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a penny for your thoughts

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What words did Luo Binghe have for Shen Qingqiu? How could he possibly begin to describe him. 

The master he loved. The master he doted on. The master he clung to and cherished and followed. Who he’d believed in again and again, and again, and again once more. Who he’d stubbornly, naively hoped might tire of his beatings, his shaming, his abuse. Who Luo Binghe had thought for so long that, were he a good enough disciple, obedient enough, efficient enough, talented enough, smart enough, Shen Qingqiu might shed his frozen skin, might melt by degrees and blossom under Luo Binghe’s earnest attention into something warm and sweet and wonderful. 

The master who he’d realised only when he’d been cast into the abyss by a cold hand and a cold smile blurred by humid frost and humid tears that there was nothing to melt, because permafrost soil was blackened and dead all the way through and through and through and there was no way, there was no way that something as warm and sweet and beautiful as spring could bloom from a heart that had withered hairy. 

There was no way for a white lotus to charm him to smile when all that ugly (beautiful) man would smile at was watching a flower freeze over and die. 

Shen Qingqiu. The last person who Luo Binghe had tried, earnestly, over and again, to make love him. The last person who Luo Binghe had given chance after chance to, pleading in his stupid maiden’s heart for his master to prove he deserved those chances. Waiting endlessly for the day when his fist would soften, fingers loosen, and the hands which beat him would hold him instead, because this master, this Shen Qingqiu, was his last hope that the world had a will to be kind to him, and that pain was not an immutable truth he could not circumvent. 

In the end, Luo Binghe thought he understood Shen Qingqiu more than anyone. 

He understood how a heart could turn so bone-deep cold that it was blackened all the way through, that no warmth or attention or shallow, childish affection from a rose by any other name could thaw it back to beating. 

He understood what it took to make a monster.

When he next met Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe was a monster of his master’s making and wore on his face the cold, hateful smile which he had stolen from that master’s lips. The smile he tore from his lips the way he tore his limbs from his body. Bound, trapped, the right arm which struck him ripped easeful from his body. Consoled, quieted, Luo Binghe’s gentle care shushed his screams, eased the bleeding. Bone torn straight from the socket of his shoulder, Luo Binghe had no wish for Shen Qingqiu to die so happily. 

The right leg that kicked him, pulled from his body as easily as one might dismember a fowl. Shh, quiet, easy, gentle, there there Shizun, this disciple is only demonstrating what you taught him. 

The left hand that held his fan, imperious immortal, untouchable, unreadable. Watch me read you now, ink spilled across the page. Fake training manuals, fake poise, fake elegance to hide bloodstained teeth behind bloodstained silk for all the times those fans had broken with the force of being struck across Luo Binghe’s face. 

The left foot that had tilted beneath Luo Binghe’s chin, angled his bruised and beaten face for Shen Qingqiu to see if the damage he’d dealt was to the standard he upheld, or if he needed to go another round. 

(Often he did, purely because he could.)

(Sometimes he didn’t, purely because he hadn’t the time to be quite as thorough as he’d like.)

Little brat, he’d called him. Little bastard. Little beast. 

Luo Binghe took the tongue with which he’d said it, and the eyes which had looked at anyone but him. Anyone but him. 

Anyone but him. 

Look at me, Shen Qingqiu.

His master was a bloodsoaked mess, aggrieved, delirious. Luo Binghe had never seen him in such a state of disarray. It was beautiful. (It was hideous.) It was intoxicating. 

He couldn’t even open his eyes. 

Even then, he wouldn’t look at him. 

(Stone-formed lips, white roses dripping red, mindlessly tracing the shape of Yue Qingyuan’s name, because even then he wouldn’t call for Luo Binghe — not even to beg his mercy.)

Luo Binghe had taken those eyes. What would he need them for, if they weren’t looking at him?

All over again in Shen Qingqiu’s dreams, and again, and again. Arms, legs, tongue, eyes. As many times as he pleased, until the damage he dealt was to the standard he upheld - and then some, purely because he could. 

A blackened master bred a blackened sheep, and in the end only reaped what he sowed. 

The Shen Qingqiu he found on the other side, though, was not the Shen Qingqiu he’d broken. 

It was not the Shen Qingqiu who had broken him.

Shen Qingqiu’s hands on him, gentle in a way they’d never been. Those hands, long-fingered and smooth, held him delicately, elegantly. The same way they would hold a brush to write in the finest script, or cradle a cup of the most delicate porcelain. As though he were scared of breaking him, of smudging him — terrified of staining him black.

Shen Qingqiu’s spiritual energy smoothing through his meridians, as cool and fine as silver, placating the riot of demonic energy that had risen in him. A breeze that flowed through him, as calm as the simple relief of sitting temperate in a grove of bamboo, leaves pinwheeling as they fell to the ground. 

Shen Qingqiu’s arms around him — arms Luo Binghe dreamed of most nights. Dreamed of tearing them from his body, dreamed of blood that flowed to stain green robes, of screams that pierced his blackened, dead heart and made it sing with a vitriol of vicious pleasure. Those arms wound around him, sharp bone beneath cool skin, and Luo Binghe wanted to trace his hands up the slender length of them, feel where they joined his shoulders to see if there were scars, to see if he’d been pieced back together, or if this Shen Qingqiu was one which had never struck him, never hurt him, never cast him into the abyss. 

Smooth hair splayed over the pillows, tangled in Luo Binghe’s fingers, he wanted to see this Shen Qingqiu smile, if only to know if it was as frozen-over and hateful as the one he’d torn from his old master’s lips to wear on his own face. 

Lips parted, smooth and slack with sleeping breaths that brushed against Luo Binghe’s chest. 

He wanted to kiss them. 

The blackened, withered heart in his chest clenched tight into a small, ugly fist at the thought, and something like a scream and like a slur and like a sob ached in his throat. He wanted to kiss them, to see if they were as soft as they looked.

Or were they soft in the way carved jade was soft; smooth and pliant and elegant in form, but brutish and unrelenting to touch. 

He slept, and Luo Binghe wandered his dreams. Razor-wind leaves protecting a white lotus, rotten child given a place in the carriage by his side. Slight smile quickly stifled behind the unblemished silk of his fan, as mild as the first touch of spring budding from the skeletal dearth of winter’s cold. 

You won’t be able to hurt him. Quiet certainty. He will win. Earnest faith. 

The right arm that guarded a bruised flower, the left hand that stroked curled hair. 

White lotus melting the permafrost, a Shen Qingqiu he’d only known in his childish, stupid heart blooming into the affection he showered on a Luo Binghe who somewhere, somehow, had done what it took to make him love. 

A master who didn’t hate him. 

A master who never struck him. 

It was a dream. It was his dream. It was all Luo Binghe had ever wanted — the last thing he had ever dared ask for, before his master taught him that in order to get anything at all one must learn to take and take and take.

A master who never struck him, Luo Binghe’s blackened heart melting by degrees. 

A master who never struck him, until Xiu Ya’s blade was buried in his softened heart, and Luo Binghe was taught the same lesson twice; that the cruelty of a man like Shen Qingqiu could not be warmed by the sweetest affection. Not in his world, or any other. Was it truly worse to be hardened with hatred? Shen Qingqiu had never made Luo Binghe believe himself to be loved — his eager, stupid innocence had done that all himself. 

This Shen Qingqiu, who praised his disciple and housed him and cherished him and treasured him warm, who raised him soft and fat and happy like a ceremonial swine…

Was he not more cruel than a Shen Qingqiu who hated without false airs?

And yet, he mourned. 

For show, perhaps, where his disciples could see. 

On show for who, when he sat distant and far-eyed, misery hidden beneath a perfectly blank face, brush held forgotten between his elegant fingers until the candles guttered low and the ink had long since dried in the well of the stone, not a mark made on the scroll spread before him. 

On show for who, when he barely ate. When he barely instructed his disciples. When he slept fitfully, or not at all. When his lips parted to call Luo Binghe’s name, eyes trailing across the room for him, before he sealed those lips in a thin-lined reminder and cast those eyes to his soft hands, lest they remind him that his white lotus was not to be found. 

On show for who, when it was the shape of Luo Binghe’s name that his lips traced, and Luo Binghe who his eyes sought?

His blackened heart had softened, and now clenched tight around the Xue Ya blade which had been thrust into it. On show for who?

How could he believe that this master was not cruel?

He watched him flee his blackened sheep, saw fear darken his face when blood flowed beneath his sword. He watched him flee from Huan Hua Palace, stricken when his white lotus clothed him. He watched him pour what was left of his life into settling the Xin Mo blade, and watched him fall from the roof, empty shell, broken body. 

Blackened heart clutched at the sword this Shen Qingqiu had driven into his chest, and he wondered if it would heal — wondered if he’d ever know the bounds of this master’s cruelty when he only ever showed Luo Binghe his back, or if he would ever learn the depth of his guarded affection when he carried his disciple, broken, bleeding, plants rooted beneath his skin, through the twisted halls of the Mausoleum. 

Did this Shen Qingqiu love him, or despise him?

Did Luo Binghe want him, or want to tear away the right arm that struck him; that guarded him. The left hand that pushed him; that petted him. The legs that ran from him; that carried him. 

Did Luo Binghe want to rip out the tongue that called for Liu Qingge, or taste the lips that called for him?

If he did all that, surely Luo Binghe would have no choice but to take his eyes too. Those eyes which had always looked at him. 

He didn’t think he could bear to see the way they would pin him, wild with fear, after knowing how it felt to see them creased as warm as the first blossoms of spring with a subtle smile hidden behind the unblemished white silk of his fan. 

Shen Qingqiu cried when Luo Binghe dredged up the dream of when they’d first met. Stricken, standing in the doorway of the bamboo house that had always stood as a statement of everything Luo Binghe wanted to destroy; the bamboo house he’d burned to charcoal and ash. Shen Qingqiu watched himself drown a white lotus in hot tea, and the blade that he had struck in Luo Binghe’s heart twisted to how he threw himself to his knees, gathered his sleeves to try wipe the tea from his precious disciple’s clothes, to wipe the tears from his cheeks. 

Don’t cry, don’t cry. Voice strained, lashes wet, powerless to change the past. This master will never hit you again.

The blade he had stuck in Luo Binghe’s heart twisted, and he opened his eyes from the layered dreams wondering if this Shen Qingqiu’s cruelty knew no bounds. 

This master will never hit you again. 

His hand tightened to a fist around the loose hair splayed across the pillows. 

This master will never hit you again.

Fury and black hatred and something deeper and more broken trembled in his chest, and his jaw clenched tight enough to make his teeth ache. 

This master will never hit you again.

White lotus, black sheep, but a black sheep was still a sheep. Sword stuck through his bleating heart, what would this master make of a wolf?

He was familiar with hatred. He didn’t know what it was, though, that he hated right then. He didn’t know if he hated this Shen Qingqiu, or that Shen Qingqiu, or a Luo Binghe who was worth loving. 

Or himself, who was worth nothing. 

He loosened his fingers, loosened his jaw. He knew how to keep his hate hidden. His Shen Qingqiu had taught him many things. 

When he slipped out of bed, though, out from beneath the warm weight of this master’s slender arm, he blinked awake, bleary, a small sound of dissatisfied confusion falling from his lips before he fanned one of those slender hands over his eyes, a finger massaging between his brows. 

“Why are you up so early?” he groused, the burr of sleep softening his voice to something low and warm and sulking. “Making breakfast?” His nose wrinkled, just a little. There was something stuck in Luo Binghe’s throat, and he didn’t know what would come out if he parted his lips. Shen Qingqiu glared from between his fingers, looking as though he were rubbing away a headache even as he commanded, “Don’t do it today.”

There was a bird trapped in his throat, and a sword stuck in his chest. Heavy eyes, dazed with sleep, something kind even in the way they sat narrow with sharp annoyance. Hair cast about, robes rumpled and loose at the collar, the pale swan throat that Luo Binghe had curled his hands around and squeezed until black bruises mottled white skin was bared, begging to be bitten.

Sprawled across the bed like a spoiled lover, looking at him with those soft-sharp eyes, the lips which had been so soft in sleep tightened into a manner of composure which cast his warmed posture in a cool light, as though this sleep-dazed mess of him was all his intent. 

“Your old clothes are still in the side room.” He hadn’t pushed himself to sit up, hadn’t fixed his robes or straightened his hair. 

Luo Binghe had always thought him to be someone quick to rise. He wasn’t sure what it was about this moment that caught his breath in his throat. Wasn’t sure why the blade that had been struck through his chest by this Shen Qingqiu pressed deeper just to see his eyes fan closed, just to watch him turn to lay on his back, the hand which had been pressed to his brow left to rest against his chest, half-bared by the lax slope of his robes. 

Tongue pinned to the roof of his mouth, Luo Binghe turned on his heel, strode into the side room and stopped still. A bed. (His bed.) A desk. (His desk.) A closet. (His closet, with his clothes, folded neat and kept clean even in his absence.)

Impassive, he shook them out, pulled them on. They fit, as though they truly were his. A silk cuff pinched between his fingers, he wondered how long it had been since he’d worn the robes of Qing Jing Peak. He wondered how differently things must have turned out, for it to even be a possibility. 

He wondered how different things would have been if Shen Qingqiu had given him a bed, and a desk to study his fake training manuals, and fallen to his knees before him to dry his tears, dry the scalding tea from his robes, and promise in a voice wound tight with distress that this master will never hit you again. 

(Was he angry at this Shen Qingqiu, at that Shen Qingqiu, at a him that was worth being cherished, or the him that was worth nothing?)

There was something in the closet — something that tugged at the corner of his sight. Something that didn’t belong amongst the pressed-and-folded white uniforms identical to the one he wore. Something bundled up and pushed to the back, hastily hidden. Shameful skeletons. 

He pinched a corner of pale green silk, pulled it to unfold from the drawer, creased and soiled. 

It was a robe he recognised, and not one of his own.

The finest cloth dyed the fairest green, embroidered shoulders and hems. He could count the weave in the cuffs of that robe, for the times it had swept before his dazed eyes moments before pain blossomed red like a rose on his cheek. 

He’d never imagined a spot of dust could touch Shen Qingqiu. 

(His master had always had a sinister talent for keeping his sleeves free of blood.)

There was no other word to say but that it was ruined. Torn, stained, bloodied. Blood on the collar, across the breast, stained across the back from waist to muddied hem. A tasteless keepsake. Perhaps this Luo Binghe hadn’t meant to keep it at all.

Perhaps he simply couldn’t bring himself to dispose of it.

His lips twisted, curled into a smile as cold as a frosted-over flower. Perhaps he ought to have kept his master’s robes, too. Tasteless as it was, there was a ruthless satisfaction to the idea. Pinned and framed behind glass, bloodied sleeves set apart where they’d been cut from a bloodied bodice; a deconstruction of distaste. 

He’d hang it on the wall of his hall, right behind the head of his throne. Wear the proof of his retribution like a crown.

Something as precious as this was wasted to be shoved helpless and haphazard into some dark drawer to be forgotten. But, he considered, bundling the silk into his hands, returning it, fingers lingering on bloodstains dried black and rust-red, that was where it would remain. For now.

When he returned, face wiped clean, Shen Qingqiu had dragged himself into sitting upright - still a state of artful disarray. Were this anywhere else, were he anyone else, it would be the sort of picture arranged with intent to beckon Luo Binghe back to bed. Hair smoothed over his shoulder, the side of his neck bare. Robes loose at the collar, half-askew on his shoulder, Luo Binghe could see the elegant slope of his pale neck, the delicate jut of his collarbone. 

There was no intent behind this image, though. The stern composure of Shen Qingqiu’s face, the slight crease between his brows, was not the look of a doe-eyed woman enticing him to stay. Whatever he did, he did it effortlessly and thoughtlessly, and from the expression of distracted irritation that sat pinched in the corners of his tight lips, Luo Binghe doubted it to be an invitation of any kind. The way he beckoned him, a demanding crook of his finger, there was no coquettish glance to imply that what he wanted was for Luo Binghe to catch his wrist in one hand, his cheek in the other, and kiss him back against the bed. 

He went all the same, and almost flinched when Shen Qingqiu’s fingers plucked at his sleeve, tugged as though to urge him down. “Sit,” he said, gesturing to the floor at his feet.

A frown darkened Luo Binghe’s brow and he unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth to ask, drawing his hand away, “What are you doing?” 

Shen Qingqiu shook his sleeve, bared the ribbon and wooden comb he held for Luo Binghe to see. “What do you think I’m doing?” he countered, but despite the furrow between his brows and the irate set of his lips, his words were smooth and unhurried, as cool as a fresh breeze sent to settle the heart and calm the temper. 

What would a blackened sheep do?

Luo Binghe lowered his eyes, settled to kneel before Shen Qingqiu, smoothed his hands over his knees to keep them from clenching into fists. 

The last time he had knelt before Shen Qingqiu wearing these white Qing Jing robes it had been for a beating. 

His light hands smoothed over Luo Binghe’s hair, found the ends of his (admittedly tangled, because they tangled so easily) curls and set to brushing through them, the gentle tug of the comb lulling his shoulders to loosen, his hands to sit lax in his lap, his eyes to settle half-lidded to the rhythmic pull. After each stroke of the comb, Shen Qingqiu’s fingers dragged through his hair. Again and again, over and over, and Luo Binghe could almost forget who it was those hands belonged to. 

Would have, if he hadn’t been on Cang Qiong Mountain, wearing Qing Jing robes, in the bamboo house which he had burned to charcoal and ash for the way it stood as a testament to the man he hated most. 

To the man he’d torn limb from limb, over and over. 

To the cruel hands which had once struck him, and now petted him, over and over, again and again. 

It had been a long, long time since Luo Binghe had been inside this bamboo house. 

Hot tea poured over a child’s head, childish tears overflowing from childish eyes, no one to dry them, to hold him, to console him. 

This master will never hit you again.

“What are you looking at?”

Mused leisurely and unobtrusive, the agitation which had pinched between Shen Qingqiu’s brows and pulled at his lips seemed soothed by his attention to Luo Binghe’s hair — as though combing through the mess of it was as much for him as it was for Luo Binghe. 

“I never had much chance to look whenever I returned to Qing Jing Peak these past few years,” he said, voice soft without intent, pitched quiet, as though his torn heart had no wish to break the placid silence that sat over the room. 

It wasn’t even a lie, really.

Not really.

“Look all you want, whenever you want.” Shen Qingqiu’s fingers combed and lazed through his hair, neat nails scraped a light, pleasant touch against his head. A shudder prickled from the top of his skull to the base of his spine, and it wasn’t entirely awful. “I’ll make a trip to Bai Zhan Peak later, and get Liu Qingge to keep a tighter rein on his disciples,” he mused, his voice as placid as the wind passing through leaves, steel lining his absentminded words when he said, “There is absolutely no excuse for Bai Zhan Peak to chase my disciples around, beating them up whenever they please.”

My disciples.

My disciples.

This master will never hit you again. 

Cautious of the threads being woven into place, Luo Binghe turned his head beneath Shen Qingqiu’s hands, his smile as sticky-sweet as sugar water. 

“Shizun?”

If there was a hint of derision in his tone, it was hidden beneath the syrup of his smile.

“Hmm?”

The sword in his heart drove deeper, twisted into a complex, broken ache for the pleasant, inoffensive answer, the unconcerned distraction of Shen Qingqiu’s eyes focused on tying the ribbon in his hair.

This scene between them was too simple.

Perhaps… perhaps it was meant to be. 

Perhaps it was okay, for things to be simple between them. Between a Shen Qingqiu who treasured him, and a Luo Binghe who let himself be treasured.

Wasn’t this what he’d always wanted?

Wasn’t this dream too sweet?

Perhaps it would be okay… perhaps it really, truly would be okay, were Luo Binghe to surrender his permafrost hatred to a Shen Qingqiu who deserved to be called Shizun. 

Just once more. “Shizun…?”

“Mm.”

Once more, to be sure. “Shizun…”

“Mn.”

Once more, to be certain. “Shizun.”

The fantasy shattered like fine porcelain dropped to the floor — like tea poured over a child’s head — when Shen Qingqiu took his fan from where it had lain on the bed beside him, thin ice cracking underfoot when it hit the back of Luo Binghe’s head, and in a surge of black satisfaction he realised he’d been hoping from the start to ruin this fallacy, this… insult to his righteous hatred. 

But it doesn’t sit right, that strike — he could hardly call it a blow. 

A vapid tap, barely heavier than a pat on the head. Almost good-natured in its reprimand. 

“How many times do I have to answer? Call once and I’ll answer once. Talk properly.” His voice was sharp, coloured with irritation and exasperation both, tone still cooled with the poise of the immortal Peak Lord Shen Qingqiu, but he wasn’t cold. He wasn’t frosted over and frozen black, so full of jealousy and spite he could only hate. 

Luo Binghe’s hands loosened from where they’d clenched into fists in his lap, melted by degrees. There wasn’t a thread of genuine upset in his voice. There wasn’t an undercurrent of ice, harsh hands, cruel words. His fingers smoothed over the ribbon in his hair, lightly patted the top of Luo Binghe’s head, and though the sigh that passed his lips might have been irate, the way his hands brushed down the slope of Luo Binghe’s shoulders was nothing if not adoring — was nothing but adoring. 

Irate, short tempered, tired eyes, rumpled robes. A small smile, half-amused, tugged at Luo Binghe’s lips.

“Did Shizun not sleep well?”

A short breath pressed from his nose. “Just some dreams of the past.”

“Then,” he considered, half-turning from where he sat — one hand pressed to the floor, the other resting on Shen Qingqiu’s knee, “perhaps I should hug you to sleep next time.” His smile was inoffensive, but from the sharp huff of Shen Qingqiu’s sigh and the way he ushered Luo Binghe off his lap there was no mistaking the implication. 

“Go. Go.” Another familiar pat to the top of his head before he was gently pushed away. “I’ll go to Bai Zhan,” he said, wearily pulling his hair into a half bun and straightening his robes, smoothing them. The frayed edges of his appearance pulled together degree by degree — an outer robe smoothing the slender line of his silhouette, pinstraight hair combed flat, pinned in place by jade, hems lifted coquettishly to his knees so he could pull boots on over silk socks. It was like watching a songbird preen dust from its feathers, leave them sleek and shining. 

There was a beauty to it, sly and satisfied. A covetous attraction; one adored in looks stolen from the corners of eyes and treasured deep in the heart. His master had always been so achingly unaware of his own seduction, always buttoned-up, pretty-perfect. There was something thrilling to watching him polish that veneer, build his facade piece by lovely piece until the rumpled Shen Qingqiu, sharp-eyed and pliant, had become the untouchable immortal Luo Binghe had watched for years, hungry eyes pinned to his back, waiting for the day he might angle his chin, meet Luo Binghe’s gaze.

There was something thrilling about knowing what it was that made a Peak Lord. 

Something that made Luo Binghe want to pin him to the bed and strip those layers of perfection back again, one by one, just to be sure he hadn’t imagined that picture of keen-eyed debauchery. 

Just to be sure that this cold jade, when touched, was made of soft skin and soft breaths — to be sure that the Luo Binghe who had watched his master’s back, wishing he would turn to look at him, was more than just a miserable Pygmalion.

“Be good,” was his command, a stern glance pinning Luo Binghe, “and wait here for this master’s return.” 

Be good?

A laugh scoffed past Luo Binghe’s lips, a sarcastic lilt he didn’t bother to hide when he indulged a mockery of, “Yes, Shizun.”

The stern glance of reprimand Shen Qingqiu passed over his shoulder before he closed the door behind him sent a thrill to curl like a smirk in the pit of his stomach. 

The things he’d done in the past to have those eyes look at him. It was too easy, now, as heady as an addiction swirling near-dizzying excitement through his mind. Trembling in his fingertips. He wanted to take this Shen Qingqiu’s arms and pin them above his head. Look at me, Shizun. Look at me look at me look at me! A spoiled-rotten brat. A certainty itched in the palms of his hands, told him this master would indulge him. 

How much would he indulge?

Luo Binghe wanted to find out. 

He would find out, and take everything this master gave him, glutton and greedy. 

Arms folded across his chest, eyes pinned to the door, Luo Binghe’s patience gave Shen Qingqiu all of ten seconds to be out of sight before he strode through that door, taking in the once-familiar sight of Qing Jing Peak. Shen Qingqiu was, in fact, out of sight — likely dashing across the clouds towards Bai Zhan. 

Be good, Shizun, and wait there until this disciple has had his fill of looking around. 

A familiar face was making for the bamboo house, sweet almond eyes and black-silk hair bound in orange ribbons. It took a moment, and then a moment more for Luo Binghe to put a name to his wife’s face. 

(That he was sure she was his wife, there was no doubt. She was beautiful in an innocent, fresh-faced spring sort of way, but he did not treasure a garden for one flower. She’d cried when he’d married Liu Mingyan, he recalled, and again when she heard of Yue Qingyuan’s death.)

What was it, again?

(She’d stirred the pot of Ming Fan’s abuse more than once, thoughtless, foolish. He’d never held it against her, but it was easier to remember his wives for the ways they disappointed him than the ways they left him indifferent.)

She was close enough to greet him with a careless wave, and he let his expression slip into a warm smile. “Yingying,” he called, her name finding his tongue on the instinct of her half-hummed tune reaching him. The tune wasn’t familiar, but the way she sang struck a chord.

She stopped short, though, at Luo Binghe’s address, the pleasant smile that had been sitting on her lips going slack to something like discomfort, her song stopping dead in her throat. “Ah-Luo!” she scolded, shoulders creeping up to her ears, theatrically shaking her head in a full-body shudder. “What’s wrong with you? Did you hit your head?! Why on earth did you call me that?!” 

Luo Binghe blinked at her, speechless, the smile falling from his lips.

“What in the world is Yingying?” she grimaced, shaking her head once more as though to rid herself of a bone-deep discomfort. “That’s so scary.”

Luo Binghe wasn’t entirely certain what expression he’d settled into, but it seemed it wasn’t nearly as scary as him calling her Yingying.

Face written with horror, she demanded, “Why aren’t you calling me Ning-Shijie?”

He kept his silence for a long moment, his wife looking at him as though they’d never shared a thing more intimate than a meal. His lip twitched, involuntary. “Ning-Shijie.” It grated from his throat like stone dragged across stone, but the wash of relief that passed her face was palpable. 

It set his teeth on edge.

“As it should be,” she lectured, shoulders loose, a happy sigh as though she’d been relieved of some hideous burden. “Shizun may dote on you, but you must always be respectful of your seniors!” He couldn’t believe this. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it at all.

Black sheep, indeed. Had this Luo Binghe been so fattened on Shen Qingqiu’s affections that he hadn’t married his first wife?

And if not his first, then what of his second? His third?

Was he so dedicated to kneeling at Shen Qingqiu’s feet to have his head patted and his face fucked that he’d vowed his bleeding heart to a master whose back-handed affection had left him in a worse state than even his own Shen Qingqiu’s honest cruelty? Fists tight at his sides, anger and black hate broke the rein he kept so tight on them. Shen Qingqiu had always been an imposing figure of awe, of desire — once, of respect. To hold the silk of his robes in his hands when he washed them, Luo Binghe knew what it was to covet an immortal. 

He knew what it was to want Shen Qingqiu, whether he was hated or not. Whether he was looked at or not. 

Puppy love, idol worship, the groundless, baseless, foundless infatuation of a child fresh turned fifteen, for the man whose attention he craved the most. 

Were he to give up his garden for a flower, it would not be for a thistle grown from horse shit. 

Eyes sharp, narrowed, barely keeping a polite face, Luo Binghe said through his biting refusal to call his wife shijie, regardless of whether she’d forgotten who he was, “I have something to ask you.”

A flash of understanding crossed her face and she straightened. “Of course,” she demurred, reaching to take his calloused hand in hers. “Shijie knows.”

Tension eased for all of a moment and his lips parted, about to speak, when she pressed the handle of her broom into the hand she had taken.

“Ah Luo, please don’t mind me,” she seemed eager to reassure, her cool hands falling away from his to fold behind her back. “I haven’t forgotten how you insist on cleaning Shizun’s house yourself. Since you’re back now, I won’t fight with you for the duties. I know that much.”

Solemn sincerity written across her face, Luo Binghe forced his breathing to stay even. The hell she knew. What cleaning? The hell she knew! Did he look like a lackey? The hell she knew!

Without another word spoken to her, his treacherous wife, his loveless wife, this insult turned him on his heel to storm back to that hateful, resentful bamboo house. It should be charcoal and ash. What doting had he ever received? Hot tea poured over him, locked in the woodshed, he’d been beaten and abused every day on this mountain, forced to kneel for no reason, forced to suffer for no gain. What doting did he ever get? A single glance? A kind smile? A moment’s respite? A bed, a desk, a wardrobe in his master’s own house? He’d been inside all of once, and for what?

For what?

For a Shen Qingqiu who never changed his mind, never bowed his head, never said his name for his efforts of affection or the savagery of his hatred. 

A tea set sat on the table in the front room, half-poured, still steaming where Shen Qingqiu hadn’t taken a single sip, hadn’t glanced in the direction of the congee Ming Fan had brought them for breakfast. Was he still so thankless?

Wooden handle splintering against his palm, Luo Binghe’s black anger lashed out, swept the broom like a blade across the table. Hot tea flared, porcelain cracked and shattered, congee cast across the floor. 

For a long moment he clung to his ragged breaths. 

Then he looked at the mess he’d made. 

A thread of reluctant guilt unwound from the bottom of his stomach and he dropped the ruined broom to the table, stepped over it towards the bedroom.

At the door he paused, glanced over his shoulder. Spilled tea, broken cups, wasted food. 

This master will never hit you again. 

Silent, he turned back and took up the broom, gathered the shards into a pile. A twinge of regret. It had been a fine set, with a lovely glaze. Off-white ivory swirled with the blue-green iridescence of powdered nacre. He wondered if this Shen Qingqiu had been fond of them.

He dumped the pieces, wiped the floor. He might not have swept the whole house, but he could clean up his own mess.

The bedroom, bare of the debauched grace Shen Qingqiu lent it, was plain and simple untidy. No centerpiece to draw his gaze, the blankets and pillows strewn about the cold bed held none of the charm and poise he’d lent them, robes left hung over the bed frame or simply dropped on the floor — Shen Qinqiu’s in elegant puddles of white silk, Luo Binghe’s black and torn and bloodstained. 

There was a low desk to the side, a cushion imprinted with the weight of Shen Qingqiu’s knees. Luo Binghe flicked his sleeves aside and knelt, legs folded into the same divots. A bronze mirror sat before him, gilded his reflection. He tilted his head, caught sight of a braid woven into his hair, tied back into the ribbon Shen Qingqiu had bound him with. 

Raised hand, fingers tracing the weave of it, a small smile — somewhat victorious, somewhat possessive — curled at the corners of his lips. A leash could be pulled from both ends. 

In the drawers of the desk were bottles of scented oils. Some to be rubbed into skin, some to be combed into hair. Vain curiosity had him lifting lids, sniffing surreptitiously. Trying to find the scent that had woven through Shen Qingqiu’s hair, pressed so close to him in sleep. That had lingered in his dreams and on his hands and on his skin, a scent that made him want to return to the rumpled bed, curl into the sheets and press his face to the pillow this master’s head had lain on and breathe deep, open-mouthed and hungry, chasing just the faintest taste of it. 

He tucked one into his sleeve and closed the drawer, smoothing residual oil onto his calloused hands, eyes considering his own blank-faced reflection. No hint of how his self control had gone so awry with riotous impulse, the itch in his palms begging him to tear and splinter the floorboards of this bamboo house apart, dig deep into the foundations of the life this Shen Qingqiu had built on this peak, and maybe find his own body buried into them, broken with kindness, white lotus stained red.

Clothes strewn about; bamboo green, bloodstained black. 

His fingers itched. 

He stood, picked up the outer robe Shen Qingqiu had shrugged off his slim shoulders before laying down by Luo Binghe’s side. The palest green, white silk brocade. Luo Binghe couldn’t tell whether it looked better on him, or on the floor. Couldn’t decide if he’d rather see Shen Qingqiu buttoned up in rich silks, pretty-perfect and debauched, or stripped naked. Bared, for Luo Binghe’s greed. 

The robe bunched in his fist, eyes fanned closed. 

Pressed to his nose, pressed to his mouth, he breathed deep. 

The faintest traces of that scent still lingered in the silk. Not a flower known to man, no concoction of oils could distill it. He wanted more. More more more he wanted to drown in it, choke on it, taste it on his tongue and have it rooted so deeply in his lungs there wouldn’t be a breath he took without it dizzying his head, muddying his thoughts. 

He crushed the robe to his face, chest all but heaving with the surge of every breath he took, rising desperation in his throat, until all he could taste was the flavour of his own uneven breaths.

Dissatisfied, frustrated, he dropped it, discarded. His palms burned, and he dug his fingers against them. Blunt nails did nothing to settle the itch that was thrumming in his blood. He felt wild. Unhinged. 

Reckless. 

He wanted to taste the skin of Shen Qingqiu’s neck, sample it against the taste of his lips, of his fingers. Wanted to press his face to this shizun’s crotch and savour the flavour of him, the unplaceable scent. Wanted to taste the heavy heat of his cock on his tongue. 

He wanted to tear him apart, piece by piece. Carve away his skin, peel back his ribs to admire the sloppy, slick-red mess of his heart still beating, lungs still breathing. He wanted to sink his teeth in, viscera and entrail, and hear Shen Qingqiu gasp.

He wanted to shake that steel control, shatter his stoicism like so much fine ceramic. 

A bloodstained robe, torn and muddied. Before rationality could corner his seething impulse, Luo Binghe had returned to the closet in the side room, ripped the rotten keepsake from where it had been hidden and shook it out, held it by the shoulders to appraise, appeased. Grim madness of vile satisfaction prickled like arousal beneath his skin, burned and itched in his palms. The same itch that sent him into his dreams searching for Shen Qingqiu to feel the supple shape of his calf, run his fingers up behind his knee, over his thigh and sever body from limb. 

The same itch that made him crumple the soiled robe to his face, impatient teeth biting down into bloodstained silk, ragged breath surging to sate the burning need in his chest, tongue working against the long-dried stain, lifting the copper-iron taste of blood from where it had crusted thick into the cloth. 

He’d had his master’s blood on his teeth, on his tongue, trickling down his throat before. Licked crystalline ruby drops from his own fingers and from Shen Qingqiu’s, perverse. All for show, all mockery and taunt. A communion, forcing his own blood down his old master’s throat, catching what flowed from his torn limbs in a chalice, drinking it down like a thick, heady wine, dribbling past his lips and down his chin. 

Animal, he’d called him. Beast. Let this disciple show you just how beastly he can be. 

Blood and sweat pressed into the silk, dried and preserved, brought to life under his tongue. That taste he had been looking for. The taste of Shen Qingqiu’s skin, and the life that beat under it. A paltry, shallow taste, as it was, but one whose sweetness he savoured all the same filling his lungs, flooding his mouth. Voice caught on his ragged breaths, a heady, near-silent moan, and he settled to his knees on the floor, palmed the bloodstained silk over his clothed cock, stirred half-hard just at the taste. 

At the perverse debauchery, the illicit hunger that had him biting and sucking at the collar of the robe, staining it further with his spit, nearly tearing it with his teeth. 

God, he wanted…

He wanted…

He wanted Shen Qingqiu.

Wanted his cock, hot and hard and heavy in his hand. Wanted the heady, feverish taste of his come in his mouth, wanted him pulling his hair, twisting, writhing, keening beneath him. Wanted those delicate, perfect nails scratching scores down his back, laying him bare and bleeding. Wanted Shen Qingqiu fucked open and wet and saying his name so Luo Binghe wouldn’t have to take his tongue, looking at him so he wouldn’t have to remove his eyes. 

Something loose and tight and hot and dizzy surged in his chest and when he ground the heel of his palm down against his cock it sobbed past his lips sounding like a moan. 

Gods, but he’d never wanted something so much. Not buried in the wet heat of a dozen wives, not for Xin Mo’s darkest lust. He wanted this shizun so much he could scream. Wanted him so much he could cry and the thought, the mere thought of him angling his chin, turning those sharp, gorgeous eyes away, turning his back to Luo Binghe kneeling in the dust and the dirt was enough to make him double over, a wretched moan shuddering through him, muffled into the cloth he still held fisted to his mouth. 

“Shizun…” Drawn out, ragged, slurred through the blood and silk and spit. Folding the robe around the shape of his hard cock, near-mindless desperation grinding his hips against his own hand, half-slumped across the floor. Eyes squeezed shut, ears ringing too loud with his need to hear the shameful rustle of him humping against a soiled robe, to even hear the sound of his own voice, torn and delirious. 

“Shizun…” Elegant robes, delicate hands. The sharp cut of those eyes looking at him. Looking at him. Pinstraight hair tangled in his fingers, jade lips parted soft with sleep. He bit against the cloth, and when it wasn’t enough, against his own lip. Tried to imagine the sweetness of it. “Shizun… ah…” The slender column of his throat, pale ivory. The taste of his skin under Luo Binghe’s tongue. The way he would mottle and bruise, pink and purple roses blooming on his neck, his shoulders, his thighs. “Shi...zun…” The debauched splay of his robes, his immortal body lithe beneath them. Slender legs, delicate, birdlike bones. He wanted to pin his wrists above his head, fuck him incoherent just to see if then, even then, he would keep that effortless expression of grace, of pride. 

He grit his teeth around a low groan, tightened his hand around his cock. How might this shizun look with his lips around him, tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes when he tried to swallow down his length? Flushed and messy, spit and come dribbling down his chin, staining his perfect robes. How might he look hugging Luo Binghe’s thigh, grinding helpless against his leg when Luo Binghe offered him nothing to sate himself with?

He wanted to see it. Gods, he wanted to see it. Wanted to see how he looked grovelling and pleading for scraps, begging Luo Binghe to look at him, look at him, please!

Wanted to hit his gorgeous face and see him sprawled in the mud and dirt, wanted to kiss the blood from his lips and have him in a state pathetic enough to be satisfied with that — just that.

Gods, when he came back — he would come back, wouldn’t he?

Something shy, nervous — something like panic shuddered from him. He would come back, wouldn’t he? Oh, how pathetic this man could make him. Turned back to a motherless son, an unloved child begging for scraps, kneeling in the dirt with nothing more than a soft touch and a kind glance. How pathetic Shen Qingqiu could make someone like Luo Binghe, that he might feel something like fear curl around his lungs, chill and choking, at the thought of that brief, momentary kindness being taken from him. 

A drop was all it took to become addicted. Opiate and foul, Luo Binghe needed him. Already couldn’t fathom how he’d deigned to allow this master to leave the bamboo house without a collar, without a leash, without a promise to come back. 

Had he promised to come back?

Anger and something like hate, something seething and wretched surging against his own pathetic want was making a mess of him, tangling his thoughts into twisted, snarled knots. 

He lifted himself to kneel, hands holding the robe to his face, breathing deep and ragged at the heady, delirious scent until the dizzying certainty of it had smothered his panic. He’d promised to come back. He’d promised. He’d said Wait here for this master’s return. He would come back, then. Be good, he’d said, and wait here for this master’s return. 

Luo Binghe lifted his face from the cloth, breathing deep of the clear mountain air, hands dropped meek helpless docile in his lap. He’d been good, hadn’t he? He’d waited, hadn’t he? He pushed himself to his feet, folded the ruined silk robe back into the drawer, forced his steps steady towards the bed they’d shared. Shen Qingqiu would come back, he was sure. 

He knelt on the bed, stretched out and curled himself into what remained of their mingled scent caught in the sheets. He’d been good, and he’d waited, so this master would return. 

And if he didn’t, Luo Binghe thought, a sharp smile curling onto his lips as he curled the blanket that had covered them into his arms, then he would go to Bai Zhan Peak and take him back from where Liu Qingge kept him. 

He felt it, the moment Shen Qingqiu alighted back on Qing Jing Peak. The breeze seemed to follow him, as cool and sweet as the first blush of spring, a rustling sigh of raptured pleasure brushing faintly through the bamboo groves. There was a smug pleasure about him when he opened the door and Luo Binghe was immediately of the opinion that whatever debate he’d had with Liu Qingge, Shen Qingqiu had no doubt been the victor. 

Whatever pride he’d been standing on turned still when he caught sight of Luo Binghe. Caged, wary, cautious suspicion narrowed his sharp eyes. 

Luo Binghe only let his smile soften, widen. Entice him in. “What’s wrong?” he asked, disregard of the tension that had surged to fill the house the moment this master had opened the door. “Why isn’t Shizun coming over?” Sweet, just the slightest touch pitiful. The wavering of a pout tugging at the corners of his lips. His eyes, though, dragged hunger across Shen Qingqiu’s frame. His impassive, suspicious face, his elegant, tense hands. There was something buried beneath Luo Binghe’s words, and Shen Qingqiu had heard it. 

Something like a resignation to defeat tightened the set of his lips, tense dissatisfaction to Luo Binghe’s small victory to the way he backhandedly shoved the door closed with the sharp, petulant snap of wood against wood. Luo Binghe was fascinated. 

He’d never seen Shen Qingqiu suffer the indignity of acknowledged defeat. He’d been shown over and again it was much easier for him to accept death over a loss — and one suffered in the face of a barely-stretched silence, no less. 

To argue someone like Liu Qingge into submission, no doubt this master didn’t take defeat easily. Perhaps he was tired of fighting. A smile, small and sharp, threatened barely-stifled at the corners of Luo Binghe’s lips. Perhaps he simply had no heart to refuse this black sheep of his. 

As he strode closer, his pride untouched, Luo Binghe could see his jade lips parting for an imperious demand of What is it?

He didn’t let the words find this master’s frigid tongue. With a pinch of his sleeve and a subtle surge of spiritual energy, he had Shen Qingqiu, the immortal Peak Lord Shen Qingqiu, stumbling, tripping over nothing, falling onto his lap with an indignant breath. 

Hands at his waist (slender, firm beneath all these layers of silk and perfection), Luo Binghe rested his chin on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, turned his head to brush his lips against the bare skin above his high collars, behind the fragile pink shell of his ear. 

Gods, there it was. The scent he had been searching for, satiating himself with something stale and faint. It could never compare, it could never compare to the blush of warmth, the startled catch of breath, the desire to twist his fingers into this master’s hair, wrench his head back to bare his throat, and sink his teeth into his pale, perfect skin. 

Sitting tense on his lap, Shen Qingqiu made as though to snatch away the hand Luo Binghe had kneading his waist. Amusement curling his lips, he let his master catch his wrist and pulled, firm and smooth. Twisted him, maneuvered him, settled him with his legs spread over Luo Binghe’s thighs, an incensed gasp torn from his lips. Cheeks already painted pink in arousal, or fury. It was a lovely look on him. 

That pretty mouth of his. How many times had Luo Binghe seen it twisted in a sneer, tight with disgust, sharp with cruelty? Now softly parted in surprise, brows furrowed in indignant offence. Not anger. Not hate. Not denial. It was simply as though Luo Binghe had trodden on the hem of his robes, or spilled the tea while serving. As though Luo Binghe grabbing him, touching him, was an inconvenience at most and he was expecting an apology. As though he was going to scold, Who raised you? Mind your manners. Use your words.

Luo Binghe had no intention of apologising. 

He trailed his fingers up the back of Shen Qingqiu’s neck, had a startled shudder silence him before he could find his composure or his tongue, and cupped his hand around his slender nape when he found that slim stretch of skin above his collar. Pulled him down into a kiss, stole his lips from him, and then his voice. 

They were soft. 

Softer than he ever could have imagined. 

Something inside him ached and arched against the delicate, petal-brush touch, something stuck in his throat like a sob, something drove him to curl his arm around his master’s slender waist and keep him there, keep him there, soft and warm and pliant for all his stubborn rigidity, because he was real, he was real, and his lips were soft beneath Luo Binghe’s, and he didn’t have a word for the shuddering relief that burst like a river over its banks within him to the realisation, to the inalienable proof that this Shen Qingqiu, this master, this Shizun, was someone he could touch. Who he could hold. Who he could kiss without bruising himself against immovable ice and jade. 

He was soft. He was soft. He was so soft that Luo Binghe wanted to dig his fingers against his skin to see it divot, wanted to sink his teeth into his flesh to see him bleed, wanted to press into his body and feel him part and give and welcome him in, cling tight and hot to his cock until he was fucked slick and loose, wanted to work his body into boneless pleasure, breathless supplication. 

He wanted Shen Qingqiu to bow before him, overcome and powerless.

He wanted Shen Qingqiu to want him. 

(He wanted Shen Qingqiu to kiss him, to stroke his hair, to pat his head, to say it’s okay and I’m sorry and this master will never hit you again.)

He wanted Shen Qingqiu to say I love you, and say his name, and look only at him, forever.

Those lips he was kissing, those jade lips, those spring-soft lips, slowly

opened

beneath 

his.

Like a flower turning towards the sun, like leaves parting before a breeze, so soft, almost shy, he welcomed Luo Binghe’s kiss. 

He welcomed him, sitting tense and frigid on Luo Binghe’s thighs. He melted like the frost that coated leaves melted against the last day of winter. 

It was as though all the breath had been stolen from him, as though all his anger had left him, as though all his scars had healed. This master welcomed Luo Binghe to kiss him without coercion, without force, without needing to ask why. 

He was trembling, ever so slightly. Luo Binghe could feel him. The softest tremors rolling through his tight-wound body, his fragile body, his soft-as-snowmelt body, and Luo Binghe touched him. Loosened his arm from Shen Qingqiu’s waist, a wondrous certainty that he wouldn’t disappear. Traced a light touch down his master’s thigh, back up to his hip. 

Fingers massaged against the back of Shen Qingqiu’s neck, that tension falling from him beneath the touch, beneath Luo Binghe’s kiss. His tight-wound nerves settled, his shudders stilled, and when Luo Binghe’s tongue brushed his softly-parted lips a quiet, helpless sound fled his throat. 

He seemed to startle to hear it, a shy gasp pulled past his lips, and made as though to pull away. Luo Binghe could feel the heat of his cheeks and didn’t let him, guided him back with that hand at his neck, reclaimed his lips and then his mouth, tongue dipping beyond the nervous guard of his teeth to stroke against his, warm and silken-soft, swallowing every startled sound that slipped past his guard with a greed, with a hunger that he hardly tried to hold back.

Hand stroking up Shen Qingqiu’s back, down to his waist, over his hip, fingers spread over the crease of his thigh, his master shuddered once again, but he knew it wasn’t for nerves. 

Luo Binghe’s lips curled into a grin against his kiss and he pinned Shen Qingqiu from pulling away, kept him from catching his breath, grazed his teeth across his lips to taunt himself with the thought of what it might feel like to bite down, licked up into his mouth until he lost his precarious balance of Luo Binghe’s thighs to another startled moan and fell against him, hands braced to his chest, soft skin against skin where his collar pulled askew. 

A sharp breath tore past his lips the way he tore himself from Luo Binghe’s, wide glance darting from Luo Binghe’s narrow-eyed question, his kiss-slick smile, to the hand Shen Qingqiu braced against his chest. 

He saw the confusion clear to realisation on his sweetly debauched face, felt the surge of spiritual energy before it struck. He did nothing to stop it, let the blow pierce through him like a blade spearing ice in his heart. 

Ah. 

There it was. 

He could only smile, really. Chill, cutting, he could only smile his Shizun’s smile. That hateful, ugly thing, the firm touches which Shen Qingqiu had been so lost to a moment ago turning firm, unforgiving. 

“Shizun said he wouldn’t hurt me,” he said, voice sweet, low, the cold in his heart spreading to paralyse him, that smile on his face, this man in his arms. “Are all his promises so vain?” Locked in a stalemate; Luo Binghe refusing to release him, Shen Qingqiu hesitating to strike again.

“Where is he?” She Qingqiu bit out, his blushed face already white with fury, eyes sharp in a way that almost veiled his fear. 

Almost.

Luo Binghe tilted his head a little, a question in his quirked brow, still smiling that heartless smile. “Aren’t I right here?”

“You’re not him,” he bit out, sharp, almost angry. Scared. 

Not of Luo Binghe — not of the Luo Binghe before him. No such thing. No, he was scared for Luo Binghe. The little black sheep he’d pampered and cursed, the little brat, the little child, the little beast who had, for all his failings, done what Luo Binghe could not.

“Should I apologise for that?” he asked, words insipid, deadly-soft, his hold tightening a degree around Shen Qingqiu’s neck, “Or is it that you didn’t allow me the courtesy of becoming him?”

That seemed to strike him, leave him wide-eyed and speechless. His hand braced against Luo Binghe’s chest eased, softened by degrees of reluctance. Regret cast a strange shadow across such a familiar face, and Luo Binghe indulged the strange prickle in the back of his mind to think that for sharing a name, sharing a face, sharing a life on this peak, the master before him and the master he’d killed had been altered by fate too much. 

His teacher’s smile felt flat on his lips, jagged and rough and unwieldy. He let it slip away, brows furrowed, eyes sharp, and felt his voice scrape harsh with discomforted uncertainty past his throat to say, “If there was something he did...something he did right…” His lips pressed tight, his fingers curled around the back of Shen Qingqiu’s neck as though demanding he answer. Confusion and hurt bubbling into a pit of hot-blooded anger beneath his tongue. “Do you think I wouldn’t give anything for—”

“Everything.” 

Sharp, unflinching, unquestioning. Unafraid. He met Luo Binghe’s gaze with a matching anger, a matching fire, and there was nothing as frigid as spring left between them. A summer drought in a wave of heat, wildfire threatening to catch and devour them at a single misplaced spark. 

“He gave up everything you have for my sake.” No wives, he realised. No sword. No nation. Forsaking the world for a single flower. Shen Qingqiu’s hand rested as a fist over Luo Binghe’s heart, matching his stare, matching his anger, unafraid of anything he could do. Certain in the truth of it when he promised, “I am not the closure you are looking for.”

“What did you do to deserve it?” he spat, fire feeding fire, his hatred for his teacher and his hatred for this man both born of different cruelties exacted on the same breaking heart. 

“I loved him,” Shen Qingqiu answered, as though it were truly just that simple. Guileful, wry, the face of a dishonest man who didn’t believe his only truth would be trusted. “From the start. From across worlds I loved him first, and worlds away I love him still.” He softened, gentled. His fist on Luo Binghe’s chest smoothed, made as though to pull away before Luo Binghe caught his wrist to keep him there. Quiet, earnest in his apology, he said, “I am not the monster whose face I share.”

“You’re more cruel than he ever was,” Luo Binghe whispered. 

Shen Qingqiu startled, but Luo Binghe’s hand tightened around his wrist, kept him still. Hard enough to bruise, hard enough that he could feel his slender, birdlike bones protest the touch, but he didn’t flinch. He didn’t dare flinch before Luo Binghe. 

“You loved him first,” he said, something that wasn’t anger, something that wasn’t hate, but filled him more completely than either of those ever had seeping from beneath the cracks in his facade, drowning him from where he’d trodden it down and kept it hidden, “but before he loved you he was me. You think you’re righteous, with such a wretched heart?” he scoffed, sharp and desperate for something he hadn’t dared give a name to for far too long. “Twisting yourself in knots to explain in words that it could have been me but wasn’t, and that your affections are too shallow to stay in one place.”

He laughed in the face of Shen Qingqiu’s stunned silence, loosened his hand from the back of his neck to let it slip up, fingers threading through his hair and pulling. 

“I’d rather you hit me,” he breathed, leaning close. Words falling across Shen Qingqiu’s lips. It was only at that, finally, that he flinched. Luo Binghe couldn’t bring himself to feel the thrill of some savage victory. “I’d rather you kick me,” he said. “I’d rather you break your fans and bloody your robes and tear me limb from limb,” he continued, words spilling too quick from his tongue, voice growing louder, more afraid, “than say it was mere chance that you never looked at me.”

By the end, he’d been shouting — so loud his ears rang. Eyes red, stinging, aching, hand too tight in Shen Qingqiu’s hair, around his fragile wrist, holding him over Luo Binghe’s heart. Daring him to dig his fingers in and pull it from his chest.

Begging him to.

He caught a ragged breath and couldn’t find his voice amidst the ruinous, crashing mess of it all to whisper, “It’s not up to fate, now. But you still choose not to look at me.”

Softly, almost gently, the hand against Luo Binghe’s chest pliant and cool (could he feel the unsteady, panicked beat of his heart beneath his skin?) Shen Qingqiu asked, “You have six hundred wives and the world at your feet. What do you want from me?”

For all that he said it was this master who refused to look, Luo Binghe found it beyond him to lift his eyes from where Shen Qingqiu’s hand rested above his chest.

What do you want from me?

As though he didn’t know. As though he didn’t know.

Maybe he didn’t.

Someone like him, who Luo Binghe had always been looking at… maybe he didn’t know what it felt like, to want so desperately to be seen.

Eyes burning, holding Shen Qingqiu’s hand over his heart, begging him to tear it from his chest. “Was it my fault?”

A hand reached up, hesitant, and cool fingers brushed his cheek with the lightest touch. “I am not him,” he promised to Luo Binghe’s creeping belief that it was true. That hand settled over his cheek, as cool as the first day of spring. “No matter what you did, he would never have changed.”

Quiet, cautious, only fools dare to hope. He turned his head, pressed his lips to the palm of Shen Qingqiu’s soft hand and dared to ask, dared to be a fool, as helpless and weak as a lonely child, “You loved me first?”

That was it, wasn’t it. The fear that was flooding him, choking him, drowning him. The panic he’d driven down and down and down, that he’d had no use for since he had thrown him, like so much useless trash, into a world of demons and worse. 

Loneliness.

He’d promised himself. He’d promised. Desperate to soothe a lost child, unloved, unwanted, he’d promised he’d never feel lonely again.

“Binghe…” his master breathed. Almost sighed. His smooth thumb stroked across Luo Binghe’s cheek. An ache in his voice that could not be defined. A recognition, and a shrinking apology.

“Shizun,” he pleaded. Wasn’t that right? He pleaded. 

Fingers curled back into Luo Binghe’s hair, strong, slender arms winding around broad, fragile shoulders, and he was enveloped in the scent he had been searching for, made sweeter in Shen Qingqiu’s embrace. “In another world,” he promised, flower-soft lips brushing against Luo Binghe’s hair, “I loved you first.”

“Shizun,” he asked, voice small and foreign to him, his arm curling around Shen Qingqiu’s waist, “will you hold me?”

“I am holding you,” he mocked, but his arms tightened all the same.

“Will you say my name?” he asked, and Shen Qingqiu’s slender body shook once with his amused little scoff. 

“I just did,” he reminded, but sighed all the same, fingers smoothed unconsciously against the side of his neck, and he pressed his face to the crown of Luo Binghe’s head, breathed deeply and whispered, “Binghe.”

“Again,” he demanded, his hold tightening around Shen Qingqiu, face buried in his chest, eyes closed, breathing deeply, drowning in his scent. 

A soft laugh, and fingers carding through his hair. “Binghe, Binghe, Ah-Luo Binghe,” he hummed as though consoling or perhaps scolding a small unruly child. “Are you going to hide in my arms for the rest of the day?”

“Would you let me?” Luo Binghe asked, twisting in his hold, angling his chin up to let his lips brush beneath Shen Qingqiu’s jaw. 

He tutted, clicked his tongue and muttered all but to himself, “So you really were this sticky all along.”

“Shizun,” he enticed, a small grin tugging at his lips, “will you look at me?”

His hands slipped to rest on Luo Binghe’s shoulders and he leaned away from the close embrace, back arched beneath Luo Binghe’s arm around his waist. Not pulling. Not pushing. Not slipping out of his hold. Bending, like willow or bamboo, just far enough to look him in the eye. “Of course,” he said, unwavering, eyes never leaving his face. Hands smoothing over his shoulders, cupping his neck, his cheeks. Leaning down to rest his brow so gently against Luo Binghe’s. “Of course,” he repeated, a promise breathed across his lips.

“Shizun,” he asked, fingers curling against Shen Qingqiu’s waist, hand trailing up to tangle in his hair. Softly, this time. Gently. “Will you kiss me?”

That dust-pink blush coloured his fine cheeks again — the only sign, in his otherwise perfect composure, of his nervous hesitation. Luo Binghe couldn’t help but stare, couldn’t bring himself to look away from how his eyes slipped closed, dark lashes trembling against his cheeks, and lowered himself to let his petal-soft lips brush Luo Binghe’s.

Chaste, sweet, the lightest touch. He lingered a long moment before pulling away, and Luo Binghe didn’t stop him. 

The colour on his cheeks deepened to red, and he didn’t open his eyes to see before burying his face in the crook of his own arm, hands remaining gentle on Luo Binghe’s cheeks. So impossibly delicate, so flawlessly shy.

“Why don’t you do anything?” he muffled into his arm.

Luo Binghe had to arch a brow, was sure his master could feel his cheeks pull against his grin. “Would Shizun like me to?” he asked. “Kiss me again. This disciple will do it right this time.”

A quiet, embarrassed whine, and he hid his face further in his sleeve. The sharp pink of his ear, the flush of his neck, still perfectly clear to Luo Binghe. A helpless, breathless mutter in a language even Luo Binghe didn’t catch, foreign and muffled into the silk of his sleeve. “Don’t laugh,” he complained, “don’t laugh.” He tilted his head, cut a glare from the corner of one eye. “Don’t look at me,” he said, and covered Luo Binghe’s eyes with one of his cool hands.

“Who’d have known this Shizun to be so shy?” he teased, but didn’t peek past Shen Qingqiu’s slender fingers when he felt him lift his head and press his body close.

“You have to kiss me back,” he insisted, voice wound tight with nerves, words ghosting past Luo Binghe’s lips, “or I won’t do it again.”

For what it was worth, Luo Binghe had started to form the words, “I promise,” before Shen Qingqiu managed to gather his pride (and perhaps his courage too) and press his lips back to Luo Binghe’s, muffling and stifling his words. 

Firm and insistent and intent and unpracticed, it was little more than a forceful press of mouths and bumping of teeth before Luo Binghe huffed a laugh from his nose and tightened his fingers in his master’s hair just enough to pull him back into softening the kiss, just enough to guide him with the smooth glide of his lips, slow and patient and courteous as he knew how to be. 

Eyes closed beneath his master’s cool hand, he kissed the tension out of him all over again. Soft lips, fumbling-shy, the first nervous blossom to break the ice of spring. Luo Binghe kissed Shen Qingqiu the way he’d never kissed him. The touch of his lips kind, placid and sweet, the brush of his teeth teasing, flirtatious and soft. 

Slow. That was how he kissed Shen Qingqiu. Slowly, enticing, drawing away just to have Shen Qingqiu chase the taste, a small pleading sound pulled from his throat. Letting him melt into the warmth to sit heavy on his thighs, he couldn’t seem to help but press closer, chest pressed to Luo Binghe’s chest, arm curled around his neck. 

He shifted, angled his chin, teased his tongue at Shen Qingqiu’s lips, and waited, feigned retreat, for the unsteady, nervous parting of his teeth, for the shy tough of his tongue brushing tentative answer against Luo Binghe’s lower lip. Slowly, slowly, this disciple was teaching him to kiss. How to kiss and be kissed, how to shed his fear of being held. A hand playing and teasing and brushing at his waist, fingers tangled and pulling and guiding in his hair. 

Slowly, so slowly, Luo Binghe leaned back. Let himself fall, Shen Qingqiu in his arms, to lay against the bed.

He broke the kiss on a gasp, back arched beneath Luo Binghe’s arm, and only then seemed to realise his hand was still covering his eyes. 

Cautious, so shy, he spread his fingers and curled them away. 

Luo Binghe let his eyelids flutter, let his master see that he was going to be seen, before opening them properly to the most lovely sight he could imagine. 

Shen Qingqiu leaning over him, elbows braced by his head, the fall of his hair curtained them from the rest of the world. Sharp eyes gone soft, pupils blown wide, his lips kiss-red and slick, parted for quiet, panting breaths. He was beautiful. He was beautiful. He was so fucking beautiful like this. Uncertain and sweet, expression coloured with his blush and a wordless surprise. Looking at him.

Looking at him.

With an expression like wonder adoration desire.

“Binghe,” he breathed, fingers tracing down his cheek, mapping the crease of his grinning eye, the corner of his lips, the curve of his chin, the angle of his jaw. So overtaken with something that he didn’t seem to know how lovely he looked. “Has anyone ever told you? I’m certain they have.” Luo Binghe cocked his head, just a little, a wordless question, amusement playing at his buzzing lips. “How precious you are.”

His heart seemed to still beneath the words, and then all at once it broke and burst and beat and bounded, a sharp breath sucked into his lungs the only tell he gave that he’d heard.

“I’m sure you know,” he said, something indescribable in his voice, “I’m so sure you’ve been told. A hundred times, or a thousand, so what’s once more? But you truly are… so…” 

Whatever word he’d been looking for, whatever he’d wanted to say, it didn’t fit the expression on his face. Love.

His hand drew away from Luo Binghe’s face, covered his own kiss-bitten lips, and he lowered his head to drop his brow against the pounding heart in Luo Binghe’s chest. “I can’t look at you,” he mumbled behind his hand, forgivable for the fact he was completely overcome, “I’ll go blind. I really lo— so much, you— I’m…” He trailed off on a pitiful whine, buried his face against Luo Binghe’s neck before, not half a second later, pushing himself up with both hands braced by Luo Binghe’s head, a determined scowl contradicting the soft blush of his cheeks, the embarrassed flush creeping beneath his collar. “You,” he asserted, a finger pointing right at Luo Binghe’s face, and immediately seemed to lose whatever train of thought he’d been approaching, his glare melting, his posture slumping, his finger dropping to lay gentle over Luo Binghe’s parted lips, “are so…”

“Shizun,” he breathed, something lodged in his throat, his hand coming up to catch Shen Qingqiu’s, to twine them together, a chaste kiss pressed to the tips of his master’s fingers. Eyes lowered, half-lidded, he glanced at the Immortal, the Peak Lord, the untouchable fantasy hung above him, “you’d best not say anything you don’t mean.”

“Who says I don’t mean it?” he snapped, blush riding high in his cheeks, sharp brows furrowed with an inarticulate frustration. He looked as though, had he a hand to spare, he’d have liked to snatch his fan from his sleeve and bring it down with an embarrassed, chiding smack on Luo Binghe’s head. 

He arched a brow, the arm he’d coiled around Shen Qingqiu’s waist trailing down to brush his thigh. “Does this Shizun know why you shouldn’t feed stray dogs?” he asked, something like hunger settling in the pit of his stomach, something like desire itching in his fingertips. 

Before Shen Qingqiu could parse his confusion into words, Luo Binghe had pulled his stance loose, toppled him with a twist of his hips, and pinned him with practiced ease down on the bed, their twined hands pressed to the sheets, his leg hoisted to Luo Binghe’s hip with a hand beneath his knee. He lowered himself, caught the breath of this master’s gasp between his teeth and dragged them over his slim, bite-bruised lower lip. “If you do,” he warned, words catching on a low growl, “doesn’t Shizun know that they’ll keep coming back?”