Luo Binghe was accustomed by now to waking up somewhere he hadn’t fallen asleep. He’d had nightmares often enough of Huan Hua Palace, but those generally involved the main pavilion, not the small room he’d been afforded as head disciple. Either way, he could send it away with one adjustment to his dreamscape and get back to cuddling his husband.
He called on his powers, made the mental twist that would turn this dream to vapor.
Was he going through a qi deviation? That was the only time Meng Mo’s teachings failed him, but the dream seemed stable. There was birdsong outside his window, a low thudding at his door, and his bed was made of solid, unchanging wood down to the flecks in its grain. It couldn’t be the product of an unsteady mind.
Something was definitely feeding off of Luo Binghe’s powers, though. Some insidious thread in the back of his head, prompting him to look — no.
Xin Mo sat propped against Luo Binghe’s desk, fully formed and radiating an energy that couldn’t be faked. Even in Luo Binghe’s worst nightmares, he remembered its control but didn’t feel it in the moment, only its queasy aftereffects.
He had shattered this sword to pieces and ground the shards to dust, but here it was, worming its way into its brain. And if the sword was real, and the room was real, and — Luo Binghe crossed to his mirror to check — his body had the Huan Hua-issue robes and cautious smile he’d lost when he was twenty, then that meant...
When the hand at Luo Binghe’s door tired of knocking and opened it to reveal Gongyi Xiao, fresh-faced and impossibly alive, all Luo Binghe could think was: apologies, shidi, but I’m fresh out of shock this morning.
Luo Binghe spent much of the day in a haze. He smiled when spoken to and answered direct questions, but his mind was bubbling like an unattended pot, trying to make sense of his circumstances.
Eventually, he’d figured out a few things for certain:
Luo Binghe was definitely physically there. He’d taken breakfast with the other Huan Hua disciples and marveled at the texture of bland congee in his mouth, the dozens of half-remembered faces chattering and moving without his input. The strongest illusion would break under so many details, but the palace was unaffected.
His memories of another life were not some strange hallucination. He kept expecting his stance to be just a bit lower than it was; he wanted to carry his head differently, to speak with an authority he didn’t possess. His spiritual energy was unchanged, but he hadn’t been able to circulate it with this level of control yesterday — ten years ago — whichever. Many things could be faked. Cultivational prowess wasn’t one of them.
And lastly, Luo Binghe’s luck was as abysmal as ever. He’d had an inkling since Gongyi Xiao knocked, a suspicion honed by years of constantly ending up in the worst place at the worst time. A joke from a miscellaneous Huan Hua disciple confirmed it: today was the day they traveled to Jin Lan City.
Luo Binghe took charge of the investigation while thinking of Shizun; nobly defended the other disciples while thinking of Shizun; had to spare a moment of his attention to backhand that Yang rooster, who was somehow even more annoying now than at Bai Zhan, but he was able to turn his thoughts back to Shizun in due course. The topic merited close attention, primarily to allow Luo Binghe time to beat his instincts back with a stick.
By the time Luo Binghe’s party chased a sower into the brothel, he had more or less convinced himself not to leap into Shen Qingqiu’s arms and beg Shizun to make it better. This Shen Qingqiu hadn’t seen Luo Binghe in years; he’d probably assume a hug was some kind of covert strangulation technique.
That was fine. Luo Binghe could be calm. Luo Binghe could expound on the nature of the sower he’d just killed and wait for Shen Qingqiu to come to him.
Luo Binghe looked away from the sower’s corpse, found Shen Qingqiu’s eyes locked on his face, and had to freeze the blood in his legs to keep from running to him. Shizun was here, Shizun would know what had happened to Luo Binghe, Shizun… had bolted for the exit, and only stopped when he ran into Gongyi Xiao.
As annoying as Gongyi Xiao was, he did have his uses. Luo Binghe would try to make sure he didn’t get murdered this time.
“Shizun?” Luo Binghe said, because he couldn’t not say it. He stepped forward; Shen Qingqiu froze like a rabbit beneath a hawk. It hurt more than Luo Binghe remembered. “It really is Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu stared at Luo Binghe for a moment that seemed to last hours, his fan hiding his face and the hand on its grip almost imperceptibly trembling. Finally, he said, “What exactly is going on here?”
Luo Binghe motioned the Huan Hua disciples back without looking away from Shen Qingqiu. The first time around, he’d wanted them hostile so he would seem more sympathetic by comparison, but that had been one of many miscalculations. “Is this how we treat the peak lords of an esteemed sect?” he said, before anyone could pipe up and win Shen Qingqiu’s sympathy. “Curing this plague is a common goal we can better reach by working together.”
Not, apparently, if the disciples who claimed to trust Luo Binghe had anything to say about it. The stalemate was broken by Qin Wanyue demanding treatment for Luo Binghe’s infection, and a flicker of worry in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes.
“You were infected?” he said.
Luo Binghe let his eyes flick to Shen Qingqiu’s wrist, flecked with marks like cinnabar on white jade. “It seems I wasn’t the only one,” he said calmly. “I can withstand it, so long as the others are safe, but tell me — how was Shizun infected?”
Shen Qingqiu said nothing. He must have been debating between the urge to pull his sleeve down and hide the infection versus disinclination to draw any attention to it. “A stranger bumped into me as I passed a soup line,” he said finally. “It seems to me that they may be — ”
“Sowers,” a disciple said disdainfully, “like Luo-shixiong already explained to us?”
The entire meeting went like that. Just as it had the first time. Shen Qingqiu requested that the sower’s corpse be delivered to Cang Qiong. Shen Qingqiu and Gongyi Xiao discussed something alone, and Shen Qingqiu’s air of ease faded the moment he saw Luo Binghe looking their way.
Shen Qingqiu left.
That was — fine. It was expected. It was what he did, at this point; he left, and Luo Binghe tried to catch him, and failed, so that Shen Qingqiu ran even harder.
That didn’t mean Luo Binghe had to take it lying down.
“Shidi,” he said, catching up to Gongyi Xiao and letting his worry shine through on his face. “The way my Shizun looks at me, won’t answer when I talk to him… what does shidi think his opinion is towards me?”
Gongyi Xiao had the decency to look awkward at that. He wasn’t a terrible person, wasn’t — as Shen Qingqiu had been delightfully clear on, once Luo Binghe worked up the nerve to ask — a romantic rival. Getting him on Luo Binghe’s side meant Shen Qingqiu would hear Luo Binghe’s story from someone Shen Qingqiu trusted.
The unease that thought gave him was immaterial.
“Shizun must know I don’t hate him. It’s only that… at the Conference, when they thought I died, I’d tried to fight an opponent from the Abyss. One I wasn’t ready for. And I failed, and Shizun had to watch.” Tension around the eyes, like he was trying to stay cheerful through pain. “I wanted him to be proud of me, and to shame him to that extent — well. I didn’t know if he’d ever want to see my face again.”
“Shixiong,” Gongyi Xiao said with the same fervor he normally packed into a ‘Senior Shen,’ and that was it: Luo Binghe had him.
He was a little offended on behalf of the year his past self had spent failing to win Gongyi Xiao over. Then again, if his past self had promised he didn’t hate Shen Qingqiu, even Luo Binghe couldn’t truly have believed it.
“Shidi can see why I wouldn’t want it spread around.”
“Now I feel terrible for not knowing!” said Gongyi Xiao. “Senior Shen was asking how you joined Huan Hua just now, and all I could tell him was the story you gave everyone. He was so concerned that you hadn’t gone back to Cang Qiong, too!”
So the whole time Luo Binghe had thought Shen Qingqiu was chatting up his replacement, they’d been talking about Luo Binghe?
That was heartening.
Luo Binghe cobbled together a consolation for Gongyi Xiao’s wounded nobility and turned his mind to the evening. He had plans to make.
Luo Binghe refused to feel guilty about goading Liu Qingge into spending the night chasing down Sowers. He even left early, so that the score between them would be four to three rather than five to two; couldn’t it be called filial piety, to save his shishu some face?
He didn’t want to just barge into Shen Qingqiu’s room like he had last time, though. His husband so loved jumping out of windows…
Luo Binghe didn’t want Shen Qingqiu trapped; he hated being cornered more than anything, and would react unpredictably. On top of that, Luo Binghe was uncomfortably aware that he’d let Shen Qingqiu be locked up in the water prison last time for his own ends, and he’d had a perfectly good justification.
Imprisonment, as such, was out. But without harming Shen Qingqiu at all, Luo Binghe could make it hard for him to run.
Just so Shizun would hear him out. Just so Luo Binghe didn’t lose him again.
Luo Binghe opened a vein to draw a small seal on the window: his own design, harmless to anyone who didn’t have Without A Cure in their veins. If Shen Qingqiu ran for the window, Without A Cure would temporarily overcome him, going beyond spiritual energy and even affecting his strength. The effects would vanish as soon as he received Luo Binghe’s spiritual energy, which Luo Binghe would give regardless of how Shen Qingqiu responded to him.
Luo Binghe knocked on the door to Shen Qingqiu’s quarters. Calm. Measured.
“Liu-shidi? I’ve been waiting for you all night, come in right away!”
Maybe Shen Qingqiu was justified in diving out the window, if Luo Binghe’s face revealed any of what he’d been feeling at that moment.
Luo Binghe dashed back outside just as Shen Qingqiu staggered, Without A Cure attacking him harder. Shen Qingqiu fell directly into his arms, a familiar weight from years of rescues that hadn’t happened yet. Luo Binghe had caught him in a bridal carry out of habit, but even this close to each other, Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t look at him.
Shen Qingqiu’s face was screwed up in confusion, in pain. Without A Cure was a serious poison, little though he pointed it out, and Luo Binghe had made it worse.
Ah. This had been a terrible idea.
Luo Binghe carried Shen Qingqiu back into his room, trying not to think about how many times they’d done this. Shen Qingqiu feared him, understandably given what Luo Binghe was apparently willing to do to him. All Luo Binghe owed him was spiritual energy and a speedy exit.
Luo Binghe did not get on the bed he laid Shen Qingqiu out on. He had no right. He knelt and reached out to transfer spiritual energy impersonally, through Shen Qingqiu’s hand, but… his hair had gone disarrayed from the fall. He never liked looking sloppy, even just to Luo Binghe.
Luo Binghe tucked an errant lock of hair back into Shen Qingqiu’s half-bun, sending a wisp of spiritual energy with it. But then again, the whole style was on the verge of collapse; better to tear it down and start over, maybe.
Luo Binghe transferred more spiritual energy to Shen Qingqiu with every brush of his fingers, smoothing down fly-aways and undoing tangles. He’d had the privilege of his hands in Shen Qingqiu’s hair even as a disciple, on mornings when Shizun couldn’t be bothered to do it himself. It was soothing even now.
Shen Qingqiu flinched when Luo Binghe undid his hair crown, letting the top half of his hair fall down to join the rest. “What is this?” he said, voice tight with stress and mistrust.
Not with pain. That was the important part.
“This disciple caused Shizun pain,” said Luo Binghe. “I don’t want to see Shizun suffer. That’s all.”
Shen Qingqiu said nothing, just looked at Luo Binghe with a quiet judgement Luo Binghe couldn’t parse. If Luo Binghe didn’t look at his face, this could have been an evening in the bamboo house: quiet comfort and a listening ear.
“I’m tired, Shizun,” Luo Binghe said, his hands still working. “I had a plan, but I went about it all wrong. I judged you wrong, I’m overreacting… I guess I’m not used to you looking at me like you hate me. I really don’t know what I should do.”
“Then do as you like.”
Shen Qingqiu’s hand shot up, taking Luo Binghe by the chin and guiding him to look at Shen Qingqiu’s face. His eyes weren’t frightened, but… expectant. The look he wore when he wanted Luo Binghe to come to a conclusion Shen Qingqiu had already reached.
Shizun’s hand on his face, those words: they belonged to a memory from before. One of the most precious ones Luo Binghe had.
“Husband?” Luo Binghe said, and the next thing he knew, Shen Qingqiu had tackled him to the floor.
“Did I marry such an overachiever?” Shen Qingqiu said, his face buried in Luo Binghe’s neck. “Not even a full day and this troublesome brat goes and confesses! This master never even got a chance!”
Luo Binghe had consigned himself to a world without Shen Qingqiu’s terrible attempts at scolding. To get it all back at once made him a little giddy. “I thought I was alone,” he confessed to Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder.
“I thought I was alone,” Shen Qingqiu said, clinging even tighter.
“Ah, did Shizun miss me?”
A smack to his back; well, Luo Binghe deserved that. “Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to.”