be assuming he was a fortune hunter and chase him off. Idiots. All of them.
Dinner is pleasant in that the entire Liu clan seems to prefer saying as few words at one time as possible and talking exclusively about fighting. There’s a lot of questions about Liu Qingge’s fight with the (now former) Bai Zhan peak lord and his sword moves are hummed over and discussed with enthusiasm usually reserved for the most salacious of gossip.
Shen Jiu would roll his eyes if he wasn’t so fascinated by it. By how the richness of the food contrasts with the way one of Qingge’s uncles discusses new sword polishing oils with a fervour reserved for religious devotion. By the way the cultured accents slide side by side with the most scathing (and shortest) criticism of the current emperor’s new tax policy on weapons manufacturing. It’s hilarious to think that this is what one of the most powerful cultivation clans does when they get together. It’s perhaps the least sinister gathering of powerful people Shen Jiu has ever seen.
Later as he and Liu Qingge walk back to the courtyard, he observes the way the other’s profile looks in the moonlight. The strength in his shoulders. The noble tilt to his brows and nose. The way he walks with purpose like he knows his exact place in the world and has never felt uncertain of it not being there for him anymore even if he has to leave for some time.
Shen Jiu has never had that. Shen Jiu has always only been able to define himself in relation to the people around him. From his parents who sold him, the slavers who used him, the other beggar children who fought him, the Qius who abused him, the brothel clients who paid for him and now Liu Qingge. What is Liu Qingge to him? What is he to Liu Qingge?
When they get back to the courtyard he ends up pulling Liu Qingge to his room.
“I’ve gotten used to sleeping beside you.” He says as dismissively as he can, “That’s your fault of course and you can take responsibility by staying here with me tonight.”
Liu Qingge doesn’t question it. Instead he just nods and gets ready for bed and later when his breathing has evened out Shen Jiu allows himself to take in the visage of this man in the low light. This man who is so strong and powerful and yet seems to be happy to use that power for Shen Jiu’s ends.
He could leave. Shen Jiu thinks to himself. The thought turns his stomach. He could leave me. Everyone leaves even if they don’t mean to.
He thinks to poor Qi-ge and feels that familiar stab of grief, softened by the years into something manageable and even warm. Even if Shen Jiu was a nothing in the eyes of the universe he had been loved once and by someone as fundamentally good as Yue Qi. Good enough that he had tried his best to save him. It wasn’t Yue Qi’s fault he wasn’t able to. It wasn’t Yue Qi’s fault that fate and fortune had turned their backs on them at that time. Yue Qi had not lived a charmed life. He had been a slave as well and one just as abandoned and spat upon as Shen Jiu.
But for a time they had each other. For a time, they could rely on each other for warmth and love and support. For a time, Shen Jiu believed that he had made Yue Qi happy.
When they return to Bai Zhan peak Liu Qingge helps him build a small shrine for his lost brother in their new house and makes sure to pick up incense and joss papers anytime he goes out.
If I am a wife I am a very lucky one. Shen Jiu thinks to himself as he burns the paper money on a cloudy morning. Don’t worry Qi-ge, I’ll be okay and as long as I’m alive I’ll make sure that you’ll never want for anything in the afterlife.
“Want to come with me on a hunt?” Asks Liu Qingge one evening after he had returned from a peak lord meeting.
Shen Jiu stretches, “What’s in it for me?”
Liu Qingge shrugs, “You’ll like it. We can sightsee.”
Shen Jiu hums and gets up off the daybed, “Will the venerable Liu Qingge carry me on his sword?” He asks, deliberately flirtatious as he sidles closer to his not-quite husband. He is aware that until there exists a formal agreement his position is still somewhat vulnerable. While he is sure that Liu Qingge is not the kind of person to kick him out of his house or set him aside on a whim he is aware that does not mean other circumstances might not exist to force him out of his life.
He flicks open the fan Liu Qingge gifted him and watches the way the man’s eyes track the movement as he flutters it playfully.
“Yes.” Liu Qingge says shortly, flushing, before turning and marching off.
Shen Jiu snickers to himself at Liu Qingge’s panic. The man seemed to know next to nothing about sex or “dual cultivation” as he called it and it was always amusing to see him react to flirtation with no idea of what the reaction meant or what to do next.
That night as they sleep in the same bed Shen Jiu wonders rather playfully to himself what more he can do to push the man next to him closer to taking those three bows.
The mission is actually a lot of fun.
Mostly so because after Liu Qingge defeats the monster (using most of his spiritual energy while Shen Jiu watches) and they are heading back to the village they are beset upon by a few fierce corpses. Just weak ones without much power but Qingge still struggles slightly as he wavers on the edge of unconsciousness. Shen Jiu takes out the first with his coin knife trick and the second with the dagger he keeps in his sleeve.
For the third he grabs Qingge’s own sword and slices the corpse’s head clean off.
When he turns back to Liu Qingge he finds that the man looks… aroused. Certainly interested. Shen Jiu knows he’s attracted by strength so he allows himself a moment with Liu Qingge’s sword in his hands as he smiles cockily.
“Should I call you Liu-shidi now?” His smirk widens at the blush that darkens on his should-be husband’s cheeks.
“Good job.” The man manages to choke out and that night when they share a bed Shen Jiu cuddles up close just because he can and Liu Qingge doesn’t push him away, instead when the other’s breathing goes deep and even, he pulls him close enough to bury his nose in his hair.
Shen Jiu revels in both the victory and the sweet feeling of Liu Qingge’s arms around him.
When Shen Jiu had been a child he’d had a strong aversion to touch. This had mostly been because touch had usually meant hurt and self-preservation was a very normal instinct.
Then he had met Yue Qi and he had been okay with his Qi-ge touching him.
The Qius hadn’t beaten that hatred of touch out of him but when Qiu Haitang had wanted to play with his hair or hold his hand he hadn’t minded so much.
And then he had set the Qiu estate on fire and started working in a brothel. His aversion to touch had to be quickly dealt with then so he had created strict mind games with himself to manage it. Like the fact that he was being paid. Before he would be beaten for free. Now he was being touched for money and while the brothel kept most of it he was allowed a small allowance.
He could justify the touch if it was for actual money. The very thing he used to beg on the streets for. With what he made at the brothel he could afford a stick of tanghulu or a pot of rouge or a pretty book every so often. The things that made life bearable. He could trade comfort for those small pieces of happiness. He could trade comfort for being able to light a stick of incense for Qi-ge. He could trade comfort for the price of being able to carve out his own place in the world where he felt even somewhat safe.
Liu Qingge is very easy to touch. Shen Jiu wonders how it happened. By what strange confluence of factors that had convinced his broken, muddled mind that Liu Qingge was safe. Maybe it was because the boy was so injured when they first met, injured with his spiritual energy sealed so that he didn’t seem a threat. Maybe it’s because he’s so wealthy and powerful and it’s another instance of Shen Jiu being able to trade his comfort for the price of making his life liveable.
Maybe it’s because Liu Qingge said he’d be back in three days and made it back with an overflowing money pouch in two. Maybe it’s because the first thing he did when they met again was throw his contract at him like that slip of paper was an afterthought and not the most important thing in Shen Jiu’s life. Maybe it’s because Liu Qingge took him into his home and never made him feel like he had to earn a place there, never made him feel like he had to earn his keep.
Maybe it’s because Liu Qingge isn’t all that much better than him. He’s awkward and blunt and outwardly rude. He ignores social rules and is far too forceful. He can’t manage social situations and people don’t like him after he opens his mouth no matter how pretty or strong or well-bred he is. It’s funny, when him and Shen Jiu stand side by side somehow Shen Jiu comes out the charming one between them.
Maybe it’s because Liu Qingge calls out his “dastardly tricks” when sparring but doesn’t make him stop. Maybe it’s because the man is loyal to an alarming degree and loyalty is the one quality that Shen Jiu had always wanted but never believed he would truly be able to have a hold on in life. He never thought someone would want to (or could afford to) give all of that to him.
It’s as he’s replacing the offerings in Qi-ge’s shrine that the memory sparks in his mind like dry kindling catching alight.
Dark and cold as always and a small Shen Jiu reaching up toward his most important person, “In this lifetime I give all my loyalty to you!”
Shen Jiu can blame Qi-ge for dying but he knows it’s not the boy’s fault. So many slave children they knew had died. Truly they were lucky to have lived as long as they had and now Shen Jiu is living a life of privilege that he could never have properly envisioned even in all his childish imaginings. Living as essentially the pampered spouse of a Cang Qiong peak lord. All he spends his time doing is reading books and practicing the arts (Liu Qingge had gotten him a guqin at his request) and accompanying his should-be husband on the occasional nighthunt.
If Shen Jiu feels like he needs some extra stimulation he’ll walk down the mountain and duck into teahouses and brothels (especially frequenting the Warm Red Pavilion) to pick up gossip which he will then relay back to Liu Qingge. The man is hopeless with any kind of information so Shen Jiu had taken to writing him little reports that he could bring to his little peak lord meetings. The one about Huan Hua’s head disciple and her little demon lover had been most illuminating and honestly, quite scandalous.
Liu Qingge had spluttered loudly about demons being evil and how could she have loved a demon and blah blah but Shen Jiu had shut him up quite easily with the simple fact that many humans were also evil. Probably more so than the majority of demons. In fact he had met his fair share of demons at the brothel and found them no more or less distasteful than their human counterparts.
Liu Qingge had gone quiet at that and brooded which basically meant that he had chopped up a bunch of firewood and killed something that he had brought back to Shen Jiu like a large cat seeking favour with an owner. Shen Jiu wasn’t sure what he actually felt bad about; assuming demons were worse than humans? Or maybe it was an apology for the fact that Shen Jiu had had to face awful humans in his lifetime? Either way Shen Jiu had fluttered his fan lazily and accepted the offering. He’d then gotten one of the disciples to butcher it for their evening meal later.
Liu Qingge returns from his visit to his family having taken the long way home to stave off his internal panic and regain some equilibrium. He’s been away from his peak for a week now and while even as a disciple he would spend long periods of time away on missions and generally hunting now it’s rare for him to spend so much time away. Or at least to go so long without seeing Shen Jiu.
He returns with what feels like several jin worth of jewellery burning a hole in his qiankun pouch. He also has what feels like a permanent blush on his face from the way his grandmother and mother had cornered him over tea with the jewellery and told him to make his intentions clear.
Liu Qingge wasn’t completely ignorant and he knew the way the was living with Shen Jiu was essentially as good as a marriage but he had been… hesitant to move forward. It wasn’t for the reasons perhaps assumed but stemmed from them even so. Shen Jiu had been a slave who had been forced into prostitution. Liu Qingge worries that maybe what he is is another cage used to trap the man, that he’s simply traded one kind of confinement for another. Of course, Shen Jiu can leave whenever he wants but… where would he go?
Liu Qingge has many places he can go. Many relatives to turn to. Even his martial brothers and sisters, but Shen Jiu has no family. If Liu Qingge mistreats him then who is he meant to go to for recourse? If Liu Qingge locks him up who will let him out? He’s aware that the first person to protect him will be Shen Jiu himself and that Liu Qingge is unlikely to get away with harming the other. Shen Jiu is strong and clever and willing to do anything to win (as he should. As life had beaten into him). But will Shen Jiu accept his proposal even if he doesn’t want to because he believes he can’t stay without it?
Liu Qingge wonders what he’ll do if his proposal is rejected.
What will he do if it’s accepted?
Is this the right thing to do? Marrying Shen Jiu is a strange concept- almost hazy in nature. Liu Qingge had never once imagined marriage in any future of his. Being a peak lord, hunting rare beasts, defending his family… all these were things that could conceivable feature in his mindscape but marriage? It was not something he had ever considered and never seemed to be a pressing concern. He feels far too young right now although he knows that he is of usual marrying age, in fact rather a lot older than the typical age for non-immortals.
Liu Qingge tries to imagine not marrying Shen Jiu. Not having Shen Jiu living in his house snapping at him or watching his back on nighthunts is equally as unimaginable. The thought of Shen Jiu marrying someone else and sharing their bed causes his stomach to fill with hot oil. He doesn’t like it and decides it cannot be allowed to stand.
He alights on the peak and grips the qiankun pouch with bloodless fingers.
“You’re back.” Shen Jiu emerges from their bedroom. He’s holding a book in one hand and his hair is delightfully messy probably from him reclining on the bed to read, “How was the trip?”
Liu Qingge doesn’t want to imagine not having this person waiting for him asking after his wellbeing.
In lieu of a response he shoves the qiankun pouch at him, “For you.” He says stiffly.
Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow and puts down his book so he can open it. The jewellery is pulled out carefully, jewels and jade glimmering in the low light.
“Marry me.” Liu Qingge says shortly. He doesn’t regret the delivery. He can’t imagine trying to get the words out any other way.
Shen Jiu looks up at him, green eyes glittering as much as the jade pendant he is currently fingering.
“Is that a proposal Qingge?” He asks, voice low.
Liu Qingge nods, “Yes. I promise to always remain faithful to you and to protect you to the best of my abilities. I will support you in your endeavours as you support me and strive to be a good husband to you.” His voice is strong and doesn’t waver and he hopes Shen Jiu doesn’t notice the way his fist trembles where it rests behind his back.
Shen Jiu smiles then, “How could I say no to such a moving declaration?” He pulls out a long string of jade beads and pearls interspersed with dripping pendants of precious gems. It is an extremely ostentatious piece of jewellery, far more than anything Liu Qingge had imagined his family could own, “Put this on me.” He commands and Liu Qingge moves to fasten the clasp around Shen Jiu’s slender neck, fingers brushing the soft skin as he does so which elicits a fascinating little shiver.
“You have to train me in cultivation.” Shen Jiu says seriously, “I want to be an immortal master as well so I need a strong golden core.”
“Mn.” Liu Qingge stepped back and marvelled at how well Shen Jiu carried a necklace that by all rights looked far too elaborate and heavy to be worn comfortably, especially since it should look out of place paired with causal robes like his fiancé was doing so. Instead the other man looked like an emperor, just as imperious and in control as he had when he had led Liu Qingge into his room in the brothel and into safety. “I’ll train you.” He confirmed, “It won’t be easy but you have some foundation so it shouldn’t be impossible.”
Shen Jiu nodded imperiously, “Good. As you should, since you’re going to be my husband and vowed to support me.” He then marched over to the shrine to his brother in the corner and placed the pretty jade pendant he had been holding earlier onto the little offering plate next to the orange he had put there that morning. “Come here.” He commanded.
Liu Qingge crossed the room and sank to his knees next to Shen Jiu in front of the shrine.
“Qi-ge.” Shen Jiu said and it wasn’t the first time Liu Qingge had heard that name but it was the first time he had heard Shen Jiu makes his prayers out loud, “I’m getting married. I hope you will bless the marriage.” He looked sideways at Liu Qingge with that sly look that Liu Qingge now knew just meant he was unsure and was covering it up, “You’re my family and you may not be here anymore but… I want to do my second bow to you. I hope you’re okay where you are.”
Liu Qingge stared at the small sticks of incense and tiny piles of ash. He wished Shen Jiu hadn’t lost his brother very keenly at that moment. It just seemed too unfair that so much devotion and love wasn’t able to land where it was supposed to.
“If we have children.” Liu Qingge said very slowly and cautiously because he hadn’t thought about this either but it seemed to be the right thing to say and Shen Jiu never really scolded him for saying the wrong thing if he was trying, “We can name one after your brother.”
Shen Jiu looked at him, visibly startled, but then his smile became properly warm. Not performative or sly or like a smirk but instead a warm happy look.
“You would have gotten on well.” Shen Jiu says, “He was… principled. Like you. It was stupid because we were slaves so he just got us into trouble by trying to look out for others.” He shakes his head, “That’s how I got sold to the Qius. He looked out for another slave, I saved his life and then that slave ratted us out.” Shen Jiu hummed thoughtfully his eyes fixed on the shrine, “And now he’s gone. I can’t be too angry though. Maybe it’s kinder that he’s gone. Life is just suffering.” And then he gives Liu Qingge that same sly look, “You should also vow not to let me suffer.”
Liu Qingge nods, “I promised to protect you.”
Shen Jiu nodded, pleased, “Then I suppose that’s good enough. Qi-ge,” He calls again, “Don’t worry about me. If you’re being an idiot and sticking around to watch or something you can move on now.”
“I’ll take care of Shen Jiu.” Liu Qingge says then, “I swear it.”
And with that they both bow to the shrine.
“Does anyone have anything else to add?” Zhangmeng Shixiong asks at the end of their meeting.
Liu Qingge nods and clears his throat prompting everyone to turn towards him, “Yes. I’m getting married. It will be at the Liu estate; all my martial brothers and sister are invited.”
There’s silence for a second before the room explodes into noise. Liu Qingge sinks down in his seat a little. He wishes Shen Jiu was here to deal with it, he was so much better at this kind of thing than him. Liu Qingge simply didn’t have the patience or energy to deal with other people.
“Congratulations Liu shidi.” Zhangmeng Shixiong says with genuine happiness although the man’s general air of melancholy is always present no matter what.
“Thanks.” Liu Qingge answers.
“Who’s the lucky bride?” Asks Qi Qingqi with not a little teasing, “How have we heard nothing about them?”
“Is it the same individual that lives with Liu Shidi currently?” The Qing Jing peak lord asked.
Liu Qingge nodded even as there was a new round of shrieks at the fact that he had been living with his future spouse for so long without any of his martial brother or sisters being aware. Liu Qingge didn’t understand the confusion. He had never made it a secret that he was living with Shen Jiu. Nor had he made it a secret that he had challenged his Shifu over Shen Jiu being beaten.
“We have been living together for a few years now since before I ascended to peak lord.” Liu Qingge answered with some confusion. That simply prompted more yells that he couldn’t be bothered to try and deal with.
“I’m leaving.” He announced while everyone continued to speculate on his life.
Once back on his own peak Shen Jiu looked up from where he had been painting the bamboo around their house, “How was your announcement?” He asked.
“Tiresome.” Liu Qingge decided on and because they were getting married very soon on the next auspicious date and because this wasn’t improper since it was his fiancée (and no more improper than sharing a bed) he lay down next to Shen Jiu and used the man’s thigh as a pillow.
Shen Jiu hummed but didn’t stop painting and there in that position Liu Qingge felt lulled enough to slip into sleep.
Despite the fact that his family was organising the wedding and all that it involved Liu Qingge felt that during he run up to the ceremony he had somehow been uncomfortable busy. Mingyan was now a constant presence in the bamboo house on Bai Zhan peak to bother him and (an indulgent) Shen Jiu for details on the ceremony and generally spent a lot of time staring at the two of them and sighing dreamily which amused Shen Jiu and annoyed Liu Qingge.
He returned to his peak from his latest mission with his disciples (strongly encouraged by Shen Jiu) in a rather foul mood. The members of his peak were a little useless and it seemed as though the hall masters were doing very little to teach them. Maybe Shen Jiu was right… maybe he needed to spend more time training his disciples.
He pushed open the door to the bamboo house then and was utterly unprepared for the sight that awaited him. The whole house was bathed in the soft light of several candles and smelt sweetly of soothing incense. His future husband was dressed in a light green gauzy robe, gossamer thin and reminiscent of what he had worn in the brothel but somehow even more revealing. Around his neck was fastened the elaborate necklace Liu Qingge had put on him the day of his proposal.
The candlelight made his skin glow and turned parts of the robe all the way translucent.
“Husband.” Shen Jiu smiled and beckoned him closer.
“I’m not your husband yet.” Liu Qingge managed to say but he moved forward all the same.
“Mm, not yet.” Shen Jiu agreed, “But you will be.” Their fingers caught and tangled together, “Now come sit.” He directed Liu Qingge to sit on the edge of the bed and then clambered into his lap. “My future husband is so strong and powerful.” He murmured in his ear, “How can this one not be driven to distraction?” He pressed a soft kiss to Liu Qingge’s cheek which caused the man under him to choke. Shen Jiu smirked.
“You- you want this?” Liu Qingge asked. He pulled back and frowned at Shen Jiu, “You said- you said at the brothel that it was all the same and you hated it?”
Shen Jiu sighed, “At the brothel I was for all intents a slave. I had a contract. They paid me money and I couldn’t leave if I wanted to.”
“I… I give you things.” Liu Qingge said cautiously, unsure of what he was even arguing for.
Shen Jiu rolled his eyes, “Are you trying to convince me I’m actually your whore?” He asked dryly.
Liu Qingge shook his head, “No. I don’t know-“
“Husband.” Shen Jiu leaned forward and pecked him on the mouth, once quickly, “Be quiet. If I want you, you should do well to listen to me and not question your husband’s sound judgement of his own desires.”
Liu Qingge found his gaze arrested by the smooth skin of the collarbone on front of him. He managed to nod.
“Good.” Shen Jiu leaned forward, “Now call me A-Jiu when we’re in bed together and follow my lead. I want you to make me feel good and since you’re an untouched maiden I suppose I’ll have to teach you.”
And what could Liu Qingge do then but follow his husband’s instructions on where to stroke, where to kiss, where to press his teeth and tongue to and where to bleed his passion out through his actions until he felt lightheaded with it.
Until the sound of his husband calling him made him feel as though he was about to ascend to godhood right then. Until the feeling running through his veins was almost comparable to the best fight or day spent on a hunt. Until he could watch the way the proud, bratty, cold man below him unravelled and trusted Liu Qingge, someone who had never been trusted with anything even vaguely delicate before, to hold him steady and care for him.
Shen Jiu moaned like a professional and he may have moved like one at times but it was Liu Qingge he was calling for and the way he cupped his face and kissed him… he didn’t think it was something that Shen Jiu, now A-Jiu, would have done with a client. Besides, he didn’t use that solicitous tone with Liu Qingge, instead being actively forceful and rather rude in his requests at times when asking him to move this way or that.
Liu Qingge would fully admit that there was a jealous part of him that didn’t like the fact that his husband (his A-Jiu) had been with others before. And there’s also a sort of… instinctive balking at the very idea of his fiancée having sold sex for money. Liu Qingge has never mentioned this to Shen Jiu because he knows it would hurt his fiancée who comments on their differences in status in a way that doesn’t entirely feel like a joke at times. Liu Qingge knows (from talking to his sister and taking her serious advice) that he needs to tread with some caution. His opinions on prostitution are coloured by his own upbringing and the views of the people around him (as Mingyan had pointed out).
He’d like to think that he’s not so naïve and privileged to misunderstand how important survival is and how much his husband had endured to get to where he is now. Liu Qingge honestly admired him. His sharp sticky husband who had eyes that could pierce a grown cultivator through and a way of insulting that could flay flesh right off of bone.
“Qingge.” A-Jiu gasped into his mouth, “There right there. Keep there.” And his hands squeeze hard at Liu Qingge’s shoulders, hard enough to leave marks. He was sure his husband hadn’t done that with any of his clients, the men and women who had paid for his company but not for his honesty. And Liu Qingge took special care to keep the angle consistent. He had never done this before but he was a prodigy and a fast learner and his husband was patient.
Besides he had a cultivator’s stamina and after he had wrung the fifth orgasm out of his husband (he couldn’t stop at four, it was an inauspicious number) and the two of them had ended up cuddled together in a sweaty, sticky, sated heap he felt a bone deep satisfaction that he found hard to achieve nowadays even with the very best spar or hunt.
“Qingge must make sure to keep his husband satisfied like this.” A-Jiu said lazily, “Or he may claim to be neglected.”
Liu Qingge snorted but pulled his husband even closer even with the mess between them.
“Mmm, husband claims this is his first time but A-Jiu thought his husband was rather skilled.” A-Jiu slants a look at him.
Liu Qingge shrugs, “You told me what to do. How could I make an error when you’re here to guide me?”
A-Jiu looks very pleased at that and settles himself more firmly into Liu Qingge’s embrace.
The next day they wake up crusty and disgusting and there are regrets and complaints aplenty but A-Jiu is pliant and soft when they bathe together so it’s really okay in the end.
“Let me!” Mingyan all but springs forward with far too much eagerness to help paint the red on Shen Jiu’s lips.
She had been let out of the peak for her elder brother’s wedding and was accompanied by her shizun; Qi Qingqi, who is attending along with his future husband’s other martial siblings. Shen Jiu doesn’t get nervous in front of powerful people, how can he when he remains so amusingly aware of his own place of unimportance in the grand scheme of the heavens? Besides, all important people shit and bleed the same so what made them better than him? (And there’s also the happier more private fact that he knows Liu Qingge; the Bai Zhan war god, would fight to the death to protect him. It’s a layer of security that he holds close when he feels out of his depth).
But despite all his assurances to himself there is something disconcerting about a former slave about to take his bows beside one of the most venerated figures in the cultivation world before a countless number of immortal masters and mistresses. Shen Jiu is not predisposed to weakness or insecurity but he is brutally realistic and knows that in a lot of ways he’s not supposed to be here. If Liu Qingge were not who he was then he certainly wouldn’t be here. If his future husband wasn’t such a naïve, stubborn, loyal idiot he wouldn’t be tying himself to Shen Jiu so publicly.
But his future husband is one such person and Shen Jiu will therefore allow himself to be dressed in layer after layer of red silk and lace. No expense has been spared and the gold leaf huadian painted on is rather nice. Shen Jiu likes it enough that he thinks he might want to wear a huadian more regularly even after the wedding. His eyes have been lined and his lips have been painted. His cheeks have been powdered and rouged and Mingyan is now patting his hair with a starry expression while the other Liu clan women and maids bustle around.
“Shen-gege looks so pretty!” Mingyan declares and there’s something in her sweet delivery that reminds him so keenly of Qiu Haitang that he feels an ache deep inside of him.
Of course wedding days are meant to be a day for reminiscing and strong emotions but that doesn’t mean anything to the way his heart clenches when the veil is draped delicately over him. It disguises his features well enough that he is blurred into unrecognizability for the ceremony which is overall a comfort. He doesn’t have to focus on anything then apart from the weight of his husband’s hand in his and the taste of the tea he carefully pours for Liu Qingge’s family and his own Qi-ge’s specially made memorial tablet. Liu Qingge had commissioned it and presented it to him for use during the ceremony. Shen Jiu wondered how it was possible for someone to be so dense, so callous, and yet so kind at the same time.
After the bows they retreat to the bridal chamber. Shen Jiu keeps his head down and his veil on and his husband guides him through the throngs of cheering guests. His heart is light and heavy at the same time. It strikes him suddenly that he has tied himself to someone else. Tied himself properly to another person in a way that cannot be easily undone or waved away. If his husband passes the Liu clan will have to take him in and support him. He has a right to Liu Qingge’s promises and belongings in a more official way now. The realisation makes him giddy.
The other side of it; the fact that he’s promised his life away to this man is not a particularly alarming one. Shen Jiu has never much owned much of anything apart from his own mind. No body or belongings under his sole purview. Besides, Liu Qingge is an idiot and Shen Jiu knows just how to argue with him. How to poke and prod and steer his bull-headed husband. And once he promised to give all his loyalty to Qi-ge but Qi-ge was dead and Shen Jiu isn’t stupid and sentimental enough to give all his devotion to a dead man.
So there in their bridal chamber when they drink the nuptial wine Shen Jiu lets Liu Qingge pull off his veil and vows to give all his loyalty (and there’s a lot. Shen Jiu has always been fierce in his devotion) to his husband.
Liu Qingge reacts to the confession with a clumsy caress to his cheek. Ah this husband of his, he’ll never be smooth in love. Never confident and sly but that’s how Shen Jiu prefers him. He’d rather Liu Qingge be utterly incapable of deception rather than gain the ability to lie to him. Besides, he can lie well enough for the both of them. Shen Jiu clutches his husband close. Liu Qingge is stupid and naïve but he’s strong. Shen Jiu doesn’t have that brute strength but he’s smarter and better with people. He’s more cunning and he’ll keep Liu Qingge alive and safe if it’s the last thing he does.
“You have to promise to stand by me always.” Shen Jiu says fiercely, “And to always take my side and always be loyal to me.” He’s straddling Liu Qingge and glares at his new husband hard as he says it because he knows his husband is the kind of stupid that needs everything clearly spelt out to him.
Liu Qingge nods seriously in response as though they’re making a solemn vow, “I promise.”
“Good.” Shen Jiu squeezes Liu Qingge hard, “Now take me to bed and make sure to satisfy me properly or I’ll be very unhappy.” He punctuates his threat with a hard bite to his new husband’s shoulder which makes Liu Qingge wince.
“You’re like a feral cat.” Liu Qingge muttered and because Shen Jiu is in an exceptionally good mood and he didn’t much care about his face in front of his husband he hissed obligingly and swiped at Liu Qingge’s shoulder which drew a startled laugh from the man.
Overall a very good wedding night.
“Let me do the talking.” She Jiu commanded from behind his painted fan.
Liu Qingge huffed but didn’t protest as the approached Huan Hua palace. The gathering being thrown by the Huan Hua palace master was obviously done to humiliate Cang Qiong Sect since the only peak master available to attend was the Bai Zhan peak lord who was infamous for being terrible at social gatherings. Shen Jiu doesn’t even know if he can rightfully defend his husband on that charge; of course he would but Qingge is a disaster when it comes to talking with tact or about anything other than fighting.
But as if Shen Jiu would let anyone talk down or bad about his husband. He’d grind their bones to powder and feed them to rats before he let that happen. Huan Hua palace is stupid if they think Liu Qingge doesn’t have a protector. Stupid.
“Ah Peak Lord Liu! Welcome welcome!” The Huan Hua palace master was a disgusting piece of work especially after everything Shen Jiu had heard (and dug up) about him following the disappearance and subsequent elopement of his head disciple with that heavenly demon lord. He had forced his husband to take all those reports to his little peak lord meetings to stop his stupid sect from endangering themselves by getting involved in some idiotic jumped-up "love story". Let the woman elope and have some demon lord’s baby. Why not?
Qingge hadn’t exactly agreed with the idea at first but if there was one thing Shen Jiu was good at it was convincing his husband that he was right. Liu Qingge didn’t bend easily but he was amendable to change as long as evidence was presented and Shen Jiu argued his case convincingly (which he always did anyway).
The palace master was still talking about nothing. How this man was still in power was something Shen Jiu did not understand (the cultivation world was stupid and he would happily wash his hands of it if it wasn’t for his dumb oaf of a husband) but he kept his expression placid behind his fan.
“Ah, and this is your-“
“Husband.” Liu Qingge finished brusquely.
“Nice to make your acquaintance.” Shen Jiu smiled behind the fan. He was still a street rat of course but after all these years walking amongst noble masters and mistresses he had learned to imitate them so well he almost was one. He could see the way the Huan Hua palace master was doing his best to work out who he was the venerable Liu Qingge had married.
“A pleasure of course.” Ah he must have decided Shen Jiu was someone important. Well. That was just funny, wasn’t it?
Shen Jiu smiled again behind the fan making sure that the height and angle of its painted silk perfectly complimented his graceful mien and carefully arranged clothing. Liu Qingge might have been a nightmare when it came to these matters but Shen Jiu could win any game if he knew the rules and every social interaction was just that. An excuse to fight and win. The fact that his spouse was the kind of generally uninterested idiot who supported him with no questions asked and was powerful enough that no one wanted to cross him was just icing on the cake.
They drifted through the party, one of Shen Jiu’s hands resting delicately on Liu Qingge’s arm. Cang Qiong was the strongest sect and Shen Jiu had to admit he felt rather protective of the whole sorry state of affairs after all the time he’d spent on Bai Zhan peak. It was his home after all and he was rather attached to that little bamboo house.
Never say that Shen Jiu didn’t know how to be grateful.
Shen Jiu steers them expertly from one conversation to another and revels in the way Liu Qingge stands there and lets Shen Jiu do and say whatever he wants. It’s not as though Shen Jiu would let his husband lock him in a box just because they married but he really has a level of freedom that’s unseen by other noble spouses. Of course it’s different if both parties are powerful cultivators but Shen Jiu is not. Shen Jiu is deeply aware that he is weaker and therefore less powerful in every way. But Liu Qingge doesn’t seem to see that.
Oh of course his idiot husband is aware that cultivation-wise he’s nowhere near his level but he doesn’t seem to register the other things. Like the lack of family background or material wealth or really anything else that would equalise things between them. It worries Shen Jiu sometimes; the vast disparity between their positions. He is powerful by virtue of Liu Qingge but only because the other man shares his power freely without even being aware of what he’s doing.
Like right now as Shen Jiu stands draped in Liu jewels and expensive robes with his husband sticking resolutely to his side and not interacting with anyone but him. Sometimes he can’t believe his husband is so unaware as to not understand what this looks like to others. It can be infuriating at times but now when he stands as silent support to Shen Jiu it’s perfect.
Shen Jiu may be powerful by virtue of Liu Qingge but he will ensure that Liu Qingge’s power only grows and solidifies for the both of us. The world is full of traps and pitfalls that his stupid husband could only dodge before because as a prodigy he was too powerful for his enemies but as Shen Jiu feels out the shape of the cultivation world he is more than aware that it’s just as dirty as any other sphere of society. His husband is an idiot and he’ll fall into traps he can’t even see, fall into traps he won’t even realise he’s been caught by, if Shen Jiu isn’t around to look after him.
“I had no idea that Bai Zhan peak’s war god was married!” One cultivator titters, “I would never have expected it from such a… stoic man.”
Oh? Shen Jiu lowers his fan just enough to bare his teeth before he verbally tears the stupid person to shreds.
“You need to train those disciples of yours.” Shen Jiu commented from where he was reading on the daybed in their bamboo house, “All that talk about Bai Zhan peak and the bloodthirsty brats that live on it and they’re not even particularly good at fighting.”
Liu Qingge couldn’t even deny it.
There was a long period of silence before his husband wandered over and sat down heavily next to him, leaning his head on Shen Jiu’s thigh.
“I don’t know how to teach them.” He muttered, “They don’t understand my explanations.”
Shen Jiu put down his book, “You keep forgetting that you’re a prodigy. They won’t get it in three moves like you do.” Even though what he had said was technically a compliment he still managed to sound scathing.
Liu Qingge groaned. He could be quite dramatic when he wanted to be.
“When you teach me you’re adequate at explanations.” Shen Jiu offers as he picks his book back up, “So either those children are particularly stupid in which case don’t bother, or you have an entirely different method of teaching them than me.”
Liu Qingge shook his head, “You’re much better.” He said plainly.
Shen Jiu felt a little bubble of warmth at the words but chose to huff, “I would hope so considering I’m not some teenaged Bai Zhan brat.”
Liu Qingge sighed heavily and pressed his face more firmly into his husband’s leg.
“You’re spoiled.” Shen Jiu hummed as he deigned to run a hand through his husband’s hair.
“You liked the new fan I got you.” Liu Qingge replied as he pressed into Shen Jiu’s hand.
“Hmm? Is husband trying to say I’m the spoiled one?” Shen Jiu uses his book to smack the back of his husband’s head which causes Liu Qingge to try and wrestle the it off him. The two of them tussle so hard they fall off the daybed at which point things become serious.
Shen Jiu digs his elbows into his husband’s sides and Liu Qingge retaliates by trying to use his superior bulk to pin him. They roll around for far too long like small children wrestling on the playing grounds.
Shen Jiu kicks a chair over and uses the clatter as a distraction but his husband is far too strong to let him go just like and he finds himself snagged around the waist and pulled back before he can properly move away.
“Yield.” Liu Qingge said in his ear, low and breathy in that way that proved to Shen Jiu he was getting excited.
And because he would do anything to win he pressed back sensually against his husband then, “Oh?” And he made sure his tone was filthy, “Has Qingge managed to catch his husband? What will he do with him now?”
Liu Qingge groaned in his ear as his hold loosened so one of his hands could traverse Shen Jiu’s chest as he ground against him. Shen Jiu used that opening to flip them and pin his husbands’ hands to the floor.
“Ha. Got you.” He couldn’t help his triumphant smile and found it falter slightly at the wholly indulgent and pleased expression on his husband’s face.
Liu Qingge didn’t say anything. Just leaned up for a kiss and what could Shen Jiu do but indulge this ridiculous person?
They were so caught up they didn’t even notice the knock on the door or the way Mu Qingfang quickly retreated the second he realised what was happening on his altruistic journey to drop off the salves Bai Zhan peak had requested.
“So Liu-shidi? When will we be able to meet your mysterious spouse?” Qi Qingqi asked curiously, leaning in over the meeting table.
Liu Qingge shrugged, “Don’t know.”
“How have you managed to keep them so secret for so long?” Qi Qingqi almost pouted.
“I wasn’t trying to keep them secret. You were all at the wedding.” Liu Qingge said (in his mind) quite rightly.
“But none of us have ever properly met your spouse! And with the veil we don’t even know what they look like!” Shang Qinghua said then, sounding really rather too enthusiastic.
Liu Qingge frowned, “He lives with me on Bai Zhan peak. He’s not hidden away.”
Mu Qingfang remained conspicuously silent.
“Is shidi saying that we could come visit him on Bai Zhan and meet his spouse?” Qi Qingqi says eagerly.
“Mingyan comes over all the time.” Liu Qingge points out.
“How about,” Wei Qingwei sounds calm at least, “They come to the next Sect celebration? That would be a nice more relaxed way for them to meet everyone.”
Liu Qingge shrugged, “I’ll ask them.” Despite being married for rather a long time at this point somehow Shen Jiu had never met his martial siblings. It was true that they were spending more time away from the sect recently on nighthunts and that when they were around Shen Jiu tended to be busy helping with paperwork (that he always complained would never get done if it was left to just Liu Qingge who had to agree). It might be nice to have Shen Jiu meet his martial siblings. He imagined they would get on well.
After the meeting he went off to look for his husband and found him meditating in the bamboo that had spread to become a full on forest around their house. It was probably the most well-tended space on Bai Zhan peak.
His husband had been trying hard to build his cultivation even with his late start and Liu Qingge admired him so much. He'd been trying to help as much as he could hunting down beasts and herbs with qualities that could help in cultivation. Mu Qingfang had certainly been appreciative of any leftovers.
He sat down next to the elegant figure of Shen Jiu without disturbing and tried to meditate as well. He hoped to eventually get to the point where he could ask Zhangmeng Shixiong to allow them to cultivate in the Lingxi caves together. That would help grow Shen Jiu’s cultivation exponentially especially if he got to the point where he could manage inedia.
After a while he found himself poked and then without warning with a lap full of his sticky spiky husband. Liu Qingge loved him so much.
“How was the meeting?” Shen Jiu asked.
Liu Qingge shrugged, “Boring. They want to meet you at the next sect gathering.”
Shen Jiu hummed, “Alright. But you might have to bribe me with sweets or gifts or I could throw a tantrum in the middle of the event and completely lose you face for having such an uncivilised spouse.”
Liu Qingge doesn’t deign that with a proper response though he does say, “Let’s go on a nighthunt. I’ll buy you tanghulu.”
Shen Jiu snorted, “Ah my husband is such a big spender. Spoils me constantly.”
“Do I not?” Liu Qingge asked.
Shen Jiu looked down at him from where he was perched on his lap and he flashed him that sly smile, “Maybe if husband indulged me right now and…” And here he leaned down and whispered something filthy enough into Liu Qingge's ear that his husband couldn’t even speak, could just throw him down on a bed of bamboo leaves and have his way with him out in the open air.
Shen Jiu admired himself in the mirror, twisting this way and that to take in a full view of the green silk robes he was wearing. He was wearing a rather beautiful pair of earrings that he had taken from the little store of Liu jewels gifted to him and felt very pleased by the overall effect.
“What do you think?” He asked Liu Qingge who was polishing his sword.
Liu Qingge looked up and nodded, “Good.”
“You could stand to be more effusive with your praise.” Shen Jiu sniffed, flicking open his fan to cover the bottom half of his face, “Or I may say I feel neglected.”
“I could use my mouth on you before we leave.” His insufferable husband suggested, “Would you still feel neglected then?”
Shen Jiu snapped his fan shut and threw it at his idiot of a husband, “While I would love to take my dearest Qingge up on that offer we are already late.” He marched over, grabbed his fan back, and turned to stride away only to be caught around the waist just as he predicted he would be.
“You should wear my hair crown.” Liu Qingge said in his air, voice low and… stirring even though his husband probably didn’t mean to be so.
Shen Jiu sniffed, “Possessive brute.” He criticised, but still found himself crossing the room to the dresser and picking out the hair crown in question to swap for the one currently in his hair.
“You look nice.” Liu Qingge offered as he came up behind him, visible in the mirror, to hug him from behind. Shen Jiu had noticed that his husband liked his waist and hair especially when it came to where he would touch first. He didn’t mind, leaning back into the grounding hold. It was strange to think that after a life of struggle for scraps all alone he was now allowed to lean back into another person and let them take his weight, keep him safe.
He looked in the mirror at the image of his beautiful, strong, powerful husband holding him and felt a sudden rush of… something. It burned a little but in a good way. A clarifying hurt. A strange optimism maybe that bordered on foolishness. Life was regularly terrible and unfair for most. For Shen Jiu most of all. But sitting here now he came to the realisation that unlike how he had traded his comfort for small moments of joy in the past he no longer had to make so many high-loss short term deals.
He had never consciously decided to trust Liu Qingge. There was never one moment when he looked at this stupid man and decided he could be relied upon, but it had happened anyway and Shen Jiu is confident now that if he flung himself off a cliff Liu Qingge would leap off after him. Love is stupid like that and the man with him loves him. He’s sure of it. Loves him in that foolish stupid way that could ruin him.
He looks at the way his husband frowns in concentration as he tries to help him with his hair crown, gathering up the silky strands in battle-worn fingers, and playing with them as much as he’s putting them up. Shen Jiu marvels for a second at what a handsome couple they make. He had resented his looks when he was a child because they only seemed to invite the kind of attention he had never wanted. And then at the brothel he had been thankful that he was able to mould his already delicate features into something patrons would pay high enough amounts for to make his life comfortable.
Now he stares at the picture he and his husband make together and feels a surge of fierce pride. He looks like he belongs next to Liu Qingge. Like their beauty balances each other. Like he’s more than worthy for this peerless immortal. They look like the perfect couple.
Shen Jiu revels in that feeling of superiority. He feels it when he knows more than these “so-called scholars” at the events he attends with his husband. He feels it when he manages to defeat whatever their hunting single-handedly. He feels it when he looks in the mirror and sees how far away he is from the pathetic street rat he had once been. Of course that child’s instincts still live in him and had saved his life more than a few times. And of course it’s that child’s instincts that also push him to be selfish and greedy and to test Liu Qingge’s loyalty and devotion to him in ridiculous ways whenever he can.
He looks at his stupid ridiculous husband and wonders how someone so utterly contrary to him can be so good at… being with him.
Liu Qingge notices him staring, “What?” He asks, utterly unselfconscious as he stares back.
Shen Jiu just shakes his head.
“What would you do if I said I didn’t want to go anymore?” He asks.
Liu Qingge frowns but his voice is placid, “Why?”
“No real reason. Just don’t feel like it.” He says watching his husband carefully.
Liu Qingge doesn’t really react he just shrugs, “Then we won’t go.”
“If you’re not going I don’t want to go. Going would be to introduce you which was at their request. No need for me.”
“Oh I see.” Shen Jiu can’t help but be amused, “You don’t want to go anyway so you’d use your poor anti-social husband as a reason to avoid it.”
Liu Qingge shrugs again, “Those things are better with you.”
Shen Jiu raises a mocking eyebrow, “Have I spoiled my husband so thoroughly that he can’t handle social events without this one babysitting him?”
Liu Qingge grumbles and doesn’t reply.
Shen Jiu snorts but reaches out to brush some of his husband’s hair aside, “Don’t fear. I won’t force my poor beleaguered husband to endure any oh so painful social interaction without me there.”
Liu Qingge didn’t say anything else but he reached forward quite randomly and took hold of Shen Jiu’s wrist, lifting up his sleeve and tracing a finger over the delicate bracelet decorating it.
“This is a Liu family heirloom.” He says suddenly, “It has my family crest carved on the underside of the gems and some of my grandmother’s qi woven into it. My family would never ignore this.”
Shen Jiu sometimes finds the shape of his husband’s thoughts confusing no matter how straightforward and simple the man can be. In this case he thinks he can make out an outline of what his husband is trying to say, how he is trying to reassure in his clumsy way.
Shen Jiu hums and pulls his wrist back, “I would much rather have my husband with me.” That's as much of his own reassurance as he's willing to give so openly.
Liu Qingge nods decisively and they leave then; his husband holding out a gallant arm to guide him onto his sword as usual. The flight is just as exhilarating no matter how many times Shen Jiu does it or how many times his husband mentions him getting his own spiritual sword eventually and being able to fly all on his own.
They alight on Qiong Ding peak and Liu Qingge offers his arm as they make their way towards the main hall.
Shen Jiu resists the urge to snap open his fan before they enter, it wouldn’t be polite, better for him to wait until they’re inside and mingling first. He knows Liu Qingge hardly cares about anything as long as it isn’t grievously improper but he wants to make a good impression on his husband’s martial family. He wants… for them to like him.
He enters the hall.
That’s the moment Shen Jiu’s life falls apart.
He hears the greetings and looks only for his eyes to alight on a tall black-haired figure.
Yue Qingyuan the sect leader.
The Sect leader reaches out to him. His eyes are huge with shock in his slack face. He looks pale. Shen Jiu’s heart has stopped.
Shen Jiu doesn’t hear anything else.
He collapses as his husband shouts in alarm next to him.
The qi deviation rips through his fragile foundation.
Shen Jiu hopes he won’t wake up.
He wakes up.
The world is hazy and grey.
He’s crying. He can feel the stickiness of his cheeks and the wet material of the soft pillow under him.
“A-Jiu.” Liu Qingge is sitting by his bedside, “Husband?”
Shen Jiu’s face crumples further. He can’t stop it. He can’t stop.
“A-Jiu.” His stupid bull-headed husband reaches forward and drags him out of bed even as he keeps feeding him calming spiritual energy through skin contact. His stupid idiotic brute of a husband pulls him close and tucks his body against his where he’s sitting. “You’re awake.” He sighs in relief, “Mu-shidi said you’d be okay. That your cultivation will recover.”
Shen Jiu has never felt so alone before. Not even during that slow dawning period when he realised Qi-ge was most likely dead. He hadn’t felt alone then because he knew if Qi-ge could he’d still be watching over him, if he could have he would have come back.
Shen Jiu curls up in his husband’s arms.
“Where are we?” He asks in a croaky voice.
“Liu estate in my courtyard.” Liu Qingge readily answers, “I didn’t want to stay on the peak.” There’s a moment of hesitation which is more tact than he would have expected from his husband, “Yue Qingyuan. He’s your brother.” It’s not a question.
“What did he say?” Asks Shen Jiu a little listlessly.
“He called you Xiao Jiu. He said he knew you. He asked me how I knew you.”
Shen Jiu’s eyes stay closed. The tears keep falling.
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything. You were qi deviating so I got Mu Qingfang to stabilise you then I took you back to the Liu estate.”
Oh. So he collapsed and qi deviated in front of everyone. How embarrassing.
“We can stay in the Liu estate.” Liu Qingge says and before Shen Jiu can say anything. Before he can set anymore stupid unnecessary childish tests his husband sets and passes one all on his own, “I can resign from the sect. I’m not supposed to but if I can find a successor I can say I had health problems or something so it’s not embarrassing for anyone.”
Huh, those are considerations his husband usually doesn’t bother with. This must be a thought process with the finer details helped along by someone else.
“It hurts.” Shen Jiu says softly and it’s pathetic. He’s pathetic but what is marriage if not an excuse for this weakness? The only thing that made living bearable were those small bursts of joy. Liu Qingge regularly made him happy. Having someone he could trust made him content. He didn’t want to be alone right now while his entire chest felt caved in and his world upended himself.
So much of what he was had been shaped by Qi-ge and the long shadow he had left over his life that Shen Jiu had converted into comforting shade for him to rest in.
It was a lie.
He was a dirty, ugly, stupid street rat who Yue Qi had left behind in the gutter.
And Liu Qingge had married him anyway. Had taken him into his family anyway. Had put up with his ridiculous antics anyway. Had spoiled him and protected him and come back for him in only two days when he promised three.
And here he was, holding Shen Jiu like a baby while he whined and cried.
Liu Qingge nosed into his hair like an animal and it settled some of his ruffled instincts. His husband for all his good breeding was just as animal as he was. That was… good.
“What do you want me to do? I could fight him for you?”
Shen Jiu burbled a strange laugh, “You would fight your sect leader? The Xuan Su sword? For what slight?”
“He left you.” Liu Qingge was visibly upset, “You burned offerings for him almost every day. He didn’t deserve any of that.”
Shen Jiu shook his head, “That boy, my brother, the one I burned offerings for isn’t real anyway so what does it matter? That man isn’t my Qi-ge anyway so what does it matter.”
Liu Qingge didn’t disagree. Instead he kept holding him and it made Shen Jiu feel… not so dirty and not so alone.
And not so terrifying small in a way he couldn’t even find funny anymore.
Liu Qingge really was an idiot for choosing the first gutter rat whore who had saved his life to pledge his loyalty to and make his spouse. Did his idiot husband not understand how much he was worth? How many people would kill to have a fraction of the favour that he carelessly tossed Shen Jiu’s way? An idiot. An actual idiot. Nothing Liu Qingge did made sense.
He clutched his husband harder.
“If you ever break a single promise to me I’ll rip out all your hair and strangle you with it.” He declared because his husband was stupid and needed things spelled out for him. For heaven’s sake he hadn’t known that women went to brothels or that women could even have sex and like it until Shen Jiu had told him.
Liu Qingge nods, “Okay.” He agrees like threats against his person are normal.
“Good.” Shen Jiu sniffs, valiantly trying to regain some equilibrium, “Now keep feeding me qi. I’m not having my cultivation ruined by all this stupid fuss.”
Liu Qingge doesn’t say anything just shifts them both to the bed and strips off the majority of their clothes so he can circulate the qi more easily with skin to skin contact.
Shen Jiu doesn’t say anything either just digs his nails in hard to his husband’s fight-scarred arms and does his best not to score lines in the flesh like gruesome public shows of the ownership he wants to make perversely clear to everyone he is entitled to.
Staying at the Liu estate means watching people spar, having people challenge you to spars, listening to people talk about said spars and dodging the various spars that seem to break out randomly around them.
Shen Jiu watches as Qingge fights two of his Uncles and one of his Aunts at once. It’s riveting he supposes. He likes the way his husband moves, likes the obvious power and the ripple in his muscles and the way his sword strikes are strong enough to hold off three people at once.
He fans himself lazily and lets his eyes wander a little in obvious appreciation. If there’s one thing the Liu clan seems to like it’s how much he likes their favourite son and it’s no hardship for him to do so more openly than he would feel comfortable with normally.
Mingyan stands by him and makes considering noises every time her brother pulls off a good move. She looks very grown up compared to when Shen Jiu had met her the first time he had visited the Liu clan all that time ago. She’s not wearing her veil since she’s among family and he finds her expressions are less guarded than he would have thought- the veil allows her enough freedom to react however and as a result she’s extremely expressive. He should probably warn her against that.
She opens her mouth to say something when a servant approaches them.
“Liu-furen,” The servants never know quite what to address him as. It’s quite funny, “Madam Liu had requested to speak to you.”
Shen Jiu wonders what it could be about.
In the early days he had wondered why they let him associate with their precious firstborn at all and he had waited endlessly for the other shoe to drop. If it were to drop, inevitably it should have happened before the wedding that the clan matriarch herself had prodded her son towards and planned.
Now he wonders if she wants to talk to him about poetry or something similar. No one else in the Liu clan seems to have any interest in the four arts past the bare passing grade needed to qualify as gentry.
When he enters her study she waves him off before he can bow and directs him to sit.
“I seem to have a problem that I believe you will be able to help me with.” Her face is smooth and ageless the way all high-level cultivators can become. However the years do tend to add something, a certain weight that indicates age even if the skin doesn’t show it.
“Of course this one will help honoured grandmother with whatever is needed.”
She smiles then, “No need for formalities.” And then she launches straight into it with that patented Liu bluntness that Shen Jiu has gotten used to, “Liu Mingli has eloped. This is only a problem because the woman she has chosen killed an elder of Tian Yi Sect a few years ago. I do not want to disown my grandniece, but the sect master has personally written to me.” She gestures to a letter on the table, “What should I do?”
Shen Jiu outwardly doesn’t react but inwardly he’s reeling slightly. She’s… asking him to help her with this? It’s an uncertain honour. He doesn’t think this woman is the type who would set this for him as a trap but either way he determines he should proceed with caution.
“How close are you to the Tian Yi sect master?”
“We often nighthunt together.”
“You need to arrange to meet him.” Shen Jiu flicks open his fan, “As the leading Taoist sect they're powerful but recently their sect has had a small scandal when it came out that one of the senior disciples was sexually abusing one of the shimeis under their purview.” Shen Jiu uses his fan to cover his expression, “They have lost a great deal of the respect of the surrounding population and I’m sure the sect master would not want to start unnecessary conflict. Sit down and assure him that this was not meant as a slight and that your grandniece acted on her own. Assure him of your friendship. He will appreciate that enough that point to put the issue of Liu Mingli and this woman aside. I believe that is the best course forward.”
The Liu clan matriarch looks thoughtful, “I shall write to him then for a meeting.” She slants a look at him with those sharp Liu eyes set in an ageless face, “You do not want to know why this woman killed the sect elder?”
Shen Jiu continues to fan himself, “Does it matter? The truth would not change things either way and your priority is to keep your grandniece part of the clan. If the answer is that this woman is a coldblooded murder that would not help as Liu Mingli has already done her three bows and I suspect is not prepared to undo them. If it turns out she had a legitimate reason for the murder you could go to Tian Yi with it still wouldn’t necessarily help anything. It may bring the sect leader pain at tarnishing the memory of the treasured elder and would that be worth it? Even if he appreciates the truth in the long run right now while he is dealing with other conflicts the news would not be welcomed. In the best case it would unavoidably damage your friendship.”
The Liu clan matriarch has put down her brush to listen to him speak.
“I see.” She considers it, “Do you believe that the truth is not always helpful?”
Shen Jiu isn’t sure how he should answer. He settles for something more neutral, “It depends on the person. Some people appreciate the truth at all costs. It would be more painful to be lied to.”
“Like my grandson.” She smiles, “And I suspect like you.”
Shen Jiu had never considered if he considered untruthfulness to be so awful. He knows he hates lying in any form but he always considered that to be a two-fold issue. The first is that lies are dangerous. If one doesn’t know the whole truth then they don’t know all the rules and not knowing all the rules means that you could easily misstep and get hurt. Like playing a game- without the rules you’re at a disadvantage.
The second point was that lying was because of a lack of respect. If you respected someone you appreciated their capacity to deal with the truth no matter how bad. If you respected someone you wouldn’t lie to them because you knew they deserved better than that and you wanted them to have better.
Shen Jiu closes his fan and taps it against his leg. He had never considered it in that much depth before. He often chose to lie. Those instances were due to self-preservation but also could be said to be because he either didn’t care about didn’t respect the person in question. He knew that there were situations where it would be better to lie to save someone pain or to conceal the truth for the same reason but couldn’t see himself doing to someone he honestly cared about. He couldn’t ever imagine really lying to Liu Qingge and forcing his husband to face life without all the facts even if it was painful. Liu Qingge had agency and deserved to be able to make decisions with full autonomy which was what lying robbed the person of.
“I suppose so.” He finally answers.
The Liu clan matriarch nods, “What do you think of our family Shen Jiu?” She asks.
Shen Jiu whips his fan back open, “This one would have to ask what honoured grandmother means by her question.”
Her eyes curve into crescents as she smiles, “The Liu clan is very large and we protect our own; all our children have a place in our home. Our best qualities are that we are loyal, straightforward and strong. However,” And here she leans forward, “They are also some of our worst qualities as my husband used to tell me.”
Shen Jiu hides his expression behind the fan.
She hums, “When a problem arises us Lius, myself included, would much rather cut through the knot that untangle it. We think every issue is one that can be faced and defeated with brute strength. We follow our own moral codes with very little flexibility and do what we think is right no matter the cost or consequence. Once our heart is set we can rarely be dissuaded.” She looks out the window then. The sounds of distant fighting filter into the sun-warmed room, “My husband was not born a Liu. I married him and he stood by my side and supported me. He often disparaged my honesty and how pugnacious I am. He passed a decade previously.”
Shen Jiu clutches his fan, unsure of what to do or say.
“With him by my side the clan flourished. He handled problems with ease, diplomacy was his forefront and most of all he reminded me that beating someone up was not always productive.” She sighs, “Since he left and re-entered the cycle of reincarnation I often found myself faced with problems that stymie me that he would have dealt with with ease.”
She looks properly at Shen Jiu now, “I’m glad my grandson married you. I hope we can have a great many talks like this one.”
Shen Jiu understand then in a sudden dawning what she meant.
“Where did you meet your husband?” He asked, suddenly curious for no real reason.
“A fight.” She laughs then, “It was during a fight.”
Shen Jiu leaves her study a little while later with a strange certainty settled into his bones. What roots him to this mortal plane? What ensures his place on this earth? Liu Qingge certainly and as he crosses the grounds to take him closer to his husband the answer rings very true. But it’s more people than just Liu Qingge.
Shen Jiu wonders if he had given a different answer today if Liu Mingli would have found the door to home uncharacteristically and devastatingly barred to her.
“Leave me alone!” Shen Jiu did his best to muffle his amusement under irritation as Liu Qingge pawed at him, “Are you a beast? Let me go!”
His husband seemed entirely uninterested in letting him go instead gripping him around the waist and nuzzling into his hair harder.
“Brute!” Shen Jiu hit his arm and in retaliation Liu Qingge bit him on the ear. Shen Jiu squawked with affront and elbowed his husband hard. Unfortunately Lius seemed to take aggression as some strange mating tactic and that only made his husband more eager to try and kiss him.
“Off off!” By this point Shen Jiu was laughing as well as actively struggling. He couldn’t help it.
“No.” Liu Qingge bites at his neck but very gently because he’s learnt that too much pressure makes Shen Jiu uncomfortable and leaving marks that he can see does the same.
“Hmph. I have the most spoiled rudest husband in the cultivation world.” Shen Jiu says with an aggrieved sniff.
“You’re rude.” Is said husband’s incredible response. Shen Jiu can’t help another burst of laughter.
“And I have work to do.” He gestures to the multitude of letters set out in front of him.
Liu Qingge scowls, “I got back from Bai Zhan a shichen ago. Can’t this wait?”
“No. Now sit quietly and don’t be so annoying.”
His husband scowls harder but complies.
It’s less than a quarter shichen later that Shen Jiu has decided his point has made and now he’s only hurting himself. He subsequently turns and throws himself at his husband who is polishing his sword and makes up the wait to him the best way he knows how.
“Yue Qingyuan is at the gates.” The Liu cousin who had been tasked to find them said as soon as Liu Qingge’s courtyard door was opened.
Shen Jiu stayed quiet.
Liu Qingge grit his teeth and before he answered his sword was already in his hand, “What does he want?”
“He said he wants to talk.” The cousin’s gaze goes straight to Shen Jiu, no subtlety there, “With Master Shen.”
No Liu-furen today. Funny.
“I’ll talk to him.” Shen Jiu says before his husband can reply. He pushes down Liu Qingge’s arm where it’s brandishing his sword, “You stay here.”
“Stay.” Shen Jiu isn’t sure he can spare more words or energy to talking his husband down so he’s thankful nothing else is said.
His walk across the courtyard to the receiving room is done with an entirely blank mind. He’s wearing Liu Qingge’s hair crown and his robes (while not particularly fancy) are clearly well made and expensive. He keeps the fingers of his left hand wrapped around his fan. It’s one that was gifted by Liu Qingge.
He can’t help tapping is against his leg as he walks. A stupid impulse.
Apart from that one twitch he feels completely blank.
In the receiving room the man stands to greet him, something desperate in his eyes, and Shen Jiu waits for the rush of anger. He waits for the hate. He waits… he waits for himself to start screaming.
But instead none of it comes.
“Why didn’t you ever come back?” He ends up asking, voice just as blank as his expression.
“No. Don’t say my name. Just tell me. Tell me.” He feels a certain desperation then.
“I don’t need apologies!” Finally the anger has arrived, “I want an explanation! I want a reason! You left me to die.”
Yue Qi’s face contorts into a rictus of guilt.
“I looked for you.” Shen Jiu says stepping forward then, “After I escaped the Qius I looked for you before I got caught again. Even then I tried. I tried to look for you. I thought you would have been looking too if you were alive.”
“Don’t call me that! You can’t just keep saying my name and expect that to mean something! We’re not children anymore! Just tell me! Whatever it is tell me! If you forgot me just tell me. I can take it.”
“You dog!” He hurls his fan at the silent figure, “Say something! Just say something! Say anything!”
“Anything but that.”
Shen Jiu turns on his heel to leave and finds his arm caught in someone’s grip.
“Let go of me.”
“Xiao- I mean. Shen Jiu. How did you end up here? How are you married to Liu Qingge? What happened?”
“Why should I give you any explanations when you refuse to grant me the same courtesy?” He spits.
“I ran from the Qius because I couldn’t take it anymore. Because I knew I would die there. I waited as long as I could. I waited years. Then after I ran I was caught by more slavers and sold to a brothel in the Borderlands.” He wants to hurt Yue Qi with the details and by the look on the man’s face it must be working.
“Liu Qingge bought my contract and I ended up marrying him.”
“He bought your contract from the brothel.” There’s something like anger on Yue Qi’s face which he isn’t allowed.
“Shut up! It was my choice! I wanted him to! I waited for so long! I looked for you whenever I could! Why? Why did you forget me?”
“I told you not to call me that.”
They’re at an impasse standing far too close for propriety with Yue Qi’s hand still gripping his wrist.
“Why? That’s all I want to know. I just want to know why.”
“It doesn’t change anything. It’s just an excuse. It doesn’t make anything better.” Yue Qi is crying silently. Large tears rolling down his face. His guilt practically pours off him. Shen Jiu hates it.
“And you not telling me is not even letting me decide. To me not having an explanation would be worse than having a bad one. Not telling me is worse than you telling me you always hated me. Just tell me.”
Yue Qi’s face crumples further with something like defeat as he finally explains.
Shen Jiu listens. He does his once Qi-ge the courtesy of listening. He listens and then he takes his fan back and leaves.
Fucking Liu Qingge is always a good way to push off feeling anything. With his husband’s cock in him and his mouth on his it’s easy to let his mind go blurry and indistinct.
His husband is so attentive. Shen Jiu is so lucky. So so lucky.
He leans into another clumsy kiss.
His husband will come soon and Shen Jiu will follow near after. There’s always a predictable pattern to the way Liu Qingge fucks him. He’s not very imaginative or ambitious. It’s comforting. His husband will squeeze him close afterwards as if to press the broken pieces of him back together even if he’s not aware that’s what he’s doing. That’s comforting as well.
Shen Jiu luxuriates in his husband’s simple tastes when it comes to marital activities. He never wants to do anything complex or uncomfortable. Instead he fucks hard and quickly except for those brief “special” emotional occasions when he wants to go slowly and press kisses to every inch of bare skin he can reach.
While his husband pounds into him with all that War God strength Shen Jiu can lie back and let his mind go blank. His husband is very good at that at least.
“A-Jiu.” His husband kisses him hard, “I love you.”
Shen Jiu doesn’t have to say anything. His husband moves on to mouthing at his neck quickly enough and the loud sound of their lovemaking covers up any need for further reply while his husband continues to murmur amorous nonsense against his skin.
Once when he was a child he imagined marrying Qi-ge. He imagined it quite a lot in fact. This may have been because Qi-ge was the only person he liked and he imagined marriage to be a way to tie this boy to him forever in a world where affections and even life could be lost so easily. Everything in his childhood was temporary and fragile. He didn't want Yue Qi to end up being another one of those thing. Besides, the happy stories told to children always ended with marriage and Shen Jiu wanted that happy ending too. He wasn’t as naïve or stupid as most children but he was still childish enough.
When he was with the Qius he imagined Yue Qi bursting in with a sword and killing Qiu Jianluo before liberating Shen Jiu in spectacular form. It was a common fantasy for him to turn to. Common and sweet in its efficacy. Then Qi-ge would take him somewhere far away, somewhere safe. Sometimes he married him at the end of those stories as well because it was a way for them to be together forever and ever.
Then for a very very brief period of time between the Qius and being resold he imagined finding Qi-ge. In those imaginings Qi-ge had been looking too and they had just missed each other or Qi-ge was hurt and this time it was Shen Jiu who did the rescuing. They married less often in this fantasy but still it sometimes ended the same way. Maybe just for consistency’s sake.
Shen Jiu’s conception of marriage had been very plain and childish at that age. He didn’t think of marital duties or anything so complex. Instead it was simply living in the same house. Someone to talk to and share food with. Belonging to each other and not being apart.
Once he decided Qi-ge was dead he didn’t bother with the fantasies anymore and therefore marriage was never something he thought about either. He wasn’t like some of the others at the brothel who imagined being rescued by a rich client who would take them away from this life and look after them. Shen Jiu knew that he would never make a real rich person’s proper spouse, the best he could do was a concubine and that was hardly better than working in the brothel. You just fucked one person instead of a few.
So he shelved the idea of marriage. He couldn’t imagine giving someone that much power over him anyway.
Marrying Liu Qingge had been a practical decision first and foremost. The other had proved their character to him and Shen Jiu was fully aware of the security and future comfort marrying him would bring. The fact that he didn’t dislike his company either was just a good addition.
In actuality the fact that he didn’t love Liu Qingge in that deep all-encompassing way people sang about; the way he had loved Qi-ge, was actually a very good thing in his eyes. Qi-ge’s death had hurt and if looking at his reaction to learning the man was alive the whole time it still hurts and won’t stop hurting. Shen Jiu liked to think himself too clever for emotions but he knows the truth is that he’s not. The truth is that he’s sentimental and emotional and too inclined to be easily hurt. Giving Liu Qingge who already had so much practical power over him that emotional power as well would have been spectacularly stupid.
So instead he nurtures Liu Qingge’s feelings the best he can, easy as it is with how simply his husband’s mind works, and lets the other’s greater feelings equalise their positions.
He reaches up then as Liu Qingge fucks him and pulls his husband into another eager kiss. His husband loves to kiss. It’s cute.
“I love you.” He breathes into the space between their lips and his husband gasps and comes in the next second.
What a joke. What a joke.
Shen Jiu doesn’t think he understands it, but he feels warm when with Liu Qingge. He likes spending time with him. He enjoys the benefits his role as Liu-furen give him. He even enjoys Liu Qingge’s family. He thinks that must be enough for love.
His husband moves down to suck his cock sloppily. He comes with Qingge’s name on his lips. That’s pleasing enough for his husband to have him smiling and brushing his hair back clumsily.
A simple man. But the simpler the better in Shen Jiu’s opinion. Complicated people made for complicated living.
Later Liu Qingge curls around him just as he knew he would and he sinks into it and lets his mind stay blank all the way into sleep.
“When you next go to Cang Qiong I’ll come with you.” Shen Jiu says as he picks up a sweet from the tray in front of him. He and his husband are sharing tea and the tree in Liu Qingge’s courtyard is flowering and dropping sweet smelling petals everywhere.
“Okay.” Liu Qingge doesn’t ask questions he just pours more tea even though that’s mean to be Shen Jiu’s job as Liu-furen and takes a long drink, “I’m going for the monthly peak lords meeting in a few days. Then I’m going to stay to train my disciples. If you come with me we can stay longer and participate in choosing new disciples.”
Shen Jiu hums, “Whatever the Bai Zhan peak lord wants. I’ve come up with some new lesson plans that you can give to the hall masters.”
Liu Qingge nods.
Shen Jiu picks one of the pastries apart with his nails, getting crumbs under them and making his fingers horrifically sticky. “At the peak lords meeting I want you to pass a message to Yue Qingyuan.”
Liu Qingge looks up at that. His expression isn’t concerned and why would it be? He trusts Shen Jiu’s decisions.
Something warm sputters to life in Shen Jiu’s chest.
“I would like to invite him to take tea with me.”
A petal drifts down from the tree and lands square in Shen Jiu’s cup. The tea ripples from where it’s been disturbed all the way to the edges of the ceramic cup, delicate as eggshell and painted in graceful scholarly patterns. The pretty petal floats for a second before Shen Jiu plucks it out. On a whim he then picks up a discarded blossom off the ground and reaches across the table to tuck it into Liu Qingge’s hair.
He smiles then, “Husband.” And reaches forward to press a quick kiss to his lips.
He retreats to his seat and flicks open his fan coquettishly.
And just like he knew he would his stupid idiotic brute of a husband leans forward to chase him.