Shen Qingqiu was willing to accept the fact that he had maybe somehow quite possibly become fond of his white lotus disciple, and that perhaps the fear of having his limbs ripped off one by one was only part of the reason it made him sick to think about pushing Luo Binghe into the Endless Abyss in about a year's time.
A big part. But only a part.
So when the squirrelly Peak Lord of An Ding Peak grumbled something about OOC behavior after watching him getting along with Liu Qingge and doting on Luo Binghe, Shen Qingqiu snatched his chance. “Shang-shidi, it occurs to this shixiong that it’s been too long since we’ve had tea.”
Shang Qinghua sweated bullets. “How could I dare to trouble Shen-shixiong?”
“Ridiculous—we’re martial brothers, so how could it be any trouble?” Shen Qingqiu asked, then strong armed Shang Qinghua into the bamboo cottage. He poured two cups of tea. “Would shidi like to elaborate on what he meant by ‘OOC behavior?’”
“Haha, this shidi is prone to speaking nonsense, as shixiong has taken pains to remind me.”
Shen Qingqiu hummed. “That’s a shame. I thought shidi might have something to discuss with me about proud immortal demons.”
Shang Qinghua choked on his tea. “You—! No wonder my plot is getting messed up. Bro, you have no idea how scary it is to watch Shen Qingqiu being nice to the protagonist.”
“Your plot?” Shen Qingqiu asked, narrowing his eyes. Shang Qinghua, who felt like a rabbit escaping a hawk when he realized he wasn’t having tea with the original goods, sensed that a familiar shadow was cutting across the sun. “Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky?”
“That’s me!” Shang Qinghua fidgeted in his seat. “Were you, uh, a fan?”
Shen Qingqiu scoffed. “Do I seem like one of your 40 IQ fanboys? Peerless beauty after peerless beauty, priceless treasures springing out of the ground like bamboo, scum villains appearing just to be cut down in a single swing—who could be a fan of your shitty, dog blood, face-slapping stallion novel? Why blacken the protagonist if he can only get brief moments of gratification with no real catharsis?!”
“…Peerless Cucumber?” Shang Qinghua asked. Shen Qingqiu froze in place. “It is you! Cucumber-bro, I would know that vitriol anywhere.”
Shen Qingqiu sighed, deflating. “Whatever. And of course, I’m changing the plot—do you think I want to die?”
Shang Qinghua scratched his head. “I guess I understand. Two transmigrators and we get stuck as a scum villain and cannon fodder.”
They had a moment of silence before Shen Qingqiu waved it away and got back to his purpose. “Are you still Mobei-jun’s spy?”
“Yeah.” Shang Qinghua slumped to rest his head in his palm. “I had the chance to run, but Mobei-jun was my favorite character, y’know? So now I’m stuck as his lackey, and demons are hardcore, bro. Sometimes I spend entire days running errands and doing paperwork, and then I dream that Mobei-jun is hiding on my peak and Liu Qingge is coming to beat me up for losing Bai Zhan Peak’s requisition forms.”
He slid even further down so that his forehead touched the table. “To make it worse, I think that’s even happened before…”
“Is Mobei-jun planning to infiltrate the Immortal Alliance Conference?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
“Duh,” Shang Qinghua said. “I’ve been letting the plot take its course, so that’s still in the works.”
Shen Qingqiu tapped his fan against his palm. “Why did he attack the Immortal Alliance Conference, anyway? Besides giving you an excuse to throw the white lotus protagonist into the Abyss.”
Shang Qinghua, still pressing his face into the table, briefly described Mobei-jun’s childhood trauma courtesy of Huan Hua Palace.
Shen Qingqiu frowned. “From what I remember, the Old Palace Master was a supportive father-in-law who basically handed everything over to the protagonist. Why did he accept Luo Binghe as his son-in-law and successor if he has a prejudice against demons?”
Shang Qinghua laughed awkwardly. “Well, you see, it’s like this…”
When the author finished describing the hidden history of Luo Binghe’s parents, Shen Qingqiu whacked him repeatedly on the back of his head with his fan (lightly, because he didn’t want to fall back into the original goods’ abusive behaviors, but repeatedly out of sheer frustration).
Hey, System? Shen Qingqiu asked. Why does Luo Binghe have to go into the Endless Abyss?
【The protagonist enters the Endless Abyss in accordance with the plot of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>. Failure to push the protagonist into the Endless Abyss will cost the host 10 000 B points.】
I understand that, but why?
【Entering the Endless Abyss allows the protagonist to accept his heavenly demon blood, seize Xin Mo, and gain power in the Demon Realm.】
If I can figure out another way for him to reach those goals, will I still have to push him into the Abyss?
There was a long moment of silence before the System responded.
Shen Qingqiu slapped his fan against the table. “Airplane-bro, I have an idea.”
Despite being a nervous man and a bad liar, Shang Qinghua was a good spy. He had an established status in a well-regarded sect, but his lack of prestige allowed him to go unnoticed, and his place on the logistics peak gave him access to a wealth of information that others might not even realize he had. Moreover, as the author of this world, he knew intel that no one, not even obsessive anti-fan Peerless Cucumber, had even thought about. So, over the years since he started working for Mobei-jun, Shang Qinghua may or may not have started building his own little spy network, mostly under the guise of professional correspondence, courtesy letters and favors from Cang Qiong, or a sympathetic ear to those others might have been ignored otherwise.
The best kind of spy is one who doesn’t know they’re a spy.
However, it was generally a base requirement for other people not to know a spy was a spy, which was why Shen Qingqiu’s insistence on meeting with Mobei-jun was stressing him out.
“Sit down, I’m getting dizzy just looking at you,” Shen Qingqiu said, calmly sipping his tea.
Shang Qinghua wanted to pull his hair, but then it would tangle in his hair ornaments, and it would be a whole Thing. Damn you, xianxia aesthetics! “Bro, do you understand how bad of an idea this is? How many things could go wrong? What if my king decides I’m too much trouble and beheads me? My body will be buried in paperwork and they won’t find me for weeks! If I die, promise me that you’ll give me a beautiful eulogy.”
Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrow twitched. He reached into one of his sleeves, pulled out a bag of melon seeds, and dropped it on the table while maintaining eye contact. Shang Qinghua morosely slunk to the table.
They didn’t have to wait long before a demonic chill filled the room, and Shang Qinghua threw himself in front of Shen Qingqiu just fast enough to spare him from an ice spear through the chest.
“Wait, wait! My king, it’s alright! He’s a friend!” Shang Qinghua waved his open hands in front of his chest to show that he was unarmed.
Mobei-jun frowned. He was still holding an ice spear but hadn’t posed to strike, which Shang Qinghua was willing to take as a win.
“Your Excellency, this one has no intention to interfere in your affairs, only to provide a counteroffer,” Shen Qingqiu said, still holding his cup of tea. His steel nerves and placid tone would be more impressive if Shang Qinghua didn’t already know about his former internet gremlin habits, but credit where credit was due, they were still fairly impressive. “If I wanted to take you down, I wouldn’t have come alone and Shang-shidi would already be imprisoned.”
Mobei-jun narrowed his eyes but dissipated the spear.
Shen Qingqiu swirled his teacup. “This one is aware that Your Excellency intends to infiltrate the Immortal Alliance Conference; however, your grievance is against Huan Hua Palace alone, and the attending disciples are innocent.”
Mobei-jun’s expression didn’t change. Shen Qingqiu changed tactics.
“There is no glory in killing children with poor training and no accomplishments, while attacking at a gathering of sects will only inspire retaliation from the cultivation world as a whole. Disciples can come from anywhere, but elders are difficult to replace.”
“Why are you doing this?” he asked.
Shen Qingqiu smiled thinly. “Huan Hua Palace has a worrying tendency to provoke conflicts with demons. Furthermore, I have a duty to protect my sect, including my disciples and martial siblings.”
Finally, Mobei-jun accepted a seat at the table. Shen Qingqiu described their plan, which Mobei-jun almost rejected out of hand before Shang Qinghua chimed in. “My king, if you had the support of a heavenly demon, who would dare to oppose your right to rule?”
There was a flash in Mobei-jun’s eyes, almost too fast for Shang Qinghua to notice and definitely too fast to parse. Mobei-jun agreed.
As it turned out, the only thing harder than engineering an alternate course of history was reverse engineering a chain of evidence and justifications. Shang Qinghua could get away with knowing a fair bit due to his position as a spy, and Shen Qingqiu could believe him about Su Xiyan because Shen Qingqiu knew Shang Qinghua was the author, but there was no reason why someone who was a mere disciple of a minor peak in a different sect at the time would’ve known Su Xiyan’s secrets, and there was even less of a reason for Tianlang-jun to believe him. They covered the bases they could, but they couldn't know what Tianlang-jun was willing to accept until the moment of truth arrived.
Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua rode side by side under the cover of night. “What is Tianlang-jun like, anyway?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
Shang Qinghua shrugged. “He needed to be interested in human culture since he wandered the Human Realm and fell in love with a human cultivator, but he’s a born and bred demon. If he believes that Su Xiyan betrayed him for the cultivation world, he might hate humans instead, or at least hate cultivators specifically.”
Shen Qingqiu frowned, half in response to that information and half because—“Didn’t we already pass these trees? That one has a knot shaped like a cat that I noticed before.”
Shen Qingqiu jumped down from his horse, guiding it by the reins to the edge of the road. There were two sets of hoofprints matching their horses.
Shang Qinghua squawked in surprise and leaned down to hug the neck of his horse as it tried to bolt.
“What happened?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
“I don’t know! I thought I saw a pair of eyes in the trees, and then something slithered close to the horse, but when I tried to get a look it disappeared!”
Shen Qingqiu furrowed his eyebrows. “I haven’t heard any reports of a monster hassling travelers around here. Are you sure it wasn’t a snake?”
“It was definitely person-sized!”
Shen Qingqiu had a moment of doubt—if it was anything to worry about, why would it target the cultivator sitting on a horse in the middle of the road rather than the one standing near the tree line?
Before they could continue arguing, a horse came galloping towards them from the other end of the road. Its rider was a fresh-faced teenager wearing the disciple robes of Huan Hua Palace, and he looked surprised to see two lords from Cang Qiong, bringing his horse to a gentle halt. He saluted them respectfully. “Immortal Masters, what are you doing here? Why didn’t you free yourselves from the maze array?”
Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu: “…”
Even if this area shouldn’t technically be Huan Hua Palace territory, and so there shouldn’t have been a maze array to get caught in, it was much too embarrassing to explain to a disciple that two immortal cultivators got caught by such a simple trick.
Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. “This lord apologizes for the disturbance, young…?”
“Gongyi Xiao. Peak Lord Shang and I were pursuing a demon, and that must have been what triggered the array.”
“Oh, it’s no problem! I just had to check for security purposes, begging the Immortal Masters’ understanding. My cultivation is not nearly comparable to either of yours, but may this Gongyi Xiao be of assistance?”
“Many thanks for the offer, but this is strictly a scholarly mission of observation. Too many participants could scare it off.”
“A scholarly mission?” Gongyi Xiao asked. “If it has risen to Cang Qiong’s notice, why would you not choose to eradicate?”
Shen Qingqiu snapped open his fan. “Do you think this lord kills every demon he comes across? The demon we’re pursuing has been spotted in this area but has never been known to attack others. Whether demonic or mundane, killing any creature one pleases simply because it had the misfortune to cross one’s path is unrighteous. Learning where one can, however, is rarely a detriment.”
Gongyi Xiao nodded as solemnly as if he had been handed a rare and priceless gem. “This one thanks Immortal Master Shen for his instruction, and wishes the Immortal Masters success in their mission.”
After a few more pleasantries and a courteous dismissal, Gongyi Xiao rode off. Shen Qingqiu released a low breath.
Shang Qinghua whistled. “Way to go! Y’know, pretty soon you’ll have a whole fanclub. Actually, never mind, your entire peak is your fanclub.”
Shen Qingqiu glared at him. “Was there something wrong with what I said?”
“No, no, I’m just continually impressed by your ability to inspire reverence. Why didn't I get that character setting? I could repeat what you said word for word and people would probably laugh at me.”
Shen Qingqiu huffed and swung himself back on his horse. “Whatever. Let’s just get through this array and find the entrance to the mountain.”
It took about a shichen to get through the array, ride as far as the horses would take them, tie them up somewhere they would be able to find them again, walk the rest of the way to the entrance, and tentatively assess the protective arrays, which had already been disabled. Shen Qingqiu signaled to Shang Qinghua, who was equally confused, and they proceeded cautiously into the cavern. They were surrounded on nearly all sides by rough and heavy stone languishing in a mournful, oppressive atmosphere.
The passage ended in a tower of stone with a head with a mess of black hair and rounded shoulders protruding from the bottom, surrounded by a pool of dried. Everything else was either buried or crushed past the point of recognition, and for a moment the Peak Lords wondered if they were too late, and all of their plotting had come to an abrupt and futile end.
A hoarse voice rose from the floor. “Are you here to kill me? I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s not much left.”
The peak lords jolted. Tianlang-jun tilted his head to examine them through the sliver of one dull eye.
Shen Qingqiu tried to conceptualize how much pain Tianlang-jun must be under and how he survived for over a decade without respite, but he couldn’t. The endurance of heavenly demons was beyond description. If it was Shen Qingqiu, he would rather be dead; even becoming a human stick would be more merciful than this.
Shen Qingqiu gathered his robes and sat neatly on the floor, bringing himself closer to eye-level and gesturing for Shang Qinghua to sit beside him. “We're not here to kill you. We’re here to negotiate.”
“Is that right?” the head lifted a little more, exposing the second eye as well. Both lit up with a keen flash. “In that case, nephew can come in now.”
Before they could do anything but be surprised, a figure slid into the room. The addition was mostly shaped like a person with a person’s features but the movements and physicality of a snake. The effect was nauseatingly grotesque, and suddenly Shen Qingqiu had a clear idea of what Shang Qinghua had glimpsed in the bare moonlight before Gongyi Xiao showed up.
The figure slithered toward Tianlang-jun, licked at an open cut on his forehead, and—for lack of a better word—shuddered out of his half-shape into the crouched form of a dignified young man, his bones solidifying and snapping into place as his face drained away from its prior bloatedness and sharpened into focus. Shen Qingqiu reordered his hierarchy of recent body horror.
“…May this lord inquire the distinguished one’s name?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
Tianlang-jun laughed croakily, surprising even himself. “You might be alright. Sit properly, Zhuzhi-lang, you might disturb the humans. We were just about to start introductions.”
Shen Qingqiu bowed. “This one is Shen Qingqiu, Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak, and the one beside me is Shang Qinghua, Peak Lord of An Ding Peak. We are from Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, but as your lordship has probably already guessed, this is not an official negotation.”
“Scandalous,” Tianlang-jun said, propping his head up on his nephew’s knee. It couldn’t have been comfortable or safe, but that discomfort was nothing against what was happening below the shoulders. If he broke his neck, that would just be another injury on a long list of injuries, and that one would be far easier to heal than the hundred or so pulverized bones and mashed organs. “Why would esteemed cultivators such as yourselves comes to negotiate with this lowly one?”
“Peak Lord Shang doubles as a spy for Mobei-jun.” Shen Qingqiu gestured at his fellow Peak Lord, who pulled out an amulet embedded with a transportation talisman and marked deeply with the aura of a northern demon lord free from his robes as proof of his allegiance.
“So you came here for what, exactly? Did you think that freeing a heavenly demon would allow you to double-cross the demon lord you swore your service to?” Tianlang-jun asked.
The bitterness was not subtle.
“I would never betray my king,” Shang Qinghua said.
Tianlang-jun frowned, but some of the darkness fled his expression.
“We didn’t come here to plan revenge on Mobei-jun, we came here to plan against on Huan Hua Palace,” Shen Qingqiu said.
Some sharpness filled in where the darkness left, but it was the most focused Tianlang-jun had been, so Shen Qingqiu approved. “And why would two lords of Cang Qiong plan vengeance on Huan Hua Palace?”
“The Old Palace Master seizes whatever power he can get in whatever way he can get it. He poses a threat to humans and demons alike, and the longer he goes unopposed, the more precarious the situation in both realms becomes. Mobei-jun plans to act against Huan Hua Palace regardless, but we thought you would want a seat at the table. We can help you get a new body and take your revenge on the Old Palace Master, on the condition that you limit your revenge to the sect leadership and don’t involve other sects. Mobei-jun is also willing to support your power in the Demon Realm as long as you protect his right to inherit the northern territories," Shen Qingqiu said.
“Why should I spare the lives of cultivators?" Tianlang-jun asked. "The two of you are the only ones who thought to spare mine.”
“Plenty of the cultivators now were not involved in the situation then, and the faults they have now were taught to them. They can be retaught," Shen Qingqiu said. "Also, to say that no other cultivators wanted to help you is a lie; Su Xiyan didn’t betray you.”
Tianlang-jun scoffed. “Su Xiyan was cold and ruthless. If she hadn’t hated and betrayed me, why would I be trapped here?”
“If she really hated and betrayed you, why would she die in obscurity rather than living in comfort and renown?” Shen Qingqiu’s voice was sharper than he meant it to be, but this was too important of a hurdle to stumble on because Tianlang-jun had been caught in one of Huan Hua Palace’s endless traps. “Is it more likely that a reserved woman would allow herself to be used like that, or that a man known for deception and greed would twist circumstances in his favor?”
Shen Qingqiu held out his hand, indicating for Shang Qinghua to pull a book from his qiankun pouch and hand it to him. “This is a journal belonging to the late Palace Mistress, Lao Guanyu, chronicling the last year and a half of her life. She was very fond of her shimei and wrote about her extensively, including the guilt she carried for Su Xiyan’s death. When Lao Guanyu realized she was going to die, she entrusted the journal to her brother, and it has since made its way to us.”
Shen Qingqiu respectfully handed the book to Zhuzhi-lang. “For now, I will leave it in your nephew’s care, and he can tell you what it says. Peak Lord Shang and I will take our leave, and we’ll see if you still have nothing to say about it tomorrow.”
Together, the peak lords bowed and left the cavern.
The journal itself was heart-wrenching, describing the daily life of a woman who married her own sect leader only to find out over time that the man she married was a façade and the lifestyle itself was not as comfortable or charming as she expected. Interspersed were her observations about her favorite martial sibling, Su Xiyan, who kept up a cold front that could fool anyone other than Lao Guanyu. She caught her shimei staring into space at times, and at others pausing to smell plum blossoms or listen to snippets of romantic poetry, even though she would deny it violently if Lao Guanyu pointed it out. These events happened more recently on missions Su Xiyan came back from with an empty purse. Then, one day when they were sparring, Su Xiyan weakened suddenly and allowed Lao Guanyu to take her pulse. Lao Guanyu had exclaimed her surprise at discovering Su Xiyan’s pregnancy.
At first, Su Xiyan reacted with a rare moment of open happiness, but almost immediately afterwards she clasped Lao Guanyu’s hand and swore her to secrecy. Su Xiyan admitted that her lover wasn’t from the cultivation world, and that she would soon have to leave if she wanted to keep hiding her pregnancy and raise her child in peace. Lao Guanyu didn’t understand why she would have to leave the sect for that, but the story was romantic and her shimei was serious, so Lao Guanyu agreed.
It only took one slip-up, one off-hand comment close to Su Xiyan’s departure about how much Lao Guanyu was going to miss her shimei for everything to unravel. Her husband locked her shimei into the Water Prison and mobilized the sects against Tianlang-jun. Lao Guanyu smuggled Su Xiyan, now heavily pregnant, out of the sect, but her decision was futile. Su Xiyan’s lover had been suppressed, her reputation was ruined, and she had been poisoned.
By the time Lao Guanyu realized her mistake, it was too late. She had also fallen pregnant, and it was much harder for a sect leader's wife to flee into the night than it would have been for a disciple. A few months later, Huan Hua Palace reported that its Mistress had died during childbirth.
Her death was chillingly familiar, but her brother was neither wealthy nor a cultivator, and he couldn’t carelessly act against a powerful sect, especially since public opinion was currently in the sect's favor. The only thing he could do was hold onto the journal until a generous benefactor promised him justice.
The Old Palace Master built his sect from the bones of ruined lives. If this was still the original world of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> with its lower IQ and higher threshold for cruelty, Shen Qingqiu dreaded to think what punishment Bing-ge would have considered fitting.
Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua found somewhere to pass the remainder of the night. During the day, they scouted out the location of Bailu Lake and the Sun and Moon Dew plant, and Shen Qingqiu started forging notes on the demon they were supposedly researching on the off-chance that Gongyi Xiao passed on their cover story and someone decided to verify it.
Once night fell, they returned to the cavern. Thankfully, Zhuzhi-lang was still in his humanoid form with the journal open on his lap. Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua greeted them respectfully and sat down again.
“It was an interesting story,” Tianlang-jun said.
“Does Tianlang-jun doubt the journal’s authenticity?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
“No, there were too many details that would be difficult to fake.” He sounded…sad? Maybe it was easier for Tianlang-jun to persevere if he was fueled by hatred, rather than knowing that Su Xiyan had died powerless and innocent. Shen Qingqiu felt a twinge at that. “I still don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
Shen Qingqiu folded his hands in his lap. “It is this one’s understanding that before the Old Palace Master interfered, you were sympathetic towards humans and had an interest in our cultures. In my opinion, the conflicts between the Demon Realm and the Human Realm have been fueled by prejudice born out of fear and misunderstanding, which is only strengthened by the actions of people like the Old Palace Master. Mobei-jun’s original plan for revenge would have targeted all sects, which would only make the tension worse. I meant it when I said that my only condition for your release would be to limit your vengeance to the higher powers of Huan Hua Palace, but this one also hopes that Tianlang-jun would be willing to entertain his ideas for building rapport between the realms.”
“Oh?” Tianlang-jun propped himself up on Zhuzhi-lang’s knee again. “Do tell.”
“The Demon Realm has materials that humans consider valuable, such as precious gems and rare metals. The Human Realm has handicrafts and clean water that are difficult to find in the Demon Realm.”
“You actually want to establish a trade route.” Tianlang-jun sounded amused.
“I do. I also think that an exchange of information would allow the realms to assess potential threats and dispel misconceptions.”
“I’ve always liked romantic epics.” Tianlang-jun sighed. “What I would’ve done back then to enjoy your plays and poetry from my own palace! Alright, Peak Lord Shen, you’ve won me over. I still want to meet with Mobei-jun before I promise anything.”
“That can be arranged.” Shen Qingqiu felt almost underwhelmed—shouldn’t this be harder? Should he be grateful this isn’t harder? Whatever, it was too late for doubt or hesitation. He yeeted himself into this situation, and if need be, he would yeet his way out.
Shang Qinghua used the next day to send a message to Mobei-jun, so the next night Shen Qingqiu was sidelined for demon politics as Mobei-jun filled in Tianlang-jun about Linguan-jun. Shang Qinghua left Shen Qingqiu’s side to cower next to Mobei-jun, so Shen Qingqiu made small talk with Zhuzhi-lang.
“May I call you Xizhi-lang?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
Zhuzhi-lang startled, flushing slightly green. “If it pleases Immortal Master Shen to do so.”
It was probably a mistake to lower his guard around either Tianlang-jun or Zhuzhi-lang before Shen Qingqiu was sure of their intentions, but he couldn’t help feeling this small, instinctive fondness. Maybe it was because Zhuzhi-lang’s loyalty and slight bashfulness reminded him of Binghe.
Once Tianlang-jun and Mobei-jun finished their negotiations, Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua laid out their ideas for the Sun and Moon Dew plant, which Zhuzhi-lang had already tried (and failed) to get ahold of. In its pure form, the plant was built to accommodate spiritual energy, but with a mixture of Tianlang-jun’s heavenly demon blood and regular transfusions of demonic energy from Mobei-jun and Zhuzhi-lang, they would have a fully functional demon body ready in a year and a half to two years.
They took a couple more nights to retrieve and plant the seeds and for them to set up a timetable for transfusions, checkups, and debates about human versus demon morality. Admittedly, those conversations would be limited to Shen Qingqiu and Tianlang-jun, but they were still necessary if Shen Qingqiu wanted to confirm that Tianlang-jun would maintain his word.
Shen Qingqiu had left his peak for a week and was exhausted by the time he got back, but he was comforted to come home. No major dramas erupted in his absence. Everyone had been training diligently and greeted him with respect and decorum. Luo Binghe in particular smiled widely at the sight of him and immediately started cooking him a hot meal.
“Was Shizun’s mission successful?” Luo Binghe asked as he set out the dishes.
Shen Qingqiu hummed. “I think so.”
Sitting on a peaceful version of Qing Jing Peak, surrounded by filial disciples and a protagonist who would never have to blacken, eating the best food of his life—all of it was worth a little subterfuge.
The Immortal Alliance Conference arrived with the expected amount of fanfare. During the pre-Conference schmoozing, Shen Qingqiu felt a dark satisfaction at every snide remark or sly look from the Old Palace Master. On a whim, he slapped down a thousand spirit stones on Luo Binghe placing first and ignored anyone who mocked him for doing so.
Partway through the Conference, the Old Palace Master shoved his way next to Shen Qingqiu. “It’s a shame about your disciple—with such a hefty wager, this one thought he’d be ranked higher by now.”
Shen Qingqiu hummed, fanning himself lightly. “The results haven’t been decided. There’s plenty of time yet for the tides to change.”
He swanned out of the conversation before the Old Palace Master could continue being pompous in his general direction, graciously ignoring the fact that the reason Luo Binghe wasn't ranked higher yet was that the Old Palace Master’s own disciples were clinging onto him like sticky rice.
Luo Binghe snuck away while the flock of female Huan Hua Palace competitors bathed in a river. As expected, as soon as he freed himself, Luo Binghe quickly advanced with a series of clean kills. Shen Qingqiu felt smug about Binghe’s success, but he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about him avoiding so many wife plots. In any case, it was too late to worry about changing the plot, and at least the System had decided to sulk most of the time rather than punishing him for his meddling.
The Conference ended without any demons appearing or a rift tearing open into the Endless Abyss. Luo Binghe walked off the grounds dirtier and more tired than he entered, but his smile beamed with satisfaction and pride. Shen Qingqiu briefly checked him over for injuries, relaxing when he didn’t find any.
He patted Luo Binghe on the head. Were they the same height now? “Well done.”
Binghe’s smile, if possible, got even brighter.
A few days after the Immortal Alliance Conference, Ming Fan knocked on the door of Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo cottage. “Shizun, your spirit stones are here.”
Shen Qingqiu looked up from his desk. “Oh, right. Binghe, please receive them.”
He missed the mutual glaring as Luo Binghe took the stones from Ming Fan.
“Where did Shizun get three thousand spirit stones?” Luo Binghe asked.
Shen Qingqiu smirked. “I betted a thousand spirit stones that you would win the Conference. Technically, half of those are yours, so you can set those aside for yourself.”
Shen Qingqiu, who was preoccupied and had a preexisting habit of underestimating his effect on his disciple, answered the wrong question. “It couldn’t really be considered betting, since this master had no doubt his disciple would win.”
He missed Luo Binghe flushing bright red and rushing out of the house. Even if he had noticed, he would have marked it as an endearing white lotus trait and quickly forgotten about it.
Luo Binghe placed the stones in storage, making a note to tell Shen Qingqiu their exact location later.
I knew…you would definitely win.
A couple of years had passed since Sha Hualing invaded Qiong Ding Peak, but Shizun still believed in him, and believed in him strongly enough to bet a thousand spirit stones in favor of Luo Binghe against hundreds of other competing disciples, including the disciples of his own sect. Binghe pressed a hand to his chest.
He was the happiest he had ever been. Binghe had only loved two people (one of whom was his dearly departed mother), and if he could live the rest of his life on Qing Jing Peak as Shen Qingqiu’s filial disciple, he would be content with that. As he got older, however, it became harder to deny that he wanted more. He would be content as long as Shen Qingqiu acknowledged him, but Luo Binghe wanted to prove that he was worthy of his Shizun's faith—that he was capable of standing as an equal, to share his Shizun's burdens, and to hold and cherish him the way that Shen Qingqiu was meant to be held and cherished.
The Immortal Alliance Conference was a good first step, but he had a lot farther to go before he could seriously consider making his case to Shen Qingqiu.
Communication between the Demon Realm and the Human Realm was unreliable. At the best of times, it was difficult to predict how long it would take rumors to travel between the realms, and it was even more impossible to predict how distorted those rumors would get by the time they arrived. Two weeks after Tianlang-jun was supposed to have woken up in the modified Sun and Moon Dew body, the cultivation world was rocked by the news that Huan Hua Palace's Old Palace Master, most of the high-ranking elders, and the Little Palace Mistress had all been killed. Apparently, they had mostly died from poisoning, but the Old Palace Master’s death had been prolonged and bloody. The news caused a considerable wave of unease, but in the following months no other sects were attacked, and no other Huan Hua Palace members died, so the tension began to fade.
Five months after that, Yue Qingyuan called an emergency meeting, sitting grim-faced at the head of the discussion table. “This sect leader thanks his martial siblings for gathering on such short notice. There have been concerning rumors from the Demon Realm.”
He stopped. For a man as serious and responsible as Yue Qingyuan, he sure knew how to milk meaningful silences.
“What has Zhangmen-shixiong heard?” Qi Qingqi asked.
The corner of his mouth twisted. “Supposedly, Tianlang-jun has gotten free and is building power in the Demon Realm.”
There was a visible ripple of shock amongst the peak lords. Shang Qinghua’s general nervous twitchiness blended in and Shen Qingqiu fluttered his fan slightly, so that the only peak lord without a visible reaction was Liu Qingge, whose default state was already disgruntled and borderline aggressive. “The Old Palace Master,” he said.
Yue Qingyuan nodded. “If the rumors are true, it’s probable that the Huan Hua Palace deaths were his doing.”
“Zhangmen-shixiong has faced Tianlang-jun before,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Is he likely to be a threat?”
“As a heavenly demon, Tianlang-jun is naturally strong. Even I had difficulty facing him.” Yue Qingyuan tapped his fingers against the table. “In truth, we only subdued him the first time because we had the advantage of surprise, and I doubt we’d be able to catch him off-guard again.”
“Is he going to retaliate against Cang Qiong?” Shen Qingqiu pressed.
“It’s hard to say. Unlike Huan Hua Palace, our sect was less involved and the leadership has changed since he was sealed away, and if Tianlang-jun was responsible for the attack on Huan Hua and wants further revenge, why strike them alone and retreat to the Demon Realm afterwards?”
Liu Qingge crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Demons don’t need reasons.”
…Liu-shidi, this is why you aren’t the strategist.
Qi Qingqi snorted. “Maybe Mu-shixiong should take a look at you; Liu-shidi must have taken too many hits to the head. Demons may be strange and unreasonable, but they always have a goal.”
That did not make Shen Qingqiu feel any better.
Yue Qingyuan looked at him. “What are Qingqiu-shidi’s thoughts on this?”
Shen Qingqiu took a breath, looking at Yue Qingyuan over the top of his fan. “We don’t have enough information, only rumors and suspicion, and it would be unwise to provoke the Demon Realm, especially if the rumors are false. Until further notice, disciple excursions should be curtailed, we Peak Lords should not travel unaccompanied, the barriers around the sect should be refreshed, and Zhangmen-shixiong should take special care. We can make adjustments as more information becomes available.”
Yue Qingyuan relaxed slightly. “Shidi’s suggestions are reasonable. Everyone should be cautious—there’s no point in taking risks. In the meantime, I will coordinate an investigation with Tian Yi Overlook, Zhao Hua Temple, and what remains of Huan Hua Palace.”
The meeting wrapped up after a discussion of logistics and other formalities. As they left, Shen Qingqiu nodded slightly at Shang Qinghua, who nodded slightly back.
Over the next couple of months, a slew of evidence came out against Huan Hua Palace. Zhao Hua Temple seemingly couldn’t go a day without running into some aggrieved prostitute or former female disciple of Huan Hua Palace who left to become a rogue cultivator. The implications were…not good.
After that, Tian Yi Overlook started hearing testimonials and finding reports and other written records indicating that Huan Hua Palace had ignored or mishandled a number of requests for help spanning the past thirty years, resulting in untold civilian casualties. More contentious was the evidence that Huan Hua Palace had been instigating conflicts with demons—some, like Shen Qingqiu, argued that it was immoral to target innocent demons, while others argued that there was no such thing as an innocent demon. However, everyone agreed that provoking demons was reckless.
Finally, Cang Qiong poured over Huan Hua Palace’s accounts and found more holes than the plot of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>, revealing a history of bribery, embezzlement, and involvement in the black market. The next nail in the coffin was the public listing of the Immortal Alliance Conference results from the past twenty years, demonstrating that even as Huan Hua Palace poured more and more disciples into the competition, they placed progressively lower with more recorded injuries.
All in all, the evidence carefully implied around the situation with Su Xiyan and Tianlang-jun without ever touching on it directly, provided plenty of alternate suspects, and dug such deep claws into Huan Hua Palace’s reputation that many people lost the motivation to investigate further. Furthermore, a peek into Bailu Mountain revealed that the arrays had been tampered with, but there was no evidence of who, what, or how, and Tianlang-jun’s body was still trapped beneath the rocks, so how could Tianlang-jun be involved?
By that point, Shang Qinghua was running ragged, so Shen Qingqiu silently bought him a new supply of melon seeds, gave him an entire week’s amnesty from being made fun of, and left with half of Shang Qinghua's paperwork.
“Shizun is working too hard,” Luo Binghe said, setting a cup of tea near Shen Qingqiu's elbow. Binghe's eyebrows were scrunched together in concern.
Shen Qingqiu sat up slightly, massaging the back of his neck with his left hand. “This master is doing his share. The investigation of Huan Hua Palace created a lot of waves, and if I didn’t take on the work, then Peak Lord Shang would have to do twice as much.”
“Why can’t Shang-shishu do his own work?” Luo Binghe asked darkly.
“Have some respect for your shishu,” Shen Qingqiu said in mild rebuke. Binghe had the grace to look chastised. “Plenty of these forms are time-sensitive, so it’s impossible for one person to process them all in time, and Peak Lord Shang has a variety of other responsibilities. This is the scholarly peak; I can handle a little paperwork. Besides, this master has such capable disciples, so what’s there to worry about?”
Luo Binghe startled into blushing—cute—before his face hardened into a determined expression.
“Shizun should give the paperwork to this disciple. Shizun already has enough to worry about.”
Shen Qingqiu tapped Luo Binghe’s head with his fan. “Since when is it the disciple’s job to question his master? Since when is it the disciple’s job to fulfill the master’s responsibilities?” Granted, he had let Luo Binghe do the majority of his paperwork since his transmigration, but still. “Not all of this work is fit for the disciple of another peak to look at. You will do only the work I give you, you will not use it as an excuse to neglect your own duties and cultivation, and you will tell this master if it gets to be too much or if there is something you need help completing. Understood?”
Luo Binghe rubbed the top of his head, looking at once wronged and triumphant. Mostly, the expression involved pouting with a smug glint in his eyes. You’re not fooling this master, Binghe!! “Understood, Shizun.”
“Good.” Shen Qingqiu separated out the requisitions from Qian Cao and Xian Shu. He almost handed him the forms for Bai Zhan as well, but a) two stacks were more than enough to start with, and b) ever since the Immortal Alliance Conference, things between Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge had gotten strangely tense? Shen Qingqiu would almost think it was a protective older brother thing, except that Luo Binghe hadn’t spoken more than a dozen words total to Liu Mingyan, and those were all during the Conference. Maybe Liu-shidi knew something he didn’t, or maybe some of those weird internet men were right, and it was some kind of alpha male thing. Luo Binghe placed first at the Conference, so maybe Liu Qingge knew that Luo Binghe would be stronger than him in the future? Liu-shidi, there’s no shame in losing to the protagonist!
Shen Qingqiu slid a portion of his hair over his shoulder, too absorbed in his work to notice the gaze lingering on the exposed curve of his neck.
Shen Qingqiu miscalculated.
Over a year had passed since Tianlang-jun woke up in his new body and wreaked vengeance on the Old Palace Master and it was several months since Shen Qingqiu, Shang Qinghua, and Shang Qinghua’s spies coordinated the cleanup and misdirection to cover his trail.
Truthfully, it was easier to implant demon spies in the human realm than human spies in the demon realm, because it was easier for demons to disguise themselves, the power structures in the human realm were stabler and therefore easier to infiltrate, and conflicts were less fatal, meaning that there was a much smaller turnover rate. The most reliable information he had on the Demon Realm was whatever Shang Qinghua heard from Mobei-jun, but the busier Mobei-jun was from following Tianlang-jun, the less time he had to check in with Shang Qinghua. At any given moment, Yue Qingyuan knew more about the Demon Realm than Shen Qingqiu did. After months with no news, Shen Qingqiu began to lower his guard. As a result, he was taken off-guard when he walked into his bamboo cottage after an informal meeting with Yue Qingyuan to find three times the normal amount of heavenly demons waiting for him inside.
The sound of the door closing was oddly loud and final in the tense atmosphere. Luo Binghe stood taut as a guqin string, glaring alternately between Zhuzhi-lang, who was standing in a loose fighting stance, and Tianlang-jun, who was sitting comfortably at the table with an air of amusement.
Tianlang-jun tilted his head and made easy eye contact with Shen Qingqiu. “Wow, Peak Lord Shen, you’re even more interesting than I thought.”
Luo Binghe shifted to stand between Shen Qingqiu and the rest of the room. “Shizun, do you know these men?” There was an undercurrent of And can I throw them out? which Shen Qingqiu firmly ignored.
Shen Qingqiu patted Luo Binghe on the shoulder (Who let him get so tall?) and moved around him, also ignoring the scrunch of Binghe’s eyebrows. He bowed slightly, which was undoubtedly improper, but neither he nor Luo Binghe knew Tianlang-jun’s status and the man himself had never given the impression that he cared about propriety, at least in small gatherings. “This one apologizes for not receiving his distinguished guests properly. This one did not expect to entertain today.” Meaning, what the fuck are you doing in my house?
Tianlang-jun waved a hand. “No need, no need, Peak Lord Shen is always entertaining.” Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help twitching an eyebrow at that. “My nephew and I were in the area and thought we’d drop in to say hello.”
“If you have the time for a social visit, is it safe to presume that your previous venture has been successful?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
Tianlang-jun smiled. “Very! Your recommendations were so handy, I wanted your opinion on the other matter.”
As soon as Shen Qingqiu and Tianlang-jun started the exchange, Zhuzhi-lang relaxed a bit and moved to stand behind Tianlang-jun rather than beside him, but given what Shen Qingqiu knew of his strength, it was only a matter of posturing.
Shen Qingqiu turned to his disciple. “Binghe should not neglect his training, this master can take over from here.”
Luo Binghe frowned. Uh-oh, that was the protagonist’s expression of determination, an expression to convey a conviction so strong it would not be moved by either heaven or earth. Mostly, it reminded Shen Qingqiu of a badly trained dog that was determined to break into the kitchen cabinet to eat all of his dog treats, which made Shen Qingqiu the stupid owner who kept putting the treats in the same cabinet no matter how many times the dog broke into it.
Tianlang-jun cut in before it could become an issue. “Aw, don’t send the boy away! He was a surprise, but he deserves to have this conversation, don’t you think?”
Shen Qingqiu shot him a venomous glare, but he already knew it was a futile gesture, because Tianlang-jun, for the most part, was an unflappable bastard. Shen Qingqiu sighed before raising a privacy barrier around the house.
“Shizun, what…?” Luo Binghe started to ask.
Shen Qingqiu slid the fan from his waist into his hand and snapped it open. “Binghe, allow me to introduce you to the Emperor of the Demon Realm, Tianlang-jun, and his primary general, Zhuzhi-lang.” He paused for a moment. “In other words, your father and your cousin.”
Luo Binghe was so visibly startled that he forgot to look distrustful, which was fair. Shen Qingqiu tipped his hand with that introduction, with some points earned for efficiency and others lost for indelicacy.
Wow, the System must have done a number on him if he was still thinking in terms of points lost and gained.
He cleared his throat, looking back at his unexpected guests. “Your Majesty, Xizhi-lang, this is my disciple Luo Binghe.”
“Shizun?” Binghe asked, choked and slightly hysterical. Ah, there really was no way around this, was there?
Tianlang-jun seemed even more amused by Binghe’s response. “So he didn’t know! Is it more surprising to know that your teacher already knew that you’re a demon, or that he willingly associates with the Demon Emperor?”
“In all fairness, you weren’t the Emperor when we met,” Shen Qingqiu said.
“Peak Lord Shen is too modest—I couldn’t have become Emperor without you.”
“Shizun?” Luo Binghe asked again. His voice was soft, and Shen Qingqiu internally winced as he realized that he’d been leaving Binghe hanging since he stepped through the door.
“Binghe, would you mind making some tea? This is going to be a long conversation, and I’m sure you already have questions.”
Thankfully, Binghe complied with only a brief glare at Tianlang-jun and Zhuzhi-lang.
“Xizhi-lang, you don’t have to keep standing,” Shen Qingqiu said.
Zhuzhi-lang ducked his head. “Immortal Master Shen is too kind,” he said. He sat next to Tianlang-jun and Shen Qingqiu sat next to him, leaving a seat open for Luo Binghe between himself and the Emperor. Undoubtedly it would enable another staring contest between Zhuzhi-lang and Luo Binghe, but Shen Qingqiu wanted to be able to look directly at Tianlang-jun.
Unknown to Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe spent the time brewing tea trying to decide how petty he could get away with being. On the one hand, he didn’t want to serve these strange demons snacks, especially snacks that he’d made himself, but on the other hand, he would never deprive Shizun of food and he was loathe to feed him anything that someone else had made. As always, Shizun came first. He would have to place his best and Shizun’s favorites closer to him and hope the demons kept their dirty hands off.
Walking back into the main room, his heart warmed to see that Shizun had left the seat to his right open for him. It was amazing enough the first time Shizun allowed Binghe to sit across from him at the same table, but sitting beside him made them seem more like equals. A unified front.
Luo Binghe set the tea pot, cups, and various snacks on the table, then poured his Shizun a cup. Shen Qingqiu felt his chest tighten. Even after hearing such shocking information with no explanation, Binghe was still a dutiful disciple.
“Shizun already knew that this one is a demon?” Luo Binghe asked. Shen Qingqiu nodded, because that much was already evident. “How?”
Because I had shit taste in literature and too much free time. “The dream demon is selective. He would only be interested in someone with a prestigious demonic heritage.”
True, just not the answer. It was the most justified excuse he could make, and frankly it would be embarrassing to admit that he already knew about Luo Binghe’s demonic heritage when he took the hit from Without A Cure.
“If Shizun has known for the past four years, why did he not say anything?” Binghe asked.
“I wasn’t sure Binghe wanted me to know, and addressing it indirectly allowed this master to maintain plausible deniability. Of course, we’re beyond that point now.” Shen Qingqiu took a sip of tea, which was made to his taste.
“What did…” Luo Binghe’s eyes darted towards the other occupants of the table, “…Tianlang-jun mean about you helping him become Emperor?”
Tianlang-jun grinned with teeth as he explained their clandestine meetings and the lengths Shen Qingqiu went to to free him from the mountain. Luo Binghe frowned at him the whole time, but didn't interrupt.
Shen Qingqiu intervened before Tianlang-jun could make him seem too much like the scum villain he was supposed to be.
“This master had suspicions about Huan Hua Palace's dealings, and Tianlang-jun and I had some common goals, so I agreed to help him. Speaking of which,” Shen Qingqiu left the table and dug a paper from his desk, “if you want to establish trade routes in the human realm, it might be easiest to start close to the border, but I’ve also gathered a list of prominent merchants interested in materials common to the Demon Realm.” The list itself included names, locations, material interests, and whether or not they’d been associated with Huan Hua Palace.
Tianlang-jun accepted the document with raised eyebrows. “Peak Lord Shen would be a useful advisor. Are you sure there’s nothing I can offer you? A priceless treasure? A title? My nephew’s hand in marriage?”
Luo Binghe bristled.
“Junshang…” Zhuzhi-lang said bashfully.
“No.” Shen Qingqiu gestured with his fan as if he could physically wipe the suggestion away. “No. If you want to build relationships in the Human Realm and with cultivation sects in particular, I will support you. But I would prefer it if you would keep my name out of it.”
Tianlang-jun sighed theatrically. “Alright, how about I take your disciple to the Demon Realm?”
“No,” Luo Binghe said.
“Why," Shen Qingqiu said flatly.
Tianlang-jun raised his cup. “Even if Luo Binghe didn’t look so much like Su Xiyan, it would still be obvious who he was. His demon seal is close to breaking.”
Shen Qingqiu stiffened.
“At this point, you’re delaying the inevitable. The longer he goes without breaking his seal, the more likely it is that it will break at a bad time, and the higher the risk for backlash becomes. If I take him to the Demon Realm, he gets a chance to awaken his heavenly demon blood in a safe environment with the time and space to adjust to it and under the watch of two other heavenly demons.” Tianlang-jun gestured between himself and his nephew for emphasis.
Dammit, he was right. By the design of the original novel, Luo Binghe would’ve broken his seal two years into the Abyss, i.e. at the age of nineteen, i.e. now. Shen Qingqiu was so caught up in the layers of scheming that Binghe’s seal had escaped him completely; if Tianlang-jun hadn’t seized power in the Demon Realm so quickly or shown up on Qing Jing Peak without warning, there could’ve been serious consequences.
Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes. “Do you promise to guide and protect him for as long as he’s in your care?”
Tianlang-jun nodded. “Of course. You seem like the kind of man I want to stay on the right side of.”
Shen Qingqiu wasn’t sure what he meant by that and was disappointed that he would frame his promise as a fear of recourse rather than a desire to protect his own son, but a promise was a promise.
“When do you need to return to the Demon Realm?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe pleaded. Shen Qingqiu gave him a sharp look to indicate that now was not the time for him to ask questions.
“Unfortunately, my reign is still young,” Tianlang-jun said.
Shen Qingqiu ran the mental math. “Your Majesty and Xizhi-lang should find an inn in the village at the foot of the mountain, and Luo Binghe and I will meet you there tomorrow morning.”
“Oh? Can we not stay the night?” Tianlang-jun asked with faux-innocence.
Shen Qingqiu’s fingers twitched against his fan. “Alas, the short notice prevented this lord from making sleeping arrangements. There are only two beds in the house and it’s best that no one else knows you’re here, so it would be impossible to house you for the night."
Even if he gave up his bed for the night, there was no way he could do that to Binghe the night before he left for the Demon Realm. Vetoed.
“Two beds isn’t a problem,” Tianlang-jun said. “We’ll just have to double up. How do we decide who gets to sleep with Peak Lord Shen?”
Shen Qingqiu: “…”
After Shen Qingqiu kicked an unrepentant Tianlang-jun and a mortified Zhuzhi-lang out of his house, his peak, and his sect, he was alone with Luo Binghe.
“Shizun,” Binghe said, clutching the edge of Shen Qingqiu’s robes. “Shizun, this disciple apologizes for hiding his demonic heritage, but please don’t kick me out!”
Luo Binghe’s eyes sparkled with unshed tears, and Shen Qingqiu’s mental dialogue filled with question marks interspersed with exclamation points.
“Who’s kicking you out?" he asked. "Binghe’s blood has special requirements that this master is not equipped to handle and someone qualified has offered to provide your training. Binghe is always welcome on Qing Jing Peak so long as it is safe for him to be here.”
Shen Qingqiu hesitated. “Of course, the world is wide. Binghe may decide that he prefers the Demon Realm, in which case this master does not want Binghe to feel obligated to return.”
“I will always want to stay with Shizun,” Binghe said, relaxing his grip.
Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help a small, melancholic smile. Who would want to remain a mere disciple when they could be a lord and future Emperor? Luo Binghe could make promises now, but there was no telling what would happen once his blood woke up. Luo Binghe already looked unhappy, though, and Shen Qingqiu didn’t want to fight, so he let it go.
The rest of the night passed with a subdued dinner before Shen Qingqiu shooed Luo Binghe off to his room to get a good night’s sleep while Shen Qingqiu gathered supplies. Binghe would have to pack his own robes, but his master filled a qiankun pouch with as much food, medicine, and money and as many blankets and protective talismans as he thought he could get away with. It wasn’t until Shen Qingqiu retired to his own room to meditate in lieu of sleeping that it occurred to him to ask the System for one last boon.
In the morning, Luo Binghe obviously hadn’t slept well. His movements were slow and reluctant, but he still cooked his special congee for Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Qingqiu had put off introducing Luo Binghe to Tianlang-jun, in part because he wasn’t sure how either one would react and in part because he didn’t want to throw Binghe into the mix before the situation in the Demon Realm stabilized. It was hard to miss, though, that his little white lotus disciple had grown up. His features that had once been cute were now on the pretty side of handsome, he edged above Shen Qingqiu's height, and he was an accomplished cultivator in his own right.
As Shen Qingqiu watched Luo Binghe clearing away the dishes, an odd feeling rose in his chest. I thought I could protect you for a little while longer.
He cleared his throat. “Sit down, Binghe, and let this master fix your hair.”
Luo Binghe looked confused but retrieved a comb and obediently sat in front of him. Shen Qingqiu took down Binghe’s neat ponytail and combed through it slowly, sneaking in a small braid before gathering the soft mane and tying it up again, ever so slightly crooked.
They walked down the mountain together, spotting Tianlang-jun and Zhuzhi-lang who were standing an inconspicuous distance from the barrier. Shen Qingqiu gave Luo Binghe one more glance over, making sure that his robes were neatly tied, his sword was strapped to his hip, and that he already had the qiankun pouch Shen Qingqiu put together tied to his sash, doing his damndest to fuss without looking like was fussing.
Tianlang-jun sighed. “I’m sorry, nephew. I thought he could be your Xu Xuan, but it appears that Peak Lord Shen is meant to be a cowherd.” 
Shen Qingqiu shut his eyes to fend off the inevitable Tianlang-jun-induced headache before deciding that sometimes the better part of valor was pretending that nothing had been said. He reopened his eyes. “If you want to establish trade, it might be wise to create protections for couriers and a stable mailing system first.”
He turned back to Binghe. “If you need to get in touch with me, it would be easiest to send word through your Shang-shishu, and if you can’t get to him directly you can send information to him through Mobei-jun.”
“Shang-shishu also knows?” Luo Binghe asked.
“Not even this master can work alone.” Reluctantly, Shen Qingqiu stepped away. Anything more would just be stalling. “Your Majesty, Xizhi-lang, Binghe. Take care.”
Tianlang-jun removed the unassuming sword from his hip, which turned out to be Xin Mo when he slashed a portal through the air. Zhuzhi-lang stepped forward first, pausing to bow to Shen Qingqiu. “Thanks to Immortal Master Shen for his hospitality.” He stepped through.
“This disciple promises to work hard and return quickly,” Luo Binghe said.
“Don't take any unnecessary risks. It’s better to take your time than to hurt yourself by pushing too far,” Shen Qingqiu said.
Luo Binghe hesitated by the portal, then darted back to squeeze Shen Qingqiu into a hug before rushing away again. Shen Qingqiu was still blinking in surprise when Tianlang-jun nodded at him with a wry smile. “Advisor Shen.”
They left Shen Qingqiu standing in an open clearing. Oddly, he found himself lingering on the warmth of Luo Binghe in front of him and the strength of his arms when they wrapped around him, Binghe leaning down ever so slightly because he’d already outgrown his master. Thinking about it, the person he was closest to—the person he spent the most time with, the one who helped him run the peak, the one he had the most physical contact with, the one he cared about the most—was Binghe.
If Shang Qinghua hadn’t outed himself as a transmigrator, if Shen Qingqiu never created his alternate plan and followed the System’s orders instead, could Shen Qingqiu have steeled himself enough to push Binghe into the Abyss?
He estimated it at fifty percent. Maybe he could’ve justified it to himself two years ago, but there was an equal chance he would’ve backed out. If he had that choice now, he definitely wouldn’t be able to betray him. This situation with Tianlang-jun wasn’t remotely the same, but Shen Qingqiu felt irrationally guilty. To Binghe, it must’ve felt like Shen Qingqiu pushed him away as soon as he realized that Luo Binghe was a demon, even though Shen Qingqiu had told him that he’d known for years.
Luo Binghe was older and better trained than in the original timeline, he wasn't being sent into the Abyss, and he’d have guidance instead of having to constantly battle and scavenge to survive, but it was impossible to predict if or how that would affect the timeline. Would it take five years for Luo Binghe to come back again?
…What if he decided not to come back at all?
With these thoughts in mind, Shen Qingqiu started the long trek back to the top of his peak.
Shen Qingqiu vaguely knew that Cang Qiong had a healthy albeit exaggerated rumor mill, but after the whole fever/qi deviation/memory loss/possession thing of his initial transmigration, he didn’t expect to be the subject of rumors again. A disciple let him through the gate after he sent off Luo Binghe, and another ran ahead of him. By the time he made it to the bamboo cottage, a visibly uncomfortable Ming Fan was waiting ahead for him.
“Shizun, where is the b—uh, Luo-shidi?” Ming Fan asked.
Shen Qingqiu straightened—he might as well start rehearsing his answer now. With the restrictions on disciple outings still in place, all he could say was, “Binghe has taken a leave of absence to trace a lead on his birth family.”
Ming Fan bristled. “That dog! Does he have no concept of responsibility?”
“Mind your tone,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Binghe was reluctant to leave, but it was this master’s opinion that it was important for him to accept this opportunity. He knows that he’s welcome on this peak should he want to return.”
Ming Fan subsided, but he was clearly unhappy, which surprised him. Despite the changes Shen Qingqiu made, those two seemed destined to be at odds, so he would’ve expected Ming Fan to celebrate now that Binghe was gone.
Liu Qingge showed up later for their monthly appointment, took a look at him, his empty house, and his lack of refreshments, then frowned. “Where’s your disciple?”
Shen Qingqiu gave him the same explanation he gave Ming Fan.
“Unfilial,” Liu Qingge responded.
Shen Qingqiu’s fingers twitched against Liu Qingge’s grip. “If he’s trying to connect with his family, isn’t that the definition of ‘filial?’ He left with this master’s blessings, and he knows he can come back. It’s fine.”
Liu Qingge grunted and continued cleansing Shen Qingqiu's meridians.
The next day, Ning Yingying approached him after guqin lessons. “Shizun, this disciple realizes that no one can replace A-Luo, but Yingying is still willing to spend time with Shizun!”
Wasn't this speech somehow off? Still, she seemed passionate about it, so he accepted her company for tea and they talked about her current research. Ning Yingying was copiloting the basic research for a music-based treatment for qi deviations alongside a Qian Cao disciple, which sounded vaguely familiar. Maybe he'd read it somewhere pre-transmigration. In any case, the theory was interesting, Mu Qingfang was comfortable with their progress, and after his first meeting with Liu Qingge in the spirit caves, Shen Qingqiu definitely approved of finding treatments for qi deviation that didn’t require direct contact with the patient. He was proud of her; the work was intricate, exacting, and thoughtful—it never would have occurred to the original Ning Yingying, not even after she married a husband whose weapon put him at risk for dangerous and violent qi deviations.
But eventually she left, and the only person in his house was himself.
He remained in blissful ignorance about the rumors for the next week, when Shang Qinghua dropped by for one of his semi-regular visits.
“Bro, what happened to the protagonist?” Shang Qinghua asked.
“A mutual friend of ours stopped by and decided to file for custody. Why, did your special friend not tell you that already?” Shen Qingqiu asked dryly.
Shang Qinghua slumped. “Dude, don’t call him that. It makes it sound like he’s either my imaginary friend or my boyfriend.”
Shen Qingqiu, who knew for a fact that Mobei-jun was designed to be Shang Qinghua’s ideal man, rolled his eyes.
“And no, he’s been busy, so I haven’t heard anything for a while. How did you explain Luo Binghe’s absence?”
Shen Qingqiu took a sip of tea and grimaced—clearly, no skill was beyond the scope of the protagonist’s halo, and now that plain and ordinary Shen Qingqiu had been left to fend for himself, the results were subpar. “I said he was off learning about his birth family, which was true enough.”
Shang Qinghua “ah”ed. “So that’s where the rumors came from.”
Shen Qingqiu’s hand spasmed. “What rumors.”
Shang Qinghua laughed nervously.
“Shang Qinghua. What rumors.”
“Well," Shang Qinghua said slowly, "apparently a couple of people saw you leave the sect with Luo Binghe and come back alone claiming that he left for ‘family issues,’ so a few people started speculating? There are a few different stories, but the main two that get spread around are that Luo Binghe got a girl pregnant and was evicted out of shame or that he asked you to elope with him and you refused out of duty toward the sect.”
Shen Qingqiu: “…”
“To split the difference, some people are saying that you got him pregnant and he left to preserve your honor.”
…Bring Ning Yingying back, Shen Qingqiu was pretty sure he was having a qi deviation.
“So now everyone assumes I’m some kind of jilted lover? How does that make sense?!” Shen Qingqiu asked.
“If you didn’t want people to think that, maybe you should stop looking like a Regency-era English woman whose lover set sail against Napoleon. Ow—hey, ow! Stop hitting me!”
Shen Qingqiu slapped his fan against the table. “Stop talking nonsense!”
Shang Qinghua pouted at him. “You asked!”
“This is humiliating.”
“Hey, think of it this way—if they’re focusing on your love affair with the protagonist, then they haven’t realized what’s actually going on.”
Shen Qingqiu rubbed his temples. “I’m not having a love affair with Luo Binghe.”
“Bro, are you sure?”
Shen Qingqiu glared at him.
“I’m just saying!” Shang Qinghua raised his hands defensively. “Why try so hard to avoid the original plot? Would you have gone to these lengths for anyone else?”
“Setting aside my potential dismemberment and eventual death via the original plot,” Shen Qingqiu drawled, “we protected the fate of the world. No grudges, no slaughtering of sects, no merging of the realms.”
“I mean, sure, that was the consequence,” Shang Qinghua said. “But that’s not really why you did it.”
Shen Qingqiu was quiet for a moment, thinking back to what he told Shang Qinghua when he realized that he was Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: the original Luo Binghe’s life was all momentary gratification with no catharsis, an endless fight without any victors. Slowly, he asked, “Do you think you would be able to betray Mobei-jun?”
Shang Qinghua’s System was always more lenient than Shen Qingqiu’s. He could’ve run from Mobei-jun or smashed in his face with a rock without the System making a sound, but still chose to nurse him back to health despite the risks. He mutely shook his head.
Shen Qingqiu continued. “I’ve complained about your shitty novel repeatedly and at length in both of our lives, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Luo Binghe. If I can protect him, I will.”
The mood had gotten too serious, so Shen Qingqiu switched to asking Shang Qinghua about his latest irresponsible writing project and pelting him with melon seeds whenever he described a groan-worthy narrative decision. This tactic backfired somewhat when Shang Qinghua started trying to catch the melon seeds in his mouth, but it succeeded at lightening the mood. Shen Qingqiu allowed himself a small smile.
Despite his assurances to Shen Qingqiu, Tianlang-jun’s first actions after stepping through the portal were to break Luo Binghe’s seal and dropkick him into an uninhabited portion of the Demon Realm. The first roiling waves of demonic energy lashed out against the bleak and vacant landscape. If Shen Qingqiu hadn’t packed so many protective talismans into Luo Binghe’s qiankun pouch, then his supplies would have ripped apart or spoiled form the onslaught. The faithful blade Zheng Yang, which had been forged from Luo Binghe’s spiritual energy never expected that it would have to withstand the might of a heavenly demon, shattered in its sheath.
Tianlang-jun wandered vaguely, completing duties as he pleased and leaving Zhuzhi-lang and his serpent sentries to make sure Luo Binghe didn’t die suddenly in the night. Aside from Luo Binghe being his son, retirement plan, and only remaining tie to Su Xiyan, he doubted Shen Qingqiu would forgive him if Luo Binghe died in his care. A man that ruthless in threat prevention could only be brutal in revenge.
After two days, the demonic energy subsided from “rampant property damage” to “boiling pot, do not touch.” Luo Binghe gasped, pulling himself into standing on unsteady legs, his eyes blazing a familiar demonic red. “You said you would help me.”
“This is helping.” Tianlang-jun gestured to the gauged, scorched earth beneath Luo Binghe with a lazy hand. “Imagine if this had happened in that little bamboo house.”
Luo Binghe pictured it. His eyes dimmed, no longer furious crimson but still burgundy rather than black.
“Peak Lord Shen must be a good teacher—that could’ve been a lot worse.” Tianlang-jun was even being sincere! For an adult half-demon with heavenly heritage to restrain his demonic energy after two days, he would need a clear heart and mind, a healthy body, and a strong cultivation base. If he was half as devoted to his human disciples as he was to Luo Binghe, Tianlang-jun could understand why Shen Qingqiu would commit treason to protect them.
Luo Binghe squinted at him in suspicion, but some of the tension drained from his shoulders. “Shizun is the best,” he said softly.
How sweet. Tianlang-jun threw at talisman at him.
Luo Binghe’s demonic energy immediately lashed out, setting off the talisman with a bright flash and loud bang. Tianlang-jun whistled as its sad remnants drifted down to curl against the dirt.
“What was that?!” Luo Binghe asked.
Tianlang-jun tapped his nose a couple of times and pointed at his son. “First lesson: human cultivation focuses through the spirit and the mind, but demons are much more honest. Our energy relies on our emotions. Humans will tell you to reach for enlightenment, but as a half-demon, repressing your feelings and desires will only raise the chances for backlash and self-injury.”
He gestured at the talisman’s ashes and tattered remains. “On the other hand, reacting purely on instinct will deplete your energy and raise the risk of hurting your surroundings, including those closest to you.”
Luo Binghe clenched his jaw but made no attempt to attack or take off on his own. Tianlang-jun nodded, satisfied. “Nephew.”
Zhuzhi-lang appeared at his elbow. “Yes, Junshang?”
“Take him out on border patrol to take the edge off; the harpies and the Jia clan are having a territory dispute, so visit them last. After that, throw him at Mobei-jun and see what happens.”
“What am I supposed to do about a sword?” Luo Binghe said, gesturing at the shattered Zheng Yang.
Tianlang-jun shrugged. “Plenty of demons fight without swords. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Zhuzhi-lang and Luo Binghe bowed to him (albeit reluctantly on Luo Binghe’s part). Tianlang-jun twirled Xin Mo with a flourish, waved a cheerful goodbye, and left.
Luo Binghe found it difficult to connect Zhuzhi-lang with the concept of “family.” Zhuzhi-lang lacked the washerwoman’s warmth or Shizun’s concern and quiet doting. He didn’t know Tianlang-jun very well, but his appearance and mannerisms didn’t seem that different from humans. By contrast, the most “humanity” he’d seen from Zhuzhi-lang was the bashfulness from Tianlang-jun teasing him in front of Shizun.
In the few months they’d been traveling together, Zhuzhi-lang demonstrated a mix of demonic and snakelike traits that always managed to catch Binghe by surprise. He moved almost faster than Luo Binghe’s eyes could track, and his focus was cold and unblinking (sometimes literally), which meant that Luo Binghe had to adjust to being ambushed by talismans, random objects, or one of Zhuzhi-lang’s snakes. It was a test of his reflexes, situational awareness, fine control over his demonic energy, and—if he failed to react in time and got bitten by a snake—his ability to manipulate his blood to neutralize poisons.
To make matters worse, Zhuzhi-lang ate as infrequently as a snake and slept as little as a demon, so he frequently forgot that things like “sleep” and “food” were necessary for demi-humans like Binghe.
They had stopped for the night. Zhuzhi-lang preferred to camp outdoors, so Binghe politely ignored his habit of sleeping with his eyes open and curling up next to the fire, grateful to have a moment to himself.
Luo Binghe grumbled as he dug through his qiankun pouch. Shizun went through all the trouble of packing his food stores—really, his Shizun was so thoughtful and amazing, and he was increasingly grateful for the food when he saw the ingredients available in demon markets—but between Zhuzhi-lang’s “training” and the pace he set to monitor the border, a lot of it was going bad before he could eat it! And then, if it had gone bad before Binghe noticed, he had to check to make sure it hadn’t contaminated the medicine or stained any of his blankets or robes! Sure, the healing factor of his demonic energy and heavenly demon blood meant that he never had to use the medicine, and sure, camping out meant that he rarely used the blankets anyway because he didn’t want to taint them with the soil of the Demon Realm, and sure, Luo Binghe was slowly trading out his white and green Qing Jing Peak robes for darker sets more suitable for the Demon Realm. Still, he hated the thought that Zhuzhi-lang’s thoughtlessness and Luo Binghe’s own carelessness would waste Shizun’s efforts. The nerve—
Luo Binghe’s hand bumped against something hard. He frowned. It was obviously not food, but it was also too small and oddly shaped to be a bottle of medicine, and it seemed to be attached to a cord. Was it an accessory of some sort that Shizun left in by mistake?
He reeled the object out of the pouch. In the palm of Luo Binghe’s hand, made visible by Binghe’s enhanced vision and the flickering firelight, was the fake jade Guanyin pendant given to him by his late mother. Binghe’s hand curled around it, his thumb stroking the surface of the pendant. The edges were worn, and there was a slight crack at one corner—in other words, it was in pristine condition, just the same as when Binghe had lost it to Ming Fan and his cronies.
Shizun had been there, Binghe already knew, because Shizun had infused qi into the bamboo leaves to drive off Ming Fan and the rest. Had he seen where Ming Fan had thrown it and gone to retrieve it? Had he searched later, or found it by chance?
It was just like Shizun to find his pendant and sneak it into Luo Binghe's qiankun pouch, either because he didn't feel comfortable giving it back directly or because he knew Binghe would need the comfort it provided while he was in the Demon Realm. It still warmed him to think about the small braid he found in his hair, even though he was forced take it out so he could wash the blood out after an encounter with some sower demons.
This Shizun of his…he was too kind for Binghe’s heart to take.
If Shen Qingqiu regretted one thing about finding out that Shang Qinghua was a fellow transmigrator and subsequently befriending him, it was that Shang Qinghua had taken that as permission to barge into Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo house at any hour and for any purpose. Shen Qingqiu had finally convinced Shang Qinghua not to burst in during the middle of the night when he got a new story idea on pain of death, or, more accurately, on pain of accidentally getting beheaded by Xiu Ya.
Transmigrator cheat codes or not, he was still an elite cultivator, alright? He has a spiritual sword and a quick reaction time! Don't wake him up like that!
Luckily, it was mid-afternoon, so Shen Qingqiu was
sulking working on his lesson plans based on his most recent assessment. His disciples were good at answering factual questions, but they struggled with scenario-based prompts, so maybe he should discuss relaxing some of the current security restrictions so that he could get them more experience handling real cases? It might be easier to convince Yue Qingyuan if he partnered them with disciples from Bai Zhan Peak, but that would cause its own problems…
Shang Qinghua burst through his door, startling Shen Qingqiu into nearly tipping his pot of ink onto his painstaking notes.
Shen Qingqiu briefly shut his eyes. “Shang Qinghua, if it weren’t for the laws of this land…”
“Yeah, sure thing, bro. Y’know, that threat would be more convincing if you hadn’t shielded me from that three-horned antelope bull tiger.” He plopped in the seat across from Shen Qingqiu.
“Sometimes I still wonder if you used a word generator to name your monsters,” Shen Qingqiu said. “The matured form has five horns and no identifiable bull characteristics. It makes no sense!”
“Hurtful,” Shang Qinghua replied. Shen Qingqiu noted that it wasn’t a denial. “Anyway, enough of that!”
Shang Qinghua leaned towards him. “So you know how Luo Binghe has been on a year-long journey of traveling the Demon Realm and beating things up for training?”
Shen Qingqiu’s temples throbbed. “I didn’t know. You’re supposed to be my informant on the Demon Realm.”
“Oh, really? I thought you would’ve heard something, or that Tianlang-jun would’ve told you what his training regimen would be like before he left. Anyway, the protagonist has finally leveled up enough to defeat my king in a fair fight, so Tianlang-jun is finally ready to announce him as his son and successor. He’s even giving Luo Binghe a title as Zaolian-jun!” 
Shen Qingqiu choked. Hearing this title, Tianlang-jun truly had no pity to spare for his son.
Another thought occurred to him. “How is Zhangmen-shixiong going to react when word of…Zaolian-jun reaches him? I know he had doubts about the current Demon Emperor being the real Tianlang-jun, but having a recognized son and heir will make him a formidable threat regardless.”
Shang Qinghua shrugged. “What is he supposed to do? There haven’t been any moves against the Human Realm unless you count the attack on Huan Hua Palace over two years ago. If anything, the border between the realms has been more secure since then. Even if he’s suspicious, Yue Qingyuan isn’t the type to attack unprovoked.”
That was the same type of logic Shen Qingqiu used in the past.
“I hope you’re right,” Shen Qingqiu said, fiddling with his fan.
“Oh, I get it,” Shang Qinghua said, propping his cheek on one hand. “You’re pining.”
Shen Qingqiu froze, then lobbed his fan at Shang Qinghua, but he’d thrown without much force. The fan hit the arm Shang Qinghua raised to block and clattered onto the table. “I’m not pining! I’m raising perfectly valid safety concerns that involve the well-being of both realms!”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed about, bro.” Shang Qinghua picked up Shen Qingqiu’s fan, trying and failing to replicate the flick of the wrist Shen Qingqiu used to snap it open during dramatic moments. As if! It took weeks of practice for Shen Qingqiu to perfect that trick. “Tianlang-jun refused to let Luo Binghe move on from physical training until he defeated my king. By the time he finished, I was worried the protagonist was going to rip my king’s arms off! But you knew when we started scheming that eventually the plot would develop without our input. You just gotta trust that other people know what they’re doing.”
Shen Qingqiu sucked in a short breath and exhaled loudly. “Fine.”
Shang Qinghua toyed with the fan a little longer before smiling in a way that usually meant Shen Qingqiu’s blood pressure was about to rise. “Besides, you don’t have to worry about Tianlang-jun giving away Luo Binghe’s hand in marriage. He’s been trying to marry off his nephew to you for ages, so he’d definitely offer you first dibs on his son!”
There it was. Shen Qingqiu placed a hand on Xiu Ya’s hilt, drawing the blade ever so slightly from its sheath. “Run.”
Luo Binghe hated parties. The official announcement of his position as Crown Prince of the Demon Realm led to a celebration which lasted two whole days, and it involved Luo Binghe fighting off no less than fifteen rival demons, seven marriage proposals, and a variety of, ah, other propositions. The first and third issues Binghe had to deal with himself, but luckily, Tianlang-jun refused all possible engagements on his behalf.
Luo Binghe had asked about it afterward with a healthy mix of curiosity and suspicion. Tianlang-jun had winked at him. “I’m already the Emperor, so I don’t need you to secure any alliances. Besides, even if I had agreed to them, something makes me think you wouldn’t follow through.”
That was true enough. If Tianlang-jun expected him to marry some demon, he would leave for the Human Realm immediately and beg Shizun’s forgiveness for not completing his training for his heavenly demon blood or supporting what was apparently Shizun’s dream of creating peace between the realms. He would do many things for his Shizun, including killing, including dying, including covering for what cultivators would call treason regardless of justification, but he could never love another. Even if Shizun wouldn't have him, he could never consent to marry someone else.
Tianlang-jun was right when he said that controlling demonic energy required Luo Binghe to be completely honest with himself about his feelings and desires. As initially terrifying and intense as his feelings were, the core of himself longed for Shen Qingqiu, and as much of him as the man himself would allow.
Although Tianlang-jun noticed and accepted Luo Binghe’s feelings without either of them saying it out loud, not everyone had noticed his ardor. The parties were over, but Tianlang-jun was still forcing him into meetings and conversations with demonic dignitaries, which inevitably led to more offers.
“Just think of it this way,” Tianlang-jun said, slinging an arm around Binghe’s shoulder and forcibly steering him into the room, “it’s a practical test for all that training your cousin gave you. If you can control your temper and restrain your demonic energy around politicians, you can do anything!”
Luo Binghe rued the fact that his father was full-blooded and fully trained. One day, Luo Binghe would be stronger than him. Maybe he’d overthrow Tianlang-jun just for kicks, and then, just when Tianlang-jun thought he could finally retire and pass off both Xin Mo and the throne to Luo Binghe, Binghe would refuse and force him to continue ruling.
After slogging through three simpering windbags and a pathetic assassination attempt, a familiar figure walked through the door.
“This one named Sha greets Junshang,” Sha Hualing said in a sugary tone. “Oh, and this must be Zaolian-jun! This one is blessed to find that both the Emperor and the Crown Prince are as divinely beautiful as their lineage would suggest.”
She languidly stretched, trying to bring attention to the curves of her body and her exposed skin, artfully draped in sumptuous and nearly transparent crimson strips of fabric.
Unfortunately for Sha Hualing, Luo Binghe was already familiar with her kind of two-pronged personality—when at a disadvantage, she would speak sweet and deferential words through gritted teeth, but the moment she had the advantage, those sweet words turned to vicious mockery. Although her ambition enabled the duel with the Sky Hammer Elder which cemented Shizun’s place in his heart, Luo Binghe could not forgive her for Shen Qingqiu’s close brush with death.
Luo Binghe snorted coldly and refused to look at her.
Sha Hualing: “…”
Whether because of her looks or her lineage, Sha Hualing was not used to encountering dismissiveness. The only other person who was cold to her was Mobei-jun, and he was a literal ice demon with a general indifference to anyone who wasn’t his little human servant. This personal contempt was more than slightly baffling.
“Zaolian-jun is displeased to meet Sha Hualing?” Tianlang-jun asked.
Sha Hualing’s scalp tingled in foreboding.
“She shares your interest in human-demon relations, Junshang," Luo Binghe said. "In fact, she was once gracious enough to visit Cang Qiong so that she could receive training tips for herself and her forces from Shizun.”
Sha Hualing forced a small laugh. “Immortal Master Shen was very informative.”
Luo Binghe tilted his head. “And yet despite Shizun's kind accommodation, Miss Sha did not seem grateful for his instruction, and even gloated when Shizun intercepted a poison targeted at this lord.”
Sha Hualing’s eyes widened as she realized her mistake too late. No wonder a scrawny and unarmed human disciple was able to take down the Sky Hammer Elder! No wonder this demon lord reacted so coldly to the sight of her! Fuck! She kept a close eye on Luo Binghe’s hands in case he decided to strike.
Tianlang-jun considered the situation while keeping a neutral expression. Sha Hualing couldn’t be cast aside, but if she had struck out against Cang Qiong and Shen Qingqiu especially, it also wouldn’t do to award her a high position unless she could prove herself by working her way up. He assigned her to mail duty.
Sha Hualing left the palace with a dark feeling pressing on her heart. She knew herself to be a peerless beauty with promising connections and could only wonder if, when Shen Qingqiu asked if he “could still be considered mortal,” he didn’t mean his immortal cultivation but was actually a huli jing in disguise. 
Once Sha Hualing cleared out, Tianlang-jun turned to Luo Binghe. “What was that about a poison?”
Luo Binghe tensed and forced himself to relax again, briefly describing Sha Hualing’s invasion of Qiong Ding Peak and the resulting duels, including the Sky Hammer Elder’s treachery after losing the match to Luo Binghe. “Shizun nearly died from the poison. Mu Qingfang devised a treatment, but he has yet to find a cure, so Shizun still requires medicine and monthly treatments for his meridians.”
“Which poison was it?” Tianlang-jun asked.
“Without A Cure,” Luo Binghe said glumly.
Tianlang-jun clasped his hands in front of his chest, his eyes twinkling with the same light they held whenever he made a new purchase for his library. “As I thought, this son of mine is truly blessed! Nephew, fetch Mobei-jun.”
“Right away, Junshang,” Zhuzhi-lang said, bowing and leaving swiftly.
Tianlang-jun gleefully ground his own ink and scribbled down a list of titles, which he then passed off to a servant so they could retrieve the proper texts.
Soon enough, the right people and books were assembled in the same room. Tianlang-jun peered down at Mobei-jun and Luo Binghe, the latter of whom was confused and put-out by Tianlang-jun's reaction.
“Today,” Tianlang-jun said, unusually serious, “this lord is going to teach you how to dual cultivate with a human.”
Mobei-jun stood to leave, but the ever-faithful Zhuzhi-lang blocked the door. Tianlang-jun was his lord emperor, so he wouldn’t dare to teleport out of the room in case he changed his mind about Linguang-jun. Tianlang-jun had talked about erotica before, so Mobei-jun would just have to endure it as he endured it every other time. At least Zaolian-jun didn’t seem any happier about the situation than he was.
Then Tianlang-jun opened a scroll to reveal detailed images of two men—one human and one demon—in a variety of creative and intimate positions.
Tianlang-jun tapped the scroll. “Human bodies are delicate. It’s best to be gentle and let your partner tell you if they want you to be rougher, and don’t start with anything too strenuous unless you’re sure that both you and your partner can handle it. You’re going to need to stock up on oil…”
Thus began the most mortifying (yet informative) shichen of Mobei-jun and Luo Binghe’s lives. The information was valuable and pertinent, but only time would tell if it was worth the emotional scarring.
“…of course, all of this information is moot without a willing partner, so you also have to learn how to court humans.” Blessedly, Tianlang-jun closed the books and rolled up the scrolls on the table. “All humans are different, so I don’t know how useful it would be to tell you how I courted my Xiyan, but I'm sure there are some things that would still apply.”
Tianlang-jun tapped his chin and hummed for a moment. “The first thing to consider when courting a human is that humans will always view us through us through the history of violence perpetrated by demons on humans. That is especially true for cultivators, even those sympathetic to demons like Peak Lord Shen and Peak Lord Shang.”
Luo Binghe and Mobei-jun snapped to attention.
“Is that bad,” Mobei-jun managed.
“It means that you have to tread carefully to make sure your overtures are seen for what they are, and not as a threat.” Tianlang-jun spun a calligraphy brush between his fingers, uncaring of the splatter of stray ink drops. “With Xiyan, I let her pay for things and steer a lot of our conversations, which let her know that she had power in our relationship. Oh, and humans don’t like to be menaced—I learned that the hard way! The one time I tried, she punched me in the jaw!”
He sighed dreamily. “She had so much upper body strength.”
Eventually the conversation came to a merciful end without Luo Binghe having to hear too much information about his birth mother, and Mobei-jun left without another word.
Luo Binghe turned to look at his father. “What did any of that have to do with Shizun’s Without A Cure poisoning?”
Tianlang-jun grinned. “It’s a little-known fact that the name ‘Without A Cure’ is actually a misnomer. In fact, the cure for it is the most natural thing in the world, at least for heavenly demons.”
If asked what Tianlang-jun’s first reaction was upon meeting the man who resembled his old lover so closely that he could only be Tianlang-jun’s son, he would say it was relief. In that scenario, people would nod and treat it as a perfectly acceptable answer, because who wouldn’t be relieved to find out that their son had survived to adulthood and that a piece of their lover still existed in the world?
Tianlang-jun was selfish, he didn’t like mysteries, and Shen Qingqiu was the biggest mystery in the world. Shen Qingqiu had approached an imprisoned and widely hated demon lord for a cold, deadly purpose, and yet despite Shen Qingqiu’s placid expressions, everything about his words and actions outside of plotting against Huan Hua Palace indicated a warm-hearted, protective, and even idealistic personality.
Who would release a demon lord with the express purpose of assassinating the elites of a major cultivation sect in order to prevent further violence between the Human and Demon Realms? Why approach Tianlang-jun specifically? Why shield a spy within his sect and collude with demons rather than simply exposing the spy? Either he was a true idealist—troublesome, since they’re harder to satisfy and stubbornly devoted to their causes, regardless of the consequences—or he had a hidden motivation, which could be dangerous.
Tianlang-jun conquered the Demon Realm without interference from the Human Realm. The word on the street was that the other three major sects cooperated in their investigation of Huan Hua Palace and neatly digested the remains, without a single whisper that Cang Qiong might have done it on purpose. He was impressed. He was also determined to rifle through Shen Qingqiu’s house for clues, and maybe slip him some heavenly demon blood, just in case.
Before he could do either of those things, he met Luo Binghe, and so he was relieved. The pieces slotted into place. A demon invading a cultivation event would have brought attention to the demon Shen Qingqiu was already hiding, and who would always be in danger of exposure for as long as Huan Hua Palace continued to operate. If Shen Qingqiu used Tianlang-jun to topple the Old Palace Master, then even if the situation soured in the Human Realm, he could always ship off Luo Binghe into his father's care. Tianlang-jun was happy to play into Shen Qingqiu's hands. Even if Shen Qingqiu kept refusing Tianlang-jun's rewards, he now had a way to keep their interests aligned.
And so, Luo Binghe was a figure of utility rather than love, at first, but Tianlang-jun was fond enough of his son. Luo Binghe’s human upbringing was amusing and mildly perplexing, he was intelligent and adaptable, he adjusted impressively quickly to awakening his demon blood, and he was increasingly handy during political discussions. All of this made it distressing when, a little over two years since bringing Luo Binghe to the Demon Realm, he kept clutching at the pendant he wore under his robes and sighing when he thought no one would notice.
Tianlang-jun draped himself over Luo Binghe’s shoulders. “This father has been remiss. Even if you had been a weaver girl, you still would’ve gotten to see your beloved once a year!”
Luo Binghe flushed. Tianlang-jun couldn’t tell if it was anger or embarrassment, but either way, Luo Binghe tried to shake him off. Tianlang-jun clung so tightly that Zhuzhi-lang would have been impressed.
“This father has recognized his mistakes. There are still a few internal issues to take care of, but you won’t be separated from Peak Lord Shen forever.”
Shen Qingqiu was getting antsy, and he didn’t care if other people could notice. He told Tianlang-jun to sort out the postal system and he told Binghe that he could send a message through Shang Qinghua and/or Mobei-jun, so what part of that sounded like “leave me on radio silence and don’t bother writing to me for three years”?! How much clearer did he have to be?
If he didn’t have Shang Qinghua, he wouldn’t know that they were alive! If he hadn’t given Tianlang-jun the list of merchants himself, he wouldn’t have known that there was any trade progress, no matter how slow or incremental!
Tianlang-jun didn’t even do him the courtesy of telling Shen Qingqiu that he was planning to come to the Human Realm! He sent the letter straight to Yue Qingyuan!
Tianlang-jun’s friendship was cheap, and Shen Qingqiu was starting to agree with Liu Qingge. Three years without a word from Luo Binghe was definitely unfilial behavior.
(But Tianlang-jun had promised to take care of Binghe and presented him to the Demon Realm, so he had to be safe, didn’t he?)
A knock rapped against the door of the bamboo house. “Shizun, this disciple has taken the liberty of preparing a few snacks before Shizun meets with the other Peak Lords,” Ming Fan called.
Shen Qingqiu composed himself and slid open the door. “No need. This master will be taking his leave.”
Ming Fan’s face fell as Shen Qingqiu swept past him and took off to the bottom of Qiong Ding Peak. According to Yue Qingyuan, Tianlang-jun said that he would arrive at the base of Qiong Ding Peak, so Yue Qingyuan had requested all Peak Lords to meet him there. It was awkward to speak through the gates, but between the Demon and Human Realms, there was no such thing as “neutral ground,” and Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua were perhaps the only ones who knew how paltry of a defense the wards would be if Tianlang-jun decided to attack outright, so this was the only "safe" option. With luck, they would relocate to a building near the wards after Tianlang-jun arrived.
In any case, Shen Qingqiu was right to brush off Ming Fan; he was already the last Peak Lord to arrive.
“Zhangmen-shixiong, why agree to meet?” Liu Qingge asked Yue Qingyuan.
“Because the Demon Emperor could tear apart Huan Hua Palace before claiming the throne, and instead of doing the same to us, he sent a letter announcing his arrival a week ahead of time,” Yue Qingyuan said patiently. “He would be a formidable enemy, so it’s best to accept a meeting on good faith.”
“I-in that case, surely Zhangmen-shixiong doesn’t need all of the Peak Lords to be here…?” Shang Qinghua asked. He squeaked and ducked behind Shen Qingqiu when Liu Qingge glared at him.
“This sect leader needs all of his martial siblings present in case that good faith fails.” Yue Qingyuan brushed his hand against Xuan Su’s pommel, then smiled to break the building tension. “Besides, depending on how the meeting goes, shidi’s expertise might be needed.”
There was little they could do but wait with varying levels of wary caution. Shen Qingqiu elbowed Shang Qinghua until he stood up properly.
After a quarter shichen, a cold gust blew flew across the wards and a group of demons appeared in the sudden flurry of snow. Liu Qingge reached for his sword, but Shen Qingqiu grabbed his arm tightly.
“It was just supposed to be Tianlang-jun,” Liu Qingge said.
“Is there any Emperor who would travel alone, with no escorts or advisors, whether they are a human or a demon?” Shen Qingqiu shot back.
Liu Qingge clenched his jaw but subsided. Shen Qingqiu released his grip.
Tianlang-jun stepped towards them and away from the frost, with his customary expression of friendliness and faint amusement. He nodded at them. “This Emperor thanks Cang Qiong Mountain Sect for graciously agreeing to this meeting.”
Yue Qingyuan and the Peak Lords bowed deferentially. “This sect leader would not dare to accept the Demon Emperor’s thanks. Might this sect leader inquire about the Emperor’s intentions in coming here? His Majesty was not very specific in his letter.”
“It is reasonable that Sect Leader Yue would have concerns,” Tianlang-jun said. “In the past, there have been many conflicts between the realms. This Emperor wants to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the Human Realm, and seeks understanding with Cang Qiong, as the realm’s most prominent cultivation sect, to further that purpose.”
“An admirable pursuit, but how can this sect leader be certain of His Majesty’s motivations?” Yue Qingyuan asked.
Tianlang-jun lifted a hand to his heart. “I swear upon my honor as the Demon Emperor and the blood of my heavenly ancestors that I intend no harm against you or your sect, nor will I allow you or your sect to come to harm for the duration of our meeting.”
Though Yue Qingyuan had maintained a pleasant and unaggressive expression throughout their exchange, Shen Qingqiu noticed his shoulders dipping in relief. For a demon, especially a heavenly demon, to swear on their own blood was no small promise.
Yue Qingyuan swept an arm towards the wards, which shimmered and fell in response. “The Demon Emperor and his entourage have this sect leader’s permission to enter the wards. This one will lead His Majesty to a more suitable location.”
As the gaggle of demons passed, Shen Qingqiu recognized Zhuzhi-lang walking behind and to the right of Tianlang-jun, Mobei-jun was tall enough for the top of his head to poke out in the center of the group, and Sha Hualing trailed at the end, glaring at Shen Qingqiu as she passed, but he didn’t see Binghe.
That…made sense. If Tianlang-jun thought that Cang Qiong might betray him, then even with Xin Mo and Mobei-jun being available to create portals, it made more tactical sense to leave the heir at home.
Rationalizing it didn’t make it easier for Shen Qingqiu to swallow his disappointment.
Twelve demons and twelve immortal cultivators shuffled into a conference room, which was a large and open building near the wards and separate from everything else. A wide aisle ran down the center and each side broken up by a series of tables, presumably set up to reduce the tension of a cramped space and to allow refreshments to be served if meetings ran long.
Yue Qingyuan sat a table near the center of one side, Shen Qingqiu sat beside him, Tianlang-jun chose the table across from Yue Qingyuan, Mobei-jun chose a table that would allow him to glare intently at Shang Qinghua (who shrank away from the scrutiny), and everyone else filled in, leaving one of the demons’ tables empty when Zhuzhi-lang chose to stand behind Tianlang-jun rather than sitting with everyone else.
“This Emperor prepared a few offerings, but of course it would be inappropriate to offer them to Sect Leader Yue and allow others to believe that he can be bribed. The second-ranked lord is Peak Lord Shen, correct?” Tianlang-jun asked.
Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes.
“That is correct,” Yue Qingyuan said slowly.
Tianlang-jun turned to Shen Qingqiu as if just noticing him. Shen Qingqiu’s apprehension grew. “Can this Emperor offer Peak Lord Shen anything? Gold? Cultivation-enhancing elixirs? My nephew’s hand in marriage?”
Zhuzhi-lang twitched over Tianlang-jun’s shoulder.
“Regretfully, this lord will have to decline. Thanks to His Majesty for his understanding,” Shen Qingqiu said.
“If it would be improper to offer Sect Leader Yue, why bother asking Shen-shixiong?” Liu Qingge asked.
Tianlang-jun sighed. “I hoped to be subtle, but my actions were seen through too clearly, as expected of the prestigious Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Recently I discovered that I owe an unpayable debt to Peak Lord Shen.”
Shen Qingqiu tensed despite himself. A couple of the Peak Lords shifted uncertainly, with Shang Qinghua visibly shaking.
Tianlang-jun made a beckoning motion at his retinue. “This Emperor would like to present his long-lost son, Zaolian-jun.”
A few of the demons who arrived with Tianlang-jun wore heavy cloaks and veils. Shen Qingqiu brushed it off because it wasn’t uncommon for demons to have a sensitivity towards sunlight or other conditions of the Human Realm, tagged them as background NPCs, and stopped paying attention to them. In hindsight, he should have known that one of them would be Luo Binghe. He cursed Shang Qinghua for making Tianlang-jun interested in human culture and Su Xiyan for indulging his interest in plays and underlying flair for the dramatic.
Binghe rose, circled around his table, strode into the aisle in front of Shen Qingqiu’s table, and ripped off his cloak and veil with an elegant flourish that definitely shouldn’t have worked outside of anime. The angles…the slight breeze with no discernible source…the way the fabric gave cleanly instead of catching on anything…it was too breathtaking to be believed. Shen Qingqiu’s heart took off like it wanted to leap through the nearest window and flee as far away as it could get before Binghe caught up to it. With a strong stance, a wild aura, a beautiful, handsome face, and the exquisite robes befitting a prince, there could be no doubts about Luo Binghe's identity.
Shen Qingqiu felt a flush creeping up around his neck and ears and had never been so grateful for his high-collared robes and long hair.
“Shidi, isn’t that your disciple?” Yue Qingyuan asked quietly.
Tianlang-jun continued before Shen Qingqiu could respond. “Who could have known that when Su Xiyan and I were separated, we left a child behind who would become a cultivator and reunite with his father by chance? If not for Peak Lord Shen’s training and protection, Zaolian-jun would not have been survived this long, and this Emperor would be short an heir. If Zhuzhi-lang is not to Peak Lord Shen’s liking, perhaps he would accept Zaolian-jun’s hand in marriage instead?”
Shen Qingqiu unstuck his tongue from the roof of his dry mouth, moving his gaze from Binghe to Tianlang-jun. “That is not necessary.”
Tianlang-jun looked even more amused.
“You’ve been in the Demon Realm?” Liu Qingge asked Luo Binghe.
Shen Qingqiu regretted that the layout of the room and the overall culture of this world prevented him from kicking Liu Qingge under a table.
Binghe kept his eyes on Shen Qingqiu, still kneeling before his table. “This disciple apologizes for not being more forthcoming with his master.”
Shen Qingqiu shivered slightly. Had Binghe’s voice been this deep before he’d left?
“This disciple left to learn more about his origins and wanted to write to his master once he’d settled in the Demon Realm, but this disciple did not want to implicate his master in dealing with demons or bring shame upon the sect.”
Oh, that was probably true. He should be glad that Binghe had thought that far ahead, and he would be glad if a few years of dropped contact and some amateur theatrics were the worst fallout from the high-stakes political game Shen Qingqiu had set in motion.
He didn’t have to like it, but there were far worse possibilities.
Shen Qingqiu got up from his table, circling around to pull Binghe’s arms gently. “This master understands. Binghe doesn’t have to kneel anymore.”
For a moment, Binghe looked up at Shen Qingqiu through his eyelashes, still kneeling as Shen Qingqiu stood above him. Shen Qingqiu bit the inside of his cheek, hard.
He managed to get Luo Binghe to rise and return to his seat, now openly lounging rather than waiting for his opening. Shen Qingqiu's fan came up in front of his face.
“So, let’s talk about what conditions need to be met to foster relations between our peoples,” Tianlang-jun said cheerfully.
Yue Qingyuan was right in the beginning; they needed Shang Qinghua there as the head of logistics to discuss resources, manpower, and monetary costs. The Peak Lord of the agricultural peak pitched in for discussion about crops, growth seasons, and soil conditions to help determine what crops would be easiest to promote within the Demon Realm and which should be imported, Shen Qingqiu and Qi Qingqi traded points about the arts, and Peak Lords Wei and Liu had to be curbed in their enthusiasm for weapons and fighting. Although interesting and potentially valuable discussions, they were best reserved for when both sides could be certain that they wouldn’t come to blows.
Well. When they wouldn't come to blows that would roll back diplomatic progress, since they would definitely end up brawling at some point, hopefully in a friendly spar or demonstration (please and thank you).
“Of course, in the interest of developing stable relationships, we should establish a human ambassador in the Demon Realm and a demon ambassador in the Human Realm,” Tianlang-jun said. “Based on expertise, personal experience, and social standing, this Emperor recommends that Zaolian-jun should be given a position here, and would be more than willing to welcome Peak Lord Shang into the Demon Realm.”
Yue Qingyuan leaned back, clearly weighing his options. “That can be negotiated.”
Shen Qingqiu was impressed. Tianlang-jun, despite his air of frivolity (and occasional genuine frivolity) had finesse.
It was a project that would take years to research let alone implement, and there would be pushbacks from plenty of people and groups that would have to be either countered or accommodated, but it was honest, worthwhile work. Luo Binghe was still bright-eyed and untouched by the original’s venomous hatred, Shen Qingqiu had all his limbs and no risk of facing trial from Huan Hua Palace, the cultivation world was still in tact (…more or less), and the realms were working their way towards cooperation while maintaining their autonomy and internal structures.
He had never been so grateful for Shang Qinghua’s ability for sticking his foot in his mouth. Without Shang Qinghua losing track of his brain-to-mouth filter, Shen Qingqiu might have kept going along with the System, and then where would he be?
Certainly not here, watching Yue Qingyuan wrap up the meeting late into the night. "Is there anything else Your Majesty would like to discuss before we release for the day?" he asked.
Tianlang-jun tilted his head. "No, this Emperor is quite satisfied. Zaolian-jun will remain here for the next month to represent the Demon Realm's interests and Peak Lord Shang will come to the Demon Realm so that we can benefit from his knowledge. After that, we can discuss more long-term arrangements."
Yue Qingyuan nodded, and just like that, it was over.
Shang Qinghua followed Mobei-jun into the Demon Realm and then again into the northern palace. After the long meeting and being transported between and then across the realms, he was exhausted. With any luck, Mobei-jun would give him a few hours to crash before he was crushed by the inevitable avalanche of paperwork, especially now that he'd been given official keys to both realms rather than continuing his secret spy work.
Mobei-jun joined him on the walk to the portion of the palace that held his room and office. That in itself wasn't strange, but Mobei-jun insisted on them walking side by side. At first, Shang Qinghua thought that his king was walking slower than usual, but he made a sound of annoyance when Shang Qinghua tried to walk behind him and lifted Shang Qinghua by the back of his robes like a hamster before settling them next to each other, so that was a thing.
Maybe Shang Qinghua being there as an ambassador rather than a servant/spy meant that walking Mobei-jun would cause a diplomatic incident? Did that mean he would have to change quarters? That sounded like a pain.
Wait, they stopped at his ordinary quarters, so apparently not.
"Shang Qinghua," Mobei-jun said, then stopped.
"My king…?" Shang Qinghua prompted.
Mobei-jun narrowed his eyes, but it didn't seem directed at him, which was good! Shang Qinghua hadn't done anything worth getting angry about, thank you very much!
In the end, Mobei-jun didn't continue with whatever he planned to say. He kicked open Shang Qinghua's door before leaving.
Shang Qinghua stared in the direction Mobei-jun stalked off. At least that meant he wasn't expected to start working right away…?
For a moment, Shang Qinghua wondered if he'd walked into the wrong room after all, but no—even if Mobei-jun hadn't led him there specifically, his robes, his brushes, the scrolls upon scrolls of rough drafts, everything that Shang Qinghua considered "his" were still there, even if everything belonging to the "palace" (the furniture, including the mattress, the sheets and curtains, even the dinky little teapot) had all been replaced with newer, more expensive versions. There were also two new additions: a deep blue, fur-lined cloak laid out on the bed, and the vase of flowers set on a low table. Each petal and leaf had been painstakingly carved out of ice and charmed not to melt.
His forehead wrinkled in confusion. My king, is this your way of giving me a promotion?
Shen Qingqiu offered to house Luo Binghe on Qing Jing Peak. He could tell from the stiffening of Yue Qingyuan's smile that he didn't like the idea. It might be more diplomatic for Binghe to live near the sect leader on Qiong Ding Peak, or maybe he was wary of Shen Qingqiu living near a demon, but Shen Qingqiu was still the second-ranked lord and Binghe had never formally left the sect, so he had no grounds to object. Furthermore, as a visiting royal, when Binghe agreed to the offer, Yue Qingyuan could only acquiesce. For the first time in about three years, Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe returned together to Qing Jing Peak.
Once inside the little bamboo house, Binghe lifted one of Shen Qingqiu's hands and held it to his chest. "Shizun, this disciple is home now. Apologies for the wait."
Shen Qingqiu could feel Binghe's voice vibrating through his chest and into his hand despite the layers of silk separating them. His thoughts stuttered. "As long as Binghe is safe and has been taking care of himself, this master is satisfied."
"This disciple wouldn't dare take credit. After all, hasn't it always been Shizun taking care of this Binghe?" He stroked the back of Shen Qingqiu's hand with his thumb. Shen Qingqiu was going to either kill or thank whoever taught Binghe these moves. "Is there any way this Binghe can show his gratitude by 'taking care of' his master?"
Shen Qingqiu felt like he'd been doused in cold water and we would've yanked his hand back if Luo Binghe wasn't far stronger than him. "Binghe shouldn't feel obligated to this master. He doesn't need to repay anything."
Luo Binghe's previously smooth expression cracked as his eyes widened in mild panic. "Wait, that's not—this disciple—"
He paused briefly to collect himself. Despite all of Tianlang-jun's comments about the dangers of power imbalances in relationships, Binghe was a demon prince and his Shizun was not the type of person to leverage debts for sexual favors. It never occurred to him that Shen Qingqiu would worry about Binghe feeling pressured.
"For a long time, I wanted to get stronger," Luo Binghe said quietly, looking at Shen Qingqiu's hand in his. It was the same hand that had been poisoned by Without A Cure. "I wanted to be strong enough to protect the ones I love and help them carry their burdens. Who could I want to be strong for, except for you?"
He squeezed Shen Qingqiu's hand gently and kept going. "If Shizun doesn't feel the same way, I'll understand, but even if I want to repay Shizun's kindness, I wasn't offering because of debt, or, or obligation."
He closed his eyes, lifting Shen Qingqiu's hand higher until it rested against his cheek. "If I could live by Shizun's side, no matter where or how, I would be happy for the rest of my life."
Shen Qingqiu kept silent and still for the span of a couple of breaths, neither moving closer nor trying to reclaim his hand again. "Binghe knows he can leave if he wants, or tell me if he is unhappy."
Binghe's eyes stayed shut. "If I am with Shizun, what reason would I have to leave or be unhappy?"
Shen Qingqiu's hand curled to cup Binghe's cheek. In the end, he couldn't give Luo Binghe a life without conflict or keep him white and pure, and yet, a black lotus was still a lotus. This Luo Binghe would never know the original's restless futility. Softly, even softer than Binghe's own voice had been, Shen Qingqiu asked, "Who said anything about this master not feeling the same way? If Binghe is willing to stay, what reason would there be to part?"
Binghe's eyes opened again, bright and blazing, and everywhere they touched was electric.
The rest of the night passed in a pleasurable blur, which made it all the more surprising when Shen Qingqiu woke up early the next morning. It was one of those liminal moments where the newborn sunlight glowed with the paleness of weak tea, and Shen Qingqiu could almost convince himself that time didn't exist. There was no world outside of his little bamboo house. No one mattered besides himself and Luo Binghe, who dropped a kiss against Shen Qingqiu's shoulder when he noticed that he was awake.
"It's still early, Shizun should go back to sleep," Binghe said. His chest pressed closely enough that the fake jade pendant dug into Shen Qingqiu's back, but it wasn't too uncomfortable.
Shen Qingqiu hummed. "And what about Binghe?"
"Naturally, this Binghe will make breakfast," he said, but the arms tightening around Shen Qingqiu's waist belied his words.
Shen Qingqiu huffed a small laugh. "It's still early. There will be time for breakfast later."
Binghe buried his face in Shen Qingqiu's neck, and Shen Qingqiu lightly petted his arms. They could channel the fate of two realms later. For now, there was only the bamboo house, forever undarkened by the fate of the original world.