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Without a Clue

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When he found the scroll, Luo Binghe tempered his excitement with a harsh caution to himself. He’d come across false leads before, which, when pursued, led nowhere. Once, when he’d been younger—achingly young, and so stupid in it—he’d gone running to Shen Qingqiu with the first promising traces of a clue, only to gently be told no. It must have pained Shen Qingqiu to be forced to explicate the hopelessness of his position. Luo Binghe had heaped that trivial, additional humiliation on the reverend head of the man he owed his life—the man who gave Luo Binghe’s life the better part of its meaning. Luo Binghe had cried himself to sleep that night, choking his sobs into his pillow so as not to disturb his master in the adjoining room. Having forcibly reminded the immortal of his crippled cultivation, he’d surely done enough of that for one day. And pointlessly, too. It hadn’t even been the same poison! Just a very similar name! Binghe had noticed the difference, but had assumed it was a mistake on the compiler’s part—right up until Shen Qingqiu, patting his head, had told him all about Without-Remedy, kindly joking that perhaps the same unoriginal idiot had named these very different venoms nigh-identically. Shizun must have thought him so inexperienced. Binghe had known he was, and knew it still. Even worse, Shizun must have thought that his devoted disciple, who Shen Qingqiu had thrown away his health to protect, was really rather unkind, or careless, or an ingrate—oh, it hurt more than any thrashing, to know that Binghe must have lowered himself in Shizun’s estimation. 

From that day on, Luo Binghe had forced himself to be circumspect. He’d read through Qing Jing’s library for his own education, his master’s encouragement and approval urging him on more effectively than a lashing whip. And every time Binghe had come across anything pertinent to the private, secondary purpose of his studies, he’d set it aside for a more thorough consultation. Once or twice, after further research, he’d gone so far as to visit Mu Qingfang and to put questions to him—only to meet with a careful explanation as to why this, too, wouldn’t work. To receive the Lord of Qian Cao’s condescending sympathy, and the weight of his hand on Binghe’s shoulder. 

Luo Binghe knew that he only resented his shishu’s pity because his acute consciousness of his own failure cut him deeply. In and around his education, Binghe had been searching for some means of curing Shen Qingqiu for three years now. He was still so young, still so limited. Qing Jing Peak had an excellent cultivational library: perhaps the best in the world. But what did Luo Binghe know about medicine that his shishu didn’t? What could he learn from this collection that had escaped its master? Binghe wasn’t prone to paralysing despair, which felt too much like bowing his head to a hostile world. Yet enervating hopelessness still licked at the edges of his mind, and Binghe wondered whether he would ever be able to make this right. 

Perhaps Shen Qingqiu, who’d made his own choices, didn’t resent him now. But what about in a century, when his cultivation hit an irresolvable bottleneck, and this was the reason? Binghe hoped—Binghe planned—to remain at Shen Qingqiu’s side as the years passed, as his personal disciple if nothing else. Even if Binghe grew strong enough to protect his shizun from further harm, he would suffer watching Shen Qingqiu suffer from this ailment. And if Shen Qingqiu came to regret his kindness and once more grew cold towards Binghe, and distant with him, Binghe knew he’d find that unbearable. Perhaps he’d be relegated out of sight, dispatched on far-flung missions like an official who’d displeased his Emperor. Perhaps he’d be ‘gifted’ his own, lonely house, complete with those awful, discouraging little hints about how he might fill it with a loving wife, which Shizun always offered up as though they were compliments. Luo Binghe might find himself ‘promoted’ to succeeding disciple, and then left behind when Shen Qingqiu eventually relinquished his post as Peak Lord. Binghe had grown too used to being as much in Shen Qingqiu’s carefully-guarded confidence as anyone could be—had become too vitally dependent on their daily intimacy. He would do anything to avoid turning into an unpleasant reminder of the ascension his master could now never hope to grasp; to escape someday growing hateful in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes.

And then one day the long-sought minor miracle occurred, like a cultivation breakthrough. Deep in the memoirs of a rogue cultivator with a penchant for telling outlandish tales, Luo Binghe found a passing mention of this adventurer’s friend having survived Without-a-Cure, thanks to cultivation with a great lady of the demonic realms. “For Heavenly Demons such as she do possess the power to neutralise many a poison in themselves, and to partake of their qi in this manner may make even this dread poison’s name a lie!”

That night Luo Binghe interrogated Meng Mo regarding heavenly demons. Meng Mo thought the account itself probable enough, given what he knew of the power of the first-ranked of his race, but reminded Binghe that he’d have trouble finding any such persons. The demonic realm had, after all, been left in chaos by the death of its last princess and the subsequent sudden assassination of her elder brother by mortal cultivators. The still-young sovereign and his only heir, the last scions of the dynastic line that had ruled since time immemorial, had both been eliminated within a decade. Certainly, given its famously amorous character, the line had produced its share of by-blows over the centuries. Crouching tigers and hidden dragons must be scattered throughout the nobility, and even among the common folk. But Meng Mo at least hadn’t heard any concrete rumours to this effect. And surely such people would have risen to contend for the empty throne, if they wanted to be found and were sufficiently of the blood to serve Luo Binghe’s purpose. 

Luo Binghe asked if there was a way to detect heavenly demon blood: he was prepared to shake down every higher demon in the realms, if necessary. As it happened, over the course of time both the need to verify claimants and the unique power of the imperial patrimony had made certain indicators of heavenly demonic heritage so famous in song and story that even Meng Mo, who had never involved himself much in courtly struggles, had heard all about them. When Meng Mo showed Binghe one legendary method—the Holy Heart Technique, which anyone with sufficient demonic qi could perform to a limited extent, but only demonic royalty could properly execute—the seal on the young man’s own power flickered rapidly in response, pulsing like a heartbeat. 

Senior Mo gave an incredulous scoff. Well, he’d be damned. From the start he’d known Luo Binghe had a rare talent, and instructing the boy had only deepened Meng Mo’s appreciation of his resources. But the dream demon really couldn’t have expected this! He’d certainly bet on the winning horse.

“My congratulations on your successful search, my boy!” Meng Mo cackled. “Or should I call my lord ‘dianxia’?”

Luo Binghe crashed into Mu Qingfang’s office emphatically waving a tatty old journal and saying something about heavenly demons, which the disciple’s excitement at first rendered it difficult for Mu Qingfang to make out. When he properly understood the young man’s meaning, Mu Qingfang almost wanted to cry. The awful thing was that theoretically, an energy transfer of the kind Luo Binghe was suggesting might well work. Yet Mu Qingfang knew very well why nothing of the kind had occurred to him: the last confirmed heavenly demon had been interred at the hands of their own sect leader, almost a score of years ago. Of all the stupid ironies! Mu Qingfang dreaded the purposeless guilt that Yue Qingyuan was bound to feel when he heard of this. 

With pity, Qingfang explained the thing’s impossibility to Luo Binghe. To think this poor little bloodhound had finally, miraculously picked up a scent, and it still wouldn’t serve. Luo Binghe muttered that he might know something they could do about the scarcity of convenient heavenly demons, too, and begged his shishu to call a private meeting with Yue Qingyuan. Mu Qingfang conceded, if only because he suspected they’d end up having all this out, one way or another. Both Qingyuan’s deep investment in Shen Qingqiu’s well-being and Luo Binghe’s terrier-tenacity would ensure it.

Luo Binghe only just managed to disclose his heritage without getting punted straight off the mountain. He’d eyed the situation up like a fight and judged the risk significant, but acceptable; he’d have taken worse odds for Shen Qingqiu. It helped that he privately consulted the two most even-tempered Peak Lords, both of whom were at their ease. It was a point in Binghe’s favour that he made this revelation of his own volition, and another that he kept silent about Meng Mo. Perhaps one couldn’t help having mixed blood, but secretly studying a powerful form of demonic cultivation was a different matter. 

Mu Qingfang even vaguely remembered the Holy Heart Technique: the climax of a fairly popular opera (The Ninth Demonic Prince) apparently hinged on it. Binghe claimed he’d heard of it years ago, from a storyteller who’d walked the borderlands, and concocted a good excuse as to why he’d only recently begun to suspect his own blood of having secretly betrayed him thus. Binghe insisted he must be the product of some minor royal cousin’s having taken advantage of a human woman, who’d then given him up to the river in her shame. Meng Mo had mocked him with a title, and true, the throne went begging. But really, what was more likely: the heritage Luo Binghe suggested, or that he was the lost son of Tianlangjun himself? And of a mortal bride, as well! 

With genuine tears standing in his eyes, Luo Binghe begged for the right to help his shizun.

“And why,” Yue Qingyuan asked tiredly, tugging the hem of his robe out of Luo Binghe’s beseeching hands and motioning the boy up from where he kowtowed on the floor of Mu Qingfang’s private office, “do you not ask Shen Qingqiu yourself, given that he is so nearly concerned? Shidi trusts you implicitly, and no one can countermand a Peak Lord’s authority over his own disciple. Your newly-discovered identity might have remained a private matter between you both.”

Having sat upright, Luo Binghe regarded his shishu steadily. “I fear just what you suggest—my excellent master’s care. Removing the seal will be somewhat dangerous for me. Even considering the harm Without a Cure does him, Shizun is too diligent with his students to readily agree to this plan. But if a renowned physician and his senior martial brother urge Shizun to take care of himself, won’t he listen?”

Yue Qingyaun gave a short laugh. “Not in my experience, no.” But Yue Qingyuan looked at his subordinate, and Mu Qingfang shrugged. 

“A seal like that protects a child from power they can’t yet control, but they’re not meant to last forever. Luo Binghe is a young man, now. Better it break on purpose while he’s under supervision than in the field.” 

“I’m more than willing to accept the risk,” Luo Binghe insisted. “It’s like any other tribulation.” A cultivator expected such things.

“And his health?” Yue Qingyuan asked, addressing Mu Qingfang.

Mu Qingfang took Luo Binghe’s wrist in his hand, examining his spiritual veins to confirm what he already knew. “He isn’t Shen Qingqiu’s personal disciple for nothing. His cultivation base is excellent for his age. It’ll hurt, certainly, but he’ll be stronger for it. His unleashed demonic blood will, perhaps, exert a coarsening influence on his temper—but then, we deal with Liu Qingge every day.”

Yue Qingyuan snorted, and then tried to pretend he hadn’t done anything of the kind. 

Despite their seniority, it irritated Binghe that they spoke about rather than to him when discussing both his body and his plan. If he’d known how to safely break the seal in private and could be sure of his own healthy survival, which Shen Qingqiu’s cure depended on—if he’d known the cure could work, that Shizun would cooperate and that there wouldn’t be unanswerable questions in the aftermath—then Binghe would never have involved these other men at all. But Binghe needed their support to win over Shizun, so he wouldn’t risk jeopardizing their agreement with so much as a sharp glance. In training, Shizun sometimes said that it didn’t matter how you survived so long as you did. And for Binghe, there was no survival worth the name without Shen Qingqiu’s continued safety and good will. 

Upon answering his zhangmen-shixiong’s request for a meeting in Mu Qingfang’s office, Shen Qingqiu was somewhat relieved to find Binghe with the two of them. So this was where his disciple had been all day! It was truly unlike him to go wandering off! 

Last night they’d been reading together when Binghe had begun to fidget, as though preoccupied. Shen Qingqiu had suggested that since he’d so much energy to spare, perhaps he ought to run through his sword forms. Binghe had actually jumped at the sound of his master’s voice. Then this morning, right after breakfast, Binghe had mentioned that they were nearly out of burn unguent. The silly boy had flown to Qian Cao Peak as if fleeing pursuit, and had failed to come back for hours. Shen Qingqiu had gone about the day’s tasks with somewhat ill-grace, accustomed, by now, to the constant presence of his very able assistant. 

Shen Qingqiu didn’t know what he’d do when, in only a few months’ time, the inexorable machinery of the plot ripped Luo Binghe from his side. He didn’t let himself consider it, any more than he entertained speculation about the events of the conference itself. The System had cheerfully threatened to unmake the entire fucking world if Shen Qingqiu tried something clever, like getting the thing cancelled. Shen Qingqiu had hardly felt more helpless when he’d been choking to death in a mini-apartment. The only human touch he’d known as he’d died had been that of his own fingers, scrabbling uselessly at his tight, airless throat. Shen Yuan had grown dizzy. His vision had started to crackle black. And when Shen Qingqiu let himself think about the coming Immortal Alliance Conference, he felt just the same. Breathless, terrified, weak, ashamed. Utterly alone: as though he deserved to be.  

And so when Luo Binghe—in front of two other Peak Lords, no less!—tearfully told Shen Qingqiu something he already knew, but which he’d no idea how Binghe could have discovered, Shen Qingqiu dropped his no-doubt-expensive teacup. It shattered, though he hardly noticed. There the protagonist sat, bold as brass: a self-professed heavenly demon. Even as he gathered the fragments of broken porcelain, Binghe reminded his master of his own kind words on the subject of demons and begged Shen Qingqiu’s forgiveness for not coming to him first.

Shen Qingqiu silently shook the System for all it was worth. Was he still supposed to toss Luo Binghe into the abyss? With what excuse?! The unhelpful, sub-Siri sack of shit would only answer that it was ‘recalibrating itself in response to a major generic override’. The System claimed that it would ‘respond when it had finished updating’, like that meant anything to him. Shen Qingqiu wanted it on record that this had been Binghe’s choice, all right? He couldn’t be blamed and executed for deviating from this fifth-rate excuse for a plot! Surely the protagonist was always right?

Once he’d stopped internally blue-screening with terror, Shen Qingqiu found that he was rather impressed with his disciple. He’d made the most explosive disclosure a cultivator possibly could directly to Yue Qingyuan’s face. Binghe truly was skilled with people: simply undefeated at finessing them to get precisely what he wanted. He might even have broken the System! Take that, you sadistic jumped-up son of a Storyspace!

But given that Binghe was evidently in such a forthcoming mood, Shen Qingqiu was shocked his clingy disciple hadn’t sought his advice. Why in Airplane’s cursed name had Binghe gone over his head and straight to Yue Qingyuan? (Or perhaps ‘Revealing your Cool but Evil Heritage to a Sympathetic Confidant’ was the sort of plot development that should have brought Luo Binghe and Ning Yingying closer?) Perhaps Binghe really was growing up, and out of his reliance on Shen Qingqiu. That was only natural, of course: Luo Binghe would soon outclass him in almost every respect. The space at the protagonist’s side was thoroughly reserved for a rotating cast of picture-perfect trophy wives. Binghe’s patronising tolerance for the sake of their old friendship was certainly preferable to Binghe’s enmity and Shen Qingqiu’s wretched death. It just stung a little, to feel Binghe begin to pull away from him. Shen Qingqiu would admit to that. 

Pursing his lips, Shen Qingqiu drew back his hand. It had been cupping Binghe’s face—he’d been using his thumb to stroke away an errant tear. He brought up his fan to shield his expression. 

“And why have you brought us all here, Binghe?” he asked, taking a sip of tea from the fresh cup Binghe had poured him—and then struggling not to spit the liquid out when Binghe enthusiastically answered that thanks to his newly-discovered heritage, he believed he’d found a solution to ‘Without A Cure’. With mounting horror, Shen Qingqiu listened to both Mu Qingfang and Yue Qingyuan actively encourage him to accept Luo Binghe’s ‘help’.

Binghe looked gutted by Shen Qingqiu’s immediate, emphatic refusal.

“Shizun,” his disciple whined piteously. “The seal has to break sometime, and the remedy itself could hardly be less invasive!”

Shen Qingqiu fought to keep from sputtering at that. The unsealing, he knew Binghe could and would come through with flying colours. As for the rest, that was easy for the stallion protagonist to say!

“All we have to do,” Binghe tried coaxing him, “is a simple qi transfer, like the one you gave me when I was injured.” 

“Does my disciple assume his master is ignorant of the contents of his own library?” Shen Qingqiu shot back, more sarcastic than he’d meant to be—more ‘Cucumber’ than ‘cool as a’. He swallowed, taking a moment to moderate his tone. “I have always known of this method.” Shen Qingqiu closed his fan with a flick of his wrist, then smacked the guard down on his knee. “I simply didn’t keep company with any awakened heavenly demons. If you broke your seal, I would. But that changes nothing.”

Binghe flushed under the reprimand. “I know it’s a demonic method, but the text says we only have to cultivate together. Shizun, surely—”

“Because you,” Shen Qingqiu interrupted him, “are just a child, and a medicinal qi transfer is not what ‘dual cultivation’ means!”

At that point Yue Qingyuan did spit out his tea, and was forced to mop himself with a handkerchief. 

Ah,” Mu Qingfeng muttered. 

Luo Binghe blinked at his master. “…is it not?”

Shen Qingqiu buried his face in his hand, and only when neither of the other adults in the room stepped in to save him (thanks a lot, so-called brothers!) did he throw himself off the parapet. 

“Dual cultivation,” he said slowly, from underneath his own palm, “is a form of spiritual energy transfer that is intimate in nature. Sexually intimate,” he stressed, flicking up his free hand in a ‘stop’ motion before Binghe could belabour the point by observing that as master and personal disciple, they could surely be considered close. Shen Qingqiu had been subjected to more than enough farce for one day, thank you. The Peak Lord exhaled, returned his hands to his lap and tried to look as though the wall was fascinating. (It contained a children’s study chart for basic acupoints, which was not fascinating.)

A flush rose on Luo Binghe’s cheeks as he took this in, and Shen Qingqiu nodded to himself. Good, that was it should be. Binghe was duly chastened; they wouldn’t speak of the matter again. 

But when Luo Binghe looked back up at him, a startling determination filled his starry eyes. “Nevertheless. If Shizun is willing, then I am.”

“Luo Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu said, shocked. 

“Shizun.” A resolution beyond his years gave Binghe’s handsome, youthful features some of the regal expression of the emperor he would become. (It really did, too: in his resolve, Binghe seemed to glow against an abstract background pattern like an anime character experiencing a Feeling. Fucking Proud Immortal Demon Way.) It was as though the two of them were alone in the room: alone in all the world.

“You may feel you owe this to me,” Shen Qingqiu tried gently, “but as your master, it was my absolute duty to protect you. Binghe, you are not in my debt.”

Luo Binghe scoffed. “Does my master think me so petty, that I should be obsessed with every debt and slight?”

A strange disquiet arose in Shen Qingqiu’s mind. The thing was, the original Luo Binghe had been exactly that sort of man—had tried to understand an uncaring universe and to wrest some measure of control over it via just such calculation. Shen Qingqiu couldn’t quite see it for this Binghe, though. If Shen Qingqiu had to consider the question in that light, then he supposed that his Binghe, who’d grown up somewhat more comfortably, simply had better things to care about. His investments in this place and its people seemed deeper and more stable; he didn’t need to keep track of them on a balance sheet, as though they might depreciate the moment he looked away. 

Seeing his master absorbed in thought, Binghe pressed on, emboldened. “This malign poison could cause you to falter and fall at any moment. It’s not safe even for you to ride a sword unaccompanied. If you came to harm, how could I live with myself? If you were injured because of me, how could I live?

I mean, Shen Qingqiu thought weakly, keep that energy? It was exactly the sort of noble sentiment that could really come in handy if, say, the System stubbornly forced him to stick to the original cliff-yeeting plan.

“You know, shixiong, your disciple is of age,” Mu Qingfang said, breaking the loaded silence. 

Like an enraged owl, Shen Qingqiu swivelled his whole head to face his shidi. He slammed his hands over Binghe’s innocent ears. “What did you say?”

Mu Qingfang gave the other Peak Lord’s frosty dramatics an unimpressed look. Shen Qingqiu had always had a habit of hissing like an angry goose when undermined. He’d begun to show a gentler side of himself in the wake of his qi deviation (near-death experiences took some men that way), but he certainly hadn’t dropped all of his annoying tics. 

“Many youths,” Mu Qingfang continued calmly, “marry at sixteen, be it in village halls or in palaces. Luo Binghe is nearly eighteen. Such a treatment would certainly be unusual, given your positions, but in the circumstances it could hardly be called inappropriate.”

“He’s an infant,” the goose squawked. Luo Binghe caught Shen Qingqiu’s wrists, drawing them away from his ears without releasing his master’s hands from his own. 

Yue Qingyuan, who looked very grave, chewed and then released his lip. “Granted, your disciple is young. But since we know of no alternative, how long would Shidi wish to wait?”

“Forever!” Shen Qingqiu snapped. “Until Binghe is thirty, at the very least! Why are we even discussing this as though it’s reasonable?”

“Because it is reasonable,” Yue Qingyuan said. “Dual cultivation is a proven remedy for all sorts of poisons. Xiao Jiu—forgive me. Shen Qingqiu. None of us has to like it, but your disciple has a point. This injury hampers your cultivation. It could threaten your life, which your disciples and sect-siblings all hold dear.”

Shen Qingqiu fixed him with a look, and Yue Qingyuan tried to hold firm against Xiao Jiu’s potent distaste. 

“Better,” Shen Qingqiu said, the anger in his voice leashed but palpable, “to accept a risk than to take advantage of my own disciple!”

Luo Binghe began to voice protests, but Yue Qingyuan quieted the youth with a raised hand.

“You’re the lord of the second-ranked peak, and at the moment, you could be a liability in a crisis. We rely on you, Shidi, and we’re fantastically lucky that your disciple has offered up such an unexpected solution. It’s one night. I know you’re uncomfortable, but could we mitigate that?”

Shen Qingqiu scoffed. “Could you mitigate my personal disciple’s never being able to look me in the eye again?”

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe said, squeezing the hands he still held. “Shizun, please. How could it be called ‘taking advantage’, between us? I could never respect you less—not ever, and certainly not for letting me help you. I’ll beg, if I have to. Before my martial uncles, before the world.” Binghe once more looked on the edge of tears. 

Shen Qingqiu released a breath. “You never give up, when you’ve set your mind on something.”

Binghe shook his head. Without another word Shen Qingqiu looked away, back at the stupid acupoint chart with its stupid, smiling patient who seemed to just love being stuck with needles. He nodded his consent. 

Mu Qingfang, who had prescribed more medicinal dual cultivation than Luo Binghe had eaten hot dinners (though that was, admittedly, a somewhat unimpressive comparison), took Shen Qingqiu’s melodramatic approach to informed consent in stride.

“Will you explain the particulars to your disciple, or would you prefer for me to?” 

Shen Qingqiu snorted. “What’s to explain? Surely it’s simple enough. Just—” Rather than saying the words, Shen Qingqiu made a lewd wanking gesture, which turned evasive and vague in his hands. “—but for one another, isn’t it?”

The resulting pause was tense, and broken only by Shen Qingqiu flipping open his fan—making a dignified retreat. Yue Qingyuan looked especially troubled. 

“…I see how your disciple came to manhood without learning what ‘dual cultivation’ meant,” Mu Qingfang managed. 

Shen Qingqiu glared daggers at him over the ribbed leaf. 

“I’d prefer,” he said coldly, “for my disciple to receive Shidi’s medical advice, thank you.” Shen Qingqiu seemed to gather himself, and took another stab at professionalism. “Perhaps all of my students should have a similar lecture with one of your senior disciples.”

“That might be a good idea,” Mu Qingfang muttered.

“But with those women, Shidi, you really never—” Yue Qingyuan coloured, reconsidered and restarted his sentence. “If Shidi is apprehensive, perhaps some practice before the treatment would ease his mind?” Yue Qingyuan blurted, as though he were unable to help himself. 

Mu Qingfang watched Luo Binghe raise his head to look at their oblivious sect leader, who was focused exclusively on Shen Qingqiu. Even on his own peak, preoccupied with its affairs, Qingfang had heard of this disciple’s ferocity when eliminating any threat that dared so much as look at his master on a night hunt. It had become something of a joke among the disciples. At present, the glint in the young man’s eyes made him look like a bull about to charge. 

Shen Qingqiu dismissed the suggestion with a huff. “Ridiculous. I’m putting everyone out quite enough as it is, thank you!”

“Oh no,” Yue Qingyuan tried, making a desperate, last-ditch effort. “Xiao Jiu, it really would be no trouble—” 

In the face of Shen Qingqiu’s devastating incredulous expression (which young Luo Binghe, beside him, seemed determined to model a very good copy of). Yue Qingyuan cut himself off, cleared his throat and assumed the pained, resigned look of a man set upon ritual suicide. 

Mu Qingfang wondered about the philosophical implications of burning incense for a man while he was still—if only technically—living. 

Alone with Shen Qingqiu (Luo Binghe having been put off until the evening), Mu Qingfang explained that dual cultivation was in fact a reasonably complex form of qi circulation that almost always involved penetration. 

“If it’s just a qi transfer, then why does it need to be sex?” Shen Qingqiu insisted, as irate as though the very universe had been designed to personally inconvenience him. Sensing an excuse to enter into a discussion of theory, Mu Qingfang enthusiastically took his opportunity. He hadn’t even finished discussing jing, however, when Shen Qingqiu began to look extremely cross. This was a pity because Mu Qingfang had yet to begin explaining demonic energy forms, which were fascinating

Internally, Shen Qingqiu seethed. He simply could not sit here listening to an advanced biology lecture on xianxia-bullshit when he knew, absolutely, that the true and singular reason all this worked—why it did, if not how!—was because fucking Airplane Shooting Towards the fucking Sky had wanted to sell daily instalments of a terrible, brainless stallion novel. 

“Just give me an explanatory pamphlet,” Shen Qingqiu snapped. “I’ll come to you if I have any questions.”

Mu Qingfang sighed and passed over a few books. Usually Shen Qingqiu shared his intellectual curiosity; they’d had many rich exchanges over the course of the last years. The man could rival any bestiary, and normally, he never tired of discussing minutiae. Perhaps the prospect of deflowering his disciple had put him off his feed. Qingfang tended to forget that non-medical cultivators could be precious and squeamish about bodies. 

For his part, the aforementioned disciple arrived in the evening with a fresh scroll, a brush, and more questions than Mu Qingfang had gotten from his students over the past week combined. Now here was a youth who was properly devoted to both his master’s welfare and to upholding the scholarly reputation of his Peak! 

When Luo Binghe returned from his consultation he found Shen Qingqiu sitting up at his desk, as though waiting for him. Luo Binghe dropped down before his master, pressing his forehead to the reeds. 

“Shizun, I beg you to forgive my boldness today. Punish me however you like.”

Luo Binghe stared into the dim pocket his falling hair created, which cut him off from the glow of his shizun’s lamp. He pressed his face down flatter, until he could feel the texture of the braided reeds against the tip of his nose. Shizun might well be angry with him—or worse, disappointed in him. That would be awful, of course. But a swelling, rebellious joy had nuzzled its animal way into Luo Binghe’s heart, and no caution could completely curb it. He’d done it—he’d found a way to restore Shizun’s health! If all went as it should, Shizun could expect to live a full, unblemished life, and could credit his years to Luo Binghe’s love and care. Binghe would have unhesitatingly sliced off an arm, if he’d thought he could exchange it for that result.   

Instead of asking any such sacrifice of him, for once fate loved Luo Binghe as though he were her only son. What an unlooked-for miracle it was, to have been given his heart’s desire by circumstance! Curious, rapt, Binghe had asked his shishu question after question as to how to do the thing properly. He could hardly think of what was to come without going giddy. He was finding due contrition difficult to reach, when the very air seemed to shimmer and bells to ring in his ears. To think that despite those stupid, hateful rumours of Shen Qingqiu’s visiting brothels, his peerless master had in fact been practicing cultivational purity all these years—just as though the two of them had been waiting for one another. And rather than sullying his master, Mu Qingfang had assured Binghe that dual cultivation with a heavenly demon would only strengthen Shen Qingqiu’s always-delicate meridians. Unseen, Binghe smiled into the slick, tight weave of the reeds, unable to contain his wonder.

Shen Qingqiu exhaled and threaded his hand into Binghe’s curls, tugging the loose, disorderly ribbon encircling them free and setting it aside. 

“Rise, Binghe. I know you acted out of concern.” 

Binghe glanced up to find Shen Qingqiu looking resigned. Not bitterly so—more bemused at the strange twist things had taken. 

“You may even have been right to do it,” Shen Qingqiu admitted. “But who told you,” and here he pinched Binghe’s cheek hard (which Binghe secretly loved, but whined under, to keep his master from knowing it), “to involve all and sundry, hm?” Shen Qingqiu clucked his tongue. “I don’t know when I’ve been so embarrassed!” 

He released Binghe’s cheek. Binghe sat up properly and rubbed at the hurt—playing with it while seeming to soothe the sting away, as if grinding the aching reminder of his master’s casually-possessive touch into the line of his bones.

“In future I’ll keep anything serious between us, unless you tell me to do otherwise,” Binghe promised, loving to offer his master that. Shen Qingqiu valued novelty, but appreciated control: knowledge, precision, his careful routine, and things done well. When this was settled, Binghe would tell his master about his dealings with Meng Mo—best to let the man absorb one shock at a time. 

Still, Binghe couldn’t keep himself from eagerly blurting out, “Shizun, can we practice the dual qi flow technique while it’s fresh in my mind?” 

Mu Qingfang had shown him the trick of it, but Luo Binghe wanted to ensure that he understood how to initiate the exchange. To make certain that he wouldn’t be nervous and still shaky, wouldn’t disgrace himself when the time came to heal Shizun. 

Shen Qingqiu shook his head, but not in the way Luo Binghe recognised meant actual disagreement. “When do you ever struggle with a new technique, hm? You know you’re my quickest pupil.”

He extended his hand to his disciple, who had blushed at the compliment. Reverently, Binghe took it in both of his.

“I’ll start,” Binghe breathed. Shen Qingqiu nodded, and Binghe passed him a thread of energy, feeding it into the veins of Shen Qingiu’s palm. Shen Qingqiu’s lips parted, as if he was curious, and it made Binghe wish ardently that he could think of some excuse for pressing his mouth to his master’s, as if seeking his blessing. 

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu murmured. Startled, Binghe realised he’d gotten distracted staring at his master’s face. He needed to actively accept the energy prickling against his own fingertips. When admitted it was water-cool, the rush of it coming stronger than his own flow. Binghe had felt Shizun’s familiar qi buffeting against him in every training session for the last three years. For Binghe, the very texture of his master’s magic had become synonymous with care. 

They practiced exchanging the energy quickly, and slowly. They experimented with more flow, and less. With Shizun igniting, with Binghe breaking off. Shizun pulled his hand back and the energy arced between them, the nakedly visible blue current snapping like a whip in the air. It became as easy as tossing a ball back and forth. Shizun grew absorbed in playing with his new ability, a slight smile tugging at his mouth. Binghe wanted his master to be this content, to feel this safe in exploring with him, for the rest of their lives.

Shen Qingqiu absolutely insisted that Mu Qingfang break the seal on his disciple’s demonic power in the boy’s own bedroom, where his disciple would feel most safe and comfortable. Kept in readiness in the bamboo house’s main room, Mu Qingfang perused a codex he’d hoped to discuss with his colleague. Instead, he’d been subjected to hours of some of the most nauseating behaviour he’d ever seen at a bedside. Have a discussion with Shen Qingqiu? The distracted, pacing man was outright useless: practically gnawing the top of his fan, and unable to attend to anything that didn’t relate to his disciple. 

True, at one point the boy had a decidedly worrying qi spike. But how could Luo Binghe have failed to come through it beautifully with his master patting at his forehead with a silk cloth, cycling the youth’s energy constantly to keep the levels safe? Binghe had only to stretch out his hands like a spoilt child for Shen Qingqiu’s stern expression to melt into one of naked concern—for him to gather his disciple in his arms, rubbing his back and checking his temperature by laying his palm over that newly-revealed, gleaming mark, all while biting his lip with worry. Mu Qingfang kept inadvertently glancing around, as though to ask other onlookers whether they were also seeing this nonsense. Unfortunately, he was trapped here alone with these two.

Mu Qingfang felt lucky to be able to record solid information on the mysterious physiology of heavenly demons, but for all that, he would bet his moustache that Luo Binghe was playing up fully half of his stupid little whimpering noises and shivers. How could a qi deviation make one cold? How could his blankets make him so uncomfortable that only his master’s silk-sleeved embrace would soothe him? Luo Binghe was a wily little dog, and Mu Qingfang had half a mind to expose him for it. He would have done, too, if he hadn’t strongly suspected Shen Qingqiu would just glare at him for insensitivity towards the plight of his ‘poor little white lotus’ (which, gag), unwilling to hear a word of it.

But then occasionally, the young man would make a face of sharp, genuine distress, or ask (in a brave tone wholly unlike his whining for sympathy) whether a given unpleasant-sounding symptom was to be expected. At one point Binghe, disoriented, ran out of the house to throw up everything in his stomach before collapsing on the ground. Reeling and embarrassed, he tried to wave his master away. His body must have been expelling impurities. Undaunted by his disciple’s pleas for him to keep back, Shen Qingqiu simply followed the young man, knelt beside him where he sat hunched on the grass, held his hair away from his face and bound it with a ribbon from his own head. He said something low and soothing that Mu Qingfang couldn’t quite make out even with a cultivator’s hearing and wiped the boy clean with a wet cloth in a businesslike fashion. 

“Let’s get you back inside,” Shen Qingqiu then said briskly, as though he dealt with unprecedented phenomena and rolled up his sleeves to wipe off vomit every day. 

Mu Qingfang tried to compliment Shen Qingqiu on his uncharacteristically easy bedside manner. Shen Qingqiu brushed it off, saying something vague about what a lot of bother it’d be if his personal disciple was incapacitated. Mu Qingfang wondered whether it was even possible for Shen Qingqiu not to know that he was rushing about like his disciple’s new bride and over-protective mother in one—but he supposed that if anyone could be so shamelessly over-invested while denying anything of the kind, it was probably Shen Qingqiu. Mu Qingfang was relieved when he deemed it safe enough to leave Luo Binghe in his master’s sole care—the atmosphere had been stifling. He could see what Qi Qingqi meant when she claimed that stepping in that house felt as though you were intruding on someone’s honeymoon, and that only someone as bull-headedly oblivious as Liu Qingge could bear regular visits.

Over the course of the following week Luo Binghe recovered, and then some. They ate food he’d made and set into stasis before Mu Qingfang’s visit. On the first day, Luo Binghe had opened his mouth like a little bird for his anxious master to spoon in broth. By the next, Shen Qingqiu had sufficiently recovered his sanity and the tattered scraps of his dignity to chastise Binghe for being ridiculous. Binghe was a heavenly demon, and an adult—or so he insisted! He could hold his own spoon! (Binghe tactfully did not observe that Shen Qingqiu had instigated the indulgence, or that his own satisfaction in it had been far from infantile.)

They practiced qi exchange with Binghe’s altered energies. Considered as raw material, Binghe’s demonic cultivation was far stronger than his human cultivation but entirely undeveloped. It sat awkwardly in his body, like a guest who didn’t feel at home. Binghe had thought that awakening his blood might feel like coming into himself, but thus far it reminded him more of the stumbling alterations of puberty.

The system insisted it was still recalibrating, and would give Shen Qingqiu nothing further to work with. After several days Yue Qingyuan called Shen Qingqiu away to discuss his disciple’s situation. Shen Qingqiu gave him a confident assurance that his white lotus was still the real deal, updated character design or no. He’d hardly left Binghe’s side for the duration of the process, and in all that time, despite his suffering, Binghe had yet to so much as lose his temper. (Shen Qingqiu entirely neglected to attribute this to the very fact that he’d been at Binghe’s side, counterbalancing the pain with doting attention at every turn.)

After all, in the book demonic blood in and of itself hadn’t altered Luo Binghe’s personality. His blackening had been the result of human trauma, caused by human perfidy. Xin Mo had augmented the former and hastened Luo Binghe’s careen down the latter path, but that had hardly been his blood’s fault. Binghe’s harem was destined to include some perfectly nice demonesses, whereas its most viciously dramatic member, the Little Palace Mistress, was 100% bona fide human.

Upon his return, Shen Qingqiu surveyed the house from the entryway with narrowed eyes while slowly wafting his fan back and forth. Nothing looked amiss, but he’d known Binghe for long enough that he could almost smell his disciple’s planning in the air. Right now, the house absolutely reeked of it. Even the silence struck him as suspicious. The boy had been well, these past days, and yet he hadn’t offered to accompany Shen Qingqiu to his meeting with Zhangmen-shixiong. That was unlike Binghe, who customarily made himself as available to his master as his own right hand. After a moment, Shen Qingqiu noticed exactly what had tipped him off. It was a little humid in the house, as though someone had just had a bath. That was nothing out of the ordinary, but Binghe had bathed just yesterday, and hadn’t been out since. And there was a certain task before them that Binghe would of course want to make himself squeaky-clean for.

Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan shut, closed his eyes and braced himself for severe threats to his dignity. When he opened them again and strode into the main room, sure enough, there Binghe sat, flushed from his ablutions and decently-clad in a loose robe. He knelt obediently before his shizun, having laid the codex he’d been occupying himself with down at his side. Save for his demonic mark, which went undisguised in the privacy of their home and glowed gently on Binghe’s forehead, he was the very picture of a model disciple. 


Shen Qingqiu sighed, slightly rolling his eyes. “Yes, all right. I won’t put it off any longer.” Goodness knew he’d been picking his way around Binghe’s dropped hints ever since the boy could be trusted to keep down his dinner. The bath water should still be hot. Really, Binghe was such a go-getter that he’d probably filled it fresh for his shizun, despite the trouble of doing so. 

Trying not to think too much about what would come next, Shen Qingqiu cleaned himself very thoroughly and returned to Binghe, who'd moved to sit next to Shen Qingqiu’s bed. When his shizun entered the room, Binghe ventured an instant’s piercing glance at him. A red cast came over those glittering black eyes, where the light struck. Were they honestly going to do this in broad daylight? Shen Qingqiu would have felt infantile protesting on that score, but really, like this they’d both see everything. Binghe couldn’t just pretend he was fondling some girl he admired. 

Binghe didn’t seem as put-off as Shen Qingqiu might have expected, though of course a teen boy would be curious about even this clinical approximation of sex (let alone a teenage boy with Binghe’s appetites). Shen Yuan had been one, not so long ago. In (retroactively extremely embarrassing) fact, at the time he’d furiously gotten off to unsatisfying descriptions of Binghe’s exploits. Shen Qingqiu supposed that Binghe’s characteristic unbounded hunger must have leant him an ability to work up an appetite even for his master. Lucky for Shen Qingqiu that it had, he supposed.

“Don’t look so eager,” Shen Qingqiu snapped all the same, sitting down on his bed and flicking a warm pulse of qi over his own wet hair to dry it. Absently grabbing a bottle of hair oil from the side table and rubbing a little of it in. Pointedly not glancing at the other bottle Binghe had placed on the table.

Binghe flushed at the comment, his eyes darting down. “I just want you to be well, Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu finished with the hair oil, took another dollop and extended his hand to Binghe’s still-damp curls. He worked it through them, as he had first done a few years ago when he’d said Binghe was welcome to anything in the house, and had shown him how to use something he was pleased to have recently figured out the purpose of himself. Binghe had never owned anything so frivolous. Shen Qingqiu had noticed (his heart warming with the observation) that Binghe really liked the stuff. He’d sat patiently under Shen Qingqiu’s hands, flushing with pleasure as Shen Qingqiu hummed and massaged the cream through his messy curls.

“Perhaps this will be good practice for you,” Shen Qingqiu mused. “My little disciple will have to beat off his admirers with a stick, soon enough. It wouldn’t do for him to be clumsy with young ladies.”

Luo Binghe’s shoulders stiffened slightly—perhaps he didn’t like his old master teasing him about his amours. “Whatever Shizun says,” he murmured, leaning into his hands.

“Come up, then,” Shen Qingqiu commanded when he’d finished, steeling himself against his own nervousness. He expected Binghe to join him on the bed, but his disciple scrambled directly into his lap. 

“Binghe,” he sighed in exasperation. But actually, this was all right. How different was this easy physical affection from their normal closeness, really? Shen Qingqiu tucked Binghe against him so that the boy’s head rested against his shoulder and petted his hair. He stroked the already strong line of Binghe’s back. In a way, Mu Qingfang had been right. His little bun had grown so much in the last years. He was already a young man. 

“We’ll try simply employing our hands, first,” Shen Qingqiu said, trying not to flush. 

“Just our hands?” Binghe asked. Was that a note of disappointment in his tone? ‘I took off my pants, and this is why you show me?’ Please. The sky pillar didn’t need to pierce the heavens just yet, thank you! This was already spicy enough for Shen Qingqiu’s unseasoned palate!

“If more is necessary, then we’ll do more,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

Binghe nodded, then drew back a little to look at him. Even in this situation, Binghe was still visibly determined and excited. It made Shen Qingqiu want to laugh a little, but he forbore for fear of hurting Binghe’s feelings. Instead, Shen Qingqiu extended a hesitant hand and pushed his disciple’s robe off his shoulders to reveal strong collarbones. Muscles, ruddy from the bath. Light brown nipples, interestingly different from his own pink ones.

Intrigued, Shen Qingqiu brought a hand up to brush at one of them with his fingertips. Binghe exhaled. The flesh didn’t pebble immediately, like Shen Qingqiu’s own nipples tended to if he so much as tugged his clothes on or off. Shen Qingqiu remembered Binghe outright tugging on some poor girl’s in the novel, and while Shen Qingqiu had thought that sounded excruciating, perhaps it had occurred to Binghe in the first place because it was what he might like? Taking the nipple between his thumb and forefinger, all the while stroking Binghe’s side with his free hand, Shen Qingqiu pinched. He drew the now-responsive flesh up as it formed a neat little peak, as if in answer to his touch. Binghe bit his lip. 

“All right?” Shen Qingqiu asked, and Binghe nodded sharply. 

Perhaps Shen Qingqiu ought to try and make this clinical and distant, but that felt as though it’d be cruel to Binghe, and uncomfortable for him, too. If they had to share a first time, at least it ought to be as pleasant as Shen Qingqiu could make it? He rolled the nipple in his fingers, adding more pressure, and then switched to the other. Sometimes, in the book, Binghe had seemed to find physical battle with his conquests stimulating. Was that just a matter of adrenaline? Maybe he liked, you know, the friction? Accordingly Shen Qingqiu rearranged Binghe in his lap, so that his disciple’s stirring cock (never slow to rise to the occasion, in the urtext) pressed up against Shen Qingqiu’s own still robe-covered stomach and the crook of his thigh. With his hand on Binghe’s back, Shen Qingqi encouraged Binghe to roll up into him. Binghe eagerly pressed forward, bringing up trembling hands to rest on his master’s shoulders.

He glanced at Shen Qingqiu for permission. Shen Qingqiu nodded. Rather more eagerly, Binghe rocked against him, his breath coming quicker as he did so. He scrabbled at his shizun’s robe, bringing his mouth down to suck at Shen Qingqiu’s collarbone almost the instant it was exposed, which, to his own surprise, made Shen Qingqiu shiver and murmur an insistent ‘Binghe’—as though asking him to stop, but more protesting against the strength of his own feeling. He twisted one of Binghe’s now hard brown nipples in his fingers, and Binghe gave a surprised gasp.


Shen Qingqiu felt his face grow hot. “Don’t ‘Shizun’ me, when we’re like this!”

Even while he was energetically rubbing his already-massive cock against his master, Binghe managed to give Shen Qingqiu a little pout. “But that’s all I ever call you!”

“Well you needn’t call me anything right now!” Shen Qingqiu snapped, relenting an instant later when Binghe still looked stubbornly put out. As well he might—who liked to be yelled at when they were working up to that? Especially going in cold, with very little experience beyond solo flights! 

“The was uncalled for,” She Qingqiu soothed Binghe, pressing his face into his curls. He hadn’t meant to hurt his tender protege. “Forgive me. This master is—somewhat uncomfortable.”

“Shizun shouldn’t be nervous,” Binghe insisted, shoving Shen Qingqiu’s robe down further, so that it pooled around his waist. “I swear to make it good for him.”

Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu huffed, feeling an expansive pressure on his heart. “Look at you, telling me you’ll ‘make it good for me’, like you’re an old hand.” Boldly, Shen Qingqiu trailed his own down the planes of Binghe’s stomach to catch at the beastly cock he’d been feeling through the thin layers of silk. He wrapped long fingers around it, giving a light squeeze that had Binghe hardening further, releasing a breathy ‘ah!’ 

“You’re not so in control as that, now are you?” Shen Qingqiu teased. 

“Doesn’t,” Luo Binghe stuttered, bucking his hips up into the touch, “doesn’t Shizun like that, though?” He gave Shen Qingqiu a startlingly direct look, glancing up through his thick, pretty lashes—the glare of his eyes flashing red, like a drawn sword. 

Shen Qingqiu drew a sharp breath. Did he? Was he enjoying reducing Binghe to something of a mess? Was he that sort of person? And what did it mean if he was? But then—Shen Qingqiu rapidly began to justify himself—anyone would be flattered to be the focus of Binghe’s passion and intensity. No wonder women joined his harem, only to be neglected. No wonder they stuck around to be further disregarded. Having seen Binghe like this, and having tasted his regard even once, wouldn’t it be difficult not to fall under his spell?

Rather than consider the matter further, Shen Qingqiu wrapped his right hand loosely around Binghe’s cock, teasing him with lax strokes until Binghe ground his heels into Shen Qingqiu’s thighs and begged, “Tighter, Shizun, please!” 

“Spoiled,” Shen Qingqiu teased. He used his other hand to trace his fingertips around the head of Binghe’s cock, dragging them very lightly over Binghe’s sensitive slit. When Shen Qingqiu—feeling almost drugged, now, by the pleasure of exploring Binghe’s sumptuous, responsive perfect body—idly rolled the heart of his palm over the dark, swollen head of Binghe’s outright demonic cock, Binghe shocked him by letting out a low, filthy moan.

“There’s no need for that,” Shen Qingqiu said sternly.

“But it’s so good,” Binghe whined. “I can’t help liking it. You play with me like I’m a new puzzle box.” Pleasure seemed to have melted through Binghe’s maiden shyness. He bit his lip and then continued, his voice pooling like thick sugar-syrup. “My shizun’s grip is so strong. And he has such long, elegant fingers.”

Shen Qingqiu was too embarrassed to do more than blush under the onslaught, and was defenceless against Luo Binghe’s dazed, cat-cream smile. 

“I bet,” Binghe murmured, “they’ll feel even better inside me.”

Shen Qingqiu started, taken aback by both the idea and by how hot it made his own blood run—by the way his hands involuntarily flexed, just where Binghe could feel it. He cleared his throat. 

“We might not have to,” he reminded his disciple.

“But we have to be sure, Shizun,” Binghe said, making it sound like the most reasonable thing in the world. “And we’ve already gone so far as this.” As if to demonstrate, he trailed a fingertip lightly up from the base of Shen Qingqiu’s own neglected cock, all along the stiff length, and dabbed at the bead of precome at the very tip. He’d been so caught up exploring Binghe that he’d only stopped once to adjust his own hardness, and had then gotten right back to Binghe, as though he were indeed a new toy. Shen Qingqiu shivered at the sensation. So, Binghe had tracked what Shen Qingqiu had done first—the feathery touches that came more naturally to him, based on years of quietly, efficiently ensuring his own self-satisfaction. Shen Qingqiu indisputably had a clever pupil on—or rather, in—his hands. 

Swallowing, because the prospect was intimidating (and for no other reason), Shen Qingqiu managed, “You might feel less taken advantage of, if you played the active role.” If the System decided that he still had to hurt Binghe (But how could he, after he’d held him like this? Hadn’t the thing felt almost impossible as it was?), then wouldn’t it look better if he’d laid back and let Binghe take him? If he spared Binghe any feeling of humiliation at being used? Like that, Shen Qingqiu would just be the first in a long chain of willing bodies—Binghe wouldn’t need to feel he’d made himself vulnerable. 

“How can you suggest that?” Luo Binghe demanded, his plump lower lip actually wobbling. “Talking about advantage as if this wasn’t my plan, and a gift for you besides! Doesn’t my shizun trust me as his personal disciple? Have I failed to show him how willing I am?”

Luo Binghe squirmed in his lap, forcing himself into the loose cage of Shen Qingqiu’s fingers, which still held his cock—reminding them of their work. Automatically, Shen Qingqiu returned to stoking Binghe: to palming the solid, velvet weight of his testicles. 

“I want it, Shizun,” Luo Binghe said, gulping air and twitching in his teacher’s hands. “I want it.”

Shen Qingqiu sped up, finding himself just helpless in the face of Binghe’s need. Wanting so much to give Binghe whatever would make him happy. Everything he asked for. Slower, harder, more, more, more—Binghe’s hips twitching in excitable jerks against Shen Qingqiu’s greater patience. 

“Ah,” Binghe gasped. “Ah.”

The corner of Shen Qingqiu’s lip twisted in the fondest smile. “Don’t play it up.”

“I’m not,” Binghe insisted, sounding wrecked. “I’m not, I—how can you make fun of me, Shizun? When you’re the one making me like this?”

Shen Qingqiu tsked, dropping a kiss on Luo Binghe’s new-minted mark, which seemed to pulse as even his qi surged in response to his physical agitation. Shen Qingqiu supposed that Binghe was a stallion protagonist—if he didn’t really like sex, the whole thing could hardly work. So perhaps those hitched, frankly slutty noises were genuine, even given how little the poor boy had to work with in his teacher. Still, it was hard to imagine Binghe enjoying this more. He looked as thoroughly lost in the moment as anyone could wish. His beautiful eyes were heavy-lidded, and his arms draped loose on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders. 

“Can I come, Shizun?” he asked, ever so sweetly.

Shen Qingqiu managed a firm nod, giving Binghe a few faster, nigh-brutal strokes that had his disciple tossing his curly head. 

“Here, here, take me,” Binghe muttered, clumsily, drunkenly pushing qi at Shen Qingqiu and fumbling for his. Shen Qingqiu took the lead with steadier hands, setting up a transfer-circuit that wouldn’t break until they closed it. 

“Oh,” Binghe slurred, “oh, I can feel you. Shizun.” 

Within half a minute he threw his head back, exposing the column of his throat. Shen Qingqiu pressed his lips to it, as if his disciple were magnetised and all the iron in his own blood welled up dutifully in his mouth in response. Binghe came in his master’s hand, dripping glutinous excess down over the man’s stomach. Unfair, unfair—Binghe did even this so dazzlingly.

When Binghe’s panting breath settled, Shen Qingqiu smoothed back the hair his disciple had tossed.

“All right, Binghe?” he asked once more, receiving a nod and an adoring smile in answer. Binghe looked so debauched that Shen Qingqiu had to shift his hips to ease the throbbing of his very interested cock. He settled a hand on his disciple’s trim waist and another at the base of his spine, only to tut when Binghe arched his back so Shen Qingqiu’s hand drifted down to cup his ass. It was an amazing ass, Shen Qingqiu would say that for him. Round, firm cheeks which one could hardly see bared without wanting to just bite them, as desperately and hopelessly as a shark trying to gobble at the giant peach. 

He should stop, now. They should test whether Shen Qingqiu even needed to come himself, or whether it had been enough that Binghe had. He didn’t feel any different, in cultivation terms. Mu Qingfang had suggested that he should, which indicated they probably would need to continue. But they should stop and test it, shouldn’t they? In case continuing was unnecessary. It was just very difficult to concentrate, right now.

Fuck, but Binghe was absolutely made for sex. It wasn’t just the comedy endowment, it was every little bit of him: even the smell of his skin was delightful. Was it normal to look at someone’s collarbone and think, ‘I need that in my mouth’? Absently, Shen Qingqiu kneaded the cheek in his hand like a cat reflexively made biscuits. His finger slid down along the dip of Binghe’s ass, the tip of it tracing the pucker of Binghe’s opening as though it was something altogether new in the world. 

“Don’t tease,” Binghe said, his previously-relaxed thighs tensing as if he wanted to push back against Shen Qingqiu’s playing fingers.

“You’re sure,” Shen Qingqiu said, hardly believing it—because wasn’t it unlikely? Wasn’t it preposterous? After all, Luo Binghe had everything before him; Shen Qingqiu had to remember that. “You’re sure you want this?”

“Master, please,” Binghe said, his eyes shining, tracking Shen Qingqiu’s hard gulp with the avidity of a cat watching a mouse hole. Daring, Binghe tried to catch those questing fingers with his body, only to receive a slap on his ass-cheek. 

“Behave,” Shen Qingqiu said, taking refuge in the distance primness afforded him. “I’ll take as long as I wish to, Binghe.”

Binghe made a thick noise in his throat—not of disappointment, but as though he was wracked with delight. For an instant, Shen Qingqiu felt invasive. It has never been clear, but sometimes, in the original book, Shen Yuan had almost thought that Binghe had liked it when a paramour had slapped him. Shen Qingqiu supposed he knew that some people found experiencing pain pleasurable, but he’d never viscerally understood it. He thought it was more of a thing that was supposed to be sexy, like being overheard fucking (which Shen Qingqiu considered valid grounds for seppuku, personally). And yet now, Shen Qingqiu was almost certain that he’d guessed right. That he’d read Binghe well enough, with sufficient sympathy and the glimmer of insight it afforded. It felt like knowledge he shouldn’t have, that didn’t belong to him. But Shen Qingqiu found that it sat in the base of his spine like fire, and curled in his belly like satisfaction. He wanted to know it—to be the one to know Binghe, with certainty. 

He lowered Binghe to the bed, easing him down and following him thither. His bed, that he slept in—and now he’d always remember Binghe splayed out on it, like this. There was the little pot of oil, and Shen Qingqiu remembered the procedure that the book he’d borrowed of Mu Qingfang had thoroughly taken him through, in its ridiculously flowery way. There was the soft, pink hole under his finger, when he prised Binghe’s cheeks apart with his hands. And when he glanced up, there was Binghe, looking at him with such warm trust that he felt, as Binghe always made him feel, that he could be good at this role he played, and worthy of it; that he must be the shizun Binghe deserved. Binghe made Shen Yuan feel as though he was more than he ever had been in his whole life. There would be hundreds of lovers after him, but Shen Qingqiu was always going to be Binghe’s first. And that was something. That was ineradicable. 

When Shen Qingqiu dipped a slick finger into Binghe, Binghe unconsciously raised his hips, as if to escape the strange sensation, and then eased back down when Shen Qingqiu laid a soothing hand on his stomach, gentling him. Shen Qingqiu’s expression was intent with concentration. He stroked around, trying different spots and varying the pressure he exerted, until Binghe’s expression cleared and he began to welcome the intrusion, hitching his hips into the touch.

“Another?” Shen Qingqiu said quietly, and Binghe nodded, with slow decision.

 His breathing changed with the addition of a second finger. Shen Qingqiu pushed them in firmly, to the knuckle. He dragged them out so that they pressed Binghe’s prostate and caught teasingly at the rim of him before fully fucking into him again. 

“Can I have another,” Binghe asked, and Shen Qingqiu silently added a third, caressing Binghe’s rim with his thumb all the while. 

Binghe’s eyes closed as he savoured it. “Thank you, Shizun,” he breathed.

The little cavern inside Binghe was pliable and giving—running hot, as Binghe always did. Tight, responsive—there was a distinct pleasure just in watching Binghe’s colour rise and his hips make abortive twitches as he worked himself against his shizun’s hand. Shen Qingqiu felt himself heat, imagining this around his cock: Binghe’s whole body offered up to him in a willing caress. His disciple. Shen Qingqiu had never given much thought to his own sexuality, assuming that he was simply like most men. Contemplating the subject had seemed self-indulgent and disquieting (threaded with the threat of shame, and the fear that he might disappoint the people who cared for him), and so he’d hardly ever done so. He hadn’t really needed to. It had been fine to be just—content, rather than satisfied. 

But now, like this, his own want and need rose to a pitch Shen Qingqiu couldn’t ignore. It blotted out the nebulous, unspoken concerns that typically fermented in him. Like this, it hardly seemed to matter that he was fingering open a gorgeous young man rather than a girl. Was it even gay when it was the protagonist? How could it matter that Binghe was a boy, when he was so lovely? When even the boyish things about him were pretty (when his very boyishness might well have rendered him all the more comely)? Binghe’s cheeks were pink, and his curls lay dashed across the buckwheat-husk pillows Qingqiu preferred to their fancier ceramic alternatives. Binghe’s nipples were tight, plump and dark with arousal. His Adam’s apple bobbed when he whimpered. His muscles tensed when Qingqiu’s fingers fucked up into him, and his fat cock, hard once again, bounced, drooling, against his abdomen. It looked ridiculous against the frame of Binghe tight waist—a waist that made it look as though Binghe was far, far too delicate to endure something so crass as a fuck. 

I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life, aren’t I? Shen Qingqiu thought. This singular, accidental time. When Binghe was like this, for me. 

“Master?” Binghe asked, blinking up at Shen Qingqiu’s thoughtful expression in concern.

Shen Qingqiu shook his head, allowing himself a soft smile. “Plum blossoms occasion wonder, in their season. I was just contemplating what a fine young man you’ve grown into, Binghe.”

Binghe looked delighted by the casual compliment—as though they didn’t own a good mirror.

“Does master think so?” Binghe asked, sounding excited where a more seasoned seductress might have preened and purred.

“You must know it,” Shen Qingqiu huffed, lazily massaging his disciple's inner walls. “Every girl you meet in every village you assist must tell you so.”

Luo Binghe had the cheek to smirk up at him. “They aren’t Shizun. Your opinion, of course, matters more.”

Flatterer. Well, Shen Qingqiu granted, he was closer to Binghe. The admiration of friends must mean more than strangers’ compliments. 

“How does it feel?” he asked, to reset their course.

Luo Binghe’s expression was absolutely dreamy, as though after his first explosive conclusion he was content to get off with the lax leisure of thread being unspooled from a spindle. “Oh Shizun. You could do it to me forever.”

Shen Qingqiu thought he could, too. Binghe was so soft inside, and so reactive—a breathing, quivering thing that met every touch with response. The lush luxury of him was unspeakable. Fucking him slowly, like this, made the hard, hollow warmth in Shen Qingqiu’s stomach swell and swell. Soon his want would be a screaming, starving thing, and Shen Qingqiu would be forced to get himself off just so he could keep attentively playing with Binghe. 

“Shizun, kiss me?” Binghe asked.

They hadn’t yet, because this wasn’t real sex—not like that. Still, Shen Qingqiu thought it was only fair. It was Binghe’s first time; he deserved this much at least. Binghe deserved everything. Shen Qingqiu bent down, the silken fall of his hair pooling on Luo Binghe’s chest, and he pressed their lips together: the touch light, almost chaste. Shen Qingqiu then tried wetting his lips and slipping them against Binghe’s, his slightly-parted mouth ensuring that their breath commingled. He pressed his tongue into Binghe’s gasping mouth, and drew back with a snort when Binghe tried an awkward, desperate bite. 

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Shen Qingqiu advised. “I suspect teeth are a ‘Nascent Soul stage’ sort of technique.” 

Carefully, he licked into Binghe’s mouth, making his own slightly-awkward, second-ever attempt at a kiss. Still too eager, Binghe bucked up into it. Shen Qingqiu soothed him with a hand on his chest, a sibilant hush. When his master tried kissing him while fucking him firmly with his fingers, Binghe outright mewled into Shen Qingqiu’s mouth. 

Luo Binghe drew back just enough to beg for it. “Please, Shizun. Please take me. I’m ready for you, I’m so ready—I have been, for so long, I—” His voice thickened. Shen Qingqiu shushed him, entwining the fingers of his clean left hand with those of Binghe’s right. 

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu soothed, feeling as though he were drowning in fondness. Floating somewhere past his filter, too far out to see the shore. “My own brave boy. Anything you need, sweetheart, always.” He tightened his hand around Binghe’s, giving it a squeeze and meeting his eyes fully. “Tell me if it hurts. You must say.”

Luo Binghe nodded, and waited with baited breath as Shen Qingqiu slicked his own cock and slid into him, pushing slow. 

Luo Binghe gasped. “It hurts,” he said, but in a dazed way. As though the wound of it was a treasure he wanted to wallow in, to curl his whole body around to protect. 

“Good boy,” Shen Qingqiu praised. “Thank you for letting me know.” Just the tip of him rested in Binghe, and he soothed his disciple by stroking his hands along the young man’s stomach, his thighs. When Binghe looked up at him, beseeching, Shen Qingqiu nodded and rocked in, just as slow as he could bear. It was tough going, because Binghe felt so fucking good: a pliant, quivering vice all around him.

“You are so beautiful,” Shen Qingqiu murmured. “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Such a good disciple for me, bearing all this. You’re doing so well.” 

Luo Binghe drunk down the praise with wide-blown, desperate eyes and a trembling mouth. Gentle and painstaking, biting his own lip, Shen Qingqiu pushed all the way in, giving a few testing thrusts that Binghe met with growing enthusiasm. 

“Hold me, like before?” Binghe asked. “Please?” 

Shen Qingqiu considered. It might be difficult for him to thrust from that upright position, with Binghe in his lap once more. But he supposed he was a cultivator, now. And was there really a better use for a cultivator’s increased endurance? Not in Proud Immortal Demon Way, there wasn’t. Not if it was what Binghe wanted. He did just as his disciple suggested.

“Oh,” Binghe said, his breath catching as he felt out the new position, “oh it’s deeper like this. Mm.”

His frank pleasure embarrassed Shen Qingqiu, but more than that, Shen Qingqiu was overwhelmed. Thus far he’d been able to distance himself from the act and his own body by painstakingly caring for Binghe, by keeping his attention on his disciple. Now Binghe was all around him: taking him in, swallowing him up. Shen Qingqiu felt he’d been stupid, or at least naive, to believe the ‘attacking’ partner wasn’t exposed, or vulnerable. He kissed Binghe a little desperately, to pour out the shivering energy shaking through him and to answer his too-potent feeling—just to do something with himself. Binghe pushed his hands into his shizun’s hair, dragging his fingers through the sleek, lustrous mass of it. When Shen Qingqiu drew back for air Binghe greedily presented his neglected chest to Shen Qingqiu’s mouth, wanting to be toyed with as he’d been before and hissing happily when Shen Qingqiu complied. 

Shen Qingqiu pumped up into his disciple, his hands resting at Binghe’s waist to push him down onto his cock. Shen Qingqiu’s head swam, but he was nonetheless aware of his own unpracticed, jerky motion, and tried to establish a rhythm.

“Shizun should go harder,” Binghe said.

Shen Qingqiu released his disciple’s nipple from between his teeth with a lewd, sucking pop.

“Don’t tax yourself. You’re still a novice. You’ll feel this for days as it is.” He moved to adjust Binghe, but Binghe held his master’s arms down.

“Does Shizun promise?” He flexed his thighs to bounce on Shen Qingqiu, drawing out a ragged breath from his teacher. “Let this disciple take care of you, Shizun.”

Shen Qiungqiu was caught between alarm and extreme arousal; Binghe energetically fucking himself on his cock was enough to kill a man. “Surely that’s exhausting for you—” he tried.

Luo Binghe smiled, giddy and sharp as the blade of a knife. “I could go all night, Shizun.” 

He picked up speed, and Shen Qingqiu could only clutch at Binghe’s back, his mouth dropping open as if in surprise. Binghe was hardly silent for a second. Even on this first try, he offered up all the phonographic noises and chatter that must have come naturally character who’d been designed to make people come from written descriptions alone. It was a relentless barrage—and since Shen Qingqiu had been old enough to be interested in sex and to go looking for material, he’d been unwittingly training himself to respond to every word of Binghe’s nonsense. 

“If my chattering bothers you, Shizun, I wish you’d fuck my mouth to help me be respectful,” Binghe babbled.

Who taught Binghe how to talk like that? Where did his precious baby, who didn’t know what ‘dual cultivation’ was last week, learn half these words? How was Luo Binghe allowed?! Shen Qingqiu could only nod and try to fuck him harder from this difficult position: anything to curb Binghe’s being so devastatingly attractive.  

“Shizun is even elegant like this, giving me his cock,” Binghe sighed happily. “Am I tight for you? Shizun’s having me first, after all. I want to be perfect for my shizun. It had to be you, I wanted to give this to you—”

Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu tried to reprimand him, but the word came out bruised and messy. His fingers tightened in the meaty flesh of Luo Binghe’s ass.

“Oh,” Binghe said, dropping his head in the crook of Shen Qingqiu’s neck, “that’s going to leave bruises, Shizun. I’ll think about this whenever I see your marks, or your hands. Do it, do anything you need to me.” He sounded so intoxicated, but he didn’t stop ramming his tender body down on his teacher’s cock for an instant.

Through the open channel, Binghe outright poured his demonic qi into Shen Qingqiu—more than Shen Qingqiu could process, letting it wastefully spill over and heat the air around them. Binghe sucked down Shen Qingqiu’s qi greedily. He took and took, as if he wanted to be crammed full of his master’s very essence. 

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu said, his eyes flying wide, “Oh Binghe, oh fuck—”

Binghe came again in his arms, threadily begging his master to keep going, to come in him, come on, please Shizun, that’s—

Shen Qingqiu pressed his lips to Binghe’s forehead as he crested, a final spike of transferred qi melting his meridians clean and leaving him dizzy. When he could think properly, Shen Qingqiu noticed tears standing in Luo Binghe’s eyes. He lowered his disciple back down to the bed, sliding out of him (despite Binghe’s adorably cross little noise) and lying down beside his disciple to swipe off his tears with his index finger.

“Just overwhelmed?” Shen Qingqiu asked, and Binghe gave a tight nod, wrapping his arms around Shen Qingqiu. 

“You’re all right now?” Binghe asked—though surely he’d felt the cure taking effect, just as Shen Qingqiu had. 

Shen Qingqiu smiled at him, sitting up. “Yes, I am. Thanks to my most precious person.” He tapped the tip of Binghe’s nose with a finger, wondering whether he should go get a washcloth. 

But Binghe’s whole face screwed up at Shen Qingqiu’s words like a withered apple. He looked at risk of some kind of emotion-based qi deviation. 

“Shizun, I love you,” he said, as if it had been punched out of him. “I love you so much.”

Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders eased in fondness, and he shook his head, smiling. “You do me great honour. I could not ask for a better disciple.”

Afterwards, when they’d cleaned themselves up, Shen Qingqiu thought it only appropriate to permit (or perhaps to indulge in) a session of cuddling. He stroked Binghe’s arm while musing. 

“What are you thinking about, Shizun?” Binghe asked, looking up at him. 

“I suppose it wasn’t so bad for you as I feared it might be?”

Luo Binghe shook his head, smiling at Shen Qingqiu as though he’d made a joke. Shen Qingqiu felt reassured. 

“Even if you didn’t take a husband’s role, then, it was nonetheless sound practice for all the ladies you’ll certainly woo and win in the future,” Shen Qingqiu said with a nod to himself, petting Binghe’s hair and drawing his disciple to his chest. Reconciling himself to what must be, without examining his little wounds and exacerbating them in doing so. At the very least, Binghe knew how to kiss now.

Luo Binghe only gave an awkward laugh.

Before unfortunate circumstances had forced he and his shizun to deflower one another, Luo Binghe had been clingy. He certainly grew no less so after the fact. Shen Qingqiu suspected that Binghe felt relieved on account of no longer bearing responsibility for the threat to his master’s health, and closer to him. They were like comrades in battle who’d come through something monumental together and shared a new level of trust! Binghe seemed more confident now that he’d had his first sexual experience, and that was likely why he’d become more physically comfortable with his master even than he had been. He never showed impertinence, but he was always at hand, now, to drape a cloak across Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders against the cool of the evening, or to help his master dress his hair in preparation for the day. He was no longer so blushingly shy about asking permission to show such attentions. 

More frequently than he would have liked, Shen Qingqiu found the ghost of Binghe’s moans ringing in his ears. Shen Qingqiu successfully compartmentalised the memory of the look on Binghe’s face when he came, and of the trembling weight of Binghe’s hands on his shoulders when he rode Shen Qingqiu to exhaustion—just as he had compartmentalised everything he knew about Binghe’s sex life from having been an avid hate-reader of Proud Immortal Demon Way while having to act as a youthful Binghe’s mentor. Nevertheless Shen Qingqiu sometimes now found himself starting and flushing when Binghe called ‘Shizun’, in a voice that was deepening with the passing months. When Binghe’s touch innocently lingered a second too long on his hand as he passed Shen Qingqiu something. When Binghe looked at him with potent admiration in his big, bedroom eyes, and when Shen Qingqiu tossed and turned some nights, restless with a new heat that threatened to grow feverish—an unscratchable itch he’d never noticed before, which now refused to be ignored. 

Perhaps Shen Qingqiu sometimes recalled their dalliance. Perhaps he sometimes felt a touch of wistful sadness that it wouldn’t be repeated. But the fact remained that Binghe was only just an adult. Besides, he had the world before him: a world containing many, many paramours who would doubtless find the private mystery of Luo Binghe’s sweet lassitude after sex very charming indeed. And if Shen Qingqiu borrowed poor, confused Liu Mingyan from Qi Qingqi and sent her on a particularly gross mission to deal with a slime demon on the rampage in pre-emptive vengeance, that was between him and god. 

Speaking of which, when the System finally bothered to turn itself on again it seemed to have given up on the whole idea of Shen Qingqiu’s personally yeeting Luo Binghe: thank fucking Christ. The Endless Abyss plot-line was still on, and he still wasn’t allowed to say a damn thing about it, but the System voiced no objection to Shen Qingqiu’s absolutely loading Luo Binghe down with magically vacuum-packed supplies before the conference, ‘in case he found he needed anything’. Luo Binghe slipped into the rift while fighting Mobeijun (as Shen Qingqiu had it from Airplane himself—and hadn’t that been a surprise). They’d both gone over the edge, but Mobeijun relied on portals rather than a flying sword, and so had used one mid-air to recover himself. At the time poor Binghe had neither to hand, and had been unable to escape.

Shen Qingqiu had known Binghe would be fine. He’d known Binghe would be back, even, in roughly five years’ time. It hadn’t stopped him from bitterly regretting Binghe’s absence. It hadn’t prevented him from wondering whether, even without his own betrayal, Binghe’s term of suffering in the Abyss would harden his dear boy into a strong demonic lord, who no longer needed Shen Qingqiu at all. 

It was something of a shock to everyone when, two years after the disastrous Immortal Alliance conference, Luo Binghe slammed down into the stone courtyard of Qing Jing Peak. He emerged seemingly from nowhere, coated in gore and filth and clutching a sword absolutely reeking with evil energy. The sigil on his forehead shone bright, and the protective, noxious qi flaring around him was visibly demonic. Some of Luo Binghe’s former sect siblings hesitated as he panted there on the ground, not sure whether this was their martial brother returned to them or merely an enemy in his shape. It took the arrival of Shen Qingqiu, who Ning Yingying had immediately run to fetch, to clear up the confusion. He swept in to find Binghe unconscious, and began chiding the onlookers for just standing there.

“Well?” Shen Qingqiu snapped. “Aren’t any of you going to spit out your melon seeds and help a fellow cultivator so clearly in distress? Or haven’t I trained you at all?”

“But he’s—” Ming Fan began, his wide-eyes fixed on the glowing red mark on Luo Binghe’s face.

“Yes, yes,” Shen Qingqiu waved his arm. “I know about all that. Now get me a stretcher from Qian Cao, this instant—we’ll bring your shidi to his own bed to recover.”

And so Shen Qingqiu found himself at Luo Binghe’s bedside, watching him sleep after the results of Mu Qingfang’s examination had been—well, as rosy as could be expected, after years of deprivation. What was Binghe doing, returning so early? Had something gone wrong? Was that even the right way of thinking about it? Surely nothing could go more wrong than Binghe’s being trapped in the Endless Abyss for years, even if it was in line with the original, idiotic plot. Shen Qingqiu took a damp cloth from a bowl of warm water, wrung it out and began to clean Binghe’s face. That seemed as good a place to start as any. 

Binghe was twenty, now, and he’d clearly undergone the requisite changes. He’d grown into himself, really. Shen Qingqiu untied Binghe’s blood-crusted robes to bathe him—something black which Binghe must have obtained in the demonic realms. Looking Binghe over for injuries, Shen Qingqiu was forced to roll his eyes. So that had grown up, too: Binghe had gone from pornographic to ludicrous. If Shen Qingqiu hadn’t had long fingers, forget about so much as wrapping his hand around that load-bearing column. Not that any such prospect was in the offing! 

Shen Qingqiu very chastely continued to bathe his disciple, wondering if maybe he ought to have asked Ning Yingying do this. He hadn’t wanted to leave Binghe, not when he’d just gotten back, but—

A hand grabbed Shen Qingqiu’s wrist, bringing his train of thought to a crashing halt. Binghe looked up at him with wonder in his eyes.

“You’re awake,” Shen Qingqiu said, stupidly. Hardly able to think, with Binghe here.

“I’m home?” Binghe asked, his voice unsteady. Shen Qingqiu nodded. Binghe laughed hysterically, tugging his shizun into a frantic kiss, as sloppy and desperate as his first attempts had been. “I’m home! I did it, I made it!” Binghe continued to babble. “That fucking sword! When I tried to leave the Abyss it ripped me through to the far reaches of the demonic realms, on the other side of the world! I had to take back the sunken library just to learn how to use it, and to get there I had to conquer the river-lands. I passed out after I defeated Thousand-Arm, and then Mobeijun’s people found me and took the stupid sword again. Then I had to fight him, and when I had it back at last—” Binghe looked like he wanted to cry with frustration, just thinking about it. “Oh Shizun, you’d have known what to do from the start!”

Well, he had read those chapters, yes.

Binghe grinned at him then, like the sun coming out, and pressed kisses against his master’s face. “I missed you, Shizun. Oh, I missed you every day.”

Shen Qingqiu caught Binghe’s hands—one of them, anyway. The other dodged, and Binghe used it to drag Shen Qingqiu down onto his own old bed with him. 

“It sounds as though you’ve grounds for enthusiasm,” Shen Qingqiu tried, aware that his own expression must be stupid with fondness, “but hadn’t you better let me go?”

Luo Binghe shook his head, still grinning. “No, Shizun. Never again.” He drew Shen Qingqiu flush against him, uncaring of the ungainly way this pulled their robes and even of his own, hard-worn condition. “I thought I could wait until I was older to speak to you, but I paid for that overconfidence dearly. Shizun, I gave myself to you, the night we made love. Indeed, I’d done it years before. I am only waiting to receive your pledge in turn.”

Shen Qingqiu looked at Luo Binghe, stunned. His eyes went wide; his immortal composure shattered like a dropped plate.

The look Binghe gave him was tender. “I’ll wait another three years, another ten, another hundred if you’re not ready to discuss this yet. I’ll wait for you forever, if I have to. So long as I can wait at your side.”

“That’s—” Shen Qingqiu tried to get up, and found—oh, hello—that Binghe had evidently been doing bicep curls with the corpses of his Abyssal foes, or something. “That’s ridiculous,” Shen Qingqiu spat, feeling ridiculous himself, pinned on top of a limpet-clinging Luo Binghe. “You’re very young, and—and didn’t you meet some powerful demonesses in the Abyss?” Binghe should have a queue of wives-in-waiting, by now! Ning Yingying came first, yes, but then he—he

“I did meet some very powerful demonesses,” Binghe admitted. “I’m their sovereign now, actually.” 

Shen Qingqiu swallowed, feeling tears prick his eyes. Binghe’s homecoming had made the boundaries of him thin. He felt like a glass filled to the lip with sentiment, that would spill over if so much as tapped. Nothing about this felt funny, and he resented Binghe’s attempt at levity. He hated that Binghe was half-dressed, and that he was stuck having this awful conversation as though the whole thing was a farce. He hated experiencing the profoundest emotions of his life in this wankfest of a world. 

Shen Qingqiu jackknifed his body to the side, and Binghe, sensing the real energy in the motion, let him go. Let Shen Qingqiu raise himself to a sitting position, and look at the door to the house’s main room rather than his disciple. 

“You’re not for me, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu said, flattening his wavering tone. “You have always had so much potential. I saw that from the moment I first read your name. It’d be cruel of me to curb it. To demand that a young man who should be my successor, at the very least, what—keep me company?” 

Shen Qingqiu sneered. It was an ugly expression which came easily to Shen Jiu’s face. His muscles knew the old, familiar pull of it well enough. It was markedly free of pity for anyone, its wearer included. 

“Your heritage only made your destiny more obvious. I have been fortunate to play a small part in that destiny, and should be honoured by my disciple’s successes.”

“You feel you should be,” Binghe said, observing his master closely and testing the weight of words that might have been said out of evasion, to placate an unwanted suitor. Words that skirted the edges of Binghe’s own old, profound fears. Of the dismissal he still dreaded, under his elation and his battle-won bravado. “You aren’t.”

And what could Shen Qingqiu say to that? ‘No, Binghe, mocking my own attachment to you has never made it less shamefully potent. Not thinking about impossible things can smother desire, but seems unable to kill it. Constantly, forcibly resigning yourself to what is and what must be feels like digging your nails into a bruise. And so you make stupid, awkward jokes about the worries that won’t stop swimming up from the place where you tried to drown them. And you just go on living like that.’ 

“Boys grow up,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Stories end. Our time together was limited.” Shen Qingqiu swallowed. “I knew that from the start. You speak of pledges, but you owe me nothing. If there was ever a debt between us, you have paid it.”

Shen Qingqiu flinched when Binghe, behind him and unseen, brought Shen Qingqiu’s knuckles to his lips and kissed them.

“I owe you,” Binghe corrected him, “all my joy. My life, and all the value of it. Matters between us can never be resolved and put aside.” 

Shen Qingqiu shut his eyes.

Luo Binghe pressed on. “You must know that the thought of you, and of our marriage bed, sustained me through almost a thousand wretched nights. Shizun, I have lived on the memory and the promise of you.”

 “That’s fine,” Shen Qingqiu gritted out, “as a rough consolation. For a first love, it will serve. But if you make promises you feel bound to uphold, you’ll grow to resent them, and then me. And I couldn’t bear that. Binghe, I couldn’t—”

He was forced to silence when Binghe pulled him around, into a frantic kiss that had Shen Qingqiu bracing his palms against Luo Binghe’s exposed chest.

“You’re my soul,” Binghe gasped into his mouth when their lips parted. “In this, in everything—you’ve made me so much better.” No independence from Shen Qingqiu could render Luo Binghe stronger, or happier. He’d ample and recent experience to prove it. Luo Binghe felt most comfortable and assured in his body not in combat, which came easily to him, but in Shen Qingqiu’s company. Their affinity came easier still. Whatever misunderstandings separated them could not erase Binghe’s foundational assurance that Shen Qingqiu was his home. The core, animal rightness of holding him. The light catch-and-clasp of their interlocking words. 

“Do you really think I could know a greater love?” Binghe demanded. “That I could have some more fulfilling destiny?” Luo Binghe laid the lightest kiss he could stand to on his master’s lips, holding Shen Qingqiu’s gaze with his own. “Shizun, the man I want to be belongs to you alone.”

Feebly—trying to recover himself, or to adjust—Shen Qingqiu tried rolling his eyes. Binghe knew that his shizun often found himself unable to face the consuming strength of his emotions head-on. Shen Qingqiu built walls to help him bear the weight of his heart, tucking his sentiments away behind fan-leaves ribbed with spiny, sharp embarrassment. But Binghe knew, by now, how to read a devotion too profound to be articulated by all the poetry in Qing Jing’s scrolls in his shizun’s silence. 

“I suppose next you’re going to try tempting me with a look at that sunken library.” Shen Qingqiu had to admit it wouldn’t have been a bad strategy. He knew himself. He would absolutely put out for lore. 

Luo Binghe smiled sweetly at him. “Naturally, I’ve already told the vassals I mentioned that the library belongs to my Empress.”

Nope! Not unpacking how any of that made him feel! He had felt enough things today, thank you!

“They’re calling you ‘Junshang’ already?” Shen Qingqiu asked, incredulous. “Inside two years? Where did you even find the time?

“Shizun,” Binghe coaxed, “beloved of my heart. You know I would love nothing better than to tell you every adventure I had—tomorrow. After I’ve bathed, and eaten real human food, and hopefully fallen asleep with your cock in my mouth.”

“Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu shouted, smacking Binghe’s chest hard despite his best intentions, despite knowing Binghe was injured. Shen Qingqiu then felt a surge of guilt. He considered fretting, but his conscience was wiped clean by Binghe’s just smirking at him as he absorbed the blow. Smirking! Like he was the sort of asshole who smirked, now! His bun would never!

Shen Qingqiu then considered the increasingly tactile nature of Binghe’s confidence, in Binghe’s last months as his personal disciple. Well. His bun would hardly ever. 

“Or mine buried in you,” Luo Binghe offered instead, with dreamy abstraction—like a man who wasn’t currently crusted in ‘oh don’t worry, it’s not my blood.’ 

“I’ve given every iteration our coupling a great deal of thought, to be honest. But that first one you really have to try, Shizun. If it’s even half as good as it was for me, I don’t want you to miss out—”

Shen Qingqiu managed to sigil-summon his closed fan to his hand with a finger, only to use it to smack Binghe’s check while emphasising the individual syllables of his name. 

“Shizun,” Binghe cooed in answer, giving his master a hard cuddle that crushed the fan between them. 

“What am I to do with you?” Shen Qingqiu sighed, collapsing on Binghe’s chest. 

Binghe happily buried his hand in the smooth fall of his shizun’s hair. “As I said, I’ve several thoughts.” 

He’d noticed, of course, that Shen Qingqiu had never directly rejected his proposal. With Shen Qingqiu, that was as good as a yes—it was just a matter of his getting ‘round to articulating his answer. Luo Binghe couldn’t have been happier—except, of course, if they were to proceed directly to his ‘bath, food, cock for Binghe’ plan, which, though simple, Binghe felt had a certain fundamental elegance to it. And either Luo Binghe was very good at getting what he wanted from people—Shen Qingqiu in particular—or Shen Qingqiu was ludicrously easy for him. Luo Binghe was eager to undertake a thorough investigation to determine the exact state of affairs.