Shen Qingqiu wakes up, and the world that he sees when he opens his eyes is a vast expanse of grey. He’s kneeling on a grey stone slab in the middle of the water prison, with his arms bound painfully behind his back and legs folded underneath him. The waterfall mechanism is temporarily down, and he’s surrounded by an endless sea of murky grey water. When he looks up, there’s nothing but jagged stone walls in the distance, enclosing on him from all sides.
Here, imprisoned in the Huan Hua Water Prison, the only accompaniment he has is the trickling of the water as the waves laps against the rocks, the distant sounds of the waterfall hitting the stones and seeping into the ground, and the biting cold that leaves him shivering at night once the sun sets.
The longer he’s here, the more surreal it feels.
On Qing Jing peak, the silence is a tranquil blanket of comfort, and the breeze that blows past is a gentle spring caress against his skin. Here, the silence of the water prison is deafeningly loud. It eats away at him from the inside, and the cold breeze that trails in from the openings of the caves bites harshly at his skin, leaving it red and numb.
It’s funny how much things can change all in a single day.
In the periphery of his vision, he sees a flicker of black and red in his world of grayscale tones. Shen Qingqiu would recognise that figure anywhere.
The figure makes his way over, and Shen Qingqiu shifts on his knees to sit himself upright, ignoring the sharp prick of pain that runs up his legs when his knee presses against a jagged edge of the rock on the stone platform. It’s hard to move about like this, with his arms bound behind his back.
“Binghe,” he greets eventually when the figure is close enough to be standing right before him. His voice comes out slightly raspy from the cold harsh hair that he’s been breathing in.
Luo Binghe looms over him, and Shen Qingqiu takes in the sight of the blackened protagonist. Binghe is no longer dressed in the familiar colours of white and pale greens, the colours of Qing Jing Peak. Instead, he’s dressed in a mix of red and black, ostentatiously vivid in the dull expanse of grey Shen Qingqiu has gotten used to.
It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth and a painful squeeze in his chest—
—This Luo Binghe is a Luo Binghe that Shen Qingqiu is no longer able to to recognise.
Gone was his white lotus disciple from their easier, carefree days. Gone were the days Luo Binghe would shyly gaze up at him with admiration in his eyes, seeking his approval. Gone were the days they would bask contentedly in the presence of each other’s company.
The pang of nostalgia and guilt hits harder than Shen Qingqiu expects. He’s driven his pure, innocent disciple to this. If Shen Qingqiu had never listened to the system— if he had refused to push Binghe down the abyss, then perhaps things would never have turned out this way.
Wasn’t Binghe’s blackening all his fault?
In exchange for his own life, Shen Qingqiu had chosen to sacrifice Binghe— broke his trust, rejected him, stabbed him, threw him down the abyss.
Cared for him, gave him hope, loved him— and then ripped it away cruelly all in a single breath.
How was he any different from the scum that he’d painted the original Shen Qingqiu to be, with the things he did?
A fitting host for a fitting soul. It’s disgusting how he’s worn the skin of the scum villain Shen Qingqiu so well and so naturally that it has practically melded in his bones and turned him into the person who he is now.
“Shizun,” Binghe greets back, snapping Shen Qingqiu out of his spiral of thoughts. Binghe’s demon mark glows in the dim lighting of the water prison, and it flashes as red as his eyes.
He’s not hiding his mark, Shen Qingqiu realises. What was the point, when they were the only ones present in this prison? There is no need for any pretenses of the sort— for Binghe to continue pretending to be the little sheep that he is not. The other disciples of Huan Hua Palace aren’t present.
It is only the two of them.
A captive prisoner, and the child he’s hurt— the child who has turned black, the child who will carve him into a human stick.
The child who has grown into the blackened protagonist of the novel he’d read in his past life, who is no longer a child but a cruel and twisted man bent on taking revenge, who has schemed and plotted his way to have Shen Qingqiu fall from grace and meet his end.
The panic wells up from within, almost like a hysterical fit rising in violent tides and threatening to burst from under his skin. He’s at Binghe’s mercy, bound and helpless. He’s going to get carved into a human stick, ripped from limb to limb, chained and hung up for display, with empty sockets for eyes and a blood-filled mouth, bloody tongue and limbs strewn on the floor—
—Shen Qingqiu takes a sharp intake of breath and forces it down, the welling panic and the bile in his throat. He hopes he looks as unfrazzled as he thinks he does. It takes some effort and a few more intakes of air, deep and slow through his nose, for his vision to clear enough to focus on the red and black in his world of grey.
Luo Binghe is gingerly carrying a wooden bamboo tray. And in a series of actions that makes absolutely no sense, he folds his knees in a kneel, and settles the tray in front of Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Qingqiu’s gaze immediately shifts to the tray placed before him.
“This disciple has taken the liberty to prepare Shizun’s meals until the trial commences,” Luo Binghe says once he’s settled the tray on the ground, folding his palms over his lap. He fixes his gaze onto Shen Qingqiu, eyes a burning red. “Pray that Shizun still finds this disciple’s cooking to his tastes.”
The congee introduces a myriad of colours to Shen Qingqiu's world of grey. It's a pure, unblemished white, topped with scallions and thinly sliced ginger and meat, fresh like snow and still steaming hot. On its side lies another small dish, filled with braised peanuts marinated in soy sauce.
Shen Qingqiu remains silent, gaze transfixed on the bowl of congee, freshly prepared and still piping hot. He can feel the warmth from the congee spreading through his skin down to the tip of his fingers.
The last time he's had Binghe's congee was on the day of the Immortal Alliance Conference. Binghe had woken up at dusk to prepare it for him, eyes still ridden with sleep. It's also the same congee as the one he had several days after the demonic invasion led by Sha Hualing, when he was recuperating from his injury from the poisoned spikes of the Elder Hammer Demon— the very first dish Binghe had personally cooked for him, the first of the many that were to come.
It had been his favourite.
It still is.
A complex feeling washes over him like a flood.
Shen Qingqiu breathes, and snaps his eyelids shut.
Was this perhaps an attempt to remind him of the day of the Conference, where he had pushed Binghe down into the abyss with his own two hands? Was this a warning and a threat; a reminder of his wrongdoings?
—But how could he forget?
The tremble in his arms as he held Xiu Ya, impaled into Binghe's chest. The painful thumps of Binghe's heart beating and travelling up the blade, through the hilt of his sword and into his hand. The rushing of his own blood to his head, pounding at his ears.
The broken smile on Binghe's face, tear stains accompanying trembling lips. The heart-wrenching twist and the smooth, wet slide of Xiu Ya through Binghe’s chest when Shen Qingqiu wrenched it out. The flash of hope in his eyes, fleeting like a glimmer in the night sky, amidst the splatter of fresh warm blood onto the ground—
—how it all crumbled into despair when Shen Qingqiu shoved him down.
The way Binghe had still reached out for him mid-fall despite all that—
—How was he to forget?
Shen Qingqiu dreams frequently, of peaceful mornings and the distant echoes of his rowdier disciples outside his bamboo house, happy and cheerful. Of a young boy, with bright shining eyes and an adoring gaze standing by his bedside when he wakes.
He also dreams frequently, of Binghe trembling and falling to his knees before him, of crimson blood staining the tip of his sword red. Of Binghe's shaky pleas, of the hurt and despair twisting his face.
Even after three years, Binghe's expression as he fell still remains vivid in Shen Qingqiu's memories.
It's something Shen Qingqiu will never be able to forget.
"Is Shizun not in the mood for congee today? I remember it to be Shizun’s favourite dish," Binghe speaks up eventually, when the silence between them drags on for too long. He acts out a faux and cheap imitation of what their days used to be.
Shen Qingqiu feels sick to his stomach.
"This disciple can prepare something else, Shizun need only instruct this disciple to do so."
Binghe sounds hesitant, and the way he holds himself, the way he's kneeling— it's all so familiar to Shen Qingqiu that he can't help but see the white lotus disciple he's raised instead of the blackened protagonist here before him.
"What is the meaning of this?" Shen Qingqiu’s voice sounds distant even to himself as he tears his gaze away from the protagonist kneeling before him. He doesn't understand why Binghe would fall back into their previous loving master and disciple dynamic. They have long lost that easy familiarity with each other— Shen Qingqiu had brutally ripped it apart when he'd pushed Luo Binghe into the abyss three years ago.
Binghe doesn't quite understand what he's getting at, though. Instead, his gaze is earnest as he looks at Shen Qingqiu. "Shizun should eat," he explains. "The immortal binding cable blocks all qi pathways. Shizun should not practice inedia now that Shizun's body is but a mortal shell.."
It doesn't answer his question, but it brings about a new wave of turbulent emotions, stifling and heavy, as he contemplates over Binghe's words.
How was he supposed to eat, if his hands and arms were bound by a hundred over immortal binding cables? Did Binghe expect him to eat it off the ground, to grovel at his feet, live humiliatingly off his provisions, subjected to his whims and mercy?
In the first place, wasn’t it all because of Binghe that he’s stuck here like this, reduced to a mortal shell of himself?
"This master might be a prisoner placed under your custody, but I naturally still retain my dignity," Shen Qingqiu answers stiffly.
His answer seemingly takes Binghe by surprise, and Binghe's neutral expression immediately cracks at his refusal.
There is a moment of silence.
"Shizun must really despise demons then, to be willing to starve even under such conditions." Binghe's smile turns icy cold, and Shen Qingqiu is quite literally able to feel the cold flames of anger rolling off Binghe in waves. Despite this, Binghe doesn't move an inch from his spot. He remains kneeling rigidly before him, hands clenched into tight fists at his lap. "Or is it just this particular demon that Shizun despises? Dignity?" He laughs bitterly in a mocking imitation of Shen Qingqiu. "Is this disciple's cooking too filthy for Shizun to eat, now that half my blood reigns from the demons that Shizun abhors so?"
Shen Qingqiu blinks, thrown for a loop.
No? Shizun just doesn't want to eat food off the ground like some cow?? Shen Qingqiu thinks incredulously, but Binghe’s smile is so icy that Shen Qingqiu chooses to remain silent in fear of further angering the protagonist. Instead, he shifts his gaze back to the bowl of congee sitting before him.
If Shen Qingqiu hadn't read the original PIDW, hadn't known the type of cruel person the original Luo Binghe had turned out to be, he would have thought that in his cold fury, Binghe had actually sounded a little sad. But Shen Qingqiu has long since accepted the fact that he had killed his Binghe, his innocent naive disciple with a bleeding heart, with his own two hands.
This Binghe, who kneels rigidly before him with flashing red eyes and a cruel smile, isn’t his Binghe. He’s the blackened stallion protagonist from the original PIDW, the Binghe who will rule the demon and human realm with a cruel iron fist, who will have a multitude of wives at his beckoning, who’s out for revenge against his Shizun who threw him into a place worse than hell.
“Shizun doesn’t have a choice,” Luo Binghe speaks up again coldly, seeing that Shen Qingqiu was intent on remaining silent. His eyes bore holes into Shen Qingqiu’s, burning with a fervent sort of possessiveness that leaves him unsettled. “Shizun will have to eat, eventually. No one else but this disciple is allowed to step foot in this prison. No one else but this disciple is allowed to prepare and serve you food. No one else but this disciple is allowed to see to your needs. Shizun, you can only rely on this disciple. This is a futile struggle.”
Shen Qingqiu swallows a lump in his throat, feels a shiver run up his spine. “...Why go through all this?” He asks instead, his voice coming out raspy and dry.
He’s unable to understand why Binghe would choose this form of humiliation, when the trial is only a month away— when he already has Shen Qingqiu in his grasp, trapped in his web of schemes he has carefully laid out.
“This master has already played right into your hands. Am I not already imprisoned here, just as you wished?”
Almost immediately, a look of frustration flashes across Binghe’s face at his words, and his lips curl into a sneer. “As expected, Shizun really does think quite wretchedly of me. Sure, this disciple might be a demon, and is keeping Shizun here temporarily for several reasons, but—”
Upset, Binghe abruptly cuts himself off, seemingly giving up on explaining himself in his anguish. “—Does Shizun really believe this is all a scheme set up by this disciple?”
“Was it not?” Shen Qingqiu asks in return, and Luo Binghe scowls.
“Then, may I dare ask, is every unfortunate turn of event, every single drop of blood that’s spilled, every flicker of life extinguished— must they all be my fault?” Binghe shoots back angrily. His clenched fists tremble at his lap, knuckles white as he speaks.
“May I dare ask, was everything Shizun told me all a lie? Was it all a farce? That not all humans are inherently good, and likewise, not all demons are evil, that every being has a right to live— Shizun, why am I the exception to this?”
His voice grows harsher and shakier as he continues angrily, almost rambling. “Shizun, those words you spoke of that night, you don’t know how much they mean to me. I hear these words, again and again, in the figment of my dreams I conjure up in the abyss. Deliberate, intentional dreams just so I could find the will to keep going. Unconscious, involuntary dreams even when I’m bleeding out moments away from dying in the hell you threw me in.”
“Shizun, when you said all demons, has it never included me? Did Shizun really mean it, when you said that the place where I truly belong, is not by your side, but hell itself?”
For every word that leave Binghe’s lips, every question Binghe asked, Shen Qingqiu’s mind flashes back to that heartbreaking scene at the opening of the abyss.
He remembers the tears streaking down Binghe’s face, the tremble in his arms as he held Xiu Ya, the way he had cowardly looked through Binghe instead of at him when Binghe had asked him this very same question back then—
Ah, he had really…
He had really forsaken his disciple back then, hadn’t he?
Shen Qingqiu is unable to bring himself to say anything. Afterall, he had, indeed, said all those words himself, and pushed Binghe down.
At his silence, Binghe’s lips curve up into a bitter smile as he reaches his own understanding. “I see,” he says, and in that instance, the words that had left Binghe’s lips had come out so softly Shen Qingqiu can’t help but feel a pang in his heart.
Then, without another word, Luo Binghe stands, and stiffly clasps his fists into a bow. “Since my presence here is unwanted, this disciple shall take his leave first.” Binghe’s tone is flat, almost mechanical. Clearly holding himself back from lashing out with emotions, Luo Binghe grits his teeth, and turns to stalk out of the water prison.
Feeling almost as if he’s a single mother watching her teenage son throw a temper tantrum (rightfully so), Shen Qingqiu is only able to watch after the retreating back of Luo Binghe for a few seconds, before the waterfall mechanism slams back into place and he is once again enclosed by the acid waterfall. The bowl of congee remains untouched in front of Shen Qingqiu, still steaming hot, and when Shen Qingqiu stares at it, he sees flashes of memories instead of the snowy white congee.
“Shizun, should this disciple prepare some snacks?”
“Towards painful bitterness and hardships, Binghe is fearless and only asks to be strong enough to protect his important people!”
“But Shizun, you’ve said before that people can be good or evil, and that demons can also be good or evil.”
“Shizun, really wants to kill me...?”
Perhaps, staying here wasn’t all too bad.
If his presence could alleviate Binghe’s grief by even just the slightest amount, then Shen Qingqiu will willingly stay by Binghe’s side, as his prisoner, until the very last moment.
It’s what he owes him, after all.
Luo Binghe visits again the next day.
This time, in addition to freshly made noodles, Binghe also brings over an exquisite blend of tea, freshly brewed in a clay pot, alongside a plate of glutinous rice cakes stuffed with a variety of different fillings— all of which, Shen Qingqiu notes, are still his favourites even after three long years.
The glutinous rice cakes are small and round, shaped delicately into plum blossoms and lotus flowers, white and pink dusting beautifully over the soft skin of the pastry. It’s ridiculously cute and almost too pretty to eat, and Shen Qingqiu blithely wonders if he’s still dreaming.
Luo Binghe, the blackened protagonist, painstakingly kneading and shaping the dough; pinching carefully at the pastry, molding it with flour-dusted fingers, into the shape of flowers—
—It’s too wild a scenario for Shen Qingqiu to even begin imagining.
“Shizun must be feeling hungry by now,” Binghe comments dutifully as he kneels and settles the tray before Shen Qingqiu, much like how he had done the previous day. He says nothing about the frankly horrendous interaction they had yesterday, and remains tight-lipped about it. “Apologies for not being able to come by earlier; this disciple is inadequate and has made Shizun wait.”
Then, he arranges the food, lifting the plates and bowls off the tray and placing it on the stone ground. He nudges the plate of glutinous rice cakes towards Shen Qingqiu. “Shizun didn’t really have an appetite yesterday, so this disciple has taken the liberty to prepare some of Shizun’s favourite pastries. Shizun can snack on the pastries instead if he so wishes.”
Luo Binghe paints the picture of a filial disciple, dedicated and earnest as he pours the tea into a small teacup. The tea is a pale amber, and the light and nutty fragrance that drifts over from the teapot brings another wave of nostalgia to Shen Qingqiu. It’s the very same one Binghe used to prepare for him three years ago back on Qing Jing peak on cold winter mornings and chilly autumn nights, brewed to just the perfect temperature it settles warmly in his body and brings a pleasant heated flush to his cheeks whenever he lifts the teacup and sips at it.
“This tea is good for fending off the cold, Shizun should take care to stay warm in this weather,” Binghe had explained to him enthusiastically back then, eyes bright as he gazed up at a Shen Qingqiu who had been not so conspicuously bundled up in layers of blankets during a particularly cold winter morning. Back then, Binghe had still been a small thing, his head barely coming up to his chest. Now, Binghe towers over him effortlessly even when kneeling.
“This master isn’t hungry,” Shen Qingqiu immediately lies through his teeth, feeling his shackles rise at the oddity of the entire situation.
What was Luo Binghe planning this time? To lovingly brew tea and make him pastries, delicate and intricate down to every last detail, from the folds of the petals to the stems of the leafs— it must have taken Binghe a painstakingly long amount of time and effort, even with his god-tier cooking skills. What Shen Qingqiu doesn’t understand is why Binghe would feel the need to go through all this trouble, when he already has Shen Qingqiu in captivity.
Wouldn’t it be easier if Binghe simply just went ahead with his revenge rather than beat around the bush like this? Shen Qingqiu can’t help but feel like he was being toyed around with.
The corner of Binghe’s lips tilts ever so slightly downwards. “This again?” He sighs with a furrowed brow, looking displeased. “It doesn’t matter whether Shizun is hungry or not. A mortal body is not fit to practice inedia. Shizun doesn’t really have much of a choice, see?” Binghe finishes with a sharp smile, in which Shen Qingqiu is able to see the tightness of his jaw, the stiffness of his smile, and how close Binghe is to snapping.
Shen Qingqiu lets out an exhale through his nose. It’s only been a few minutes since they’ve started talking and he’s barely said anything much, but Luo Binghe already looks furious with him.
It hurts even more than Shen Qingqiu expects— that his relationship with his disciple whom he’d so painstakingly and lovingly brought up has deteriorated to the point where they’re unable to have even a single amiable conversation without hurting each other. It hurts to remember that they had once been a loving pair of master and disciple, and it hurts even more to know that he had torn this apart himself.
“There is always a choice,” Shen Qingqiu responds, and he can’t help but remember the wisps of black smoke drifting up high, the stench of blood permeating the air, crimson red dripping down the blades of Xiu Ya as he stood before the opening of the abyss.
His own words weigh heavily on him, twisting at his heart and heavy on his tongue. His words feel like they’re meant more for himself than for Binghe— for the Shen Qingqiu who had chosen to push his precious disciple into the abyss in exchange for his own life.
After all, hadn’t Shen Qingqiu been given a choice as well?
Between his precious disciple and his own meagre life, Shen Qingqiu had chosen to live.
It takes him a while to recollect himself. “This master appreciates Binghe’s efforts. Nevertheless, this is unnecessary.”
“Unnecessary?” The laugh that escapes Binghe’s lips is sharp and bitter. “Shizun really has a way with words. Won’t you be more forthcoming with this disciple? For Shizun to reject me so vehemently time and time again— rather than unnecessary, doesn’t Shizun actually mean to say that this disciple’s efforts, this disciple’s presence, is unwanted and unwelcome?”
Shen Qingqiu blinks, unsure of how to reply.
“How long, exactly, is Shizun planning to continue this?” He asks, and there’s a dangerous smile playing at his lips. “Or perhaps, is Shizun worried that I’ve poisoned the food? Shizun need not fret, this disciple has done nothing of the sort despite being a despicable demon that Shizun believes me to be.” His words come out mocking as he reaches out to pick up the pair of chopsticks gingerly.
He places a single rice cake, in the shape of a lotus flower, into his mouth, chews it slowly and swallows, his gaze never leaving Shen Qingqiu’s all the while. He does the same for the noodles and the tea; spoons a little of the soupy broth and brings it to his lips, sips at the tea with the same lips pressed lightly against porcelain.
Shen Qingqiu watches all this, distracted.
When Binghe is done and is still visibly sitting upright, he settles the teacup back onto the ground with a clink, the same mocking smile still etched onto his face. “Surprised?”
No, Shen Qingqiu thinks. No, he isn’t surprised in the slightest.
Binghe has the blood of a heavenly demon, how could ordinary poison work against him?
Anyway, he hadn’t even considered the possibility of Binghe poisoning his food until he’d brought it up himself, and Shen Qingqiu finds himself stunned speechless when he realises—
—Over his time living as Shen Qingqiu, he had already gotten so used to eating Binghe’s food, has already been conditioned in such a way that it was just natural for him to eat whatever Binghe prepares without questioning it. Even with his life in mortal peril under the hands of the blackened protagonist out for his life, Shen Qingqiu has never once actually considered Binghe’s dishes to be a threat.
It’s quite terrifying a realisation, in all honesty.
Binghe darts a tongue out to lick at his bottom lip. “Mn, not bad,” he hums, pleased, ignoring the fact that Shen Qingqiu has been silent for a long while now. “So, has Shizun changed his mind? The dishes aren’t poisoned, and this disciple remembers they’re Shizun’s favourites.”
Shen Qingqiu sighs.
“It defeats the purpose if Binghe is the one who consumes it. There is little to no poison the heavenly demon blood is unable to remove,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Binghe purses his lips, staring at him.
Then, softly, “Shizun really believes this disciple poisoned the food?””
“...This master doesn’t dare to guess.”
Binghe doesn’t reply immediately, and the silence that hangs over them feels like a heavy and suffocating pressure weighing down on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders. Then—
“—Shizun,” Binghe’s voice cracks, still soft, and the suddenness and sheer vulnerability behind Binghe’s broken-hearted whisper takes Shen Qingqiu by surprise. When Shen Qingqiu looks back at him, the expression on Binghe’s face feels like a dagger to his heart.
Binghe looks sad.
He looks angry and lost and sad for some mystifying reason, and Shen Qingqiu…
...Shen Qingqiu doesn’t know what to do.
Unlike before, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t pat him on the head, ruffle his hair and dry his tears. Couldn’t embrace him in his arms, hold his cheek in the palm of his hand, wipe off his tears with the brush of his thumb.
He no longer has the right to.
And for Luo Binghe, receiving comfort from the one person he hated the most— the person who had hurt him and pushed him down the abyss— would probably seem like a bad joke. Shen Qingqiu wasn’t crazy enough to willingly jump from the boiling pot into the fire himself; his current situation was already bad enough.
Besides, with his arms bound like this, it’s not as if he could offer much comfort, either.
It doesn’t last for more than a second, though. Binghe’s expression twists into an angry scowl before Shen Qingqiu can even manage to call out his name, and it happens so fast that Shen Qingqiu wonders if the previous few moments were all figments of his imagination conjured from his wishful thinking and naive hopes that his white lotus disciple hasn’t disappeared completely.
Binghe stands abruptly, fists clenched at his sides. He knocks over the tea when he does so, and it splashes against the hem of his robe, spilling and seeping into the stone ground. Despite this, Binghe pays it no mind, his attention laser focused on Shen Qingqiu bound and kneeling before him.
“It seems like nothing this disciple does can change Shizun’s view of me,” his breath comes out shaky, red tinting the corner of his eyes.
Then, he laughs.
“Of course! After all, this disciple is a heavenly demon! A heavenly demon will always spill blood, massacre innocents and throw the world into chaos, isn’t that right, Shizun? Then, maybe this disciple shall do just that! Rid this world of those who’ve once stepped on me, laughed at me, cursed me! Spit on them, kick them, pierce their body with a thousand blades! Drown them in cold blood and tear their bodies apart!”
With a breathy chuckle, he pauses and looks at Shen Qingqiu with a mad gleam in his eyes, demonic energy clinging onto him like a second layer of skin. “Maybe I’ll start from Cang Qiong Sect, even! Since there’s no other way… Since there’s no other way for Shizun to see me for the person who I am, then I’ll just become the scum that Shizun insists me to be! Maybe then, will Shizun finally look back at me?”
Shen Qingqiu watches in trepidation as the black mist envelops Binghe as he speaks, the demonic energy steadily rising in pulses.
“Luo Binghe!” He exclaims as a warning. The demonic energy of Xin Mo is relentless; it slowly consumes his wayward disciple, taking over his senses and eats away at his rationality.
“Shizun,” Binghe answers in response. His voice comes out wrought in twisted anger, low and rumbling, but the black mist subdues by just the slightest bit when Shen Qingqiu calls out his name.
“Binghe, control yourself,” Shen Qingqiu says cautiously once he has determined Binghe to be aware enough to listen and process his words. He ignores the painful squeeze in his heart and swallows down the lump in his throat at the sight of his precious disciple, reduced to a shell of resentful anger under the influence of Xin Mo. “Don’t let the demonic energy consume you.”
Binghe’s lip curves up. “Oh? Is Shizun showing concern for this disciple now? How surprising.”
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu urges, brows furrowing into a frown. Xin Mo was a dangerous entity, doubly so for its user. Luo Binghe, having emerged from the abyss years ahead of schedule, is unsurprisingly less prepared and equipped to deal with Xin Mo’s backlash.
Shen Qingqiu is unable to help the growing concern welling in his chest for the blackened protagonist standing before him.
Even if Binghe wanted to pay him back tenfold, humiliate him, torture him, rip off his limbs and turn him into a human stick, Binghe was still Shen Qingqiu’s precious disciple. Shen Qingqiu still cares, even if Binghe didn’t know.
It didn’t matter whether Binghe knew.
Luo Binghe, with his demon mark glowing brighter than ever and his robes fluttering heavily from the ripples in the air, continues gazing at him with bloodshot eyes. His fists remain clenched by his sides, and he bites at his lips so hard he draws blood.
Despite this, Binghe eventually calms. It takes a few moments of stifled, tense silence and Shen Qingqiu has to repeatedly coax Binghe out of his Xin Mo-induced anger, but the blackened protagonist’s murderous rage subsides nevertheless, the ripples of demonic energy dissipating along with the tension in the air.
“Shizun,” Binghe whispers, almost brokenly, once he’s regained his bearings. Visibly exhausted, the blackened protagonist looks so very small, much like a lost child, when he’s not consumed by anger and hate.
“Shizun,” Binghe whispers again. His fingers tremble at the side of his robes, and he clutches at the hems desperately, bites at his bloodied lips, stares at Shen Qingqiu with red-rimmed eyes.
Shen Qingqiu listens.
Shen Qingqiu listens to his name spilling out of Binghe’s lips like a broken record.
He listens to each breath Binghe takes, hears every minute tremble laced in his voice. But Binghe doesn’t say anything more than that, and when he leaves, Shen Qingqiu is left kneeling on the cold stone ground of the water prison, hearing the echoes of Binghe’s whispers in the deafening rush of the waterfall.
It accompanies him till he falls asleep, and accompanies him through his fitful dreams.
The events of the following few days occur in a similar fashion.
In Shen Qingqiu’s world of grey, Luo Binghe and the myriad of dishes he brings in is the only other reprieve Shen Qingqiu experiences. He brings in a palette of colours, striking against the dull grey hues of the water prison, from the red and black of his robes to the snowy white of the rice in a porcelain bowl, pale yellow and greens of the tea in the pot, golden honey brown of a fried pastry peeking out of a wrapped paper towel.
Saying nothing of the momentary vulnerability he had displayed during Xin Mo's backlash, Luo Binghe comes in every few shichen during the day, bringing along with him different colours when Shen Qingqiu refuses to eat and he cooks some other dishes that he knows are Shen Qingqiu’s favourites. Reds of the chilli spices kneaded into the noodles, dark browns of the sauce drizzled atop the side dishes and lighter browns of the soup in a separate porcelain bowl.
Rinse, wash and repeat.
For the entirety of the next few days of Shen Qingqiu’s imprisonment in Huan Hua Palace’s Water Prison, he doesn’t do anything else other than very reluctantly rejecting Binghe’s food, and convincing himself, in those few shichen when Binghe’s left to cook more food, that he shouldn’t trade his dignity for said food which also happened to be ridiculously delicious, no matter how badly he’s been starving.
Shen Qingqiu, regardless of whether it’s the original goods or the fake that had replaced him in a qi deviation sometimes back, would never willingly lower himself to such a state. If it were the him pre-transmigration, he would already have caved and eaten Binghe’s congee on day one.
Who cares if he had to eat it off the ground? Waste not, want not, right? He had died originally because he’d eaten expired yoghurt, eating Binghe’s cooking off the ground couldn’t possibly be any more humiliating than that!
Unfortunately, he has long since abandoned his identity of his previous life; Shen Yuan might not have any dignity, but Shen Qingqiu certainly did, which also meant he couldn’t just casually submit.
And anyway, Shen Qingqiu was still feeling relatively fine for now. Aside from the low, constant ache in his head and the weakness he feels in his lower limbs, Shen Qingqiu has long gotten used to the hunger.
Maybe when he feels like he can’t endure the hunger any longer, then that’s when Shen Qingqiu would have to give up on protecting his dignity. But even then, it still wasn’t too bad! It basically just meant Shen Qingqiu had bravely and heroically withstood the hunger pangs until he was no longer able to. That wasn’t humiliating in any way, right?! That’s how the suffering of the tragic characters in cliche storylines works!
Yes, Shen Qingqiu thinks, feeling slightly proud of himself. That’s a fool-proof plan.
Now… How to get Binghe to give up for the day?
This really wasn’t healthy; Binghe must have been spending these entire few days flitting about busily in Huan Hua Palace’s kitchen, doing nothing but preparing different sorts of dishes and pastries, brewing different blends of teas (which suspiciously also happens to be all of his favourites) while ignoring his other duties.
Shen Qingqiu frowns; why was Binghe so insistent on this form of humiliation? Isn’t this much more trouble than it’s worth?
And isn’t he the head disciple of Huan Hua Palace? Shen Qingqiu is pretty sure that head disciples aren’t usually so free!
Plus… cooking for him like that every shichen… isn’t that wasting a lot of food? Binghe, haven’t you cleared out the kitchen’s supplies by now? What are you going to do with all these leftovers?
Shen Qingqiu needs a plan.
Maybe he could try convincing Binghe he’s on a diet? Would that work? It’s like intermittent fasting, but the xianxia version of it, so it lasts for a few days instead of hours. That works, right?
Yeah, maybe he’ll give it a try!
It works, but not in the way Shen Qingqiu expects.
As per usual, their conversations are filled with snarky jabs and bitter, self-deprecating laughs from Luo Binghe, as well as clipped replies from Shen Qingqiu.
This time, though, Luo Binghe’s patience snaps at Shen Qingqiu’s horrendously poor attempt in trying to convince him. He throws a temper tantrum similar to the one Shen Qingqiu had witnessed on his first day of captivity.
“Coming up with this farce,” Luo Binghe had seethed in anger. “Shizun really does take me for a fool!”
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu starts, faltering. “That… isn’t what this master is trying to imply. This master will not be eating Binghe’s cooking regardless of what Binghe cooks, so this master figured that Binghe would be… better off fulfilling his other tasks instead. Doesn’t Binghe have many things to do? Shizun has heard that you’re now an important member of Huan Hua Sect.”
Luo Binghe stiffens, and looks at Shen Qingqiu as if he had just told him the one thing he didn’t want to hear. “Serving Shizun is part of my task as your disciple as well,” he says rigidly, forcing the words past his lips. “Is Shizun no longer willing to recognise me as your disciple?”
Shen Qingqiu raises a brow. “If Binghe is still willing to refer to this master as Shizun, then naturally this master will also recognise Binghe as a disciple of Qing Jing Peak. Yet, Binghe seems to have settled comfortably in Huan Hua Sect and has gained the trust of the palace master.”
Desperately wishing he had a fan to hide the lower half of his face with, Shen Qingqiu does his utmost to school his expression. He wonders if Binghe is able to see through his mask of nonchalance, and realise that underneath all that regal aloofness and indifference the Qing Jing Peak Lord portrayed was a man jittery from nervousness and fear. “Considering the circumstances, pardon if this master is hard-pressed to believe that Binghe’s allegiance lies with Huan Hua instead.”
His tremor of fear gives way to a more pressing emotion when he thinks about what he’s going to say next. It comes in like a flood; raw and painful, a harsh twist at his heart. Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he forces himself to continue. “And… And if that’s true… If Binghe wishes for it, then this master would no longer be considered—”
He doesn’t manage to finish his sentence.
“—No.” Luo Binghe interrupts darkly. “Shizun is Shizun, no matter what.”
Shen Qingqiu’s throat clams up, and whatever words he had been planning to say immediately dies at the tip of his tongue.
It’s… fine by him either way. In the first place, those were words he hadn’t really wanted to say, couldn't really bring himself to. Flimsy and problematic as their relationship was —being fuelled with hatred, rage, and guilt— it was still the only thing left between them tying them together. Cutting this tie between them— Shen Qingqiu finds himself unable to do such a thing.
Luo Binghe’s lips crack into a wry smile. “Shizun can’t get rid of me, if that’s what Shizun’s been hoping. This disciple won’t let Shizun go.”
Shen Qingqiu feels a shudder run up his spine, and the entire atmosphere turns heavy. The fear returns with a vengeance and sinks heavily deep in his gut.
As expected, the blackened protagonist Luo Binghe would never let him off that easily, after everything he’s done. He’ll keep him captive here, toy with his mind, and cajole him with sweet words.
Mislead him with unshed tears, with deliberate words trembling with layers of false sadness, with anguished rage fuelling his harsh words, all to lower his guard.
Of course. Binghe would never give up this relationship between them so easily. After all, it had been his shizun that stabbed him, his shizun that had pushed him into the abyss, his shizun who had mercilessly broke his heart.
Then, naturally, Shen Qingqiu should pay the price as Binghe’s Shizun. It would be unfair to Binghe if Shen Qingqiu discarded that label and the responsibility that he has to bear along with it.
“Fine. Binghe can call this master whatever he wants,” Shen Qingqiu concedes tiredly, fear giving way to sheer exhaustion. He can feel his headache worsening, and the coldness of the water prison is starting to seep into his bones, chilling him at his core, but he’s left helpless and defenseless to the harshness of the environment. He hasn’t felt this awful in ages, and it brings back flashes of buried memories from his past.
“But Huan Hua’s palace master and the rest of Cang Qiong Peak Lords might not be so understanding. It is… unheard of for someone to belong in two different sects at once,” he explains hesitatingly.
Binghe clicks his tongue in annoyance, and his demonic energy pulses threateningly. “They can disapprove all they want, their opinion hardly matters,” he snorts. “As long as they don’t stand in my way to Shizun, this disciple does not care what others think.”
It’s a bold claim to make, but it’s fitting for the blackened Luo Binghe who had crawled out of the abyss fuelled by hate and anger at the entire world and his circumstances. Why was it that others could live so freely and happily, had everything they wanted and needed served to them on a silver platter, while he had to struggle and beg and fight so desperately just so he could live?
Why is it that even in the end, the one person who had accepted him and lovingly gave him a home, the only person other than his adoptive mother to have loved him, raised him, cared for him, taught him how to live, protected him as if he were a precious thing—
—Why did even that person throw him away? Why was he discarded so easily, just like that?
Had everything he felt, the tender gazes he’d seen, the lingering warmth from the familial loving touches against his skin and the pleasant press of a palm against his scalp, ruffling his hair—
Had they all been a lie?
Luo Binghe falls silent, and Shen Qingqiu shifts his gaze away.
The memories of a kinder and much brighter past consumes them. It wraps around them, like a soothing balm, like a knife to the heart. It’s ironic how the memories of their happier times cuts like broken glass shards, yet it is in the wake of these that they are able to find their little crumbs of solace.
Their conversation grinds to a halt, and falls apart.
This pattern is nothing new between them as of late.
Afterall, hasn’t the relationship between them turned out the exact same?
One week into his captivity, Shen Qingqiu wakes up feeling like absolute shit.
There’s a familiar burn in his lungs and he comes up short of breath. By this time, Shen Qingqiu knows what exactly is happening even before he is acutely aware of his symptoms.
Wryly, Shen Qingqiu smiles. It’s good enough, he finds himself thinking. It’d been a good, long six years, and every single day had been a day stolen from a man of this world, for a man of another who had died miserably six years back.
Even in the millionth chances that their plan failed, it still really wasn’t much of a loss. In fact, he’d gained six years worth of treasured memories and cherished bonds with his precious people, and lost absolutely nothing in return for this piece of treasure he’s received.
Seemingly unbothered in the slightest, Shen Qingqiu shifts his attention back to Binghe, who is kneeling patiently before him, waiting for him to wake fully. As per usual, there’s a tray of food settled before him, with another plate of pastries and a pot of tea. Only this time, there’s a small basin of water sitting besides the tray and a clean white cloth folded neatly next to it.
“Good morning, Shizun,” Binghe greets. His tone is warm, and he smiles as if the previous few days’ incidents had never happened at all. It’s slightly unsettling, but Shen Qingqiu finds that he’s starting to get used to Binghe’s constant ire hidden behind false smiles.
“Good morning, Binghe,” he greets amiably, before sighing. “I’ve already told you, this master isn’t planning to eat. There’s no need for Binghe to go to such lengths to prepare such…” Here, Shen Qingqiu eyes darts to the five different dishes plated out onto the tray, truly a meal fit for a king. “... extravagant meals.”
“Shizun naturally deserves only the best,” Binghe refutes cheerfully. “And it has already been a week, Shizun should eat,” he insists. Binghe’s lighthearted demeanor only makes him seem like he’s on the verge of snapping anytime, and Shen Qingqiu wonders if Binghe’s pent-up frustration was due to his repeated uncooperativeness over the past few days.
In fact, all things considered, he was pretty surprised Luo Binghe hasn't actually ripped off his limbs yet, but he sure wasn’t about to complain. He’s almost certain Binghe will eventually turn him into a human stick and exact his revenge once he decides he’s done humiliating Shen Qingqiu, but until then, Shen Qingqiu will most certainly try his best to preserve his measly life.
Too caught up in his thoughts, Shen Qingqiu doesn’t notice the series of action the blackened protagonist takes— reaching out for the cloth, dipping it in the basin of water, wringing it dry— all the while humming an upbeat tune.
When he does realise it, Binghe has already shifted himself closer on his knees, leaning closely over him. The tip of Binghe’s finger brushes across his bound arm, and before Binghe can even attempt to hold Shen Qingqiu steady enough to wipe him off with the wet cloth, the close proximity of their bodies, the smallest touch against his skin, against his robes—
—it feels like a blazing trail fire dancing across his skin, and the sheer panic and fear that surges within Shen Qingqiu is enough to shatter his mask of forced aloofness and calm.
Binghe immediately freezes, the arm holding the cloth stilling in the air, his other hand hovering over Shen Qingqiu’s bound arm where his fingers had brushed across earlier. He doesn’t move a muscle, eyes flitting down to gaze at Shen Qingqiu.
Then, he lowers his arms, and sinks into his kneel. His actions are stilted and tense. “...Did Shizun think I was going to hurt him?” His voice comes out soft, barely a whisper.
Shen Qingqiu’s mouth is dry, his heart hammering in his ears. “N-no,” he denies weakly. “This master was just… surprised.”
Luo Binghe stays silent for a moment or two. Then, he exhales through his nose, and laughs, long and slow.
“Of course. This disciple has overstepped his boundaries,” he says, still chuckling. It sounds raw and bitter, and Shen Qingqiu thinks belatedly that he has been making Binghe do a lot of that, recently.
Bitter laughs, mocking smiles and soft, sad whispers.
“Is Shizun afraid of me?” He asks, when his laughter finally dies out. The demonic energy pulses in tandem to his rising anger, and it cloaks and settles densely on his skin. The sigil of the heavenly demon glows a burning red on his forehead.
Luo Binghe smiles, lips curling over pearly white teeth. It’s chillier and frostier than all his other smiles combined. “But this disciple hasn’t even done anything yet? Would Shizun like me to, since he believes this disciple likes to inflict pain?”
He folds his hands across his lap, and Shen Qingqiu immediately panics.
Abort mission, abort mission, abortabortabort—
—Luo Binghe snaps.
It starts off as a mild burning pooling in his gut, and it spreads thickly, heat blossoming from under his skin. It dances like fire across his veins, setting his nerves aflame with every itch and painful crawl of his blood. Shen Qingqiu lets out a choked gasp, tears immediately springing to his eyes.
He’s unable to hold himself upright from the sheer pain that surges from within, and Luo Binghe reaches his hands out to steady him, gingerly pressing his palms against Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders. Then he tilts Shen Qingqiu forward, so that his head is resting in the crook of his shoulder, and his entire weight is supported by Binghe’s sturdy frame.
“Steady there now,” Binghe hums, patting at Shen Qingqiu’s back soothingly. “Shizun can lean on this disciple if need be. The blood parasites must hurt quite badly, after all.”
Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth, too overcome by pain to even complain about the position they’re in, or the twisted irony of Luo Binghe’s actions. The blood parasites, under Binghe’s ministrations, burns and nips painfully at his organs, twists viciously in his veins.
System!!! He calls desperately in his mind. Do something!!!
The accursed system whirls to life, and in his haze of pain, Shen Qingqiu barely hears the system respond cheerfully in his haze of pain.
[System is here to provide host with 24/7 service! Does host require any assistance?]
What do you think?!!??!?! Shen Qingqiu roars internally, too overcome by pain to even bother with pleasantries.
[ Σ(゜ロ゜;) ]
Then, the system seemingly scrambles away, and in its place, a loading circle takes over. A few seconds later, the blue box of the system pops back up.
[Answering host, Luo Binghe’s anger level is only at 30 points! According to system’s calculations, Luo Binghe is only teasing you with his blood parasites, and will stop in a few minutes!]
[Just tough it out, host! (*＾∀ﾟ )ъ ]
With that, the useless system disappears, and Shen Qingqiu is so incensed by the sheer audacity of the sorry excuse of his system (who even gave him a thumbs-up! A thumbs-up!!) that he thinks he would have qi-deviated if it weren’t for the immortal binding cables blocking his meridians.
But seriously, only 30 points? And this was just him being playful?!
Shen Qingqiu didn’t want to imagine a truly livid Binghe.
Accepting his fate and giving in to the pain, Shen Qingqiu buries his head in Binghe’s shoulder— anything to distract him from the burning flame in his blood and the flares of pain blooming under his skin. His breath comes out in short pants, ghosting lightly over the skin of Binghe’s collarbone.
Luo Binghe chuckles lowly.
“The pain actually isn’t too bad, isn’t it, Shizun?” Binghe sounds darkly amused, voice coming out a low, smooth rumble next to Shen Qingqiu’s ears. “Where else would Shizun like it to hurt? Should this disciple command the blood parasites to start biting?”
Then, Luo Binghe lets out a sound, eyes flickering with understanding. “Ah,” he says. “Maybe here?”
Shen Qingqiu bites at his lips, muffling a pained groan as Binghe directs the blood parasites up to gnaw at his chest without even waiting for a reply. At the exact same spot where he had thrust Xiu Ya into Binghe’s chest— it’s a wrenching pain that leaves him stuttering for breath.
“Does it hurt, Shizun?” Luo Binghe asks. “It does, doesn’t it? Of course it does. It hurt the same for me back then as well.”
Leaning heavily and quite literally caged in the arms of the blackened protagonist, Shen Qingqiu is able to feel the reverberations in Binghe’s chest as he chuckles, the warm puff of breath and lips murmuring over his ears, the soothing press of a warm palm against the back of his head, pushing him comfortingly into the crook of Binghe’s shoulder.
The blood parasites feel like they’re rioting at his chest; sharp, stabbing flares of pain and a searing heat burning torturously at his heart. Shen Qingqiu bites at his lips so hard he draws blood.
“Shizun is afraid of me, isn’t that right? Afraid that this disciple is a monster? That I’ll hurt you, just like this?” Binghe lets out a huff, and there’s a teasing lilt to his tone. “Well, Shizun is right. After all, look at what this disciple is doing, inflicting pain on his dearest Shizun. But isn’t Shizun at fault as well? Since Shizun believes his disciple to be so, then naturally this disciple must live up to his expectations, don’t you think?”
Shen Qingqiu is near tears. His shoulders tremble underneath Binghe’s hand, and each inhale of breath sends a spike of pain through his nerves. Really, how is this ‘only teasing’??!?! System, are you mad??!?!??
Binghe smiles wryly. “This disciple didn't want to use this method, but it seems like it works well to be a monster. When Shizun is scared and hurting like this, he will be a lot more obedient, won’t he?”
Then, he lets up the blood parasites, and despite how much his words sound like a threat, Shen Qingqiu is unable to help the relieved sigh that escapes his lips when the burn under his skin and searing pain slowly dissipates.
His relief doesn’t last for long, though. The initial burn in his lungs he’d woken up with comes back with a vengeance now that he’s no longer distracted by the blood parasites, and this time, a wave of nausea accompanies it.
Weakly, he lifts his head off Binghe’s broad shoulder in an attempt to sit himself upright. It’s much harder than he expects, too weak from the combined forces of the blood parasites and the burning in his lungs.
Vision blacking out for a split second, Shen Qingqiu sways precariously— only to be caught mid-fall by a gentle hand from Binghe, who gingerly picks him up, and leans him against a nearby wall.
Then, Binghe picks up the napkin, dips it carefully in the basin of water, and wrings it dry. “Be good now,” he murmurs lowly.
Shen Qingqiu is too weak to even lift a finger, let alone protest. He lets Binghe do as he pleases; tenderly wiping his sweat and grime off in focused silence, dipping the cloth back into the basin every few minutes. The cloth feels damp and comfortably lukewarm against his skin.
In the aftermath of pain, Shen Qingqiu finds himself increasingly aware of Binghe’s every action, every brush of his fingers across his skin, the soft caress at his neck.
How he gently slides the cloth across his shoulders, down his arms, around his wrists.
Kneads at his palm when he reaches his hand, wipes gingerly at the corners in between his fingers.
Rubs tenderly at every nook and cranny— in the crook of his elbow, the dip in his collarbone, behind his ear. Across the bare skin of his nape, down his neck, soft flesh giving way to each press of his fingers against bare skin.
Shen Qingqiu shivers.
The entire process and Shen Qingqiu’s quiet acquiescence seemingly lifts Luo Binghe’s mood, who takes his time with his careful touches; kneading the muscles at Shen Qingqiu’s back, rubbing gently at the flesh of his palm and fingers, pressing and loosening the taut muscles that had formed over his time being tied up by the cables while also taking care to wipe the dirt and grime away.
After a long while, Shen Qingqiu’s body feels loose and relaxed, and seeing this, Luo Binghe eventually releases Shen Qingqiu with a pleased, satisfied hum. Seemingly in a better mood after having touched and served his Shizun properly for an extended period of time, Luo Binghe’s cold fury is no longer as suffocating as it previously had been.
Despite this, Shen Qingqiu obediently remains silent in fear of triggering the protagonist’s ire again, watching him with a careful eye.
Binghe folds the cloth and sets it back down besides the basin of water. Then, he turns towards the tray of food, picks up the spoon, and proceeds to skim the top layer of the congee with it. Then, with a pair of chopsticks, he gingerly places a small strip of chicken drizzled golden brown onto the spoon, and hovers it in front of Shen Qingqiu’s lips.
Shen Qingqiu, in his weakened state, almost goes cross-eyed, mind reeling in shock.
What.... What was this?!?!
I-Is Binghe s-spoonfeeding him?!
Never mind wiping him off like some lowly servant, was Luo Binghe, the stallion protagonist, spoon-feeding him lovingly as if he was one of his 600 wives in his harem?!
“W-What... is the meaning of this?” He manages to croak out, eyes transfixed onto the spoon held before his lips.
Luo Binghe smiles sardonically, his spoon lowering. “Is Shizun going to put up a fight again?” He asks with a heavy undercurrent of threat.
Shen Qingqiu feels another wave of fear course through his veins. “No,” he immediately denies, unwilling to go through another round of the blood parasites wreaking havoc in his body. “But this…?”
"How else did Shizun plan to eat?" He questions back. Now he sounds slightly amused, and his smile comes off marginally lighter— and realer. "Did Shizun assume this disciple would make him eat it off the ground?" He teases.
Shen Qingqiu stays silent.
Yes, yes he did!! How was he supposed to think otherwise; wasn’t Binghe supposed to torture him, humiliate him and visciously turn him into a human stick?! Why would Binghe lovingly spoon-feed him instead?!??
“Nonsense,” he refutes almost immediately in an attempt to save face, brows twitching.
Binghe smiles indulgently, and lifts the spoon up to nudge at Shen Qingqiu’s lips. “Then, Shizun won’t refuse the food this time, right? Be good now, you know this disciple has other ways to make Shizun eat.”
A shiver crawls up his spine at Binghe’s foreboding words, and Shen Qingqiu eyes at the spoon skeptically.
Well, if he didn’t have to eat it off the ground…
Rigidly, Shen Qingqiu complies; obediently parting his lips to accept the spoonful of congee.
The congee spreads warm and flavourful in his mouth, and together with the finely sliced chicken, it tastes exactly the same as it did those many years ago, before he had pushed Binghe down the abyss. Lusciously rich and savoury as it melts on his tongue, thick and smooth as it slides down his throat. A faint sweet aftertaste lingering on the tip of his tongue.
It’s a nostalgic flavour.
Distractedly, he wonders if Binghe had never meant for him to eat his food off the ground. Perhaps… Perhaps, Binghe had intended to spoon-feed him like this from the start?
Is this another weird sort of humiliation play Shen Qingqiu didn’t know about?? Why would Binghe even go through the trouble to do something like this?
Or maybe this was Binghe’s method of stripping away all of Shen Qingqiu’s autonomy? To humiliate him by leaving him helpless and completely at Binghe’s mercy for his survival, like a treasured doll kept in doll houses.
Well, whether it's with the intent of humiliating him or not, this was still a far better option than eating it off the ground, Shen Qingqiu decides. It’s not like Binghe didn’t hand feed him sweets back then before the Immortal Alliance Conference, especially during the times Shen Qingqiu had been preoccupied reading texts on demonic beasts and hadn’t wanted to dirty those precious books— even though Binghe had been a stuttering and bumbling mess back then.
Lost in his thoughts, Shen Qingqiu doesn’t notice how Binghe watches his every action; the way his lips slide over the spoon, the way he chews slowly and carefully as if savouring the taste of the congee, the way his throat bobs daintily when he swallows it.
Binghe lifts another spoonful of the congee, watching intently with a burning gaze when Shen Qingqiu, still distracted, compliantly leans forward to accept the spoonful again.
They spend a long while sitting in the water prison like this, with Binghe gingerly spoon-feeding him the congee and the side dishes, and Shen Qingqiu, in a manner reminiscent to his previous spoiled attitude with a white lotus Luo Binghe, eating the dishes off Binghe’s hand.
Binghe’s actions are slow and unhurried, indulgent in the way he waits for Shen Qingqiu to finish chewing every mouthful and every little bite he places into his mouth. He spoons only a small amount, and only the top layer of the congee where it’s warm and no longer scalding hot, and carefully tops every spoonful with a small portion of a side dish; braised chicken strips, succulent and tender chilli prawns, crisply fried tofu sprinkled with sesame seeds.
He dabs at the corner of Shen Qingqiu’s lips indulgently with a clean napkin from his inner robes when a smear of the sauce stains Shen Qingqiu’s lower lip, rubbing at it gently before feeding him another mouthful.
He waits patiently as Shen Qingqiu chews, rubs at his lips with the napkin and his thumb every so often in between mouthfuls. Alternates the spoonful of congee with sips of tea, and when Shen Qingqiu has cleaned out the entire bowl, he picks up the pastry— a fluffy white cotton-like dragonbeard candy— with his fingers, and brings it to Shen Qingqiu’s lips, eyes darkening when Shen Qingqiu eats the pastry off Binghe’s fingers with no qualms, tongue brushing against the tip of his fingers.
Shen Qingqiu’s eyes brighten when the candy melts on his tongue, the soft, fluffy strands of spun sugar giving way and coating the peanut filling. He eats the next candy off Binghe’s fingers eagerly, and finishes the rest speedily.
Binghe chuckles, and rubs at Shen Qingqiu’s lower lip with his thumb, brushing off the half-dissolved flyaway strands of the candy. “Looks like Shizun enjoyed the pastries?” He teases knowingly.
Shen Qingqiu coughs, and forces down a blush. “It was acceptable,” he answers evasively, but Binghe, who is aware of his Shizun’s exceedingly thin-face, knows that it is akin to a compliment.
His lips curve up into a smile, and he lifts the cup of tea again to Shen Qingqiu’s lips, watching as the Qing Jing Peak Lord took leisurely sips of the warm tea, throat bobbing as he swallows. The heat of the tea brings a warm flush to Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks, and Luo Binghe finds himself content just staring at the image of Shen Qingqiu paints; compliant and comfortable under Luo Binghe’s care.
Shen Qingqiu eventually finishes the tea, and Luo Binghe settles the teacup back onto the tray, along with the other empty plates and bowls. “This disciple will bring over more pastries tomorrow,” Binghe says indulgently. “What would Shizun like to have?”
Shen Qingqiu pauses in contemplation, before replying, “...hard candy?”
“Then this disciple will bring over some hard candies tomorrow. Shizun may look forward to it,” Binghe smiles. Then, he stands up, and leans over to scoop Shen Qingqiu back into his arms, tilting him so that he falls securely against his chest, tucked tightly within his arms.
Of course, he doesn’t miss how Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widen slightly in fear and how stiff he becomes when trapped within his embrace, but there’s also a flustered blush that spreads across Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks— pretty and pink against the pale shades of his skin.
“Pardon this one for his impropriety,” he murmurs unapologetically, completely ignoring the protests that spill out of Shen Qingqiu’s lips. Shen Qingqiu weighs almost close to nothing in his arms, all lithe with lean, toned muscles. Bound with his arms behind his back and stripped of his cultivation, the resistance Shen Qingqiu puts up is akin to that of a new-born kitten pawing at his chest.
Luo Binghe feels a complicated feeling rise up in his chest— he’s strong enough now to care for his Shizun and attend to his every need, strong enough now that he could successfully twist Huan Hua Sect under his scheme, strong enough to keep Shen Qingqiu in his grasp. Yet it feels even lonelier now that he has Shen Qingqiu by his side, when his every action is met with apprehension and fear.
He strides over to the stone platform with Shen Qingqiu bundled in his arms, and sets him down in the middle of it— where he’d originally been.
Now seated on the stone platform, Shen Qingqiu is still staring at him, completely befuddled. Luo Binghe can’t help but feel his heart twist faintly at the sight of his Shizun before him— imprisoned, bound, helpless with his guard down after how he had let Luo binghe tend to him so carefully after so many days of insistent protests.
The guilt wells up in his heart, and it’s a suffocating pressure that chokes him and renders him unable to speak.
Maybe Shen Qingqiu had been right all along— that Luo Binghe is a despicable demon who belongs in the depths of hell, that he had been right to have feared him for the demon that he is, had been right to push him into the abyss where he truly belongs.
After all, inflicting pain onto his Shizun, forcing him to comply against his wishes…
Isn’t he acting exactly like how Shizun had predicted him to be?
Later that night, Shen Qingqiu wakes with a painful throb in his temple. His breath comes out weakly in short, shallow puffs— the cold prison air is an icy burn in his lungs, and it forces out a cough whenever he breathes any deeper than the shallow intakes of air that seemingly feels just almost never enough to fill his lungs. His arms are still bound painfully behind his back, and the ropes dig painfully into his skin, chafing it red and raw.
He wakes up to a tremble in his limbs from the constant kneeling over the previous few days, and a weary ache deep in his bones, with the remnant tingling of his blood smoldering just beneath his skin— a reminder of the blood parasites crawling within his body.
He wakes up to cold water splashed unceremoniously onto his face, drenching his robes and wetting his hair. It jolts him awake, and makes him feel the entirety of his weakened state.
Shen Qingqiu stifles down a cough. It takes him a while for his body’s physical function to catch up with his mind, and he has to blink several times to rid himself of the droplets of water sitting on his lashes and blurring his vision.
The little palace mistress is standing in front of him, a hand placed haughtily on her hip. In her other hand, there’s an empty basin with droplets of water dripping onto the ground. A familiar scowl is etched onto her face, the same disdainful look he’s been seeing on all the other disciples of Huan Hua Palace when they notice his presence— at Jinlan City’s inn, at Huan Hua’s palace when his name was smeared, while escorting him to the water prison.
Shen Qingqiu lets out an indignant huff, feeling slightly like a drowned, miserable cat. His temple throbs mercilessly when he focuses his gaze on the little palace mistress, and the wind that trails in from the opening of the caves feels like a harsh, biting cold against his wet skin and damp robes.
Then, he frowns.
Weren’t everyone else, minus Binghe, barred from entry into the water prison?
What was the little Palace Mistress doing here?
“Finally awake?” The Little Palace Mistress sneers down at him. “Being able to sleep so peacefully in this condition, Shen Qingqiu, aren’t you acting a little too carefree for a criminal living out his numbered days?”
The little Palace mistress really broke the rules, came all the way down to this god-forsaken caves, just to ‘bully’ a mere prisoner?! Just exactly how free were Huan Hua disciples?!
“...Good morning to you as well, Little Palace Mistress,” Shen Qingqiu greets tiredly, ignoring how the cold basin water dumped unceremoniously atop his head trickles down his neck and soaks the upper half of his robes. His hair plasters wetly onto his face, and Shen Qingqiu has to blink away a droplet of water trickling into the corner of his eyes. “The trial has yet to be held, what makes Little Palace Mistress so sure that this one will be found guilty?”
His words are simple, direct and innocuous in nature, but the little palace mistress bristles in anger regardless. She puffs up angrily, cheeks reddening. “Cut the crap! Don’t think we’re unaware of your crimes and wrongdoings, and the things you did to Luo-gege! It’s only a matter of time before you meet your end, Shen Qingqiu!”
Amazingly enough, the little palace mistress’ angry tirade sounds exactly like the speech of a cannon fodder villain that Shen Qingqiu almost does a double-take. Little Palace Mistress, aren’t you supposed to be the protagonist’s wife? Why are you following a villain’s script?!
“This isn’t something the little palace mistress should be concerned about,” Shen Qingqiu eventually replies. As expected, this entire ‘visit’ was to take revenge for Binghe. Little girls sure are aggressive nowadays, Shen Qingqiu marvels.
“And this is neither the place for you to be in, isn’t that right, Little Palace Mistress?” he asks knowingly, with a raised brow. Besides, a little girl like her, with barely any cultivation prowess or standing, interrogating a peak lord is really quite an audacious act in itself. Are kids nowadays all so brazen?
“That is none of your concern,” the Little Palace Mistress replies arrogantly, tilting her chin up and crossing her arms with a scowl. “I can go wherever I want to; my father is the head of Huan Hua, I’ll see who dares to stop me!”
Shen Qingqiu barely manages to refrain from sighing. It’s not at all surprising that the treasured daughter of Lao Gongzhu had grown up so spoiled. Huan Hua Sect is as influential as their reputation precedes, and their wealth far outclasses most ordinary sects by no small amount. With her father as sect leader, who would dare to stop her?
“Then, this one is naturally curious as to why Little Palace Mistress has deigned to visit. I don’t believe we’re acquainted enough to warrant such a joyful... chat.”
The Little Palace Mistress scoffs. “Luo-gege is too nice,” she begins, “he isn’t willing to lay a hand on you for the mistreatment and abuse you’ve subjected him to, and he doesn’t say a single word about it. Look at you, still acting as if you’ve done nothing wrong at all, Shen Qingqiu, have you no shame?”
Shen Qingqiu blinks, momentarily stupefied.
That sheer audacity—!
—Asides from pushing Binghe down the abyss, from the day he transmigrated up until the Immortal Alliance Conference, Shen Qingqiu had never once mistreated the protagonist. In fact, he’d quite literally coddled and mother-henned Binghe until he turned into something like a sticky rice cake and clinged onto him constantly! Binghe sure had some guts to imply that he had been mistreated— Shen Qingqiu would like to file a complaint!!
And the protagonist halo truly is a scary thing!!
Binghe didn’t even have to say anything— Shen Qingqiu’s name has already been smeared so thoroughly and effortlessly that the little palace mistress was even willing to break into the water prison for Luo Binghe’s sake!! All Binghe had to do was to stay silent and let the Huan Hua disciples make their own assumptions!
After all, for a disciple to be unwilling to return to the sect that he’d initially belonged in, there were only a few plausible reasons, and none of them painted Shen Qingqiu in a good light.
And the truth— that Luo Binghe is of the heavenly demon bloodline and that Shen Qingqiu had been forced by a mysterious god-like entity known as the system to push Luo Binghe down the abyss or face a permanent termination from life itself— is so much more far-fetched and ridiculous than the lies that has been spreading that it’s practically impossible for anyone to even consider such a scenario to be possible.
“Shen Qingqiu, do you dare say your hands are clean? Do you dare say you are not guilty?” The Little Palace mistress sneers down at him, and Shen Qingqiu jerks out of his thoughts.
Not at all, he thinks. His blade has tasted the flesh of his disciple, his hands stained with the blood of a person who adored him with every fibre of their being. How could he be clean?
Shen Qingqiu is guilty.
So, he keeps his lips sealed firmly shut, and stays silent under the Little Palace Mistress’ overbearing gaze.
“You think just by staying silent, you can pretend you’ve never hurt Luo-gege? That you’ve never been heartless and viscious, that you’ve never done anything wrong?” The Little Palace Mistress seethes. “You think just by staying silent, you can get away with doing evil deeds without getting retribution?! You’ve colluded with the demons, your hands are stained with the blood of thousands! In the Immortal Alliance Conference, my sect’s disciples... My shijie, my shixiong, shidi, shimei— all of them! They all died by your hands!”
The Little Palace Mistress stops abruptly, and lets out a short, cold laugh. Her voice comes out breathless and airy from the intense outpour of emotions.
“Shen Qingqiu,” she warns, brandishing a barbed whip from thin air. It glows a dull gold besides her, pulsing heavily with spiritual power. “Just because Luo-gege can’t bear to hurt you, that doesn’t mean the other Huan Hua disciples won’t.”
Here, she reaches out to tug harshly at the back of his hair, pulling painfully at his scalp. The sheer force of the hair-grabbing lifts him slightly off his knees, and Shen Qingqiu, ill and defenseless, is left unable to defend himself.
The Little Palace Mistress’ face is mere inches away from his, and she has a sickly sweet smile etched on her face. “You deserve this, Shen Qingqiu,” she says, almost kindly, peering down at him from underneath her lashes. Her words resonate hauntingly within the depths of his mind, and Shen Qingqiu…
Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes.