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Ring a Ring of Roses

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Shizun sang.
Well, not really, no; Shizun hummed and mumbled poetry and children’s rhymes. He tapped rhythms on the table with his index, fanned himself along to some song’s flow. Binghe once heard him quote, for a week straight, ‘there is no synonym for cinnamon’ under his breath for a week straight.
Why? Who knew?! But it was something he did and that no one else knew about Shizun, he’d come to learn. People thought his Shizun spent his days being as untouchable inside their home as he was in his classes.
He wasn’t. At all. In no way.
Shizun was lazy and capricious; he let his hair down completely and walked barefoot as he criticized reports. He mumbled curse words when he thought Binghe could not listen. He pinched Binghe’s cheeks for being too shameless but smiled anyway.
And Shizun made up songs about dangers and terrible hunts, about murders, and bleeding and pain that was coming and was unavoidable.
That wasn’t as much of a cute quirk as it was a question for Shizun’s sanity.
Binghe had been frightened the first time he’d heard it; Shizun had been untangling his own hair absentmindedly, humming under his breath. Binghe had just moved into his Shizun’s home and had the tendency to hide from Shizun’s sight to watch him all he could. He was hiding behind his teacher’s door, barely peeking into the candlelit room.
Shizun looked like a miracle, a vision of some star lit god that blessed children who had been good. Binghe could see him from the mirror’s reflection, but Shizun never looked back, seemingly lost in thought as he worked methodically.
His efforts were sloppy. Binghe wanted to ask if he could do his hair for him.
Shizun sighed and hummed louder.
Hums became mumbles, mumbles became words, and Binghe’s blood froze.
“Beware, be warned, be wary, the demon king’s a-coming, when he finds you, you’ll lose your tongue.” He started again. “Beware, be warned, be wary, the demon king’s a-coming, when he finds you, you’ll lose your arms. Beware, be warned…”
He went on and on, mentioning different parts of a body; legs, hands, eyes…
Binghe trembled on his spot; why was Shizun singing that? His voice was lovely, the melody more cheerful than not, but the lyrics terrified him.
Was someone coming to get them? To get him? Binghe had, more than once, dreamt of a big, scary figure chasing him down, was that to become true? Would he be caught? Would he be left alone, like when Mother had died?
His chest felt tight.
“Shizun, Shizun,” he cried softly from his hiding spot. Shizun came out of his trance and all but ran towards him.
“Binghe.” He was embraced warmly, pressing his face against Shizun’s chest. He whimpered and Shizun rubbed his back, spreading the sweet-smelling oils on his fingers on his clothes. “What is wrong? Speak, speak, what happened?”
Binghe’s fingers tightened on his master.
“There, there,” Shizun rubbed the top of his head. “Tell this teacher and he’ll make it better, was it a nightmare?” Binghe nodded shyly. Shizun always knew what was wrong…
“Very well, then, how about you sleep here tonight?”
“But… where will Shizun sleep?” He couldn’t picture his big Shizun sleeping on his small cot. Binghe wouldn’t allow it, anyway.
Shizun chuckled and rubbed at his cheeks.
“This master will sleep here too, of course.”
Sleep in Shizun’s bed with Shizun?! He looked up, wide-eyed.
“Is the thought so terrible?” Binghe shook his head, not trusting his mouth. It was too good for him. “Then off to bed.”
Shizun ushered him to the bed, covered and tucked him before getting into bed himself. The issue of the scary song was entirely forgotten as he lay in Shizun’s arms.

. . .

Binghe noticed, after time, that Shizun sang and hummed specifically when he was tired or sleepy; it seemed that mood lowered his defenses and his filters disappeared, leaving him to share more information than he’d usually say.
Binghe had realized when he had been told by Shizun that there was no parallel to his cooking and that he wanted to eat only Binghe’s food until the end of his life after his teacher had been awake for two days and nights. Considering Shizun was an immortal, Binghe considered this to be a very sleepy proposal. He’d giggled and Shizun had smiled sweetly at him.
He later made him copy Vice and Virtue three times and write one hundred times “I shan’t take advantage of those around me”.
It was a night like that, one when Yue QingYuan had given Shizun too much paperwork, that Shizun began singing again.
This one seemed more out of tune than the last one, yet still as scary.
“One, two, three, four, five, demon king caught me alive,” he tapped a rhythm with his fingers on the wooden table. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, wouldn’t let me leave again. Ten, nine, seven, six, he cut off both my legs. Five, four, three, two, one, he took out my favorite eye.” He sighed, then complained. “Aiya, this Yue QingYuan… Why should I review this? I already know they’re perfect.”
He didn’t seem to notice Binghe, pale and frightened, next to him.
“Shizun…”
“Yes, Binghe?”
“Shizun knows… His peak is here to help him, right?”
“Honestly, Binghe, this teacher is perfectly capable of doing paperwork, they’re not that difficult.”
“No, I mean… This disciple knows Shizun is very strong, but if he were to need help fighting, say a demon king… or another monster… His peak will help him.”
Shizun’s eyes were inscrutable.
“Binghe, sit here for a moment.” Binghe obeyed. “You said ‘another monster’.”
“Yes?”
“Why are demons, monsters?”
“Well, they…” Binghe trailed off. Why were they monsters? Because of their looks? No, Lui-Shishu was ugly, but he wasn’t a monster. Because they bothered people? Ming Yan also bothered his younger and older martial siblings, but he wasn’t one either… “They… kill people?”
“Do all demons kill people?”
“No, Shizun!” He knew this. “Only deviated demons or ones with clear aggressive intent will kill humans!” Shizun had drilled that into his head; how demons, while not pacifists, wouldn’t bother people unless they were bothered first, except for some deviators.
“Are demons the only creatures that kill people?”
“No, Shizun. Other humans kill people too.”
“Then, are all demons, monsters?”
“No… No, Shizun.”
“Demons can also follow good and bad paths. Don’t forget that,” he pet his head carefully and softly, as if not to startle him too much. “Now, let this master finish his work, or this will take the whole night!”
“Yes, Shizun.”
Binghe left, only somewhat pacified.
Shizun could say whatever about demons and goodness, but the demon from the song wasn’t good in any sense. Binghe felt irrationally angry; it could have been just a stupid song from ages ago or a made-up rhyme about whatever story Shizun had read, and yet…
Hearing Shizun speak those words about a powerful creature hurting someone, catching someone with his disgusting, blackened hands, tearing apart skin and flesh…
He shivered, but he wasn’t scared, he was enraged. He needed to get stronger! Faster! Better!
He wanted, needed to protect Shizun from whatever could bring him harm!
He heard Shizun beginning to hum again in his room and shivered; those songs… He really hated them.

. . .

It wasn’t very often that Shizun did his hair for him, but he always melted when it happened. Having Shizun’s slender finger thread through his untamable curls, prodding, and pushing…
Shizun always apologized if he pulled too hard, but Binghe was always fine. More than fine. It was so good, to sit between his teacher’s leg and have him do something as intimate as that…
He sighed in delight and Shizun huffed a laugh.
“Spoiled…” He mumbled and Binghe smiled big, even if his teacher couldn’t see him.
“Begging Shizun’s forgiveness.”
“Yes, yes, now stay still.” Binghe did, gladly.
They had spent a while like that when Shizun began humming. Binghe tensed, if Shizun started to sing again… But Shizun kept on working, his hums following no law, and his fingers felt so good, Binghe began to fall asleep…
He woke up brusquely with Shizun’s voice.
“Warm bunny, little sheep, mmmhh, mhhh… Cute, white little lotus…” His fingers were sluggish on Binghe’s hair. Did Shizun meant… him? Shizun thought of his Binghe like that? He felt like giggling, like throwing himself in his teacher’s arms and staying there forever.
And thank all the gods Shizun changed his songs!
…He spoke too soon.
“There once was a man in a forest, and he ran far away from his home. He was afraid of one so fair, and he knew he would die, he would die…”
‘Shizun, not again!’ Binghe did his best to return to sleep; he couldn’t ask Shizun to stop talking, it was not his place; he was still very comfortable, he could go back to an unconscious state, right? Not hearing Shizun’s scary tales-
No. Shizun’s voice, soft and sweet behind him, kept him awake.
“The man had been cruel to the other, and he would now get what he earned. Would lose his legs, would lose his arms, and his tongue, and his eyes, and his life…” The soft movements became rougher now, not enough to hurt Binghe, but he did notice. “The man was being chased by a demon, and he would soon catch his prey. Rip and then tear, tear and forget all the bad that was done in his past.
“And once he was done with his teacher, the brave demon king would rejoice, and would go back to his sweet wives and with them, he’d have a great fun...” Shizun huffed a laugh at this. “His three hundred wives would receive him with wreaths made of flowers and gold, he would- Binghe?”
Binghe opened his eyes and turned to look at his teacher.
“Binghe, you’re shivering. Are you cold? Let this teacher close the window.” Shizun stood up quickly and went to do as he said, but Binghe could barely slow down his thoughts. The demon king had killed a teacher, his own teacher because he had been bad to him.
He didn’t like it, but he couldn’t help thinking of the time when…
Back then when Shizun hadn’t… liked him very much… Before the forehead kisses and the shared breakfasts, and the petting and the…
If Shizun had never loved him, would he be bitter like that? Want to hurt Shizun like that?
“Binghe, what’s with that face?” Shizun distracted him. “Did I pull too hard at your hair?” He rested his palm against his cheeks and rubbed with his thumb. “Let’s go to bed, hm?”
Binghe nodded and went behind his teacher. He’d thank the gods and the stars every day his Shizun wasn’t like the one in the story.
Shizun had said he’d protect him. And Shizun kept his word.

. . .

Binghe didn’t fall into the abyss.
He was thrown.

. . .

He climbed out of the abyss on his own.
No one was there to help him.

. . .

Chasing after Shizun felt natural. It was as easy as breathing, following the light colors in the darkness, smelling him between the trees, hearing his panting as he raced.
He chuckled softly when he heard him almost lose his footing.
‘Silly, clumsy Shizun, be careful!’
He couldn’t wait to catch him.
He wanted to wrap his fingers, his hands against the soft flesh, to press down on the moon-pale skin.
He did and it was so easy, so easy… Shizun fit in his arms as if he belonged there.
He pressed on wrists, on shoulders, on Shizun’s fair neck, oh, he wanted to leave marks there… Shizun gasped under his grasp. Binghe loved, loved, loved the sound, and the feeling of it under his palms.
He’d caught Shizun, he thought, giddy. He’d caught him and now he’d never let go of him. He’d hold Shizun down, wouldn’t let him run away again, grab hold of his legs, those white pillars…
He placed his hand where he knew, he knew, there was a space between Shizun’s thigh and his hip; a soft place of flesh to squeeze just right… He pressed and delighted in how Shizun squirmed. He laughed as he pressed his lips to Shizun’s throat.
He pressed himself to his chest, careful of his teacher’s ribs. He was bigger now, he couldn’t just plop down as he did before, when he was little and hadn’t been down in the abyss-
No time to think about that now! Not with how Shizun moved against him! Not with how blood rushed through his veins and roared in his ears.
Binghe traced Shizun’s arms from the wrists to the shoulders, feeling Shizun shiver under him.
Shizun whimpered and Binghe couldn’t hold himself back. He kissed Shizun.
Pressed his mouth against Shizun’s open, gasping one, shoved his tongue as back as he could. There was no finesse and no need for it, not when they were both instinct and feeling. Oh, he was getting hold of Shizun’s own tongue, he wanted to keep it, take it and put it in a box; his Shizun’s precious, warm, wet tongue, he’d put it in an altar…
Under him, Shizun keened; he could feel it in his own mouth, the feeling of the words Shizun wanted to say felt like humming.
Humming, like singing? He liked the idea, Shizun humming underneath him, singing with his lovely voice, as he’d heard a thousand times.
A thousand times before, when he sang of…
What did Shizun sing about?
Blood and killing, how awful! Like he’d ever let Shizun be harmed!
There’d be no hurting Shizun, never, ever, ever. Only protecting and safekeeping, as he’d always wanted to do. He’d kiss and bite and pamper every extremity, every inch of skin; his legs, his mouth, his arms, he’d press his mouth and own and-
Shizun kicked and Binghe laughed softly.
Silly Shizun… Like that’d be enough to push him back. And why would Shizun want to push him back? He was only taking what he earned-
He froze mid opened mouth on Shizun’s heated skin.
Taking what he’d earned? Hadn’t Shizun sung about that once?
About the teacher? The one that ran away… From the demon king…
He stepped back, stumbling in panic.
Was he- What was he doing?
He was a demon king, hunting down his teacher, like the monster from the song. He could hear every line now, every word about taking the cruel teacher’s legs, his arms, his tongue, his eyes…
How much Luo Binghe wanted to have Shizun’s eyes on him, for him, it was terrifying. Xin Mo’s power thrummed through his veins, begging him to take hold of his Shizun again, but, how could he?
How could he, when he’d become the thing he’d hated most?
A demon, a monster.
He had to stop.
Xin Mo pushed from deep inside him again, and in his efforts to restrain himself brought him to his knees. He held his head between his hands to keep them from reaching Shizun.
He could hear Shizun’s panting, his wildly beating heart; demon senses gave him an insight into his teacher’s every breath, but now he’d gladly give it all back.
He could now tell that it wasn’t desire that made him move, but fear. Absolute terror that what he’d sung about would become true-
Was Shizun like those seers? The ones who were told the future by the gods? Had he known all along?
Oh, gods above, Shizun had known. He’d known about this, the same way he knew about the demons and the creatures that lurked in the shadows, the same way he’d known about Binghe’s nightmares and his past. He knew, with the absolute certainty of his, that Binghe would go after him, hunt him down and try to take him apart.
How terrible, then, that Shizun couldn’t tell the difference between murdering him and pleasuring him. Then again, Binghe himself was having difficulty to do the same. Where did pain and pleasure were separated? Xin Mo made him blind.
Anyhow, that didn’t matter, because if Shizun wasn’t willing Binghe would not make a single move, no matter what Xin Mo thought it could make him do.
Shizun’s breathing leveled slowly. Binghe heard him move away from the tree he’d had him pinned to.
“Luo Binghe?” He croaked, and Binghe whined at the sound of his voice. He sounded… roughed up, choked. He’d choked Shizun. Shame and tears built up inside of him. Shizun’s heartbeats sped up again, anxiety. “Binghe? What is wrong?”
What was wrong? Everything!
He wanted to crawl to him, to be held like when he was a child and Shizun knew exactly what had made him cry. He had missed Shizun, his care and his beauty and his kindness, he’d missed being home-
“Binghe!” Shizun screamed and raced to him, crouching at his side, taking hold of his shaking shoulders; controlling himself and Xin Mo was taking a great toll on him, and now Shizun knew how weak he was- “Binghe, what is wrong? Are you hurt?”
Hurt? He deserved to die!
For what he’d done to Shizun, chased him like an animal and frightened him, he deserved to be gutted down and burned, he deserved to be put to the sword like a criminal-
Quick as lightning, he grabbed Xin Mo from its sheath and didn’t miss the way Shizun jumped away from it, straightening up and stepping back. Even more evidence of his crime.
But Binghe thrust the hilt into Shizun’s blessed hands and he bowed down, scrambling to push his hair out of the way for his neck.
“This disciple-“ No, he no longer was Shizun’s disciple, he’d lost that honor when he’d tried to rape his teacher against a tree. “This Luo Binghe deserves-“
How to explain that even dying by Shizun’s hands was too good for him? “This Luo Binghe was wrong!” He settled. “Begging Shizun to impart punishment!”
He dared not to look, unworthy of Shizun’s view. He trembled but he hoped that didn’t stop his Shizun from doing what was just.
Minutes passed, stretching longer and longer by the second.
Shizun dropped Xin Mo, and it clanged against the rocks on the floor. The same rocks dug into Binghe’s skin, but that was entirely inconsequential.
“Will… Will Luo Binghe look at this teacher?” Binghe raised his head slowly, knowing he looked like a mess. He’d wanted to appear always perfect for Shizun.
‘Look what you raised,’ he’d wanted to say. ‘You’ve done so well with this disciple.’
Look how that went.
He felt his face warm with tears; his hair, that took so long to pull down and control, was out of its place from when he’d pulled at it. Disheveled clothes, red cheeks. Pathetic.
Shizun looked. Really looked at him; they looked into each other’s eyes.
Shizun was still as unreadable as he’d been when he was a child. Adulthood hadn’t given Binghe any understanding of his teacher’s mind, as he’d hoped. How was Binghe to know what Shizun thought?
Then, whatever Shizun was looking for was found, because his shoulders dropped. His posture relaxed if just a fraction; his jaw unclenched. He sighed with a tremble.
“Binghe… Binghe should take back his sword, this master will not use it against him.” He passed him Xin Mo’s hilt carefully, but Binghe did not move to take it. Shizun frowned.
“Will Binghe not-“
Binghe shook his head.
“This Luo Binghe will not touch Xin Mo ever again unless it is for destroying it. It controlled this Luo Binghe and-“ He shivered. “He- I don’t want it.”
They shared a moment in silence. He could see Shizun was thinking, probably a million different things.
“Is Binghe hurt?” He asked, finally, in a soft voice. Binghe shook his head. “Can he stand up?” A nod. “Let’s go… back inside. This is not a conversation for a forest.”
He offered his hand, and Binghe took it.

. . .

Binghe made tea while Shizun put Xin Mo away; Binghe didn’t see and didn’t want to see where.
He didn’t want to see that wretched piece of metal ever again in his life.He served the tea and they drank slowly; as they neared the bottom of their cups, Shizun spoke up.
“This teacher knows that using Xin Mo is very difficult.” Binghe didn’t ask how Shizun was so sure of this knowledge. He wasn’t wrong anyway. “Asking Luo Binghe, how did he-“ He paused. “Get hold of himself.”
“Answering Shizun,” he dared and carried on when Shizun didn’t look affronted by the title. “This Luo Binghe recalled Shizun’s teachings.”
“This master doesn’t remember teaching methods of self-control during possession in his classes.” There had been, but Binghe didn’t comment.
“Not what was taught in the classes; the songs.”
“What songs?” Binghe squirmed. He knew it was improbable that Shizun had even known what he sang about; if he even knew he sang. He didn’t want to admit he’d heard it at all.
“When this Luo Binghe lived with Shizun, Shizun sometimes sang stories. This disciple recognized the story and did his best to stop.”
Shizun opened his eyes wide as they went. His fan was forgotten on the table, his mouth slightly agape. He seemed very scared; this was clear for the first time.
“What was the story about?” His voice trembled.
“A demon king who retaliates against his cruel teacher.” Binghe retold and saw Shizun get even paler. “He caught his teacher and cut off his arms, his legs, his tongue-“
“And cut out his eye.” Shizun finished for him. He covered his face with his hands.
“Shizun, this one-“
“Hold that thought,” Shizun ordered along with a wave and Binghe obeyed. Shizun breathed in and started, well, thinking, it seemed. He stared into the emptiness of space for a few moments. He bit his lip, then said, quite forcefully.
“Well, fuck it.” Binghe gasped in surprise. Shizun would never! “I beg Luo Binghe to let me tell a story; if by the end he still wants to kill this master, I will not fight it.”
Binghe wasn’t sure what shocked him the most: Shizun dropping all polite names or him implying that Binghe wanted him dead. He only nodded, to which Shizun began speaking.
“Shen Jiu is dead.” He stated, and Binghe’s blood froze before Shizun spoke again, this time, his voice wavering. “I am Shen Yuan. I am… Not from this world.” He saw this Shen Yuan start fidgeting. It was a curious sight. “In there, I died. As did Shen Jiu, when he had that fever, does Luo Binghe remember?”
Binghe nodded.
Of course, he remembered. That had been the turning point of his life when Shizun finally-
Oh.
Oh, that made sense now.
Shen Yuan, Binghe repeated in his mind, savoring it.
Shen Yuan. Shen Yuan.
A-Yuan.
No. He mustn’t go there.
“You are not Shizun,” Binghe said slowly. Shen Yuan grimaced slightly.
“Yes and no. I am not the original, but it was me who, er, taught you.” ‘Taught’, he said. Like he hadn’t fed, bathed, clothed, and loved Luo Binghe through years and years.
“Shen Yuan knows things… How?”
“In my original world, Luo Binghe and all who live here, all this,” he made a small gesture with his hand. “Wasn’t real. It was part of a, erm, novel, so to say. I read the novel, so I remember.”
“A novel…”
“Proud Immortal Demon Way.” What a stupid title, although fitting. “In there, Luo Binghe, after returning from his five years-long stay in the Abbys, returns to Huan Hua palace, captures his teacher, and does all… that.” Binghe trembled. “He also carries on with his marriages, and-“
“His what?” Binghe couldn’t stop himself from interrupting. Who would he even marry?
“His marriages.” Shen Yuan repeated slowly. “The beginning of the harem. First with Nin YingYing, and later on with Sha HuaLing, Liu MingYan, and-“
“Begging Shen Yuan to not say more.” He could feel his face somehow devoid of blood and absolutely red at the same time. Him? Marry Nin YingYing? Sha HuaLing?
“There are still a few names to go,” Shen Yuan said, almost casually. “There are, after all, 300 of them.”
“Three hundred wives?” Why on earth he’d want three hundred wives? “What about Shizun-“
“Shen QingQiu was a bother no more.” Shen Yuan said and Binghe could see in his eyes he was absolutely serious. “He was a scum villain that was turned into a human stick.”
Binghe could barely process it.
His Shizun, a scum villain? His Shizun, who shared his breakfast, who gave him private classes, and tucked him into bed for years?
No. Never.
“You’re not him.” He said, forcefully, and Shen Yuan blinked.
“Well, no. I’m not.” He wasn’t understanding.
“You are Shizun, not him.”
“Yes, I am Shizun. This Shen Yuan is Luo Binghe’s Shizun, not Shen Jiu.” He repeated slowly, and Binghe growled, a habit he’d picked up in the Abyss. Shen Yuan, Shizun, flinched back at the sound. Then, he sighed.
“Now that you know the truth,” What truth? Binghe still had a million more questions to ask! “What will you do with me?”
Binghe stared in confusion, cocking his head a little.
“What does Shizun mean?”
“Well, I have told you my story. You now know almost all. What will do you about me?”
“Almost all?”
“Ah, yes.” He fidgeted again. “There are things I really cannot reveal. Just two. Of course, Binghe can torture me to get them out; I don’t think I’d handle it very well, but I’m praying Binghe will be merciful with this old man for old time’s sake.”
Binghe decided to be as blunt as possible.
“This Luo Binghe doesn’t want to kill Shizun.”
“Of course not,” he waved the words away. “There is no sense in keeping a dead body to torture. Even the original kept Shen QinQiu under the palace for several months-“
“I am not him!” He raised his voice, anxious and angry. Shizun flinched back and Binghe tried to swallow the pain he felt.
He deserved those flinches; he’d scared Shizun, the distrust was to be expected but he needed Shizun to understand this.
“This one is not that Luo Binghe the same way Shen Yuan isn’t Shen Jiu. We are separate people and we do not want the same. This disciple is most happy when he is at Shizun’s side.”
“At- At my side?” Binghe nodded, flustered. He really hadn’t meant to disclose that. “But, the abyss…”
“Begging Shizun will explain what he felt then, but this disciple still wants to stay by Shizun’s side, if he allows it.”
“I, um,” Shen Yuan fumbled for words. He looked… Confused, to say the least. Binghe couldn’t blame him, really. If you spent half of your life believing you’d be horribly killed and then your murderer confessed their love, he’d be thrown off his rhythm too. “Um, this teacher… He also relishes his time with Binghe…”
He smiled, a little breathless. The praise felt like a balm even if it was undeserved.
“But Binghe’s wives will not be pleased…”
“What wives? This Luo Binghe doesn’t want to marry Ning-Shijie or Sha HuaLing, or any of the others.”
“None?”
“None.” He affirmed. “This disciple wants to go back to Qing Jing Peak and live as he had with Shizun. Begging Shizun’s permission to follow him.”
Shizun blinked.
“You… Binghe is leaving his three hundred wives, Huan Hua palace, his demonic lordship to go back to our house?”
It warmed Binghe’s heart that Shizun spoke of ‘their’ house.
“This one will still be a demon lord, wherever he lives. And this one isn’t leaving any wife; this lord isn't married.” He smirked softly. It was pretty funny to see Shizun so unlike himself.
Or, more like his real self.
He wondered what changes Shen Yuan underwent to appear more like Shen Jiu. Or were they of a similar manner? He wanted to find out.
And thanks to his Shizun’s merciful forgiveness, or at least tolerance, he’d probably be able to find out.

. . .

It was one late night that Binghe heard it. He was bringing a snack for Shizun as he graded essays from the juniors that he heard Shizun humming again.
He froze behind the door as Shizun began to sing, his voice just as lovely as he remembered; he suddenly recognized the lyrics.
Shizun was singing the Resentment of Chunsan. He sighed in utter delight.