Sha Hualing bends over the array, nudging one of the anchoring talismans a finger’s width to the side. Luo Binghe doesn’t really need her; it’s not like Ling-er knows more about demonic summoning. It’s just nice having one of his wives here. It's always nicer to be around people who like him. Most people are afraid of him, which isn’t the same thing.
Sha Hualing straightens and turns to him, one clawed hand grasping her jutting hip. Here in the seclusion of Luo Binghe's private chambers, she’s even less clothed than usual. She has gauze wrapped around her hips, but her top half is bare, except for a dark opal pendant that Luo Binghe gave her while they were courting. It's not a seductive gesture, just her preferred style of dress. Sha Hualing knows Luo Binghe has other things on his mind this evening.
"Is it ready?" He's been in an awful mood. Sha Hualing is one of the few of his inner circle who is speaking to him right now.
When Luo Binghe first found Xin Mo, the sword was volatile, releasing waves of destructive energy that could not be prevented, only weathered. Luo Binghe's will overcame the sword's tempestuous nature and now it slumbers meekly at his side, unleashing its power only on his command.
But he's never been able to manage himself like his sword. He himself is still prone to swells of black emotion, difficult to understand and harder to suppress. His will, which has battered men into dust and moved the human and demon realms together as one, is not strong enough to conquer whatever is inside him. He can only endure it.
Lately he hasn't been doing it very well. He made Wanrong cry. Even Mobei-jun declined to attend his last advisory meeting.
"It should be," Sha Hualing says. "Are you sure you want to see that gross old man?"
"He's not—" Luo Binghe stops. Was he about to defend Shen Qingqiu? Of all people. "Yes," he says instead.
Yes, he wants to see Shen Qingqiu.
His chest clenches hard. He grits his teeth through the ache.
His mind has been full of visions: soft skin, glossy black hair against aqua robes, kind eyes. Clever fingers combing through his hair. His dreams are full of Shen Qingqius, no matter how many times he dismisses them. He wakes from the dreams full of urgency, ready to claw his skin off.
It's been years since Shen Qingqiu has occupied so much of his thoughts. That was the point of what Luo Binghe did to him, after all. After five years in the Endless Abyss obsessing over Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe never wanted to think about him again.
He diminished him. Cut Shen Qingqiu down piece by piece, until he had shrunken enough that Luo Binghe could lock him out of his mind.
And now a few caring words, a few touches are enough to make Shen Qingqiu take over? It makes the huge palace, the entirety of Luo Binghe's lands, feel crushingly small. He is being squeezed to death in the vise of Shen Qingqiu's insistent presence.
"Just let me activate the array," he says. His voice comes out as dark as his mood. Sha Hualing is a good person to be angry around. As a demon princess, a display of darkness and spite in her consort always pleases her. She gives him a pointy little smile and comes over to drape her arms around his neck.
"Do you want me to leave you to it? Just come back and help clean up the blood?"
"I'm not going to kill him," Luo Binghe says. The implication sends a sting of horror through him, followed by another wave of crushing shame. Like Shen Qingqiu is something he fears losing. He’s not supposed to fear anything anymore. His breath comes out his nose in a huff. His fingers clench, then flex.
He can't stand this. Maybe he is going to kill Shen Qingqiu.
"I would appreciate the privacy," he adds.
Sha Hualing brushes a possessive thumb along his jaw and leaves.
The array consists of a series of talismans and symbols surrounding a silver hair pin. The pin made its way into Luo Binghe's hand, and then his inside pocket, from a little table in Shen Qingqiu's bamboo house. Not the one Luo Binghe last saw the inside of eight years ago. The one he was in three weeks ago.
Luo Binghe draws Xin Mo. The sword gleams black as onyx in the low light of the candles. There's a shiver inside him, a jagged energy in his chest. So rarely is there anything he wants that he can't have. The tantalizing end of wanting is almost in front of him.
He places Xin Mo's tip against one of the talismans and ignites the design. The whole circle glows purple with the eerie, flickering quality of demonic light.
It takes a lot of energy to steal someone from another universe. He can feel the array sucking at him, ripping energy from his spiritual channels. He has a lot of it to give. His hands are steady on Xin Mo's hilt.
The energy coalesces around the little silver pin and shimmers into the form of a figure.
Luo Binghe grips Xin Mo hard enough to see the veins in his knuckles. He thinks of the heat of Shen Qingqiu's mouth.
But when the figure resolves, it's not Shen Qingqiu.
It's not hard for Luo Binghe to overpower the other one. Other Binghe is as fast and powerful as him, but Other Binghe wields Zheng Yang. It shatters under Xin Mo's ferocious bite.
Luo Binghe thinks about killing him. He wants to kill him just for not being Shen Qingqiu. But then he has a better idea. Shen Qingqiu, the nice one, the one Luo Binghe wants—he likes this Binghe. This weak, sad imitation. So maybe if Luo Binghe keeps him around, Shen Qingqiu will come looking for him.
He floods the impostor’s channels with his own spiritual energy and uses it to drop the impostor’s heart rate until he passes out. Then he calls back Sha Hualing and tells her to bring him down to the water prison.
She doesn’t like it. “I’m not here to run errands,” she tells him. “Get one of your lackies to do that. Not your third most important wife. Most important if you don’t count humans, which I obviously don’t.”
“Tell someone else to do it, then,” Luo Binghe says. He’s barely holding it together. “A less important wife, if you want. Just take him and leave.” Sha Hualing perks up, cheered by the thought of asserting her authority.
When Luo Binghe united the human and demon realms, he matched the location of his two palaces, Huan Hua and the seat of his demonic throne. By uniting the realms he intended to reduce his travel time, so it wouldn't make sense if he still had to fly by sword between his loci of power. Still, he’s a demon king, not an architect, and the palaces merged inelegantly. The resulting building is double the size, and many of the rooms are redundant: two sets of private bedchambers for Luo Binghe, two massive throne rooms, two labyrinthine dungeon complexes. Mostly he lives in Huan Hua Palace, and his demonic castle has been turned over to his wives. But there are still a lot of rooms no one uses.
He goes and finds one now—a bedchamber too small for Luo Binghe, but too decadent for any of the Huan Hua disciples. He goes there, and he breaks everything he can find.
It takes a long time. There are lacquered wooden boxes that he rips apart at the hinges and crushes into splinters in his hands. There are porcelain figures of dragons and demonic beasts that he grinds into dust so small that the shards can no longer scratch. A set of drinking vessels carved from agate that shatters under his boots. He decimates the silk wall hangings, breaks the wooden bed platform, tears apart a painted screen depicting gnarled walnut trees. Then he sits down on the floor and thinks about tearing his own body apart with his teeth until he starts to shake.
He wants Shen Qingqiu.
There’s never a limit on his feelings. Things punch through him and keep going. Even when something is unbearable, it never stops.
He didn’t learn to cultivate right. He didn’t learn to distance himself from the world, focus on his breathing, create a space inside his mind where it’s safe. He is stuck in his head in the middle of a scream.
He hasn’t cried for a long time. Not since he was thirteen and there was lukewarm tea dripping from the ends of his hair. So he’s not about to start now. He’d wanted never again to be brought to tears by a casual cruelty from someone like Shen Qingqiu. But sometimes he thinks it would be easier.
It shames him how quickly pain tears him apart. He hasn’t learned not to be hurt; all he’s learned how to do is not cry. It leaves him with nothing to do, an animal crashing into the bars of its cage in helpless fury.
He clenches his fists, digging his nails into his palms until blood drips down his knuckles. After a while, his wrists start to ache from holding the joints tense. He wants Shen Qingqiu so badly.
When he woke in that other place, Shen Qingqiu's spiritual energy flooding his body from where they were pressed back to chest, he hadn't recognized the signature. His master’s spiritual energy was unfamiliar. His Shen Qingqiu never got close enough to him.
There’s no limit, no point where it eases. He doesn’t feel better, as he sits on the floor and stares at the wall. Eventually he just gets tired.
Luo Binghe is lying face down on Ning Yingying's magenta reclining couch, his face buried in her lap. Her hands stroke through his hair, making him shiver every time they start over at his scalp.
He has not gone to see his prisoner, and he has not made progress towards finding the nice Shen Qingqiu. Instead, he ended a demon council meeting after five minutes and made two more wives cry. He needs Yingying.
"I don't understand what happened," she says.
"Nothing," Luo Binghe says into her lap. He turns his face and nuzzles into her stomach.
Luo Binghe loves Ning Yingying. They were childhood sweethearts, sharing shy kisses when she snuck into the woodshed to help treat his wounds—from other disciples or from his master. She was the antidote to Shen Qingqiu, the one comfort when everyone else treated him like dirt.
He loves her, he loves her. He married her first, before even Mingyan. She giggled throughout the wedding ceremony, unable to take it seriously, like they were playing at being grown-ups. Twenty-two was a younger age for Yingying than it was for Luo Binghe. After the Abyss.
Lying here with her, her cool hands on his face and her sweet voice saying kind things, he should feel better. He shouldn’t miss Shen Qingqiu.
“Ling-er said she was helping you with a demonic ritual,” Yingying says. “Did it go wrong?”
Yes. He makes a soft noise and squeezes his eyes shut tight. Yingying goes back to petting him.
“I’m sure you can figure it out,” she says. “A-Luo can do anything.”
Luo Binghe shoves himself upright to look at her. He searches her face, needing to see the affection there. He’s a torn piece of parchment, all his edges uneven.
“I can,” he says.
“I know.” She takes his face in her hands and brings it towards her. For a moment he thinks she’s going to kiss his mouth, but instead she kisses his forehead, right on his demon mark. He keeps his eyes open, his heart racing.
The moment of panic reverberates around his chest. Why wouldn’t he want Yingying to kiss him? They’ve kissed a thousand times.
They usually have sex when he comes here. He usually comes here to have sex. Doesn’t he? Yingying has seen his heart, back in Meng Mo’s first dream trap, and she cared about it. That means something, even all these years later. Luo Binghe doesn’t know how to experience that, her seeing him and not shying away, without sex. He would absorb it through his skin if he could.
Luo Binghe swallows, but his throat is so dry it sticks.
He’s bedded six hundred women. Sort of bedded. Meadowed a lot of them. On-top-of-a-flying-sworded one or two.
He can’t stop thinking about Shen Qingqiu’s spread thighs pressing against his.
“Yingying,” he says urgently. “Do you think I—”
But his mouth closes around the words.
He’s seen beautiful men before, of course. He’s thought about touching them, of course. Luo Binghe gets what he wants. It’s natural to try out the idea when meeting someone new, just to see if he’s interested. It never seemed important.
Facing Ning Yingying, he can smell her perfume, which she applies to the sides of her neck. He doesn’t know enough about perfume to say what the delicate scent is. He closes his eyes; his eyelids tremble.
“Do you think I’m happy?”
Yingying slips a hand into his hair again, her fingers exerting pressure at five points on his scalp.
“I don’t know, A-Luo. Aren’t you?”
There’s always been some numb part of him, something that couldn’t reflect what Yingying was giving him.
He thought it was just who he was.
“You’re always busy,” Yingying says. “You’re never smiling when I see you. Even when we were kids, you would smile sometimes.”
“Just because I don’t smile doesn’t mean I’m not happy,” Luo Binghe says. As he says it he realizes he’s frowning right now. The thought makes his brow furrow more deeply.
“I’m happy to see you,” Yingying says. “Are you happy to see me?”
If it was anyone else—okay, anyone else besides Mingyan—he would plaster on a charming smile and say, “Of course.” If it was Sha Hualing, she would expect it of him—emotional honesty is not a desirable attribute for demons. The Little Palace Mistress, the most demonic of his human wives, operates the same way. But for Qiu Haitang or Qin Wanyue or most everyone else, the handsome and genteel demon lord is what they want. Someone fierce and fearsome, who nevertheless treats his beautiful flowers with the care and devotion they deserve. That’s his appeal.
But Yingying fell in love with him when he was thirteen, a scrawny, beat-up child shivering with cold in the woodshed. It’s not that she likes him to be sad, but that she can tell when he’s faking. And if he pushes her off, her face will fall and she’ll be disappointed in him, and he can’t stand that on top of his failure to summon Shen Qingqiu.
“I don’t know,” he says.
Isn’t he happy? He has power and glory, and adoration on all sides. He’s not an unloved child anymore. He has thousands fighting for scraps of his attention.
Ning Yingying draws him in, hands on his shoulders, and he lets her put his face against her neck. The fragrance reminds him of Qing Jing Peak. He doesn’t know if it’s because it’s Yingying’s scent, or if the perfume is from some kind of flower that grew around the mountain.
“I’m angry,” he mumbles against her throat.
She takes his hand, and pats the back of it. “Why?”
Because of Shen Qingqiu.
“I want something I don’t have.”
“You’ll figure it out,” Yingying says.
He wants to believe her.
Luo Binghe has no intention of interacting with the other him. He has hated every second of their interactions to date. A version of himself with no strength, no will. Content to, what, just lie around with Shen Qingqiu all day, apparently leaving his hair pins on tables all over the place? All the other Binghe is good for is bait.
But the other Luo Binghe is indeed Luo Binghe. When Luo Binghe goes to sleep, back in his own bedchamber, he is wrenched out of his own dreamscape for the first time since his first encounter with Meng Mo.
He’s back on Qing Jing Peak, somewhere in the little bamboo forest. The impostor Binghe stands there, arms crossed.
Luo Binghe thinks the impostor is trying to intimidate him. It only gives him the opportunity to admire the effect of his own killing intent. The dramatic V of his brows. The twist of his cruel mouth. Even a feeble imitation, wrought by the features of a sad, pathetic anti-Binghe, impresses.
“If you think you can attack me here—” he starts, but the impostor doesn’t let him get even a sentence into posturing.
“Where’s Shizun?” he says.
Luo Binghe glowers. That’s exactly what he’d like to know.
“Back wherever you left him.”
“No,” the impostor says. “I know where my shizun is. But you’re here, and there’s another Sha Hualing and another Mobei-jun—where’s the other version of Shizun? I want to see him. I think,” he adds, tossing his head imperiously, “you would be much improved by his influence.”
Luo Binghe’s nostrils flare with anger. For weeks, he’s been remembering the soft, thawed look in Other Binghe’s eyes when Shen Qingqiu ran to him to fuss over his injuries. Every time it incinerates him. He doesn’t need to hear Impostor Binghe’s opinion on the matter.
“He’s dead,” he says. The words scrape together like interlocking swords.
He didn’t mean to kill Shen Qingqiu. He wasn’t done playing with him yet. One day he walked into the room where he’d suspended Shen Qingqiu by the waist, and the man’s body was cold. Maybe Luo Binghe killed him by accident, or maybe Shen Qingqiu found a way to stop his own heart and die. He was a powerful cultivator, after all.
If he’d been sad, it was disappointment that he couldn’t see Shen Qingqiu suffer anymore.
The effect on the impostor is instantaneous. He stumbles back a step, his eyes wide. His chest convulses with one choked breath.
“Dead? That’s why you—that’s why you’re like this?”
Rage simmers in Luo Binghe’s stomach. “I’m like this because Shen Qingqiu was a vile man,” he hisses. “Who got what he deserved.” We don’t all get to be doted on, he almost continues, but bites it back so viciously that a little growl comes out instead.
“You killed him?”
If someone killed someone Luo Binghe cared about, he would kill them in return. He prepares for a fight, setting his feet into a wide stance, ready to reach for his sword. It would be a dream version of Xin Mo, but in dreams what matters is the strength of one’s mind, and Luo Binghe is certain that his mind is still Xin Mo to the impostor’s Zheng Yang.
But instead of posturing in response, the other Binghe just stares. Luo Binghe watches, repulsed, as tears slide down the impostor’s face.
“Shizun is dead?”
It’s not even his Shen Qingqiu! The person Luo Binghe killed isn’t who the impostor is thinking of, that amiable man whose—his stomach clenches—whose fingers were gentle as they worked through the knots in Luo Binghe’s hair. The Shen Qingqiu that Luo Binghe killed was the lowest of the low, someone whose very existence hurt everyone around him. Luo Binghe has done a lot of terrible things, but killing Shen Qingqiu wasn’t one of them. He is sick and wrong-footed watching the other Binghe cry, like he’s on the precipice of the Abyss once more.
The impostor Binghe puts his hand to his mouth and sobs.
It’s so horrifying that Luo Binghe doesn’t even attack him. He just stands and watches, his heart hammering and his body very still.
“You killed Shizun,” the impostor says.
It would be easier if this version of himself was unrecognizable. It would be nicer to think Luo Binghe would never be this weak. But he does recognize this, from his younger self. From the things he still feels sometimes, in the hidden corners of himself that he can’t look at without contempt.
If this is who he would be without Shen Qingqiu’s cruelty, he should thank the bastard.
“And what did you do?” Luo Binghe says. “Allow him to abuse you? Let him try to kill you? Lie down and simper while he walked over you and ground his heel into your teeth?”
The other Binghe blanches in a different way, his cheeks flushing. It stops Luo Binghe short. Something inside him briefly trembles.
“He didn’t mean any of that,” the impostor says, his conviction renewed. He doesn’t bother wiping his tears away. He just squares his shoulders and reaches behind his back to materialize his sword.
He’s going to fight Luo Binghe with a wet face? With his shoulders still hitching over interrupted breaths?
Luo Binghe is nearly dizzy with disgust.
“How can you try to kill someone and not mean it?” Luo Binghe has a high pain tolerance. But Shen Qingqiu’s whip left scars somewhere deeper than where his skin has healed.
“Shizun is good,” the impostor says. “Whatever he did, he had a reason for it. You—you killed him before he could explain.”
That’s it. Luo Binghe draws his own sword now, and it’s not a toothless action like the impostor’s. He infuses the dream sword with his aura, his killing intent, whipping up a storm of demonic energy around him.
“He had years to explain,” he says. His voice, too, is laced with menace—savage demons have run just from being faced with this kind of Luo Binghe. “He never did anything for me.”
“You’re wrong. Shizun was kind to me.” The impostor raises his own sword, baring his teeth. Luo Binghe can see his own anger in the other Binghe, the kind that erupts from a spark to a blaze in an instant. “He was kind. He—he gave me special cultivation instruction.”
“That was a trick,” Luo Binghe spits, but the other Binghe is already shaking his head.
“No. He put me into danger because he believed in me and wanted me to be stronger. He let me stay in the bamboo house with him so the other disciples wouldn’t bother me so much. He was always—he always complimented my cooking, he said that—I was his favorite disciple, that I would be great some day. He said it even to Liu—to Liu-shishu.”
No. Luo Binghe’s robes are heavy and hot on his body. His hands tighten on Xin Mo’s hilt.
“You’re lying,” he says. “He never did any of that.”
Luo Binghe thought—he thought that Shen Qingqiu, the other one, the nice one, that he must have changed afterward. That maybe the other Binghe managed to do what he could not—break Shen Qingqiu down and force him to become different. He didn’t think Shen Qingqiu might have been kind to the impostor all along. As a child?
What did Luo Binghe do wrong as a child?
Shen Qingqiu hated Luo Binghe the moment he saw him. It was a lesson; it taught Luo Binghe what others saw. Whatever was wrong with him, everyone could tell. Everyone at Cang Qiong Mountain hated and feared him for what he was—not because he was a demon, but because he was Luo Binghe. There has always been something about him that inspired contempt. From his fellow disciples. From strangers on the street. That’s why he worked so hard to turn himself into someone people are afraid to look down on.
Shen Qingqiu taught him that.
This other Binghe—he has the same unruly hair and wild eyes, the same uncontained aura, every emotion and intent legible. He’s worse than Luo Binghe. More fractured. More easily hurt. Somehow, Shen Qingqiu looked at him and didn’t recoil.
Luo Binghe can’t take it. He’s tired of looking at this awful reflection of himself, this tragedy. He doesn’t just want to fight him anymore; he wants to kill him. It’s the only way he can respond to the idea that this inferior man somehow unlocked an ability to love that Luo Binghe thought didn’t exist.
He reaches out and grips the other Binghe’s blade, turning it into dust under his hand. The impostor is left holding the hilt, and looking at the hilt, it hits Luo Binghe like a Black Moon Python Rhinoceros that it’s not Zheng Yang. It’s Xiu Ya.
He can’t fathom the revulsion that explodes inside him. The setting: Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo forest. The sword: Shen Qingqiu’s. The way this Binghe allows that hated man to—to own him, to take over the details of his life. Luo Binghe could never—could never let himself adore someone so transparently.
Shen Qingqiu’s concerned little face over the impostor’s broken arm flashes in his mind again. If he were alone in his own dreamscape, he would externalize it, manifest that nice, pretty Shen Qingqiu so he could kill him. So he could strike down the part of his brain that keeps thinking of him.
The other Binghe throws away the sword hilt and lashes out with his spiritual energy. Luo Binghe channels his own through Xin Mo, amplifying and concentrating it, and cuts a path through the impostor’s aura. The impostor takes a step back. Luo Binghe approaches him and disappears Xin Mo, ready to fight bare-handed.
But then the dream is melting and distorting around him, the other Binghe’s face rushing away. Luo Binghe tries to hold onto the dream, but within seconds he’s opening his eyes in his bed.
Of course. It’s not that either of them failed to maintain the dream; it’s that Luo Binghe was waking up. Sweat on his forehead and around his collar makes the air unusually cool. His heart pounds fast enough to drain strength from his limbs, leaving him weak and shaky, like after a nightmare. Something he hasn’t had for over a decade.
Luo Binghe has never been good at sitting with discomfort. He finds whatever is bothering him and eliminates it.
He doesn’t even bother to get dressed. Instead, he makes his way to the water prison in his black undergarments, the loose shirt and pants that he wears to sleep. Of all the things he might be ashamed of, his body is not one. Indeed, any looks he draws on the way are awed, not scandalized.
The other Binghe is tied with Immortal Binding Cables, much more than for a usual prisoner—his chest, arms and legs are all looped with them, so that he looks ribbed. The cables should have prevented him from using his demonic dream powers, but Luo Binghe is not surprised it was ineffective. He lives in this body, after all; he knows how it pulses with power, so intensely that he sometimes has to kill just to use it up.
The impostor looks at him murderously. Luo Binghe is satisfied to see that even a diluted version of himself has the ability to menace.
“He doesn’t love you,” Luo Binghe says.
He expects the other Binghe to meet his hostility with full force, but instead his eyes flick wide.
“He says he does.”
The other Binghe pushes the words out like they might hurt him if they stayed in. Like he isn't really sure.
Luo Binghe closes his eyes. He can recall the exact anxious lilt with which Shen Qingqiu said "Don't act so rashly next time." Holding the impostor Binghe's broken arm like it was his most precious possession. This man doesn’t even know what he has.
Luo Binghe has to kill him. He has killed honorable men for less, humans and demons that he didn’t really want to kill. But this person is abhorrent. He deserves to be taken apart, Xin Mo’s tip carving off an inch of flesh at a time until this pretender is nothing but a pile of bloody sludge.
But then, if the kind Shen Qingqiu does show up—
It’s not that Luo Binghe cares what he thinks—if he fell for this person, he can fall for Luo Binghe, no matter what he’s done. But it would be instructive to have the inferior Binghe here, alive, so that Shen Qingqiu can see the difference between them. If the impostor is gone, Shen Qingqiu might grieve him. Better if Shen Qingqiu grows to view him with contempt.
“You think he could really love you?” Luo Binghe laughs, the cold laugh that usually precipitates pleas for mercy. “You think he could respect you? You can’t even control your sword.”
The impostor’s eyes blaze. “Shizun hates that sword. He told me to destroy it.”
“You don’t have a single wife.”
“Why would I want a wife?” The impostor’s voice is full of contempt. Luo Binghe’s contempt, but he hasn’t earned the right to wield it.
“If he loves you,” Luo Binghe says, “why was he panting into my mouth like a hungry ghost?”
The impostor jerks back like he’s been hit. He holds there, eyes wide and lips parted. After a moment, his chest moves and Luo Binghe can see his breath restart.
It’s his own body. It’s his own powerful chest, strong arms and imposing features—the self Luo Binghe built over the old, ruined one. The demon version of himself, the version that does not have to fear loss or pain. But the way this other Binghe holds himself, he looks fragile, like black ice. He keeps allowing Luo Binghe to shatter him, and Luo Binghe is hardly trying.
“Did he deny it?” Luo Binghe demands. “When you asked. Did he deny the pleasure I granted him?”
“He said—that—it doesn’t matter what he said,” the impostor says. He blanched when Luo Binghe alluded to his lover’s indiscretions, but now he’s going pink, like he did before in the dream when Luo Binghe suggested he let Shen Qingqiu step on him. He thrusts his chin up, his eyes glittering with malice. “It was me he took to bed once we’d chased you away.”
“And he enjoyed that?”
“He—” The impostor flushes deeper, squirming against his bonds. “It doesn’t matter. He always says—I don’t have to tell you about that.”
“He enjoyed it with me,” Luo Binghe says. He is on solid ground now, the impostor wriggling like a fish on his hook. “He moaned into my mouth—his thighs flexed against mine, his body unable to conceal the depths of his pleasure. His hands grasped—”
“Stop it,” the impostor yelps. He stumbles to his feet, a pulse of dark energy obliterating the Immortal Binding Cables, which he likely could have done whenever he wanted. In their wake, his robes tatter to shreds, exposing slices of strong shoulder and taut chest. Luo Binghe barely glances; he’s seen mirrors. The important thing is that he’s goaded the fake into fighting him again. The thought of hurling an attack at that face fills him with bleak satisfaction.
And he’s destroyed the impostor’s confidence in Shen Qingqiu’s love.
“He was surprised,” Luo Binghe continues. "He'd never had it so good before."
For a powerful cultivator, feelings are not abstract. The impostor's swirl through his aura, showing as black in his energy as they do on his tormented face.
Why would I want a wife, he said.
Luo Binghe never used to know what people wanted from him. With all his women, he has pounded himself into a tempered blade. The right words. The right actions. He has had countless opportunities to test his persona, to see the effects of certain nuances of tone. He is not easily likable. If so many want him, it's because he's learned. And he could throw himself at the problem, trying over and over, because it didn't matter. After the first few romantic dalliances—when he was desperate, sick with the need to be loved—he got bold. No one rejection could take away the power he had already acquired. And in fact, no rejection ever came.
This other Luo Binghe, in contrast, has one person. One Shen Qingqiu, a man whose ability to love must be a shallow dish in comparison to the well of affection Luo Binghe receives from his wives. This impostor is still raw. He has not learned to suppress the qualities that made the younger Luo Binghe undesirable.
"I'll kill you for touching him," the other Binghe says. Luo Binghe can see that he means it, although his chances of succeeding are laughable.
"It's not my fault you don't share my expertise," Luo Binghe says. "Instead of killing me, you should be asking me for help."
The impostor clenches his hands into fists, then spreads his fingers into a claw shape, his demonic energy raging.
Then, all at once, it drops. The impostor’s hands go limp at his sides. Luo Binghe can see his throat move as he swallows, more than once.
If he cries again, Luo Binghe is going to strike him down right now.
But his countenance is hardening, his jaw tightening resolutely.
“And why not,” the impostor tosses out. His voice is high, arrogant. Maybe he has learned a few tricks.
“Why not show me,” the lesser Binghe says. “We’re the same person. If you think you’re so much better than me at pleasing Shizun, then show me. This body can do anything your body can do.”
Luo Binghe laughs. Even this shadow version of himself cannot help but submit to the superior king. It feels right—it restores some of what’s been off-balance since Shen Qingqiu refused to leave with him.
“By all means,” he says.
The other Binghe comes at him then, without killing intent, but fast—the way Luo Binghe sometimes throws himself into a fight he doesn’t really want to be in. He seems determined to be the one to act first. He grasps Luo Binghe’s shirt with both fists, pulls him forward, and smashes their mouths together.
At first Luo Binghe thinks the impostor does mean to fight him. After a moment it connects that this is his best attempt at a kiss.
The impostor lacks Luo Binghe’s experience. But he is, after all, in a relationship. And beyond that, he is Binghe—a quick study, if he remembers his own early experiences. Certainly Yingying would have told him if he was so... forceful. The impostor presses their mouths together like it is a contest of strength.
Luo Binghe grabs him by the hair and jerks his head back.
“Stop,” he says. The impostor looks at him, mouth pulled down into a frown.
Even before the Abyss, Luo Binghe knew he was attractive. It didn’t help—it wasn’t something he’d worked for, so having it gave no pride or solace in those dark days. But it was a tool, and one that rarely failed him. If he doesn’t have—whatever it is that makes people naturally lovable—at least he is an arresting figure. His face—sharp features, strong brows, dark lashes—looked the part of a demon king before the rest of him caught up.
But the impostor carries the same features differently. Although he lashes out with familiar rage and spiritual power, he lacks Luo Binghe’s conviction. His face shows every crack that Luo Binghe has worked hard to glue together. And now, the impostor looks uncertain. The question of his romantic skill, Luo Binghe can see, has a direct line down into a deep part of his heart. On the impostor, Luo Binghe’s eyes are wide, the mouth soft and hesitant. He is comely. Is it how Shen Qingqiu likes him?
“Don’t just dive in,” Luo Binghe says. “You should pay attention to what your wife wants.”
Too late, he realizes with a squeamish jolt that he is the wife in this scenario. But the impostor is nodding, his eyes growing wider. Thinking of Shen Qingqiu, maybe, and that makes Luo Binghe’s neck grow hot.
That’s how he learned, anyway—by following what the other person did. Maybe the impostor is struggling because Shen Qingqiu doesn’t know what to do. That’s alright; when Shen Qingqiu is here, Luo Binghe can teach him.
He tightens his grip on the other Binghe’s hair and leans in.
This is his chance to obliterate this man—his competition, no matter how laughable the prospect. He wants the other Binghe to experience the full range of his expertise. He wants to leave the other Binghe here to marinate in the shame of knowing he, Luo Binghe, is the lover Shen Qingqiu deserves.
He kisses the impostor with his lips parted, his tongue no intruder, but a natural invitee to the proceedings. With one hand still buried in the impostor’s hair, he uses the other to stroke along his jawline, soothing, until the impostor’s mouth falls open. Luo Binghe kisses him deeply, guided by his impulses—when the inferior Binghe pulls back, Luo Binghe follows; when he surges forward, Luo Binghe lets him. He lowers his hand, placing it flat against the impostor’s chest where his robes are torn, eager to feel the man’s heartbeat accelerate under Luo Binghe’s attentions.
The impostor gasps for air when their lips part, then breathes in a rush into Luo Binghe’s mouth. His pulse hammers against Luo Binghe’s palm.
Luo Binghe likes having a hand in the impostor’s hair; he likes the way the other Binghe lets him maneuver his head by it. It gives him the first hint of warmth that he’s felt towards the impostor. Finally, he is showing proper deference. Luo Binghe pulls him back to look at him—maybe a little too hard, because the impostor winces a little. His mouth is still open, like an invitation.
“Is that what Shizun likes?” he says.
“He likes it from me,” Luo Binghe says. On a hunch, he twists his hand deeper into the impostor’s hair, pulling it tight. The impostor’s mouth falls open again, his eyes snapping wide.
The impostor breathes in. “Shizun never wants to—” he says, then stops. “Shizun—doesn’t like to—hurt me.”
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t like to hurt him. It eviscerates Luo Binghe. For a moment he can’t speak.
The other Binghe no longer looks uncertain. His features are set, the jut of his jaw speaking to gritted teeth. He’s looking at Luo Binghe the way Luo Binghe looks at an unruly Huan Hua Palace disciple; with as much authority, and as much disregard.
“Do it again,” the impostor says.
Luo Binghe leans in, but the impostor jerks backward.
“Not kissing me,” he says. “I mean... what you just did.”
“This?” Luo Binghe twists his wrist, tugging the impostor’s hair hard. The impostor gives a tiny gasp, his eyes closing.
Luo Binghe understands. He is the same way. It gives him another jab of partiality towards the lesser Binghe. If this man is willing to submit, then perhaps he might have a role in Luo Binghe’s palace. Not as Shen Qingqiu’s consort, obviously, but something.
Luo Binghe leans in, yanking the impostor forward to meet him, and bites down on the taut skin at the hinge of the impostor’s jaw. The impostor makes a high noise, grabs Luo Binghe’s chin, and kisses him again.
He’s still too enthusiastic, doing too much, but it’s a little better and—the impostor bites at Luo Binghe’s lips, little nips over and over like he can’t commit to one place to bite. His hands scrabble at Luo Binghe’s sleep garments, nails catching the skin that shows just above his shirt collar.
Luo Binghe knows what to do with a willing body. He uses his grip on the other Binghe’s hair to push him down until his knees hit the floor, and then follows him. He cups the impostor’s face with both hands and kisses him deeply. They lose the artfulness of it quickly, pushing against each other and grappling at each other’s robes. The impostor’s are so torn that it’s a simple matter to shred the rest of the fabric covering his torso, and Luo Binghe is only wearing his black silk shirt and pants.
The impostor pushes Luo Binghe down and climbs on top of him, knees on either side of Luo Binghe’s hips. It’s like being attacked by a demonic creature; some monster with slavering fangs that’s been menacing Huan Hua Palace’s territory. But instead of devouring him, the impostor grabs Luo Binghe’s hands and puts them on his own body—one at his chest, and one at his throat. Luo Binghe digs his nails in where he’s been directed. The impostor closes his eyes and bites down on his lip.
Luo Binghe knows sex. He likes sex. His libido is legendary, literally—there are ballads.
But this is—this isn’t something he’s doing to heighten his status or solidify an alliance. It’s not because he needs the rush of someone’s gentle hands and warm smile, the sound of someone saying Luo Binghe with desire in their voice. He is not even successfully humiliating his pathetic counterpart. He just—he clutches at the impostor, scratching at his sides. The impostor makes a choked noise and leans down to kiss him again, hands flat on his chest.
The impostor pins Luo Binghe to the water prison floor with his whole body weight. His hair falls in curtains in Luo Binghe’s peripheral vision, closing him in. Luo Binghe is surrounded by the other Binghe’s searing presence. This isn’t—he doesn’t mind letting his partner take charge; the Palace Mistress and her whip have given him a lot of fond memories. But this person, this other iteration of himself, is not commanding him. The impostor is simply overwhelmed by desire, acting on his impulses, and he wants Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe can see it. He knows what it it’s like, to be ruled by the desires that come in choking waves. To be almost unmade by them.
The impostor kisses him, his knees squeezing Luo Binghe tight. Luo Binghe brings a hand up and holds him by the back of the neck, hard—like you would do to an unruly animal. The impostor whines.
It’s too much. Luo Binghe rises suddenly, pushing the impostor off him. He doesn’t mean to be cruel, but he’s a strong man, and the impostor flies back and hits the stone floor of the prison.
Luo Binghe doesn’t want to look at him. What if he’s shattered again? The way the impostor looks when he’s hurt—it’s mortifying that he can just show that face to everyone. It scrapes at Luo Binghe’s insides like it’s his own failure.
He can taste the impostor on his tongue.
“Don’t be so presumptuous,” he gets out. He scrambles to his feet and does not look at the impostor as he flees, the water curtain closing behind him.
He doesn’t go all the way back to his chambers. A few turned corners, a few dark corridors away, and he leans against the wall, a hand over his mouth.
When he kissed Shen Qingqiu, it was like nothing he’d felt before. Never before had desire ignited within him with such force. He thought that—he thought that it was Shen Qingqiu himself. Something about him. A beguiling siren. A succubus placed in Luo Binghe’s path to vex and distract him.
He has six hundred wives. He has been with six hundred women. It is impossible, that he might not desire women. It’s laughable.
He should find it funny. It should be funny. It shouldn’t unfurl something dark and urgent within him. It shouldn’t scare him, the way he wanted to tear his alternate self apart. To be torn apart in return.
He can hardly breathe. He needs Shen Qingqiu. That’s the person who made him like this, who sparked the flame that is eating him up. Once Shen Qingqiu is here, everything will be fine.
Luo Binghe leaves the prisoner alone. They have cultivated to the same level—the power difference between them is due to Xin Mo, not any gap in strength—so the impostor will be fine without food or water. He can sit and meditate, if he had such a great cultivation teacher who was oh-so-kind to him.
The thought of the impostor going mad in the water prison is one of the few things that brings a smile to his lips over the next few days. The impostor does not lack any of Luo Binghe’s flaws, so Luo Binghe takes satisfaction in knowing, no matter how it shames him, that he himself cannot stand isolation.
But the first day, he comes across his Little Palace Mistress in a lower part of the palace she has no reason to be in. The next day, it’s Sha Hualing and Qin Wanrong. The third day, he gathers the upper echelon of his harem for a discussion.
“Has anyone been visiting the man I have locked in the water prison?” he demands.
A surreptitious look shared between Mingyan and Ling-er confirms it.
“I gave orders to leave him alone,” Luo Binghe says.
“You actually didn’t, Lord Luo,” one of the Taoist nuns says. “You only forbade us from talking about him. But I don’t like him, anyway. He’s rude.”
“He is a little distant,” Ning Yingying says, twisting her fingers together. “I don’t think he likes me.” Even his Yingying was visiting the fraud? He would be insulted, but of course she has the sense to see which Binghe is superior.
“He is obsessed with Shen Qingqiu,” Qiu Haitang says with distaste. This brings a series of nods from throughout the room.
“Striking, really,” Liu Mingyan says quietly.
“I only went in there because I thought you were imprisoning a romantic rival,” the Palace Mistress says, tossing her hair back. “You were so discomposed when you came from the prison the other day. I thought it was my duty to put the new arrival in her place, as your third most important wife.” This elicits a yelp of offense from Sha Hualing.
“You always say we have free rein of the palace,” Ning Yingying points out.
“Of course you have free rein of the palace.” He’s not a monster. He’s not imprisoning his wives. He loves his wives.
“So the water prison is in the palace.”
“I know that,” Luo Binghe says, his anger quieting. He doesn’t like to be angry at his wives. He likes for them to like him. “But I didn’t mean to go places I expressly forbade anyone from going.”
“You didn’t forbid us,” the Taoist nun triplet says again, and everyone murmurs agreement.
Luo Binghe puts his hands to his temples. “Alright,” he says. “I apologize for troubling you, my precious jewels. In the future, I appeal to your sweet natures—” Sha Hualing makes another offended noise. “The sweet natures of the humans, and wicked natures of the demons,” he amends, “to avoid the man I have captive in the water prison. For me.”
There is a chorus of assent. At least three of his wives attempt to be the only one to brush his shoulder understandingly on his way out.
Perhaps it’s because he is preoccupied with the conversation that he doesn’t sense the incongruous presence in his private chambers. When he opens the door to his bedchamber, where the spiritual array that summoned the other Binghe is still active on the floor, Shen Qingqiu is standing at the center of it.
Luo Binghe straightens, a quiver shooting directly up his spine. Shen Qingqiu turns to look at him.
Oh, the beauty of his luminous skin. Oh, his cascade of silky hair, black and glossy as obsidian. The impertinent peek of a wrist in the way one sleeve falls, his nimble hand clutching his fan. His lustrous eyes, the thin arch of his brows. The intoxicating suggestion of his body’s form under the cool seafoam robes.
He once hated this face. But he has never seen it look the way this Shen Qingqiu wears it. A little dazed—the picture of coquettish naiveté. When he sees Luo Binghe, his eyes shine with relief, sweet as an apricot.
Luo Binghe makes his face soften, matching Shen Qingqiu’s smile.
“Shizun,” he says. “You’ve come for me.”
“Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu rushes to him. Luo Binghe’s heart judders to a fevered pace, thinking he might sweep his disciple into a passionate embrace, but Shen Qingqiu hangs back, rearranging his face to look more composed. “This master apologizes for the delay. It took a while to trace back the enchantment—we had to find some of your demon associates to help, it’s not my area of expertise—”
“That’s alright, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says warmly. He might pass out if Shen Qingqiu doesn’t touch him soon. “This disciple forgives you. This disciple would like a kiss from his master, if it pleases him.”
“This master is not surprised,” Shen Qingqiu says, but he’s smiling like he can’t help himself. “But wait—let me just—”
He tucks his fan into his sleeve and takes both of Luo Binghe’s hands. The shock of skin against skin makes Luo Binghe’s hands jump. Shen Qingqiu’s presence is a heady wine.
Shen Qingqiu turns them over and brushes his thumbs against the palms. When he looks up again, his eyes are narrow, his mouth hard.
“Where is he?” he says.
Luo Binghe goes cold.
It’s not fair. He has had enough of Shen Qingqiu looking at him with hostility. He doesn’t want it from this version.
“How do you always know?” he says, yanking his hands back.
“Of course I know, he’s my—my—disciple,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Take me to him immediately.”
Luo Binghe takes a step back. He turns and slides the door to his bedchamber shut, then faces Shen Qingqiu again.
Shen Qingqiu’s presence brings new vitality to the room around them. New urgency to Luo Binghe’s awareness. Luo Binghe’s stomach aches more than ever. He has wanted Shen Qingqiu for weeks, and now that Shen Qingqiu is in the room, the need has a frenzied edge. His mouth is dry.
“No,” he says. “You’re staying here with me.”
Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widen with fear. Perhaps he is regretting coming here alone, where Luo Binghe lay in wait for him. But the look on his face stings.
Yes, Luo Binghe hurt Shen Qingqiu—not only his version, but this one, the first time they met. But he didn’t know, then. He hadn’t seen Shen Qingqiu fling himself in front of Liu Qingge, shielding Luo Binghe in his injured state. He hadn’t felt Shen Qingqiu’s cool hands tend to his wounds. He hadn’t known Shen Qingqiu might curl up next to him in bed, arms around him to impart spiritual energy throughout the night.
Knowing all of that, how could he hurt him? How could Shen Qingqiu fear him?
Luo Binghe’s throat burns.
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu says, his voice low. “I know you can overpower me, but I will not make it easy for you.”
Luo Binghe knows seduction. He needs to smile at Shen Qingqiu and talk to him in a soothing tone. Assure him that he’s safe here. Show him that he, Luo Binghe, is an ally. Charm and entice him. It won’t be hard; he knows Shen Qingqiu is attracted to this body, and Luo Binghe’s personality is infinitely better than the impostor’s.
But Shen Qingqiu’s face. It is cold and severe, no trace of the affection with which he greeted Luo Binghe when he thought he was someone else.
He can’t stand it. Not after all of this. The weeks of obsession. The ritual gone wrong. The disastrous encounters with his other self. When he pictured Shen Qingqiu here, he was remembering his kindness. He didn’t think—he forgot that Shen Qingqiu might look at him the way he once looked at the child Luo Binghe.
He forgot none of that care was meant for him.
“Is that what you think of me?” he demands. “That I would hurt you?”
Shen Qingqiu hesitates. Luo Binghe fiercely hopes he doesn’t know what happened to the Shen Qingqiu of this world.
“Luo Binghe is formidable,” Shen Qingqiu says carefully.
“You’ll stay here with me,” Luo Binghe says. “I can—I can give you lodgings in another part of the palace if you require.” He thinks of giving Shen Qingqiu a room in the demon palace, where his harem lives, and heat races under his skin like a fever.
“Luo Binghe is too kind,” Shen Qingqiu says. “This master cannot be comfortable until he knows where his disciple is.”
“He’s in the water prison,” Luo Binghe snaps. “Would Shen Qingqiu like to be housed there?”
“The water prison?!” Luo Binghe always thought Shen Qingqiu an impassive man. But this Shen Qingqiu’s face is so animated. His eyes screw up in distress. “If that’s where my disciple is, then yes, please take me there as well.”
It grabs Luo Binghe by the guts. He’s so devoted to his disciple that he would rather be in prison with him than in comfort with Luo Binghe?
What is so good about him? What has he done to bewitch this man so thoroughly? Luo Binghe’s pulse throbs in his throat.
Luo Binghe knows himself—he doesn’t move past things. He remembers every hurt inflicted on him, even years after his revenge has been wrought. If he can’t figure out why Shen Qingqiu loves the impostor and not him, he will never stop thinking about it. It will torment his every hour.
All of this. Everything he’s achieved—his harem, his status, his kingdom, his sect. It’s still left him in the same place he was twelve years ago, a thirteen-year-old desperate to know if there was anyone in the world for him. To find out now that he made such a grave error—that he missed out on the love of this man—is intolerable.
Luo Binghe bursts out, “Why don’t you like me?”
Shen Qingqiu startles. At least it gets the animosity off his face. “What?”
“I don’t understand,” Luo Binghe says. He can’t draw a full breath. It leaves him lightheaded, the room around him taking on a dreamy quality. “I don’t understand why—I don’t know what he did differently. I don’t know how he made you love him. I—” He swallows against the words.
This is why he hates Shen Qingqiu. Even when he had Shen Qingqiu in his clutches, the man could say things that called forth the scared child that Luo Binghe left behind. Even when Luo Binghe had survived Shen Qingqiu’s attack and surpassed him, Shen Qingqiu would never give his approval. Luo Binghe feels it, rooted deep in his muscles, the hatred that led him to carve off this man’s limbs. His choices are to love Luo Binghe or die.
“What did I do wrong?” he says. His voice comes out high and weak. “How was he different, how did he make you care for him? Why did—why did you hate me so much? What was wrong with me?”
Shen Qingqiu’s mouth falls open. “Oh my god,” he says, “you really are Binghe. Oh fuck,” he continues, invoking a god Luo Binghe knows not.
“Of course I—what does that mean?” Luo Binghe demands. He’s acting like a fool, but he can’t stop.
“No, no, I knew that you were Luo Binghe but you’re really—” Shen Qingqiu stops and closes his eyes. His mouth tightens. He looks pained, like he's getting a headache. Then he nods once, takes several confident steps forward, and wraps Luo Binghe in his arms.
Luo Binghe doesn’t move. His breathing is still wrong; his chest jerks erratically against Shen Qingqiu’s. Shen Qingqiu’s hands splay across his back, pressing against him firmly. It’s the physical equivalent of the tone he took with the other Binghe—stern but anxious, hiding a core of deep care.
Luo Binghe’s insides wrench, his guts meeting his ribcage. Shen Qingqiu is shorter than him, or he would have liked to hide his face in Shen Qingqiu’s chest. Instead he’s stuck looking over Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder as his vision blurs.
“Binghe, no,” Shen Qingqiu says desperately. His hands are in Luo Binghe’s hair, stroking it. Like Yingying, but not like Yingying, because he doesn’t—he doesn’t know Luo Binghe, he doesn’t even get it. Luo Binghe puts his face against the side of Shen Qingqiu’s head, leaking tears into his beautiful soft hair. An ugly sob tears out of him.
He’s ruining everything. Shen Qingqiu will never fall in love with him like this.
“Listen to me,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Calm for a second, Binghe, I need to tell you something.”
Luo Binghe will not calm for a second. He wraps his arms around Shen Qingqiu in return, pinning him in place. Shen Qingqiu did this to him, and he is going to make Shen Qingqiu deal with the consequences. Each breath is an effort, ripping from his throat with a harsh sound and jerking his whole body.
“I can’t stand crying,” Shen Qingqiu groans. Luo Binghe clutches him harder. Shen Qingqiu pats his hair again.
Shen Qingqiu quiets. He presses his hands into Luo Binghe’s back and makes little soothing noises, but mostly he lets Luo Binghe cry. It’s meant to be nice, but it fills Luo Binghe with terror; he’s not the one Shen Qingqiu wants to stay with. Any kindness Shen Qingqiu shows him now is conditional. It will end. He holds Shen Qingqiu’s robes in his fists and sobs.
“Shen Qingqiu,” he gasps. “Shen Qingqiu.”
“I’m here, don’t—don’t say it like that,” Shen Qingqiu says, swatting Luo Binghe’s shoulder. “Don’t say it so seriously!”
But Luo Binghe can’t respond. He buries his face against Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, even though he has to crane his neck down to do it. There is so much inside him, and it’s all coming out and soaking Shen Qingqiu’s robes. If he stops crying, he has to face whatever Shen Qingqiu will do or say next. Right now, Shen Qingqiu is comforting him. So he can’t stop crying.
Crying hurts. He didn’t remember that. Every muscle in his chest is wound tight to its breaking point. Every sob causes a violent spasm. Only Shen Qingqiu’s body against his is solid and undisturbed.
Eventually he gets worn out. His eyes grow sore, his throat raw. His neck hurts from bending over Shen Qingqiu. His breath, hot and damp against his mouth where he’s been muffling it in Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, starts to even out.
“Really, Binghe, listen,” Shen Qingqiu says. His voice is soft; a timbre Luo Binghe last heard in the bamboo house in the other world and never before. Shen Qingqiu tries to pull back, but Luo Binghe’s grip holds firm. Shen Qingqiu makes a little frustrated noise, a half-snort. “I know, but I need to talk to you,” he says.
Luo Binghe does not release Shen Qingqiu from the circle of his arms, but he loosens them, enough to let Shen Qingqiu worm his way back to look Luo Binghe in the face. His own face crumples, which is the worst thing he could possibly have done. Luo Binghe does not want the sight of him to inspire dismay in his chosen paramour. He bites the inside of his cheek, trying not to start crying again.
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu sighs. He lifts his arms and uses his sleeves to wipe Luo Binghe’s face. When he drops his arms, his own eyes are glistening.
Luo Binghe could die of love.
He would trade his entire harem.
“Listen,” Shen Qingqiu says, his voice firm. Maybe the voice he would have used with Luo Binghe as a teacher, if he had ever been a teacher to him. Luo Binghe gravitates toward it, a budding flower seeking light.
“You know how—some things are different, in the world where I live,” Shen Qingqiu says. “And the Binghe that I live with—he’s different from you, but he's the same person. I’m not like that, alright? I’m not the same person as the Shen Qingqiu from your world. I’m a different person. So your Shen Qingqiu—there was no way he could ever act like me. Understand?” Shen Qingqiu searches Luo Binghe’s face, a little crease at the center of his forehead. “There is nothing you could have done to make him anything other than cruel.”
Luo Binghe exhales. When he inhales, it sounds wet.
“Is that true,” he says. He’s managed to summon a little haughtiness back to his tone, and his voice doesn’t shake.
“Yes, I promise,” Shen Qingqiu says. “You did nothing wrong.”
Luo Binghe feels a little foolish. He drops Shen Qingqiu and tries to step back, but his back hits the door and he stumbles forward into Shen Qingqiu’s arms again.
“I didn’t realize,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I made a mistake, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were—like my Binghe.”
"I am not," Luo Binghe says.
"Of course, of course," Shen Qingqiu says, raising placating palms. Instead of lowering his hands, he places them on Luo Binghe’s shoulders. “I just mean—Luo Binghe is a more sentimental person than I thought. This master was wrong. Can Binghe forgive me?”
Luo Binghe puts his hands over the backs of Shen Qingqiu’s hands. “Stay with me,” he says. “Don’t go back with him. Stay here. I will die without you.”
But Shen Qingqiu is already shaking his head. “I can’t.”
“Join my harem,” Luo Binghe says. “I’ll—I’ll promote you above Ling-er. I’ll promote you above Mingyan.” Everyone will complain, but Luo Binghe can handle it.
“No!” Shen Qingqiu yelps. “Don’t offer me things like that! That’s not appropriate!”
“You will not leave.” He tightens his fingers around Shen Qingqiu’s hands, crushing them. “I don’t care if it makes you hate me, I have to keep you here. You can hate me but—I need you by my side.”
“Oh, Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu’s eyes are wide and bright, his eyebrows tilting up at the inner corners. It’s not a look of love or fear. It’s just pity.
“I know you feel that way,” he says. “But it won’t make you happy. I would be miserable, and my—my Binghe would be miserable, and you would be miserable.”
“That’s not true.” He wants to sound firm, but his voice comes out with too much breath behind it. “I will be happy if you’re here.”
“Binghe, no.” Shen Qingqiu sighs. “Sticky as ever! This master can’t just do what you want!”
Shen Qingqiu does not understand. It’s not only that Luo Binghe wants him. It’s that by coming into Luo Binghe’s life, he’s drained the meaning from everything else in it. He thought he knew love—desire—but he knows now that what he feels for his wives is only mimicry. Now that he’s seen the looks shared between Shen Qingqiu and the other Binghe, his duties as a demon lord and sect leader seem pale, inglorious things. With one motion, Shen Qingqiu scythed away everything Luo Binghe lives for, and he refuses to take responsibility and step in as a replacement.
“Please stay with me,” Luo Binghe says.
“Oh, Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu touches his hair again. “Look. What if you came with me instead?”
It takes him a moment to hear. The feeling of Shen Qingqiu’s hand in his hair occupies all of his perception.
Shen Qingqiu’s face is the picture of a composed master, but color spreads across his cheeks. He extracts his hands from Luo Binghe’s grip to wrangle his fan out of his sleeve, snaps it open and fans himself rapidly.
“Just come with us,” he says. The words are clipped, impatient, like Luo Binghe is being recalcitrant. “I don’t see why not. It wouldn’t have to be forever. If Binghe doesn’t like it, he can come back here.”
Luo Binghe is standing too close to Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu’s delicate face overwhelms his senses; he can’t think clearly about the words.
“What about your disciple?”
If he had Shen Qingqiu, he wouldn’t let anyone else near him.
“I’ll talk to him.” Shen Qingqiu clears his throat. “This doesn’t mean... I don’t mean that I... Um.” His eyes search the ceiling. “The... companionship... that my disciple and I share.” He inches his fan upward to hide more of his face, but Luo Binghe can see the tops of his cheeks flushing. “I can’t promise—that is, I wouldn’t want to—that is, it’s Binghe’s decision if—”
“I see,” Luo Binghe says.
“Luo Binghe is a fortunate man,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Such an impressive harem! This master can’t imagine anything in our humble world would be of interest. But—if you want to, then you can. That’s all.” He clears his throat again; it turns into a small coughing fit.
The previous time, Luo Binghe extended the invitation to Shen Qingqiu in an impulsive fit. He only became conscious of the desire as he said it. He often reaches for things at the moment he realizes he wants them; it usually works. It did not, then, have the weight of a real decision.
He meant to take something from the other Binghe. He did not mean for Shen Qingqiu to take something from him.
In the other realm, the other him is the leader of Huan Hua Palace and lord of the northern demon realm. The other him is Shen Qingqiu’s closest companion. Luo Binghe would lose his wives, his status, his life. The other Mobei-jun would bow to his doppelganger, not him. His private quarters would not be his own. He wouldn’t even be the only one with such a high level of spiritual power.
He does not want to be the outsider. He does not want to leave this place where everyone defers to him and enter a world where he must tread lightly. Where he must recognize the existent relationship between Shen Qingqiu and another man, even if that man is also him.
But Shen Qingqiu would look at him every day. Not with hatred.
“Yes,” he says. “I want to.”
“Oh! Well... good. That’s good,” Shen Qingqiu says. He reaches up to grip the sides of Luo Binghe’s head. He pulls him down, goes up on his tiptoes, and kisses him on the cheek.
Luo Binghe’s eyes fill with tears again. He frowns, blinking them back. Is this how it’s going to be now? Just because he cried once, now he’s like the impostor Binghe, a waterskin waiting to be pricked?
“Don’t look at me like that,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I just felt like doing it. Stop looking like it’s so heavy!”
“Shen Qingqiu,” Luo Binghe says helplessly. No wonder the impostor is so fragile; no one’s constitution could survive this.
Luo Binghe cannot bear to watch Shen Qingqiu and the fake Binghe reunite. He tries not to listen, either, focusing on the rush of the water curtain. But he can hear the tone of Shen Qingqiu’s voice—the bossy way he gets when he’s worried—and the sweetness that fills the impostor’s. Luo Binghe would never recognize it as his own voice.
The water churns into lethal froth. Luo Binghe’s face is swollen from crying. It’s hard to believe it’ll ever feel normal again.
Shen Qingqiu says, “Binghe, look—” and drops his voice. A moment later, the impostor makes an upset noise.
Shen Qingqiu asked Luo Binghe to be quiet and let him handle this conversation. Luo Binghe is not accustomed to waiting around while his fate is being decided. Perhaps this is what he’s reduced to now. He’s let so many things slide out of control already.
They’re speaking in hushed tones, but he can hear the other Binghe’s whispers growing faster and more agitated.
“Shizun—” The impostor swallows visibly. “Isn’t it—am I not enough?”
“Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu smacks his arm. “It’s because of how this master feels about you. This master cannot—this master is not willing to watch Luo Binghe suffer alone. Isn’t that clear enough already?”
“Shizun!” The impostor bites his lip, his eyes glossy. “This disciple is honored, but—you don’t understand. He said he killed the other you!”
“And so?” Shen Qingqiu demands. “Where would we be if I refused to associate with anyone who wanted to kill me sometime, ah?”
“Shizun.” The impostor blinks one too many times. His eyelashes are wet. “I was wrong, I know I was wrong. I didn’t really ever want to hurt you.”
Shen Qingqiu softens. He reaches up to pat the impostor’s head, rubbing his thumb over his forehead. “This master knows. And this master has long since forgiven you, Binghe. So sometimes people make mistakes, don’t they?”
Luo Binghe has had enough. In a moment they’re going to forget about him and start being nauseating, just like on Qing Jing Peak. He will not be ignored while the question of his presence is still unsettled.
“You need not extend me any generosity,” he says. “There are marked advantages to my company. You should be on your knees pleading for me to come.”
The impostor’s gaze snaps to him. His eyes narrow, any trace of tears entirely vanished. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean your intimate relations.”
He thought mentioning the impostor’s prowess would make him waver. But the impostor glances at Shen Qingqiu, and when he looks back his jaw is set like iron.
“You are better than me,” he says. “But Shizun says that we can get better together. I don’t need to learn anything from you.”
The other Binghe is an imbecile. Maybe he hasn’t accomplished as much as Luo Binghe because he cannot turn a situation like this to his advantage. He should be able to see how he can extract value from Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe will just have to show him.
Luo Binghe grabs the impostor's wrist and yanks him forward. He takes his head in both hands and kisses him.
There’s a noise from Shen Qingqiu like he’s been stabbed. Luo Binghe bites the impostor’s bottom lip, digging his fingers into the soft skin just under his jaw. The impostor clutches the front of Luo Binghe’s robes and twists, pulling the fabric tight across his shoulders.
Luo Binghe breaks the kiss and leans in to speak into the other Binghe’s ear. “I meant I could teach him some things, too,” he says. Then he bites down hard on the impostor’s earlobe.
When he pulls back, Shen Qingqiu has a hand clapped over his eyes. His face is bright red.
“Binghe, please,” he says. It sounds like the words had to squeeze their way out of his throat. Luo Binghe doesn’t know which of them he’s talking to. “A little propriety.”
“Fine,” the impostor says. He shoves away from Luo Binghe and crosses his arms over his chest. “You can come.”
Shen Qingqiu makes another noise deep in his throat. “That’s what it takes? Binghe, you—shameless—”
“Yes,” his disciple says. "It's the romantic water prison atmosphere, Shizun, it reminds me of our first date."
“That wasn’t a—okay.” Shen Qingqiu puts the heels of his hands to his temples. His eyes are bleary. “Alright. Okay. Let’s get out of here.”
He is not the same Shen Qingqiu that Luo Binghe knew. He continues to reveal new dimensions, little surprises hiding behind Shen Qingqiu’s face and voice. Luo Binghe has learned that he’s kind. Protective. Sometimes flustered. He wants to learn more. He wants to keep opening new doors and seeing what this Shen Qingqiu contains. He wants to see all his reactions and know all his idle thoughts. Luo Binghe is a being constructed around want, a person defined by what he’s never had. He wants Shen Qingqiu to fill his sight. He wants to hear, smell, touch only Shen Qingqiu.
He wants to learn what he could feel, beyond what he’s felt before. Whatever his wives have never given him.
Shen Qingqiu extends a hand to him. As he takes it, it is the only thing he wants in the world.