Shen Qingqiu does not have the luxury of wondering if it might all have been a dream. He does not wake in his bed with a racing heart.
One moment, he is falling.
“It’s no trouble,” comes the voice.
Shen Qingqiu’s ears are ringing. He is standing in a stairway. Gongyi Xiao is there.
He is about to meet Luo Binghe again for the second time.
Time travel? Dreamscape? Airplane-bro, did you mess up with this master’s new body?!
Shen Qingqiu does not dare react. Not outwardly, in any case.
System? What kind of bug is this?!
[System is currently unavailable. Thank you for your understanding.]
Gongyi Xiao calls his name, looking back at him with a puzzled glance.
It is already too late to run away. He can only brace himself for—
That towering figure, Shen Qingqiu really cannot bear to walk up to him.
One minute ago, he was holding him in his arms and wiping the slate clean between them.
Now, he is hated again.
“It really is Shizun,” Luo Binghe says softly, surrounded by his gaggle of hostile Huan Hua Palace disciples, his hand still bloody from that sower’s attack. Can’t you have a little more care for yourself?
He takes care to hide the rash on his cursed hand in his sleeve and inclines his head in greeting. “We were in pursuit of a suspicious figure. Did you catch it?” he asks.
Luo Binghe bows his head. Shen Qingqiu cannot clearly see his face. “We did,” he says. “It appears to be a sower.”
Last time, he was able to settle himself a little by uncovering the sower and acting the teacher again. Now he does not know what to say. “That’s good,” he finally says.
Luo Binghe looks up at that with a complicated expression.
“Might this teacher ask for the body to be delivered to his Mu-shidi? He is trying to find a cure, and might find it useful.”
Luo Binghe acquiesces as easily as he did the first time around, and Shen Qingqiu gracelessly makes his excuses, deciding to cut his losses.
He barely hears Gongyi Xiao’s explanations on the way out, and goes back to the weapons shop in a daze.
Perhaps if he runs now—But he is infected again, and cannot leave the city.
No matter, like hell is he going to wait here and get skewered by the protagonist! He’ll just have to go hide somewhere! Shen Qingqiu out!
Well, that didn’t work.
If he insists on going on patrol with Liu Qingge—?
If he asks Liu Qingge to stay back with him—?
Nope, nope, nope!
This time Shen Qingqiu retires to his room in the weapons shop alone. He paces around the room, thoughts jumbled. Without a Cure strikes a few moments later. He does not call for anyone.
Very well. If running away doesn’t work—save face!
It only seems to anger Luo Binghe to see other people showing loyalty to Shen Qinqgiu, and Shen Qingqiu has not forgotten the result of every confrontation between Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge. Whatever his plans are, Luo Binghe has not tried to kill him so far. Better to receive him with civility then.
He sits at the table, takes care that his cursed hand is covered. Yes, they will simply sit here and talk. He glances at the window, then resolutely looks away. They will talk. Luo Binghe does not plan to kill him yet.
He has repeated this to himself many times, and considered the window many more by the time the knock comes.
He takes a few seconds to focus on regulating his breathing.
Luo Binghe does, opening the door carefully. He bows to Shen Qingqiu, making goosebumps rise on his skin. He knows very well what kind of thoughts the original had the few times he had to bow to someone he hated!
“Apologies for disturbing Shizun this late.”
Shen Qingqiu opens his fan and hides behind it. “Won’t Luo Binghe sit?”
Luo Binghe hesitates, but eventually complies. They stare at each other in silence over the table.
“Did Luo Binghe have some matter to raise with this master?”
Luo Binghe starts to nod, then he shakes his head. “This disciple only came to deliver the body as agreed.”
Shen Qingqiu fans himself and tries not to have a nervous breakdown.
“I… This disciple did not have the occasion to properly pay respect to Shizun earlier.”
This master doesn’t dare ask for respect, he’ll be happy to be left with his life!
“This master wouldn’t presume to ask Luo Binghe for anything.”
Luo Binghe seems to take this reply as a blow. “Shizun—!”
Shen Qingqiu raises his brows at him, but Luo Binghe does not go on.
“I did have one matter to raise with Shizun,” he says eventually.
Shen Qingqiu’s eyes trail to the window again. “Yes?” he asks vaguely.
“It appears Shizun—Shizun has not told—” He looks as though it takes all his courage to keep talking. Luo Binghe, is this really the time to practice your acting skills?! “Shizun has not told of this disciple’s true nature?”
What can Shen Qingqiu say? The original goods kept it quiet because he thought Luo Binghe was dead and didn’t see the point; this master knew better, and simply wasn’t going to rack up his debt!
He meets Luo Binghe’s eyes by accident and cannot look away. He feels some great impulse rise in him. If he just tried to talk to Luo Binghe—
Luo Binghe seems so calm now that Shen Qingqiu isn’t running from him. If Shen Qinqgiu prostrated himself and begged for forgiveness, wouldn’t he grant it? Didn’t Shen Qingqiu take good care of him all these years?
Shen Qingqiu does not beg. So he did not kill Luo Binghe that day he sent him into the Abyss, what difference does it make? That white lotus child he raised—that child always calling after his Shizun—Shen Qingqiu has known for three years he would never see him again.
“It’s very late. Luo Binghe must be expected back,” he says instead, pushing the words out through his constricted throat. He hasn't overtaxed his voice, he doesn't think. Perhaps it is a symptom of the infection.
“There is no one awaiting this disciple.”
“There is still the matter of the sowers to deal with,” Shen Qingqiu tries next. Luo Binghe of course cannot come out and admit he is the one behind them; if the subject is raised, he can only go along and make a show of trying to catch them.
“Does Shizun want me to take care of them?”
“Ah, surely with his new position at Huan Hua Palace, Luo Binghe must lead by example?”
Luo Binghe flinches. “This disciple has not formally entered Huan Hua Palace! He has not accepted any other Shizun!”
Even knowing this act of filial piety is all for show, Shen Qingqiu feels a little touched.
“Then does he still recognize me as his Shizun?”
“Does Shizun recognize me as his disciple?”
I dare not!
“Luo Binghe should hurry; the sowers will be harder to find during the day when they can hide among people, and they will keep infecting people as long as they are free to do so.”
Luo Binghe stands. “If Shizun wants them caught, of course this disciple will not let even one of them escape,” he says, and bows to Shen Qingqiu.
How many hunts and errands did Shen Qingqiu send him on as a teenager? Luo Binghe was always so proud to go; Shen Qingqiu so proud to send him. He would check Binghe’s supplies and pat that fluffy head of his long past the age that should have seen Luo Binghe start to protest, but Luo Binghe never had. He would let Shen Qingqiu pat his head, and pinch his face, and only smiled wider for it before he left.
He would not smile so wide now. He would not smile at all, unless it was to show his teeth.
Shen Qingqiu looks down and does not watch Luo Binghe go.
Shen Qingqiu has lived through this four times. He has been made to drink Luo Binghe’s blood four times; he has been accused and imprisoned four times; he has self-destructed to save and escape Luo Binghe four times, only to come back to that same moment every time.
It doesn’t always unravel the same way; it doesn’t always happen as quickly. On the third go-around, Shen Qingqiu decided to see what would happen if he stayed in the Huan Hua Palace prison. He stayed there over a week. It was quite peaceful, after that Palace Miss was chased away by Luo Binghe. Shen Qingqiu had a lot of time to meditate and think and repress. Luo Binghe visited a few more times. Mostly their conversations did not go well. On his fifth visit, Luo Binghe interrupted Liu Qingge’s breakout attempt and went into qi deviation right there and then, and that was that.
On the fourth go-around—the less said about that, the better! Let it just be said Luo Binghe drew some wild conclusions from Liu Qingge’s presence in Shen Qingqiu’s room and leave it at that!
After Luo Binghe leaves, Shen Qingqiu sleeps a few hours and pens a letter to Shang Qinghua. He didn’t dare to say too much in his letters from the underground prison, and Shang Qinghua didn’t seem to get any of his coded time loop references. Shen Qingqiu finally takes the risk to put the matter more plainly to paper, now that there’s less chance of their correspondence being intercepted, but he’s not holding his breath. Shang Qinghua didn’t try to speak to him in any of the reboots, so he probably isn’t aware of them at all, that useless hack of a writer. No one seems to be.
He seals the letter and slumps onto the desk with a sigh. The witch-hunt’s coming up soon, that’s always a fun time for everyone. Well, it’s a fun time for Huan Hua Palace, anyway. Shen Qinqgiu hasn’t managed to escape prison so far, except last time when Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge destroyed the weapons shop, and half the neighbourhood with it, and Shen Qingqiu had to self-destruct right there and then. Maybe this time he’ll just refuse to go, and let everyone fight it out.
He snacks on some fruit Liu Qingge must have left for him. He’s taken example from Shen Qingqiu’s disciples, that fussy bunch. They’ve started leaving snack food lying around all over the place to try and get him to eat more. This master doesn’t even need to eat!
He wipes his hands absently. The rash is still there. It’s the first time he’s made it through the night without being made to drink Luo Binghe’s blood. He has no illusions about his chances to escape the protagonist even without carrying his blood inside him, but they must have at least gone up a little, right? It might make it more difficult for the Huan Hua Palace disciples to accuse him of controlling the sowers if he’s still infected, too…
“Now, I don’t want this lady hurt, you understand,” he reminds Yang Yixuan. “Just keep her busy for today, alright?”
“I understand,” the boy tells him with a determined nod. He accepts the talismans Shen Qingqiu gives him and puts them away reverently. He goes on to bump into three different people on his way out of the shop.
Shen Qingqiu watches him go with some trepidation.
Qiu Haitang, forgive this old master for striking first!
Shen Qingqiu slips the letter to Shang Qinghua and goes through the rest of the scene perfunctorily, waiting for the accusations to start. He defends himself demurely, then lets a glimpse of his infected hand show.
“Look,” Gongyi Xiao says, that reliable cannon fodder, “Elder Shen is infected himself. Stop saying nonsense!”
Luo Binghe stares down at Shen Qingqiu’s hand alongside the rest of the cultivators. The look in his eyes seems a little different though…? He wouldn’t make Shen Qingqiu drink his blood in front of all these people, right? He can’t without exposing himself as a demon!
Naturally, the old Palace Master is unwilling to let go of the matter, ready to drag out again the whole line of Shen Qingqiu’s past misdeeds, but this time Qiu Haitang isn’t there to add fuel to the fire. Shen Qingqiu is more than up to the task of bullshitting himself out of this.
“As to the sower’s accusation, I’ve already proven my innocence. If the Palace Master has a personal grudge against this master, of course he’s welcome to bring it up to Qing Jing Peak at his convenience, let’s not waste everyone’s time with this.”
The Palace Master almost chokes from anger, but can find nothing to say.
A few Sect Masters voice their agreement. “We have to deal with the sowers,” Wu Chen says, “and find out who is behind them.”
It’s the cue for the various sects to start fighting over who should be heading the investigation.
“What is there to argue about,” the Old Palace Master argues, “Jinlan City is under our jurisdiction!”
“Huan Hua Palace has already shown to be biased and hasty in their conclusions,” Yue Qingyuan says placidly.
Shen Qingqiu quickly loses interest in the debate. He already knows who is behind this after all, and he has no interest in going after the protagonist! No, now that Shen Qingqiu is heavenly demon blood-free, accusation-free, and soon-to-be infection-free, there’s only one thing left to do!
Shen Qingqiu does not get to run away.
Shen Qingqiu gets embroiled into investigating the sowers.
“Like we can even trust anything they’ll tell us,” Liu Qingge grumbles, glaring at the huddled group of sowers.
“It’s why they’re drawing this array,” Shen Qingqiu tells him, fanning himself and avoiding to look over at where Luo Binghe is glaring at them. “So they can’t lie.”
Liu Qingge huffs, unconvinced. He isn’t wrong, of course. There were many scenes where the original Luo Binghe circumvented such arrays through trickery or pure strength.
They’ve relocated to a cave a bit farther off from the city, now that the gates are open again. A few cultivators from every sect are mulling about, waiting for the Huan Hua Palace disciples to finish up the array. Luo Binghe is standing over there with them.
No one’s really brought him up with Shen Qingqiu so far. Maybe they’ve all grown too used to avoiding the subject these last three years.
“About that disciple of yours—”
Liu Qingge frowns at him. “There’s something off about him.”
Shen Qingqiu sighs. “He’s unwell,” he says, figuring that covers any number of bases, and is not entirely untrue besides.
“It’s done!” a Huan Hua Palace disciple calls. “You can ask your questions.”
They do, but while the sowers cannot lie while the array is active, they are under no compulsion to answer at all, and seem content to merely ignore them. It goes on for a few minutes, the cultivators growing increasingly frustrated, until one of them asks again who sent them here and one of the sowers picks up his head and points at Shen Qingqiu.
“You,” the sower says. “Come closer and I’ll tell you.”
“Tell everyone,” Liu Qingge says.
The sower shakes his head. “You,” he repeats.
Shen Qingqiu sighs again and takes a few steps towards the array.
The sower’s mouth stretches into a creepy smile. “Closer,” he says.
Isn’t this a little too cliché?!
Shen Qingqiu looks around helplessly at the crowd of cultivators, but nobody speaks up. There’s definitely no one trope-savvy in this room.
Luo Binghe is still staring at him. He does not look away when Shen Qingqiu catches him.
Shen Qingqiu braces himself, takes a few more steps, and—sure enough, the sower’s arm goes straight through the shield and grabs him by the throat.
A dozen cultivators all draw their swords at the same time. For all the good that does him!
“Nobody moves!” the sower warns. “Let us go or I’ll snap his neck.”
“We don’t make deals with demons!” the Little Palace Mistress shouts. Isn’t that a little easy for you to say!!
The sower raises him a few inches off the ground.
Shen Qingqiu feels some kind of disturbance in the spiritual energy behind him. He looks a little to the side and meets Luo Binghe’s eyes. His pupils are entirely dilated.
“Let go of him.” The sower takes a step back. His arm starts wobbling enough that the tips of Shen Qingqiu’s feet reach the ground again, but he does not release him.
Qi keeps rising around Luo Binghe.
“Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu chokes out. “Control yourself!”
But it’s too late: Luo Binghe’s eyes turn red; his demon mark glows on his forehead.
The sower drops Shen Qingqiu like a hot potato; Luo Binghe grabs him and whisks him away before anyone can react.
Luo Binghe stops by a stream after some time. He runs his hands over Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders and throat as though checking for damage. Shen Qingqiu is too surprised to push him away.
Didn’t Luo Binghe just reveal himself as a demon to half the world’s cultivation sects? Too early! Much too early! What’s going to happen now?!
But… Does it even matter, in the end? Does anything they do matter at all?
Luo Binghe pulls back his sleeve. The rash is still there, it’s only been a few hours since Shen Qingqiu took Mu Qingfang’s cure. Luo Binghe growls and bites his own arm, before he presents the bloody bitemark to Shen Qingqiu.
“Are you going to drink, or am I going to make you?” he asks.
There’s no point in fighting, is there? Drink his blood, don’t drink his blood. Stay in jail, break out of jail. Ask for help, don’t ask for help. Every choice Shen Qingqiu makes, everything he tries, it never really changes anything. Time always turns back.
Shen Qingqiu reaches for his arm. Is he supposed to just…? So awkward! He raises Luo Binghe’s arm to his mouth and—licks over the wound, face flushed. Luo Binghe makes a little noise at the back of his throat. Shen Qingqiu drops his arm at once.
“There,” he says. He wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “I’ve drunk it. You can feel it, can’t you?”
Luo Binghe blinks slowly. “Yes,” he agrees, voice low. “I can feel it.”
He takes hold of Shen Qingqiu’s hand again and watches the red dots disappear. He rubs his thumb over the bloodstain on Shen Qingqiu’s sleeve.
“It should be rubbed in cold water before it can set,” he says. Shen Qingqiu is half-worried he will tear the robe off him and wash it in the stream, but after another swipe of his thumb, he lets go and turns his head to the side.
Shen Qingqiu steps away hesitantly. Luo Binghe does not call him back. He does not need to, of course, but he does not use his blood to compel Shen Qingqiu either. Shen Qingqiu cannot feel it at all, in fact, besides a comfortable warmth in his belly that has started fading now that Luo Binghe is no longer touching him. There must be some kind of trap. Luo Binghe isn’t going to let him go so easily. He should still risk it.
Shen Qingqiu looks back. Luo Binghe isn’t even looking at him. His head is still turned away, his shoulders slumped. He looks very pale. Every time Shen Qingqiu has rebooted, Luo Binghe could not escape Xin Mo’s counterattack for longer than three weeks. This child, what were you in such a hurry for? You were supposed to wait five years to come back, why were you so impatient?
“What are you going to do?” he asks.
“What do you care!” Luo Binghe snaps at him.
Shen Qingqiu’s lips thin.
Luo Binghe will probably return to the Demon Realm. He must have wives there, and many followers besides. But Shen Qingqiu doesn’t want him to go angry, chased away by human cultivators. He has taken such care that Luo Binghe does not have grievances against the sects the original destroyed. He has taken such care not to drag Cang Qiong Mountain down with him. All those little cannon fodders he nurtured… He can’t let all his work be in vain!
“Surely,” he starts, “surely Luo Binghe will still be welcomed in Huan Hua Palace.”
Luo Binghe snorts. “Is Shizun unaware? Huan Hua Palace has just attempted to kill you.”
Obviously, Huan Hua Palace tempered with the array but—wasn’t that on Luo Binghe’s order? Except… why would Binghe save him, if he had ordered it? The original pulled a lot of that kind of stuff with his future wives, but his—this Luo Binghe wouldn’t do this kind of things. Even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t use these tactics on this old teacher!
Shen Qingqiu feels so confused. What does it mean, if Luo Binghe was not the one who just tried to kill him?
Luo Binghe considers him with red eyes. “It’s only to be expected from a demon, is that what Shizun thinks?” He sneers. “Of course, now my blood is in Shizun. Where can Shizun run, that I can’t follow? What hurt can Shizun inflict upon me, that I can’t pay back tenfold?” He walks over and puts his hand over Shen Qingqiu’s throat, the gesture mockingly tender. “Is Shizun afraid?”
If this master has to die for you to be satisfied… Does it really have to be by your own hand?
They feel the approaching cultivator at the same time, and turn their heads to see Liu Qingge flying over, eyes zeroed in on their point of contact.
“You—!” he shouts, and jumps on the ground to grab his sword and point it at Luo Binghe. “You dare lay hands on your master?!”
“I dare,” Luo Binghe throws back. His other hand goes to Xin Mo.
Not this again, Shen Qingqiu thinks—
How many times has it been? Shen Qingqiu has lost count.
He is in that abandoned brothel again. He is facing Luo Binghe for the first time again.
How many times has he done this?
“Might this master ask to speak to this disciple?”
The Huan Hua Palace disciples seem to take offense at that. “What you have to say to Luo Binghe, you can say to all of us,” the girl in the yellow jacket tells him.
Luo Binghe doesn’t spare her a glance.
“Does Shizun have something to say to this disciple?”
Luo Binghe ignores all protests and leads Shen Qingqiu to a small room far enough that even cultivators shouldn’t be able to overhear. He closes the door behind them and looks at Shen Qingqiu expectantly, but Shen Qingqiu does not know what to tell him now that they are here. He wants to put all of himself in Luo Binghe’s hands and let him decide what’s to be done with him. He wants to be told the answer to whatever lesson he’s supposed to be learning. Mostly, he just wants it to be over.
Luo Binghe steps closer to him and takes his hand to bring it into the light that filters through the small window. “Shizun is infected,” he remarks. His thumb rubs idly over Shen Qingqiu’s palm. “How unfortunate this hand must be.”
“Binghe has injured his hand as well.”
It happened a little like this, the first time. When Luo Binghe discovered the infection and took hold of his hand, his own was bleeding as well, only it was Shen Qingqiu’s sword that had struck him. No matter what he does, it seems he cannot stop hurting Luo Binghe.
Luo Binghe was the one to take his hand, but this time, when Luo Binghe relaxes his grip to release him, Shen Qingqiu closes his fingers around Luo Binghe’s and does not let him go.
“Shizun…” Luo Binghe gives a slow sweep of his lashes. “Shizun shouldn’t do ambiguous things. He will give this disciple hope.”
“Hope?” Shen Qingqiu repeats. “Luo Binghe does not need to hope. Whatever he wants from this master, it will be granted.”
Revenge or contrition… Luo Binghe can have all of it. Shen Qingqiu just wants it to end. It has to end.
“Do you regret it?” Luo Binghe whispers.
“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu tells him, equally hushed. “More than anything in my life.”
Luo Binghe’s eyes well up with tears.
“No, Binghe, don’t cry, it’s alright—”
Binghe kisses him.
It’s a graceless press of lips. It feels nothing like in all the stories.
It doesn’t deter Luo Binghe from trying again, and again, bolder each time. Shen Qingqiu has the distant thought that if he does not stop Luo Binghe now, they will never stop at all. They will kiss there against the wall until the heat death of the universe.
“How long are you—You—!” Qin Wanyue interrupts them.
It takes a moment for Luo Binghe to let go. Even then, he does not go far, his hands hovering over Shen Qingqiu’s hips.
Shen Qingqiu stays slumped against the wall, mind completely blank.
They exchange some words. Shen Qingqiu can only register the shrillness of Qin Wanyue’s voice until Luo Binghe brings back his hand to cup his cheek.
“Begging Shizun’s pardon,” Binghe says softly, almost tentatively. “This disciple will have to go first.”
He goes, leading away the Huan Hua Palace disciples, leaving Shen Qingqiu behind with a red Gongyi Xiao.
Shen Qingqiu waits to catch his breath. He does not swallow the blood still in his mouth.
It takes two days to get to the Sun and Moon Dew Flower Seed. It takes two more hours for Shen Qingqiu to gather enough kindling to set it on fire.
It’s just in time, too. Away from Jinlan City, the infection truly does work fast. The rot has almost reached Shen Qingqiu’s heart.
He sits against a tree trunk and stays to make sure the body burns to ashes; then he stays because he no longer has the strength to get up. He watches the sun move in the sky.
He is not in pain. His whole body is numb. There are worse ways to go, he thinks.
When Liu Qingge tracked them down to that stream—
Shen Qingqiu was still trying to calm them down when he was struck by Without a Cure. They didn’t pay attention to him at all. Luo Binghe kept knocking Liu Qingge farther and farther away. There was no control at all to his blows. Unable to follow on Xiu Ya, Shen Qingqiu rapidly lost sight of them. He could only run after them, guided by the ravaged fields and vegetation they had left in their wake. Half a shichen passed by the time he caught up to them.
He found Liu Qingge first, passed out cold against an uprooted tree. Serves him right, he thought, annoyed at having run the whole way. Didn’t he know better than to pick fights with the protagonist?
Luo Binghe—Luo Binghe had fallen further away. Xin Mo must have counterattacked while he was exhausted from the fight.
Now that it was over, Shen Qingqiu should have taken the opportunity to hightail it. He doesn’t know why he didn’t. He went to Luo Binghe instead. He knelt at his side and shook his shoulder once, gently. Luo Binghe didn’t react.
Shen Qingqiu braced himself and placed one hand under Luo Binghe’s back and one hand under Luo Binghe’s cheek. His skin was burning. He used his hold to prop Luo Binghe up on his lap, and turn his face towards him.
His eyes were open.
The sluggish flow of qi Shen Qingqiu had started transferring to him stuttered.
He stared at Luo Binghe for a long moment, waiting for him to speak.
Luo Binghe did not speak. He did not even blink.
His qi started to flow more easily, but most of it leaked out of Luo Binghe and into the ground underneath them.
“Can’t Binghe put this master in his eye even a little?” Shen Qingqiu asked. He had to blink several times to focus his vision.
He heard movement behind him, but he couldn’t focus on it. He wasn’t like Luo Binghe, with unending reserves of spiritual energy. He couldn’t let his attention wander away from his task even a minute. Luo Binghe would grow cold. He couldn’t let Luo Binghe grow cold.
“What are you doing?” he heard Liu Qingge ask. “Can’t you see it’s useless?”
Shen Qingqiu ignored him.
He wouldn’t let Binghe grow cold.
He poured all he had into Luo Binghe. He did. He really did.
Yes. There are worse ways to go.
The sky is painted pink, the sun has almost set, by the time Luo Binghe arrives.
Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes against the vision of him. Hasn’t Shen Qingqiu suffered enough? Hasn’t he made Luo Binghe suffer enough?
“Shizun?” Binghe calls. “Shizun, what’s wrong? Why did you—” His voice cuts off.
When Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes, Luo Binghe is kneeling next to him. He is touching Shen Qingqiu’s hand, but Shen Qingqiu cannot feel it. His hands were entirely black by midday already.
He sees a teardrop fall from Binghe’s face and onto the back of his hand. He does not feel that either.
“Binghe, don’t cry,” he pleads helplessly.
“Shizun, what… Is it the infection? If you take my blood—”
He must know it is too late for that already, but he still slices open his hand and brings it to Shen Qingqiu’s face. When he makes no move to drink it, Luo Binghe makes a little growl and licks the blood off his hand himself, before he grabs onto Shen Qingqiu’s head and gives him a punishing kiss.
Shen Qingqiu is too weak to push him away.
Luo Binghe tastes like salt and rust and desperation, none of which can reach Shen Qingqiu’s core.
Is it enough? If that replacement body is what ties Shen Qingqiu to this world every time he dies, is the loop broken now? Can he finally stop now?
“You don’t get to die,” Luo Binghe cries against his lips. “You don’t get to, Shizun hasn’t repaid me yet—”
“It’s no trouble,” comes the voice, and Shen Qingqiu—Shen Qingqiu—
Shen Qingqiu bursts into tears.
If even destroying the plant body doesn’t work—
If even admitting he’s sorry doesn’t work—
Someone grabs his elbows, but Shen Qingqiu is crying too hard to see. “Why don’t you just kill me,” he sobs, “can’t you just kill me, I just want it to end, I can’t do this, I can’t—”
“Shizun, Shizun, don’t cry, you’re infected, it must be the infection making you feel like this—”
“I want to die, I just want to die—mmh—mmhm—will you stop kissing me!” he shouts, pushing Luo Binghe away. He scrubs his tongue with his sleeve, trying to get the taste of blood off.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe asks, teary himself, “are you feeling better now?”
“Why would I feel better?! Can’t you see I’m upset?!”
“Elder Shen,” Gongyi Xiao says slowly. “What is going on? Your infection is gone.”
Shen Qingqiu abruptly stops crying. The cultivators in the room—there are cultivators in the room!—are staring. Half of them are staring at Shen Qingqiu’s hand. The other, quicker-witted half, is staring at Luo Binghe.
One of them draws her sword. “Demon!” she shouts.
Cang Qiong Mountain gets custody of Luo Binghe, mostly because Shen Qingqiu has another crying fit in the middle of the inquiry. The Huan Hua Palace Master is very determined to lock Luo Binghe in his prison while they investigate; Yue Qingyuan is very determined to stop Shen Qingqiu’s crying.
In any case: they’re going back to Cang Qiong Mountain with a heavenly demon in tow.
“Did you know about this?” Yue Qingyuan asks him as they’re readying to leave Jinlan City.
Shen Qingqiu is not quite thick-faced enough to fake tears, even now he knows first-hand how powerful they are, but he does let his lower lip wobble a little. It does the trick: no one asks him any more questions, though they do start handling him like he’s made of glass.
He gets shoved into a carriage with Shang Qinghua and the Zui Xian Peak Lord. Shang Qinghua is almost vibrating out of his seat, but even when their fellow Peak Lord starts snoring, it’s not like they can talk freely.
Shen Qingqiu is content to ignore him and look out the window to watch the landscape. He lets himself get lost in it, in the passing greenery and the steady, almost hypnotic movement of the carriage. He loses track of time.
“I had a question for Shang-shidi on that book he recommended to me,” he says eventually.
“Let us consider that the Sun and Moon Dew Flower Seed can be used as is theorized by the author. Now let us take the case of someone without spiritual energy, or whose reserves have been entirely depleted through self-destruction, for example. Would they still be able to use the Seed?”
“That seems kinda risky,” Shang Qinghua says nervously. “If you—if someone lost all their spiritual energy, how would their spirit find their way?”
“Where would the spirit go, in such a case?”
“I don’t know. Nowhere, probably. You’d just be dead.”
“It couldn’t—go anywhere else?”
Shang Qinghua taps his fingers against the wood of his seat in some irregular rhythm. “Like what? Go back to—its origin point? Sounds unlikely, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I thought so as well,” Shen Qingqiu tells him.
There’s so much green, outside… Shen Qingqiu had never seen so much green, before he transmigrated. He had never left the city. In a world like this, you could walk for days without crossing another human being. You could get completely lost.
When they stop at an inn for the night, Shen Qingqiu waits until everyone has retired to sneak out of his room. Of course, he gets caught immediately.
“Where are you going?”
Liu-shidi! Are you planning to spend the night in front of my door!
“To the kitchen,” Shen Qingqiu says stiffly.
Liu Qingge frowns at him. “Why didn’t you eat earlier?”
Liu Qingge harrumphs, but moves to the side to let him pass—and follows right after. He watches from a corner of the inn’s kitchen as Shen Qingqiu prepares some congee, sits to force down two bites of it, and gets back up.
He falters again. Should he go back to his room and try sneaking out the window?
Liu Qingge snorts. “What do you want to feed him for? Isn’t that disciple of yours past practicing inedia?”
Shen Qingqiu feels a little embarrassed, but not enough to give up now that he’s been found out anyway. “He’s been bound by Immortal-Binding Cables all day, what if he’s hungry?”
Liu Qingge relents quickly enough, perhaps afraid Shen Qingqiu is going to cry again, and leads him to the carriage covered in talismans outside.
They intend to leave him to sleep in the carriage all night? Won’t that hurt Binghe’s back? Torturing the protagonist, do you have a death wish?!
Qi Qingqi, who is standing guard over the carriage, considers Shen Qingqiu and the bowl of congee with a complicated expression before she opens the door for him. Her hand does not leave the pommel of her sword.
“Go on, then,” she says when he hesitates. “But don’t go doing anything stupid.”
Shen Qingqiu gives her a look, then steps into the carriage.
She closes the door behind him.
There’s some faint light from the glowing charms that also cover the inside of the carriage. He cannot quite discern the lines of Luo Binghe’s face, but he can see him, leaning against the wall on the other side of the carriage, his head bent, the line of his body defeated. He can see the complex ropework that seems particularly tight around his arms and chest. If only Shen Qingqiu could untie him—If only he could comfort him and soothe the abraded skin—If only.
If only Shen Qingqiu hadn’t pushed Binghe into the Abyss.
“It’s me,” he says. “I’ve brought some food for you.” His heart is racing from embarrassment.
Luo Binghe doesn’t raise his head.
“Is Shizun still upset?” he asks after a long silence.
Shen Qingqiu clears his throat. “Are you hungry? I’ve made some congee for you.”
Luo Binghe does look up at that. “Shizun made it?”
“Should this master have gotten the innkeepers from their beds to prepare it instead?” He steps closer and holds the bowl out to Luo Binghe, only seeing the issue a handful of seconds after his disciple does: Luo Binghe’s arms are tied together behind his back.
The corner of Luo Binghe’s lips turn up. “I can’t eat like this, Shizun will have to feed me.”
Shameless! Luo Binghe is tall enough already, a skipped meal won’t hurt him!
“Shizun…” he pleads in a pitiful voice.
Shen Qingqiu steels his heart. Luo Binghe is a powerful heavenly demon. He’s spent years in the Abyss, in far worse conditions—fighting every day to survive, eating raw flesh, unable to rest anywhere, with no one to watch his back, no one to tend to his wounds, no one to care for him at all…
“Just this once, then,” Shen Qingqiu says weakly. He scoops some rice into the spoon and holds it out to Luo Binghe, face burning. Luo Binghe smiles a little, and leans in to wrap his lips around the spoon. His cheeks hollow as he sucks the rice into his mouth. His eyes flutter shut, and he makes some small noise of delight. Shen Qingqiu feels an urgent need to submerge himself into a cold spring.
“To be able to taste Shizun’s cooking… This disciple truly is honored.”
Shen Qingqiu swallows with difficulty, and shakily gathers some more congee. Somehow this feels… Didn’t a good dozen of Luo Binghe’s wives have this kind of seduction scene?!
Shen Qingqiu has sweated through at least two of his layers by the time the bowl is empty; Luo Binghe still looks hungry.
“Won’t Shizun satisfy me?”
The carriage door slams open. “Shen Qingqiu!” Qi Qingqi shouts at him. “Don’t forget yourself!”
Qi Qingqi, you—! What kind of scene are you imagining?!
Shen Qingqiu lies awake the whole night, unable to close his eyes and sleep, unable to focus and meditate.
To have Luo Binghe smile at him again—
Are they really destined to be enemies for all of their lives? That master-and-disciple pair who lived so happily in that small bamboo house, is it truly out of reach?
They are kept apart for the rest of the trip. Shen Qingqiu tries not to think too deeply about why. That embarrassing scene when Luo Binghe was exposed as a demon… Surely they don’t think too much of it…?
On Cang Qiong Mountain, they put Luo Binghe in a heavily-warded cave. They don’t tell Shen Qingqiu the location of it, but Shang Qinghua proves useful, for once in his life.
It’s Liu Qingge who’s on guard duty outside. He doesn’t look pleased to see Shen Qingqiu, but he doesn’t look surprised, either. He makes the barest attempt at turning him away. “He’s a demon. He’s been gone from three years. You don’t really know him.”
“He’s my disciple,” Shen Qingqiu tells him.
Liu Qingge frowns, but steps aside.
Shen Qingqiu feels his heart in his throat, beating louder with every step.
Luo Binghe is kneeling on the hard ground in the middle of the cave, the Cables tying him stretching in every direction to hook onto the rock walls.
“I’m here to let you go. I only ask that you remember all the years Cang Qiong Mountain welcomed you, and forgive them for this one offense.”
“Cang Qiong Mountain didn’t welcome me; Shizun did.”
“This master begs you, then, to show mercy to this Sect.”
Luo Binghe doesn’t answer for a long while. “Shizun really does hate me.”
“Shizun asked me to kill him, when we met again. Is that the kind of person I am in his eye? Someone who would spread a plague and kill people? Someone who would hurt him? Am I so detestable?”
You don’t really know him.
That blackened, revenge-driven protagonist, is that really who Shen Qingqiu sees in front of him? What does he truly see when he looks at Luo Binghe? Has he ever looked?
Luo Binghe looks—He looks tired. He looks angry. Mostly, he looks heartbroken.
He looks like Shen Qingqiu is breaking his heart.
If Luo Binghe wanted to discredit him, why stay silent all these times? If Luo Binghe wanted to hurt him, why heal him? If Luo Binghe hates him, why play the respectful disciple when they are alone? Why pretend to be upset when Shen Qingqiu treats him coldly?
Always running away from Luo Binghe, always misunderstanding him… How has it helped any? Shen Qingqiu keeps doing this over and over and making the same mistakes every time. Doesn’t he know by now what he needs to do to break the loop? Hasn’t he known all along?
Didn't I wish I could protect him? Didn't I wish I could shelter him? What's stopping me now? Why am I still hurting him? Why am I still breaking his heart?
Shen Qingqiu draws Xiu Ya and cuts the Immortal-Binding Cables. Luo Binghe does not move at all, even once he is freed. He stares up at Shen Qingqiu with wide eyes.
Shen Qingqiu kneels down in front of Luo Binghe and gathers his hands in both of his.
“Luo Binghe… Binghe, did you send the sowers to Jinlan City?”
“Of course I did. It’s what demons do, isn’t it?” Binghe replies, sulky as a child.
Shen Qingqiu wants to laugh. He feels like he’s floating on clouds.
“Binghe, do you want to take revenge on me?”
“Shizun deserves it!”
Shen Qingqiu does laugh. Binghe stares at him with wide eyes.
“It’s alright. Shizun understands now. Shizun is sorry he misunderstood for so long.”
He raises one of his hands and gently, very gently, pats Binghe’s head. It feels a little different now: Binghe has grown so much while he was gone, but his hair still feels as soft as it always has under his fingertips, and his eyes still well up with tears as easily as they always have.
“Shizun—!” he cries, and throws himself at Shen Qingqiu to bury his face in the crook of his shoulder. Shen Qingqiu closes his arms around him. “Shizun!”
“Don’t cry,” he says. “I won’t misunderstand Binghe anymore. I won’t let anyone else misunderstand either. I’ll go and explain with you.”
Binghe shakes his head against his shoulder. Some of his tears get inside Shen Qingqiu’s collar. He holds Binghe tighter. “It’s alright. Whatever they think of me… As long as Shizun believes in me, this one doesn’t care at all.”
“This teacher cares!” Shen Qingqiu has wronged Binghe so badly, so many times. To stand by and watch his beloved disciple wronged by others? Not on his watch!
“If Binghe commits a wrong, this master will go and kneel with him, make reparations with him. But if Binghe suffers a wrong—this master will show no mercy!”
Binghe cries even harder at that. Shen Qingqiu keeps patting his hair and shoulders and decides to let him cry as long as he wants.
“Shizun… Shizun doesn’t really know… how shameful this disciple really is…”
Shen Qingqiu tuts at him. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “This master was wrong before. There’s nothing that Binghe can do that will make me give up on him. As long as it comes from Binghe, this master will accept all of it.”
Binghe picks up his head to look at Shen Qingqiu. There’s a slightly worrying light in his eyes.
“Shizun means it?”
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t hesitate, and nods fiercely.
Binghe smiles. It looks a little painful, that smile. He does not fully believe Shen Qingqiu yet.
It’s alright. Shen Qingqiu will hold him, and pat his head, and tell him he is loved over and over, every day, until he believes it.
“Shizun… Can I kiss you?”
“You—I’ve already drunk your blood!”
“Not to give you blood. Not to transfer energy. I just want to kiss you. Can I kiss you?”
Shen Qingqiu feels as flushed as Luo Binghe looks. “Do you—do you really want to? With this old teacher?”
“Yes,” Binghe says, very quietly. “Very much.”
Shen Qingqiu looks at him, his shining, beloved eyes.
This time Shen Qingqiu won’t hurt him. Shen Qingqiu won’t hurt him ever again.
He will help Luo Binghe learn to manage Xin Mo. He will find whoever controlled the sowers.
He will tell Binghe of all the times he started over and all the mistakes he made—he will tell Binghe everything, eventually: his pitiful first life, his pride over his disciple… His fear and his shame and his guilt… His love.
He will find the words. He will learn to say them. He will put his whole heart in Binghe’s hands—and Binghe’s brave, bruised heart… Shen Qingqiu will learn to treat it kindly.
He cups Binghe’s face in his hands, and smiles to him.
“Yes,” he says. “You can.”
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