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even if you die, even if you are reborn

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe stumbled all the way down to the Water Prison. He was well aware of his injuries. How could he not be? That other him, that overgrown baby, had been the one to injure him this badly.

And that other, kindly Shizun had helped him.

(But not before touching him tenderly. Not before braiding his hair.

Not before almost letting Luo Binghe have his way with him.

What had alerted the other Shen Qingqiu to the fact that it had not been his Luo Binghe? He never learned this and it bothered him, wriggling inside of his head like an insect’s many twitching legs.)

When the curtain of acidic water parted, Luo Binghe was almost relieved to see that his own Shizun was still there.

Shen Qingqiu hung from those heavy chains, listless. He was boring now, unresponsive to anything Luo Binghe did. Something inside of him had broken when Yue Qingyuan died. And after, nothing that Luo Binghe did would evoke the fighting and despair he was looking for.

(Sure, Shen Qingqiu cried. But it wasn’t the same.

Not with such emptiness in his gaze.)

"Shizun," Luo Binghe said. "Won't you look at me?"

But Shen Qingqiu only rasped each breath. His only eye stared endlessly at the shards of Xuan Su on the ground. He rarely blinked, as though having to look away from Xuan Su for a brief moment would be some terrible thing.

But... the other Shizun had treated Luo Binghe kindly. Had combed and braided his hair. The other Shizun had smiled at Luo Binghe.

The other Shizun loved that fucking crybaby.

And Luo Binghe got this piece of shit scum as a master.

Luo Binghe let out a huff of air.

Slowly, he broke the chains and gathered Shen Qingqiu's limp body to him, ignoring the filth engrained in the shreds of his robes and the scent of excrement and foul blood that hung around him.

"Come on, Shizun," Luo Binghe said lowly. "We've got much to do."

Luo Binghe took Shen Qingqiu from the Water Prison.

Even then, Shen Qingqiu was silent.

(He couldn’t say much, true. Not without his tongue.

But Luo Binghe expected to at least hear some of those pathetic little noises he made of late. Ahh! Ah! Ahhh!

Oh, please. The only place those noises should be heard was within a bedroom.

Well, everything in time.)

Luo Binghe washed Shen Qingqiu's body with his own hands. Years of filth and grime melted off of pale skin. His Shizun was so diminished, fragile to the touch and so very pale. Luo Binghe could count all of his bones at this point, almost sharp to the touch.

Shen Qingqiu’s body was not at all suitable for embracing—all edges and sharp corners. And Shen Qingqiu could scarcely stomach the food Luo Binghe fed him.

It was not much better than having some sort of doll.

Shen Qingqiu really was too boring.

So, Luo Binghe attempted to stir his Shizun to action, to breathe some life into his husk.

Shen Qingqiu did not respond when Luo Binghe restored his limbs.

Shen Qingqiu did not respond when he regrew Shen Qingqiu's tongue

Shen Qingqiu did not respond when he granted Shen Qingqiu a new eye.

Luo Binghe sighed. Was this still not enough? When would it be enough? When would Shen Qingqiu wake and, with gentle hands, this was important, comb Luo Binghe’s hair, taking the time to put in a single braid amongst all the curls.

Luo Binghe cloaked Shen Qingqiu's body in fine robes, as though Shen Qingqiu were the lord, not he. And still Shen Qingqiu remained catatonic.

Luo Binghe placed Shen Qingqiu's prone body within his overlarge bed in this oversized courtyard and curled up around him.

What had made a Shen Qingqiu so tolerant of the crybaby and not him?

*

It was necessary to consult with Meng Mo then.

But the dream demon proved to be exceptionally useless.

There, within Luo Binghe’s dreamscape, Meng Mo frowned. “Have you considered,” he said, quite heated, “that perhaps you’ve done enough? You’ve had your vengeance. Killing that Sect Leader was all you really needed to do to break him.”

Luo Binghe huffed and paced dangerously around Meng Mo.

In all of the years that Luo Binghe knew him, Meng Mo had not changed at all. Why was it that suddenly Meng Mo wished to go against him? To just let Shen Qingqiu go?

He could not let go of Shen Qingqiu. It would be too easy.

“We aren’t finished,” Luo Binghe ground out dangerously. “Not yet.”

Meng Mo was silent for a beat. When he spoke again, something changed within him.

“You won’t get what you want out of him,” Meng Mo said, quietly but firmly.

But Luo Binghe was not someone who could be deterred so easily. Wasn’t he the one who united the three realms? Wasn’t he the most powerful person there is?

There were no challenges, not anymore.

Luo Binghe gathered himself and forced himself into Shen Qingqiu’s uneasy dreams.

Shen Qingqiu was asleep, he was sure of it though there really wasn't much difference between his waking state and his sleeping state. There was no affect, no movement.

Just silence.

The dream is much the same. Luo Binghe walked carefully in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. There were broken shards of memories floating in the air. He cut his cheek upon one memory, blood beading along his skin before floating away, as though he were caught underwater.

"Qi-ge! Don't be reckless, okay? Be patient."

Luo Binghe pushed further and further into this tangle of feelings, cutting himself on each jagged edge.

There, at the center of it all, was Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu, wearing a white sleeping robe, was curled up tightly, his hands over his ears, his eyes screwed up tightly. He wasn’t listening, he wasn’t looking. Even in the depths of himself, Shen Qingqiu denied it all.

Even here, Shen Qingqiu was catatonic.

Then water began to bubble around this dark little place. And with the water came many voices.

At once, Luo Binghe understood what this was.

Memories.

“Xiao Jiu,” said Qi-ge. Gently, always so gently. “Don’t be mean to [ ]… We can share.”

Xiao Jiu shook his head fiercely. Within his hand was a single bun, cold and a little dirty, scooped up from the floor where it had been dropped and forgotten. “This is all for Qi-ge!”

Luo Binghe waded through the tides of Shen Qingqiu’s memory.

“Xiao Jiu,” said Yue Qingyuan. “If you showed Liu-shidi just a little kindness, he would return it tenfold.”

Shen Qingqiu scowled and looked away, unable to meet Yue Qingyuan’s gaze.

The water rose higher and higher, until Shen Qingqiu disappeared within its depths, until the water rose up, past Luo Binghe’s chin, until the water flooded into Luo Binghe’s mouth.

“Go away, Qi-ge!” Shen Jiu said in a furious whisper. “The young master broke my legs. You can’t take me with you. So go away and come back to fetch me!”

“Of course, Xiao Jiu,” said Qi-ge, his voice wavering with tears. “Qi-ge will get strong and rescue you.”

Shen Jiu crawled a little closer, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of his Qi-ge before he left.

But something was wrong.

He saw no one there.

No one at all.

*

It was easy then to seal every last memory that had to do with Yue Qingyuan.

And, when they both awoke, Luo Binghe was rewarded with a sharp gasp from Shen Qingqiu before his struggle began once again.

There was rage within those emerald green eyes—hatred and despair all mingled in one. But without knowledge of Yue Qingyuan’s death, or any knowledge of Yue Qingyuan at all, Shen Qingqiu had no more reason to act so sullen.

(Or so, Luo Binghe thought.)

“You beast,” Shen Qingqiu said hoarsely, his words clumsy and unsure. He had not spoken for a long, long time. “What have you done?”

Luo Binghe smiled dangerously. It was a success.

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe said sweetly, reaching over Shen Qingqiu’s prone form to snag a bowl from the bedside. “You have to take your medicine.”

And while Shen Qingqiu got used to having limbs once again, Luo Binghe forced the bowl to Shen Qingqiu’s lips, pouring its contents down Shen Jiu’s throat.

Luo Binghe never looked away, wanting so badly to see how Shen Qingqiu’s angry face would shift once he realized that it was an aphrodisiac, not medicine, that Luo Binghe had forced him to ingest.

*

*

*

That was then.

This is now.

*

*

*

Luo Binghe wakes quite suddenly, sitting up in his bed.

He’s alive—he’s alive!

He looks at his shaking hands. They were unfamiliar to him—almost smooth, soft, with none of the hard earned callouses he had earned in life. His nails were longer too, painted with a dark varnish instead of the natural black nails he knew.

Luo Binghe stumbles from his bed, his legs getting tangled in the blankets.

“Your Imperial Majesty!” a servant cries out in horror once she has realized what has happened. This servant’s voice is not familiar at all.

Luo Binghe ignores the servant, Luo Binghe ignores everything.

This room is somewhat unfamiliar, and Luo Binghe stumbles about until he finally finds a polished bronze mirror. He lifts it up and meets the gaze of someone not entirely familiar to himself.

Once, Luo Binghe had been told that he has his father’s eyes by an older demoness.

Now, Luo Binghe saw his own eyes in this body.

He looked more or less like himself, but his skin is tanned from the outdoors. His dark hair is unbound and curly. And, Luo Binghe couldn’t be entirely sure, but it looked as though he is now bulkier and taller than he had been before.

Faintly, Luo Binghe presses a hand to his cheek.

Who was he?

“Your Imperial Majesty!” cries out that frightened servant before tossing herself to the floor, hurriedly bowing, her forehead knocking against the ground. “This lowly slave apologizes— these quarters weren’t to your liking— This lowly slave—”

“Enough!” Luo Binghe snaps.

The servant falls quiet.

Looking at her, Luo Binghe couldn’t quite tell if she is a human or a demon or some mixture of the two. She only looks… afraid.

“What is my name?” Luo Binghe grounds out.

The servant’s eyes widened, but she didn’t answer.

“What is my name?” Luo Binghe repeats, growing impatient.

Yes, it would be improper for the servant to speak his name. Yes, he had all but ordered her to do so.

When the servant lifts her head to meet his gaze, Luo Binghe foolishly thought that she would answer. But then his hopes are dashed as the servant dashes her head against the ground with all her might, leaving her bleeding terribly.

The blood is hot and bright against the floor.

A human then. Or close enough.

Luo Binghe scowls at her. “Get out of my sight!”

The servant does so, wobbling terribly, and leaves Luo Binghe all alone in this new life, in this new body, with none of the answers he is looking for.

Alone, Luo Binghe continues to explore this courtyard. It’s his own, that much he knows. Just very heavily redecorated.

It’s as though nothing from his first lifetime remained.

With a pang, Luo Binghe remembered Shen Qingqiu’s guqin.

Luo Binghe had it specially made, the finest of all fine things, as something to get his Shizun to be a little less listless. In that lifetime, Shen Qingqiu had played it only once, at a banquet, where he had been egged on to perform by one of Luo Binghe’s countless wives.

Shen Qingqiu had looked to Luo Binghe, who only nodded.

At the time, Luo Binghe thought it would be somewhat amusing to hear Shen Qingqiu play—to hear Shen Qingqiu play a song before such an audience, as one of the members of Luo Binghe’s harem.

But Shen Qingqiu’s fingers had been clumsy and stiff.

It had been amusing in all of the wrong ways, a thorough humiliation for someone like Shen Qingqiu.

Luo Binghe had not realized then that many of Shen Qingqiu’s fingers had been broken and allowed to heal incorrectly.

Here, now, Luo Binghe frowns.

Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu had died before Luo Binghe.

Shen Qingqiu had died in agony, and Luo Binghe had been able to do nothing to help or save him.

This regret follows him now.

But…

If Luo Binghe returned, then perhaps so would Shen Qingqiu?

And this time, Luo Binghe thought, he would get it right.

This time, Luo Binghe would find Shen Qingqiu and give him every treasure he could. He could no longer bear Shen Qingqiu to suffer so—

In their last lifetime, Shen Qingqiu did not smile. Not really.

(The empty, dazed expression that came on his face when he took those aphrodisiacs was close to a smile. Shen Qingqiu’s lips would curve up, slightly, just slightly, and in that beguiling voice, he would say, please, please, please.

But that had not been joy.

That had not been close to any sort of happiness or peace.

It had been an agony that Luo Binghe had inflicted upon Shen Qingqiu. One agony of countless that Shen Qingqiu had been forced to endure.)

*

Luo Binghe, as the emperor of the three realms, had all the resources of these three realms to find and locate Shen Qingqiu.

And yet, nothing works.

It is as though Shen Qingqiu had not returned to his station in this lifetime.

Something has gone terribly wrong.

*

Shen Jiu woke suddenly when a bucket of cold water was overturned on his head.

“Get up!” barks one of the slave masters.

Shen Jiu almost tuned him out. Every day is the same. The slaves would be woken and brought to labor somewhere. After hours of physical labor, they would be given something small to eat, like a steamed bun or perhaps a bowl of congee.

He should have been used to this—the repetition of each day.

He should have long been used to it.

In another lifetime, perhaps Shen Jiu would have fought back with angry, hissing words or qi infused leaves, or perhaps he would have tried to get on the slavers good sides, by simpering and using his tears.

But Shen Jiu knows that nothing ever works.

He was born a slave. He would die a slave.

Anything Shen Jiu did to try to reach above his station could only result in retribution by the fates.

Already, Shen Jiu’s body is no good. He took some comfort in the fact that he would die soon.

Shen Jiu belonged to this empire.

His body was just one of many, all used to further the empire. All these large-scale infrastructure projects could not exist without the many enslaved crushed beneath the tyrannical demon lord’s boot. Roads were built. Canals constructed. Land reclaimed.

Now, the demon emperor needed a new courtyard for one of the flowers he’d stolen.

And Shen Jiu was just one of the many slaves that would build the courtyard from the ground up.

Shen Jiu had reincarnated with the memories of his last, tortuous life.

The first Emperor, Luo Binghe, had died before Shen Jiu took his first breath. Let him have tasted Meng Po’s soup. Let them not cross paths ever again.

And, for good measure, let Shen Jiu have nothing to do with the whole lineage.