Six months after the Immortal Alliance Conference, Shen Qingqiu qi deviates. It really wasn’t caused by some so-called ‘grief sickness’ or whatever other bullshit - Shen Qingqiu was just… scared of losing his limbs in a few years, and a bit nostalgic for the days where he had a white sheep disciple dogging his every step, and -
Well. Maybe he hadn’t been taking the best care of himself, in the months after the conference. Didn’t eat every meal, wasn’t totally on top of his meditation, normal stuff. How was he supposed to know cultivators were so delicate that something dumb like that could result in a qi deviation, ah?!
And anyway, it wasn’t as if the qi deviation itself was all that bad, really.
It was only the fact that it had allowed Without-A-Cure to spread that had made it… bad-ish. Still manageable! Shen Qingqiu just needed his meridians cleared far more frequently, but Liu Qingge was a true bro at this point, so that was fine!
Unfortunately, Shen Qingqiu’s martial siblings did not buy this argument that easily. Damn. And Shen Qingqiu had been so sure he could convince them that the walking cane was just a fashion statement!
Shen Qingqiu is given reluctant permission to travel to Jinlan City to investigate the cause of the infection there under the strict condition that he remain by Liu Qingge or Mu Qingfang’s side as much as possible, hang back from any actual fighting that requires spiritual energy, and isn’t shy about using his cane to support himself as needed. Yue Qingyuan was shameless enough to announce these conditions in the middle of one of their monthly peak lord meetings, and Mu Qingfang and Liu Qingge had been traitorous enough to agree to the conditions easily.
Shen Qingqiu thinks it’s bullshit. He’s still a peak lord, you know!! He may not be as fast or nimble as he was a few years ago, but there’s plenty of cool cultivation stuff you can do just standing in place, especially if you have a shidi as dedicated as Liu Qingge to make sure you never go more than eight hours without your meridians being looked at!
Still, Shen Qingqiu begrudgingly accepts the conditions, because it has been way too long since he’s been let out of Cang Qiong. Some days he feels like a dog locked in a kennel, wishing he could bolt out on his own but knowing if he did his luck would ensure his meridians would get blocked within the hour and he’d have to shamefully return to Cang Qiong anyway. Stupid fucking poison.
What Shen Qingqiu does not accept is meeting Luo Binghe a full two years early. What the hell is this!! Where was his warning, the big red waypoint symbol in the sky screaming PROTAGONIST HERE, the sirens from the System telling him the plot was advancing??
But by the time he hears Luo Binghe say, “It’s no trouble,” the perfect picture of an obedient disciple (and fuck, Shen Qingqiu really has missed that), it’s far too late to turn back.
Shen Qingqiu only barely doesn’t outwardly show his panic. He’s still on the stairs up to the second floor of the brothel, and stairs have become so much more difficult these past couple years, so he has a hand on the banister and another leaning on his cane, slowly taking the stairs one step at a time and pretending he doesn’t feel Gongyi Xiao’s eyes on him.
He can hear Luo Binghe and the Huan Hua Palace disciples moving towards the stairs from the room they’d been looking at the body in, and Shen Qingqiu swallows dryly, looking around for a place he might be able to lean up against without it looking unusual.
If Luo Binghe sees him like this, so clearly reduced from the strength of the Xiu Ya sword from before the conference…
Luo Binghe rounds the corner just as Shen Qingqiu shifts his weight to lean more heavily on the banister in preparation to hide his cane away. His eyes go wide at the sight of Shen Qingqiu, and then in rapid succession narrow at the sight of Shen Qingqiu’s odd posture, and then -
Shen Qingqiu isn’t sure what to call the look on Luo Binghe’s face, there. Horror, maybe. It certainly made sense for the protagonist to feel a bit horrified that the man he’s been planning a revenge arc against for the past three years has apparently already been reduced to the mess Shen Qingqiu is right now.
“Shizun..?” Luo Binghe calls, looking two parts unsure and three parts something Shen Qingqiu doesn’t want to read.
Shen Qingqiu swallows thickly. It’s too late now to actually store his cane away in a qiankun pouch without calling more attention to it, but he shifts so that it’s hidden partially behind him, his many layers of robes for once being useful.
Luo Binghe, watching the movement, stills.
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu replies after a moment, voice very carefully even. Luo Binghe’s eyes are still locked on the hand Shen Qingqiu has on his cane, despite how he’s tried to hide it, and Shen Qingqiu tries to stand a bit straighter, trying to put less weight on it.
Damn it, he’s not an invallid!! It’s just - it’s just the stairs, it’s just these stupid fucking stairs, he never should have tried to -
“It really is Shizun, then,” Luo Binghe says, snapping Shen Qingqiu back into the present. His voice is soft and sweet and a perfect performance of hurt. “Only Shizun would be so clearly wounded and still try to hide it like this.”
Shen Qingqiu’s fingers twitch around his cane. With his other hand still keeping him balanced on the stair’s railing, he doesn’t have a free hand to pull out his fan to hide a grimace behind, so he can only keep his face expressionless.
Luo Binghe had always scolded him in the past for not being forthcoming about when Without-A-Cure needed tending to, or when he’d dismiss his own injuries after a hunt in favor of his disciples being seen to first, but that sort of worried scolding had no place between them anymore. For Luo Binghe to act in the same way now was quite the clever move; outwardly, the perfect show of concern for a past teacher, while Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe themselves knew it to be a mockery or - looking at the Huan Hua disciples behind Luo Binghe - a way to humiliate Shen Qingqiu in front of disciples from a rival sect.
As expected of the blackened protagonist, Shen Qingqiu thinks bitterly. To make matters worse, the System had come back online at the first sound of Luo Binghe’s voice, and hadn’t shut up about various point losses and gains since. Shen Qingqiu has had three years of complaints stored up for this piece of shit virus - why are TVs are allowed in this universe, but not elevators?? And why is this world so behind in doctor-patient confidentiality, ah?! - so the fact that Shen Qingqiu is wholly consumed with Luo Binghe’s return at the moment and isn’t able to dedicate the brain space to properly scold the System just rubs salt in the wound.
Irritated, Shen Qingqiu hisses out a sigh between clenched teeth, and resumes his slow hobble up the stairs. He’s already this close to Luo Binghe - at this point, there isn’t anything to lose by approaching him further, and Shen Qingqiu really does need to take a look at the body being stored on the second floor. At the first sign of Shen Qingqiu beginning to finish climbing up the stairs, though, the Huan Hua disciples that had been quietly watching the exchange between Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu bristle, some of them going as far as drawing their swords.
Shen Qingqiu wonders if the Huan Hua disciples drink from the same lake as the Bai Zhan ones; there has to be some sort of common factor between both sets of bold stupidity. Just because this old man can’t go up the stairs without assistance doesn’t mean he can’t still beat you with one hand behind his back, you know! Where do disciples like this get the balls to directly draw their swords at a peak lord, ah?!
“...Is this master no longer allowed to view the corpse kept on the second floor?” Shen Qingqiu asks dryly, leveling his best unamused expression across the Huan Hua disciples.
“More like you are no longer allowed to view Lord Luo!” Calls one particularly daring Huan Hua disciple, but before he could say more Luo Binghe levels the crowd of disciples behind him with a cold look, and they fall silent. Ah, what sort of things had Luo Binghe told that lot, to get such loyalty towards him and such hostility towards Shen Qingqiu!
Luo Binghe looks back at Shen Qingqiu, expression softening once more into that practiced look of concern. “Shizun may look if he wishes, but there is no need for him to trouble himself,” Luo Binghe pauses, letting his gaze rest meaningfully on Shen Qingqiu’s cane, still half hidden behind him. “This disciple confirmed for himself that we’re dealing with a sower. If Shizun still wishes to see, the body can be brought down to him, instead of Shizun going up to see?”
Shen Qingqiu feels his eye twitch. He’s already made it this far up the stairs, and now he can’t even be considered useful?
One of the Huan Hua disciples behind Luo Binghe sneers down at Shen Qingqiu. “Lord Luo has already solved this issue, and explained in great detail about sowers and their effects. We don’t need your second opinion.”
“Everything I know was taught by Shizun,” Luo Binghe cuts in, but he doesn’t take his eyes off Shen Qingqiu this time for any amount of performative scolding, so the disciple that had spoken up only makes a face. Shen Qingqiu, irritated and feeling a bit jumpy and impulsive from the adrenaline of suddenly meeting Luo Binghe, very nearly makes a face back at the stupid NPC.
Gongyi Xiao, who has been quiet but clearly mortified through most of this encounter, clears his throat. “Master Shen, this one sincerely apologizes for the behavior of Huan Hua’s disciples towards Master Shen. However, Luo Binghe is capable, and if he was taught by Master Shen on the subject, there is certainly no way he could be wrong. Perhaps it would be best to return downstairs…?”
Damn it, Shen Qingqiu really isn’t going to be allowed to do his job and look cool at all during this scene, is he? Shen Qingqiu sighs, defeated, but nods once. Whatever! Fine! He’ll go back down the stupid stairs! At least on level floor his stiff limbs don’t impede him quite so much, and he won’t look so pitiful in front of Luo Binghe.
“As you say, then,” Shen Qingqiu replies after a long moment, even as he internally curses.
Shen Qingqiu glances back up at Luo Binghe. There really aren’t that many stairs left until the top of the landing, but Shen Qingqiu can tell from here that even on level ground he’d need to look up to meet Luo Binghe’s eyes. He’s grown up well, in the time since they last met.
Gongyi Xiao brings a hand up to Shen Qingqiu’s elbow, quietly trying to assist Shen Qingqiu in turning back around to go down the stairs. Luo Binghe’s expression grows ugly, watching them.
He’s grown up well, Shen Qingqiu thinks again, this time feeling a bit more distant about it. Truly the protagonist, well into his revenge arc.
The mission in Jinlan City goes as it does. Luo Binghe allows Mu Qingfang to study the body of the sower that Huan Hua had disposed of, chases Shen Qingqiu out a window in the middle of the night, and discovers the rash on Shen Qingqiu’s wrist before forcing him to ingest his blood parasites. It’s more or less how Shen Qingqiu expected their first encounter after the Abyss to go, though perhaps Shen Qingqiu would have expected being able to move out said window a bit more nimbly, rather than the awkward mess of limbs he’d been as he’d tried to shove his uncooperative body through the small frame.
Live and learn. Next time Shen Qingqiu is expecting a reunion with his future murderer, he’ll practice jumping out windows until he looks like a stunt double for a Hollywood movie.
And yet, even knowing that their reunion was destined to go like this (destined to go worse, really), it still hurts, a bit. It still makes Shen Qingqiu nauseous to see Luo Binghe and know he isn’t his Binghe, to know that Shen Qingqiu won’t have the time to say goodbye to his other disciples back on Qing Jing like he thought he would, to feel the blood parasites burning through his body and making it perfectly clear just how much power Luo Binghe has over Shen Qingqiu, now.
(It had to be that reason, after all - some elaborate power play, a reminder of Shen Qingqiu’s powerlessness to Luo Binghe and an opportunity for Luo Binghe to watch him squirm. Shen Qingqiu can’t think of any other reason why the parasites wouldn’t stop moving, even long after curing the sower’s infection.)
There’s only a single moment where Shen Qingqiu feels like things might turn out okay, a brief feeling of hope that comes to him after the sowers accused Shen Qingqiu of collaboration and the Huan Hua Palace Master brought forth someone from Shen Jiu’s past to only make things worse.
“Master Shen should remain confined in our Water Prison until the trial.” The Huan Hua Palace Master says, barely hiding his glee at finally getting to bite into Cang Qiong. It… was not something that would normally inspire hope.
But Shen Qingqiu had long since grown used to the overbearing habits of his martial siblings when it came to Shen Qingqiu’s new weakness, and he knew exactly what would come next.
An attempt to trap Shen Qingqiu in the Water Prison - away from any sort of medical treatment, and in a place that was notoriously cold and hard on the joints even when your body wasn’t half taken over by an incurable demonic poison - was perhaps the very worst thing Huan Hua could have suggested, to the point where it would be outright impossible.
For the first time since Shen Qingqiu had qi deviated and allowed Without-A-Cure to spread, he thinks very emphatically thank fuck my martial siblings are so irritatingly invested in my health!
“Absolutely not.” Mu Qingfang is the first person to speak up, surprising everyone who isn’t part of the Cang Qiong delegation. Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge are both similarly agitated, but Mu Qingfang looks downright furious. “Surely no one gathered here has missed how Shen-Shixiong has required significantly more medical assistance these last couple days than any cultivator normally does. Does Huan Hua intend to ensure his death before he can even present his story at the trial?”
“Master Shen will of course be looked after, and as Master Mu said, he is a cultivator. Surely, he can -”
“Does Huan Hua doubt my medical understanding of the situation?”
Shen Qingqiu uses the hand not leaning on his cane to fish out his fan and snap it open to hide a smile. Ah, it’s so nice to not be the one on the receiving end of Mu Qingfang’s cold fury, for once! Already, the mob mentality that the Huan Hua Palace Master had been able to drum up against Shen Qingqiu is beginning to fade out, too - there’s simply no easy way for Huan Hua to insist in these circumstances.
Maybe it would be different, had Shen Qingqiu not been so disabled by Without-A-Cure, had Mu Qingfang not been the leading voice in his defense. If either Yue Qingyuan or Liu Qingge had been the one arguing against Shen Qingqiu’s imprisonment, it surely would have led only to more tension and the possibility of an actual fight breaking out. Mu Qingfang, however, had just more or less single handedly provided cures for half the crowd around them; the people of Jinlan City were on Mu Qingfang’s side, even if they weren’t on Shen Qingqiu’s.
“Shen-Shixiong will be watched until the trial, if it is so important to Huan Hua. But it will happen in Cang Qiong, where Shen-Shixiong will have access to the medical assistance he needs.”
Yue Qingyuan nods, taking this as his cue to step in. “It is as Mu-Shidi says. Surely Huan Hua will be understanding of this, when Cang Qiong is already being so generous as to allow outsiders to involve one of our own in a trial like this in the first place.”
The Palace Master’s expression twists, and Shen Qingqiu feels a rush of vindication. This will work out, it won’t have to end in disaster - Shen Qingqiu knows that Cang Qiong has no actual intention of ‘watching’ Shen Qingqiu until the trial, which will give him all the time and space he needs to actually say goodbye to his disciples before running the fuck away!!
“Fine,” The Palace Master spits, “But Cang Qiong cannot expect us to let Master Shen return home without any sort of restriction. At the very least, he should not be allowed to act as a peak lord when accusations of his conduct are still a concern.”
Shen Qingqiu waves his fan a bit, irritated, but nods when Yue Qingyuan glances at him. This is still fine - not acting as a peak lord didn’t mean not being on Qing Jing, which was all he really needed.
“If such a thing would make Huan Hua feel better about the situation, Cang Qiong will accommodate it,” Yue Qingyuan replies graciously.
Then, he smiles, and promptly destroys that thread of hope that Shen Qingqiu had found.
“Shen-Shidi’s head disciple will handle affairs until his innocence is proven.”
Shen Qingqiu snaps his head towards Yue Qingyuan, eyes wide. That - this can not be happening, it -
“Hey,” Liu Qingge grunts, poking at Shen Qingqiu from where he stands on his other side. Shen Qingqiu habitually tries to bat his hand away, used to years of the man trying to help him get around despite Shen Qingqiu’s claims that he’s perfectly fine, thank you.
Truthfully, Liu Qingge had become particularly attuned to Shen Qingqiu’s moods, these past few years, with how closely he’s been watching Shen Qingqiu for any sign of additional stiffness or discomfort that might indicate it’s time for his meridians to be cleansed again. Even as he’s instinctively batting him away, Shen Qingqiu swivels his head back around to look at him, hoping Liu Qingge will read the panic in his eyes and stop what he knows is coming next, but -
“And who is Master Shen’s head disciple? Surely that sort of information should be made public, Sect Leader Yue,” The Palace Master sneers, and fuck, shit, it’s too late now!
Shen Qingqiu swallows thickly. Yue Qingyuan is looking at him again, he can feel it - Yue Qingyuan doesn’t know what to say. They both know what the answer is, but Yue Qingyuan hasn’t noticed Luo Binghe, yet, so he doesn’t know what he can say without lying or giving the name of a (presumed) dead man.
Shen Qingqiu can’t lie, either. There’s only one reason why Huan Hua would want the name of Shen Qingqiu’s head disciple now - to double check it as fact later, to ensure that they didn’t give a false name so Shen Qingqiu could secretly resume his duties under the name of a fake disciple. And if he gives the name of a real disciple, and it’s later revealed that that disciple wasn’t officially the head disciple at the time that Shen Qingqiu had said so, that disciple would only be dragged into this mess, and they wouldn’t have a backup plant body like Shen Qingqiu does.
Shen Qingqiu’s eyes find Luo Binghe’s, next to the Huan Hua Palace Master. His expression is unusually intense.
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu says finally, after it becomes clear that Yue Qingyuan will only continue to wait for Shen Qingqiu to answer for himself. “Officially, this master’s head disciple is still Luo Binghe.”
There’s a ripple of shock in the Huan Hua crowd. Luo Binghe has gone very, very still.
“However, in light of Luo Binghe’s decision to - to become a disciple with Huan Hua, this master will choose another -”
“Shizun is still the only one I have called as such,” Luo Binghe interrupts. There’s something to his expression that looks almost feral, but Shen Qingqiu isn’t sure he’s not just hallucinating that from the panic of the situation. “This one is not officially a Huan Hua disciple. As it stands, it seems I am quite clearly a disciple of Qing Jing, if Shizun has not removed me from the head disciple position.”
“Perfect,” The Palace Master says, looking once more quite pleased with himself. Of course he does, knowing the protagonist is on his side, rather than Shen Qingqiu’s - it’s like getting to send one of his own men into Cang Qiong, but far more politically agreeable. “Luo Binghe will return with Master Shen to Cang Qiong, then, and supervise him until the trial.”
“Wait,” Liu Qingge calls, brow furrowed, one hand still hovering by Shen Qingqiu’s arm from earlier even as he studies Luo Binghe. “Shen Qingqiu, is that really your disciple?”
“Who else could I be, Liu-Shishu?” Luo Binghe answers on behalf of Shen Qingqiu, sounding almost mean about it.
Liu Qingge ignores him. After a long moment, Shen Qingqiu nods once. Liu Qingge is not the only one that looks troubled at this response.
“My apologies,” Yue Qingyuan says smoothly, even though his smile has gone tight in the way Shen Qingqiu recognizes as fury. “I’m afraid Luo Binghe can not be trusted to run Qing Jing at this time, given that he’s alive.”
“And I’d be more fit to serve if I were dead?”
Yue Qingyuan levels Luo Binghe with an unreadable look. “If you were dead, it wouldn’t have been your choice to leave your Shizun when he -”
“It’s fine!” Shen Qingqiu interrupts, face warm with the mortification of his martial siblings nearly spelling out such a miserable thing to Luo Binghe. “This master is the one that never removed Luo Binghe’s name after the conference. As such, any arguments on the basis of this master’s behalf can’t be considered. Luo Binghe will… he’ll come back with us, if it’s what must be done.”
Even knowing it’s futile to argue against the protagonist’s victory here, Shen Qingqiu can’t actually bring himself to say that Luo Binghe will be Qing Jing’s acting peak lord. He hopes desperately he’ll be able to save his disciples from whatever cruel fate Luo Binghe might bring to Qing Jing before it’s too late.
Luo Binghe smiles prettily. “As Shizun says,” he says, almost demurely, and that’s that.
Shen Qingqiu is getting the chance to run away back home, but Luo Binghe will follow him.
The atmosphere on Qing Jing is stifling upon their return. Word had somehow travelled ahead of them that Luo Binghe was alive, but with it had clearly come word that he’d been found as part of Huan Hua’s delegation. For Qing Jing, full of people who had spent the past three years having to put up with their Shizun’s embarrassing, weakened state after Without-A-Cure had advanced due to a qi deviation that everyone had blamed on Luo Binghe’s absence…
Ning Yingying meets them at the base of the mountain, expression conflicted. “A-Luo,” she greets, after bowing to Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge, who had doggedly followed them to Qing Jing. “It’s good to see you well.”
Luo Binghe grins at her. “Shijie,” he greets in return, “It’s good to see you, too. This acting peak lord has missed you.” Luo Binghe’s grin widens as he speaks, clearly teasing, his eyes glinting with something close to delight as he says the title of ‘acting peak lord.’ If this were the Ning Yingying of PIDW, she’d have giggled and flushed red, and maybe teased Luo Binghe back.
The Ning Yingying of this world only smiles at Luo Binghe, expression almost stained. Shen Qingqiu has a moment of intense regret for how carefully he raised her, to turn her into someone who would think before being taken in by a pretty smile. She’s an incredibly talented Qing Jing disciple, but she’s also far too loyal now. Qing Jing has a far better chance of making it through unscathed if everyone would only be happy to let Luo Binghe take on this acting peak lord role.
Shen Qingqiu loves these disciples, but sometimes he wishes they would love him less, if only for their own survival.
Ning Yingying turns back to Shen Qingqiu. Luo Binghe doesn’t quite wilt, but there’s something decidedly displeased in his expression as Ning Yingying addresses Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge.
“Should this disciple bring tea for Shizun and Liu-Shishu?”
Tea was, indeed, the usual plan when Liu Qingge spent time on Qing Jing. Shen Qingqiu felt bad having the poor man come over so frequently to clear Shen Qingqiu’s meridians, so the least he could do was ensure he drank some decent tea instead of the nonsense they served on Bai Zhan.
This time, though, it would be prudent to get Liu Qingge off the peak as soon as possible. Liu Qingge hadn’t taken his hand off Cheng Laun once in the time since Shen Qingqiu had confirmed Luo Binghe was who he said he was, and letting that fight play out is absolutely not in line with Shen Qingqiu’s vague plans to keep Cang Qiong safe from Luo Binghe.
“No, thank you, Ning Yingying. Liu-Shidi, I’ll trouble you to be quick about it this time. There are a number of concerns I must see too in light of… the temporary change in leadership.”
“If Shizun needs treatment, it wouldn’t do to be quick about it. This Luo Binghe can take care of such a thing, if having Liu-Shishu stay is inconvenient,” Luo Binghe says, and Shen Qingqiu feels the blood parasites inside him flare up in a way that is somehow more horrifying than the thought of Luo Binghe being put in charge of Shen Qingqiu’s treatment.
What is Luo Binghe doing with the blood parasites? If this is supposed to be some sort of check to determine if Shen Qingqiu really needs treatment, there’ll only be trouble in the future. If Luo Binghe only allows Liu Qingge to clear his meridians when they actually feel blocked, then Without-A-Cure would only continue to progress further. The thought of such a thing, of being forced to sit idly by knowing that his condition was getting worse and worse with each passing day, makes Shen Qingqiu’s stomach turn.
“No,” Liu Qingge says, and then walks away in the direction of the bamboo house. Shen Qingqiu nearly feels light-headed with the relief of being able to depend on Liu Qingge to always be quick to act - a retreat sounds very good right about now!
But before Shen Qingqiu has even managed to fully turn to follow Liu Qingge, Luo Binghe steps forward, his expression darker than it had been a moment ago. “Where is Shizun going? even if Liu-Shishu has refused, Shizun has not.”
Shen Qingqiu casts a nervous glance back at Luo Binghe. “Liu Qingge is familiar with the treatment process, so of course this master is most comfortable with his assistance.”
“Is that it?” Luo Binghe takes another step closer to Shen Qingqiu. “Or is it that Shizun is only uncomfortable with this disciple’s offer?”
Shen Qingqiu swallows thickly. This feels… very much like a trap. “Luo Binghe, you -”
“A-Luo!” Ning Yingying interrupts, and both Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu turn to look at her. “Could you come with me to the kitchens? You know I’ve never been good at reporting stock there the way the chefs like!”
Luo Binghe glances back at Shen Qingqiu, who is studiously pretending as if Ning Yingying hasn’t become the perfect disciple in the last three years of Luo Binghe’s absence, and might really need help with such a thing. After a moment, Luo Binghe smiles, agrees, and follows after Ning Yingying when she leads him away from Shen Qingqiu, who is very appreciative of the breather.
It’s not easy being under the watchful eye of the protagonist so constantly, ah!! This old man gives his most humble thanks to disciple Ning for her quick thinking and distraction tactics!
This fearful master gives an even more humble prayer that you’ll keep him distracted for a long, long time!
Shen Qingqiu knows better than to expect Luo Binghe to stay away from the bamboo house. For one, it isn’t as if Luo Binghe has existing quarters elsewhere - and fuck, shit, Shen Qingqiu wishes desparately he had listened to any one of the people who had insisted he clean out the sideroom after the conference; if Luo Binghe were to peek into his old rooms and see them just as he left them, Shen Qingqiu would be mortified! - but more importantly, the bamboo house is the peak lord’s residence.
Luo Binghe, demon lord extraordinaire, is not known for giving up any of the things he’s earned, and the title and affordances of ‘Qing Jing Peak Lord’ are ones that not even the original ever got his hands on.
So Shen Qingqiu doesn’t waste any time, after Liu Qingge cleans his meridians and is shooed off the mountain. He has to be quick, to gather the clothes and other such supplies he’ll need to survive the time before the trial without coming back to the bamboo house. Worse comes to worse, he can always visit another peak lord to borrow supplies and amenities from them, but -
Well. These are likely Shen Qingqiu’s last days before he’s either pickled or finds a way into his plant body backup, so he’d rather spend them in the comfort of his own things than in someone else’s.
He’ll be able to make a strong case for himself to stay in the disciple’s dormitories, he’s sure, so at least one part of his plan is going alright. He hadn’t finished - he was supposed to have two more years to finish - but for most of the disciples under his care he’d already been working on care packages of a sort for them. Qiankun pouches full of money for the few from poorer families, a copy to the key to Qing Jing’s secretive advanced library for a couple of the senior disciples, more defensive and escape-focused talismans than you could imagine for every single one of them -
You know. The normal things to prepare, when you plan on abandoning the disciples you’ve raised for years out of fear for your own demise.
Shen Qingqiu scrambles to grab all of these things now, stuffing qiankun pouches inside of qiankun pouches, piling everything up in such a way that he could hopefully get everything he needed as well as everything he had intended to give his disciples out of the bamboo house without looking quite so clearly like he was planning on running the fuck away at the first given opportunity. With Luo Binghe’s blood inside him, it wouldn’t actually save him, but Shen Qingqiu at least wanted to take his death outside Cang Qiong if possible. Everyone he would be leaving behind could stay peacefully out of the drama of it all, Shen Qingqiu would respawn in his plant body soon after, and everyone could peacefully live out the rest of their lives in the hellscape the protagonist would turn the world into!
Of course, since Shen Qingqiu is cursed to never make it through a single scene the way he wants to, Luo Binghe walks through the door of the bamboo house just as Shen Qingqiu is haphazardly stuffing the last of his necessities - his entire collection of fans - into a qiankun pouch.
Luo Binghe watches Shen Qingqiu for a moment from the doorway before he steps forward, letting the door snap shut harshly behind him.
“Is Shizun packing for a trip?” He asks unkindly, and Shen Qingqiu lets out a measured breath. He’d been so, so close to finishing!
“This is the Qing Jing Peak Lord’s house,” Shen Qingqiu replies carefully. “As I have been removed from the position, of course I can not stay.”
“Shizun is still Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, and Shen Qingqiu has to hold back the urge to huff, frustrated. Isn’t it your fault that this master isn’t supposed to be ‘Shizun’ right now, ah?! “And there isn’t anywhere else for Shizun to stay anyway.”
“There’s room in the dormitories. I’ll sleep there.” Or with the hallmasters, or another peak lord, or anywhere except here!
“There’s no need for Shizun to trouble himself. His things are already here in this bamboo house.”
“I’m sure Luo Binghe would rather have the place to himself,” Shen Qingqiu replies easily, and Luo Binghe clenches his fists at his side.
“Shizun must feel strongly about this, to go through the trouble.”
“It’s only natural -”
“Is sleeping near me really so miserable that Shizun would rather physically hurt himself over it?” Luo Binghe interrupts, and Shen Qingqiu scowls.
“Physically hurt - Luo Binghe, what are you talking about?” This Shen Qingqiu has had his mind locked down in panic mode since the second this whole mess began, troubling you to spell it out as if Shen Qingqiu’s an idiot if you want him to understand, please!
“Shizun always gives out the rooms on the first floor first. If there are rooms available in the dormitories, they’re on the second floor.” Luo Binghe casts a look at Shen Qingqiu’s cane. “Shizun would be troubled, if he moved there.”
Shen Qingqiu nearly lifts his cane off the ground to snap it in half. He lives on a mountain, what is with it with all the people in his life somehow not managing to put two and two together that Shen Qingqiu is fine if he can manage that much?
He’s so sick of being treated like an invalid these past few years, sick of being confined to Qing Jing and treated like he’s made of glass and - and now Luo Binghe has gotten in on it, and it’s so much worse when it’s him, when Shen Qingqiu knows how pitiful he must look to Luo Binghe. Maybe subconsciously Shen Qingqiu is still used to a Luo Binghe who would do anything to accommodate Shen Qingqiu and to carry out his orders, or maybe Shen Qingqiu is growing exhausted from waiting for Luo Binghe to do something actually awful to him, but either way - Luo Binghe implying that Shen Qingqiu is so pitiful that going up some stairs must be worse to him than sleeping next to his future murderer makes Shen Qingqiu so helplessly furious it makes him snap.
“Then I’ll sleep in the woodshed, since such a place was fit for Acting Peak Lord Luo in the past.”
Shen Qingqiu snatches the qiankun pouches he’d packed off the table, hugging them to his chest as he tries to shuffle them around one-handedly so he could still use his cane to help him walk, which - fuck, he really is pitiful, isn’t he?
Luo Binghe, for his part, looks like he’s been slapped. Shen Qinqgiu has about two and a half seconds to realize how badly he fucked up before Luo Binghe gathers himself and advances towards Shen Qingqiu, expression dark and eyes burning red even though his demonic sigil is still hidden.
“So Shizun is capable of speaking of the past, after all,” Luo Binghe sneers, and Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widen in fear. Fuck, fuck, fuck! Shen Qingqiu just wanted to get the chance to be angry for a moment, he didn’t mean to aggro Luo Binghe quite this much! “I hadn’t been sure, with how well Shizun held his tongue.”
Shen Qingqiu takes in a slow breath through clenched teeth. Luo Binghe comes to a stop on the other side of the desk that Shen Qingqiu had been piling all his qiankun pouches on, only those scant couple feet of wood between them.
“Why was Shizun packing to run away, if he can be so bold?” Luo Binghe pauses, his eyes searching Shen Qingqiu’s face. “If you can speak of the past so clearly, tell this disciple: do you regret it?”
The System, which Shen Qingqiu had managed to mute back in Jinlan City after it had reappeared with far too much noise and fanfare, makes its reappearance now, having the fucking nerve to give Shen Qingqiu a set of dialogue options as if this is a visual novel.
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t even get to read through the options, though, before Luo Binghe lurches forward, leaning over the desk.
“Don’t look away from me!” Luo Binghe barks, and Shen Qingqiu’s eyes snap back up to his from where they’d begun reading the System’s choices. The sudden violent fury takes Shen Qingqiu by surprise, and he casts a glance to Xin Mo strapped to Luo Binghe’s side without thinking. “Don’t - Stop running, Shizun, you -”
Luo Binghe breaks off, one of his hands coming down to hit fiercely at the desk between them. The sudden noise startles Shen Qingqiu, and with how tense he’d been holding himself combined with the general stiffness that Without-A-Cure forces on his limbs these days, just that small of a startle is enough to make him lose his balance. Shen Qingqiu panics, but he’d been balancing oddly due to all the pouches he’d been carrying, and he starts to fall backwards.
Three things happen in rapid succession, then. Luo Binghe reaches out to grab Shen Qingqiu’s arm, presumably to catch him. Shen Qingqiu, already startled and so hopelessly terrified of those furious red eyes on the face of his once-disciple, jerks out of the way of Luo Binghe’s grip, which does nothing to help him regain his balance.
It does, however, change his direction, and Shen Qingqiu falls with his head at precisely the right location to smack right into the edge of his desk. Shen Qingqiu gasps at the sudden pain, the qiankun pouches he’d been carrying spilling out around him and his cane dropped to the ground beside him as both hands come up to cradle his head.
Above him, Luo Binghe looks down at him with wide, horrified eyes, the fury from earlier missing. “Shizun, I -”
Shen Qingqiu looks up at him, helpless. If he can’t run away, and lashing out just makes things worse, isn’t it all he has left to just give up?
Luo Binghe looks away from him. Shen Qingqiu can’t see anything from the chest down of him, what with him on the ground and the desk still in between them, but the muscles in Luo Binghe’s arms flex as if he were clenching his fists.
“I suppose that’s enough of an answer,” Luo Binghe says quietly, after enough time has passed that Shen Qingqiu had begun to think that Luo Binghe wouldn’t say anything at all. “Shizun will stay in the side room, if he insists on avoiding the peak lord’s quarters. Such a place was fit for this acting peak lord in the past, too, so surely Shizun won’t complain.”
Shen Qingqiu wonders what exactly has changed in the last ten minutes that Luo Binghe spits out that title so meanly, when earlier at the base of the mountain he’d been so pleased to say it. He doesn’t get to think too hard about it, though, because just then Luo Binghe’s blood parasites surge in activity again, rushing up towards Shen Qingqiu’s head and nearly blinding him with panic and the horrifying sensation of blood moving so erratically. He can only press the base of his palms into his eyes, praying that the sensation would pass, still feeling a bit faint from having hit his head on the desk.
When the blood parasites calm back down, Luo Binghe is gone, and Shen Qingqiu is alone in the bamboo house once more. His head doesn’t hurt anymore, either, with no lingering bumps or bruises anywhere that Shen Qingqiu can feel.
That… wasn’t at all what Shen Qingqiu had been expecting.
They healed me, Shen Qingqiu thinks almost dazedly, the blood parasites healed me.
For the following few days, Shen Qingqiu doesn’t see hide nor hair of Luo Binghe. He sleeps in the side room, grimly accepting that there really isn’t anything he can do against Luo Binghe’s wishes, at this point, but Luo Binghe does not sleep in the main quarters as far as Shen Qingqiu can tell. There’s always breakfast waiting for Shen Qingqiu when he wakes up, too wonderful smelling to have been made by anyone by the protagonist, but Shen Qingqiu doesn’t dare eat it. Instead he only watches it grow cold, studiously ignores the replacement tray that appears around dinner time, and lets the cycle repeat itself the following morning.
On day three of Luo Binghe’s odd vanishing act, Shen Qingqiu tentatively attends his younger disciples’ main lessons. If he can’t stay in the disciples’ dorms as he had planned, he needs to find a different way of gifting them all the parting gifts he’d prepared, and lectures were the only other time he knew exactly where to find each one of them.
It was risky, daring to attend these lectures when Shen Qingqiu had been removed from the peak lord position explicitly to prevent him from teaching his disciples while accusations of misconduct towards these very disciples were still flying around, but he didn’t see any other way around it. This was certainly the better option compared to the dorms; the breakfasts and dinners proved Luo Binghe was watching the bamboo house to some extent, and would know if Shen Qingqiu did or did not return there at the proper times. During the day, though, there was no sign of Luo Binghe, so Shen Qingqiu takes it as his sign to act.
His disciples are, to put it lightly, a bit emotional the first time Shen Qingqiu shows up to their lessons again.
“Shizun!” One of the younger one shouts, already barreling towards him to launch herself at him, arms outstretched and ready to cling.
“You’re okay!” Several other disciples shout, more than one of them looking a bit teary.
Shen Qingqiu hadn’t realized until just then, but ah, his disciples really picked up a lot of Luo Binghe’s sticky habits these past few years, didn’t they?
It’s nice, though, so Shen Qingqiu allows it. He hadn’t thought he’d have a natural excuse to give everyone hugs when he was secretly saying his goodbyes to them all, so Shen Qingqiu will take what he can get.
Classes themselves go… fairly smoothly, surprisingly. Luo Binghe doesn’t suddenly melt out of the shadows to catch Shen Qingqiu, nothing horrible befalls his disciples, and he quietly slips his care packages to every disciple he had one ready for. This actually did cause some amount of concern - it’s hard to give away so many gifts on a peak of strategists without the disciples understanding that Shen Qingqiu intends them as goodbye gifts - but luckily they all seem convinced that it’s only in relation to the upcoming trial. Every other hour he has a disciple come up to him and promise him that Qing Jing would never allow Shen Qingqiu to be proven guilty, or reassure him that even if he were to be convicted they’d trick the Bai Zhan brutes into busting him out of prison.
They’re all very cute about it, really.
The other peak lords of Cang Qiong, predictably, say nothing about Shen Qingqiu teaching his disciples. Shen Qingqiu knows they must all know by now - Liu Qingge and Mu Qingfang combined have visited Qing Jing two dozen times in the last few days, both worrying over how the stress of the situation might be worsening Shen Qingqiu’s condition, and what one peak lord knows they all know. Oh, the power of gossip.
Really, the only surprise is that it takes so many days before Luo Binghe confronts Shen Qingqiu about it.
Shen Qingqiu finally sees Luo Binghe a few days into this new pattern. He catches him silently sneaking into one of the music practice rooms and taking a seat near the back, still dressed in his black and red robes but carrying himself like a Qing Jing disciple. Shen Qingqiu almost doesn’t notice him - he’s made his qi presence small and unassuming, and even pulled over one of the practice qins, as if he really planned on playing along.
Shen Qingqiu shudders at the thought; the Luo Binghe of PIDW had never been shy about simply confronting the people who wronged him, so if Luo Binghe was planning on sneaking in and putting on such a performance just to catch Shen Qingqiu out for breaking his confinement rules, he had to be furious on a level that the original had never even seen.
Shen Qingqiu takes his fingers off his own instrument, glad he hadn’t been actively demonstrating anything for the class at that moment and had only been idly playing around while he watched everyone else practice instead. It would be awkward to call Luo Binghe out in the middle of the disciple’s practice, but it would be far worse if Luo Binghe was allowed to carry out whatever plan he had here, so Shen Qingqiu steels himself for the upcoming confrontation, noting the nearest exits as he does so.
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu calls, and Luo Binghe freezes where he was getting settled in the back of the room. “You can put that away.”
Around them, the other disciples quiet down. Most of them look torn between turning to look at Luo Binghe and watching Shen Qingqiu at the front of the class instead.
“Am I not to touch the practice qins?” Luo Binghe asks stiffly.
Shen Qingqiu delicately sets his own qin aside. No touching, no touching, fine! “Acting Peak Lord Luo has made his point. I’ll stop the lesson.”
Luo Binghe looks quietly furious. Shen Qingqiu sweats; he’s hoping that by fessing up and saying he’d stop teaching immediately, that fury would only be directed at him, and he could pull Luo Binghe from the room before he could lash out at the other disciples. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t have been able to defend them against the protagonist even before Without-A-Cure spread, and now…
“I could order you to keep teaching,” Luo Binghe says. “If Shizun is so intent on using that title with me in such a mean way, I could force you to teach me.”
For what?? Just to drive the point home that Shen Qingqiu had been caught in the act?!
“I wouldn’t dare,” Shen Qingqiu replies carefully. “Even under Acting Peak Lord Luo’s orders.”
“Of course not,” Luo Binghe sneers. His eyes are cast down at his own hands, or maybe at the qin under them. Had Shen Qingqiu had all the qins serviced recently enough? Had Luo Binghe picked up an old or dirty or ill-serviced qin, and was currently thinking about how poor of a teacher Shen Qingqiu is? “Shizun sits at the head of the class but says he wouldn’t dare teach me.”
Ah. That was a yes, then. Which is fine! Shen Qingqiu already knew Luo Binghe thought he was a lousy teacher! Who wouldn’t, after they’d been betrayed and stabbed and pushed into hell and never given a proper welcome after they survived -
Shen Qingqiu cuts that stream of thought off forcefully. He watches Luo Binghe warily for a moment more before finally sighing and he reaches for his cane to slowly push himself up off the ground to stand. He feels the entire class’ eyes on him as he moves, Luo Binghe’s eyes burning the hottest, and once more Shen Qingqiu feels that familiar jolt of shame for being such a pitiful villain he can’t even look cool in his final days.
He makes it to his feet eventually, though, and then he turns to leave. Luo Binghe made his point quite clear: this behavior was too bold. Shen Qingqiu can only retreat.
Fine! He’d already given out all his going away gifts anyway! He didn’t actually need to be in those classes anymore, savoring the feeling of being a teacher, watching his students learn and grow and knowing he’d never be able to see them again, regardless of if he’s able to save himself by jumping into his plant body backup -
Shen Qingqiu’s grip goes tight over his cane. He hasn’t walked too far away from the music room, and he can hear the disciples inside murmuring uneasily. Wondering if they’re allowed to skip the rest of their practice time, now, probably. Shen Qingqiu sighs, forcing himself to continue moving away. If Luo Binghe wants to chase him down now and enact whatever punishment is fitting for breaking the ‘no teaching’ rule, it would be best for it to happen away from the classrooms.
Luo Binghe doesn’t come after him, though. Instead, Shen Qingqiu just spends a long time standing in the bamboo forests of Qing Jing, waiting. It’s so peaceful here that Shen Qingqiu can almost forget that Luo Binghe is on the mountain with them all.
Eventually, he stops waiting, but he doesn’t feel as if he can return to the bamboo house yet, either. He finds himself standing just outside the clearing where the sword mound for Luo Binghe’s Zheng Yang rests, instead, one hand fisted in his robes and the other clenched tight around the handle of his cane. He wonders if Luo Binghe has found the sword mound yet.
Probably not, Shen Qingqiu thinks, but that’s fine. Xin Mo didn’t seem to be too bad, really - well, okay, Luo Binghe is certainly a bit more prone to sudden negative mood swings, now, it seems - but that’s - well it’s not great, but it’s better than in canon! Luo Binghe seems to be handling the cursed blade just fine, even with its drawbacks, so it’s probably totally normal that he has no need to find out what happened to his old Zheng Yang blade.
Still, Shen Qingqiu spends a long, long time, staring at the sword mound. He hopes that Luo Binghe at least knows it’s there, even if he won’t ever need it.
Shen Qingqiu returns to the bamboo house when the sky is dark enough that lanterns have been lit and dinner has likely passed him by. Luo Binghe is waiting for him at the table, set for two this time. Neither plate has been eaten from.
“Shizun is back late tonight,” Luo Binghe says, voice dark. Shen Qingqiu looks away. “Fine. Will you eat tonight?”
“I’m not hungry.” He feels a bit sick, honestly. Luo Binghe’s expression is bad enough that Shen Qingqiu wanted so badly to return to the sword mound and fetch Zheng Yang and throw that miserable cursed blade Xin Mo off his mountain, it -
“Fine,” Luo Binghe snarls, standing up so suddenly that it startles Shen Qingqiu. “If Shizun wants to treat this disciple like he’s really Shizun’s prison guard, I’ll play along.”
Luo Binghe advances towards Shen Qingqiu quickly, and Shen Qingqiu takes a subconscious half-step back.
“There’s no need for that,” he says, voice carefully measured. So much of his interactions with Luo Binghe have felt like that, since they reunited - careful, careful. “Luo Binghe made his point. I won’t cause trouble from here.”
“It’s too late for that, Shizun,” Luo Binghe replies, voice low. “Letting Shizun do as he wishes without someone watching has already caused too many problems.”
“Nothing has -”
“Shizun had best watch his words, here. You may have returned late, but it is not so late that this Luo Binghe has forgotten Shizun’s words in the music room.”
“The disciples needed to be taught,” Shen Qingqiu defends, and Luo Binghe exhales harshly.
“The disciples,” Luo Binghe repeats, voice tight. “Shizun cares so much for his disciples, but he still abandons them the moment this Luo Binghe arrives.”
Shen Qingqiu flinches. He really doesn’t like to think about ‘abandon’ and ‘disciple’ in the same sentence.
When Shen Qingqiu remains silent, Luo Binghe clenches his fists at his sides. “Shizun shouldn’t worry about what the disciples need to be taught - I’m sure Shizun has already taught them plenty,” Luo Binghe growls. “Everyone in Cang Qiong has already learned so well to hate me, after all.”
Ah. Shen Qingqiu should have assumed Luo Binghe would bring it up eventually, that odd way the other Qing Jing disciples were treating him. Shen Qingqiu wonders if their reception would have been warmer if Luo Binghe hadn’t been found with the Huan Hua delegation, or if they’d always have been so furious with Luo Binghe for ‘dying’ and leaving Qing Jing to care for their weakened teacher in the aftermath.
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t have anything to say about it, though - not to Luo Binghe.
“I’m tired,” he says instead, because evasion has always been Shen Qingqiu’s best friend, thank you very much, “Pardon me for retiring first.”
When Shen Qingqiu moves towards the side room, though, Luo Binghe moves to stand in his way. “Shizun should learn to listen better,” he sneers. “Shizun is going to be treated like the prisoner he wishes to be, starting now.”
“This prisoner will retire first, then,” Shen Qingqiu grits out.
“No. We’ll retire together, where I can watch you.” Shen Qingqiu startles, but Luo Binghe only grins meanly. “This disciple knows Shizun far too well, by now. If I let you out of my sight, you’ll run away again.”
An accurate but extremely unfair assessment, Shen Qingqiu thinks, as Luo Binghe reaches out to manhandle Shen Qingqiu in the direction of the main bedroom. He feels extremely sour at the idea of being made to sleep on the floor, but he can’t voice those protests - he already hates how much attention Luo Binghe gives to Shen Qingqiu’s stiff joints and need for a cane, he doesn’t want to give him any other ammunition.
“We already agreed that it was inappropriate for me to sleep in the peak lord’s accommodations,” Shen Qingqiu complains instead, and Luo Binghe’s grip tightens on his arm.
“Shizun should not put words in my mouth; that was something Shizun had agreed to by himself.” Luo Binghe’s walking just slightly too fast for Shen Qingqiu to comfortably keep up, and Shen Qingqiu stumbles a bit as they enter the bedroom. “But if it makes him feel better, Shizun can think of it as his prison cell.”
Luo Binghe approaches the bed quickly and tugs Shen Qingqiu forward forcefully so he would fall down onto it, grabbing Shen Qingqiu’s walking cane from him as he falls and throwing it across the room. Shen Qingqiu’s face contorts in annoyance; that was a dirty way to prevent Shen Qingqiu from trying to get up to leave.
Then, the fact that he was on the bed at all hit Shen Qingqiu, and he struggled to sit up. He’d been sour about having to sleep on the floor, but that was better than forcing the protagonist to sleep there, or - System help him - sharing a bed with him!
“Wait, Luo Binghe -”
“No,” Luo Binghe interrupts, getting up onto the bed from the other side. He brings one hand up to grip onto Shen Qingqiu’s waist, pressing him down into the bed. “You will stay.”
Shen Qingqiu blanches and squeezes his eyes shut. He had rolled onto the bed in a way that put him directly facing Luo Binghe now, and he didn’t dare move away with Luo Binghe’s hand pressing hot into his side. Instead, he falls silent and still, hyper-aware of Luo Binghe so close to him.
What the fuck is going on, Shen Qingqiu thinks, borderline hysterical.
When it becomes apparent that Luo Binghe is planning on keeping that pressure on Shen Qingqiu’s waist, Shen Qingqiu resigns himself to pretending to sleep - not actual sleep, his IQ isn’t low enough to fall asleep next to a protagonist with dream powers, thank you - in the hopes that Luo Binghe will leave when he thinks Shen Qingqiu can’t run away.
Instead, after Shen Qingqiu has been carefully counting his breaths and keeping as still as possible for long enough it might seem even remotely believable that he was asleep, Luo Binghe sets off the blood parasites he has in Shen Qingqiu’s blood.
It takes everything in Shen Qingqiu not to tense or pull away, knowing that he’d only make things worse if he gets caught trying to feign sleep now. The last few times the parasites had been active, they hadn’t really hurt him, so this is probably just a test to see if Shen Qingqiu is truly asleep or not, so -
Shen Qingqiu feels his limbs move without his say-so. The blood parasites are puppeting him, moving him to -
- to hug Luo Binghe??
Shen Qingqiu is massively, massively confused, and not insignificantly terrified. What did this mean? Was this some sort of setup, to prove that Shen Qingqiu was a predator, feeling up his students??
No one suddenly comes bursting in the front door to witness them, though. Luo Binghe holds Shen Qingqiu’s limbs like that for long seconds that stretch out into minutes, and nothing else happens.
They just lie there, holding each other.
After Shen Qingqiu has started to lose count of the time that has passed, Luo Binghe leans in closer to Shen Qingqiu, close enough his breath fans out against Shen Qingqiu’s neck. Shen Qingqiu feels a bolt of heat run through him at the sensation, and then another, more mild one caused by the shame of it. Really, to be held in place by his captor and future murderer, and to be thinking of how well he’s grown up instead of how easily Luo Binghe could maim him right then?? Shen Qingqiu is a disgrace to villains everywhere, honestly -
Luo Binghe’s breath hitches, and Shen Qingqiu’s thoughts are jolted back into the present. The breath that’s falling on Shen Qingqiu’s neck is coming more erratically, but Shen Qingqiu almost doesn’t believe what’s happening until he feels the robes there grow slightly damp.
Luo Binghe is crying.
Shen Qingqiu almost instinctively pulls back to look at him, but forces himself to stay still. He doesn’t understand at all what triggered this, or why Luo Binghe would want Shen Qingqiu of all people to be the one he cries to. Protagonist, Ning Yingying is just on the other side of the peak! What are you doing in bed with this old man giving him heart attacks when you could go cry to her, ah?!
Except… Ning Yingying hadn’t exactly been thrilled to see Luo Binghe, when they’d first arrived on Qing Jing. She’d certainly been more welcoming than the rest of Qing Jing, but she still looked at him with a distant expression that Shen Qingqiu recognized from when his disciples would come to pull him away from Luo Binghe’s sword mound, in the three years of his absence. Luo Binghe himself had brought up his cold reception not even an hour ago, furious at the thought of Shen Qingqiu teaching Qing Jing to hate him.
Luo Binghe really doesn’t have anyone else he can cry to, right now. All he has is the teacher who betrayed and abandoned him, forced into it in a shallow display of affection by means of his demonic blood parasites.
Those same demonic blood parasites are still active within Shen Qingqiu, not quite holding him in place, just… moving. Looking for something, almost. The past few times Luo Binghe has done this, Shen Qingqiu had been too terrified to really think about it, but now… it feels most similar to when the blood parasites had surged after Shen Qingqiu had hit his head, he thinks. Like they’re looking for something to heal.
Hadn’t Luo Binghe activated the blood parasites whenever he’d been reminded of how Without-A-Cure was affecting Shen Qingqiu so strongly?
Hadn’t Luo Binghe always said, for years and years as a junior disciple, that he’d find a way to heal Shen Qingqiu of that poison?
Oh, Shen Qingqiu thinks, Oh Binghe, don’t give me this sort of hope.
Shen Qingqiu swallows thickly. If Shen Qingqiu has been wrong this whole time, if this Luo Binghe isn’t really the one Shen Qingqiu has been terrified of for years, then he’s wronged him in ways Shen Qingqiu isn’t sure he’ll ever forgive himself for. Luo Binghe is still crying into his shoulder, and Shen Qingqiu wants to - he wants -
Slowly, Shen Qingqiu’s fingers curl a bit tighter in Luo Binghe’s robes, and he isn’t sure if it’s him or Luo Binghe that controls the action.
When he eventually falls asleep, emotionally exhausted from the day, he doesn’t dream.
Luo Binghe is gone when Shen Qingqiu wakes up, but his cane has been moved to be waiting for him at the edge of the bed, and breakfast is waiting for him as usual. It’s the same congee that Shen Qingqiu has eaten a hundred times in this life, that he praised Luo Binghe to the moon and back for, that had somewhere along the line become a comfort food for Shen Qingqiu as much as it was for Luo Binghe.
Shen Qingqiu eats it, this time. He already has Luo Binghe’s blood parasites in him, doesn’t he? A few more wouldn’t hurt, if Luo Binghe had really spiked the food with them.
After breakfast, Shen Qingqiu hobbles outside to the clearing with Luo Binghe’s sword mound, stopping to stand in the same place he’d been in the previous night, after he’d left the music classroom. He stands there for a long moment before moving closer, reaching down to touch the reforged Zheng Yang. It sings under his touch, but no differently than it has for the past three years.
If Luo Binghe has found the sword mound, he has not touched it.
Shen Qingqiu takes a steadying breath and then walks back out of the clearing and towards the classrooms. He enters the one where the junior disciples have gathered to wait for him, begins teaching, and waits.
It doesn’t take long for Luo Binghe to show up this time, though he doesn’t come in. He hovers just outside the classroom, instead, his presence contained to be small like it had been the previous day.
Shen Qingqiu had been forced to rethink some things, when he’d been held down and forced to hold Luo Binghe in turn and to listen to him cry.
The previous day, Luo Binghe had never said Shen Qingqiu shouldn’t have been teaching. In fact, he’d never said anything contradictory to Shen Qingqiu at all until Shen Qingqiu himself had started it. Luo Binghe had been so clearly frustrated, but he’d said he’d be the prison-guard that Shen Qinqgiu wanted him to be, not the one he wanted to be himself.
And okay, listen - Shen Qingqiu isn’t a complete idiot, despite all evidence to the contrary. In the context of Luo Binghe’s character arc, Shen Qingqiu had acted exactly as he should have, and treated Luo Binghe exactly as what made sense!
But if Shen Qingqiu took even a second to think about this Luo Binghe as his own character, one separate from the plot of PIDW, other things start to make sense. Luo Binghe’s obvious delight when he’d first been brought back to Qing Jing after learning he was still officially its head disciple, for one. His frankly astonishing respect for Shen Qingqiu’s privacy in his own dreams and the bamboo house for another. His tears, and his wish to be held by Shen Qingqiu even once more.
It occurs to Shen Qingqiu, perhaps a bit belatedly, that characters changing from the source material is actually pretty par for the course in transmigration stories, and that maybe Shen Qingqiu should have given perhaps just the slightest bit of thought to this in the past. Maybe.
Shen Qingqiu keeps one eye out the door to the classroom throughout the lesson, watching Luo Binghe hover outside the doorway in a way that he probably thought kept him hidden. He doesn’t look angry, or bloodthirsty, or out for revenge. Perhaps a bit creepy, what with the whole watching-from-the-doorway-silently thing, but so would anyone, really, so that one wasn’t totally his fault.
During the break between lessons, Shen Qingqiu steps out of the room with the rest of the disciples as they leave for self-study, or for whatever shenanigans they’ll be doing in place of self-study. He has a solid few minutes before the older junior disciples will start filtering in to listen to Shen Qingqiu lecture, and Luo Binghe doesn’t seem to have any intention of leaving.
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu calls out after having approached halfway, and Luo Binghe stiffens, but steps out from where he was lingering in a shadow by the doorway. “Is there something you need from Qing Jing’s junior disciple lessons?”
“...Shizun shouldn’t be here.” Luo Binghe says instead of answering properly. He glances at the disciples still lingering in the area as he does so, expression sour. A day ago, Shen Qingqiu would have interpreted that expression as that of someone adding a few dozen Qing Jing disciples to the list of ‘traitors’ or whatever to be taken down when Shen Qingqiu is proven guilty at the trial.
Now, Shen Qingqiu finds himself wondering if Luo Binghe’s blackening has changed his expressions all that much, because if it hasn’t - if he hasn’t become the perfect actor and charismatic emperor - that expression looks quite a bit like the jealousy Luo Binghe used to wear as a little white sheep when Shen Qingqiu spent too much time praising someone that wasn’t him.
“Does Luo Binghe intend to do something about it, then? The fact that I’m teaching, despite not being allowed to, at the moment.”
Luo Binghe’s gaze flicks down to the ground. “It’s what Shizun expects me to do, after all. It would be remiss to let Shizun down.”
Shen Qingqiu idly flicks his fan open in front of his face, watching Luo Binghe carefully. His pulse still jumps every time Luo Binghe calls him ‘Shizun,’ (which is a completely valid response, thank you!) but he forces himself not to run off completely, this time.
This is what he wanted to figure out, after all.
Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. “Luo Binghe still calls this one Shizun, and himself a disciple of Qing Jing.”
Luo Binghe bristles instantly, eyes going red as his eyes snap up from the ground to Shen Qingqiu. “Shizun can’t dare take it back now, after leaving this Luo Binghe as the head disciple for so many years -”
“Luo Binghe still calls himself a disciple of Qing Jing,” Shen Qingqiu repeats, interrupting Luo Binghe. “So I’ll ask again: do you intend to do anything about me teaching?”
Luo Binghe goes silent, and Shen Qingqiu holds his breath as he waits for his answer. Talking so boldly to the protagonist, even after last night’s odd hug and silent tears, even after Luo Binghe had shown clear signs that he wanted Shen Qingqiu alive and present until the trial at the very least, still makes Shen Qingqiu’s stomach churn.
He has to know, though. He’d erected that sword mound for a disciple he thought he’d lost, one that was teary and clingy and cared for Shen Qingqiu and grew spoiled and jealous around the other disciples. One that seemed an awful lot like the Luo Binghe that had followed them back to Cang Qiong as Qing Jing’s acting peak lord, even if Shen Qingqiu could barely believe it.
If Shen Qingqiu had never really lost that Luo Binghe, the question he is asking will be clear. If he has, and this all just turns out to be some elaborate plan that Shen Qingqiu’s fallen for…
Well. At least Shen Qingqiu could plan on tormenting Shang Qinghua in the afterlife.
“As a Qing Jing disciple,” Luo Binghe says carefully. “This Luo Binghe is very familiar with the teaching curriculum, and the hall masters and senior mentors who lecture and monitor self-study. Shizun may have been temporarily asked to pause his peak lord responsibilities, but you do not have to be a peak lord to teach on Qing Jing.”
Shen Qingqiu feels a rush of relief. That had been a textbook perfect example of the absolute little shit Luo Binghe could be, before the conference. He’d always been so good at using these sorts of loopholes to get exactly what he wanted; Shen Qingqiu had always thought it was evidence that Luo Binghe really was meant for Qing Jing, no matter how well his spiritual root fit Bai Zhan better.
This Luo Binghe is still his, after all - at least some part of him still belongs here on Qing Jing.
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu starts, and then stops almost immediately. This Luo Binghe is still some part his, he’d just decided, and he’d never called his Luo Binghe so distantly.
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu tries again, and Luo Binghe’s expression shutters. Shen Qingqiu hopes to fuck that that’s a good sign and not a ‘you’ve misread the situation and now I’ll kill you for your insolence’ sign. “The next class isn’t full - there should be a free seat in the front. Come join us.”
Shen Qingqiu hesitates, then adds, “Qing Jing’s head disciple shouldn’t be skipping lessons, even if he’s acting as the temporary peak lord.”
Luo Binghe stares at Shen Qingqiu with wide, uncomprehending eyes for a long moment. Then, slowly, he nods. His eyes look a bit too shiny not to be wet. Shen Qingqiu pretends not to notice, as much for his own sake as Luo Binghe’s. Shen Qingqiu had hit the limit on his emotional processing capabilities ages ago.
Instead, Shen Qingqiu simply turns on his heel and heads back inside the classroom, listening to Luo Binghe quietly follow him inside. A few of the disciples who’d be participating in this lecture have already begun to arrive, and very clearly look put off when Luo Binghe joins them, but Shen Qingqiu is very good at pretending like everything is Completely Normal, so in the end class starts without issue.
This sense of normalcy lasts for about five minutes into the lecture, when Shen Qingqiu realizes that Luo Binghe is by no means a junior disciple anymore.
It’s not like Shen Qingqiu hadn’t known, okay! Of course Luo Binghe, as smart as he is, wouldn’t have simply let his mind and cultivation stay stagnant over the past three years! But that had just - so not been the priority, when Shen Qingqiu had invited Luo Binghe to join them. What the hell was he supposed to say, ‘Qing Jing disciples should all attend class, so go talk to a hallmaster about where you’d best fit right now because it’s certainly not here’? Shen Qingqiu may occasionally be a bit dense, but even he knows that would’ve killed the emotional mood!
Luo Binghe at least doesn’t seem unhappy to sit through a lesson of things he already knows, or insulted by it in any way. He even answers one of Shen Qingqiu’s prompting class questions with an intensity that honestly sort of spooks Shen Qingqiu. Unfortunately, the answer he gives…
Luo Binghe, ah, hadn’t you been jealous that the other disciples were being taught by this Shen Qingqiu while you weren’t? Why is it that you answer these questions with such detail and talent as if you want to be the one teaching, ah?!
Still, Shen Qingqiu doesn’t have the heart to cut him off, or even to find some arbitrary thing to correct him on so Shen Qingqiu still felt like the teacher here. This Luo Binghe is his - his! - and his Luo Binghe has always been a bit of a teacher’s pet, so Shen Qingqiu can picture his teary-eyed look now if he dared to stop him from participating. Shen Qingqiu can barely keep the fond smile off his face as he thinks about it.
(It’s not just fondness, Shen Qingqiu can maybe admit to himself. It’s relief, so strong he can feel it in his bones, in every breath he takes that feels lighter than the ones he took yesterday. It’s the tentative thought that he doesn’t have to grieve anymore, for his lost disciple or for his future horrible ending. This Luo Binghe is his, which means no matter anything else - no matter the trial, or Shen Qingqiu’s lingering instinctive fear of red eyes and demonic sigils and charismatic smirks, or Luo Binghe’s quiet breakdown from last night - somehow, it’ll work out.)
Shen Qingqiu does make a mental note to find some quiet way to apologize to his other disciples later, though, for the partial derailment of their lecture. Some extra treats, maybe, or some additional allowance for their trips down the mountain. Shen Qingqiu could probably bully Shang Qinghua into giving him the funds for that.
When the lecture ends, Shen Qingqiu gestures for Luo Binghe to stay sitting where he is as the other disciples file out of the room. After the last one has left, Shen Qingqiu kneels down in front of Luo Binghe.
Luo Binghe sits up a bit straighter. “This disciple thanks Shizun for the lesson,” he says, and Shen Qingqiu nods.
“Binghe hardly needed it,” Shen Qingqiu says wryly, and Luo Binghe’s shoulders tense a bit. Shen Qingqiu goes still on instinct watching him - shit, fuck, he upset the protagonist - but after a moment he forces himself to relax again. This is his Binghe, not the protagonist, he has to remember.
“Shizun doesn’t think Luo Binghe belongs here, anymore?” Luo Binghe asks stiffly, and Shen Qingqiu is suddenly very much not a fan of Luo Binghe referring to himself as such, after he just got a taste of the return of ‘this disciple’ just moments ago.
Shen Qingqiu sighs, slowly reaching out to pat at Luo Binghe’s head, just once. He’s really missed that.
“Of course you don’t,” Shen Qingqiu says, and Luo Binghe’s shoulders hunch up to his ears. “You belong in a far more advanced class, now, not here with the junior disciples.”
Luo Binghe blinks. “Shizun…?”
“What did you expect, parading around how great you are these days but then trying to sit in on a junior disciple’s class, ah? You barely fit in these lessons even before the - three years ago.”
“Shizun, you - you mean this disciple can still be taught by Shizun?” Luo Binghe sounds almost desperate, and Shen Qingqiu mentally apologizes in advance for the answer he has to give him.
“Not by me, no.” Shen Qingqiu quickly holds up a hand before Luo Binghe can protest. “Binghe already knows that I busy myself with the junior disciples because of how vital it is that they’re taught by a general master at their beginning stages. All the senior disciples complete advanced study under the guidance of a specialized mentor, which Binghe also knows this master is not.”
“Shizun is,” Luo Binghe refutes, voice far more firm now even though his eyes still look a bit watery. “I’ll specialize in being Shizun’s head disciple, and then Shizun can still teach me.”
Shen Qingqiu lets out an inelegant snort. He’s still not quite over the thrill of knowing that this is his Binghe, and that was - well, it was very in character, for his Binghe.
“Binghe could probably teach me about what being head disciple entails better than I could teach him,” Shen Qingqiu grouses, and Luo Binghe flushes pink, even as his brows come together in a pouty frown. “Wasn’t it one of Binghe’s dreams as a junior disciple to grow up quickly? Now that you have, what’s wrong, ah?”
“I changed my mind,” Luo Binghe replies petulantly, “It’s much better to be young enough that Shizun is still my teacher.”
“Well, no going back now,” Shen Qingqiu tuts, patting reassuringly at Luo Binghe’s shoulder. “What about Huan Hua’s specialties?”
Luo Binghe stiffens again. “I’m still a Qing Jing -”
“- A Qing Jing Peak disciple, yes, yes, I know,” Shen Qingqiu interrupts, and feels thrilled for the feeling of knowing he can interrupt and tease and advise this disciple and not worry about his imminent demise. “But Binghe surely had a reason for going to them before? Even if you were just planning on stealing their techniques or gaining power and allies with them, there must have been a reason Binghe chose Huan Hua over Tian Yi Overlook?”
“I don’t like Huan Hua,” Luo Binghe sniffs imperiously, and Shen Qingqiu huffs out a breath of laughter.
This foolish disciple of his, ah! What sort of reason is that for starting your ‘take-over-the-human-realm’ campaign at one particular sect over another! Shen Qingqiu reaches up with the hand he still had resting on Luo Binghe’s shoulder to pinch at his cheek scoldingly. It’s not quite as soft as it had been three years ago, but still very satisfying to pinch and poke at, Shen Qingqiu decides.
Luo Binghe makes a face, but eventually grumbles out, “...They had decent enough arrays, I suppose. I thought Shizun might make use of them, if he got the chance to see.”
“There we go, then,” Shen Qingqiu smiles, releasing Luo Binghe’s cheek. “Why don’t you teach me about them, then, hm? After you’ve studied them properly as a senior disciple of Qing Jing, this master would be happy to make use of anything Binghe brings to him. I’m sure we can convince one of Cang Qiong’s array masters to be your advisor, too.”
Well, more like Shen Qingqiu would convince Yue Qingyuan to convince a Cang Qiong array master to be Luo Binghe’s advisor, but, ah! Details!
Luo Binghe sighs dramatically. “This lowly disciple still doesn’t understand why Shizun can’t be the array master to teach me, but if it’s what Shizun wishes…”
“If it’s what Binghe wishes,” Shen Qingqiu corrects. “It doesn’t have to be arrays. You have time to think about it, to find what you like best.”
“I like Shizun best,” Luo Binghe grumbles, and Shen Qingqiu smiles at him. It’s the first smile in ages that feels so light.
“That’s good,” he says quietly, “I like Binghe a lot, too.”
And then - Listen, Shen Qingqiu has had a lot of very strong emotions, in the past few days (in the past few hours) , in ways that were all terrifying and exhausting and incredible. He’d had to sort of start running on auto-pilot for ‘new emotion processing’ because he just - he couldn’t really handle actually thinking about it all at once, not when he had his Binghe back and suddenly wasn’t really going to die anytime soon.
This is all to say, Shen Qingqiu has very good reasons for not thinking all his actions through, right then. His plan was to think everything through later, during a two hour long bath, in maybe two weeks.
For now, head completely empty of anything but ‘ah, last night when he was crying, I wanted to do this,’ Shen Qingqiu leans forward to plant a kiss to Luo Binghe’s forehead, right where his demonic sigil would be if it wasn’t hidden. He draws back immediately, flicking open his fan and raising it high up over his face, peering out over it. His breakdown bathtime will probably have to be three hours, now, given he’ll have to process this, too.
Luo Binghe stares back at him with wide, disbelieving eyes before his expression melts into one of pure delight.
Shen Qingqiu clears his throat, looking away. “On a related note,” Shen Qingqiu says, as if his face isn’t pink and Luo Binghe isn’t dying to talk about whatever that had been, “This master needs to get to the next class.”
“Shizun, you can’t run away now!” Luo Binghe crows, and even though he’d said that very thing a few days ago, the effect is very different now. Now, Shen Qingqiu only flushes further.
“I’m already going!” Shen Qingqiu claims, though he’s barely moved. It’s so much work to stand up from sitting these days with how stiff Without-A-Cure makes him, and sitting on the ground with Luo Binghe seems much more appealing. “I’m really going!”
Luo Binghe laughs softly, and then, to Shen Qingqiu’s surprise, moves to carefully help Shen Qingqiu stand up. “Of course, Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu huffs. Foolish. If Luo Binghe had just continued sitting there, Shen Qingqiu would have, too!
Luo Binghe bends down to retrieve Shen Qingqiu’s cane, turning it over carefully in his hands. He looks at it for a moment with a complicated expression, and Shen Qingqiu sighs, reaching out to take it from him.
Luo Binghe pulls away, grinning down at Shen Qingqiu. “Shizun should thank this disciple before leaving, shouldn’t he?”
Shen Qingqiu squints up at Luo Binghe suspiciously. Luo Binghe, having clearly let his head grow about three sizes too large in the last thirty seconds, closes his eyes and puckers up his lips.
Shen Qingqiu almost bursts out laughing. Protagonist, what is this, ah?! Why do you look so silly, where is the seduction, the romance?? Why do you look like a cartoon maiden waiting for her first kiss?!
Shen Qingqiu does laugh, a little, but only briefly. Then, after a moment, he reaches out to tug at Luo Binghe’s robes to pull him down. Luo Binghe goes down willingly, and then -
Shen Qingqiu pulls him down further than Luo Binghe had probably planned, and plants a second kiss to his forehead. It’s a good kissing location. Shen Qingqiu is going to be so upset with himself when he has the time and space to process all this.
Luo Binghe squints open his eyes at Shen Qingqiu and positively whines. “Shizun!”
“What?” Shen Qingqiu asks innocently, taking his cane from Luo Binghe’s hands while he’s distracted. “Was that not the thanks Binghe was asking for?”
Shen Qingqiu tuts at him. “Binghe claims he wants to remain this master’s junior disciple in one breath but asks to be treated as an adult in the next, ah, what can I possibly do in this situation, hm?”
“I was wrong, Shizun, please!” Luo Binghe leans forward into Shen Qingqiu’s space, but Shen Qingqiu only flicks open his fan between them.
“I think Binghe had best make up his mind one way or the other, and tell this master later tonight, hm?” Luo Binghe gets a very particular glint in his eye, and Shen Qingqiu scowls, swatting Luo Binghe over the head with his fan. “You’re not that grown up yet, Binghe, don’t get any funny ideas.”
“Shizun is so cruel to this Binghe,” Luo Binghe laments, but obediently puts away the expression he’d been wearing a moment ago. “And after this Binghe told Shizun he was his favorite, too!”
“Truly,” Shen Qingqiu intones, and then they both break out into grins at each other, albeit more subtly in Shen Qingqiu’s case. “I’ll see you tonight, Binghe.”
“Mm. Should I handle the correspondence Qing Jing has received the past few days, in the meantime?”
“Well, you are Qing Jing’s acting peak lord,” Shen Qingqiu teases, and Luo Binghe flushes.
“Shizun knows that I didn’t really mean for - “ Luo Binghe breaks off, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. Shen Qingqiu feels his expression soften.
“I know,” Shen Qingqiu reassures him. It took him a while to get there, but he made it eventually. “Just like I know that Ning Yingying probably won’t let you forget about this for years.”
Luo Binghe squawks in indignation, but Shen Qingqiu has already turned to start hobbling away to his next class. He’s already horribly late, after all, so there’s really nothing he can do about soothing those feathers he’d ruffled with his teasing, truly!!
(Shen Qingqiu still grins to himself about it, though.
His disciples don’t ask why he was late.)