Shen Qingqiu knew what sidestory they were in the moment they got the message about the earthquakes. Normally he’d have been tempted to avoid it… but in this case following up would probably be more beneficial than not.
And the world would probably shift to force the plot if he did try to avoid it.
So after the initial investigation he had ‘decided’ they needed to split up and taken the path that the original Luo Binghe had taken in the novel. Bringing his Luo Binghe with him might have staved off some issues later… but his disciple could be on a hair trigger about anyone threatening Shen Qingqiu and if he wanted to keep the former-wife that this plot was made for around then he needed to not give Luo Binghe reasons to kill her. Or even just yet another person at Cang Qiong for Luo Binghe to resent and try to keep Shen Qingqiu away from.
At some point they were going to have to have a talk about that. At some point. Far in the future. After Shen Qingqiu had figured out how to do so without tripping over any of the many many issues that he had no ability to answer. Maybe never. It was manageable as it was, if annoying.
He had to hide his smugness when the potentially useful former-wife still showed up in exactly the same spot she had in the novel. Score one for metagaming.
“This area isn’t safe for travelers,” Yu Xinglu snapped, leveling a sword at him. “You will leave.”
From what he could remember of the single chapter she’d been in, even if it had been safe she would have run people out of the area.
She was observing slow changes in the local wildlife and ecosystem as a result of a Qi imbued spring opening in the valley. It wasn’t something they had much information on. Usually when something like that appeared, someone moved in to use it. Which was why she was so violently protecting the area. In the book she’d abandoned her work the moment she’d been introduced to dick… but that wasn’t going to happen this time. The dick introducing at least, he just assumed that she wouldn’t abandon her work if not deprived of her IQ by stupid plotlines.
He was hoping he could convince Yu Xinglu to send the data she collected to him in exchange for support. She was a rogue cultivator, so her resources were slim. If he could protect the area in a more official way without attracting extra attention, maybe even fold her into the sect as an outer disciple and speed along that process to get her into the sect proper…
Shen Qingqiu swallowed a sigh and flicked up his fan. As much as he wanted to go right into talking about the interesting things, he had no reason to know about her and saying anything that indicated he did would be suspicious. “An unknown beast is causing earthquakes in several nearby towns. It recently entered this valley.”
Yu Xinglu scowled at him, sword unwavering.
He wasn’t worried. The original Yu Xinglu hadn’t attacked the original Luo Binghe in the novel, just threatened and then threw some knockout powder at him before disappearing to try to find and kill the Tusked Fire Mole (which was neither molelike nor on fire) before the original Luo Binghe could stay long enough to find the spring. She had been ambushed by it instead and sent into a Qi deviation by its energy bursts, then the normal boring rescue leading to sex and marriage and complete abandonment of interesting characters plot had happened.
The knockout powder would be annoying but Shen Qingqiu was prepared and could block it. For the rest… he would avoid it if he could and manage if he couldn’t.
“It has surely moved on by now,” she snapped. “And if not, I am more than capable of dealing with it. Leave.”
“If you could deal with it yourself, then the earthquakes wouldn’t have gone on so long that they were forced to ask Cang Qiong to look into it,” Shen Qingqiu said dismissively.
It was a bit mean, since it wasn’t her fault that she’d been afflicted with a monster made to require Luo Binghe’s strength to deal with it. With luck it would goad her into saying something he could actually respond to with useful information before she tried to knock him out and fled.
Her sword wavered. Which was odd considering how much time the novel had spent describing her determination.
Yu Xinglu looked at him closely, eyes flicking over his robes, then suddenly her face lit up. “You’re Peak Lord Shen!”
She sheathed her sword before bowing respectfully, “This one deeply apologies for her earlier behavior, Master Shen. This area is very delicate and I feared lesser cultivators would not take the care needed.”
Well. That was unexpected. He had no idea what the rumor mill was like all the way out here, but beyond all odds it seemed to have exaggerated things positively about him.
“This Master knows better than to destroy an area to slay a single beast,” he answered, waving his fan slightly.
Yu Xinglu nodded eagerly, “Of course.”
He managed to get most of the details out of her as she led down the path towards the last place she’d spotted the Tusked Fire Mole surfacing. Not much about her project, but enough that Shen Qingqiu could probably say what he knew and just look wise and knowledgeable instead of like he’d been spying on her.
Shen Qingqiu lagged a little as they neared the area where she’d originally been ambushed and almost killed by the beast, an excuse about examining the area on his tongue in case she questioned it. He’d much rather have Luo Binghe appear before the ambush. Especially since they were so far off plot that he had no true guarantee of survival. Imagine dying to something like this after… well technically he had died at least twice so far but still. Those were pretty big events. This was a side plot.
Of course things couldn’t be that easily averted.
By the time Luo Binghe came blazing into the clearing to slam into the Tusked Fire Mole’s side, Shen Qingqiu was already having trouble standing.
Still a better outcome than the original plot. He hadn’t Qi deviated (yet) and Yu Xinglu was fine. He’d shielded her from the worst of the blast so with any luck it would reinforce whatever positive misconceptions she had about him enough to just tell him about the spring and he could negotiate from there.
This whole thing was incredibly annoying. He just wanted to get it over with and chat with a scholar who was actually good at the things he pretended to be good at, was that so much to ask?
He tried to stabilize himself, then startled as the dying beast gave out one last burst of energy that caught Luo Binghe off balance.
Shen Qingqiu launched forward, not sure exactly what he was planning to do but definitely going to do whatever it was. Then the energy caught him and even from this distance was just too much--
Next thing he knew, Luo Binghe’s Qi was flowing soothingly through him and he could hear Luo Binghe’s voice softly over his head.
Good, then Luo Binghe hadn’t been hurt.
Of course he hadn’t been hurt. He was the protagonist! And incredibly OP. Shen Qingqiu could have saved himself some trouble just by not worrying. Now he was going to have to deal with an incredibly distraught husband where before he could have just shaken the whole thing off.
Except… He may have been out for longer than he thought. As he struggled to awareness he could tell that he was wrapped up in a blanket, and cradled in Luo Binghe’s arms…
And Luo Binghe was talking.
He focused, taking a moment to languish in the comforting feeling of his husband’s arms as… Luo Binghe told a story about a time Shen Qingqiu had dragged Qing Jing out on a field trip?
Maybe Luo Binghe was trying something new. Or maybe Luo Binghe had spent five years telling stories to Shen Qingqiu’s corpse and gotten into the habit. It’s not like he would know; he’d been simultaneously dead and planted.
Well. It was a nice story at least. He’d wanted to avoid a political meeting and used the existence of a rare event that had only been discovered on chapter 450 or so as an excuse to flee the peak until it was over. His disciples had spent most of a week tiptoeing through a bunch of giant sleeping birds collecting molted feathers while Shen Qingqiu lounged on a rock ‘observing’.
It had been a little boring once the novelty had worn off, but still much more enjoyable than trying to figure out which monks he was supposed to already know and hope they didn’t notice the personality discrepancy.
It was good, also, to know that Luo Binghe could talk about things from back then so freely. Shen Qingqiu had… mostly avoided the subject completely.
And then Yu Xinglu spoke and he abruptly realized that Luo Binghe hadn’t just been telling the story to his unconscious Shizun.
“I can’t believe you had that opportunity.” She sighed wistfully. “They must have been so beautiful. I didn’t even know that Sparking Treebirds had a hibernation period.”
“No one knew until Shizun discovered it!” Luo Binghe informed her, voice laced with pride. “Shizun was so dedicated to confirming it that he took us there immediately to observe and collect ingredients, even though it meant skipping an event the Cang Qiong had been preparing for months.”
Oh no. Nope. It was bad enough to know that Luo Binghe sometimes gushed about him without him there. He was not doing that while Shen Qingqiu was unconscious in his arms in front of a stranger.
He especially was not doing that while horrendously overstating Shen Qingqiu’s research abilities to an actual scholar. Please Luo Binghe let this master save some face! If Yu Xinglu still had any respect for him on a professional basis after this he would be shocked.
Even though she didn’t sound like she’d picked up on how haphazard Shen Qingqiu’s ‘research’ methods were… Or the sheer amount of work he’d simply dropped on his disciples while avoiding doing any himself.
It was very tempting to… to do something to stop the conversation. But he couldn’t think of a way to do so without letting on that he’d been conscious for enough time to pick up on what was going on and he had no intention of actually interacting with the subject.
She would want to know how he’d known about the hibernating birds and he couldn’t very well tell her that he’d read it in a throwaway chapter of a horribly written harem novel!
He could feel Luo Binghe’s attention suddenly shift back to him, though, and apparently his time was up. Really it was probably more surprising that Luo Binghe hadn’t picked it out immediately.
If they didn’t have a literal audience it would be tempting to just lounge in his husbands arms and let him dote… but that would make a horrible impression.
It was also most likely a horrible idea to indulge Luo Binghe like that. Shen Qingqiu was fine. He’d… fallen unconscious for a bit. That was all. It happened when dealing with OP monsters that used Qi bursts as weapons. His head already felt mostly clear.
“Shizun?” Luo Binghe asked, pulling him into more of a sitting position. The Qi he was circulating tapered off.
Shen Qingqiu cracked his eyes open, and there was Luo Binghe looking incredibly worried. Which was a lie because he’d just been having storytime with new friends before realizing Shen Qingqiu was awake.
(The ‘new friends’ part might be worth it, if he thought it would stick for half a second once Luo Binghe had any reason to be possessive or was forced to talk about anything but Shen Qingqiu.)
He couldn’t say that though. Shen Qingqiu pulled himself upright, tempted to try to leave Luo Binghe’s arms entirely but quickly determined that attempting to do so while wrapped in a blanket (probably Yu Xinglu’s, the cave they were in matched the description of her home) would probably shred what remained of his dignity.
A quick look at Yu Xinglu’s worried face did not help. He quickly looked back at his husband, composing himself.
Luo Binghe hugged him closer for a moment, which was annoying because it meant he couldn’t look at Luo Binghe’s face to determine how best to play the situation. Luo Binghe must have shot a look at Yu Xinglu. Shen Qingqiu could suddenly hear her getting up.
“I’m going to check the wards,” she said softly. Shen Qingqiu could hear the swish of her robes as she bowed. “Please let me know if you need anything!”
“Shizun?” Luo Binghe repeated as she left, sounding more worried.
Shen Qingqiu abruptly realized that he probably should have answered something. He’d been too concerned with figuring out the right answer to realize that silence was most definitely the wrong answer.
Maybe he was more out of it than he thought.
“This master is fine,” he said, pushing at Luo Binghe’s chest. Luo Binghe didn’t let go, instead just stubbornly hugged him harder and buried his face in his hair.
That wouldn’t do.
“Are you alright?” Shen Qingqiu asked, latching onto the thought he’d woken up with. “You were hit.”
“This disciple recovered quickly,” Luo Binghe answered, “but you--”
Nope. Not gonna. Every time he had a bad injury or Luo Binghe thought he had a bad injury they had another ‘I can’t lose you’ conversation and he was not in the mood. He was already irritated enough from falling unconscious and having someone he wanted to impress and recruit see him out of sorts, he wasn’t dealing with this too.
“I saw you get hit.” He insisted dropping the formal language for a moment and hoping it would throw Luo Binghe off enough. It wasn’t enough of a subject change to really change anything but he didn’t have anything else to ask about that could easily avoid things. So he’d take a leaf out of Luo Binghe’s book and go on the concerned offensive.
It was a bit duplicitous, since he knew full well Luo Binghe was fine, but it was necessary.
“Slightly disoriented, nothing that didn’t heal within moments,” Luo Binghe reassured him.
He sounded slightly less worried than before, if more teary, so Shen Qingqiu was going to count that as a win.
“Binghe did get vertigo fairly commonly as a child,” he mused.
It was a dangerous subject, talking about old memories… but he could feel Luo Binghe’s arms loosening and he was pretty sure he was winning the ‘I am more concerned than you are’ war.
He managed to slip out of Luo Binghe’s arms shrugging off the blanket… and immediately decided not to get up. The moment he tried to, he was going to stumble and then be right back to that level of fussing.
Really it was odd that Luo Binghe had been able to be distracted from him at all. Luo Binghe probably had been able to tell that he was still affected… Which in retrospect made sense, it had taken original Luo Binghe days to nurse Yu Xinglu back to health in the novel. But then why had Luo Binghe been able to be distracted from him at all? Unless it had been so long that boredom had won out (unlikely, Luo Binghe was single minded) or Yu Xinglu was the type of person to try to cheer Luo Binghe up by talking about the only thing that Luo Binghe could easily be drawn into talking about (more likely, he didn’t even want to think of how many more interesting subjects she had tried before getting stuck with the ‘isn’t Shizun great’ topic).
Oh well. He was sure he could salvage things. She was a rogue cultivator; with any luck she hadn’t picked up on how incredibly unprofessional his ‘research methods’ were.
Shen Qingqiu smoothed his robes out as much as he could while sitting on a cave floor, then glanced up at his husband.
Luo Binghe looked… guilty? Sheepish? What was with that expression, Luo Binghe?
Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow at him.
Luo Binghe huffed out a laugh. “This disciple has never had vertigo.”
Shen Qingqiu frowned. Maybe that was an indication that they weren’t talking about that era but… No that wasn’t Luo Binghe’s style of avoidance. Maybe he had forgotten? “Binghe used to trip quite badly after training. This master remembers it clearly.”
“Ah…” Luo Binghe shifted, running a hand over his hair. “This disciple wasn’t… dizzy…”
“And why else would Binghe be falling onto this Master?” Even as he said it Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes, something clicking in his head. “Did you… did you pretend to fall?”
“This disciple merely wanted to hold his Shizun, even for the merest of moments,” Luo Binghe whined, reaching out to tug Shen Qingqiu back into his lap and undoing all of his efforts to compose himself.
“Binghe!” he scolded, smacking one of Luo Binghe’s arms.
“This disciple was wrong,” Luo Binghe agreed. “He will accept whatever punishment Shizun deems fit.”
As though Shen Qingqiu hadn’t long caught on to Luo Binghe’s M tendencies. As though punishment would actually be punishment.
He huffed in annoyance. “That doesn’t even make sense. When this master tried to heal you once you had a fit over being touched.”
Luo Binghe’s arms tightened slightly and he buried his face in Shen Qinqui’s hair, making an embarrassed sound.
“Why then the differing reactions! One moment you’re tripping onto this Master, the next you can’t bear to be healed?”
“Shizun…” Luo Binghe whined.
Shen Qingqiu pulled at his arms, irritated.
“It was… Shizun is very kind.” Luo Binghe hedged. “He was also very… unaware of certain things.”
“What things?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. What could Luo Binghe have possibly gotten up to that he wasn’t around for? “What sort of things would send you fleeing all the way across the mountaintop to fling yourself into the water?”
The answer came to Shen Qingqiu in the silence and he stilled, closing his eyes for a moment. On one hand, Luo Binghe couldn’t have possibly been holding a torch for him that far back. On the other, Luo Binghe had absolutely emerged from the abyss with a horrible case of hot for teacher and that had to have started sometime. He had assumed before that it had just sprung up while Luo Binghe was maturing in the abyss but…
“Binghe!” he scolded. “Really.”
“This disciple is aware his actions were inappropriate.”
Shen Qingqiu snorted, “Binghe was deliberately falling into his Shizun’s arms when he wasn’t causing a massive disruption in his attempts to conceal his erection.”
Luo Binghe made a strangled sound, but Shen Qingqiu wasn’t done. “This disciple was also always trying to draw his Shizun’s attention, even if this master was simply talking to someone else. Or simply looking at someone else. Really Binghe, that far back?”
That was… a sort of dangerous territory, all things considered. Maybe this was a safer way to approach it, safe in the context of a softer childhood than the trainwreck that had come later.
“Shizun was always looking at other people,” Luo Binghe whined. The words were familiar… but thankfully contained none of the doom that similar words had before. “At one time he spent hours looking at Liu Mingyan instead of this disciple.”
Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes, “This master was simply curious what she looked like under her veil, and lacking in anyone to look at that he hadn’t already spent hours looking at over plenty of time before.”
He was just going to… not mention that Qi Qingqi had also been there at the time. Technically he’d spent hours with her in meetings. That counted.
“Shizun is always curious about what he can’t see,” Luo Binghe said mournfully, but at least he didn’t actually sound put out. And he didn’t sound worried anymore, which had really been the goal.
Now Shen Qingqiu just had to keep him distracted until he felt like he could walk without falling over. “This master needs to rethink some things.” He ignored as Luo Binghe tightened his arms around him. “This explains the library incident. As well as the tea incident with Ning Yingying. And the--”
Luo Binghe shifted Shen Qingqiu in his arms, interrupting him with a kiss.
It was the opposite of the sort of situation he wanted anyone walking in on… but she was a cultivator and presumably would be able to avoid that. She had to have picked up on the not-so-subtle subtext that Luo Binghe put into everything.
For a long time, apparently.
How had he not noticed?
Luo Binghe deepened the kiss and Shen Qingqiu felt a shiver of pleasure go up his spine, even through the fatigue of the aftermath of a near Qi deviation.
Well, he hadn’t wanted to stand anytime soon anyways.