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High Mountain, How I Long

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Shen Qingqiu had always done his best for his disciples.

Always, he tempered the harsh words of his predecessor with a gentle hand, or a healing stream of qi, or guidance towards improvement. By nature, he’s always been exacting and opinionated, and he’s prone to fits of anxiety, and maybe those traits don’t make him the best of teachers… But he’d done his best anyway. He’d made a real effort, beyond any he’d ever made in his previous life, to do right by those given into his care.

So it hurt more than he’d expected, when his trial “revealed” among his other crimes the prolonged and consistent abuse of his younger disciples.

He’d never.

The charge was forwarded by Luo Binghe.

Ming Fan and Ning Yingying had offered up vigorous and tearful arguments in their Shizun’s defense, respectively.

Ming Fan, old for his years and wise to the ways of failure, had known the trial was a lost cause from the start. He’d stood and spoken anyway, all clenched fists and bitten off words in the face of a powerful shidi who had, to his mind, taken all his Shizun’s love and care and favor and then betrayed it. It made Shen Qingqiu’s heart ache to watch this young man, once destined for a petty life and an even pettier death, conduct himself with such dignity.

Ning Yingying would have grown into a caring young woman even without Shen Qingqiu’s influence, but the shrinking Ning Yingying in <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> had never once stood up to her A-Luo. This Ning Yingying did, wailing noisome and sincere, “How could you, A-Luo, say such lies about our Shizun?”

They’d both grown so well. Shen Qingqiu hadn’t been a terrible teacher to all his disciples, at least.

The Huan Hua Palace Master had argued for Shen Qingqiu’s execution. Yue Qingyuan had threatened a sect war. Liu Qingge nearly provoked it.

And then Luo Binghe had stepped forward and offered a compromise.

Weeks later, Shen Qingqiu, after enduring his trial, is placed into Luo Binghe’s custody at Huan Hua Palace.

It’s raining over the palace courtyard, and Shen Qingqiu poses artfully beneath a waxed-and-oiled paper umbrella with as much mournful hauteur as he can manage. He is nothing if not adept at maintaining appearances, and in this moment – perched gracefully on the rain-swept stones, with the imperious tilt of his chin softened by moody skies and morning mist curling out of the fish ponds – Shen Qingqiu is the very picture of a proud and tragic exile.

‘Tragic’ is the goal, of course, when Luo Binghe is watching.

And Luo Binghe is watching.

Shen Qingqiu can tell, even with his qi bound to a truly shameful state. Luo Binghe’s gaze feels like a shiver up the back of Shen Qingqiu’s neck, as though someone hovered their fingers just above the fine hairs there, on the cusp of touching but not doing so yet.

What does he see, Shen Qingqiu wonders?

He is no longer permitted to wear the pale spring green of his Qing Jing Peak. The dressing room within his well-appointed suite contains many fine sets of clothing, and only one that resembles the uniform he’s accustomed to. It’s in a skimming cut that makes Shen Qingqiu seem… diminished. Shen Qingqiu wears it anyway, most days, over and over again, like an anxious habit.

He must ask permission to read cultivation manuals. He’s incapable of making the smallest of purchases. Even the lowest disciple of Huan Hua Palace stares and whispers in shameless disrespect to the disgraced former Peak Lord. His reputation is ruined. He is stripped of all titles. His qi is largely bound.

It’s a pitiable and tragic existence.

Luo Binghe is still watching.

Shen Qingqiu is far less scummy than his predecessor. Surely, he could skip the torture and dismemberment, and end his character arc as a disgraced prisoner instead? Surely, Luo Binghe could be content with his misery, with Shen Qingqiu merely ending his days in despair and captivity?

Surely, to survive, Shen Qingqiu just has to look miserable enough?

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t turn when Luo Binghe finally stops lurking and carefully steps into his field of view. He takes in with a glance Luo Binghe’s clean and bright face, the carefully arranged hair, the fine fabric and tasteful simplicity of his disciple’s somber attire. Luo Binghe’s daily appearance was a carefully tailored message. Look at what I have become, what I have done with what you taught me! Look at how far I have risen from the child I once was!

“...Good morning, Shizun.”

Good morning, Shizun!

Shen Qingqiu’s heart twinges with fond memory for only a moment before he suppresses the sentiment. He can’t afford to let his fond memories of that sticky lotus child cloud his thoughts. He killed that child. Shen Qingqiu had taken that trusting, naive, adorable sheep of a young man, raised him with his own two hands, and then had ruthlessly stabbed him near the heart. Shen Qingqiu had cut into him and then thrown him into a pit, into years of pain and struggle, all to save his own hide –

This Luo Binghe is no longer his white lotus of Qing Jing Peak. This is a different Luo Binghe entirely. This Luo Binghe is the blackened protagonist of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way,>> the Luo Binghe who, in his novel, tortured the scum villain Shen Qingqiu to death in the Huan Hua Palace’s Water Prison.

…But things in the current timeline were drastically changed! All but one of his three crimes were false, and he was entirely ignorant of the full story behind Qiu Haitang. Surely, Binghe’s betrayal isn’t sufficient cause to dismember a man?

Surely.

“...Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu feels a wretched twist of fear in his chest, a high-pitched panic gibbering in his head a disgusting refrain, he’s going to gouge out your eyes and cut out your tongue and tear off your limbs one by one

He forces his posture to settle. It takes every ounce of this body’s considerable dignity. Ridiculous! Circumstances could be worse. At least all of his artful, sorrowful self-arrangement in the rain had an audience, after all. He needs to think quickly, to summon up an appropriate amount of despair and angst. Something that says this teacher is sufficiently punished; no need to rip off any limbs.

What would convince Luo Binghe that he’s miserable?

“This one is surprised to still be called Shizun,” Shen Qingqiu says slowly, “When I am no longer a Peak Lord of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.” The words taste strange coming out of his mouth; a sentence which doesn’t begin with the polite ‘this teacher.’ “I can no longer claim any tie to Qing Jing Peak. My name is a stain upon Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s face.” That sentence tastes even worse.

Shen Qingqiu braces himself before looking back over.

Luo Binghe, protagonist of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way,>> is a wolf, and it hurts Shen Qingqiu’s heart to look over at him and see him wearing the face of his purest and most warm-hearted sheep of a disciple.

Shen Qingqiu looks back to the clouds. Luo Binghe says nothing.

“And I can no longer claim the title of Shizun with any of my former disciples.”

...And ah, that really is sad, isn’t it? His voice had gotten a bit thick there, all on its own.

Truly, his acting is improved.

“That’s not… No, you’re Shizun –”

Luo Binghe had been standing closer than he’d thought, and Shen Qingqiu can marshal his composure just enough to keep his umbrella steady in a white-knuckled grip – but then Luo Binghe reaches towards him.

It’s too sudden a movement.

To anyone who isn’t a cultivator, it would seem little more than a twitch. They’re both cultivators, though, and one of them is utterly OP. It’s undeniable to both of them when Shen Qingqiu bodily flinches away, complete with a nervous inhalation and a thinning of lips.

Luo Binghe surely knows what fear looks like – what it looks like when someone fears him.

There’s a flash of sticky sheep unhappiness on Luo Binghe’s face, and Shen Qingqiu’s first instinct is to offer comfort.

He doesn’t.

System: <<...The protagonist loses -100 coolness points!>>

This time, when Shen Qingqiu spins on his heel – all tense shoulders, white knuckles, and an oh-so-carefully measured pace – this time, Luo Binghe lets him walk away.

It isn’t as though Shen Qingqiu can go very far.

-

Three days later, as Shen Qingqiu returns to his rooms following an evening walk, Luo Binghe is waiting for him outside the door of his suite.

Shen Qingqiu stops a careful number of steps away, forcing himself to be still. Luo Binghe might have some idea now that his old Shizun fears him (and Shen Qingqiu, in a moment of ruthless pragmatism, had briefly considered if this might benefit him), but he has played the lofty immortal too long to cower.

Shen Qingqiu expects Luo Binghe to close the distance between them, as usual. Yet, Luo Binghe instead stays where he is.

It’s a noticeable departure from his normal behavior. Normally he’d not hesitate to sidle closer to Shen Qingqiu, breathing on his ear and in his hair, offering smiles from short distances. Shen Qingqiu could hardly fail to notice the teasing glances Luo Binghe made, subtle reminders of his power over him, Shen Qingqiu’s inability to stop him, the inadvisability of protest. This time, though, Luo Binghe keeps his distance. He sways oddly back and forth, as though holding himself from something. His hands are clenched around a scroll.

“Good evening, Shizun…”

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t reply.

“...I received a letter, Shizun.” Luo Binghe’s eyes are deep black, without a trace of the demonic in them, as good a sign as any. “From Liu-shishu. He says you need... treatment.”

Ah, Liu-shidi.

Liu Qingge had been banned from Huan Hua Palace for the uproar he’d raised both during and after Shen Qingqiu’s trial. Shen Qingqiu had been flattered and heartened at the time. Unfortunately, Liu Qingge’s ban had left Shen Qingqiu in something of a bind when Without A Cure began to build up in his system again. He wasn’t permitted casual contact with Cang Qiong Sect, and with Liu-shidi, no contact at all.

Shen Qingqiu can’t feel the poison anymore, not with his qi so restricted, but his arm twitches sporadically these days... and more recently, it had begun to go numb. He knows what’s happening: the poison had once more begun to clog his meridians and eat away at his qi pathways, a process which would eventually starve his body of vital qi, first crippling and then killing him.

It’s been months since his last treatment. He can’t clear his own meridians, and his knowledge of Huan Hua Palace’s disciples is limited. He doesn’t know who to approach that would be both willing and equal to the task.

Luo Binghe, it went without saying, hadn’t been considered as an option.

But now Luo Binghe is standing in front of him, staring intensely, trying to say something with his eyes in the way that novel protagonists frequently do. “Shizun, it doesn’t sound like it’ll take long. I can treat you, and then, we can have the evening meal and tea together? Or… just tea?”

Shen Qingqiu continues to level a cool gaze at his former disciple.

“This disciple knows that Shizun hasn’t been eating well lately,” Luo Binghe blurts out, his tone less perfectly modulated, a little less wolf, a little more sheep, “And Shizun isn’t in a condition to practice inedia.”

Shen Qingqiu isn’t in a condition. Inside, Shen Qingqiu’s nearly spitting. What is with those innocent words combined with that innocent face? That comment, was Luo Binghe referring to his poisoning with Without A Cure, or the fact that Shen Qingqiu’s qi is bound and unable to perform even basic cultivation skills like fasting? A bold statement from Luo Binghe, given that Luo Binghe was a primary cause for both conditions.

Without access to his own spiritual energy, entirely vulnerable to attack, yet Luo Binghe wants permission to toy with his twice-crippled qi? Is Shen Qingqiu supposed to be grateful? The idea is insulting, when both parties are perfectly aware that Luo Binghe doesn’t really need permission to do anything of the sort.

Briefly, and again, he wonders what his former disciple sees when he looks at Shen Qingqiu now, unable to fly, once more subject to mortal needs. Triumph, maybe? Satisfaction, that his old Shizun, standing in the hall as a much diminished version of his old self, has been reduced to a perfectly refined and effectively useless human being?

Shen Qingqiu will at least admit that, in this moment, Luo Binghe doesn’t look particularly triumphant. He looks like he wants Shen Qingqiu to pat him on the head and tell him how well he’s doing.

Shen Qingqiu shakes himself loose of the nostalgia and beats his sentimental heart back into submission.

In any case, he has zero interest in allowing Luo Binghe to further dictate anything involving his qi or his meridians. He also has zero interest in sharing a meal with Luo Binghe, no matter how delicious. It’s true that his appetite isn’t what it used to be – like so many other things – but the stress of proximity to his captor and potential torturer probably won’t help.

And yet, there are other considerations. Disregarding Shen Qingqiu’s instinctive preferences, it’s been three days since he last saw Luo Binghe. For Shen Qingqiu’s plan to work, he needs to give Luo Binghe a chance to see his former Shizun’s angst and woe.

On top of that, Luo Binghe is being civil – or he’s pretending to be civil, which amounts to much the same thing. It would reflect poorly on Shen Qingqiu’s character if he doesn’t respond in kind.

With all of this in mind, Shen Qingqiu gives Binghe a solemn nod of his head, accepting the invitation.

Binghe straightens, showing his perfect teeth with a bright and wavering smile at Shen Qingqiu.

The tea room Binghe guides them to is opulent. The gilded and painted wood is fitting for the wealthiest sect, but the size, location, and private courtyard indicate that this room isn’t intended for guest use. It’s also been arranged ahead of time, Shen Qingqiu notices, trying not to consider the possible implications of privacy and forethought. He settles himself with as much regal grace as he can manage, snapping open his fan with a crack in an effort to hide his unease.

It’s unlikely that Luo Binghe will take the opportunity to sabotage his spiritual pathways, if only because Luo Binghe wants Shen Qingqiu to suffer. For that, he needs Shen Qingqiu alive. Shen Qingqiu only closes his eyes for a few brief moments before offering his other wrist to the former disciple kneeling beside him.

Luo Binghe’s grip is careful as his thumb presses into the tendons of Shen Qingqiu’s forearm, making his hand twitch.

The room is quiet. If it were Qing Jing Peak, the wind outside would rustle pleasantly in the bamboo leaves. Here, it is a tense whistle over the walls of the small courtyard.

“...Shizun should know that the damage is more extensive than this disciple believed it would be…” Luo Binghe is frowning, eyes distant as he concentrates on his spiritual senses. “But... Shizun shouldn’t worry, this disciple can fix it.”

Shen Qingqiu can no longer feel his meridians, not exactly, not with his qi so suppressed. Still, Shen Qingqiu feels – something. More awake and alert, in sudden leaps and starts – likely with each meridian Luo Binghe clears. His arm feels lighter and more free, making him realize just how heavy and stiff it had been getting over time.

He sacrifices a small measure of hauteur to curl his fingers into a fist and then relax it, testing. The gesture flexes his forearm in the circle of Luo Binghe’s fingers.

Luo Binghe bites his lip, a nervous habit that only emphasizes how full they are. He’s no longer passing spiritual energy but is still leaning over Shen Qingqiu’s wrist.  “...Shizun,” he asks quietly, peering up at him. “Shizun knows he didn’t have to… Shizun of course knows that... Shizun could have asked this disciple to assist before now?” Luo Binghe’s eyes plead.

“...Yes,” Shen Qingqiu admits. But I chose not to, goes unsaid.

Luo Binghe stares at him. His grip tightens very slightly, applying just enough pressure on Shen Qingqiu's delicate tendons to make his hand twitch again.

System: <<...The protagonist loses -100 coolness points!>>

Shen Qingqiu can’t help a frustrated exhalation, pulling his wrist from Luo Binghe. They both know that Luo Binghe is strong enough to hold Shen Qingqiu in place if he chooses.

Luo Binghe lets him withdraw. Then, he closes his eyes, and takes a deep, steadying breath. Then, he busies himself with the table, fussing with the arrangement in a way Shen Qingqiu recognizes from a younger, gentler, less lethal version of the man sitting with him, focused and perfectionist, each item being placed just so.

Then, Luo Binghe pours the tea, and he glances up at Shen Qingqiu through the side of his lashes.

And ah, Shen Qingqiu thinks, because Shen Qingqiu recognizes that look.

Luo Binghe is by necessity a good actor, sly and talented, passionate in his delivery. Hadn’t he demonstrated his mastery of this skillset at Shen Qingqiu’s trial? In the original <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>, he’d wielded deception as capably as he’d wielded Xin Mo – no one had been able to discern his falsehoods from his truths. But it’s possible that this Luo Binghe is less practiced, having spent less time in the Abyss. It’s equally possible that this version of Shen Qingqiu had always paid closer attention to his favored disciple.

Because Shen Qingqiu recognizes that look: it’s the same look that his white lotus Binghe had worn whenever he was about to show off. It is the look he wore when he believed himself to be terribly clever.

Ah, Shen Qingqiu thinks. He’s done something to the tea.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t bother to hide this foresight, after the tea is poured. He tilts his cup towards the light to better see the color, appearing a pale and fragrant peach tea to all of his senses save intuition. Luo Binghe doesn’t, quite, wilt.

Shen Qingqiu lowers his lashes, and on a less imperious man, the effect might be termed coy.

“Did Binghe poison this one’s tea?” Shen Qingqiu asks politely.

Luo Binghe pales, and then his face twists in frustration.

The Luo Binghe sitting across from him isn’t his young and pure lotus Binghe.

Shen Qingqiu had taken that warm and pure and wholesome sheep boy, that young disciple who he’d watched and raised for many years, and he’d willfully tossed him into the Endless Abyss and all the horrors within. While Shen Qingqiu had known that some version of Luo Binghe would survive – the protagonist, the proud immortal demon, the wolf – he’d also known that he’d never see the white lotus child Binghe ever again.

No wonder he transmigrated as the scum villain.

This Luo Binghe isn’t Shen Qingqiu’s beloved sheep Binghe anymore –

– and Shen Qingqiu is no longer anyone’s Shizun, with all his careful years of raising Ming Fan and Ning Yingying and Luo Binghe amounting to only a stain on their talents and names –

– and Shen Qingqiu is no longer permitted his Qing Jing Peak; it’s unlikely he’ll ever see Qing Jing Peak again –

– and he misses Airplane Bro and Liu-shidi and Zhangmen-shixiong –

– and every day is an exercise in fear –

– and Shen Qingqiu has been so busy pretending to be miserable that he has ignored how miserable he actually is

– and he downs the tainted tea in one go.

Luo Binghe stares at him from across the table, a wolf wielding sheep eyes and sheep tears and a wounded, wavering voice.

“Shizun…?”

System: <<...The protagonist loses -200 coolness points!>>

The trees beyond the courtyard walls start to hiss in the wind, and for a moment, Shen Qingqiu pretends that it’s bamboo.

-

Shen Qingqiu wakes up staring at the ceiling of his bamboo house on his Qing Jing Peak.

The sight of it is a forced blow to his heart. For a moment, he allows himself to imagine that everything leading to this point has all been a terrible nightmare, and then he closes his eyes again.

System! The responding pop-up window was glaring on the back of his eyelids. System, where am I?!

System: <<Huan Hua Palace, East Wing.>>

Shen Qingqiu breathes deeply, and reconciles the familiar mountain scents with the fact that, despite what his senses tell him, he’s still in a Huan Hua Palace tea room. He’s not on Qing Jing Peak. This is an illusion, a dream.

And he’s in this dream because Luo Binghe decided to drug him with one of Airplane Bro’s dozens of ridiculous plot device teas.

Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes again. This illusory Qing Jing Peak bamboo house looks exactly as he’d left the real one. One of his fans is even askew on the floor by the bed. He picks it up, recognizing it: an old favorite, with tines of cedar wood and cheerful tree peonies on the silk.

The dream tea has crafted a thorough illusion. If the System hadn’t verified, Shen Qingqiu might have begun to believe it was real.

The question, then, is exactly which one of Airplane Bro’s seemingly endless plot device dream teas is this? There were many, and each is less probable than the last.

There was a tea which made the drinker relive their greatest regret, a possibility. There was a tea which allowed the drinker to commune with the dead, recreating a favorite place of the deceased. Less likely. There was a tea which allowed the drinker to dream what made them happiest, which in the novel, was usually papapa with Luo Binghe. Hah.

There were dozens of aphrodisiac teas.

...Useless. Shen Qingqiu clutches his illusory fan. How is he supposed to figure things out when even Airplane Bro can’t remember all the useless crap he’d written into his shitty novel?

“Shizun!”

Shen Qingqiu, free hand buried in his hair, feels his breath catch in fear. When he looks over, his breath catches for another reason entirely.

Because the Luo Binghe in the door is a white and precious thing.

The Luo Binghe standing by the doorframe wears white. White, with the trim and tassels in the pale greens of Qing Jing Peak. His hair, instead of Luo Binghe’s usual luxuriously riotous tangle, is pulled back into a less-than-perfect ponytail – the young white lotus Binghe had never gotten the hang of handling his hair; Shen Qingqiu had diligently fixed his student’s ponytail every morning for years.

His fear evaporates in shock.

Shen Qingqiu stares.

It’s his white lotus Binghe, but… an adult.

He’s just as tall and broad as the adult Luo Binghe who has him in captivity, and there’s a demon mark on his forehead. Broad shoulders, long legs. This Binghe has the age and stature and glowing red demon mark of the novel’s peerlessly attractive protagonist Luo Binghe... but is dressed in white, carries Zheng Yang on his back, and wears the same brilliant and delighted smile that had always been his Binghe’s habit when greeting his Shizun.

The adult lotus Binghe balances a tray of food on his hip. “I made Shizun’s favorite congee!”

Shen Qingqiu stares more.

This is a dream. A tea-induced dream, but a dream.

But then, Luo Binghe is a master of dreams.

Shen Qingqiu presses the guard of his fan to his lips, breathing in the smell of cedar, not taking his eyes off of the Binghe by the door. Is this Luo Binghe? Is this some kind of scheme to toy with Shen Qingqiu?

The Luo Binghe of the waking world, the Luo Binghe who’d ensured Shen Qingqiu’s captivity, the Luo Binghe who’d poured his treacherous Shizun a cup of cursed tea, was almost fastidious in his appearance. He’d never appeared in front of Shen Qingqiu with anything other than clean and bright skin, artfully tousled hair, a measured countenance, and well-tended and pressed robes.

The Binghe in front of him was familiar in his charming frazzle, the kitchen soot smudged on his sleeves, the unrestrained eagerness. His hair was charmingly askew. The real, newly prideful Luo Binghe wouldn’t allow himself to be seen like this. This must be Shen Qingqiu’s projection of him. This illusory Binghe is part of the illusion.

Shen Qingqiu stares even more at this dream version of adult Luo Binghe, wearing the colors of his Qing Jing Peak, once again an eager and loyal student, delivering breakfast, all white lotus looks and starry eyes and fluffy hair and broad shoulders –

Shen Qingqiu hears a strange noise.

The illusory Binghe cocks his head to the right like a confused puppy; a lock of unruly hair escapes his ponytail and flops over his mature, refined face.

Shen Qingqiu hears the noise again, then realizes it came from his own increasingly dry throat.

“...Does Shizun not want congee...?”

Illusory Binghe is beginning to fret, slowly setting down the tray on the table, and Shen Qingqiu is nothing if not adaptable. Well, then.

“...Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu croaks, before clearing his throat. “This teacher is grateful for his dutiful disciple.”

He moves with as much grace as he can, given circumstances, sitting up all the way and swinging his feet to the floor.

This isn’t the Luo Binghe of the waking world. This version of Luo Binghe doesn’t know the taste of betrayal; this is a Binghe that hasn’t fallen prey to the selfish actions of Shen Qingqiu.

“But why is this dutiful disciple’s hair so messy?” he directs. “Sit, this Shizun will fix it.”

There’s nothing keeping Shen Qingqiu’s shamefully sentimental heart from doting on this Binghe.

Illusory Binghe had apparently prepared for this and drops bonelessly to the ground in front of Shen Qingqiu, brandishing a comb, as obedient and eager for anything approaching affection as the sticky child and then teenager had been. Shen Qingqiu takes the comb and gets to work, taking his time.

Ah, even though he’s patterned off of an adult version whose hair he’s not touched, this Binghe’s hair is as fluffy and delightful as Shen Qingqiu remembers. Illusory Binghe has even more hair to manage than the Binghe he remembers raising.

“This teacher can’t allow his disciple to leave in such a state,” scolds Shen Qingqiu purely out of habit, belying his words with a fond tone and the careful fingers scratching fondly at the crown of Binghe’s head. It’s ostensibly in an effort to pull the hair back. “Is my Qing Jing Peak so neglectful of its disciples?”

Illusory Binghe, like sheep Binghe had often done, tries and fails to be subtle about pressing his head into his Shizun’s hands.

The real Luo Binghe is a master of dreams, and he is watching, Shen Qingqiu knows.

What must the real Luo Binghe think of this tableau, as he watches? A treacherous and hated Shizun, showing these small kindnesses to a dream projection that wears his face and name?

Luo Binghe wanted Shen Qingqiu to drink that tea for a reason, though the exact reason remained a mystery. Whatever the tea is supposed to reveal or present, whether these projections are created by Shen Qingqiu’s unconscious mind, or deliberately manufactured and placed there by the tea, there’s no doubt in Shen Qingqiu’s mind. The Luo Binghe of the waking world still has an eye on him.

Shen Qingqiu can feel it, that telltale prickle on the back of his neck.

That’s… fine. Nothing to be done about it. Shen Qingqiu might not know the manner or the purpose of this illusion, but apparently, for the duration of it, he gets to have... this.

He digs his nails soothingly into illusory Binghe’s scalp. Illusory Binghe visibly shivers in delight, and Shen Qingqiu doesn’t particularly care if right now if the real Luo Binghe can see it.

Shen Qingqiu’s going to take advantage of having this for as long as this dream lasts.

He eventually gathers up illusory Binghe’s hair into something proper – always a challenge given the texture – and secures it with a long pale green ribbon. He ties it into a broad-looped bow which, on anyone else less potently male than a mature Luo Binghe, would look positively maidenly. Shen Qingqiu delights in it and gives Binghe a few last fond head pats. Ah! Binghe, more like Bingmei!

Illusory Binghe pats his new bow gingerly, as though he’s afraid to ruin it, and Shen Qingqiu absolutely does not coo. Is this illusion supposed to reveal his poor treatment of Luo Binghe?  It was true that the original goods had been cruel and abusive, something that the current and improved Shen Qingqiu had put a stop to as soon as he was able. Is that what the real Luo Binghe hopes to gather evidence of?

He’s out of luck, if that’s the case. Shen Qingqiu had always adored Luo Binghe – he’d had the luxury of that, back when he’d still been assured that Luo Binghe could not and had no real reason to dismember his teacher.

This is only a tea dream. It could – it will – end any minute. Yet, it seems a beautiful and peaceful morning on Qing Jing Peak. The bamboo leaves rustle, the birds are singing, the wind chimes sound softly in the distance, and Binghe hums contentedly under his palm.

Shen Qingqiu couldn’t have asked for a better dream.

Shen Qingqiu is going to make the most of this.

-

For years now, Shen Qingqiu’s life has been one of anxiety punctuated by bursts of terror. Shen Qingqiu’s life since Luo Binghe’s return from the Abyss has been one of terror punctuated by bursts of anxiety. He has found himself absorbed in what he doesn’t want – pain, mutilation, death – because what he does want hasn’t mattered.

But something about the dream makes it easy to let go of fear. For a calm moment, Shen Qingqiu leans all his weight back, relaxing, chin tipped up, eyes closed. Illusory Binghe’s fingertips on his scalp are soothing.

Shen Qingqiu sits at his desk on an Illusory Qing Jing Peak, allowing Illusory Binghe to pin his hair as he checks his schedule for the day – just as he normally might.

Shen Qingqiu has never been an ambitious man. Discerning, yes. Overly concerned with appearances, also yes. But a big dreamer? No, not beyond living a peaceful existence. In his previous life, he’d been largely content to remain in an apartment paid for by his parents, living vicariously through characters in his webnovels. He was complacent.

In this life, he can’t be. His actions have consequences. He can cause pain. In this life, the characters he’d forged connections to through his screen aren’t characters. They’re people , whose lives he has changed just by existing – whose lives and happinesses he is responsible for. It’s a responsibility he failed for Luo Binghe, and it makes him uncomfortable. He just wants to be, to relax and enjoy the scenery, the bamboo grove, quiet friendships.  

It’s a welcome comfort that his schedule lays out a perfectly normal and lovely day on Qing Jing Peak.

Classes in the morning, as always. A shared afternoon meal with Liu-shidi and Zhangmen-shixiong, to discuss an upcoming night hunt. A chat with Airplane Bro.

And private lessons with Binghe in the early evening.

Shen Qingqiu hums, prompting Illusory Binghe to lightly press nails into Shen Qingqiu’s scalp as he pulls back his Shizun’s hair.

Something about this dream makes it easy to let go of fear, he thinks, as he stands to greet the day.

The thought should alarm him.

It doesn’t.

Ning Yingying and Ming Fan are waiting outside.

“Shizun!”

“Shizun, good morning!”

The illusory Ming Fan, just like his real life counterpart, wears an expression simultaneously anxious and determined. The illusory Ning Yingying waves cheerily with a smile on her face. They had apparently been waiting a reasonable distance from the bamboo house, to afford their Shizun some privacy. Courteous and well-mannered, just as he’d taught them.

It doesn’t behoove a regal Peak Lord to raise his voice unnecessarily, so Shen Qingqiu strides over to greet them, his peak robes fanning out with his approach, nodding at Ming Fan before tapping Ning Yingying on the head with his fan. “This teacher has surely taught this student more decorum.”

“Ah, this student is sorry, Shizun!” Ning Yingying tries her best to stifle her grin. The effect is comical.

To be fair, Shen Qingqiu had never tried very hard to teach Ning Yingying any sense of gravitas. It didn’t suit her,  in the same way that music had never suited Ming Fan. He’d allowed both to focus on their strengths. Now, Luo Binghe, Ming Fan, and Ning Yingying, all three of them adults and skilled cultivators each in their own right, stood dutifully in front of him.

A warm fondness blooms in Shen Qingqiu, and something small and tired in Shen Qingqiu shivers and unfurls; his shoulders relax just the slightest. He is unbearably proud of them.

Given what seems a last day on Qing Jing Peak, Shen Qingqiu chooses to just experience the simple joys of it, without fear.

Classes go smoothly. His disciples are well-behaved and attentive. It’s ostensibly a guqin lesson, but Shen Qingqiu spends most of it indulging them with the compositions he plays best. He writes it off as a demonstration.

Lunch with Zhangmen-shixiong and Liu-shidi is pleasantly familiar. Yue Qingyuan somehow exudes wise benevolence and dignity even as he frets like a fussy grandmother, making the most unlikely concerns for Shen Qingqiu’s safety seem reasonable.

Liu Qingge scowls at the delicious food, doesn’t speak in sentences longer than five words, and looks mildly out of place in the scholarly setting of Qing Jing Peak – and yet, he firmly insists that he won’t be too busy for Shen Qingqiu.

Airplane Bro visits soon after. Shang Qinghua is always a certain level of exasperating, but Shen Qingqiu will admit to being reluctantly charmed by his shamelessness. At first they complain about missing the conveniences of their old lives, and light figurative candles for their old smartphones. But then Airplane admits that he only invented communication arrays because he stole a lot of his plots from old TV shows and he doesn’t really want to have live through them.

Shen Qingqiu shamelessly bullies Shang Qinghua until he flees in a flurry of babble.

And then Binghe appears at his elbow, cupping his hands in a respectful bow. He smiles brightly, and Shen Qingqiu smiles back, and the sheer joy of it is a shock.

He can’t remember why.

He doesn’t dare teach Binghe anything related to combat or cultivation. Binghe, a protagonist fully grown, is far too likely to surpass his teacher at this point. Instead, they sit together next to the plum tree and quiet spring to critique Binghe’s literature and calligraphy.

Binghe’s maidenly heart has lent itself to penning pining-sweet Tang verses – High mountain, how I long to reach you! – which, when written in Binghe’s assertive brushstrokes, take on a bolder and assured meaning. Master, I hail you from my heart! Binghe insists on reading the verses outloud, shyly reciting the transcriptions, eyes flitting from the written pages to Shen Qingqiu and back.

A blushing and handsome protagonist, reading him such sentimental poetry under a blossoming tree – Shen Qingqiu is far too charmed by this milieu to be terribly constructive. He hides his face behind his fan and tries to contain himself. Binghe! This protagonist!

Shen Qingqiu is feeling light enough to grant him with a pleased smile over his fan. Binghe’s smile is no less genuine, but shines unrestrained.

He’s almost disappointed when they run out of copied poetry to “critique,” but the timing is perfect – because to his delight, just as they return to the library pavilion, it rains. It’s a clean drizzle, just enough to keep the frogs and crickets from singing. The sound of it on the bamboo leaves is a pleasant backdrop as they walk back, Shen Qingqiu allowing Binghe to hold the umbrella.

They step over the threshold of the bamboo house together, where Binghe’s broad shoulders keep any rain from sweeping in.

Finally back in privacy, Shen Qingqiu reaches up and pulls the hairpin and crown out of his hair, shaking his head to let his hair fall free. He hears an inhalation behind him, and then Binghe is running careful fingers through it to help detangle.

The rain on the roof muffles all other sound, and world is suddenly very small, standing next to an open door with Binghe’s hands in his hair, a day of calm friendships just passed with only more such days to come.

Shen Qingqiu hums, and permits Binghe to be inappropriately thorough. It’s only the two of them, here, anyway.

Although...

There’s something he’s forgotten, isn’t there? Something of great urgency.

Something he should be worried about.

...It can’t be terribly important if he can’t remember.

He can just enjoy things right now, standing next to Binghe at the end of a lovely day on Qing Jing Peak, where there is nothing to be concerned about.

Certainly not that prickle on the back of neck, like someone is watching, but that couldn’t be it.

There’s no reason to be anxious at all.

He looks out the door through a break in the leaves. There are no rain clouds on the horizon; the sky is painted prettily in bands of gold to pink to inky dark blue.

Then Shen Qingqiu turns back to his disciple and nearly coos with delight, because ah! The humidity’s sent Binghe’s hair into a charming halo of frizz, catching the last of the sun’s light, making it look even fluffier than usual!

Shen Qingqiu wants to pat him on the head.

-

It’s a pleasure all its own, watching Binghe bustle around the bamboo house and fuss with the various tasks he’s appointed himself. Shen Qingqiu watched this routine for years; Binghe as an adult is more restrained in his movements, maturity has smoothed his youthful buoyancy.

Shen Qingqiu only resists for a few seconds before indulging himself. “Binghe should sit and rest with this teacher; he’s done well today.”

Binghe preens, chin raising in pride as he dutifully arranges himself next to Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu runs his hand over Binghe’s hair, and doesn’t quite sigh in contentment.

“Shizun is cheerful today,” notes Binghe, bright and eager. “Asking Shizun, is there a reason for his good mood?”

Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes. “It’s nothing specific, Binghe.” Pat pat. “This teacher is just… happy, today.”

“...Is Shizun not usually happy?”

Shen Qingqiu hums, fanning himself slowly, one hand still buried in Binghe’s hair. “Here is where this teacher is most content.”

“...Content isn’t happy, Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu pauses his absentminded petting.

“What’s the difference?” He asks, looking at his student with a mild expression. “This teacher is happy to see his students improve, but they will necessarily fail, often. This teacher is happy to watch the spring rains, but the seasons must cycle each year. This teacher is happy to aid his martial siblings, but they won’t always need me.”

The demon mark on Binghe’s brow is crinkled in mild distress. Shen Qingqiu smoothes it with his thumb.

“This teacher is also happy to return home, and see a most favored disciple waiting for him,” Shen Qingqiu adds gently, and Binghe does perk up at this. “But I know you won’t be here forever, Binghe.”

“Why not, Shizun?” Binghe immediately insists, voice firm. “What if I want to be here forever? If that would make you happy?”

Binghe.

“This disciple is happy here with Shizun.” Binghe frowns mulishly.

Ah, Binghe. Shen Qingqiu’s heart hurts. Shen Qingqiu had always tried to give Binghe the best things in life, but only now is Shen Qingqiu realizing how important that had been to his own happiness.

Shen Qingqiu closes his fan and rests the end on Binghe’s lips, pressing gently. Binghe holds his breath, his mouth lax against Shen Qingqiu’s fan until Shen Qingqiu lifts it.

“Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu says gently, “Tell this teacher, what would make Binghe the most happy?”

Binghe exhales and flushes a lovely color, high on his cheeks.

Shen Qingqiu waits patiently.

Binghe has been sitting very prettily up to this point. His feet are tucked under him, his shoulders are back, his spine is straight. But now, he places one hand on the floor for balance and then he shifts – one, two shuffles of his knees –

– and now, he’s leaning in.

What…?

Binghe is leaning in slowly, while staring into Shen Qingqiu’s eyes.

Shen Qingqiu feels his breath catch as the realization floods over him in a shock of cold, then burning heat.

The sliding of fabric is loud in the quiet room, and Binghe’s glittering eyes are huge. The eye contact is steady and dizzying; Binghe’s face and Binghe’s mouth are getting closer and closer to Shen Qingqiu’s –

The greater part of him – the rational part, the anxious part – howls. Binghe! You are a stallion protagonist! This teacher is a man! What kind of master-disciple relationship is this?!

…and yet.

A more fragile part of Shen Qingqiu – the part which, in a previous life, had cheered to read Luo Binghe’s successes and mourned all his tragedies – the part of him which suffered through a massive and poorly-written novel because honestly, he really, really liked this protagonist –

– the part of Shen Qingqiu which has always admired and been in awe of Luo Binghe –

That part of him quietly thrills.

Luo Binghe stops with his nose a bare handspan from his Shizun’s. Shen Qingqiu looks back, swallowing.

Luo Binghe’s appearance as described in the novel <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> was peerless in every way. His eyes spoke passionately, he moved his body with surety and intensity. There was never a doubt that Luo Binghe was a man who could seduce 600 wives.

It wasn’t as though Shen Qingqiu never noticed. Fear just hadn’t left the space to consider it.

Shen Qingqiu can’t remember what fear feels like.

Binghe’s eyes are starry with adoration, half-lidded with implications. His breath smells like peach tea.

“This disciple… would be most happy making his Shizun most happy,” Binghe murmurs. “Or at least, this one would like to try.”

Shen Qingqiu can’t breathe.

To say that Binghe is attractive is a laughable understatement. He’s attractive as only a protagonist could possibly be: preternaturally beautiful, abundant dark hair and shining eyes and broad shoulders, dressed now in bright lamb-white robes – and yet somehow, in this moment, touchable. Attainable.

In this moment, unlike many others, Shen Qingqiu is not being cornered or pressed or coerced. Here, Binghe has offered, and now Binghe waits. Shen Qingqiu’s personality resists force and fights when pushed – will only fight when pushed – but, in the face of gentle coaxing, he bends.

In the face of Binghe?

The sound of wood cracking breaks the silence. Shen Qingqiu has maintained his serene, haughty expression, but his grip has snapped several spokes of his fine cedar and silk fan.

This is Luo Binghe, fiercely loyal at any age, diligent and intelligent. Sometimes clever, often stubborn, and always, always brave. This is Luo Binghe, for whom Shen Qingqiu’s first instinct has always, always been to protect.

Something must show on Shen Qingqiu’s face, because Binghe inhales, lips parting as his eyes widen, pupils blown – Binghe gasps like a debauched maiden, and all Binghe’s done is look at him –

There’s a small noise. It’s come from Shen Qingqiu’s throat.

And then Shen Qingqiu’s mouth is touching Binghe’s.

Long seconds pass of just that, his mostly-broken fan guiding Binghe with a gentle touch under his jaw. Binghe’s breathing is getting heavier nonetheless, and his big, dark, starry eyes are wide and blinking.

It is… chaste. Insufficient. Then Binghe mewls, surging forward, wanting more without knowing what more even is.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t count himself experienced in these matters, but he is at least more experienced than Binghe. He presses Binghe back; humming, and catches Binghe’s lips between his.

Binghe trembles. Shen Qingqiu kisses him. He only slides his tongue just barely between the seam of his lips – just enough to make the kiss slippery. The room is quiet enough to hear small, slick sounds between them.

The kiss is a promise – brimming with affection, patient and careful. The fact that the kiss is happening at all is a promise – Shen Qingqiu is promising things to Binghe –

– and he wants to promise Binghe so many, many things –

System: <<...The protagonist gains +450 coolness points!>>

Shen Qingqiu jerks back in shock. A trail of spit connects their lips. A hand remains tangled in Binghe’s hair, however it had gotten there. Binghe still has his eyes shut, blindly leaning forward to follow the kiss, his lips red and swollen and wet. Shen Qingqiu jerks back again, further. Binghe opens his eyes just enough to peer at Shen Qingqiu with heavy-lidded slits, all long lashes and unshed tears.

Illusory Binghe is temptation personified.

Illusory Binghe.

Shen Qingqiu is already breathing heavily, and his mouth fills with saliva in a sudden and immediate bout of nausea and fear. When had he forgotten that this place isn’t real? That this is nothing more than an induced dream?

More to the point – When, exactly, had he forgotten that the real Luo Binghe is watching?

The real Luo Binghe, who will have either his unhappiness or his limbs?

Scrambling to hide his emotional reaction – there was no way he kept all of that off his face! – Shen Qingqiu reaches forward and grabs Illusory Binghe by the base of his neck and pulls him into an awkward embrace, tucking his face into the crook of Shen Qingqiu’s neck and shoulder.

“Let’s stay like this a while,” Shen Qingqiu breathes anyway. A pause, then he adjusts them for comfort, leaning against the table with Illusory Binghe practically in his lap. Illusory Binghe complies quietly, breathing deep, settling in with a contented hum, and says nothing about how tense his Shizun must feel.

Like this, Shen Qingqiu quietly panics.

And suddenly, Shen Qingqiu knows exactly which plot device tea he’d been dosed with, because he wants – more than anything else he has ever wanted before – to stay.

He wants to stay on his Qing Jing Peak, in his bamboo house. He wants to teach and guide his disciples. He wants to share secrets with Airplane Bro, to bicker with Liu-shidi, to be fussed over by Yue Qingyuan.

He wants to stay here, with a Luo Binghe that doesn’t scare him.

Shen Qingqiu clings to his Illusory Binghe mindlessly, repetitively, shivering, and waits for the dream to end.

-

Shen Qingqiu wakes up staring at the ceiling of a tea room in Huan Hua Palace.

He doesn’t want the dream to be over, but the dream is over anyway.

It’s too sudden and too soon, but he doesn’t have the luxury of time to pretend he’s anywhere else.

He’s been arranged – had he just fallen over, when the tea had taken effect? – to lounge on his back on several cushions, his long hair draped carefully over one shoulder. He’s still on the floor by the low tea table, but pillows have been placed under his head and pushed up against his sides like a nest. His head doesn’t quite ache, but it feels too light. He hasn’t even sat up yet, and he doesn’t trust his balance.

His hand feels heavy as he lifts it to brush back a stray strand of hair.

“Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu is somewhat disoriented, because Binghe’s voice isn’t immediately terrifying – until his muddled, drugged brain manages to separate the tea dream from reality. This isn’t the Binghe he’d been shamefully clinging to; this is the real Luo Binghe. Powerful, self-assured, and vengeful. This Luo Binghe is a danger to Shen Qingqiu, and here, words and actions are the difference between life and death.

This would be easier if his head weren’t so muddled. As it is, he’s not certain that he can sit up and remain sitting up, not with his senses still swimming. He chooses to stay reclined, even as the indignity of it rankles.

“Phoenix Thousand Joy Tea,” croaks Shen Qingqiu. His voice is hoarse. “A spiritual tea to grant the drinker insight into their happiness.”

Luo Binghe isn’t quite within arms reach. He’d apparently spent the dream sleeping with his head tucked into the cradle of his arms on the low table. He doesn’t look tired at all, which is patently unfair, because Shen Qingqiu feels like he could sleep for a week. Where Shen Qingqiu feels exhaustion, on Luo Binghe, he only sees bewilderment.

“...This disciple wanted to know what makes Shizun happy,” Binghe admits quietly.

Shen Qingqiu wants to vomit.

The tea had eroded his ability to sense that he was in a dream. Of course. He wouldn’t have been terribly happy to remember that his every move was being watched by a man whose original destiny was to torture and kill him. Every kind touch, every soft word, every quiet moment with his favorite people had had an audience, watching with unknown purpose.

Had his sentimental heart endangered the others? Had his fond tutelage of Ming Fan and Ning Yingying made targets of them? Had his commiseration with Airplane Bro brought him to Luo Binghe’s attention? Had his dealings with Liu-shidi and Yue Qingyuan endangered the whole sect?

And his treatment of that alternate Binghe – of course doting on that white lotus made him happy! Binghe had been a sweet, silly, naive child, and an endearing and diligent teenager – he’d favored him terribly!

And then –

In the novel <<Proud Immortal Demon Way,>> the Phoenix Thousand Joy Tea had featured multiple times. It was a cheap plot device that Airplane Bro used to convince recalcitrant harem candidates that what they really wanted, deep inside, was papapa with Luo Binghe.

The damn tea had worked exactly as Airplane Bro had written – one ludicrously impossible wish-fulfillment fantasy, complete with a protagonist-centric romantic liaison.

It was apparently too much to ask that Shen Qingqiu be an exception. Airplane Bro had devoted chapters of description to the effect that Luo Binghe had on prospective partners. A fully grown Luo Binghe is literally the most beautiful man in the world. He possesses the sexual magnetism to maintain a harem of 600 beauties. He moves like poetry, his eyes are like good omen stars. Could Shen Qingqiu be blamed?

Shen Qingqiu can barely steady his breathing for the deep, hot sense of shame he feels. Luo Binghe had watched. He’d seen.

Luo Binghe at least isn’t gloating. Shen Qingqiu’s face couldn’t bear it, if he did. Instead, Binghe just looks... lost. “This… This disciple doesn’t understand.”

“This one wonders,” Shen Qingqiu responds dryly, “What Luo Binghe had thought to find.” Certainly not his Shizun perving on him.

“No, no –” Luo Binghe looks frustrated to tears. “It was supposed to show me what would make you happy!”

Shen Qingqiu is tired and half-drugged. “Didn’t it?” He responds wearily. “A Qing Jing Peak where I never had to betray my disciple?”

The silence is long.

Shen Qingqiu wonders what he said.

“Shizun wasn’t afraid of me in there,” notes Luo Binghe, distantly. “Even though Shizun was still a righteous cultivator and this one remained a lowly half-demon. I’d thought that maybe the difference was that the dream disciple didn’t keep his demonic cultivation a secret.”

Shen Qingqiu’s head swims.

“But the difference was that Shizun never betrayed me.” Luo Binghe sounds firmer. “Shizun never wanted to betray me – to do that, to this disciple.”

“What? Of course I didn’t,” Shen Qingqiu snaps irritably. “Who do you think this teacher is?”

And maybe Shen Qingqiu shouldn’t have said that.

Shen Qingqiu’s head is still stuffed with cotton. In the novel, this pseudo-drugged state had been the perfect mechanism to follow up dream papapa with real papapa. For Shen Qingqiu, it forces him to make his case from a prone position on the ground. In a sweeping and defeated gesture, he drapes one long arm over his eyes. Maybe it’ll be easier to say these things into the darkness of his inner elbow.

“Of course I didn’t want to,” he grinds out. “What monster raises a child and delights in their suffering?”

Shen Qingqiu can only guess what Luo Binghe’s expression looks like.

“But now you’re scared of me.” Binghe’s voice cracks.

Even thinking – even knowing – it must be an act, Shen Qingqiu’s foolish, sentimental heart twinges. “Binghe.”

“You’re scared of me,” Binghe presses. “You think I’m going to hurt you.”

It’s intended as a question, but it’s one which Shen Qingqiu has no good answers for.

“You… you think I’m going to hurt you because you betrayed me.

It’s too late. That big, beautiful, protagonist’s brain of Binghe’s – the same brain that picked apart countless plots and betrayals in his novel – has seized on Shen Qingqiu’s careless words. Binghe’s never been stupid.

“It doesn’t matter why, does it? You didn’t want to. You... You thought you had to. You regret it.”

Shen Qingqiu can only listen as Luo Binghe pieces together broken pieces of truth.

“...And you think you deserve to be hurt for it.”

Something in Binghe’s tone sours in Shen Qingqiu’s stomach.

Shen Qingqiu looks up from under his arm at Luo Binghe and again, tries to say something – anything – but there isn’t anything to say. The heart of the matter, while Binghe hasn’t grasped the full truth of it, is that Binghe isn’t wrong. If Luo Binghe were to wreak a bloody variety of vengeance on Shen Qingqiu here and now, Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t find him particularly unjustified.

Really, it was something of a miracle that Luo Binghe hadn’t done it yet. In the novel, Luo Binghe had always been quick to dispense vengeance.

“...Shizun! I would never!”

Never what?” Shen Qingqiu is stripped of his allies, his purpose, his qi, and his dignity, stretched out on the floor of a tea room in Huan Hua Palace. It’s enough that he lets out a haughty bark of laughter. “Never hurt your Shizun? Bind your Shizun? Reduce your Shizun to this?”

Shen Qingqiu flings his arm out dramatically. Ridiculous.

“Be content, Luo Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu is so, so tired, and hopes it doesn’t soften his attempt at a glare into something too pathetic. “There’s nothing of that tea-induced happiness that this teacher could possibly be more deprived of.”

And with that, Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes again. Maybe the tea hasn’t completely left his system yet. Maybe, if he falls back asleep, he’ll have a few more moments of that peaceful night on Qing Jing Peak, holding a much beloved disciple.

It is many, many minutes later that he hears Luo Binghe leave the room.

Shen Qingqiu had set out to be miserable. What had he expected?

-

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t feel the distinct prickle of Luo Binghe’s gaze for days.

He keeps busy.

He practices his qin. The one-time Peak Lord of the scholarly Qing Jing Peak ruthlessly demolishes the musicians of Huan Hua Palace, wearing a dismissive smile as his strings wail mournfully. Gongyi Xiao kindly requests a game of qi; Shen Qingqiu consents to play white and ruthlessly demolishes him, too. When he turns to calligraphy, he copies the pining sweet verses of a more sentimental author – high mountain, how I long to reach you! The Huan Hua disciples in the library sigh over his shoulder.

Shen Qingqiu tries, and fails, to not think of Luo Binghe.

Maybe, in this new version of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way,>> Shen Qingqiu’s part of the story was done now? The scum villain has met his comeuppance, and protagonist Luo Binghe needs not spare him a single thought ever after?

Isn’t that what Shen Qingqiu wanted?

His heart aches.

When he finally sees Luo Binghe again, over a week later, he nearly breaks his fan – because Luo Binghe stands by a courtyard pond with two slender figures, both in Qing Jing Peak’s pale greens and whites: Ming Fan and Ning Yingying.

Shen Qingqiu’s heart leaps for half a moment – Ning Yingying is probably safe, but Shen Qingqiu isn’t in a condition to protect his head disciple – before looking closer and seeing no hostility. The conversation seems amiable enough.

But the terms of Shen Qingqiu’s sentence don’t permit contact with Cang Qiong Sect. He can’t approach, so he just stares at his former disciples with an uncharacteristic lack of discretion.

They seem in good health. His peak’s reputation for producing elegant scholars is well-deserved and on display: Ming Fan and Ning Yingying are both fine-looking cultivators, Ming Fan a solemn counterpoint to Ning Yingying’s fluid animation.

Luo Binghe looks peerless as always, his dark robes accentuated by the pale and graceful Qing Jing Peak disciples’.

What are Ming Fan and Ning Yingying doing here, and why are they talking to Luo Binghe? Their last meeting, to Shen Qingqiu’s knowledge, had been as Luo Binghe’s opponents at the trial. It must be sect business, but Shen Qingqiu can’t think what would bring this pair in particular, especially since the turmoil of Shen Qingqiu’s departure would have fallen hardest on Ming Fan.

And what are they talking about so cheerfully with Luo Binghe? Had they forgotten his lies? How he’d sentenced their Shizun to imprisonment?

...Had they forgotten Shen Qingqiu already…?

Then Ning Yingying sees him first. She smacks Ming Fan several times, pointing.

Then, despite knowing very well the conditions of Shen Qingqiu’s captivity, both she and Ming Fan hurry to him, calling excitedly.

“Shizun!”

“Shizun, we’re here!”

The terms of Shen Qingqiu’s sentence don’t permit contact with Cang Qiong Sect. Luo Binghe is right there. Shen Qingqiu is cognizant of the rules, he really is, but it’s been several months and they’re both suddenly standing in front of him. It’s no use. He can’t resist.

Shen Qingqiu has two hands, and he places one each on Ming Fan and Ning Yingying’s heads.

Luo Binghe watches.

“This one sees that, and is certain that Qing Jing Peak has thrived in your care.” Shen Qingqiu is aware his fondness is showing. “What brings two of Qing Jing Peak’s finest to Huan Hua Palace?”

Both disciples puff up proudly.

“We’re here to escort Shizun home!”

...What.

Ning Yingying smiles, sunshine bright. “Sect Leader Yue is finishing things up with the Palace Master!”

“Liu-shishu is still banned from the Huan Hua Palace grounds, but he’s waiting outside the gates with Shang-shishu.”

“Liu-shishu tried to help with classes too, but Sect Leader Yue said you wouldn’t like it.”

“Shang-shishu has been a great help running the Peak, though, in Shizun’s absence!”

“Everyone has been so worried! But it’s all turned out for the best, doesn’t Shizun think?”

What,” blurts Shen Qingqiu.

Ning Yingying’s pretty doe eyes and Ming Fan’s refined features falter, and they both look at Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe had followed his shixiong and shijie when they approached their Shizun, but stopped a few paces away. He stands apart, quietly observing – and when Shen Qingqiu meets his eyes, Luo Binghe’s gaze skitters down to the ground, avoiding eye contact.

Ning Yingying and Ming Fan look away from Luo Binghe to send complicated glances to each other, and then look back to Shen Qingqiu.

“Shizun, did no one tell you?”

“Shizun, we –”

Great big tears well up in Ning Yingying’s eyes. Ming Fan tilts his chin up in a way that suggested he was trying not to stare at his feet.

“We should have had more faith in Luo-shidi,” Ming Fan says morosely.

Shen Qingqiu wonders if he’s been drugged again.

“Luo-shidi wouldn’t let anyone see you, and we had all thought the worst, but…” Ming Fan is accustomed both to failure and to being wrong, but has never liked admitting either. “He’s disproven all the charges against you, Shizun, and withdrawn his own.”

Ning Yingying nods vigorously. “A-Luo only made a charge at Shizun’s trial to make sure he’d have a voice in the sentencing! Your name is cleared, Shizun!”

“Cleared?” demands Shen Qingqiu. His disciples – they’re his disciples, once more? – both nod.

He reels.

This is a joke. A trap. A trick. Shen Qingqiu’s fate is to be a miserable captive for the rest of his life, while Luo Binghe goes on to succeed in his many adventures, amassing a harem of beauties and concubines. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t get to go home and dies old and miserable. That’s how this story ends. That’s a good ending, for the likes of him.

“This…” Shen Qingqiu doesn’t even know what to ask. There are too many questions.

The only question that he has the answer to, really, is how. He looks to Luo Binghe, who is still staring resolutely at the ground.

Luo Binghe has cleared his name. His ability to do so isn’t in question – he’s the protagonist, and even if Shen Qingqiu had really been a monster, Luo Binghe’s will reigns supreme in this world – but Shen Qingqiu can’t begin to fathom why. It might not even matter why, just that he’s done it.

“Binghe,” starts Shen Qingqiu, with no idea what to say.

Luo Binghe, standing tall in the dark cultivator robes he now prefers, peerlessly handsome, flinches.

Flinches.

...This Luo Binghe? Flinching from Shen Qingqiu?

This is a Luo Binghe that has come fully into his demonic inheritance and tamed the Demon Heart blade, Xin Mo. Shen Qingqiu had once taught Luo Binghe everything he knew; there was nothing in Shen Qingqiu’s repetoire that Luo Binghe couldn’t counter. Shen Qingqiu was weaker in every way. Why would Luo Binghe flinch away at a word? Luo Binghe hadn’t flinched from him since Shen Qingqiu had first arrived in this world, fearful of the original goods’ abuse.

At that thought, Shen Qingqiu feels a pang of completely justified outrage. He’d only ever hurt Luo Binghe the one time, and once had been quite enough! More than enough! Beyond that one obvious exception, Shen Qingqiu had spoiled Luo Binghe whenever possible.

Flinching? From Shen Qingqiu? Why? This Luo Binghe was well-treated! This Binghe has practically none of the original abusive backstory in common with the novel’s protagonist!

At that, Shen Qingqiu blinks.

It’s true; this Binghe really had relatively little in common with the novel’s protagonist. What a thought, that is.

Once Shen Qingqiu had replaced the original goods and disabled OOC restrictions, his Binghe hadn’t experienced any of the hardships of the original. Bullying wasn’t tolerated on his Qing Jing Peak. Shen Qingqiu had devoted long hours to personally training Luo Binghe. He’d played favorites badly; Luo Binghe had lived in his home, been given best pick of night hunts, and received affectionate gestures beyond any other disciple. Shen Qingqiu had rewarded the white lotus for his white lotus traits.

Unlike the Luo Binghe of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way,>> the Luo Binghe that Shen Qingqiu had raised had entered the Abyss knowing both his capabilities and how to improve them. He’d been growing into self-confidence. He’d had a firm foundation for his cultivation and an excellent grasp of the basics – this Binghe’d had the skills to emerge from the Abyss years early.

The idea ties a knot of itself in the deepest snarl of Shen Qingqiu’s mind, like a skein of red silk string. The thread of it unspools before Shen Qingqiu entirely on its own, and Shen Qingqiu can only watch in horror as the thread of thought unravels.

“No, you’re Shizun –”

“Shizun could have asked this disciple to assist –”

“Shizun?”

“...Shizun…?”

“...This disciple wanted to know what makes Shizun happy.”

Luo Binghe looks up hesitantly, waiting. Watching.

...Has Shen Qingqiu misunderstood him?

Luo Binghe is now staring at him again, and for the first time, Shen Qingqiu sees past the carefully crafted facade. There are dark smudges under his eyes. His hands are slightly shaking. He’s spent the last week traveling back and forth, gathering and very probably fabricating evidence to exonerate Shen Qingqiu.

Has Shen Qingqiu misunderstood him?

Shen Qingqiu thinks the answer might be yes.

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu says again, and his throat closes behind the name.

Luo Binghe is still watching him. Luo Binghe watches him whenever he gets the chance.

Shen Qingqiu is off-balance but he knows how to maintain appearances. He straightens and puts away his fan. “Binghe,” he says quietly, “This teacher hopes his disciple will join us on our journey home.”

Binghe nods, eyes filling with unshed tears. Shen Qingqiu’s sentimental heart goes ping.

-

Mountain air and the combined scents of grass and bamboo fill Shen Qingqiu’s lungs. He stands on Qing Jing Peak, breathes deeply, and permits the comfort.

He hadn’t thought he’d ever stand here again, home, flanked by well-meaning brothers and disciples. Shen Qingqiu is grateful to them, but hard-pressed to pay attention – distracted by all the things he wants and can actually have.

He wants to enjoy Yue Qingyuan fretting over him, and he wants to watch Liu Qingge tilt at whatever threat he’s noticed, but he also wants to correct Ning Yingying’s erhu forms, and meditate with Ming Fan, and play something cheerful under the quiet spring’s plum tree, and write out joyous poetry – high mountain, how I long to reach you; breathing your sweetness even here! – and maybe bully Airplane Bro a bit more because he deserves it.

Shen Qingqiu is emotionally exhausted, and the greatest part of him wants nothing more than to curl up in his bamboo house and sleep.

Shang Qinghua takes his leave soon after their arrival. Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge stay and fuss for nearly an hour, so Shen Qingqiu implies that his shixiong might both depart and let him rest, and they do, graciously.

Because for all the things that Shen Qingqiu wants, there is something that he needs to do, first, or he will never be able to quiet the anxious strings still humming in his chest.

So then, he turns to Binghe.

Binghe has kept something of a distance, though his eyes haven’t left Shen Qingqiu. His gaze has been restless, flitting over Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders, down the sweep of his hair, frequently settling on the motion of his hands and the punctuation of his fan gestures.

With Shen Qingqiu’s eyes on him, their gazes meet, and the eye contact is a physical shock to the soul – but Shen Qingqiu has been thinking about the best way to do this since they left Huan Hua Palace.

“This teacher hopes his disciple might join him for some tea.”

Binghe startles.

Shen Qingqiu closes his fan to reveal his expression, unsure what expression he’s even wearing. “Please,” he adds, quietly.

The bamboo house is beautifully, perfectly the same. It seems the disciples of Qing Jing Peak have been faithfully maintaining it; the furniture is dusted and the linens seem fresh. There’s a faint impression of the incense he favors – a light floral, nothing heavy – and two of the windows are open to the breeze. Shen Qingqiu steps forward slowly at first, letting the familiar feel of it, the feel of coming home, sink in once more.

Binghe follows him to the low table, then tries to pass him into the kitchen area.

Shen Qingqiu stops him with two fingers on Binghe’s shoulder. “Sit,” he orders, pressing down gently. He must be imagining Binghe’s shiver.

Binghe goes down, but protests, “Shizun, this disciple must prepare.”

Shen Qingqiu breezes by loftily. “This teacher is the one apologizing to his disciple. It would be inappropriate for that same disciple to serve.”

He makes the mistake of turning to look at Binghe. Binghe is kneeling on the floor, broad shoulders on display as he sits very properly at the tea table, his dark robes and dark hair framing an absolutely flawless face, eyes wide and huge.

The dream ruined him. If Shen Qingqiu were a better master, he wouldn’t be noticing these things about his disciple.

Especially given how distressed Binghe seems. “But this disciple is the one that needs to apologize!”

“Binghe has nothing to apologize for,” Shen Qingqiu says succintly. He looks down at his arms, whole and still attached. “Binghe would have been in his rights to do far worse. This teacher is grateful that Binghe chose differently.”

“I… That…” Luo Binghe practically gasped, leaning, swaying towards Shen Qingqiu. His words burst out of him in a torrent, noisy, and each tumbling over the next. “I was just trying to keep you from running away! You were always running from me, Shizun - I didn’t know you thought I was going to hurt you – but – I’m sorry, Shizun! I – I was wrong!”

Luo Binghe’s hands are buried in his own hair, his voice raising in pitch, tears welling in his big, beautiful eyes – and he nearly collapses, whining quietly, “This… This disciple didn’t mean to take away everything that makes Shizun happy…”

He looks miserable, and Shen Qingqiu has had quite enough of misery, lately. Two steps, and Shen Qingqiu is kneeling next to Binghe, pulling Binghe practically into his lap – and Binghe lets it happen, making an indeterminable noise as his face is pressed into Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder. Shen Qingqiu pats Luo Binghe’s hair with a tired hand that feels heavier than it should.

Enough, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu sighs. “This teacher managed that all on his own.”

A few minutes pass with one of Shen Qingqiu’s hands rubbing comfortingly up and down Binghe’s arm and shoulder, while the other gently musses Binghe’s hair. Slowly, very slowly, the sobbing and sniffling stop.

Binghe’s forehead nuzzles over to press skin-to-skin against Shen Qingqiu’s neck. Shen Qingqiu is a disgusting man and a terrible Shizun, it’s becoming increasingly clear, because even through his exhaustion he shivers.

“I was wrong, Shizun,” Binghe repeats miserably, stubbornly, the noise of it muffled.

“This teacher already said enough,” scolds Shen Qingqiu. “If anything, your Shizun has debts to repay to you.”

“Shizun–”

“This teacher was selfish, and put his well-being above your happiness.” Shen Qingqiu runs his nails over Binghe’s scalp. “This one promises to be better in the future.”

Binghe waits a moment, two moments, before pressing his forehead harder into Shen Qingqiu, still rubbing. Shen Qingqiu does his best to ignore how well-muscled Binghe’s shoulder and bicep are.

“...Shizun really didn’t want to… to hurt me?”

“No.”

“...Shizun didn’t want me to go?”

“No, Binghe.”

“Shizun doesn’t hate me?”

“Never, Binghe.”

“Is Shizun still afraid of me?”

Shen Qingqiu breathes in the smell of Binghe’s hair and quietly notices that he isn’t.

“No, Binghe. I’m not.” Shen Qingqiu says it, surprised, to himself more than the man in his arms. He feels light.

Binghe’s hands unclench from Shen Qingqiu’s robes to lay flat on his sides. Shen Qingqiu is of a height with Binghe but a much narrower build; Binghe’s broad palms and long fingers curl around his waist and ribs.

“And… Shizun wants to make me happy?” murmurs Binghe, pulling back to look into Shen Qingqiu’s eyes.

Shen Qingqiu meets his gaze squarely. “My disciple should know. If keeping this teacher in Huan Hua Palace had made Binghe happy, than that is where this teacher would have stayed.”

Binghe watches him, wide-eyed.

Intrusively, Shen Qingqiu becomes aware of Binghe’s body heat, and with his hands pressing into Shen Qingqiu, there’s an implication of the weight of his larger body, how it might feel if it pressed into him, how it might feel to be pressed against, warm and weighty. Binghe hums, a deep and throaty noise.

Shen Qingqiu’s mouth goes dry. His face feels hot.

He’s your disciple! Disciple!

Binghe leans in – leans in! – big, beautiful eyes still looking at him from under those long lashes – and bumps his forehead against Shen Qingqiu’s.

“This disciple… would be most happy making his Shizun most happy,” Binghe murmurs, shyly, coy. “Or at least, this one would like to try.”

Shen Qingqiu inhales sharply. That’s what the Illusory Binghe of Shen Qingqiu’s tea dream had said, before Shen Qingqiu had – he had – and Binghe had watched the whole thing

– he wants –

– embarrassing! – shameful!

– he squeezes his eyes shut in frustration, turning his head away, and immediately hates himself for it.

Usually, Shen Qingqiu keeps his head in a crisis. He excels in a crisis. But he just – he just doesn’t have the face to navigate this situation. Binghe couldn’t be serious! He can have anyone – literally, anyone he wants, he’s the protagonist of a stallion novel – and he’s angling to kiss Shen Qingqiu?

This can’t be what Binghe wants, what will make Binghe happy – Shen Qingqiu couldn’t possibly be fortunate enough to share a dream of happiness with peerless, flawless harem master protagonist Luo Binghe.

It was supposed to show me what would make you happy, Luo Binghe had said in the tea room.

Shen Qingqiu isn’t shaking. He isn’t.

There’s a moment of silence, and then a whisper of cloth.

“...This disciple can’t read Shizun very well, can he?” Luo Binghe muses quietly, his voice gone deep. “This one now knows what Shizun wants, and what would make Shizun happiest, but wouldn’t know by watching him now.”

The vibration of his voice grows closer, quieter.

“Still, this one begins to understand. Shizun calls his disciples troublesome and needy, but dreams of guiding their way. Shizun blames many things on Shang-shishu, but dreams of sharing friendly visits and strange words. Shizun evades his sect leader, but dreams of being useful to him and Liu-shishu…”

Shen Qingqiu tenses as a nose trails against his ear, as Luo Binghe’s hand trailing over his neck.

“And Shizun... Shizun avoids this disciple’s touch, but dreams of putting his hands in my hair.”

A gentle grip on Shen Qingqiu’s wrist sends goosebumps and a violent shiver up his arm. Luo Binghe pulls Shen Qingqiu's hand up – eyes still clenched shut, Shen Qingqiu immediately grips the thick hair he’s been guided to, trying to ground himself.

“Shizun scolds this disciple, turns his head away from this disciple –”

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes fly open; a small smile quirks Binghe’s lips. It’s complicated, smug and hungry.

“It’s alright, Shizun,” he says softly, eyes glowing red, “Shizun doesn’t need to ask. This disciple already knows what he dreams of.”

Shen Qingqiu gasps for air; it sounds like a sob.

And then –

Luo Binghe devours Shen Qingqiu’s mouth.

He isn’t good at it.

He’s running off of warring instincts, running big worshipful hands over his robes while his teeth nip mercilessly, digging wet and toothy marks into Shen Qingqiu’s lips. Shen Qingqiu gasps again into Binghe’s mouth, because – because Luo Binghe doesn’t know how to kiss! Binghe –

Binghe is clueless and clumsy, desperate, with only instinct to guide him and not all of it human.

Ah, Shen Qingqiu’s sentimental heart wants to wrap him in cotton, but he wraps his arms around those big, broad shoulders instead and holds him close, one hand still clutching at his thick hair above the nape of his neck. Shen Qingqiu tries to gentle the kiss, to teach, to be affectionate, but the nuance of it is completely lost. Binghe is still biting, biting his mouth, and – it’s not good, it hurts, but –

But it’s hot breath mixing with his, and it’s wet and it’s Luo Binghe’s mouth on him, and Shen Qingqiu whines.

The sound startles Binghe. He pulls back, but Shen Qingqiu has a fist in Luo Binghe’s hair and pulls with it, hard, not letting him go far.

Shen Qingqiu is breathing heavily enough to feel the hot shame of it – even more, if that’s possible – embarrassed at the hitching sounds of his own panting.

Binghe’s eyes are glowing red through long lashes, thrilled, adoring, awestruck. The pale skin of Binghe’s throat, set against his dark clothing, is bright and clean. He smells of jasmine rice and lotus blossoms. He wears black silk, but his hair and eyes are drawn in a darker ink, somehow gleaming even brighter than the light that they reflect.

Shen Qingqiu pants, and swallows. Pulling Binghe sideways by the hair, he keeps pulling – both of them, down – down to the mats of the bamboo house.

Binghe follows, shakily, hands either worshipful or rough as he remembers and then forgets himself, all untutored teeth and spit and fits of raw possession, overwhelmed and overwhelming and whining all at once.

The length of Luo Binghe’s body presses against him, all heat and heavy weight through their clothes, a thigh pushing up between his. Another noise punches out of Shen Qingqiu’s throat when his hips automatically press up into the pressure given, and the shameless, sinuous motion sends Binghe into a full-body shudder. Shen Qingqiu can feel it, through Binghe’s robes – the muscles of Binghe’s back under his palm, flexing and pulling.

Shen Qingqiu tries to guide him, shifting them – Binghe clutches him as they move together – he’s terrible, no rhythm, he’s so close, they’re so close – this, the friction, their clothes are still on – Shen Qingqiu is hot and panting and he can’t be the one making those shameless noises – ah, it’s not really so bad though is it – Ah –

And Shen Qingqiu is there, too quickly, everything from his shoulders through his thighs down to the curling of his toes flexes, his arms around Binghe pulling and his hands fisting in silk – Binghe!

Shen Qingqiu becomes aware of himself again with his head buried in Binghe’s hair, sticking to his brow, and an uncomfortable mess in his inner robes –

– and the desperate whines of Binghe still chasing relief against Shen Qingqiu’s thigh, unable to catch it. Binghe pants into his shoulder, his neck, his hair, sounding almost in pain as his entire body works towards something it’s having trouble finding. The poor thing; all that demonic stamina is only cruel in a situation like this.

Shen Qingqiu’s heart is full and sore and tender; he rubs his arms soothingly up Binghe’s back, trying to communicate care and support, but it only makes Binghe whine harder.

“Binghe, it’s alright,” he comforts mindlessly, humming, voice hitching with Binghe’s thrusts against him, “You can… You can… Binghe, you…”

It’s really too embarrassing to say, even like this, but those are tears, and Binghe is sobbing, and for his sake, Shen Qingqiu summons the will – in his embarrassment, his voice sounds hoarse and harsh –

Binghe! Now!

It’s an order. Binghe comes noisily, rubbing his face and mouth and teeth wherever he can reach, voice cracking on a keen of “Shizun…!

And the moving stutters to a stop.

Binghe’s muscles relax entirely on top of him.

And then the room is quiet. Shen Qingqiu, sweaty, sated, still breathing harder than normal, has his face buried in Binghe’s neck, nose tucked just below his ear.

Binghe’s mass of hair spills over him, all dark and soft. It smells good. “You’ve made me – you make me really happy, Shizun.”

“Good,” Shen Qingqiu says, and his voice is deeper and throatier than usual. Binghe shivers.

“This disciple hopes... that we might both make each other happy from now on?” Binghe whispers shyly, soft and syrupy, his lax and heavy body pressing Shen Qingqiu into the mats, huge and hot and sticky and infinitely precious. Shen Qingqiu almost has trouble breathing from the weight of it.

“....Yes,” he agrees, voice even quieter.

He doesn’t want to move, so he doesn’t. He clutches Binghe tighter to himself, and feels entirely at peace.

-

Things are a good different, on Qing Jing Peak.

“Shizun,” Ming Fan addresses him one day, bowing respectfully, “This disciple wants you to know.”

“Hm?” Shen Qingqiu responds, distracted with paperwork.

“This disciple has recently spoken with Luo Binghe, and both myself and Yingying-shimei are satisfied regarding his honorable intentions towards Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu chokes, because not only do Ming Fan and Ning Yingying know, but they gave Luo Binghe a shovel talk. Ming Fan nods, satisified, and that’s only the beginning – one by one, the important people in Shen Qingqiu’s life find out.

Notably, Liu Qingge also gives Luo Binghe a shovel talk. There is great emphasis on the shovel. It is… destructive. It’s still not as bad as Yue Qingyuan, who walks in one morning with Luo Binghe still in Shen Qingqiu’s bed. Yue Qingyuan pretends to be oblivious, characteristically turning a cheerful blind eye to it. Shen Qingqiu wants to weep with gratitude.

Airplane is the only one that Shen Qingqiu actually tells about his new relationship.

“Bro,” responds Shang Qinghua, wounded. “Bro. You bent him! You bent my stallion protagonist!”

My stallion protagonist,” Shen Qingqiu sniffs.

Luo Binghe seems unruffled by all of this, but leaves large red marks on Shen Qingqiu’s neck all the same.

Still. These things settle quickly, in the over-arching rhythm of life. Shen Qingqiu is returned to to his place in this world. He stands on the edge of the bamboo grove, a favorite cedar and silk peony fan in his hands.

It doesn’t feel like it’s going to rain anytime soon, but this is fine.

One needs both rain and sun to be able to appreciate the other, after all.

Shen Qingqiu has been in two separate bodies and lived two separate lives. He has been healthy and near-crippled in both, he has known family and solitude, and he begins to realize that happiness is not a thing captured and kept. It is a thing tended, and minded, and never taken for granted; a delicate plant that can be swept away with the first storm that passes, yet which might survive tempests if only the roots are strong enough.

Shen Qingqiu has roots here, now, and the deepest of them is sticky, and devoted, and warm, and calls him “Shizun,” in a deep and highly inappropriate tone of voice.

Shameless!

He waves the thought away with a fan gesture, but when large palms settle on his waist from behind and a sly grin presses to the side of his neck, Shen Qingqiu doesn’t startle away.

“Did Shizun miss this disciple?” Binghe grins widely into the crook of his shoulder, ready to be content whether he receives kind words or a firm whap of his Shizun’s fan.

Shen Qingqiu knows he’s walking a dangerous line when he delicately thumbs his fan open and peers over it sidelong. It is.. Easier, to do things like this, knowing that the reaction will be overwhelmingly positive. Less humiliating, less shameful, than when such things are unknown.

“Do you need this teacher to confirm such things for you?” he murmurs, glad to have his small smile hidden from sight.

Binghe is well able to sense his Shizun’s permissive mood, and hands on his waist pull Shen Qingqiu in. Heat creeps up Shen Qingqiu’s neck as Binghe settles against him. Shen Qingqiu’s immediate embarrassment and reflexive whap of his fan is only quelled by the fact that no one is in sight; he squirms in Binghe’s iron grip for half a moment before deciding he doesn’t have the face for it.

He’d put up more of a fight if Binghe didn’t enjoy it so much. Really.

He rests there, listening to the wind behind him in the bamboo, the distant laughter of Ning Yingying and Ming Fan, and the gentle breathing behind him. He taps his fan against the arms looped around him and tuts, to unsurprisingly little effect: not even Binghe could mistake the sound as anything but content. The arms around him only tighten.

"Really," murmurs Shen Qingqiu, settling in. "Is this teacher not affectionate enough?"

"Ah, respecting Shizun. This disciple had thought he was dreaming." Luo Binghe presses a bright smile against the tendon of his Shizun's neck, and watches him sigh, happy.