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Luo Binghe cuts a hole in time and steps through it.

He still carries wounds given to him by that other Luo Binghe and that kindly Shen Qingqiu. And he also still wears the braid the kindly Shen Qingqiu had made for him.

Luo Binghe cuts a hole in time, searching, searching, searching for where everything went wrong. For the reason that he had not been given a kind Shizun but the other him, that crybaby him, had.

And, when Luo Binghe steps through, he is far in the past.

And, for now, the Qiu Manor still stands.

*

Luo Binghe introduces himself as a lord to Qiu Jianluo, a lord who is interested in Qiu Haitang's hand.

Qiu Haitang, as expected, swoons for him all over again. Every lady does. It's all too easy.

Qiu Jianluo is not as impressed. Which, fair. This is his little sister.

(But Qiu Haitang could talk hours about her honorable, admirably older brother. A brother who had been so kind hearted, so generous, as to free a slave Shen Jiu and educate him. A brother that was taken from her far too soon.

Perhaps, with Luo Binghe's influence, Qiu Haitang would not lose her brother this time around.)

Luo Binghe is allowed to stay within the Qiu Manor.

And, while there, he begins his search.

Just, when Qiu Haitang calls out for her A-Luo, Luo Binghe always hesitates, unsure if she calls for him or her brother.

*

Luo Binghe find Shen Qingqiu. It takes long enough.

Or, perhaps should he say he has found Shen Jiu.

Shen Jiu is a little slave, dressed in drab clothing. Shen Jiu is kneeling, washing the floor. Shen Jiu does not even look up when Luo Binghe pauses by him.

Luo Binghe thinks for a minute.

What could he do to cause trouble for Shen Jiu?

Luo Binghe knocks over the pail of water beside Shen Jiu and then pretends to fall. "You," Luo Binghe says, with some amount of venom. "You've made me trip!"

Shen Jiu looks up this time. His face is so pale. He only pales further, kowtowing before Luo Binghe. He knocks his forehead against the ground rather viciously. "Sorry, Lord Luo," Shen Jiu says in a small voice. "This lowly one is incompetent."

Shen Jiu is still apologizing when Qiu Jianluo arrives, a certain fire in his eyes.

Shen Jiu is still apologizing when Qiu Jianluo disciplines Shen Jiu, ordering someone to strike Shen Jiu's back again and again.

So, Luo Binghe wonders, watching on. There actually was discipling in place in the Qiu Manor. But how did Shen Jiu grow up to be so lecherous and filthy?

*

Shen Jiu endures his punishment. He is always enduring, isn't he? Always waiting.

In the courtyard, he is struck again and again with a plank. Then he is told to kneel and reflect on his actions.

Shen Jiu does so, shifting his weight on his knees.

He had to wait. He just had to wait. Qi-ge would come back for him and then everything would be okay. So, Shen Jiu just had to wait a little longer and then everything would finally be okay.

*

Luo Binghe observes Shen Jiu quietly, taking in what he sees.

And, to be entirely fair, he does not see Qiu Jianluo spoiling or educating Shen Jiu, like how Qiu Haitang had insisted.

If anything, it seems like Shen Jiu is at the very bottom of the pecking order.

Shen Jiu recieves his daily meal last, usually the last dredges of soup and one wotou.

Shen Jiu does a lot of the household chores, despite his diminuative stature. And he never, ever complains. Which, probably, should be expected for how young he is.

It's funny to see all of this. All the ways Shen Qingqiu had mistreated Luo Binghe... are the ways Shen Jiu himself had been mistreated. It's funny until it isn't.

When Qiu Jianluo tips over a bowl of cold congee, Luo Binghe watches and does nothing, feeling both just as useless as he had when his mother died and grateful to witness this young Shen Jiu's expression of despair.

*

Shen Jiu washes his clothing roughly. He smells of congee, and grains of rice had clung uncomfortably to his back. The sooner he cleaned his clothing, the sooner he would be able to wear clean clothing.

It's fine. It's fine.

Shen Jiu hurries, so that he might run along to attend to his next task.

He is all too aware of the strange lord that watches him, but Shen Jiu does nothing. Maybe if he pretends not to see Luo Binghe, then Luo Binghe won't do something to him.

But, still, Shen Jiu hurries himself, his heart uncomfortable.

He hates this.

He hates this, so hurry up Qi-ge!

*

Is it strange then that Luo Binghe begins to approach Shen Jiu in ernest?

It may be strange. But this is exactly what Luo Binghe does.

Luo Binghe finds Shen Jiu, wherever he may be--hauling Qiu Haitang's shopping along, washing the floors, wringing out dirty laundry. It seems that no matter when Luo Binghe catches Shen Jiu, Shen Jiu is working.

Which, fair.

Shen Jiu is a slave after all.

And Luo Binghe is unsure of what he should do from here.

(Luo Binghe briefly considers tearing open a hole in time once more and returning to his warm but unfulfilling harem. He considers it more than what someone could describe as briefly, but Luo Binghe would not tell anyone this.)

This time, when Luo Binghe approaches Shen Jiu, he has something of a plan.

"Little sprout," says Luo Binghe, using that same old hateful nickname Shen Qingqiu used for him. "Do you really want to spend all your days toiling?"

Shen Jiu keeps his head down, looking at his feet. "...this lowly one does what he is told to do, Lord Luo."

"Hmm. Do you now?" Luo Binghe says thoughtfully. "Well, give me your wrist."

Shen Jiu looks at him with wide, frightened eyes. But he obeys.

(He’s so obedient, isn't he? The perfect little doll.)

Luo Binghe takes Shen Jiu's pulse and everything grinds to a halt. This isn't right. It can't be right. If Shen Jiu had such a strong spiritual root, then why was Shen Qingqiu's cultivation crippled?

Shen Jiu remains there, steady, not quite looking at Luo Binghe. His heartbeat begins to race.

Luo Binghe lets go of Shen Jiu and does not miss how Shen Jiu holds himself, like the touch of another person burned. "You have excellent potential," Luo Binghe says, not quite able to relish in telling Shen Jiu this. His stomach churns. He doesn't know what to think. "A-Jiu should consider joining a cultivation sect."

Shen Jiu wrinkles his nose at the overly familiar way Luo Binghe speaks. But he ducks his head and says, "This lowly one thanks Lord Luo for his advice."

*

Shen Jiu knows that he has potential. Shen Jiu wants to go to a sect.

This... lord.

He might be useful. If this lord could free him from the Qiu Manor, then maybe, just maybe, Luo Binghe would teach Shen Jiu something.

(Maybe, just maybe, Luo Binghe would help Shen Jiu find his Qi-ge's bones to bury.)

*

So, plans changed.

There are several things Luo Binghe has learned.

1. Shen Jiu, the slave, had not been freed and treated well, as Qiu Haitang had suggested.

2. Shen Jiu, currently, had a strong spiritual root, so strong that if Shen Jiu had the chance to join a cultivation strength then his own strength would challenge even the best of their generation.

3. Luo Binghe has no idea where things would fall apart. He does not know if he could wait for this small Shen Jiu to burn down the Qiu manor.

And, because his plans have changed, Luo Binghe has to do something different. Maybe he will raise himself a kindly Shizun.

*

Luo Binghe decides to befriend his little Shizun.

(This is a difficult goal. Shen Jiu is prickly and mean or as quiet as a ghost. And Luo Binghe cannot predict how Shen Jiu will react. And Luo Binghe loathes the boy and pities him in equal measures.)

Luo Binghe offers Shen Jiu food at first. Steamed buns. Little pastries. Warm soy milk. Tanghulu. And he takes note of how Shen Jiu treats these gifts: Shen Jiu thanks him, accepting the treats, and then all but runs away in order to eat.

Much like a dog.

Luo Binghe snorts.

But Shen Jiu isn't a dog. He's... more like an alley cat, hissing and scratching and unused to kind hands, hiding a little soft belly and warm fur.

But Luo Binghe is more than determined to feel that soft belly for himself.

And, following Shen Jiu around, he sees more and more how the stories Qiu Haitang shared were wrong. All wrong.

*

Shen Jiu has never eaten so well.

In addition to the daily meal provided by the Qiu Manor's kitchens, Luo Binghe provides him with all sorts of treats. And the food is good, warm and delicious, and not somebody else's leftovers.

Luo Binghe probably doesn't have good intentions. No adult has good intentions.

But Shen Jiu cannot really afford to say no now can he? For the first time he can remember, his stomach is comfortably full.

*

Shen Jiu sleeps in the woodshed.

And the violence inside of Luo Binghe's heart is not aimed at Shen Qingqiu for once.

*

With Luo Binghe being nice to him, Qiu Jianluo only gets more and more harsh.

Sometimes, Shen Jiu lies there after Qiu Jianluo is done, unable to even move. Sometimes, Shen Jiu thinks that Qiu Jianluo will kill him.

But Qiu Jianluo is always so creative in his torments. And he wasn't done with his favorite toy just yet.

*

This is different than all the times Luo Binghe saw Qiu Jianluo hurt and humiliate his little Shizun.

Before, it had been maybe just a little bit funny. A platter of food turned over onto Shen Jiu’s head. The slap of a plank against Shen Jiu’s back. Shen Jiu being told to kneel for hours on end in the cold. It was a lot like the humiliations Luo Binghe endured.

So maybe this is where Shen Qingqiu learned to be awful.

But this is different.

Qiu Jianluo had entered Shen Jiu’s woodshed, a bundle of rope dangling from his hand. And Qiu Jianluo had not left. Not for hours.

Luo Binghe snorts to himself. He had made plans earlier, to visit the little woodshed and tease Shen Jiu for his own weakness. For being unable to escape Qiu Jianluo’s kindly attentions. And then offer Shen Jiu a stick of tanghulu, planting more dreams of escape.

(Luo Binghe waits impatiently for the day that Shen Jiu would snap and slaughter the Qiu household, sparing only the women and children. And then Luo Binghe would be able to scoop Shen Jiu up and take him on as something like a disciple, though not really considering that would be just gross. That would build a sort of trust--with Luo Binghe as a witness to the massacre of the Qiu family. And then Luo Binghe would raise a kindly Shizun. He’s sure of this.)

Luo Binghe lets himself into the woodshed, having long since grown impatient. And halts abruptly.

Shen Jiu is strung up from the rafters, all of his weight being supported by his wrists and arms. His little feet dangle uselessly, a slipper having fallen from his foot.

And Qiu Jianluo stands there, a whip in hand.

Lacerations open up on Shen Jiu’s pale, frail arms. His robes are torn, exposing more pale skin and the hollow bird bones that jut out just beneath. Blood drips down Shen Jiu’s thighs.

The air stinks of Shen Jiu’s blood.

Luo Binghe snaps then. He shoves Qiu Jianluo harshly and Qiu Jianluo crumples when his head hits the ground. If he had thought more about this, Luo Binghe would have simply made Qiu Jianluo disappear, if only to avoid the troubles that would come later.

“Hey there,” Luo Binghe says softly, like how he would have spoken to one of his frightened wives. Not that most of them are around at this point of time. “A-Jiu, won’t you look at me?”

Shen Jiu opens his eyes slowly, tears dripping down his face. He has worried his lip to the point of blood.

“I’m leaving now,” Luo Binghe says, cutting the ropes free and catching Shen Jiu. When he settles Shen Jiu down on the ground, Shen Jiu stumbles forwards, unable to stand. “Would you like to come with me?”

Shen Jiu wouldn’t trust him, he was sure of this. Shen Qingqiu had never trusted him, not even when Luo Binghe was still an innocent child.

Shen Jiu, all of thirteen years, nods feverishly, holding onto Luo Binghe’s sleeve, but not daring to come any closer.

*

The Qiu Manor does not burn.

Luo Binghe goes to the first brothel he can find, noticing how stiff and quiet Shen Jiu has gone. But the ladies in the brothel... would understand the kind of wounds Shen Jiu had. And they'd be able to help Shen Jiu in a way that Luo Binghe couldn't.

It goes almost as planned.

Shen Jiu, as a child, is very small, very cute, and very pitible while so visibly hurt.

The ladies take him aside, to some quiet room in order to bathe him and treat his wounds. This is what he had planned.

What he had not planned is this: the brothel's madame pulling him aside, venom in her eyes. "You," this madame says. "You better not have been the one to do that to the poor boy."

"I wasn't," says Luo Binghe calmly. And, because surely her ladies would report the slave brand on Shen Jiu's back: "His master did that. I liberated him."

The madame watches him carefully, as though gauging him for something. Then she nods, carefully.

After all, everyone knew slaves were barely considered to be human. And some brothel girls got their start in life in chains.

*

They don't stay in the brothel for too long. Luo Binghe needs to get some distance between the Qiu Manor and himself, so that they wouldn't be caught.

(Well... even if they were caught, Luo Binghe wouldn't be bothered. He was strong, a fully realized demon lord. But... he didn't want Shen Jiu to know of his heritage so soon.

Not unless Luo Binghe really abandoned the 'raise Shen Jiu right' plan entirely.)

After a night of rest, spoiled by all the brothel ladies, Luo Binghe picks Shen Jiu up by the scruff and steals away with the boy, Shen Jiu's cheeks bulging from the candy in his mouth. He leaves behind enough jewels and gold for the brothel to be able to turn away abhorent customers for several years.

Luo Binghe flies them both on Xin Mo.

It's exactly as silly as it might seem, given Xin Mo's ability to cut through space and time.

But if Shen Jiu notices anything funny, he doesn't say anything.

*

So, this is not at all what Luo Binghe has planned. It is not as easy and not nearly as fun as he had assumed.

They travel in silence. Shen Jiu is like a ghost, pale and withdrawn, quite quiet and still. But Shen Jiu is also quite sticky, never out of Luo Binghe's reach.

It's... weird.

Luo Binghe, being a demon lord, a cultivator, and, perhaps most importantly, an actual adult, doesn't get tired that easily. But Shen Jiu does.

Luo Binghe sighs.

It wasn't as if Shen Jiu voiced his bodily discomforts. The boy would rather go hungry than voice it. He'd rather rub furiously at his eyes than ask Luo Binghe if they could rest.

So Luo Binghe had to remember what it was like to once be a weak, helpless child.

They camp at the side of a river. Luo Binghe catches a few fish for their dinner. And Shen Jiu watches.

"What is it, little sprout?" Luo Binghe asks Shen Jiu.

Shen Jiu is quiet for a while. Then he says this: "Lord Luo... Could you help this lowly one find someone?"

Luo Binghe quirks a brow. "Oh?" he says. "And who might Jiu'er be looking for?"

"My brother," Shen Jiu says a little too quickly. "He... said he would come back for me."

But he didn't, is left unsaid.

"Do you want to kill him?" Luo Binghe says in a low voice. That would certainly line up with the vision of his shitty Shizun, so cold as to not care for a single person in this wretched world. Well, save for Yue Qingyuan.

Shen Jiu shakes his head furiously. He grips the fabric of his robes tightly, surely leaving wrinkles behind. The robes he wears were a gift--from the brothel ladies. Perhaps he realizes this because Shen Jiu runs his hands down his front. "If Qi-ge didn't come back for me, then he probably died. I need to bury him."

"It would be extraordinarily difficult to find some random kid's skeleton," Luo Binghe mutters, more to himself than anything.

Shen Jiu's lip wobbles.

Luo Binghe sighs, hating himself. "We'll look for him then," he says. It would be another reason for Shen Jiu to trust him anyway.

Shen Jiu nods. But he remains at Luo Binghe's side.

"There's something else?" Luo Binghe asks.

Shen Jiu looks down, at his feet. "Will Lord Luo teach this lowly one cultivation?"

Luo Binghe lets out a puff of air. "Me? Teach you?" he says derisively, despite this being part of his plan. "Where did you get such an idea?"

"...Lord Luo is a cultivator," Shen Jiu says in a small voice. He's pouting. "Why else would Lord Luo be interested in this lowly one? Lord Luo said that this lowly one has good potential."

...that's right. He had said that.

Luo Binghe sighs, fighting back his smile. "Wouldn't you rather go join a cultivation sect?"

Shen Jiu shakes his head vigorously. And then, entirely unprompted, the boy goes onto his knees, bowing before Luo Binghe, as though Luo Binghe had accepted him as a disciple.

"Quit that, little sprout," Luo Binghe says angrily. In the moment, he wants nothing more than to pluck the limbs from Shen Jiu's body, one by one, like plucking the petals of a flower. He grinds his teeth instead, not finding it to be a suitable redirection for his anger.

(It has been a while since Luo Binghe had sated Xin Mo through either bloodshed or bedding someone.)

Shen Jiu pouts at him, so utterly ridiculous. And, again, Luo Binghe did not know how this child grew up to become the bitter, bitchy Shen Qingqiu. "Why not?" Shen Jiu says, so suddenly petulant. "Am I not good enough?"

But isn't this what Luo Binghe wanted?

The ability to mold Shen Jiu into something good, something like that kindly Shizun.

But, more and more, Luo Binghe realized what a pain it was to be responsible for a child. You had to remember to feed them and water them and ensure that they're warm and get enough sleep. And, and, and, because that wasn't enough, having a child made it incredibly difficult to go get laid. He is exhausted already.

Luo Binghe is silent for a moment, trying to come up with some sort of excuse. "My cultivation is not suitable for you. I'm a physical cultivator. You'd be a spiritual cultivator."

Judging by the expression on Shen Jiu's face, this distinction doesn't matter much. And, oh no, Shen Jiu looked really sad.

"I'll teach you the very basics," Luo Binghe says, eventually, hating himself for giving into that pout on his little Shizun's face. "But you will eventually join a cultivation sect."

Shen Jiu watches him carefully, as though searching for something. The look in his eyes was so old. "This one will do as Shizun says."

Something inside of Luo Binghe revolts at that term. "Not Shizun."

"...shifu?"

"No, not that either."

Shen Jiu is quiet, considering something. "Immortal-gege."

Luo Binghe's eye twitches. He reaches out and pinches Shen Jiu's cheek fiercely. "Do I look like a gege to you?" he asks, a little viciously.

Shen Jiu goes very, very still, his eyes enormous.

Luo Binghe takes a deep breath, then lets it out. "Come now," he says, holding back the irrational anger that bubbled up inside of his heart. "You want to eat, yeah?"

*

Shizun was not acceptable because Shen Jiu would have a real shizun someday, because Luo Binghe needed to get him to Cang Qiong Mountain sect anyway.

Shifu wasn't good either because that was what Luo Binghe called Shen Qingqiu.

And Immortal-gege was just a joke.

Luo Binghe should have accepted any of these terms. Theoretically, Luo Binghe could cut a hole in time and correct this mistake.

"Yifu," Shen Jiu says, a little smugly. He carries a little fan in one hand, one he had purchased with Luo Binghe's money, surely, and a stick of tanghulu in the other. He hides his sticky sweet smile behind the painted fabric of the fan. "Please wait for me."

Years had passed, one by one. Until Shen Jiu was sixteen years old, when he would have snapped and murdered the Qiu household and gotten himself a shitty Shizun in Wu Yanzi.

Instead, Shen Jiu is remarkably less murderous than Luo Binghe, though he was still an absolute bastard. Or, perhaps he should say that Shen Jiu still grew up to be an absolute bastard.

Luo Binghe waits before he thinks about why. "Jiu'er can entertain yourself," he says, waving broadly at the stalls around them. "This lord will go visit a brothel."

Perhaps if he said it bluntly, Shen Jiu would do as asked. At his small age, there wasn't anything he could do in a brothel and Luo Binghe grew tired of waiting. But Shen Jiu also gotten far too used to following right behind Luo Binghe's footsteps, regardless of where Luo Binghe would go.

"I'll come with you," Shen Jiu says, stubbornly sticking to Luo Binghe's side.

Once Shen Jiu had learned that Luo Binghe wasn't going to hit him, or do anything that Qiu Jianluo did to him, Shen Jiu became an absolute menace. His sickly sweet tone always hiding barbed words.

"There's nothing for you there," Luo Binghe says derisively.

This does not stop Shen Jiu, who only lets out a thoughtful hum. "Jiu'er will chat with the jiejies," he says, that little brat.

Luo Binghe raises his brows. If Shen Jiu wished to be sticky, then so be it. Soon, Luo Binghe would be rid of the boy.

(They were in the town at the foot of Cang Qiong Mountain sect. The brothel is Shen Qingqiu's old haunt, the Warm Red Pavilion. And, soon enough, Luo Binghe would deposit Shen Jiu on Qing Jing Peak and wash his hands of him.

Or, so he thinks.)

At the Warm Red Pavilion, Luo Binghe pays for a room.

He isn't too picky about which lady will attend to him. They're all sweet flowers, with soft, pale skin, and dark, silky hair. This one opens beautifully beneath him.

Luo Binghe devours her whole, leaving her shaking and gasping for breath.

Smugly, he thinks that she's never had better than this.

With the amount Luo Binghe paid, he's entitled to a night with this woman. So Luo Binghe makes use of all of her skills, of what her body is willing to give to him.

And it's good.

It's fine.

Well, until there comes the rush of footsteps. A very distinct sort of run. Luo Binghe would recognize it anywhere--in any lifetime, in any world, in any time.

"Yifu!" cries out Shen Jiu, wandering the halls of the brothels, his voice a little wet and broken. "Yifu, where are you?"

Luo Binghe lets out a long, drawn out sigh. What trouble had that brat gotten into this time? He dresses himself, tying a belt loosely around his waist. Then he covers the brothel lady with his overrobe. "Wait just a moment for me," he says gently.

The lady blinks, her long lashes fluttering demurely. "Of course, my lord."

Luo Binghe goes to slide open the door and Shen Jiu all but rushes in, winding his arms around Luo Binghe's waist. Luo Binghe goes very, very still. Shen Jiu has never hugged him before.

"W-what are you doing?" Luo Binghe asks, more than a little surprised at this development.

Shen Jiu sniffles. "...I saw him," he says, very lowly.

"Saw who?" Luo Binghe says, impatient. He'd like to return to what--or, rather, who--he was doing. "Jiu'er will have to be a little more specific."

"Xiao Jiu!" cries out a voice.

Luo Binghe would like to say it is a familiar voice, but he'd never heard it... so young.

There, within this brothel, stands a young Yue Qingyuan, dressed in the fine robes of Qiong Ding Peak. And, at his side, is a little Liu Qingge, his arms crossed over his chest, his frown somewhat thunderous.

"Xiao Jiu, get away from that man!" Yue Qingyuan says loudly.

So, Yue Qingyuan is Shen Jiu's brother. And Yue Qingyuan had not come back for him.

"Yifu," Shen Jiu says again, this time just a little more loudly. "Do something."

"Bossy," mutters Luo Binghe before obeying. "What are the disciples of Cang Qiong Mountain sect doing within this brothel?"

Yue Qingyuan bows respectully, though his eyes never leaving Luo Binghe. "Greetings, noble cultivator," he says now, calm and polite, the picture of his future self--the gentle Sect Leader of Cang Qiong Mountain sect. "My name is Yue Qingyuan. I am the head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak. Have you been... taking care of Xiao Jiu?"

Shen Jiu continues to bristle fiercely. Obviously, he did not like the use of that name.

But Luo Binghe sees an opportunity here.

"Cang Qiong Mountain sect," Luo Binghe says thoughtfully. "Quite remarkable, wouldn't you agree, Jiu'er?"

Shen Jiu detaches himself from Luo Binghe, looking at him distrustfully. "What are you suggesting, yifu?"

"I told you I'd teach you the basics and send you off to a cultivation sect when I first picked you up. It'd be safe to say that you've learned the basics quite well," Luo Binghe says loftily. "Isn't this a lucky coincidence? Your brother has finally come back for you."

Shen Jiu flinches badly at that. But then he puffs up, like Luo Binghe knew he would. Shen Jiu scowls terribly. "Why didn't you come back?" he spits at Yue Qingyuan.

"Xiao Jiu," Yue Qingyuan says again, so very softly. "Qi-ge is sorry--"

Shen Jiu inhales sharply. "I will not go anywhere with you--"

Luo Binghe has heard enough. He shoves Shen Jiu harshly, sending the boy stumbling forwards. Shen Jiu would have fallen if the little Liu Qingge didn't catch him.

"There," Luo Binghe says bruskly. "You'll go to Cang Qiong Mountain sect. The Qing Jing Peak Lord might appreciate someone of your abilities. My promise to you is complete. You're not my responsibility any more."

And Shen Jiu stares at him for a long time before his expression crumples.

Then, Liu Qingge, looking no older than thirteen or fourteen, glares daggers at Luo Binghe. "You will ruin your cultivation," Liu Qingge says, actually lecturing Luo Binghe this time around. But his face is all red.

Luo Binghe smiles. "Oh?" he says. He knows how he looks. He's handsome, built well. And his robe is only barely held closed, not doing much to hide what lies beneath. "Bai Zhan Peak's disciple does not need to concern himself with me. I know exactly what I'm doing."

Liu Qingge flushes a brighter red, looking away. "Shameless," he says beneath his breath.

(What an interesting reaction. Had Liu Qingge squabbled with Shen Qingqiu all the time because Liu Qingge wasn't able to take what he wanted and get his dick wet?)

Shen Jiu stands there, looking a little lost. He rights his robes and then, without a single word, he walks away, flanked on either side by Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge.

And Luo Binghe was free to go back to the arms of the brothel lady and to sink into her warmth.

*

This should be the end of this story. Luo Binghe successfully handed off Shen Jiu to Cang Qiong Mountain sect. And, in the future, maybe Shen Qingqiu would be a little more kind to a younger Luo Binghe.

(Well, probably not. Shen Qingqiu's heart as a bleeding, broken little thing. Luo Binghe would not hold out hope for better.)

But, well, things just don't seem to go according to Luo Binghe's plans anymore.

Luo Binghe had not burned down the Qiu manor. And perhaps he should have.

*

Shen Jiu goes to Cang Qiong Mountain sect, like Luo Binghe wanted him to. He is brought before the Qing Jing Peak Lord, like Luo Binghe had suggested.

Yue Qi--Yue Qingyuan now, apparently--shared Luo Binghe's thoughts.

And the Qing Jing Peak Lord accepts Shen Jiu to the sect.

"Oh," says Shen Anwei. "There's one more thing."

Shen Anwei takes the cup of tea that Shen Jiu had brewed and tips it over Shen Jiu's head.

"Now you're a disciple of Qing Jing Peak," Shen Anwei says calmly.

*

Shen Jiu misses Luo Binghe. Not that he would ever tell Luo Binghe this. Not that he would ever have the chance to tell Luo Binghe this. Not that he would ever see Luo Binghe again.

On Qing Jing Peak, Shen Jiu is alone.

He is the one of the oldest disciples to join the peak. But at least he had joined with some prior knowledge. The very basics of cultivation taught by Luo Binghe. The four arts.

If he had been lacking in any way, his lowly origins would surely be sniffed out by his martial brothers and then there would be even more trouble.

For now, Shen Jiu sleeps in the woodshed.

*

"Spar with me," Liu Qingge says, all puffed up.

"No," says Shen Jiu.

It seems that no matter where Shen Jiu hides, he will be found by either a sniveling, apologetic Yue Qingyuan or an overly energetic Liu Qingge.

Besides, Shen Jiu had made himself comfortable within the bamboo forest, his fingers plucking at the qin before him.

"Why not?" asks Liu Qingge.

Shen Jiu shuts his eyes. "Shidi has plenty of martial siblings on Bai Zhan Peak to spar with," he says.

Liu Qingge doesn't run away. But he also doesn't ask again. He drops heavily to the ground, crossing his arms over his chest. He says nothing, only listening to the songs Shen Jiu practices.

After a while, Liu Qingge says this: "Why are you practicing the qin? You're good enough."

Shen Jiu scoffs, his blood heated. "Liu-shidi is decent enough at fighting, and it seems like all Liu-shidi does is fight."

At first, Liu Qingge preens, as though he'd been complimented. Then the words catch up with his brain. "Hey!"

Shen Jiu ignores him, mouth curled into a little secret smile.

*

Yue Qingyuan keeps giving him gifts.

And Shen Jiu doesn't know what to do with everything he's given.

Yue Qingyuan doesn't let him say no. But where is Shen Jiu supposed to store these ostentatious, far too expensive hair crowns?

In the woodshed?

Already, some of Shen Jiu's own possessions have gone missing. And, despite the uncomfortable feelings between then, Shen Jiu didn't really want to lose a gift from Yue Qingyuan.

So. Shen Jiu makes qiankun pouches.

They're not very good at first. But he gets better. Eventually.

Shen Anwei catches Shen Jiu making a qiankun pouch in one of Qing Jing Peak's pavilions.

"That's good," Shen Anwei comments idly. "But it could be better. Give it here."

And Shen Jiu obeys.

Before his eyes, Shen Anwei shows him how to make a better, more durable qiankun pouch, one that would not destroy the items inside of it even if the qiankun pouch itself was destroyed.

"This disciple thanks Shizun for his wisdom," says Shen Jiu, holding the qiankun pouch in his hands carefully, like it is something precious.

Shen Anwei stands up slowly. "It is a pleasure to teach," he says simply. "Practice. I'm sure a qiankun pouch would look even nicer with more of your embroidery, A-Jiu."

*

So Shen Jiu lives out his days as a disciple of Qing Jing Peak.

But he knows he does not quite fit in here. Or anywhere, really.

Several lonely years pass by, one by one.

*

It's a handful of years later that Luo Binghe hears of a great commotion in the human realm.

A disciple from Cang Qiong Mountain sect is being restrained by Huan Hua Palace, awaiting trial for something. That part wasn't very clear. Luo Binghe heard all sorts of rumors.

So Luo Binghe goes to Cang Qiong Mountain sect first.

It's been a while anyway. Seeing that mountain range again... feels a little strange.

Shen Anwei is not really what Luo Binghe would have expected from his Shizun's Shizun. Shen Anwei is very put together, calm, and gentle. Where Shen Qingqiu's default expression appeared cold and distant, Shen Anwei somehow managed to look warm.

"Lord Luo," says Shen Anwei in greeting. He pours them two cups of tea. In the moment, Luo Binghe would expect nothing more for Shen Anwei to dump this cup of tea over Luo Binghe's head. But this does not happen. "This master was not expecting your visit."

Luo Binghe snorts. "Really?" he says, voice thin. "And why wouldn't you expect to see me? You gave away--" He can't quite say Shizun now, can he? "You gave Shen Jiu to the Old Palace Master over some accusations? I thought Cang Qiong Mountain sect protected its own."

Shen Anwei sighs slightly. His voice is still warm, friendly. "It is a difficult charge," he says slowly. "A-Jiu was accused of being a runaway slave. You know how tiresome those cases are."

"Oh?"

"Do not misunderstand me, Lord Luo," Shen Anwei says, wetting his mouth with a sip of tea. "I would rather not see my disciple held in the Water Prison, but it does not look good, now does it?" He chuckles humorlessly, as though he had told a funny joke.

Luo Binghe shakes his head. This time and the time before, no one in Cang Qiong Mountain sect had fought for Shen Qingqiu--Shen Jiu.

This warmth that Shen Anwei shows him does not negate the fact that Shen Anwei had willingly allowed Shen Jiu to be restrained by Huan Hua Palace.

And the discussion goes absolutely nowhere.

Luo Binghe has had enough. He says nothing. He picks up his cup of tea, now lukewarm, and dumps it over Shen Anwei's head, not staying long enough even to take pleasure in Shen Anwei's yelp of surprise.

*

So, the Water Prison.

Everything had started here. Everything could end here.

Luo Binghe opens a hole in space and steps through it, into the cold, dark of the Water Prison. 

Shen Jiu looks much like he did when Luo Binghe had been the one to restrain him in this room. Shen Jiu is a small huddled form in the dark, his clothes torn and ragged beneath the bright red of Immortal Binding Cables.

Luo Binghe pauses for a moment.

(He could tear this Shen Jiu to pieces, not leave anything behind for Yue Qingyuan to bury. He could do anything, and no one would be able to stop him.)

Shen Jiu lifts his chin. In the half-dark, the shadows cast across Shen Jiu's face make him look so small, so young, so very easy to break.

"...yifu?" Shen Jiu calls out, his voice barely a rasp.

Shen Qingqiu had always been weak. But Shen Qingqiu had never sounded so vulnerable, not even when Xuan Su's shards were thrown before him.

Luo Binghe's body moves before he can even think of what to do. He cuts the Immortal Binding ropes from Shen Jiu's body and casts them aside. Shen Jiu's skin is so cold to the touch.

"Yifu, you've come back for me," Shen Jiu says, sounding more than a little confused.

"Don't say that," says Luo Binghe. He hesitates. He removes his robe and drapes Shen Jiu in its heavy fabric.

Shen Jiu clutches the dark fabric closes to himself, as though this gift of a robe could be something precious. He still doesn't move.

"Get up," Luo Binghe says.

"I can't," Shen Jiu snaps.

Luo Binghe shakes his head. "Jiu'er causes me so many problems," he says, gathering Shen Jiu into his arms.

Shen Jiu's heartbeat is racing. He is very still in Luo Binghe's hands. Isn't this a familiar scene? Shen Jiu bundled up in Luo Binghe's arms. "Jiu'er apologizes for causing yifu trouble," he says, saccarine sweet, lips curled into a smile. "But it was Yifu who came back for me."

...and that's true but--

Luo Binghe tears open another hole in space, stepping through neatly on Qian Cao Peak. It isn't hard to find Mu Qingfang. Luo Binghe had enough experiencing summoning the cultivator to attend to particularly weak members of his harem.

"Hey," Luo Binghe barks. "Junior Mu."

Mu Qingfang startles from whatever he had been doing. It isn't important, of course. Just something to do with plants. Mu Qingfang startles worse when he sees what state Shen Jiu is in.

"Shen-shixiong!" Mu Qingfang says, alarmed.

"Will you heal him or will you upset yourself?" Luo Binghe asks.

"Here," Mu Qingfang says, leading Luo Binghe to an empty bed. "Immortal Master, please place Shen-shixiong here."

Luo Binghe obeys.

(He should not obey. He should raze Cang Qiong Mountain sect to the ground again.)

Luo Binghe does not stay to watch as Mu Qingfang strips Shen Jiu of his clothing, layer by layer, in search of the wounds just below.

*

Yue Qingyuan is one of the first to visit, all in disarray. "Xiao Jiu," he calls out. "You're here!"

Shen Jiu bristles. "What?" he says. "Does it bother Yue-shixiong that I am here instead of in the Water Prison?"

"No, no, of course not," Yue Qingyuan says, kneeling at Shen Jiu's bedside. "I'm so happy to see that you are okay, Xiao Jiu." He places a hand carefully on Shen Jiu's.

Shen Jiu slaps it away. "Hmmph. As if you're telling the truth."

He doesn't believe it. He doesn't believe it at all.

Mu Qingfang enters the room carefully, holding a bowl of medicine. "Shen-shixiong, Yue-shixiong," he greets cautiously. He hands Shen Jiu the bowl of medicine.

And Shen Jiu grimaces. The medicine is terribly bitter and nasty. He drinks it down in three gulps.

"You're still here?" Shen Jiu spits at Yue Qingyuan once he's done.

"Xiao Jiu--"

"Hey!" says Liu Qingge, marching into the room, Cheng Luan held in his hand, like he was going to fight someone who was in a sickbed. "Shen Jiu! You're back."

"If you ask me to spar right now," Shen Jiu says slowly, feeling a headache come on, "I will actually kill you, Liu-shidi."

Liu Qingge nods, as though satisfied, and then parks himself at Shen Jiu's bedside.

"What is this?" Shen Jiu mutters lowly. "Are we going to host meetings here now?"

Mu Qingfang smiles gently. "You have visitors, Shen-shixiong," he says. "We've missed you. Would you like for this Mu-shidi to let in more visitors then?"

Ptoo, ptoo.

Shen Jiu hands the empty bowl to Mu Qingfang. Then he turns his back to his 'visitors' and tries to get some sleep.

(Or, at least, pretend to get some sleep.)

*

Luo Binghe goes to Shen Anwei. "I've taken the liberty of liberating our disciple," he says.

Luo Binghe does not wait to hear an answer.

To many of those who had started their lives well, slaves were not people, but property. And Shen Jiu's Shizun might be the same.

*

Eventually, though everyone leaves Shen Jiu's room.

And Shen Jiu actually gets some sleep.

*

Yes, Luo Binghe will admit that he avoids Shen Jiu's sickroom.

How could he not?

Shen Jiu so resembled the Shen Qingqiu who had tormented him in his youth. Just, now, Shen Jiu had been so very sweet to Luo Binghe. This Shen Jiu had become sweet to Luo Binghe once Luo Binghe took him on as something of a disciple.

Shen Jiu was Shen Qingqiu.

So Shen Jiu had to be calculating, cold, cruel. It's just... this Shen Jiu had not been calculating, cold, cruel to Luo Binghe.

Shen Jiu had been so fucking happy that Luo Binghe came to rescue him.

And Luo Binghe does not know what to do. He does not know and it pains him. Half of him still wanted to tear Shen Jiu apart. Half of him wanted to see how this Shen Jiu would grow up.

It doesn't matter.

In the end, Luo Binghe sneaks into Shen Jiu's sickroom when Shen Jiu is sleeping.

The fact that Shen Jiu hadn't woken up at his presence should probably be more worrying than Luo Binghe realizes just then. But in the moment, he feels only relief.

Luo Binghe watches Shen Jiu for a while, the rise and fall of Shen Jiu's chest.

Shen Jiu's sleeping posture remains terrible. He's curled up on his side, looking much like a shrimp. It couldn't possibly be comfortable.

He is disturbed when the door opens, Yue Qingyuan standing there like a ghost. He holds a small basket of sweets in his hands.

"Yue Qingyuan," Luo Binghe says, voice a bit stilted. He can picture Yue Qingyuan's body broken so easily. A thousand arrows launched at him, leaving nothing substantial behind. The broken shards of Xuan Su.

"Lord Luo," Yue Qingyuan says quietly. His eyes flit between the sleeping form of Shen Jiu and Luo Binghe himself. He places the basket down on a low table. Then he says this: "Might this one have a word with you?"

"Oh?" Luo Binghe is interested. He gets up slowly, so as to not make a sound.

Had he ever really chatted with Yue Qingyuan? He doesn't think so, but he's missing some memories. Everything is falling apart now, isn't it?

In the hall, Yue Qingyuan turns to face him. "Why have you come back now?"

Luo Binghe smiles slowly. This much should be obvious. "Jiu'er was in trouble. I came back to rescue him."

And Yue Qingyuan flinches. "Did he tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

Yue Qingyuan frowns. He does not answer Luo Binghe's question. Instead, he says this: "Will you... take Shen-shidi away from Cang Qiong Mountain sect?"

"Jiu'er can make his on decisions. He's old enough for that," Luo Binghe says loftily. "But I won't be impressed if your Peak Lords return him to the Qiu family like some lost piece of property."

"I agree."

"Hm?" Luo Binghe didn't expect this.

While Yue Qingyuan let Shen Qingqiu get away with all sorts of things, he also had not defended Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu was always being cajoled to get along with others. Luo Binghe remembers this much, though Yue Qingyuan's words themselves are now lost.

"If... If Shen-shishu does not protect Shen-shidi, if my Shizun doesn't protect Shen-shidi, could you please take him away, Lord Luo?"

Luo Binghe laughs.

How funny this all is!

Still, Yue Qingyuan did not seem to realize that Shen Jiu could have his own plans outside of what Yue Qingyuan wanted, even though Luo Binghe had reminded him of it. And, if Shen Jiu ever heard of this, how desolate he would be.

Abandoned by Yue Qingyuan once more.

*

So, anyway, Qiu Jianluo was still alive. And, of course, this had to cause problems, even if Luo Binghe had plucked Shen Jiu from the Water Prison.

Qiu Jianluo and Qiu Haitang come to Cang Qiong Mountain sect along with some servants or whatever. Luo Binghe doesn't really care about them.

But when word spreads that the Qiu family is petitioning for the return of their property, Luo Binghe begins to care a bit.

(Just a bit. Shen Jiu didn't matter to him. If things didn't go right, Luo Binghe could just escape with Xin Mo--through space or time or whatever he wants in that particular moment. It's easy enough and he can try something different.)

The negotiations go somewhat sideways.

To be known to be a slave--a runaway slave at that. What a blow to Shen Jiu's already unfortunate reputation! Shen Anwei does nothing to shield Shen Jiu's face from this blow, despite knowing how Shen Jiu would be treated by his peers from then on.

The room is filled with people who really have no business being here. All of the Peak Lords are here. A good crowd of disciples too.

Sitting almost directly across them is Qiu Jianluo, Qiu Haitang at his side.

Luo Binghe does not pay much attention. Instead, he watches Shen Jiu's expressions.

At first, Shen Jiu keeps up that cold, distant mask. But as time goes on, he grows quite pale. His jaw is clenched so fiercely. He looks quite pitible, if one could pity the creature that would one day become Shen Qingqiu.

But, even so, Luo Binghe knows when Shen Jiu is afraid.

Luo Binghe would always know when Shen Jiu is afraid. Shen Qingqiu. Shen Jiu. Shen Qingqiu. He shakes his head.

This is Shen Jiu before him, still moldable and... well, alright, tolerable. This is not the Shen Qingqiu who had thrown him into the Endless Abyss.

This Shen Jiu could be changed.

This Shen Jiu would grow up to be different. He had to.

(If he did not, then Luo Binghe would simply try again.)

The young, prideful Shen Jiu kneels before his Shizun, lowering his head to the ground. "Please," he says. "Shizun, if you force me to go back, I will die."

Shen Jiu has always been good at masking his feelings, with his cool fascade or, sometimes more literally, with a fan. But Luo Binghe watches as he quivers.

"Shameless!" Qiu Haitang shouts, her eyes reddened. "We have always treated you so well. A-Luo was the one to teach you how to read and write and you threw us away like we were nothing to you!"

Shen Jiu does not move. He remains there, on his knees, his hair obscuring his expression.

And Luo Binghe waits.

He isn't sure who moves first, but both Yue Qingyuan or Liu Qingge bracket Shen Jiu again, kneeling on either side of him. And, slowly, a handful of other head disciples join them.

"Xiao Jiu belongs to our family," Qiu Jianluo says quite calmly. He looks right at Luo Binghe when he says this: "Lord Luo had been welcomed into our home and treated as a guest, only to repay our hospitality by attacking me and aiding in Xiao Jiu's escape."

"Do you really want to start this, Qiu Jianluo?" Luo Binghe says. "Do you really want others to know what you use your child slaves for?"

Shen Jiu goes impossibly stiffer, his whole body rigid.

And Luo Binghe does not air more of Shen Jiu's past to his cultivation sect.

If Luo Binghe wanted this to go by quickly, Luo Binghe did not have to wait for a decision to be made. Luo Binghe could lop Qiu Jianluo's head off and abscond with Shen Jiu.

But, this is startling, Luo Binghe wants Shen Jiu to become Shen Qingqiu, the Xiu Ya blade, the Qing Jing Peak Lord.

Luo Binghe wants to know if any of this has made a difference.

Shen Anwei moves slowly. He picks up a qiankun pouch heavy with gold and then throws it at Qiu Jianluo's feet. "I believe that is more than enough to reimburse Lord Qiu for his troubles," he says.

Then, ever more slowly, while Qiu Jianluo is raging, Shen Anwei gets up from his chair. He places a hand on Shen Jiu's head.

"Stand up," Shen Anwei says gently.

Shen Jiu does so, his legs shaking beneath him.

"Shen Qingqiu," Shen Anwei says now, naming his successor. "Please look at me."

And Shen Qingqiu's eyes widen. He lifts his chin, his gaze so suddenly hopeful.

Luo Binghe's heart lurches painfully in his chest. It is a strange situation.

But, in the end, Luo Binghe gets what he wants.

*

So, things went well.

This is good, isn't it?

So why was Luo Binghe growing weaker? His body is breaking down and he does not know why. He is forgetting things, but he does not know what he is forgetting.

Everything is falling apart.

*

Luo Binghe lingers around Cang Qiong Mountain sect.

No one chases him away.

Who could do so when Shen Qingqiu so proudly called him yifu and wished for Luo Binghe to recieve treatment here?

Besides, Luo Binghe had something else to investigate now.

(Luo Binghe had thought that Liu Qingge perhaps was a little too much like his sister. Liu Qingge got flustered around Shen Qingqiu like how Liu Mingyan got flustered around Sha Hualing and then responded with trying to spar with the crush in question.

Somehow, this worked out more for Liu Mingyan.)

"Here," Liu Qingge says, his face entirely red, as he shoved a fan into Shen Qingqiu's face.

Shen Qingqiu takes it and smacks Liu Qingge's rear. "Watch what you're doing, Liu-shidi," he says mildly.

Liu Qingge makes an entirely inhuman nose, somehow flushing even more. "Y-you!" he shouts and then retreats, running away.

Luo Binghe raises his brows. "It appears that Jiu'er might have to fend off another courtship."

"Another?" says Shen Qingqiu, admiring the gift of the fan. The fabric is blue and silver, so obviously Bai Zhan Peak's colors. The fact that Shen Qingqiu is keeping this gift when so many times before he had chased off Yue Qingyuan and tucked his dreaded hair crowns away where they would never see the light of day.

"If Jiu'er has not noticed, than this lord won't say anything," Luo Binghe says, smiling with all of his teeth.

Shen Qingqiu looks at him funnily. "Yifu, you're getting worse," he says, almost decisively.

*

Shen Qingqiu will admit that he has been getting more gifts as of late. Mostly from the other head disciples, along with apologies for rude behavior their Shizuns may or may not have forced out of them.

But, mostly, it seems like both Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge have nothing better to do with their time than spoil Shen Qingqiu with things.

Hair crowns. Pastries and candies. Fans. All sorts of things.

(Liu Qingge had presented him with a particularly warm fur-lined cloak, made from one of his kills. If Shen Qingqiu wore it often, then that was no one's business but his own.)

"Will you pick one?" Shen Anwei asks one day.

"Pick one what?"

Shen Anwei nods, as though he had expected this. "When Shen Qingqiu realizes, then you can come and ask this Shizun for advice. Don't listen to whatever your yifu might have to say."

*

Everything changes during a mission.

Shen Qingqiu had set out to acquire some treasure flowers that could perhaps help slow the decay of Luo Binghe's body and mind. Liu Qingge tagged along.

And, well, Liu Qingge wasn't very good at telling the plants apart. Not that the knowledge would help when Liu Qingge had been thrown into a patch of flowers by some beast.

The pollen rises in a thick, fragrant cloud.

Shen Qingqiu covers his nose and mouth with his sleeve, using the discarded flower petals to cut through the beast's flesh, tearing it apart. But it was too late. He had inhaled the sweet pollen. "Liu-shidi!" he calls once it is safe.

Liu Qingge struggles to sit up, terribly red. He pants audibly.

"Liu-shidi has caused a type of sex pollen," Shen Qingqiu says diplomatically. "It is--"

"What?" the Bai Zhan War God all but shrieks.

Shen Qingqiu is not impressed. "Shut up and listen," he says hotly. "It's a milder strain. You don't have to dual cultivate with me. It is distasteful, but we would both be cured through kisses."

And Liu Qingge grows redder.

"If it is unacceptable to shidi," Shen Qingqiu grinds out, "then shidi will have to find someone else to--"

Shen Qingqiu is unable to finish his sentence. Liu Qingge crashes against him, almost attacking him with his lips. Liu Qingge kisses him eagerly, if only with way too much tongue, much like a dog.

Shen Qingqiu cups Liu Qingge's face, guiding the other man in this kiss.

Amongst the flowers, the two seemingly get lost in their kisses.

If Liu Qingge had a tail, it would be wagging.

*

And, much, much later, when they've returned to the sect, Shen Qingqiu comes to a realiation.

Oh.

Oh.

The gifts.

Choosing.

Courtship.

It all falls into place. Unfortunately.

Shen Qingqiu sits up very quickly in his bed, very much alone and afraid.

And how long has this been going on?!

*

"Ah," Luo Binghe says, once Shen Qingqiu has recounted the tale to him. "Young love."

Shen Qingqiu smacks Luo Binghe with his fan--the silver and blue fan that Liu Qingge had given him. "Shut up, yifu!"

"Honestly, do you really want the Bai Zhan brute?" Luo Binghe says. He waggles his brows. "You have options."

This Shen Qingqiu is a young adult, grown into his skin. He is graceful, refined, as the other Shen Qingqiu, even with the prickly tongue. Where before Shen Qingqiu's icy, mean nature drove wedges between him and others, now this Shen Qingqiu had... adjusted well.

(Luo Binghe's chest pains him again.

Did this mean that his cruel Shizun was simply unable to grow past the cruelties of his childhood when there had been no one to rescue him but himself?)

"Yifu, don't strain yourself," Shen Qingqiu says, poking him with his fan. "I will go prepare your medicine."

"Aren't you cheeky now?" Luo Binghe mutters.

Shen Qingqiu bristles, as one would expect, and says this: "Does yifu wish to prepare his own medicine?"

Luo Binghe waves his hand lazily. "I'm fine, I'm fine."

(Did he want to leave? Did he want to return to his harem?

It had been years but...

What did it mean that Luo Binghe was more interested in this timeline than the world where Luo Binghe toppled everything that stood in his way?)

*

Eventually the An generation ascends, and the Qing generation takes their place.

Luo Binghe is satisfied with this.

(Something breaks within him that very day. Xin Mo shatters before it fades away, right before his eyes.

Anyway, it wasn't like he really planned to leave.)

*

"How is he?" asks Liu Qingge.

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. He worries his nail with his teeth. "Nothing is working," he hisses. "But we do not know what is wrong with him either."

Liu Qingge frowns. "What can I do?"

Shen Qingqiu simply shakes his head. "All we can do is make sure that he is comfortable," he says. He swallows thickly and then cracks open his fan, hiding his face.

Liu Qingge wraps himself around Shen Qingqiu, arms wound around Shen Qingqiu's waist. He rests his chin against Shen Qingqiu's chin.

"...we did everything we could," Liu Qingge says, a little gruffly. "I'm sure he's happy that we got to do our second bow towards him."

Shen Qingqiu laughs, a little wetly. "He and Qi-ge were so mad," he mutters. "It was like I suddenly had two mothers who didn't want me to leave home."

"Mm."

They are both quiet for a moment.

"What are you thinking?" Liu Qingge says.

Shen Qingqiu places a hand over Liu Qingge's own. "I am thinking of a world where yifu didn't rescue me from that place."

"A terrible world."

"Hmm. I'd assume so," Shen Qingqiu says, entirely without humor. "If yifu weren't there to shake him around, Qi-ge would never tell me that he did try to come back for me."

What other things wouldn't have happened if Luo Binghe wasn't there?

What things would have happened if Luo Binghe wasn't there?

Shen Qingqiu is certain of one thing: he would have waited in the Qiu manor for Yue Qingyuan as long as he could. And Shen Qingqiu would either die there or snap and murder everyone.

Liu Qingge--a good husband only when he was asleep--bites the shell of Shen Qingqiu's ear.

"No more thinking," Liu Qingge says. "You'll think of all sorts of bad things."

And Shen Qingqiu had to agree.

*

Luo Binghe's death comes upon them all so suddenly.

He vanishes before them, not leaving anything behind to bury.

"Yifu!" Shen Qingqiu cries out, unable to comprehend what has just happened. And, for the first time in years, Shen Qingqiu qi deviates.

But, this time, there are so may others around him to stabilize and comfort him. And he is no longer alone.

*

Even without Luo Binghe, time continues to go on.

*

Until, one day, a little boy shows up to the disciple trials.

Liu Qingge raises his brows. "Doesn't that look like--"

"I want him," Shen Qingqiu says, even as Ning Yingying begs him for a shidi. "That boy. I want him."

And what can Yue Qingyuan do but allow his Xiao Jiu this.

*

The boy kneels before him, pouring a cup of tea for Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge.

"Tell this master," Shen Qingqiu says, tilting the boy's face up with his fan. "What is your name?"

"Th-this one is named Luo Binghe," says the boy, his eyes filled with stars.

Shen Qingqiu reaches out and downs the cup of tea in one gulp, scalding the inside of his mouth. "Luo Binghe," Shen Qingqiu says. "You are now a disciple of Qing Jing Peak. Do not disappoint me."

And this little Luo Binghe nods eagerly. "Y-yes, Shizun!"

*

*

*