About fifty feet from where Luo Binghe stands, a beautiful maiden lounges on a craggy outcrop jutting over a pool of lava.
This is not as uncommon a sight as one might first imagine. The first time Luo Binghe had seen such a thing, he had staggered over, dazed, hungry, and more than a little suspicious, but nurturing a small hope that he wasn’t the only one that had fallen (been pushed! Pushed!) into the Abyss. The beautiful maiden had turned out to be a fifty-foot monster compacting itself into human shape, but only after Luo Binghe had — politely — turned down an invitation to get more intimate, and Luo Binghe might have spent the last few years living in a dream on a lofty scholar’s peak, but any street rat knew that lilt, the come-hither lilt of girls just trying to get by.
After the first, there truly has been no shortage of beautiful maidens (both with and without deadly intent), and had he been of a mind, he could truly have been cultivating a set of skills not befitting a young master of Qing Jing peak. Instead, he finds that beautiful young maidens generally have access to a nice, secluded spot, sheltered from the acid rain that falls from the sky, hidden from the mindless monsters that prowl, absolutely perfect for sleeping.
It is with weary feet that Luo Binghe skitters a rock, not entirely on purpose, and the beautiful maiden’s head snaps up.She smiles a beguiling smile when she spots him.
“Hello, traveler,” the beautiful maiden calls. “What’s a handsome man like you doing in an awful place like this?”
Luo Binghe thinks about his filthy robes; once white and pale green, but now ragged and threadbare, tinged with red and brown from injuries long-healed. Thinks about the blood and gore still encrusted under his nails, the sweat and the slime still stagnant on his skin. He smiles back the way he used to when he was a popular disciple dashing through town.
“I could ask the same of you,” Luo Binghe says, tone jovial and friendly. “There’s a Thousand-Headed Centipede nesting not far from here, are you sure it’s safe to be out?”
The Thousand-Headed Centipede is dead by Luo Binghe’s own hand, but the Abyss is never truly safe. It’s eat or be eaten, literally enough that Luo Binghe’s stomach churns when he thinks about all he’s put in it.
The beautiful maiden laughs, a delicate tinkling sound. “Don’t you worry about me, I’m sure I’m scarier than any old centipede.”
Luo Binghe puts on a delicate frown, like he doesn’t believe her. “If you’re sure.”
She laughs again, patting the stone beside her. “Why don’t you come sit with me for a while? I’ll keep you safe from any big, bad centipedes.”
This is still within the seduce-to-eat Five-Step Plan most Beautiful Young Maidens have going for them down in the Abyss, so Luo Binghe thinks nothing of it to scoot onto the ledge, dangling his feet over the lava pool.
She smiles coyly at him, and Luo Binghe smiles back.
Then she chomps on his arm, dull human teeth barely pausing against the ragged and filthy remains of his sect uniform, tearing out a chunk of his bicep, swallowing it down with a cough.
Luo Binghe jumps to his feet, reaching for the barely-serviceable sword he found and belted onto his waist. It can’t even sustain a minimal amount of spiritual power without making an ominous sort of creaking, but it digs into the maiden’s shoulder well enough, and she lets out a swear as the dull blade catches on bone and sticks.
Then, she doubles over as Luo Binghe’s blood makes short work of her organs, poking holes and dissolving her insides, stumbling on the ledge. Luo Binghe braces a foot against her chest as he wrestles to dig the sword out, severing her arm with a meaty crack that doesn’t make him blink. The arm hits the ledge, dead and lifeless as the beautiful maiden transforms, youthful skin becoming wrinkled and gray, hair going wiry and white, teeth growing into sharp and jagged fangs.
She no longer looks human, and she dies with one last guttural scream, giving out into a wheeze as her lungs disintegrate.
Luo Binghe carefully prods at his regenerating bicep, but doesn’t feel the acrid sting of venom or the rotten-sweet smell of decaying flesh and decides it’s probably going to be fine.
A quick check of the corpse reveals a singular potion of some sort, a light blue liquid that reminds Luo Binghe of the sky in places that aren’t eternally damned, and a quick sniff makes him sneeze. He tucks it into his qiankun pouch.
He’s about to hop off the ledge and look for her conveniently placed sex lair, which he thinks might not exist considering how little effort she put into seduction, instead choosing ingestion, when his gaze lands on the arm.
It looks, for all intents and purposes, like the arm of a beautiful maiden, and not at all like a shriveled mass of skin given life like the rest of the corpse does. He pokes at it with the tip of his shitty stolen sword, and when it doesn’t leap at his face to suck out his eyeballs, crouches down for closer inspection.
It’s a normal arm, really. The only eye-catching thing is the insanely hideous ring jammed onto one of the fingers. Luo Binghe pries it off the finger with some effort, and it hums in his hand with an obvious magical signature. The arm shrivels back to something that matches the body, and Luo Binghe turns the ring over in his hand with interest before slipping it on his own finger.
He doesn’t feel any different, and he doesn’t seem to have grown breasts. Maybe it doesn’t turn everyone into a beautiful young maiden? Maybe the illusion only extends visually? He doesn’t have a mirror to check. Not that being a beautiful young maiden would be of much use to him anyway.
If only it did something useful, like teleport, or turn back time.
As soon as he has that thought, his world swims, and his skin itches, but only for a brief moment, not enough to truly alarm.When his vision clears, he’s swimming in his robes, and the ring encircles a tiny child’s hand.
He thinks about being six feet tall and his robes dangle at his shins. He thinks about having long arms and he stretches out past the cuffs of his robes.
He pries the ring off his finger, a half-thought becoming a nebulous sort of hope.
Luo Binghe stands at the base of Cang Qiong Mountain sect, staring at the gates, idly considering the wards.
Back when he was still a disciple, there had been minimal wards, and it was fairly easy for one to come and go. But after Sha Hualing and her army had invaded, changes had been made, new wards had been erected, and security measures implemented.
Luo Binghe twists the ring around his finger, considering.
As a disciple, he should still be able to enter. If Shen Qingqiu hasn’t struck him from the records, that is, and that’s a big if . But do the wards allow overrides for half-demons? Does he still count as half-demon, even disguised as a small human child? He thinks he probably does, being himself at the core. He can still access his qi, both versions of it, so he could blast his way in if push comes to shove.
But that would raise alarms.
When he first got the ring, his plan had been an intangible hope, something he thought about idly, but not for too long. Then it became a daydream: he’d disguise himself as a battered little child. Shizun had a soft spot for battered children, hard as it was to see. He’d been a battered child when he’d been scooped from the field of flowers, exhausted from digging his hole. He’d been a battered child when Shizun had changed, becoming softer and gentle.
Then he’d found Xin Mo, and daydream had become a plan, concrete and real.
And now, here he was standing at the village crouched at the base of Cang Qiong Mountain, attired as a down-trodden street rat, except for the large, gaudy ring that hangs too large off his small child fingers, and he realizes that he had just assumed that he would be able to waltz in.
Well, no matter. He squares his shoulders and is just about to try his luck sauntering in through the wards when he hears a clatter of horse hooves behind him.
“Shidi, really ,” a heart-wrenchingly familiar voice says. “I’m not going to fall over and die if left unsupervised. I am, actually, an adult.”
There’s an aggressive sort of hum that says “I sincerely doubt it” more than any words actually could.
He doesn’t need to turn to see that it’s Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu to know it’s them, but he does and his chest goes tight.
He thought he’d be able to keep a cool head when he saw Shen Qingqiu, and he does externally. He doesn’t cry or scream or faint like he might if he were a novel character. His world doesn’t swim. He doesn’t stagger under the weight of emotions, even though he feels they might crush him.
Internally, Luo Binghe is an ocean— emotions he wasn’t even aware he had and that he has no name for swimming out of the depths of himself, clamoring to be felt and heard. With the willpower he found in the Abyss, he sets them aside.
Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge are still talking after dismounting their horses. Liu Qingge has his arms crossed in front of his chest, looking for all the world like an immovable boulder. Shen Qingqiu is still talking animatedly, but Luo Binghe can tell by the way he drums his fingers on his fan that he’s steadily getting irritated.
It’s not an atypical exchange between the two.
“I’m not some child that needs to be supervised in the marketplace,” Shen Qingqiu is saying, as Luo Binghe draws closer.
Liu Qingge clearly disagrees, and honestly so does Luo Binghe, but it rankles something in him to see Liu Qingge say so.
“Zhangmen-shixiong told me to watch over you while not on the mountain,” Liu Qingge says. “We are not on the mountain.”
“We are standing within one hundred feet of the mountain,” Shen Qingqiu argues back. “I think it’s close enough to count. And I hardly needed a minder in the first place!”
Luo Binghe pads up to them, and Shen Qingqiu catches sight of him first, turning his head to grace him with a smile. Liu Qingge follows his gaze with a scowl, then an eye roll.
“Hello,” Shen Qingqiu greets him. “Are you lost?”
“Get lost, we don’t have any money,” Liu Qingge barks, but Shen Qingqiu hits his arm with his fan.
“No-o,” Luo Binghe stutters out, turning on his watery eyes. Luo Binghe watches Shen Qingqiu’s face soften and makes a quick calculation. He throws himself at Shen Qingqiu’s leg, clinging on even as he stumbles back slightly in surprise. “Please take me on as a disciple! I’ll do my very best! I won’t disappoint you! I’ll—I’ll sleep in the woodshed! I don’t eat very much! Please!”
Shen Qingqiu might like children, but doesn’t respond particularly well to being touched by strangers. Luo Binghe clings onto his legs, resisting his gentle attempts to be dislodged.
“That’s not really how it works,” Shen Qingqiu says, and Luo Binghe starts to cry, wiping his wet tears into the fabric of Shen Qingqiu’s robes. “The sect isn’t really taking disciples—”
Luo Binghe amplifies his silent tears to loud, chest-heaving sobs. “I don’t have anywhere else to go- o ,” he sobs. “They’re all dead. It’s just me- e. ”
He feels a hand settle on his head, slowly patting his hair. It’s so familiar it aches.
And this. This is why he came back. Maybe Shizun can’t accept a half-breed monstrosity, but he can love a human. Luo Binghe knows, he felt it.
“I—” Shen Qingqiu starts. Luo Binghe can’t see his face, but he doesn’t need to. He knows his Shizun, knows how tender that heart really is.
“You can’t be serious ,” Liu Qingge says, and that’s the clincher. Shizun hates to be thought of as stupid. Luo Binghe can taste his victory. Thank you, Liu-shishu.
Luo Binghe lets go of Shen Qingqiu’s leg as he moves to bend down, coming eye-level with Luo Binghe.
“How old are you, little one?” Shen Qingqiu asks, hand still on his head.
“Ten!” Luo Binghe says, which is the minimum age Cang Qiong peak accepts disciples. It’s also the oldest Luo Binghe thinks this form can reasonably be, having opted to go for a smaller form to more easily worm his way into Shizun’s heart and to extend the time he could stay on the peak.
Liu Qingge scoffs. Shen Qingqiu hums.
“And what’s your name?”
Shen Qingqiu’s smile goes a little weird, like it does when he’s hiding something. Luo Binghe has no idea what it might be.
“A fine name.”
Shen Qingqiu straightens. And then, without so much as asking, he hoists Luo Binghe up by the waist onto his horse.
“It’s pending the sect leader’s approval, of course,” Shen Qingqiu explains, “but I’m sure we can find you a place on Qing Jing peak.”
Luo Binghe doesn’t have to force the blinding smile. “Thank you, Shizun! I won’t disappoint!”
“I’m not Shizun yet, ” he chides with a small smile, picking up the reins of the horse. He doesn’t swing up to join Luo Binghe on the horse as he hoped he might, instead choosing to keep pace beside.
Liu Qingge declines to say anything further, even as Shen Qingqiu waves Luo Binghe through the wards and the horses trot up the mountain path.
Shen Qingqiu asks him questions about his origins and family, with varying degrees of delicacy, and Luo Binghe answers with as minimal amount of information that he thinks he could get away with. It’s almost fun, crafting a story that doesn’t open itself to scrutiny but nonetheless tailored to be touching to its target, and it comes about as naturally as breathing.
Shen Qingqiu asks about his schooling, and Luo Binghe debates within himself, but ultimately decides that he only knows a smattering of characters. He’ll need to be tutored! Extensively! Alone! Just like last time! With Shizun guiding his hand to hold the brush correctly! His heart flutters at the thought of it.
They arrive at the top of the mountain in no time. Shen Qingqiu lifts him off the horse, and Liu Qingge goes to stable the horses without a word. Shen Qingqiu calls over his shoulder, “can you take the flowers to Mu-shidi?”
Liu Qingge makes an irritated hand gesture that Shen Qingqiu obviously interprets as assent, because he walks Luo Binghe down the rainbow bridge towards Qing Jing peak, a hand on his shoulder.
“We’ll see about getting you cleaned up, then present you to the sect leader.”
Luo Binghe mutters an affirmation, looking around as they walk, trying to catalog the differences three years have made.
It’s not a great deal. The only real difference is that the peak is not as populated as years past, but that falls in line with the difficulties every other sect seems to be facing, after the disaster that the Immortal Alliance Conference created.
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t talk much walking across the rainbow bridge, ever the aloof immortal. Luo Binghe casts glances at him, trying to find evidence that the betrayal of his most favored disciple left some mark.
He’s perhaps thinner, the edges of his cheekbones sharper, but the bulk of his robes makes it hard to tell.
He doesn’t appear a man torn to shreds over his decision, as a small part of Luo Binghe hoped he might. That’s why he’s here like this, right? Shizun can’t accept a Heavenly Demon, so a human he shall be.
Arriving at Qing Jing peak doesn’t feel as much like coming home as he thought it might. He’s dreamed it, of course. Recreated it so many times in his head that the edges had started to wear a little thin, everything becoming a little too perfect.
His eyes don’t well up with tears the moment he sees the bamboo house, though he has to suppress a frown at the sight of the leaves clogging the front walkway. It’s a constant battle to keep it clean, but they become slippery when it rains in the fall and some disciple always manages to slip when carrying something precious.
“This master lives here,” Shen Qingqiu says. “My disciples are welcome, within reason, but you’ll be staying in the dormitories with your disciple brothers.”
Luo Binghe nods. The last time, he had weaseled his way into the side room by sheer chance. He’s sure he can do it again, and it’s not disastrous if he doesn’t.
Ming Fan bursts out of the front door as they approach, relief on seeing them clear on his face.
“Shifu,” he greets, “the sect leader is here to see you.”
Shen Qingqiu gives a sigh. “Then let’s see what he wants.”
Luo Binghe doesn’t remember the relationship between Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan being bad, but Shen Qingqiu is tense around the shoulders all the same. Shizun used to hold frosty disdain for the sect leader, he remembers. Luo Binghe didn’t even have to see the sect leader on the peak to know he had been, the pinch of Shizun’s lips and sharper than normal words all the indication one needed that he had been by. Now, Shizun is polite, if distant, but always uncomfortable.
Yue Qingyuan sits at the low tea table in the front room. Luo Binghe notes that Ming Fan, for all his obsession over tea and how to do it properly, has neglected to serve any.
“Shidi,” Yue Qingyuan greets, warmly.
“Zhangmen-shixiong,” Shen Qingqiu replies icily.
“Your disciple informed me you were unavailable, I’m glad to have caught you,” Yue Qingyuan says mildly.
“I was on the errand zhangmen-shixiong asked me to perform,” Shen Qingqiu replies. “I’ve only just returned.”
Yue Qingyuan makes a small ah of comprehension. “Shidi was away longer than expected. I hope everything went smoothly?”
“We retrieved the flowers,” Shen Qingqiu says in a tone of closing the topic.
“I see,” Yue Qingyuan says. “Then I won’t trouble shidi.”
He moves to stand. Shen Qingqiu rests a hand on Luo Binghe’s shoulder.
“If zhangman-shixiong doesn’t mind, there is something I would like to discuss, while he is here.”
Yue Qingyuan settles back down. “Oh?”
“This is Jiang Yuan,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I’d like to take him as a disciple.”
Yue Qingyuan looks over Luo Binghe with assessing eyes, starting from the tips of his dirty hair, down to his toes starting to peak through his worn boots. Luo Binghe doesn’t feel any embarrassment, his appearance had been necessary to get to this point, but he flushes as though in shame and embarrassment.
“I assume shidi has run a test to determine his spiritual aptitude?”
Shen Qingqiu nods without any hesitation. “I have.”
Luo Binghe casts wary eyes at him. Perhaps the hand on his shoulder was a probe at his meridians? His demonic aura is suppressed, but it’s not sealed like it was when he was a child, and he’s not sure anyone probing at his core would be able to tell of his demonic heritage. Besides, he’s far too along in core formation for an untrained orphan.
But Shen Qingqiu doesn’t seem like he knows, he’s far too calm and noticeably not calling for Luo Binghe to be thrown into hell for the sins of his line. That likely means he’s lying.
Luo Binghe feels odd— warmed at the realization that he’s willing to ruin his reputation so a child can have a home, but bitter that he’s not willing to ruin his reputation for a favored disciple. Hypocrite, his mind seethes.
Yue Qingyuan nods. “I don’t see why it should be a problem,” he says. “Given that shidi also accepts new disciples the next time the trials are staged.”
“Of course,” Shen Qingqiu agrees easily. Yue Qingyuan nods and stands.
“I will leave you to rest, then.” Yue Qingyuan excuses himself, and Luo Binghe isn’t imagining the way he’s sized up with a thoughtful look as he goes. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t seem to notice, instead frowning as he gazes about the room. He walks over to a stack of books, shuffling them around as if looking for something, placing them back haphazardly.
“Where did Ming Fan disappear to?” He looks around as if that will make Ming Fan appear.
Luo Binghe hadn’t really noticed Ming Fan’s absence. Shen Qingqiu pushes open the door to the yard, and Luo Binghe doesn’t see Ming Fan at first, given how he’s all but cowering under the combined weight of stares from Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge.
Shen Qingqiu marches over, and Luo Binghe trails behind. “What business do you have with my head disciple?”
Liu Qingge lifts his head to meet Shen Qingqiu’s eyes stubbornly, but Yue Qingyuan puts on a placid smile.
“I’m done here,” Liu Qingge says, and hops on his sword in one swift movement. He’s gone in a blink. Shen Qingqiu looks unimpressed, but not particularly surprised. He rounds on Yue Qingyuan, raising an eyebrow imperiously.
“I was simply curious as to what Liu-shidi was doing,” he says. “But he was simply imparting some advice.” He gives a pointed look to Ming Fan. “Some rather excellent advice, I suggest you take it to heart.”
Ming Fan nods rapidly. “Of course, sect leader.”
Yue Qingyuan smiles once more, then ambles his way towards the rainbow bridge.
“Ming Fan,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Your new shidi requires a bath and a change of clothes. Are there beds ready for use in the dormitories?”
“Answering Shizun’s question, there are no beds ready for use. Shizun said to put them away to avoid unpleasant reminders of the, ah, incident.”
Shen Qingqiu nods, “That’s right. Send for some from An Ding Peak.”
Ming Fan shifts uncomfortably again. “An Ding Peak isn’t currently accepting requests from us, since Bai Zhan peak broke our gate again last month. They say we’ve exceeded budget.”
Shen Qingqiu brings a hand up to his face, pinching his nose between two fingers. “I’ll go talk to your Shang-shishu. In the meantime, we must have something available. Isn’t Zhang Wenzhong still visiting his parents?”
“The side room of your bamboo house is still set up with a bed, Shizun,” Ming Fan says.
Shen Qingqiu goes still. His face goes blank. Not a cool blank like Luo Binghe is familiar with, when he shrugs on the mantle of a peerless immortal. Not the blank when Luo Binghe says something funny and he’s trying not to laugh.
Ming Fan doesn’t seem to notice. “Some of the robes in the closet might fit—”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu snaps. His voice gentles. “No. You—That is.” Shen Qingqiu waves an irritated hand. “You go see about getting him a bath, I’ll go talk to Shang-shidi. We’ll do the tea ceremony when I get back.”
Shen Qingqiu stalks off, fiddling with his fan.
Ming Fan doesn’t seem to find this particularly odd. In fact, Ming Fan seems to be looking at him with a sort of speculation that Luo Binghe didn’t think he was capable of.
“Your name is Jiang Yuan?” Ming Fan says. “Any relation to the Jiang silk merchants?” Luo Binghe shakes his head. “No? Well, it is a fairly common name.” Ming Fan walks back to the bamboo house, pushing the door open with confidence. “We’ll use the communal baths in the dorms, but I think Luo Binghe’s old robes have the best chance of fitting you.” Ming Fan walks through the front room and pushes open the door to the side room with practiced ease. Luo Binghe follows him, expecting it to be half-filled with boxes and detritus half-forgotten.
It’s almost exactly as he left it: bed neatly made, a brush on the desk poised for writing, books stacked neatly on the side with his jumbled bookmarks still poking out. Knick-knacks still litter the side table. Here a pressed flower, there his own clumsily painted fan. In the corner, a guqin propped against the wall.
Almost, except for the film of dust covering everything in the room.
Ming Fan opens the wardrobe, casting a critical eye over the contents, shuffling robes out of the way. “Luo Binghe was pretty sentimental, they should—ah.” Ming Fan pulls out a set of robes from the depths of the closet. “We’ll have to move some of his old things out, if you’re going to be staying here. But that will have to come later. Hope you’re okay with that, you don’t have much choice.”
“Won’t Luo Binghe want his room back?” Luo Binghe says in a small voice.
Ming Fan snorts. “The dead don’t need such things. Besides,” Ming Fan sneers, “he was such a generous soul I’m sure he wouldn’t mind sharing.”
Luo Binghe ignores that, used to Ming Fan’s digs. “What happened to him?”
“Did you hear about the disaster at the Immortal Alliance Conference? You must have, I don’t think there’s a soul who hasn’t.” Ming Fan begins to walk out of the side room, and Luo Binghe reluctantly follows. “Luo Binghe was one of the disciples killed. I would recommend not mentioning his name in front of Shizun.”
Luo Binghe’s mind spins. Ming Fan absolutely would be unable to resist dragging his name through the mud, he must not know that Luo Binghe was a demon. It makes sense, Shen Qingqiu’s reputation would take a hit if it was known he harbored a demon so close to him for so long. He’s nothing if not crafty, a death of a disciple slipped in among hundreds. Just another personal tragedy. He’s likely still angry about being deceived, even if Luo Binghe’s fears were justified.
Luo Binghe just nods. Ming Fan leads him out of the bamboo house toward the dorms, nattering all the way about the standards of Qing Jing Peak, how their reputation is well-earned, how he better not slack. It’s not a particularly warm welcome, but it’s more so than the first one Luo Binghe received. Perhaps Ming Fan has matured past his pettiness.
They reach the baths, and Ming Fan shoves his robes into his arms. “I trust you’re sharp enough to find your way back when you’re done.” Or perhaps not.
Luo Binghe walks in. It’s not the first time he’s been into the disciple’s baths, but it is only the second, having been allowed to clean himself up from digging holes in the field and then having been forced to take quick dips in the stream when it wasn’t too cold. Then he had used the tub in Shizun’s house.
It’s a little more grotty than he remembers, and downright primitive compared to the bathing pools in his own palace, but it works well enough. He doesn’t linger, washing the dirt off his disguise and finger-combing his hair into some semblance of order.
As predicted, his new-old robes are too big, but not big enough to be a hindrance. He had needed new robes almost every four months once he started living with Shizun. He had more than once gotten a rap on his head and a fond: “I ought to feed you less, save my money buying you new clothes” always negated by Shizun filling his bowl.
He wanders his way out of the baths back to the bamboo house, attracting curious glances, but not hostile ones. Guqin lessons must have just concluded; most of his fellow disciples are carrying their instruments. Shizun used to tease him terribly about it. “You have the makings of a master musician in you,” he used to say, “I don’t understand why your rhythm is so off. How are the ladies to know you have nimble fingers if you can’t show them?”
Luo Binghe didn’t understand why the ladies would care if he had nimble fingers or not until Sha Hualing had repeated the sentiment to him a few weeks after he emerged from the Abyss to claim his birthright. She hadn’t been shy about extolling the virtues of such a skill.
Shizun always said the strangest things to him.
But Shizun would always demonstrate the riff again, long fingers plucking the strings, always flawless in execution. He must have been playing since childhood for it to be that intrinsic, Luo Binghe had practiced until he was “good,” but he’d never be “skillful” like Shizun is.
His thoughts take him all the way back to the courtyard of the bamboo house. A whisper in the wind makes him pause and duck behind clustered bamboo at the edges of the clearing.
Shang Qinghua lands in the clearing, hopping off his sword, with an incensed Shen Qingqiu following right after.
“Is it really so hard to find a bed in this whole damned mountain range?” Shen Qingqiu snaps.
“I just wanna see your new disciple, bro,” Shang Qinghua says with that nervous energy he has. Bro? Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua…Luo Binghe doesn’t think they’ve ever even talked, outside of official sect meetings. Shang Qinghua certainly hasn’t mentioned knowing Shen Qingqiu when he’s been crawling after Mobei-Jun.
“He’s a child,” Shen Qinghua snaps, “they all look roughly the same. I think your peak even has a few, if you want to stare at one.”
Shang Qinghua sighs. “Bro, has anyone ever told you that you get more flies with honey than vinegar?”
“Will asking nicely get me clothes and a bed for a new disciple?”
Shang Qinghua looks suspicious. “It will once you square your debts for your gate.”
“Then I think I’ll stick to the vinegar.”
“That also won’t get you clothes and a bed until you square up your debts.”
“That’s interesting,” Shen Qingqiu says sweetly, “because I’ve seen your accounts, Airplane-bro, and I must say, with your interesting book-keeping I’m sure the funds must be somewhere. Maybe when I suggest to zhangmen-shixiong that he take a closer look through the books, I drop in that someone has been reporting to the demonic realm for years! Maybe sprinkle in that he’s directly responsible for killing about a thousand children!”
Luo Binghe’s mind spins. Shen Qingqiu knows Shang Qinghua consorts with demons… and hasn’t said anything? What else does he know? What’s the benefit of keeping Shang Qinghua around? It must be large, or his detestment for demons and their ilk would have won out. Unless he meant what he said that day, and it’s not demons, but what Binghe is specifically, a Heavenly Demon, that is intolerable.
Shang Qinghua sniffs. “Bro…”
“Just charge it to Bai Zhan Peak,” Shen Qingqiu says, tone suddenly dry. “It’s those little monsters’ fault, anyway.”
Shang Qinghua waves a hand and mumbles. “Fine, but I don’t want to hear a word about ‘creative accounting’ ever again.” He pauses for a moment. “Wait, you mean a bed to go in like, the disciple dorms?”
“No, I was thinking about putting it somewhere in the forest. What better place to put a child to sleep than the forest of a motherfucking mountain?”
Luo Binghe blinks. He didn’t know Shizun could curse. It seems…illegal.
Shang Qinghua shakes his head resolutely. “No can do, bro. Those orders come from up top.”
Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth again, and Luo Binghe hopes he’s going to curse again, but Ning Yingying comes skipping down the path.
“Shizun!” she calls. “Yingying heard she has a cute new shidi!”
Ming Fan hustles up from behind her, carrying a box of what’s probably some of his family’s disgusting signature tea, and bustles into the bamboo house.
“Not quite yet,” Shen Qingqiu assures her with a fond smile. “Ming Fan has to make his special tea first.”
Ning Yingying nods solemnly, but she’s betrayed by a grin she can’t entirely suppress. “It’s good for building qi.”
“Is there anything it doesn’t do?” Shen Qingqiu says wryly. Ning Yingying titters.
Luo Binghe decides it’s as good of a time as any to make himself known and walks into the clearing. Ning Yingying coos when she sees him.
“Oh, Shizun!” she squeals. “He’s so cute!” Her eyes glint. “Is that a ring you’re wearing, shidi? Let me see!”
His hand is unceremoniously yanked from his side, and he has to squeeze his fingers together to stop the ring from flying off. Ning Yingying inspects it. He expects her to show her distaste, as she would when they were in the market and some madam was wearing something especially gaudy. But instead, she inspects it closely and asks, “ah, this is an interesting piece, where did shidi get it?”
“It was my mother’s,” he mumbles, tugging his hand back to safety.
“Your mother’s?” Shang Qinghua says, peering closely at him, his voice suspiciously neutral.
Luo Binghe doesn’t know what to think of Shang Qinghua. On one hand, he’s a pathetic, whining little man, often seen hiding behind the coattails of Mobei-jun, no matter how much he’s slapped around. On the other, he always seems to know a bit too much for comfort, has successfully become a peak lord, and run a spy operation for several years. Luo Binghe doesn’t think he’s particularly dangerous, but the odd, knowing look Shang Qinghua gives him makes him wonder.
“It looks somewhat familiar,” Shang Qinghua continues, with a glance at Shen Qingqiu. “Like I’ve seen it somewhere before.”
Shen Qingqiu shoots him an unimpressed look and takes out his fan. “What is shidi looking at me for, I don’t wear such things.”
“I just thought,” Shang Qinghua says, wringing his hands. “That shixiong’s impeccable memory might be jostled when he looks at it?”
Shen Qingqiu sends him a narrow-eyed look but dutifully bends down. “May I see your ring, Jiang Yuan?” he says, extending a hand.
Luo Binghe places his hand in Shen Qingqiu’s, and long fingers gently close around his as his hand is twisted so the ring catches the light. Shen Qingqiu’s hand is warm and callused, soft but not as soft as one might expect from a scholar. Luo Binghe’s heart thumps in his chest, and he doesn’t let his cheeks heat, but it’s a near thing.
“Your ring is a little big,” Shen Qingqiu says, gently. “Perhaps a chain to wear it around your neck? If you’d like to keep it close.”
Shang Qinghua sighs, and Luo Binghe sends him a poisonous glare over the top of Shen Qingqiu’s head. Shang Qinghua pales.
“Hey, uh, br—Shen-shixiong, can I talk to you for a minute?” Shang Qinghua says, wringing his hands.
“I thought we settled everything,” Shen Qingqiu says, rising to his feet. “What’s more to talk about?”
Shang Qinghua’s eyes dart to Luo Binghe, and back to Shen Qingqiu. “Just-just some news that I think you might be interested in? About, ah. A mutual acquaintance.”
“Tell me later,” Shen Qingqiu says dismissively. “It’s getting late, and I’ve spent seven days acquiring a rare flower guarded exclusively by virginal maidens and their spirit guardians.” He sends a supremely bitter look at Shang Qinghua.
“Shifu!” Ming Fan calls from the doorway of the house, “I’ve prepared the tea!”
Shen Qingqiu heaves a put-upon sigh and Ning Yingying giggles again.
“I don’t get it,” Shang Qinghua says, “it’s just tea. It’s all relatively nasty.”
“Ming Fan’s tea is, ah, very cleansing, ” Shen Qingqiu says delicately, hiding behind his fan.
Ning Yingying nods solemnly, but snickers. “And it tastes like shit.”
“ Language,” Shen Qingqiu snaps, and Ning Yingying gives a very unrepentant, “Sorry, Shizun.”
“Well,” Shen Qingqiu says to Luo Binghe, “there’s no use delaying it further. Come along.”
Luo Binghe remembers becoming a disciple, all those years ago.
He remembers being led to a field and told to dig a hole. He remembers clawing at the earth with his bare hands, dirt and rocks catching at his fingertips. He remembers sweat trickling down under his collar, down his back. He remembers his hair sticking to his face, while he held back tears. If he wasn’t accepted, there wasn’t anything else. It had been his last hope, his last chance.
He remembers relief as he was chosen, unbridled hope as he kneeled across from a lofty immortal, larger than life and untouchable. He didn’t cry as scalding hot tea hit his head, poured down his back to mingle with the sweat and dirt. He didn’t cry after, even as he was resolutely turned out of the disciple dorms and found refuge in the woodshed.
He’s not going to cry now, as an infinitely more earth-bound Shen Qingqiu kneels before him, gently accepting the tea he’s handed. Luo Binghe takes his own cup, and together, they take a drink.
It’s, as promised, absolutely disgusting. Luo Binghe can’t stop his face from screwing, and his Shizun’s face is lofty, but his eyes are laughing and his mouth even quirks up in a small smile, there and gone again.
Luo Binghe thinks this might have been the best idea he’s ever had.
Luo Binghe follows Ming Fan to the dining hall, pretending to look around in innocent wonder.
“Does Shizun eat here?” he asks. Ming Fan snorts, a look that makes his already inelegant features uglier.
“No, your shijie and I take turns bringing him his meals. Maybe we’ll bring you into the rotation, since you’ll be living there.”
Luo Binghe furrows his brow in faux confusion. “I won’t be living in the dorms?”
“Not for now,” Ming Fan confirms, walking over to the counter to pick up food. “So maybe don’t mention it, alright? The fewer questions from Shizun, the better.”
“Why won’t I be living in the dorms?” Binghe says, accepting his own tray from the counter.
Ming Fan sighs, plonking his tray down at a table. Luo Binghe settles in across from him. “It’s a long story, but—”
Ning Yingying settles down next to Luo Binghe. “It’s not that long of a story,” she says, twirling her chopsticks around her fingers. “Shizun lost a disciple he was fond of at the Immortal Alliance Conference. He’s been taking his death really hard, none of us can comfort him.”
A large curl of satisfaction rests in Luo Binghe’s stomach. “What does that have to do with me?”
“The sect leader’s been concerned about Shizun,” Ming Fan says. “He thinks the best way to cure his grief is to distract him.”
“But the missions he’s been sending Shizun on don’t seem to be working,” Ning Yingying pipes up. “They only seem to make him more irritated.”
“Don’t worry, shidi,” Ming Fan says, shoveling food in his mouth, “we don’t expect you to cure him.”
“Just take up as much of his time as possible,” Ning Yingying says with a sunny smile.
“The less time he spends staring at that shit sword the better,” Ming Fan agrees. Ning Yingying frowns at him. “What?”
“A-Luo’s sword isn’t shit,” she reprimands.
The Ming Fan of the past would have argued, crush or no, his pride wouldn’t have allowed it. But this Ming Fan just hums and turns to his food. It’s a move so reminiscent of Shizun, the polite declination of tension without agreement, that it almost makes him laugh. Instead, he ducks his head down to eat his food, thoughts churning.
Luo Binghe once again finds himself trailing behind Ming Fan, in what he hopes will not become a habit, given how much time he’s spent today waddling after him like a lost duckling. Ming Fan carries a tray with a lazy sort of indifference that sets Luo Binghe’s teeth on edge. Shizun hates it when food touches, and Ming Fan is slopping everything together with confident carelessness.
“We used to get up at sunrise,” Ming Fan is telling Luo Binghe as he walks. “But Shizun said that was impractical, given that the sun rises at different times during the year. Now we get up at around seven. Classes start at eight-thirty, so be sure to be in your hall on time.” Ah, this is more like the Ming Fan he knows: self-important, but ultimately clueless. Largely remiss in his duties as head disciple. Luo Binghe had taken over a large portion of them over time.
“What hall am I supposed to report to?”
Ming Fan frowns. “I’m sure Shizun will sort it out.”
It’s certainly not Shizun’s job to see to the outfitting and lodging of disciples, no matter how suddenly they may appear.
Luo Binghe used to wonder what Shen Qingqiu saw in Ming Fan, to make him head disciple, but his meteoric rise to power had proved him with some insights. Intelligence is not always a desirable trait in one’s underlings, and not nearly as valuable as loyalty.
Ming Fan is nothing if not loyal to Shen Qingqiu.
Ming Fan uses his shoulder to push open the door to the bamboo house, breezing through the sitting room and marching straight into Shizun’s bedroom, without knocking.
Shizun startles from where he’d been sitting at his writing desk, brush poised over paper. Shizun rarely startles; he must have been quite deep in thought.
“I’ve brought your dinner, Shizun,” Ming Fan says.
Shen Qingqiu gestures vaguely. “Oh. Put it over there.”
Ming Fan nods, swapping out his tray of hot food for a nearly identical tray of stone-cold food on the table. Ming Fan’s reaction is a pointed lack of, which tells Luo Binghe that this wasn’t wholly unexpected.
There’s noise in the front room, the sound of the door being opened and closed and a general bustle. A few moments later, Ning Yingying comes into the room.
“I brought fresh sheets for A-Yuan,” she says brightly. “One of An Ding’s disciples will be around tomorrow to take his measurements. I was thinking about his placement for lessons, Master An is having a test in about two weeks, and usually starts new lessons after that. It would be an ideal time for A-Yuan to join lecture.”
Ah, so that’s who’s been acting head disciple in his absence.
Shen Qingqiu hums. “Perhaps. Jiang Yuan says his education has been lacking thus far. Ming Fan, you will be tutoring him until he’s at a point where he can study on his own.”
“I can’t read,” Ming Fan blurts. Shen Qingqiu raises an eyebrow. Ming Fan goes a truly stunning shade of red. “That is to say, this disciple has been overwhelmed with his workload that had once been shared, and does not think he has the time to properly tutor to Shizun’s standards.”
Shen Qingqiu hums and turns to Ning Yingying. “I wonder if Ning Yingying has been similarly inflicted with illiteracy?”
Ning Yingying gives a sunny smile. “Yingying would love to, Shizun! Unfortunately, she has been tasked with assisting her disciple sisters at Xian Shu Peak with a project.”
Shen Qingqiu glances at her with dubious eyes. “And just what is this ‘project?’”
Ning Yingying goes an interesting shade of pink. “It’s a secret! But rest assured, my part is very important!”
Shen Qingqiu looks largely unconvinced. “So who do you recommend to teach your poor disciple brother how to read?”
Ming Fan opens his mouth, but Ning Yingying beats him to it. “This one humbly offers that Shizun’s instruction might be best! Yingying is aware that Shizun has tutored other disciples to literacy, and he only took a few months.”
“What does this teacher have trusted disciples for, if he’s to do all the work himself?” Shen Qingqiu says, tone dry. He waves a hand. “This teacher will do it for now, but he expects a list of available tutors in the coming week.”
Luo Binghe is well familiar with that look on Ning Yingying’s face. There will absolutely be no list. Shen Qingqiu must recognize it too because he looks suspicious, but ultimately doesn’t say anything, instead dismissing Ming Fan and Ning Yingying.
As soon as the door closes behind them, he makes a small sound. “Ah, I should have had them clear out the side room, if you’ll be using it for the foreseeable future. No matter, I can do it.”
Anger bubbles in Luo Binghe’s stomach at the idea that Shen Qingqiu would just toss his things. It itches at the back of his throat as he smiles and says: “I can do it, Shizun!”
Shen Qingqiu, a man who Luo Binghe would never call lazy if only out of courtesy, waves a hand and unfolds himself from in front of his desk. “This master will do it. Here, in the meantime, take some paper and write a short story, or as many characters as you know so this master knows how much work lays ahead of us.”
Luo Binghe settles himself at the desk as Shen Qingqiu bustles into the side room. The desk is littered with sect reports, budgets, and other sorts of the boring minutiae record-keeping that large organizations run on. It’s largely neat, and most of the paperwork has been filled with Shizun’s clear script.
Luo Binghe finds the clean sheets of paper exactly where he once stored them, picks out one of Shizun’s fine brushes, and dips it in the ink left behind.
For the lord of a scholarly peak, Shizun’s ink making skills had left much to be desired, and oftentimes Luo Binghe had done it himself. He’s a little surprised to find that the ink standing on his desk isn’t the thick mess Shizun usually creates. Luo Binghe glances at the screen hiding the side room from view. It never did much to conceal sound, not even Shizun’s light snores, and he hears no noise coming from the other side, not even with his sensitive hearing. With a shrug, Luo Binghe starts in on his assignment. He starts by clumsily writing out his fake name, flicks a few droplets of ink here and there, and then starts crafting a story about a cat who lives in the sky, drawing on the mistakes he used to make when Ning Yingying was teaching him. By the time he’s finished, Shizun still hasn’t come out of the side room.
Luo Binghe stands and carefully peers around the painted screen.
Shizun sits on his bed, holding an unfurled fan delicately in his hands, like an injured baby bird that might startle. He stares at it, but Luo Binghe doubts he sees anything at all.
Luo Binghe recognizes the fan. It’s one he himself had painted, one of the first. The brush strokes were clumsy, and he had smeared it a little on accident. It wasn’t worthy of his Shizun’s sight, but Shizun had seen it before Luo Binghe had been able to get rid of it. Even though it was clearly sub-par, he’d still praised it as a magnificent work. It’ll be all a blushing, stammering Luo Binghe could do to wrestle it back, hiding it in the depths of a chest to never see the light of day again.
Shen Qingqiu stares at it, but Luo Binghe could not even begin to guess his thoughts. He stomps his feet a little harder on his way over to where Shen Qingqiu sits, and for the second time that day, Luo Binghe sees him startle.
Shen Qingqiu snaps the fan shut. “Have you completed your story?”
Luo Binghe makes an affirmative noise. “Does Shizun need help?”
Shen Qingqiu glances around the room again, and he’s frustratingly difficult to read. What does he think when he sees the room where he raised his demonic disciple? What does he see?
“This master had gotten distracted,” Shen Qingqiu says, “but he will finish. If Jiang Yuan helps him move an empty chest in, it would be appreciated.”
Luo Binghe hadn’t been aware of an empty anything in the bamboo house. It was, as a matter of fact, not a particularly large or luxurious house. Shen Qingqiu was lucky that his collectibles of choice were fans and books, one being easy to store and the other easy to sneak into the peak library when he was fairly certain his master had grown tired of it.
The chest Shen Qingqiu produces used to be the one where Luo Binghe had stored extra linens. How it came to be empty, Luo Binghe can only guess.
Shen Qingqiu flits around the room, packing Luo Binghe’s personal effects carefully, even unearthing his hiding spots with an ease that would have left a Luo Binghe of four years ago mortified.
As it is, his acting is challenged when Shizun fishes out a pair of soiled undergarments from behind the bed.
“Well, these are ruined,” Shizun says of the stiff fabric, holding it away from his body with an expression somewhere between amusement and disgust.
Luo Binghe must not be keeping all of the mortification off his face, because Shizun laughs. “Ah, don’t make that face. This master doesn’t keep such things against his growing disciples.”
Shizun often seems too lofty and untouchable to known about the vagarities of sex, but every once in while Shizun would make a comment that takes Luo Binghe out at the knees. He knows Shen Qingqiu used to visit brothels. He knows it’s a near impossibility that Shizun is unlearned when it comes to manners of the bedroom with a reputation such as his. But he rarely acts like it, only seeming to show any indication of such knowledge when it can be used to tease Binghe about so-and-so sister.
Soon, however, everything that Luo Binghe would have considered his —with the exception of clothes— is bundled into the chest. It doesn’t quite all fit. Luo Binghe hadn’t realized he’d collected so many things. In the beginning, every little new thing had been a treasure worth coveting, precious because of how little he had.
Now, of course, he has a whole palace full of things. Swords, jewelry, silks— artifacts to entrance the eye and ensnare the mind. He could have it full of women too, if he wished, Meng Mo and Sha Hualing continually inform him. A simple chest full of cheap things really should not move him as it does. But he hasn’t quite excised his nostalgic nature, has he? Else he would not be standing here.
He helps move the chest of his things back into Shizun’s bedroom, and Shizun peers at his handiwork. “You have a solid foundation,” he pronounces. “I’m sure we’ll have you reading the great works in no time.”
Luo Binghe beams. “Many thanks to Shizun!”
“We can start tomorrow,” Shizun says. “Now, go bother your disciple siblings while there’s still light out, I’m sure they all want a good look at their newest shidi. Just be sure to be back before dark, I don’t want you getting lost.”
It’s just like his mother, before she had gotten ill. Luo Binghe gives Shen Qingqiu a sunny smile and it doesn’t even feel forced.
Luo Binghe lays in his childhood bed and holds back tears. Shen Qingqiu still bustles on the other side of the screen, a night pearl casting faint shadows as he pages through a book. Shizun would often read late into the night when a book particularly engrossed him, and Luo Binghe would find him the next morning with his face pressed into its pages. It always made his heart warm to see something no one else would.
It’s all so familiar; the rustle of pages, the wind in the bamboo, the faint smell of the laundry detergent. Something that he thought forever out of his reach, his.
He can’t stop tears from rolling down his cheeks, in the end, but he muffles it into his pillow.
He hears a sigh from the other side of the screen. “Jiang Yuan?”
A sob tears out of Luo Binghe’s throat, raw and pained. An elegant hand draws the screen back. Shizun’s familiar silhouette fills the doorway and Luo Binghe, in a combination of genuine emotion and giddy excitement to where this could lead, cries harder.
Shizun perches on the edge of the mattress next to where Luo Binghe curls around his pillow, hands folded into his lap. “Jiang Yuan?” he says again, soft. Luo Binghe puts on an affected sob, and curls more tightly. Sure enough, a hand comes to rest gently on his shoulder.
Luo Binghe, knowing an opportunity when he sees one, explodes in one smooth movement, burying his face in his Shizun’s stomach and resting his cheek on Shizun’s thigh, throwing his arms around Shizun’s waist to anchor him.
Shizun sighs, but starts to run a soothing hand down his head to his spine. “There’s no need for tears,” Shizun says softly, but offers no other comforts, just the soothing lull of being pet. Luo Binghe isn’t aware of it, but his semi-crocodile tears turn genuine, and he’s lulled to sleep by the deepest feeling of peace he’s had in years.
The sun isn’t up, but rather flirting with the horizon when Luo Binghe wakes, alone, his eyes crusty.
The Endless Abyss had been a hellscape with no need for time, locked in a perpetual twilight and then plunged into the darkest night at random intervals. The Demon Realms has more of a consistent schedule, but it doesn’t particularly matter. Luo Binghe’s cultivation has not reached a point where he can forgo sleep, and likely will not for a while, but his demonic blood allows him to sleep for shorter periods than humans usually require.
One day, he’ll cultivate to a point where he’ll find out which side has bigger sway: the demon that will always need to eat and sleep, or the human that can forgo these things. But even the most ambitious cultivator might not practice inedia for another ten years. Some cultivators, even having achieved immortality, cannot practice inedia.
Shizun always grumbled about it when asked, for some reason.
Luo Binghe swings out of bed, going about his morning routine as he might have years ago. Washing his face, brushing his hair, putting on a clean set of robes. Then he stops. His next step would normally be meditation. He, of course, made breakfast for Shizun and helped him prepare for the day, but that wouldn’t come until mid-morning when the sun was well in the sky. As peak lord, Shizun did not have to teach morning classes, in fact, did not have to teach at all if he did not wish.
Luo Binghe peers around the divider screen, expecting to have to creep to freedom. Shizun was a decently light sleeper, Luo Binghe learned after waking one too many times from the Dream Demon’s training with an audible noise.
But Shizun isn’t on the other side of the screen.
Luo Binghe frowns at the pile of blankets on Shizun’s bed, but careful prodding doesn’t reveal a wayward master. He peers under the bed before realizing what he’s doing and straightening.
A quick inspection of the rest of the bamboo house reveals a very disused kitchen, but no Shizun.
One time, very early on, Luo Binghe had nudged Shizun out of bed when the sun was barely over the horizon, only to be met with a snarled “someone better be dying. ” It’s reasonable to assume that if Shizun is out of bed, then he must be attending to some sort of emergency, though Luo Binghe can’t fathom what it might be, given that Xiu Ya still sits in its holder on the wall.
For a lack of anything better to do, Luo Binghe peruses the books Shizun has left lying about his house.
Many of them are rare first editions, denoted by their loose binding and yellowed pages, which isn’t odd for Shizun on its own .He is, after all, a scholar and an avidly devoted one at that. Most of them are bestiaries too, which also isn’t strange for Shizun, but these have an exclusive focus on those monsters found in the Endless Abyss. Luo Binghe would not be surprised if the books on the desk represent the whole body of work about the Abyss. He himself is probably the leading expert; few come out of it alive.
The remaining work is…esoteric, to put it mildly. Books that posit that the things of children’s stories are true to life. Magic seeds that can grow bodies, how to possess bodies so that nothing can dislodge the new soul, regrowing limbs. Luo Binghe rather thought that Shizun was too practical to be entranced by such things, but he is a scholar, it is his job to know such things.
Luo Binghe taps his fingers on the desk. It is his job, yes, but it feels significant. It feels out of place. He considers the book about the Sun and Moon Dew Flower seed. It’s a bare-bones text, full of more conjecture than fact, and almost entirely useless. Out of it falls a piece of paper, the same kind that’s stocked in Shizun’s desk, covered in script. The writing itself looks legible, but it’s not a language Luo Binghe is familiar with, even passingly. Suspicion grows, but he places it back in the book where he found it.
Idly, he picks up the book on the monsters of the Abyss and begins to read. It’s an interesting book, spanning a large portion of the monsters he’s seen. It’s not until the third page that the niggling feeling he’s had resolves itself into a concrete thought: the book is copied in Shizun’s handwriting. Or at least, something that’s substantially similar.
He pages through, but finds no listed author.
The door swings open in the front room. Luo Binghe carefully sets the book down and crosses the room to find Ming Fan stumbling in with a loaded breakfast tray.
“You,” he grunts. “Shizun here?”
Luo Binghe shakes his head. Ming Fan scowls and curses, setting aside the tray on the low table, and marching back out the door. Luo Binghe trails behind him, Ming Fan largely ignoring his presence as he stomps through the bamboo forest on a tiny footpath.
Luo Binghe is familiar with this trail because he’s the one that forged it. At the end of it lies a small clearing, with a trickle that was more reminiscent of a leaky faucet than a waterfall feeding into a small pond. When he was Shizun’s least favored disciple, he would meditate there in the early morning, certain that no one could find him.
After he moved into Shizun’s side room, he’d continued to do the same. Except, sometimes, Shizun would wander back and join him. Shizun had always known where he went to meditate, the knowledge had warmed Luo Binghe’s heart. Shizun was paying attention to him right back!
Ming Fan stomps into the clearing, and Luo Binghe rankles at the careless intrusion into his private place.
Shizun sits in the clearing, wearing yesterday’s clothes, staring at something at the edge of the pool.
“Shizun,” Ming Fan is biting down irritation, but still tries to make his voice gentle. It comes off as patronizing and aggressive. “It’s time to start the day. I’ve brought breakfast to the house.”
Shizun doesn’t stand, doesn’t even turn to look at Ming Fan. “Thank you, Ming Fan.”
“Shizun—” Ming Fan starts, but then catches sight of Luo Binghe. He stops, shakes his head, face twisting. He stalks back down the little path, leaving Luo Binghe and his Shizun alone.
Shizun doesn’t acknowledge when Luo Binghe sinks down to his knees beside him, examining the little plaque at the edge of the pool.
It bears his name.
His heart thumps fast in his chest, and his limbs go cold. The shattered remnants of Zheng Yang sing to him from the dirt. Of course it does, it’s made of his qi, simply refined in the caves of Wan Jing peak.
It’s his grave. As much as someone who still lives can have one.
Shizun has come to sit in front of his grave to…? Grieve a lost disciple? Revel in the smug satisfaction of a demon gone? Both?
Luo Binghe casts a sideways glance at Shen Qingqiu. He doesn’t seem particularly smug. He looks…lost.
“What’s the plaque for?” Luo Binghe asks quietly.
For a moment, he thinks Shen Qingqiu won’t answer him. But then: “It’s for my disciple, Luo Binghe.”
Luo Binghe, unable to help himself, prods further. “Did he die?”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu says, then coughs. “Ah, this master means….he was lost during the Immortal Alliance Conference.”
“Lost?” Luo Binghe parrots in his child voice. “He’s not dead?”
Shen Qingqiu’s face slams shut. “Aiya, all these questions? Does no one know to leave their master in peace anymore?” He speaks with no real reprimand, only irritation.
Luo Binghe offers a hesitant “Sorry, Shizun” while his mind spins.
Shizun doesn’t think he’s dead. Shizun made him a grave. Shizun pushed him down, with his own hand, at the edge of his own sword.
The grave can be easily explained, he thinks. A show of mourning to appease any onlookers. An empty gesture.
And thinking back on it, Shizun had correctly identified him as a Heavenly Demon, though Luo Binghe doesn’t know how. Perhaps his conviction in his survival lies in the rumors of a Heavenly Demon’s strength?
A worm of hope in him hopes it’s guilt.
He twists the ring around his finger, tempted to throw it off and demand answers, demand resolution. But Shizun stirs beside him, rising to his feet. Even wearing yesterday’s clothes, he looks an unruffled immortal.
“Well, Jiang Yuan,” he says. “Which would you like to start with, sword forms or reading?” Luo Binghe’s stomach rumbles. Shen Qingqiu gives a rueful smile. “Perhaps food first.”
Training privately with Shizun is both like and unlike the first time. Shizun is a patient and forgiving teacher, whether it be sword forms or writing. He never seems to grow impatient, instead repeating himself over and over.
Shizun’s weakness is that perhaps he doesn’t explain himself well, but he tolerates questions, even if he sometimes answers with a “Come now. Think on it a little more.” Or a “Should the teacher hand all the answers to the student?”
But this time, Shizun is distant. He corrects sword forms, but briskly. He doesn’t hold Luo Binghe’s hand to trace over more complex characters. He gives Luo Binghe mnemonics to memorize characters, but they’re not playful like they had been last time, Shizun’s not as playful as he was last time. He doesn’t tease Luo Binghe when he trips over his own feet to fall into his arms, he doesn’t rap his head when he feels Luo Binghe’s attention wandering.
But he’s not cold either, not like he used to be when Luo Binghe first arrived on the mountain.
There’s other things too.
Shizun doesn’t sleep much, anymore. Luo Binghe will sleep, casting his mind out to nestle against Shizun’s like he used to when he was younger and Meng Mo wasn’t in a mood to pass on his wisdom. But Shizun’s won’t enter the dream state. Occasionally, he bumps against it in that half-wakeful state meditation will bring, but it’s not enough of an unconscious state to grant him access. Forcing it might shatter Shizun’s mind, and then Luo Binghe will never get the answers he seeks.
You could just drug him, Meng Mo tells him irritably, watching as Luo Binghe’s dreamscape twists itself flawlessly into the scenery Meng Mo had ordered. Unconscious is unconscious. Stop this moping.
Except he can’t.
Not for any particular moral hangups. If he could have his answers, he’d drug Shizun in a heartbeat, even as the small part of him that retains the hero-worship of his youth screams in protest. But because Shizun isn’t eating anything either. Ming Fan and Ning Yingying bring trays of food like clockwork, and just as regularly, they go entirely untouched.
The only thing Shizun seems to be subsisting on is tea. If Luo Binghe makes it using the old tea leaves in the kitchen, Shizun will drink it, even though the leaves are old enough now that it tastes mostly like hot water. The only drug he has on him right now is his own blood, and the taste is far too potent to hide in something relatively weak like green tea. He either needs a different drug or a better delivery system, and he doesn’t have ready access to either.
One night, though, Luo Binghe startles awake, senses honed from years living in the Endless Abyss.
On the other side of the screen, Shizun takes ragged breaths. Luo Binghe creeps over to the screen, peering carefully out. Shizun sits on the edge of his bed in nightwear, sheets rucked about his waist. His hand is in his hair, clenching at the dark strands. Luo Binghe can see better in the dark now than he could before the seal was broken, but he smells more than sees tears. Shit, is Luo Binghe’s first thought, I missed my chance.
Shen Qingqiu wipes his face roughly and throws on a single outer robe, before walking out the door.
Luo Binghe doesn’t bother to put on any more clothes, simply following Shen Qingqiu into the night. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t move with any regard to stealth as he walks the footpath into the bamboo forest. It’s easy to flit along the foliage as Shizun walks to the clearing, stopping in front of the plaque.
He doesn’t fall to his knees. He doesn’t sob or wail or beat his chest in grief. Instead, he unleashes a string of curses foul enough to shock even the most battle-hardened warrior.
“What the hell am I supposed to do?” Shen Qingqiu moans, rubbing his face with his hands. He begins to pace, mumbling under his breath. “The fucking System came online, but I haven’t seen hide or hair of him and it’s totally unhelpful, it’s in Stealth mode! What the fuck does that mean!” He kicks the ground with a foot, sending a pebble skittering into the underbrush.
He stops, staring at the little plaque like it might have answers. “I don’t suppose you’ll have mercy on your poor old master, huh?” Shen Qingqiu snorts, like he just told a joke. “Do you still know what mercy means? You didn’t before. And I never actually taught you any, did I?” Shen Qingqiu puts his face in his hands again, groaning. He stands there for a long moment.
Then he drops his hands, squares his shoulders, and takes a deep breath. His peerless immortal facade clicks into place, and even standing shoeless, hair loose about his shoulders, outer robe thrown on haphazardly, he looks cold and aloof.
Shen Qingqiu turns on his heel and Luo Binghe rushes back through the forest, footsteps light and fleeting. There’d be no way to slip back into the side room with Shen Qingqiu wide awake, he has to make it back first.
He dashes back into the bamboo house and slips behind the screen in the nick of time. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, infusing a small night pearl with his qi so that it glows softly.
Luo Binghe waits, but Shen Qingqiu doesn’t seem to have any designs on sleep for the rest of the night.
Luo Binghe…doesn’t know what to do with Shen Qingqiu’s breakdown. It’s obviously about him, but he can’t begin to fathom what a ’System’ is or what it has to do with anything, but he’s starting to put the pieces together about the rest of it.
Shizun expects him to survive. Shizun expects him to survive and seek revenge, likely because he’s a demon and that’s what demons do, and as the worst of all demons, that’s what Luo Binghe will do. But what’s this before? Luo Binghe had, perhaps, entertained a brief fantasy of shoving Ming Fan into an ant pit when he was a new disciple, but he never acted on it! Even as Shizun’s most favored disciple, even if he was sure he could have gotten away with it.
He’s not vindictive, though his life would certainly be easier if he were. Would it not be easier to hate Shen Qingqiu, to want to see him destroyed than to love him and want answers?
He could demand them. He could tug off his ring and pin his old Shizun down and demand to know, demand satisfaction for a thousand sleepless nights—
But then, he would lose this. It’s not the same, but it’s good enough. It soothes the ache.
He falls into an uneasy sleep and does not dream.
Luo Binghe swings a practice sword under the watchful eye of his Shizun. It’s one of the basic forms, muscle memory to him at this point, and with Shizun standing so far away, there’s no reason to stumble. Sweat beads the back of his neck when he lands in the finishing pose, but he’s not panting.
Shizun steps closer, out from under the shade. “Excellent,” he says. “I do believe you’re ready to join the morning drills. I’ll let the drill master know to expect you tomorrow.”
Luo Binghe nods. “When will I be able to refine a sword at Wan Jian peak?”
Shizun laughs lightly, as Luo Binghe knew he would. “Not for a few years yet, I imagine.” He taps his fan to his lips. “Have you been meditating like I showed you?”
Luo Binghe nods, but says, “I don’t feel any different.”
“It may take a while,” Shizun acknowledges. “Your progress will increase as soon as we find you a cultivation manual that suits you.”
Even without a suitable manual, Luo Binghe had been able to cultivate the beginning stages of a core. But Shizun was correct that a well-suited manual made all the difference. The progress he made once he had a decent manual for his cultivation was astronomical, excelling at such a pace Shizun had fretted about qi deviations.
In his first life, this would have been where Shizun ruffled his hair, dropping his hand onto his shoulder to give it a squeeze before laughing and telling him to have some fun with his day, not with a stuffy old man, ah? Luo Binghe always chirped a “yes, Shizun,” then proceeded to follow his Shizun around like an imprinted duckling. Shizun never seemed to truly mind, even if he made pointed comments about making friends.
Luo Binghe, quite simply, doesn’t need friends. His mother assuredly taught him the value of being friendly, and Shizun careened between subtle and overt when trying to teach him the same lesson, but being friends is different.
In the books Shizun reads, friends of sufficient bond will join one another in combat, be supportive in times of grief, and in Shizun’s more dramatic books, lay down their lives. But the characters in Shizun’s book are characters, designed to fulfill a narrative. In real life, most people are callous and cruel. When he was an orphan on the street, it was sheer luck and grace that allowed him to grow old enough to meet his mother, a one-in-a-million woman. Her kindness toward him bought her nothing but suffering, even if it meant the world to him.
On Qing Jing peak, the other disciples were eager to have a target for their Shizun’s ire, as long as it didn’t land on them, and eagerly cast him aside. Ning Yingying was perhaps an outlier, but she seemed to be entirely unaware of his status as the least popular disciple. Luo Binghe isn’t sure he’d call them friends either, though he’s smart enough to know saying so aloud would hurt Ning Yingying’s feelings.
All the same, friends or no, Luo Binghe is turned loose for the afternoon with nothing to do. Attempts to follow Shizun will result in gentle rebukes and strained smiles, especially if Shizun is feeling in the mood to go sit by Luo Binghe’s grave, which is a lot more often than Luo Binghe would have thought. He’s followed his Shizun discreetly once or twice, to see if there will be any more outbursts. There haven’t been. To have done something like that, Shizun must have been knocked terribly off balance, his normally unflappable internal balance disrupted.
If Shizun would just sleep, Luo Binghe might even be able to replicate it.
Luo Binghe’s patience pays off. It takes another week for Shen Qingqiu to pass out over a sheaf of paperwork, brush rolling out of his slack hand and creating a line of ink that will take a small miracle to get out of his clothes.
Luo Binghe’s mind, laying in wait, springs the moments Shen Qingqiu’s mind dips from consciousness to unconsciousness, stealthily entering his dreamscape with a mind to bend it to his will, making use of an uncertain amount of time. Meng Mo is able to ensnare others deep into dreams with ease, but Luo Binghe is often a little too forceful, fracturing the mind of his target, though he does so now less often than in the Abyss.
But upon his arrival in Shizun’s dreamscape, he pauses. The setting is familiar to him, though it takes a moment to place it, having spent only a cursory amount of time in them. But it’s unmistakably the dungeons beneath the palace he’s claimed as his own, a place he’s well aware Shizun has never set foot in.
The room he’s in is one of the larger ones, cavernous and cold and humid the way rooms built deep into the ground are. He hears the creak of chains before he sees them, suspended in the center of the room, attached to something swaying gently and rhythmically.
He approaches, and the pungent smell of blood grows stronger and stronger, until he’s close enough to understand what he’s looking at. He nearly rears back in shock when he does, recognizing the mangled face of Shen Qingqiu. A bloodied robe hangs limply off his frame, or, what’s left of it, being nothing but a torso with no limbs to speak of. A metal ring encircles Shen Qingqiu’s waist, clearly digging painfully into his ribs, and the body spins gently from the chain.
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t acknowledge him, continuing to breathe in harsh pants, gasping like each breath is saving him from drowning. A sneaking suspicion starts to take shape in Luo Binghe’s mind, a puzzle piece clicking into place.
It’s confirmed when a door pushes open, and he’s face-to-face with none other than himself. The dream Luo Binghe is clad in an outfit he owns, but found too gaudy to actually wear for day-to-day business. The jewelry his counterpart wears are also items Luo Binghe has acquired, but found ostentatious. Shizun had preferred well-dressed, but clean and simply adorned men and Luo Binghe had found he rather agreed.
The dream Luo Binghe saunters into the room, hands clasped behind his back. “Shizun,” he sings, cheerful and happy, “did you miss me?”
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t respond, but Luo Binghe doesn’t appear concerned, moving further into the room to approach the dangling figure.
“Ning Yingying asked about you,” Luo Binghe continues. ”She seemed rather concerned about your disappearance. I didn’t know what to tell her, I will admit, but followed your guidance. Shizun is so wise. I told her you were dead! Isn’t that what you told her when you pushed me into the Endless Abyss?”
Shen Qingqiu remains silent.
“I can see why you did it now,” Luo Binghe continues thoughtfully. “Much cleaner this way, isn’t it? No one comes looking for a dead man.” He pauses, smiles. “Or perhaps you really thought I would die down there? Ironic, isn’t it? That the skills you taught me thwarted your own plans. How terrible for you, to choose to coddle a disciple you would come to loathe. ”
Shen Qingqiu makes a sound.
“What was that?” Luo Binghe says, leaning in closer. “You’re going to have to speak up, Shizun, elocution is the mark of a scholar, after all.”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu says, and his voice is cracked.
“No, what?” Luo Binghe says pleasantly.
“I never hated you,” Shen Qingqiu whispers.
“Oh, Shizun, ” Luo Binghe sighs. “Isn’t it a little late for such empty platitudes? Didn’t you tell me yourself that being a Heavenly Demon was a sin beyond redemption? Didn’t you push me into hell with your own hands?” The Luo Binghe his Shizun dreams of is quiet as he stares at Shen Qingqiu.
“Are you crying?” he says eventually. He sounds amused. “Shizun,” he croons, reaching out a hand to wipe away Shen Qingqiu’s tears. “You always knew it would end like this. Why the tears? There’s no messing with destiny, ah? Not for people like us.”
The dream’s Luo Binghe continues to stroke his Shizun’s face as Shen Qingqiu sobs and the dream starts to go fuzzy around the edges; Shen Qingqiu is waking up. Thinking fast, Luo Binghe seizes control of the dream, shaping it around his desires, clinging to Shen Qingqiu’s unconscious mind.
But mastery of dreams isn’t only that they can be shaped around their master’s desire, but that they are so natural to the target that they do not arouse suspicion. Luo Binghe weaves together a scene of Qing Jing peak, but he snatches the pieces that Shen Qingqiu likes best: the wind in the bamboo, the chirping of the birds. He compacts himself down into a younger shape, maybe around eight, before even Shen Qingqiu had known him, but dresses himself in the uniform of Qing Jing peak’s inner disciples. He does all this in a moment, and when Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes, his view is to an attentive Luo Binghe leaning over his guqin, looking up at him as the last notes of a song ring out through the grove.
“What did you think, Shizun?” Luo Binghe says, looking up with eager eyes.
Shen Qingqiu only blinks for a moment as he orients himself. “Very nice, Binghe,” he says with a smile.
Luo Binghe smiles and puts his fingers back on the strings, starting a light, plucky tune he learned from Ning Yingying. His technique is flawless, the tune perfect. Airily, he asks, “Shizun, do you believe in fate?”
Shen Qingqiu fans himself slowly. “What makes you ask?”
“This disciple was reading some works in the library,” Luo Binghe says. Playing a song doesn’t actually require any effort of him in the dreams he controls, but he pretends it does. “He saw reference to the concept of fate, again and again, the inevitability of it. He wondered if Shizun shares the same sentiments?”
“This teacher—” Shizun begins, stops. Luo Binghe pretends to be engaged playing his instrument. Truly, this is not a difficult question. A simple yes or no would suffice! This is supposed to be the gateway into hard-hitting questions, not the main event!
“This teacher,” Shen Qingqiu starts again, “did not always believe in such things, but he has come to believe that certain things are unavoidable, if not necessarily fate.”
“Oh?” Binghe prompts. Shen Qingqiu remains silent though, so Binghe exerts a tiny push into the dream.
“Some things are destined to happen, like you coming to this sect,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Some things are destined to happen so that other destined things can happen, and they are fixed. Some things have to happen, but their outcome can be changed.”
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as a coherent belief system, unless of course….”Is Shizun a Seer?”
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t jump. “No, that is not a talent this master has.”
“Then why does Shizun believe some events are fixed?”
Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe knows, is an accomplished liar. He’d seen it when he was the ill-favored disciple and didn’t want to believe that a man who seemed like a lofty immortal was truly so grounded in the world. He’d seen it rear its head when he was the most favored disciple, but over little things. Annual events, finicky duties, names of more recent disciples.
If Shen Qingqiu is inwardly panicking or searching for an answer, there’s little way to tell. And paradoxically, that’s how Luo Binghe knows that Shen Qingqiu is thrown—his face is stony instead of simply neutral.
The dream starts to crumble at the edges as Shen Qingqiu’s uncomfortable subconscious mind tries to move away. When it fails, its next step will be to awaken. Faster than Luo Binghe expected, just that starts to happen and he’s ejected from Shen Qingqiu’s dreamscape squarely back into his own.
Disgruntled, Luo Binghe blinks awake in time to hear Shen Qingqiu knock things off his desk as he startles awake in turn. There’s soft cursing in time with the blooming scent of ink, and Luo Binghe surmises that he’s knocked his ink well over. If it was three years ago, he would have been up in a flash to help. As it is, he turns over on his mattress and pulls the sheets closer to his chin, gnawing on his thoughts.
Shizun seems to put a lot of stock into the concept of fate, claims that it’s what brought Luo Binghe to the sect in the first place. He also seems to think Luo Binghe is a monster, willing to string up his Shizun. Maybe that’s fate? The pull of his demonic nature?
He rolls over again. Is that it?
You always knew it would end like this. He turns the phrase over in his head. It doesn’t make sense! The Luo Binghe in his dream had details that Shizun couldn’t have known! Even the most dedicated of spies wouldn’t report on his jewelry, his clothes. It doesn’t make sense.
Unless he was a Seer.
Puzzle pieces shift in Luo Binghe’s head, clicking into place. This talk of fate and events and the unchangeable. Why Shizun would deny it is another question entirely—but one that Luo Binghe feels definitely has an answer.
Begrudgingly, Luo Binghe acknowledges that perhaps he simply wants Shizun to be Seer, not that it makes the most sense. He wants to think Shizun pushing him down was the best-case scenario, wants to believe it was cosmically foretold, wants to know it had a purpose, even though all the details don’t click conclusively, and some even contradict Shizun having that ability.
Tentatively hopeful, Luo Binghe shuts his eyes and reaches out to Meng Mo, hoping age will have given him insight.
Luo Binghe mindlessly swings his way through morning forms, turning over his conversation with the dream demon. He, after what had become standard digs for choosing a man who would go on to betray him as his only Shizun, had exactly one valuable insight.
Seers were not infallible.
The dream demon had then waxed poetic about a Seer who was infallible, a demon by the name of Madame Meiyin— but his praise was less about her Seeing ability and more about the pillowy softness of her breasts and the pleasing shape of her lips.
“You should pay her a visit,” he had leered, “I think you’ll hit it off famously. Maybe you’ll stop pining after that snake-oil Shizun of yours.”
Perhaps in the future, he will seek her out. For now, he is here and he cannot leave without arousing suspicion. A young disciple will be missed, especially as he lives in Shizun’s house.
Morning drills come to an end, and Luo Binghe doesn’t linger as fellow disciples mill about, choosing instead to head straight back to the bamboo house. In about a quarter of a shichen, the academic classes will begin. As a scholar’s peak, the meat of the classes are focused on the four arts, though as a cultivation sect, there is a certain expectation of competency in the martial arts as well. The delicate balance is often left to the peak lord to find. Shen Qingqiu, before he had softened, expected excellence in both, necessitating long harsh hours of practice. Shen Qingqiu as he is now seems to lean more towards martial competency, with more of a ‘study what you wish’ attitude towards academics. It drives the hall masters crazy, but the students seem to love it. Luo Binghe is aware that the peak has dived in reputation as a result, having gone from producing rigorous but dour scholars, to what Shang Qinghua had called ‘a trusteeship for ADHD children.’
But Shizun had had, for him at least, a rigorous schedule of what he thought Luo Binghe ought to know. Botany, emergency medicine, tactics, strategy, rhetoric, logic, history, politics, demonic politics, endless subjects that might have been taught by the hall masters, but not to the details that Luo Binghe was expected to know. It had taken large portions of his time, both in lectures from Shizun and burning candles late into the night to read the assigned books, but Luo Binghe hadn’t minded at the time and minded even less when he found he could identify demonic medicinal herbs growing in the crags of the Endless Abyss.
He knows he is perhaps grasping at straws. It could be that Shizun had simply thought this a thorough education for his most favored disciple, and not a crash course for surviving the Abyss and his subsequent meteoric rise to power.
But he wants it to be.
He meanders his way back to the bamboo house. Jiang Yuan isn’t expected to join hall lessons for another month, though he makes steady progress at learning characters. Luo Binghe tries to find the right balance, the slow learning that allows him to spend hours close to Shizun’s side, but not slow enough that Shizun remembers he tasked Ning Yingying with finding him a tutor all those weeks ago.
Shizun doesn’t treat him the same as he did when he was Luo Binghe, and he’s not entirely sure why. Sure, of course, Shizun is not harsh with him, extending gentleness and grace. But it’s perhaps only a smidgeon more grace than he extends towards any disciple on his peak, and he isn’t horribly harsh on anyone.
Luo Binghe is largely the same: he’s in an attractive body, he’s obedient and clever, he’d even be willing to hand-cook Shizun’s meals if he chose to eat.
Perhaps that period of hardship where Shizun tested him and found him worthy was more significant than Luo Binghe had understood. He still doesn’t understand what qualities made Shizun single him out to test him in the first place, but—
But that’s not right.
Shizun said it was fate that Luo Binghe came to this sect. If he knew that, did he perhaps know that Luo Binghe was a Heavenly Demon, even then? Did he test him, knowing that, seeing what he could endure? Did he try and push him away, only to end up loving him despite his cursed lineage?
The thought alone makes him dizzy.
Shizun, loving him despite thinking that Luo Binghe could…do that to him. Shizun thinking that his doom rested in Luo Binghe’s hands and still tenderly rubbing ointment into his bruises, gently embracing him to pass him spiritual energy, carefully nurturing his progress, personally teaching him sword forms.
Wanting him to come out of the Abyss, despite spelling his certain doom.
He’s practically skipping on his way back to the bamboo house, but stops at the edge of the clearing. Faintly, he hears Shizun’s raised voice, and even more faintly the high-pitched squeak of Shang Qinghua. He slithers stealthily across the courtyard, crouching beneath the window. It’s right in the open and absolutely damning if he gets caught.
But the chances of being caught are low this time of day, and he leans closer.
“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” Shen Qingqiu says, agitated. Luo Binghe can imagine him pacing.
“I tried, bro,” Shang Qinghua rebuts, and he’s got that plaintive whine Luo Binghe hears when he’s reporting to Mobei-jun. “But you didn’t want to listen to me!”
“The last time I saw you was over two months ago!” Shen Qingqiu snaps, and Luo Binghe hears the sharp rap of a fan hitting a skull. “You couldn’t have dropped by? Sent a letter?”
“I was busy, ” Shang Qinghua snaps. “Besides, what if your mail is being read?”
“What?!” Shen Qingqiu snaps. “Who would be reading my mail? And what’s to stop you from using English if that’s really a concern you have? Idiot.”
“English?” Shang Qinghua says, uncertainly. “Bro, that’s just something you study in school, no one actually uses it.”
What the hell is English? A cypher? Sounds like it might be a language, though not one Luo Binghe has heard of. But it sounds like it might have been in the curriculum on Qiong Cang mountain in the past.
Shen Qingqiu heaves another aggrieved sigh. “So where do you think he is? Has he gone on to Huan Hua Palace?”
“Maybe?” Shang Qinghua says. “Actually, I think Luo Binghe is a little closer to home.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Luo Binghe has to act, his disguise can’t really stand any level of close scrutiny. He rushes through the bamboo door.
“Shizun!” he calls like he would have once done when he was Luo Binghe, favored disciple.
“A-Yuan,” Shizun greets him in turn.
Luo Binghe blinks and pretends to notice Shang Qinghua. “Shang-shishu.”
Shang Qinghua is looking at him like a mouse that just noticed a large cat. Good. He’s not sure why he expected loyalty from a traitor. Or, that’s not quite right—he didn’t expect Shang Qinghua to even notice.
But his hedging and obvious recognition over the ring makes it clear that he has,but why is he telling Shen Qingqiu? They’re not friends. They have no common goal. Shen Qingqiu clearly knows that Shang Qinghua is some sort of spy— does he know that Shang Qinghua is responsible for the Immortal Alliance Conference going so awry? Or does he think Shang Qinghua is a spy for the sect? Shen Qingqiu is supposedly the head of tactics, after all.
All this flashes through his mind as he levels Shang Qinghua a very insincere smile. “This disciple didn’t realize Shizun had company, I would have knocked.”
“You should have knocked anyway,” Shen Qingqiu admonishes. “What were you saying, Shang-shidi?”
“Oh, uh. Nothing,” Shang Qinghua says, finally moving his eyes from Luo Binghe and managing a shaky smile. “I see you’re busy. Have a great day, Shen-shixiong.”
Shang Qinghua zips out of the house, moving faster than Luo Binghe could have even guessed.
Shen Qingqiu looks irritated, then puzzled, then his gaze lands on Luo Binghe with a considering look. Luo Binghe doesn’t like it.
“Shizun, what are we studying today?” Luo Binghe asks like everything is normal, even though he can rapidly feel the situation slipping from his hands. He wants to run out the door and strangle Shang Qinghua. For a man with the overdeveloped sense of self-preservation, he sure is playing with fire.
“I was thinking about continuing to study from the classics,” Shen Qingqiu says, “but this master would first like to check your progress on your core.”
Luo Binghe pretends to be confused. “Shizun, it’s only been two months. This disciple hasn’t made much progress yet.”
“Humor this master,” Shen Qingqiu says, stretching out a hand.
Luo Binghe cautiously extends a hand, slowly lowering it into Shen Qingqiu’s outstretched one. His hand is warm and callused, engulfing Luo Binghe’s child hand.
This is it, ah. Well, it was good while it lasted.
The door is thrown open as Ming Fan stumbles in, panting. “Shifu! Disciples from Bai Zhan peak are beating up Qing Jing peak’s disciples again!”
Shen Qingqiu scowls, dropping Luo Binghe’s hand. Thanks, Ming Fan. Guess you’re not completely useless after all.
Shen Qingqiu stomps out the door, turning back to Luo Binghe to call, “stay there. We’ll continue our lesson when I get back.”
When Shen Qingqiu is well enough out of earshot, Ming Fan looks at Luo Binghe with a considering look. “Truly, he’s been better since you arrived. I thought Ning Yingying was full of it, but Shifu really does thrive with something to coddle and fuss over.”
Luo Binghe scowls as he thinks a child would. “He doesn’t coddle me.”
Ming Fan chuckles, and reaches over to tousle his hair. “Sure, kid.” He walks out the door, likely to watch Shen Qingqiu run Bai Zhan peak disciples off the mountain.
Luo Binghe watches him go. Restless, he once again searches the bamboo house, looking for what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t find it.
For a moment, he wishes Shizun were the journaling type, laying his innermost thoughts out on paper for Luo Binghe to devour. Shizun has always been private, there’s no way he’d do such a thing.
He’s still agitated by the time Shen Qingqiu returns, but luckily he makes no mention of checking Luo Binghe’s core. He must have forgotten.
As the day turns into evening, Luo Binghe feels the tension uncoil from his body, until he’s sure he’s safe in his disguise. For now, at least, but he will have to deal with Shang Qinghua. He resolves to do so that night, stealthily removing one of his own uniforms from the chest to have something to change into.
He curls into bed that night, wondering how he’ll tip toe around Shen Qingqiu and his insomniac habits, when he hears Shen Qingqiu creep out of the bamboo house.
Grabbing his pilfered uniform, he follows Shen Qingqiu out. As expected, Shen Qingqiu veers toward Luo Binghe’s burial mound. It’s probably nothing, and this might be his only chance to get Shang Qinghua to shut up, but Luo Binghe follows him anyway, frowning at his silhouette.
It’s not until Shen Qingqiu pauses at the pool that Luo Binghe realizes what’s wrong— Shen Qingqiu isn’t wearing his normal robes, nor the inner robes he wore while relaxing. Instead, he wears sturdy and nondescript traveler's robes—obviously of fine make but nothing like the finery he wears day to day.
Other details come to Luo Binghe in flashes. Xiu Ya in one hand. A travel sack slung over his shoulder.
Shen Qingqiu is running away.
Shen Qingqiu stares down at the little plaque. He’s silent for a long moment, and Luo Binghe’s anger mounts, until it’s roaring in his ears like a tidal wave. Where is he going? Where does he think he could run that Luo Binghe could not find him?
Finally, Shen Qingqiu speaks. “For what it’s worth,” he says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to. But does that really matter? I did it anyway.”
Luo Binghe can’t stand it anymore. He’s angry, no, he’s outraged. He’s betrayed. He’s satisfied, this is what he’s always wanted. He’s a whirlpool of emotion, and completely still. His heart thunders and his head is light and his hands are clammy. He’s amazed even his body could take so much emotion and not simply burst at the seams.
He shrugs on the larger outer robe, letting it pool over his arms.
“If you’re so sorry,” Luo Binghe says, walking into the clearing. Shen Qingqiu turns to look at him, but doesn’t look surprised. “If you’re so sorry,” Luo Binghe says again, pulling off the ring. Clothes rip as his form grows, boots tearing until his bare feet are on the ground. He barely pauses to knot the ties on his single outer robe for modesty. “Why are you running away?”
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu breathes, his hand tightening on Xiu Ya.
“You knew it was me,” Luo Binghe accuses. “That’s why you’re running away. You’re turning your back on me again. I haven’t done anything and you’re running. ”
Shen Qingqiu is like a statue, face closed but he’s unmoving. Suddenly, he twitches, but Luo Binghe is faster. He grabs onto Shen Qingqiu’s wrist with enough force that he feels bones creak, but Shen Qingqiu doesn’t make a move to flee again and doesn’t make a move to release his wrist. Luo Binghe can feel like pulse hammering, quick and light, like prey.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, and Shen Qingqiu flinches. “Do you truly find me so intolerable? Even if I twist myself into a new shape to be close to you, you still find me repulsive?”
Shen Qingqiu is silent still.
“Say something!” Luo Binghe demands, squeezing his wrist tighter. He feels Shizun’s qi stutter in his body. Xiu Ya falls to the ground.
Shen Qingqiu licks his lips. “What is there to say? Do actions not speak louder than words? What could I say that Binghe would believe over what I have done to him?”
Luo Binghe’s anger surges. “Is Shizun not even willing to repent for what he has done in the face of what he thinks I will do to him?”
Shen Qingqiu pales. “What does Binghe mean?”
“I’ve seen Shizun’s dreams, I’ve seen the ‘Luo Binghe’ that haunts them.” Luo Binghe laughs, but it is cold. “Even believing that I will torture him, Shizun is not even willing to try to apologize?”
“Would you believe me?” Shen Qingqiu shoots back. “Would you believe that I knew you would come through to the other side of the Abyss stronger? Would you believe that I thought it the way to your best destiny?”
“Yes,” Luo Binghe says simply. It’s exactly what he wants to hear, from the person he wants to hear it from. It confirms everything he thinks— that Shizun is a Seer, that he knew it would be for the best, that he loved Binghe enough to push him away. That he was not content with an idyllic life for Luo Binghe.
“Then you’re a fool,” Shen Qingqiu snaps. He looks at where Luo Binghe has his hand looped around his wrist. “But. I—” a lone tear treks down Shen Qingqiu’s face. “There is nothing more I regret in this world than pushing my most favored disciple down into the Abyss.”
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, softly, like he’s trying not to startle an animal. “Tell me truly, when did you know I was a Heavenly Demon?”
“I—” Shen Qingqiu swallows. The bobbing of his throat reminds Luo Binghe that if he simply forced Shen Qingqiu to swallow his blood, there’d be nowhere on earth he could run. No question that could go unanswered.
He restrains himself.
“I have always known,” Shen Qingqiu whispers. “Binghe, I— I am sorry.”
Luo Binghe pulls Shen Qingqiu into a rough hug. Shen Qingqiu is stiff in his arms for a moment, before tentatively encircling his arms around Luo Binghe in turn. It’s different holding his Shizun like this, not at all like his memories. He's taller now and Shen Qingqiu’s breath fans over his neck, long gone are the days Luo Binghe could hide his face in his Shizun’s shoulder. His delicate human body feels fragile in Luo Binghe’s stronger one.
He likes it.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, “I forgive you. Don’t run from me anymore.”
“Ah, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu sighs. He never finishes the thought.
Luo Binghe would be content to stay in his Shizun’s embrace until he withered away or they fused into one, but Shen Qingqiu makes a move to pull back. Luo Binghe lets him go.
“We should go inside,” Shen Qingqiu says, tugging at the collar of Luo Binghe’s robe. “Binghe must be cold in just one robe.”
Luo Binghe smiles. “Yes, Shizun.”
Luo Binghe follows Shen Qingqiu back to the bamboo house, boldly slipping his hand into his. Shen Qingqiu gives him a look, but doesn’t say anything, graciously allowing Luo Binghe to hold his hand.
It makes him bold enough to tug Shen Qingqiu into his own bed, curling around him like a limpet. Shen Qingqiu squirms.
Luo Binghe shushes him. After a moment, Shen Qingqiu runs a hand through his hair. “This is highly inappropriate,” he grumbles.
Luo Binghe squeezes him tighter. “It’s not.”
“You’re not a little bun anymore, ah. People might get the wrong idea.”
“No,” Luo Binghe argues, a well of calm in him. He remembers when he was younger, that he had a plan for seducing his Shizun into his bed. It had been long and multi-staged, slow and careful. He throws it out the metaphorical window. “They would get the right idea. I love you.”
Shen Qingqiu freezes, but then chuckles. “Ah, that really would give people the wrong idea.”
Luo Binghe quietly snuggles his face into Shen Qingqiu’s chest. His Shizun can be a little dense, but Luo Binghe has all the time in the world to demonstrate what he means by love.
But his heart is a little restless. Shen Qingqiu’s breathing evens out as he drops into sleep, hand still tangled in Luo Binghe’s hair. Luo Binghe scoots back a little to take a look at Shen Qingqiu’s sleeping face. He’s peaceful, trusting. Luo Binghe’s heart soars and he leans in to press a quick kiss to Shen Qingqiu’s lips. It’s light, so light. Like a butterfly wing brushing past, it’s barely a taste. But it’s enough to make Luo Binghe’s heart feel full to bursting.
Luo Binghe ducks back down to press his ear to his Shizun’s chest, head tucked under his chin, to find his Shizun’s heart pounding in his chest.
Ah, perhaps not as asleep as he thought.
But Shizun doesn’t push him away, still holds Luo Binghe in his arms as he sinks gently into sleep. Shizun's hand moves, pulling Luo Binghe's head more firmly against his chest. For now, it is enough.