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Shen Qingqiu's mind is preoccupied when he opens the inn room's door. "Oh, Liu-shidi - "

"Shen Qingqiu," Liu Qingge says, and Shen Qingqiu barely manages to step aside before he storms into Shen Qingqiu's room. Shen Qingqiu's attention is drawn; certainly, Liu Qingge often lacks for manners, but to this extent? With the way he's started pacing, it's something terribly important.

Shen Qingqiu hopes it's nothing to do with Luo Binghe. Or the sowers. Or any of the other things Shen Qingqiu hasn't spoken of in the last three years.

"Shen Qingqiu," Liu Qingge says again. His fists are clenched, his mouth drawn into a severe scowl, and Shen Qingqiu tentatively identifies his emotional state as 'resolute' over 'angry'. Though, come to think of it, there probably is some anger involved, with the way Liu Qingge is glaring at Shen Qingqiu as if he's the bane of his very existence. Unfortunately it does nothing to detract from his remarkably pretty face. "You."

Shen Qingqiu waits a moment, then prompts, "Liu-shidi is here to clear this shixiong's meridians?"

Liu Qingge grimaces, but takes a seat at the small table. The tea Shen Qingqiu made a few hours earlier has already gone cold, and Shen Qingqiu takes advantage of the time spent making a new pot to examine him discreetly. "Has shidi had trouble tracking the remaining sowers?"

"What?" Liu Qingge says, and then looks up at him, sharp eyes scanning Shen Qingqiu from head to toe. "I'll hunt them down." His eyes catch on Shen Qingqiu's hand, where the spots of poisoning have already begun to spread, and Shen Qingqiu belatedly tries to hide it as Liu Qingge's gaze darkens further. "You're already poisoned?"

Already? Shen Qingqiu cries internally. Does he really come across as someone so fragile? As to whether or not it has some basis in reality - Shen Qingqiu clears his throat. "This shixiong believes in Mu-shidi's capabilities," he says mildly, and sets the tea set on the table, pouring them both a cup before he offers his non-infected wrist. "As long as our Sect catches these sowers, this master will be fine."

"You're poisoned twice over," Liu Qingge retorts. He scowls as he glances at the door, then takes Shen Qingqiu's wrist in a familiar grip. "That disciple of yours hasn't come yet?"

Shen Qingqiu barely stops himself from freezing. His pulse jumps as he reaches for his teacup, and he knows Liu Qingge, his qi starting to carefully trickle into Shen Qingqiu's meridians, definitely feels it. "To what is Liu-shidi referring?"

Liu Qingge's face darkens. "You have to know. Luo Binghe is - dangerous."

Shen Qingqiu's eyebrows furrow. Luo Binghe is still hiding his heritage, so is this about his defection to Huan Hua Palace? Surely Liu Qingge hasn't already uncovered that it's Luo Binghe behind the sowers. Even Shen Qingqiu, who knows the truth of this whole business, is missing even a fragment of evidence to prove it.

"He… wants you," Liu Qingge grits out, as if each word pains him deeply. "And he'll do anything to get you."

That's not… particularly a surprise, though it does send an abject chill down Shen Qingqiu's spine. But how could Liu Qingge possibly know what happened between them? Did… did someone tell him? Did Binghe?

"You shouldn't be forced to accept him before he explains himself," Liu Qingge continues, undaunted by Shen Qingqiu's lack of response. "I'll fight him for you if you want."

"Ah, shidi…"

"And - " Liu Qingge scowls harder. He looks at Shen Qingqiu with heavy intent. "Shen Qingqiu. You're not… alone."

Shen Qingqiu can't even begin to decipher this strangely laden non-sequiteur. "Of course not," he says carefully. "This master knows the Sect stands behind him. And Liu-shidi, of course."

Which is, not to belabour the point, precisely the problem. Liu-shidi, stop offering yourself as a sacrifice to the narrative gods!

"But this master is capable of handling a stray disciple," he tries. Liu Qingge looks unconvinced.

"That isn't - " Liu Qingge glares at him. "You should stay by my side."

With that emphasis, with Liu Qingge's steady stare, Shen Qingqiu can't help but feel his statement is a bit… vague. His ears feel warm. "Ah, isn't shidi currently occupied? This shixiong believes his skills are best implemented elsewhere for this mission."

"Not that," says Liu Qingge. He's starting to look frustrated. "I…"

They're both abruptly relieved from this awkward conversation by a knock on the door. Shen Qingqiu can't even consider who it might be before Liu Qingge throws the door open, revealing -

- a Luo Binghe straight from Shen Qingqiu's nightmares, eyes gleaming and sword aloft -

- meeting Cheng Luan with a sharp clang.

"You!" Liu Qingge growls.

"Me," says Luo Binghe. He looks like he's stepped right out of one of Shen Qingqiu's fan posters, his robes dark and his smile a wicked curve on his face, his demon mark visible and eyes tinged with red. "Shishu, shouldn't you be thanking me?"

"You - !"

Their crossed blades detach. Liu Qingge swings again, and Luo Binghe gains a foot inside the door.

"Or is shishu still trying to steal Shizun from me? If shishu truly wishes to lose another thousand rounds - "

Shen Qingqiu, apparently forgotten, eyes the nearby window with intent. He'd be out of it already if it wasn't for the inexplicable fight happening about ten steps away, Luo Binghe's taunting and Liu Qingge's sharp retorts and the crash of their swords against each other as if this is a practice field instead of a small room -

He doesn't understand. Why are they so familiar? Why aren't they using spiritual attacks? Why does this feel more like a training spar than a fight?

Shen Qingqiu decides to abandon that train of thought for sweet, sweet freedom and quietly slips outside.

After all, Liu Qingge probably won't die if Luo Binghe isn't trying to kill him! If they've been talking or something - if there was something strange about the atmosphere back there - it's nothing to do with Shen Qingqiu! Maybe, if they're friendly, Shen Qingqiu's former sins can also be politely excused and he can forget he ever grew an extra body to escape to.

That's not likely. Shen Qingqiu sighs.

His looming future has been haunting him since he saw Luo Binghe this morning, two years before he was scheduled, tied up in a plot that will probably end up with his tragic demise. What relationship could possibly affect the protagonist's inevitable revenge? All the wives in the world couldn't stop Luo Binghe from destroying Cang Qiong Mountain Sect in the end, and no matter how ambiguously good Liu Qingge's relationship with him is, he's hardly someone who can count as a wife.

Or… well. Shen Qingqiu really wouldn't blame them. Liu Qingge is pretty enough, and with his own good looks, Luo Binghe could no doubt seduce anyone he had the mind to.

Shen Qingqiu is relieved from the strange direction of his spiralling thoughts by catching a glimpse of the sower who poisoned him in the morning. Thank you, mission prompt! He'll gladly take this distraction! Meridians freshly cleansed of Without-a-Cure, Shen Qingqiu is in an optimal state to hunt it down, and he catches up to it with Xiu Ya poised -

And the flash of another sword takes its head.

Shen Qingqiu comes to a stop. His throat feels dry when he swallows. "Luo Binghe."

"Shizun," Luo Binghe says, his voice mild as he steps out of the shadows. He's lost the light of his demon mark, but Shen Qingqiu can still feel the resentful thrum of Xin Mo as he sheathes it. His gaze tracks Shen Qingqiu's figure, then rests on his face. "I... really missed you."

How could he still say such a thing? Shen Qingqiu reaches for the fan on his belt and, failing to find it, looks away from Luo Binghe's burning eyes. "Ah."

"Shizun is always hiding," Luo Binghe says, now sounding reproachful, "running away. If this disciple didn't know better... But even now, this disciple doesn't understand Shizun's heart."

Shen Qingqiu has no idea what to say. He now wishes desperately he hadn't left the inn, in danger of becoming collateral damage or not. His mouth tightens.

"Does Shizun hold resentment, when for the last three years he grieved for this disciple's lost life? Does Shizun hate and despise this disciple's heritage, when he never once shared it with others to condemn him? Is Shizun truly indifferent to this disciple, when, in a critical moment, he would..."

Luo Binghe trails off. Shen Qingqiu can't meet his eyes.

"Liu Qingge," Shen Qingqiu starts, and Luo Binghe laughs.

"Does Shizun think poorly of me? Shizun can ask Liu-shishu if it was a fair fight."

Shen Qingqiu can't understand this conversation at all. Is Luo Binghe angry, resentful, hateful, jealous? Before, Luo Binghe used to be adorably put out when Shen Qingqiu had to shoo him away for his and Liu Qingge's weekly meridian cleansing to manage Without-A-Cure, but now...

Have Shen Qingqiu's own actions not caused vicious fury to seed in Luo Binghe's heart?

"This master wasn't aware you were so familiar," Shen Qingqiu says.

"Is Shizun jealous?" Luo Binghe wonders, eyes hooded and blood-dark, but something changes in his expression and his mouth twists in a faint smile. "Liu-shishu can no longer win a battle against this disciple, but his loyalty is commendable. It might be said that we've become… friendly."

"You - !"

Luo Binghe looks up at Liu Qingge's irritated voice, and Shen Qingqiu follows his gaze as Liu Qingge drops from Cheng Luan with unconscious grace. "Another match," Liu Qingge says, and his eyes slide past Luo Binghe to Shen Qingqiu. He takes a step forward, holding out - "You forgot your fan."

"My thanks to Liu-shidi," Shen Qingqiu says, the words automatic and familiar. He takes it and flicks it open to hide his face; they're both watching him, unusually intent. The wind is chilling, the sound of distant, quiet conversation strangely loud. Shen Qingqiu looks between them, feeling even more like he's lost in a fog. "Should we... be heading back?"

"Tomorrow," Luo Binghe says. He's looking at Liu Qingge. "Since shishu doesn't seem capable of taking an opportunity when it comes."

"Shameless!" Liu Qingge scolds, and turns to Shen Qingqiu in a huff. "I'll take you back."

"We'll take you back," Luo Binghe corrects, smiling. One glance at the curve of his lips sends Shen Qingqiu's skin prickling with an awareness that isn't entirely fear for his life. "Don't worry, Shizun, Liu-shishu's room should be undamaged."

They fall into step with each other like they've done it a thousand times. A thousand fights - when did Liu Qingge even have the time? That's one a day over the last three years, and there's no way - but that means -

Shen Qingqiu quickly shoves that terrifying conjecture to the back of his mind. "Then this master will trouble you," he says.

He doesn't want to know. He wishes he wasn't so certain he was about to find out.