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growth pains / 一種修為

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Liu Qingge died four times before Shen Qingqiu finally remembered what Shang Qinghua had said to him on that one mission years ago. It wasn’t that he was forgetful or even the opposite; it simply took a while for the memory to surface because of how incredibly strange it was.

From this day on, if you see someone undergoing qi deviation, don’t panic. Also don’t just stride up to save their lives. You must stay calm, go outside, and call for help—do not do it yourself. If you do, you’ll definitely make things worse. You’ll botch the whole thing and spiral down a path of self-destruction from which you’ll never emerge and which you’ll never be washed clean of, even in the Yellow River!

Honestly, Shen Qingqiu had thought that Shang Qinghua was cursing him at first. Then, because nothing of the sort had happened, he’d put it out of his mind. Now… 

Now, Shang Qinghua’s suspicious powers of foresight aside, his advice still wasn’t helpful because Shen Qingqiu simply had no time to go get help! Every evening after Liu Qingge’s seemingly inevitable death, Shen Qingqiu would blink his eyes open in one of the Spirit Caves. Even when he dashed outside as fast as he could to send for Mu Qingfang, nobody ever made it back quickly enough to save the damn fool from a death of his own making. 

Emphasis on his own making. After the first two deaths, Shen Qingqiu could and did claim the truth, that he’d walked in on Liu Qingge having an awful qi deviation and had tried but failed to help. After he was sent back in time for a redo both times, however, a sinking feeling had taken over his gut—had he been wrong to make that claim? Had he made a poor choice in trying to help Liu Qingge himself? 

That was why for death number three, Shen Qingqiu went for help. He’d sent the nearest disciple (a young woman in Qiong Ding’s uniform) to get Mu Qingfang, who presided over Qian Cao on his master’s current sabbatical. However, he stalled out on what to do after. Should he go get Qi—Yue Qingyuan? The life and death of a fellow Succeeding Disciple was a big enough deal for him to make such a drastic move, but what if Liu Qingge did survive? Would Shen Qingqiu then have to explain why he operate at such magnitude? Could somebody read some kind of suspicious intent into his actions if he did so? 

Turned out, Shen Qingqiu was wrong about one thing but correct about everything else. Liu Qingge did not survive—that was the wrong thing. As for the everything else… 

Apparently, other disciples had been in the area and had spotted Shen Qingqiu standing there on the grass. Paranoia-driven indecision had looked to them like suspicious stalling. If he truly was so worried about Liu Qingge dying, the whispers went, then why would he just stay there? Why wouldn’t he go for more help himself, or go back into the caves to assist Liu Qingge? 

For death number four, Shen Qingqiu spun on his heels after sending the Qiong Ding disciple off and sprinted right back into the Spirit Caves, teeth gritted the entire time. It was hard for him to see how this could have any palpably different effect than when he didn’t go out for help—and it didn’t. Liu Qingge still died. Mu Qingfang still solemnly presided over the body in the cave. The only difference could have been in Shen Qingqiu’s mind, but the two whispering disciples from the death before had followed Yue Qingyuan into the cave (the Qiong Ding disciple had gone to get her senior after getting Mu Qingfang). He thought he saw something strange in the way they were looking at him. 

That was when Shen Qingqiu remembered Shang Qinghua’s words. Not so much the useless advice, but the ending prediction—that he’d botch the whole thing and spiral down a path of self-destruction and not even jumping into the Yellow River could wash him clean. 

Was that it, then? Was this what was fated for him? Liu Qingge, the bastard, hated him so much in life that even in the act of dying, he would curse Shen Qingqiu to death and devastation? 

For Liu Qingge’s fifth death, Shen Qingqiu had a qi deviation right along with him. For his sixth death, Shen Qingqiu hacked him to pieces with Xiu Ya and had to look away from Yue Qingyuan’s expression of cold horror.

For Liu Qingge’s seventh death, Shen Qingqiu never even left his cave, opting instead to meditate and think the problem through. There was a possibility that this death was the one that would stick and that once Liu Qingge’s body was discovered, Shen Qingqiu would get dragged out of the cave and interrogated for why he didn’t go and help. That possibility felt small, however; all of Shen Qingqiu’s instincts were telling him that whatever was happening, it hinged on saving Liu Qingge’s life.

(So the privileged bastard was so beloved by the heavens that they would stop and loop time itself to keep him alive? When Shen Qingqiu had had to claw through fire and glass and shit just to survive? What was so special about Liu Qingge? What was so damn special?)

Sure enough, death seven came and went, as did death eight. For death nine, Shen Qingqiu decided to wrack his memories for more of Shang Qinghua’s…wisdoms. If Shang Qinghua had foreseen this somehow, then perhaps he’d also have the cure to Liu Qingge’s predicament.

Death ten, Shen Qingqiu went for help again, this time opting to go to An Ding Peak himself. To his dismay, he was informed by a quivering disciple that Shang Qinghua was off-mountain on a mission, and so Shen Qingqiu got to go all the way back to Mu Qingfang’s solemn head-shake and Yue Qingyuan’s reluctant question of where he’d gone off to.

Death eleven, Shen Qingqiu remembered. There had been a vulgar little beat during a Succeeding Disciples meeting, in which Qi Qingqi had asked for advice on resolving a deviating senior practitioner without stressing her system. Shen Qingqiu had only noticed because Shang Qinghua sat directly across from him—he’d seen Shang Qinghua go red, sputter something of inconsequential relation, and bury his head back into some calligraphy papers.

Was that the answer? Dual cultivation to realign a qi deviation?

Shen Qingqiu would rather die.

On death fifteen, Shen Qingqiu flew straight for Yue Qingyuan and told him everything, hands fisted in Yue Qingyuan’s sleeves shaking in frustration and fear and something else. It was a little bright spot in the senseless dark, if Shen Qingqiu were being honest with himself, when Yue Qingyuan believed him without a second thought and promised to help. But he knew he’d rather have not seen the bright spot at all when it was cruelly extinguished the day after, when he woke up alone in the Spirit Caves again. A flight back to Qiong Ding revealed that Yue Qingyuan didn’t remember a single word.

(Yet another promise Qi-ge couldn’t keep. Oh well. Even Shen Jiu couldn’t blame him for this one.)

On death nineteen, Shen Qingqiu got as far as subduing Liu Qingge, twisting Liu Qingge’s arm behind his back and pressing him into the floor. The moment he contemplated tying Liu Qingge’s hands together (for ease of proceeding and both their safeties), however, Shen Qingqiu doubled over in a wave of nausea so strong that Liu Qingge managed to break free. The last thing Shen Qingqiu felt was Liu Qingge’s hand on his face and the unforgiving impact of his own skull against the stone cave wall.

Shen Qingqiu literally would rather die. Too bad it didn’t keep.

Death twenty, Shen Qingqiu got his grim and petty revenge by breaking Liu Qingge’s skull open too. It was dumb, because brain and blood was nasty, and he had to face Yue Qingyuan’s absolute rejection of him as a human being again. It was also pointless because he just woke back up where he started, facing the same choices with a set of somewhat more complicated grudges.

Death twenty-two, he managed to subdue Liu Qingge again. He began with something familiar, if useless—he began by trying to soothe Liu Qingge’s rampant-running qi. Their connection was tenuous at best, however, and the path that Shen Qingqiu attempted to draw stuttered out of location multiple times as it always did before. When Liu Qingge got loose again, Shen Qingqiu lost his patience and just slugged Liu Qingge across the face, which unexpectedly snapped Liu Qingge back into consciousness.

“What—”

His qi was still snapping across the air like bullwhips and Shen Qingqiu jumped to his feet.

“Liu Qingge! You’re having a qi deviation, tell me what you’ve done before to stop it!” he snapped. Liu Qingge bared and snapped his teeth as he tried to get himself under control, but Shen Qingqiu could tell this wouldn’t keep for long.

“Nothing,” Liu Qingge spat out, along with a spray of blood that Shen Qingqiu dodged in disgust. “Never happened before.”

Shen Qingqiu cursed and rubbed his forehead.

“Fine, well I’ve tried everything. The only thing left is dual cultivation, so I need you to—”

Liu Qingge spat out some more blood with a roar, something tearing him apart from the inside. Spiritual energy instantly flickered at Shen Qingqiu’s fingertips though he knew that wasn’t a viable method.

But then Liu Qingge said, “I’d rather die!”

Shen Qingqiu’s while body turned to stone from the inside, and his spiritual energy flickered out.

“…Fine.” His voice felt like it came out more numb than glacial, which Shen Qingqiu knew was a mistake. But that wasn’t his priority right now. His priority was to get himself away, as far away as possible, from Liu Qingge and the damned cave. “Do that then.”

Shen Qingqiu went flying out. This would be, he prayed, Liu Qingge’s most painful death yet.

It wasn’t until death thirty that Shen Qingqiu came back around to going back in. For days, he planted his back against the wall of his own cave and laughed out loud at Liu Qingge’s shouts of pain. This was what the fucker deserved because how dare he? How dare Liu Qingge act like he was the victim when it was Shen Qingqiu that the universe was conspiring against, apparently so damn keen on making Shen Qingqiu fuck every person he wanted least to touch? How dare Liu Qingge spit as if Shen Qingqiu was the last man on earth he would ever deign to fuck, as if Shen Qingqiu was disgusting or unclean or unworthy?

There was another attempt to get Yue Qingyuan to remember in there, but to no avail. As much as Shen Qingqiu wanted to happily wash his hands clean of saving Liu Qingge (god knows they needed a wash after Liu Qingge had so rudely slapped them away), the grim fact was becoming apparent—that unless he wanted to be stuck in this horrid hell of a half-day forever, Shen Qingqiu was just going to have to save Liu Qingge’s life.

But what was he meant to do, force it?

The thought of that made Shen Qingqiu go colder than the cave walls. Being pissed off at Liu Qingge aside, him wanting to throw up at the mere thought of the proceedings simply did not seem conducive to executing a rape. Because that was what it would be—rape. The logistical requirements of dual cultivation made that quite clearly unavoidable.

Then perhaps Shen Qingqiu could limit his own participation. If he could pass Liu Qingge spiritual energy the normal and far less vile way while he, urgh, pleasured Liu Qingge into release, then perhaps that would be enough to even out that qi imbalance.

With that game plan in mind, Shen Qingqiu reluctantly got to his feet. It had been a little bit since he last faced Liu Qingge, but he could still hear Liu Qingge’s words ringing in his ears as clear as day. I’d rather die! Well fuck off, fucker, so would Shen Qingqiu, but he supposed neither of them were going to get their wish today.

Shen Qingqiu did have a good time punching Liu Qingge’s lights out again though. This time, with one shoulder digging into Liu Qingge’s back to pin Liu Qingge against the wall, Shen Qingqiu decided to get right down to business. Like before, the punch had momentarily straightened out some of the deviating paths, and Shen Qingqiu busied himself briefly with the vain hope that he could comb the rest out with just a finger to the back of Liu Qingge’s neck.

The points of contact meant, though, that Shen Qingqiu felt it the moment Liu Qingge came back to himself and went stiff. Abruptly tired as hell, Shen Qingqiu headed off Liu Qingge’s sure-to-be-stupid roaring by snapping: “I don’t want to help an ungrateful prick like you either, but if I don’t try this, we’ll never get out, so I’m sorry.”

…Then he went stiff himself. He hadn’t meant to apologize.

Because what did he even have to apologize for! He was the one tasked with this insensible mission of saving his worst enemy. He was the true victim here!

But sorry had came out anyways, with Shen Qingqiu’s hand on Liu Qingge’s belt. Direct realignment was clearly not working at this point, and Liu Qingge’s body pinned under his was beginning to burn again. Shen Qingqiu had made up his mind to do this, but no matter how much anger and vitriol he front-loaded for himself, his fingers were still frozen above the fabric.

Gods he didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to do this for so many reasons.

Then the belt was gone. Shen Qingqiu blinked and realized Liu Qingge had yanked it off himself.

“I’m sorry too.”

Those were words that Shen Qingqiu heard. Those were words that Shen Qingqiu heard but couldn’t make sense of, because they made no sense at all in the current context. Who’d said it, Liu Qingge? Liu Qingge was apologizing—to him? Why? What could this possibly mean?

Angrily elbowing Shen Qingqiu out of the way, Liu Qingge turned around. There was blood running out of his nose and mouth and ears and nearly even eyes, but he still had enough lucidity to look conflicted.

“If you’re really trying to help me,” Liu Qingge barked as red and painful-looking blotches crawled up his neck and face, “then I apologize! I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

Damn right, Shen Qingqiu first thought vindictively. Then he thought, hang on, what? 

But before he could investigate the implications any further, the deviation took over once more and Liu Qingge promptly broke his arm. 

Death number thirty-one, Shen Qingqiu marched right into Liu Qingge’s cave and punched him awake again. 

“Do you remember all the past times?” he demanded to know.

“Of course,” Liu Qingge spat back, curled up on the ground like a mealworm in pain. “What the hell is going on?”

“We’re stuck in a time loop,” was Shen Qingqiu’s succinct answer, never mind that the first sense of relief he’d felt in a month was thanks to goddamn Liu Qingge. Stupid Qi-ge, if Liu Qingge could remember then why couldn’t he?! “It seems I have to ensure you leave this cave alive if we both want to ever move on.”

“And you’ve tried everything,” Liu Qingge confirmed, sounding as furious as always but not, for once, directed at Shen Qingqiu. “Dual cultivation is the last option—”

“—apparently.”

Liu Qingge’s fist clenched in the dirt.

“Can’t you grab someone else to do it?” Shen Qingqiu’s eyes went cold as Liu Qingge convulsed in agony on the ground. “Mu Qingfang or Yue-shi—”

“No,” he rejected simply. “You’re always too far gone by the time anybody else makes it here.” Then he sneered. “The best I can offer is a female Qiong Ding disciple I always find first outside, or a couple of Baizhan children. Would Liu-shidi rather I grab them? Toss them in here with you as you go crazy, see which one your qi deviation likes the taste of the best?”

“Shen Qingqiu! You—argh!”

All apologies and lost belts forgotten, their fight this time was more fists than swords, and by the time Liu Qingge lied dead and Shen Qingqiu collapsed against the cave wall, it felt like there was far more than just his bones broken. 

Death thirty-four, Shen Qingqiu considered knocking out Liu Qingge’s teeth to maybe prevent him from speaking because every time he opened his big stupid mouth Shen Qingqiu seemed to end up in a state of far more frustration. Shen Qingqiu wanted this over with, goddammit, and he knew how to get there, at least to start. If Liu Qingge wasn’t going to make himself helpful, then Shen Qingqiu would just have to barrel ahead himself. 

This time, Shen Qingqiu had a hand down Liu Qingge’s pants before Liu Qingge came to.

“You obviously don’t want to do this either,” was what he panted, back tense and still spasming in pain against Shen Qingqiu’s chest. “So why do you get angry when I bring up other options?”

Shen Qingqiu’s grip tightened in a punishing squeeze and abruptly let go when Liu Qingge yelped.

“Shut up,” he hissed, humiliatingly choked up for some reason as he shoved Liu Qingge harder against the wall. “There are no other options. For some godforsaken reason, there’s just you and me, so seeing as we don’t have a choice, do me the fucking decency of not—”

He cut himself off. To not what, not make it so obvious you hate my guts? Not act like this was rape when it so evidently was, and Shen Qingqiu had to be the perpetrator?

Pathetic. Disgusting. Awful. Shen Qingqiu’s hand was burning and he jerked it out. Liu Qingge was shuddering with the overtake again and Shen Qingqiu knew he had to get out of there.

But what for? He was just going to end up back in that stupid cave again. Pathetic. Awful.

He couldn’t escape anywhere, always trapped between some goddamn walls with some inexorable need for sex. He hated this, he hated it here, Liu Qingge could die die die for all he cared, he didn’t want this. 

He went on the run that night, tearing as hard and fast as he could off Cang Qiong Mountain altogether, Liu Qingge’s inevitable death dripping like evidence behind him. He knew he wouldn’t make it far but right now, anywhere was far enough. No cave, no Liu Qingge, no whispers. No specter of Yue Qingyuan being right there but never there enough to actually save him, not last time and not this time. No being trapped in another impossible decision. 

Shen Qingqiu went on the run the next night and the next night too. He went soaring as far as he could in every direction on Xiu Ya until he completely lost count of how many times he left Liu Qingge behind, of how many times he left the cave just as he heard Liu Qingge beginning to choke on blood.

When he had finally calmed enough to revisit the Liu Qingge problem, he found the man oddly cooperative after a single punch. The mechanics, Shen Qingqiu discovered, seemed to be this: that while Liu Qingge remembered the repeated days before, he was always already caught in the throes of qi deviation when the repeat started. This meant that unless Shen Qingqiu came in to punch him out of it, he was ostensibly stuck in a loop of mind-blowing pain, losing himself again and again to a conflagration he could only ever fail to stop until he died.

All that meant Shen Qingqiu was understandably somewhat wary when Liu Qingge grew conscious again. Liu Qingge could blame him for leaving him to this nonstop hell for so long and he wouldn’t even necessarily be wrong.

But Liu Qingge didn’t. Oddly enough, Liu Qingge only undid his own belt again and made his best effort to stand still.

“My arm,” he even warned Shen Qingqiu, words almost lost to a mouthful of blood. Errant qi was mounting around one elbow as Shen Qingqiu, very slowly, had started to stroke. “Break it if you have to.”

“That will hardly be conducive to getting you off,” Shen Qingqiu snapped in reply. He did, however, pin that arm out of the way with a careful palm full of spiritual energy. “And like I’m about to give you more things to blame me for.”

“I don’t blame you for this.”

…Motherfucking Liu Qingge. Shen Qingqiu swore as much before removing his hand and balling it up into a threatening fist.

“I will knock your teeth out. Shut the hell up.”

Liu Qingge groaned and slammed his forehead against the cave wall in frustration. 

“You storm out when you think I imply you want this, you get angry when I say that you don’t want this. What the hell do you want, Shen Qingqiu!”

“I want—” Shit, his cheeks were going hot, so he shoved his hand back down Liu Qingge’s pants to distract both Liu Qingge and himself. “—I want you to shut the fuck up and climax already, asshole!”

Death number Unknown-Plus-Four, they finally manage to get Liu Qingge to orgasm. Neither of them talked about it, but after Shen Qingqiu settled down and focused, he demonstrated clear competence at pleasuring a penis with his hand. It was a game of timing and only minor wrestling, it turned out, because Liu Qingge retained lucidity during the entire jerking-off process. At first Shen Qingqiu’s goal was getting Liu Qingge to climax as fast as possible, but that took a turn for the horrible when Liu Qingge just went uncomfortable and soft instead and the qi deviation snuck back up.

Why, Liu Qingge had asked between clenched teeth during attempt number two. I’ve taken care of this so much faster before.

Don’t you think being forced to pleasure like this might put a damper on things? Shen Qingqiu had replied in disbelief. His hand still shook with the instinctive urge to jerk away sometimes, but for the most part he could control his strokes with little fanfare now. Stop thinking too hard about climaxing. The more pressure you put on yourself the less likely it is to work.

Fine! Despite the snappish tone, Liu Qingge did shift in an attempt to unclench his pain-tense muscles, so Shen Qingqiu abstained from further commentary. Shen Qingqiu, you…keep making the calls. I don’t have experience in this.

And…Shen Qingqiu didn’t go storming off at this. While yes, he hated that implication coming from Liu Qingge (for so many reasons), the obvious fact of the matter was that he did have the experience. Liu Qingge didn’t even know to stop making demands of his body. If the only way they could get out was to get off and they’d already come this far, then Shen Qingqiu could save his grievances for afterwards.

Besides, he could somehow tell that Liu Qingge didn’t mean anything disparaging by it. 

So he’d persevered—and finally, on attempt number four of Liu Qingge half-pinned to the ground and half-pinned in Shen Qingqiu’s lap, they achieved orgasm. The results were immediately apparent: a substantial quantity of released volatile qi and a decompression of yang energy build-up. The bloody red marks retreated at once from Liu Qingge’s face and neck, and with his head falling back, Liu Qingge released a breath that sounded like he was finally freed from a months-long, ruinous pain. 

…Which, was probably the case. Shen Qingqiu removed his hand at once and took Liu Qingge’s wrist, momentarily distracted by how fragile and limp the limb felt to the touch. He’d never seen Liu Qingge more vulnerable, feverishly languid with his chest heaving and all his weight on Shen Qingqiu’s chest. It almost felt dirty to go probing in his meridians like this.

But the moment Shen Qingqiu did, all unnecessarily complicated thoughts about Liu Qingge went flying, replaced by a sinking feeling. Dammit, did it not work?— No, if anything it worked a little too well, depleting Liu Qingge’s internal systems of foul yang energy altogether and now risking a qi deviation in the complete opposite direction. Shen Qingqiu rushed to push some of his own energy in through his fingertips but knew it wasn’t being absorbed fast enough to work. 

He propped Liu Qingge up against the wall and hopped to his feet. 

“I’ll go get Mu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu declared, teeth gritted as Liu Qingge began to shudder once more. Liu Qingge didn’t say anything but even without looking back, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t get the image of Liu Qingge’s lips starting to go blue out of his mind.

Death number Unknown-Plus-Five, Shen Qingqiu left Liu Qingge’s dick untouched. 

“This isn’t going to work,” he told Liu Qingge. Today, Liu Qingge looked to be in a much worse state from his original deviation, and Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but wonder if it was because they’d managed to get him reprieve the attempt before. “Dual cultivation just sends you into a different qi deviation and nobody comes fast enough. By the time I go get help and return you’re too far gone to hold down.”

Liu Qingge slammed the back of his head so hard against the ground that Shen Qingqiu could feel the impact in his feet. Deep furrows had gouged themselves into Liu Qingge’s forehead and Shen Qingqiu went tense, bracing himself for yelling or some more attacks. 

But— “ keep grabbing people then,” was all Liu Qingge said, voice so strained it sounded like he was packed to the brim with gunpowder. “ Someone, they’ve got to have a solution.” 

Maybe it was being caught by surprise, maybe it was the handjobs—or maybe it was Shen Qingqiu’s deadened dread that they would never find a solution and so this hell cycle would never end and therefore none of this really mattered—but Shen Qingqiu asked, “why?” 

And when Liu Qingge made a gruff noise of incomprehension, he closed his eyes and tried again. 

“Why aren’t you telling me to just fuck you?” he asked, dull and blunt. Getting the words out felt like he was shredding tendons with his bare fingers. “Your second qi deviation can probably be fixed if I fully dual cultivated with you and injected you with yang energy. The solution’s right there, why aren’t you telling me to do it?”

“Why didn’t you offer?” Liu Qingge asked into the ground. Shen Qingqiu bristled.

“I won’t have you blaming me for taking advantage of you after—”

“I’m not going to blame you—”

“You’re blaming me right now for not doing it—”

“When,” Liu Qingge growled, “the fuck did I say that?”

Shen Qingqiu’s mouth slammed shut, but at this point in their acquaintance Liu Qingge knew all too well that it was a silence of mutiny, not concession. So he too faced Shen Qingqiu with a glare, blood running all down his face from his orifices and the gouges in his forehead. 

When he spoke, however, Shen Qingqiu thought he sounded tired. 

“If you don’t want to, don’t do it.”

And when Liu Qingge brought Cheng Luan over to cut his own neck, Shen Qingqiu actually flinched in the aftermath. 

The next time… 

“It’s not that I won’t, it’s that I can’t. I’d need to be hard for this, and.”

“…Okay.”

And the next. 

“I’m perfectly capable of getting hard, it’s just that it’s you, and this cave, and—”

“Okay!”

And the next. 

“I hate this.”

“…As much as I do, I bet.”

“I hate this and I hate you.”

“Hate you too. Put me out of my misery already.”

Somewhere along the line, Shen Qingqiu lost count again, and Liu Qingge had never bothered keeping count at all. Time became a non-factor and the days just merged into an endless, shapeless mass of Liu Qingge, qi meridians, and limp dick. Shen Qingqiu had stopped breaking Liu Qingge’s wrist after telling Liu Qingge to touch him and Liu Qingge had stopped looking at Shen Qingqiu with genuine fury in his eyes.

Most of the time now they spent just running their mouths in spiritual exhaustion. They’d figured out that the yang-deficient qi deviation was far less violent in Liu Qingge than the yang-excessive one and bought them just a little more time. So everyday, it became a routine of Shen Qingqiu coming in, punching Liu Qingge out (mostly to the solar plexus now and not across the face), and jerking Liu Qingge off. Then, as Liu Qingge slowly froze to death from the inside out, they’d talk shit at each other with the camaraderie of dying soldiers who might have otherwise never even deigned to speak to each other stuck in a trench.
 
This is the most amount of orgasms I’ve ever had, Liu Qingge confessed one time, because what use was propriety and shame when all you had to look forward to was the repeated dance of pain and death? To which Shen Qingqiu just snorted.

This isn’t even the most times I’ve jerked a man off, was what he said in response. He didn’t add, but these are the only times I’ve been willing.

It was a close thing though.

Why do you hate Yue-shixiong? Liu Qingge asked another time.

Because he lied to me and left me for dead, Shen Qingqiu answered, to which there was silence. In another life, pre-time loop, that silence would have set Shen Qingqiu off into a rage. Now though, what did it matter? Either Liu Qingge thought he was lying or Liu Qingge was thinking about it. Whichever the answer was, Shen Qingqiu still wouldn’t be able to get his dick up and they still wouldn’t be able to escape, so honestly, what was the harm of just lying there?

Eventually, right before he died again, Liu Qingge said through chattering teeth: You didn’t leave me for dead.

At that, Shen Qingqiu laughed. Shen Qingqiu tossed his head back in the truest, merriest laugh he’d laughed in years and pulled Liu Qingge’s lifeless body into his lap. Because how ridiculous was this, that he should understand Liu Qingge? This blockheaded, entitled, battle-obsessed man who had so infuriated Shen Qingqiu before was all of a sudden an open book—a simple picture book at that. It was absurd how confident Shen Qingqiu felt in knowing that that had been Liu Qingge thanking him, but that Liu Qingge just didn’t want to say the words before they actually got out of this hell (one way or another) . It was stupid and crazy that he should find this enemy man so kindred.

One more time—

“What if you masturbated into my cooling corpse?”

“What if I cut your dick off and fucked you with it like a dildo?”

Liu Qingge’s eyebrow twitched as he thought about it, head pillowed on Shen Qingqiu’s lap.

“Would it stay hard?” he finally asked. Shen Qingqiu snickered and rolled his eyes.

“No harm in trying,” he said, as sweet as he could be. Then he sighed, pointedly loud. “If only Yue-shixiong and his guilt boner could be here instead of me.”

It was Liu Qingge’s turn to snort.

“Like he would get hard for anybody but you.”

“Because he feels the guiltiest toward me?”

“If that’s what it takes. At least you’ve got someone to fuck you.”

Frowning a little, Shen Qingqiu sat up. He rested his palm on Liu Qingge’s chest not out of concern (because that would be useless) but to pass some energy and keep Liu Qingge alive for the extra seconds necessary to finish this conversation.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Liu Qingge fixed him with a sideways, deadpan stare.

“Do you really think I’m back to blaming you again? Just let me complain about it.”

“It’s not that I won’t fuck you,” Shen Qingqiu felt the need to clarify nevertheless. “It’s that I can’t. What normal person can get off under the circumstances?”

Liu Qingge’s reaction to that was an incredulous bark of laughter. Or at least, that was what would have come out had he not been caught in a full-body shiver and unresponsive extremities in the way.

“Oh,” Shen Qingqiu finished for him a little feebly as Liu Qingge tried and failed to wheeze in air. “Right, you.”

More—

“Are you sexually attracted to me?” Shen Qingqiu asked as soon as Liu Qingge had had his orgasm. Liu Qingge went tense and Shen Qingqiu helpfully pumped a few more strokes of semen from his dick.

“Would this have happened so many times if I’m not?” Liu Qingge shot back with a frustrated gesture down at his crotch. “Before you ask, I didn’t plan this in any way—”

“Of course you didn’t, I know that,” Shen Qingqiu interrupted impatiently. He’d accuse a man of plenty of perversions but not even he could accuse Liu Qingge of suffering this many painful deaths by qi deviation just to get in his pants. “I’m surprised, is all.”

“What for?” Liu Qingge grumbled in complaint before lying down in his usual spot on Shen Qingqiu’s thigh. Again, Shen Qingqiu was struck by how much had changed in the dynamic between them. Thanks to what felt like ages of close proximity, he’d learned to recognize the pink in Liu Qingge’s ears and the way Liu Qingge wouldn’t meet his eyes as the signs of embarrassment they were. He wasn’t being accused of unscrupulous seduction, Liu Qingge was just feeling caught-out about having to confess his attraction. Shen Qingqiu still had the upper hand here and so magnanimously let the comment be.

…Meaning, he wouldn’t get mad at Liu Qingge. That was different than getting on Liu Qingge’s case about it.

“Well well,” he smirked, lounging back in his own usual spot against the cave wall, “imagine that. Remember how much you hated me just a few months ago, Liu-shidi?”

“Remember how much you hated me?” Liu Qingge shot back. “Now who’s lying on whose lap?”

Shen Qingqiu paused, contemplating shoving Liu Qingge off. It wouldn’t really work though, considering how stiffly Liu Qingge’s neck was frozen. Shen Qingqiu himself would have to move, and after the initial wrestling match with deviation-crazed Liu Qingge, he simply couldn’t be bothered.

“The difference is,” he argued, “you actually want me to fuck you.”

“Yeah,” Liu Qingge replied, “because it’d get us out of here. You want to fuck me too!”

“No I don’t! I’ve never even gotten hard.”

“I don’t think you ever tried.”

“Yes I—”

Glaring down at Liu Qingge’s challenging stare, Shen Qingqiu paused and pressed his lips carefully together. Liu Qingge was wrong, he had tried. But whatever, he would prove Liu Qingge wrong by trying again now. Wanting to fuck Liu Qingge? Hah, as if. He hated the brute! Every time he thought of Liu Qingge he would recall Liu Qingge’s hateful scowl—except recently, Liu Qingge hadn’t really been scowling at him. No, wait, yes he had—only that the scowls hadn’t been hateful. They’d been disgruntled and deadpan instead, which made for a good match with Shen Qingqiu’s own eye rolls and sneers.

So fine, he didn’t find Liu Qingge hateful at all anymore, but that still didn’t mean he wanted to fuck Liu Qingge. He’d have to find Liu Qingge attractive for that, which he didn’t. He’d never thought in excess about Liu Qingge’s face or Liu Qingge’s mole or Liu Qingge’s body. He’d never wanted Liu Qingge naked and bent over to take his dick, never fantasized about sitting Liu Qingge in his lap, perhaps just like this with his back to the cave wall, and telling Liu Qingge to bear down—

Shen Qingqiu tried to turn away but it was too late—Liu Qingge had spotted his eyes widening. And in response, Liu Qingge’s eyes had widened too, trailing sideways to Shen Qingqiu’s crotch which was unfortunately level with his head and he was opening his mouth to say something and—

In his rush to get away, Shen Qingqiu did push Liu Qingge off his lap. Unfortunately, Liu Qingge’s veins and muscles were so frozen at this point that Shen Qingqiu’s jerky motions only served to snap Liu Qingge’s neck over his knee.

With a flinch, Shen Qingqiu halted. The days got so much less bearable the moment Liu Qingge was dead. And now, Liu Qingge had something to grouse at Shen Qingqiu about the day after.


Liu Qingge definitely groused at Shen Qingqiu about his death by broken neck the day after. At least it was quick, Shen Qingqiu had argued. I was almost dead already, Liu Qingge had complained back.

“Besides, I saw it.” Smug was a horrible look on Liu Qingge, Shen Qingqiu decided. “You got hard at the thought of doing it with me.”

“Wanting to fuck you,” Shen Qingqiu insisted, “and being willing to fuck you to save both of us from eternal doom are two very different things.”

“Fine,” Liu Qingge said, exasperated. “So which is it?”

“The—” Shen Qingqiu’s tongue stalled yet again. He could barely believe that it was Liu Qingge getting the better of him in a verbal argument like this, but what was he honestly meant to say here? The first was out of the question, but if he said the second, did that oblige him to try having sex with Liu Qingge again, after all their failed attempts at getting him hard before? The mere thought of it made Shen Qingqiu’s already-less-than-interested dick shrivel back up into his body.

Liu Qingge snorted softly, waving a stiff hand in the air.

“Forget it, let’s change the topic,” he decided. Not passive-aggressive, not coercive. He really was just lying there, taking Shen Qingqiu’s discomfort at face value. It made Shen Qingqiu both relax and squirm against the cave wall. It made Shen Qingqiu want to try.

Today?

“Can you actually fight with the qin or is that just a myth?”

…No, tomorrow.

“You battle-obsessed maniac.”

For the first time, having infinite tries together felt like a source of comfort.

“Well can you?”

Tomorrow.

“Try putting me in your mouth,” Shen Qingqiu said once Liu Qingge had been sated and positioned comfortably. “Before your teeth start falling out.”

Frozen half-turned into Shen Qingqiu’s body, Liu Qingge took minute to say, “my teeth do not fall out.”

“Sure they do. You never see the gruesome corpse.”

“Paint me a picture next time,” Liu Qingge snapped before taking a deep breath. “You sure about this? I won’t be very happy if you break my jaw.”

“You’re never happy. Yes I’m sure, this makes sense. If I’m in your mouth, any yang energy intake would happen immediately, and it might keep you alive long enough for us to, you know, progress.”

Despite having given the instruction of his own volition, Shen Qingqiu still tensed when Liu Qingge pushed his robes apart. And when Liu Qingge’s lips closed around the head of his flaccid dick, the sensation was slimy and tepid and generally difficult to call pleasant.

After working his tongue around the head a little bit, Liu Qingge pulled off.

“You can break my jaw,” he allowed. “But only if you need to. And you better just break my neck immediately after.”

Liu Qingge’s mouth felt a little less slimy and a little less unpleasant after that, for some reason. 


Shen Qingqiu was getting the hang of staying hard, and Liu Qingge was getting the hang of giving a blowjob. Somewhere along the line, things had stopped being so intrusively uncomfortable, and settling his dick into Liu Qingge’s mouth felt easy and unburdened. The only weird thing still in the way was Shen Qingqiu having to pull out before Liu Qingge’s mouth got cold—just blowing Shen Qingqiu, they discovered, wasn’t enough of a yang energy input to keep Liu Qingge alive. It only worked if Shen Qingqiu got hard relatively quickly and that was still only happening a fraction of the time.

On attempt number something, Liu Qingge told Shen Qingqiu to just take hold of his head and pleasure himself that way. There were two more sessions of a completely limp dick before Shen Qingqiu finally tried it, asking him midway but didn’t he hate it?

“I don’t,” Liu Qingge had answered in a hoarse voice. “It’s fine.”

“But doesn’t your throat hurt.”

“My arms hurt after a training session. My whole body hurts right now,” Liu Qingge snapped. “This is nothing.”

And then, with his lips already back around Shen Qingqiu’s head, he mumbled, “it warms up my throat.”
 
That was how Liu Qingge mouthing his cock turned into Shen Qingqiu fucking Liu Qingge’s throat. They lasted a little longer this way because Shen Qingqiu got hard faster (now, even as he was getting Liu Qingge off that initial time, Shen Qingqiu would feel himself stirring as he pushed the fingers of his free hand between Liu Qingge’s lips and dipped into that deadly heat), which meant Liu Qingge survived longer. The longer they went at it though, the more amped up Shen Qingqiu got, which meant that multiple times, he hit the inevitable ceiling of panic at which point all of Shen Qingqiu’s arousal morphed into cold dread. Which meant Liu Qingge was right back to dying again and he’d thoughtfully get his mouth off of Shen Qingqiu before kicking the bucket.

Shen Qingqiu wondered if there was even the slightest chance that at this point, Liu Qingge still hadn’t figured out his sexual trauma. Not really, he thought. Liu Qingge was much more perceptive than Shen Qingqiu had given him credit for in the past. But Liu Qingge also wasn’t saying anything about it, just letting it be. More than that, he was letting it dictate the pace of their progress and was apparently willing to slide right back to zero if it decided nope, Shen Qingqiu was never ever going to manage to orgasm inside him and save his life.

It was all getting a little bit ridiculous. Shen Qingqiu wanted to get mad at Liu Qingge about it, but what was he meant to say? Why won’t you just force this encounter? I do know how to come, you know. I’ve come many times before. All you have to do is make me.

Shen Qingqiu was getting a bit mad at himself about it.

“Weren’t you the one who told me,” Liu Qingge said skeptically, “that the more pressure you put on yourself, the less likely it is to work?”

“Shut up,” Shen Qingqiu commanded, pushing Liu Qingge flat on his back and yanking his robes apart. Liu Qingge’s little bottle of sword oil for Cheng Luan was in Shen Qingqiu’s hand and Shen Qingqiu was currently trying to decide if he should be stroking himself to keep himself hard or stretching Liu Qingge for penetration. “I’m so sick and tired of this, we’re going to make this work.”

“Do it,” Liu Qingge agreed. Shen Qingqiu’s fingers found his insides and began pushing him open as quickly and steadily as he knew how.

Right as Shen Qingqiu positioned his oiled cock (soft again, dammit dammit dammit) against Liu Qingge’s entrance, he paused one more time.

“You do,” he asked, “want this?”

Liu Qingge’s teeth were already starting to chatter and Shen Qingqiu knew this wouldn’t be the successful cycle either. Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow again.

“Yes,” was the answer. Shen Qingqiu was having a hard time remembering why he used to hate Liu Qingge’s straightforwardness so much. Exhaling in relief, Shen Qingqiu let go of his cock and even smiled a little bit.

“Well you could try looking more excited,” he said, and Liu Qingge huffed as much as his frozen lungs would let him.

“Give me a break,” he said. “I’m only dying.”

Tomorrow came, and as Shen Qingqiu rapidly jerked Liu Qingge off, he had a feeling that today was the day. After Liu Qingge came, he quickly shuffled them both onto the ground and got the oil out. 

“We’ll do it at the same time,” Shen Qingqiu announced as he straddled Liu Qingge’s face. There was only a slight tinge of redness on his cheeks betraying his embarrassment. “And when we’re ready, I’ll fuck you.”

Liu Qingge’s only response was to swallow Shen Qingqiu down to the root. In this position, doing this—it was hard for Shen Qingqiu to pinpoint the feeling, but he was almost sure it was a good one. As embarrassing as it kind of was, he liked being on top. He liked Liu Qingge giving him leave to fuck as shallowly or as deeply into Liu Qingge’s mouth as he wanted, and he liked having something to do with his hands. More accurately, he liked being entrusted with a part of Liu Qingge’s body that he could easily hurt, easily betray. He liked making Liu Qingge groan with his mercy.

Beneath him, Shen Qingqiu could feel Liu Qingge’s body suffusing with warmth. He didn’t know if it was the absence of pain or if the pleasure really was so overwhelming, but Liu Qingge was shifting and squirming at a helpless tempo beneath him. Absently, Shen Qingqiu petted around inside Liu Qingge for that most sensitive nerve bundle and almost got his eye poked out when Liu Qingge’s hips shot up at the first touch. Feeling absurdly smug and pleased, Shen Qingqiu gave the cock before him a lick.

“Shen Qingqiu—!” Liu Qingge gasped, teeth grazing Shen Qingqiu’s head in his hurry to free his mouth. Stifling a groan himself, Shen Qingqiu straightened up promptly and turned around.

“Oh look, you’re still alive.”

That was the sort of comment best paired with a self-satisfied smirk, but Shen Qingqiu was too overwhelmed by how frantically Liu Qingge was parting his legs and shuffling up to him to manage more than a vague flutter of his lips. While Liu Qingge was still unhealthily pale, there was definitely pink in his cheeks, which meant that he was not only alive, but also not dying. Not yet. And he won’t as long as Shen Qingqiu just—

He pushed into Liu Qingge, deep and determined, before he could overthink it. In response, Liu Qingge’s legs wrapped tight around his hips, drawing him deeper and deeper in. It wasn’t a blistering heat but it sure was tight, and Shen Qingqiu could feel every single nerve ending along his length lighting up and singing at the dragging clench.

“Shen—”

Shen Qingqiu kissed him, knocking Liu Qingge’s head unceremoniously back against the floor. Liu Qingge’s lips had been desperately wet, and it was gratifying to know he’d read Liu Qingge correctly when Liu Qingge immediately parted his mouth, eagerly swallow ing down every breath of warm air Shen Qingqiu offered him.

Aside from the initial stuttering, broken motions of qi-deviated Liu Qingge, Shen Qingqiu had not seen Liu Qingge in action in a very long time. Now, as all of Liu Qingge’s abdominal muscles flexed to thrust Liu Qingge back down onto Shen Qingqiu’s dick, Shen Qingqiu was starting to remember.

This man was Baizhan’s star disciple, winner of battles and conqueror in wars. Shen Qingqiu used to stand across from him in the practice arenas, fuming at all the ways Liu Qingge’s perfect body was honed from youth. Now, having seen that perfect body burned and frozen and otherwise broken in so many configurations, Shen Qingqiu was fucking the life back into it, and Liu Qingge was giving him everything.

Grip—Liu Qingge was clinging to him like he was the last lit piece of coal in a snowstorm. Whenever Shen Qingqiu pulled out, Liu Qingge squeezed so hungrily that Shen Qingqiu had a hard time remembering to keep going. Then, when he thrusted back in, Liu Qingge would slam down over him just so perfectly open that once more, Shen Qingqiu forgot why he would ever pull out.

Heat—Shen Qingqiu certainly didn’t forget to circulate his qi, and while he’d expected the pull of his internal temperature into Liu Qingge, he hadn’t expected the feedback. Somehow, like the process of dual cultivation itself knew better than to simply sap away his body heat, there was a warmth flowing into Shen Qingqiu that slipped past his lips and pooled pleasantly like tea in his stomach. The more yang energy he fucked into Liu Qingge, the hotter Liu Qingge’s mouth became and the warmer the energy he got to drink. The energy felt good inside him and Liu Qingge felt good under him, skin finally soft and spongey to the touch instead of stiff with rigor mortis.

Confidence—as much as Shen Qingqiu didn’t want to admit it, Liu Qingge’s reactions were a major component of keeping him going. In his memories, Liu Qingge had never been shy about grunting or otherwise making noises during sparring; the same un-self-consciousness apparently applied now. Shen Qingqiu’s thrusts seemed to punch these part-groans, part-exhalations out of Liu Qingge, and Shen Qingqiu grew immediately hungry for them against his mouth. If he pulled Liu Qingge up into him by the small of Liu Qingge’s back, Liu Qingge would eagerly rub up against him with a faint, breathy keen. The last time Shen Qingqiu felt this obsessed with the sounds he could evoke, he had been pouring over an antique qin.

Soon, he could feel the promise of a cresting, and Shen Qingqiu’s learned instincts were to grow nervous. Orgasms even in the dark of a private room could feel like punishment to Shen Qingqiu and all of a sudden now he wasn’t sure he could do it.

But then Liu Qingge’s hands were on his face, calloused but gentle, tepid but tender with sweat. He pulled out of the press of lips for a moment before leaning back in. To linger. To lick.

“Thank you,” he whispered, kissing Shen Qingqiu on the mouth with these fluttering, almost sheepish points of contact. Their hips had stopped moving, and somehow, the saliva-clung little noises of Liu Qingge’s kisses felt far more vulgar and shy-making than the oil-slick impacts from before. Liu Qingge’s eyes kept flickering away from meeting Shen Qingqiu’s gaze. “You never had to do all this. But you really helped me.”

It felt like something falling open inside Shen Qingqiu to come. It wasn’t quite scary, but it was disconcerting. Shen Qingqiu thought he made some kind of noise that Liu Qingge held between his palms and licked away. Shen Qingqiu felt himself twitching inside Liu Qingge for a long time yet.

Then finally, Shen Qingqiu felt Liu Qingge’s arms come up around him and impatiently tug him down. Their chests fully met and Shen Qingqiu’s cock slipping out of Liu Qingge felt like the breaking of a seal.

“You’re not dead,” Shen Qingqiu gasped. Only after the fact did he understand that he had been waiting. Waiting for Liu Qingge’s body to go cold around him and prove that even after giving this much, he’d been a failure again.

“Not dead,” Liu Qingge confirmed, tone rough and fierce and brimming with emotions. He’d just been freed from probably one of the worst ordeals known to man, Shen Qingqiu was realizing. Honestly it was more surprising that he wasn’t having a total breakdown. “The deviation’s settled. It’s over.”

“It’s over,” Shen Qingqiu repeated, not really believing it at all, but needing to say the words nonetheless. “It’s over.”


Shen Qingqiu laid facedown and useless on top of Liu Qingge for a very long time, long enough that Liu Qingge felt the need to dress him to keep him warm. It wasn’t a smart move, he told himself, to make such a demonstration of vulnerability and dependence, but he also immediately told himself fuck that. Vulnerability and dependence? He and Liu Qingge had a success-to-failure ratio of something like one-to-twenty in sex; what use were stakes like vulnerability and dependence between them now?

More importantly, Liu Qingge also didn’t tell him to get up. Later Liu Qingge would use the excuse that all that qi deviation had really wiped him out, but Shen Qingqiu could tell by now when Liu Qingge was lying—when Liu Qingge got embarrassed about things that even his bullheaded bluntness couldn’t protect him from and his nose started twitching in discomfort. Liu Qingge had liked lying there just as much as Shen Qingqiu did and hadn’t rushed them to get up.

Afterward, they’d gotten dressed and Shen Qingqiu had braced Liu Qingge down the mountain. Halfway down, they’d bumped into An Ding disciples whom they sent to Qian Cao Peak right away. By the time Mu Qingfang and Yue Qingyuan alighted from their swords, Shen Qingqiu had sat Liu Qingge down on a log and brought him a leaf-cup full of clean stream water to drink (and to wash out the taste of sex with).

It was weird to see their fellow head disciples again in the light of day after all that had happened between him and Liu Qingge. Somehow, Shen Qingqiu’s world was threatening to flip completely upside down; it felt entirely possible—more possible, even—for him and Liu Qingge to deem each other enemies again and storm away into their separate lives.

But one small gesture from Liu Qingge obliterated that possibility from Shen Qingqiu’s thoughts.

When Yue Qingyuan came striding straight for Shen Qingqiu, Liu Qingge stepped in front of him in defense.

“Qingqiu-shi—Liu-shidi? Are, are you two okay?”

And when Shen Qingqiu placed a hand on Liu Qingge’s elbow, it was as much a gesture to stand down as it was a pact. Their gazes met, and ignoring Yue Qingyuan’s widening eyes, Liu Qingge nodded.

“Liu-shidi had a pretty serious qi deviation,” Shen Qingqiu spoke, mostly directing his words at the approaching Mu Qingfang. “We’ll have to trouble Mu-shidi for a bed on Qian Cao for him.”

“Certainly,” Mu Qingfang agreed readily enough, taking Liu Qingge’s pulse in a motion Shen Qingqiu had done a hundred times now. Liu Qingge’s wrist twitched in his less-familiar hold. “Yes, let’s get Liu-shixiong up there right away.”

“You come too,” Liu Qingge said to Shen Qingqiu, who knew it wasn’t an order but a request. Shen Qingqiu could still see Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang getting nervous in his periphery, the same old way they used to whenever he and Liu Qingge were forced to interact.

Oh how times had changed. Shen Qingqiu might have scoffed, but that scoff might have also turned into hysterical, disbelieving laughter.

“I’m not injured,” he reminded Liu Qingge. They weren’t just civil, they were cordial. Take that and puzzle over it, Qi-ge.

“Yeah, but if I don’t see you when I wake up next I think I might go crazy,” Liu Qingge answered, candid as anything. Beside him, Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang’s jaws collectively dropped, and Shen Qingqiu finally snorted.

“Needy,” he accused quietly, to which Liu Qingge just stared with blazing eyes up at the sky and shrugged.

“I’m not dead, and I have you to thank for that.”

That night, sat up in the most comfortable Qian Cao cots placed right next to each other, Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge waited for the hour to end. They’d known, back in the cave, that it wasn’t truly over yet. The only actual confirmation they’d get would be at midnight when they didn’t wake up back where they started, in caves right next to each other, one dying and one failing to save.

And as Shen Qingqiu worked himself up into a cold sweat, dead certain that they would, he heard Liu Qingge exhale—a strong, familiar sound. There was no cave echo around them though, and somehow that alone did half the work to ground Shen Qingqiu.

“Relax,” Liu Qingge said, tossing a light cotton sheet over Shen Qingqiu’s head. Frowning, Shen Qingqiu swatted it off before bundling it up and throwing it right back. “Look, we’re still here.”

In the space of a sheet tossed and a sheet thrown, the last drop of candle wax had fallen, and the night-callers on Qiong Ding began to knock their large bamboo bell. Shen Qingqiu inhaled in a shaky gasp, and on the other bed, Liu Qingge’s shoulders were very, very slowly thawing in relief.

Shen Qingqiu swallowed and lied down on the pillow, working very hard to keep breathing. After a moment, he heard Liu Qingge do the same.

“See you tomorrow,” he heard one of them say, and it didn’t really matter which one because Liu Qingge’s fingers had found his above the sheets in a brief squeeze and it was all over. It was all over and somehow, somehow, they would still have a tomorrow.

He closed his eyes and truly slept for the first time in months.