Shen Qingqiu took in a deep breath as he watched the disciple selection. It had been some time since he was Shen Yuan, but he could still recognize the “protagonist”. Luo Binghe had finally come to Cang Qiong.
His mind flashed back to waking up huddled in a tree, smelling of smoke and ash, the memories of the body he wore, playing in his mind like a movie…Shen Yuan woke up screaming that day, startling the birds, and catching the attention of Wu Yanzi who was passing by, likely on his way to rob someone. Wu Yanzi took him in as his disciple when he noticed the Qi residue surrounding his form, and, as Shen Yuan figured out later, to confirm that Shen Yuan hadn’t heard him killing some noble’s third son in the bushes below.
It was through sheer luck, and past memories that he stayed alive long enough to kill the man he mockingly called Shizun, for a man he recognized as Yue Qingyuan. Stay quiet something inside him said, and he did, from start to finish, from street rat, to Peak Lord, he stayed silent. He may have known the secret of Xuan Su, but Shen Jiu hadn’t and “Qi-ge’s” patronizing behaviour made him sick. Qi-ge loved his Xiao Jiu, of course he did. He just happened to also treat Shen Yuan like he was a monster in human skin that Yue Qi was taking in by, the grace of his large heart, forgiving Shen Yuan’s trespasses, instead of bothering to find out, or believe, that Shen Yuan had not done whatever some jumped up Qing Jing disciple claimed he did.
If Yue Qingyuan loved Shen Jiu, it was in a way Shen Yuan could not understand. How does someone love another so much, and still believe the worst of them? Did he think it was some kind of mercy to “cover up” Shen Yuan’s “wrong-doing” and in doing so…help? All Yue Qi did was create more tension like a male Ning Ying Ying, his every cry for patience, and peace, driving hatred towards Shen Yuan like moths to an open flame.
Shen Yuan woke up in that tree with twisted spirit veins that burned with every move he made, and a cultivation prone of Qi deviation, all for Yu Qi. Shen Jiu had stayed with the Qiu’s, had saved Yue Qingyuan, golden boy of the Sect, while he had been - while Qiu J -
Shen Yuan was never so pleased to have missed a story Arc, then when he skipped Shen Jiu’s tragic past. Shen Jiu may have been villainous, but Shen Yuan was the one who wore his body, who had watched his memories, flickering to life behind his eyelids, he knew better than anyone what had happened to him. Enough to know what would happen to him to make him the man he became, or at least he was able to make a solid guess.
If you treat a person like a monster long enough, they become one.
Yue Qi and his endless guilt, could take his wronged solo act, and shove it. Shen Qingqiu had better things to do than to play along. And so, Shen Yuan learned to cultivate properly, working twice as hard for the half the payout, when his Sprit veins were once stronger than Yue Qingyuan’s before -
Shen Yuan learned, and took his name, and taught his students well. He stayed cold and separate from his martial siblings, unbothered to make connections with people who always assumed the worst from him, taking their cues from Zhangmen-shixiong. They would like him, or they wouldn’t. He had more important things to worry about. Like his cultivation, and his future as a possible stick.
This morning Shen Yuan stared at the ceiling of his bamboo house, Peak Lord Shen Qingqiu stared at his ceiling, and thought about Luo Binghe. He still wasn’t sure if he should take the future Demon Lord in, or not. He had thought about the issue before, calculating when Luo Binghe would come to the Sect in relation to Ning Ying Ying’s age, and Ying Ying was sixteen this year which meant that, this morning, the protagonist would be digging holes at the base of their mountain. Presumably waiting for the start of his blackening arc, which, if Shen Yuan had anything to say about it, would never come.
If he put the boy in his Peak, he’d be in danger directly, but if he let Liu Qingge take the boy they’d all be fucked. The idiot leader of Jock Peak couldn’t be trusted with any disciples, let alone one that might kill them all in the future.
The afternoon as the Peak Lords gathered on a cliff overlooking the new hopefuls, he found his calculations had proven correct. Staring at a handsome face, despite being covered in dirt, Shen Qingqiu drawled out, “I want that one. The one by the pond. Luo Binghe's hands clenched a shovel as though it were his very life.
He’d at the very least be a better Shizun than Liu Qingge. It was fine. It would all be fine. He’d be a hands off, aloof master, who provided good lessons. He could do that, he did do that, regardless. He certainly wouldn’t throw the protagonist into the Abyss, but he also assumed that fate could work in strange ways, and that all unfortunate options should be prepared for.
Yue Qingyuan turned to look at him, and reproached, “Qingqiu-shidi…is there any reason you’d like the boy as disciple?”
Shen Yuan already knew that Yue Qingyuan thought his choice had been made solely because Liu Qingge said something about the boy. Shen Qingqiu as usual, ignored him and his shitty assumptions. “I think he’d make a good addition to Qing Jing, why… does Zhangmen-shixiong want him for Qiong Ding?”
He already knew that Yue Qingyuan would let him take the boy as his disciple, so when the times came he led Luo Binghe back to his Peak, personally handing him his white and green uniform. He didn’t bother with the tea ceremony on the first day, finding it fussy and pretentious, he’d rather his students be well rested and clean when they kneeled in front of him and swore their obedience.
“From now on you are a disciple of Qing Jing Peak,“ Shen Qingqiu started, watching as Luo Binghe clutched his uniform to his chest like a safety vest. “You will behave yourself accordingly, and learn how to cultivate. You will treat me, and your fellow martial siblings with respect.”
“Yes Shizun,” Luo Binghe agreed, starry eyed.
“Do you know how to read and write?” Shen Qingqiu asked, already knowing the answer. Luo Binghe blushed but answered honestly, “No, Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu said, “Tommorow you’ll be assigned a tutor, until you become literate. They will read out the Peak rules twice. Remember them. They will instruct you, on how to brew a cup of tea. Remember this too. Afterwards your shixiong, or shimei will take you to me. You will make me a cup of tea, and I will formally accept you as a disciple. Tonight Ming Fan will escort you to bathe, and you’ll be assigned a room in the male barracks. Is that understood?”
“Yes Shizun,” Binghe answered.
Tommorow he would hand Luo Binghe his cultivation manual, personally, as he had taken to doing years ago to avoid the Ming Fan situation from ever occurring, not solely with Luo Binghe, but with any disciple. Ming Fan as he knew him, as he taught him, was a well behaved boy with a crush on Ning Ying Ying and an average talent in cultivation. As the second son of a noble estate, he wasn’t expected to achieve much in his life, but to be on Qing Jing at all brought honour to his family, a concept Ming Fan held onto with grasping hands. Shen Qingqiu gave him a stable base unto which he tethered his self esteem and in return Ming Fan gave him his loyalty. Shen Qingqiu did not hold that loyalty lightly, he had done his utmost to teach his students well, giving them all the advantages he could in this harsh world. He wasn’t quite sure what they thought of him, but he supposed they respected him well enough, jumping to attention when he called them, and listening when he spoke. They were most certainly a group of good children, who didn’t deserve to die. He would do his best to ensure they didn't.
He absently wondered what kind of disciple Luo Binghe would make when he wasn’t being pushed down to assuage his teacher’s insecurities? Tapping his fan against his lips, Shen Qingqiu smiled. What did it matter to him, what kind of student the future protagonist would make? His only goal at this point was to keep things fair as possible. Cang Qiong would be a blank slate for Luo Binghe, a place that helped him more than it hurt. Perhaps Luo Binghe would even learn to consider the Sect as the place a few of his wives came from, and in this way remember it with fondness? Speaking of wives, he’d send Ying Ying to tutor him in the morning. He didn’t exactly want her to marry Luo Binghe one day, but she had already expressed interest in their newest member. If they were meant to be, they’d fall in love no matter his actions.
Hiding his grin he went to find her. She’d have a possible future husband to guide tommorow, after all.
That night Luo Binghe came down with a fever, and woke two hours earlier than needed, his eyes burning red. Where was he? What had he been doing before he awoke? The last thing he recalled was falling asleep in his own bed.
Staring down at his hands, which were smaller than he recalled, he absorbed the memories of this body slowly. He was young once more, and a disciple of the illustrious Qing Jing Peak. Bitterly, he regretted that he did not awaken before trying to get into the Sect, but he supposed it would not be the worst thing to relive his life. He’d suffered before and survived, he could suffer again. This time without false beliefs clouding his vision.
He would play innocent for now, and when he got his strength back he’d destroy Cang Qiong once more. Quietly, he did not think of the other him, married to Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu was scum. He'd always be scum. Luo Binghe would have to tally the injustices against his self with care, to be sure to repay him properly.
Why wasn’t Shen Qingqiu throwing tea at him? Binghe thought, hatefully. The man looked smug, and cold, just the same as before, sitting above Binghe like a mighty immortal. He was nothing but the worst of trash. How dare he look down on Binghe, like Binghe hadn’t ripped out his eye once, and all of his limbs? In spite of Luo Binghe’s tumultuous thoughts there his Shizun sat, sipping Binghe’s tea and handing Binghe a cultivation manual that would not potentially kill or cripple him.
Binghe slowly learned that nothing was right in Qing Jing Peak.
Ning Ying Ying’s cultivation was a level higher, Ming Fan wasn’t trying to ban him from sleeping on a bed, and the classes were arranged in such strange ways.
Gone were the almost random groupings of lessons, held together by vague time-lines, and Shen Qingqiu’s whims. Instead they were arranged by level of cultivation, given full access to the library, one that was vaster than he recalled, and expected to preform well when they were sent on tasks.
Every day, Luo Binghe awoke, as his shixiong’s led his group through their morning stretches carefully correcting his posture. Then, they had breakfast which was not unusual, followed by lessons from ji shi, till gui shi, which were. After lessons they had period of free time, which they dedicated to chores, if they had them, “assigned study”, and…play? The chore sheet was managed by a rotating group of seniors who changed monthly, and had to check off that all the chores were completed by the disciple they had been tasked to. The “chore sheet” allowed each disciple to maximize their free time, while maintaining order, and equality. It was…bizarre.
Every day, Binghe went to his lessons on the basics of Qi, and cultivation, basic martial forms, and talisman making. Twice in seven days they practiced music, twice they practiced literature and calligraphy, once they practiced basic pill making, and for two days they had “free time”. This time was used to go on quests, which they could receive from An Ding, or work on a subject of their choice. The days were divided thus, a lunar cycle falling into fours as opposed to the usual three, for no reason other than…Shizun said so. Binghe's life was lived in orderly quadrants and lessons that became "harder" the more he learned.
Luo Binghe had been exempted from his literature period, and assigned Ning Ying Ying as a partner, who taught him how to read and write. He faked having to learn well enough, mildly amused by this young version of his former wife. This Ying Ying seemed a touch sharper than the doe eyed girl he knew, never calling him A’Luo despite her cheery tone. Instead he was “shidi” or “Luo-shidi”. She was a better teacher than last time, when they had huddled under the light of a candle for the same purpose.
Ming Fan too, was not the pig-like brute he once knew, using his minuscule power against those weaker than him. This quiet, and solemn shixiong of his was polite, and helpful, if a bit…accident prone. Binghe watched him trip over nothing at all, more than once.
Bitterly, Luo Binghe wondered if Shen Qingqiu had also come back to his youth, but that thought was scraped the longer he stayed. The man surely would have killed him now, when Luo Binghe was young, instead of bothering to…provide him with an education? This Shen Qingqiu seemed content to allow him to live through his dreams of what he once thought Qing Jing would be.
Shen Qingqiu taught the older disciples primarily, Binghe’s classes relegated to seniors who were good at their craft. However, on random days, perhaps twice a month, Shen Qingqiu took over a few of the lower level classes, teaching music or literature, his face an impassive mask as he calmly explained this, or that bit of knowledge, gently correcting mistakes as he went.
Binghe had wanted to laugh hysterically at the strange world he ended up in. This was not Shen Qingqiu. This couldn’t be him. This distant, aloof immortal, who for all intents and purposes seemed to actually teach his disciples? This Shen Qingqiu who never laid his hands on his disciples, who did not beat them for their transgressions was not the man he knew.
It had made Binghe want to cough up blood when he learned that lashing, and caning were not administered at Qing Jing, and that they never had been. Punishment was running laps around the mountain, which was beneficial to them in the long run, or extra chores, and not the back breaking labour of his youth, but a pithy hour or two cutting firewood…Not that any of the disciples of Qing Jing dared mis-behave, this strange, safe place in the cultivation world, that seemed devoid of corruption, bullying and bribery, was one they were all grateful to be in. The disciples gratefully hid under the large tree that was Shen Qingqiu, his presence shielding them from the rain.
Meanwhile Luo Binghe could still taste the blood in his mouth from the caning he once received under their Shizun’s gentle hands in another life.
Under the strict but fair regime of this Shen Qingqiu, Qing Jing was successful. Binghe ignored the blind devotion of the older disciples. The only conclusion he came to for the discrepancies between his lives was that perhaps this old fox was better at hiding his tails? These peaceful surroundings were surely just a new strategy to hide the rotten thing living within them. He would not be caught unaware.
Binghe woke in the night once more, this time with a sharp pain in his chest, his body convulsing. He could feel his demonic energy struggle to break free, his cultivation apparently having the audacity to come with him while he was stuck in a fragile human body that had not awakened.
Someone screamed, and called for Ming Fan. Ming Fan carried him to Shizun, and Binghe laughed at the thought that this was how he would die. Young and unknown with nothing to his name. His laughter seemed to scare Ming Fan into running faster which was all he knew until his vision went black.
When he awoke in the side room of the bamboo hut, a place he only recalled from the memories of a stranger, a pale slender hand held a cold compress to his head. He was surprised he woke at all.
Shen Qingqiu frowned down at him.
“From now on Luo Binghe will live with this master,” he announced.
How interesting, thought Luo Binghe. Did the man know what he was? Did he know who he was? Was this a new game for Luo Binghe to play? That was fine, he excelled at games.
“W-why?” He asked, making his eyes widen and swell with tears.
“There are problems with your cultivation, this master will circulate his Qi within your body nightly until you build a core,” Shen Qingqiu explained, calmly taking his wrist to check his pulse.
“This disciple thanks Shizun,” Binghe replied.
He wondered if this was where his torment started. He ached to see what Shen Qingqiu would do to him…he’d really, truly, have to pay it all back a hundred times over. He was almost looking forward to it.
Binghe’s life was still uneventful. He woke up, he went to his studies, he came back in the evening, or night. Shen Qingqiu cleared his meridians before bed. Rinse, and repeat. He didn’t bother making Shen Qingqiu food, or beg to be his servant as the other him had. They co-existed beside each other in begrudging harmony, on Binghe’s part, at least.
He had almost been lulled into complacency until he realized that he was being drugged. Shen Qingqiu’s focus on paperwork, taxes, and poetry hid the fact that he had switched out the incense in Binghe’s room, for longer than Luo Binghe liked.
It smelled ordinary, of course, like sandalwood and smoke…it could also put a grown Ox-Rhinoceros to sleep. Binghe didn’t know how he missed it given his experience with such subterfuge in his former…future...Palace.
Clearing the drug from his system with pulse of Qi or two, he lay in bed and closed his eyes, waiting to catch Shen Qingqiu in the act. Perhaps he was inviting a lover into his hut? Or perhaps he was groping at Luo Binghe’s form. He would not put it past the sick piece of shit.
The door opened with a creak, and Binghe waited.
A cool hand stroked his hair, and he felt Shen Qingqiu sit on his bedside, “What am I going to do with you?” The man whispered.
What was the supposed to mean? Did he want to kill him? Because if he did, Luo Binghe was not brought so low, that he couldn’t hurt the man.
He heard the rustling of fabric, surprised that his second guess was correct, he really hadn’t expected that from Shen Qingqiu, assuming his tastes ran to more feminine charms, but he gathered his demonic Qi in his palms, and prepared to fend off the assault.
He felt slender hands lift his body until he was cradled in Shen Qingqiu’s lap and pressed against his bare chest…partially bare, Luo Binghe could feel both fabric, and skin, under his cheek.
One hand cradled his head, while the other held him close by the waist.
“Come on, you’re usually much greedier than this,” Shen Qingqiu muttered.
What was that supposed to mean? Binghe was going to shove his hand through his chest, see if he didn’t. Shen Qingqiu jostled him lightly, holding his body up with one arm, his head pretending to flop against Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, while the man's other hand did something, and Binghe was once more pressed close to Shen Qingqiu’s chest.
What did the Shen Qingqiu think he was going to -
Something wet trailed onto the corner of his mouth, licking at it instinctively like an idiot, he jolted in shock. The arms around him kept him from falling. A concerned noise, left Shen Qingqiu’s mouth, and Luo Binghe stuck his tongue out again to lap at Shen Qingqiu’s chest to confirm his find. Never mind that he could have poisoned himself, he wasn’t dying and that…was milk.
Trailing his tongue upward to follow it back to the source, he found….a nipple. It was undeniable, based on all his years of experience, there was indeed, a nipple by his mouth. Without thinking, he made yet another terrible decision and latched on. As he suckled a warm liquid immediately filled his throat. The demonic Qi left his hands, dispersing, as he felt Shen Qingqiu sigh in relief, more than he heard it.
Nuzzling closer, he rolled the nub in his mouth, quickly pulling milk with each suck.
“Easy, be easy, greedy boy,” Shen Qingqiu murmured rocking Binghe’s body slightly. Binghe wanted to be deeply indignant but he also knew exactly what Shen Qingqiu was doing. Within him, the warring battle between his human cultivation and his demonic, was soothed for a moment.
One of the most difficult, and greatest ways to aid deviances in Qi was by creating a liquid, much like breastmilk within the body. It was a lost technique, spoken of only in the rarest of medical journals, but powerful. One of Binghe’s wives out of six hundred was able to do it, producing scant mouthfuls before running dry, perhaps once every two years, if that.
Shizun’s milk, contrarily, overflowed in his mouth seeping out of the corners of his lips to his ire, but the more he drank the more there seemed to be, his body cradled to that of his master as he was lulled by the peaceful motions, the burn of his body soothed.
When he sucked the breast dry, without meaning to, he whined and rubbed his nose against Shen Qingqiu’s chest. A flush of shame spread through him.
Shizun sighed once more, but moved him to his other breast as though he was used to it. Once more he shuffled his clothing off, and pulled Binghe close. This time, Binghe did not hesitate to latch onto the swollen nipple, intent on sucking it dry.
Shen Qingqiu hissed and patted his head to try and soothe him, but Binghe was hungry, greedily mouthing at the teat, refusing to stop, as thought he had been starved for a lifetime. Shuddering Binghe plastered himself to that chest, not daring to open his eyes, lest Shizun catch him awake and take himself away.
Luo Binghe obediently nursed from his Shizun, and did not open his eyes. Even when he ached to see what those planes, that felt flat under his cheek, but softer, looked like. He wanted to see what the nipples he mouthed on looked like, and if Binghe had managed to make them puffy, but Shizun had drugged him for a reason, and he dared not ruin the ruse that allowed him this.
When he finished, taking in one last gulp, Shen Qingqiu pulled the covers up to Binghe's neck, tucking him in, before he left the room.
Binghe’s eyes snapped open and he had to bite his own hand to stop himself from making noise. He didn’t know what to make of this.
The next night the same thing happened, and the night after. Was Shizun simply going to heal Binghe’s fractured cultivation without saying a word? Feeding him from his own body, like Binghe had come from it?
Every day Luo Binghe watched Shen Qingqiu with the eyes of a hawk, desperate to get any sign from the man, as to his motivations. Why go so far for him? Why pull out a technique Luo Binghe was sure the original Shen Qingqiu did not know, and soothe his aches?
“Shizun,” He called out carrying a warming box filled with congee, and other treats, “This disciple made breakfast, begging Shizun to taste my craft,” he offered.
Shizun paused, and then nodded, siting down on the low table as Luo Binghe started to lay out the meal, kneeling to the side, before Shen Qingqiu waved him over to join in. He liked to think of himself as a reasonable man. If Shizun fed him, it was only fair that he feed Shizun.