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On the morning of the Immortal Alliance Conference, Luo Binghe wakes up to the sun shining on his face.

He’s filled with a nervous kind of eagerness. It simmers under his skin, like soup just barely coming to a boil. It makes him want to run laps around the mountains until at least some of the energy has left him. It’s not, for once, the fact that he isn’t confident in himself. He is. He was trained under Shen Qingqiu’s guidance, with Shen Qingqiu giving him a personalized cultivation manual on top of that; it would be more surprising if he wasn’t confident in himself, given those odds.

Meng Mo snarks in his head, You and that Shizun of yours.

Luo Binghe ignores him in favor of washing up.

It’s a good morning schedule he’s found himself in. He wakes up with the sun, gets dressed, does a perfunctory cleaning of anything he’s missed the night before, and goes to the kitchen to prepare Shen Qingqiu’s breakfast. After that, he ensures that the food is kept warm until Shen Qingqiu lets him know that he is awake.

The moments following Shen Qingqiu waking up are some of the best parts of Luo Binghe’s day. Shen Qingqiu is softer in the mornings. He is sweeter to Luo Binghe, more likely to spend time carding his hands through Luo Binghe’s admittedly unbrushed hair, fussing with Luo Binghe’s robes to make sure he is properly dressed even though he knows he is, as if Shen Qingqiu needs to be touching Luo Binghe to function properly, or praising Luo Binghe for whatever he’s decided to make for breakfast that day.

In these brief moments, only in these early hours of the morning, does Shen Qingqiu shed away pieces of his immortal appearances. It happens in front of Luo Binghe, and only in front of Luo Binghe, and he will preserve these snippets of time in his heart for as long as he can.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Just as his morning routine dictates, just as Luo Binghe begins to add garnishes to the plates in front of him, he hears a sleep-addled voice call out for him.

“Binghe?”

The call is quiet yet clear. Luo Binghe puts down the ingredients in his hand and walks quickly to the doorway of Shen Qingqiu’s bedroom.

Shen Qingqiu is half-sitting up in bed when Luo Binghe sees him, rubbing his eyes much like a younger child would. Luo Binghe’s heart does something funny at the sight.

“Shizun is awake now?”

Shen Qingqiu yawns delicately, raising thin fingers to cover his mouth in place of his fan. “Mm, I’m up,” he says, voice marginally more awake than a few moments ago, “I’m up,” he repeats.

Luo Binghe makes a move to help Shen Qingqiu out of bed, but Shen Qingqiu waves him off. “Your Shizun can do at least this much,” Shen Qingqiu argues, much like he does on any other morning. “Is breakfast ready?”

Luo Binghe brightens. “I’ll bring it right in Shizun,” he says, quickly exiting the room and heading back to the kitchen when Shen Qingqiu makes an affirmative noise.

He takes his time plating everything properly onto a tray, knowing his Shizun likes to move slower in the mornings, and won’t appreciate Luo Binghe barging in during his own morning routine.

Sure enough, by the time Luo Binghe deems it appropriate to reenter the main bedroom, Shen Qingqiu is just about to take a seat in front of the table, already dressed and ready for the day. There’s a loose piece of hair that’s fallen out of his crown, and Luo Binghe aches to tuck it behind his ear.

He pushes the thought away instead, and plates everything in front of Shen Qingqiu quickly so that he can take a seat by his side.

“Has Shizun had a good rest?” Luo Binghe asks.

Shen Qingqiu hums, surveying the plates and bowls in front of him with thinly veiled anticipation. “Has Binghe? Today is a big day for him.”

Ah. In his effort to make Shen Qingqiu his breakfast, he had almost forgotten what today was. Like a flame flickering to life, the restless energy inside him returns full force. He clears his throat to answer, “I’ve rested enough.”

Shen Qingqiu eyes him. “Are you nervous?”

Luo Binghe is confident, he assures himself. It’s just. He is a little nervous, but there’s no need to tell Shen Qingqiu that. After all, it’s not the actual conference that Luo Binghe is worried about.

“I won’t bring Shizun a dissatisfying result,” Luo Binghe says.

Shen Qingqiu smiles knowingly. “Didn’t answer the question.”

Luo Binghe looks away, embarrassed that Shen Qingqiu had caught on so quickly.

Shen Qingqiu sets down his chopsticks so that he can reach over to pat Luo Binghe’s head. “No matter what, I know Binghe will do well.”

Eagerly, Luo Binghe nods. “With Shizun’s teachings, this Binghe is sure to be in first place.”

Shen Qingqiu’s expression goes soft. “En, I don’t doubt it.”

Luo Binghe eyes him a tad more carefully. Despite Shen Qingqiu’s content aura, there’s a certain tenseness in Shen Qingqiu’s own shoulders. Luo Binghe only is able to spot it because he feels it too.

He holds back a smile. Is Shen Qingqiu worried for him? “Shizun shouldn’t worry either,” he says, unable to hold back at least this. “This Binghe will return to you.”

Shen Qingqiu hums again and turns back to his food.

Luo Binghe smiles, content to watch Shen Qingqiu eat the rest of his breakfast until it is time to get ready to go.

-

When Luo Binghe was still a boy, he thought the worst pain in his life would be the physical blows he received from the street children, kicking and punching at him for no reason at all other than to cement themselves at the top of an invisible food chain. He’d come home to the little shed his mother had made a home out of, littered with cuts and bruises, and trying to hide a limp every few weeks. He tried to hide them from her, but he knew his efforts were fruitless when she gave him a sad smile and ushered him towards the wash basin so that she could tend to his wounds.

Then, all that seemed like a drop in the ocean compared to the gaping maw left behind in his soul at his mother dying right in front of him. His mother, who worked days and nights all to make sure Luo Binghe had a meal at least twice a day and sacrificed her own meals to make sure he could have the biggest portions. His mother, who took him in for no other reason than her pure heart. His mother, who Luo Binghe was too weak to save. He thought then, there was nothing in his life that could hurt worse than this.

Turns out, Luo Binghe was wrong on all accounts.

The death of his mother still stings, burns in the pits of his stomach when he thinks too deeply about it, but somewhere in the back of his mind he’s accepted the fact that she had no choice. That, if the circumstances were different, if their fates were just a little bit luckier, that if she had to choose, she would have stayed. She wouldn’t have left Luo Binghe behind. She wouldn’t have left him alone to fend for himself.

If Luo Binghe had to face his mother’s death a second time around, it would hurt like an iron brand in his ribcage, but he would be able to survive it.

This on the other hand.

Luo Binghe honestly can not say for sure.

He knows he’s crying. It’s unsightly, and goes against everything his Shen Qingqiu taught him and the other disciples about appearing calm and orderly in front of others, but Luo Binghe has always been easy to cry.

Shen Qingqiu had known this about him from early on, and didn’t hesitate to scold him gently before rubbing away at the tears with long, calloused fingers and opening his arms to bring Luo Binghe into a hug.

The Shen Qingqiu in front of him doesn’t show any of the same sympathy.

Luo Binghe falls to his knees. “Shizun, Shizun, I’m sorry. Please, Shizun. Please—”

“Get up,” Shen Qingqiu snaps, and Luo Binghe scrambles back up to his feet. “How long have you been practicing demonic cultivation?”

“Not too long,” Luo Binghe says hastily. “Shizun, please, this one didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”

Shen Qingqiu mutters, just loudly enough for Luo Binghe to hear, “A Heavenly demon.”

Behind Luo Binghe, there is the Endless Abyss. Luo Binghe never thought that he would see it for himself.

He tries something else. “I haven’t done anything outside of Shizun’s teachings. Please, Shizun, believe me. Didn’t you say that there are good demons? That it didn’t matter whether someone was a demon or human, so long as they have a good heart?”

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t respond. Instead he looks away, gritting his teeth.

Luo Binghe’s eyes burn at the dismissal, the pure anger in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes. “Shizun, you said—”

“What I’ve said before,” Shen Qingqiu says, whipping his head back to look at Luo Binghe. His tone is cold and sharp— Luo Binghe doesn’t remember hearing Shen Qingqiu’s voice sounding like this since before his fever. It is reminiscent, in the way one forgets about a smell until they encounter it one day walking into a bakery or wandering in the forests, and then the memories return like they’ve never left. — “Is now irrelevant. The situation has changed now. You aren’t just a demon, you are a Heavenly one.”

Luo Binghe finds, suddenly, that he has no other argument. He halts, even while his tears don’t.

What can he say?

Before he can even start to ponder it, Shen Qingqiu takes a swing forward with his sword and Luo Binghe doesn’t dodge.

He knows he could have. Meng Mo barks in his ear as to why he didn’t.

Shen Qingqiu’s face changes barely. It’s only the fact that Luo Binghe has spent most of his waking hours in close proximity to Shen Qingqiu that he understands the minute changes to an otherwise peerless expression, the slight widening of his eyes and raise of his eyebrows: Shen Qingqiu expected Luo Binghe to dodge too.

Again, there’s not time. Luo Binghe has no time. He wishes time could pause. Just for a second. There’s no time to think, no time to do anything as Shen Qingqiu yanks back the sword just as roughly as he thrust it. Luo Binghe barely has the mind to hold back the choked gasp that the movement has him feeling. He registers pain, but at this point, he can’t tell if it’s physical or mental.

Dazed, he lifts his hand to place over the wound. Blood is quickly staining his outer robe, and then his fingers.

“Shizun?” Luo Binghe tries one last time.

But Shen Qingqiu, as it seems, is in no more mood for talking. He takes advantage of Luo Binghe’s stillness, and gives him one last shove.

Luo Binghe doesn’t have the power to stop him.

The last thing he sees is the ground above him swallowing him whole.

-

Luo Binghe gasps awake.

His heart races erratically, and the sweat on his skin makes his robes stick to him. For a moment he’s still disoriented. There is a bed beneath him, but that can’t be right. He should be surrounded by soil and rock and darkness. He should be dead.

Unless. It was a dream?

The sun shines brightly onto his face.

A nightmare, he amends.

Luo Binghe takes in a deep breath. Clearly, he hadn’t trained well enough with Meng Mo for his dreams to veer that far away from his control. He rubs a hand down his face and hopes that any residual fear and anxiety from that horrible dreamscape doesn’t show on his face.

He pinches himself tightly, wincing as he does. It’s something Shen Qingqiu had taught him when he had only just moved into the side room of the bamboo house and had nightmares consistently, vague images of demons and everyone he loves dying while he remains helpless. He’d wake up on a yell, even trying to fight off Shen Qingqiu when his Shizun had tried to shake him awake, unsure if anything around him was even real. Shen Qingqiu had imparted no punishment, even when Luo Binghe had begged for him to do so, only pet Luo Binghe and teach him a hidden method in order to differentiate dream from not.

Just pinch your arm to bring yourself back into reality, Shen Qingqiu had said sagely. If it hurts, it is real. You are real. So go back to bed, Binghe. This Shizun will see you in the morning, hm?

The nightmares had stopped when Luo Binghe met Meng Mo— until now, that is— but Luo Binghe hasn’t forgotten this piece of advice. As if he could forget any piece of knowledge Shen Qingqiu had imparted on him.

Methodically, he starts his morning routine. Washes his face, makes breakfast, keeps it warm, and brings it to Shizun.

He asks, like he always does, and like he did in his dream, “Has Shizun had a good rest?”

Shen Qingqiu rolls his eyes. “Asking this when it should be me asking you. Binghe has a big day, after all.” He smiles. “Are you nervous?”

Luo Binghe stills. This question, it’s the same one from his dream. It could very well be a coincidence, that Luo Binghe’s subconscious was able to produce such an accurate version of Shen Qingqiu that he can now even predict Shen Qingqiu’s future dialogue.

But.

There’s a small chance— could his dreams actually be visions?

He examines Shen Qingqiu a bit more closely. Luo Binghe holds back a jolt when he sees it; a loose several strands of Shen Qingqiu’s hair framing his face like a gentle caress. Just like the dream.

Quickly, Luo Binghe calls for Meng Mo to ask.

“What on Earth are you spouting now, boy?”

It’s the same question my Shizun asked just now, Luo Binghe insists. You’ve seen my dreams.

Meng Mo scoffs. “Have you lost your mind? Or is the conference actually interfering with your ability to use your brain? You can’t tell the future just as much as your blasted Shizun can.”

Luo Binghe hisses back, Don't talk about my Shizun that way.

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. You haven’t answered him by the way.”

Luo Binghe blinks, focusing back on the scene in front of him. Shen Qingqiu’s peaceful expression has now become one of worry. “Binghe....?”

“A-ah, yes. Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu is a little closer to him now, the back of his hand on Luo Binghe’s forehead. “Are you feeling alright?”

Luo Binghe straightens. “Yes! Yes. This one apologizes, did Shizun say something?”

Shen Qingqiu half-smiles. “Well, I did ask if you were nervous about today, but I think I already have my answer.”

Luo Binghe says sheepishly, “I’m not nervous. I just don’t want to disappoint Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu’s smile turns into one of mirth. “Silly. As if you could.”

-

Meng Mo is wrong.

Luo Binge’s dreams were clearly a vision. It plays out exactly as it did in his dream. The Immortal Alliance Conference starts out fine. Disciples flock to him like chicklets in search of their mother, which is validating for the part of him that seeks it just as much as it is annoying that he can’t seem to shake off people that are distracting him from his goal to get the top spot for Shen Qingqiu.

But, like what happened in his dream-turned-prophecy, the demon invades, Luo Binghe’s demon heritage is exposed, and Shen Qingqiu pierces him without another thought.

-

Luo Binghe wakes up to the sun shining on his face. For the third time.

It’s this time, that he understands it’s not just a fluke anymore.

But still, he tests it out. He’ll continue this day the same way as he has in the past two, and prays this time things will be different.

He brings breakfast to Shen Qingqiu, who asks him if he’s nervous.

Luo Binghe answers yes this time. His chest tingles where the knife had plunged into him for the second time now.

Shen Qingqiu taught him a phrase from his elusive hometown: “Third time’s the charm.” He hopes it is applicable here.

-

It’s not.

Luo Binghe reacts the same way too, because he doesn’t know what else to do, with tears and pleads for Shen Qingqiu to please stop, Shizun, even as he frantically tries to figure out why his days are repeating.

Shen Qingqiu stabs him, then pushes him, and for the third time in his life, Luo Binghe is pushed into the Endless Abyss.

-

Luo Binghe figures that this won’t do, on the fourth day that he’s alive and the sun is shining and he’s not in hell. His chest aches something fierce with each reiteration, each time his Shen Qingqiu watches him fall. He can’t go through this again. But it doesn’t explain why the universe is forcing him to.

The only reason he can think of that the world would inexplicably be repeating itself, was that he had done something so wrong that a god had gotten tired of him and decided to enact some sort of divine punishment.

The conclusion from that is that Luo Binghe must start to do something different.

Something that will change what is happening.

Maybe...

Maybe something that will save him this time.

Maybe Luo Binghe isn’t supposed to fall. But he did something to force his Shen Qingqiu to do it. Maybe that’s it.

-

The only thing about that is, Luo Binghe doesn’t know how to convince Shen Qingqiu of otherwise.

It’s already been three rounds of Luo Binghe begging Shen Qingqiu not to throw him away. Luo Binghe has gotten greedy in the past few years. He’s forgotten what it’s like to be left behind.

-

Luckily for Luo Binghe, he has spent the better part of his adolescence around scholars. He knows how to plan. There is still some time before Shen Qingqiu will wake up. He quickly heads to his room, grabs some paper and a brush, and starts to write.

-

There’s nothing concrete he comes up with by the time Shen Qingqiu is asking him if he’s nervous. But it’s fine. Because today, Luo Binghe will use to gather information.

So he will fall into the Abyss again. It’s not fine, because the cracks in Luo Binghe’s heart are en route to become permanent, but at the very least, he will know something for tomorrow— today.

He makes sure to pay special attention to anything he can. The way Shen Qingqiu touches him, speaks to him, the carriage ride, the horses, the mountaintops. Whatever he can. The nerves that Luo Binghe spotted on Shen Qingqiu’s expression on the first day Luo Binghe has lived through it are even more apparent now that he’s looking for it.

It’s with his own Shizun that Luo Binghe notices the most discrepancies.

Each of Shen Qingqiu’s words are laced with a hesitance that Luo Binghe doesn’t recognize. Each movement, despite looking no different, are a bit slower, as if Shen Qingqiu is trying to make each movement carefully.

In what he can only put down as a moment of insanity, he wonders if it could have been Shen Qingqiu that released the demons into the battlegrounds. But it doesn’t make sense then, how harried Shen Qingqiu had looked while looking for him, and then the relieved expression he had when Shen Qingqiu finally reunited with him.

Shen Qingqiu would never have put other disciples in harm’s way.

-

It doesn’t hurt, Luo Binghe tries to convince himself. It doesn’t. This, technically, has already happened. So why should it hurt? Luo Binghe has been through this three different times. It’s not like he isn’t aware of what’s coming.

So it doesn’t hurt.

-

It does.

-

Three times, Luo Binghe tries his hand at escaping.

-

It’s one of the methods he’s planned, and he’s finally going to put it into action. He will.

He’s in the midst of the chaos, disciples running this way and that. It’s complete chaos. And Luo Binghe thinks:

Would anyone notice if he left now?

His Shizun would undoubtedly come looking for him, but after so many iterations, Luo Binghe has the layout of the woods memorized like the back of his hands. It wouldn’t be hard for him to try and find a place to hide until the Endless Abyss opened and closed, and then leave the second the barrier came down.

Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t be able to find him until after, and Luo Binghe would be able to claim that he got lost in the middle of everything. It’s not like his Shizun would be able to prove any different.

It could work.

The scream of a young girl breaks through his thoughts. Instinctively, his sword is out, and he’s rushing towards the noise.

He sees her, and he sees the demon wrapping it’s grotesque hand around her neck. He just barely makes it when he hears a crack, and the girl’s head is gone. Luo Binghe stabs the demon dead seconds after.

It’s the girl’s head rolling away that brings clarity to Luo Binghe. And with it, a deep sense of resignation forming in his gut. Too late again.

Grimly, he comes to the understanding that there’s no running away from this. Shen Qingqiu may have taught him to do so to keep himself safe, but he’s also taught him to help those in need. How could Luo Binghe forsake Shen Qingqiu’s teachings only to come crawling back to him moments later?

There was no punishment that would be able to absolve Luo Binghe of that kind of sin.

No, once the Immortal Alliance Conference starts, Luo Binghe can not leave.

He can’t abandon all the other disciples to this kind of fate.

-

The second time Luo Binghe tries running away is a few iterations later.

He still does his best to save everyone, but this time, he leads them in a different direction than he usually does.

He knows where the Abyss is opening. So, he knows exactly which spot to avoid.

It’s when the demons are running rampant that Shen Qingqiu finally appears by his side, and Luo Binghe turns in the opposite direction that he is expected to go.

Shen Qingqiu gives chase.

“Luo Binghe!” He calls from a few footsteps behind him. “Where are you going?”

“This one will explain later!” Luo Binghe says back. He prays, deeply in his heart, that there is a later.

The hope is short-lived, to the point that Luo Binghe can sparse out the exact moment that it shrivels up and dies in front of him. Because he hears it happening in front of him, too quick for him to try and stop it: the rumbling and cracking of earth and soil as it breaks apart into two.

The Endless Abyss has opened up right in front of him.

-

It’s funny, in a morbid kind of way.

When Shen Qingqiu sends him the final push, there’s always a moment of disbelief, a part of Luo Binghe’s brain that still refuses to believe that Shen Qingqiu would ever want this for him, that his Shizun would ever want to push him into this nightmare. Does Shizun know that he’ll die down there? Does Shizun care anymore?

Luo Binghe already knows the answer, or at least the push into the Abyss should be answer enough, but still, his heart lay in confusion.

All these years, if Shizun really started despising him again, wouldn’t he have been more obvious about it? Like he was in the beginning?

Back then, Shen Qingqiu didn’t hesitate to pour scalding tea over Luo Binghe’s head, or string him up for hours to watch him be whipped.

None of this aligns to the Shizun he knew back then, or the Shizun he knows now.

But there’s only so much he can deduce from Shen Qingqiu, who doesn’t give him any clues this iteration either.

-

At some point, Luo Binghe has learned not to cry anymore in the face of Shen Qingqiu’s betrayal. He still isn’t sure if betrayal is the right word for it, but he’s not sure he will ever find out at this rate.

He doesn’t know when he got used to the feeling of falling.

-

The third time, he tries to leave the peak altogether.

It’s surprisingly... not too hard.

Luo Binghe is used to keeping himself hidden and staying as silent as possible, from before Shen Qingqiu’s change. He didn’t quite think those talents would become useful in this kind of way.

He escapes, finding refuge in the back alleys of shops and marketplaces as he waits out the day. He wonders how Shen Qingqiu has reacted to seeing him gone. Maybe he was happy, waking up and calling for Luo Binghe only for no one to appear at his side.

The day passes in a lull, and by the time the sun is finally setting, Luo Binghe has bought three street children some toys, broken up a pair of feral dogs, and helped an old woman get to her home at the other end of the marketplace.

He returns to the base of the mountain cautiously, taking care to not look too inconspicuous. It’s this over-the-top cautiousness that allows him to pick up on the rumors.

He knows better to not give them any mind, but he still listens.

“They canceled it?” One older man says.

“I heard from one of those cultivators that came down. One of their lords—”

“Oh, yes, yes. The boy that came down was in tears, wasn’t he? Never thought I’d see the day that even a cultivator finds themselves in a bind.”

Luo Binghe doesn’t want to believe it. He rushes faster to Qing Jing Peak.

There’s a heavy atmosphere when he finally reaches the gates.

Ming Fan catches sight of him first. With no words exchanged between them, he stalks over, and punches him straight across the face.

Luo Binghe is strong enough now that the punch doesn’t send him to the floor, but still sends him staggering back a step if only in surprise.

It’s Ning Yingying that tells him, finally, through tears and choked up words.

Shen Qingqiu has collapsed.

Ning Yingying sobs, “No one will tell us if he’s woken up. A-Luo, where were you?

Luo Binghe doesn’t have a good answer. He feels like the floor has pulled out from under him.

He’s in a daze as he walks through the peak, careful again, not to be noticed by any of the other disciples.

Did he cause this?

If he didn’t fall down the Abyss, would Shen Qingqiu die? Was him falling by Shen Qingqiu’s hands a form of self-preservation?

But that doesn’t make any sense. How could the two events be related?

Luo Binghe doesn’t know how he makes it to his room. Ming Fan tries to stop him, snarling through his own tears that someone like Luo Binghe doesn’t deserve to sleep in Shizun’s home when he wasn’t there for Shen Qingqiu. Luo Binghe shoves him off, and collapses onto his bed, outer robes and all.

He doesn’t know when he falls asleep, only that he does so with a cold ball of dread coiling itself around his heart.

-

He wakes up with the sun shining on his face, and relief and disappointment weighing heavy on his shoulders.

It’s another thing he has to consider now. The fact that if Luo Binghe doesn’t go in, something bad will befall Shen Qingqiu.

He doesn’t quite know what to make of it.

-

Luo Binghe tries begging again:

“Shizun, I’m begging you, at least listen to this disciple. Shizun, I’ll do anything.”

 

He tries not saying anything:

“You... you won’t say anything?” Shen Qingqiu asks suspiciously.

Luo Binghe’s chest burns with the need to speak. He shakes his head anyways.

 

He tries to have Shen Qingqiu see reason:

“Shizun, none of this makes sense,” Luo Binghe says.

Shen Qingqiu’s face tightens. “You must fall,” He says.

 

He tries jumping in himself.

 

None of it works.

And down Luo Binghe goes.

-

The next time since Luo Binghe wakes up in his own bed and not to a demon trying to kill him, he registers what Shen Qingqiu’s last words were to him in one of those iterations.

You must fall.

It sinks like an iron brand onto Luo Binghe’s heart. It would make sense. If Shen Qingqiu had known, somehow, that something would happen to him if Luo Binghe didn’t fall, it would make sense that he wouldn’t want to hear Luo Binghe out in self-preservation.

Breakfast plays out just as it’s always had.

Except this time—

“I’m not nervous about the conference,” Luo Binghe says as he puts the tray down onto the table.

Shen Qingqiu pauses, surprised, before he covers his mouth to laugh softly. He tucks the stray hair behind his ear on his own. “It’s funny Binghe should say that. I was just about to ask.”

Luo Binghe smiles weakly. “What a coincidence.”

-

Luo Binghe tries to fight Shen Qingqiu. When Shen Qingqiu holds his sword to him, Luo Binghe draws his own. Not to hurt Shen Qingqiu, only to defend himself. But still. It hurts, it feels wrong, he feels disgusting, and at the end of the day, a seventeen-year-old boy is no match for an immortal peak lord.

He loses.

-

Once again, he’s not in the Abyss.

He can’t stop the frustrated tears that start to drip down his face. Even like this, he’s careful to keep his volume nonexistent, in fear that Shen Qingqiu will be able to hear him. He grabs his pillow and presses it to his mouth in an effort to muffle himself.

There’s only so much he can handle.

Luo Binghe promised Shen Qingqiu he’d be strong, but he doesn’t know if he’s strong enough for this. He’d rather be in the Abyss. He’d rather be trying to defend himself against every demon in the sun than have to see his beloved teacher forsaking him again and again and again and again

Hysterically, he wonders if he should just kill himself.

From outside his door, he hears Shen Qingqiu call for him.

He wipes the wetness off his face, and gets up to serve Shen Qingqiu his breakfast.

-

Luo Binghe falls to his knees the moment Shen Qingqiu appears to help him fight down the demons surrounding them.

A reason this plan works: Shen Qingqiu is understandably stunned.

A reason this plan doesn’t: There are still demons surrounding them. There is a sharp pain in Luo Binghe’s chest and then the world goes black.

-

This time, he waits a little. He waits until they are alone, and right before he knows Mobei Jun will appear, and he falls to his knees again.

Shen Qingqiu, again, goes very still. “Binghe?” He asks cautiously. “What are you doing? Are you tired?”

His voice is worried, even now. Luo Binghe wants to laugh. He’s lived through the switch up countless times now. He knows this worried tone will continue for only so much longer.

“Shizun, I really...”

I really don’t know what to do.

Shen Qingqiu rushes over to him, fretting. “What is it? You got hurt? Did one of those demons from before hit you? Does it hurt too much?”

“It’s not that, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says. “I just...”

“Just what?” Shen Qingqiu asks worriedly.

“I just don’t want to die,” Luo Binghe tells him honestly.

Shen Qingqiu, surprisingly, gets angry at that. “What, is this you throwing your life away? Of course you won’t die. How could you even think that? Do you think the protagonist could ever die in a simple situation like this?”

Luo Binghe doesn’t know what a protagonist is, but he doesn’t ask, letting Shen Qingqiu continue to rant on how the least probable thing to happen in this conference was Luo Binghe losing his life.

Luo Binghe would beg to differ, if only he didn’t spot Mobei Jun appearing from the corner of his eye.

-

Luo Binghe wakes up, and he is very, very tired.

-

This is the last time.

Luo Binghe is determined to break out of the loop with this iteration.

Because, there’s only one thing left for him to do.

He’ll get Shen Qingqiu to explain himself.

It’s such a simple solution that Luo Binghe is surprised he’s waited so long to try it, in retrospect.

He lets the day play out as usual until finally, once again, the master-disciple pair are standing face-to-face once more.

Luo Binghe prays to any god above that his voice comes out strongly when he says, “Shizun, please tell me why I have to go into the Endless Abyss.”

“You have to,” Shen Qingqiu says immediately, voice just as confident. Suddenly his eyes stop focusing on Luo Binghe, like he’s looking at something in front of Luo Binghe instead. Something that isn’t there. When they clear up again, he only reiterates: “Binghe is a demon. He has to fall.”

Luo Binghe shakes his head, frustrated. “What does that mean?! Why do I have to? Why does being a demon mean anything? Why can’t I stay with Shizun? Shizun said—”

“Luo Binghe, you will go into the Abyss,” Shen Qingqiu cuts in harshly. “What I’ve said and what I haven’t said is of no more concern anymore. I was wrong before. You must go in.”

Luo Binghe shakes his head again, more frantically. His voice comes out brokenly when he speaks. “Please.

Luo Binghe is about to take another step forward, to do something ridiculous like grab Shen Qingqiu’s robes, but then he notices — Shen Qingqiu’s eyes are shining.

It’s only a small comfort to Luo Binghe that this time, Shen Qingqiu isn’t acting quite as unfeeling. He doesn’t get it, though. Does Shen Qingqiu want to push him down or not? And there are so many things he just doesn’t understand...

“Shizun, did you know this was going to happen?”

And Luo Binghe sees it again. Briefly, Shen Qingqiu’s eyes glaze over, and his expression twists in pain. Only a second, so fast he’s not even sure it happened. Just as quickly, his expression smooths over, and he’s once again staring at Luo Binghe.

“And why should this master feel the need to answer to you?”

Luo Binghe sees Shen Qingqiu draw Xiu Ya, and before his mind can catch up to his body, he grabs it.

It pierces into the skin of his palm instead of his chest and Luo Binghe exclaims, “Because I already know what Shizun is going to say!”

Shen Qingqiu pauses. The air around them grows still. “...What?”

Luo Binghe swallows. There is a growing pain spreading from his palm and to the rest of his arm, but it’s dulled in the face of what he’s just admitted.

The hand Shen Qingqiu uses to hold Xiu Ya trembles. “Luo Binghe, repeat what you just told me now.”

Luo Binghe takes in a breath. It hitches midway. “Shizun will tell me that I am a demon, a Heavenly one, and that is why I must go in.”

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t say anything in response, and so Luo Binghe takes it as a sign to keep going.

“And then,” Luo Binghe puts a hand over his chest. “Shizun will stab me. Right here.”

The phantom pain makes him ache.

“Shizun, it’s like I said. I know what you are going to say.”

“...How?”

Luo Binghe lets go of Xiu Ya and tells him, “I’ve done this before. I’ve done everything. I don’t know how many times I’ve woken up today. I, I don’t mean I’ve taken any naps today. Shizun, you were with me. You know.” He takes another shaky inhale. “I mean I’ve woken up to today countless times. No matter how many times I fall into the Abyss, I wake up the next morning to today, and I do it all over again. And I don’t know how to make it stop.”

Shen Qingqiu drops his sword.

It clatters onto the earth with a muted sound.

“Shizun, can you answer one thing for me?”

Shen Qingqiu swallows, face as harrowed as Luo Binghe has ever seen it.

Luo Binghe takes his silence as a sign to continue. “Does Shizun really believe that I should be condemned because I am a demon?”

“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu says immediately.

Luo Binghe can see the signs of the lie now. The twitch in his fingertips and the quick break of eye contact to glance to the left.

Luo Binghe wonders what it is he sees.

“Shizun shouldn’t lie. Doesn’t that go against what he’s taught me all this time?”

Shen Qingqiu swallows. “You...”

“Me, Shizun,” Luo Binghe agrees. “I’m asking Shizun to tell me honestly. I will go in if Shizun wants me to go in, but all I am asking for is the reason.”

It pains Luo Binghe to watch Shen Qingqiu war with himself.

“Shizun, can you tell me why I have to go?”

There it is again. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes glaze over for a split second, and then focuses back on him. “You are a demon.”

“Shizun is lying.”

Shen Qingqiu glares. “You accuse me like this?”

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “This isn’t an accusation. Shizun, I just want to understand. Won’t you tell me?”

“I can’t.”

The words are whispered, and almost lost in the noise around them.

Luo Binghe hears them anyway. “What does that mean, Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu swallows. “I can’t,” he repeats. “I can’t tell you. I can only tell you that I... I can’t change this.” Each word plucked carefully, like someone is watching over his shoulder to make sure he stays in line.

Luo Binghe will think harder on the implications of that later, but first, he relishes in the fact that finally, finally he has an answer.

It’s an answer in the envelope of a non-answer. It’s more than Luo Binghe has received in any other iteration.

And then Luo Binghe does what he hasn’t done since the first few days he’s had to live through today: he cries.

Tears stream down Luo Binghe’s cheeks. He doesn’t have the energy to wipe them off. He takes a shaky step forward, and watches as Shen Qingqiu takes one step back. “Shizun. This stupid disciple has one more question.”

Shen Qingqiu’s lips thin. “What is it?”

Luo Binghe fears that he won’t even be able to get the words out, with the way his throat is clogged. “Does Shizun want to throw me down?”

Shen Qingqiu takes a step back in shock.

“Because if Shizun does, I would rather he tell me honestly. Please. Tell this Binghe you never want to see his face again, that you wish he was dead. I know this is something Shizun can’t change, but still, this one... this one needs to know, please—”

“No,” Shen Qingqiu says, voice hoarse.

Luo Binghe sobs.

Shen Qingqiu isn’t done speaking. His face slowly pinkens as he speaks, “Shizun cares for you. Don’t... don’t doubt that. All this master wants is for Binghe to be safe, and to be happy. Binghe has had a hard life. I-if he spends the rest of his life well-fed with a roof over his head, it still won’t be enough. But it cannot be done when Binghe is a heavenly demon. He told me he wanted to grow strong, didn’t he? This is the only way.”

Half-alarmed and half-amazed, Luo Binghe realizes that Shen Qingqiu has started to tear up as he speaks. No longer with just eyes shining like it was just a while ago, but enough that a single tear pushes over the edge and leaves a trail of wetness on Shen Qingqiu’s left cheek.

“Shizun?”

“What is it, Binghe?”

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t even seem to realize it.

Luo Binghe is not a very complicated person. He knows this about himself to be true. If people are nice to him, he will repay that. If they aren’t, one day he’ll be strong enough to repay that too. But if people are nice to him after a period where they aren’t, it’s enough to forgive all the mistakes before. Maybe that’s too naive. Maybe it will lead to him getting hurt in the future. He doesn’t know.

But right now, this is enough for him. Warmth blooms in his heart and soothes his mind. He knows what he has to do. “This disciple has heard enough. He will go into the Abyss, and return to Shizun when he’s out.”

Shen Qingqiu stares, disbelieving. Quickly, he composes himself. “You believe it, then?”

Luo Binghe nods solemnly, finally reaching up to wipe the wetness off his cheeks. “I have no reason to not believe Shizun.”

The Endless Abyss waits ten paces behind him. Luo Binghe turns away from Shen Qingqiu and starts his march towards it.

When he’s only one step away, he hears Shen Qingqiu call for him. “Wait, Binghe!”

Luo Binghe turns his head back only half-way. “Is there something else Shizun wants to say?”

Luo Binghe can see Shen Qingqiu’s hand shake, even like this. He wishes he could go back to hold them until they stop trembling, but he won’t. If he goes back now, he can never come this close to the Abyss again. Shen Qingqiu swallows audibly, and says, in a voice much quieter than the one he had used to call out to him, “Come home soon.”

Luo Binghe bites his lip to hold back a new onslaught of tears. “Yes, Shizun,” he replies. “This disciple will endeavor to not disappoint you.”

Then, before Shen Qingqiu can say anything else that will make Luo Binghe change his mind altogether, he faces the depths of the Endless Abyss once more, and jumps.

-

Depending on how Luo Binghe sees it, this could be considered the first time Luo Bnghe has fallen into the Endless Abyss. Of course, he can’t know for sure that this would be the time that ended the iterations, but something in his gut tells him that this is so.

The thought brings a rueful smile to his lips, just as his back and head hits the bottom of the ground.

-

Luo Binghe wakes up from the fall several hours later, not to the sun, but to eternal darkness, and he is proven right. Every part of his body aches, but it hurts with the pain of a pinprick when he remembers the parting words Shen Qingqiu has left with him.

Shen Qingqiu told him that he expects him home.

Soon, was his exact word choice.

It leaves Luo Binghe with no choice but to obey.

-

When Luo Binghe gets out, he has half a mind to not go back to Cang Qiong. It’s been three years since he’s jumped in, as he finds out from the nearest traveling merchant he sees. The knowledge he has of the cultivation world comes from one Shang Qinghua, who trembles too much and cowers behind Mobei Jun too many times for Luo Binghe to get any decent information out of him.

And that development only started recently, when Luo Binghe defeated Mobei Jun in battle.

From the An Ding Peak Lord, Luo Binghe knows Shen Qingqiu is alive, and well, and that would normally be enough. It certainly was when Luo Binghe still needed time in the Abyss to get stronger and stronger. But now, Luo Binghe is going to see him. How does he know that Shen Qingqiu hasn't changed his mind since then?

Shouldn’t the correct course of action be to prove that he could still be a good disciple following the right path by becoming a lord like his Shizun? Perhaps going somewhere like Huan Hua would do the trick.

It’s Shen Qingqiu’s parting words, in the end, that keep him from doing it.

Soon.

Soon, soon, soon.

As soon as possible.

It’s not hard to make the decision once he thinks about it like that.

-

Luo Binghe watches half-amused and half-touched, when the stair sweeper spots him and immediately races up the hundreds of steps to, presumably, tell Shen Qingqiu.

Did Shen Qingqiu tell the sweeper to keep a lookout for him? His heart trembles.

He takes his time going up, and sure enough, Shen Qingqiu waits for him at the top.

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe says with a wide, shaky smile.

Luo Binghe knows he looks different now. He isn’t quite sure where that difference is per se, other than some buildup of muscle, and long unruly hair that hasn’t seen a comb in years. He’s taller now, too. Possibly even more than Shen Qingqiu, considering that he almost matched the man in height by the time he went into the Abyss.

But none of that is important.

What matters is that he’s stronger now, strong enough to protect Shen Qingqiu from any hardships.

Shen Qingqiu, on the other hand, looks exactly the same. There is not a single hair out of place. Peerless, not a crack in his facade.

He is still all those things on a normal day, but it was always a little different when it came to Luo Binghe. He always lets his walls down around Luo Binghe, if only just enough for Luo Binghe to peer over and see the Shizun underneath. The one who was a little lazier, a little pettier, a little snarkier.

Even more beautiful.

But the fact that Shen Qingqiu is going through so much now to look like a carved piece of jade, sharp edges, and no imperfections in sight...

Once upon a time, it might have led Luo Binghe to believe that this was Shen Qingqiu putting his walls back up to shut Luo Binghe out. Now, even though, yes, that thought still lingers quietly, it’s much easier to put it in a lockbox and throw it away into the deepest recesses of his brains.

There’s a reality he knows to be much more realistic.

Shen Qingqiu was just as nervous for this day to come.

It makes Luo Binghe’s own nerves dissipate completely.

“Has Shizun missed me?” He gives Shen Qingqiu a small smile. Testing the waters.

Immediately, he sees Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders relax just a fraction, tension bleeding out of him. “Binghe,” he admonishes.

Luo Binghe allows himself to take on a much more teasing demeanor. “Shizun,” he says, voice laced in mock-seriousness.

Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu says again, like they are two lovers teasing each other with the lilt and cadence with which they say each other’s name.

Luo Binghe pushes the thought out of his head before it festers any longer.

An indescribable emotion wells up in his throat and eyes the moment he does.

Because this is Shizun.

Shizun who is calling for him now. When Luo Binghe still was stuck in his iterations, he was sure that the moment he got out of it, Shen Qingqiu would never call for him again.

Luo Binghe’s heart aches with the memory. He clears his throat before he talks again. “It’s been a long time since I heard Shizun say my name. I’m glad I’m home now to hear it.”

Shen Qingqiu flushes at the statement. He covers the lower half of his face with his fan, but the way his eyes crinkle up is a tell on its own. He clears his throat. “Welcome home, Binghe.”