Wish Received, Wish Granted! - SchaBao - 人渣反派自救系统 - 墨香铜臭 | The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System (2024)

Chapter 1: Be Careful What You Wish For

Chapter Text

The moment Luo Binghe is shoved back into the palms of his own reality, seething and dumbfounded, he barely knows what to do with himself for the first time in years. He finds himself back in the halls of the Underground Palace, disoriented and unsteady on his feet. He breathes the familiar and stale air of the Demon Realm, and though it’s a comfort, it is only a small one.

He looks down at the white robes he’s still donning from his encounter in that… other place. The familiar sight of the marks of a Qing Jing Peak disciple on the clothing should in theory bring him great discomfort, but he finds that he can only stare at them in a daze, his brain fogged with the images of that small little side room he found them in and all its implications. His fingers reach up to tear the cloth off, but he hesitates, the veins in his hands twitching from the strain.

He doesn’t know how long he stands there, but it takes little to no time for his return to be noticed and for a scattered handful of his wives from the rear palace to start flitting about him with worry. He can barely understand what they are saying at first, his eyes wide and their voices buzzing in his ears like flies around a corpse. They ask questions regarding his strange behavior over the past day. They speak of his crazed and injured state, rushing through the halls and calling out for his ‘Shizun’, throwing a fit as if he were an animal locked in a cage.

He realizes quickly that he’s facing the aftermath of the other Luo Binghe’s reaction to his reality. He steals his unease and applies a comfortable mask of confidence to his face as he waves them off and assures them with vague words, making up excuses like it is second nature. Straightening his shoulders and clasping his hands behind his back, despite the heavy thump of his heart in his chest and the blood rushing through his ears, he smiles at them as charmingly as he can, eager to put their unrest away.

He looks on at this small gaggle of women, their faces pretty and their mannerisms alluring, and he feels suddenly more hollow, like woodwork carved out from the middle. He doesn’t remember some of their names and the thought alone begins to stir him up again. When was the last time he allowed himself to be thrown so far off-kilter? He hates it.

“Is My Lord really alright?” One speaks sweetly, her voice laced with worry, almost maternal.

“Yes.” He responds simply with a smile he calculates to be easy and appealing, showing just enough teeth and squinting his eyes.

“Will My Lord… be needing any comfort tonight?” Another asks, though her voice is soft and shy, her expression gives way to a hunger and eagerness that would normally humor Luo Binghe.

He almost has half a mind to agree to the subtle offer. Why should he not vent out his frustrations on a woman tonight? One who is willing and wanting would surely brush away the lingering sensations left on his skin and maybe on his mind.

But, as soon as the thought appears, he feels the memory of a hot mouth against his own, soft and pliant, the hard edges of a trained martial body, and the heated and heavy weight of a man in his palm. He rips the image away as soon as it appears, like tearing a painting in half, but the aftermath still lingers on his tongue and he feels almost nauseous with it.

“No, thank you.” He finally says, but his voice doesn’t feel like his own when it leaves him.

He’s able to walk away from their disappointed dispositions after a few more words of reassurance. Mobei Jun is quick to greet him as he passes through the main hall, stepping forward as if to speak, but Luo Binghe stops him with a raise of his hand.

“I wish to be alone. All issues from the past day have been resolved. I trust you to handle the rest.” He says curtly, not giving an explanation, but relying on Mobei Jun to fill in the gaps himself. What matters is that the Luo Binghe here now is the one that belongs. His words are returned with a stiff and obedient nod before Mobei Jun turns to leave.

Nobody comments on his white-clad appearance and it irks him.

Luo Binghe stands in the great and empty hall for a few quiet moments, his eyes scanning the large expanse of the throne room and for the first time, he thinks to himself that it is almost too big. The walk from the main doors to where he would usually seat himself is too long, almost over a minute's worth of stride just to reach from one end to the other. The dark color scheme is purposefully imposing, the red and blacks sneering down at any person who walks through.

Luo Binghe thinks that maybe it would feel different if the hall was painted and draped in greens and whites, and it’s like another punch to the gut. His heart lurches into his throat in an uncharacteristic fit of emotion and blood pools into his mouth as he realizes he’s biting the inside of his cheek too hard. He swallows it down, heals the minor injury and he turns swiftly on his heel as if to try and escape the feeling.

His feet carry him to his bed chambers, the door almost cracking with the force of which he shuts it behind himself. He’s assaulted with more intense reds and blacks and golds, all luxurious and rich at a single glance. It does nothing but inspire more nausea and unease. His mind’s eye provides images of the amiable Bamboo House tucked away in lush greenery. He thinks of Shen Qingqiu’s own bedroom where his wounds were cleaned and dressed.

He should hate the memory. He should hold on to the loathing that used to attach itself to that place where he was beaten and broken over and over and over.

But instead, he subtly aches for it strangely- if only for a second more. He wants to know what it would feel like to sit in that room and feel safe, to feel the floor under his knees and the roof over his head and linger in that space; to exist there with that kind person who wore the face of someone he hated so much and not fear anything.

How was it fair? How was any of it fair? Why did the Luo Binghe of that world get to experience that kind of adoration? One not born from fear or hunger, but pure unbridled affection? Why did that Luo Binghe get a proper Shizun? One that cared for his well-being?

His head starts to spin, dizzy with thoughts that continue to contradict themselves. He hated– he hates Shen Qingqiu. Everything he did to that black-hearted man, he deserved. Luo Binghe was sure of it. He has to be sure of it. Shen Qingqui wasn’t a man capable of change or remorse, even at his dying breath.

So… who was it that he met? What chain of events could have possibly occurred for Shen Qingqiu to become what he had witnessed?

As far as he could tell, most parts of that world he was in were nearly identical to his own, so what was different? What changed that man and why didn’t he get to experience that change? Why was he forced under a hand of cruelty while another Luo Binghe was guided under one of gentleness?

When Luo Binghe had invaded that Shen Qingqiu’s dreamscape to try and understand the world he was in, he only found minuscule differences. Granted it was a broad sweep, just enough to get his bearings, but some events remained. The Luo Binghe of that world was still pushed into the Endless Abyss- still casted away by his Shizun. He was still The Demon Lord and Shen Qingqiu had detested Luo Binghe upon their reunion, yet he wasn’t torn limb from limb. That pair had gone through such tribulations, yet had somehow become what he had witnessed.

What had he missed in his search? What did he ignore?

Another image resurfaces in his mind of the embrace he has seen near the end, where the other… the ‘true’ Luo Binghe had swooped in to save the day. He remembers the manner in which he had fussed over his Shizun, all gentle hands and nuzzling cheeks that didn’t hold a single drop of resentment.

He stumbles forward in the room and crumbles to his knees in a pathetic display, the weight of his mind dragging him down to the ground. The blood is rushing to his head and he feels the unstable pulses of his combined qi swirling in his chest.

He shouldn’t be this shaken. He shouldn't be this hurt. He should be past all of this. Everything that he built, he deserved. The life he made for himself is supposed to be the one he wanted. He wanted this, he did. He is sure he did.

He did. Now, he’s not so sure he does.

He smacks his head down hard against the stone of the floor, forceful enough to make his teeth vibrate and his eyes blur. He wants to beat these feelings out of himself and correct the wrong in his heart to what he knows to be right- what should be right.

He thinks of Shen Qingqiu’s steady breathing as he comfortably slept, pouring spiritual energy into him and slotting perfectly into his embrace.

He repeats the motion, slamming his head down. He sees the blood start the trickle from his hairline, the hot liquid spilling thick down his temple and he refuses to heal it.

He thinks of Shen Qingqiu’s fingers wrapped delicately around his wrist as he cleaned the blood off his skin.

He repeats the motion.

He thinks of Shen Qingqiu’s lips against his own and how quickly he had realized that the Luo Binghe he was kissing was not the one he wanted.

He repeats the motion. His skull might fracture.

He thinks to himself that maybe if he hurts himself enough, he’ll be reminded of the pain he had to endure; the pain that shaped him into who he is today. He thinks of the disdain in his Shen Qingqiu’s eyes from when he was young, the blood sliding down his face almost mimicking the heat of the tea poured over him that day. He thinks of the cruelty that his peers treated him with, his limbs aching with the memory of bruises. He thinks of standing on the edge of the Endless Abyss, so desperate to prove that he wasn’t some foul creature, but just a boy who wanted to stay. He thinks about how that was the last time he ever allowed someone to see him cry, and pushes away the fact that he kind of wants to cry right now.

The only thing he hears is the rush of his heartbeat in his ears and his ragged breathing. The memories of his past start to shift and morph into a watercolor mess of ‘what-ifs’ he hasn’t allowed himself to indulge in since he was young. What if things had been different? Where would that have led him? Somewhere better? Somewhere warm? Somewhere kind?

He feels it start to eat away at him all at once, his control starting to slip through his fingers. He has half a mind to realize his spiritual energy is destabilizing, being nipped and bitten at by his own demonic qi that is being fueled by his anguish. He should steady himself, sit back and meditate the way he has trained himself to do. He should take deep breaths and check his meridians through calming circulation. He should kill something or f*ck something.

He should do anything but this; letting himself spiral and weep as if he’s a child again.

But he doesn’t. Something dull in the back of his mind coos at him and tells him to suffer. It tells him that maybe he deserves this. It tells him that maybe he should just die.

He slumps against the ground, tired and shaking. He curls in on himself in an adolescent manner, allowing his knees to tuck up to his chest as he lays on his side. He knows no one will come into his room and see him like this. No one would dare, not without permission.

But right now, he wishes someone would. Anyone, really.

He lets his eyes shut as he tries to find respite in the cool hard stone of his bedroom floor to quell the feverish longing licking at his skin. He allows himself to stop fighting his mind and simply lays there, wishing he could have what he witnessed with his own eyes, his own hands and his own heart. He wishes for it desperately despite knowing there is nothing he can do. Even if it is just for tonight, he wishes and wishes and wishes, confident that tomorrow, maybe he’ll be over it.

[Protagonist satisfaction points have completely depleted! System upgrading…]

[Installing new fail-safe package: Wish Received, Wish Granted!]

[Initializing…2%....20%....48%....69%....97%....]

[Completed. Please continue your efforts!]

When Luo Binghe starts to come back to himself, he’s first aware of the fact that he is still lying on the floor. He thinks he must have fallen asleep if it’s any indication of the ache in his muscles and the throbbing of his temples. He allows himself to groan, pressing his forehead against the ground as his brow furrows and he grasps onto the ropes of consciousness. He awakens little by little, unhurried to face the reality around him.

He must have slept deeply. He then thinks it strange that for the first time in a long time, he didn’t dream. He had long shut Meng Mo out of his dream realm, seeking privacy from his leeching and prying eyes, but right now he can’t detect his presence at all. It is eerily quiet in both his mind and his surroundings.

Luo Binghe attempts to stretch out, noting how his body protests. The ache is almost a little too strong for his liking and he attempts to circulate some healing energy through his body, only to find that he can’t.

Huh…?

Had he really destabilized himself so much in his emotional fit that he became out of tune with his powers? That shouldn’t be the case, yet no healing occurs and dull pain lingers from his head to his toes. Did he experience a qi deviation?

He blearily blinks his eyes open as he turns over on his back and is not met with the sneering blacks and reds of his bedroom, but instead a creaking and dark wooden ceiling.

Like being splashed in the face with cold water, Luo Binghe is suddenly and all at once alert, completely aware that he is somewhere he shouldn’t be.

Every survival instinct of his kicks in, years' worth of senses honed to perfection all ignite at once. He stills, holding his breath and assesses everything. He is injured, but not gravely. He is blocked from accessing his powers, but it seems there is still some spiritual energy circulating, though relatively weak. His wrists seem to be bound, but not with Immortal Binding Cables. If this is some kidnapping attempt, it's a poor one, Luo Binghe thinks passively.

He doesn’t sense anyone around, so he allows himself to slowly sit up and his breath catches immediately in his throat. He knows exactly where he is. But… how could he possibly be in the woodshed on Qing Jing Peak? He burned everything down years ago, and yet it's almost exactly like he had left it. He would know these four walls anywhere.

When he moves to stand, panic begins to subtly well up in his chest, despite his best efforts to suppress it.

He finds his eyeline is shorter than it should be. He quickly does another self-assessment, sweeping his eyes down to his body and finding a familiar sight of thin, famished limbs. A shiver runs down his spine as he quickly pieces together the fact that, for some reason, he’s a boy again- no younger than thirteen, maybe fourteen. He reaches into his consciousness once more but finds no evidence of him dreaming.

He immediately sits down again, his expression leveling out as he tries to concentrate. He has been in stranger situations before, he just needs to assess the facts. He can figure this out if he tries. So he props himself in a lotus position, presses his thumb and forefinger together hard to ground himself, and he thinks.

It could very well be some sort of illusion, but Luo Binghe feels no ripples of unstable images around him. He already knows that it isn’t a dream: everything around him is too detailed and alive, even down to the buzzing cicadas outside. Has he been swapped into another reality again so soon? But if so, why would his appearance revert to when he was a disciple? Could it be some trick of turning back time? But who could possibly have enough power to perform something as reality-altering as that?

Luo Binghe’s eyes snap open, his expression fierce and contemplative. He thinks back on his last thoughts before he had fallen asleep, his mind awash with longing and wishful thinking. Surely… he didn’t do this? Did he?

No, it can’t be. Luo Binghe isn’t so powerful. It is too coincidental.

And yet…

The door of the woodshed is suddenly yanked open and Luo Binghe’s suspicions are bolstered by the sight of a bristling and still young Ming Fan.

“Get up. Shizun wants to see you.” Ming Fan sneers.

Luo Binghe’s first instinct is to be smart about this and play his part. He folds down onto his knees and politely bows his head in a way that he hasn’t done in years.

“Yes, Ming-shixiong.” he says and is almost startled by the youthful and raspy sound of his own voice. When did he last have a drink of water?

He moves to stand and is hyper-aware of Ming Fan approaching him with a drawn sword. He makes no move to cower, but flinches slightly just for show. Ming Fan simply yanks Luo Binghe’s wrists up and slices away the flimsy rope binding them. He looks displeased about performing the action but doesn’t say anything further, only whipping around and stalking off towards the Bamboo House with an indignant huff.

Luo Binghe takes a moment to blink and process his mild surprise before following Ming Fan, subconsciously rubbing at his sore wrists.

Luo Binghe allows his eyes to skirt around their surroundings. It’s exactly as he remembers it, with lush greenery and glistening brooks that babble down the mountainside, the high altitude allowing for a serene sight of the valley smudged with clouds. Disciples gather in small clusters along the different tiers of the peak, practicing the arts while donning the respectful whites and pale greens of their faction.

He feels the aches of his body as he moves up the steps and further contemplation riddles his mind.

So, he’s somehow in the past to relive his youth… fine, he can work with this. There is often a purpose to these things, he knows. But if, through his wishful thinking, he has somehow been granted another opportunity to experience his disciple years, that implies that his relationship with Shen Qingqiu has been allowed the opportunity to change.

If that is the case, why not turn back time far enough to when they first met during Luo Binghe’s entrance ceremony? At this point in time, it is obvious that he has experienced a fair number of years of abuse, which would imply that his fate hasn’t changed and that the Shen Qingqiu of this world is still the same. So why? What could be the purpose of this? Was there something Luo Binghe is supposed to do here? To see?

He doesn’t have much time to think about it further before they arrive at the front doors of the Bamboo House and Luo Binghe is ungracefully shoved inside by Ming Fan. He makes sure to stumble a bit and keep his expression sheepish. Play the part, he thinks to himself again. Don’t falter. He keeps his gaze lowered but his posture straight and senses the presence before him.

“Shizun.” He addresses as respectfully as he allows himself. The brief silence that follows from the other man is almost enough to be noteworthy and Luo Binghe chances his eyes to flicker up.

When he is met with Shen Qingqiu’s face once more, so soon, he feels an innate rush of animosity mixed with something else he can’t name. His fists clench at their sides and he starts to wonder if maybe this whole incident is a curse instead. He truly hates this man before all else.

However, despite Shen Qingqiu’s face being pulled into something calculating and distant, there is a strange emotion stirring in his gaze that almost looks like bewilderment. A small prick of panic stabs at the nape of Luo Binghe’s neck, as if he’s already been seen through. He manages to gather himself quickly enough and realizes he should be kneeling, so he hurriedly moves to do so.

“No need.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice rings out, stern and cool, and all the hairs on Luo Binghe’s body stand on end. He falters in his movements, confused briefly as he moves to stand straight again. His heart starts to pound hard in his ears and he notes that though his body has reverted to that of boyhood, maybe his emotional state has as well, because his mind starts to throb with instinctual thoughts of ‘Danger! Danger! Run! Danger!’.

He finds it pitiful that a part of him could still fear Shen Qingqiu after all these years.

Suddenly, something is tossed in his direction and his mind is still sharp enough to catch it. He feels the smooth edges of a bottle settle in his hands and his confusion only grows.

“This is medicine.” Shen Qingqiu provides. Something like a stone sinks in Luo Binghe’s stomach. “Don’t let anyone see; they might think my Qing Jing Peak abuses its disciples.” he tacks on.

This is different, Luo Binghe thinks.

He doesn’t know how to react for a moment, simply staring down at the clay bottle in his hands. He hears a surprised intake of breath from Ming Fan behind him and he takes comfort that he’s not the only one perplexed.

“Thank you for the medicine, Shizun.” he manages to croak out. He brings his eyes back to Shen Qingqiu.

He thinks that maybe at this age, the person Luo Binghe was would have smiled at the smallest kind gesture he would receive. He was something of a white sheep back then despite the struggles he had faced. Luo Binghe tries to mimic what he would have looked like back in his youth, letting his lips curve up gently and his eyes soften in a way he hasn’t allowed in a very long time, hoping it produces the right results.

He’s met with Shen Qingqiu’s lingering gaze, and to his astonishment, those eyes bear no detectable trace of disgust. This is different. The past that he is experiencing has already changed and Luo Binghe doesn’t feel excitement, but only more confusion, completely at a loss for what to do.

Shen Qingqiu quickly turns away from him and Luo Binghe realizes he is holding his breath. He feels an itch for those eyes to look back at him again, if only to search them once more to appease his own suspicions.

“This disciple will henceforth redouble his efforts and not let Shizun be disappointed,” he hurriedly continues, though he’s not sure why. A swirl of hatred still sits on his tongue, but curiosity starts to dull the taste, if only a little. He doesn't mind playing into the role a bit more.

Shen Qingqiu moves to sit in a chair, the air about him still as aloof as he remembers. Luo Binghe’s eyes observe each movement with eerily focused attention as if he is trying to peel back a layer of his Shizun’s skin in order to understand him better.

(Luo Binghe thinks that if, for whatever reason, his fate doesn’t change in this new reality, maybe he should skin the future Shen Qingqiu alive before removing his limbs. The idle and intrusive thought almost makes his lip quirk in mild amusem*nt.)

“Binghe, how’s your cultivation progress?” Shen Qingqiu says, breaking his thoughts. Luo Binghe first falters at the casual address laced with no malice, but the feeling is quickly trampled on by the resurfaced memory of studying from a faulty cultivation manual in his youth. Judging by the wobbly circulation of spiritual power he feels in this body, this hasn’t changed in this reality.

Agitation flares up inside of him and it takes all of his self-control not to let it show on his expression. Is Shen Qingqiu mocking him?

“This disciple is stupid and still… failed to understand.” He manages to reply, keeping his face from twitching as he maintains the sheepish facade.

“Today, this master punished you out of his own impatience. After all, time waits for no one.” Shen Qingqiu details.

Bullsh*t! Excuses! Luo Binghe’s mind reels with innate distrust. He knows Shen Qingqiu treated him the way he did because of some deep-rooted jealousy and foul personality. He let him get beat black and blue simply because he could! There was no ‘impatience’ behind it!

“Now that I think about it, you’ve been under me for a while– how old are you this year?” Shen Qingqiu continues.

“This disciple is fourteen.” Luo Binghe responds, simply as a calculated guess, keeping his voice light and obedient despite the urge to spit in his Shizun’s face.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t react for a moment, as if mulling over Luo Binghe’s response. His expression remains unmoveable, but a sudden paleness washes over his features as if the blood has drained from his face. He places his forehead against his palm, almost as if to hide the subtle change, but Luo Binghe notices it anyway.

“I wish to be alone.” Shen Qingqiu concludes sharply, and Luo Binghe has no further time to dissect the strange encounter and the man before him before his collar is yanked by Ming Fan and he is dragged out of the Bamboo House, angry, baffled, and dazed.

...

What is this?! What the hell is this?!

Chapter 2: Plum Juice

Notes:

There is a fair amount of canon plot we have to get through before things can get juicy.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A list of chores is rattled off in Luo Binghe’s ears and it takes him gritting his teeth and swallowing down his pride to simply nod in compliance, taking note of each action that needs to be performed. The wood, the water, the cleaning, he remembers it all. He hauls the dull ax over his shoulder and attempts to keep his annoyance at bay in front of his Shixiong before he is ushered away. He grumbles to himself idly as he makes his way into the forest, spitting cusses attached to a handful of disciple names and all but wagging his fist in the air.

He takes back all his wishful thinking. This is a curse, definitely a curse.

Before he makes it very deep into the greenery, his senses catch a presence rushing up behind him. His first instinct is to swing the ax over his shoulder, but he is able to reign in the impulse, remembering himself and where he is.

“A-Luo!” The cheery voice of a young Ning Yingying calls out to him. The familiar and friendly ring of her cadence actually manages to lift his spirits slightly. He isn’t quite sure the last time he heard her call out to him like this. He turns his face to greet her as she settles her weight on the crook of his arm. He hesitates for only a moment, trying to determine how he should address her at this age and decides on the more respectful approach.

“Ning-shijie.” He speaks kindly, much like that other Luo Binghe would.

She’s so much more youthful than he remembers, her cheeks more rounded and her eyes softer around the edges. When was the last time he had seen his wife back in the Demon Realm? He’s not sure he can recall and he finds he has enough heart to be upset about it.

“Can I keep A-Luo company while he does his chores?” She presses against him with a childish enthusiasm that humors him. He nods in gentle approval, aiming to speak on the rarer side until he can fully grasp the character he should be portraying. Though it isn’t difficult, he still wants to be careful.

They wander a few paces before Ning Yingying starts to babble. She was always a girl who never knew when to stop talking, her mouth always racing ahead of her mind. Luo Binghe remembers that it used to bother him in some sense, but right now he can’t remember why. He feels only a faint tug of nostalgia instead, a dim glow of old affections he realizes he long outgrew.

“...And I am so glad to see Shizun has recovered from his terrible fever! He slept for almost two days straight, can you believe that?” She adds to her rant. The gait of Luo Binghe’s step wobbles briefly at the words, but he hides his reaction well enough from her. “Speaking of, why didn’t I see A-Luo during that time? I was lonely, you know!” She tacks on with a nasal whine.

Probably because he’s been left in the shed those two days, he thinks to himself with the appropriate amount of disdain.

He then runs over her words again in his head. A fever, huh? That still wouldn’t explain any change that he has observed. It’s a start though; a hint at something more. Shen Qingqiu in his timeline had never fallen ill before. At least, not to his knowledge.

She suddenly yanks down on his arm, pointing at the ground with youthful vigor. “A-Luo, A-Luo, look, there’s a huge ditch in the ground here!” She exclaims.

He glances at the carved-out earth, unimpressed, and pulls his arm out of her grip, moving to find a tree to start hacking away at. He makes no further comment, but he hears Ning Yingying scramble to keep his attention.

“Tell me, A-Luo, which Shixiong was practicing their sword glares out here?”

“On Qing Jing Peak, I’m afraid only Shizun has this level of cultivation.” He responds easily, the answer clear at a single glance, though he is sure she knew that already.

He starts to swing his ax down on a small stalk, a shrub already destined to be choked out by the rest of the forest. He would prefer to put it out of its misery before aiming to cut down anything large and lively on the mountain. He pauses a couple of hacks in, his expression growing pointed as he stares down at the offending plant.

The earth behind him which had been dug up from a sword glare was relatively fresh, the soil still damp and loose. Was Shizun– no, was Shen Qingqiu here? Was he close by?

Luo Binghe lowers his ax and quickly moves to scan his surroundings with a swivel of his head. He sees nothing, but he has a strange feeling that he is being watched. As he squints out into the horizon of trees, searching for any hint of movement, he almost doesn’t register the approach of other disciples behind him, already idly chatting with Ning Yingying.

“What? The color is so ugly. The one A-Luo has is prettier.” Ning Yingying’s voice registers in his ears mid-conversation and a shiver runs up his spine. This feels familiar and he’s rapidly starting to remember why her talkative nature used to grate on him. She was always unknowingly throwing him into situations like this.

“Does Shidi also wear this kind of thing?” Ming Fan’s voice follows up, dripping with unveiled contempt. Luo Binghe immediately knows what they are discussing.

He suddenly feels the gentle weight of a small pendant pressed protectively against his sternum under his robes, a weight he hadn’t felt in years. His hand immediately reaches up to press against the stone around his neck guardedly, taking a step back from Ming Fan, his expression growing dark. He knows what is about to happen. He lost this precious item once, he won't lose it again.

Something uncharacteristic must show on his face because Ming Fan startles for a moment before his features flare red with anger and offense. “What is with that look?” He sneers, reaching for Luo Binghe. “Give it here. Let me see!”

If Luo Binghe was the true version of his younger self, he would have handled this situation with a far more polite air and passive words to attempt de-escalation. Instead, Luo Binghe responds with a flash of his teeth and an unrestrained snarl as he evades his grasp. Ming Fan doesn’t relent, however, only launching himself at Luo Binghe again, tackling him to the ground. Normally, such a meager maneuver would not make him budge, but with his frailer disposition at this age and lack of cultivation, Luo Binghe all but crumples under the weight of a healthier Ming Fan.

They tussle in the dirt, hurling limbs and twisting about. He gnashes at him like a cornered animal, keeping his grip on his pendant tight, the image of his mother’s smiling face fueling his feral attempts to keep Ming Fan away.

“You little beast!” Ming Fan jeers. “Who taught you to fight like this?”

Luo Binghe doesn’t listen, kicking his knees up into the gut of Ming Fan through a tactic he taught himself in the Endless Abyss and flips them around so that his weight is fully pressed onto Ming Fan’s stomach. He moves his hand to squeeze down on his neck, pushing hard against the acupoints to keep Ming Fan immobilized underneath him. Some of the other lackey disciples that had tagged along with him try to intervene at this point, attempting to pull Luo Binghe off of him.

Irritation only boils hotter in Luo Binghe as he tries to shove them all off, realizing quickly that he is on the verge of being overpowered, when suddenly an alarmed yelp comes from below him and Ming Fan stares up at all of them with a ghostly complexion and his cheek sliced open.

Everything goes still for a moment as each person registers the sight of blood trickling down the side of Ming Fan’s face.

“...You!” Ming Fan abruptly explodes, red-faced and eyes bloodshot. “What did you just do?! Did you pull a knife?!”

Luo Binghe looks on, completely bewildered, before something whizzes past his ear and the hands restraining him fall away as the other disciples cry out in alarm, staring down at their arms that have been cut in thin lines.

Luo Binghe sees it this time, a small flicker of green shooting past his peripheral. He thinks that he’s witnessed this parlor trick before. His eyes scan down and his suspicions are confirmed when he sees small leaves with flecks of blood on their edges scattered about.

Plucking Leaves, Flying Flowers.

There is only one person who would be able to perform a stunt with such precision as this on the mountain. Luo Binghe’s eyes snap back to the tree line, but he doesn’t have time to look before Ming Fan throws him off of him. Luo Binghe lands ungracefully with a thump against the ground and Ning Yingying rushes to check on him, but for some reason doesn’t step too close, as if mildly wary.

No one besides Luo Binghe notices the leaves, their eyes rapidly searching for some kind of weapon. They would have never witnessed this Qing Jing Peak trick yet at this age, so their bafflement is justified. With nothing left to do and tempered panic etched into his features, Ming Fan speaks out again.

“I am going to report this to Shizun, you rude little beast!” He snarls. “That ought to teach you some manners and to respect your Shixiong!”

Luo Binghe responds by spitting some loose blood on the grass and not even looking in Ming Fan’s direction, uncaring about who gets the last word in this. Ning Yingying seems a bit startled by his reaction but doesn’t comment on it. Instead, she simply crouches down to his level and hands him a loose cloth to wipe his face. This sight only furthers Ming Fan’s agitation and it doesn’t take much more for him and his lackeys to storm off.

Ning Yingying looks as if she wants to apologize, but Luo Binghe beats her to it before she can speak.

“It’s fine. Ning-shijie didn’t know that the situation would escalate like that.” He says.

“A-Luo!” Is all she provides, her gaze teary as she rubs at her eyes. He can’t find it in himself to be too irritated with her. He simply moves to stand, brushing the dirt off his robes and walking back to where he was cutting wood.

His hand reaches up to press against the pendant on his chest once more and he smiles.

It’s a genuine smile. His heart is a little lighter and his posture less tense. He didn’t lose it this time around. He changed his fate and was able to guard his mother’s pendant to the best of his abilities.

He lifts his face to stare back out into the trees. He doesn’t know why Shen Qingqiu helped him just now, or why he didn’t reveal himself. Luo Binghe knows he’s somewhere deep in the brush, but he can’t bring himself to care at this moment. What matters to him is that something once lost was now found, and he was never going to let someone take it from him again.

Plus, he had chores to do.

So he picks up his dull ax and resumes swinging, uncaring of the strain on his muscles and the sweat on his brow. For the first time since this strange time-reverse entanglement, Luo Binghe feels a bit more at ease.

Ning Yingying had left at some point as he gathered wood and the sun was starting to set. He was able to haul everything back to the kitchen storage and replace the water by the time the moon started to rise on the horizon.

Luo Binghe knew he would be punished for what happened with Ming Fan. It would most likely come in the form of another lashing or having his dinner taken from him like it had in the past, so he didn’t even bother going to the food hall. Instead, he opts to go straight back to the woodshed to try and get some rest before someone would eventually come and drag him out.

When met with the dark and cold four corners of the shed again, something dull knocks from the inside of his chest, as if an emotion was trying to make itself known. It wasn’t quite anger, not quite sadness, and not quite loneliness. It was something that fell silently in between, resting in the nooks of his ribcage.

He manages to take a deep breath and settle back down on the floor, figuring some meditation would do him good. He had to begin his long road to correcting years' worth of disrupted cultivation. He folds himself properly in place and shuts his eyes, counting his breaths in rhythm with the sound of the wind whistling through the bamboo stalks outside.

About an incense time passes before there is a disturbance outside the woodshed. Luo Binghe slowly opens his eyes and stares at the door with a calm acceptance. They must be coming for him now, he thinks. There is a shuffle of feet against the grass and a gentle clatter of something being held as someone walks. Luo Binghe waits.

But then there is nothing. The presence moves away about as fast as it appears and he is left suspended in his confused anticipation.

After a few beats, Luo Binghe approaches the door himself and cautiously slides it open to peek outside but he is only met with the sight of the Peak, washed in a dark blue with the night and a few lanterns lit a couple of tiers below as disciples ready themselves for bed.

Luo Binghe almost brushes off the strange moment, moving to close the door again, when he sees it.

On the ground, just in front of the shed, is a small tray. He crouches down to examine the contents, wary. There is a small bowl of plain rice porridge that has already gone cold and a couple of capped side dishes. He lifts one to find a portion of pickled radish and lifts the other to find, to his amazement, three strips of tofu.

He stares down at the sight for a few long moments, his mind unsure of what to think. His attention then falls onto the small clay, corked bottle in the corner of the tray. He pops it open delicately and brings it under his nose to smell.

The scent is fresh and sweet and a strange emotion rushes up Luo Binghe. It’s plum juice, most likely snagged from the barrels the disciples store it in after stomping down the fruit and using it later for medicines and wines. Luo Binghe never had the chance to try it when he was young.

Had Ning Yingying dropped this off for him? No, that can’t be. Ning Yingying didn’t learn that he was sleeping in the woodshed instead of the dorms until years later. So, who?

Luo Binghe’s gaze moves over towards the direction of the Bamboo House. He can’t see it too clearly from here, but the lanterns glow bright and warm where they hang off the porch. Something like a stone lodges itself in his throat and he tries to swallow down around it.

Not one to waste, Luo Binghe settles in the grass and begins to eat, slowly and quietly, whispering a small thanks to no one's ears but his own. The food is mediocre at best and the plum juice helps wash it down. Still, oddly enough, he feels it’s the best meal he has had in a good long while.

He’s not really sure how to feel about it.

Notes:

[Warning! OOC! OOC! OOC! Shen Qingqiu would not feed the protagonist!]

SY: If Shen Qingqiu wants to bully his disciple further, he has to keep him alive!

[...]

Chapter 3: Unclean Slate

Notes:

Posting two chapters on the same day almost feels a little embarrassing, I won't lie. I want to get over this narrative hill though and my keyboard wouldn't stop clacking!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Surprisingly, no one really bothers Luo Binghe for the next couple of days. Ming Fan gives him lip about his chores and occasionally kicks at the back of his knees when he walks by, but nothing much more than that. Other disciples steer clear from him, whispering among themselves every time his presence is noticed. If anything, it only makes him more uneasy. Years of routine bullying don’t just wash themselves down the drain like that.

He figures rumors of his little ‘slicing trick’, which wasn't even his doing mind you, quickly spread around by word of mouth and now people were probably convinced he was dabbling in demonic cultivation. Not that they had any proof, but Luo Binghe was innocent! For the most part at least.

Ning Yingying still hangs around him like sticky candy and he indulges in her friendly company when his energy permits. He started cultivating properly behind closed doors or in the bamboo grove when other disciples were busy copying poetry. No further mystery meals appear at the woodshed and Luo Binghe has to scavenge for scraps after hours due to his designated dinner portions still being half of what they should be.

He keeps the small bottle of plum juice, however, leaving some of it unfinished so he can enjoy sips of it at the end of his tiring days.

Shen Qingqiu appears to be keeping to himself in the Bamboo House for the most part, recuperating from his illness it seems, and Yue Qingyuan was paying an almost alarming amount of visits.

Luo Binghe remembers the Sect Leader always being soft on Shen Qingqiu, unsure of how that man tolerated his Shizun’s bark and bite. However, every time Luo Binghe catches a glimpse of Yue Qingyuan leaving the house as he bustles about his chores, the Sect Leader always looks a little more troubled with each visit. Luo Binghe can't help but be curious as to what could inspire such reactions. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one noticing Shen Qingqiu’s change.

As he is taking some laundry down to one of the small mountain rivers, Ning Yingying approaches him with a lively bounce in her step.

“A-Luo! Are you excited for tomorrow?” She says, eyeing the large pile in his hands and helpfully grabbing a few of the robes from the top to carry herself alongside him.

“Thank you, Ning-shijie.” He first appreciates before leveling her with a slightly questioning look. “Tomorrow?” he parrots.

“Don’t tell me you forgot. Tomorrow Shizun is taking some disciples down to Shuang Hu City to investigate some recent deaths. That includes A-Luo and I! A wealthy family head has requested our aid.” She supplies helpfully, her smile stretching her face.

“I see.” Luo Binghe’s expression falls a bit as he runs the information through his mind.

They reach the small river and he makes quick work of stacking some smooth, clean rocks on the bank as he starts to pull pieces from the laundry pile. He had already beaten the laundry loose of debris, so he runs them through the cold current before repeatedly twisting them against the rocks. Ning Yingying follows suit, already chatting lightly about something else as she attends to her own small load, but Luo Binghe only half pays attention.

The city name of Shuang Hu sounds familiar to him for some reason that he can’t pin down. He does his best to think back on his own timeline as his hands work through the fabric, but nothing comes to mind. He then thinks about the fact that he can’t remember ever being invited down the mountain with Shen Qingqiu at this age and he feels a bit apprehensive about it. It could spell a lot of trouble for him if things go wrong.

Luo Binghe shrugs off the trepidation as soon as it surfaces. Whatever bad happens, he is sure he can deal with it.

They are scheduled to set off the next day and Luo Binghe is able to sneak off to the river again later that night after hanging the laundry to dry. He bathes and tries to make himself more presentable than he normally would have in his youth. He actually knows how to handle his curly hair now and how to tie his robes neater. It will most likely be his first appearance as a disciple outside of the mountain, as far as he remembers.

He doesn’t sleep that night but instead meditates, making sure his cultivation is stable enough to deal with whatever they may face when they descend. This means that he is also the first ready when the day breaks.

He makes quick work to start preparing Shen Qingqiu’s carriage, cleaning down the interior and beating the curtains. Some of the other disciples start to arrive, dropping off portions of the bulk luggage at Luo Binghe’s feet, carrying their personal items towards the horse stalls. He realizes quickly that he most likely won’t be getting a horse if Ming Fan has any say in it and will most likely have to walk all the way down.

He looks at the thin soles of his boots and prays that they will make it through the trip. He pushes down the annoyance and resigns himself to his fate, choosing to direct his energy to his task instead. He loads the carriage up and finds he doesn’t hate all these menial chores as much as he should, taking a pleasant respite in the gratifying repetition of his efforts. He was never one to be afraid of getting his hands dirty.

When he sees a small number of disciples suddenly startle into a bow in his peripheral vision, he turns around to see Shen Qingqiu approaching.

It’s the first time Luo Binghe has seen him since he was given the medicine bottle. Shen Qingqiu is as he remembers him; aloof and distant, his eyes trained beyond everyone else, as if he can’t be bothered to spare anyone a glance, and his face half tucked behind an intricately designed fan. He’s wearing two more layers than usual, most likely for appearance, and the deep green of his outer robe detailed with embroidered cranes and bamboo all but screams wealthy Peak Lord.

He is elegant and beautiful and it all makes Luo Binghe bristle, his teeth grinding together and his stomach churning.

He only bows half-heartedly out of his own quiet spite, sure that Shen Qingqiu will not be bothered enough to acknowledge him. However, as soon as the thought enters his mind, those piercing eyes slide easily over to him, as if knowing what he was thinking, and immediately pin themselves to Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe is ashamed to admit he visibly jolts, quickly correcting his posture and deepening his bow. This man! He is going to drive him crazy!

“Shizun.” He greets through his teeth.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t respond and simply walks past him, stepping into the carriage.

Luo Binghe lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and rolls his eyes under the cover of his bangs. This was going to suck. This trip was definitely going to suck.

As they set off to get ready, he spares a look around to confirm his suspicion; nine horses, just as he thought. It looks like he’ll be walking to Shuang Hu City. Noticing his demeanor, Ming Fan’s voice grates on his ears, breaking through the barely concealed chuckles of his peers.

“We’re short on horses, so we have no choice but to inconvenience Shidi this time.” He jeers. “Although, since Shidi’s foundation is poor, it’s perfect– you can also take this chance to train.”

Luo Binghe does his best to ensure the disdain doesn’t show on his face and makes a silent promise to himself to make Ming Fan’s death more painful in this timeline

“What?” Ming Fan continues after a moment of pause. “What sort of expression is that? You dissatisfied?”

Apparently some disdain managed to slip through his expression anyway and Luo Binghe has to concentrate even harder to not straight up snarl at Ming Fan. “I wouldn’t dare,” he manages to say passively enough, though his nostrils flare and his fists clench at his sides.

“Shixiong, what are you two talking about?” a cheery voice rings through the tension as Ning Yingying trots over on her horse. Ming Fan’s expression immediately smoothes out to something pleasant and looks on at her with unconcealed adoration. Luo Binghe simply lets his face fall flat.

“Shimei, we don’t seem to have enough horses for the journey, so I am suggesting that Luo-shidi take this opportunity to improve his foundation!” He says lightly, his face a pleasant display of innocence. Ning Yingying barely pays it any mind.

“A-Luo, not enough horses? Come ride with me!”

“Yingying, don’t make a fuss. Men and women mustn’t be too intimate. No matter how close you are with your Shidi, there ought to be limits.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice cuts through like a knife and Luo Binghe all but shivers at the sound. His eyes snap over to the carriage where he sees Shen Qingqiu observing them through the curtain. “Ming Fan, we’re dawdling. Why haven’t we set out yet?”

And just like that, the matter is put to rest, no one daring to speak up further.

The journey is as Luo Binghe expected; terrible. They haven’t even made it halfway and his feet are sore. Ming Fan and the other disciples keep using their horses to kick up dirt in his face and cut off his path to make him stumble.

He makes sure to memorize all of their faces, especially the ones he doesn't recognize, and fantasizes about all the future ways he’ll hang them out to bleed and dry. The sweat on his brow from being under the sun makes the grime stick to his skin and Luo Binghe’s anger only festers more when he realizes he bathed for nothing.

He vaguely hears Ning Yingying and Shen Qingqiu talking ahead but doesn’t pay attention to what is being said. He is too busy imagining what Ming Fan would look like with his eyes and tongue gouged out, when suddenly the carriage, and therefore the rest of the procession, stops. Luo Binghe trips up a bit at the unexpected halt, falling out of his daze.

“Luo Binghe, come here.”

Once again, Shen Qingqiu’s stern voice manages to pierce right through him like a cold blade, his spine going rigid at the sound and his teeth clenching. He feels his face pale a bit, but he keeps his expression as still as he can manage as he cautiously approaches. He is all too familiar with this tone.

He steps up beside the curtain and watches as Shen Qingqiu lifts it with his fan so that they are face to face. There is a moment of silence between them before Shen Qingqiu suddenly jerks his chin, motioning Luo Binghe in.

How was he supposed to react to that?

“A-Luo, hurry and get on!” Ning Yingying all but sings. “Shizun is letting you ride with him!”

Luo Binghe feels a recognizable sense of dread wash over him but he manages a polite nod anyway.

“Many thanks to Shizun.”

He lifts himself carefully into the carriage, all of his senses on high alert. He moves purposefully slow, keeping track of any potential change in Shen Qingqiu’s demeanor.

Admittedly, Luo Binghe really didn’t want to get beaten anytime soon. Though he had long overcome the fear of pain, a part of him couldn't seem to completely get rid of an innate impulse to cower away from Shen Qingqiu, especially in the weakened state he was in right now.

The deep-rooted unease from simply being near the immortal was like a scar left behind from a scab picked at too often. It was humiliating to feel.

The silence in the carriage is deafening as neither of them speaks, and Luo Binghe feels like he’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, waiting to be pushed off. He kneels politely in front of Shen Qingqiu, keeping his posture proper when the cart jostles every once and a while as it descends the mountain. Luo Binghe’s hands curl on his lap, warily rubbing at the threads of his robe before he allows himself to look up.

Though Shen Qingqiu is only an arm's length distance from him, it's easy to immediately note that he might as well be worlds away. His eyes are closed and his mind clearly elsewhere.

Luo Binghe is alarmed by the lack of defences displayed before him. Shen Qingqiu makes no move to reprimand him, let alone pay him much mind, simply letting Luo Binghe exist in the small space with him. It puzzles him to no end and he tries to decipher whether or not there is some tactic to this. Perhaps this is some roundabout way to push Luo Binghe further into the pits of his own disquiet misery?

But then suddenly Shen Qingqiu’s eyes fan open and meet his gaze head-on through the heavy veil of his lashes. Luo Binghe’s breath gets stuck in his chest as he realizes he’s been caught staring, but before he can properly avert his eyes, Shen Qingqiu smiles at him.

Ah.

There it is.

This is the face of the Shen Qingqiu that Luo Binghe had encountered in that alternate reality. The soft curves of his lips are the same. The graceful crinkle of his eyes and the calming beauty of his features are exactly as he had witnessed. His suspicions are once more encouraged and in this brief moment, he understands.

He is experiencing the past, but not his own. The Shen Qingqiu before him is not the one from his original fate. The elements that make up this world are different and Luo Binghe’s future has already begun to redirect itself.

He distantly thinks that maybe he should feel grateful, perhaps even happy.

But he is not that other Luo Binghe.

He is not so naive and innocent that he would be won over and influenced to forgive misgivings at the drop of a single smile or minuscule kind gesture. His limbs are still thin with hunger from the food he has been purposefully deprived of. His cultivation is still in shambles from cruel misguidance. There are slow healing welts on his wrists from where he has been tied up and lashed at simply for being here.

He doesn’t know why this Shen Qingqiu has suddenly changed, but he will not allow himself to be quickly swayed. If his relationship with his Shizun is destined to transform into something else in this world, then fine, so be it. But forgiveness will not be dished out so easily and Luo Binghe’s heart will remain firm in his convictions.

He will dissect this Shen Qingqiu bit by bit, piece by piece, until he can understand what lies beneath. He will enjoy the freedoms of his new youth and abuse every opportunity to make sure he lives a better life this time around, even if he has to break a few necks to make it so.

Luo Binghe deserves better, so he will make better. Whatever higher power gave him this opportunity may think that they are in control, but they are sorely mistaken. Luo Binghe will mold this reality to his liking with his bare hands to ensure that all forms of his suffering end here and now.

Something must show on his face, because Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widen just a fraction, his smile vanishing. Luo Binghe realizes he, himself, is frowning and quickly tries to wipe the expression from his features, turning his eyes back down to his knees and his fists curled so tight that his knuckles threaten to split.

Neither of them speak for the remainder of the journey, but it’s fine because Luo Binghe’s mind is too loud anyway.

Notes:

Please bear with me until after the demon invasion.

Chapter 4: Brush It Off

Notes:

This short chapter was delayed because I started reading erha. I was shellshocked to discover how it aligned similarly to the narrative I am investigating in this fic...(kinda).

I preordered book five today...

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe tries to focus on other things when they arrive in Shuang Hu City. He tries to think of why this area is familiar and not think of Shen Qingqiu. He tries to observe the surrounding buildings and locals bustling around the streets, and not look at Shen Qingqiu. He tries to decipher the few details they had received about the case ahead of time and not mull over Shen Qingqiu.

His endeavors are fruitless and Luo Binghe, again, genuinely believes that he’s been cursed.

This mission was accepted under the pretense that it would be a learning experience for the disciples of Qing Jing Peak. So, Shen Qingqiu stands in front of the mansion of Old Master Chen and reminds each of them to pay close attention to whatever they may encounter and to keep an eye out for clues regarding the work of a Skinner Demon.

When they enter, Luo Binghe once more uses the entirety of his self-control not to let disgust and disdain grace his features. It takes all of one glance to see that Old Master Chen is both piggish and porkish, his riches on full display and no consideration for tact as he rubs at the thighs of the young woman seated on his lap.

He moans about the recent deaths of his concubines, making himself pitiful before the eyes of the group to inspire sympathy and Luo Binghe’s own eyes physically hurt with how much he is trying not to roll them. He truly can’t stand men cut from such cloth.

“Immortal masters, you must help us! Nowadays I dare not let Die-er leave my side for a second, for fear that the moment she’s careless, she’ll be killed by that wretched monster!”

Luo Binghe’s gaze skirts over this ‘Die-er’ and experiences a moment of pause, then remembers.

The reason Shuang Hu City feels mildly familiar to him is because he has seen this all in a brief glimpse of the other Shen Qingqiu’s dreamscape. He vaguely recalls something about a Skinner Demon, a missing Ning Yingying and a falling ceiling beam. His brain also oddly supplies an image of a nude chest and limbs bound by red rope. Luo Binghe has enough sense to immediately suppress the picture in his mind’s eye as soon as it appears.

Just what exactly had occurred in that alternate reality?

Whatever it was, Luo Binghe is going to avoid it to the best of his abilities.

He takes another look at Die-er and thinks that even if he didn’t have the small foresight, it is still painfully obvious that she is the culprit. His years of being the Lord of the Three Realms taught him a lot, and with one glance, he can pick apart her theatrics and poorly displayed grief. Something about her just also reeks of demonic energy, even if he can't actually sense it with his Heavenly Demon blood still locked away.

This is too easy. Luo Binghe wants to heave a sigh.

Instead, he purposefully sweeps his gaze towards Shen Qingqiu. As if sensing the stare, his Shizun’s eyes flicker towards him over the rim of his fan as he expresses his dry condolences to the Old Master Chen. Successfully capturing his attention, Luo Binghe then pointedly looks at Die-er and then back to Shen Qingqiu with raised brows, repeating the motion twice to communicate his silent intent.

Shen Qingqiu peers blankly back at him, blinking and showing no sign of comprehension.

Luo Binghe feels suddenly listless and like he wants to take a long nap. He really didn’t want to deal with this.

The brief conference comes to an end and the disciples soon start to scatter, all off on their own missions to investigate clues or slack off in town under the ruse of searching for leads. Luo Binghe stands in the lavish courtyard watching the sun start to set as he debates on how to end this entire thing as soon as possible without making himself suspicious.

He could easily track Die-er down tonight, expose her and end her in an instant. His cultivation in this body is still highly unstable, but Skinner Demons are fairly low rank in terms of power and it would be easy enough to figure out a way of subduing her. His thoughts are interrupted by the familiar chime of Ning Yingying’s voice.

“A-Luo!” She hangs herself on the crook of his arm as she always does. “Let’s go walk around the market together! Keep me company.”

Luo Binghe suppresses his initial agitation and has to remind himself of how young they all are and that her naivety is not something to lose his cool over. Instead, he levels her with a friendly but concerned gaze, purposefully making his expression soft.

“Ning-shijie shouldn’t go out tonight, especially with all the recent victims being female.” He says. “This Shidi would feel better if Ning-shijie stayed safe under the watchful eye of our Shizun.”

“But Shizun doesn’t want to go to the market with me.” She pouts.

“It would be best to lay low for the first day of the investigation. Ning-shijie trusts this Shidi's judgment, doesn’t she?” Luo Binghe lets his eyes curve and his cheeks flush, putting on a deceptive mask of handsome persuasion.

Ning Yingying hesitates and then, for a moment, looks at Luo Binghe like she doesn’t quite recognize him. The expression dissipates as soon as it appears though, and she concedes with a dramatic sigh before retreating to one of the property staff to inquire about sleeping arrangements.

Luo Binghe continues to ponder and observe the surrounding area, his hands clasped behind his back as night starts to fall. He watches idly as Ming Fan runs about with a handful of talismans, the pride on his face for the most minuscule of discoveries leaving a sour taste in Luo Binghe’s mouth. Everyone is really… just so young.

Unable to pace around much more, Luo Binghe takes action as soon as the moon rises and begins looking for the Skinner Demon. He figures things may play out similarly in this timeline and Die-er will most likely still go after Ning Yingying. He resigns himself to the fact that he’s just going to have to take her down and then feign some feeble explanation to Shen Qingqiu regarding his performance.

He’ll play the white sheep and make up some lies about having a stroke of luck or something. After that he’ll maybe– no, probably- get a beating for it if Shen Qingqiu’s superiority complex is still rearing its ugly head.

He quietly scales the roof of the outer court as the city slowly blankets itself in pale moonlight. He leisurely strolls across the tiles, purposefully kicking a couple of the clay slabs down to shatter in the garden as a meager attempt to vent out some mischief.

The wait doesn’t last long before he spots the faint movement of black smoke weaving through the pillars of the halls. He takes a deep, meditative breath, then calmly follows, keeping himself tucked in the shadowed corners of the building as the demon form makes its way towards the guest rooms. It’s all far too easy.

In a quick set of motions, Luo Binghe ambushes the smoke, forcing it under his palms to take physical shape. The spiritual energy concentrated in his hands is pathetic by his standards, but it is enough to make Die-er writhe in anger, appearing before him more solidly. The moment she does and before she has a chance to scream out in protest, he slams her skull against the ground so hard the stone cracks and she is immediately unconscious.

The entire encounter lasts all of two minutes.

The action makes him more winded than he would like to admit, and he once again silently cusses out his Shizun and the entire sect for his poor diet and cultivation progress at this age. So unfair! Really, it was!

Then, he drags Die-er’s body through the halls at a lazy pace until he reaches Shen Qingqiu’s guest quarters. He lingers in front of the door for a moment, thinking up a way to go about this situation and make up excuses. He hears the muffled sound of Ming Fan’s voice inside and curses his luck that he will have to put on a performance for two people instead of one. Eventually, he accepts his fate and knocks on the door.

This probably isn’t going to go as well as he hopes.

The voices inside fall hush before an eventual “Come in,” sounds from Shen Qingqiu. Luo Binghe slides the door open with his head respectfully bowed as he steps through the threshold, pulling Die-er limply along with him on the ground.

The room is so awkwardly silent for a moment that Luo Binghe actually has the sense to be slightly embarrassed. He looks up and is met with Shen Qingqiu’s immovable expression and Ming Fan attempting to pick his jaw up off the floor as he pops his eyes back into place.

“Shizun...” he begins.

“Ming Fan, leave us.” Shen Qingqiu cuts in so sharply that both disciples flinch. Ming Fan opens his mouth as if to protest, his gaze wild and confused, but Shen Qingqiu shuts him down with a mere side-eyed glance. Ming Fan all but swallows his tongue and reluctantly bows out of the room, shooting a glare at Luo Binghe as he passes.

Another episode of silence lingers before Shen Qingqiu’s eyes flicker down to an unconscious Die-er, still held in Luo Binghe’s grip.

“...The Skinner Demon?”

“Yes, Shizun. This disciple went to check on Ning-shijie in the outer court when he spotted a suspicious figure lurking about,” Luo Binghe provides. He makes his voice mildly timid and his expression docile, curving his brow up in a sheepish manner. He layers this all with an adolescent air of righteousness, however, as if firm in his sense of justice. He’s sure the display is convincing enough, even for Shen Qingqiu. “This disciple relied on Shizun’s teachings and immediately took action to apprehend the individual and bring them to Shizun for investigation.”

Shen Qingqiu just stares at Luo Binghe for a long while in response- long enough to make the nape of Luo Binghe’s neck start to sweat. His Shizun’s piercing gaze is intense and for the most part, unreadable. Then something strange occurs and those eyes dull, flickering off to the side, as if looking at something else before fixing themselves back on Luo Binghe. He doesn’t have the time to mentally question it before Shen Qingqiu is speaking again.

“Back in the main hall, as this master was conversing with Old Master Chen, did Binghe already suspect Die-er?”

“Yes, Shizun.”

“...Binghe’s deductions are correct.”

A pause. “...Shizun?” Something thumps hard against Luo Binghe’s ribs. It isn't praise. It isn't even close. And yet, somehow it still feels…

“However this master is disappointed in Binghe’s brute and brazen performance, particularly the lack of communication with his seniors and his impulse to act alone.” Shen Qingqiu’s gaze turns into something fierce and a little cold. “If my disciple cannot recognize the danger and idiocy of his actions, then he is hopeless and will not receive due credit from this master.”

Luo Binghe's world tilts. Unconsciously, his hold slackens on Die-er and she slumps to the ground in an ungraceful heap. Neither of them cares though. Luo Binghe’s mind reels.

What is this? What is happening? Once again, Shen Qingqiu was surprising him in ways he continued to be unable to predict. IsShen Qingqiu expressing concern?

“...This disciple was wrong.” He croaks, unsure of what else to say.

“Binghe will copy the Sect Rules ten times over as punishment upon return to Qing Jing Peak, as well as take up extra studies on defensive maneuvers for the following six months. Understood?”

“Yes, Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu idly begins to fan himself, letting out a final, angered huff.

“Leave. Go sleep. This master will take care of the rest.” He says conclusively and Luo Binghe gets the hint, bowing once more and moving to step out of the room. He goes to slide the door closed when Shen Qingqiu’s voice calls up once more. “And Binghe will prepare a report on tonight's proceedings to distribute to the other disciples to make up for their lack of learning opportunity.”

Luo Binghe swallows down the remainder of his stirred-up feelings and simply bows deeper.

“Yes, Shizun.”

As Luo Binghe makes his way through the corridors in a daze, looking out to the pale blues of the courtyard garden, he thinks that it would be best if he got some sleep before he tries to figure out what the hell just happened.

Notes:

More to come. Yes, yes... far more.

Also, to those who have already commented and shown support, I gift you my undying love.

Chapter 5: Silence Speaks

Notes:

Back so soon? Ha. Ha. Yes, I am.

I prefer shorter chapters with more frequent updates as opposed to dragging things out.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

[...]

[Beginner-level quest has been completed. The OOC feature is now unfrozen.]

[However, User has failed to obtain sufficient B-Points and risks imminent failure. Would you like to enable ‘Small Scenario Pusher’? Possible reward: +100!]

Luo Binghe, of course, didn't end up sleeping that night in Shuang Hu City even though he really, really wanted to.

He stays up instead writing his report, fibbing details regarding his encounter and the manner in which the demon was both identified and apprehended. It’s really blatant bullsh*t, but he knows it’s good enough to be believable to most.

He has always been extremely intelligent, able to bend the spoken word to his will and ensure his successes. He reigned supreme not only on the battlefield but also in debate. His manipulation skills were unmatched in all three realms.

However, with his life on Qing Jing Peak previously being occupied by chores and punishments, and then later with all his time being consumed by rising rapidly into power, he actually never found many opportunities to practice the arts.

To put it simply, Luo Binghe’s calligraphy and skill with the brush are kinda sh*t.

In his defense, his wrists are still healing! He couldn’t be blamed too harshly for the scrawl on the scroll that seemed to slant unpleasantly at times or the bleed of his ink making his characters nearly unrecognizable. Nearly! Not completely!

He sighs heavily as he looks down at his work, deeming it passable if nothing else. Luo Binghe hopes that maybe he could improve on certain talents in this lifetime. With very little intention of following the path towards becoming a Demon Lord once more, he wonders idly if maybe he’ll have more opportunities to practice the guqin. Maybe he will even try his hand at painting.

He’s still planning on unlocking his heavenly demon blood, but maybe he can put his efforts elsewhere in his spare time.

He rolls up the scroll and ponders if he has enough time to score a quick nap before they depart back to Qing Jing Peak. Luo Binghe snuck out of the guest quarters with the other sleeping disciples a couple of hours ago and found a small pavilion for him to unravel his paper and grind his ink. The view over the courtyard is pleasant as he leans back, watching the sun start to return on the horizon, the sky awash in a pale jade green and blue.

He finds he doesn’t miss the sky of the Demon Realm at all.

He decides to push his longing for sleep away and instead seek out Shen Qingqiu again, who he knows will be the first to wake. As he walks, he internally analyzes the events that occurred once more.

Luo Binghe thinks about the Skinner Demon and her ability to take on the appearance of other people. He thinks of Shen Qingqiu under this light for a moment, but the thought trail leads nowhere. If any form of possession or body swap was occurring, Sect Leader Yue would have exposed it by now, Luo Binghe is sure.

Plus, the inner politics of the Sect and details about disciples are intimate information not easily accessible to outsiders, so if by chance Shen Qingqiu has been replaced, he could only be performed successfully by someone who liked to keep close. Luo Binghe wracks his brain, but can’t remember any suspicious individuals in his previous life that would fit that bill.

He supposes that the mystery will simply have to remain for now. It is an itch he can ignore.

As predicted, Shen Qingqiu is already awake. The doors to his quarters are wide open, the morning breeze tunneling softly through. Shen Qingqiu is seated elegantly at a small table, the window behind him giving way to the tranquil view of another small garden. His hair spills like oil over his shoulders and steam from the tea in front of him, most likely brought by one of the staff, billows and curls around his delicate features as he takes a sip.

Now, more than almost ever, Luo Binghe feels like his Shizun is unreachable in all the ways that matter.

And yet Luo Binghe’s presence is still noticed with a gentle sweep of those eyes. He moves to kneel on the threshold. He doesn’t think he could bear to come any closer for some reason.

Little does he know, Shen Qingqiu didn’t sleep a wink either.

“This disciple has his report ready for Shizun, as requested.”

A lull of silence hangs heavy between them and Luo Binghe watches as Shen Qingqiu moves to stand. He flicks his sleeves and walks towards where Luo Binghe is kneeling, his expression twisted slightly as if witnessing something unpleasant.

“Stand.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice pulls at him like a puppet on strings. Luo Binghe feels that familiar trace of anxiety pool over his tongue as he hastily follows orders. He lowers his head, exposing the nape of his neck and stretching his hands forward to present the scroll. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t take it immediately.

Rather, “This master sees that Binghe did not follow his orders. You were told to sleep, yet here you are after working through the night to accomplish a task that could have been done back at the Sect.” The ridicule drips off of Shen Qingqiu’s lips like a beast slobbering over his prey. Luo Binghe freezes up, his heart pounding in his ears and unsure exactly of what wrong he has done.

When Shen Qingqiu reaches forward, Luo Binghe flinches slightly against his will and he curses himself for the instinctive reaction. Shen Qingqiu pays it no mind, however, and only circles his grip around Luo Binghe’s wrist while he pulls the scroll from his hands, setting it aside. Luo Binghe’s entire body is buzzing like there are cicadas nestled under the first layer of his skin, singing themselves awake.

Shen Qingqiu turns Luo Binghe's hands over, looking down at them with a scrutinizing gaze, a twitch of his brow giving way to the slightest hint of displeasure. Luo Binghe watches the moment, attempting to prepare for any outcome. Whether it’s having his wrists snapped or being strung up again to be lashed, he tries to tell himself he’s ready for it.

“Such a mess.” Shen Qingqiu mutters instead, uncurling Luo Binghe’s ink-stained fingers with his own clean and slender ones. He retreats for only a moment, procuring a warm, wet cloth from the bowl placed upon the vanity in the room. He comes back and begins to gently wash Luo Binghe’s hands.

“My disciple is so unruly first thing in the morning.” Shen Qingqiu scolds. “Binghe is an embarrassment to this master.” The words appear as if they are meant to slash, but the blade that delivers them is dull and it simply feels like a cool brush of metal across Luo Binghe’s heart, making him shiver.

Luo Binghe shifts in place, a bit uncomfortable and at a loss for what to do. He watches as Shen Qingqiu cleans his skin, ridding him of the sloppy blotches of ink on each fingertip. Something in him seems to unfurl, as if he swallowed a lotus seed and it was attempting to bloom in his stomach.

“Shizun…you…” As Luo Binghe attempts to say something, anything really, Shen Qingqiu’s eyes skirt back up to meet his own.

Something in Shen Qingqiu’s expression then suddenly brightens, as if he’d just received good news, and pulls away with light dancing in his eyes that wasn’t previously there. He seems pleased with himself and Luo Binghe feels as if he’s witnessing something he isn’t supposed to. He holds his tongue and doesn’t finish his words.

“Go wake the other disciples. This master will read over your report and distribute it when we are back at Cang Qiong Mountain.” Shen Qingqiu waves him off with a delicate sweep of his robe as he turns, excusing him as Luo Binghe’s hands start to dry, clean and only barely shaking.

<>

Luo Binghe comes to quickly realize that his actions back in Shuang Hu City may have not been very smart. He feels that maybe he’s accidentally exposed some part of himself- like something was leaking through.

He had to be careful to avoid suspicion from here on out.

They plan to return by the end of the day and one of the staff of the Old Master Chen’s mansion lends Luo Binghe a horse for the journey back. He’s grateful that he doesn’t have to walk. He is even more grateful that he doesn’t have to ride with Shen Qingqiu, his heart still too uneasy from their encounter this morning.

As they make their way up the mountain again, Luo Binghe catches sight of his Shizun reading over his work in the carriage, the billowing curtain only allowing periodic glimpses. Shen Qingqiu’s expression is characteristically unreadable, but he appears to be squinting down at the scroll as if it is somehow mildly offending him.

Luo Binghe feels delayed embarrassment regarding his penmanship, scratching at the back of his neck when he looks away. It really wasn’t his fault!

They are greeted by Sect Leader Yue upon their arrival. Luo Binghe doesn’t pay much attention to the interaction, his gaze drifting loftily elsewhere. He never understood, nor cared much for Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu’s relationship. It was both distant yet brotherly and left a bad taste in Luo Binghe’s mouth growing up. So many of his old Shizun’s behaviors were swept under the rug due to the compliance of this seemingly powerful man.

And what was with those constant kicked-puppy eyes? Luo Binghe really couldn’t stand it.

Ugh. Even thinking back on everything is enough to make Luo Binghe’s mood darken fractionally. Yue Qingyuan’s death had been so soon to arrive back then. Maybe Luo Binghe should have taken action and dragged it out longer- made it more personal instead of just setting a trap for the sake of getting Shen Qingqiu to react.

He’s fantasizing about different ways to pull out someone’s fingernails when Ming Fan and Ning Yingying's heartfelt gasps startle him from his stupor. He quickly tries to right his attention, straightening his posture.

“Shizun is going into seclusion? For how long?” Ning Yingying whines, reaching for Shen Qingqiu to childishly tug at his robes as Sect Leader Yue dismisses himself. He levels her with a simple and impassive look.

“A few months, to be certain.”

Shen Qingqiu is leaving to cultivate.

Luo Binghe’s first reaction is to feel thrilled. No Shizun meant no potential risks to his well-being outside of Ming Fan and the usual, predictable lineup. It is a small change, but one he could be thankful for.

Surprisingly though, the thrill simmers out almost as fast as it arrives and Luo Binghe is left in an odd state of lackluster contentment.

Settling back into Qing Jing Peak, Luo Binghe’s report is distributed to the disciples who were in attendance. He finds that his name has been omitted from the work, not allowing any of them to take credit for the events that abruptly concluded the investigation. All that is known is that the Skinner Demon was delivered to Shen Qingqiu late on the first night, already subdued. The Qing Jing Peak Lord then took on the responsibility of disposing of her and wrapping up the investigation, submitting the findings to the Old Master Chen and the other leaders of Shuang Hu City.

Nobody who reads the report even suspects that it was Luo Binghe’s doing. Unspokenly, they all assume it was Ming Fan, and this anonymous submission is some strange display of humbleness encouraged by their Shizun.

It makes Ming Fan’s stormy expression and persistent sour attitude more confusing for them as the young man is usually so quick to puff his chest out for the smallest of accomplishments. Ming Fan refuses to speak on it when he is prompted. Behind his back, some of the other disciples start to call him “Chickenscratch Ming”, poking fun at his supposed horrid handwriting displayed in the scroll. How could the lead disciple at Qing Jing Peak write so sloppily? No wonder Shizun has struck his name from the record. How embarrassing.

Shen Qingqiu was set to depart in three days. Luo Binghe does his best to avoid him in that time.

He only makes it until the evening before. Luo Binghe believes his luck is rotten.

It had been raining the better part of the day and Luo Binghe had gone to the deeper parts of the bamboo grove near the river. Reforming his cultivation as of right now was his priority. Not wanting to bother sneaking into the armory for a practice sword, Luo Binghe carves a makeshift staff made from a branch with the edge of a sharp river rock. The material is light, but when he pours his spiritual energy into the object, it becomes heavy like a real weapon, whistling with delight as he swings it around, practicing his martial arts.

Things like this had always been fun for Luo Binghe, which was probably why his crushing disciple years were such a disappointment even outside of the mistreatment. All he had wanted back then was to learn and do good in the world. Little did he know he would be robbed of that the moment he was selected by Shen Qingqiu.

He sometimes wishes he never dug that hole. He sometimes wishes that he never came.

But perhaps a fate outside of Qing Jing Peak wouldn’t have treated him much better in the end.

Luo Binghe is lost in thought as he moves, acting on muscle memory alone. He shifts his weight to lash out and send a powerful wave of energy towards a couple of thin bamboo stalks when his muscles suddenly cramp up, unaccustomed to the influx of spiritual energy circulating and the extraneous movements. He feels as if he’s been plunged into ice-cold water, his scalp going numb and his limbs freezing up, uncooperative. He really had to remember the limitations of this body! sh*t!

His balance is lost and the wet soil and grass give way under him, getting dug up by his heel and in vengeance, throwing him towards the river bank. He doesn’t hit the ground though.

No. Of course he doesn’t. Why would he when there was an infinitely worse option?

A warm hand presses against his back, arm wrapped around the curve of his waist. A foreign sound leaves Luo Binghe’s lips that he will not recount the details of and his vision is curtained by inky black hair as he is hoisted up against the firm shape of a martial body, suddenly stabilized.

Shen Qingqiu hovers over him, catching him mid-fall. He’s so much taller than Luo Binghe is at this age that his figure nearly swallows him whole, long robes all but wrapping around Luo Binghe as if to blanket him in an embrace. Luo Binghe can only stare wide-eyed up at that passive face, handsome and carved from mountain creeks.

His body betrays him as his lungs shrivel up, no longer willing to breathe, and his muscles remain locked in place, cramped up and aching. f*ck! He couldn’t even move if wanted to!

“Binghe is pushing himself beyond his current capabilities.” The cool voice washes over Luo Binghe, making him feel more numb all the way down to his toes. He doesn’t have the will or strength to respond. Who knows if his voice will betray him too?! Nothing is to be trusted!

Shen Qingqiu straightens the both of them out, stepping back a somewhat more respectable distance as he finds that Luo Binghe is able to stand on his own. He doesn’t pull away though, his hands instead falling to Luo Binghe’s wrists, checking his energy flow and meridians.

Luo Binghe pointedly ignores the pleasant hum of Shen Qingqiu’s spiritual energy flowing through him, a sense of deja vu threatening to stir up thoughts he’d rather suppress right now.

After a simple nod of silent approval, Shen Qingqiu pulls away altogether, digging into the sleeve of his robe before producing a small handbook and passing it over to Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe stares down at the object for enough of a pause to almost be disrespectful before his arms cooperate enough to reach for the offering.

“It is a new cultivation manual for you to practice from. Remember not to rush these things.” Shen Qingqiu provides.

Another brief silence. “Why is Shizun giving this disciple a completely different manual?”

“Your constitution is a little different, so you can’t cultivate properly by following ordinary methods.”

He’s not wrong, not really, but it is still bullsh*t to Luo Binghe’s ears. Yet, when he tries to summon up his anger, he finds that the well has run somewhat dry for the day.

“Also, I’ve discussed with the food hall staff and we have agreed it would be best for you to start eating larger portions due to your unique physicality. Your meal plan has been changed based on my recommendations.” Shen Qingqiu continues. “Don’t disappoint me.”

“Shizun is awfully considerate.” He says a bit plainly, but his expression of wonder betrays him as he looks back towards Shen Qingqiu, his heartbeat knocking loudly against his ribs as if wanting desperately to be heard and let out.

Once more, there is that bright light in his Shizun’s eyes, as if something has pleased him to some extent, despite the rest of his face not changing much.

Nothing more is said after that. Luo Binghe stays rooted in place as night starts to fall and Shen Qingqiu leaves for seclusion the next morning.

...

[+100!]

Notes:

I am a firm believer that Blackened Luo Binghe needs gentleness and some classic romancing not prompted by papapa. He is too desensitized to lewd displays and they probably wouldn't have much of an effect on him this early on.

For those saddened by the missing nip slip in the last chapter, worry not. The "Eventual Smut" tag will be your lighthouse during these long and perilous nights.

Chapter 6: Stupidity Contest

Notes:

The title of the chapter is telling enough...

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The months pass in such a pleasant manner that Luo Binghe becomes thoroughly unsettled by it. He feels a little like he is waiting for the ball to drop; for the roof to come crashing down.

It doesn’t though.

Some of the other disciples still shoot daggers at him with their eyes when he walks by as if he has personally soured their moods, but very few approach him these days. Those that do try and start trouble with him never push too far. He’ll perhaps be insulted or spat at, but nothing more. Luo Binghe is hyper-observant, however, and quickly starts to catch on that Ming Fan is oddly the one keeping them at bay. When Ming Fan pulls at their ears in reprimand, he doesn’t look very happy about intervening but continues nonetheless. His Shixiong is still strict with him, barking lists of tasks and making snide comments about his cultivation, but Luo Binghe takes it with ease.

He wonders if something in Ming Fan has begun to change. He wonders if maybe Shen Qingqiu said something to him before going into seclusion. Either way, he doesn’t really have a way of knowing.

He can’t forgive Ming Fan, but he realizes that in a strange turn of events, they are starting to tolerate each other.

This life is so bizarre.

Luo Binghe refines his cultivation and stabilizes his spiritual energy in the time of his Shizun’s absence. With the dwindling outright animosity among his peers, he starts to attend public Peak lectures regularly, topped with the personal training he does in his free time. He tries not to rush his progress and let his eager desire to be as capable as he once was get to him. Luo Binghe is a master at exercising patience, but he’s still human (mostly) at the end of the day and can’t suppress small flare-ups of frustration.

Overall though, he’s now in better shape. He has finally started to gain some healthy weight too.

He stares thoughtfully down at the tray before him as he sits in the corner of the food hall. There is a full portion of rice, still steaming with warmth. There are four side dishes: pickled radish, a small assortment of nuts, fermented cabbage and soy-glazed tofu cut into thin slices. Next to the food sits a small clay cup of ginger tea. For the original fourteen-year-old Binghe, this would have been a feast for the ages.

The food at Qing Jing Peak has always been plain and Luo Binghe knows he can cook worlds better than this, but he hasn’t been assigned to any duties in the kitchen at this age. In his previous life, Shen Qingqiu and Ming Fan probably didn’t trust that he wouldn’t swipe some extra portions for himself. Which, granted, he definitely would have. Regardless, Luo Binghe may subtly long for more luxurious meals like what he ate when he was a Demon Lord, but he knows when to be grateful for small things.

After all, anything tastes better than the rotten flesh he had to endure as he wept in the Endless Abyss.

Luo Binghe isn’t dull. He knows Shen Qingqiu in some way is trying to make up for past grievances. With the lack of beatings, new cultivation manual, medicine and finally feeding him properly, Shen Qingqiu is obviously attempting to subtly right some acknowledged wrongs without providing an outright apology. It isn’t coddling, but Luo Binghe can recognize when he is being treated with decency. The only thing that eludes him is the why.

Why change now when Luo Binghe is fourteen and already damaged?

He is self-aware enough to know that a part of him wanted this as he laid a mess on his bedroom floor all those months ago, but now that he was living it, it wasn’t so black and white. Shen Qingqiu’s new and subtle kindness is something complicated and hard to swallow for the Luo Binghe who has already lived through years of pain; years that technically didn’t exist anymore but still haunt him nonetheless.

Where did hatred go when it no longer had a home?

Luo Binghe pondered these things daily as Shen Qingqiu remained in seclusion. He wonders what life will be like when his Shizun returns and his fate continues to twist in on itself. He hopes he can endure it. He hopes that maybe something good will come out of it.

Sometimes he thinks about leaving the mountain, simply in fleeting thoughts, like the winds that shake the bamboo stalks. The feeling comes and goes, but Luo Binghe stays. When he was young, he wanted to cultivate properly and help those in need. He feels he owes that younger version of himself an opportunity to fulfill his dreams now that he has a second chance. He can’t erase his heritage, but his sins don't have to be his downfall.

The blood on his hands doesn’t exist in this lifetime, but the stain remains all the same. He can see it sometimes when the light hits his skin just right.

Despite this, Luo Binghe truly believes bettering himself is achievable, no matter how long it may take.

<>

Luo Binghe’s memory is very, very good. However, when you are thrown into a past that has elements nearly unrecognizable to you and you are attempting to navigate a brand new life, there are some things you simply don’t think about or idly forget, such as the upcoming demon invasion.

f*ck. Luo Binghe totally forgot about the upcoming demon invasion.

The thought strikes him when he is sweeping the steps to the Bamboo House one day. He hasn’t been keeping track of the weeks as they have gone by, so of course with his luck, the event unfolds only two days after he remembers.

This is so tedious… Luo Binghe just wants to close his eyes and pointedly ignore the ruckus so that someone else can take care of it.

Alas, he supposes he ought to at least try and do the right thing and fight alongside his peers.

Ugh.

The rainbow bridges are broken and Qiong Ding Peak becomes isolated, doused in fire and riddled with low-rank demons. The Qing Jing Peak disciples were all coincidentally gathered there for cross-peak training when everything descended into chaos. Just as Luo Binghe recalls, Sect Leader Yue is absent and Shen Qingqiu arrives at the main hall like a supposed gift from the heavens. The entrance is a little dramatic and Luo Binghe finds he watches it all with a spiritless expression.

What he doesn’t expect, however, is for Shen Qingqiu’s eyes to search and find him immediately in the crowd. Luo Binghe is stunned into place once more, still unaccustomed to this type of attention from this particular individual. It also doesn’t help that after months of not seeing his Shizun, the first thing he thinks about is that evening by the river and the ghost sensation of a hand pressed against his back. The memory startles him so hard he blanches and looks away first.

A melodic voice cuts through the babble of panic, ringing overhead and capturing the attention of everyone in attendance. The familiar sound makes Luo Binghe pale further, disdain etching itself onto his brow.

Of course, it’s Sha Hualing. This is where he first met his previous wife and Luo Binghe is not happy in the slightest about it. If he could avoid this woman as much as possible in this lifetime, it would be ideal, but fate doesn’t work that way. She was always a handful to deal with and seethed with jealousy day in and day out if Luo Binghe so much as looked at another woman. She was violent and demanding: truly a spoiled daughter of the previous Demon Lord. Only someone with immense patience would be able to deal with the likes of her, and though Luo Binghe was the gracious type when it came to the women he wedded, his affection towards Sha Hualing burned out as fast as a wheat field caught aflame.

In summary, she mostly just kind of exhausted him.

Also, why can he still feel Shen Qingqiu’s stare?! Luo Binghe refuses to turn around and confirm, the goosebumps across his skin are telling enough.

“My people didn’t climb this mountain for the sake of battle. It’s just that we’ve long heard that Cang Qiong Mountain produces many talented individuals, so we were curious. We wanted to ascend the mountain for a look, as well as to spar and learn from you.”

Luo Binghe vividly remembers that this was the event where he was essentially offered up as a sacrifice by his previous Shizun. He wonders if it will play out the same now that Luo Binghe can actually hold his own in a fight at this age and has begun to properly cultivate. Would Shen Qingqiu still throw him out into the ring?

Shen Qingqiu and Sha Hualing converse and agree on their terms for three duels. Luo Binghe watches the first fight with his Shizun a little bored. He was already well acquainted with Shen Qingqiu’s skills, having battled him before. Shen Qingqiu was as graceful and lofty as ever, skirting around the one-armed demon with ease and winning without issue. The only new thing that Luo Binghe took note of was the uncharacteristic spark of excitement lit in his eyes. It made Luo Binghe purse his lips in consideration, never having seen such an expression on Shen Qingqiu before.

The next duel between Sha Hualing and Liu Mingyan comes about quickly and Luo Binghe watches from the sidelines, scratching his cheek in quiet shame.

Ah, right… Liu Mingyan was here too. Somehow the thought had slipped his mind.

That was not to say that Liu Mingyan was in any way forgettable! It was just that even though she stayed many years by Luo Binghe’s side, often as his consultant in many affairs, they rarely ever spoke beyond politics and martial arts. He would say they could have been good friends if circ*mstances were a little different.

He had bedded her only once because of some life-threatening event he couldn’t be bothered to recall, and because of his morals, had wedded her soon after. Lower demons used to boil with envy and rage whenever she was present by his side, her supposed world-shattering beauty hidden under the mystery of the veil made them writhe with desire.

Luo Binghe had only seen her face once. She was very pretty, but that was about it. He can’t remember thinking anything else at that time.

Furthermore, why is Shen Qingqiu looking at him again ?! He can feel that gaze without even turning to check! Those watchful eyes are burning into his skin, scalding him from his head to his toes. Was Luo Binghe supposed to be doing something? Reacting in a certain way? He really didn’t know.

Was it because his appearance had changed? Luo Binghe’s attention drifts down over his figure, idly fingering the hem of his robes that were getting a bit short at the knees. He supposes he’s already started to grow quite a bit, and with the weight gain, there was probably a noticeable healthy glow about him.

Still… shouldn’t his Shizun be ogling the half-dressed demon saintess and priceless beauty fighting in front of him?

Luo Binghe feels strange, shifting his weight back and forth on his feet and pointedly does not return Shen Qingqiu’s gaze.

He’s distracted enough that he doesn’t even register the end of the second fight followed by the lull of suspense as the crowd waits for the announcement of the mysterious third participants. A tall demon covered in spiked armor is ushered out of the group by Sha Hualing, dragging an impressive hammer behind him. A nervous air washes over the disciples on the peak, afraid of which of them may be chosen for this next match.

Luo Binghe’s attention returns to the moment at hand as the demon saintess announces a point of interest that makes the crowd even more anxious.

“First, to give you all a warning, the spikes on Elder ‘Sky Hammer’ Tianchui’s armor are coated with a highly toxic poison. This poison is ineffective against demons, but if it enters a human body, there is no cure!” Sha Hualing cheers.

The Without a Cure poison. Luo Binghe remembers it well enough, so this information doesn’t faze him in the slightest. He already knows he’s immune. The crowd of disciples, however, comes alive with rage, accusing the demons of dirty foul play.

“Luo Binghe, come here.”

Right…as expected.

Luo Binghe holds back his exasperated sigh. Looks like he is the chosen one, just as before. It’s fine. He knows he will win, but that doesn’t make it any less bothersome.

He remembers Ming Fan had spoken up against this choice, but for some reason this time around, the head disciple is strangely silent, unquestioning of Shen Qingqiu’s selection. Ning Yingying on the other hand characteristically protests. She holds onto Luo Binghe with a vice grip that he has to do his best to shimmy out of.

“Don’t worry, Shijie. I may be untalented, but if Shizun has chosen me, I will spare no effort. Even if I must stake my life, I won’t lose face for the Sect.” Though it was his own voice speaking the words, hearing them said out loud genuinely embarrasses Luo Binghe. Playing this humble and meek role was seriously sucking some of the life out of his soul!

Ning Yingying relents and turns to walk away as if unable to bear watching how this would play out. Shen Qingqiu observes Luo Binghe coolly, jerking his chin towards the ring to usher him forward.

Luo Binghe had already planned out his moves as soon as he suspected he would be chosen for this fight again. He thinks it may have been a different demon last time, but that didn’t really matter.

Elder Sky Hammer doesn’t hesitate to charge right at him and Luo Binghe resigns to let the demon land a couple of hits at first to avoid suspicion. He’s thrown across the stone floor and smashed down with enough force to give him a brief fit of vertigo, his eyes blurring and his ears buzzing as he coughs up a mouthful of blood. He allows for a kick to the stomach and the dislocation of one of his shoulders to occur before he starts to display more precise defensive maneuvers.

He ignores the pain, not caring much about the blood dripping from his lips or the purple blossoms blooming along his skin. He can endure things like this any day. As long as he could still stand, his success was almost a guarantee.

Luo Binghe believed himself a natural performer at the end of the day and gives both the demons and the sect disciples a show he knew would please them. Predictable words of doubt start to ripple across the crowd, but Luo Binghe doesn’t care about losing some face for now. He would prove them all wrong in years to come anyway.

What does catch him off guard however is the clear, yet soft voice that rings above all the other murmurs, silencing everyone in an instant.

“He will win.” Shen Qingqiu says simply, almost as if it’s obvious. He says it like he’s stating the weather.

Something twists in Luo Binghe’s gut, his senses fizzing out for a moment. Where was Shen Qingqiu’s confidence in him coming from?

Luo Binghe wants to look over at Shen Qingqiu but stubbornly refuses. He wants to walk up to his Shizun, wring him by the neck and force him to confess his thoughts. He wants to lay his Shizun down against the stone and cut open his chest- to pry open the ivory cage and try to understand what lies inside.

He instead continues to fight, a new resolve starting to form within him as he displays a refreshed vigor and takes the offensive position.

What Luo Binghe doesn’t realize, however, is though he has allowed himself to get beaten bloody for a show to maintain his illusion of unrefined skills, he only looks more terrifying and imposing to the crowd as the faintest grin on his lips shows his red-stained teeth and his confidence glows clear in the light of his eyes.

The fight ends soon after. Elder Sky Hammer kneels on the ground in defeat, his expression one of horror while Luo Binghe hides his smirk under the guise of whipping the blood from his mouth. He turns away and walks himself back to Shen Qingqiu’s side, tapping the dust off his robes, almost as if bored.

Too easy, he thinks.

Shen Qingqiu watches him with a complicated expression.

“To face Senior Shen’s young disciple and yet lose so badly? You’ve lost every last bit of face for the demon race!” Sha Hualing’s voice shrieks over the bustling sounds of the crowd processing and discussing the outcome of the duels. She slaps Elder Sky Hammer across the face in a fit of blatant rage, only further diminishing his appearance.

“Your subordinate is incompetent and begs the saintess for punishment!” The demon begs.

Shen Qingqiu quickly cuts in at this. “Miss Sha, if you wish to discipline your subordinates, please do so somewhere else. Qiong Ding Peak is not a place for the nobility to throw their weight around.”

Sha Hualing responds with a polite and pleasant smile on her face, attempting to maintain some air of grace as she excuses her behavior and sprinkles in some overly diligent praise towards Shen Qingqiu’s abilities as a teacher.

Luo Binghe idly stops listening, picking the blood and grime out from under his nails. A couple of surrounding disciples flutter around him as they ask about his well-being. He responds in half-attentive, one-worded answers, keeping his grin a calculated mixture of humble and pleased, throwing in an occasional grimace of pain for show.

Who knows! Maybe Luo Binghe was an actor in one of his past lives!

In this attempt to perform for those around him, he fails to immediately notice Elder Sky Hammer lunging straight at him again, the intent to kill clear as day. Though his reaction is only slightly delayed, his instincts are still sharp. His gaze whips around, piercing like a blade, and his body assumes a nimble stance, ready to avoid the strike.

His defensive response, however, is interrupted by something unexpected beside him that reaches out and protectively tucks Luo Binghe behind a tall wall of billowing green robes.

Time seems to stop for Luo Binghe as he watches Shen Qingqiu take the blow head-on in his stead. He doesn’t see what happens exactly, his vision obscured as he looks up at the sight of his Shizun’s broad back, standing before him like some omen of benevolence. Luo Binghe hears nothing, his ears ringing and his mind slow to catch up and comprehend what his eyes are seeing.

Hadn't...this also happened in that other world? Wasn't this one of that Shen Qingqiu's memories?

At some point in Luo Binghe’s stupor, Elder Sky Hammer is subdued.

Shen Qingqiu is injured. The bloody swell of the Without a Cure poison spreads over the back of his hand in an angry red display.

The only thought running through Luo Binghe’s mind is thus: Shen Qingqiu is an idiot! An absolute! Idiot!

Notes:

Writing descriptive fight scenes for me might as well be like pulling teeth... so I simply don't.

This humble author begs for your forgiveness in that regard.

Chapter 7: Mango Pancakes

Notes:

All of the comments I have received so far have me howling with delight. Thank you!

Anyway! I'm looking forward to some of the upcoming chapters. Hope you guys are fans of shoujo anime because you are going to get just that. (Hint: fever episode, beach episode, festival episode etc.) lol

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe, by the grace of the heavens, refrains from smacking Shen Qingqiu or his own forehead in exasperation.

“Are you alright?” Shen Qingqiu says stupidly with his stupid face holding his stupid injured hand. This man is so insufferable. Even in all his heroism and kindness, Shen Qingqiu is on the verge of making Luo Binghe rip his hair out in frustration.

Luo Binghe looks at his Shizun with a pained expression, because he honestly is pained.

“This disciple is fine…” Luo Binghe looks down at the prickles of vicious crimson that well up from the wound on Shen Qingqiu’s skin. “But, Shizun…”

“Shen Qingqiu, I’ve taken you down with me, hahaha!” Elder Sky Hammer interrupts from where he is crumpled and dying on the stone floor. “Worth it! It was worth it!”

Luo Binghe’s expression falls, annoyance throbbing in his temples. These lowly demon types really grate on his nerves sometimes, so quick to prance around in delight even after using underhanded methods. The dignity they possess wasn’t even enough to spit at. If Luo Binghe had half the power he used to wield, he’d tear this elder into ribbons with a single glance and watch his blood stain the main hall.

Instead, his hand shoots for Xiu Ya, pulling the blade from the sheath on Shen Qingqiu’s hip. With a swift flick of his wrist, he presses the gleaming metal against the throat of Elder Sky Hammer.

“I’d advise you to shut your mouth, lest I kill you first.” Luo Binghe’s voice is low and rough with violent intent, his eyes dark as he looks down at the pathetic thing before him. He registers that he shouldn’t be aware of what exactly has poisoned Shen Qingqiu, so he continues to play his part. “Your people must surely have a cure. Hand over the antidote.”

“Young master, Elder Sky Hammer truly isn’t lying.” Sha Hualing predictably interjects. Luo Binghe’s eyes lazily sweep up to level her with his gaze. She doesn’t flinch, but something in her step falters slightly as she approaches. Luo Binghe knows he wasn’t in any way intimidating in his disciple years, but he revels in the fact he can still get people to react to him, even if only barely. It takes a second or two for Sha Hualing to continue. “This poison is called ‘Without a Cure.’ When it comes to humans, it indeed has no cure. The elder has lost his match and done something truly disgraceful – he knows only death awaits him. Why would he fear your threat?”

Luo Binghe doesn’t feel humored enough to respond, but fortunately, Shen Qingqiu steps forward again to fill the dialogue. He rests his uninjured hand against Luo Binghe’s shoulder, urging him to lower Xiu Ya. Luo Binghe does not in any way pay attention to the warmth and weight of his Shizun’s touch as he obediently complies.

“Your words aren’t wrong, but has Miss Sha forgotten that I’ve already cultivated for many years? Having achieved Mid Core Formation stage, can I still be considered a common person?”

Luo Binghe turns to look at Shen Qingqiu with a dawning look of dismay. Oh please, don’t tell him this is going where he thinks this is going. Shen Qingqiu! Can you not keep your idiocy at bay?!

Sha Hualing challenges Shen Qingqiu to a display of strength to prove his poisoning. Shen Qingqiu readily agrees and Luo Binghe wants to go home. His psyche isn’t built to handle the stupidity of this world.

Well! It looks like his fate really is changing because his Shizun is definitely going to die!

“No need to worry.” Shen Qingqiu says softly to Luo Binghe, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze before stepping forward. Luo Binghe isn’t sure what Shen Qingqiu saw in his expression to warrant such reassurance. Worry about yourself!

The conditions of the palm strike are announced and all of Qiong Ding Peak watches on in nervous anticipation. Luo Binghe thinks about maybe offering himself in place, but he doubts the Shen Qingqiu before him would actually let him and he also doubts he has yet enough stable spiritual power to go against Sha Hualing right now. His shame about that fact is reserved luckily only for himself.

It doesn’t take much longer before Sha Hualing is launching herself at Shen Qingqiu, hand outstretched and face sour.

“Then, Senior Shen, please forgive Ling-er’s rudeness!”

“Come, come, show no mercy and let fate decide who lives or dies!” Shen Qingqiu responds.

There is a shockwave of power, dust kicking up and making the surrounding crowd shield their faces and look away before it starts to settle. There is an eerie quiet that falls over everyone as the situation is assessed. Sha Hualing has been flung back towards the group of demons and Shen Qingqiu stands strong, hair wiping in the leftover surging wind.

Luo Binghe’s eyes are however trained on the person behind Shen Qingqiu, vibrating with killing intent, and obviously the one responsible for the deluge of power.

He looks at the man with a blank expression, genuinely not recognizing him for a moment.

“Liu-shidi?” Shen Qingqiu’s voice rings through the silence, looking back at the man curiously. Then, the entire peak erupts in cheers.

“Liu-shishu!”

“Liu-shishu left seclusion!”

“The Bai Zhan Peak War God has left seclusion! You demons, let’s see if you can still be arrogant now!”

Wait. What?

Liu Qingge? From Bai Zhan Peak? As in Liu Mingyan’s older brother? Wasn’t he supposed to be dead?

No wonder Luo Binghe didn’t recognize him at first glance. At this point in his disciple years, Shen Qingqiu had already killed him. But in this life, there he stood, not only alive and kicking, but protecting Shen Qingqiu of all people.

Right... he was alive in that other reality too. It was difficult keeping all these different timeline details in order.

Luo Binghe’s head hurts. Maybe he should stop attempting to predict things all together.

Sha Hualing and her troops retreat not long after that, dodging the War God’s raining sword glares, some straggling demons being apprehended by the surrounding disciples. Luo Binghe’s focus remains on the two Peak Lords in front him though, studying their awkward yet not unfriendly interaction. Liu Qingge examines Shen Qingqiu’s injury with a displeased expression.

“You won’t die for now.” Liu Qingge announces, his fingers tight over Shen Qingqiu’s wrist, distributing spiritual energy.

A large number of Qing Jing Peak disciples sag in relief at the news, but still fret and hover around their Shizun. Luo Binghe stands off to the side, ignoring the sudden lighter feeling in his chest. Whatever. Good for Shen Qingqiu for not being dead.

Luo Binghe flinches, however, when Shen Qingqiu’s knees suddenly buckle and fold. He is caught swiftly by Liu Qingge and Ming Fan, both pale in the face. Shen Qingqiu coughs around a mouthful of blood, his remaining energy finally leaving him as the poison takes its toll. Luo Binghe watches unblinkingly, something twisting inside him and a queasy feeling rushing up his throat.

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes meet Luo Binghe’s once more, as if he always knows where to find him, no matter the distance between them.

“I knew that… you’d definitely win,” is what Shen Qingqiu says, of all things, before he loses consciousness. Everyone’s attention suddenly becomes torn between the limp Qing Jing Peak Lord and Luo Binghe who is standing rooted at the edge of the crowd, his expression wide eyed and complicated.

He wishes he could stop being so easily disarmed by everything this Shen Qingqiu says and does.

<>

Shen Qingqiu sleeps for six days.

Luo Binghe spends that time fixed in place outside the Bamboo House, seated in a lotus position on the porch. He waits and he thinks.

He thinks a lot .

And when he isn’t thinking and waiting, he’s cooking, unsure of what else to do with himself. Luo Binghe doesn’t like owing anyone any debts, and somehow, he has already wracked some up with Shen Qingqiu of all people. Regardless of Luo Binghe’s immunity to Without a Cure, it was knowledge privy to only himself, so his Shizun had still, on a technicality, saved his life by sacrificing his own.

It stirred Luo Binghe. He won’t deny that.

So, he cooks. Shen Qingqiu’s private kitchen, separate from the food hall, remains fairly unoccupied due to Ming Fan seeing no reason to attend to it during Shen Qingqiu’s state. Luo Binghe sneakily takes over the space and prepares a pot of congee fresh every couple of hours for six days straight. Luo Binghe is not sure how else to express his somewhat reluctant thanks. He figures it wouldn’t hurt for Shen Qingqiu to eat something nutritious when he wakes.

Luo Binghe also warily admits to himself that this food can be his own secret and silent apology because sorry Shen Qingqiu! Luo Binghe is not going to tell you the secret cure to Without a Cure.

Goosebumps scatter across his skin at the thought as he prepares another congee batch. Yeah… Luo Binghe definitely has to keep his mouth shut.

He is confident that Shen Qingqiu and the other Peak Lords can find some way to stave off the poison’s effects for now.

When Shen Qingqiu stirs and sits up finally, Ming Fan trips over himself to check on him while Luo Binghe watches from the door, hovering after just having returned from the kitchen. He feels odd, almost a little timid. Ming Fan then rushes out to inform the other Peak Lord’s of Shen Qingqiu’s condition and Luo Binghe is left alone with his Shizun.

Shen Qingqiu beckons him inside, his demeanor slightly subdued with lingering sleep, his expression inviting. His hair is loose and his light robes are slightly rumpled. The sight of him almost feels inappropriate to Luo Binghe and he has to swallow down the lump in his throat as he approaches.

“Binghe.” He says softly, voice a bit rough from disuse.

Luo Binghe kneels politely by Shen Qingqiu’s bedside, looking up at him with a transparent stormy expression.

“Shizun.”

“You look as if you have something to say to this master.”

“...This disciple is not sure he has the words.”

Shen Qingqiu’s face falls a bit, his eyes studying Luo Binghe and his posture stiffening, as if almost nervous.

“Is Binghe by chance angry with me?”

Luo Binghe startles at the unexpected question, his eyes going wide and his fists clenching in his lap. Luo Binghe feels that strange prickling sensation again that he is somehow being seen through, like Shen Qingqiu is looking past the white sheep mask and directly at the wolf underneath. It is unnerving and just as confusing as before.

But…no, Luo Binghe isn’t angry with Shen Qingqiu. Not this Shen Qingqiu at least. Not now.

Resentment still lingers, tied to Luo Binghe’s ankles like a shadow, weighing down his ability to fully move forward. However,the hate in his heart has lost its anchor these past months, simply floating adrift somewhere within him, unable to dock itself at a harbor.

With anger gone, which emotions have started to fill in the gaps? Luo Binghe isn’t sure.

So, he shakes his head, his face aligning itself into something meticulously gentle.

“This disciple is only… displeased about his own weaknesses. Shizun protected me and is now suffering for it.” Luo Binghe says. “This disciple is not… worthy.”

There. That should be a good enough response from this white lotus, no?

“This master can promise you one thing, Binghe.” Luo Binghe listens to Shen Qingqiu, shifting his weight on his knees, feeling his palms start to sweat for reasons he is not certain. “Even if an accident befalls this master, no misfortune will ever come to you. On this matter, I speak nothing but the truth. Binghe need not worry about me, as I am content to perform my duty as your Shizun.”

Luo Binghe sucks in a shaky breath, his lungs rattling as he inhales the words and they bounce around the walls inside of him. Luo Binghe doesn’t know how to respond to that. Luo Binghe can’t respond to that.

“Is Shizun hungry?” He blurts instead, grasping for some sort of diversion. Shen Qingqiu blinks at him in surprise. Luo Binghe quickly speaks to amend the abrupt change in conversation. “Shizun has slept for many days and only just woke up. You… you should eat.”

Shen Qingqiu pauses. “Yes. I am quite hungry,” is all he says before Luo Binghe is up and rushing out the door to seek some brief reprise and fresh air.

He prepares the bowl of congee, and stalling for time, starts to assemble some other side dishes in the case that Shen Qingqiu has the stomach for it. He does a quick sweep over the kitchen and is able to find some cabbage that he douses in chili oil, garlic and soy paste to give it a better flavor. He thinks it should pair well with the pork and ginger in the congee. He portions off a small plate of pickled radish for a palette cleanser, leaving it as is.

He stares at the tray, a nervous energy still stirring in his chest.

No, no… something is missing. Something sweet! Yes! Of course.

Luo Binghe collects eggs, salt, butter and starch, beating them in a bowl till it turns into a batter consistency. He then finds some fresh sheep cream in the icebox and mangoes from the summer reserves, doing his best to be sneaky about stealing from the inventory before slinking back to the laid out ingredients.

Shen Qingqiu’s personal pantry holds some rare items that most would only see during special events and holidays. Luo Binghe is able to find raw sugar in the stocks, his eyes glittering as if he struck gold. He should really investigate what other treasures are in here some other time.

He whips the sheep milk and ground raw sugar together, placing an ice talisman against the copper bowl for a fluffier consistency to be achieved. He spreads the batter previously prepared over the iron plate on the stove, making sure it’s thin. As the pancake cooks, he slices the mango into small chunks, incorporating them into the whipped cream.

He folds the thin pancake over the dollops of filling, arranging them on the tray so that all the dishes are pleasing to the eye.

He stares down at it all for a few minutes, his heart racing in his ears.

Right. Whatever. He can do this. It’s just Shen Qingqiu.

He walks the tray back to the Bamboo House bedroom where Shen Qingqiu is still waiting for him, though this time his hair is pinned back in a simple knot and he has another layer of robes on. He greets Luo Binghe with a soft nod of the head and an almost smile, kneeling expectantly at the low table in the center of the room.

Luo Binghe places the tray down, hoping that his sweaty palms don’t leave any residue on the handles. He arranges each dish in front of Shen Qingqiu before carefully handing his Shizun a pair of chopsticks and a spoon. He has to remind himself to breathe during each movement. Why he is this shaken, he really can't tell.

He kneels on the opposite side of the table, seeking a bit of distance from his Shizun.

Something shines in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes as he observes each plate despite his face remaining fairly neutral. He begins to eat politely, taking small bites of each. He spoons the congee into his mouth, his eyes fluttering shut as he chews.

Nothing is said between them for a long while. Shen Qingqiu eats, not commenting on anything in particular at first, but leaving no speck of the congee and cabbage behind. Luo Binghe endures the silence, his fingers rubbing at the fraying threads of his robes and his clenching teeth making his jaw ache.

Then, Shen Qingqiu’s chopsticks move to the slices of mango pancake. As he tastes the first bite, something subtle and pink blooms near the high corners of his cheeks, an unconscious, pleased sound vibrating from his throat.

Luo Binghe watches. The revelation that Shen Qingqiu has a sweet tooth somehow strikes him hard. It feels...unexpected for his character.

“This is all delicious Binghe, thank you.”

“Really? Is it all to Shizun’s liking?” Luo Binghe says before he can stop himself. Why is he seeking validation?! He isn’t some teenager (technically)! He knows it’s good!

“Yes, very much so.”

“If Shizun likes it, this disciple could cook for you everyday, with variations?”

Someone needs to come and sew Luo Binghe’s mouth shut! What is he saying?! Hasn’t he used these lines before?!

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes sweep up to him at the offer, astonishment evident in his gaze. He pauses for a moment, as if turning Luo Binghe’s words over in his mind.

“Then from today onward, I’ll leave this to you.”

Luo Binghe is the only one to blame. He did this to himself.

Notes:

If this chapter feels a little rushed, it's because I wrote half of it in my notes app while in a Cheesecake Factory.

Mango Key Lime Cheesecake for the win.

Chapter 8: Respiratory Issues

Notes:

CW: depictions of a near-anxiety attack.

Ah, boiled down, my writing is just a cornucopia of characters staring at each other constantly and having irregular breathing patterns.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe excuses himself and collects the empty dishes with a quiet bow as soon as the Peak Lords Liu Qingge and Mu Qingfang along with Sect Leader Yue fall over themselves at the threshold of the Bamboo House to attend to Shen Qingqiu. He surveys the way they fret with a steady gaze, his expression impassive. This reception was just another show of how this Shen Qingqiu was being far better received by those around him; almost drawing people in like a flame beckoning moths closer.

While the Shen Qingqiu of his lifetime had a natural allure with cold gazes and a seemingly otherworldly presence, detached from what could ever be perceived as foul or lowly, this Shen Qingqiu appears more… inviting. He is still unreachable it seems, often unreadable, but it’s like some of the frost has melted from his eyes, allowing for spring’s bloom and offering a promise of warmth.

Luo Binghe feels that these days those eyes are haunting him, trying to pull him under the waves and drown him in a sense of false security. He didn’t want to trust Shen Qingqiu. He is sure that maybe he never can. And yet…

And yet…

Ah, whatever. It wasn’t important right now. Luo Binghe wants– needs to focus on other things. His youth has been handed to him on a silver platter, free from politics, wives, carnage and Xin Mo. He will continue to improve his cultivation, repay his debt to Shen Qingqiu and cook for his Shizun with little fuss. In fact, this new arrangement is a good thing for him! Anything he prepares for Shen Qingqiu, he can portion off small bits for himself.

Oh ho! If he is granted full creative freedom, the things he could make! It’s been so long since he has allowed himself to indulge in the culinary arts. Thinking about it… when was the last time he cooked for himself or anyone else back in the Demon Realm? When did he strip himself of that joy and leave the task to a handful of palace staff? It gives Luo Binghe pause, a small frown etching itself onto his features as he busies himself with the daily laundry.

When did he stop doing things that made him happy in the ways that mattered?

Luo Binghe stills at his train of thought, his hands buried in the cold and heavy weight of the wetted cloth. He blinks down at his faint, rippling reflection in the river, his youthful gaze staring right back at him. His complexion is so soft and genial at this age, no hard lines had yet carved themselves into his features. His eyes are luminous and playful, not yet stained red with the gore of the Endless Abyss. How did he manage to still look this…young? Even after all the troubles of his youth? What had kept him so hopeful back then?

He reaches between the lapels of his robes, gently retrieving the pendant around his neck to look at it. His wet hands cause the protective charm to catch a few stray droplets, looking almost as if it were crying.

He thinks of that washerwoman, his mother, and all the things she wanted him to grow up to be.

“Be good.” She had said. “If you can be anything in this world, my love, be good and be happy.”

“I will.” he had responded merrily.

He stares down at the necklace a while longer as dusk starts to blanket the sky and the river starts to run frigid. Ah, he should really wrap this up so he can hang the laundry out to dry. Hopefully, it will be ready to fold by the morning.

He quickly wrings out the wet sheets and trudges them back to one of the grass tiers where the posts and wire are positioned. He hangs each article up with care, pinning them in place and keeping his hands occupied so his mind can quiet itself for a bit.

His eyes turn up towards the dark blue of night bleeding itself over the mountain. Should he make dinner for Shen Qingqiu? The meal made was only a couple of hours ago, so he probably wouldn't be too hungry yet. Still, Luo Binghe finds his feet carrying him towards the steps to the Bamboo House once more but pauses when he hears chatter seeping through the wood from inside. He recognizes the voice belonging to Liu Qingge. The porch is littered with an assortment of gifts he assumes are from other Peak Lords expressing their condolences.

Nevermind. Maybe tomorrow.

He lights the porch lamps to chase away some of the darkness and then turns on his heels to walk himself to the woodshed.

When the yawning and empty chill of the small space greets him, he can’t help but feel a little sour. He brushes some of the dust away from the floor, folding his outer robe to use as a pillow and lays himself down on the hard surface. He stares up at the splintered ceiling, his mind drifting to the memories of that other reality.

The Luo Binghe of that world had clearly lived in the Bamboo House, his presence scattered in every corner and that cozy side room had spoken words of favoritism that he, himself, could not fathom. Would he ever be afforded that luxury in this life? Would this youth ever know the comfort of a real bed? What had that other Luo Binghe done to achieve such heights?

He can’t help but feel a little jealous as some of the cool whispers of oncoming winter seep through the cracks in the woodshed and cause him to shiver.

He pushes the feeling down, however, and simply turns on his side, willing himself to sleep.

<>

When he opens his eyes to a murky void, fog rolling around his feet and an endless horizon stretching before him, he curses violently in a sudden fit. f*cking Meng Mo! Luo Binghe can recognize your work anywhere!

Why is it always one thing right after another?!

He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose as he mulls over this situation, calming himself down slightly from his initial rage. Sent by Sha Hualing, Meng Mo surely has been able to shift through his memories at this point. He should know the truth about Luo Binghe’s identity, so long as he has been predictably diligent in his investigative work. Luo Binghe wracks his brain for ways to avoid making this situation as messy and bothersome as possible. Maybe he can negotiate with Meng Mo when that parasitic bastard reveals himself in this dreamscape.

He compartmentalizes his grievances and thinks that he should probably look for Ning Yingying before she sees anything he would rather she not. If it is anything like last time, she’ll be running around in a confused frenzy and he will have to put extra effort into calming her down before she inevitably sees the manifestations of his childhood tragedies.

He doesn’t know how long he wanders around the bleak landscape, but when he eventually sees a flash of green and white in his peripheral vision, he heaves a sigh of relief. He trudges towards Ning Yingying, ready to call out her name.

That is, until the figure starts to loom far taller the closer he gets, long hair cascading like ink down a page instead of tied up in two buns, piercing eyes trained on him instead of soft doe ones.

“Shen Qingqiu?!”

Those eyes immediately turn fierce. “Excuse me?”

“Ah, Shizun!” He hastily corrects, the hairs on the nape of his neck standing on end. “What are you doing here?”

Shen Qingqiu gives him a look, his brows pinched for a moment before they flatten out and he fans himself leisurely. “This is Binghe’s dream realm. It seems that this master has somehow been dragged in with you.” He responds, voice even and cool.

What the hell is with this turn of events?! Is there some higher power trying to mess with Luo Binghe?!

“Many apologies to Shizun for the inconvenience.” Luo Binghe says, bowing. Shen Qingqiu lightly taps his fan against the back of Luo Binghe’s head in mild reprimand.

“There is no need for that. For now, we should focus on figuring out why this realm has been tampered with. The borders of this reality are rippling with demonic qi.”

“Shizun is as observant as always. Demons are truly despicable” He responds through his teeth, hiding his clouded expression behind the curtain of his hair. Shen Qingqiu being here complicates things even more now. He is going to have to be extra wary about what Meng Mo constructs in this realm.

“Not necessarily.” Shen Qingqiu’s words break through the storm of his thoughts, Luo Binghe’s head snapping up in bewilderment. Shen Qingqiu’s gaze is steady, his mouth stretching into a slight smile as his voice comes off almost teasing. “The intentions of demons may not always be despicable.”

Luo Binghe has no response to that, so he stands there blinking owlishly. Shen Qingqiu then motions for them to keep moving and he follows along like a lost chic trailing after a hen. Are Shen Qingqiu’s views on demons different in this life? The idea rattles Luo Binghe.

“This dream realm is rather complicated.” Shen Qingqiu continues. “An ordinary nightmare technique couldn’t trap me. I can dispel those with a mere thought. But this dream realm was truly meticulously constructed. I’m afraid that until the core of the illusion is destroyed, no one will be able to leave.”

Luo Binghe simply nods, humming in agreement. Shen Qingqiu eyes him curiously from where he walks beside him, almost as if he anticipates further questioning. Luo Binghe doesn’t notice, his thoughts swirling with anxious predictions about what might manifest in their path. If anything from his previous life is revealed to his Shizun, his position as a disciple at Qing Jing Peak could be threatened.

f*cking Meng Mo. f*cking Sha Hualing. Perhaps he ought to eliminate both factors completely; tear his hands into their souls and squeeze at the center till it pops like a berry and scatters. He had his personal peace to maintain after all.

“Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu attempts to bring Luo Binghe’s attention back to the present, most likely misinterpreting his troubled expression. “Demons who manipulate dream realms often target the weaknesses of the human heart. You must be vigilant and on your guard.”

Luo Binghe simply nods, his lips twitching in a poorly concealed frown. “Of course. This disciple won’t allow Shizun to be bothered by such things again.”

“This isn’t about me.” Shen Qingqiu chides.

Luo Binghe grunts dismissively and continues forward as they reach the border of the dream, city gates starting to wobble into existence and open invitingly for the pair. Luo Binghe recognizes it as his childhood city, just as before, and pushes through without stopping to comment, wishing to get this over with as fast as possible as he curses out that useless dream demon like a mantra in his head.

Shen Qingqiu scrambles to keep up with Luo Binghe’s stride, his face pinching at the corners in subtle turmoil as he observes his disciples' unexpected behavior.

As they traverse the city streets, they walk straight past a scene of a child being beaten in an alley that Luo Binghe pointedly ignores. Shen Qingqiu’s attention becomes torn between watching the display while also trying to stick close to his student.

“Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu calls, his voice grating on the edge of irritation. “Binghe, stop. Slow down.”

“Shizun need not worry about the details of this disciples' past.” Luo Binghe says frigidly, voice traveling over his shoulder as he meticulously scans for the weakness in the border, eyes trying to pin down the faintest waver in the illusion. The faceless crowd grows in numbers around him, bumping into him as they pass. Luo Binghe grits his teeth in annoyance, pushing through until he eventually starts violently shoving the puppets aside.

“Binghe!”

The street seems to narrow the further he walks, the buildings almost collapsing and hanging over him like a pinching chasm. The number of people feels as if it's doubling with each cursory moment, the crowd thickening like paper being folded repeatedly in on itself. Their faceless dispositions all seem to be staring at him as he passes. It becomes suffocating the more he pushes through, his gaze shooting around wildly for an exit.

He detects a strong pulse of energy coming from what looks like a small shop down the street and surges for it.

“Binghe!”

He slams through the crooked wooden door, knocking it off its hinges slightly and is hit with a wave of nauseating vertigo as the image warps around him, causing him to trip over a small figure curled up below him. He curses as he thumps hard against the ground, shooting a sneer at the offending presence only to be met with his own image.

Specifically, the image of a younger him, sobbing in a ball on the floor at the foot of his mother's death bed.

“Luo Binghe!”

Something tugs at his arm, pulling him back to his feet and his gaze snaps to where Shen Qingqiu is next to him, steadying Luo Binghe in his hold.

“Luo Binghe, you need to calm down! What has gotten into you all of a sudden?” His Shizun’s voice this close slaps him across the face, bringing an instant sense of clarity. He realizes his eyes are burning, his vision blurred at the edges and his breathing ragged. He refuses to look at the bed, keeping his eyes trained a bit frantically on Shen Qingqiu.

Why did he have to go through all this again? How was any of it fair?

“Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice softens, grip loosening in order for both his hands to travel up to Luo Binghe’s shoulders, grounding him. “Look at me. Breathe.”

Shen Qingqiu makes a show of gently inhaling and Luo Binghe tries to mirror the motion, his lungs rattling. They both exhale together and repeat the steps a couple more times. Each breath brings a little piece of Luo Binghe back to himself and he tucks his shaking hands behind him, shame starting to creep up the back of his neck and pool heatedly in his ears.

“Shizun…”

“You’re alright. It’s only an illusion.”

“I know.”

“Fight it.”

Luo Binghe closes his eyes tightly, continuing to breathe as steadily as he can manage. He focuses on the weight of Shen Qingqiu’s hands and roots himself in the sensation.

He wonders once more if being thrown back into his teenage body has somehow reverted some of his emotional state and control on his psyche. How could he let himself get thrown so off balance? Even if it was only for a moment, that small flare-up of childish helplessness had felt so frighteningly familiar to him that he had almost lost control, even when he knows better.

Luo Binghe doesn’t let the insecurity eat away at him though. He just wants this to be over, so he swallows it down and centers himself. He concentrates on his circulating spiritual energy and the warmth of Shen Qingqiu.

The dreamscape finally shatters around him, falling in shards and bursting into fine powder as it hits the ground. Luo Binghe's eyes reopen, finding them both bathed in a dark blue abyss. When his gaze meets his Shizun’s, something in his chest stutters as he finds that those fierce eyes haven’t left him for even a moment.

Shen Qingqiu seems to assess Luo Binghe and whatever he finds seems to satisfy him because he nods simply and then pulls away, fixing his posture.

Meng Mo emerges from the inky horizon, his form is only half-shaped, the rest blending into the surrounding darkness. The coy demeanor that Luo Binghe remembers from before is glaringly absent.

Luo Binghe’s expression darkens upon sensing the dream demon, his mouth twisting in a sneer.

“Release Shizun from this dream.” He says, flashing his teeth as he speaks.

All it takes is a wave of a hand and Shen Qingqiu collapses, not even being granted to say anything in protest. Luo Binghe catches him and slowly lowers him to the ground. As soon as Luo Binghe is relieved of his Shizun’s presence, he sighs heavily, reaching a hand up to massage his temples in irritation. A long silence stretches between Meng Mo and him, the air tense.

“My Lord–”

“Oh good, so you know your place.” Luo Binghe snaps, his voice sharp and low, not even bothering to look up as he runs his fingers across his pinched brow. “How about you act like it.”

“...My Lord, this lowly one only seeks the same privileges granted in your previous life.” Meng Mo states, keeping his tone even and pointedly respectful. Luo Binghe runs his hands down his face, his eyes rolling up in irk.

“I see no reason to.” He derides. “I am already well versed in your technique and have mastered it beyond you. My abilities will be reborn in time so, pray tell, what use could I possibly have for a parasitic creature like you?”

The energy around Meng Mo’s smokey form seems to quiver, the desperation to survive is tangible enough in the air that Luo Binghe can taste it.

“This lowly one can aid in suppressing My Lord’s demonic energy during his youth–” Meng Mo attempts to provide but Luo Binghe cuts him off completely.

“You doubt that I already possess that capability?”

“No! My Lord I only–”

“Oh? No more of ‘this lowly one’ now?” A rayless smile stretches over Luo Binghe’s features and the nervous energy permeating the surrounding abyss surges like a sweltering heat.

“This lowly one only wishes to aid in My Lord’s ambitions in achieving a more fulfilling life! My Lord wants to hide his demonic heritage in order to reside peacefully on the Peak, but does My Lord have confidence that his seal won’t break in front of his Shifu once more?” Meng Mo rushes, the metaphorical shovel almost visible in his nonexistent hands as he digs his own grave.

Luo Binghe barks a sharp laugh and then suddenly his face falls flat, his eyes dull and bitter.

“You’ve exhausted me enough.”

He reaches forward with breakneck speed, transferring the entire reserve of his spiritual energy into his palm and pushes through the heavy mist. His fingers find that faint, hidden core in an instant, Meng Mo’s soul essence clenched tightly in his palm. The dream demon barely has enough time to screech before Luo Binghe squeezes hard enough that it bursts into a smokey black heap of gore.

<>

Luo Binghe wakes instantly and stares at the dark, dusty expanse of the woodshed ceiling.

Well, he supposes that’s one way of settling that issue.

Did he let his temper get the best of him just now? It is possible…

...

He should probably check on Shen Qingqiu.

He takes the time to pat down his robes and fix his sleep disheveled hair before leaving the shed. The night still hangs heavy over the mountain as Luo Binghe uses the moonlight to illuminate his path up to the Bamboo House, the crisp air sending a chill over his skin. He makes his way up the steps and knocks lightly on the door.

“Shizun?”

There is no response but he knows that Shen Qingqiu is awake.

“Shizun, may this disciple come in?”

He hears a heavy sigh followed by a low sound of approval. Luo Binghe slides the door open and bows through the threshold before entering. He shuffles politely into Shen Qingqiu’s sleeping quarters where he is sitting up on the bed, forehead resting against his palm and shoulders tense. Luo Binghe senses an air of stress around his Shizun, so he proceeds cautiously, lighting a candle on the low table and moving to kneel beside it.

When Shen Qingqiu finally raises his head, there is something about his mannerisms that seems to feign confidence, the muscles of his face taunt as if he is trying to actively not flinch when he looks at Luo Binghe. It would have been barely noticeable if Luo Binghe wasn’t studying him so closely.

“Shizun, how are you? Do you feel the least bit unwell?” He purposefully keeps his voice meek, as if trying not to scare away a bristling cat.

Shen Qingqiu averts his gaze, something unpleasant in his expression.

“Everything is well with this master.”

Luo Binghe feels that familiar and old stir of anxiety that only Shen Qingqiu can bring about in him. He doesn’t know where it starts, but it inflates like a balloon, filling his stomach with something sickeningly acidic.

Shen Qingqiu moves to stand from his bed and retrieves another layer of robes for himself before continuing to speak. “Did that Meng Mo trouble you further afterward?”

Luo Binghe only faintly registers that Shen Qingqiu is aware of the demon’s name, his ears too filled with the sound of his rushing blood as he turns his gaze downwards.

“No, Shizun. This disciple was expelled from the dream realm after a short while.” He responds. “Shizun, did you encounter anything unpleasant after the demon casted you out?”

Shen Qingqiu huffed out an affronted sound. “Even if I did encounter something, could this master not handle it?”

Luo Binghe only hangs his head a bit lower. “Then this disciple will not disturb Shizun any longer.” He decidedly says, shifting from his position to stand again. He hastily attempts to make his way to the door before another sigh reverbarates through the room and slender, warm fingers wrap around Luo Binghe’s wrist, causing a distinct shiver to rush up his spine.

“Being attacked by a demon is no joke.” Shen Qingqiu says firmly, tugging Luo Binghe gently back towards him. “This master will examine you for a moment. We cannot be negligent.”

Luo Binghe hesitates before eventually nodding slowly, turning fully back to his Shizun and allowing his wrists to sit in that steady grasp. Shen Qingqiu’s spiritual energy is refreshing in nature, like the waters from a spring that wash away filth, relax the muscles and still the mind. It makes something inside Luo Binghe sing, giving a voice to something normally quiet.

In the silence of Shen Qingqiu’s examination, Luo Binghe thinks back on Meng Mo’s last words, that acidic discomfort finally making its way up from his stomach and spilling over his tongue, seeking to be purged.

“Does Shizun believe that demons are wicked beyond redemption? That every last one should be exterminated?” He asks. If this is the Shen Qingqiu he once knew in his first lifetime, the answer will be quick and resolute.

Only this Shen Qingqiu pauses, as if digesting the question, and then answers in such a mellow tone, Luo Binghe almost believes he imagines the words. “Humans can be good or bad, so naturally demons too can be good or evil. Don’t put too much weight on race.”

The response seems to brand itself against Luo Binghe’s heart, burning and scarring the flesh, never to be forgotten. His vision blurs, but he quickly blinks it away, swallowing the thick emotions piling in his throat. Shen Qingqiu looks as if he has more to say, but Luo Binghe is not certain he can bear to hear any more.

“Has Shizun detected any abnormalities?” He asks, redirecting the conversation, his gaze trained on where his Shizun’s fingers completely envelope his thin arms. Shen Qingqiu shakes his head at the prompting, letting his hands fall away.

“Binghe seems to be in good health, but this master would still encourage you to visit Qian Cao Peak tomorrow to make sure.”

“Yes, Shizun. Am I excused?”

“...You are.”

Luo Binghe turns on his heel to walk out, in dire need of some space and meditation, when Shen Qinqqiu’s voice unexpectedly calls out to him again.

“Come back.”

Goosebumps scatter across Luo Binghe’s skin in a fresh new wave. Mercy Shizun! Please!

“Does Shizun have any other instructions?” Luo Binghe questions a bit warily, turning back around.

Shen Qingqiu seems to choose his next words carefully, his expression softening a bit, the hard lines of lingering stress seeming to dissolve in the warmth of a kinder disposition. “Tomorrow, pack your things and come here,” He says. “There’s a side room in the Bamboo House. Starting tomorrow, you can move in there.”

Luo Binghe's heart lurches so hard and fast in his chest that he almost tips over from the force.

The hand that he had secretly been longing for is outstretched to him, offering what he wanted as he lay torn and desolate on his bedroom floor not so long ago. As he ached for a different fate, a gentle guidance, a kinder Shizun, something out there had listened and granted him this opportunity to choose.

But...what is he supposed to do with what he is feeling now? It is all too messy, too confusing. He has never met such emotions before and their residence inside his heart is taking up so much space that it is causing spillage in his guts, flooding every part of him.

Shen Qingqiu absorbs Luo Binghe’s silent response and seems to come to his own conclusions about it. He reaches forward, and before Luo Binghe even has the chance to guess what he is about to do, Shen Qingqiu gently brushes his hand through the hair on the crown of Luo Binghe’s head, petting him.

Luo Binghe goes completely wooden under the touch, staring up at Shen Qingqiu with wide eyes, his mind wiped completely blank from shock.

“You don’t need to think too hard about it. Binghe can do whatever it is that he pleases.”

And then something happens that Luo Binghe hasn’t felt for years. Heat starts to crawl up his neck, filling his ears and pooling in his cheeks. He can’t breathe all of a sudden and his heart rate sounds like it’s echoing around the room. A wet pressure builds behind his eyes and the feeling only gets worse as he realizes what is happening.

He’s blushing. The heat in his face burns hotter as the embarrassment of his own reaction stacks on top of it all.

And it won’t go away! Luo Binghe curses every deity he knows, alarm bells ringing in his ears. Shen Qingqiu only smiles tenderly at him, running his fingers through Luo Binghe’s hair and all he can do is take it. He tries to breathe, tries to ground himself by wiping down his sweaty palms on his robe but nothing helps and Luo Binghe kind of just wants to die. This is terrible, the absolute worst.

But he can’t find it in his strength to pull away and begins to concede to the fact that he may not be as strong as he once thought he was. It feels…nice. He shuts his eyes to try to escape Shen Qingqiu’s pleasant gaze and as he curls in on himself to hide a bit better, he succeeds in only pressing against the hand, as if subconsciously asking for more.

Luo Binghe is still not certain he can trust this man. He really, really isn’t. But his mouth forms the words “Thank you, Shizun,” before he can stop himself, blatantly ignoring the emotional waver in his own voice.

Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe Luo Binghe can do more than tolerate Shen Qingqiu going forward.

Maybe. Probably.

Most likely.

Notes:

Sorry Elder Meng Mo, you've been uninvited from the plot, ah! This humble author was just feeling a little silly... and lazy.

Could our darling Binghe really have disposed of Meng Mo with the power of his early disciple years? Debatable... but he is the protagonist and this is Airplane-bro's world, not mine, so don't read too much into it.

Cheers to upcoming canon divergence! Up next: How to Woo a Black Lotus Binghe Arc!

Chapter 9: First Snow

Notes:

Here is a short filler chapter while I work on the rest of the outline for this fic.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe spends the better part of the early morning in a daze. After leaving the clutches of that suffocating moment with Shen Qingqiu, he gathers what little belongings he has: his outer robe, an empty clay bottle that carries the lingering scent of plum and a cultivation manual. He hovers in the threshold of the woodshed as the dusty expanse bids him a silent farewell.

He finds himself folding his hands and bowing respectfully to the space before sliding the door shut resolutely.

The dawn yawns with a dewy pink light over the mountain as he walks himself back to the Bamboo House, mulling over everything that could possibly come next. He discovers a sense of equal parts unease and thrill as the unpredictability of his future becomes clear. He pauses momentarily on the steps leading up to the quaint building that he could very well come to soon consider a home; a place for both his woes and joys to lay their heads at the end of each day.

He clutches his belongings to his chest, takes a deep, wobbling breath and steels himself.

When he enters the Bamboo House’s main foyer, he hears the drifting voices of Shen Qingqiu and Ming Fan float from his Shizun’s room, most likely conversing about weekly progress reports. Luo Binghe proceeds with polite quietness as he makes his way into the side room.

Pushing the door open, he is met with a sluggish draft of stuffy air. The room is intended to be occupied by the head disciple under the Qing Jing Peak Lord, but Shen Qingqiu, up until this point, had detested the concept of living in close quarters with any of his students. This being so, Ming Fan, during his four years of senior appointment, had been explicitly instructed to reside in the dorms, leaving the room to grow stale from disuse.

Luo Binghe places his small pile of things on the calligraphy desk by the window, brushing away some of the dust and sliding the papyrus panel open to let in some fresh air. He busies himself with wiping down each surface until the space starts to breathe with new signs of life. He fluffs out the folded sheets left at the end of the bed, properly draping the mattress and counting the blankets he would have for the winter months.

He puts his cultivation manual on the empty shelf above the desk along with the clay bottle. He stares at the slot and imagines it filled with the possibilities of other scripts and mementos. The thought stirs something pleasant and hopeful in him. He turns back to observe the room once more as a whole, the morning sun spilling through to wash the space clean of remaining desolation.

He stands there for a good long while, simply planting his roots and absorbing the image. This space is his now. The woodshed has been left behind not by something he had to build with his own hands, but by something gifted to him instead.

A bed, food, kindness, guidance, freedom,…purpose. These are the things that the Shen Qingqiu of this life was giving him.

He feels the last threads of resentment that had long stitched his broken heart together start to unravel bit by bit. These emotions are, however, still complicated. Some things persist in haunting him; wrongs that can never be righted. Yet Luo Binghe can say honestly that, at least just for right now, he feels… not so bad.

There is a sound of footsteps behind him and he turns from his position to look out into the hall.

Ming Fan and Luo Binghe stare at each other in stiff silence for a few beats, both of their expressions skillfully neutral.

Then, a dark and familiar satisfaction swirls in Luo Binghe, a sly, cat-cream smile stretching over his face as Ming Fan’s own features start to fall with realization and blooming horror.

“Heh.”

Ming Fan bristles. “You…!”

“Ming Fan, make sure those reports reach Qiong Ding Peak before the day’s end.” Shen Qingqiu interrupts sharply from down the corridor. Ming Fan’s tongue stuffs itself back in his throat and his face turns purple from choking on it, his eyes wide and bloodshot. He takes a moment to stand there and stare at Luo Binghe a bit longer in trepidation, fists clenched and trembling at his sides until he finally lets out a long and slow breath, face scrunching in reluctant acceptance. Luo Binghe watches, entertained, as Ming Fan’s soul leaves his body.

“Yes, Shizun.” Ming Fan replies depressingly before leaving the Bamboo House, not sparing Luo Binghe another glance.

Not so bad? Nevermind! Luo Binghe feels downright delighted.

<>

Luo Binghe makes his way into the private kitchen, excitement buzzing under his fingertips as they wriggle in glee the more his eyes scan over the new territory. He retrieves a small scroll and some pre-ground ink, ready to catalog everything this cornucopia has to offer.

He eagerly rummages through the pantry and ice box. Rice, spices, sugars, herbs, eggs, meats, milk, beans, fruits, vegetables and mushrooms! Whoever is in charge of procuring these ingredients, Luo Binghe would like to offer you three kowtows! It is all such a wonderful display full of color and possibility. His mind floods with ideas, mumbling to himself as he considers the oven capacity and other available tools. Surely Shen Qingqiu won’t protest to him experimenting a bit?

Luo Binghe lights the stove and first busies himself with a simple pot of congee, preparing it this time with leek and beef, letting the simple flavors simmer together as he attends to additional projects. He uses the center table to pour out a mound of rice flour in a bowl, creating a well in the middle and filling it with a watered-down milk and fat mixture. He starts to fold the flour into the well repeatedly until it mixes and takes on a sticky dough texture. He sections off small pinches of the dough, rolling it between his palms until they become glutinous little pearls that he steams on the second stove plate. He douses the finished product in a combination of honey and chili oil, finalizing them with a crust of sesame seeds.

He moves on to chopping up some winter melon and combines it with coconut shavings that were left over from festival reserves. The knowledge that the mountain received exports from the south almost makes Luo Binghe squeal. He tosses the clumps together, making them stick with cream and sugar then pours it over the leftover rice flour cooking on a third pan. After preparing this filling, he flattens it out into small patties that are encased in an oil dough and then baked in the oven with a coat of egg wash.

He plates each dish and then finishes the ensemble with some peeled persimmon slices, observing the tray with pride.

Ah, but what about the drink? Luo Binghe’s eyes scan the kitchen, pondering if tea or juice would be preferred by Shen Qingqiu so early in the morning when he suddenly spots a barrel tucked away under one of the counters, hidden by a stack of firewood.

Wanting to make himself well acquainted with all available materials, he manages to squirm it out after removing some of the blockage. It’s a little heavy, and Luo Binghe feels something slosh around inside. When he opens the wood top and peers in, he’s met with the sight of a dark liquid and sweet scent.

It is a barrel of plum juice that has yet to be fermented, hidden from view after obviously being swiped from the Peak’s apothecary storage.

Luo Binghe pieces the puzzle together in an instant. His Shizun, that aloof immortal with a poorly hidden sweet tooth, has been stealing plum juice from the Qing Jing Peak’s inventory before it is transported and transformed into medicines and wines.

He thinks of the small, corked bottle sitting on his shelf, already long empty.

Shen Qingqiu is kind in such oddly quiet ways.

Luo Binghe crouches there for a private moment, arms wrapped around the barrel, holding it close as he hides a small smile against the smoothed grain of the wood.

<>

“Shizun, this disciple has brought you breakfast.”

Luo Binghe knocks softly at the threshold of the Bamboo House bedroom where Shen Qingqiu sits at his desk, brow pinched as he studies the manuscript in front of him. Upon hearing Luo Binghe’s voice, his expression evens out, eyes bright and expectant as he looks up. He moves to stand, setting the scroll aside.

They both shuffle to the low table where Luo Binghe sets out each dish in front of his Shizun with care. He moves to sit on the opposite side of the table again to maintain a respectful distance as Shen Qingqiu eats.

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes glitter through his impassive features as he takes in the display. His gaze lingers on the winter melon cakes, boring into the pastries with a sudden rapt interest, some unknown emotion making the corner of his mouth twitch and brows furrow slightly.

Luo Binghe interprets this behavior as Shen Qingqiu attempting to not appear excitable about the sweets on the table.

“Binghe continues to impress.”

The praise sends an electric buzz across Luo Binghe’s skin from his head to his toes.

“Please enjoy, Shizun.” He replies simply, letting a grin stretch on his face that he finds to be surprisingly mostly genuine. They kneel there in a simple silence as Shen Qingqiu eats, his lashes fluttering gently each time the taste pleases him, a warm dust of color glowing on his jade complexion.

The food is cleared fairly quickly, all except for one winter melon cake. A small whisper of insecurity and agitation flares up in Luo Binghe. Did he miscalculate the portion or the quality? Was two pastries too much? Was it not to Shizun’s liking?

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu calls, reclaiming Luo Binghe’s attention. “Come.”

Luo Binghe blinks for a moment in brief confusion, before moving to kneel closer to his Shizun.

Shen Qingqiu picks up the last winter melon cake with his chopsticks and presents it to Luo Binghe who only sits there a bit dumbly. Shen Qingqiu lets out a small huff of exasperation and presses the pastry closer to his disciple until Luo Binghe has enough sense to take it between his fingers.

There is an awkward silence that follows the exchange with Luo Binghe staring down at the offering in his hand and Shen Qingqiu pointedly choosing to look out the window.

“Next time, prepare enough food for two.” Shen Qingqiu finally manages to say. “This master thinks that his disciple is still far too thin. How are you supposed to represent Qing Jing Peak in such a state?”

Luo Binghe doesn’t allow himself to think too hard about the gesture and only nods his head, moving to take a small bite out of the sweet pastry.

“Yes, Shizun.”

<>

Luo Binghe becomes responsible for the majority of Shen Qingqiu’s daily needs.

The days pass quickly, filled with quiet moments of them sharing experimental meals and exchanging polite conversation. His Shizun seems to be particularly interested in his developing cultivation skills, taking their mealtimes to persistently remind Luo Binghe to be extra diligent if he wishes to stand out among his peers. Luo Binghe receives the words easily, nodding politely and assuring Shen Qingqiu of his efforts.

He attends lectures and still practices in private deep in the bamboo grove by the river. During the minutes in between, he’s attending to the state of the Bamboo House; dusting shelves, organizing manuscripts and picking up after his Shizun who appears a bit graceless when it comes to how he handles his living space.

Something about seeing Shen Qingqiu’s bedroom in varying states of disarray as the days pass makes him feel more human to Luo Binghe.

He performs his chores quite contentedly.

On the day of the first snowfall, he finds Shen Qingqiu staring out the doors of the Bamboo House, both pulled wide open and letting the cold air bleed in as he sits in the threshold. Luo Binghe doesn’t question it and simply goes to prepare a pot of tea. Ming Fan stopped being responsible for such things a while ago.

Luo Binghe moves to kneel beside his Shizun on the mats of the foyer, offering him a porcelain cup. The gesture snaps Shen Qingqiu out of some trance and he accepts, holding it steadily, as there is no table before them, so that Luo Binghe can delicately pour the jasmine tea. Contrasting with the cold air, the steam from the cup billows extravagantly around them, rising in swirls and kissing Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks. The heat and scent relax something pulled taunt in Shen Qingqiu’s features.

“Luo Binghe: icy river.” Shen Qingqiu voices passively as if his idle thoughts are seeping out against his better judgment. “This master assumes that my disciple was born in a winter much like this.”

“Shizun would be correct.” Luo Binghe responds easily, pouring himself a cup.

“Does Binghe know his birthday?”

Luo Binghe pauses at this, shooting a look of mild surprise towards his Shizun at such a question. He then turns his gaze back out towards the snow, pursing his lips in reminiscence.

“This disciple's mother used to say she found him on the twenty-first day under the twelfth moon. Whether I was truly born that day is unknown, but I would consider it the beginning of my life.” He says, a bit solemn.

Shen Qingqiu pauses mid-sip, his brow furrowing. The look he then gives Luo Binghe is somewhat ashen.

“Binghe, that’s today.”

Luo Binghe suppresses his humor.

“Yes, Shizun.”

“Hm,” Shen Qingqiu’s lips pull in a thin line as he studies his disciple’s subtly playful gaze. “I see.”

Another silence stretches between them as they provide an audience for the snowfall. Luo Binghe drinks his tea and focuses on the occasional falling flake, watching as it drifts and blends with the others on the ground, all knitting a blanket of white across the mountain. He feels relaxed despite the chill against his skin as the wind blows in.

Far teal-blue mountains and the sun’s last glow; In this chill heaven, a poor white-wood hut…” Shen Qingqiu’s voice rings clear against the weather.

You hear a dog bark at the wicker gate– at night a man comes home in wind and snow.” Luo Binghe finishes easily.

Shen Qingqiu grins affectionately, raising his hand to pet the crown of Luo Binghe’s head.

“Good job.” He praises softly. “This master promises to remember this day next year.”

Luo Binghe smiles secretly into his cup, heat pooling in his face and the strings of his heart thrumming a pleasant tune.

Notes:

Author tip: Those winter melon-coconut pastries that Luo Binghe had made on a whim? Yeah… those were Lao Po Bing, aka Wife Cakes. Though not the exact traditional recipe, they were a pretty close imitation. He didn't mean anything by it.

… Shen Qingqiu just had to take a moment to convince himself it was a harmless mistake. Haha!

Poem: “Staying on a Night of Wind and Snow with the Host of Hibiscus Mountain, Liu Changqing” - Cui Hao 704-754 (First of Two Songs of Chang Gan)

Coming soon: Festival Episode!

Chapter 10: New Year

Notes:

I’ve gone back and made some edits to the previous chapters; fixing some errors and filling one or two gaps. Nothing major, but just letting it be known!

I would also like to preface that I have never officially participated in Chinese New Year’s festivities, so my knowledge is limited. I kept things pretty vague in this world for this reason. Ah, what matters is that it's a plot device, no?

CW: (modern) underage drinking

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe has bad days. Some are worse than others.

There are mornings when the sight of Shen Qingqiu’s face across the breakfast table agitates him as if his mind can’t distinguish the different versions of the man that he has encountered across these two lifetimes. The images of the past and the present blur and Luo Binghe finds himself wanting to reach forward with the urge to crush Shen Qingqiu’s windpipe under his palm. On such days, Luo Binghe goes out of his way to avoid his Shizun, clearing the plates quickly and spending the day tucked away on the mountain to clear his mind and only returning to the Bamboo House late at night.

It feels paradoxical. He balances on a tightrope of emotions, sometimes swaying towards contentedness and other times towards resentment. He was used to lashing out in his previous life whenever he felt so discomposed, uncaring of the fallout and anyone affected. Now, he has to be careful and evasion finds itself being the most efficient tactic despite how childish it feels sometimes.

There had been one instance where Shen Qingqiu had confronted him about it, berating Luo Binghe for not only missing meals but also skipping lectures. Binghe stood there with a twisted frown, looking up at him with a simmering gaze as familiar instinctual sentiments of hate, hate, hate had made his mouth taste sour the more Shen Qingqiu’s voice rose in exasperation.

Shen Qingqiu must have seen something in Luo Binghe’s expression because his words died all at once halfway through his spiel. He had then sighed, reaching up to rub at his temples, but the raise of his hand had made Luo Binghe react.

He immediately took a step back, eyes wide and shoulders stiff, stance defensive. He had, in that moment of unrest, anticipated that Shen Qingqiu might hit him.

The emotion that flashed in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes almost looked like heartbreak, but Luo Binghe didn’t let himself trust what he saw.

They didn’t speak for the rest of the day and Luo Binghe volunteered for a junior night hunt with some of the disciples from Bai Zhan Peak. After three days away, Luo Binghe returned and they both pretended as if nothing happened.

The mountains are now bathed in the depths of a white winter and every disciple of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect buzzes with excitement about the upcoming New Year’s Festival. Each peak would be responsible for its own stalls and activities, the main venue being designated at Qiong Ding.

“This master supposes that Binghe will be signing up for one of the food events?” Shen Qingqiu says as he reads over some of the available task options on the invitation scroll. Luo Binghe shakes his head as he lugs a basket of coal into the entrance hall for the fire pit, busing himself with renewing the heat in the floors of the main room.

“This disciple doesn’t enjoy having to cook in bulk. It takes some of the enjoyment out of it.” He replies conversationally. “I would much rather try something new. Does Shizun have any ideas?”

Shen Qingqiu watches him from where he sits at his desk, a strange, subtle expression of fondness melting his features; an expression that is becoming less and less rare these days. “It is always interesting when this master learns something new about his disciple.” He comments, then turns back to the scroll, scanning some of the suggestions. “How about Lion Dancing?”

Luo Binghe grimaces. “Ah… that is a very trust -based activity. I don’t think my current relationship with my peakmates would bode well in that setting.” He says honestly as he wipes his soot-dusted fingers on a spare rag.

“Are Bai Zhan’s disciples still bothering you?” Shen Qingqiu asks with a furrowed brow, lips curled in a small sneer.

“No, not really. I can handle them now.” Luo Binghe replies easily, his eyes shining as they turn to hold Shen Qingqiu’s gaze.

“Good. Bully them.”

“Yes, Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu nods in approval and throws out a couple of more suggestions until they decide that Luo Binghe will just partake in the decoration and pyrotechnics committee.

“Be sure not to light anything on fire. I don’t want to have to pay for any damages.”

“...”

“Binghe.”

“Yes, Shizun.”

“Is that the only thing you know how to say to this master?”

Luo Binghe pinches his lips to conceal his humored grin. “Yes, Shizun.”

Some days, he finds, are better than others.

<>

Luo Binghe can admit that he is somewhat looking forward to the festivities. Being Junshang in the past had prevented him from participating in the majority of traditional human realm activities. War… got in the way of a lot.

But things are different now! His second chance at life is showing real promise.

On New Year’s Full Moon, Luo Binghe excuses himself from the Bamboo House early, leaving a prepared tray of pork belly congee with a side of two soft-boiled eggs, peeled apple slices and almond cookies for Shen Qingqiu to wake up to. He packs himself a small breakfast and hurries across the rainbow bridge to Qiong Ding Peak to meet with the rest of the decorations committee.

Over the past few days, Luo Binghe had spent his time assembling red lanterns and meticulously cutting out and stringing garlands. His fingers ached from the repetitive cutting, glueing and weaving motions, but he found respite in such mundane tasks.

He appreciates the art of setting time aside to indulge in the little things he wasn’t allowed before, even in the sense of common labor. Many in the world take the rarity of quiet moments for granted. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice.

Upon his arrival to Qiong Ding, he and some of the other designated disciples occupy themselves with pinning up the lanterns between the assembled booths in the main courtyard as well as displaying knot pendants and painting talismans. Slowly, the space comes to life as other Peak members flood in, preparing their respective booths and already indulging in the early revs of celebration.

Luo Binghe keeps to himself mostly. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to join in on the festivities, but he finds he doesn’t really know how to. An unfamiliar sense of awkwardness flutters around him as he observes from the sidelines, trying to make himself seem busy as he tidies up an area or two or makes an impulsive spare talisman or twenty. He gives the occasional greeting to those who pass, smiling politely with a bow and wishing them well in the new year. Most of the decorations committee disperses by mid-day as the crowds increase and music begins to reverberate in the mountain air.

He had been the center of attention for so long in the Demon Realm that it feels jarring to now be passed by so many who barely spare him a glance as the gathering bustles. He doesn’t mind, he just doesn’t really know what to do with himself. He supposes he could try a couple of the food stalls or watch some performers or partake in a few booth games, but whenever he approaches an activity of interest, he sees the smiling faces of the people around him and their boisterous energy pulsing off them in waves.

It makes him hesitate, feeling suddenly wildly out of place. He feels like he doesn’t belong.

He decides to shuffle off towards the upper terrace instead, where the firework station has been set up and simply waits for the sky to darken. He sits on the stone gate and watches the lively proceedings from afar, his expression wistful.

The full moon shines bright as it rises, washing the mountain in blue which makes the warm glow of the lanterns more stunning. Those in charge of fireworks bound happily up the mountain where Luo Binghe is already preparing the arrangement and he gets a couple of complimentary slaps on his back for his hard work. Luo Binghe expects that is about as close to festive comradery as he will get tonight.

The drums echo and Luo Binghe works to set off each rocket in time. He crouches as he ignites each detonator, viewing as the sky glitters with color. There are cheers all around, from the working disciples next to him, to the crowd below.

For a moment, his mind conjures the memory of the screams that came from these same people as he burned Cang Qiong Mountain Sect to the ground. He and his forces had slaughtered over half of the population, choosing to imprison or auction off the rest of the survivors to the different inhabitants of the Demon Realm. His grudge had run bone deep back then as he devoured the twelve mountain peaks whole- as he dragged Shen Qingqiu’s body to the Water Prison and delighted in the fresh scent of blood.

He observes the happy atmosphere below him and realizes that he has already had his revenge once and has no interest in enacting it a second time.

Another slap to the back breaks him out of his thoughts.

“Luo-shidi!” A disciple next to him beams. Luo Binghe observes the boy donning the familiar green and white of Qing Jing but doesn’t personally recognize him. “Join us for a drink to celebrate the New Year. You’ve done well.” Luo Binghe notices then that the pyrotechnics team is starting to filter out as the light show comes to an end.

The disciple must sense his brief startle as hesitance because he chuckles something hardy, hands on his hips and offers “This Hong-shixiong will treat you, no worries!”

Well, at least Luo Binghe has half of a name now, so he nods with a polite warmth and follows the small gaggle back down to the stalls. He observes that those he is walking with are all seniors, two from Qing Jing and most from An Ding. This ‘Hong-shixiong’ individual ushers him and the rest into one of the red tents where there is a small performance stage with xiao players and a large grouping of tables where students are chatting and drinking animatedly. They seat themselves and a sizable, steaming pot is brought to the table along with some clay cups.

One of the An Ding disciples takes on the responsibility of pouring a rich purple drink into each of their cups from the pot and Luo Binghe observes it with interest, moving to take a whiff of the aroma. He doesn’t recognize the scent at first, but then they are all cheering in unison and Luo Binghe takes his first sip slowly so that he can dissect the nature of the alcohol.

It’s warm plum wine, seasoned with licorice, clove and orange peels. It is a perfect balance between sweet and spice.

Luo Binghe wonders idly if Shen Qingqiu would like it, as if he can’t help the intrusive thought.

In an effort to distract his mind elsewhere, he downs the entire cup. It’s good and he has missed the taste of wine. He also silently hopes that a little fire in his belly will help him relax and enjoy himself more if nothing else.

“Ah, can Luo-shidi handle his liquor well?” ‘Hong-shixiong’ asks from next to him, eyes glittering in amusem*nt alongside a canny smile. Luo Binghe can tell when he is being subtly made fun of, but he is not the one paying for the wine and he doesn't much care for the opinion of these nameless faces. So, he grins a little devilishly and holds his cup out to his Shixiong for another serving.

“Naturally, Hong-shixiong.”

Luo Binghe, being an idiot, completely forgets that he is in the body of a fifteen-year-old boy and gets dizzy drunk from three cups.

His seniors laugh in their own tipsy giddy, jostling him around a bit with a couple of shoulder taps. Luo Binghe sways in his seat, face warm and smile loose, not really minding that he is being teased. There is little malice in the actions and Luo Binghe can’t help but view them as just a couple of young boys having a good laugh.

As the group gets up from the table to disperse for the evening, Luo Binghe tries to sneak another sip or two of a cup that has now gone cold, but his collar is yanked mid-drink. He looks back at ‘Hong-shixiong’ who only grins down at him, shaking his head as he chides. “Aiya– that’s enough Shidi, let’s get you back home, yeah?”

Luo Binghe pouts as he follows along to leave the tent. ‘Hong-shixiong’ lifts the flap as they step through and then is suddenly beaming as they make their way outside.

“It’s snowing!”

Luo Binghe looks up towards the sky where the soft and clumpy snowfall sifts through the red lanterns suspended above the courtyard. He blinks up a the sight a bit sluggish, shifting his weight on his feet.

“Does Luo-shidi not have a cloak?”

Luo Binghe pauses, turning back towards ‘Hong-shixiong.’ He furrows his brow in brief confusion. “What?”

“A cloak.” ‘Hong-shixiong’ supplies again, gesturing to the heavy dark green fabric in his hands as he wraps it around his shoulders. Luo Binghe stares as his Shixiong’s body gets swallowed up by the cloth, warm and fitted. His eyes then snap to the crowd around them and he notices that almost everyone is draped in similar attire as they walk through the snow, dressed in cozy, long cloaks donned with their Peak colors to protect them against the weather.

Luo Binghe looks down at his own worn clothes, only his outer robes to keep him warm. His face falls, and a heavy weight suddenly drops in his stomach. He prods at the fabric, feeling the thin and abused material between the pads of his fingers.

Something in his world seems to tilt at that moment. He is not sure if it is the alcohol’s influence or simply the result of emotions suppressed for too long, but anger surges up within him so fast he nearly gags. It sits in the back of his throat like bile, burning his senses and bringing about a small sense of frenzy.

“I–”

No, he doesn’t have a cloak. He’s never been given one. He has gotten used to braving the bite of winter with what little he had and somehow convinced himself that it was normal- that it was fine.

He doesn’t know when he starts storming away, but before he realizes it, he is pushing through the crowd frantically, breathing ragged as he leaves his seniors behind. He faintly registers that they are calling after him, but he can’t bring himself to care. His feet are unstable under him, the wine pushing him into people as he passes. He doesn’t bother apologizing. He doesn’t even know where he’s going.

But he is so angry right now. He is so irrationally angry.

Is it irrational though? Doesn’t he have a right to feel this way?

As he stumbles to the edge of the courtyard near one of Qiong Ding’s gardens, he trips as he tries to get through the last of the crowd and slams face-first against someone. The drink in his veins makes his response time a bit slow and for a moment he sags his weight against the figure, bringing his fingers up to cling to the person’s clothes, scrambling to catch himself.

Then, temperate hands come down to steady his shoulders, bearing the gravity of Luo Binghe with ease.

“Binghe?”

Luo Binghe swears he must have the worst luck in the Three Realms as that familiar voice washes over him. He shivers with it and resolutely decides in his tipsy stupor that he does not want to look up to confirm this person’s identity.

Unfortunately, those slender fingers come up to rest under his chin and lift his head anyway and he is forced to take in the sight of Shen Qingqiu under the snow and soft glow of the lanterns, draped in a dark green cloak lined with white fox fur.

Luo Binghe wishes his anger died right then and there. Maybe if it did, he could appreciate this moment more. But, it doesn’t, and with clammy, frantic hands, he pushes his Shizun away.

“Don’t–!” He finds himself shouting, stumbling back a few steps and looking around desperately for an escape route. “Don’t touch me!”

Shen Qingqiu freezes altogether, his fingers suspended mid-air in persisting shock. He looks at Luo Binghe and his eyes thaw into something so heartsore that Luo Binghe feels as if he has been punched in the gut, all the air leaving him at once.

So, he runs. He doesn’t know what else to do.

Shen Qingqiu follows.

“Binghe!”

Binghe rushes into the garden, weaving between groves bending and bowing under the weight of snow. The wine makes him slow, his stride uneven as he leaves the warmth of the festival behind.

The thing about healing is that it isn’t a linear process. If you start a journey atop a mountain and follow a river towards the sea, you will never experience a straight and easy path. Rivers can bend and twist, changing course and sometimes leading you further from your destination. They can flood or dry up before you reach the end, leaving you aimless.

Luo Binghe can’t see the sea right now. He can’t even trust that he ever will and he feels so inexplicably helpless at this moment because of it.

As he scrambles across a small bending bridge above the frozen pond of the garden, his foot wipes out against the slippery surface and he lands hard against the wood. He lays there for a moment, his inebriated mind taking a minute to register the fact that he has fallen at all. The cold snow seeps into his robes, making them wet and heavy. He then finally starts to try and push himself up, using the railing on the bridge as leverage.

An arm wraps around him from behind and brings him up the rest of the way.

Luo Binghe looks back at Shen Qingqiu with a frustrated expression, his teeth bared and panting hard. His Shizun immediately lets go of him as soon as he is on his feet again, stepping back a respectful distance, but remaining at arm's length, as if worried that Luo Binghe will fall or try to run again. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes flicker down to where Luo Binghe’s clothes are soaked at his knees and up his side.

He frowns softly and Luo Binghe watches with a lump in his throat as his Shizun unclasps his cloak and slips it off.

“Shizun…”

He reaches around Luo Binghe and lays the cloak over his shoulders. Luo Binghe realizes that he is shivering.

“Binghe, tell this master what is wrong. Why are you acting like this?”

The irony of this moment feels like a kick to the back of the knees and Luo Binghe almost wants to laugh at the absurdity. A part of him also wants to cry, but he ignores it. Instead, he clings to that familiar anger boiling under his skin, letting it bubble up and out of his lips.

“Is it not your fault that I am this way?!” He finds himself saying despite his better judgment. The still rational and remaining sober part of him knows he shouldn’t be stirring the pot with his Shizun like this, that he shouldn’t be looking for reasons to ruin the trust he was unconsciously already starting to build. “Look at me, Shen Qingqiu! Do you seriously believe you are not to blame?!”

Shen Qingqiu looks almost as if he flinches, but Luo Binghe can’t tell through his blurry vision.

“I don’t want your cloak!” He reaches up to rip the heavy fabric off of him, throwing it to the ground with a sneer. “I should have one of my own! From the very beginning, I should have had these things!”

His grip on the banister is making his knuckles ache and he feels even more dizzy now, taking a wobbly step back as he tries to look anywhere but Shen Qingqiu. The snow continues to fall around them, so gentle compared to the blades falling from Luo Binghe’s tongue.

“You have deprived me of the things I have deserved since the start! I have suffered uselessly under your care!” He rasps, his voice pouring out of him like gravel. “Why take me on as a disciple in the first place?! Were you so determined to make sure I wouldn’t succeed? Were you so determined to see me break? To see me die?!”

His other hand comes up to clutch at his chest as if it would somehow make it easier to breathe and subside the pain welling up in the space between his ribs. He has carried this anger with him for so long that it feels impossible to bear the weight of it anymore.

“I’ve hated you for so many years…” He continues, something weakening. “Your newfound kindness has led me astray. I don’t know what to do.”

Shen Qingqiu bends down to retrieve the cloak from where it has been discarded. He brushes off some of the loose snow and steps towards Luo Binghe again to wrap it around his shoulders. Shen Qingqiu’s expression is unreadable as he fiddles to properly clasp the fabric this time, securing it around Luo Binghe as it swallows him up, some of the extra fabric lost in height pooling at his feet.

Luo Binghe feels only more helpless, staring up at his Shizun with such a raw and distraught expression. He doesn’t reject the gesture this time, feeling as if his previous fight has left him all at once as Shen Qingqiu smooths the fabric over his arms and fluffs the fox-fur collar around Luo Binghe’s neck.

“From now on, Binghe should not want for anything. If you ask this master, I will do my best to provide.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice is so soft that it breaks Luo Binghe all over again. His anger dissolves into confusion and his confusion dissolves into a gentle type of misery reserved only for the heart.

Ah… he suddenly feels so tired. His head is swimming.

He sways forward, the energy leaving him, and Shen Qingqiu is there to catch him, letting Luo Binghe rest his brow against his collarbone.

“Just now… this disciple spoke impolitely.” He croaks, his fingers unconsciously reaching from within the cloak to pull the fabric closer to him. “This disciple apologizes to Shizun for his fit. It must be the wine. I have been feeling a bit…stressed lately.”

His mind fogs and his vision darkens at the corners. He just wants to sleep and forget. He almost doesn’t register the warm hand coming up to brush over the top of his head.

“Please forgive this disciple and pay him no mind.” He manages to squeeze out before he fades too much. He only barely picks up Shen Qingqiu’s voice next to his ear, tone gentle and soothing.

“Binghe needn't worry. This master only wishes his disciple the best.”

Luo Binghe doesn’t hear the rest. His consciousness dulls.

His awareness jostles at odd, sporadic times. He notices he is moving, but doesn’t really feel his legs walking. He is pressed against a warm and sturdy object, something wrapped around his shoulders and behind his knees, keeping him close.

Some time passes as he slips in and out and he feels himself laying down against a soft and familiar surface, comfortable plushness swallowing his cold limbs. He hums contentedly, nuzzling against his pillow as he recognizes the embrace of his bed. He somehow had made it home to the Bamboo House.

His hair is brushed away from his face by the tender touch of something delicate.

“Happy New Year, Binghe.”

Luo Binghe assumes he is dreaming and simply smiles in his sleep.

<>

When Luo Binghe wakes, his tongue feels like cotton in his mouth and his temples throb. The sun glows through the window, bright and already high in the sky. He rubs the crust from his eyes and groans low and loud as he stretches out. He feels a soft tickle of material against his cheek and blearily blinks his eyes open, looking down.

He sees the familiar, rich cloth of Shen Qingqiu’s winter cloak wrapped around him and he instantly becomes mortified.

He jolts up out of bed, frantically trying to pull the fabric over his head like it is burning him. He manages to slip it off, holding it before him as if his stare could dissipate the illusion of it in his hands.

The memories of the night come flooding back and Luo Binghe figures maybe he should just kill himself and get it over with because he was dead either way! He was so, so dead!

Oh gods, the things he had said! To Shen Qingqiu’s face! He really was like an adolescent again, getting drunk off of wine and spilling his guts. He wanted to preserve and live out his disciple years in peace, yet there he was trying to pick a fight with his Shizun!

Granted… Shen Qingqiu didn’t respond poorly despite Luo Binghe’s outburst. Plus, it isn’t like he could just discredit what he was feeling; what maybe he is still feeling even now.

He remembers Shen Qingqiu’s stricken gaze and warm hands. He remembers his soft voice as he spoke of reassurances.

He remembers being carried home.

Shen! Qingqiu! Carried Him! All the way back to Qing Jing Peak!

How humiliating. This is really too much.

His inner dialogue of woes is interrupted when he notices the shortness of the shadows in his room and he blanches. It was already late in the day and he didn’t prepare breakfast!

Pushing his miseries aside, he scrambles to fix his appearance, folding Shen Qingqiu’s cloak in a neat square and rushing out of the side room. He makes his way to scurry down the hall to the private kitchen when a voice rings through the Bamboo House, the sound of it crawling up Luo Binghe’s spine and latching its teeth into the base of his neck.

“Binghe. Go prepare some tea and then join me.” Shen Qingqiu says from the main room around the corner, already sensing Luo Binghe’s presence. His guts almost fall right out of him then and there and he says a silent prayer to any deity that might be listening.

Luo Binghe prepares a cinnamon tea after gathering some semblance of composure and brings it to the main room, ready to face his fate, whatever it may be. Shen Qingqiu is kneeling at the low table, a poetry manuscript loose in hand. He finds the courage to sit close to his Shizun as he sets out the cups and pot, pouring the tea. He realizes belatedly that the floor beneath his knees is warm, meaning Shen Qingqiu or another disciple had attended to the fire pit instead of him and some dismay washes over him at yet another failed duty of the day.

There is silence for a moment as Shen Qingqiu reaches for his cup to leisurely blow the steam and take a small sip, his lashes fluttering as he enjoys the flavor.

Luo Binghe takes this moment to retrieve his Shizun’s cloak and presents it on the table before bending over in a full kowtow, pressing his forehead to the mats.

“This disciple apologizes for his behavior last night and promises Shizun that anything of the sort will not happen again.” He says, keeping his voice as strong as he can. “This disciple will accept any punishment for his misconduct.”

“Did Binghe enjoy the celebration?” Shen Qingqiu says instead.

Luo Binghe falters, blinking down at the mats in front of his eyes.

“It was…lively.” He says after a short pause. He hears a rustling of something that sounds like paper in front of him and the distinct sound of an object being pushed across the floor.

“This master hopes that this new year will bring about good change and that future festivities will be more…” Shen Qingqiu seems to try to choose his words carefully. “...enjoyable for Binghe. Here, this is for you.”

Luo Binghe takes the risk of lifting his head and glancing up, only to be met with the sight of a small package laid before him. He studies it for a moment before flicking his eyes back to Shen Qingqiu who isn’t looking at him, but instead seems to be immensely interested in the view out the window.

He sits up slowly, carefully taking the paper-wrapped gift in his hands and pulling at the twine holding it together. The paper falls away to reveal a heavy and soft cloth, dark green with black trimmings. He unravels it to find it's a winter cloak, the collar lined with dark gray fur and just long enough that he will be able to grow into it over the next year or two. It is obviously expensive and slightly more detailed than the standard-issued winter cloak for disciples.

Luo Binghe’s hands fist into the fabric and he feels speechless.

“Take this as proof of my words last night.” Shen Qingqiu grumbles, still choosing not to look at Luo Binghe, his face pinched, as if mildly embarrassed.

Luo Binghe takes a big, shaky breath and finds himself letting out a small wet laugh as he exhales. He presses the cloak against his chest, holding it close and burying his face into the soft fur to hide his own expression. Would this Shen Qingqiu ever fail to catch him off guard?

“Thank you, Shizun.”

Luo Binghe, from that point on, becomes a particularly spoiled disciple by the hands of Shen Qingqiu.

Notes:

This chapter was a thorn in my side, I won't lie. But! good things are ahead...haha! (haha...)

Up next: spring season! Expect the next chapter soon.

Chapter 11: Pear Blossoms

Notes:

Binghe gets bullied. [Read: affectionately]

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“A-Luo! A-Luo!”

Luo Binghe turns to look behind him as he makes his way to one of the lecture halls for the morning. Ning Yingying comes barreling at him, her face bright and gleeful under the high sun. She doesn’t throw herself at his arm thankfully, mindful of the scrolls he is carrying, but sticks close nonetheless, jostling him with a friendly nudge of her shoulder.

“Did you hear the news just now?”

Luo Binghe blinks down owlishly at her as they walk.

“No?”

She giggles as if expecting that answer. “Shizun just announced that he will be personally hosting today’s guqin lessons.”

Luo Binghe continues to look on, clueless as to the origins of her excitement. In this world, Shen Qingqiu still mainly took on very little company but did occasionally venture to involve himself in lectures or collaborate with other Peak Lords, especially when he got restless during Without a Cure flare-ups. Something like directing a lesson would be rare, but not unheard of.

“But!” She interrupts his thoughts, bringing her hands together in front of her in a boisterous clap. “He is taking the class down the mountain! This week is the blooming of the pear blossoms and he thinks we should bear witness to it!”

Luo Binghe’s expression doesn’t change much. He just kind of looks at her with a befuddled air, tilting his head and his lips stretching in a confused smile. Was he supposed to be excited about pear blossoms?

She huffs a breath of frustration at his lack of response and unmirrored enthusiasm. “First of all, it’s a break away from the Peak,” she attempts to explain, puffing her cheeks. “Second! I thought you were more of a romantic, A-Luo! You focus too much on your martial arts. Think about it: playing the guqin with Shizun under the falling petals, reciting songs and enjoying the sweet fragrance of nature!”

Luo Binghe trips up a bit and gives Ning Yingying an incredulous look, clutching the scrolls closer to his chest. He ignores the rest of what she said and hones in on one point: “Romantic? Who said I was a romantic?!”

Luo Binghe was trying to actively not entice any of his potential wives, thank you very much! With Xin Mo gone from his life, he was enjoying his abstinent and frugal days!

Ning Yingying only looks at him, unimpressed. “The meticulous amount of detail you put into things alongside your constant, brooding stares these days says otherwise. It’s as if you are some old and wise cultivator who is already a hundred years aged.” She muses, pressing her brow down with her fingers as if to mimic some form of his thinking expression with an exaggerated purse of her lips and hunch of her shoulders. “You look as if you’ll start reciting Meng Haoran at any given moment.”

Luo Binghe makes a strangled, mildly affronted sound. He has no memory of Ning Yingying being playful with him like this before, nor so observant. And more importantly, “I do not brood .” He hisses in defense.

“You do!”

“Do not!”

“Oh, you so do.”

“Ning-shijie!”

“And why are my disciples so rowdy right before class?”

Luo Binghe and Ning Yingying both whip around and exclaim a startled and unified: “Shizun!”

Shen Qingqiu approaches them along the path, an amused twinkle in his eyes as he fans himself leisurely. He’s donning a lighter set of robes today, embroidered with bamboo and extra loose in the sleeves as if welcoming the nice weather. There is a quirk on the corner of his lips that barely contains a faint smile as his eyes flicker between both of his disciples.

They bow and Ning Yingying beams, expression eager and sunny.

“Shizun, when do we depart? This disciple is feeling particularly excited to see the blossoms!” She chimes.

“News spreads fast it seems. Is this master raising a sect of idle gossipers?” Shen Qingqiu admonishes with little malice, moving to walk past the two of them. Ning Yingying presses her lips tightly together, but her energy doesn’t waver. She steps aside next to Luo Binghe to respectfully let him pass and Shen Qingqiu reaches up to lightly bat both of them on the head with his fan.

Luo Binghe pays attention to the way Shen Qingqiu makes his touch purposefully gentle.

“We leave within the hour.”

<>

The group only ends up being the size of twenty, Shen Qingqiu choosing to bring along the students with the highest marks in the past year exclusively. The trek isn’t far, so they are not required to pack anything aside from their instruments and study materials and are to travel on foot.

The pear farm is located just at the base of the Peak, operated by a gaggle of local, older women who take pride in providing for the Sect. Alongside pears, Shen Qingqiu informs his disciples that the farm is also responsible for the Peak’s supply of spring radishes, and to be sure to greet and thank the workers they may encounter with the utmost care.

The Shen Qingqiu of his past would have never organized something like this on behalf of his students, so Luo Binghe makes sure to take the chance to soak it in. The walk is pleasant as the view of the valley is encased in the early greens of life as the weather begins to warm.

Spring has arrived to thaw the mountain as well as something within Luo Binghe. He finds that his temperament is a little better these days– a little more stable ever since New Year.

It has been a year now since he got tangled up in this time travel happenstance and so many things have already changed. Luo Binghe, for once, feels like he has time. He doesn’t know how else to describe it. In his previous life, time was always slipping away from him; each event always happened one right after another leaving him with little respite.

But now, the days seem slower, allowing him to breathe and to eat and to sleep.

Luo Binghe lets his fingers dance over the tall, swaying mountain grasses as they walk. He memorizes the texture and the way it bends under his touch, petting along his palm as if seeking the attention.

Something flutters in his peripheral as the wind picks up, dark and soft. Shen Qingqiu walks a couple of paces in front of Luo Binghe, long hair swaying and sweeping behind him much like the grass. Luo Binghe watches as the wind carries the different sections, toying with the strands and making them glitter in the light of the sun, appearing more deep chestnut than ink black.

Luo Binghe’s fingers twitch.

“You’re doing it again.”

His head whips around to Ning Yingying, spell broken and mildly disoriented.

“Huh?”

She pinches her face and reaches a hand up to stroke at her nonexistent whiskers. When she speaks, her voice purposefully shakes to mimic old age. “While worldly matters take their turn, ancient, modern, to and fro…

“Oi!” Luo Binghe yawps, realizing she’s making fun of him again.

Rivers and mountains are changeless in their glory and still to be witnessed from this trail… ” She persists, raising her other hand towards the sky in a dramatic display as she recites.

“I am not brooding! Stop it!”

She pulls in her bottom lip as if to hide laughter and puts on a graceful expression, mockingly bowing her head at him. “Ah, of course not. Apologies, Elder Luo.”

“You…!” This girl! Since when is she such a wisecracker?!

The thought actually gives him a brief pause.

Maybe… it was just that he didn’t know her that well before. He never really took the time to. She was always kind to him, yes, despite getting him into all sorts of trouble, but did he know any of her hobbies back then? Her tastes? Her humor?

When did he last take the time to try to get to really know anyone? When did he last allow anyone to get to know him?

His gaze unconsciously flickers back to Shen Qingqiu and he stumbles a bit when he finds his Shizun looking right back at him from over his shoulder.

“Ning Yingying is as studious as ever. Can Binghe not remember the rest?” Shen Qingqiu muses, hiding a half-grin behind his fan. “This excursion is meant to be academic, after all.”

Luo Binghe swallows hard, caught in a trap by the attention of those eyes. His brain scrambles through his memory as he gives a quick cough to clear his throat and assemble some composure.

“Ah… um… where a fisher-boat dips by a waterfall, where the air grows colder, deep in the valley, the monument of Yang remains… ” He eventually gathers as some of the other disciples around him snicker quietly at the impromptu quizzing.

And we have wept, reading the words !” Ning Yingying supplies the ending with a rambunctious tone, probably preening with the brief previous praise from Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu reaches to give Ning Yingying two quick pats on the crown of her head. “Well done.” He comments before turning back around to continue along the path and Ning Yingying glows under the acknowledgment.

Luo Binghe watches the display with a growing frown, something dark stirring in his chest that he doesn’t recognize.

To vent his frustration, he purposefully kicks at Ning Yingying’s ankle as they walk, not enough to hurt, but enough to trip her up. She yelps, breaking out of the high she was riding and shoots him a glare, hip-checking him in return.

As much as he would enjoy a good scuffle right now, he’s still somewhat aware of their Shizun only a few steps away, so he restrains from tossing her down the mountain and simply sticks his tongue out at her. She returns the gesture and Luo Binghe starts to question the decades worth of maturity he has built.

Surprisingly, Ming Fan is the one who intervenes, tugging on the backs of both their collars, as if scolding a pair of kittens, and scowls down at them. Well, mainly at Luo Binghe. The order to behave themselves is clear, even without the words spoken.

When they arrive at the farm by noon, nearly all of the disciple’s hearts squeeze at the sight of acres of brilliant white stretched across the greenery. The pear trees all promenade in rows upon rows, flaunting their pretty pale petals and even tossing a few in the air for the wind to carry each time it blows.

They are greeted by a handful of elderly women whose faces are creased and folded neatly from years of sun and contentedness. They tilt their straw hats and welcome them with smiles and freshly brewed floral tea, which they wrap protectively in a basket and hand to Shen Qingqiu.

“It’s been years since we have had visitors from the Sect. We appreciate getting to see such handsome faces, y’know! It keeps our old bones motivated!” one of the women says playfully, patting the top of Shen Qingqiu’s knuckles as she hands him the wicker handle. “Please, enjoy yourself.”

Shen Qingqiu smiles something gentle in thanks and a couple of the ladies raise a hand to clutch at their chests as they turn and giggle at each other in delight.

The sight is so humble and domestic, that if Luo Binghe had witnessed such a thing a year ago, he would have been convinced his eyes were telling him lies and he would have plucked them right out of his own head.

Now?... Now, he just kind of feels itchy and forcibly turns his gaze away to try and focus on other things.

Shen Qingqiu guides them through the trees as soon as all the disciples display their respectful gratitude towards the farm workers. The group weaves through the brush, some playfully ruffling the flowers as they pass and others keeping their hands tucked away. Shen Qingqiu instructs them all to find their own space in the grove and he will come around and attend to their practices personally.

The disciples scatter, not straying too far, and find their spots.

Luo Binghe discovers a particularly small tree tucked near the center of the area. It is not as tall nor as wide as its sisters, standing low yet proud, ripe and full of flowers. He approaches and lets his hand press against the bark, feeling the steady thrum of life beneath it and then settles down to sit on the grass, tucking himself between the roots.

He pulls his guqin from his qiankun pouch, a simple, yet elegant wutong artistry gifted to him by Shen Qingqiu a month ago. His Shizun had looked particularly miffed when reminded that Luo Binghe had never received one upon his debut as a disciple. Shen Qingqiu had said that his fever from last year had messed with some of his memories.

Hearing those words, in turn, had messed with Luo Binghe. It provided a lot of food for thought.

His fingers trace over the fine wood as he gets lost in his mind. He hears the faint sounds of the students around him plucking their strings and practicing their foundations. It isn’t until a soft sweep of light green robes brushes the ground in front of him that he snaps back to focus. His head shoots up and he is met with Shen Qingqiu’s examining gaze.

“Your guqin has been silent this whole time.” He chides and Luo Binghe’s spine instantly straightens. He is almost tempted to squirm, feeling a dull sense of shame for being caught zoning out.

“Apologies, Shizun.” He responds dutifully.

“Is something on your mind?”

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “No, Shizun. Nothing of importance.”

Shen Qingqiu makes a small sound of acknowledgement, letting his inquisitive gaze linger, before moving to kneel in front of Luo Binghe. He tucks the fabric of his robes under his knees and flicks his sleeves out so that the cloth falls in a perfect spread around him. He settles his hands in a neat fold on his lap and his expression clears into something serene and simple as he looks at Luo Binghe expectantly.

“This master recognizes that Binghe has had a late start with this practice,” He says. “However, I have full confidence in your ability to learn quickly. So, show me what you can do.”

Luo Binghe feels Shen Qingqiu’s attention on him like a heavy blanket, wrapping around him and swallowing him whole. He’s not nervous, but he does feel a bit jittery under the weight.

Luo Binghe is, in fact, a fast learner. He had lost fluency in any sort of artistic language a long time ago when he became the ruler of the Three Realms. There just wasn’t any time for such things. But now, it was easy to put his studying skills to use. He has already honorably mastered the basics of the instrument within the past month and has even memorized two pieces in the process.

His fingers hover over the guqin as he contemplates what to play in front of Shen Qingqiu. He elects for the more complex option, hoping to impress, because why not?

He takes a deep breath and begins to play, skillfully plucking the strings in time. He gets every single note and fluctuation correct.

When he finishes, he stills the chords with his palm and looks up at Shen Qingqiu, ready for praise.

Shen Qingqiu, however, is frowning.

“That was a poor performance.”

Luo Binghe’s stomach swoops as if he’d been knocked over by the words. He blinks once, twice, three times before a wave of pure and unbridled irritation washes over him.

“Shizun, respectfully, this disciple executed the piece perfectly.” He says through his teeth, trying to make sure his expression doesn’t give him away too much.

His Shizun simply shakes his head with a disapproving click of his tongue that shoots through Luo Binghe like an arrow.

“You treat the guqin in front of you like it’s just an instrument and nothing more.” He censures. The words make Luo Binghe’s face pinch, squinting his eyes with a tilt of his head.

“...Isn’t it?” He asks carefully. The response only makes Shen Qingqiu raise his brows as if he is both impressed and unimpressed by Luo Binghe’s sense.

“Let this master clarify: your performance lacks feeling.” Shen Qingqiu continues, spreading his hands as if it would somehow make the point clearer for Luo Binghe. “It’s more than a tool. It’s an interpreter of the heart. Each instrument and piece has the ability to cross nearly every language barrier in this world: It is a voice for things that are voiceless.”

Shen Qingqiu moves to stand and shuffles closer to Luo Binghe, flicking his wrist to motion for his disciple to move aside. Luo Binghe startles, but then scoots over under the tree, making space for his Shizun between the roots. Shen Qingqiu seats himself directly next to him this time, crossing his legs, his knee unconsciously bumping against his disciple’s in a way that sets off a brief alarm bell in the back of Luo Binghe’s mind.

“Your playing doesn’t speak of anything.” Shen Qingqiu continues, pulling the guqin from his disciple's lap and setting it across his own. “Here, let this master show you. I will play the same piece. Listen and try to figure out the difference.”

His Shizun's pale and slender fingers find their place over the strings and Luo Binghe is forced to bear witness to Shen Qingqiu’s playing for the first time in his two lives.

It is painful.

It is painful in the sense that something seems to be twisting in his stomach, curling around his guts and squeezing with each note that rings. It is painful in the sense that his eyes sting from being held open, not even daring to blink away the sight of Shen Qingqiu with his head hung low and his expression peaceful as falling white petals twirl down to dance around him and praise the music.

It is painful because Luo Binghe’s mind tortures itself with the reminder that his Shizun is beautiful.

This isn’t new to him. He has known of Shen Qingqiu’s allure intimately since he was ten years old. But having the realization shoved down his throat all over again…?

It leaves him feeling choked.

“What do you think this master was trying to convey just now?”

Luo Binghe doesn’t even realize when the playing comes to a stop. He is caught in his stupor, staring at Shen Qingqiu with a stunned expression.

“This disciple doesn’t know.” He manages to supply lamely because he really wasn’t paying attention. Shen Qingqiu gives him a disgruntled look, seemingly sensing that he might be wasting his time. In an attempt to salvage his blunder, Luo Binghe tries again.

“It is sad… but also not.” He attempts and it sounds stupid, even to his own ears.

The corner of Shen Qingqiu’s lip twitches.

“So Binghe really has been practicing his poetry, I see.”

A hot sensation prickles over the skin on the back of his neck and up to his ears as Shen Qingqiu, of all people, teases him.

“Shizun…” Luo Binghe gripes weakly, bringing his hands up to cover his face. Shen Qingqiu huffs something mildly amused through his nose.

“It is obvious Binghe didn’t study the origin of the composition. This master assumes you simply picked up the music sheet and memorized it as is. Tell me, what is the name of this piece?” Shen Qingqiu scrutinizes. Luo Binghe raises his head again, willing to face the lecture.

Dialogue Between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter .” He answers properly.

“Exactly. It’s a dialogue: A dialogue between two men who praise the qualities of a simple life,” something in Shen Qingqiu’s gaze turns a bit intense as he speaks, his words slowing as he looks at Luo Binghe. “...because they have grown weary of worldly affairs shrouded by politics and the pursuits of fame and fortune. It is about the desire to live in peace.”

Luo Binghe remains silent, his tongue caught between his teeth.

“Ah, perhaps such emotions don’t align with the ideals of Binghe’s young mind. This master supposes that it could be difficult to understand.” Shen Qingqiu provides further with a small shake of his head, looking back down at the strings thoughtfully. “Binghe’s future is bright and full of lively potential after all.”

Luo Binghe finds that he very much wants for this line of conversation to end. “...This disciple will relearn the piece with Shizun’s lesson in mind. Shizun continues to impress with his knowledge in all things.”

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes flicker off to the side, his shoulders a little stiff, as if the compliment has somehow made him uncomfortable. The reaction is barely noticeable, but Luo Binghe catches it anyway, even if it only lasts a moment.

“If Binghe struggles with the artistic aspects of his guqin, perhaps this master should instruct his disciple to form a relationship with it as a weapon instead.” His Shizun continues, veering the discussion elsewhere.

Luo Binghe’s complicated feelings are immediately tucked away and a flare of interest lights up within him, shining in his gaze as he unconsciously leans forward into Shen Qingqiu’s space.

“Really?” Luo Binghe’s voice is light with wonder. He had spent so many years throwing himself into perfecting the sword and hand-to-hand combat that he had never allowed himself to indulge in other weaponry or different fighting styles.

Granted, it was not like Xin Mo would have let him cast it aside for something like a guqin or a xiao in his past life. The sword would have taken it as a great insult and probably eaten his soul as revenge.

Shen Qingqiu softens at his reaction, sliding the guqin back onto Luo Binghe’s lap.

“Give it a try.” He encourages. “Channel just a little power into your fingertips and focus on redirecting it through the instrument so that it rides on the waves of the vibrations. It should feel like dropping a small stone into a pond: the energy should ripple gently from the point of contact.”

Luo Binghe glows under a new excitement, a grin stretching on his face as he looks down at the strings. His meridians are still healing from improper cultivation, but his correctional practices have been aiding in his ability to control his spiritual energy again without bodily repercussions. He focuses on pushing the flow to his pointer finger and thumb and eagerly plucks a chord.

A burst of power rings with the note and something like a huge gust of wind rips from the guqin. It presses Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu harshly against the tree trunk and lashes out to knock a couple of surrounding disciples off balance where they sit. A few of them yelp out in surprise, one or two falling flat on the ground.

The pear trees shudder under the pressure, scattering petals in a viscous flurry like a sudden blizzard. Luo Binghe is forced to squint against the onslaught, the wind making his eyes water and his hair whipping wildly around him.

It happens in an instant. Luo Binghe tries to quickly slap his palm down on the strings to stop the reverberation until the air finally stills.

Okay... perhaps he channelled too much into his fingertips.

There is an awkward lull of silence.

Then, “Pfft.”

The sound comes from beside him, sharp and quick and Luo Binghe’s neck snaps so hard in its direction, one would think he got whiplash.

Shen Qingqiu sits there, sleeve pressed against his lips and shoulders shaking in silent laughter, his eyes glittering with unveiled mirth. His features are windblown, his cheeks dusted with a gentle red and his hair tossed behind him messily, his crown knocked slightly askew.

Luo Binghe drinks in the carefree image with wide eyes and feels like a gong has been struck in his chest. Then, as if coming back to himself all at once, embarrassment bristles along his skin and pools itself high on the curves of his cheeks with feverish heat.

“Shizun is laughing at this disciple!” He whines.

Shen Qingqiu turns to face away from Luo Binghe, still shaking. “I am not.” He says with a quivering voice, his other hand coming down to press against his belly as if it would somehow keep the humor inside.

“Shizun…!”

“Ah, Binghe must forgive this master.” Shen Qingqiu’s sleeve falls from his lips as he speaks to reveal a smile that is showing teeth.

It is nothing like any smile Luo Binghe has witnessed thus far. This one is wide and revealing, pressing his Shizun’s eyes into pretty moons. It is so unreserved that it almost feels scandalous to look at.

The heat on Luo Binghe’s cheeks spreads across his whole face, burning him all the way through.

“This disciple has changed his mind! Maybe I should learn the xiao instead, or even the pipa!” He yips, his voice cracking.

“Binghe can do anything he sets his mind to.” Shen Qingqiu heartens and Luo Binghe thinks that he will probably remember this moment for the rest of his days.

Notes:

Can you tell I had fun with this chapter? Well, I did. The Slow Burn is starting to Slow Burn.

Also, is Ning Yingying OOC? Pah! No. (probably). I’m just letting her and Luo Binghe be teenagers like they deserve. He needs friends as much as he needs Shen Qingqiu.

Up next: Binghe’s Beach Day!

The Poem Ning Yingying and Luo Binghe recite is “On Climbing Yan Mountain with Friends” by Meng Haoran- a famous Chinese poet from the Tang dynasty.

“Dialogue Between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter” is a real arrangement and can be listened to on most platforms!

Chapter 12: Beach Day

Notes:

Thank you all, once again, for the support you’ve shown so far for my first-ever fic! I feel elated to share this experience with everyone reading.

How did this chapter turn out to be 7k? I... really don't know.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe realizes that he is starting to kind of like Shen Qingqiu.

Not really in any specific way– just in the sense that his Shizun’s company is becoming genuinely enjoyable to be around. He finds himself seeking more conversation during meals and voluntarily accompanying the man on walks around the Peak.

He feels less skittish, more mild; less on guard, more willing.

He hasn’t forgotten the past but he doesn’t actively dwell on it these days either.

His mind is occupied with calmer things like what to cook for dinner or wondering how many manuscripts he will check out from the library. He ponders the words of poets he never studied before and writes essay prompts on botany. He discovers he’s quite good at singing and dedicates some spare time to learn ballad accompaniments for the guqin. He thinks of laundry days and fruit harvest and when to find time to lay out in the sun.

His face has even learned how to smile naturally for the smallest of things, his careful mask slowly starting to slip.

Last year’s encounter with that alternate reality had infected him with an envy and desire for a different life; a different Shizun. Now that he has been given both, practically on a silver platter no less, he is navigating his role in this new world.

He tells himself he shouldn’t get too comfortable– that he shouldn’t let his guard down too much.

Despite this, he finds he is learning to enjoy it all not because he wants or has to, but because it is easy to. It is almost a little terrifying.

Only just a little.

<>

There is one particular afternoon in early summer where Luo Binghe is stretched out on the grass by the river bank in the bamboo grove. He has deviously elected to skip out on sparring practice today. He finds it is actually quite difficult to pretend he is on the same level as his peers sometimes when it comes to basic combat skills.

After snagging a book from his to-read pile, he had snuck out of the main court and found his way here. Now, he lazes against the cool ground, his robes loose around the collar as he lays on his back and reads under the shade of the bamboo leaves. The river sings him a tune and he sways his feet to the pleasant rhythm.

He is not surprised when he hears the soft crunch of footsteps when he is halfway through the script.

“I thought I might find you here.”

Luo Binghe peaks from behind his book and smiles something impish.

“Ah, Shizun. This disciple has been caught.”

This isn’t the first time he has been found after being a no-show to a lesson. The thing is, he isn’t overly concerned about harsh punishment nowadays. This Shen Qingqiu has revealed himself to be surprisingly lenient when it comes to Luo Binghe specifically, and he has been admittedly taking some advantage of that.

“Binghe has been getting bold, abandoning his duties as a student for the sake of idling about.” Shen Qingqiu reprimands as he looks down at Luo Binghe, his expression stern.

“This disciple doesn’t know what you mean.” He quips, waving the book between his fingers. “Look Shizun, I’m studying.”

“Don’t be fresh.” Shen Qingqiu admonishes, swiping the manuscript from his student’s hands as he tucks his robes under him and moves to sit on a rock by the river bank. Luo Binghe still has enough tact to sit up, positioning himself to kneel in front of his Shizun, gaze jaunty.

Shen Qingqiu scans over the writing before raising an inquisitive brow.

“The history of Ao Guang ? Binghe would rather study dragons than spar with his peers?”

“‘The Dragon King of the East Sea: the being who controls both storms and tides.’” Luo Binghe responds a bit theatrically, spreading his hands out. “How could this disciple not be interested?”

Shen Qingqiu squints at him, his features stony. He looks at Luo Binghe like he doesn’t quite understand him for a moment. The gaze feels like it’s pulling back a layer of Luo Binghe’s skin to reveal wolf fur.

“Plus, this disciple is only interested in sparring with Bai Zhan Peak members. They are stronger and pose a better challenge.” He provides additionally, stitching the seam of his human suit back together. His Shizun’s expression clears a bit at this, his shoulders relaxing. Luo Binghe finds that his breath returns to him.

He is not sure what just happened, but he is grateful for the speed at which it passes.

“This master will make a note to organize more Peak collaborative events. I will speak with your Shishu about taking some time to train with you.” Shen Qingqiu comments, his eyes flickering back down to the text in his hand, taking the liberty to flip through a few pages.

A moment passes in tranquil quiet where Luo Binghe sits there watching his Shizun read. A soft breeze weaves through the grove, shaking the leaves and causing the peaking sun to create a dancing kaleidoscope of light and shadow over Shen Qingqiu’s face. Luo Binghe can’t help the small part of him that appreciates the lull and the sight.

“Has Shizun ever been to the East Sea?” He finds himself asking for no other reason than pure curiosity. Shen Qingqiu looks up at him and takes a moment to reply.

“Why does Binghe ask?.” He voices, almost carefully.

“This disciple never has.” Luo Binghe admits.

Honestly, it would not be surprising for someone his ‘age’ to have never left the surrounding mountain range before, so the words shouldn’t shock Shen Qingqiu. The revelation, however, does startle Luo Binghe. In all the years he has lived, he has always considered himself well-versed and well-traveled as the ruler of the Three Realms.

Yet, there were experiences that even he lacked– spaces under his domain that he never even bothered with.

Shen Qingqiu seems to consider his words, gazing at Luo Binghe through the thick veil of his lashes.

“Would you like to?”

“Yes.” He says without reservation.

“Hm,” is all his Shizun replies before flipping to another page, expression passive and eyes flickering back down to the book. “Go run ten laps.”

Ah, harsh punishment was no longer an issue, but punishment itself was still unavoidable! Luo Binghe lights a candle for himself in his mind and moves to stand, his hands cupped before him respectfully.

“Yes, Shizun.”

<>

The morning Shen Qingqiu hands him a bamboo hat across the table late into the summer, Luo Binghe thinks back on that moment by the river and solidifies in his mind that his Shizun in this life is a very attentive listener.

“My first solo hunt?” Luo Binghe parrots, fingers skimming over the finely woven edge of the hat.

“Correct. This master has been keeping an eye on incoming requests recently, searching for one that may be suitable for Binghe’s first stag mission.” Shen Qingqiu supplies, sipping at his ginger tea while his hand reaches for another almond cookie on the table. “Binghe did say he wanted to see the East Sea, no?”

Luo Binghe unravels the scroll that was handed to him with the bamboo hat. It is an official letter from a harbor town in the east requesting assistance. The report details the mysterious disappearances of four men and two women over the last month. His brow furrows as he reads over the description. Luo Binghe would have no issue with a mission like this, being who he is with the skills and experience he already possesses. But… for a fifteen-year-old disciple to take on a case of this caliber? By himself?

His eyes snap back up to Shen Qingqiu who looks exceedingly unbothered as he bites into another cookie.

His Shizun would be putting a lot of faith in him for something that would be better suited for a senior student. For a moment, he thinks that maybe this is one of Shen Qingqiu’s schemes to see him fail, but he finds that the thought vanishes as fast as it appears– almost as if it feels a little hard to believe now.

“Shizun thinks that this disciple is ready?” He probes.

“Are you being humble?” Shen Qingqiu says a bit sharply, but not enough to pierce Luo Binghe’s skin. “Or do you doubt this master’s judgment?”

Luo Binghe finds a bit of humor in the defensive response as opposed to the irritation he would normally feel. He hides the twitch of his lip and rolls the scroll neatly back up, placing it on his lap.

“This disciple does not doubt Shizun.” He responds, reigning in his cheeky tone. “I am more than willing to take this on.”

“You will not be completely alone.” Shen Qingqiu ads. Luo Binghe blinks curiously at this, tilting his head slightly as he waits for his Shizun to elaborate. “The trip takes two day’s time and you will investigate the incidents over the course of four days. On the fifth day, I will arrive personally and expect you to have a full report on your findings.”

He takes another sip from his cup.

“From there, we will resolve the matter together. Binghe has not yet received his sword from Wan Jian Peak, so this master would not ask you to conclude or subdue anything alone.”

The consideration makes Luo Binghe’s insides stir a bit. He shifts on his knees and responds dutifully. His role as a gracious student comes easy these days. He barely feels like he’s putting on a conscious act anymore.

“This disciple is honored and grateful for this opportunity.”

“Be sure to wear the hat.” Shen Qingqiu throws out before the conversation closes, but this time his face turns away from Luo Binghe, his expression carefully neutral. “This master had it commissioned because the sun by the seaside can be particularly harsh.”

Luo Binghe doesn’t bother suppressing his small smile this time as he moves to pour his Shizun another cup of tea.

<>

Luo Binghe leaves the next morning to start his journey out of the mountain range. He is allowed a horse– tall, sturdy and sleek black. He packs lightly, placing his new hat over his braided hair and pulling together a sack of fruit, dried meat and plain rice.

As he mounts and trots out of the barn, he is surprised to see Shen Qingqiu standing outside near the gate, awash in the early light blues of morning. His hair is haphazardly tied up, an outer robe pulled over his sleepwear. He doesn’t look undignified, but Luo Binghe’s keen eyes can tell that his Shizun’s appearance is rushed , as if he awoke from slumber and tossed himself out of the Bamboo House.

He doesn’t realize he is staring until something is thrown in his direction. He catches it with ease and looks down to find a silk pouch in his palm.

“If Binghe requires anything while away, he needs only to send word.” Shen Qingqiu says with a huff. “Be sure to uphold Qing Jing Peak’s reputation and do not disappoint me.”

Luo Binghe blinks and then carefully pulls open the strings to reveal a handful of spirit stones sitting in the pouch, enough to last him far more than just a few days. His Shizun really is… almost making a habit of spoiling him. When his eyes turn back up to give thanks, Shen Qingqiu is already gone.

He finds he lingers for a moment in the ghost of his Shizun’s brief presence before kicking his heels against the horse’s sides and starting on the path.

His travels greet him with heavy, hot weather that sticks to his skin like a wet cloth. Descending the mountain had provided him with more foliage coverage from the sun, but had thickened the air greatly in turn. He sucks on the juice of a plum for respite, letting the nectar sit over his tongue and lips to subside his discomfort. This young human body could really be such a pain sometimes. Insignificant things like weather and weariness haven’t bothered him in decades.

He trots along the length of a river during the better part of the first day, letting his horse dip her ankles into it along the way to cool off. He decidedly names her Chanchan because of the strange and incessant ways she whinnies and snorts throughout their journey, almost like she is talking to herself, cursing Luo Binghe under her breath. They frequently stop for a drink and he shares a plum with her. If she is grateful, she doesn’t really show it.

Luo Binghe and Chanchan miraculously cover a decent amount of distance despite the heat, passing through two towns to ask for directions. They spend the night under a young willow and wake early the next day. Luo Binghe teaches himself to whistle like an idle old man and takes the liberty of trying to communicate with a couple of birds among the trees.

He is grateful for the time to do such useless things.

The last day of travel proves a bit cooler and they canter for most of it until Luo Binghe can smell salt in the air. Even from a distance, he can sense the bustling energy of the harbor. He leaves Chanchan in the care of a small estate just outside of the city, paying the young couple who live there a decent amount to tend to his horse over the next couple of days.

Luo Binghe knows that if he wants information, seeking out local government forces is not the way to go. The best source to gather intel is always through public gossip, so the first area his feet carry him is to the marketplace.

It takes a bit of wandering around and carefully tuning in his ears until he hears the first traces of conversation regarding the disappearances. A couple of older women bemoan about the tragedy of it all next to a jewelry booth, clutching their chests and patting their sweaty brows with handkerchiefs.

“...I mean, I understand. Young men get lost at sea all the time, but those poor girls? Oh heavens… swiped right off the beach I heard!”

“Do you think the tradesmen have anything to do with it? I must admit I have a difficult time trusting those foreigners that are always coming in and out.”

“No way, it must be the work of ghosts. All the disappearances are too suspicious! That fisher boy said he saw his uncle out on the bow one night while they were reeling crab traps, went below deck to grab something, and when he came back up, poof! His uncle was gone without a trace!”

“Maybe they are suicides?”

“With no notes left behind? Or even bodies? I doubt it. The dead always float. ”

Luo Binghe follows this pattern, weaving between the shadows of the crowds and keeping his hearing finely concentrated. The main key points he gathers are that all the last sightings of the victims were near or on the water and that there had been no bodies found. Luo Binghe comes up with his own theories fairly quickly and solidifies himself on the possibility of two hypotheses.

To prove either or, he would need a boat.

Luo Binghe tilts his hat to expose more of his face and fixes a charming smile onto his features that he knows will bend people to his will. He leaves the shadows of the market and puts himself right in the center of the bustle, all but radiating ‘esteemed, youthful cultivator’ and debuting himself to the public eye. The sea of people naturally parts for him and gazes easily glue themselves to his figure. Stall owners start to call out to catch his attention as he passes, the marks of a disciple’s robes from a wealthy Sect not lost on them.

This is what he is familiar with. This is what he can work with.

“Distinguished cultivator! Distinguished cultivator! Young boy, why don’t you come and take a look at my jewlery!”

“I have combs carved from only the finest wood!”

“Come look at the fresh catch of the day!”

“I have exotic fruits and other unique commodities that would be a perfect gift for someone special!”

Out of all the rabble, that last voice succeeds in catching some of Luo Binghe’s interest. He comes to a stop and looks over to find a middle-aged man standing behind a brightly colored stall, strewn and layered with cloth and tassels. His skin is dark and his full beard salted with silver. His smile is welcoming enough for Luo Binghe to walk over, curiously glancing over the produce.

“See anything that might interest you?” He says warmly, his voice quilted with a moderate accent that is hard to pinpoint.

Luo Binghe finds he recognizes a majority of the foreign products; Rambutan, papaya, bananas. There are a few he is less familiar with– his eyes catching and lingering on a wicker basket piled high with dark seeds. He leans closer and is hit with a unique and strong aroma that almost makes him flinch back.

“You have a good eye.” The man says, plucking one of the seeds from the pile and handing it to Luo Binghe to examine. It is hard, small and a dark chestnut color. “This is the seed from the Arabica tree. When ground and seeped with hot water, it produces a powerful drink that brings the mind and body alive.”

“It smells bitter.” He comments, turning it over in his hand.

“There are those who enjoy it with sugars or honey.”

“Hm.” He peers down back at the basket. “How many seeds are required to make a pot?”

From there, the salesman educates and instructs him on how to prepare and enjoy the Arabica seed. Based on the description, it reminds Luo Binghe a little bit of preparing a basic herbal tea. He thinks for a bit and his mind drifts to Shen Qingqiu.

His Shizun has been particularly accommodating as of late and this mission had been hand-selected for him based solely on a passing comment Luo Binghe had made weeks ago. Perhaps… he could thank him with a gift? Would Shen Qingqiu even like something like this? It is not like Luo Binghe feels like he owes Shen Qingqiu in any way. His willingness to cook and clean for his Shizun already should be enough to balance their new relationship out.

Yet…

Luo Binghe buys a small sackful and tucks it into his travel pouch. If Shen Qingqiu doesn’t like it, so what? It’s no skin off his nose. It’s his Shizun’s money anyway.

“Do you by chance know where I could procure a boat around here?” He asks as he hands the man a pinch of the spirit stones. The man lifts them to the sun and his eyes grow wide as he catches sight of the gleam that radiates off of them. When he turns back to Luo Binghe, his expression seems somehow even warmer.

“The water is dangerous these days. Why look for one?”

“I am here to root out the evil plaguing this harbor.”

“Ah, distinguished cultivator, my family and I have a boat. We would be happy to take you where you need to go.”

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “This one would not ask that of you. It will be dangerous.”

“This old man does not fear any evil, young boy, nor does my wife. We are made of sturdy material!” The man raises his arm in an enthusiastic flex that manages to humor Luo Binghe and he greets the motion with a smile. “We know these waters well from our travels. Trust us to guide you.”

It doesn’t take much more convincing than that. He gives the man, whose name he learns is Rohan, another handful of spirit stones. Rohan seems to shimmer, light dancing in his eyes and shoulders wriggling with delight. Though Luo Binghe had betted on the greed of others to get him through this mission, he senses a layer of simple good grace from the man. It makes him feel oddly better about the transaction.

Rohan packs up his stall for the day and Luo Binghe follows him down to the docks, helping carry the majority of the produce. They arrive at a sizable ship, two layers deep with a high deck tucked near the back, and an impressively large sail. There are two other shipmen, young and burly in stature, attending to the ropes.

Rohan calls out and from below deck emerges a short figure swallowed in vivid colors. Aarohi, Rohan’s wife, is what most people would call a lovely woman. Her skin is folded gracefully with smile lines and warmth. She is draped in a full orange veil and her movements are accompanied by small chimes from the bells and bracelets donned on her wrists.

She doesn’t seem to be able to speak the local language, so she greets Luo Binghe by folding his hand between hers and smiling mutely, patting his knuckles and motioning him to follow her onto the boat.

He instructs Rohan and the two shipmen, who he assumes are Rohan’s sons, about how they will have to set out during the night. He tells them to follow the Ziwei Enclosure constellation, which takes a lot of strong pointing and vague hand movements. Sometimes he’ll find them laughing at him as he incessantly gestures towards the sky throughout their venture, but instead of feeling offended, he finds himself huffing with red cheeks and makes a note to study more languages when he gets back to Qing Jing Peak. Obviously mastering seven was not enough in his past life!

The first night on the water produces no results. They return to the harbor by sunrise and the family spends the better part of the day catching up on their rest. Luo Binghe meditates and plans out his moves while also indulging in eating fruit to his heart's content and laying himself flat on the deck to soak in the sun.

He asks Rohan later if he has any weapons on the ship and he is given the only thing available: a small, albeit sharp, kitchen knife.

The second night, Luo Binghe hears it.

After a couple of hours on the water, a distinct humming sound starts to drift on the breeze. Luo Binghe’s instincts kick in immediately and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His body turns lithe, his posture defensive and his feet now light, ready for danger.

He instructs the others to stuff their ears with anything they can find and to secure themselves below deck. They look a bit panicked at the sudden energy shift, but Rohan does his best to give Luo Binghe an encouraging smile as he ushers his family to safety.

Luo Binghe takes control of the boat and rolls up the sail so that all movement comes to a stop. Knife in hand, he teeters on the edge, walking along the frame of the ship with careful steps, his eyes trained keenly on the water. The humming gets louder and louder the longer he lingers and he doesn’t even realize that his teeth have started to poke out in a wide, feral grin.

He forgot how good hunting can feel, the exhilaration pumping through his veins and bringing all his senses alive. When he sees the first flick of a tail in the water, he paints a seal over his lips and dives in.

He has exterminated siren nests before. Among demonic rankings, they are the weaker side, especially when their songs no longer have a grasp on their prey. Luo Binghe discovered he could break free from the lure of a siren song so long as he bedded the queen of the nest or ripped out their vocal chords. He found that he was slightly more fond of the latter.

The nest is surprisingly small, but they still attempt to overwhelm him as soon as he is in the water. The sirens swarm and swirl around him, petting where they can reach and singing softly in his ear. It takes only a moment for him to start tearing at their throats and gutting them like the fish they are.

To give credit, they do fight back. He feels sharp nails shredding his robes and peeling his skin open. One brazen siren even manages to bite a chunk out of his lower leg.

To him, it is still nothing though. He comes out victorious like he always does.

Blood pollutes the water around him and when he resurfaces, he takes a moment to admire how it makes the sea even more black under the moonlight. The traces of demonic energy wetting his skin tingles and makes his brain buzz. He relishes in it, almost missing the feeling of his broken seal and the flow of his own demonic qi inside of him.

A strangled, anguished sound startles him out of his spiraling thoughts. He turns his head back towards the boat where he sees Aarohi with a lantern in hand, leaning over the edge and frantically waving him back to the ship. Her face is pained with an emotion that confuses Luo Binghe.

When he swims back, she is shouting at her sons to help pull him out of the water. They drag him up and seat him on the deck, dripping wet. He almost doesn’t even feel the moment his wounds start to bleed freely, red slowly staining his clothes and the wood below him under the lantern light. Aarohi starts to fret, looking as if she is on the verge of passing out from worry. She pulls off one of her sashes to wrap around his leg and Rohan rushes over with a fresh basin of clean water and a towel.

All four individuals start to tend to him and his wounds, muttering words of blatant worry that he can’t even understand. They are incredibly handsy with him– so much so that Luo Binghe is sure it must be a cultural thing. He feels a little overwhelmed by the attention and even more confused with each minute that passes.

These people don’t even know him. Why are they so concerned about his well-being? Is it because he paid them? Do they feel obligated to change his clothes and wash his face so gingerly for a few spirit stones?

They carry him to one of the beds below deck and for the rest of the night, Aarohi doesn’t leave his side. She simply kneels next to him, clutching his hand and whispering what Luo Binghe can only assume are prayers.

He realizes she reminds him of his mother.

He sleeps quite peacefully, ignoring the pain of his injuries with ease and keeps his free hand pressed against the pendant on his chest.

He remembers when he wakes that he still has two days until Shen Qingqiu arrives. Luo Binghe recognizes that once again, much like with the Skinner Demon over a year ago, he went ahead and took care of things himself and did not heed a single word his Shizun had said.

Ah, Shizun… please don’t be mad at this disciple's inherent brazenness, haha…

Luo Binghe was definitely going to get a tongue lashing, or maybe even a real lashing. He is pretty sure he actually deserves it this time.

Rohan’s family barely lets him out of their sight for those two days. He tries to assure them that he is fine and should be on his way, but Rohan explicitly states that he has no need to look for lodging when he can just stay with them.

They dress him in a white short robe and some loose matching pants to replace his ruined clothes. His wounds are wrapped fresh every couple of hours as well.

He writes his report fairly quickly and spends the last two days on the ship docked at the harbor helping Rohan set up his stand and sell his produce. Luo Binghe’s face brings in a lot of customers and Rohan keeps making jokes about hiring him permanently.

During his free hours, Luo Binghe lazes on the boat or walks around the waterfront. He stares out at the horizon and collects a couple of sea shells because he supposes that is what people are normally supposed to do when in places like this. He tries to replicate activities he thinks a common person would indulge in, like trying the local fish stew and throwing bread scraps at seagulls. It all feels very mundane, but not necessarily in a bad way.

On the early morning of Luo Binghe’s fifth day, they are all standing on the dock to send him off. Rohan is weeping dramatically on one of his son’s shoulders and bemoans about the loss of a ‘precious gem.’ The two ship boys give him extra sacks of the seeds he had bought before and Aarohi keeps patting her hands against his cheek and fixing his hair under his hat like she isn’t quite sure how else to say goodbye.

He finds himself enjoying the small moment and wonders if this is what family is supposed to feel like. He thinks maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to stay here and keep living like this.

But then his mind conjures up the image of that amiable house far from here, tucked inside a lush bamboo grove atop a mountain and the man who lives inside.

He is shaken when he suddenly understands that he would rather go back to that place than anywhere else- that he almost misses it.

As if on cue, a peculiar sensation rushes up his spine and settles a phantom weight against the back of his neck. When he turns around, his heart rate suddenly spiking, he is met with Shen Qingqiu’s hardened gaze from the other end of the dock: an elegant immortal figure wrapped in emerald green and electrifying the sleepy atmosphere of morning.

Luo Binghe’s first thought is that he probably looks a bit rough and unrefined right now in front of his Shizun. His pants are rolled up to the knees, exposing the thick bandage wrapped around his calf. He’s only donning one layer of a short robe with the collar pulled loose, revealing newly tanned skin marred with scratches and his sea-salted hair sitting disheveled under his bamboo hat.

He thinks that he must look strikingly common, his appearance stripped of anything that would allude to him being more than just a boy.

The Shen Qingqiu of his past would have loathed the sight of him, deeming his state of appearance lowly and filthy; an embarrassment to Qing Jing Peak.

This Shen Qingqiu, however…

Luo Binghe has found that understanding his Shizun’s expressions is all about picking apart the small details. He is still working on improving his fluency in reading his Shizun, the task more difficult than in his past life. This Shen Qingqiu sometimes seems full of contradictions; aloof yet expressive, calm yet stirred.

Luo Binghe likes to think that after over a year of careful observation, he can figure out what Shen Qingqiu is thinking about half of the time.

Now though? Right now, Luo Binghe has no idea what his Shizun is feeling. Shen Qingqiu’s knuckles are white around his fan and his expression seems almost distraught under the mask he is trying to maintain. His features are paler than usual and his lips are set in a hard, thin line.

“Shizun…” Luo Binghe is the first to speak, breaking the strange, impromptu staring contest between them. He gives a quick wave over his shoulder to Rohan’s family and makes his way to where Shen Qingqiu is standing. He tries to break some of the odd tension with a calculated smile but it only seems to make his Shizun stiffen up more.

An episode of silence passes. “Shizun? Has this disciple upset you?”

“Binghe is injured.”

It isn’t until that moment that Luo Binghe realizes that Shen Qingqiu isn’t looking directly at him, but instead is boring his eyes into the exposed skin around his neck that is riddled with angry red wounds.

Then, all at once, Shen Qingqiu seems to come back to himself and cracks like a porcelain cup.

“Did this master not tell you to wait for my arrival before attempting to subdue anything on your own?” His voice is stern and low, quivering at the edges with what Luo Binghe assumes is anger. “Binghe was reckless as always. Do my words mean nothing to you? Do you seriously care so little for your own well-being?!”

Shen Qingqiu starts to bat his folded fan against Luo Binghe’s uninjured shoulder.

“Impudent! Careless! Brutish!”

Luo Binghe takes each hit without complaint and finds his expression melts into something almost sheepish.

“Will Shizun really not praise this disciple for being able to handle it on his own?”

“And what exactly is there to praise, ah?! Look at you!”

“This disciple will do better.”

“Don’t feed this master your hollow words if you don’t mean them.”

“Would Shizun like me to swear it?”

“Yes. Properly!”

So Luo Binghe swears it, placing his hand over his heart and lifting four fingers with the other to tilt against his brow. He swears to take better care of himself and not put himself in harm's way unnecessarily. He prattles on promise after promise to protect his well-being until Shen Qingqiu starts to nod, satisfied.

Luo Binghe can’t help but feel that the moment has turned a little bit amusing, the tension from before somehow already forgotten.

Shen Qingqiu lets out a long sigh before spreading his fan and regaining his composure.

“Now that is settled, would Binghe like to walk with this master for a bit? It has been a long time since I have seen the sea.” He says. “I would also like a full, personal recount of Binghe’s adventures.”

And so they walk. Luo Binghe guides them to a small cove just beyond the rocks of the harbor, the small stretch of beach cushioned between two cliffs and private in nature. The early morning fog settles against the horizon, blending the sky and sea as one.

Luo Binghe begins to babble about every detail he can think of, feeling strangely conversational and his feet light in the sand. He tells of everything from the cranky one-sided discussions with Chanchan to how he met Rohan and his family. He recounts his initial theories and how he gathered intel on the case. He describes what it feels like to listen to a siren song and how he acquired his wounds, leaving out a gruesome detail or two. He tries to spin the story to make it seem like he stumbled across the nest by accident and did not voluntarily dive right in.

Shen Qingqiu listens to it all, his gaze never straying from Luo Binghe. The sea breeze pets his Shizun with careful strokes, playing and lifting parts of his long hair. His fan hides half of his face, but Luo Binghe notices the way Shen Qingqiu’s eyes react to each part of his story whether pinching at the corners in a smile or rolling back in exasperation.

“That family sounds like they took great care of my disciple.” Shen Qingqiu comments near the end, his tone oddly wistful.

“They were… very kind, yes.” Luo Binghe affirms, eyes unconsciously skirting down to his clothes, hand reaching up to twiddle with the hem of his short robe.

“They appeared as if they didn’t want to let Binghe go. That older woman seemed particularly displeased the moment she noticed me.”

Something in Shen Qingqiu’s voice catches Luo Binghe’s attention and he looks up at his Shizun with a studying gaze, squinting at him. After a moment, the corners of his lips start to twitch into something a little bit playful.

“This disciple enjoyed himself these past days quite a bit. I almost considered staying.” He muses, putting on an air of innocence as he probes the nature of Shen Qingqiu’s sudden demeanor.

Something falters in his Shizun’s stride and his expression turns a bit grim, his fan snapping shut and tight in his grasp.

“Is that so…”

Luo Binghe does his best to hide his mirth, dark eyes sparkling. He turns around to walk backwards in front of his Shizun so that their gaze can meet.

“Don’t be jealous, Shizun.” He can’t help but tease, throwing some of his propriety out the window.

Shen Qingqiu bristles and then frowns, turning his face away from Luo Binghe’s view. “Ridiculous.” He bites out.

“Shizun.”

“Don’t spout nonsense.”

“Shizun~”

“Let us return to Qing Jing Peak. I have better things to do.”

Luo Binghe lets out a barking laugh as Shen Qingqiu abruptly turns on his heel to head back to the harbor. Luo Binghe doesn’t mind hurrying after him as his Shizun kicks up sand, a foreign sense of joy lodged between his ribs.

Like he said, half of the time, Luo Binghe could get it right. He just needed to pay close enough attention.

<>

His reunion with Chanchan on his way back to Qing Jing Peak was lackluster as he was met with her indifference. She even tried to nip at him repeatedly when he prepared her saddle for the ride home. He glared at her while stuffing an apple between her enormous teeth to get her to stop.

He discovers that Shen Qingqiu himself uncharacteristically rode his own horse, not even bothering with a carriage this time. It is a white stallion that fits well to his Shizun’s lofty immortal image– or at least it would if the stallion wasn’t so insistent on flirtingly nuzzling against Chanchan when they drifted close enough on the path. It only serves to make Shen Qingqiu a bit irritated every time his leg is knocked against Luo Binghe’s.

Luo Binghe simply chuckles behind the privacy of his hand.

Halfway home, he remembers the sacks of seeds tucked into his travel pouch and finds himself clearing his throat a bit awkwardly, shifting in his saddle and pointedly looking towards the sky when he speaks up.

“This disciple forgot to mention, but I have a gift for Shizun when we return to the Bamboo House.” He mutters, probably a bit too much on the quiet side. Shen Qingqiu hears him anyway, turning his gaze to his disciple with a pleasantly surprised expression.

“Binghe needn’t gift this master anything.” He responds politely.

Luo Binghe’s confidence has been built over decades upon decades on a sturdy foundation, yet he feels some of it crumble under the weight of his Shizun’s attention.

“It is simply a thank you… for sending me to the East Sea. For trusting and believing in me.” He coughs as he speaks, his eyes flickering over to Shen Qingqiu. He has probably never felt more like a teenager than he does right now, humiliated by his own attempt at thoughtfulness.

His is met with Shen Qingqiu’s considering gaze that slowly melts into a smile like dawn peaking over the horizon and spilling across the earth.

“Binghe, there is no one this master deems more reliable than you.”

“...”

Luo Binghe has no response to that, so he simply urges Chanchan to walk faster and prays for a breeze to come and cool him off. This summer heat was really too much for him!

<>

Upon arriving back to the Bamboo House around mid-morning, Luo Binghe first busies himself with cleaning up the space. Shen Qingqiu’s room had turned itself into a bit of a mess in his absence so he spends some time reshelving books, throwing away old ink and wiping down surfaces. His Shizun recuperates from travel by meditating on the back porch and Luo Binghe opens all the doors and windows of the house to let the breeze carry out some lingering staleness.

He eventually makes his way to the kitchen with one of the sacks of seeds in hand. He pours what he deems is a decent amount into one of the stone grinding bowls. He sets a pot of water on the stove to boil and then moves to begin crushing the seeds.

The aroma is extremely potent and nothing like Luo Binghe has ever smelled. It is nutty and bitter and the waft of it up his nose as he grinds them into a fine powder makes his face twitch a bit. It isn’t bad, just absurdly unique.

He then distributes the powder into a fine cheesecloth and lays it over a separate serving pot. He remembers Rohan’s instruction and begins to pour the hot water through the cloth and watches as a rich, dark liquid gradually drips from the mesh. The addition of water warms the scent somewhat and Luo Binghe finds himself curiously enjoying it as the steam carries the aroma around him.

Then suddenly there is a patter of rushed and heavy footsteps echoing through the hall behind him. He stops his gradual pouring and turns to look at the door the moment Shen Qingqiu all but throws himself into the threshold, his grip on the door frame knuckle-white and his eyes blown uncharacteristically wide.

He stares at Luo Binghe who stares right back, a little caught off guard, and then his eyes flicker down to the pot in front of his disciple.

“Is that…?”

The question lingers in the air like it is somehow profoundly significant. Luo Binghe’s expression pinches in bewilderment as he also looks down at the freshly brewed pot.

“Does Shizun recognize the scent of Arabica seeds?”

Shen Qingqiu stumbles the rest of the way into the kitchen as if pulled by some unknown force and Luo Binghe can only watch the strange display. His Shizun pushes himself into Luo Binghe’s space, leaning over the pot and taking a deep, almost meditative breath as the steam billows across his face.

“I thought I’d never… this is…” He mumbles.

He then turns his attention back to Luo Binghe, fascination etched into his features in such a way that Luo Binghe almost doesn’t recognize him.

“Is this the gift you were talking about?”

Luo Binghe only nods.

Shen Qingqiu lights up. He reaches forward with both of his hands and buries them in Luo Binghe’s hair enthusiastically. He rubs and ruffles his fingers against the strands in blatant praise until they then trace down to cup both of Luo Binghe’s cheeks, titling his face up.

“Binghe has brought this master coffee! You really are such a good boy!” Shen Qingqiu cheers freely, teeth poking through an enamored smile.

Luo Binghe feels something crack in his psyche. He doesn’t recognize the foreign word his Shizun uses to describe the brew, but the delight is palpable and he is forced to choke on it. His palms are suddenly clammy and his stomach seems to twist in on itself, his heart pounding in his ears.

He is too dazed to register when Shen Qingqiu stops touching him, the ghost of those hands still lingering on his face. His Shizun starts to rummage through the pantry, talking to himself about something regarding milk and sugar.

Luo Binghe stands there in the kitchen and thinks that something very terrible is starting to happen to him.

...

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Notes:

Chanchan (潺潺) can be translated to literally mean gurgle, babble or murmur.

Was this entire chapter inspired solely by the fact that I wanted SY to drink coffee again? Yes...

Additionally, I want it to be perfectly clear to readers that I intend to spend a fair amount of time on the disciplehood years in this fic because I think it is important for the story I want to tell.

I will be forcing a lot of fluff down your throat until the cavities finally kick in and things start to hurt!

Chapter 13: Messy Hands

Notes:

This fic has a couple of new tags and I will continue to add more as I go, so make sure to keep your eye out! The probability of me changing the rating is high.

Without spoiling too much, I will do my best to put content warnings before needed chapters. Stay safe and please take care!

CW: Sexual themes, underage (technically?) masturbation & self-harm by scratching

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe is familiar with attraction. He knows both sides of it well.

In his mind, the allure of a body is something carnal and innate. Sex is a natural means of purging the body and gaining power over another. Lust is a tool, a weapon, that he has used and has been used against him. It is rarely ever something kind or soft.

When Qin Wanyue had taken his virginity when he was young, he had hoped that being touched by another would be greater than it was. Her body was riddled with grief and greed in the places he thought affection might be and it wounded some part of him at that age that hoped for something better.

Going through and coming out of the Endless Abyss, fight or f*ck had been a means to survive, especially when he came to rely on the powers of Xin Mo. He learned that a body was just a body– it could be torn and healed, hurt and pleasured.

The heart was always locked away during such acts, protected in an ivory cage so that no hands could touch it.

The only time he had let someone close enough was with Ning Yingying.

At the time, his harem had already begun to grow along with his status and power. He found it necessary to wed anyone he bedded as if to appease some lost part of him. He likes to think he treated them well, giving them all their own accommodations in the rear palace and attending to their needs, some more demanding than others.

When he had whisked Ning Yingying from Qing Jing Peak upon his return to the Human Realm in an attempt to save her from the vile nature he had accused Shen Qingqiu of, he had brought her back to the palace in the hopes she would be better off there. He doesn’t remember how they ended up rolling in bed with each other. He isn’t sure if she acted first, or he did, but he had felt a spark of hope at that moment that maybe it would be different.

She had always been kind to him and he wanted to treat her kindly in turn. He had done his best to be gentle, but she had still cried underneath him. When it was over, she had rubbed his back and smiled warmly, but he still felt like something between them had been ruined. After that, he only ever visited her chambers when he felt weakest.

When his harem only seemed to grow and he was thrown into promiscuous situations left and right, attraction seemed to lose meaning outside of personal gain.

When he had learned the nature of Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe’s relationship in that other reality, along with their monogamous loyalty to one another, he had felt nothing short of hateful. His greed and pride had mixed, concocting a bitter potion that had intoxicated him with the need to have that Shen Qingqiu himself– to see if maybe the taste of him would provide relief.

His Shizun had always been terribly alluring and terribly out of reach in his disciplehood, so he was more than willing to press their lips together as soon as he sensed Shen Qingqiu’s defenses slipped away. He wanted to know what it would feel like to have power over that man in a way that was different from violence. He wanted to see if Shen Qingqiu would fight or cry underneath him.

The desire of the moment was cruel and rapacious, born only from a wounded part of him that still longed to be accepted.

When Shen Qingqiu realized that the man he was kissing was not the one he wanted, Luo Binghe understood that for the first time in decades, he had lost.

Defeat gripped him tight around the throat, and when he walked out of that other reality and back into his own, he became so lightheaded under the pressure that he begged for another chance.

Miraculously, he was given one. His slate had been wiped clean and his body became untouched once more.

He had relished in the privacy and safety of it.

But now he is distressed, riddled with anxiety because he is coming to terms with the fact that he might be attracted to the Shen Qingqiu of this new life.

It keeps throwing him for a loop because every time he senses it, he can’t figure out the reason. He tries to discern if there is something to be gained from his interest. He already has his Shizun’s attention, so seducing Shen Qingqiu– especially in his current body!- would bear no fruit for him. There was no power to be had, no life-threatening danger to be saved from!

So why?

Ever since that day Luo Binghe had brewed Arabica seed and Shen Qingqiu had smiled down at him, holding his face in his hands, every single brush of physical contact with his Shizun has left a trace of electricity that sparks over his skin and makes his hair stand on end.

It doesn’t take him long to figure out what the feeling is, particularly when all the clues seem to come together and smack him square in the face during apple-picking season.

The summer starts to fall asleep as the days pass in Luo Binghe’s silent turmoil and Shen Qingqiu organizes a trip down to the orchard at the base of Qian Cao Peak to gather some of the fruit and enjoy the last warmth of the year. Luo Binghe acts as he always does and attends the event as a dutiful disciple. He wanders off a bit on his own, searching specifically for green apples so he could prepare a marmalade for Shen Qingqiu that would pair well with goat cheese and honey on sesame crackers.

Most of the orchard had already been picked clean from Qian Cao’s medical harvest, so finding a good and ripe choice proves a bit difficult. He manages to snag a couple for his basket, but it is not enough to achieve his recipe. When he spots one last good one, high up in the brush just out of reach, he attempts to climb the tree.

That is, until a warmth grips the sides of his waist and lifts him the rest of the way.

He stares dumbfounded at the apple that is now right in front of him as he is suspended in the air. Tentatively, with nothing else to do, he plucks the fruit and then feels himself carefully being lowered. His back presses against the expanse of the chest behind him, bearing his weight with ease until his feet find the ground again.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t immediately pull away, choosing instead to lean over Luo Binghe’s shoulder, admiring the apple in his disciple’s hands, his own still resting just under Luo Binghe’s ribs.

“Binghe has only just recovered from his wounds. Please refrain from climbing the trees.”

At that moment, Luo Binghe’s mind is nothing but static, something molten pooling in his lower stomach. He feels Shen Qingqiu all around him, from the heat of his skin to the subtle heartbeat bleeding from his Shizun’s chest into his spine. He could smell ink and bamboo and even the remnants of jasmine tea left on Shen Qingqiu’s breath as he spoke kindly.

When he turns his head cautiously to peek at the figure behind him, he is met with the nearness of Shen Qingqiu’s face, soft-eyed and welcoming, and he thinks that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they kissed.

That is until Luo Binghe’s mind catches up with reality and he realizes that doing something like that would be very, very, very wrong.

Luo Binghe is fifteen. He tries to remind himself that he is fifteen. It doesn’t matter how old he really is! In this world, he is fifteen! And this is Shen Qingqiu! Luo Binghe should definitely not kiss his Shizun.

This is the worst. Seriously, the absolute worst.

He’s attracted to Shen Qingqiu and it is awful and he knows it now with full clarity. It is one thing to notice someone is pretty and it is another to want to hold that pretty in your hands and learn all of it’s curves and edges– to want that pretty entwined with you.

He tells himself it is just a body reacting to another body. He tells himself his hormones and constant proximity to Shen Qingqiu are simply a dangerous, yet natural match.

He tells himself that maybe it is just the last remnants of his desire to control and subdue the Shen Qingqiu of his past life bleeding into this one– that he is simply projecting.

It is nothing more.

<>

Luo Binghe, admittedly, does a very good job at overlooking this attraction for the most part as soon as he recognizes it for what it is. He examines the file in his mind listed under ‘Pretty Teacher Issues’ and stuffs it away with ease because he tells himself he’s better than that and he is not a slave to his body or Xin Mo anymore.

That said, growing up was still an issue. On the cusp of his sixteenth year, autumn brings about the early spikes of change in Luo Binghe’s body as he starts shooting up in height and filling out in the shoulders. His voice cracks on the regular like a squawking bird and his hold on his emotions and self-control becomes a mess.

Luo Binghe lays in his bed and curses to every deity he can think of. Being thrown back into the body of a teenager had way too many repercussions to be fair and he has half a mind to not punch a hole through the wall next to him. His bones ache from growing too fast and he keeps having to change his robes the taller and wider he gets. He’s clumsy with his limbs and his appetite is ridiculous. But the hormones…

Luo Binghe thrashes in frustration for a moment, digging his hands into his hair with a seething and defeated sigh. These rampant hormones of his are going to drive him insane. He’s been sporting half-chubs at the most inappropriate of times during random segments of the day that most of the time aren't even triggered by anything in particular! Nights have started to become restless when all he wants to do is sleep but his body wants for something else.

He ignores it most of the time, folding himself into a lotus position and meditating through it, calming the mind and redirecting the blood. It works for the most part, especially without Xin Mo’s influence, but right now it is just too hard to concentrate.

He doesn’t particularly miss his old life, but having wives at his beck and call had surely aided him in never aching for release. He can’t remember the last time he had felt so… deprived, if he even ever was. Sex was always a convenience and a sure way to make certain he slept soundly at night.

But now he lays here in the quiet of the Bamboo House side room, sweat accumulating on his brow and his pillar weeping under his robes, just asking to be touched.

He hates this.

Letting out another sigh of defeat through his teeth, he concedes for the first time since becoming young again, allowing his hand to pull the ties of his robes apart and let the cloth fall away from his chest. The exposure relieves some of the heat on his skin and he shivers with it. He pushes down the fabric of his sleep pants and almost bites his tongue off holding in the moan that piles up in his throat as the brush of fabric gives the faintest stimulation.

He gathers himself in his hand, allowing his thumb to brush over the tip and smear the pearling slick down the length to aid in lessening the friction. He can’t remember the last time he had to take care of himself like this, and he has to take a moment to think about how he likes it best. He strokes languidly at first until he finds an acceptable rhythm, then allows his eyes to close and his head to fall back against the mattress as he zones in on the subtle buzz of pleasure.

He tries to think of something arousing to speed up the process. His mind sorts through images of his old wives, but the faces begin to blur and he gets frustrated with trying to narrow one down. He settles for trying to picture something vague, like voluptuous curves and bouncing breasts. He tries to remember the wet heat of a body swallowing him up, regardless of which hole. It can do something for him, but not as much as he hopes.

Sweat starts to bead down his temple and his brow furrows more in concentration. He tries to imagine the hand around himself is not his own, but instead belongs to someone with slender and pale fingers, elegant and graceful. He imagines the hand attached to a delicate wrist, teasingly peeking out from beneath extravagant robes. He imagines a mouth coming down to suck at the tip as the hand continues to move, silky black hair curtaining around him and brushing against his stomach. He imagines running his free hand through that hair and angling the person to take more of him in their mouth. He imagines looking down and seeing Shen Qingqiu.

Luo Binghe’s eyes snap open like he’s been slapped and he halts all further movement.

No. No, thank you. No.

He was not doing this. He was not about to pleasure himself to the thoughts of the man sleeping just one room over– his Shizun of all things. He could accept his attraction but he refuses to act on it.

His pillar begs him to reconsider, but Luo Binghe stubbornly ignores it, pulling up his pants and hastily tossing his boots on. Though it was immensely uncomfortable to move in this state, he does so anyway, throwing open the door to the side room in quiet urgency and storming into the night outside to get some fresh air.

He’ll just walk it off. It’s fine. It’s fine. He is in control. He is fine.

The cold autumn night bites at his cheeks as he wades through the back garden, trying to breathe slowly and meticulously through his teeth. His inner robe is still pulled open and he lets it flutter, beckoning the cold air in to aid in cooling his feverish skin and temper his heart rate.

The frigid weather scolds his arousal enough to calm things down, paired with his incessant voice of reason trying to make itself known in the back of his mind. He weaves through the bamboo until his mental exhaustion oozes down his spine and into his limbs.

He feels disgusting.

It has nothing to do with a sense of shame or guilt. Luo Binghe knows nothing of those emotions.

Instead, it is a simple sense of dread, like a bug caught in a spider's web, waiting to be devoured. It is the subtle, looming fear that he’s put himself into a dangerous position– left himself open and exposed. He wonders if maybe he is repeating history.

If he desires Shen Qingqiu in any capacity, would it hurt him in the end? Would those eyes turn cold again and stop looking at him? Would his efforts breed hatred like they had done before?

Luo Binghe doesn’t know when he stops walking, but he finds himself in a small clearing of grass, not too far from the river.

The mind is a fickle thing and Luo Binghe’s is particularly fond of tormenting him. He crouches, coiling in on himself as if it would somehow ease the woozy sensation his spinning thoughts bring about.

Thinking about it, wasn’t it actually a bad thing that Shen Qingqiu had come back into his life? Wasn’t the risk too great? Wasn’t it all too unpredictable?

He presses his forehead to his knees and his hands curl over his shoulder blades, tucking themselves under his robe as if attempting to soothe him.

What if he has it all wrong? What if this is all a lie? What if Shen Qingqiu knows who– what he is and is just waiting for the right moment to throw him away?

His nails start to dig into his skin in an attempt to ground himself. The quiet pain helps calm his mind slightly and he continues the motion over and over, dragging his nails up his back and along the base of his neck. He feels flesh piling up underneath his nail beds, but he ignores it, desperate for something to bring him back to the present.

It’s suspicious, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it all be going wrong by now? Shouldn’t he be facing greater trials and tribulations like he always does?

This mundane routine, this peace, this kindness, this sense of hope– isn’t it all too good to be true?

“Binghe?”

That voice is like a sword, piercing him through the gut and causing him to flinch, his nails digging deeper into his skin and ripping the flesh away as he jerks from surprise.

Why is Shen Qingqiu always there to see him at his worst?

He slowly turns his head, uncoiling slightly to look behind him. Shen Qingqiu stands there in the bamboo grove, shrouded in shadow. When he steps into the clearing, the pale moonlight reveals his figure draped in his inner robe and a cloak hastily thrown over his shoulder.

The nearer he draws, the more his normally immovable face seems to fall in dismay. He rushes forward all at once, seizing Luo Binghe’s wrists in his hands and pulling them towards him.

“Luo Binghe! What are you doing?!”

The rational part of him that is still active knows that Shen Qingqiu’s voice is only laced with distress and concern. The state his mind is in right now, however, twists that reason and convinces him it’s disgust. He does his best to contort his arms out of that grip, the momentum causing him to reel back.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t falter, but instead then reaches for the back of his collar, pulling the fabric away from the sticky skin of his shoulders. From here, Luo Binghe can now see the bloody splotches that paint the fabric black in the moonlight. He looks down at his hands and observes that his fingertips have been dyed the same.

“What have you done? Why are you-”

“This disciple apologizes if he woke Shizun.” Luo Binghe interrupts, his head bowed, refusing to look at the man fretting over him.

A rushed and disbelieving huff leaves Shen Qingqiu and then he is scooping his arms under Luo Binghe’s, attempting to pull him up to stand.

Something like panic surges up in him and he begins to thrash. He doesn’t really understand why, but his mind in all its turmoil seems to go into fight or flight, unsure of what Shen Qingqiu might do while he is vulnerable.

“Luo Binghe!”

He tries to push Shen Qingqiu away but those arms keep gathering him up, trying to hold him steady.

“Binghe, stop! Just let me-!”

He kicks and flails, technique lost under the fact that his Shizun is just so much stronger than he is at this age. The notion makes a distressed and strangled sound leave his lips and then he twists around and does something disturbingly undignified.

He slaps Shen Qingqiu across the face hard, the resounding smack from the contact echoing and bouncing off the bamboo stalks around them.

Everything goes still.

Shen Qingqiu turns his face slowly back to him, eyes wide with incredulity that Luo Binghe interprets as anger. His bloody fingertips have left a trail over his Shizun’s pale skin, stretching over his cheek and down to his chin.

And at that moment, Luo Binghe sees someone else.

He sees the Shen Qingqiu he had strung up in the Water Prison all those years ago. He sees the Shen Qingqiu with only his head and torso left, never admitting any of his wrongs, even as his limbs were torn. He sees the Shen Qingqiu whom he eventually let die because even with one eye and his tongue gouged out, he still never looked Luo Binghe’s way.

There is evidence that the Shen Qingqiu he knew existed in this world too. He remembers the way his body felt when he first awoke. There is always the possibility that he could return.

But then… the Shen Qingqiu in front of him simply sighs. He leans forward, brow pinched with worry and looks straight at Luo Binghe as if there is nothing else to see.

“Tell this master what is wrong.” He says, and with complete certainty now, Luo Binghe knows that his Shizun is someone else. Whether it is simply the way alternate universes work or Shen Qingqiu has been replaced, Luo Binghe can’t be certain. Luo Binghe is not so sure he cares.

“This disciple…” His voice wobbles and his eyes suddenly sting, something he can’t define welling up in his throat. “This disciple is sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu simply shakes his head as if the offense meant nothing- as if it was something easy to let go of.

“Follow me. Let’s get you cleaned up,” is all he says further before he gently guides Luo Binghe deeper into the grove towards the river. “Take off your boots. It will be cold, but you’ll feel better in the end.”

Luo Binghe does as he is instructed, fatigue washing over him and making him more susceptible to obedience. His gaze is still wary, but some of his sense of self has returned. Shen Qingqiu removes his own shoes and cloak, his inner robes still draping over him conservatively. He wades into the shallow section of the riverside and turns to stretch his hand out to his disciple.

Luo Binghe takes a moment to stare at his Shizun, knee-deep in the gentle stream and amiable under the moonlight, beckoning him to his side. His heart stirs and he softly places his hand in Shen Qingqiu’s, letting himself be pulled in.

The water is frigid, sending a faint shiver up his spine, but he follows his Shizun to sit down anyway. Shen Qingqiu positions himself behind him, brushing his long hair aside and gently tugging away the fabric of Luo Binghe’s inner robes so that it pools in the water by his waist.

If the situation were any different, Luo Binghe’s mind might have drifted to more inappropriate realms, the intimacy of the moment providing plenty of opportunity.

But there was no room for such thoughts in the quiet space between them as Shen Qingqiu’s hands cup the water of the river and smooth it over his jagged wounds, washing them clean. The crisp water pearls down his spine, carrying the blood away with it. His Shizun’s warm palms lay themselves over his shoulder blades and he pours his spiritual energy into him. Luo Binghe feels him everywhere, from the tips of his fingers down to his toes.

They stay like that for a long while and Luo Binghe doesn’t even care that he’s gone numb from the cold.

“Will Binghe speak to this master now?” Shen Qingqiu asks delicately, his voice like wool pulled over Luo Binghe's figure.

He takes a minute to answer, his eyes fixed on his hands as he picks out some of the gore from under his nails, washing it away in the stream.

“This disciple has fears.” He finally says, his voice sounding distant, even to his own ears.

“What is Binghe afraid of?”

“I’m afraid that… one day I will wake up and find myself back where I started.” It is about as honest as he can get and Luo Binghe feels like he’s been pinned to a dish, insides spilling out of him to be observed.

Shen Qingqiu urges him to turn around with a gentle nudge as soon as his wounds are mostly closed. Luo Binghe refuses to budge, so Shen Qingqiu takes it upon himself to shift in the river to sit in front of his disciple, seeking his gaze.

“Binghe has improved in leaps and bounds. Your cultivation and martial skills have already gone to outrank the majority of your peers. You can only grow from here.” He tries to reassure, sounding like how a perfect teacher would. Luo Binghe allows his eyes to flicker up and he shakes his head.

“Shizun, this disciple is still afraid that all of it will have been for nothing— that my destiny will only be riddled with strife, no matter how I might try to change it.” His tone is strained, his hands fisting below the water and a faint tremor wracking his body. His heart is gripped tight by these emotions, the pain blooming like a lotus flower in his chest.

Shen Qingqiu looks a little speechless, his eyes searching. “Binghe’s destiny is greater than he might believe.”

The words almost make Luo Binghe laugh. He knows plenty of how ‘great’ it is supposed to be. He’s lived it once. He doesn’t want to live it again.

“Will Shizun stay by my side this time?” He asks before he can even think about it, that lost and broken part of himself letting its voice be heard.

“This time?” Shen Qingqiu seems to go very still at this, his brow furrowing. “Binghe…”

Luo Binghe interprets the reaction as something uncertain. “Ah, I suppose Shizun can’t make such promises. This disciple has overstepped.” He says weakly, a wavering smile trying to stretch on his face. He is met with silence for a long time so he tries to focus on the whispering babble of water over stones and the occasional rustle of bamboo leaves. He turns to try and hide from Shen Qingqiu's dissecting gaze.

“This master promises to do the best he can.” Luo Binghe startles at the words enough to look back in time to see his Shizun reaching for him. Shen Qingqiu tucks a strand of damp hair behind Luo Binghe’s ear. The moment is tender and everything he deserves but is still afraid to accept. “Is that enough?”

Luo Binghe aches and thinks that maybe– just maybe– Shen Qingqiu won’t hurt him after all. He takes a deep, shuddering breath and nods, blinking harshly to hide the way his eyes burn at the edges.

“That’s enough.”

He gathers some of the river into his palm and lifts his hand to Shen Qingqiu's cheek, washing away the leftover trails of blood. Shen Qingqiu lets him.

Notes:

I hope you guys are content with my interpretation of Bingge’s character.

I think he can be written in many different ways, especially regarding his relationship with SQQ/Y or SJ, so it is always interesting to hear other people’s perspectives.

If you’d like to share your own thoughts about our darling boy, I’d love to read them!

The fluff will return in the next chapter.

Chapter 14: Something Earned

Notes:

Did I promise fluff? Sorry, that has been rescheduled for next chapter.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe knows that he is not the only one newly enraptured by Shen Qingqiu and his kindness.

Other disciples and Peak Lords have been fluttering about his Shizun for quite some time now– especially that Liu Qingge who makes a point to hover in the doorway now and then with a fistful of hunting trophies.

These people try so hard to separate themselves from demonkind, yet so readily partake in some of their traditions! The blatant attempt at courtship makes Luo Binghe want to gag every time he hears that knock on the front door.

On the bright side, Shen Qingqiu seems quite oblivious to these advances and most other displays of affection.

Luo Binghe has encountered this type many times before among his previous wives– those who are stubbornly out of tune with their emotions and ignorant of common social customs. People cut from such cloth tend to have walls up around their senses built by bricks of attachment issues and self-preservation. Either that or it is just plain stupidity, but Luo Binghe likes to try and give Shen Qingqiu some benefit of the doubt despite his idiotic streak over the past two years.

He’s learned through his past rendezvous that blunt and honest words were the best way to drill through thick skulls. That, and usually a helpful dose of aphrodisiac…

(Luo Binghe develops a habit of monitoring everything Shen Qingqiu drinks or eats or sneezes near. He is not completely certain he can trust any of his peers around his Shizun yet, but that’s besides the point.)

He, himself, has no intention of attempting to court Shen Qingqiu. That is… not yet at least. There is still a lot he has yet to understand about this man and too many factors regarding their future to consider. His persisting qualms regarding the nature of his attraction certainly don’t help.

Does he still find himself indulging where he can? … Maybe.

So what if he sits a little closer during mealtimes and sways towards Shen Qingqiu when they converse? So what if he pretends not to understand certain guqin moves just so Shen Qingqiu will lean over his shoulder and lay his fingers against Luo Binghe’s? So what if he shows off a couple of times during sword practice just so Shen Qingqiu will praise him and pet his head?

He doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

Is it embarrassing? Who's to say? He doesn’t think he’s being obvious, no matter what Ning Yingying might imply when she elbows him in the side and wags her eyebrows.

<>

The second winter of Luo Binghe’s new life brings about more snow than the last. He’s out on the porch, shoveling some of the powder off the steps when Shen Qingqiu meets him outside, Luo Binghe’s cloak in hand.

“Is Binghe excited for today?” He asks with a knowing grin, draping the fur over his disciple’s shoulders. Luo Binghe reaches up to clasp the fabric together himself, placing the shovel aside and meeting Shen Qingqiu’s smile with his own.

“Mn, quite.”

“Serendipitous that the sword selection ceremony would fall on your birthday this year, no?”

“So Shizun does remember.” They make their way down the path together to meet up with the rest of the disciples, careful around the patches of ice on the stone. “It is a treat indeed. Perhaps even a good omen.”

“This master is sure Binghe’s weapon will serve him well.”

The trip to Wan Jian Peak is fairly swift and filled with Shen Qingqiu renewing a lecture on the history of the Sword Wall to the participating group of disciples that have come of age. Luo Binghe leisurely chews a handful of seeds and lingers off to the side, having heard this all before and letting his eyes wander around the sights along the rainbow bridge.

Upon their arrival, Wan Jian’s older members help direct them towards the ceremony site, providing them with their tent designated for Qing Jing Peak. The Sword Wall is located near the highest point on the mountain, tucked between two jagged cliffs that keep away the snow and framed by red-pine trees. A stone terrace lies in front of it, wide and multitiered to host the event and provide the best views.

There are torches scattered around and different members of the Sect all start to mingle about the fires, pulling their cloaks tight and conversing. There are stations near the tents offering mulled fruit wines and mijiu which he treats himself to contentedly.

Luo Binghe never really learned how to be a fan of hollow conversation, so he finds himself hovering near the edges of the gathering, tracing the rim of his half empty cup and letting his gaze travel across the small crowd. Some of the girls from Xian Shu wave at him with coquettish giggles and he humors them by smiling back, but doesn’t go as far as to approach them.

He ruminates on his previous experience at this event and the similarities between the past and now. He expects his reunion with Zheng Yang to be much the same as it was before, but this time Shen Qingqiu will be there to witness it.

As his mind drifts, he remembers the small bamboo box of snacks he has in his sleeve that he prepared before leaving. He thinks he should probably give it to Shen Qingqiu before the proceedings start. It is filled with what he has learned are Shizun’s winter favorites: peeled persimmon slices, sesame balls and a handful of candied walnuts.

He spots Shen Qingqiu in a small gathering with some of the other Peak Lords near the announcement stage and makes his way out from under the tent and over to them. He works to tuck his robes more firmly and pull his hair back to give a decent impression of a dutiful disciple, retying his ribbon a couple of times till he feels it sits right.

When he draws near, he pulls out the snack container from his sleeve and opens his mouth to call out to his Shizun, when suddenly his eyes land on something and he stops dead.

Fun fact: Luo Binghe really f*cking hates rodents. He thinks of them as unclean pests, bearers of bad fortune and riddled with infectious nature. They make him sick and tire his patience– particularly when they are difficult to snuff out.

And Luo Binghe is looking right at one.

Shang Qinghua.

Luo Binghe’s hand nearly crushes the box he’s holding. His teeth grind together hard till pain jolts along his jaw and his expression grows dark. He focuses on the rat with fatal attention, studying the way he prattles to Shen Qingqiu and the others.

Perhaps Luo Binghe was becoming too idle in his new life because how could he neglect the potential threat of this pest? How had the thought slipped his mind?

This was the Peak Lord that betrayed the Sect by working with demons behind the scenes. This was the Peak Lord that was ultimately responsible for the Immortal Alliance Conference incident in his past life.

Luo Binghe’s eyes flicker to the Sword Wall and then back to Shang Qinghua as his skin bristles with murderous intent. The familiar black tendrils of anger and acrimony caress and grip him tight.

Should he kill him? Or leave that satisfaction to Mobei Jun like before? It’s hard to decide.

Even if he tried to out him as a spy, Luo Binghe wouldn’t yet have sufficient proof until the Conference in this life took place. Shang Qinghua was always rumored to be sneaky and slippery to the highest degree, his treachery rooted in his strong sense of self-preservation. Most agreements between him and the Demon Realm occurred when Luo Binghe was a blissfully unaware disciple– all of it kept completely under wraps by those involved. So, even if Luo Binghe did want to look for something to dig up now, he wouldn’t be sure where to start unless he tried to seek out Mobei Jun directly.

Which, admittedly, Luo Binghe would rather not do. Mobei Jun would sense his demonic heritage immediately and probably break his seal before Luo Binghe could even blink. Something like that would not bode well for his long term plans.

Luo Binghe attempts to swallow down his frustration, running his hand dejectedly across his brow and does his best to ground himself.

…f*ck. This would be so much easier if he could just chop off Shang Qinghua’s head right here and let it roll down the mountain. It would be such a cleaner fix that way and save him so much trouble.

He quickly corrects his expression, plastering on a calculated, pleasant grin, letting his eyes press up at the corners and his teeth poke out.

He will ruminate on it later.

“Shizun!”

Shen Qingqiu’s head turns in acknowledgment at the sound of his voice and a small smile warms his face when he spots Luo Binghe. A couple of other pairs of eyes look in his direction and Luo Binghe notices with rapt interest the way Shang Qinghua goes wooden at the sight of him.

“This disciple wanted to give this to Shizun before the ceremony began.” He purposefully beams as he saunters up to the small group of Peak Lords, placing the bamboo box in Shen Qingqiu’s already open and waiting palm.

“Binghe is as considerate as ever.” Shen Qingqiu praises, sliding open the container and examining the contents. His expression is a bit more schooled in public, but Luo Binghe can see the pleased glitter in his eyes. He turns and ruffles the top of Luo Binghe’s head, affectionate and approving.

Luo Binghe takes a moment to preen under the touch before turning politely to the others and bowing, keeping his eyes strictly trained on Shang Qinghua. The rat must feel the weight of the attention because he seems to grow deathly pale with each passing second, his gaze flickering rapidly between Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu, brow sheen with sweat. His arms are tucked behind his back, but Luo Binghe can see the shifting of his shoulders as if he is secretly wringing his hands.

It is actually… a little bit too much of a reaction, especially since it is only Luo Binghe in front of him. Shang Qinghua shouldn’t know anything of his heritage or even who he is, yet a certain amount of recognition is clear in that squirrely gaze.

Suspicious. Luo Binghe brands Shang Qinghua with the word in his mind.

“Shen-shixiong’s students are awfully attentive. It seems you are still being pampered unashamedly.” The quip comes from Qi Qingqi, her voice sharp and expression pulled halfway between something friendly and a sneer. Luo Binghe remembers her well enough, taking in her ornate and mildly garish purple robes.

“I am a patient, am I not?” Shen Qingqiu banters in return, raising his hand to display the back of it as he pops a persimmon slice into his mouth. The old wounds have healed but the implication of his infection of Without a Cure is clear. “I see no reason not to indulge in the altruism of others. Why do you think Liu-shidi comes by so often to help me clear my meridians?”

Liu Qingge goes red in the ears– which makes Luo Binghe’s annoyance prickle– and the chatter between the group continues while he is dismissed by a wave from his Shizun. He leaves obediently, albeit a bit begrudgingly and makes an effort to send one last experimental glare over his shoulder to Shang Qinghua.

The rat looks as if he’s about to keel over and Luo Binghe makes a satisfied mental note of it for later.

<>

The ceremony is fairly straightforward as each Peak’s disciples are welcomed up to the Sword Wall. The chances of successfully pulling a spiritual blade from the rock are high for the disciples of Cang Qiong, but every once and a while a student could be rejected or not find their connection. Those who leave the wall empty-handed would be forced to wait until next year.

The disciples of Qiong Ding are the first to go. The students all shuffle about in front of the large, looming rock as they seek out a blade that calls to them. A lot of it is just drifting hands and dramatic gasping as each student pulls out their weapon and excitedly trips over themselves to present it to Sect Leader Yue who provides gentle, approving nods in return. Luo Binghe notes his docile and almost mother hen-ish nature and thinks that this is probably the only time he has ever seen the Sect Leader smile genuinely at anyone other than Shen Qingqiu.

He is always wearing a pleasant expression, but it so rarely ever reaches his eyes. Luo Binghe in the past always thought it was because he was a liar of sorts– a pretender amongst the crowd more powerful than people could fathom and playing humble about it. Luo Binghe thinks it’s possible now that he could have been wrong, or maybe he is right, but just not in the way he thinks.

When Qing Jing’s disciples are called up, Luo Binghe’s eyes scan the wall and find Zheng Yang easily. The sword is embedded right where it was before but he makes a show of testing out a couple of other hilts so as to not be obvious. When his fingers finally wrap around that familiar handle, he feels a refreshing wave of energy and he gives it a firm tug.

Zheng Yang doesn’t move.

Instead, he is met with a pulse of rejection; a stinging sensation rushing up from his palm all the way to his shoulder as if he’d been bitten.

Luo Binghe goes still and then tugs again more forcefully this time. When the sword still doesn’t budge, his face grows dark, his eyes narrowing down at Zheng Yang in a glare as he places both hands on the hilt now, his grip knuckle-white.

“Don’t force it, Luo-shidi.”

Luo Binghe’s piercing gaze flickers over to the voice and meets a familiar face that makes him pause.

‘Hong-shixiong’ is smiling at him warmly, a sword already in hand that he must have just pulled. Luo Binghe notices that most of the other Qing Jing disciples have started to clear out and a flush of frustration spreads down the back of his neck.

“Some don’t find their match the first time around.” ‘Hong-shixiong’ tries to provide encouragingly. “Heck, this is my third year and I only just now got lucky.” He makes a point of spinning his sword between his fingers, the blade simple and the hilt design modest. Luo Binghe’s mouth is set in a hard line, his expression humorless.

“But this is my sword.” He says through his teeth, unable to conceal his grievance. ‘Hong-shixiong’ only sighs, shaking his head slightly like one might do if talking to a child. It makes Luo Binghe want to regress in his maturity and wring him by the neck.

“Like I said, don’t force it.” He says, and instead of reprimanding Luo Binghe for his stubbornness, he simply places a hand on his shoulder in a friendly display, giving a few light pats. “A sword will only give itself to a wielder if both of their values align.”

The words swirl around in Luo Binghe for a moment, weaving around his thoughts as his hands continue their vice grip around Zheng Yang. ‘Hong-shixiong’ excuses himself with one last pat and an optimistic grin.

“Don’t be discouraged.” He says over his shoulder. “Also, that’s a very nice cloak Luo-shidi. It suits you.” He tacks on with a playful luster as he walks away.

Luo Binghe realizes he is the only one left at the wall now.

The eyes of everyone in the crowd shine spotlights on him as he lingers. He can feel the silent usher from them to just give up and he tries not to ruminate on what Shen Qingqiu might be thinking from the sidelines.

Would he be disappointed?

Luo Binghe directs his gaze back at Zheng Yang, a bitter feeling spreading over his tongue. He tugs again as he leans down to the handle, pressing his voice close.

“‘Righteous Sun’” he scoffs quietly. “Are you suddenly too ‘righteous’ for me? Do you not like the taste of the blood already on my hands?”

Zheng Yang responds with another snap of energy, sinking its teeth into Luo Binghe disapprovingly.

“Read my heart.” He snarls, thinking of ‘Hong-shixiong’s words. “You have no right to reject me– not when you must understand that I have things I want to do; things I want to protect.”

Zheng Yang goes silent a this, as if deciding whether or not it should trust Luo Binghe.

“... someone I want to protect.” He adds reluctantly. He lets the confession flood through him and gives another firm yank, his heart sitting heavy in his chest.

Zheng Yang slips out with ease this time– so much so that Luo Binghe barely has enough time to correct his stance before he stumbles back with a surprised yip.

The sword flashes bright as it is unsheathed from the rock, glowing like a sunbeam and sending a burst of energy that ripples across the surrounding area, shaking the trees. He hears the exclamations of the crowd start to surge, waves of gasps and murmurs filling the air among the ceremonial music.

The sword shines like a divine harbinger, its aura radiating noble ambition and singing boasting songs of its power.

Luo Binghe stares dumbfounded at Zheng Yang for a moment as it preens under the attention before coming back to his senses and flicking the blade scoldingly.

“Seriously? That’s all it took?” He growls in a harsh whisper. “You sappy hunk of scrap metal.”

Zheng Yang vibrates in offense at the insult. It quivers like a disgruntled old wife, as if threatening to dislodge from Luo Binghe’s hands and stick itself back into the wall.

“Fine. I’m sorry. You’re very pretty; the finest sword out there.”

The moment dims and the lingering reverence amongst the Sect filters out distractedly as the ceremony continues and the next group of disciples is called up. Luo Binghe makes his way off the platform and back towards the tents. He continues to coo and pacify the blade begrudgingly, resisting the urge to roll his eyes before sensing the presence before him.

He goes still under Shen Qingqiu’s watchful gaze, slowly lifting his own to meet it. Shen Qingqiu stands there in all his aloof glory, half of his face tucked behind a fan, eyes sharp over the rim and the white fox fur of his collar fluffed high around his neck.

Luo Binghe, up until this point, has confidently felt that he was knocking down the walls around his Shizun bit by bit, getting small glimpses of who the immortal truly is and learning to read him better. He indulges in thinking they’ve grown close in a way, their days filled with intelligent and spirited conversation, good food, and a peaceful home life.

He looks after Shen Qingqiu and Shen Qingqiu, in his own way, looks after him.

Facing his Shizun now though, Luo Binghe only sees another wall towering before him, taller than the last and seamless, no cracks for him to peek through.

“Shizun–”

“Its name?” Shen Qingqiu cuts him off. He lowers his fan to show a smile but it is stiff and doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He looks as if he’s been spooked, his complexion a little paler than before.

“...” Luo Binghe swallows thickly, lost, before presenting the blade, bowing his head and laying it across his palms to be studied. “Zheng Yang.”

“Hm. Congratulations,” is all Shen Qingqiu responds before turning away and leaving Luo Binghe suspended, dangling in his confusion and chained by that familiar sense of uncertainty.

He hates feeling like this, like he’s been reduced to something so small that the slightest look or word from the man he’s starting to open himself up to could easily unsteady him.

Shen Qingqiu has a habit of doing this sometimes. One moment he will be warm and tangible, gifting Luo Binghe kind gazes and open palms, and then the next it’s as if he’s worlds away, closed off and wiped clean, his words harsh and hollow.

Shen Qingqiu is distant for the rest of the ceremony, not only to Luo Binghe but to everyone else around him, as if lost in deep and disquiet thought. Luo Binghe feels a sense of defensive paranoia wash over him. His mind filters through layers and layers of theories that attempt to rationalize his Shizun’s behavior but he can’t seem to conjure a single, feasible answer.

The walk back home is quiet as the moon starts to climb into the sky. It isn’t until they are in the safety and privacy of the Bamboo House that Luo Binghe decides he can’t take it anymore.

Only blunt and honest words can drill through thick skulls, he reminds himself. He refuses to live in the anxiety of things unspoken like he did when he was young, so willing to roll over and leave the soft belly of his emotions vulnerable to harm.

He scrambles after Shen Qingqiu in the hallway before the man can seclude himself in his room. Luo Binghe swipes at his sleeve and clutches it, simply wishing for his Shizun to look at him again– really look at him again.

“Shizun, has this disciple disappointed you?”

Luo Binghe thinks that he sounds pathetic when he speaks, but he can’t bring himself to care because he just wants to understand. He just wants to stop this constant push and pull that makes him feel like he’s drowning in the tide that Shen Qingqiu has brought into his life. He just wants to know what his Shizun is thinking. He just wants to know if Shen Qingqiu has space for Luo Binghe by his side and whether or not he wants him there at all.

Shen Qingqiu blinks and turns to look at him, as if broken from a daze. His eyes widen in subtle surprise, his brow pinched.

“This disciple can be slow sometimes and doesn’t understand when Shizun gets upset.” Luo Binghe continues in a rush. “This disciple asks that… that Shizun please just talk when things are on his mind. I will listen well, I promise.”

Shen Qingqiu’s expression morphs into something complicated, his jaw clenched as if he is actively biting his tongue. Luo Binghe accepted the fact a while ago that his Shizun may be harboring secrets. It would be hypocritical of him to be angered over such things, and if anything, it should be characteristically expected.

But right now, he can almost see the weight of something unsaid pressed against his Shizun’s shoulders, shrinking his frame and pulling him away from Luo Binghe. It fills him with dread and he’s humiliated by what happens next.

Realistically, he supposes it was bound to happen eventually. He simply thought that it would take more prompting, perhaps be triggered by something more dramatic. It’s unsurprising at this point that it would happen in front of Shen Qingqiu– just like before– unable to escape the vulnerability that his Shizun has always made him susceptible to across both of his lifetimes.

His vision blurs and a wet, hot sensation streaks down his cheeks, pearling along the line of his chin and dripping onto his sleeves.

Luo Binghe cries quietly as he clings to Shen Qingqiu, wanting nothing more than to stop feeling this way.

Each blink and quiver of his lashes drips fresh tears, his cheeks flushed and his emotions laid bare on the table, ready to be carved under the knife. He prepares for his Shizun’s possible reactions, whether pulling away in disgust or sighing and pacifying him with a simple pat to the head and ushering him to his room dismissively.

Neither of those scenarios happen though.

No, instead, Luo Binghe watches as Shen Qingqiu crumbles instantly. It’s subtle, but to Luo Binghe’s trained eye, it’s clear as day. His Shizun’s gaze clears and his brow unfurls, his lips parting in gentle awe.

Shen Qingqiu’s hands come up to start swiping away the falling droplets with his thumbs, and as if a spell has been broken, Luo Binghe feels it: his Shizun is back.

He returns from wherever he had gone and now Luo Binghe has him back, tangible and in reach, the wall no longer built so high, all because of a couple of tears.

Luo Binghe thinks unashamedly at this moment that he’d be willing to cry all the time if it meant keeping Shen Qingqiu with him like this. What good was pride to him anymore? Hadn’t he left that all behind for the sake of his wish?

“Binghe, don’t cry. This master is not upset. This master is not disappointed– never disappointed.” His Shizun’s voice is soft, carrying a faint quiver rooted in the frantic need to soothe. Luo Binghe finds himself basking in it, letting himself melt in Shen Qingqiu’s hands as his tears wet those gentle fingers.

“Shizun.” He calls, simply for the sake of calling.

“You’re okay, Binghe. You need not concern yourself with the tedious thoughts that fill this master’s mind.” Shen Qingqiu hushes. “Binghe is not at fault.”

Luo Binghe realizes that he really wants to hug Shen Qingqiu right now, but perhaps he’d be pushing his luck. It would probably be a bit embarrassing for both of them anyway.

Instead, he settles for resting his cheek in the curve of Shen Qingqiu’s palm and looking up at him through his dewy gaze, relishing in the seconds that pass.

“This disciple only wants to make Shizun proud.” He provides, his voice a bit hiccuped. “When Shizun turned away from me today, I couldn’t help but think the worst.”

He sees that complicated flash in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes again, but it passes quickly this time, replaced only by a soft exasperation.

Luo Binghe realizes that he may be only trying to manipulate more praise out of Shen Qingqiu to fulfill his own selfish, emotional needs. He doesn’t stop himself though. He doesn’t see the harm in a little string-pulling.

“Binghe only continues to impress this master.” Shen Qingqiu assures, though it looks like it embarrasses him slightly to do so, his gaze flickering off to the side briefly. “You should expect no disapproval from me.”

Luo Binghe is content enough with this reply, despite the fact he didn’t technically get any direct answers to his previous afflictions. He lets his eyes dry and his expression melts into something purposefully docile. Shen Qingqiu seems to let out a quiet sigh of relief.

“This disciple will take Shizun’s words to heart.”

The moment lingers between them as Shen Qingqiu thumbs away the last of the remaining tears, tutting as he smoothes out the salted streaks left behind. He pushes Luo Binghe’s hair away from his flushed face, tucking the curls behind his ears and running his fingers through the strands.

Luo Binghe is starting to notice that this behavior seems to be a pattern when it comes to Shen Qingqiu– as if he is somehow grounding himself in the repeated motions of petting along Luo Binghe’s features. He welcomes it now more than ever, letting his eyes fall half-mast and a sleepy smile pull at his lips.

He thinks that despite the emotional turmoil Shen Qingqiu brings into his life, for some reason, right now, Luo Binghe doesn’t doubt that his Shizun cares for him.It feels a little impossible to deny.

Shen Qingqiu cares.

It is both surprising yet obvious and Luo Binghe basks in the revelation. The cage around his heart unlocks, the ivory doors swinging open and leaving what he had protected for so long to fall easily into the open hands of his Shizun.

He thinks it’s fine if he holds on to it for now. Luo Binghe trusts him.

"Shall this disciple prepare some dinner for us?"

"That would be lovely, Binghe."

Notes:

SQQ’s famous hot-and-cold tendencies vs LBH’s deep-rooted insecurities rears its ugly head.

[New weapon unlocked for Bingge: Tears!] [Status: Extremely Effective]

As always, thanks to everyone reading and leaving kudos + comments! I’ll have the next chapter out as soon as I can. Things have been busy now that berry picking season is fast approaching on the farm I work at– but I will prevail!

Up next: Tooth Rotting Fluff!

Chapter 15: Something Stupid

Notes:

Three weeks! Three weeks since I have written anything! For shame!

Anyway... I am back with one of the most self-indulgent chapter so far. Is it OOC? Probably.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

After the night of the sword selection ceremony, Luo Binghe carries around with him a small splinter of indignity for a while.

It pricks him silently at random points in the day, irritating a small wound that refuses to heal and sends a hot flush up the back of his neck.

He had cried in front of Shen Qingqiu.

Not only that, but it was for such a stupid reason.

He’s not sure when exactly it started to happen, but Luo Binghe finds that his mood has become heavily linked with his Shizun’s.

If Shen Qingqiu was happy, Luo Binghe could look forward to having a good day. If Shen Qingqiu was irritated, Luo Binghe would make a note to set extra time aside for preparing sweets and trying to distract him with conversation. If Shen Qingqiu was energetic, Luo Binghe would meet his energy and invite his Shizun on walks or to watch sparring practice. If Shen Qingqiu was upset, Luo Binghe would go about his schedule feeling a sense of unease, doing his best to be more obedient than usual.

There were days where Shen Qingqiu was all there, full of affectionate gazes and cordial dialogue. His presence would fill a room, all eyes drawn to him like flowers bending towards the sun– as if the sight of him alone could nourish. Luo Binghe found these days easy and enjoyable, his chest light and unburdened from worry.

But then there were days when Shen Qingqiu wasn’t there at all.

These were the days Luo Binghe despised the most. It was subtle, but there’d be that distant look in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes, that distracted tone in his voice and sluggishness to his movements. It made Luo Binghe writhe with discomfort, a distinct nausea pulling at his stomach and his thoughts tumultuous, desperate for answers to questions he didn’t know how to ask.

So, when tears had sprung into his eyes that night as another fit of bizarre anxiety wracked his young body, he really shouldn’t have been surprised. Luo Binghe has perpetually been the reactive type. He feels all things in large quantities, whether it be anger, fear, sadness or delight.

He really can’t help it. He’s just… always kind of been this way.

It’s what made his life rooted in revenge and anger. It’s what made him both violent and passionate on the battlefield or in bed. It’s what made him ache so desperately for change back then.

The vulnerability still embarrassed him, but luckily, there was something to be gained from the discovery that Shen Qingqiu was very responsive towards tears.

Luo Binghe, to clarify, does not make a habit of crying. He does, however, endeavor to practice how to conjure that perfect dewy glaze that seems to make his Shizun melt. The tactic serves him well in getting away with a lot of things like skipping lectures or vying for Shen Qingqiu’s time. Sometimes both.

It becomes predominantly effective in getting Shen Qingqiu out of his moods though, which is what pleases Luo Binghe the most.

He begrudgingly admits to himself that Luo Binghe from that alternate reality was probably more clever than he initially gave him credit for– crybaby and all.

“Stop doing that.”

“Doing what, Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu makes a vague gesture as he grumbles, waving his hand in a circular motion in front of Luo Binghe’s face.

“That.”

Luo Binghe blinks, the watery lines of his eyes pooling and droplets sitting heavy against his lashes. He clasps his hands in front of him to perform the perfect picture of innocence.

“This disciple doesn’t know what you mean.”

“...” Shen Qingqiu clicks his tongue. “I am not letting you skip sword glare practice just because you want to go to the Thousand Crystal Winter Market.”

Luo Binghe makes a point to sniffle weakly. Shen Qingqiu looks as if he is in physical pain.

“Fine.” He snaps his fan shut resolutely. “But let this master make a shopping list for you. I hear there are a couple of booths with fine jewelry selections this year.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier for Shizun to accompany this disciple?”

“And what, abandon my duties here for the day?”

“...”

“...”

“Shizun...”

“I’ll go grab our cloaks.”

<>

Luo Binghe finds that he actually likes the fact that Shen Qingqiu is secretly lethargic.

Though he performs well enough in front of others, Luo Binghe, ever so observant, catches on quickly to the way his Shizun doesn’t like to lift a finger unless he has to.

Shen Qingqiu enjoys lazing in the sun rays for long hours and reads trashy novels that he poorly covers with academic manuscripts. Shen Qingqiu enjoys having his feet up when he sits on the couch and eats fruit all day. Shen Qingqiu will take any excuse to not actually perform his duties under the guise of organizing educational trips down the mountain or locking himself in the Bamboo House for the sake of ‘meditating’ which really just involves a lot of sleeping.

It is actually extremely easy to convince his Shizun to do things Luo Binghe wants to do because the immortal will always take it as an opportunity to avoid paperwork and the prattling of most other Peak Lords.

“Shizun! Did you hear that The Great Six Horned Sumpter Beast migration will be passing through the mountains in just a couple days? Shouldn’t we go see it?”

“Shizun, this disciple’s muscles are feeling the burden of training today. Should we make time to visit the hot springs on Qian Cao Peak?”

“Shizun has been working extra hard these days. Wouldn’t it be best to spend some time in the garden to relax? This disciple recently learned a new piece on the guqin and would be happy to play it for you.”

Something about the complacency makes Luo Binghe’s insides purr– as if Shen Qingqiu is secretly asking to be doted on.

If he still had his palace and riches, Luo Binghe thinks he would enjoy seeing his Shizun draped loose-limbed over ornate furniture and wrapped in expensive silk. He would relish watching as his Shizun sucked on lychees indolently in the throne room while sipping sweet wine and would gift him a little bell he could ring between his fingers whenever he wished for anything, be it material or simple attention.

Luo Binghe finds that these fantasies start to persist, odd but not unwelcome. He’s not sure he’s ever wanted to tend to someone so thoroughly before and the feeling only grows the more time he spends around Shen Qingqiu.

All this is not to say that Shen Qingqiu is incompetent– he still monitors Luo Binghe’s progress, keeps up with his own martial arts and hosts the occasional lecture. However, living with Luo Binghe has exposed his Shizun’s traits, the layers of his impenetrable armor slowly being dismantled to let Luo Binghe observe what is underneath, wanting to sink his teeth into the soft underbelly of it all.

It’s as if Shen Qingqiu has taken up even more space in Luo Binghe’s thoughts than ever before. He studies and memorizes everything about the man, scrawling notes in his mental files constantly like a good student would, committed to learning everything about this new version that he can.

Shen Qingqiu is emotionally stunted and lazy. He is thin-faced and folds easily under the weight of confrontation. He adores spoiling his disciples and acts as if he was born into wealth, tossing money out at the slightest indulgence like it’s nothing. Shen Qingqiu doesn't like bitter flavors but loves Arabica brew. Shen Qingqiu is captivated by the color red but never lets the color enter his daily life, avoiding garments, trinkets and jewelry that possess any hint of rouge. Shen Qingqiu loves eavesdropping on disciple gossip when he makes his rounds on the Peak.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t dream.

Luo Binghe had tried sneaking a peek into his Shizun’s dreamscape a couple of times when he was feeling bold enough, but was always met with a wall, nothing but blank empty space before him– almost as if there was nothing there to begin with or something was purposefully pulling the wool over Luo Binghe’s eyes. He thinks it’s strange.

He makes note of it all.

<>

With Zheng Yang by his side now, Luo Binghe is granted a lot more responsibility and privilege in his day-to-day. He is assigned more difficult night hunts, considered for more solo missions, allowed the freedom to fly as he pleases between Peaks and down the mountain. He is even advanced to a higher martial rank among his peers, sparring exclusively with his seniors and often Liu Qingge himself.

He gets the feeling that the Bai Zhan Peak Lord doesn’t like him all that much, which if anything, just makes the sessions more fun even though he never wins a match. It doesn't bother him. He knows in a few years that even the War God himself won’t be able to hold a candle to him.

For now and for the sake of training, Luo Binghe unveils just the right way to get his Shishu agitated enough to not hold back so long as Shen Qingqiu is present and willing to praise his disciple from the sidelines. It keeps things interesting for Luo Binghe and he memorizes all of his Shishu’s moves, studying each technique and adding it to his internal arsenal.

Shen Qingqiu continues to treat him well and hand-select all of his missions. His confidence in Luo Binghe only seems to grow as time passes, each hunt becoming a little more difficult than the last. Luo Binghe, naturally, can handle each one thrown at him, barely breaking a sweat and only sustaining an injury every once and a while.

(Whether or not he gets wounded on purpose is a separate issue. He just likes being fretted over a little bit when he comes home to the Bamboo House, that's all. Nobody has to know besides Luo Binghe himself and it is a secret he is happy to take to the grave.)

Near the early cusp of spring, Shen Qingqiu finally allows Luo Binghe the opportunity to spar with him personally.

His Shizun announces the opportunity over breakfast and Luo Binghe nearly misses his cup while pouring tea. He has seen Shen Qingqiu in action before and has fought him head-on in the past, however, the context for all of those moments was very different compared to their present dynamic. Luo Binghe can’t help but perk up, brightly curious about what a friendly spar would look like between them with the eliminated factors of bad blood.

His eyes flicker down to Shen Qingqiu’s hand as those fingers pull at the soft dough of a meat bun.

“Shizun is feeling well enough?”

“This master would not suggest it otherwise.”

The corner of Luo Binghe’s lip quirks. “This disciple hopes that Shizun will not hold back.”

Shen Qingqiu hides a smile under the guise of chewing, his sharp gaze dancing with mirth.

“This master wouldn’t dare, Binghe.”

Once Luo Binghe clears the dishes, he reconvenes with his Shizun in the main room and nearly trips at the sight. Shen Qingqiu has elected to forgo his standard outer robe, replacing it with a lighter white one with dark green trimmings and shorter in length, falling just below the knees to expose his white boots. His sleeves are no longer loose but instead tucked into the fine leather of embroidered arm cuffs that stretch down to the tops of his hands and lace up to his elbows.

What gets to Luo Binghe though is the hair. His Shizun has abandoned his standard half-do in favor of tying all of it up and off his neck. A crown still sits at the base of the knot, tall and silver, secured with a carved cloud pin.

He looks powerful- fit for a battlefield. So powerful, in fact, that Luo Binghe’s knees nearly wobble at the slightest glimpse of that exposed nape between his Shizun’s hairline and collar.

Luo Binghe has slept with hundreds. He has seen enough bare skin in his life that it should no longer be a novelty, so it surprises him the way just an inch of it, not even within reach, makes him salivate.

“Binghe?”

“Huh?”

“This master asked if you are ready.”

“Oh.” Luo Binghe blinks a couple of times as if trying to clear his vision from a sudden daze. “Yes, Shizun.”

With Zheng Yang strapped to his back, pulsing small waves of excitement against his spine, he follows his Shizun out of the Bamboo House and into the grove. The bamboo still arches under the weight of the last spring snow they will probably get this year, respectfully bowing towards and around them as they pass through. The sun filters between the brush, melting the ice in gradual, glistening drops that glitter like gems as they fall and tap Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders for attention.

Luo Binghe watches as the nature around them flirts with his Shizun, even daring to kiss a wet droplet to the tip of his nose, and Luo Binghe still doesn’t understand why he finds himself so continuously enraptured by the little things.

Why is Shen Qingqiu a pleasant accumulation of such little things?

When they make it to a clearing by the river where he and Shen Qingqiu have already encountered each other endless times, Luo Binghe has to shake his head a bit to correct his attention. He can’t get distracted. Not now at least.

There are only a few patches of snow left on the ground, seeping into the mud and rocks as the afternoon warmth blankets the riverside. They find a suitable grass patch that has already started to grow long as the weather betters itself.

With little dialogue between them, they easily assume their positions at a proper starting distance. Luo Binghe tosses his sheath aside near the edge of the grove and makes a show of twirling Zheng Yang’s hilt between his fingers, a confident smile on his lips as he keeps his stance lax and loose. Maybe he could show off a bit, no?

Shen Qingqiu has seen him spar multiple times, but it always felt like putting on a performance. The only time he put in real effort was with Liu Qingge, but those fights were always about brute force and overpowering strikes that make one’s teeth vibrate. There was hardly much elegance about it.

His Shizun meets his grin with an unflappable expression, tucking his fan into his belt and calling upon Xiu Ya. Shen Qingqiu looks assured himself, folding one hand behind his back and leveling his gaze with Luo Binghe’s easily.

“Confident you’ll win, Shizun?” Luo Binghe can’t help but quip, albeit a bit brazenly and with all of his teeth showing. Luckily they are alone and he finds that Shen Qingqiu isn’t too fussy about certain informalities sometimes when it was just the two of them.

“Don’t be fresh.” He responds cooly, raising Xiu Ya higher.

And just like that, Luo Binghe lunges.

It’s exhilarating.

Each clash of swords rings and echoes against the river rocks and shakes the bamboo around them. His Shizun’s expression remains carefully neutral, but with each blow and each graze of a blade that inches just a bit closer, something begins to sparkle in those eyes.

To Luo Binghe, it looks like excitement, and that alone makes every inch of his skin thrum with adrenaline and his smile stretches wider, almost feral.

He also can’t help but notice that Shen Qingqiu’s fighting style is a little… different from what he remembers. Something about it almost feels a little less refined– a little like his Shizun is trying to stifle the desire to move a bit more chaotically, to lash out his power with abandon.

It would be impossible to notice if not for Luo Binghe’s keen and nearly obsessive observation.

It didn’t change the fact that he could keep up with Luo Binghe though. He elegantly dodges each precise swipe and meets them with his own, flicking his wrist with studied motions and aiming predominantly for his disciple’s legs or abdomen while Luo Binghe himself always goes for the head and neck.

They almost seem to dance like that, flattening the grass under their feet in swirling patterns, writing out their exchange on the dewy earth.

It takes about an incense worth of time before Luo Binghe remembers that his Shizun’s stamina is better than his, the body of his disciplehood starting to strain under the movements. Shen Qingqiu must notice because suddenly he’s drawing back, putting slightly less force behind each swing of his sword as if afraid of hurting him.

It makes Luo Binghe bristle, taking advantage of the weakness displayed and striking towards his shoulder with extra aggression. Shen Qingqiu reflexively moves to block it and Luo Binghe utilizes the opening to kick and knock his Shizun’s legs out from under him.

Shen Qingqiu catches himself but only barely before Luo Binghe pounces and pins him to the ground, one knee on his stomach, a hand on his shoulder and the tip of Zheng Yang hovering between his brows.

Luo Binghe’s excitement about the upper hand is shadowed by his slight disappointment.

“This disciple clearly remembers Shizun saying that he wouldn’t hold back.” He criticizes with an exaggerated frown.

Ignoring the complaint, Shen Qingqiu huffs through his nose beneath him, face impassive but eyes shimmering as he looks up at Luo Binghe. Despite being forced down, there is not a hair out of place, and his robes are not even rumpled. The only indication that he met Luo Binghe’s efforts with his own honestly is the slight flush high on his cheeks and his gentle panting.

“This master thinks that he may not have much more to teach his disciple.”

Luo Binghe’s chest tightens when he realizes that the shimmer in that gaze might be something akin to pride.

Oh. Okay.

Shen Qingqiu is proud of him. That’s… something.

“This disciple disagrees. I think there is still a lot I could learn from Shizun.” He somehow manages to choke the words out of himself before he does something stupid like lean down and close the space between them.

“Is that so?”

Why does it feel like they are flirting? He knows they aren’t, but it really feels like they are. Luo Binghe is surely just projecting, right? This is all in his head, clearly.

Why is it so hot out already this early in the spring?

As his thoughts whirl and rush, his instincts betray him, barely giving him enough time to react before something slams hard just under his ribs and pushes him over. Luo Binghe’s world flips and suddenly he’s looking up at Shen Qingqiu instead of down at him.

Then, the flat side of Xiu Ya is pressed against the column of Luo Binghe’s throat so as not to hurt but subdue him nonetheless. The cold metal on his neck sends a violent shiver all the way down to his toes and he feels the sharp edge of the blade tease him when he swallows hard.

Shen Qingqiu, out of all things, smirks, and Luo Binghe feels a tickle of insanity in the back of his mind at the sight.

“You’re right. There is still a lot my disciple has to learn, starting with not letting his guard down.”

“...”

Luo Binghe needs to escape and crawl straight into the cold river next to them otherwise he is positive he will make a very, very grave mistake.

At his stunned silence, Shen Qingqiu’s face falls in concern. He pulls Xiu Ya away and moves a hand down to thumb softly along the skin of his neck, looking to see if any damage was done. His fingers flutter along the ridges of his throat, tracing the dips before skirting under Luo Binghe’s jaw, toying close to his pulse.

“Is Binghe alright? Was this master too rough?”

Something embarrassingly high-pitched escapes Luo Binghe’s lips at the attention and he immediately starts to try and scramble out from under Shen Qingqiu. His Shizun startles at the sudden escape attempt and moves to try and pin him again to force him to calm down.

“Binghe? What’s gotten into you this time?”

“Ah, nothing Shizun! This disciple is perfectly fine!” He squeaks, wriggling under the weight and trying to worm himself out, clawing at the grass as his ears burn and his skin starts to bead with sweat. “Just feeling a little warm from the exercise is all! This disciple wants to take a dip in the river!”

“Binghe, the water is still freezing this time of year. What if you get–”

The rest of the warning is cut off as Luo Binghe manages to break free, bucking up and knocking some of his Shizun’s balance. His feet slip in the grass as he scampers towards the river bank, quite literally throwing himself in the water head-first in probably the most graceless display he’s allowed himself in years.

The frigid water pricks at his skin to the point where it is nearly unbearable, but he keeps himself fully submerged until he can finally feel some of the arousal bleeding out of him from the temperature shock.

Being a teenager is the worst.

When he finally resurfaces, he very reluctantly turns back to his Shizun, dripping and shivering and appearing every bit like a wet dog as his layers of robes sag heavily and his hair ribbon hangs loose. Shen Qingqiu is staring right back at him with an extremely unimpressed look.

“Do you feel better?”

Luo Binghe simply bows his head and buries his face in his hands.

<>

Luo Binghe, of course, gets sick.

He sports a fever for only a day but Shen Qingqiu forces him to rest for three.

Worse yet, for those three days, his Shizun stays dutifully by his side, kneeling next to his bed and replacing the cool towel on his forehead now and then. He scolds Luo Binghe with a gentle voice and a barely-there frown, all the while petting the hair away from his sweaty skin and bringing him warm broth in the morning and evenings.

It all makes Luo Binghe want to scream as much as it makes him wish he was ill just a little longer to savor it.

<>

[+50]

[+50]

[+100!]

[+25]

[-10]

[+100!]

<>

Later in the spring, he is assigned another mission down in the East Sea.

This one keeps him away from the mountain for almost three months— a high-level stakeout to investigate Tri-Fanged Sea Serpent migration and mating patterns. He’s tasked with observing a new nest while also collecting venom from the snakelets to be used for medicinal practice.

He stays at an inn in the main harbor town for the first half of the mission before stumbling upon Rohan’s family the day they dock at the port for their first trade weeks of the year. They greet him enthusiastically and encourage him to reside with them. He finds himself a little surprised that they remember him, but agrees nonetheless, sleeping in their spare hammock and helping lug produce and attending the stand when he isn’t working on the mission.

He spends the warm days gnawing on mango cores while splayed out on the deck, reading through old library records on local wildlife or sitting under the tapestry of the booth and shining calculated smiles at those that pass to draw in more customers for Rohan. At night, he scours the caves along the oceanside until he finally stumbles upon the nest, waiting for the eggs to hatch.

He finds that he misses Shen Qingqiu through all of it.

He thinks of him in every sweet tang of fruit on his tongue. He hears him in between each line of writing he reads. He feels him when the breeze ruffles through his hair. He sees him in every stranger that passes in the harbor.

Being away from Qing Jing now feels like nothing ever has before. When he closes his eyes at night, he keeps expecting to wake up in the side room of the Bamboo House, ready to make breakfast and greet his Shizun. He keeps expecting to turn around one day and find Shen Qingqiu standing there telling him it’s time to go home.

He isn’t sad. He knows he will return when his mission is complete.

Yet something in him makes it feel like the days aren’t passing quickly enough. The sun stays out too long and the moon mocks him at night.

The day he catches the first hatched snakelet, excitement ripples through him in a way he’s never felt. The fact that he can finally go back is all he thinks about.

He spends his last morning helping Rohan’s family pack up their stand and get ready to head off to their next port. Aarohi gifts him a couple of perfume satchels and the ship boys load up his pouch with more Arabica seeds, along with a couple of other goodies for him to experiment with in the kitchen. He stuffs Rohan’s pockets full of spirit stones despite the man’s protests and dashes off before any of them can attempt to shove the money back into his hands, smiling brightly over his shoulder as he bounds down the dock.

He makes it back to Qing Jing Peak in record time, his mood lifted as he steps through the protective array that announces his arrival to the surrounding cultivators. As he walks Chanchan back to the stalls, the first people to greet him are surprisingly not people from his sect.

Instead, the ankle biters of Xian Shu Peak come bounding up to him, screeching his name in delight. They throw themselves at him and he catches one of them easily, lifting the chubby-cheeked girl high on his shoulder while another clings to his thigh and the other hangs off his bicep, swinging back and forth with her feet dangling.

“Shixiong! Shixiong!” They cheer as he huffs, putting on a mock-affronted look at the sudden ambush.

“What are you girls doing here? Did Qi-shishu drag you along again for her monthly visit?” He pretends to try to shake them off and they squeal, clinging tighter. “Is she challenging Shizun to another round of Go?”

“Yup! Yup!”

“Shifu said that she wanted to bring us to Qing Jing for another poetry lesson but we all know she just wants to disrupt the Bamboo House.”

“Shifu is bad at hiding her concern for Shishu’s health!”

They all giggle in unison as Luo Binghe shakes his head.

“To speak so callously of your master. Don’t you girls know better?” He chides.

“Luo-shixiong won't rat on us!”

“I will.” A voice cuts through the childish prattle and Luo Binghe looks up to see a fuming Ming Fan stomping towards them. The girls all squeak, scrambling to try and hide behind Luo Binghe before they are snatched by the backs of their collars and dragged away from cover. “Why must it always be you three causing trouble? You girls should be in the lecture hall!”

Ming Fan scolds the girls with a sneer, holding them up and away like one would handle the scruff of kittens. They whine, trying to squirm out of the grip to no avail, eventually sagging and letting themselves be jailed and dangled.

“Ming-shixiong is no fun,” one of the girls complains.

“I agree. Ming-shixiong is no fun.” Luo Binghe nods with a theatrical solemn look as if offering his solidarity. Ming Fan shoots him a sharp glare that Luo Binghe deflects easily with a mocking smile.

With Shen Qingqiu’s developing relationships with the other Peak Lords these past years, collaborative events and lectures have become commonplace in Cang Qiong. Students now occasionally travel between the mountains to learn under other seniors and Xiu Shu’s most recent wave of new girls from last year's selection ceremony have taken a particular liking to Qing Jing.

“Is Shixiong not going to congratulate this one on his safe return?” Luo Binghe muses, jeering at Ming Fan with a toothy and challenging grin.

“It would have pleased me more if you stayed gone.” Ming Fan clicks his tongue, turning away from him and dragging the girls out of the barn. Luo Binghe tosses a couple of fruits from his pouch at the children in secret as they are pulled away and they catch them quietly, repaying him with bright and devious smiles.

As Luo Binghe makes his way up the tiers of the mountainside, disciples greet him left and right. Though not overly warm, his presence is politely acknowledged as he passes now, so drastically different from his previous life when all these eyes only ever held disdain for him. Perhaps it’s his confidence and inability to be pushed around so easily anymore. Perhaps it’s just the influence of his Shizun’s favor.

Shizun...

Shizun. Shizun. Shizun.

He’s almost at the Bamboo House, his footsteps eager, when another voice calls out to him.

“Ah! Elder Luo! Welcome back!”

Luo Binghe blanches and shoots a disgruntled look towards Ning Yingying who he finds standing under a garden pavilion with Liu Mingyan. They are hovering… rather close together, he notes. He reaches into his sleeve before grabbing what he’s looking for and skillfully chucks it at her, smacking her square in the face.

“Stop calling me that!”

The offending object falls into Ning Yingying’s hands and she beams despite the blooming red on her forehead from the impact.

“A perfume satchel?” She admires. “Thank you!” She waves the gift above her to better portray her enthusiasm. Luo Binghe only responds with a dismissive grunt before his eyes slide over to Liu Mingyan. He hesitates for a moment, but then eventually reaches into his sleeve again and pulls out a second satchel, tossing it over to her wordlessly. She snatches it from the air with ease and nods her head in polite thanks.

“Shizun has been eagerly awaiting A-Luo’s return.” Ning Yingying adds and Luo Binghe noticeably perks up.

“Has he?” He asks before he can stop himself. Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan share a look that appears nothing short of amused and Luo Binghe feels like he’s suddenly missing out on the punchline of a joke.

“He should be wrapping things up with Qi-shishu now.” Ning Yingying waves him off with a smile, her teeth pulling at her bottom lip as if to hide laughter and motioning towards the direction of the Bamboo House. “Hurry.”

He turns and scurries up the steps without another word. The green of the bamboo grove envelopes him in a welcoming embrace, beckoning him back home with the gentle sway of leaves and guiding him along the path. His feet feel light and the deep breath of familiar air he pulls in spreads a feeling of belonging into his veins.

Just as he approaches the porch, Qi Qingqi is taking her leave, expression riddled with annoyance. She barely acknowledges Luo Binghe as she skirts by him, her testy mood pulling up blinders on either side of her vision as she storms out.

Ah, another match lost it seems. Keep trying Shishu. You’ll get there one day.

He watches her retreat for a minute as he finds himself lingering outside, shifting his weight and fiddling with his ponytail with jittery fingers before he finally manages to enter the Bamboo House himself.

He walks through the quiet foyer and towards the main room where he finds Shen Qingqiu cleaning up the Go board. The moment his presence is noticed, his Shizun’s head whips up from where he’s kneeling, his eyes flickering over Luo Binghe’s face and lips parting with the smallest gape.

“Binghe.” The word leaves him in a gentle breath and Luo Binghe feels it’s almost enough to knock him over.

“Shizun.” He returns, biting the inside of his cheek to ensure he doesn’t smile too wide.

His Shizun moves to stand, flicking out his sleeves and padding along the mats to meet him in the threshold. When he steps close enough, Shen Qingqiu seems to be startled at something he notices and he falters, blinking at Luo Binghe with wide eyes.

Luo Binghe notices it too. They are the same height now, their eyes meeting at a perfect level.

After a moment of blatantly absorbing this new information, Shen Qingqiu huffs out something humored and affectionate.

“Look how you’ve grown. Soon enough you’ll be looking down on this master.” He reaches up a hand anyway and pets a loose strand of hair away from Luo Binghe’s face (that he may or may not have left there on purpose) as if nothing has changed at all. Luo Binghe leans into the touch readily, his eyes falling shut as he basks in the homely exchange.

“This disciple has brought Shizun gifts from the East Sea.”

Shen Qingqiu’s hand falls back to his side, fiddling with the pendant hanging from the fan tucked on his hip.

“Binghe has brought this master more Arabica brew?”

“Not just that.”

Luo Binghe unclips Zheng Yang from his back and sets it aside to lean against the threshold before reaching into his sleeves to pull out his travel qiankun pouch. He walks past his Shizun and sets it on the table before digging both of his hands in to root around in the accumulated goods. He searches around in the cluttered space with his fingers for a while before he finds what he’s looking for.

But just as he’s about to pull it out, Shen Qingqiu’s voice drifts softly from behind him, tickling along his spine.

“I missed you.”

Luo Binghe freezes, his breath seizing in his chest. Heat flares rapidly along his skin, burning like wildfire all the way up until it roars in his ears. Such simple words spoken and yet they feel so open and raw, bleeding out for Luo Binghe to drink up. He quickly turns his head to look back at his Shizun, his heart racing…

“Shizun, I miss–”

…Only for him to see that Shen Qingqiu is talking to Zheng Yang, the sword unsheathed and resting in his Shizun’s hands as his fingers lovingly trace the etchings of the blade.

“...”

Zheng Yang, uncaring of its wielder's turmoil, quivers with unbridled joy under the attention, relishing in how Shen Qingqiu coos over its masterful artistry. Luo Binghe feels the urge to grab it and fling it back all the way to Wan Jian. Sappy hunk of scrap!

“You did so well. Has Binghe been keeping up with your polish?” Shen Qingqiu continues to praise the sword, turning it over in his hands a couple of times in admiration. This isn’t the first time either. His Shizun, already particularly fond of weaponry in general, has formed what can only be described as a sickeningly sweet attachment to Zheng Yang over these past months, much like one would treat a favorite household pet. In fact, Luo Binghe is pretty sure Zheng Yang is purring.

“Shizun shouldn’t spoil Zheng Yang too much.” He coughs, a pinched expression forming on his face, hoping his little slip-up wasn’t heard. “Its edges might soften.”

“Should this master only spoil you instead?” Shen Qingqiu retorts, eyes flicker up to reveal a glimmer of mirth.

Yes.

“Not the point.” He turns back to the pouch and pulls out what he was looking for, presenting a small yarn sack, and handing it to his Shizun who sets the sword aside and readily takes the offering. He pulls at the twine keeping the bundle closed and peers in, his face twisting in confusion.

“A different kind of seed?”

“Yes, but not for brewing this time.” Luo Binghe provides, reaching a hand in to pluck out one of the small beans. “Apparently, it can be prepared as a type of sweet, either as a spread or chilled into a hard candy. Rohan called it cacao.”

Shen Qingqiu stares past the seed in his fingers and straight at Luo Binghe, silent for a good long while.

Then, “Cacao?”

Luo Binghe nods. “Cacao.”

“Binghe…” Shen Qingqiu’s face breaks into a slow smile, one that seems to spread like ink on a page, elegant and telling. “...Perhaps it is not my disciple who is the one being spoiled. I imagine you were instructed on how to prepare it?”

Luo Binghe tucks the implication of those words in the back of his mind to stew on later, instead choosing to nod again. “It’s a bit of a complicated process, but luckily these have already been fermented and dried for use.”

Shen Qingqiu spins on his heel and immediately makes his way down the hall.

“Let us not waste time then.”

Luo Binghe stands there for a moment in disorientation before he realizes his Shizun is making a beeline for the kitchen and he readily follows, his body light and buzzing with an overflow of feel-good emotions. He couldn’t have asked for a better reunion– Shen Qingqiu’s good and playful mood combined with the comfortable warmth of these walls around him is all he needs.

“Yes, Shizun.”

The process is a bit more arduous than he originally anticipates. Roasting the seeds doesn’t take too long, but winnowing the shells of each one to retrieve the nibs inside proves to be a slow and delicate step.

Shen Qingqiu stays beside him through it all, sitting next to Luo Binghe as they both carefully peel each bean. They stay there, seated on a couple of fruit barrels, for what feels like all day. Luo Binghe doesn’t mind though. He thinks he quite likes having Shen Qingqiu in the kitchen with him- to share this space with another.

They talk the whole time. His Shizun recounts all that he has missed these past months, detailing student progress and indulging Luo Binghe in some mild gossip. Spring had apparently sprouted some teenage romance across the peaks and Shen Qingqiu looks as if he wants to snicker each time he mentions some of the disciple's clumsy attempts to hide their feelings and relationships from the higher ups– to which Luo Binghe pointedly says nothing.

They speak about the manuscripts Luo Binghe read in the East and all about his findings. He even takes a break to show off the seven vials of venom he was able to retrieve from the snakelet. When that topic dries out, Shen Qingqiu quizzes him on poetry, which he seems particularly fond of doing, and Luo Binghe indulges each and every prompt as the sun begins to set, bathing the kitchen in a warm, orange glow.

How gladly I would seek a mountain if I had enough means to live as a recluse. For I turn at last from serving the State, to the Eastern Woods Temple and to you, my master.

Luo Binghe recites with his head bowed, his fingers dusted in cacao powder as he peels and peels and peels. Shen Qingqiu’s gaze doesn’t seem to waver from him as his own hands work and Luo Binghe admits he likes the weight of the attention now– craves it even, more and more and more.

... Like ashes of gold in a cinnamon-flame, my youthful desires have been burnt with the years- and tonight in the chilling sunset-wind, a cicada, singing, weighs on my heart.

Once all the nibs are retrieved, they deposit the stash into a large stone grinding bowl. It takes another incense time for the material to form a thick paste and Shen Qingqiu retrieves ground sugar and cream from the pantry. Luo Binghe makes quick work of whisking the materials together until a rich chestnut-colored liquid, thick like a syrup, forms in the bowl.

Shen Qingqiu reaches a finger towards the leftovers on the whisk, swiping some of it up and smearing it on the tip of his tongue to taste. Luo Binghe definitely does not follow the movement with his eyes.

His Shizun’s expression warms instantly, a gentle flush blooming on the ridges of his cheekbones and his eyes softening at the edges.

“Many thanks to my disciple. This is quite a treat indeed.” His gaze flickers to Luo Binghe’s and then nudges his hand holding the whisk. “Give it a taste.”

If Luo Binghe had any less control of himself, he probably would have leaned in and kissed Shen Qingqiu right then and there. Alas, he swallows down the urge and instead leans forward to run his tongue along the whisk bands, gathering the spread to try.

And then promptly decides that he does not like it. It sits heavy and buttery on his tongue, coating it in an almost sickening sweetness that makes his jaw ache.

In fact, he dislikes it so much that he actually flinches back, face twisting in displeasure, and in the process, jerking the whisk away from him fast enough to make some of the spread splatter off.

… and right onto Shen Qingqiu’s face.

They both stand there in silence for a moment, absorbing the absurdity.

And then Luo Binghe has to slap a hand over his mouth to ensure that he does not laugh. He should be mortified. He should probably ask for forgiveness if his Shizun’s lifeless stare is anything to go by, but instead, he sucks in a sharp breath through his nose and feels the ache of his stomach and throat as he does his best not to make a single sound. He quivers with his efforts, his shoulders hiked up to his ears.

“Luo Binghe.” His Shizun’s voice dips low and dangerous in warning, but it seems all of Luo Binghe’s previous survival instincts have shut down around Shen Qingqiu because all he can do is wheeze under his hand as he watches a particularly thick glob slide down the side of his Shizun’s cheek.

“Ah, Shizun…” his voice trembles with poorly concealed humor. “This disciple…”

But then his eyes suddenly catch sight of those slender fingers dipping into the bowl at the same moment his Shizun’s gaze turns from lifeless to strikingly fierce. His heart stops.

His reflexes kick in just in time for him to snap his neck to the side as a dollop of the cacao liquid whizzes right past his ear at a near-deathly speed and smacks into the wall behind him. He doesn’t have enough time to gawk before another strike is shot his way and he has to throw himself over the kitchen table to dodge it.

His Shizun stands on the other side of the counter and continues to dip his fingers into the mix, flicking out blades of liquid in a technique that Luo Binghe can’t help but think resembles Plucking Leaves, Flying Flowers. His expression is competitive and intense, eyes following Luo Binghe’s every movement as he attacks.

He can’t hold it in anymore. The laughter breaks out of him like a crashing wave. It aches and it’s hard to breathe, cackling as he dodges each flying threat.

“Haha! Shizun, this disciple is sorry! Honest!”

“Beast! Stop lying!”

“No, really! Haha! Really!”

He doesn’t think he has ever laughed this hard in his life– so carefree and authentic. It’s the type of laughter that makes his eyes water and his ribs tight.

It feels like a privilege to fall into such a state of giddy and improper abandon. He wants to hide these feelings; tuck them away somewhere safe where no one can see and steal them away from him. He wants to protect them and nurse them into something long-lasting.

He’d love to feel this any chance he could get.

With all sense of propriety already gone, Luo Binghe lunges for the bowl to try and steal the arsenal away from Shen Qingqiu. His Shizun is quick though and both of their hands grip the edge tight, tugging to the point where Luo Binghe feels all the muscles in his arms flex under the strain of battling against his Shizun’s strength.

Then, something that Luo Binghe can only describe as mischief flashes briefly in that challenging gaze, and suddenly he is slipping backwards because Shen Qingqiu lets go all at once. The trick is dirty and underhanded, overcompensation of his pulling force reeling him back. He scrambles in an attempt to not fall over and in the process dumps half of the bowl’s content all over his hands and forearms.

He doesn’t relent. He pushes the bowl aside and utilizes his now weaponized hands, dashing around the counter to chase after his Shizun. Shen Qingqiu realizes the sudden power shift and quickly goes on the defensive, scurrying away from Luo Binghe’s outstretched arms. They go around the table like that twice before Shen Qingqiu glares at him over his shoulder, teeth flashing in a sneer.

“Have you no respect for this master?!”

“Shizun was the one who taught this disciple to never give up, no?”

“Pah! Have some perspective!”

This goes on for a while until they are both smeared and panting and the sun has long set. Luo Binghe’s cacao fingertips have left scattered marks around Shen Qingqiu's sleeves and some of the offending liquid is definitely stuck in Luo Binghe’s hair. They both have to bathe and laundry is going to be a pain in the morning. The conclusion comes with Luo Binghe’s forced forfeit as his Shizun pinches and tugs at both his cheeks hard, scolding and stretching his face till it hurts and all he can do is whine and say sorry a couple more times, even if they both know he doesn’t mean it.

This man, honestly. Luo Binghe loves him so much that it might be the death of him.

Oh.

[Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations!]

Notes:

Only one chapter left before the Immortal Alliance Conference… Who’s excited? Haha…

(I am)

Poem: From Qin Country To The Buddhist Priest Yuan by Meng Haoran

Chapter 16: Yes, Shizun

Notes:

2k kudos??? hello?? Thank you???

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe was fairly certain, up till this point, that he knew what love was as much as he knew it was something he didn’t have.

He has lusted and hungered, tolerated and favored, but never really loved.

He knows the nature of it as a concept, having read enough poetry, heard enough music and had the words declared to him enough times first-hand. He thinks he can wrap his mind around it fairly well– appreciating the nearness of another and deeming someone worthy of receiving your affections, all while inspiring a sickening vulnerability.

Simple. Dangerous. Unneeded.

Loving his Shizun, however, has shattered that understanding for Luo Binghe completely. It has left him with nothing but shards in his hands that he keeps trying desperately to reassemble, only to find the image changing over and over and over again.

Lust and hunger feel desperate and wanted. To tolerate isn’t enough. His favor is too potent– his mind overtaken and corroded with thoughts of just one man. He has let the vulnerability cut and strip him to the bone without complaint. He needs to be near, to be close, to be joined with his Shizun. He wants to shower him with affection and gifts, to have him want for nothing but Luo Binghe.

All this time, he has been giving his blood and sweat and tears to the word– worshiped unknowingly at a silent altar, offering tributes to a deity he was sure he didn’t believe in. It has carved his heart straight out of his chest and deposited it into the hostage of those slender fingers, bleeding out in front of Luo Binghe’s eyes as he makes no move to take it back.

It’s terrible.

It’s incredible.

It almost doesn’t feel real.

Luo Binghe thinks that it was probably inevitable that he would fall in love with his Shizun. The immortal had plagued him for two lifetimes, nestled in the forefront of his mind whether enshrouded in hate or adoration. A part of him always wanted Shen Qingqiu’s attention, no matter the cost, and up until now he has paid every price for it.

Wasn’t that the reason he was here in the first place? Even if he was slow to accept it, wasn’t Shen Qingqiu’s affections his goal all along? Wasn’t this all in the name of his wish for a different life?

Seeing what could be had with his own eyes in that other reality changed him in fundamental ways that only become clearer as the days pass in loving his Shizun. He sees visions of that other Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu constantly as if his mind is confusing memory with fantasy. He closes his eyes at night and dreams of shared beds and being pressed close enough together that there is no room for things like fear.

He knows that this development is in no way safe. His Shizun still doesn’t know the truth about him in this life, both who and what he is. Luo Binghe understands that when he turns seventeen and the Immortal Alliance Conference rears its head, everything he has built and come to know will be tested, whether he likes it or not.

But he can’t help but feel hopeful.

Shen Qingqiu won’t let him skip the Conference, he knows this. His Shizun is so enraptured by the concept of his disciple’s success; always monitoring his progress and pushing for his cultivation to be stronger. The Immortal Alliance Conference would be Shen Qingqiu’s perfect idea of testing Luo Binghe’s strength. He is certain he won’t have the heart to reject his Shizun when his name is put on that list.

Shang Qinghua will inevitably bring the demons with him and Luo Binghe will be strong enough to hold his own. If he avoids the Black Moon Rhinoceros-Python and taking on the burden of protecting other disciples, he can maybe get away with not exposing his heritage, but it will surface eventually. Luo Binghe is not so naive to think he could keep such a secret forever.

But this Shen Qingqiu doesn’t hate demons. This Shen Qingqiu doesn’t hate Luo Binghe.

In fact, he seems quite fond of both things, so why should his Shizun despise the two combined?

The other Luo Binghe had been pushed into the Endless Abyss and still got his happy ending despite tribulations with Shen Qingqiu. The life Luo Binghe has lived here has already veered and differed from that reality in many little ways, so why should he not think that there’s a chance he can skip the ordeal entirely and live happily with his Shizun?

His Shizun who is so kind, soft and stubborn. His Shizun who is lazy and indulgent and has a sweet tooth. His Shizun who Luo Binghe has come to care for and feel at home with despite all odds, simply because, for once, destiny took mercy on the empty feeling in Luo Binghe’s chest and decided to gift him something to fill it with.

So Luo Binghe will choose to love Shen Qingqiu as if the choice was his to make; as if it wasn’t ingrained in his fate and etched into his bones— as if it wouldn’t have always ended up this way.

He had been betrayed once by a man who bore the same name, but none of that mattered anymore– none of that existed. Not here. Luo Binghe will love him regardless of the risks because if this second life has taught him anything, it has taught him to hope.

He will lean into the feeling fully. He feels safe enough to do so.

<>

The rest of the year goes by too fast for Luo Binghe’s liking.

He spends his days with Shen Qingqiu in giddy bliss, savoring every morning they wake and eat together and indulging in their usual back and forth. He melts into the gentle moments and accepts the rare bad days. He riles up his Shizun on the occasion he’s feeling particularly bored and mischievous, while on other days he plays the perfect filial disciple role, enjoying the acts of service he can perform.

He and his Shizun spend the end of summer traveling down the mountain to escape the sticky, wet heat, exploring caves together, discussing botany and collecting spores for research. Luo Binghe almost kisses Shen Qingqiu on multiple occasions under the faint blue light of glowing Star-Dollop Moss, but somehow finds the strength to restrain himself.

In the early fall, Luo Binghe is invited to stomp cherries and plums with his peakmates and learns to make wine which he bottles and gifts to Shen Qingqiu. The smile given to him in return almost made Luo Binghe tackle him to the ground right then and there, but once again, he was able to hold himself back by some miracle.

He masters the guqin by the time the maple trees turn red, both as an artistic tool and weapon, but Zheng Yang develops a habit of jealousy by vibrating in indignation each time he practices and learns to retaliate by ‘accidentally’ falling into Shen Qingqiu’s lap when they are seated in the gardens. Wielder and weapon bicker often and Shen Qingqiu hides his subtle and silent laughter behind his fans and sleeves whenever he bears witness. It usually makes Luo Binghe want to kiss him, but he’s more used to the feeling by this point and can ignore it a little easier.

When winter rolls around, Luo Binghe turns seventeen on the day of a vicious snowstorm. The wind howls through the bamboo outside and leaks into the house, rattling the doors and bringing the cold with it that battles against the fire pit below the floors. Eventually, as night starts to fall, Luo Binghe is forced to throw up an array around the property to stave off the violent frigidness and makes sure to keep a fresh hot pot of tea available at all times.

“This master hopes the other disciples are alright. I’d hate to think of what it must feel like in the dorms right now.”

Luo Binghe turns from his spot in the kitchen where he is preparing a fresh brew and watches as his master wades into the threshold, night pearl in hand to battle the darkness the night and storm have brought to their home. It glows ethereally against his features and Luo Binghe thinks he looks like a Moon Spirit in such light.

“Shizun has taught us well on how to protect ourselves from all threats, even such things as trivial as weather. I wouldn’t worry. Plus, they have each other.” He transfers the pot onto a tray as he speaks, setting out a couple of cups.

“And this master has Binghe.”

Shen Qingqiu has a habit of saying charged words sometimes that make Luo Binghe feel as if he’s been pierced with an arrow and forced to swallow down blood, his mind blanking for a moment before he can find himself again.

“Indeed. Shizun has this disciple.” Completely. Wholeheartedly. Undoubtedly.

He goes to lift the tray to bring it to the main room but Shen Qingqiu interrupts the motion with a pointed clearing of his throat. Luo Binghe looks back up and his Shizun makes a show of turning his face away, his expression a bit strained before reaching into his sleeve.

“This master thought that perhaps we could drink something else to warm us up.”

Luo Binghe watches as two wine jars emerge, hanging in Shen Qingqiu’s hand in a slightly clumsy offering.

“Today is a special day, is it not?” Shen Qingqiu finishes, his features flat but his voice soft and a bit wobbly which Luo Binghe has come to recognize as mild embarrassment.

He sets the tray down with a thump on the counter at the exact moment his heart makes the same sound.

“Thanking Shizun.” The words leave him in a soft breath. “Would you like any snacks to accompany the drink?”

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. “Only the company of my disciple.”

Again! With those lines! Luo Binghe had been a smooth talker for most of his life, but to be on the receiving end was really too much! No wonder his Shizun had so many people in Cang Qiong wrapped around his finger.

They make their way back to the main room together, the space basked in a gentle brilliance of more night pearls scattered about as well as a handful of candles lit on the center table for warmth. They both move to kneel as the storm occupies the silence between them. Luo Binghe reaches for the jars but is stopped by the tip of a fan on his wrist, motioning him away.

“This master has presented this gift. He will pour it accordingly.”

Luo Binghe pointedly does not think about the implications of sharing wine and folds his hands on his lap obediently, sitting back as Shen Qingqiu opens the jar and sets the porcelain cups down. Luo Binghe sniffs at the aroma that wafts into the air around them, humming as he closes his eyes at the potent scent.

Xiangxue Jiu?” He guesses.

“Correct. Your senses are as sharp as ever.”

“And Shizun’s preferences are as present as ever.”

Shen Qingqiu scrunches his nose slightly in a way that Luo Binghe finds charming. “Why would I indulge myself in bitter wines when sweet ones are far more palatable? Is Binghe displeased with this master’s choice of gift?”

He shakes his head with a humored grin. “No, Shizun. This Binghe is very pleased.”

“Hm.”

His Shizun hands him his cup.

“To Binghe’s long and prosperous life.” Shen Qingqiu states with a gentle tone.

Luo Binghe watches the light reflect off of the liquid, his fingers reaching for it with a delicate motion. The words weigh a bit on his shoulders, pressing a small sigh out of him before he raises the cup to his lips to sip. He lets the drink spread over his tongue, lapping a ticklish heat down his throat and to his belly.

“The flavor is pleasant.” Albeit a bit too sweet, but not in an intolerable way for Luo Binghe.

Shen Qingqiu takes his own sip with a small sound of acknowledgement, seeming to be a bit distracted as he drinks. Luo Binghe observes him over the rim of his cup, noting the tight edges of his Shizun’s eyes.

“Shizun wishes to discuss something.” He states plainly, because he’s learning.

Shen Qingqiu pauses and then sets his cup down. He doesn’t look up at Luo Binghe. “My disciple continues to be observant.”

A silence hangs off of his sentence for a long while after until both of them realize their cups are empty and Shen Qingqiu moves to fill them again. Luo Binghe waits for him to continue with practiced patience.

“The Immortal Alliance Conference is fast approaching.” He finally utters, keeping his gaze low, seeming all but entranced by the wine in his cup.

Luo Binghe goes wooden at the words, blinking up at Shen Qingqiu as he absorbs the strange tone in which they are spoken. He would have thought that such a declaration would have a more… excited edge to it.

“Indeed. This disciple is sure Shizun already has an idea of who he wishes to enroll?”

“Naturally.” Shen Qingqiu gives a small nod, choosing to drink again.

The unspoken implication that Luo Binghe is at the top of that list sits heavy in the room and Luo Binghe is having a hard time wrapping his mind around why there is tension in the air. He knows the reason on his end but is having difficulty figuring out why Shen Qingqiu’s energy is bearing the same weight.

Another cup goes down and Luo Binghe’s posture sags a bit as the heat of the drink blooms through him and melts the rigidness of his limbs.

When Shen Qingqiu finally looks back up at him, his eyes are dark and a little distant in the low light of the room. The sight makes an odd sensation trickle down Luo Binghe’s spine.

“Do you want to become stronger? Stronger until you are without rival, until no one beneath the heavens would dare challenge you?”

“No.”

His quick, unhesitant answer seems to startle Shen Qingqiu, some of the light flickering back in his gaze and his expression falling a bit as if he has suddenly been shocked awake from a dream. He goes very still and very pale all at once.

Another lull of silence swoops into the space between them as the wailing wind echoes outside. Luo Binghe’s expression stays resolute, staring unblinkingly back at Shen Qingqiu, mouth set in a hard line.

“What?" His Shizun’s voice sounds like it is being forced out of him, his eyes blooming wide with some sort of unspoken grief that puzzles Luo Binghe.

“No. I don’t wish to be the strongest.” He repeats as he sets his cup down and Shen Qingqiu follows the motion, his features pulling into something bewildered. Luo Binghe grimaces as he decides to reveal the vulnerable flesh of his honesty. “I have no desire for immense power or prestige. This disciple’s only wish in this life is to be happy.”

Shen Qingqiu swallows thickly. “That…” He shakes his head as if unaccepting of his disciple's response. “Perhaps Binghe misunderstood what this master meant.”

“This disciple did not.”

“You cannot mean that you would wish to live your life so simply.” Shen Qingqiu clicks his tongue. “Binghe’s potential is boundless. With just a bit more reputation, my disciple could possess anything he wishes, be it riches, land or beauties.”

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head again, sighing as if exasperated by the conversation he, himself, started. Annoyance bubbles in Luo Binghe at presumptuous dismissal, his brow pinching as he feels the knee-jerk reaction to defend himself.

“Is it so wrong to want to live quietly?” His words have a bit of bite that he knows won’t be received well, but he can’t help the way his tongue slashes the words out. “I am fully aware of my potential, but what if this disciple simply wishes to remain as so? To live peacefully in the mountains by his Shizun’s side? To take each day, no matter how bland, and treasure it?”

Shen Qingqiu’s expression takes on its own edge of irritation, his fierce eyes sharpening at Luo Binghe in a faintly familiar glare that prickles across his skin. The first jar is empty now and has stained both of their cheekbones a faint rose in the light of the room to contrast the clash of their steel gazes.

“Binghe should want for greater things.”

“Why should I? Why is that something that Shizun expects from me?”

“Because it is within your capabilities. Have you no consideration for notions such as destiny?” Shen Qingqiu speaks his reasoning through a snappy tone that makes Luo Binghe snap right back.

“And what of my desires?”

This makes his Shizun pause, blinking owlishly at his disciple, his mouth curving in a small frown.

“... What do you mean?”

Luo Binghe feels bold, the direction of the conversation already igniting his emotions as well as being driven by the extra privacy that the night storm blankets over them.

He shifts on his legs and leans across the corner of the table into his Shizun’s space, one hand leveraging him against the warm floor mats. He sets his expression into something firm and open, eyes searching Shen Qingqiu’s as he tries to speak as clearly as he can, almost slowly, wanting to ease his words into his Shizun’s ears to make sure they fit in the narrow space of this man’s reputable denseness.

“If this disciple told Shizun that I would throw it all away for the sake of living like how we are now, would that upset Shizun?”

He presses nearer as Shen Qingqiu seems to reflexively hinge back. There is still a respectable distance between them, but if Luo Binghe nudged just a bit closer, the tips of his fingers could graze Shen Qingqiu’s knees.

“I would forgo all the riches, esteem and talent in the world to live my days as kindly as I do now.”

“Don’t be silly, child.” Having misplaced his fan somewhere on the table, and not willing to reach blindly for it, Shen Qingqiu lifts his hand to flick at Luo Binghe’s forehead in a scolding manner. Luo Binghe doesn’t flinch but simply stares on, keeping his features stern. It’s enough to make Shen Qingqiu falter again.

“This disciple speaks only his heart’s truth. I would ask that Shizun not dismiss it so easily.”

His Shizun’s eyes soften at this, something a little helpless creeping into his normally stoic features. “Binghe…?”

Luo Binghe takes the chance to inch even closer, both hands on the mats on either side of Shen Qingqiu’s folded knees, looking up at him through the thick veil of his lashes, his tone softly determined and dipping in that low whisper he knows he has weaponized against others in the past.

“I am happy here– happier than I have ever been– happier than I am sure I ever could be. Believe me, Shizun.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes flicker across his Shizun’s face, breathing out shakily as his heart thuds hard against his ribs at the confession. It rolls off his tongue too effortlessly, but he can’t find it in himself to feel ashamed. He only wants Shen Qingqiu to know him.

“Please, if anything, believe your disciple's words.”

He watches as his declaration visibly works itself through his Shizun’s brain, absorbing it and trying to mold it into a shape that fits Shen Qingqiu’s understanding.

“... It is true… that Binghe has been well received by his peers these past couple years. The other disciples have come to respect Binghe, haven’t they?” He almost seems to be saying the words to himself more than anything. “Some even adore Binghe, as they should.”

Luo Binghe does his best to suppress the shiver that tracks through him at his Shizun’s backhanded praise, his cheeks warming and chest growing heavy with the weight of the charged air he’s breathing in between them.

Does Shen Qingqiu feel it too? Surely he must feel something, lest he be as immovable as a mountain, even with his favorite disciple all but climbing into his lap.

“Shizun must surely understand that it’s more than that.”

“Binghe has found his place here in the Sect.”

Luo Binghe almost whines. “Yes, but that’s not–”

“This master understands.” Shen Qingqiu cuts off his words, his hand coming up to pet at the top of Luo Binghe’s hair in a way he has learned is more of a pacifying comfort for his Shizun than for him. “I understand now.”

He clearly doesn’t.

Luo Binghe’s will to live leaves him in a rush as he sighs out something frustrated, pulling away from Shen Qingqiu and sitting back in his place properly.

It’s fine. He can be patient. He will work hard until there is no room for his Shizun’s obliviousness and doubtful nature to come between them. Though he wants a romantic future with Shen Qingqiu, he is willing to wait for such things and believes that his best tool is time.

Luo Binghe decides he will officially start wooing Shen Qingqiu.

All in. Full force.

If this Shen Qingqiu is anything like the one from that alternate reality, his success is all but guaranteed.

The thought makes his lip quirk up a bit, his mood lifting once more.

“Shall we open the second jar?”

<>

Wooing Shen Qingiqu is not easy. Not at all.

In fact, Luo Binghe starts to believe that it is one of the hardest things he has ever endeavored to try. And for him… that is saying a lot.

Granted, it probably would be a lot easier on him if he just jumped his Shizun’s bones and tackled him into the sheets to force his affection down his throat, but Luo Binghe wants to do this right. He wants Shen Qingqiu to want him in his own time and on his own terms instead of Luo Binghe simply taking what he desires because he knows he can get away with it.

“Why are your robes so unruly today? Binghe, cover up your chest, lest you catch a chill in this weather.”

“Hm? Binghe wants to clear my meridians? Your Shishu can do that just fine. My disciple needn't expend his energy on something so trivial.”

“This master doesn’t understand why Binghe would need help with stretching before sword practice. You are flexible and do it well enough on your own. Ask one of your fellow disciples if you truly require assistance. Perhaps Ning Yingying?”

“Binghe has cooked all this master’s favorites. Is there something special about today I forgot about? No? You simply felt like it? Hm. Very well.”

Luo Binghe will… just have to keep trying.

<>

The Immortal Alliance Conference looms heavy over the Bamboo House as the winter melts away.

Luo Binghe steels himself and accepts the inevitable. He relies on the gooey optimism that has grown sticky in his chest to get him through the weeks leading up to the event.

His Shizun, however, seems to only grow duller as spring blooms on the mountain. He has more bad days– days where he sits on the back porch of the Bamboo House and stares blankly out at the garden, seemingly unmoving for hours.

Sometimes Luo Binghe will sit with him and share in the activity, attempting to ensure that his Shizun doesn’t feel lonely. When he tries to ask what’s wrong, Shen Qingqiu will often only snap out of his stupor and give Luo Binghe a smile that makes his stomach churn.

“Shizun knows that he can confide in this disciple, yes? About anything.”

Shen Qingqiu’s hand reaches up in that familiar manner and runs his fingers through Luo Binghe’s hair.

“This master is simply tired. There is nothing to confide. I am perfectly well.”

“Shizun.”

“Binghe should go practice some more. This master expects you to take first place at the Conference.”

“...Yes, Shizun.”

<>

On the morning they depart for Jue Di Gorge, it rains.

It’s the heavy kind that feels like it’s coming down in sheets, determined to soak anything it touches to the core. Luo Binghe stares out at the weather under the protective canopy of the front porch as the early light of day barely filters through the thick clouds.

To anyone else, it could be perceived as a bad omen, but to Luo Binghe, he feels like he's witnessing something close to a miracle.

It didn’t rain on this day in his first life.

Is this not proof of fate’s fickle nature? Is it not a clear show of evidence that change is capable?

His heart hammers in his chest as he reaches a hand out from under the canopy and lets his palm face up towards the rain. The droplets smack against his skin hard and he looks on in fascination as a small puddle forms in the curve and drools between his fingers.

“Horrid weather, especially for a day of travel.”

Shen Qingqiu emerges from the Bamboo House with two umbrellas in hand, sneering at the sky as he comes to stand beside Luo Binghe.

“I think it’s quite nice actually.” He smiles something secret as he watches a stream form and flow down his wrist.

Shen Qingqiu shoots him a squinted, disgruntled look before skirting his gaze towards his disciple’s outstretched arm, observing how the sleeve of his robe starts to hang heavy with rainwater. He reaches for Luo Binghe and pulls it out of the onslaught, directing a spell to his hand to warm the chilled skin in his grip. The sensation makes Luo Binghe shudder.

“Let us not delay. The day is not so long when one has somewhere to be.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes drift down to where Shen Qingqiu hasn’t yet let go of him despite the spell already having dried the rain away. He feels his Shizun’s fingertips pressed firmly to his pulse and something tenderly giddy makes his smile grow enough that his teeth poke out: boyish and in love.

“Yes, Shizun.”

Notes:

Time to get into it! I have some days off this week so my goal is to have the next chapter out as soon as I can.

Also, I've officially determined the chapter count for this fic! Please look forward to it.

To all those who have read + commented thus far; please marry me. I'm in love with you.

____

Xiangxue Jiu = “snow-flavored wine”

Chapter 17: Fated Betrayal

Notes:

The 100+ comments on the previous chapter had me rolling. I am very grateful to everyone who has given this work a chance! I was originally going to split this chapter into two parts, but I decided to just give you all of it. That’s why it took me a little longer to get it out, sorry!

Also, a gentle reminder of Airplane-bro’s important words in book 4: Characters from PIDW suffer dramatic IQ drops when they are in love!

The protagonist is no exception. Haha…

Content warnings at end chapter notes to avoid spoilers.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The horses and carriages track through the thick mud down the mountain for the better part of the day, the rain relentless. The traveling Peak Lords take turns in casting protective arrays over the procession, attempting to shield everyone from the heavy weather, but it does little to relieve the slippery paths and soiled boots of everyone.

Luo Binghe doesn’t mind. He rides contentedly on the back of Chanchan, keeping close to the carriage carrying Shen Qingqiu and Qi Qinqqi. They bicker idly behind the fluttering curtain, allowing Luo Binghe small glimpses of his Shizun’s cool and assured expression as they play another round of Go.

The long journey and flickering privacy offered by the tapestry allow Luo Binghe to stare as he pleases.

He’ll regularly indulge himself in the same way back at the Bamboo House these days, but his presence is too noted by Shen Qingqiu and he often gets caught rather quickly. When he tries to appease his urges to drink in his Shizun’s image at night, he always finds the man sleeping with his back to the door, facing the wall, robbing him of his prospect to see those features carved by rivers draped in the cool tint of the moon.

Luo Binghe would have taken the many chances he had to approach the bed and peek anyway if he knew his Shizun was in deep slumber and could get away with it. The issue is that his Shizun never is.

He can try to hide it, but Luo Binghe can hear the uneven pattern of his breathing when the house is at its quietest. Shen Qingqiu hasn’t slept deeply in months.

He’ll occasionally fall into the first layers of sleep for short bouts, but never fully goes under. The intermittent naps during the day that he endeavors to take don’t last long and have become replaced with long hours of meditation and staring blankly out at the bamboo grove. Luo Binghe wishes he knew what his Shizun is thinking and going through, but if Shen Qingqiu isn’t sleeping, he isn’t dreaming, leaving Luo Binghe in the dark even more than before.

He had tried once to use his powers to subtly lull his Shizun into a deeper sleep, but when the man awoke, he had looked so uncharacteristically haggard and pained that Luo Binghe understood that maybe he should just stay out of it– the sight almost making him nauseous with certain memories.

Instead, he’s resigned to simply watch the way the shadows dance across the man’s pale face, revealing the slightest purple under those fierce eyes. Even now, Luo Binghe can see it. The storm makes the light of day flat, hollowing his Shizun’s features and exposing the evidence of something gnawing away at him.

When the board is cleared and Shen Qingqiu sports a triumphant smile behind his fan, his eyes flicker up and meet Luo Binghe’s head on through the thin sliver of the window and curtain.

Luo Binghe is grateful he doesn’t look away because he almost misses the way his Shizun’s gaze stirs, the dull gray of the morning revealing the richness of something emotional, even if only for a second.

Then, the fabric lies flat again and the moment is lost, leaving Luo Binghe with the burning desire to clamber into the carriage and eat Shen Qingqiu whole to keep him safe in the warmth of his stomach. Maybe there, his Shizun could get some rest.

The arrival at Jue Di Gorge is lackluster for Luo Binghe as he looks out at the ‘Hopeless Land’, rich greenery and stunning landscape all being stampeded over and obscured by the roaring rain.

As Cang Qiong Mountain Sect disciples all dismount from their horses and lead them to the temporary shelters of the event, Luo Binghe is a bit surprised when Shen Qingqiu approaches him. He’s removing Chanchan’s bridle when he senses his Shizun’s presence, advancing in a flutter of green tucked under a papyrus umbrella that he shakes out a bit when he steps beneath the small, personal array Luo Binghe has casted for himself and his horse.

“Shizun.” The word has become so gentle when it leaves him now. “Can this disciple be of some assistance?”

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. “Does Binghe have everything he needs?”

That’s a given. His Shizun watched him pack up his things this morning.

He had lingered in the threshold of the side room as his eyes danced over the space, particularly fascinated by the trinkets on Luo Binghe’s desk he’s accumulated over the past years: a cultivation manual, an empty clay bottle, an array of botany books, guqin sheet music, a handful of seashells and a bamboo hat slung on the back of the chair.

His Shizun had been so quiet– lost so deeply in thought that Luo Binghe was only able to find him again when he mentioned preparing breakfast for the two of them.

“Of course, Shizun.” He says before carefully continuing. “Is something troubling you?”

He doesn’t think he’ll get a straight answer, but it never hurts to keep asking.

“No. This master only wants to make sure his disciple is fully prepared.” Shen Qingqiu tucks his umbrella under his arm and flicks out his fan to flutter gently despite the wind already rustling against them. “Do not be mistaken and think that this endeavor will be so easy. You are strong, but you must not let your guard down around monsters.”

Something is odd about the way he says the words and for a fleeting moment, Luo Binghe wonders if Shen Qingqiu knows what is going to happen– about the demons, the Endless Abyss, everything.

But why would he? Shen Qingqiu is intrigued by demonic creatures but has no history of convoluting with them, nor does he have any sort of relationship with Shang Qinghua that would allude to him knowing of the upcoming invasion. At least, not to Luo Binghe’s knowledge– especially considering he spends almost every day by his Shizun’s side when not away on night hunts and handles all of his written correspondence with the other Peak Lords.

He could be that of a Seer, or even a time traveler like Luo Binghe himself. But if so, why would he not explicitly warn his disciple and the other Sect Leaders? He’s not like Luo Binghe. He’s come to know this life’s version of the man well enough that surely, he wouldn’t simply stand back and permit the slaughter of a thousand children.

Would he?

The train of thought dies as soon as Shen Qingqiu reaches for him and runs a hand through the side of his hair, smoothing it back in a tender display and adjusting the tie of Luo Binghe’s ribbon keeping his ponytail up. The gesture all but turns Luo Binghe into goo, his tense expression puddling into a warm smile.

No, surely his Shizun wouldn’t. Not when he can care for Luo Binghe so kindly.

Ah, Luo Binghe really, really wants to kiss him!

After! When the chaos passes and Luo Binghe can settle the matter, bring Shang Qinghua to justice and tell all his truths to his Shizun, he’ll kiss him. He’ll do it and everything will be okay.

Gah! He’s really looking forward to it!

“This disciple will proceed with caution and do his best. I will make Shizun proud.” He all but purrs, nuzzling into Shen Qingqiu’s palm.

“Of course you will, Binghe.”

<>

All the disciples line up on the platform of the gorge, rows and rows of young, aspiring cultivators that Luo Binghe can only look upon and see a slew of grave stones.

It is sad, but not Luo Binghe’s problem. His concerns are greater than a sea of plain, nameless faces doomed for tragedy. He has to prove himself, protect himself, and most importantly, ensure that history does not repeat itself.

He stands tall and dutifully in line, trying to keep the boredom from his expression as the rules of the Conference are announced. He notices a horde of girls coquettishly giggly to themselves as they sneak glances back at him and he gifts each shy and hungry look a smile in return.

(A sympathetic smile, to be clear. Sorry ladies, Luo Binghe’s palate has changed. He indulged in your flavor once, but is not interested anymore.)

The sound of the gong strikes, ringing through the valley and a shiver of adrenaline prickles across Luo Binghe’s skin before he takes off.

Unlike in his first life, not a drop of hesitation sits in his veins. He rushes past the other disciples and straight into the fray, weaving between the trees with expert speed, Zheng Yang already unsheathed and in hand. The goal for Luo Binghe is to climb the charts as quickly as he can before he knows everything will inevitably go to sh*t.

After all, what is the point of enduring all this again if not to win for his Shizun?

By the time the gloomy sky starts to darken further with the arrival of night, Luo Binghe has slaughtered half of the monsters in the eastern side of the gorge.

He yanks Zheng Yang out of the neck of a Poison-Tooth Boar, flicking the blood off as the blade hums with overstimulation and power. His eyes skirt up to pierce directly into the Spirit Eagle he’s felt watching him this whole time. The bird hides under the cover of a tall tree branch from the weather while Luo Binghe has long forgone his protective array, choosing instead to concentrate all of his spiritual energy into his fighting, leaving him standing in the clearing soaked to the bone.

Rain and leftover splattered blood drip off his chin as he lets a smile stretch over his face, his teeth bared in something proud and feral.

Shizun, are you watching? Are you pleased with this disciple?

He knows he is.

Luo Binghe can guess that his Shizun is sitting and hiding his grin behind his fan while the other Peak Lords and Sect Leaders stare at him in awe as he shows off his perfect student. Maybe his Shizun even put some money to his name, just to prove a point. He’s indulgent and competitive like that. Luo Binghe loves him for it.

He ignores the faint rush of heat that pools in his lower belly at the thought, swallowing thickly as he adjusts the front of his robes to hide his secret and personal little thrill. Ah, how shameless. Maybe some things don’t change after all.

Keep your eyes on me, Shizun.

The night passes and Luo Binghe sleeps for a few short hours perched atop a tree, strapping himself to a branch with his belt. When the next day arrives, the predictable gaggle of weaker disciples all come flocking to him when he’s taking a break to drink from a nearby stream. Luo Binghe hides the roll of his eyes by running his hand over his face, whipping away some rain that has subsided to a soft drizzle.

The group is predominantly Huan Hua Palace disciples. They plead for his help and Luo Binghe’s expression darkens at the taste of that familiar, sour flavor on his tongue from when he was Junshang, constantly having to entertain the prostrating cowards who darkened his doorstep.

He rejects them outright. Helping them is not his priority. He can’t run the risk of exposing himself trying to protect them again like he had in his naive childhood.

They don’t give up though, instead pushing two girls in front of him as some sort of strange, coercive offering. When his gaze lands on their faces, his mood only darkens further.

Qin Wanrong and Qin Wanyue.

Yes, he remembers these wives quite well. Such meek things from his past, feeble in nature and often bullied into the lower ranks of his harem– especially Qin Wanyue who became known as his first.

A wave of nausea rolls in the back of his throat.

His first… with a girl like her, here at the Immortal Alliance Conference, after she had guilted him into sex because she was afraid of dying and needed comfort.

After his take over of Huan Hua, he had made sure to see her as little as possible as soon as she was settled in the rear palace. He had been complacent in letting her linger around despite the itch under his skin he’d get in her presence.

Now, any remaining tolerance he had for her and her sister had long died. All he can do is stare hard at the both of them, nostrils flaring and eyes dull, fingers drumming on the side of Zheng Yang’s hilt as it quivers in its sheath.

Qin Wanyue must sense the immediate animosity because she visibly flinches and pales while Qin Wanrong presses on obliviously.

“Luo-shixiong is such a good person– he won’t mind if we just tag along while he journeys through the gorge, no?”

She makes the mistake of reaching for him to hang off his arm and he immediately draws his sword. In a flash, he moves to chop that filthy hand off of her before he thinks – don’t get disqualified – and redirects the blade to rest just under her chin.

Qin Wanrong makes a choked, panicked sound, her throat bobbing against the sharp edge. Qin Wanyue rushes forward and moves to pull her sister away, her face green and eyes bloodshot as she holds Qin Wanrong close to her chest.

Luo Binghe paints a pleasantly empty smile onto his features, adjusting Zheng Yang to point towards the group as a whole.

“You all have come here to prove yourselves as worthy cultivators, have you not? Surely you can fend for yourselves and not rely on this humble one.” His voice is crisp and cool as it leaves him, enough so that each disciple seems to shiver when the words wash over them.

Suddenly, a blood-curdling scream rips through the air.

Everyone grows very still and silent, all turning towards the sound in rigid fear. Luo Binghe frowns, considering for a moment, before pushing through the group, ushering people out of his way with small flicks of his blade in front of him. He walks up to the brush on the edges of the stream and wades through the foliage before his foot taps against something.

A severed head jostles on the ground. Luo Binghe blinks down at it and it, in turn, blinks up at him.

Ghost-head Spider.

Isn’t it a bit early to be seeing the likes of a Ghost-head Spider? The demon invasion isn’t supposed to happen until the fourth day of the Conference.

Then, Luo Binghe hears it– the howls and pained moans that seem to echo and layer on each other alongside the crackling sounds of emergency fireworks, bouncing off the walls of the mountains and enshrouding the gorge in a hellish symphony of death as the slaughtering of the disciples begins.

Luo Binghe skewers the demon, without hesitation, through its mouth the minute it unhinges its jaw to wail. He looks up towards the towering trees and sees dozens of others spindling down towards him.

The invasion has come early.

f*ck.

He sets off a firework of his own.

His grip turns aching on Zheng Yang, his knuckles nearly splitting as he slashes out a slew of sword glares that send the spiders plummeting to the ground and splattering like overripe fruit. All the hairs on his skin stand on end, his blood buzzing and his senses coming alive. Something vile crawls into his chest, squeezing at his heart.

Maybe he wasn’t ready for this moment as much as he thought he was.

There is no stopping it now though. The only thing he can do is follow through.

He fends off what he can, his ears picking up the faint sound of the Huan Hua disciples dropping like flies around him. He can’t bring himself to care right now though because– sh*t, where is the Black Moon Rhinoceros-Python? Shen Qingqiu will be here any minute now. He needs to know where that damned–

“Binghe!”

Despite his internal turmoil, Luo Binghe can’t help the flush of warmth that races down his spine at that voice calling out to him, his fingers tingling and a smile breaking onto his face. He whips around, his ribs expanding in a swell of affection.

“Shizun!”

Shen Qingqiu rushes up to him in a benevolent flurry, the bottom of his robes already splashed in blood from the demons he’s cut down on the way. His fiery eyes scan him for injuries and Luo Binghe preens under the worried attention. After not finding anything of concern, his Shizun’s gaze sweeps towards the others and Luo Binghe can’t help but frown at the loss.

“Is anyone injured?”

Luo Binghe scans the small splay of bodies face down in the dirt among the panicking students.

“A few.”

Shen Qingqiu’s assessment of the scene seems to linger on the Huan Hua twins, Qin Wanyue clutching at the now lifeless body of her sister whose skull has been drained dry, shaking and crying in stunned silence. Luo Binghe’s expression pinches and moves to step in front of the view and back into Shen Qingqiu’s line of vision because surely, the sight isn’t that novel.

He reaches for Shen Qingqiu’s wrist and tugs at it. “We shouldn’t linger. The males have been cut down but the females will be arriving soon.” He says in haste, before turning and fleeing with his Shizun in tow, completely missing the small, stunned look that flashes over Shen Qingqiu’s face at his words.

The surviving students naturally follow them, drawn to the security of a Peak Lord’s presence, desperate for the shelter of his strength.

“Protect the group from behind! I’ll take the front!” Shen Qingqiu calls to him over the rising sounds of chaos. Luo Binghe discreetly clicks his tongue in annoyance before obeying and letting go of his Shizun, veering towards the rear of the scrambling children. They work in time to slash down the onslaught of demonic threats that throw themselves at them nonstop, disciple and master working in perfect tandem as the scent of carnage wafts thick in the air.

Luo Binghe’s attention veers back towards his first worry as they run, his eyes sharp and flickering over the rocks and treeline. Where is that pesky beast? Maybe Luo Binghe can get away with not having to fight it this time around? Can he hold on to the human illusion a little bit longer?

All at once, the number of demons starts to dwindle as the group rushes into another clearing that Luo Binghe vaguely recognizes, putting him more on the defensive. His intuition prickles in the back of his mind and his eyes move to observe the ground.

Lo and behold, there is the Thousand-Leaves Fresh-Snow Lotus that he had searched so hard for in his first life for the sake of Qin Wanyue and her tedious Without a Cure poisoning.

What a useless f*cking plant. He nearly gives in to the urge to stomp on it as Shen Qingqiu explains its protective properties to the others. Speaking of Without a Cure though…

Luo Binghe’s gaze redirects itself fully back to his Shizun, whose hand is subtly shaking under the cover of his sleeve. Luo Binghe’s frown deepens. It seems like Shen Qingqiu has run into another flare-up, his qi temporarily exhausted. It won’t do him any good to expend any more energy protecting these no-names.

He steps forward, ready to stand beside his Shizun and protect his blind spots when a rustling comes from behind the group. Luo Binghe automatically wedges himself in front of his Shizun, teeth clenched and posture coiled, ready to snap.

But when, of all people, Shang Qinghua stumbles through the brush, Luo Binghe falters.

This isn’t right.

“So it was Shen-shixiong.” The rat wheezes. “Meeting up with you puts my heart at ease.”

Shang Qinghua’s eyes are trained carefully on Shen Qingqiu, looking right past Luo Binghe with strained effort.

Something is wrong. This feels familiar.

“Shang-shidi. As you approached, did you see a large demonic beast nearby?”

“Hm? A large demonic beast? That… There wasn’t one.”

The two Peak Lords are conversing but Luo Binghe can no longer hear a word over the blood rushing in his ears, his stare drifting back towards the clearing. His eyes seem to focus on a point in the grass, damp with the persistent, soft rain and bowing under a passing breeze.

A crack forms just where Luo Binghe is looking, small and glowing a faint orange beneath the green blades. Luo Binghe pales.

Then, the earth shakes and the small crack tears further, all at once, as the Endless Abyss yawns its hungry mouth wide open.

He vaguely registers the panic around him, students flattening to the ground under the weight of the Abyss’s presence. There is so much screaming. The blistering heat from the magma below the ripping chasm evaporates the gentle rain, the atmosphere is suddenly choked with the thick fumes of demonic energy.

Luo Binghe can only watch, his heart hammering harder and harder as it seeks a way out of his chest to find safety.

No.

No. He has it all wrong. Why has he been focusing on his memories when he should be focusing on…

His mind conjures the image of that Bamboo House from another world– the first to welcome him kindly, even if by mistake. He remembers the dreamscape of that other Shen Qingqiu and the glimpses he had seen.

He swallows hard and tries to rationalize to himself that no one reality is the same as another.

Change is possible. His fate has been altered. It has to be, otherwise all of this was for nothing.

But then Mobei Jun steps into the clearing, and with him, brings Luo Binghe’s suppressed doubts.

If Luo Binghe were to be honest, he would admit that a little voice in the back of his mind has been screaming at him that this is wrong since the beginning. Not just the Immortal Alliance Conference, but all of it. He would admit to the fact that he has been ready, since day one, to suffer at the hands of Shen Qingqiu because it is the only thing he has ever known. He would admit that he still hasn’t really stopped feeling that way. Not fully.

Sometimes the experiences of these past years feel like simple fantasies– like kids playing pretend and changing the story to better fit their narrow world views. Luo Binghe was so ready to play along; to act his part. He had let himself become hopeful. He let himself believe that maybe everything was true– that each moment he spent with Shen Qingqiu was real and that the affection he craved so secretly was being given to him by his Shizun’s own quiet volition.

So when a fight breaks out, Luo Binghe moves purely on autopilot, his stance defensive and his attacks quick. His mind, however, is stuck in a fearful loop of the inevitable. Mobei Jun is seeing him. Mobei Jun is seeing right through him. He knows.

It’s only natural he decides to break Luo Binghe’s seal, just like he had in that other world. All it takes is a flimsy flick of his finger and Luo Binghe crumples to the ground, exposed.

The inevitable.

It’s more painful than he remembers. His veins are roaring, his core shattering into sharp pieces that are tearing up his insides as they try to reassemble themselves. He endures it, trying to focus on the familiarity of his awakened demonic qi as his hands pull at his hair and he writhes on the wet ground.

But he can’t focus. He’s scared. He’s scared to look at Shen Qingqiu. He’s scared to see what kind of expression his Shizun is making after years of amiable smiles and tenderness.

Luo Binghe had been so confident walking into this, thinking everything would be okay because he loves his Shizun and his Shizun, in some capacity must love him too. He was so stupidly confident.

Even now, he thinks that all of this hoping has made him a fool because his underlying thoughts drift to the shattered Zheng Yang next to him and how Shen Qingqiu is going to be so sad about it.

How ridiculous. How pitiful.

He feels a hand on his shoulder bring him back to the present and he finally gives in.

He hates what he sees.

“You’re awake? If you’re awake, let's have a thorough discussion.” His Shizun’s voice is so cold, even against the burning heat in the air around them. His eyes are so far away, looking right through him. “Luo Binghe, tell me honestly, exactly how long have you been practicing demonic cultivation?”

“Shizun.” He says brokenly, hoping that the word would somehow save him if spoken out loud. “Shizun, please don’t look at me like that.”

“How long?”

“Why must it matter?” His voice cracks as his hands move to cover up the mark on his forehead that he has never been ashamed of until now.

“Because it does.” Shen Qingqiu huffs. “No wonder you were able to progress by leaps and bounds, and to such an extent. You truly live up to your reputation, Luo Binghe. You are gifted with spectacular talent.”

That’s not what Luo Binghe wants to hear right now. He really did try hard! He worked honestly and diligently. He chose the righteous path this time on his own accord! He didn’t cut any corners. He really, really did his best!

Why is it so hard to breathe?

“Shizun, you said before that race doesn’t matter– that being human or demon doesn’t dictate good or evil.”

“You are no simple demon.” Shen Qingqiu moves to stand, bringing Luo Binghe with him. “That mark on your forehead is a mark of sin– the mark of the demons who fell from the heavens. These demons have murdered countless–”

Luo Binghe lets out a shrill sound, curling in on himself as he pulls away and instinctively moves to cover his ears. “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare use those lines on me. I don’t want to hear them!” Not again! Even if these words would end up reigning true in a previous life, he still didn’t want to have them spoken to him a second time. Not after he had finally been granted the opportunity to wipe his slate clean.

He is not evil! He is not foul! He’s just a Binghe! He was only ever just Luo Binghe.

He is capable of change. He is capable of being good.

He… he just has to remind his Shizun. That's all!

He reaches out again and snatches his Shizun’s wrist. The man flinches and tries to pull away but Luo Binghe only tightens his grip. Shakily, he lifts the hand he’s caught hostage and places it on top of his head, holding it there with newfound desperation.

“It’s just me Shizun. See? This disciple is no different than before.” He raises his Shizun’s hand and brings it back down in small, repeated movements, pathetically trying to mimic the familiar sensation of Shen Qingqiu petting the crown of his hair. “See? See?”

Luo Binghe’s eyes are wide and almost unseeing, but he notices the way his Shizun blanches, color draining fast from his face, leaving him appearing a sickly green.

…Is he really so disgusting?

When Shen Qingqiu moves to tug his hand free again, Luo Binghe lets him go, his arms hovering uselessly. He doesn’t know what to do. Surely there is some way to save this?

But then Shen Qingqiu’s fingers form a sword seal and the familiar blade of Xiu Ya hovers just in front of Luo Binghe’s chest.

A threat. (Perhaps an invitation).

How did it come to this? He had been so sure.

“The Human Realm is no longer a place for you.” His Shizun’s voice has never been so hollow. Even the cruel Shen Qingqiu of his past life never looked at him so coldly– as if he were looking at nothing. “You ought to return to the place you belong. The question is, will you go down yourself, or must I force you?”

His Shizun wants him to go down into the Endless Abyss.

His Shizun has his sword pointed directly at Luo Binghe’s heart.

The thing is, no matter how loyal and loving a dog may be, when pushed into a corner, it will bare its teeth and lash out even at the hand that feeds it.

All of Luo Binghe’s hope dies in a frightening instant.

“So you wish to end my life? Despite everything, nothing has changed?” The venom pools in his mouth, overwhelming his senses as he tries to spit it out at Shen Qingqiu.

“I don’t want to kill you.”

“Then why are you looking at me like that?! It’s as if just the mere sight of me in front of you is something so unpleasant!”

Shen Qingqiu takes a step forward and Luo Binghe nearly chokes when he feels the tip of Xiu Ya press against his robes, causing him to take a reflexive step back. His mind reels, trying to make sense of these past years and what they could have possibly been for.

It isn’t fair. None of it is fair.

He searches pleadingly for some scrap of sentiment to cling on to– to remind him of why he wanted this all in the first place. He doesn’t find it though. His Shizun, despite standing right in front of him, is already gone– lost somewhere Luo Binghe doesn’t know how to find him.

“Do you hate me?” His voice feels raw when it leaves him, clawing out of his throat. “Tell me, Shen Qingqiu! After all the mercy and affection you’ve shown me these years, do you still hate me?!”

Shen Qingqiu barely even reacts, blocking him out completely. To think that he’d be so unflinching in a moment like this makes Luo Binghe want to keel over and vomit. If his heart wasn’t broken before, it is now.

“You do…” Luo Binghe feels the sting of his eyes as his vision blurs. He can’t think. It hurts so much. Nothing has ever hurt this much before. “You do. You hate me… you hate me… I couldn’t change anything. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s changed!”

Luo Binghe spirals, falling deeper and deeper. His mind and heart try to compensate for the violent onslaught of grief, seeking to erect some sort of defense. It only results in a hysteric laugh bursting out of him as his chest constricts tightly, his ribs trying to protect the crushed soul within.

“Haha! I’ve been a fool! An absolute fool! How could I lose sight of the truth?!” His gaze turns towards the sky as a disbelieving smile splits his face. He feels the tears start to roll down his strained cheeks and something in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes flickers back to life, but Luo Binghe doesn’t see it. “Shen Qingqiu has no heart! He is just as much of a performer as I am! Haha! You fooled me! Congratulations, Shizun! You fooled me!”

“Binghe–”

Luo Binghe’s attention snaps back and he grabs the sword in front of him, the edge of the blade digging deep into his palm as he drives it forward to press dangerously against his sternum. His expression is wild, his eyes wet and grin unfeeling. His glowing demon mark pulses bright between his brows.

“Go ahead! Push me in! Do your worst! Haha! Do you think I won’t survive? Do you think I won’t endure?! You know nothing!”

Shen Qingqiu’s gaze flickers down to Luo Binghe’s hand as the blood gathers and slides down the blade, dripping off just before the hilt.

“Binghe, stop… You…”

“You truly are scum. That part of you has never changed.” His voice suddenly levels out, flat and poison-tongued, his expression growing dull. “Your warmth has been more cruel to me than anything else you’ve ever done. Why bother, Shen Qingqiu? Why bother being kind to me at all?”

That seems to be the right thing to say because Shen Qingqiu’s distant expression takes on an edge of panic . Luo Binghe only sees it as weakness though, his mind encased in the familiar, protective walls of anger and self-preservation that suffocate his rationality.

He tugs Xiu Ya, the blade scraping against the bones in his hand, and Shen Qingqiu stumbles forward in his stupor. Combined with his Without a Cure flare up, Luo Binghe seizes Shen Qingqiu easily by the lapels of his robes, shoving the sword aside. He drags them both to the edge, the heat radiating from the chasm enough to be dizzying as leans them both over the lip of the Endless Abyss.

Shen Qingqiu, if Luo Binghe was paying attention, would appear to be almost willing as he is pulled and nearly dangled over the roaring hellscape.

“Why should I suffer? Maybe you should go down instead. The problem is you, isn’t it? Hasn’t it always been you?” Luo Binghe jostles the man in his bloody grip, trying to get something out of him. Anything, really. “Go down instead, Shen Qingqiu. Atone for your sins.”

“Is that what Binghe wants?”

The funny thing about being half-human is that Luo Binghe is prone to the fickle nature of his emotions. He can hold grudges for the smallest slight and forgive at the simplest of apologies. His life has always been dictated by this sensitive nature of his. So, when Shen Qingqiu speaks and says his name so familiarly again, Luo Binghe wavers.

“What?”

His spirling sense of self seems to slow, his feet becoming a little more steady under him as he blinks at his Shizun. His sight comes back into focus a little bit and he suddenly sees that Shen Qingqiu has abandoned Xiu Ya carelessly in the burnt grass at their feet, his free hands coming up to wrap tentatively around Luo Binghe’s wrists where his vice grip is curled in his Shizun’s robes.

Shen Qingqiu is looking directly at him now, heartsore and a little afraid.

Afraid?

“Is that what Binghe wants? For this master to go down?” He repeats in a voice quiet and velvet against the clamoring chaos around them. It makes Luo Binghe feel a little helpless. He thinks that his Shizun’s expression is oddly complicated, especially when he remembers so vividly that Shen Qingqiu never flinched in the face of death before.

Oh… wait. That’s not right.

Hadn’t Luo Binghe already come to terms with the fact that this Shen Qingqiu is someone else entirely?

Yet, if that is the case, why are things still playing out like this? Why is his Shizun still trying to hurt him?

…Maybe there really is a way to make it all stop?

“No.” He finally croaks out. His Shizun’s hands are so pleasant against the skin of his wrists. Luo Binghe finally registers that Shen Qingiqu is subtly feeding him spiritual energy, attempting to quell the storm within his body.

How… long has he been doing that? The flow of time doesn’t feel right anymore.

“Then what does Binghe want?” His Shizun searches his gaze, the orange glow from the roaring chasm somehow makes his features softer and Luo Binghe wonders if he’s being fooled again. “You need only to ask.”

The way the words leave him almost makes Luo Binghe believe they are somewhere else; not at the Immortal Alliance Conference standing on the edge of the Endless Abyss, but instead on a small garden bridge in the snow. He can believe he’s younger and a little drunk, lashing out at his Shizun because he doesn’t have a cloak like the other kids, all the while his Shizun is attempting to drape one over his shoulders– to softly right his wrongs.

He feels a fresh wave of tears pearl down his face, evaporating in the heat by the time they reach his chin.

“Don’t cast me away.”

His Shizun nods. “Okay. I won’t.” He says simply, as if it’s easy.

“How am I to trust that after everything you just said?”

Shen Qingqiu winces slightly, and Luo Binghe suddenly fears that he’s hurting him and instinctively loosens his grip. He can’t bring himself to let go completely.

The earth starts to shake again, the Endless Abyss slowly beginning to stitch itself back together and drowsily shut its yawning mouth. They steady themselves against the vibrations and Shen Qingqiu’s attention flickers briefly to the fading view.

“I won’t. This master can promise that.” He sighs. “The things said just now were impulsive and out of fear. This master takes it all back.”

“I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you.” Luo Binghe presses, his voice quivering.

Shen Qingqiu turns back to him, a somewhat sorrowful quirk to his lips. He reaches up and tenderly brushes a thumb under one of Luo Binghe’s eyes, petting away the rolling tears.

“I mean it. Binghe is still Binghe to this master. I won’t cast you away because of what you are. You…” His Shizun’s brow pinches as he swallows something down and Luo Binghe wishes he knew what it was. “You are still my disciple.”

“I don’t believe…” Luo Binghe’s walls crumble all over again in the face of his Shizun’s affection, his anger and grief quickly losing their foundation against his better judgment. He can’t help but bend himself back into the shape of what he hopes is real, aching for the relief of loving without fear. “I-I don’t…”

The chasm is only a crack again, barely enough for a person to fit through anymore as it rumbles itself shut. The weight of his emotions slowly sinks Luo Binghe to his knees like it did all those years ago, his hands sliding down but still gripping at the fabric of his Shizun who hasn’t yet pushed him away.

If Shen Qingqiu is going to go through with it, he has to do it now.

But, by the time his shins are on the grass, the Endless Abyss is gone, leaving nothing but a shallow divot in the earth and some burnt foliage around them.

Luo Binghe sobs.

It’s over.

Shen Qingqiu quickly rushes down to meet him, making some sort of strange, punched-out sound. He kneels before Luo Binghe and gathers him in his arms, holding him closer than he ever has before.

“Shizun.” He all but wails, grasping at Shen Qingqiu like a lifeline. “Is this real? Can I really stay?”

“Yes, Binghe. Yes.”

Shen Qingqiu tucks him closer, running his fingers through Luo Binghe's hair with shaking hands. Luo Binghe hopes his Shizun isn’t afraid of him.

“Shizun doesn’t think I am evil? Intolerable? Wretched?”

“No, Binghe. Of course not.”

“Shizun doesn’t hate me?”

“Never.” His Shizun snaps, pulling back so that they are face to face again, his expression more stern now. His aura takes on something viscously serious that makes Luo Binghe want to forfeit his pride further and curl up in his Shizun’s lap for protection.

“If Shizun speaks the truth, then I–” A devastating feeling wells up, clogging his throat. “This disciple wants to go home.”

His mending heart pumps out the word and feeds it to his body. Home. Home. Home.

Luo Binghe wants to go home. He wants to go back to the Bamboo House where he feels safe. He wants to cook in the private kitchen and read more books and sleep in his bed. He wants to wake up and live in the same space as Shen Qingqiu forever.

Please. Please. Please. It’s all he wants. He won’t wish for anything more. He promises.

“Then let’s go. This master will take Binghe back home.” Shen Qingqiu holds Luo Binghe’s face in his hands like he won’t ever hurt him again. Luo Binghe takes the risk of resting his cheek in his Shizun’s palm like he did many times before. It feels the same- as if nothing that just transpired ever happened.

“But Binghe,” He recognizes that tone, his senses sharpening into focus out of sheer habit as he meets his Shizun’s severe expression head-on. “The others… this master can’t know how they’ll initially react. They may try to kill you.”

“It’s okay, Shizun. I can hide myself well.” He responds earnestly, forcing his demonic energy down into his core and tucking it away with practiced ease, his human form reshaping in front of his Shizun’s eyes.

Shen Qingqiu seems… surprised by this before shaking his head as if trying to rid himself of some thoughts.

“Very good, Binghe. You continue to impress this master.” He says. “The surge of demonic qi can be blamed on the Abyss and the appearance of that other demon. If anyone suspects you, this master will be your advocate, okay? This stays between us… for now. Luckily most of the others here are still unconscious.”

Luo Binghe nods with each point made, his features brightening into something filial and optimistic all over again as he listens attentively. What matters is that his Shizun isn’t pushing him away. His Shizun is sticking by his side. He’s still here.

Wonderfully, he is still here.

“Thanking Shizun for keeping this disciple in your care.”

There is a long moment of silence between them where Shen Qingqiu simply observes Luo Binghe. He looks at him like he always does back in the Bamboo House when it’s just the two of them, his gaze rich with something unspoken.

“Such thanks are unneeded. Binghe deserves a future that makes him happy. This master will take care of everything.”

Luo Binghe wishes he understood the full weight of those words.

<>

The aftermath of the Conference weighs heavy on everyone. The death count is sickening even to the toughest of stomachs and the clean-up of the leftover gore leaves many retching and weeping in the gorge. The residual heat of the Endless Abyss has clashed with the gloomy skies, causing booming thunder to ring about above their heads, echoing alongside the howling anguish as the rain returns.

Shen Qingqiu keeps Luo Binghe overly close as the many others from Cang Qiong rush to the scene, an arm tucked over his disciple’s shoulder and long sleeve cascading before him in case Luo Binghe wished to hide his face.

Grief is a reasonable excuse, he tells himself, as he nuzzles unashamedly into his Shizun’s side. He is more than willing to take advantage of the rare tactile nature of Shen Qingqiu.

Mu Qingfang does a frantic health check on them both and Shen Qingqiu skillfully sidesteps Luo Binghe having his qi studied by stating he’s already taken care to examine his disciple. It’s admittedly hard to pretend, though, that either of them are fully okay with blood splattered on their clothes and their complexions ghostly from taxing emotions, but Qian Cao’s Peak Lord’s protests die on his tongue with one sharp look from Shen Qingqiu.

Everyone has questions. Luo Binghe is impressed by his Shizun’s ability to conjure up answers as he himself stays selfishly silent, focusing solely on the warmth of Shen Qingqiu. He unsubtly rubs his face into the curve of his Shizun’s shoulder, inhaling the scent of rain and jasmine tea and re-finding his way back home in the aroma. He can’t wait to get back to how things were before this.

The only time they separate is when the initial questioning subsides and his Shizun bends down to carefully pick up the shards of Zheng Yang. Luo Binghe doesn’t let him go far, keeping some of his Shizun’s sleeve pinched between his fingers.

“Shizun! There is no need. You’ll hurt yourself if you–”

“This is Binghe’s sword. If Zheng Yang can’t be salvaged, then what will my disciple wield?”

His teeth click shut, unsure of what to say to that.

With a loose cloth ripped from his own, expensive robes, Shen Qingqiu carries the shattered blade in one hand and holds Luo Binghe’s with the other, not releasing even when they get back to the carriage. Ming Fan and Ning Yingying rush up to them, both a blubbering mess of worry and relief as Shen Qingqiu soothes them with balming words.

Ning Yingying’s eyes drift down to where their palms are interlocked, her expression both curious and concerned.

“Is A-Luo really alright?” She asks in a way that eludes to her understanding that he isn’t.

Luo Binghe only nods but nearly splits his face in a smile when he feels his Shizun’s fingers squeeze his.

“He will ride with this master back to Qing Jing.” Shen Qingqiu states, tone firm. “I trust you to take care of his horse.”

And with that, Luo Binghe is swept away.

But when they settle to sit in that wooden box, side by side and sheltered from the chaos of the outside world, the glee of avoiding the Endless Abyss fades as his adrenaline dissipates and he’s left the crushing weight of the silence between them. The four walls suddenly feel small with awkwardness wedging itself into the free space, stifling the air in the carriage.

He looks at Shen Qingqiu and his small grin fades as he comes face to face with the clear image of his Shizun’s haggard appearance, the purple under his eyes more vivid and the line of his lips pulled thin.

The only thing assuring Luo Binghe that his Shizun’s demeanor isn’t tainted with regret is the grounding pressure of their hands pressed together, not wanting to let go.

Still, something in the line of his Shizun’s posture speaks of fear.

Luo Binghe opens his mouth to talk many times but ends with him always clicking it shut, unsure of what exactly should be said. They ride like that for a long time, nothing but the sound of rain on the carriage roof and the creaking wheels to mingle with the quiet.

Then, after a while, “How was it that Binghe knew of the Ghost-head Spider’s nature?”

Luo Binghe nearly startles at the suddenness of his Shizun speaking, the hushed question bouncing around loud in his ears.

“Pardon?”

Shen Qingqiu isn’t looking at him, but instead staring hard at some point on the floor of the carriage. “Earlier, Binghe had told this master that it'd be best to flee before the females arrive, implying that you are familiar with the demon’s attributes, despite their rarity. How?”

Suspicion.

How odd.

“This disciple is well read, Shizun. You know of them too, do you not? We have many beastaries in the Peak’s library.” He says carefully.

Shen Qingqiu’s expression pinches. “So you read about them?”

“Yes.” He lies.

“What else have you read?”

Luo Binghe pauses, apprehensive. “Many things, Shizun.”

“Anything by the name of Proud Immortal Demon Way ?” His Shizun turns to him now, tired eyes burning with something intense, leaning forward into his space.

Luo Binghe doesn’t recognize the title of such a manuscript and only shakes his head with a purse of his lips. “This disciple has not, Shizun. Is it a text of significance?” If it is, he is sure he would have heard of it by now.

Shen Qingqiu takes a long time to respond, searching Luo Binghe’s face before letting out a small breath and looking away again, something in his body language both reassured yet uneasy. “No. Nothing of significance. This master was only curious.”

Nothing is said after that.

<>

The tension doesn’t ease by the time they arrive back home. The air between them is still too charged with emotion, but Shen Qingqiu never once pulls away from him. Luo Binghe is not sure if it’s on purpose or his Shizun is just so lost in thought that he’s forgotten to let go of his disciple's hand altogether.

Each member of Cang Qiong retreats to their respective abodes, carrying with them the heavy tragedy of the past day as it presses them down to their beds, but allows them no rest.

Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu stand for a long time in the foyer of the Bamboo House, the mountain night laying a heavy blanket of darkness around them. Luo Binghe moves to light a lantern while his Shizun stands still. He makes sure not to walk far away enough that their connection breaks.

He convinces himself that the gentle yellow glow eases some of the harshness of the evening atmosphere, but it doesn’t.

“Shizun.”

“Yes, Binghe?”

He moves to stand in front of Shen Qingqiu and gently coaxes his Shizun to unfurl his fingers still gripping tight to the shards of Zheng Yang. He pulls the bundled cloth carefully away, setting it down by their feet. Luo Binghe traces the shallow cuts in his palm left behind and trickles a small stream of spiritual energy against them so they heal.

“Cang Qiong suffered losses. Shizun should allow himself time to grieve properly.”

Shen Qingqiu only hums in response.

“Is there anything this disciple can do for you?”

“Is Binghe really happy here? At Qing Jing?”

They stare at each other under the lantern light and Luo Binghe thinks that Shen Qingqiu is beautiful, even in such an unfastidious state, his wet hair sticking to his chin and clothes spattered in gore.

“Yes.” He breathes easily for the first time in a while. “I don’t want to be anywhere else but right here.” He tips forward with the desire to just be a little closer, even if just by a hair's width.

And then finally… finally , Shen Qingqiu smiles. He eases it into the expression as if he were almost waiting for permission, his eyes soft and swimming with affection. “That’s all this master needs to know.” He pulls his hands away and reaches up to hold Luo Binghe’s face in the way he’s so obviously fond of doing, patting along his cheeks and brushing away a few damp curls. “Ah, let this master take a good look at his disciple, yeah? It’s been a long day.” He says tenderly.

Luo Binghe huffs a small laugh. “Am I pleasing to look at, Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu shuffles them a little closer to the lantern and turns Luo Binghe towards it better, eyes soaking him in almost shamelessly– enough so to make some blood creep up the back of Luo Binghe’s neck and pool in his ears.

“Can Binghe show this master everything?”

The blush spreads to his face instantly. “Shizun?” He croaks, his throat suddenly dry.

Then, he notices that Shen Qingqiu’s gaze seems to fix itself between his brows and he understands.

Luo Binghe becomes uncharacteristically hesitant. “Ah, Shizun… I– this disciple shouldn’t.”

“We have already passed the mountain barrier and are safely back home. No one will know.”

He pulls his bottom lip in, gnawing it a bit in apprehension before nodding and letting some of his demonic energy slip through the seams of his core. He feels the way his ears reshape and his canines grow, licking at the sharp points subconsciously. He sees the small bloom of red light reflect and petal along his Shizun’s watchful features as Luo Binghe's mark reappears. The only thing he tucks away is his claws, folding them dutifully behind his back as he lets himself be examined.

“Is it not unsightly?” He can’t help but ask.

His Shizun shakes his head, something a little exasperated in his smile. “Quite the opposite, Binghe.”

“Shizun compliments this disciple too freely.”

“Would you rather this master stay silent?”

“...No.”

Shen Qingqiu chuckles and Luo Binghe thinks that the sound is inspiring.

“In time, many will come to accept Binghe and this appearance. Trust in that.”

He frowns slightly and presses his cheek into his Shizun’s hold. “You have too much confidence in others if you believe such a thing. Very few would readily acknowledge the likes of a demon like me. Shizun is unique.”

“You’d be surprised.” Shen Qingqiu says kindly, eyes continuing to trace every part of him as if hoping to memorize each detail. It sends a small shiver down his spine. “But until then, Qing Jing will be your safe haven. This master will do his best to make it so.”

When Luo Binghe feels him start to pull away, he reaches out in a frantic motion to hold his Shizun and keep him close. “What made you change your mind? Back there at the edge of the Abyss?” He blurts, voice a little strained and heart thudding hard against his ribs.

He supposes if he is ever to ask, now would be the time.

Shen Qingqiu seems caught off guard for a moment, his smile waning before it fades into something a little sad and a little distant. “This master was simply reminded that Binghe is still Binghe, no matter what. No force in this world can change that. And for you to be happy… well…,” His Shizun closes his eyes for a moment, the gesture meditative and almost vulnerable as he speaks. “...I simply came to terms with how, perhaps, that is the most important part of all of this.”

Luo Binghe’s gaze burns, blurring at the edges as his mouth gapes uselessly. A strange sensation of dread seeps down his spine, tickling his instincts despite not understanding the source.

He got what he wanted, but something still doesn’t feel quite right. The pieces of the puzzle don't quite fit.

“Shizun?”

“We should turn in for the night, Binghe. It’s already late.” He carefully extracts his arms from Luo Binghe’s grip and his gaze turns downwards. Luo Binghe wants this strange feeling to stop. “Sleep well.”

He feels he should stop his Shizun from turning and walking away, but he doesn’t, already worried that he’s pushed his luck for the day. It’s enough that he’s back home, isn’t it? He should be grateful.

He watches as Shen Qingqiu leaves, feeling like a coward as he remains in place.

Tomorrow will be better. Luo Binghe will make sure of it.

But when the sun rises, casting away the rain, and he lies in the side room sleepless, the dread doesn’t subside.

Intuition is a strange thing. It is peculiar the way it works, attempting to tug at the guts and induce a sense of feeling – to warn of something not yet known.

He studies the lines of the ceiling, gaze occasionally skirting towards the drifting dust in the sunbeams. His fingers thrum in a steady motion on top of each other as he attempts to take deep breaths. The obnoxious anxiety leaves a sour taste on the back of his tongue that he keeps trying to swallow down.

Something is wrong, but he doesn’t know what.

He supposes the least he can do is make breakfast and ignore it for now.

He gets up and throws on some fresh clothes, tying up his tangled hair. Before bed yesterday, he had only endeavored to take a bird bath with a small wash basin and a cloth, not wanting to disturb his Shizun’s rest to fill the tub. However, he does find it strange that Shen Qinqiu hadn’t asked for a bath himself. Perhaps he didn’t want to burden Luo Binghe after such an ordeal.

He shuffles out of his room quietly and makes his way to the kitchen, busying himself with ideas on what to make. He settles on something simple, as both of their stomachs may not be the strongest after their bodies experiencing such acute stress. He prepares ginger and chicken congee for old time’s sake. For the side dishes, he whips up some cream, sweetening it with a light dose of sugar and decorating the fluffy surface with assorted fruits. He pairs this with some plain sticky rice buns and his Shizun’s favorite Arabica brew, prepared perfectly with milk and a spoon of honey the way he likes it.

Content, he carries the assortment to Shen Qingqiu’s room, knocking lightly on the threshold.

“Shizun?” He calls mildly. To his surprise, he finds his Shizun sound asleep, head propped on the pillow and hands folded neatly over his stomach instead of sleeping on his side like all those times before.

Luo Binghe feels a small flare of delight ignite in his chest, glad that Shen Qingqiu has finally got some rest. He looks ethereal in sleep, all soft, rolling hills and flowered meadows. Though still sickly pale, he looks more peaceful than he has in months.

It won’t do him much good to sleep in too long though, so he delicately approaches, speaking up a bit louder.

“Shizun, wake up and have breakfast with this disciple.”

He places the tray on the low table and advances towards the bed, letting his greedy gaze absorb the unguarded image and committing it to memory. He sits on the edge of the matress, dipping his weight against it, but his Shizun doesn’t so much as stir. He doesn’t move at all.

Luo Binghe spots a pile of clothes on the floor beside him, the bloody fabric from yesterday sitting in a neat and respectful fold that makes him frown. There is no need to fold dirty clothes.

He cautiously reaches for his Shizun’s hands and lays his own over them, giving a gentle nudge.

“Shizun… Shizun, wake up.”

Shen Qingqiu’s feels so cold. He must have caught a chill from the rain during his Without a Cure flare-up. It’s no issue though, the congee and brew will warm him up a bit and Luo Binghe can fetch some fur to drape over his shoulders. His Shizun just needs to get up.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, waiting for the man to wake. It’s good that Shen Qingqiu is sleeping so deeply. He deserves a good rest.

But the sun is already so low in the sky and the food has long gone cold, the cream flattened and the congee soggy. Luo Binghe remains there all the same, even as the light fades completely, holding his Shizun’s hands as he gives them an occasional squeeze, trying to coax Shen Qingqiu awake.

There is a light tapping sound echoing in the quiet room as tears drip on frigid skin.

“Shizun, I don’t want to eat alone. Please, wake up.”

[Critical Quest: Incomplete]

[-20,000]

Notes:

The End.

… just kidding. Update coming as soon as strawberry season stops kicking my ass. (Aka beginning of July. Hopefully.)

Also! A hearty congrats to those who predicted it would end up this way. What a bunch of smart cookies! This author gives you all gold stars.

CW: Panic, mild depictions of gore and death. One new tag has appeared.

Wish Received, Wish Granted! - SchaBao - 人渣反派自救系统 - 墨香铜臭 | The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System (2024)
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