The rut had been excusable; Shen Qingqiu had excused it. His pupil, Luo Binghe, had been raised by a beta maidservant after his alpha mother’s death, and she too had passed while Luo Binghe was still a child. How should Luo Binghe recognise the signs of his first rut coming on, when no one had ever told him what to expect? And how was Shen Qingqiu to know that the poised, polite young man he’d taught for almost four years had never actually been given to understand the bare essentials of his own biology? That the woman Luo Binghe privately referred to as his mother had not found time, in her arduous and busy life, to inform him of things she herself hardly understood, and that no one had bethought themselves to do it in her stead?
And really, Shen Qingqiu thought someone might have done. For all Luo Binghe had been raised in utmost disfavour after the childbed-death of the well-loved empress, he was still the emperor’s di-born son. It was treason to think the emperor wilfully naïve, and cruel in it; Shen Qingqiu thought so very loudly nonetheless. Pregnancies resulting from the coupling of two alphas always carried an element of risk. Tianlangjun ought to have known that from the start, and to have had a care for Luo Binghe’s rearing rather than blaming an innocent infant for the cruel whim of fate. The empress’s prodigious sacrifice had met with such an ungrateful return: her only heir, thus disrespected. It was shameful in any father, to hate and to wilfully forget a child who could hardly have existed but for his sire gratifying his own appetites. All the more shameful in an alpha, whose instincts ought to have rebelled against such a dereliction of his duty to his own. Unforgivable in an Emperor, who had sufficient means to see his children amply provided-for.
Shen Qingqiu, the third son of a well-off family that served the court, wasn’t truly important enough to act as tutor and mentor to the prince. Shen Qingqiu’s somewhat inappropriate assignment was, in fact, just another proof of the emperor’s lack of care. But despite such inauspicious beginnings, Shen Qingqiu had found Luo Binghe ready enough. The boy was clever, interested in every subject presented to him and responsive to any little kindness. As sweet-natured as he was sorely neglected.
The poor thing could barely read, before Shen Qingqiu took him in hand. By the time they’d spent three years together, Luo Binghe had begun to garner a great deal of attention in court. People commended the prince’s erudition, his assured and polite manner, his handsome features—and when they did so, Shen Qingqiu’s own chest swelled with pride. There was an immense satisfaction in seeing talent recognised: the world starting to run as it ought to do. Of course the sharp, talented empress had produced a son who took to any training offered him like a fish to water. Of course when time had eased the pressure of the emperor’s grief, even a callow man like him would look upon such a youth as Luo Binghe, the spitting image of his favourite, with some degree of reflected affection for his lost love. Luo Binghe’s rise to prominence was only just. He was, as far as Shen Qingqiu could see, unparalleled among his contemporaries for his ability and energy.
The problem with Luo Binghe, Shen Qingqiu thought as he tried to steady himself in the face of a wholly unexpected and rather serious crisis, was that his confidence tended to paper over any deficiencies in his knowledge. This ability to brazen out most anything had likely saved Luo Binghe’s life in court intrigues. It also currently found him—mad-eyed, and chest heaving—hunched over his tutor, who he’d pinned over said tutor’s own desk. A tutor seven years the prince’s senior, mind you, whose omega disposition had never hitherto been thus tested.
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu swallowed thickly, his nostrils flaring in response to the pheromones absolutely cascading off his charge. Luo Binghe’s always-potent scent had risen: it invaded Shen Qingqiu’s airways, demanding entrance. Shen Qingqiu parted his mouth without thought, the better to suck in the myrrh-heavy musk. “Binghe, you mustn’t—”
Was it too late to forestall a rut altogether? Sweat glistened on Luo Binghe’s over-heated face, beading at his temples and dampening his curls. If Luo Binghe was this far gone, then that was—didn’t the pheromone surge belong to the third stage of signs attendant on the arrival of an alpha’s seasonal cycle? And didn’t preventative measures—jade worn against the skin, herbal tonics, warm wax lacquered over the scent glands—lose efficacy, after the second tranche of symptoms? It was difficult to remember: Luo Binghe was in Shen Qingqiu’s lungs, and pawing at his robes with large, eager hands, and Shen Qingqiu had to think, to think, what ought he to do?
“A girl,” Shen Qingqiu murmured, pushing himself up on his elbows—trying to breathe shallowly, and to avoid looking at Luo Binghe’s plaintive, desperate expression. The palace employed women for just such exigencies as this. It was hardly ideal. People would think the prince incapable of self-governance, and Luo Binghe’s carefully-nurtured reputation would take a significant hit. But if Shen Qingqiu could just get to the bell-pull, then he could call a servant, and they could fetch an unclaimed Lady for Night Attendance—
Luo Binghe growled, spreading a broad palm on Shen Qingqiu’s chest and shoving his tutor back down to the floor mat with it. He seized Shen Qingqiu’s face with his unoccupied hand, twisting the man’s jaw towards him.
“Don’t speak of other people,” Luo Binghe growled. His voice then turned petulant: “Shizun, Shizun, look at me.”
Luo Binghe’s breath was coming so fast. Shen Qingqiu felt for him—for the poignant rabbit-rise of his chest. His poor boy. He must be quite confused to find himself atop his old tutor, dizzy with bizarre and bewildering desires. More than that, a first rut was said to hurt.
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu breathed, taking his pupil’s hands in his. Of course he ought always to say ‘your highness’, but Luo Binghe found his title, empty and impotent as it had ever been, a cold and lonely thing. He’d confessed that no living being addressed him by his own given name. That had touched Shen Qingqiu. How could he refuse the young man this small, private intimacy? If the prince permitted and even desired this unconventional liberty, then Shen Qingqiu supposed it needn’t be anyone’s business but theirs.
“I only meant that we ought to fetch a woman for you,” Shen Qingqiu placated his charge. “Or a man, as you like. Someone omega, or a beta, who knows what ought to be done. They can—”
“But I want you,” Luo Binghe panted, new instincts and the threat of being deprived of the bird in hand making him jerk his hips against his tutor’s. “You can. Don’t leave me,” he pleaded. “Please don’t leave me, Shizun.”
The prince’s fists clutched Shen Qingqiu’s official robes, which strained in the young alpha’s fierce grip; Shen Qingqiu wondered whether he’d rip them.
“We must find you someone fitting,” Shen Qingqiu tried, gently. “Someone better-suited. There are comely and experienced lovers who’d be happy to serve such a fine young alpha.” Luo Binghe looked mutinous; Shen Qingqiu pressed on. “It isn’t appropriate for me to offer my assistance. For one thing, you’d no longer be able to respect me as your tutor after seeing me in such a light.”
Luo Binghe gave a harsh, startled laugh at that. “Shizun. You think I can’t desire you and respect you? I’ll always respect you. You alone, as I do no one else.”
He bent to nuzzle Shen Qingqiu’s unguarded neck. Shen Qingqiu tried to turn away, which only had the effect of further exposing him—offering the alpha above him an unintentional submission. Omegas who felt threatened by an alpha on the cusp of rut tended to lock up, or to defend themselves with a surge of responsive adrenaline—alphas had lost eyes and even knots, cornering omegas who weren’t willing. But Shen Qingqiu simply couldn’t see his beloved pupil as any kind of stranger, or menace. Binghe wouldn’t hurt him; Shen Qingqiu knew it in his bones.
Luo Binghe exhaled into the crook of Shen Qingqiu’s neck. His warm breath fluttered against the sensitised skin of the mating gland there. He pressed his lips down against the bond-site in a chaste kiss, the pressure resting like a promise. Shen Qingqiu felt his eyes slip shut.
“Can I?” Luo Binghe asked, in a low, sweet voice. “Please?”
Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth, but said nothing.
Luo Binghe swallowed. Shen Qingqiu could feel the bob of it against his chest. “Shizun, it hurts.”
“Shh,” Shen Qingqiu stroked his pupil’s hair, readily answering the point he knew how to respond to. “I know it does, my dearest. It’s natural, it passes.”
And it would pass far, far faster and more easily if Luo Binghe had help. No one need know how truly ignorant Luo Binghe had been: the depth to which his father’s disdain had blighted a youth which ought to have been golden. No one needed to know that Luo Binghe had made this small, embarrassing error of judgment (and with someone he knew and trusted, rather than a stranger). Besides, how much of an indiscretion was it really, for a prince to enjoy one of his servants?
Luo Binghe needed someone in his corner, a staunch advocate in the court; Shen Qingqiu was not entirely friendless and unrespected in the circles his family moved in. Luo Binghe knew this too well to simply discard Shen Qingqiu, even if things should grow awkward between them. And really, would his precious disciple truly treat a partner worse for having had them? This one incident needn’t ruin the bright future Shen Qingqiu wanted to build for his pupil.
Shen Qingqiu steeled himself, and brought his hand to the tie of Luo Binghe’s robe.
“I don’t precisely know what I’m doing,” Shen Qingiqu confessed, unbinding first one layer of fabric, and then another. Pushing back the lip of a third, to tentatively touch the flushed skin of Luo Binghe’s chest. “But we’ll see to you, never fear.” Shen Qingqiu thought aloud while his hand lightly explored Luo Binghe’s torso. “A first rut should last perhaps two days. You can take the edge off now, and then—it’ll have to be your rooms. Your Yingying is a good girl. She’ll be quiet about this, if we remind her to be. She can bring us what we’ll need.”
Luo Binghe smiled at Shen Qingqiu as though he couldn’t believe his luck. It made him look younger even than he was: awe and wonder painted his handsome features in their brightest hues.
“You won’t regret it, Shizun,” Luo Binghe promised, quaking under the fingers Shen Qingqiu stroked down towards his stomach. “I swear it. I’ll learn how to take good care of you, I promise. All my life, I’ll honour you!” He pushed into his shizun’s touch, a puppyish eagerness filling out the drugging sweep of his rut—making his drunkenness more honest and sweeter than some blackout-intoxication.
Shen Qingqiu laughed a little at his eagerness.
Perhaps it’s for the best that his first time is with me, Shen Qingqiu thought. I can trust myself to appreciate Binghe; to be kind to him, about every little thing. Other people could hardly fail to value Luo Binghe’s charm or features, of course, but they might well be less gentle and encouraging than Shen Qingqiu hoped to be, in the face of Luo Binghe’s inexperience and heady youthful desire. He could teach Luo Binghe to regard such experiences as safe, as opportunities for pleasure—but more than that, for closeness and care. After all, he’d taught Luo Binghe to appraise and enjoy gardens, poems and paintings. Though Shen Qingqiu was equally a novice in this, surely they might find out the shape of certain joys together.
Yes, Shen Qingqiu thought, pulling Luo Binghe down into a kiss, yes, it ought to be me, after all. I don’t much like the idea of anyone else seeing Binghe like this.
Shen Qingqiu didn’t laugh that evening, when he realised Luo Binghe had taken his permission to use his tutor’s body as a stopgap to sate his rut as license to bite his shizun! Not, Shen Qingqiu supposed, that it greatly mattered. He had given his chastity to his prince’s cause, for the sake of the young man’s comfort and reputation. What further use did Shen Qingqiu’s own unmarked flesh hold for him? It wasn’t as if Luo Binghe, himself unbitten, couldn’t still mark fifty concubines when the time came. Shen Qingqiu’s own future lay in his prince, who might well find himself rising to prominence in due course. That was Shen Qingqiu’s vocation. Shen Qingqiu supposed he might yet marry, one far-off day, but it was hardly an immediate concern. (Besides, Shen Qingqiu should hardly like to marry anyone who thought a long-faded mark and one past indiscretion sufficient reason to look down on him.)
However Luo Binghe’s rut left him in a ridiculous, mawkish mood; he didn’t want to keep it to one indiscretion at all. Of course Shen Qingqiu coddled Luo Binghe through his rut, letting his prince take him at all hours. Yet after five days, Shen Qingqiu thought that surely even a first rut ought to have thoroughly run its course. Yes, sex was—quite a novelty, but really. Was Binghe just trying to evade lessons, at this point?
“Of course not, Shizun,” Binghe said, as respectful in his demeanour as anyone could have wished. The prince had then pulled the book they ought to be examining closer to him, and his tutor onto the very proof he was an alpha, and tried to insist they could continue like that! It was outrageous; Shen Qingqiu was thoroughly annoyed with himself for permitting such nonsense. Luo Binghe’s subsequent offer to return the favour did not rectify the situation. (Of course it was interesting in other regards, but this was exactly the sort of decline in focus Shen Qingqiu had thought might result from such a lapse in his own professionalism!)
What Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t hear of was Luo Binghe’s talk of being bitten back. Now, how would that look? Youthful romanticism was all very well, though dangerous for a man in a position as uncertain as the prince’s. A bitten alpha couldn’t easily take concubines, and while yes, Luo Binghe was correct, biology ensured that there had been several precedents even for alphas of high estate, such an arrangement was hardly likely to result in said alpha’s having a bevy of heirs to choose from. Moreover, it wasn’t as though Shen Qingqiu was an appropriate match for the prominent prince Luo Binghe was becoming. Whatever sense of obligation or infatuation (born, no doubt, out of the loss of his virginity) prompted Luo Binghe to suggest such a thing needed shot down, faster than a duck that had had the bad luck to fly straight past the Imperial Spring Hunt. Shen Qingqiu would have said just the same if Luo Binghe had come to him starry eyed about any random low-ranked concubine he’d passed his first rut with; Shen Qingqiu wasn’t sufficiently grasping, hypocritical or short-sighted to change his answer just because that servant had been him.
But for all Shen Qingqiu congratulated himself on his firm resolve in the face of his student’s credible rhetorical assaults (and the young man’s still more effective emotional manipulations), the fact of the matter was, Shen Qingqiu had gotten sloppy. He’d let Luo Binghe’s enthusiasm carry him away, and been overconfident in his own knowledge. A pregnancy outside of heat was nearly impossible; ‘nearly’ was not ‘entirely’. It would look very indecorous for the prince to have fathered a child on a man in his service, whose family was sufficiently well-placed to appeal to the Emperor for their son’s restitution. (And lord, Shen Qingqiu’s grandmother certainly would.)
Given Shen Qingqiu’s role as Luo Binghe’s tutor, there would be a minor scandal even if he and Luo Binghe were to wed quietly. And in order for Luo Binghe to advance his career, realise his potential and best serve the nation, Luo Binghe’s first wife really ought to be someone better-able to help him rise. Luo Binghe already had Shen Qingqiu’s loyalty; the ties between them needed no additional strengthening. And Shen Qingqiu had tried to explain the wisdom of seeking a bride from this or that province, or a groom related to this or that general. But Luo Binghe, who always heeded him, became irritatingly deaf on this point.
Shen Qingqiu knew that he might attempt to terminate such an early pregnancy as this. Perhaps he even ought to, for the sake of his prince’s future. He could best help ensure such a future’s safe arrival by remaining here in court, as his prince’s advisor. But it was Binghe’s child. How could Shen Qingqiu force himself to such a course?
Shen Qingqiu considered the matter while crushed in Luo Binghe’s surprisingly strong arms. The prince, now sleeping soundly, had taken to using his tutor as sort of security blanket (after he’d finished using the man in a decidedly more adult fashion).
What wouldn’t cause a scandal was Shen Qingqiu’s being called away, to supposedly see to an urgent issue with his family’s far-off estate. Or his taking a leave of absence from court to attend on a sickly relative, perhaps. What wouldn’t cause a scandal was Shen Qingqiu’s prolonging such a leave in an open-ended fashion, and then slipping away to some forgotten corner of the empire—taking up a position with some noble provincial family, stationed halfway to Mongolia or Annan. Such worthies might be quite impressed by Shen Qingqiu’s (rather commonplace, for the capital) credentials. Shen Qingqiu could offer a few hints, and so allow them to conclude that he was a young widower looking to economise: to bear and rear his fatherless child at a modest expense, far from the bustle of Chang’an and all the memories it contained.
After having secured such a post and before departing to take it up, Shen Qingqiu might write parting letters to everyone he’d influence with in court. He could explain his absence in vague terms to Generals Yue and Qi, to the estimable Commanders Liu and to Luo Binghe’s royal cousin Zhuzhilang. He could ask all of them to lend his prince their support, where they could, for his sake. He could even write Luo Binghe himself, suggesting the sort of considerations motivating him—if not their immediately-precipitating cause. Who knew what Luo Binghe, all youthful passion, might do with such information as that?
Shen Qingqiu could admonish his prince to heed his advice regarding marriage, and sundry other matters they’d discussed. Could remind Luo Binghe to only place his trust in honest and competent Imperial Physician Mu, if he should fall ill. A great man always wanted counsellors, but Luo Binghe was fast outgrowing the need for his tutor as such. Before he actually left court, Shen Qingqiu could endeavour to tell Luo Binghe most of the foreseeable things he would need to know.
The prince had many fine qualities, but he was also stubborn, and wilful. Shen Qingqiu didn’t suppose Luo Binghe would agree with his decision, at least at first (especially given the limited information Shen Qingqiu saw fit to leave him with). He did not expect Luo Binghe would accept Shen Qingqiu’s doing what was necessary with conspicuous grace. But Luo Binghe’s infatuation hardly bore thinking of. It was a silly thing, misplaced passion bestowed on an inappropriate object. A violent summer storm, destined to pass as quickly as it had come on. It was certainly nothing to mar a prince’s life over.
Luo Binghe adjusted his arm around Shen Qingqiu’s waist, and Shen Qingqiu stroked the back of the young man’s hand—warm on his stomach, the clutch of his fingers spanning wide. Leaving his charge would, of course, be a heavy and mournful thing. But what was the alternative? Shen Qingqiu refused to stymie Luo Binghe’s enormous potential when it was on the very cusp of flowering. By the same token, he could hardly lamely sneak off for the suspicious length of a confinement, bear a child and then let said child be raised away from court, far from any parent.
It likely wouldn’t even be a permanent parting. One day, he’d see Luo Binghe again; he hoped to live long enough to do it. When Luo Binghe’s own position was as secure as Shen Qingqiu expected it would become, the prince might even be able to legitimise their child. Shen Qingqiu hoped that the two of them would meet as old friends, and that as a fully realised prince, Luo Binghe might once more come to value his old tutor’s advice in some capacity. Shen Qingqiu believed in Luo Binghe, after all, and would never desert his faction.
Ultimately, Shen Qingqiu understood that this was his own fault. He’d failed to apprehend Luo Binghe’s problem in time to correct it. Then, to make matters worse, he’d subsequently indulged the boy (and himself)—when he, older and more measured in his temperament, ought to have been commensurately wiser. He was twenty-five, not some child, to make this sort of error. Shen Yuan felt bitter guilt regarding his own inability to extend Luo Binghe his support over the coming years; they promised to be hard ones. But if Shen Qingqiu had been less careless and less selfish, he might have better supported his prince. It was what it was. There was no mending past errors; one could only make present circumstances serve.
And so, not long after the Mid-Autumn Festival, Shen Qingqiu bade Luo Binghe farewell. The prince was all appropriate concern for his shizun’s errand—all tender solicitude about his journey and wishes for his safe and swift return. Before entering the carriage, Shen Qingqiu laid a fond hand on his prince’s cheek.
“Be well,” he said, accompanying the simple words with his sincerest wishes.
“My shizun is so cool to his devoted disciple,” Luo Binghe pouted. “Am I to receive no greater mark of affection from him than this, on the sad occasion of our parting?”
Embarrassed, Shen Qingqiu checked that they were truly alone and unobserved. Seeing it was so, he leaned forward and kissed the boy. It was a sweet, lingering embrace. Luo Binghe brought his hands up to hold him; Shen Qingqiu was not quick to pull away.
Well, Shen Qingqiu thought, let the both of them have this. After all, if there should never have been any such kisses, then at least this was the last of them. And as the final example of its kind, it ought to be a good memory for them both.
Halfway down Governor Lao’s grand staircase, Shen Qingqiu froze. An instant later, he set his jaw. No. Ridiculous. He was being ridiculous! It was only a laugh. How could he have recognised the sound of someone’s laughter, after only having heard it for a moment? Clearly he was imagining things: he hadn’t. Certainly not after seven years—
“It’s nothing,” the important guest Shen Qingqiu had been told would attend on the governor this morning said.
The man’s tone was perfectly polite. Shen Qingqiu found his eyes shuttering; found himself choking on his own breath. Something like resin rose potent in the air—slinking through the oil from the lamp, past the governor’s perfume, around the incense. Luo Binghe, unmistakably. Stronger, now. More developed—the notes of his essence richer, less liable to jar one with the final, uneven spikes of adolescence. Luo Binghe.
Mindless, Shen Qingqiu turned on the stair, as though he intended to head straight back up the flight.
“Ah, Master Shen!” Governor Lao called out, ruining what had, admittedly, been a stupid plan to begin with. “There you are! I was just telling the crown prince how impressive it was that he rode here! Straight from the capital, they tell me! Wore out—what was it, seven horses?”
His hand forced by civility, Shen Qingqiu swivelled on the step and turned to face the second most powerful man in the kingdom—quite possibly, in the world. Who was, for some reason, all the way out here, on the literal and actual border of Manchuria.
“Ten,” Luo Binghe said, looking straight at him. “I’d have gone farther, if necessary, to meet ‘Master Shen’ once more.”
An edge of mockery, in Luo Binghe’s usage of the title. Shen Qingqiu forced himself to swallow.
It was somewhat vexing that Luo Binghe—who took after his famously handsome mother, and had always been comely—was outright dazzling, now. Still a trace coltish, at twenty five; he wore a mature alpha’s lean strength lightly. Luo Binghe also wore dark, costly silks, the like of which he could never have dreamt of when Shen Qingqiu had first met him. The ostentatious drip of jade at the prince’s waist spoke loudly of arrival. The smile Luo Binghe offered his old tutor was sharp-edged and knowing—even insinuating.
Shen Qingqiu had heard, of course, from friends and at several removes, that Luo Binghe had not taken his departure well. Rather worse, in fact, than Shen Qingqiu had anticipated. Via the same means, he’d heard that Luo Binghe had risen to become crown prince with a will. Shen Qingqiu had not heard anything about Luo Binghe’s following his advice regarding geographically or militarily advantageous spouses. Shen Qingqiu would have found that annoying, if he didn’t suspect that he had bigger problems to worry about. To judge by reports, it seemed the crown prince had chosen to understand Shen Qingqiu’s sudden abstention from court as a species of betrayal. If that was the case, then Luo Binghe, who valued loyalty, would not necessarily be forgiving. It wouldn’t be fair, but it might nonetheless be true.
Governor Lao regarded her guest with some surprise. “I’d no idea your highness knew my sons’ tutor. Distant as we are from Chang’an, we hold ourselves all the luckier to count a man of Master Shen’s abilities a member of our household. But he never told us he’d attended upon the court itself.”
“Goodness, did he never mention me?” Luo Binghe’s smiled tightened. “How modest. Master Shen and I are most intimately acquainted. Shizun was my own, personal tutor. Everything I know of worldly affairs, I owe to him.”
Shen Qingqiu took a steadying breath, finished descending the stairs and bowed. “Your highness does me too much honour.”
Luo Binghe caught Shen Qingqiu’s arms as they lowered, and did not release them.
“Yes, you always were quite chary of accepting any honour I sought to bestow on you. Still, I cannot think it right that my shizun should bow to me in such a fashion. After such a long absence, as well. Now, what was it you told me to get me to release you?” Luo Binghe pretended to think. “‘No longer than a month’, wasn’t it Shizun?”
Shen Qingqiu winced. Luo Binghe had been clinging to him in bed at the time. Shen Qingqiu had pet his prince’s hair while he’d lied to his perfect face.
Luo Binghe’s tone was controlled. His bearing was everything a young master’s ought to be, in company. His pheromones, however, were so aggressive that Shen Qingqiu thought he’d probably be thoroughly scented just from Luo Binghe’s having touched him.
The tension broke when four feet of blubbering girl careened into the room, latching straight onto Shen Qingqiu’s leg. Shen Qingqiu, who’d frozen solid under the crown prince’s touch, now stiffened to such a degree that he wondered whether he might snap in half.
“A niang,” the child complained, her eyes shining with crocodile tears, “the Lao boys are bullying me!”
“Did you start it?” Shen Qingqiu asked, too used to competently mothering his child to stop doing so now, even in the face of quite a severe domestic upset. Operating purely on instinct, he patted his daughter’s hair.
She stomped her foot in frustration. “Yes, but—”
“And who,” the crown prince asked, in a very queer tone, “might this be?”
The little girl turned without relinquishing her mother’s leg, and looked up at the governor’s guest with a frown. “You’re very close to a niang,” she informed the stranger, whom she regarded via narrowed eyes. “And you’re another alpha, so you oughtn’t to be.”
Shen Qingqiu’s rigid expression assumed the outright rictus of a death-mask.
“Bingbing!” Governor Lao sputtered. “Really, now! I know your mother taught you manners! Your highness, I apologise—”
“Oh, think nothing of it,” Luo Binghe said, taking a single step back and regarding the girl steadily before turning the same relentless gaze back on her mother. “Six-year-olds can be so honest. Can’t they, Shizun?”
Governor Lao blinked at the crown prince. “My, what a good eye your highness has. That’s just her age exactly. Oh, forgive me, I suppose Master Shen must have told you of her before.”
“Oh, he must have, mustn’t he?” Luo Binghe mused. “It really is the sort of thing such close friends as we always were tell one another. Is it not, Shizun?”
“Bingbing,” Shen Qingqiu managed (turning his head to avoid watching Luo Binghe himself respond to hearing the child’s nickname), “could you be a darling and go tell the boys that I said to treat you like a lady, even when you aren’t being one? His highness has some matters to discuss with me.”
Bingbing frowned at her mother. “No, I really couldn’t, a niang. You smell scared, so I shan’t. Is he bothering you?” She gave the prince a dismissive glance, apparently finding him unimpressive. As well she might—potent as Luo Binghe’s scent was compared to her own childish one, the two were nigh identical. Bingbing probably thought their visitor was basically scentless, and that she herself was projecting exceptionally well today.
The increasingly-confused Governor Lao, sensing the odd turn in the atmosphere, attempted to play peacemaker. “Ah, your highness, our Master Shen would never intend any incivility. He’s been a little emotionally delicate, ever since the loss of his husband—”
“Your ‘Master Shen’.” Luo Binghe repeated. “The loss,” he stressed, sounding about as amiable as anyone growling through his gritted teeth could. “Yes, I see.”
“Governor,” Shen Qingqiu managed, “if I could just have a moment alone with his highness—if you would be so good as to extract Bingbing.”
“If you’d be just, so good—”
Between Shen Qingqiu’s expression of controlled panic and the crown prince’s chaotic scent, Governor Lao—who’d been a reasonable employer of and friend to Shen Qingqiu, over the past seven years—decided to forgo the niceties and facilitate him. She scooped up a flailing, protesting Bingbing in her arms and retreated. Staring at one another, Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu waited in silence for the sound of the governor’s footfalls, and Bingbing’s significantly louder complaints, to entirely fade away.
When they had, Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. “Your highness—”
Luo Binghe shoved him backwards with the flat of his open palm. Shen Qingqiu stumbled, his heel catching the stair. Luo Binghe followed him, cushioning his fall, and ending up perched above the omega. The crown prince ripped at the tight, prim collar of Shen Qingqiu’s robes, revealing the bite mark on his collar bone. It had faded with the years, but remained quite discernible; even young, Luo Binghe had bitten deep and true. With a feral, starving movement of his jaw, Luo Binghe lowered his head and sunk his canines in, exactly where they’d slotted the first time the two of them had joined. Exactly where they’d also rested some weeks afterwards, the very last time they’d made love.
“Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu protested, gasping the name in shock—his hand flying up to tangle in the crown prince’s fine robes.
“Better,” Luo Binghe hissed with a bloody mouth when he withdrew. “Don’t ever call me ‘your highness’ again.”
“Your—Binghe, really,” Shen Qingqiu swallowed. “This is hardly—”
“Are you attempting to lecture me on appropriate conduct, Shizun?” Luo Binghe sounded at once furious and hysterical. “After the stunt you pulled? I had to take over the fucking secret police to track you down! If it weren’t for the likelihood our daughter would hear, I would fuck you on these stairs until you cried your apologies to me. Shizun,” he shook his head, “I am going to drag you back to Chang’an by your hair.”
“I’ve nothing to apologise for,” Shen Qingqiu managed, though his eyes felt suspiciously heavy and his vision wasn’t quite as clear as it ought to be. Just because he felt guilty didn’t mean he hadn’t made the correct choice. “Save,” Shen Qingqiu admitted, “for my initial mistake. Surely now you see why I had to act as I did.”
“You think that was your mistake?” Luo Binghe asked, his hand tightening over Shen Qingqiu’s claim mark, as if to ensure it’d take. “You think I’ve just learned that you trekked out to Manchuria, when you must have been heavily pregnant, with gladness?”
Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes. That was decidedly beside the point.
“I did what was necessary to protect your reputation. You were able to become a crown prince, and to take over your precious secret service in the first place, because having failed you once, I refused to fail you again.”
“You kidnapped my future empress,” Luo Binghe countered him. “You as good as murdered my dearest minister, you turned my closest advisor against me. You absconded with my princess in the bargain. Do you really believe you’ve nothing to atone to me for, Shizun?”
“Nothing that I haven’t already—” Shen Qingqiu began, then snapped his mouth shut. It’d be excruciating to suggest that Governor Lao had been right to remark on his melancholy. To suggest that Shen Qingqiu had already atoned for errors of his own making in the very fact of his long years of separation from Luo Binghe—who Shen Qingqiu had missed so much worse even than he’d steeled himself to, with his typical pragmatic resignation.
Luo Binghe regarded Shen Qingqiu, raising a hand to brush a lock of his disordered hair back from his face. Shen Qingqiu felt some of the tension drain out of him, at that. Given that Shen Qingqiu lay on the ground, pinned under his lord, Luo Binghe’s gesture was somewhat incongruous. It was—very Binghe. Practical, in an odd way. A little silly, perhaps, but Luo Binghe was totally unafraid of being taken for a fool: he wasn’t one, and he knew it. Even after all these years, Shen Qingqiu simply couldn’t see his beloved as any kind of stranger. Binghe wouldn’t hurt him; Shen Qingqiu knew it still.
“You never failed me,” Luo Binghe murmured, “except in leaving me behind. That was the last thing I wanted, and you knew it.”
“What we think we want,” Shen Qingqiu answered him with care, “isn’t always what’s best for us.”
Luo Binghe huffed. “Perhaps when a child who won’t eat her vegetables. But even the most wilful creatures know they wants food, or air to breathe. They know the most needful things. I knew the way I wanted you—the kind of want it was. Did my shizun, who is normally so wise, truly have to live apart from me for years to learn as much himself? Did you intend to punish yourself forever?”
Stubborn as he’d ever accused Luo Binghe of being (and shamefully aware of it), Shen Qingqiu declined to comment.
“You missed me, didn’t you, Shizun?” Luo Binghe pressed (clearly aware of his answer, and wanting it all the same).
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Shen Qingqiu said. His tone ought to have been annoyed; it was instead embarrassingly soft. He found himself fiddling with the jade pendant at Luo Binghe’s waist, and forcibly stilled his hands. The well-turned-out crown prince clearly didn’t need worried over, as though he was still an underfed boy. He could take care of himself now. He would still be hale and here, even if Shen Qingqiu stopped touching him.
“Then you’ll come home?” Luo Binge asked, lacing his fingers through Shen Qingqiu’s now-unoccupied ones.
Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow at him. “You said you’d haul me back by my hair.”
“And so I will, if necessary,” Luo Binghe admitted, making no promises he couldn’t keep. Luo Binghe would not claim to honour Shen Qingqiu’s right to make decisions that Shen Qingqiu mistakenly believed inconvenienced no one but himself, which threatened to cost Shen Qingqiu every comfort and consideration the man valued. “But Shizun, doesn’t the carriage sound nicer?”
The wealthy merchant’s commandeered carriage was indeed the height of luxury. Apparently, even before he’d cleaned the dust of the road off his body and written the governor, seeking an audience at her earliest convenience, Luo Binghe had ordered the finest rig the district had to offer be turned over to him and prepared for a substantial journey.
“You’re certainly confident,” Shen Qingqiu said, writing up notes for the village teacher who’d be taking over the Lao boys’ education until a suitable private tutor could be found.
Perched on the edge of Shen Qingqiu’s desk, watching the governor’s servants pack up his shizun and their daughter’s belongings, Luo Binghe shrugged. “If you were here, then naturally I wanted to be ready.”
“But you didn’t really ride here yourself, did you?” Shen Qingqiu asked, appalled.
Luo Binghe gave him a look.
Shen Qingqiu shook his head. “And you’re certain you don’t want to sleep, before we start out? Binghe, your poor back—”
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe said, “I have the ride home to sleep during, don’t I? In the best-balanced rig in the province, and with my much-missed omega’s lap for a pillow. Provided I can trick Bingbing into letting me have it, of course.”
Shen Qingqiu gave a helpless laugh. “Now that, I really must see.”
Luo Binghe did not say that he wanted Shen Qingqiu back home as swiftly as possible, and for the man to be so thoroughly installed in Chang’an that it seemed impossible he’d ever left Luo Binghe’s household. Shen Qingqiu had some idea of it, regardless.
It did surprise him, how easy Luo Binghe was with Bingbing. Luo Binghe teased the child out of the foul mood she’d descended into upon hearing that they would be leaving for the capital that very day, and that she and her mother would be sharing a berth with this interloper.
“Do I have to call you ‘your highness’?” she asked Luo Binghe when they were on the road, sounding deeply unenthused by the prospect.
“No,” Luo Binghe said. “That would be rather strange. For now you can call me anything your mother won’t wash your mouth out for, if you like. We’ll talk over the rest when we’re home. Fair?”
Grudgingly, Bingbing nodded. “You have almost my name, you know,” she mentioned, as a tacit mark of acceptance—with a grand air of bestowing a favour on the crown prince, in observing as much.
“Yes,” Luo Binghe said, a smile twitching into the corner of his mouth. “You know, I’d noticed that too, actually.”
“Shut up, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu muttered behind his fan.
“But it really is such a strange coincidence, Shizun!” Luo Binghe said, all innocence. Blinking huge, dark eyes at his old tutor. “Truly remarkable!”
Shen Qingqiu kicked his shin, and Luo Binghe bore the rebuke gamely. Shen Qingqiu then watched Luo Binghe and their daughter play a guessing game with the horses they passed until the light died. Their retinue continued to travel on with the aid of lamps. The party aimed to reach the nearest great city, where they’d change equipages entirely. With the faltering of the summer sun, little Bingbing too began to set. She curled up against the rocking wall of the carriage, and nuzzled into Luo Binghe’s great cloak—unconsciously seeking her father’s scent.
He ought not to have taken Luo Binghe from her, for either of their sakes. Shen Qingqiu hadn’t realised until he’d seen it for himself that while most imperial fathers were hardly much more present in their children’s lives than Tianlangjun had been in Luo Binghe’s, that very experience had made Luo Binghe a horse of rather a different colour. Binghe acted like quite a common alpha father: ready in his affections, protective and engaged. Ultimately Bingbing’s life was perhaps more secure for her mother’s having taken her far from the court in childhood, and for what that departure had enabled her father to achieve. But the decision had cost Bingbing and Luo Binghe years of a simple harmony they’d never before known to miss.
Luo Binghe was only twenty five. He hardly seemed old enough to be a parent, however well he handled himself with Bingbing. But that was the very age Shen Qingqiu had been, when he’d found himself pregnant with their daughter. To think that at twenty five Shen Qingqiu had believed himself so much Luo Binghe’s senior: so accountable for choices that would alter all their lives, and so singularly responsible for handling burdens he couldn’t yet rightly comprehend. At the time, Shen Qingqiu had thought himself quite venerable; he’d still been half an infant himself.
“You were more of a father to me than the emperor ever was,” Luo Binghe remarked quietly, observing the child lying on the bench across from where he and Shen Qingqiu sat beside each other. “Another mother, too, for all you were hardly my senior—no older when we last met than I am now,” he observed, his thoughts clearly running along parallel lines with Shen Qingqiu’s own. “Perhaps that sounds strange, given everything else you are to me. But I’ve never felt it to be. You were always my family, and if I can do well by her now, then it’s only because you taught me how I might.”
“Your mother, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu reminded him, and Luo Binghe nodded gravely.
“No, of course I’ll never forget her, or how good she was to me. But the love she showed me, you alone kept alive. What would I have been without you, Shizun?”
Shen Qingqiu frowned. The seat beneath them swayed, and Shen Qingqiu reached out and took Luo Binghe’s hand in his. “You’ve always had the makings of an exceptionally fine man, ill-used though you were. If anyone had done rightly by you, then your strong foundations would certainly have shown through.”
“Who ever did, but you?” Luo Binghe countered.
Shen Qingqiu snorted. “Am I now to be commended for common decency?”
“Not so common as it ought to be, perhaps,” Luo Binghe said, squeezing Shen Qingqiu’s hand where it rested in his own. Watching their daughter sleep, Luo Binghe emitted a deep breath.
“She is mine, isn’t she?” Luo Binghe whispered. “I’d love her for being yours, and if you let her be ours, then for that too. I do know she likely is. I marked you, after all, and you bear no competing claim. But Shizun, I need to hear you tell me it’s true. That it’s always been me for you, just as it’s always been you, for me.”
“Of course she’s yours,” Shen Qingqiu said, looking out the window and hoping his face wasn’t colouring (or if it was, that Luo Binghe couldn’t see it by this light). “Of course there’s never been anyone else.”
Luo Binghe would have suppressed his unmatched ruts rather easily, after having learned the trick of it. But bonded and living without his mate for the better part of a decade, Shen Qingqiu had spent his own heats in an agony that could meet with no relief. Shen Qingqiu had purposefully denied himself comfort he’d hardly thought he deserved. Four times a year, he’d wedged a horse’s bit in his mouth so that no one heard him begging for the prince. He’d locked himself in the cellar so that the helpful cold that would freeze up his meridians, and he’d delicately implied to the other members of the governor’s household that he suffered from a sad and unfortunate complication attendant on his widower’s condition. He’d writhed like an animal alone down there in the dark, his scholar’s grace forgotten. A fresh bite, placed over Luo Binghe’s, and all that came with it, might have ameliorated the worst of his symptoms; Shen Qingqiu could no more have undertaken such a thing for his own sake than he could have given up Bingbing.
Shen Qingqiu had never been able to conceptualise a future for himself beyond or without his prince. He’d been barely twenty-one when they’d met, and from that day forward, Luo Binghe had been all to him. Even during these past years, Shen Qingqiu had thought of survival, and of Bingbing’s future, and hardly ever about his own. It was to him a blank passage—a story without a hero. Even having risen so far without the help of one, there were still other political considerations Luo Binghe ought to make in choosing a partner. It was clear, however, that Luo Binghe had no intention of making them. And if that was the case, then Shen Qingqiu could only work with the situation as it stood.
Shen Qingqiu glanced back at their daughter, assuring himself that she slept on.
“Do you still want me to return your bite?” he asked. “If you don’t, then fine. But if you’re willing, then so am I.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Luo Binghe parroted Shen Qingqiu’s own words back to him. “Who did I ride a thousand miles for, but you? Who have I lived for all these lonely years, but you? In all my life, who have I ever chosen to love but you? If you’re finally ready to choose me in turn—”
“I always chose you,” Shen Qingqiu interrupted him. “Nothing I have ever done, for good or ill, arose from any other motive. Still,” he continued after a pause, “I’m sorry I hurt you, and her. I won’t let her siblings out of your sight—I swear it.”
For a moment, Luo Binghe kept his silence. Flustered, and still avoiding looking him in the eye, Shen Qingqiu rapped the crown prince’s shoulder with his fan.
“Shouldn’t you say something?”
“I already did,” Luo Binghe said with a smile Shen Qingqiu risked glancing at sideways, over the leaves of his now-open fan. “When you said I could touch you—and I think you can have no notion of how long I’d wanted to touch you—I said that I would learn how to take care of you. I said I’d respect you and want you both. I promised to honour you all my life.” Luo Binghe’s smile turned winsome. “You weren’t, I think, ready to hear me then.”
“Well,” Shen Qingqiu said after a moment’s contemplation, “then I’m sorry for that, too.” For really, if they’d truly been said in earnest, despite Luo Binghe’s youth at the time, they were quite lovely words; it was a sentiment Shen Qingqiu ought to have honoured and cherished. Shen Qingqiu had been unwilling to trust Luo Binghe’s affection, and so had insulted and slighted a heart given over to his keeping with his self-protective cowardice.
Luo Binghe shook his head. “Shizun, don’t be sorry; be glad with me. I spent years seeking my beloved and not finding him; now he is coming home to me. He has given me a gift undreamt of, too. The only thing he has yet to give me is a kiss. And though he can be rather restrained, I think even he must agree that I’ve been exceedingly patient, to wait so long for another of him.”
Luo Binghe drew closer as he spoke, and Shen Qingqiu found himself closing his eyes. Found himself opening his mouth, just slightly. Found himself tilting his head, towards—
“Eugh,” Bingbing said, and Shen Qingqiu jumped. She’d stopped lightly snoring, and cracked a baleful eye. “Are you two going to be disgusting? Because if you are, there’s really nowhere for me to go.”
Luo Binghe drew back. The pleased smirk of a man who knew he’d won and would go on winning lacquered his handsome features, improving them in much the way a fine varnish brought up the rich whorls of a sturdy wood’s grain.
“Hm,” Luo Binghe pretended to consider her dilemma. “I could hog tie you to the roof, if you’d like?”
Shen Qingqiu felt he somehow ought to have known Luo Binghe would go in for Dad Jokes; at his warmest, that was absolutely Tianlanjun’s mode.
Bingbing frowned at Luo Binghe, regarding him very seriously. “I like you,” she concluded, “but I don’t really think I ought to.”
“Yes,” Luo Binghe nodded seriously, “I imagine that’s how your mother feels, as well.”
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu said, accompanying his admonishing tone with a roll of his eyes. (It certainly wasn’t; Shen Qingqiu thought everyone ought to like Luo Binghe.)
“Oh, he does that to me in the same voice, all the time,” Bingbing told Luo Binghe in a tone of sympathetic commiseration (to Shen Qingqiu’s private mortification).
Luo Binghe patted Shen Qingqiu’s knee. “It’s as Shizun taught me. Families enjoy sweetness together, and they undergo suffering together.”
“More like ‘the unhappiness of a family reunion’,” Shen Qingqiu groused, leaning forward to fuss over Bingbing’s bedding.
Sensing the chance of coddling, Bingbing—every inch Luo Binghe’s daughter—took her opportunity to whine about being uncomfortable. She kept at it until she found herself laid across both her over-indulgent parents. She went to sleep in her mother’s lap and her new father’s arms—still wearing a cross little expression, just as though she hadn’t gotten exactly what she wanted.
“You know that’s your face, right?” Luo Binghe asked his mate, seemingly fascinated by the phenomenon of his daughter’s sulking (which Shen Qingqiu knew Luo Binghe would very quickly grow used to). “Exactly the one you make to guilt me into things.”
“Me, guilt you? It certainly isn’t!” Shen Qingqiu insisted. “I don’t look anything like that. All her clinginess comes from you, besides!”
“As you say, Shizun,” Luo Binghe agreed, with the policy that had seen him through a life and career in court—even as he leaned into the hand Shen Qingqiu was using to card through his curls.
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