Shen Qingqiu looked better when he was resurrected. Luo Binghe had been generous, undoing all the damage, restoring all the missing and broken pieces of Shen Qingqiu to working order.
Shen Qingqiu had all his limbs. His skin was no longer pallid, but flushed with life. Instead of rot, he smelled of clean soap and a flowery scent one of the servants had applied. He was dressed in pale green robes cut in a style reminiscent of the ones he'd loved to wear on Qing Jing Peak. His hair had been brushed and oiled until it gleamed and hung loose down his shoulders, spread out across the pillows in a tempting halo Luo Binghe itched to sink his fingers into. Shen Qingqiu's thin lips were red. His eyes were full of hate.
"I'm not done with you yet," Luo Binghe said. He trailed a fingertip down Shen Qingqiu's smooth cheek.
Luo Binghe wanted to know what made this Shen Qingqiu different. He wanted to know what he could have done, what he could still do, to make Shizun love him. That other Shen Qingqiu had, though it had been a softer, stickier Luo Binghe that Shizun had loved. What would it take, Luo Binghe wondered, to make Shizun his Shizun?
"Don't look so worried," Luo Binhe crooned. "I won't hurt you. Not unless you make me."
Shizun didn't answer. That was okay. They had plenty of time.
"Try to get some rest," Luo Binghe advised him. "Returning from the dead can take a lot out of a man, even an esteemed immortal such as yourself."
Luo Binghe patted Shen Qingqiu gently on the cheek. He stood up. He left Shen Qingqiu tied to the bed. Maybe he'd feel more talkative when Luo Binghe returned.
Shen Qingqiu wouldn't look at him when Luo Binghe returned in the morning and propped him up with pillows so he could eat. It was hurtful, really, the way he avoided Luo Binghe's gaze and refused to thank him for the food Luo Binghe so thoughtfully provided.
"You can't use inedia like this. You need to eat," Luo Binghe scolded, holding Shen Qingiu by the head and squeezing at the corners of his jaw until he opened his mouth. Luo Binghe gently spooned in the broth he'd brought. Shen Qingqiu had been dead for a long time. His body needed time to adjust. Best to stick to liquid nutrition for now. "That's better. Let this disciple take care of you."
Shen Qingqiu refused to swallow, allowing the broth to dribble out of his mouth, trickling down his chin and staining his robes.
"Shizun is so stubborn." Luo Binghe sighed.
Luo Binghe put the bowl and spoon aside. He removed the pillows holding Shen Qingqiu up. He retrieved the bowl, pushed Shen Qingqiu onto his back, and—straddling Shen Qingqiu's chest—forced Shen Qingqiu's mouth open again. With one hand, Luo Binghe put the edge of the bowl to Shen Qingqiu's lips and tipped it slowly, letting it trickle in. With the other, he held Shen Qingqiu's head, preventing him from turning it. When Shen Qingqiu's mouth was full, Luo Binghe removed the bowl and moved his other hand to cover Shen Qingqiu's mouth. He put the bowl down by Shen Qingqiu's head and stroked his throat until he swallowed involuntarily. Luo Binghe repeated the process until the broth was gone.
"There. That wasn't so hard." Luo Binghe put his thumb to Shen Qingqiu's lower lip, wiping away a stray drop.
Shen Qingqiu bit him.
"Go ahead," Luo Binghe said, shoving his thumb deeper in Shen Qingqiu's mouth. "If Shizun is still hungry, this disciple will happily feed him more. If you want my blood, you can have it."
Shen Qingqiu released him, but Luo Binghe didn't take his thumb out right away, enjoying the feeling of Shen Qingqiu's tongue against him. Shen Qingqiu had wanted this. Luo Binghe pushed his thumb deeper yet, stretching Shen Qingqiu's mouth and cheek with his hand, until it touched the back of Shen Qingqiu's throat. Shen Qingqiu gagged. Luo Binghe withdrew.
Luo Binghe could be patient. He would be patient with Shen Qingqiu. Luo Binghe wiped his wet thumb on a clean section of Shen Qingqiu's outer robes. "You're a mess. Let's get you cleaned up."
Shen Qingqiu fought Luo Binghe when he removed the ropes binding him and removed his clothing. Shen Qingqiu was weak, from the resurrection and from the herb in the broth. It was the work of a moment to subdue him. Shen Qingqiu went limp. He closed his eyes. Somehow, though he hadn't looked at Luo Binghe once, he seemed to withdraw even further into himself. He was running away.
Luo Binghe used a damp cloth to wipe Shen Qingqiu down. He put fresh robes on him. He tied him up again.
When he was done and certain his voice would not shake, Luo Binghe said, "This one took many things from Shizun, as Shizun took many things from his disciple. But has this one ever given the impression that he would take that?"
"You're a monster," Shen Qingqiu said in a clear, quiet voice, the first words he had spoken to Luo Binghe since his return. "You're capable of anything."
Luo Binghe straightened Shen Qingqiu's new robes in gentle, controlled movements. He could feel his eyes burning with demonic energy. He said, "I promise: when it happens, it will be because you beg me. And I will make you beg for it. I'll make you remember this moment. This is not a thing I will take—only a thing I will give after you've proven to me that you deserve it." Luo Binghe smiled without humor, without charm, with none of the heat flooding his blood. "Right now, Shizun does not deserve it."
Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes.
Luo Binghe took the bowl and the clothing soiled with broth. He handed both to the attendants hovering outside of Shen Qingqiu's room. Luo Binghe had other projects. Let the servants handle Shen Qingqiu for now.
"Not one word to him," Luo Binghe instructed them. "Or to each other in his earshot. Any damage done to him will be repaid to all of you."
The servants took him at his word. When Luo Binghe returned, several days later, they had not laid one finger on Shen Qingqiu more than absolutely necessary for his care. They had, in fact, done less out of fear of harming him.
"Shizun is not eating," Luo Binghe said, carrying in a tray with congee and tea he had prepared himself. "Was it not to Shizun's taste? Perhaps you would care for more substantial fair?" Luo Binghe laid the tray on a table set up beside the bed. "But first, the tea."
Shen Qingqiu was no more cooperative with Luo Binghe than he had been with the servants. Unlike the servants, Luo Binghe didn't worry about leaving bruises. After all, Shen Qingqiu had been warned. Luo Binghe had promised not to hurt him unless Shen Qingqiu made him. Shen Qingqiu brought this upon himself.
When it was over and Shen Qingqiu had been fed and watered like a particularly recalcitrant beast, bruises blooming in the shapes of Luo Binghe's fingers on his jaw, Luo Binghe sat him up and sat facing him on the bed. Luo Binghe didn't say anything at first, content to drink his fill of Shen Qingqiu's face, the arch of his eyebrows, the line of his nose, the thin lips gone bloodless and pale. A lock of hair hung in front of his left eye, and Luo Binghe tucked it carefully behind his ear.
"If you starve to death," Luo Binghe said gently, warmly, burning with something that was both love and hate, "I'll just bring you back. I'll always bring you back, as many times as it takes. You don't get to leave until I'm done with you."
Luo Binghe stood up. "I know it's beyond you, but try to be nicer to the servants. They're here to help."
Luo Binghe played the role of a servant. Three times a day, he fed Shen Qingqiu, he watered Shen Qingqiu, and he forced the special tea down Shen Qingqiu's throat. By the end of the week, the bindings were unnecessary. The mix of drugs was so thoroughly in his system that were Shen Qingqiu to try to leave the palace, he wouldn't get far. Once he was untied, Shen Qingqiu was willing to take the tea himself, hands shaking if he let it go too long.
"Isn't this better?" Luo Binghe asked. "You're free to wander this section of the palace. The guards will stop you if you try to go somewhere you're not allowed. Is there anything I can get you? Food? Water?" Luo Binghe's smile was cruel, but Shen Qingqiu was deserving of a little cruelty. "More tea?"
Shen Qingqiu flung the tea in his face.
This was a lesson Shen Qingqiu needed to learn by experience. Calmly, Luo Binghe wiped the tea from his eyes. He gathered the tea pot, pried the empty teacup from a remorseless Shen Qingqiu's hands, and took the tray away with him. He closed and locked the door behind him.
Shen Qingqiu didn't want the tea? Let him see where that road led.
Luo Binghe walked away.
When Luo Binghe next checked on him, Shen Qingqiu was curled up in the middle of the room, incapacitated. He was shaking all over. His face was blotchy. He was crying. He'd been crying for a long time.
Luo Binghe was not too proud to admit he still took some pleasure in that.
"And what," Luo Binghe said, crouching next to Shen Qingqiu and running a soothing hand down his back, "have we learned from this?"
Shen Qingqiu said nothing. Luo Binghe rolled him over. He poured tea down his throat. He held Shen Qingqiu's head in his lap, stroking his silky hair as he shuddered his way through withdrawal. Something unfurled in Luo Binghe's chest—some warm and possessive emotion, as though reaching out toward the sun—as Shen Qingqiu buried his face in Luo Binghe's thigh and helplessly accepted his comfort.
When Luo Binghe returned the next time, Shen Qingqiu's body was slumped over. He'd formed a noose from the bedclothes, tied it to the chair, and created enough tension to strangle himself.
Shizun did not listen.
Luo Binghe took several deep breaths. He took Shen Qingqiu's body out of the noose. He laid him out on the bed.
"Did you actually think I would let you go?" Luo Binghe asked.
Shen Qingqiu flinched from Luo Binghe, though his touch was nothing but gentle. Shen Qingqiu's hair was smooth as Luo Binghe carded his fingers through it.
"You're mine now," Luo Binghe promised. "And I keep what belongs to me."
After that, Shen Qingqiu seemed to soften to Luo Binghe. Key words: seemed to. Luo Binghe knew better than to trust it, but he was curious to see where this led. When Luo Binghe brought Shen Qingqiu his meal, Shen Qingqiu allowed their hands to brush. Though he sneered at Luo Binghe sometimes, it was always quickly hidden behind a blank expression. When Luo Binghe asked if there was anything Shen Qingqiu needed, Shen Qingqiu asked for things: books; ink, brush, and paper; musical instruments.
Luo Binghe provided them, and, words grudging, but spoken, Shen Qingqiu said, "Thank you."
"This disciple is happy to provide Shizun with whatever he needs," Luo Binghe said.
"What if I wished to go outside?" Shen Qingqiu asked.
"There is a courtyard," Luo Binghe told him. "It provides plenty of fresh air for Shizun's needs."
Shen Qingqiu did not take advantage of the courtyard. He stayed inside and grew paler by the day. Luo Binghe didn't care. Whatever damage Shen Qingqiu might do to himself, Luo Binghe could fix, and Shen Qingqiu was beautiful when he suffered. Every drop of his pain was exquisite beyond the telling.
"Play a song for me," Luo Binghe said one morning.
Shen Qingqiu indulged him.
This was not the Shen Qingqiu of that other universe. Hatred simmered below that calm surface. Luo Binghe didn't care. This Shen Qingqiu was his, and Luo Binghe cherished him. Luo Binghe closed his eyes and relaxed on Shen Qingqiu's bed, letting the soft, mournful notes of Shen Qingqiu's lament drift over him.
Luo Binghe woke to Shen Qingqiu hovering over him. Luo Binghe's smile was slow, but sharp. Shen Qingqiu's fingers touched his throat lightly, applying hardly any pressure at all.
"And what," Luo Binghe asked, hands going to Shen Qingqiu's waist, "does Shizun intend for this disciple?"
"Humans need touch," Shen Qingqiu said. "You would know this if you weren't a demon." He said demon the way others might say mongrel. Shen Qingqiu's veil was thin. Luo Binghe could see his true face. Shen Qingqiu slid his fingers down, tracing the edge of Luo Binghe's robes. "You don't let the servants touch me."
"They'd eat you if they could," Luo Binghe said.
Shen Qingqiu settled his body over Luo Binghe's so that they were pressed together head to toe. His cheek rested against Luo Binghe's. His loose hair brushed against Luo Binghe's face and neck.
"Would you?" Shen Qingqiu asked in an emotionless voice.
"Shizun." Luo Binge ran his hands up and down Shen Qingqiu's back, from the tops of his shoulders to the curve of his ass. "I would happily consume you."
Luo Binghe stayed until Shen Qingqiu pretended to fall asleep. With tender care, Luo Binghe tucked him in.
This wasn't real, but a part of Luo Binghe—that small, childish part of him that nothing had been able to kill, not the years of abuse, not the years of revenge, not being pushed into the Abyss—wanted to believe. Luo Binghe let himself out, closing the door behind him with a whisper of sound.
Shen Qingqiu began to take advantage of his limited freedom. He explored the areas he was allowed. He paced every step of the courtyard. Eventually, he asked for more.
"You want access to the kitchens," Luo Binghe said disbelievingly. How stupid did Shizun think he was?
"This one would prefer to prepare his own food." Shen Qingqiu kept his gaze down, as though overcome by an uncharacteristic shyness. "Or maybe to make tea to share."
Extremely stupid, apparently.
"There is a smaller kitchen close by. You can have access to that one."
"Thank you," Shen Qingqiu said, though he'd gotten no better about actually sounding grateful.
He followed it up with a better form of gratitude, climbing into bed and turning to Luo Binghe with a look of expectation. They hadn't gone further than this, holding one another fully clothed on a soft surface—Shen Qingqiu hadn't begged him yet, after all—but every few days, Shizun gave him this one joyful thing. Shizun's hands were gentle when they tangled in Luo Binghe's hair. His lips were soft when they brushed against Luo Binghe's jaw and ear as if by accident. It was a clumsy seduction, but Luo Binghe had been seduced by worse.
"If Shizun wants something, Shizun has but to ask," Luo Binghe said, amused.
"This is enough," Shen Qingqiu said.
Yes. For now, this was enough. Luo Binghe squeezed Shen Qingqiu's hips. Luo Binghe could be patient. Luo Binghe was being patient. Shen Qingqiu must be allowed to explore every avenue to see they all led back here, to Luo Binghe.
Shen Qingqiu took his time making his next move. He made tea for them both—his special tea blend for himself, which kept his qi bound, but also kept him from falling over, completely incapacitated with pain—and another for Luo Binghe. It was normal tea the first few times. Luo Binghe had to slip in a few seemingly sympathetic and several actually incompetent servants before Shen Qingqiu took the chance to acquire an appropriate poison.
Luo Binghe drank it. He slumped over. He let Shen Qingqiu turn his body over and, producing a knife used for carving meat, slit his throat.
Shen Qingqiu stepped back, avoiding arterial spray. He went to his bed and pulled out a makeshift bag formed from another set of robes. He put the tin of tea in it. Bleeding out, Luo Binghe watched with something approaching fondness.
Shen Qingqiu really did think he was making his escape.
Shen Qingqiu left through his bedroom door. After a few minutes, Luo Binghe sat up. He wiped away the blood on his throat with his sleeve. He waited until Shen Qingqiu had left the palace. He followed.
Shen Qingqiu was able to go anywhere. He was able to do anything. Luo Binghe had no intention of interfering until he saw where this road led.
Shen Qingqiu went to the memorial for Cang Qiong Mountain.
"I should have killed you," Shen Qingqiu said when Luo Binghe revealed himself. Shen Qingqiu trailed his fingers down the stone, across the characters etched in. "Instead of dumping that tea on your head, I should have bashed the pot into your skull until both were in pieces."
"Shizun is so cruel," Luo Binghe said. He traced the lines of Shen Qingqiu's shoulders. "You brought this upon yourself, you know."
Shen Qingqiu laughed, a sharp, wild sound. "This one is well aware of his part in this."
"If you could ask for anything, what would you want?" Luo Binghe wondered. What would soften Shen Qingqiu for real? What would make him care? Luo Binghe would take his hate, but he wanted more. He wanted everything.
"I want you dead," Shen Qingqiu said. Then, when Luo Binghe said nothing, "I want to die."
"Something this disciple might actually grant you." Luo Binghe ran his hand up the nape of Shen Qingqiu's neck. "What would make Shizun happy?"
"Nothing." Shen Qingqiu laid his palm flat on the stone. "Is that what you want to hear? You took everything. There is nothing left."
"Shizun really did love them," Luo Binghe said contemplatively. The hurt of that had faded somewhere between tearing off this Shen Qingqiu's arms and kissing that other Shen Qingqiu’s mouth.
Shen Qingqiu rested his head against the back of his hand. "No."
Luo Binghe tightened his hand, feeling the knobs of Shen Qingqiu's spine. "Just him, then?"
"When will it be enough?" Shen Qingqiu asked tiredly.
"How long does an immortal live?" Luo Binghe said in return.
They returned home.
This time Shen Qingqiu opened up both wrists as though that would get Luo Binghe's blood out—as though Luo Binghe hadn't fed it to him with every meal and filled him up before the very first resurrection, as though Luo Binghe hadn't mingled it with every part of him. Shen Qingqiu could run, but he could never escape. Every drop of his blood held an equal part of Luo Binghe.
Luo Binghe pulled Shen Qingqiu's hair out of the pooling blood. He petted Shen Qingqiu's face. He said, "Shizun, you're a mess."
Luo Binghe left Shen Qingqiu in the hands of his more capable servants. He had a few errands to run, minor matters that led to a single goal.
When he returned, Shen Qingqiu was dead again.
That was fine. Luo Binghe would bring him back as many times as necessary.
"We're not done," Luo Binghe said. He helped Shen Qingqiu sit up. Shen Qingqiu's gaze was listless. He wouldn't meet Luo Binghe's eyes. "Shizun's hair is a mess. Let this disciple help."
Luo Binghe combed Shen Qingqiu's hair out. He took longer than he needed to, running his fingers through it possessively. No matter how this turned out, Shen Qingqiu belonged to him.
"I've brought you something," Luo Binghe said when he was done. "But before you see it, I want you to remember my promise: I won't hurt you, not unless you make me." Luo Binghe cupped Shen Qingqiu's cheek with aching tenderness. "That promise is only for you. Remember that."
Shen Qingqiu didn't react as Luo Binghe brushed their lips together. Luo Binghe smiled. He took Shen Qingqiu's hand and led him to another part of the palace, to a plain room with a single man waiting inside wrapped up in ropes like a package for travel.
Luo Binghe presented his gift.
"Qi'ge." Shen Qingqiu said the word like it was ripped out of him. It was a moan; it was a prayer. It was hope and horror intertwined.
Luo Binghe squeezed Shen Qingqiu's hand. He watched his face carefully, saw every second of it as Shen Qingqiu tried and failed to wipe his emotions away.
"Is Shizun pleased?" Luo Binghe asked.
Shen Qingqiu was trembling. He didn't answer.
That was okay. Luo Binghe was patient. If this wasn't the means to unlocking Shizun's heart, there were other paths to take. They had the time. They had forever.
However long it took, Luo Binghe was going to make his own happy ending.