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“Shidi, wait, don’t—!”

Cheng Luan’s blade flashes forwards as Liu Qingge dashes through the bloated Giant Quelling Toad. There’s no point in waiting; the toad has been using its unique biology to lure the young omegas of a nearby town into a pseudo-heat and stealing them away to feed on their flesh. Inducing such forced trust upon an omega is a dishonor amongst alphas, and to have a monster do that and take an omega’s life… well. In Liu Qingge’s opinion, waiting around is an insult to the omegas who have already lost their lives to this monstrosity. If Shen Qingqiu wants to wait around to let more omegas live in fear one moment more, then, well, he’s only a beta and wouldn’t understand.

Because of this, somewhere behind him his shixiong’s cry of, “Shidi, you dumb idiot brute!” goes unheeded.

The monstrous toad croaks something like alarm, and in the next moment demonic viscera explodes over every inch of the swampy clearing, splattering over the trees and tinging the muddy water a dull, sickly blue.

Satisfied, Liu Qingge sheaths his sword and turns to raise an eyebrow at his martial sibling, whose robes are splattered in the same disgusting blue. The prissy scholar looks a little pale and vaguely nauseous, and Liu Qingge scoffs internally. Of course he can’t handle a little gore.

Serves him right.

“Could you not have waited one more minute,” Shen Qingqiu bites. His shoulders are shaking. Liu Qingge watches as he swipes at the stains on his being with his filthy sleeve. “You stupid—”

Liu Qingge rolls his eyes. “It’ll come off in the wash. Stop being so fussy.” 

“That’s not what I’m—!” 

Liu Qingge frowns; there’s a tinge of panic in Shen Qingqiu’s voice, but his shixiong’s teeth click audibly when he snaps his jaw shut. “We need to leave,” he says, but Shen Qingqiu himself is already striding back through the trees at a hurried pace. In his wake, a thin, reedy sound curls through the air, almost like a whine of helpless submission; Liu Qingge raises his eyebrows slowly as Shen Qingqiu stumbles and catches himself on a nearby tree trunk. He’s shaking visibly.

What is he…?

“Shen Qingqiu,” Liu Qingge says slowly, moving carefully after him. He catches his shixiong by the shoulder to steady him. The other man’s eyes are hazy with a strange quiescence that Liu Qingge has only ever seen on his overstressed Baba as a child. A sinking pit is starting to open in his stomach as he asks, uncertainly, “Are you… alright?”

“No,” Shen Qingqiu hisses, then whimpers. Whimpers, like a pup or a helpless omega. 

Liu Qingge scents the air as discreetly as he can; Shen Qingqiu still smells like a beta, like a bamboo forest after the rain, but beneath all that something sweeter is starting to bloom: plum blossoms and sweet honey, tinged with the bitterness of fear.

“Shen Qingqiu,” Liu Qingge says again, as understanding starts to dawn upon him. “Shen Qingqiu, you’re—”

No, ” Shen Qingqiu says again, forcefully,  but it lacks the bite now as the drug ingrained in the toad’s very system starts to take effect. His shixiong — his omega shixiong — crumples to his knees and slumps against the tree that holds his weight. Another whimper escapes him, and when Liu Qingge kneels warily by his side, his shixiong is crying.

“You’re,” Liu Qingge says helplessly. What was it that Niang did when Baba was in pseudo-heat? Liu Qingge’s hands hesitate before he places one upon the back of Shen Qingqiu’s neck, gripping lightly. He says, “Shixiong, it’s okay.”

He only gets more of the same negative response, but the sharpness of Shen Qingqiu’s eyes have softened with the mix of the drug and Liu Qingge’s touch. The quiescence has overtaken the jaded green of his shixiong’s eyes, leaving them open and trusting, if tear-filled still. 

“Brute,” Shen Qingqiu mumbles, but he leans into Liu Qingge’s touch, shuddering. A pleased noise slips through his lips, then, “Your fault.”

“This shidi is at fault,” Liu Qingge readily agrees. “This stupid shidi will take responsibility.” He tries to take his hand back, but Shen Qingqiu lets out another whimper, turning to nuzzle into his chest. Oh. Liu Qingge’s heart thuds behind his ribs. 

“No,” Shen Qingqiu says. There’s a pleading note that sparks something that Liu Qingge doesn’t think he’s quite ready to examine yet. Shen Qingqiu presses his face into Liu Qingge’s neck, scenting him. “Stay?” he asks.

“It’s getting late,” Liu Qingge tells him, brows furrowing. “Should be in an inn. You should be clean.” If he washes the gore off his shixiong and himself, maybe the drug won’t linger. He hopes. “Shixiong, can you stand?”

“No.” He’s grumpy now, snuffling against Liu Qingge’s collarbone. “Don’t want.”

Liu Qingge huffs. And Shen Qingqiu has the audacity to call him a brat. “I’ll carry you,” he tells him.

“Hmph.”

It’s a bit of a struggle, seeing as Shen Qingqiu is doing his best impersonation of a limpet and they’re both slippery with swamp-water and demonic monster blood, but Liu Qingge gets his arms under his shixiong and pushes himself to his feet. Shen Qingqiu wraps both arms around his neck, letting out tiny pleased noises as he rubs his cheek against the alpha’s shoulder, scenting him again and again.

“Needy,” Liu Qingge mutters.

There’s no reply. Shen Qingqiu blinks at him, catlike. His soft hands comb through Liu Qingge’s ponytail, tugging lightly and twirling the strands. Playing, pleased.

Night has fallen by the time they reach the town. With Shen Qingqiu dozing contentedly in his arms, Liu Qingge beelines it to the nearest inn where he tosses down a small pouch of gold coins and demands both a room and a bath. The wide-eyed, portly beta innkeeper looks at him, then at Shen Qingqiu curled up and clinging to him, nuzzling at his throat even in his semi-conscious state.

Liu Qingge spares a moment to acknowledge what this looks like. At some point during the trip, Shen Qingqiu had unhappily tugged his own hair free from its crown, leaving his hair to cascade over the side of Liu Qingge’s arm. His robes are loose and flashing strips of jade-like skin despite Liu Qingge’s attempts to keep him appropriate, and the omega with his honey-sweet scent is every bit a tempting image of virtuous innocence that most imperial artists would dream to capture on paper.

On the other hand, Liu Qingge is covered still in monster innards, with a bloodied sword strapped to his hip and a possessive growl caught behind the clench of his teeth. His hands ache from where he’s trying not to grip Shen Qingqiu too hard, and despite his best efforts his body is angled so Shen Qingqiu is mostly hidden in his chest, an instinct he failed to curb along the way here. 

“I-immortal master—” the innkeeper starts nervously, eyes on Shen Qingqiu. She cuts herself off when the growl Liu Qingge was stifling escapes his throat, and tosses a key on the counter. “Right away, immortal master! Yao’er will be up shortly with your bath!” 

She scrambles off, calling for Yao’er, and Liu Qingge heads upstairs to the empty room with his armful of omega shixiong. He tries not to catch the eye of the alphas seated in the tavern below, but can’t help the instinctual growl that builds once more when some of them look over, sniffing the air with interest.

They look away almost immediately.

Shen Qingqiu rumbles quietly against his chest, the smallest of purrs pressed against Liu Qingge’s clothes.

The room is clean and free of scent. Liu Qingge hesitates over placing Shen Qingqiu on the bed, still dirtied as they are, and then exhales and seats them both on the floor by the crackling brazier. He settles the omega in his lap, locking his arms around him so he doesn’t slip off.

Shen Qingqiu stirs and murmurs, “Alpha?”

“En.” Liu Qingge hesitates, then says, “Bath soon. Don’t go back to sleep.”

“Mn.” The omega — and it’s still a surprise to Liu Qingge every time he thinks it — shuffles a little in his grip and scents his cheek. Liu Qingge flushes. “Smell bad,” Shen Qingqiu informs him imperiously.

Liu Qingge’s ears flame. “You—” he starts hotly.

A knock interrupts whatever protest he has, and a skinny unpresented boy brings in an empty wooden bathtub. “Your bath, immortal master,” he says, nervously. Behind him trail a couple of betas, who avert their gaze as they start to fill the tub with buckets of water.

After they set up the privacy screen, they bow to him and slip out. Liu Qingge releases the tension he didn’t realize was in his shoulders when the door clicks shut behind them. “Alright,” he mutters, pushing himself to his feet with Shen Qingqiu still in his arms. The omega loops both hands behind his neck once more, stubbornly clinging while Liu Qingge tries to get him to stand on his two feet. “You need to undress to take the bath,” Liu Qingge tries. “You won’t want me to look, Shen Qingqiu, please —” Shen Qingqiu just blinks at him, then rests his cheek on Liu Qingge’s shoulder again, cuddling close. 

This is probably the closest Liu Qingge has ever felt to crying since he became a disciple of Cang Qiong.

They compromise — or rather, Liu Qingge forces the compromise of dressing his shixiong down to his under robes before lowering him into the water with Shen Qingqiu still clinging to him determinedly. He keeps his eyes averted from the peek of a pale collarbone and the flash of a delicate wrist, finding a spot on the wall to stare at determinedly as he hands Shen Qingqiu a bar of milky soap with an order to wash himself.

The sound of water has never been so tempting in his life.

At some point, Shen Qingqiu tugs at his sleeve with a plaintive murmur of, “Help, please,” and Liu Qingge is forced to meet his shixiong’s gaze with a blush staining his cheeks. Shen Qingqiu turns his back on the alpha once he sees that he has Liu Qingge’s attention, then looks around at him expectantly.

His hair is still unwashed. Liu Qingge swallows hard.

The small purr that started downstairs now fills the room as Liu Qingge woodenly combs his fingers through his shixiong’s silky hair, lathering it gently with soap. Shen Qingqiu leans into his touch, green eyes sliding shut with contentment on his face. He’s a far cry from the hissy, feral shixiong that Liu Qingge has grown used to, and the difference still feels like a missed step walking down a staircase.

How long has Shen Qingqiu been parading around as a beta? Shen Qingqiu has always smelled like a bamboo forest in his memory, never like the flowery sweetness that permeates the room now. For a moment, Liu Qingge wonders if even Mu-shixiong knows, then thinks, If he knows, wouldn’t he tell us?

An omega Peak Lord would be far better loved than Shen Qingqiu has been, wouldn’t he?

Zhangmen-shixiong might have known, Liu Qingge realizes as he helps Shen Qingqiu out of the tub and wraps him in a towel. Maybe that’s why he’s always chasing after Shen Qingqiu. For a moment, his stomach twists into a thick, unnameable knot; Liu Qingge swallows the growl that rises unbidden. He steps away from Shen Qingqiu, clenching his hands into fists behind his back.

Unaware, the omega nuzzles into the clean scent of the towel and drifts around the privacy screen towards the brazier with a low grumble of, “Cold.” Shen Qingqiu leaves drops of water in his wake, seeming not to notice. He settles by the fire with a yawn.

Liu Qingge winces as he follows and dives into his own qiankun pouch. He pulls out one of his spare robe layers and shoves it at Shen Qingqiu. “Change into this,” he says, gaze averted. “I should… also bathe.” He slips back behind the privacy screen, draining and refilling the tub with the fresh water buckets, steadfastly ignoring the soft rustle of cloth on Shen Qingqiu’s side of the room. 

His own bath is cursory, enough to clean the monster’s insides from his skin and hair, and when Liu Qingge steps around the screen, fully dressed, he sees Shen Qingqiu curled up quietly by the fireplace, still damp from his own shower and settled on Liu Qingge’s robe like the saddest nest that Liu Qingge has ever seen. He’s fallen asleep on the floor, his back a smooth curve around his knees, face pressed into the robe’s collar.

It doesn’t look comfortable. Surely a well-bred noble omega would rather have nestled into the bed, with its plush pillows and thick linens. He remembers Baba being spoiled in such a way, remembers crawling into the nest by his side and being buried under a pile of softness.

Brow furrowed, Liu Qingge crouches by his shixiong’s side, far enough away from the pathetic little nest that he won’t be intruding, but close enough to gently jostle his shoulder. “Shixiong.”

“Mn?” Shen Qingqiu turns and nuzzles into his fingers. “Alpha,” he replies.

Liu Qingge flushes, but he barrels on, “Don’t you want to nest on the bed instead?”

Shen Qingqiu blinks hazily. “Can I?”

Why does he sound so surprised?

“Do you need help standing?”

“No,” Shen Qingqiu says, but doesn’t make any move to get up. Huffing, Liu Qingge lifts him to his feet and hands him the robe he was lying on. Shen Qingqiu immediately rubs his face into it, purring. Liu Qingge’s ears burn, and he clears his throat.

“Bed,” he says, gently ushering his shixiong along. Shen Qingqiu kneels on the mattress, looking around at all the materials with wide eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Is this all for me?”

It’s the clearest sentence he’s said so far, but there’s something about the way he says it that makes Liu Qingge frown.

“En. Why not?”

“There’s so much,” Shen Qingqiu says, reaching out hesitantly to tug a pillow an inch to the left. His hands flutter with uncertainty, and he looks back towards Liu Qingge plaintively. “Help?”

“You want me to help?” Liu Qingge repeats, eyebrows shooting to his hairline. He’s never been… invited, exactly, to help with someone’s nest. Even Baba gets a bit upset whenever he tries to mess with any part of his nest; it’s an honor reserved only for mates or potential mates, neither of which Liu Qingge has ever been. He’s not as social as his martial siblings, but Liu Qingge has always been self-aware enough to recognize his own failings—particularly in this department.

The drug in Shen Qingqiu’s system must be more potent than he imagined.

“Mn,” Shen Qingqiu says, smooshing his face into a pillow before handing it to him. It smells of plum blossom and honey when Liu Qingge plucks it from his hands. He tries not to leave his own lavender-and-clove scent on the fabric, but—well, he supposes that Shen Qingqiu was just nesting on one of his spare robes earlier, so the omega probably doesn’t really mind. 

Together, they arrange the scented pillows to create a divot in the center of the nest, Liu Qingge doing his best to mirror Shen Qingqiu’s exacting placements on his side. He tries not to feel pleased when Shen Qingqiu’s only adjustment is to tug the linens straight before draping the borrowed robe over the pillows. He watches as his shixiong crawls into the little divot and curls up with a happy little sigh. 

Liu Qingge hovers a bit uselessly for a moment, then pushes himself to his feet. “I’ll be back,” he promises, when Shen Qingqiu lets out a grumble of dissatisfaction, fingers grasping at his wrist. He tugs himself gently free, resisting the urge to scent Shen Qingqiu possessively across his neck. “Just gonna get you food.”

“Not hungry,” Shen Qingqiu murmurs, but he stops resisting. The man is buried in the pillows, peering out at him with one green eye.

“Food,” Liu Qingge disagrees. At the very least, doing this one thing for the omega in pseudo-heat might calm the clawing instinct to crawl into the nest with his abnormally sweet shixiong and aggressively cuddle him until he starts hissing like normal. Is this what Zhangmen-shixiong sees in Shen Qingqiu? he wonders, then immediately regrets thinking about it when the thick knot returns in his chest. Pull yourself together, he scolds himself as he fixes his hair and steps out of the room. Whatever is going on there is none of your business.

As he walks down the street, men and women of every dynamic are giving him double-takes; Liu Qingge’s ears burn once more, because when he discreetly scents himself, he’s awash in plum blossom and sweet honey, thick and heady with promise like an omega on the verge of a true heat. Suddenly, he’s grateful that he didn’t linger anywhere on his way to the inn, and that the alphas in the tavern had backed down without a fight. Liu Qingge isn’t entirely sure if he would have been able to rein in his alpha if someone tried to challenge him for the omega.

Not that he has any claim on Shen Qingqiu, of course. He’s just found out that his shixiong has been an omega all these years, after all.

How did we not know?

He hurries through the purchases: two warm meat buns, a small tray of pastries, a couple of oranges and a bag of plums. And, (he reasons), because he’s only an alpha and he’s treated his omega shixiong so terribly, Liu Qingge splurges on a set of pale green silk robes costing more than he has ever spent on a single garment, and picks out a pretty new fan adorned by kingfishers dancing across a still lake. 

He stores the robes and fan in his qiankun pouch, but slings the bag of food over his shoulder. His alpha feels quite pleased with the array of items—not that Liu Qingge is paying any attention to his alpha side. It’s only reasonable to want to make up for all his faults and former misjudgements, and it is most certainly not because Shen Qingqiu is really quite pretty when he’s not imitating an offended stray cat. The fact that Liu Qingge’s mind reminds him that Shen Qingqiu is really quite pretty no matter what he acts like is irrelevant.

There’s a commotion by the inn’s tavern that Liu Qingge has half a mind to ignore, except that he hears the innkeeper’s relieved voice say, “Immortal master, you’re back! Your omega—” and he also scents distress at the same time as plum-blossom-honey and suddenly all his hackles rise as his head snaps up.

Shen Qingqiu is still wearing the thin inner robes from earlier, shaking his head as if in response to a question. Shen Qingqiu is cornered by two alphas, one of whom has his filthy paw wrapped around Shen Qingqiu’s delicate wrist, a thumb smoothing over the place where one of his scent glands lie. Shen Qingqiu’s lips move, and with his cultivation, Liu Qingge hears him say, “Let me go, I just want to find Alpha—”

“We’re alphas, ain’t we, pretty? We’re right here,” says the one not holding his wrist. He’s chuckling, nudging his friend with his elbow like he just made the joke of a lifetime. 

The vicious snarl that rips itself from his chest is unexpected, so instinctual that for a moment Liu Qingge almost looks around with a responding challenge of his own. The once-loud chatter and clanking of the tavern’s day-to-day stutters and dies, all eyes turning towards Liu Qingge standing by the door without Cheng Luan but a fight burning to life in his very nerves. He narrows his eyes on the two alphas, rumbling another challenge through his throat, teeth bared.

Slowly, the one holding Shen Qingqiu drops his hand; the other seems to have succumbed to instinct, faced with an alpha prime. His throat is bared, head tilted sideways in submission. Liu Qingge considers ripping it out with his teeth either way.

“We didn’t mean no harm,” starts the first one, but he’s interrupted by Shen Qingqiu’s relieved little chirp of, “Alpha!” The omega darts through the crowd, launching himself at Liu Qingge.

Liu Qingge catches his shixiong with a grunt, smoothing a hand over that same wrist before wrapping an arm around his slender waist. “Why did you leave the room,” he mutters as he hurriedly tugs his overrobe off to drape around his shameless, barely dressed shixiong. He realizes a little too late that he’s scenting Shen Qingqiu a little too aggressively to be proper both in public and with an omega he has not claimed. He tries to wrestle himself back into control.

“Missed you,” Shen Qingqiu responds plaintively, but he’s purring, seeming to be quite pleased with the turn of events. He nuzzles into the collar of Liu Qingge’s robe contentedly. “Nest?” he says.

“Yeah.” Liu Qingge levels one more glare at the two alphas, pulling Shen Qingqiu to the other side of his body as he guides the omega back up the stairs to their room. The pin drop silence that has permeated the tavern doesn’t end; Liu Qingge suddenly, very acutely, misses his poisonous and knife-sharp shixiong. Shen Qingqiu would know best how to crack this overwhelming silence, surely. His prickly shixiong would have eviscerated the alphas with a single, contemptuous look alone. Maybe that’s why he’s so stabby all the time.

Liu Qingge pointedly clicks the door of their room shut behind him. He hopes the tavern starts acting like normal again. He might have to pay the innkeeper for the trouble before they leave.

His ears are burning again. Damn it.

He lets Shen Qingqiu lead them back to the nest, settling outside of it as Shen Qingqiu snuggles back into the pillows. Liu Qingge starts to arrange the pastries, the fruit and the buns on a clean plate when Shen Qingqiu’s hand sneaks out from the pillows to grasp at his. “What,” Liu Qingge starts, then blinks down at the omega. Shen Qingqiu has scooted over to the side, leaving enough space for… for…

His brain might be catching fire with how warm his face feels.

“Alpha,” Shen Qingqiu says, tugging at him gently.

“Shen,” Liu Qingge chokes a little. “You’re…” 

Shen Qingqiu frowns, patting at the open space by his side. “Please,” he says, quite firmly for someone who is clearly still drugged out of his mind. That’s the only reasonable explanation that Shen Qingqiu of all people would be inviting Liu Qingge to… to… to share his nest.

It’s just because it’s what he needs, Liu Qingge tells himself numbly as he obeys. He kicks his boots off and slides in by his shixiong, scarcely daring to breathe. The whole nest smells like a mix of them both — honey lavender and plum blossom clove. Has Shen Qingqiu raided his qiankun pouch for more of his robes? He doesn’t remember giving that one to his shixiong earlier. This will break the drug’s hold faster, letting him act out his instinct. Then, it’s only for until morning, isn’t it, that’s how long this will last—

Shen Qingqiu tucks himself into Liu Qingge’s side, burying his face in his chest, cuddling into him aggressively. “Smell good,” Shen Qingqiu tells him, a serious look in his eyes.

Liu Qingge sputters, “Shen Qingqiu!”

The omega peeks up at him, hazy but pleased. “Food now?”

Liu Qingge thumps his head back into the pillows. He sort of wishes that they were harder, and maybe he could concuss himself out of this alternate reality where Shen Qingqiu is sweet and adoring, gazing at him and building a nest with him as though… as though he’s ever considered Liu Qingge a potential mate.

“Yeah,” he says, eventually, when his bizarre dream doesn’t end. He reaches around for the meat buns. “Can you sit up a little?”

“Mn.”

Liu Qingge tears the meat bun into little bite-sized pieces, feeding Shen Qingqiu by hand when it becomes clear that the omega is in no state to hold the food on his own. He does the same for the pastries, but decides to leave the plums for when Shen Qingqiu emerges from the pseudo-heat. He doesn’t exactly have a knife to slice up the plums, and while he’s not above using Cheng Luan as a culinary tool, he gets the sense that Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t appreciate his resourcefulness.

Shen Qingqiu hasn’t stopped looking at him. 

“What,” Liu Qingge asks, warily.

“Mmnnothing,” Shen Qingqiu replies, but he doesn’t stop looking. Liu Qingge offers another bite of pastry, and tries not to look at the way Shen Qingqiu eats it daintily from his fingers. 

He’s purring again, low and pleased deep in his chest. Liu Qingge’s tenuous grasp on instinct slips, and he responds with a gentle rumble that drops Shen Qingqiu’s eyelids to half-mast. A lazy smile curls across his shixiong’s face, and he turns into Liu Qingge’s chest once more.

“Tired?”

“Mn.”

“Rest, then,” Liu Qingge tells him, putting the food aside. He licks the sticky sweetness of the pastries from his fingers, and wrinkles his nose. It’s too sweet for his tastes, but at least Shen Qingqiu seemed to enjoy it. His shixiong sighs happily into his neck, snuggling in.

Liu Qingge shivers and, with a quiet and mournful fuck you to control, drops a kiss to the top of his shixiong’s head. “Sleep well,” he whispers.

“Promise you won’t leave?” Shen Qingqiu says, slurring his words from exhaustion. 

“En. Won’t leave.”

“Good,” Shen Qingqiu replies. He might have addeds something else, but it’s so slurred together that Liu Qingge thinks he mishears; but his imagination insists that Shen Qingqiu says, my alpha. Before he can work up the courage to ask, though, Shen Qingqiu is already fully slumped in Liu Qingge’s arms.

 

Liu Qingge doesn’t sleep.

In his defense, this is a far cry from the bachelor den of his Bai Zhan home: curled up in a beautifully constructed nest with a pretty and pliable omega tucked under his chin, the very air saturated with both their scents. It’s heady and invigorating in its own way, dredging up this new and protective instinct that he never imagined he would have for Shen Qingqiu. It’s this vibrating energy that keeps Liu Qingge awake all night, teasing into all his attempts at meditation.

When morning comes, the sweet scent of pre-heat omega hasn’t abated in the slightest, and when he wakes, Shen Qingqiu still has the fogged-up look of an omega in quiescence. 

On one hand, it’s easy enough to guide the pliable Shen Qingqiu to sit down and allow Liu Qingge to draw his hair back into its crown, and to eat segments of peeled orange from Liu Qingge’s own hand. On the other, looking after his shixiong in this way is pushing on instinct-made buttons that Liu Qingge forgot he had. He’s always loved watching Niang look after Baba as a child, and he’s always wondered if he’ll ever have the same with an omega of his own. The fact that it’s Shen Qingqiu… His Baba would say it’s poetic, in the end. Baba always finds the strangest ironies poetic.

They can’t exactly spend the rest of the pseudo-heat in this inn, especially since it shows no sign of abating. Liu Qingge leaves an extra coin by the deconstructed nest and bundles Shen Qingqiu up in his new robes. Once outside, he steps aboard Cheng Luan, arms locked around the purring omega, and takes off for the sect.

Shen Qingqiu is asleep in his arms once more when Liu Qingge alights upon Qian Cao Peak sometime mid-afternoon, but he stirs, reaching up to rub sleepily at one eye. Fuck, why are you like this, Liu Qingge thinks, but he sheaths his sword and gathers his shixiong in his arms.

“Mu-shixiong,” he calls. The other alpha is crouched by a bed of flowers in his garden, looking up at the sound of his name with a raised brow.

“Liu-shidi,” he greets, eyes falling to the bundle of robes that is Shen Qingqiu in Liu Qingge’s arms. “Is… something the matter?”

“Fix him,” Liu Qingge demands.

“Er—”

Shen Qingqiu chooses this moment to stretch up and nuzzle at the line of Liu Qingge’s jaw, instinct-driven reverence in the way he scents him deeply. If dropping him wouldn’t have hurt him, Liu Qingge thinks he might have. His arms lock in place as he tightens his grasp on his drug-addled shixiong, but it’s nothing on the way Mu-shixiong’s jaw drops as he takes in the knowledge of their hidden omega martial sibling. 

“Liu-shidi, is that—”

“Got drugged,” Liu Qingge says shortly. If he says anything more surely he’d make a right fool of himself, tell Mu-shixiong about how Shen Qingqiu’s omega is really very sweet and they built a nest together, and maybe also demand Mu-shixiong to back the fuck up because two paces away is two paces too close. “Fix him.”

“Can you, er.” Mu-shixiong gestures them inside, hurrying in on his own to clear the haphazard scrolls of his research from the patient bed. Liu Qingge hovers by the bed. “Shidi?”

“What,” Liu Qingge grunts out, glowering at the bed. It’s not that he doesn’t want to put Shen Qingqiu down to be examined, but he’s having a hard time trying to let him go. 

“I can help him, but you need to let him go, or sit down on the bed yourself,” Mu-shixiong says, delicately. Liu Qingge weighs his options, then slowly sinks down to sit on the bed. Shen Qingqiu seems pleased by this, that low purr filling the space between their bodies as he nuzzles closer. 

“Nest?” he murmurs.

“Later,” Liu Qingge responds, eyeing Mu Qingfang warily. The healer seems to be keeping a wary eye on him — good, he thinks — as he carefully takes one of Shen Qingqiu’s wrists. “Why is he like this.”

Mu Qingfang laughs. It’s slightly high-pitched, maybe a touch hysterical, and Liu Qingge frowns. “An omega, or…” The healer gestures at Shen Qingqiu’s… general being. In the next moment, though, he seems to have gotten a better grasp of himself. “What manner of beast was it that you fought?”

“Giant Quelling Toad.” There’s a pause, then Liu Qingge adds begrudgingly, “Didn’t know he was an omega. We got covered in the creature when it died.”

There’s a long silence in which Liu Qingge becomes steadily more aware of the lowest of growls slipping from his own throat. He’s not quite sure if Mu Qingfang has noticed, but the other alpha has his shoulder turned slightly, neck bared in a sign of deference. It feels wrong to have a senior act in such a way, but satisfaction curls in Liu Qingge’s gut. Good.

“Hm. It should have burnt itself out from his system by now.” Mu-shixiong releases Shen Qingqiu’s wrist, and the growl rumbles to nothing. Shen Qingqiu hums contentedly into his throat. “But if no one knew he was an omega, then he might have been denying his own needs for too long. I’ll have to look into it, keep him here overnight—”

“No,” Liu Qingge says immediately. Shen Qingqiu in this state near other alphas? He could barely pull himself free from a commoner alpha back at the inn!

Mu Qingfang gives him an almost pitying look. “You can both nest here,” he says kindly. “One of my unpresented disciples will come by with some materials for you both. I can show you to a spare room.”

“I’m,” Liu Qingge starts, then clicks his mouth shut. Staying away from Shen Qingqiu seems an almost impossible feat at present, because the moment he even considers letting Shen Qingqiu alone makes anger burn in his stomach. Who knows what other trouble his shixiong will get himself up to while he’s gone? “Fine.”

It’s just until this is over, or so he tells himself over and over again. Just until Shen Qingqiu is okay. It’s what any good alpha would do.

 

The pseudo-heat lasts for another two days before it shows any sign of abating. That guileless look in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes starts to sharpen with the same knife-like calculation in between waves, and poison creeps back into Shen Qingqiu’s voice in the moments that he calls for the brute and not Alpha. Liu Qingge thinks he’s okay with that much; it was starting to be worrying, the way Shen Qingqiu so affectionately murmured Alpha into the hollow of his throat. 

When the sweet scent of honeyed plum blossoms soften into a freshness after the rain, dawn is on the cusp of breaking across the horizon of the third day. Shen Qingqiu stirs from where he’s snuggled up against Liu Qingge, but it’s the sudden following tension that shoots through the omega that really puts him on high alert. Instinctively, his grasp tightens on his shixiong, and he murmurs cautiously, “Shen Qingqiu?”

“Brute,” Shen Qingqiu responds, tone low and acidic. 

Ah. So he’s back. Liu Qingge makes his hands release him when Shen Qingqiu pushes himself upright, that green gaze taking in their surroundings: the tray of preserved fruit on a low table, a pot of tea with a warming talisman sitting nearby, Cheng Luan and Xiu Ya laying innocuously side by side, and the perfect little nest in the center of an otherwise empty room. 

“How long was I,” Shen Qingqiu starts, then flushes. “Why are you here?”

Liu Qingge shrugs. At some point over the past three days, both he and Mu Qingfang came to the realization that Shen Qingqiu would look for him if he left for too long; he had only really gone back to Bai Zhan for fresh robes and some sword oil, only to find on his return one petulant, struggling omega fighting Mu Qingfang to go after him. “Wouldn’t let me go,” he replies. 

It must be his imagination: Shen Qingqiu looks like he’s blushing. “Well, it was your fault anyway,” he snips, sputtering, “I wouldn’t… we wouldn’t have… if you had just listened to me.”

“This shidi is sorry and begs forgiveness.”

Shen Qingqiu scoffs at him, looking around again. “Where are we?”

“Qian Cao.”

“Hmph.” Shen Qingqiu rustles around in the dim light for a moment. When he gets to his feet, his robes are properly tied and he has his face half-hidden behind his sleeve. “If you tell anyone about…”

“Why are you hiding it?” Liu Qingge interrupts. He hasn’t moved from the nest, some instinct telling him that this omega will surely bolt if he tries. He doesn’t have to reach out to stop Shen Qingqiu, though, because his words seem to have been enough. “Being an omega,” he clarifies, when Shen Qingqiu says nothing.

The sleeve drops. “Wouldn’t you?” Shen Qingqiu sneers. 

“No,” Liu Qingge replies honestly. It would be a part of him, and anyway, it changes nothing about his own ambitions. 

“You’ve never not been a noble alpha.”

“Mingyan is omega. She is proud.”

“And she has always been the daughter of the venerated Liu family,” Shen Qingqiu replies. He flicks open a fan from his sleeve, green eyes glittering over the blue-and-green kingfishers. “Don’t follow me.”

He slips out of the room, taking with him the scent of fresh blossoms in the rain. But despite the growing distance, Liu Qingge has never felt closer to Shen Qingqiu than at this moment.

He promises himself that he won’t let it go.