Luo Binghe felt what little was left of his dignity wither and die away as he typed sex magic in the search bar of his computer.
It was a sad, desperate measure, but he was done with the entirety of Shen Yuan’s beginners’ course, and halfway through the intermediate level, and had, in all this time, obtained exactly one gulp (when Luo Binghe had “lost” control of the leaves-blades spell and artfully shredded his clothing), eighty-seven praises of his cooking abilities and five-hundred and sixty-one smiles.
Clearly, such times called for sad, desperate measures.
The first results of his search were all variations on lust spells, which were disgusting and not at all what Luo Binghe was looking for. He didn’t want to coerce Shen Yuan into his bed. It would be a hollow victory, and an horrible thing to do to anyone, let alone the love of his life.
Wincing, he clicked away from the site and added rituals to his search.
That was more like it.
Sure, there were rather more candles and blood than what he had envisioned for their first time (if Luo Binghe was being honest with himself, he had imagined their first time would feature a discreetly placed string quartet and heaps of rose petals). However, this was nothing but a secondary concern. The only thing that really mattered was that Shen Yuan would, in the name of learning, be exposed to Luo Binghe’s amazing (and, most importantly, addictive) amatory abilities.
He printed out the most likely-looking results and brought them along to his next lesson. Shen Yuan’s nose twitched adorably as he read through them, and the lightest dusting of pink bloomed across his cheeks. “Binghe,” he said once he was done, delicately fanning himself with elegant motions of his fine-boned wrist. “Are you interested in the theoretical foundations of this sort of spell?”
“I was hoping for something a little bit more… practical,” said Luo Binghe, suavely. Almost suavely.
It would’ve been suave if the collar of Shen Yuan’s shirt hadn’t been shifted by the breeze, exposing the exquisite jut of his collarbone, and Luo Binghe’s voice hadn’t gotten a little strangled, there, in the middle of the sentence.
The fanning motions increased in speed. “Most of these are absolute nonsense, of course. The ones that do work are for summoning demons to this plane.You could accomplish that with just a phone-call.”
“There’s no reception in hell,” Luo Binghe tried, feebly.
“Oh.” Shen Yuan frowned. “Someone ought to do something about that. You shouldn’t be forced to have sex with random people whenever you want to have a chat with one of your cousins.”
“It is very kind of Shizun to worry,” said Luo Binghe, forcing a smile.
“Of course.” Shen Yuan patted his arm. With his actual hand, rather than with his fan, so at least the debacle hadn’t been a total loss.
“That can’t be healthy,” Luo Binghe commented, somehow managing to sound neutral despite the soul-crushing realization that Mobei Jun officially had more game than him.
It took him a few moments to notice the markings rippling across his back, mostly because he hadn’t been looking at his back.
“Oh,” Luo Binghe said, “it’s you.”
The prone figure pushed himself up in a sitting position. Looking at his face, it was easier to tell he wasn’t human; his lids were crimson, the stain extending back towards his temples, and his eyes glittered unnaturally.
Of course, Luo Binghe thought, of course, Shen Yuan was powerful enough that his familiar could take on a human appearance.
Xiao Jiu’s lips curved. He had a uniquely punchable smile, which was odd, because, beneath the odd coloring, his features were identical to Shen Yuan’s. And Shen Yuan, of course, had the gentlest, most beautiful smile in the world. “You should be grateful. Didn’t I get you a glimpse of your most cherished dream?”
Luo Binghe scoffed. Pointedly, he fixed his gaze to the strip of grass above Xiao Jiu’s bare shoulder.
“It’s been painful, watching your fumbling attempts at seduction. This is me taking pity of you. I’ll lend you a hand.”
“And why would you do that?”
“For a price,” Xiao Jiu specified.
“No, thank you,” said Luo Binghe primly. “I don’t need your help.”
Xiao Jiu scoffed. “Keep telling yourself that.” A flash of wings, and he was gone, somehow managing to dig out half of the earth he’d been standing on, showering Luo Binghe in gravel and bits of grass.
Shen Yuan started talking about some person he called Liu-shidi, who would be coming to visit. He spoke of this man with obvious fondness, with this soft, gentle look on his face. It made him look even more wonderful than usual, but it was awful, because this Liu-shidi had no business making Shen Yuan look like that. That was Luo Binghe’s job.
It was fine, he reasoned. Maybe Liu-shidi was bald. Maybe he didn’t have any of his teeth. Maybe his body was entirely covered in warts.
He was also an actual combat witch. He had a sword, and everything.
“Do you think Shen Yuan would like me better if I had a sword?” Luo Binghe asked. His family had a sword. It was supposedly cursed and would suck its wielders’ souls out bit by bit, but that was just a minor drawback in the face of true love.
“That wall is collapsing,” replied Sha Hualing.
Uh. Yeah, it was. He put a stasis spell on it, and it stopped, for the most part. A fine dust still drifted gently from the suspended fragments of concrete. “So?” he prompted. “Sword? Yes or no?”
“I don’t think it’ll help you,” said Sha Hualing. “This Liu-shidi guy hasn’t managed to get in his pants, either, as he?”
Luo Binghe frowned. “I don’t think so.”
“There,” replied Sha Hualing, ducking to avoid a handful of flaming debris. “No point copying him, then.”
“Do you two mind?” asked the woman slung over Luo Binghe’s shoulder, rather rudely - though, to be fair, having been stuck in a burning building was enough to put most people on edge. Not everyone could be as amazing as Shen Yuan.
He had even resisted to the temptation of baking a stone into the treat.
This time around, anyway.
If Luo Binghe had worried about having to explain his sudden association with Xiao Jiu to Shen Yuan, he had done so needlessly. Shen Yuan simply waved them off with a distracted smile when Xiao Jiu announced their intention to go on, as he phrased it, an outing.
Shang Qinghua was less nonchalant about the whole thing.
They passed him by when they left, as he was sitting cross-legged on the sofa, his red squirrel familiar wrapped around his neck like a fur collar.
He was fiddling with a clock. Green smoke rose from it in great, bright plumes, but it didn’t otherwise look like it would explode anytime soon, which made it officially Not Luo Binghe’s Problem.
He looked up when they crossed the room. “Bing-ge,” he said, with no small measure of astonishment. “Blink if you’re being held hostage.”
In response, Xiao Jiu darted forwards, snapping his teeth the way he did his beak.
Shang Qinghua flinched noticeably, and his familiar slipped down into his shirt, becoming a chittering, squirming bulge over his chest. “Did you blink?” Then, when Luo Binghe just sighed and went towards the door, “Ehi Bing-ge? Did you blink? Should I call the police?”
Less thankfully, he was wearing a set of sheer, fluttering robes. They were layered enough that they left most things to the imagination, but they looked like they’d been taken straight from the set of an extremely trashy xianxia drama. Everywhere they went, people on the street stopped and stared.
Their fist stop was to get lunch, where Luo Binghe also had the dubious honor of watching Xiao Jiu smuggle an entire lobster up his sleeve, giving the stupid robes a distinctly fishy odor. Now people not only stopped and stared, they also grimaced in disgust as soon as they got within smelling distance, giving Xiao Jiu - and by extension, Luo Binghe - a wide berth.
“I know you’re doing this to torment me,” he said, as they came to a stop in front of an electronics store.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” replied Xiao Jiu, with a supercilious little sniff. “Let’s go in here. I want a new phone.”
“You’re a bird,” said Luo Binghe, tamping down on his desire to put Xiao Jiu’s head through the window display, and thus proving he had the patient of an actual saint. “You don’t need a phone.”
“I already have a phone. I want that one,” and here, of course, he gestured towards the most expensive smartphone in the shop. “It takes better selfies than mine does.”
“Who would you even show selfies to?”
“My friends,” replied Xiao Jiu, like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to have friends, when he was the sort of person who ought to have been able to aspire to, at most, evil minions. At Luo Binghe’s incredulous look, he amended, a little defensively, “Friend.”
“I don’t see why Shen Yuan would want to look at the discount version of himself.”
“Shen Yuan isn’t my friend, “Xiao Jiu replied, bristling, “He’s a convenient bipedal moron I mooch off of.”
“Cranes are bipeds, too,” Luo Binghe pointed out.
“Shut up. Chickens are bipedal. We are majestic birds capable of flight. And I do have a friend, which is more than than can be said about you, since you have time to pant after Shen Yuan all day an no one ever bothers to come looking for you.” He fished out his phone from his sleeve. Regrettably it was the same sleeve he’d stored the lobster in, so the phone had become rather slimy. “Here, look.”
Luo Binghe looked.
“That’s a disturbing amount of eggplant emojis for a casual conversation.”
“Qi-ge and I are friends with benefits,” said Xiao Jiu gleefully.
If that was true, Qi-ge was probably a scientific marvel. Morbidly curious, Luo Binghe looked at the profile picture on the upper side of the screen, squinting. “He’s a regular human,” he commented, surprised.
“He’s a witch,” Xiao Jiu corrected sharply.
“He’s what?” It was, at best, unthinkably rude to befriend someone else’s familiar, at worst a deathly insult. Even just this, walking around with Xiao Jiu in Shen Yuan’s absence was toeing the line, only permissible as long as Luo Binghe remained Shen Yuan’s apprentice.
“It isn’t like that,” Xiao Jiu said. For once, he didn’t sound mocking, or hateful. “I knew him before.”
There was no need to ask him what before he was referring to. “How would you even remember that?”
The covenant between familiars and witches was simple: power, stability, in exchange for a new lease on life for the wandering spirits of the violent dead. Once the pact was stuck, the souls were wiped clean. If something still existed of the people they had been, it was just a distant echo, a memory sanded smooth by the vagaries of time.
“Shen Yuan botched the binding ceremony,” said Xiao Jiu, which was such a blatant lie it didn’t even merit acknowledging. Everyone had heard horror stories of what happened when bindings went awry.
As as horrifying and generally offensive as Xiao Jiu was, he didn’t even come close.
“He did it on purpose,” Luo Binghe breathed. Just when he’d started to think Shen Yuan couldn’t possibly amaze him further, he went and improved upon a magical pact that had been embedded in the very bedrock of witchcraft for centuries.
Xiao Jiu snorted. “Of course you would think so. You think the sun shines out of his ass. He’s just an idiot who got incredibly lucky.” He paused. “Now come along and get me my new phone. This one reeks of fish,” he added, nonchalantly, as though it wasn’t his own fucking fault.
The afternoon continued in much the same vein, in that it was painful both for Luo Binghe’s mood and his wallet. After some prompting, Xiao Jiu delivered his first counsel of the day: to get Shen Yuan a bouquet of lilies.
Clearly, he was greatly overestimating his own cleverness.
“He’s allergic,” Luo Binghe said immediately. “They make him break out in hives.”
Xiao Jiu narrowed his eyes. “How do you know that?”
“None of your business.” Obtaining Shen Yuan’s medical records had been done with nothing but good intentions in mind. It probably also had been a breach of his privacy. “Give me some actual advice, or I’ll make you swallow that monstrosity you’re wearing on your finger.”
The monstrosity had been the priciest purchase of the day. It was solid gold, fashioned in the shape of a roaring lion, and it might, in another life, have been a ring.
Xiao Jiu pouted, holding his hand up and tilting it so the jewel caught and glimmered in the sun. “A special edition of one of those stupid novels he reads was released recently,” he said eventually, “he couldn’t find one of the volumes and has been bitter about it for months.”
Xiao Jiu shrugged. “I don’t remember. Check his shelves next time you have a lesson, you’ll be able to tell.”
In exchange, he demanded enough gifts that he was close to making a dent even in the Luo family’s absurd fortune, in addition to fairly frequent chaffeuring services. Once, memorably, he climbed into the car reeking of sweat, a purpling bite mark on his throat and a worryingly triumphant expression on his face.
Luo Binghe had spent the following month dreading the prospect of ever having to pick him up post-quickie again. When it didn’t happen again, he came to the conclusion that nurturing his paranoia had been half of the fun for Xiao Jiu in that particular instance.
The only other thing of note that happened during that time was Shen Yuan cornering him in the bamboo grove for a Conversation.
It actually started off fairly promising.
“Binghe is very handsome,” Shen Yuan began.
Luo Binghe nodded. It was good that he had finally noticed.
“He could have anyone,” Shen Yuan continued.
Luo Binghe smiled. “It’s very sweet of Shizun to think so,” he demurred, though of course Shen Yuan had just been stating an objective truth.
Shen Yuan raised his fan to briefly cover his features. Behind it, he had probably flushed an attractive pink - too bad he was so shy and didn’t yet allow Luo Binghe to see his blushes. The bashfulness was endearing in its own way, but Luo Binghe was looking forward to coaxing some measure boldness from him, as well.
“Even though their situation is complex, Xiao Jiu’s heart has long since been spoken for. It’s not good of Binghe to use his charms to muddle things for him.”
Luo Binghe blinked. The absurdity of the words was so great it took a while for them to actually sink in. “I’m not trying to seduce Xiao Jiu,” he said, with perhaps a little too much emphasis.
Shen Yuan’s grip tightened on his fan. “Oh,” he breathed.
“He’s not my type,” Luo Binghe added, shuddering. “Very much not my type.”
“Oh,” said Shen Yuan again. He sounded surprisingly dejected for someone who had just been defending Xiao Jiu’s honor from Luo Binghe’s supposed lecherous intentions. “That’s good, then.”
Far-off, there was the memory of an explosion, and pain, but it mattered little when he was lying on a soft bed, a peerless beauty sitting by his side.
It was odd. He didn’t think they’d met before, and yet he still felt like he knew this man.
“You are very beautiful,” Luo Binghe said. “You should marry me.”
The man’s lips curved. “Really?” he asked. “Why should I?”
Luo Binghe frowned. Of course, the man being very beautiful was a reason for Luo Binghe to marry him, not for him to marry Luo Binghe . If anything, it meant he probably had plenty of admirers and so the luxury of choice.
He needed some form of incentive.
Luo Binghe gave the matter some thought. “I am very rich,” he settled for saying. He couldn’t quite remember, but he felt fairly certain it was true, and it seemed a sensible sort of thing to offer in exchange for beauty.
A small laugh. “I’m very rich, too.”
“Oh.” Undeterred, Luo Binghe smiled, even though it made his head ache as though it was being split in two. “We already have something in common, then.”
This time, the laughter was louder. The man reached over and gave Luo Binghe’s hand a gentle pat. “I’ll stop letting Binghe embarrass himself,” he said, eyes sparkling. “Even though he would deserve it after the fright he gave me.” He adopted a slightly more serious tone, and lightly squeezed Luo Binghe’s hand. “Stop being so reckless and relying on your blood to carry you through all dangers. You might not die, but you can still get hurt.”
It was wonderful, Luo Binghe thought muzzily as he slipped back into unconsciousness, to be scolded so gently by this person.
He went to their next lesson fully prepared to grovel and beg for forgiveness on his knees, but Shen Yuan took one look at his face and smiled indulgently, raising his hand to fan himself with slow, indolent gestures. “Binghe doesn’t have to worry,” he said, “this teacher knows not to take those things he said seriously.”
Luo Binghe certainly didn’t want Shen Yuan to take him seriously, particularly the part where Luo Binghe had attempted to purchase him like a prized pig, but it was also just wrong.
Luo Binghe did want to marry him. He didn’t want Shen Yuan to think otherwise.
Since it was already like this, maybe the best thing to do was to just tell the truth - or a version of it.
It was probably unwise to lead with marriage, both in light of recent events and as a general rule.
Bracing himself for heartbreak, Luo Binghe opened his mouth.
Outside, the sky slowly grew lighter in a fabricated dawn, and, inside, Shen Yuan slowly stirred in his arms. He blinked drowsily up at Luo Binghe, lips curving in a small, genuine smile, a faint dusting on pink on his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.
“Good morning,” Luo Binghe whispered, reaching out to tuck a silky strand of dark hair behind the delicate shell of his ear.
“Good morning,” replied Shen Yuan, in an equally hushed tone.
They lingered that way for a few long, slow moments, gazing at each other in the quiet, until something outside crashed through the bamboo branches.
A new silence descended upon them, though this one was tense. The quiet before the storm.
Then, the screeching started.
Shen Yuan grimaced, pushing himself up into a sitting position. “Xiao Jiu wants his breakfast,” he explained.
Luo Binghe gave this the consideration it deserved. “Let him starve,” he decided, and reeled Shen Yuan back into his arms.
This is the end of the Bingqiu storyline for this AU, though I have some ideas for a 79-centered fic set in this universe, which I might wind up writing