Fox demons were liars. Untrustworthy monsters that'd steal from you with illusions--anything they could get you to part with. And the man who told stories under the old tree in the middle of town insisted they could convince you to part with everything if given the chance.
Luo Binghe was a child who had nothing for anyone to covet. He had a jade pendant his foster mother left him but it wasn't worth anything except to him. Certainly, nothing a fox demon would want to cheat him out of.
He stared from the alley he was hiding under, the awning from the roof keeping the rain off his head, at the fox huddled between the roots of a tree on the other side of the street.
It was curled around itself, whimpering pathetically every time there was a flash of lightning and again when the crash of thunder followed as if the sound caught it by surprise every time.
Luo Binghe had found this spot first so he'd seen the eight tails on the fox when it ducked into its hiding spot.
Fox demons couldn't be trusted...or so everyone said. But it wasn't a fox demon who had left all the bruises on his body, hadn't been the one who had thrown clumps of dirt at him and called him a bastard, and told him to leave and never come back.
Another flash and the creature curled against itself more tightly, trembling all over.
He thought: truly, no one (and nothing) was more pitiful than when they had no one else in the world to rely on.
Shen Yuan had all the comforts he needed in his little hut on the mountain so he didn't often leave it. The world wasn't kind to fox spirits mostly.
And it was all because of a misunderstanding perpetuated by the masses.
There was a difference between a fox demon who preyed on mortals and those weaker than them to achieve their powers and a fox spirit (like him) who spent centuries cultivating to reach a point where he could do all sorts of cool things like take on human form and cast illusions and outlive the usual lifespan of a regular fox! But does anyone bother to actually check? Of course not!
He could concede that it was better to be safe than sorry but at the same time...no one appreciated having an exorcist or a priest called on them just because they happen to have more than the acceptable amount of tails! And even if the common person can't be bothered to know the difference between a demons and a spirit there was no excuse why a cultivator shouldn't! If it wasn't just plain stupidity he'd like to see their teachers! Their parents! Whoever it was that raised them into the sort of thugs who'd go after an innocent, law abiding spirit and try to exorcise him like he's a demon!
Of course, for a fox spirit of his age, taking on a completely human form or that of a one-tailed absolutely ordinary fox was no big deal...but it still took some effort!
So he was more than happy to just stay on his peak, in his bamboo grove. He had friends there whom he could visit if he ever wanted company and, in return, his friends knew where to find him.
But there was one thing he couldn't get without leaving his peak: new books. And when your lifespan could be measured in centuries having new reading material every now and again was important to continued happiness. He'd explained this to Liu Qingge in an effort to convince his fellow immortal that his occasional trips to human towns weren't actually frivolous. (He didn't succeed but Liu Qingge wasn't a man who had an interest in literature and was stubborn as bears were wont to be.)
It was fine. Disguising himself was easy enough and he could be in and out of the nearest book store before the sun had even set.
Except the sky had turned dark before the sun could make its way West. A storm came and he'd convinced himself it was fine. It was too early in the year for thunderstorms!
The first rumble of thunder followed on the heels of that thought like it was mocking his naivety and he had two seconds to swear emphatically before the rain began to pour down and the first flash of lightning filled his head with a fear that crowded out any rational thought.
There was an abandoned shrine nearby that Luo Binghe sometimes slept in, but hadn't planned to sleep in for another few days (he made it a habit to rotate where he selpt in a way that the village boys that liked tormenting him couldn't predict). But it had a roof that didn't leak and it was large enough that if the fox didn't want to be near him it'd have room to be by itself.
But even though they were both wet, the fox wouldn't move away from him, acted like it was trying to burrow into Luo Binghe's robes at one point.
He pressed a hand to its back, petting it. "You're safe. I won't let anything hurt you."
Powerless though he may be...even he could do this much.
He took them both farther into the temple, away from the open doors and sat near the altar. It was awkward, trying to reach for the half-eaten, stale mantou he kept in his robes with a fox clinging to him but he managed it in the end. It was hard enough that he could only break it in half with some difficulty. The fox was curled at his side now and Luo Binghe offered it half of all the food he had. Neither of them would be full from this, but at least they wouldn't starve.
"You should eat." He said, settling his free hand on the fox's head, letting his fingers pet at the spot between its ears as it laid its head on his lap.
When the storm outside calmed, so did the one in Shen Yuan's heart.
He sat on his haunches and frowned at the child sleeping on the ground, shivering in wet clothes. He touched a paw to the child's clothes and it warmed, then steamed gently until dried.
Then Shen Yuan went back to staring.
The child was far too thin. This child, a waif who looked like a strong breeze might be able to push him over had offered Shen Yuan half a stale mantou, possibly the only food he had. At the time, Shen Yuan's mind had been too clouded by fear to think but...
...this child. Really. What was he thinking? Even if he were a normal fox he could find his own food perfectly fine.
His tails thumped against the ground as he considered his options.
Food was...outside his ability to create. But perhaps he could buy the child something? It wouldn't be much...but he could do better than some stale offerings.
He was still considering his options when his ears twitched, catching some sounds from outside the shrine doors.
"Are you sure he's here?"
"Yes! Someone saw him run this way yesterday--"
Animals had sharper senses than humans...a spirit like Shen Yuan even more so. And he had the benefit of centuries of wisdom to go with it.
And here is what he knows:
Where he could see, Luo Binghe was covered in bruises and Shen Yuan suspected there were more.
The children did not sound concerned. They sounded like a pack of scavengers that had found a corpse they could pick at without fear.
They smelled like danger and something that made the animal instincts in Shen Yuan bristle.
But most importantly of all:
Luo Binghe had offered him the only food he had and given him shelter and kindness when he would be well within his rights to leave Shen Yuan to fend for himself.
And Shen Yuan was an immortal fox spirit who absolutely had the power to make the lives of these children a nightmare but will, instead, content himself with scaring them off so they never dream of coming after Luo Binghe again.
After all, fox spirits were masters of illusions and tricksters. And they had long memories.
When Luo Binghe woke up, the shrine was peaceful.
The fox was gone. And, when he sat up, his body didn't ache because of old bruises. He looked at his hands in wonder, pulled back his sleeve to see all the bruises had faded as if they were well on their way to disappearing.
There was a package beside him, wrapped in cloth and was warm to the touch. He peeled back the layers and found inside it a modest meal of simple foods that he'd learn later, were meant to be easy on a stomach used to being empty.
Shen Yuan couldn't get that boy out of his mind.
Even if Shen Yuan hadn't been in any real danger, he could still appreciate his kindness. To leave a child like that on the streets, living the sort of life where he got beaten up and went hungry...
It didn't sit well with him.
Shang Qinghua, who had listened to the whole thing as Shen Yuan debated whether to return to Qing Jing Peak or stay here longer, said, "It's best not to get involved with mortals." But then, Shang Qinghua wasn't simply an immortal like Shen Yuan but a minion of the King of the Underworld, Mobei Jun. His perspective was different.
Shen Yuan tapped his fan against his palm. "Perhaps I can find him an apprenticeship. Those usually offer food and shelter at least. And he can learn something useful, besides."
His companion and friend (his only outside of Cang Qiong Mountain) made a vague sound of interest as if to say, yes keep going I'm actually listening instead of thinking about my paperwork even though I always complain about having to do it. "What was the child's name again?"
"The brats who were bullying him called him Luo Binghe, I think?"
Shang Qinghua was someone who moved and muttered without pause. So when Shen Yuan couldn't catch a gesturing hand from his peripheral vision or hear any sound it was very unnerving.
Being someone who worked for the underworld, he did not smell the way creatures of the mortal realm did, so it was always a bit difficult to pick out any specific tells.
Then again, Shang Qinghua's face was an open book so why even bother with anything like that when Shen Yuan could read the horror on his face.
"What did you do?" He asked, because Shang Qinghua was one of the many involved with filling out the details of the Book of Three Lives and had actual power over some of the relationships of the living.
"Nothing!" He shouted, jumping up to hold his hands out. "I totally wasn't involved in writing out some of the particulars of his current life! And if I did," He added with a squeak when Shen Yuan only glared at him, "it wouldn't involve a marriage to someone where they ruin each other's lives to pay off some debts they owed each other from a previous life!" Then, having seemed to realize everything he just said, he threw himself to the ground, "Please don't hurt me!"
Shen Yuan took a deep breath and ignored Shang Qinghua's babble about karma and debts and credits and how he meant to make it so both souls could clear off everything in one go.
The Book of Three Lives, the real one, was a lot more detailed than the ones the humans passed around amongst themselves. But it was still just a guideline, a loose plan that mentioned when or where two souls were meant to meet in life and a general idea of where they will end up.
A daughter could be born to a father but it didn't mean the relationship would be good or bad. That depended on the people themselves.
His fan snapped open and the sound made Shang Qinghua's mouth do the same but in the opposite direction.
"Tell me everything."
The day an immortal cultivator arrived, asking to see every boy around the age of twelve in order to choose a disciple, the entire town was in an uproar.
After all, who didn't want to be able to say their son was chosen to become a cultivator? That they may one day achieve immortality?
What parent wouldn't want that?
Even Luo Binghe was caught up in the excitement of it all, even if he didn't think he'd be chosen. He joined the crowd anyway, to gawk at the elegant man who sat at the bench the local storyteller normally occupied.
Luo Binghe thought, he'd never forget the sight. A lofty immortal beauty, sitting under the tree as its leaves fell, drifting in the wind, their red-orange colours a contrast against the man's soft green robes. The sword at his belt was white and clearly different from the simple weapons he had seen in the past.
The way he'd turned his head, the gaze above the fan finding Luo Binghe's unerringly--as if prompted by fate.
Luo Binghe's breath caught in his throat when the paper fan snapped shut and the immortal cultivator walked up to him, lifting his chin with his fan.
"What is your name, child?"
"It's Luo Binghe, immortal master."
The man let out a thoughtful hum. Luo Binghe didn't breathe for a moment. There was a thought in his head the moment their eyes had met, one he knew he shouldn't entertain for even a second because it was impossible.
And yet...his heart raced from it, every beat of it pushing the thought out until he had to bite his lip and hold his breath to keep from saying it out loud.
The fan snapped open again and the man nodded. "You will do." The words were not dismissive, not with the way the man nodded in approval. It sounded and looked like acceptance and it quieted the words burning in Luo Binghe, left him feeling giddy and grateful and made tears sting his eyes. "From today onwards, you are my disciple and I am your teacher."
"Yes." Luo Binghe said, as if he had been asked a question, dropping to his knees.
Foxes were intelligent. They were clever seducers and liars. Shen Yuan had been told that he was a terrible fox and, in fact, some of his friends have said that he seemed more like a cat than a fox.
Which was why he'd neglected to come up with a fake name until someone asked and he had a moment of internal panic while, outwardly, he maintained the look of a lofty immortal above such things as names or introductions.
Finally, after casting a brief look at the clear sky and the falling autumn leaves, he had answered, "Shen Qingqiu." Before snapping his fan open to hide his face as he privately thought it was a good thing they were outdoors. He would have hated to have accidentally named himself after a wood ceiling or a half-full cup of tea.
He'd never be able to live that down!
Still, while everything was going very well, Shen Yuan can't help but think...isn't it going too well? Why were these people so eager to give up their children to be trained by a random cultivator who just came to town? Weren't they worried about which sect he trained at? Where he was taking their child? What if he were a human trafficker? What if he were a demon? They didn't even know if he really was planning to teach them or boil them in oil!!
Seriously, why was no one asking any questions!?
He had to keep all that in. After all, it was...good, right? Luo Binghe was an orphan so no one would have questioned it if he just took him, but this was better. This way, should Luo Binghe ever choose to return the population would have a good impression of him!
(He still kind of wanted to shout at some people for being irresponsible with their children though.)
"Shizun." Shen Yuan--no. For the time being he was Shen Qingqiu a human immortal cultivator who was looking for a new disciple. Yes. It was important to get into character!
So...Shen Qingqiu turned to his newest (only, really) student. Luo Binghe was still too small and too thin, but it was nothing regular meals couldn't fix. But with some new clothes (commissioned with money he'd borrowed from Yue Qingyuan) he looked much better. Shen Qingqiu nodded at him and pretended not to see the way the boy's eyes were red-rimmed, or the light dusting of dirt near his knees.
The child, bless this white lotus, had had one thing he wanted taken care of before he left.
"My mother...I didn't have the money to give her a proper burial. If Shizun would be willing--"
AS IF HE COULD HAVE DENIED SUCH A REQUEST! So he'd waved the child off and told him to take care of all his affairs. That he'd wait.
The town was surprisingly willing to help him now that they knew he was to become the student of an immortal cultivator (that, again! No one knew the origins of!!). A proper headstone was prepared in short order, to replace the large rock Luo Binghe had found to mark the spot.
The closest Shen Qingqiu had gotten to losing his composure that day was learning that, illiterate though he was, Luo Binghe knew the shape of the characters of his foster mother's name.
This child...honestly. Shen Qingqiu was glad he decided not to leave him to his own devices.
It took two days for everything to be prepared for their departure and Shen Qingqiu was more than ready to leave. He told Luo Binghe to visit his foster mother's grave one last time before they left. After all, they may not be back for a while.
(And some of the adults were still asking if he'd take just one more child. Again: why are they so okay with him taking their children? If more children kidnapping demons presented themselves as elegant immortal cultivators would they have an easier time kidnapping children!?)
They travel in a carriage that was understated but very fine. Though, to be honest, it could be a cart pulled by an ox and it would still be finer than anything Luo Binghe had ridden in.
He rode alongside his new master whom he didn't know much about besides that he was a cultivator, that his name was Shen Qingqiu and that he'd been willing to pay for new clothes, and everything he needed to make his mother's gravesite something a well-off son would want for their mother.
But still, it took him all this time to finally work up the nerve to say, "Shizun...there was one more thing." He watched the man turn around, his fan held poised over his mouth, still closed. His new master was a patient man, waiting for him to speak without rushing him. Luo Binghe bit his lip, looked to the side, towards the forest before turning back to him. "A few days before Shizun came, this disciple had met a demon fox." His master's eyes narrowed and Luo Binghe thought...he wasn't sure what to think.
He was thankful for his master for everything but he'd seen so much of himself in that demon fox, all alone and scared in the storm.
What would he do if his master rejected it? (What would he do if his master rejected him?)
"Binghe is worried for the fox?" He found he couldn't read the expression on his new master's face.
He looked down.
"It wasn't hurting anyone! I doubt it would have come into town if it...if it weren't desperate. If it comes back into town and someone else finds it..."
He knew what happened to demons that wander into human settlements.
There was a sound from his new master. Luo Binghe looked up in time to the fan snapping open, hiding half of his face. But there is a smile in his eyes that made Luo Binghe's heart stutter. "Binghe doesn't need to worry. The fox spirit you speak of is safe. In fact, it had been because of that spirit that this master had come to find you."
"You..." There's a lump in his throat that he had to swallow. "Shizun...Shizun came...for me?" The idea of it, the simple thought that someone wanted him...
It was overwhelming.
"Yes." He said like he hadn't just turned Luo Binghe's world upside down. Then he reached out to put a hand on his. "Binghe has a kind heart. That is something commendable and precious."
"Shizun..." He was close to tears and he should be embarrassed about it but he wasn't being reprimanded for it. Instead, his Shizun patted him on his head again before withdrawing his hand.
"Now. The first lesson this teacher will give is one on the difference between demons and spirits."
Luo Binghe ducked his head. "This disciple will humbly receive Shizun's teachings."
Shen Qingqiu explained about the difference between spirits and demons as they traveled...then went on to explain about ghosts as well. To Shen Qingqiu's delight, Luo Binghe was an attentive student.
They continued on like that for a few days, with Luo Binghe asking questions and Shen Qingqiu answering them. They stayed at inns where possible. When they were out of the carriage he began to teach Luo Binghe his letters.
After ten days of travel they arrive at a humble estate. One that, even now, was abandoned and broken down. But, like the dusty cart he'd picked up outside of the village Luo Binghe lived in, a small illusion made it beautiful and new looking.
Shen Qingqiu thought, he'd need to actually fix it up at some point. Acquire an actual carriage too. The problem being all of it would have to look exactly like the illusion he'd created or his new student would probably notice. What a pain.
But illusions could only do so much! It won't keep the cold out for one and spring doesn't come after autumn! While Binghe would never notice the cold -- not until his cultivation reached a point where he could break through illusions -- it doesn't mean his body won't suffer the effects! He can't let the child catch his death of cold while under his care!
Besides...a broken down estate made to look hospitable by illusions in the middle of nowhere is just inviting trouble! If a travelling cultivator were to pass by and notice it they'd definitely jump to the conclusion that this was the sort of establishment that lures in mortal travellers to eat them! Or worse!
And he didn't need that kind of trouble while he's trying to raise a child! Absolutely not!
So while Luo Binghe was properly awed by the estate, Shen Qingqiu was already thinking about when he can find time to get people in to do work and whether or not he can ask Yue Qingyuan for more money. (It wasn't that he didn't have any of his own! But he left home so seldomly and always to buy small amounts of books. That meant he could get away with paying with money that wasn't money so much as they were antiques that could easily buy up a town or two. Since what he used was worth more than the books no one asked any questions.
But that was when his address was a little hut on the peak of a mountain no one could get to or knew about, really.)
"This is Shizun's home?" Binghe's voice snapped him out of his thoughts of finances.
"En." He snapped his fan open and walked towards the house...and paused when his student didn't immediately follow. He looked back with a puzzled frown...which Binghe met with his own questioning look.
"Shizun...will someone come to get the horses?"
...ah, right. The horses pulling the carriage. The horses which weren't...actually horses at all but creatures he made from clay and animated. But he couldn't just say that.
Though that begged the question: what...did people do with horses?
Having never owned a horse before in his life or known anyone who owned a horse, he was honestly at a loss. "Binghe doesn't need to worry about it. This teacher will take care of it later." He'd probably have to get rid of them. And the carriage too probably. Oh well.
But, if anything Binghe seemed aghast. "Shizun will take care of it himself?" What was with that reaction? Was that...bad? Did Binghe doubt his ability to deal with a couple of horses? Before he could ask about it though, Binghe clarified. "Does Shizun not have any servants or...or other disciples who can help?"
Shen Qingqiu looked between Luo Binghe and then to the estate and back. The estate wasn't as big as some of the ones he'd seen in human settlements. It was bigger than his own home on his peak, but it was...modest enough. Manageable even if it were just the two of them without any servants, he thought.
"There are no servants. And Binghe is the first disciple this teacher has taken on." He almost asked, "Does that bother you?" He hadn't expected the lack of servants would be a problem. After all, Luo Binghe wasn't a pampered child from an affluent household. And yet he seemed shocked and, dare he say, upset at the prospect of living without servants.
And then his eyes were damp when Shen Qingqiu said he had no other disciples and he really, really didn't know what to make of that reaction.
"Then...then as Shizun's only disciple, I will take care of the horses!" With that being said, he walked over to the the reins of the horses before Shen Qingqiu could tell him, no really, don't bother. I'm not even sure we have anywhere to put them. "And!" He added, clutching the reins tightly like he was daring someone to make him let go. "And, this disciple will also serve as Shizun's servant from now on!"
Shen Qingqiu was quiet for a moment. Long enough that Luo Binghe started shuffling and he could smell the worry off him.
Why is this child worried? Shen Qingqiu should be the one worrying here! Their living situation was suspicious enough, but if a cultivator found them living here and a child he'd supposedly taken from a village to teach and ended up making into his servant? Forget about luring in travellers! He'd be mistaken for a kidnapper! At that point, he wouldn't be able to clear things up even if he dumped water on it and scrubbed as hard as he could!
He cleared his throat, snapped the fan shut and rapped Luo Binghe on the head with it. "Don't be ridiculous. This teacher didn't bring Binghe here to be a servant. You only need to concern yourself with your lessons."
He seemed injured (not literally! He's not a child abuser!) at the reprimand, but then he lifts his chin in defiance. "This disciple can do both!" He assured. "I promise I will work hard at my studies while also fulfilling my duties as Shizun's servant!"
Don't say it like that's already your job! Who decided it!? There are no servants because we don't need any!
"Binghe..." was the beginning of a reprimand that Luo Binghe quickly cut off.
"Shizun! Please allow this disciple to do this for you!"
He looked so determined...when he looked it like that, it was difficult to say no! Or rather, it felt like he there was no room for him to disagree!
Shen Qingqiu sighed, then snapped the fan back open. "Fine. But if it becomes too much, Binghe will prioritize his learning!" Then added, "But leave the horses. They're not real so they do not need tending to." Because they really had no stables in which to put them!
He explained to a bright-eyed Luo Binghe how he'd made the horses the way they were and he figured, when it inevitably becomes overwhelming, the child would have to back down on this whole servant nonsense.
Luo Binghe doesn't back down on it.
He was absolutely determined to complete all the duties of taking care of Shizun to the highest standard.
For a man like his Shizun to take care of everything in his home...that was simply unacceptable!
Though...the home they found themselves in was spotless, the grounds well-kept. Which, really, just further proved to Luo Binghe that his Shizun was nothing less than amazing. To think, such a person had chosen Luo Binghe to be his only disciple (to be chosen at all)...
Luo Binghe swore to himself, he wouldn't give his Shizun any reason to regret choosing him.
Besides, despite his Shizun's misgivings, Luo Binghe enjoyed taking care of things--enjoyed making himself useful (like he were necessary, a part of the home that couldn't be cut away from it).
Cooking was something he especially enjoyed.
He hadn't been able to that first day, because his Shizun insisted they go out for the day, to eat out and celebrate their new life together...and he was ashamed to say they had been delayed because Luo Binghe had had to take a moment to cry about it.
No one since his foster mother had passed away had celebrated having him in their lives. He had been a street urchin, an orphan, something filthy to be shoved away and stepped on. To go from that to...this. A hand on each shoulder, firm but gentle, guiding him away from the kitchen back to the carriage. A voice saying Binghe can begin cooking tomorrow. For today, he will enjoy himself to the fullest.
It was too much and though he knew he was too old for tears, they came anyway, as if the feelings inside him couldn't be contained and needed to flow out of him, leaving wet tracks down his cheeks.
(And, the more they feel the more Luo Binghe wanted to stay. To dig his heels in until, like a great tree, the roots he lays down could not be removed even after death.)
After that, he'd cooked for his Shizun every day and it was his favourite of all his self-assigned duties just for the pleasure of watching Shizun eat, the way he'd be smiling even before he'd even taken his first bite, as if even the aroma of the food was pleasure itself.
But then, could he dislike anything that ended in Shizun turning that smile on him and say, Binghe is truly talented? He was too weak to deny that part of himself.
Shen Qingqiu spent the remaining days of autumn alternating between finding new excuses to shepherd Luo Binghe out of the estate long enough to get someone in to fix up some part of the estate and actually teaching him. And crying internally about how his brilliant student was just too stubborn!
The kitchen had been a priority because while it looked like a fine kitchen the roof was half caved in. The pantry had been filled with readily edible rations because he wasn't an idiot but cooking, which his disciple had been determined to do was impossible because the stove was in three pieces and the only pot had a hole.
He'd convinced a bunch of local spirits to help on short notice and it was just as well that Binghe hadn't made his way into the kitchen because it definitely didn't look like the illusion he'd created.
But, like the kitchen, Luo Binghe's determination to do household chores forced Shen Qingqiu to speed up his plan to fix up the place. It wouldn't be long before it was noticed that the place was always spotless no matter what happened.
That and he never was sure whether to laugh or cry whenever he saw Luo Binghe sweeping the courtyard.
Because the reality was, underneath the illusion, the grounds were a wreck that no amount of sweeping will help!
If someone didn't know better they'd think this was some creative form of torture! Like using an illusion to trick someone into eating rotten meat. Except instead Luo Binghe was cleaning a home that would never be clean!
That meant weekly excursions to the nearest town at first. Which Shen Qingqiu used as a time to properly spoil his new disciple. It was the least he could do since Binghe seemed determined to spoil him with delicious food and by doing all the chores so that Shen Qingqiu barely needed to lift a single finger.
(It became less of a necessity once Binghe was old enough to go out on night hunts but somehow, Shen Qingqiu never quite stopped those weekly excursions. Not even when the estate was properly finished.)
Luo Binghe had always been ambivalent about the passing of seasons, but if he had to organize them based on something nebulous such as 'like' or 'dislike' then, he definitely disliked winter the most.
There was something about the stillness of it, the pureness of the white snow that made the silence in his life seem more terrible somehow.
And he was always cold.
But that was before. Winters weren't the same anymore.
He was practising outside. Snow was hard to move in, but he wouldn't always be fighting in good weather. His breath came out in white clouds as he moved through some basic exercises. After a year under his Shizun's tutelage, these were movements his body could complete even in sleep, as familiar as walking at this point.
There was a sigh from behind him and the familiar snap of closing fan that had him turning around. Luo Binghe smiled, sheathed his sword then bowed.
"Shizun." Was as respectful as ever.
In response, his Shizun huffed before walking over. He lightly tapped him over the head with his closed fan, before tucking it away at his belt.
"Binghe." Was the beginning of a reprimand as Shen Qingqiu reached out to take his hands between his. "You forgot your gloves again?"
He did not. They were sitting on the table in his room, the same place he'd left them every time he'd gone outside.
Luo Binghe ducked his head. "It slipped this disciple's mind."
His Shizun sighed. Then he peeled off his own gloves to rub some warmth back into Luo Binghe's and suddenly, despite how often this happened, he couldn't help the way his face warmed and his heart rate sped up.
"Really, Binghe. It's not like you to be so forgetful." He said, and this close, Binghe could almost count the snowflakes in his hair. "...aren't you cold?" He murmured as he moved his hands to rub at Binghe's fingers.
It was fine though. Even though he wanted to impress his Shizun, being able to feel his concern like this, to have their hands touching, bare skin on bare skin--
Luo Binghe shook his head. "It's not cold." When his Shizun looked away from their hands to frown at him instead, he was almost tempted to close his own fingers around his Shizun's. Their eyes met and the silence of winter that had been so cold and unfeeling in the past suddenly seemed private and secretive. Like a moment stolen from time. "It's warm." He said.
Shen Qingqiu disliked early spring.
Despite being an immortal fox spirit, the 'fox' part of that manifested itself in ways that cannot be avoided. Part of that was instinctual. Like wanting to seek shelter someplace dark and underground when he felt threatened.
Or having a winter coat grow in in his other form--his original one, that shed when the weather started turning warm.
A lot. In huge clumps.
Back home, he'd spend this time as a fox, allowing himself to just...shed outdoors. He knows it doesn't fit with the image of an elegant beautiful fox spirit! He gets it! If anyone knew he just hung out outside and let himself shed red fur all over the place, those people's dreams would be destroyed. But he wanted to minimize the amount of cleaning he had to do! And he felt too warm until a good amount of his winter coat was gone so being outside, especially if there was a breeze was best!
Being in a human form, even his second most natural one where he retained his tails and fox ears wasn't any better because even though it left less of a mess the shed also left him feeling...itchy. Really, really itchy. And it was an itch that seemed to exist just under his skin that was just awful.
And now, with Binghe here, Shen Qingqiu couldn't just go out to lounge around as an eight tailed fox! Nor could he sit outside as anything other than a completely normal looking human!
He hadn't accounted for this torture when he planned this so he's had to simply make do with rolling around his floors at night whining quietly to himself so he wouldn't wake up Binghe. And then he'd have to clean up the clumps of red fur in the morning, toss them into the fire to get rid of the evidence.
Shen Qingqiu laid his head on his paws, his eight tails swishing behind him in annoyance. Seriously contemplating leaving the house and running around in the surrounding forest. Maybe rub himself up against a tree or something. Surely, if he left behind a letter, Binghe wouldn't panic if he didn't return in time, right?
He whined, low in his throat a sound that was entirely not human. Yet...if he got caught like this by someone outside that'd be a problem, wouldn't it?
Shen Qingqiu considered his dilemma, weighed his options before he sighed with a a sort of long suffering that was more human than fox and stood...and stood again, this time onto two legs, his body flowing into another shape--one with a human-like silhouette but with the shadow of tails, before he finally settled on the form he'd been taking around this estate.
The full change happened the same way an inhale became an exhale, a seamless transition that could be measured in heartbeats. The only awkward thing at the moment was that insufferable itch.
He grabbed the fan off the table and pressed it to his lips. There was no helping it. He couldn't be comfortable until his shed was done but he didn't need to suffer being stuck in this stuffy room.
Absentmindedly, he snapped the fan open and with a flick of his wrist, sent the fur he'd shed that night swirling on a brief wind to settle in a corner.
The whole image might have been considered elegant but since it was his own shed fur Shen Qingqiu just thought it was a bit gross. He let an illusion settle over it so Binghe wouldn't notice if he came to clean later. He'd suffered enough this last week! It's fine if he's a bit lazy for now!
He walked over to the window to pick up the guqin from where it was sitting on its stand, planning on carrying it outside with him.
The courtyard, like the rest of the estate, was fairly humble in size. He'd gotten the stones fixed up recently (so that Binghe would have a good space to practise when the snow all melted). In the middle of it, there was a small pagoda with a stone table and bench underneath, surrounding by faded red railings. He set up his instrument there.
A bit of a distraction would do him good, he thought. He smoothed a hand over the strings with a thoughtful frown. The instrument was not his own from home, him having not brought any of them (he was long lived fox spirit with an inclination for the arts and acquiring new knowledge. It was amazing how many instruments one could learn with that amount of time on hand). This one had been a gift from Binghe who had, apparently, spent a good deal of time working in town to afford it.
Time Shen Qingqiu had given him off for the purpose of relaxing and enjoying himself. He couldn't even scold him for disobeying when Binghe presented him with the gift! How could he? When Binghe had worked hard for his sake? When he'd presented Shen Qingqiu with the guqin with such a beautiful smile, shy and pleased with himself all at once?
He couldn't have! It wasn't possible!
All he could do was accept the instrument with a fondly exasperated smile.
But it was because of that effort that the fondness for his disciple extended to the instrument as well. He thought, when he left this place, he'd like to take it with him.
He plucked at the strings, checking that it was in tune before he started playing the first notes of a song. He tried to keep the volume low, to avoid bothering Binghe but, as always, the moment the music began Luo Binghe showed up as if summoned and took a seat across from him.
He stopped playing.
"Does Binghe have any requests today?"
Luo Binghe shook his head. "This disciple is happy to listen to anything Shizun wishes to play."
He sighed but it sounded like it was halfway to a laugh. "Binghe says that every time."
In their first year together, just the sound of that half-laugh would have made Binghe blush and stutter. But he smiled now. "Because I like everything Shizun plays equally."
More and more these days, it is Shen Qingqiu who found himself being flustered. This child! Where did he learn these things!
(But he does play a song, and then another and by the time Luo Binghe left to go prepare the next meal, Shen Qingqiu had been suitably distracted from the itchiness under his skin.)
Fox spirits and demons were fearful of lighting and thunder. They were creatures whose energies were yin by nature and that gave them bad compatibility with lightning.
That was an early lesson Luo Binghe had learnt because he'd wanted to know the fox he'd saved back then would be safe.
It explained a lot.
Like, for example, why his Shizun always chose to cultivate in isolation whenever a storm rolled in, going as far as to tell Luo Binghe not to make him meals until he opened the door himself.
He dreamed of the day when his Shizun would trust him enough to tell him, to let him in on this great secret because he knew Luo Binghe was trustworthy.
For now, though, his Shizun said nothing about it so Luo Binghe didn't either.
He made sure to keep a supply of dried lily bulbs that he used in congee and jujube seeds, zhimu and fuling for tea (with honey for sweetness). Preparing these every time the storms seemed to be easing up and keeping them at the optimal temperature until his Shizun came out again before setting them all on a tray and bringing them over.
The first time he'd done this, his Shizun had eaten the fare without question, as if it were simply another meal.
It took a few times for him to ask about it.
Luo Binghe had only ducked his head and said it was to soothe the nerves and relax the spirit. "Shizun must be exhausted after cultivating in seclusion. This is the least this disciple can do."
The explanation had been accepted with a warm smile that made Luo Binghe's heart flutter and his face flush.
He felt bad about lying to his Shizun but it would be even worse to admit to knowing a secret his Shizun was trying to keep.
There were many human customs that Shen Qingqiu had only ever read about. So while he knew about them, the first year, many of these holidays had caught him by surprise. In the beginning, it was Binghe who always remembered, who always prepared for these things, spending the entire day making preparations as Shen Qingqiu wracked his brain for what festival it was that day. For once, his vast knowledge of the practices of various regions over the course of history made his life harder rather than easier.
Now, four years later, and Shen Qingqiu liked to think he was much better at this. At least, he was able to do his part to prepare for the Mid Autumn Festival instead of gaping when he was drawn out of his room by a delicious smell and found Binghe had moved the dinner table out to the courtyard and filled it with a small feast.
(He remembered thinking, how are we supposed to eat all that by ourselves!?)
Binghe still wouldn't allow him to into the kitchen on these days (in fact, his disciple always looked down right offended when Shen Qingqiu asked to help. He may not be on Binghe's level, but he can cook, okay?), but while he was busy with the sort of recipes that required a whole day to prepare he couldn't stop Shen Qingqiu from doing other things to help. Which was why Shen Qingqiu was busy hanging up the colourful lanterns he'd bought in town around the courtyard and set the table.
It was, in truth, less effort than Binghe put in with the food, but Binghe didn't simply appreciate his effort but always looked at it like Shen Qingqiu had granted him a great favour. He worried sometimes, that his amazingly talented disciple was too easy to please. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but he was concerned nevertheless given what he knew about Luo Binghe's future prospects. He didn't want Binghe to settle for too little and get taken advantage of, after all!
Satisfied with the arrangement of the lanterns, Shen Qingqiu lit them all with a flick of his wrist before heading back towards the kitchen. Just as Binghe was coming out with the first dish.
"Here, let me..." He said reaching out to take the dish from Binghe. Another odd little thing he discovered recently was that Binghe wouldn't even let him carry the dishes to the table, but if Shen Qingqiu took the dishes from his disciple directly he didn't seem capable of arguing. Probably because if they squabbled over it, the food might end up all over the floor instead.
His fingers brushed over Binghe's briefly as he took the plate. Binghe ducked his head. "Then this disciple will go take the next one..."
Shen Qingqiu nodded agreeably before bringing the dish over.
All in all, it took the two of them a couple of trips to retrieve all the dishes. Once again, Shen Qingqiu felt the way Binghe pulled out all the stops would be very helpful for the day when he had a family but it really was too much food for two people! But that wasn't a complaint for tonight. Tonight, they will enjoy Binghe's efforts and watch the moon together.
So he smiled at Luo Binghe from across the table. "As usual, Binghe has put together an impressive fare."
It was a private sort of affair, as if for this evening, lit by moonlight and the soft flicker of the lanterns, they were the only people in the entire world. It was one of those things Shen Qingqiu thought he'd miss the most when he left.
It wasn't odd for his Shizun to call him outside. They didn't take the carriage which meant they won't be going far.
Which was odd, because Luo Binghe can't imagine anything close by that could make his Shizun act nervous (and he was. Others might not see it but Luo Binghe can see it in the subtle tense line of his shoulders and the way he kept tapping his closed fan against his open palm).
They stopped near a lake. The weather had turned cold enough for snow a week before but not cold enough for the lake to properly freeze over yet. Luo Binghe stood at his Shizun's side, waiting for him to say what he came to say.
The tap of his fan against his open palm seemed to echo in the winter air. Luo Binghe's eyes wandered to his Shizun's hands and thought, he should look into getting new gloves for him. Shen Qingqiu never complained but those were the same gloves he's worn for the last two years. He heard there was a kind of creature that came out in the winter with a special kind of soft coat that was unbelievably warm. If he hunted one he could commission someone to make it into something nice.
Just watching his hands, the way the fan hit the open palm of his hand before stilling as he closed his fingers over it, Luo Binghe could tell he'd made a decision on what he was about to say. "Binghe." Luo Binghe dutifully lifted his eyes again at the call of his name. "There will be a night hunt in Jinlan city in a month's time."
Luo Binghe didn't question how he knew. He simply accepted that he did and nodded.
"You must be there." His Shizun was never the sort to play jokes or pranks, but he looked even more serious than usual. "Binghe, you must promise this teacher to go."
He hesitated, not because he wouldn't promise his Shizun the world but because...something seemed off about this interaction. It felt like he was on the brink of something and if he made a wrong choice here...everything would change.
Still, he nodded. "This disciple promises."
Only then, did his Shizun relax. "Good. Please remember that you said that." Before he could ask what he meant, Luo Binghe found himself pushed into the lake. Had the culprit been anyone else, he could have reacted to it in time, but it was his Shizun and his self-preservation instincts didn't quite work around this person whom he trusted implicitly. Still, when he hit the water he attempted to rise, but then there are hands on his shoulders holding him under the water.
The water was so cold it burned as it rushed into his lungs when he opened his mouth on reflex. He struggled weakly, but when he brought his hands to the one holding him down he instinctively held onto the wrists as if seeking aid, seeking comfort rather than pushing them away.
His vision slowly went dark around the edges and a weak thought bubbled up.
A second after his vision went dark completely he heard a sound like something shattering.
Shen Qingqiu had noticed early on, the weird block in his disciple's body. He'd gone to ask Shang Qinghua about it, one of those times when Luo Binghe had been off on a night hunt on his own. The only response he'd gotten was some half-assed explanation about a bloodline before Shang Qinghua insisted he couldn't say anymore.
Still, it presented an opportunity.
By now, he was sure that there was no way Luo Binghe would let him leave, even if he explained things. So it would be best to leave when he wasn't awake. But Binghe woke up so early to make breakfast that his window of time for getting away was too small! But something like breaking a seal of this strength...it would put him out for long enough for Shen Qingqiu to make a get-away! And he'd be leaving his student with a power up as a bonus! It was a win-win situation!
That was, until he heard what he had to do to break it.
For once, Shen Qingqiu would like to hear about a way to break a seal that didn't involve blood, someone or something being killed or nearly killed!
Why couldn't this seal have been broken with a nice cup of medicinal tea?! Why did he have to attempt to drown his own student! Whoever decided on this was a sadist!
He grit his teeth and kept holding Luo Binghe beneath the surface even as he wept internally.
He's so sorry! Just a bit longer and this will be over, okay? Maybe...he should stay behind afterwards. Or leave a letter! Put together a proper care package. Either way he should probably apologize.
What happened next happened so quickly that Shen Qingqiu didn't have a chance to react before dark qi burst from beneath the water and made a mess of his right shoulder.
He clutched it with a hiss, falling back against the snow as a shape pulled itself from the water. It was Luo Binghe, but his eyes were glassy and wild, the mark of a Heavenly Demon glowing red on his forehead. Dark qi poured out around him like miasma that made Shen Qingqiu gag.
He kind of wanted to cry.
What was with this development!? No one told him anything about him being half-demon!
...Shang Qinghua was a dead man.
Well, he was already a ghost but even so! He was dead!!!
...if Shen Qingqiu doesn't die first. Then he'd just have to haunt him! Don't underestimate the spite of a fox spirit!
But as that small part of him complained and freaked out, the rest of him was focused on the situation at hand, standing up even as blood dripped down his arm, soaking into his clothes.
"Binghe!" The name seemed to lock his student's attention onto him...then he froze. His eyes wide as they seem to settle on his arm as if he wasn't aware what he was looking at.
Shen Qingqiu used the opportunity to tackle him.
He managed to pin Luo Binghe down but for his efforts he ended up with some more deep scratches before he wrapped his arms around him, wincing against the dark qi around them that made Shen Qingqiu's head feel like it was about to split open.
There was an energy running wild in his body and it was all Shen Qingqiu could do to keep it in check by passing his own energies into the body beneath it.
Unable to hold onto anything like an illusion, he reverted to his natural looks, his face changing back to the one he'd had for centuries, fox ears and tails covered in red fur once again visible. Two of his tails moved to pin Binghe's legs as he struggled harder.
At some point, Shen Qingqiu started to talk, though afterwards he'd be hard pressed to remember what he said.
Probably nonsense. The desperate sort you'd say to someone suffering just to distract them.
He was already exhausted by the time Binghe settled down and passed out. He was breathing harshly as the edges of his vision seemed to blur. Somehow, he found the strength to pull Binghe up off the snow and half-carry, half-drag him back to the house.
Luo Binghe had a nightmare.
In it, his Shizun was bleeding from being attacked (by him). Despite that, he had been holding onto Luo Binghe tightly and without reservation, whispering feverishly into his hair.
It's okay. Shizun is here. Binghe can make it through it. Shizun won't let anything happen to you.
At one point, he thought he woke up in his own room, his Shizun wasn't there, but there was a red fox with eight tails. Its front paws were pressed to his chest and he knew, from the feel of the energy being passed into his aching body, that it was his Shizun. He wanted to open his mouth but found he couldn't do anything before his vision went dark again.
When Luo Binghe finally woke up what he noticed first was the blood. It stained his clothes and the bedding. It was smeared over the wooden edge of the bed and sat, dried and dark on the floor.
There wasn't a single scratch on him and he could see places where the blood made odd lines like something had dragged through it along the floor.
Something like a tail or two...or eight.
He threw the blanket off and ran without stumbling. Physically, he felt great. His energies flowed easily and there was even a bit of extra something, a familiar energy he knew was his Shizun's.
Where was Shizun!?
He slammed the doors (already opened a crack) to his room open and the blood trail was partially covered by fresh snow. It was better than a body, but it still made the breath in his throat catch. Without bothering with shoes, he ran out of the courtyard.
The blood led out of the estate grounds and into the forest. Some part of him noted that he really should be feeling the cold more than he did, but then, everything besides the unbearable panic seemed far-off and unimportant at the moment.
The blood trail ended, abruptly. There were deep depressions in the snow like a large animal had walked to this spot from the opposite direction. There was no trail leading back.
Panic still thrumming through his veins, Luo Binghe imagined the worst.
Shizun, weakened and bleeding, collapsing in the snow, a powerful immortal being laid low by his injuries and from expending his energy to help his unworthy disciple, unable to even hold onto a human form.
A predator wandering outside, hungry and desperate in these harsh temperatures. Happening upon a defenseless meal...
Deep in the woods, Luo Binghe fell to his knees and feeling numb all over. He bent over, the snow cold against the skin of his forehead.
"Shizun..." Like the call of a wounded animal, pained and helpless. He grabbed at the front of his robes, over where his heart was and wept.
The last thing Shen Qingqiu remembered before the world went dark was falling into the snow, exhausted and still bleeding sluggishly. There was a crunch of snow as heavy feet stepped through it, the rhythm changing as four feet became two.
Then he opened his eyes and he was slung over a shoulder, a hand on his back keeping him steady. It meant he was looking down, past a man's back to a familiar sword beneath his feet.
He squirmed a little and the hand on his back pressed down a little more firmly (but not painfully). When Shen Qingqiu didn't stop moving, he found himself moved from his perch and held by his torso by two hands, both just under where his forelegs met his body.
Liu Qingge looked at him with something that seemed caught between displeasure and anger that, after centuries of friendship, Shen Qingqiu could properly read as worry.
"What sort of mess did you get yourself into this time?"
He kicked his legs, his tails swishing in mild irritation. "Liu-shidi, I'm not a house cat." He said flatly. So stop holding him like one, please! Then he added, "I'm also not a sack." So, again! Don't carry him over your shoulder like one! He's an immortal fox spirit, okay?
Suddenly, he went limp in Liu Qingge's hold, his ears drooping. Liu Qingge's expression of angry-worry turned into shock and like he didn't know what to do. Which, on this person, looked a bit like he wanted to go kill something, as if it was the only way he knew how to fix things. Normally, Shen Qingqiu would find it funny.
Right now he felt too wretched for that. He'd left Luo Binghe. He had to! He had no choice! But he'd left him, healthy and whole but with a whole new aspect of his identity--a dangerous aspect even! And Shen Qingqiu had left him with no guidance, no protection and no support.
In short: he'd screwed up.
By the time Luo Binghe finally dragged himself back to the house, it was the next morning. He was aware that he shouldn't be fine after passing out in the middle of winter.
But he returned, still shoeless and absolutely not dressed for the weather feeling a bit chilled but otherwise...fine.
He knelt down in Shizun's room, where it still smelled like him and felt calmer.
He had checked the place where the blood trail ended again, followed the tracks of the other animal and his first assessment was correct. There was no trail leaving the area.
Whatever had found his Shizun was likely not human, then.
There also wasn't enough blood to suggest death or that his Shizun had been--
It didn't bear thinking about at the moment. Not until he could confirm it.
For now, he'd consider his Shizun alive, though his state and safety could only be considered 'uncertain'. It meant it was imperative that Luo Binghe located him as soon as possible.
It'd be fine, if his Shizun hated him or didn't forgive him. Luo Binghe just wanted him to be safe. And if he were already dead...
Luo Binghe's hands tightened over his knees.
If his Shizun was no longer of this world, then he'd slaughter the ones responsible before following.
He breathed in deeply, relaxing the way he had been taught.
Always cultivate with a clear mind, Binghe. If not, you could do more harm to yourself than good.
His Shizun had mentioned a night hunt, had made Luo Binghe promise to go before pushing him into the river. It had to be important. But he cannot go like this, with a mark of a demon on his forehead and an uncertain power that seemed to be upsetting the balance inside of him, that had been settled with through his Shizun's efforts.
Luo Binghe had to handle it on his own from now on.
And if he wanted to be ready in time for that night hunt he needed to start now. Needed to get this new power under control and then it will be a simple matter of creating an illusion (he was the only disciple of a fox spirit for five years. That part would be easiest.)
Mu Qingfang said his arm will heal just fine but he'd exhausted his reserve of spiritual energy and nearly damaged his own meridians besides.
"You'll be spending some time in your original form. Don't use any of your power and cultivate normally and you should be fine again in no time." Which, since one of them was an immortal fox spirit and the other an equally immortal flower spirit 'in no time' could mean months or years.
Shen Qingqiu thanked him kindly and waited for everyone to excuse themselves before he flopped down on his bed, feeling pathetic and useless.
His ears were flat as he fretted about how Binghe must be feeling now. He should be fine, physically, but...that wasn't the same as being fine, right?
He lay there for a moment longer, scowling with his ears flat against his head. Then he got up. He couldn't use the door but he'd left the window unlatched so it was easy enough to push it open and exit his home that way. He'd considered looking for Liu Qingge but the bear spirit was...hanging outside his home. Polishing his sword, apparently?
But why here? Liu-shidi! You have your own place, don't you!? What are you doing cleaning your weapon in someone else's yard!?
He won't look a gift horse in the mouth this time though.
"Liu-shidi." He said padding over despite Liu Qingge's angry-worry frown. "There is someone I need to see." And since he's apparently useless for now... "Would you act as my escort?"
This time, he was going to get all the answers from Shang Qinghua even if he has to...well, he can't beat him up right now but he can still bite him! He'll bite his fingers off if he has to!
Either way! He's getting his answers before he screws up even worse!
Luo Binghe had to hide his new demon-like features with an illusion. He carried both Zheng Yang and his Shizun's Xiu Ya (couldn't bear to leave it behind when he left) as he made his way to where the night hunt was supposed to take place.
His fingers lingered over Xiu Ya's hilt as he walked down the forest path, his hand only moving to Zheng Yang when someone crashed out from the trees. His breath caught when he saw the person's face. This person had the same face as his Shizun!
If his Shizun were younger and scowled more, anyway.
He reached out to grab the person who flinched and attempted to punch him on reflex. Luo Binghe caught him by the wrist.
"Who are you?" He breathed at the same time the person tried to kick him...which was another fruitless endeavor. Luo Binghe found that he had a higher pain tolerance since his demon blood awakened and even if it hadn't, he couldn't possibly let this person go.
He seemed to come to the same conclusion because he spat out with gritted teeth, "Let me go and I'll tell you."
And Luo Binghe did because this person was thin under his touch, like he hasn't had a decent meal in a while. Besides, he was no match for Luo Binghe.
The moment he was released, the Shizun-Look-Alike backed away, rubbing at his wrist. "Shen Jiu." He said as if even parting with that much was a trial.
Even the surname was the same...
Shen Jiu scowled. "Well? Aren't you going to give your name?"
"Luo Binghe." There was no recognition in Shen Jiu's expression at his name. What did any of this mean? Shizun...is this why you asked me to come here? "Are you here alone?"
"No." He said, his eyes darting to the side briefly. "I came with my master."
"Where is he?" The question came out in a rush. He was sure his Shizun wouldn't let his disciple starve or run around in clothes that tattered. But then, hadn't Luo Binghe been the same when he first started living with Shizun? Perhaps they'd only recently met.
The question seemed to make Shen Jiu look more defensive. "My master was following a fox demon."
And it was amazing how quickly and thoroughly two words could command Luo Binghe's attention. He rearranged his understanding of the situation as new possibilities opened up before him. A fox...could this be why his Shizun had told him to be here? Did he mean for the two of them to meet here? But then...why let himself be seen and draw away another?
Or was it that...he had no choice? Was his Shizun even able to keep up a human appearance right now?
"How many tails?" He demanded. Were it not for the illusion he had cast, the symbol on his forehead would probably be glowing bright right now.
Shen Jiu backed up a step. His expression was still carefully neutral, but his hand fell to his sword. "Eight."
Luo Binghe's eyes were wide and it didn't matter why this person looked like his Shizun because, all of a sudden, there was a real chance that his Shizun was actually here.
He might be here and someone was chasing after him and maybe trying to hurt him.
Shen Jiu tried to move away but Luo Binghe was faster (stronger and healthier. This person who looked like his Shizun was too thin and he didn't matter but imagining his Shizun ever looking so malnourished made a terrible anger churn in his chest). His voice was low and dangerous, leaving no room (absolutely none) for argument. "Show me where they went."
The man smelled like death and deceit. Shen Qingqiu disliked the scent of him from the moment he caught his first sniff of it. He could not be there for Luo Binghe's first trial, but he could at least make it easier. And that meant getting this man away from the scene.
It was surprisingly easy to lead the man away and misdirect his student for Luo Binghe to find him later.
Which was way too easy! Not that he's bragging or anything, but Binghe could have broken through a simple illusion like that at the same age! Of course, Binghe was an exceptionally bright and hardworking child and he was taught by Shen Qingqiu who, by right of his own nature was a master of illusions, but even so! This man was definitely not doing his job properly if his student could be turned around by such a simple trick!
Then again, it didn't take much for Shen Qingqiu to lose the man either. Sloppy! Who let this man teach and raise a child? Or was this a case of kidnapping?
Well regardless, he won't have access to the youth for long. Not once he and Binghe find each other and they run away together!
(And hopefully, Shen Qingqiu had done enough that they won't end up torturing each other for their remaining lives together.)
He sat up in the trees, staring down at the man walking in a small circle with his tails thumping on the branch he was perched in.
"Are you done?"
Shen Qingqiu tilted his head to look up at Liu Qingge who was acting as his escort/guardian today and hesitated.
He really should go. He'd done what he set out to do. The rest was up to Luo Binghe.
(But he wanted to see him with his own two eyes to know that his disciple was safe.)
"Yes." Because Luo Binghe wouldn't be fooled by any illusion he could create at the moment.
Shen Jiu's master was under an illusion. But not just any illusion: it was his Shizun's! He considered that Shizun must have had a reason to do this, but he can't question Shen Jiu's master about where Shizun had gone like this so he touches the man's forehead and, with barely any effort shatters the illusion.
Illusion had only just clear from the man's eyes before he grabbed him by the front of his robes. "Where is the fox spirit you were chasing?"
He could see Shen Jiu's Master's eyes immediately assessing him. As if trying to decide if he were a threat (or a possible mark).
"The fox? It got away." Then he paused, "Foxes aren't easy marks, boy."
Of course not. Especially not his Shizun who was far too clever to be caught by scum like this man. In his mind, he could hear his Shizun's reprimand. Do not stand so close to an enemy, Binghe. While you are holding him he knows where your hands are and you do not. It is dangerous.
He let go and shoved the man back hard enough to make him stumble as he pulled Sheng Yang from its sheathe. "Which way did it go?" He demanded. From the direction he came from, he could hear Shen Jiu's footsteps approaching, then stopping.
The man's eyes flickered to a spot over Luo Binghe's shoulder briefly before he opened his arms in a gesture of goodwill.
"Let us chase it together. If you help me catch the fox, I'll split the spoils with you."
Luo Binghe glared at the man. "He's a spirit not a demon."
Shen Jiu's Master laughed at him. "Does it matter? Boy," He said with a grin. "The best thing about foxes is that no one will ask any questions. Spirit or demon...no one will care to find out. And an eight tailed fox...that thing has to be at least eight hundred years old. There are men who'd kill to get their hands on the carcass of a creature like that." There was something shrewd about the way he spoke, like he thought he'd seen into Luo Binghe's heart and knew exactly how to talk Luo Binghe around.
Luo Binghe wondered what the man thought he wanted.
(He wanted his Shizun home, wanted to apologize for hurting him, wanted to know why he left. He wanted...warm hands holding his on a winter day, sitting under a pagoda while listening to the music of a guqin as the weather turned warm, to see that smile across him lit by lamplight and the moon as they celebrate together.)
He nodded and from the corner of his eyes he could see Shen Jiu stiffen. His master, however, saw Luo Binghe's pleasant smile and thought he'd won his case.
Or he did, up until Luo Binghe ran him through with his sword. For once, Binghe was thankful for his newly awakened demon blood. These reflexes truly were very useful.
"It's true." He said, leaning closer, letting his sword sink further into the man's chest, watching dispassionately as blood trickled out from the corner of his mouth. "No one would have asked any questions about a dead fox spirit. But neither would anyone about your death, I think."
Shang Qinghua opened the door to his hut and immediately began to whine. "You really have to stop interfering."
Shen Qingqiu, who was still curled up on his bed, yawned at him. Yue Qingyuan had lent him some spiritual energy before but he'd used up some of it casting his illusions earlier. In other words, his reserves were low enough it was better to conserve than waste.
Besides, it was cold and his winter coat was far warmer and luxurious than any cloak could be.
"Is it not said, that human determination trumps the heaven's will?" He stretched out on his comforter, his tails swaying over the material of his silk comforter. "I may be an immortal, but I still belong to the mortal realm, so it applies to me as well."
Shang Qinghua made a strangled sound. "But I don't belong to the mortal realm and you're acting off information I shouldn't have given you."
Shen Qingqiu settled himself more comfortably again, but kept his head lifted. It was...true. That while he can argue for himself and Binghe, Shang Qinghua, as someone working for the underworld was at least guilty of revealing the secrets of heaven. Though, really, if he'd thought of some better way for Binghe and his future husband to work through their debts to each other that wasn't basically ruining each other's lives they'd never have been in this situation to begin with!
As if he could read the judgment from the expression on his face, Shang Qinghua added, "I could be fired for this."
And as such a low level worker in the underworld 'fired' could be the same as 'killed' or 'forced to reincarnate'.
Finally, Shen Qingqiu sighed.
"I will not interfere further." He said, laying his head on his front paws. "Whatever happens now will be entirely up to Binghe." And Shen Jiu, but he was an unknown while Shen Qingqiu was confident in the young man he'd watched over the last five years.
He'd bet on this, okay? He'd bet on Luo Binghe making the right choices!
Luo Binghe hadn't really given Shen Jiu a choice in coming with him. After all, while he wasn't certain about the 'why' of it, his Shizun had taken on this person's face for five years. At the moment, this was the only lead he had and he wasn't about to let it go.
And since he was still covered in the blood of the old bastard that passed himself for a cultivator, Shen Jiu didn't seem inclined to argue.
(He got the feeling that Shen Jiu was not the sort of person who unsettled easily, but Luo Binghe clearly did unsettle him. It wasn't comfortable, seeing someone with his Shizun's face staring at him like he was a monster.)
When they returned to the estate he led him to one of the extra rooms. There weren't that many. Their home had been humble, but any proper human estate was meant for families not just two people. The extra bedrooms had been closed up and remained unused all this time.
"This is your room. You can do with it what you want." Then he added, "Do not touch the room at the west most part of the home." That was his Shizun's room. Luo Binghe considered locking it up for the time being. There should only be one key. The only person who should be going in, after all, was himself. He couldn't allow the room to become dusty, after all. "I can show you where the kitchen is."
Shen Jiu examined the room for a moment, Luo Binghe noticed the way his gaze lingered at all the exits before landing back on him. He stared straight at Luo Binghe. "You owe me a cultivation teacher."
"He wasn't much of anything." He said icily. "But if you insist, I can teach you." Because sending him away to another sect was absolutely not on the table.
But it seemed to suit Shen Jiu just fine since he inclined his head and agreed. There was nothing at all about this person, besides his features that was like his Shizun. Luo Binghe had invited a snake into his home but if it was what he needed to find his Shizun then he'd invite worse.
The first day Shen Qingqiu manages to build up enough energy in his reserve again to take on a human form, he celebrated by eating with chopsticks.
Even if he had eaten like a fox before his cultivation achieved a certain point, he'd spent centuries having thumbs now and it was embarrassing to have to eat without using his hands!
He still had the fox ears and tails, but this was his second most natural form and, really, it was less of a hassle to hold onto than one without them. This was him at his most comfortable! Being able to freely take whichever form he wanted was a blessing! He'd really missed this the last five years.
He stared down at his food and it wasn't...terrible. His own attempts at cooking had been good enough in the same way that any skill that someone had had to practise for eight hundred years would be.
Still, compared to Binghe's cooking it was lacklustre.
It had been many (many, many) years since he'd lacked table manners but he almost caught himself chewing on the end of his chopsticks. He was an eight hundred year old immortal being! What reason did he have to act like this?!
It wasn't even so bad! He'd eaten his own cooking for centuries now! His cooking level was far higher than when he began and nearly set his bamboo hut on fire! And even that had been better than the days before his ability to cultivate when he'd hunted and eaten raw meat! Sometimes from dead animals!
So what if it wasn't as good as Luo Binghe's? It wasn't anything to cry about! It wasn't...
Shen Qingqiu placed the chopsticks down.
It wasn't anything. He just wasn't that hungry right now.
Nodding to himself as if accepting his own excuses, he pushed back from the table and decided he'd read instead. It was amazing how difficult it was to turn pages without thumbs let alone take one of the books off the shelf and this too, was something he'd missed.
(And he most definitely did not think about the snacks and tea Luo Binghe would bring to him whenever he got too engrossed in a book to even move away.)
The locals of the nearest town recognized Luo Binghe on sight. They seemed less certain about what to make of Shen Jiu who wasn't allowed to leave the estate alone. Not that Luo Binghe thought he'd run, not while he still had things to gain by accepting Luo Binghe's tutelage.
(For all that they weren't too different in age, Luo Binghe has clearly received the better education. Which was natural, really, considering the differences in the quality of their teachers.)
Luo Binghe told them Shen Jiu was a relative of his Shizun's that was living with them for the time being. And the townspeople, who were rather fond of his mild-mannered Shizun, had nothing but good things to say about their resemblance.
Luo Binghe didn't see it, really. The longer they lived together, the less of his Shizun he saw in Shen Jiu. Especially, he thought, in the eyes. The shape of them was the same and they both had a tendency to pretend to be aloof and unaffected. But there was no warmth, none of his Shizun's gentleness.
They left the town after picking up some supplies. They'd done the occasional small job for the people there from time to time. Shizun had said it was good to build a good rapport with the locals. But they could not rely on them entirely for jobs because it was too small. For that, they'd often travel to a further town, just past the forest.
They hadn't taken the carriage (it seemed wrong to use it, somehow, without Shizun there with him). But it meant their choices were walking or flying together on the same sword.
He chose to walk. And Shen Jiu followed his lead with very little complaints. Luo Binghe pushed him on the trip, testing the limits of his endurance and found that, at least in this aspect, his new student wasn't lacking.
The plan was to find a job to test the extent of Shen Jiu's abilities. His own Shizun had done the same when he'd taught Binghe the basics.
The plan was derailed the moment they arrived in town to find a ruckus happening in the town centre.
A crowd was gathered around a young woman. What caught Luo Binghe's attention were the white fox ears on her head and the single tail peeking out from under her cloak. Shen Jiu had taken two steps before he realized Luo Binghe had stopped and was staring at the proceedings with an increasingly dark look on his face.
"Please..." She said, pushing herself up from a position as if she had been shoved to the ground. There are tears in her eyes, bitten back as if she knew they'd be no help. "I didn't steal anything, I swear."
There was a man, dressed like a perfect gentleman, holding what appears to be someone's baggage wrapped in a worn fabric. He sneered at her as the girl's tail curled protectively around herself. "My mother was kind enough to allow you to stay the night and this is how you repay my family?"
She shook her head. "I didn't steal anything. Everything in there is what I came with." She said, her hands holding onto the folds of her cloak, closing them around her body. "Please, young master I--"
"What good is the word of a fox?" He said and the rest of the crowd murmured their agreement. Shen Jiu hissed and reached out to grab onto Luo Binghe when the 'young master' grabbed the girl by the arm to haul her up.
But he wasn't listening. He shook off Shen Jiu's hand with a sharp motion before pushing his way through the crowd in time to hear the Young Master add, "You could have just disguised the things in here with an illusion. If only we had known what you were! We wouldn't have--"
But no one will know what they would or wouldn't have done because that was when Luo Binghe stepped into the centre of the crowd. Even with the illusion hiding his demon heritage there was a certain air to him that seemed dangerous and commanded attention.
After months of being home, there were days when Shen Qingqiu didn't think of the little estate he lived in for the last five years. What were five years anyway, to a creature such as him who had lived for eight hundred? It was nothing more than a sliver of time. A period that had passed by in the blink of an eye!
He may keep worrying about how Binghe is doing, whether he's managed to overcome the terrible hand fate had dealt him, but it was easier and easier to not think of their living arrangements.
Shen Qingqiu sighed, turning over as he clung to sleep even though he knew he should be waking up soon. In that muzzy place between sleep and wakefulness, he found himself half caught up in the dream from the night before and when he finally pushed himself up, he called out, "Binghe, what's..." for breakfast died in his throat when he opened his eyes and saw the interior of his bamboo hut.
It was just as well he lived on his own, really. That way no one knew that after that he spent a moment just staring at an empty space.
Luo Binghe chased every rumour of fox demon and spirits he caught wind of, stuck somewhere between hope that this time, he'll find the person he's been looking for and relieved that his Shizun wasn't stuck in that sort of terrible situation.
(He had nightmares about that, sometimes. Of his Shizun being in the sort of danger he kept finding other fox spirits facing. Accused of the crime of seduction, of theft, of murder. Whipped, enslaved or even killed...
Foxes were clever, they were masters of illusions but some of them had barely achieved a human form, some of them hadn't learned that the world wouldn't be fair to them or their kind. Even a powerful spirit could be brought down by a cultivator who knew how to deal with them. Suddenly, he understood why his Shizun had never told him of his true nature.)
"You can't keep doing this." Was the first complaint Shen Jiu voiced after Luo Binghe's latest rescue of a small group of fox spirits from a brothel that had bound them with immortal binding cables. "The house isn't big enough." The two of them had reached a strange sort of camaraderie over the last two years. Not quite friends, exactly, but Luo Binghe could trust Shen Jiu to watch over the estate and its occupants while he was gone.
He answered simply, “We'll make it bigger." They would have to build the addition on the east side. There were too many things that couldn't be touched on the west side.
Shen Jiu made a strangled sound (it was one that generally indicated he did, in fact, want to strangle someone). "You can't save them all...and even if you could, what if you bring back one one day that isn't innocent? Not all of them will be like your beloved Shizun."
Luo Binghe decided to ignore him. He knew--not all of them were like that. In the same way that humans could be evil or good, so could foxes. But to simply leave them behind...it wasn't something he could do. It would feel too much like a betrayal.
"If there is nothing else, I'd like to go rest."
And maybe after, he'll go clean his Shizun's room. He had been gone for longer this time than all the previous times.
"Wait." Which he did if only because Shen Jiu was usually happy enough to let him be when he got back unless there was something he needed. Shen Jiu was a person of very deep anger and envy...but he wore a mask of aloofness like it was permanently attached to his face. So it was odd to see him looking uncertain. Still, he met Luo Binghe's gaze without faltering. "There's something I need to tell you."
Shen Qingqiu couldn't recreate the congee Luo Binghe used to make him after a storm, but he thought, he could manage the tea, at least. His nose was sensitive enough that with some experimentation, he could find the correct ingredients and the correct amount of each. He steeped them until the smell was the same as the one in his memory.
His closed his hands around the cup and looked morosely down at it.
The taste of the tea was the same, he was almost certain of it. And it did help but the effect seemed less than he remembered.
"But it should be the same..." He muttered to no one in particular. Adjusting to summers and its barrage of storms was harder than every other aspect of becoming used to his life on Qing Jing Peak. He had grown used to Luo Binghe's offerings of tea and congee after these ordeals. Even just knowing that, at the end he'd open his door to find Luo Binghe waiting for him with a smile and a tray of something warm-smelling made it a little easier to bear.
The smile came to mind all of a sudden, as he breathed in the scent of the tea and it made something ache in his chest, unexpectedly.
Was that the difference? That he was the one making the tea instead of Luo Binghe? Did he become so spoiled during the last five years that he wanted to be waited on hand and foot!?
He took another sip, his tails lashing in irritation.
Surely he hadn't become that sort of decadent individual! And, really, the thought of being served by anyone besides Luo Binghe was as unappealing as it always had been.
Then why was it different when it was Luo Binghe? He was...he was...
Shen Qingqiu's eyes widened.
He missed him.
Luo Binghe stares at the small jade token Shen Jiu presented to him.
There was a rush of anger first, like a tall wave cresting and crashing against the cliff face. How dare he! He'd told everyone his Shizun's room was off limits! To have gone in and stolen something was--
But before he could finish that thought, before he could stalk over and snatch the token back he took in the smaller details. The pattern was similar, but there were some differences from the one that hung from the tassle of his Shizun's fan.
And suddenly, something far more complicated replaced that anger.
"How long have you known?" Because it could be a new discovery but Shen Jiu had the face of someone waiting to be condemned. Someone who knew they were guilty and planned to face the charges with his head held high.
"For almost as long as I've known you." He admitted before pocketing the token. Luo Binghe wasn't surprised that Shen Jiu had snuck into his Shizun's room. It did not mean he was any less angry about it. And, after all this time, Shen Jiu must know his nature well enough to know that. (It occurred to him. It was probably why he didn't start by telling him where his Shizun was.) "You're a half demon. As kind as your Shizun is do you assume he won't have some ideas of what that means? Wouldn't it make sense if that were why he left? At least now you have two years of proof that you are not a monster and an estate of witnesses to attest for your character."
"That is not why you hid this from me."
"No." He said. Then added, "I won't apologize for it."
Luo Binghe knew that much. But then, it didn't matter. No one else ever had.
"Where is he?"
"Most likely? Cang Qiong Mountain." He added before Luo Binghe could run out of the room, "I've packed your things for the journey."
Luo Binghe nodded, wasn't even insulted by the implication that he would have failed to do it himself. Then, "Thank you." Because even if he were angry that Shen Jiu had lied about this the entire time, even though it felt like a betrayal of the worst kind...he wouldn't know where to find his Shizun without him.
Shen Jiu looked surprised for a moment before he schooled his expression back into something more like disdain. "Shall I continue to manage to house while you're away?"
Should I go away and never return? was most likely what he really wanted to ask.
The two of them had an understanding: a large part of why he'd requested Shen Jiu to stay here had to do with Shizun. And yet they had become something almost (but not quite) like friends during the last two years. At the very least, having taught him for a while, Luo Binghe couldn't help but feel some measure of responsibility towards this person. And now he owed him as well.
"A-Jiu can do as he pleases. I will support your decision either way."
Shen Qingqiu let his forehead rest on the table with a sigh.
He missed Luo Binghe.
It shouldn't be a surprise since they'd lived together for five years. It wasn't as if Shen Qingqiu had never missed anyone before. He missed Liu Qingge sometimes when he disappeared on a pilgrimage to find new challenges to fight and he wasn't even the only one of his friends that left the mountain (just the one who left the most frequently and unpredictably). The strength of those feelings and what he felt now couldn't be compared though.
Then again, he always knew they'd meet again. Without fail, they'd all return here, to the place where they had made their homes. And he and Luo Binghe hadn't...exactly parted on the best terms, had they?
That was it! It had been two years since they had seen each other and Shen Qingqiu had always harboured a little guilt about the way they had parted! What he needed was some closure. And maybe, if Luo Binghe was in a good place they could even share a meal or at least a cup of tea! He even had a good excuse! After all, he had left Xiu Ya as well as a few personal effects behind! If Binghe hadn't gotten rid of them he could use getting them back as an excuse for a visit.
He sat up straighter at the thought and mentally patted himself on the back for his idea. Shen Qingqiu stood up and headed for the door.
But when he opened the door, he was surprised to find someone standing there, hand raised as if to knock.
Shen Qingqiu's expression was bland as he said, "Excuse me." Before he shut the door again.
Then he turned around to press his back against the door and began to panic internally.
WHY WAS LUO BINGHE HERE?
He pressed a hand to his chest. Was that...an illusion? A practical joke? But no one else around here had even seen Luo Binghe before, right? Right? Besides, who would play a joke like this? Liu Qingge? Did that person even know what a joke was?!
He doesn't need to open the door again to see if he were still there. This close to the door he could smell Luo Binghe on the other side of the door. An achingly familiar scent that he'd tried to convince himself he hadn't missed the last two years.
But why now? Did he accidentally summon him because he was thinking about him? (But then, why didn't he come before!?)
Breathing deeply, it occurred to him that he was wrong to freak out like this. After all, Luo Binghe probably didn't recognize him at all! He has only ever seen him while he was 'Shen Qingqiu' after all. He's never seen his actual face! All things considered, wasn't it more likely that he was here to find Yue Qingyuan who was sometimes visited by mortals living near the mountains who had mistaken him for some kind of holy spirit?
It was just a mistake! All he needs to do is tell Luo Binghe he was on the wrong peak and...that would be that! Shen Qingqiu stood up straight again, dusted off some (non-existent) dust from his clothes before opening the door again.
Luo Binghe was still standing there (not a surprise) but the way his eyes teared up and filled with a warmth was. Then he reached out, his fingertips brushing against Shen Qingqiu's cheek.
"Shizun...I've finally found you."
Shen Qingqiu just stood there for a second. Luo Binghe was blocking the doorway, so the only logical choice was to back out, turn around, walk across the room and jump out of a window.
"Shizun!" When he ran towards the window his Shizun has escaped through, there was an illusion settled over the whole area. He couldn't see through it but he could sense the edges of it, the gentle pull of his Shizun's spiritual energy trying to convince him that what he saw was true. But his teacher had taught him the trick to breaking these and it was easier because he knew the person who made it so well (or maybe not well enough).
It wasn't easy even if his Shizun had clearly thrown this up haphazardly (as expected). So by the time he'd found his way to the end of the trail deep in the bamboo grove, he couldn't see any signs of where his Shizun had gone or hidden himself.
But he knew (the same way he knew this person was his Shizun the moment they locked eyes) he was here.
He hadn't cried in the two years since that day on the snow when he thought he'd lost the most important person in his life, but he cried now, uncaring of what a picture he must make with fat tears rolling down his cheeks.
"Shizun...I've been looking for you. All this time, I've been..." He choked on his words. The only sound to fill the silence was the swaying of bamboo in the breeze. "Why...why won't you come see me? Is it...because I'm a demon?" It was a fear he hadn't wanted to face these last two years. But it had been there, a terrible little doubt that had burrowed deep into his heart and refused to let up. After all, hadn't his Shizun disappeared after his demon blood awakened?
But hadn't he also...saved him? Helping him reign in the demonic energy in his body...healing him, despite knowing that?
"Shizun...please. Even if you hate me..." His eyes were squeezed shut, the same way he'd done when he was a small child, waiting to be beaten by the older boys who liked to torment him. "Don't leave me again."
There was the whisper of bamboo leaves in the wind and then a hand on his bowed head and a sigh, the most wonderful sound he'd heard in two years.
"How could this teacher possibly hate you?"
Shen Qingqiu couldn't exactly explain why he'd run. But there was something about the way Luo Binghe looked at him...
He’d felt ridiculous pretty much as soon as he was out the window frame. Really! That was Luo Binghe! So what if he'd recognized him? He could have dealt with that better! There's probably a hundred ways he could have dealt with it that wasn't jumping out his window.
But by that point he'd already committed. If he turned back and tried to explain it'd only be more embarrassing! So he kept running.
In the end though...he really was weak to this person.
Which was how he found himself here again, patting Luo Binghe on the head.
...also, how much did he grow in the last two years? He's taller than this teacher now!
No matter how tall he'd gotten though, he obviously hasn't grown out of his cry-baby tendencies, because he could hear a sniffle. "Really, Binghe. This teacher is here now, isn't he?"
If anything, those words just made the waterworks worse as Luo Binghe reached out to grab his sleeve. "Shizun!"
...what is he supposed to do about this person?
"Please..." He said, and it turns out, his tears were as effective as they've ever been at making Shen Qingqiu want to give this person everything! "Don't leave again."
Shen Qingqiu's sigh was long suffering. "I cannot promise that. But," Because the tears were falling faster. "I will not leave without reason again."
He sniffed again. "Shizun must promise this disciple to stay."
He nodded and was only struck by the familiarity of the wording after the action. But surely it was only a coincidence? It wasn't exactly an uncommon way of asking for something and he had left before.
"This teacher promises."
Then he found himself pulled into a tight embrace. "Shizun!"
Hopeless! Why does everything he say make this man cry harder!?
The first thing, the absolute most important thing to ask, after the tears had subsided had been, "Has Shizun eaten yet?"
And while his Shizun tried to talk him out of it, he located the kitchen in short order and prepared a quick afternoon snack. He plated the fried pastries, the delicate layers separating into the petal-like shape of lotus flowers. Then brought it over with the tea.
His Shizun looked at him in exasperation as he set the tray down. "Binghe is the guest. He really doesn't need to serve this teacher." But, even though it was subtle, Luo Binghe could see his anticipation as he picked up his chopsticks. He smiled to himself, as he poured the tea.
"As long as Shizun enjoys the food this disciple prepares, Binghe is more than happy to serve."
He always enjoyed watching his Shizun eat his cooking; there was nothing quite as pleasing as seeing the subtle smile on his Shizun's face when he ate, as if he couldn't have stopped himself from smiling if he tried. His Shizun's show of affection and appreciation...Luo Binghe cherished every bit of it.
The smile had a different quality to it this time. And it made Luo Binghe's heart skip a beat. It was the smile of someone who had tasted something nostalgic, a food made all the more special because it was suffused with fond memories.
(He bit his tongue to keep from asking, did you miss me as well, Shizun?. Because it was presumptuous.)
"Binghe's cooking is as splendid as always."
He ducked his head as he handed the filled tea cup to his Shizun. "Many thanks to Shizun for the praise."
They talked then, of the two years. His Shizun's days were peaceful, it seemed and he mentioned the new books he'd read, this-and-that song he'd learned to play on the guqin.
His smile retained that fond quality from before, as if it weren't only the food that he'd missed, but--dare he even think it--as if...
Did you miss me as well?
He tapped his closed fan against his chin. "The guqin Binghe had gifted me...is it still at the estate?"
He refilled his Shizun's tea cup. "Excepting the times when this disciple had gone to clean or maintain Shizun's things, all of it has remained untouched." Then, his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest, he added, "should Shizun wish to return his room is still his own with only a minor addition."
"Oh?" His interest had been piqued and it was just as well that he hadn't asked outright. Luo Binghe would find it hard to deny this person anything.
"If Shizun wishes to know perhaps...he'd come down to visit?" He'd meant it as a suggestion, but halfway through he'd lost his nerve and the words came out as a rush that ended in a question instead. His Shizun's open fan hid half his face, but did not obscure the way his eyes crinkled--that smiled seemed only to encourage his heart in its attempt to leap out of his chest.
Did you miss me as well? Did you ever think of coming back?
"I should like to see what Binghe has made of our home."
It was those words, our home, more than the promise to come back that finally did it. Any attempt at self-control he was pretending at just flew right out of the window because his Shizun...his Shizun also considered that place their home!
Tears filled his eyes as his Shizun sat straighter in shock. Before he could ask though, Luo Binghe reached out and took his hand between his. "Then let's go! This disciple will make preparations and we can set out tomorrow!"
It had been a slip of the tongue. While the five years he spent in that estate with Luo Binghe had been a drop in the bucket compared the time he'd been alive, it had been home in the same way his bamboo hut was.
After all, he'd all but built it with all the work that he'd put into fixing it up! And he had a lot of happy memories there! It was natural to think of a place like that as somewhere that belonged to him at least a little bit!
But while Luo Binghe was perfectly fine (the tears don't seem to be tears of frustration or anger, right?) with sharing his home with his Shizun the same probably couldn't be said for the man he was married to!
Talking to Luo Binghe had been so easy he almost forgot about his situation! If he showed up in someone's house and started calling it his and Binghe's then what's different between him and a fox demon coming to steal away someone's husband!?
That was a misunderstanding he didn't want!
So he frees his hand from Luo Binghe's hold and bats him on the head with his fan, his ears twitching in irritation. "Binghe should speak with his husband first before offering such a thing."
He looked confused rather than chagrined.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHO?
Were they...perhaps not yet married? After all, it's only been two years.
"Your betrothed, then?" He tried again and, again, Luo Binghe's only expression was confusion.
"This disciple has no one like that."
...it had been his intention to change the state of their marriage from what Shang Qinghua had written for them, but...perhaps he has changed too much?
They stared at each other, Shen Qingqiu thoughtful (and increasingly worried that he had become a homewrecker after all, though not in the usual sense of the word) while Luo Binghe just seemed increasingly confused.
"Is...Binghe not courting anyone?"
That got a different reaction, at least. Luo Binghe's eyes widened and he blushed, having to look to the side though he kept shooting looks in his direction. "...there is someone. But this disciple hasn't been bold enough to say anything yet."
Ah. So he's taking it slow then. Shen Qingqiu considered it and thought...that was good, wasn't it? They were both rather young so it was best not to rush into these things! (He swallowed the lump in his throat and decided to ignore it henceforth.) Still! Binghe! If you drag your feet too much things will never get anywhere!
"Binghe should tell this person his feelings." Then he brightened. "Binghe should tell this teacher who this person is." Even though he already knew. But he couldn't just come out and say that! "I will be sure to put in a good word for you." Absent any other parental figure, Shen Qingqiu was the one who should be acting in that role, right? If it's like that, then...he could visit them worry free!
Luo Binghe's expression was complicated, like he wasn't sure if he wanted to cry or laugh. "Forgive this disciple, but I cannot tell Shizun who this person is."
Oh? Why so secretive? Could it be that Luo Binghe was embarrassed?
His smile was indulgent at the thought. "Then perhaps Binghe might tell this teacher why he hasn't said anything to this person?"
He didn't expect the way Luo Binghe stared, the way he looked away with bitten lips and hands curled into fists. Then he sighed, his features easing again. "Because they are...someone truly amazing. This disciple would be happy if he could be allowed to remain by this person's side." He said 'would' but to Shen Qingqiu it sounded a bit more like he meant 'should' with how miserable he looked, as if he wanted more than that but didn't think it was possible.
He found himself unexpectedly annoyed all of a sudden.
Because...why should he think that! Binghe was really handsome! He cooked some of the best food Shen Qingqiu had ever eaten, and he'd lived for 800 years! (Of course, for the first century or so he hadn't had much taste for finer things in life, having not even gotten used to the idea of cooking yet.) And he was hardworking and intelligent and handsome to boot!
Really! Shen Jiu was lucky to have netted himself such a fine catch!
Still, he did his best to keep his feelings off his face. This wasn't the time for that!
"Has Binghe considered that the person he cares about may feel the same?" He watched the way Luo Binghe's head snapped up again in surprise. "If neither of you say anything, how will either of you know how the other feels? Perhaps they are waiting for Binghe to say something first."
The surprise turned to contemplation and then, slowly into a fragile sort of hope. "Does Shizun think...does this disciple have a chance?"
Shen Qingqiu nodded. "Any man would be lucky to have Binghe's regard." He insisted.
By this point, he half-expected Luo Binghe to burst into tears. Yet, instead of that, his face flushed red and he had to wonder about that reaction.
Binghe! If you're embarrassed what am I supposed to do!? He looked away to the side and missed the slow smile that stretched over Luo Binghe's face.
"...this disciple will make sure to tell his important person his feelings. But he must make this person wait for a little longer until the time is right."
"It is good not to rush into things." Shen Qingqiu agreed. "But do not hesitate too long, Binghe. Time is not a resource to be squandered."
"Many thanks to Shizun for the reminder."
Luo Binghe arranged for a carriage. For most people, only the base and the area thereabouts are accessible. The peaks themselves are only accessible with the jade token he'd found hanging at the end of the fan Shizun had left behind. (The fact that he'd left it behind, that when Luo Binghe had tried to return it, his Shizun had reached out to close Luo Binghe's hands over the token again and told him to hold onto it...it was as much a confirmation that he was wanted as his Shizun's words in the bamboo hut had been.)
They could have traveled by sword and gotten there faster, maybe. But they'd traveled this way the first time, when he'd been a child, freshly taken from a life on the streets to a home finer than any he'd known.
It was nostalgic, sharing a carriage like this.
His Shizun (who had chosen a form that hid his fox ears and tail) smiled at him and said, not long after they set out, "It has been a while since Binghe and I have been in a carriage together like this."
(It had been exactly two years, one month and five days. But does it matter when every day apart was like an eternity?)
It made him happy, the realization that his Shizun had perhaps, also missed these sorts of things. They talked as they travelled, about nothing and everything. Until, during a lull in the conversation, Luo Binghe brought up a topic that needed to be dealt with.
"If I may ask...why did Shizun send Shen Jiu to me?" That was something he had wondered about for a while without being able to come to an answer one way or another. He had thought once, that perhaps Shen Jiu had been a clue to finding his Shizun again. Except...he'd run when Luo Binghe had arrived. And, judging by his expression when he saw Luo Binghe at his door, he clearly hadn't expected his disciple to find him at all.
(It was a disquieting thought that knocked against all the little things that he took for comforts.)
His Shizun was quiet for a moment and his expression was unreadable which has never boded well because Shizun was a person who tried not to let any emotion that could be thought of as negative show. It made Luo Binghe sit up straighter.
Instead of an answer, he got a question in return. "What does Binghe think of that person?"
...was this a test?
Though if it were a test and he tried to give the answer his Shizun wanted to hear...he would only upset his Shizun, wouldn't he?
"He is organized, ruthless and shrewd." He said finally, "he's been left in charge of the estate in my absences."
His Shizun frowned. "But regarding Binghe's feelings for this person..."
He shrugged. "I am grateful to him for telling me how to find Shizun, but he had also hid your location from me." The two balanced each other out, but if his Shizun felt one way or another it would easily tip the scales.
His Shizun seemed surprised, which seemed to further debunk the theory that Shen Jiu was meant to help with this. "He told you how to find me?"
Luo Binghe nodded. "He recognized the jade token on your fan because he had one of his own."
"Did Binghe get a good look at it?" A nod, then his Shizun gestured with his fan a gesture that often precluded the words, "Tell me what you can recall of it."
When Luo Binghe was done, his Shizun's expression was complicated. "Does Shizun know whose token it is?"
"Yes...though I wonder what these two have to do with each other..." Then his Shizun waved off the thought. "I suppose it doesn't matter. The tokens only let those we want to let into our peaks past the barrier."
And, just like that, it no longer mattered why his Shizun had wanted him to find Shen Jiu because...because...
"Shizun...Shizun had wanted me to come find him?"
The question seemed to catch his Shizun off guard, as if he hadn't considered the implications of his words before he said them. The way he opened his fan in front of himself to hide his embarrassment was as much an answer as the belated nod he gave.
Luo Binghe's heart swelled with the knowledge--the proof that whatever reason his Shizun had for running that day, for leaving behind him for these two years it hadn't been because he wasn't wanted.
It made him happy. It was also embarrassing because here he had promised to himself to tell his most important person his feelings but Shizun still beat him to it! (He still had a long way to go, it seemed.)
He resolved to do better. He reached across the space of the carriage and took Shen Qingqiu's hand between his. "This disciple will not disappoint you!"
Shen Qingqiu thought, life was funny sometime.
To think he had come to save Luo Binghe from a future toxic marriage only to have accidentally made it...not happen.
He'd tried to bring up the subject of Shen Jiu again, but Luo Binghe seemed to have stopped caring about the question as soon as he knew Shen Qingqiu had wanted him at Qing Jing Peak.
And so the subject was dropped without much ceremony.
But Shen Qingqiu was plagued by a new question: if the person Luo Binghe was in love with wasn't Shen Jiu then who was it?
He tried not to think about it too hard in the following days because...because there was an answer he wanted, one he tucked away at the bottom of his heart and buried under thoughts of how nice it was to spend time together again, how wonderful the weather had been and how impressive Binghe's come along with his training all by himself. He wouldn't have been able to tell the horses weren't horses if it weren't for the fact that they had no driver!
He had been doing a very good job at pretending up until they ran into a storm. (And there was life being funny again. That this would happen again, with this person.)
By the time they get to the inn, Shen Qingqiu had to wear Luo Binghe's heavy cloak with the hood up in case he lost his hold on a perfectly human form. The coming storm was enough to explain their haste and the money they paid did the rest to ensure no questions were asked.
As soon as they were in the room, Luo Binghe shut the door. Pulling out a knife, he drew a fine line of red over the palm, before pressing it to the wood. There was a faint red glow that quickly dimmed to nothing and when he took his hand off there was no trace of anything having changed.
When he turned, his Shizun was frowning at him, the hood down around his shoulders. "Demon blood has many uses." He tried to explain but it only made his Shizun's frown deeper and it cut worse than the blade on his hand did for a moment.
Then there was a hand cradling his, and this close, Luo Binghe could spot the concern in his eyes and that made him breathe more easily. The wound, small as it had been, had already healed and, as with the door, there was no indication that he had done anything.
"Binghe shouldn't resort to such means for something so small. A simple spell or illusion would have worked just fine."
And he shook his head because nothing less than the most secure seal was acceptable. Not when it came to the safety of the person standing before him. In a sudden surge of courage, he turned his hand over, so their palms were touching, sliding just a fraction lower so he could close his thumb and forefinger over the dip of his Shizun's wrist.
"This disciple will do what he has to to protect you."
For a wild moment, Luo Binghe thought about using that loose grip to pull the two of them closer, to finally feel what it'd be like to hold this person close, to wrap an arm around his waist, to breathe in the scent of him. Maybe to slide his hand back so they could entwine their fingers, to lean down and press their mouths together and--
A rumble of thunder made his Shizun's grip tighten, his hand trembling.
Suddenly, Luo Binghe felt shame for his fantasies. Hadn't he promised to protect this person? Hadn't he already decided to respect the depth of this person's feelings by confessing in a proper setting? Wasn't that part of the reason for this trip?
To let his mind wander to such things while in this situation--!
"Forgive this disciple, Shizun." He murmured, head bowed as he led his Shizun to sit on the bed.
"There is...nothing to forgive." Was his Shizun's distracted reply. Trying to pry apart his white-knuckled grip on Luo Binghe's wrist was too difficult so he sat beside him instead.
"What does Shizun need this disciple to do?" If he had asked earlier, he knew his Shizun wouldn't have said anything...and even now, he said nothing. But his eyes were wide, his breathing shallow and quick. He leaned forward and Luo Binghe caught him around the shoulder. He clutched at his clothes when there was a flash of lighting, as if cast away to sea and Luo Binghe was his only way to weather the storm.
Luo Binghe thought of nothing except how much he wishes he could send the storm away. They sat like that and from one moment to another, while he was still busy glaring at the closed window, the paper and wood the only thing between them and the sky beyond, he felt a shift and the brush of his Shizun's red ears against his chin.
He reached out then, to draw the curtains around the bed closed, little good though it would do and promised himself he would watch over his Shizun until the storm passed.
Shen Qingqiu didn't fall asleep so much as pass out at some point in the evening. Even that much was out of the norm for an evening spent cowering from the storm.
When he thought about it, this has only happened twice and both times he'd been in the arms of the same person.
The person that seemed to be missing from, not only this bed but from the room entirely.
Sniffing the air, Shen Qingqiu sat up, his tails shifting as he moved. The iron scent of blood on the door was a distraction but even so he could still catch Luo Binghe's scent in the air, fresh enough he couldn't have been gone long. Perhaps two hours. He shook himself and fur was once again skin and the feet that touched the ground were human-shaped.
He also caught the smell of an illusion cast about the room and Shen Qingqiu poked and prodded at it until the door to the room opened.
"The kitchen had dried lily bulbs but beetles had gotten to them." He explained when he noticed Shen Qingqiu was awake.
Shen Qingqiu wasn't embarrassed by the way his ears perk up and his tails swayed in a subtle motion a lot like wagging as Luo Binghe set the congee and the tea on the table. There were two portions because Shen Qingqiu had long since made sure Luo Binghe didn't forget to feed himself (and it had worked better than trying to remind him to remember his gloves). The smell was familiar, warm and it made his chest ache and ease in equal measures.
Which was really confusing but then again, he wasn't very inclined to question it right now after an evening of very little sleep and an awful lot of mindless terror.
So he'll just accept it!
Also he's really hungry since he had skipped dinner the night before.
After the first sip of the warm tea though something occurred to him.
Binghe had said, the tea and the congee had been for 'settling nerves'.
He finished drinking the tea and digesting the implications of that thought. When had Binghe even started this little tradition of theirs? It felt like they'd been doing it since the beginning.
"How long has Binghe known?"
For some reason, Luo Binghe was the one who looked embarrassed.
Really? What do you have to be embarrassed about??
"I didn't have proof until the winter when Shizun disappeared but...this untrustworthy disciple had long suspected."
Shen Qingqiu stared at him over the steaming bowl of congee while Luo Binghe sat, shoulders hunched as if waiting to be scolded for having figured out that his teacher who had hid from thunderstorms, specialized in illusions and seemed to have a very poor grasp of some common human things wasn't human.
"...it was never a question of trust." Came after a soft sigh that this person just seemed to pull from him near constantly. "But if it had been, Binghe has proven himself tenfold, hasn't he?"
When Luo Binghe looked up, there were unshed tears in his eyes (again! Why is it like this!? Luo Binghe are you made of water!?). "Shizun...this disciple can understand Shizun's difficulties after their time apart. It wasn't Shizun's fault that he lives in a world where others would judge him for what he is instead of who he is. But," He sits up straighter and there was a glint in his eyes that had nothing to do with the reflective property of liquids and it made a shiver go down Shen Qingqiu's spine. "I promise, Shizun will never have to fear for that again! This disciple...this Luo Binghe will absolutely protect you!"
The declaration was so heartfelt that Shen Qingqiu couldn't possibly have doubted its sincerity. And it made his heart race as Luo Binghe continued to just...look deeply into his eyes.
Binghe! It's too early in the morning for this sort of thing!
His fingers itched for his fan to hid his face behind. "What nonsense...as your teacher, I should be the one protecting you. When have you ever heard of it being the other way around?"
And, in order to distract himself from that intense stare, he reached for his portion of the congee.
Only to find his hand intercepted. Luo Binghe's hand on his was gentle, but unrelenting until Shen Qingqiu looked up at him.
"Hearing that makes this disciple really happy." But his expression was still set the same as it was before. That intensity really was too much! "But even so...I will become stronger so that Shizun will no longer have to worry about such things."
Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. "My hand." He said for the lack of anything better.
Luo Binghe let go. "My apologies."
Shen Qingqiu waved it off because, it was fine! Everything was fine! He wasn't embarrassed or anything (and he most definitely didn't almost rub at the spot Binghe just touched, like he could keep the warmth there for a moment longer). "There is no need to apologize." Then he picked up the congee and the spoon. But pauses before he took the first bite. "Binghe truly has grown into a splendid young man."
He smiled and it seemed to knock that intense look right off Luo Binghe's face as he blushed and stammered. Something about still having a long way to go and how Shizun should eat his breakfast before it got cold.
The estate was far less quiet than it had been when only the two of them lived there. He'd warned his Shizun ahead of time, let him know about what Luo Binghe had been up to the last two years but it was clear Shen Qingiu had still been surprised when he stepped through the doors to find the courtyard abuzz with activity.
"I sent word ahead after we made it into town." Luo Binghe admitted when they were met at the door by an older gentleman to take their horses in.
Past the walls there was a carefully crafted illusion that presented a household of normal humans so the foxes in the home were free to wander in whichever form they saw fit. It was something Luo Binghe was rather proud of for having come up with.
(He'd shared it with his Shizun after the night of the storm and his Shizun's eyes had lit up when they got to discussing the particulars of the illusion, all the little bits that made it work.
"Binghe has outdone himself. This teacher had considered it before but the expenditure of energy is far more inefficient compared to what Binghe has created."
And, really, that was more than he could ever have asked for.)
Ning Yingying, the first of the foxes he'd saved, was also the first to approach them when they entered. Her smile was bright and earnest as she bowed to them. "So this is A-Luo's Shizun?" She asked, the same question that was on the face of everyone around them as they peered at Shen Qingqiu like they've heard enough stories about him to have something to compare the real thing to.
And, of course they did. Because Luo Binghe made sure to tell them and that's why he knew, the stories could only pale in comparison to the real thing.
His Shizun cast a brief look at him from the corner of his eyes, as if he guessed already why this was happening and nodded, as elegant as ever. "I am. Though I had only taught him for five years. What he has achieved these last two years, I cannot take credit for."
"Shizun is too humble." Luo Binghe said, turning his head to smile at him before turning back to Ning Yingying. "Everything I have achieved is because of this person."
Ning Yingying smiled at them, and it was filled with such fondness. But then, Luo Binghe always knew she'd like Shizun too. "A-Luo will not be eating dinner with us tonight then?"
She nodded as if she'd already guessed then excused herself.
When Luo Binghe turned back his Shizun had a peculiar sort of expression on his face. "That person is important to Binghe?" Was asked quietly once they'd left the crowded courtyard behind.
"She's a friend." He said because that was all it was. And though his Shizun's expression didn't let up he left the subject at that. "I rescued her from a person who accused her of stealing from his home."
"Ah." And his Shizun's expression became dour for a much more discernible reason. "That is how it is sometimes with fox spirits." He tilted his head. "So Binghe was her saviour?"
"Something like that." They fell into easy conversations about finances and the expansions they've had to do on the house. And also Shen Jiu's constant complaints about him bringing more residents back every time he left.
His Shizun looked thoughtful. "Perhaps some of them can come live on Qing Jing Peak. Or even one of the other peaks. Many of the other Peak Lords have taken in students and refugees before."
That, Luo Binghe hadn't known. He remembered that conversation they'd had when they first arrived at this place, how incensed he'd been that such a wonderful person like his Shizun had no one to take care of him. "Was I really your first disciple?"
"Of course." He said just as easily as he had seven years ago (and somehow, even now it made Luo Binghe giddy for being special to this person). "...though perhaps if some of the ones who choose to live on Qing Jing Peak wish it I could teach them as well."
Luo Binghe considered that for a moment before deciding that was fine. "I could think of no greater honour for them." In this, at least, he was content to be the first if not the only of Shizun's students.
Luo Binghe hadn't been lying when he said his room hadn't been touched. Everything looked exactly as he remembered it! Even the things he'd packed when he'd been preparing to leave were still there, wrapped in cloth and ready for travel.
There were signs that someone had been here though. There was no dust, for one. And anything in the room that needed maintaining like his instrument were well taken care of. There were also new volumes on his bookshelf.
Honestly, this Luo Binghe...!
He was reacquainting himself with some of his fans (he'd left a few favourites here), when there was a knock at the door.
"Pardon this disciple's intrusion." The door opened and closed behind Luo Binghe. He looked the same as always but Shen Qingqiu could smell the nervousness on him.
"Is something the matter, Binghe?"
"None." He said. "Has Shizun had the chance to take a look at the books this disciple brought him?"
"Not in detail but this master has flipped through one or two."
"Are they to Shizun's liking?" And Shen Qingqiu swore that if Luo Binghe were a dog his tail would probably be wagging right now. The thought amused him enough to make him smile.
"Mn. Binghe chose well."
That praise just made him brighten even more. "There are more! They didn't fit on the shelf so this disciple made a space for them elsewhere. If Shizun would be willing to follow me, I can show you."
And since Shen Qingqiu's weakness was books (and food and warm sunny spots and, apparently, Luo Binghe's tears and smiles), he was more than happy to follow. Luo Binghe led him to a door that Shen Qingqiu remembered led to a room they'd mostly used to store unused furniture...though now those probably were in use. Perhaps Binghe was keeping the books on the bookshelf in the room.
But when they walked through the door, Shen Qingqiu realizes he'd been mistaken. Luo Binghe hadn't set aside a shelf in the room for the books bought. Rather, the entire room had been converted into a sort of small library.
His eyes were wide as he looked at the shelves covering the walls that were in turn covered in books.
Luo Binghe said, suddenly sounding shy, "all this is for Shizun."
How did he even collect these many books in two years? And had he...had he chosen all these books himself?
"Binghe..." He turned and was surprised again. Why are standing so close, Binghe!?
The fan, which had already been open, came up higher on instinct, as if he were trying to hide. But it only made the look in Luo Binghe's eyes soften further. Shen Qingqiu got a sense then, of what was about to happen though there was a part that didn't dare to believe it could.
"Shizun...let's get married."
...nevermind. That was entirely not where Shen Qingqiu was expecting this to go! Binghe! What are you doing!? Haven't you just skipped a few steps!? Shouldn't you start smaller? Something like, "I want you stay with you"? Or even "I'll always protect you" is also acceptable!
And, if the shock itself wasn't bad enough...Shen Qingqiu was sure if he were to lower his fan he'd probably be able to feel Binghe's breath...he could already sense the heat of his body! Their faces were close! Too close, Binghe!! Give him some space, ah!
"Shizun..." Luo Binghe said, one hand coming to hold his bicep and the other settling on the crook of his elbow. You know. The one attached to the hand holding up his fan! His last line of defense against--against--
He was embarrassed just thinking it! It wasn't that sex and physical intimacy embarrassed him. He had been a fox before he started cultivating, after all. Such things were natural. But the affection, the soft look in Luo Binghe's eyes...that was the part that was embarrassing. He raised his fan higher, not hiding his eyes but hopefully high enough to hide most of his blushing cheeks.
He and Luo Binghe stared at each other like that for a moment when...nothing happened.
Luo Binghe didn't pull his arm down. Instead his hand slid higher to his wrist, holding it gently, thumb rubbing against a jutting bone there. There was a careful sort of want in that touch. Loose, so he could pull away if he wanted to. Lingering, as if he wanted to beg him to accept. It matched the look in his eyes as if Shen Qingqiu's one word could make or break his world.
And he'd never felt more wanted nor more terrified in his life.
(Is it wise to put one's heart in the hands of another like this? Binghe have you thought carefully about this?)
That he had been waiting for a confession, that he had anticipated being kissed just now...what did that say about his own feelings? He felt dizzy from the implications so he decided not to think about it too hard.
The fact of the matter was, there were an uncountable number of reasons for why this was a terrible idea. Right at the top of that was the fact that a relationship between a spirit and a demon tended to end in tragedy. Yet, that seemed like a terrible reason to refuse. Because Luo Binghe was the result of a similar union (they still had to have a conversation about that. But Binghe hadn't asked and his one attempt at bringing it up had been met with an indifferent shrug) and it seemed too cruel to tell him that such a thing was destined for failure.
And somehow, even just thinking it made him angry.
Who decided such a thing, anyway? And didn't most of those stories turn out badly because the people inside them couldn't trust each other? He wasn't going to make that mistake. If the world was determined to prove that the love that had brought Luo Binghe into this world was a mistake then Shen Qingqiu would prove that the world was wrong!
Because...a part of him thought Luo Binghe deserved to be happy. Wasn't that what started this whole mess in the first place? Because Luo Binghe had a spark of kindness that Shen Qingqiu couldn't allow to be smothered out of existence?
And, devoid of any excuse like the world won't accept us, did he really want to refuse?
Slowly, he lowered the fan, watched the way Luo Binghe's eyes widened like he was being offered something precious, something he wasn't sure he was allowed to have. It was only then that he let go of his wrist, reaching up to cup Shen Qingqiu's cheek.
They stood like that for a split second, just...staring at each other in a way that was so embarrassing, Shen Qingqiu was sure would kill him. So Shen Qingqiu leaned in, closing that last bit of distance to kiss Luo Binghe.
It was nothing more than a brief touch of lips, but Luo Binghe made a sound like he'd just been gutted and...
Suddenly, his hands were holding nothing as Shen Qingqiu dropped to the ground, only two feet tall, and covered in fur that hid his blush better than the fan ever could.
It should be disappointing, but instead, Luo Binghe found it endearing (nothing could be disappointing when his heart sang with the knowledge that his Shizun had kissed him).
The fox was staring pointedly at one of the lower shelves, his tails twitching erratically. Luo Binghe had to hold back from scooping his Shizun into his arms.
"...something like marriage." He said finally, still not looking at Luo Binghe at all. "That should be discussed at a later date."
It didn't sound like a rejection, and that made him even happier than he thought possible after already being kissed.
"This disciple will accept any answer whenever Shizun is ready to give it!"
After all, Luo Binghe had already waited for years now. He could wait for a little bit longer.
(And it was worth it, in the end, to be able to hold his Shizun in wedding clothes, to have the privilege to call him husband over and over again and know that his Shizun had chosen him. Until Shen Qingqiu pinched him on the side, his ears flat in embarrassment even as he couldn't hold back a smile.)
Shen Qingqiu was reading when Liu Qingge came and threw a few wooden signs on the floor. "These are all over your peak. Close to the base."
Closing the book after carefully marking his page, Shen Qingqiu leaned over to pick up on of the wooden signs. There was a scent clinging to it that Shen Qingqiu could use to trace it back to where it'd been planted into the dirt, as well as ink and his husband's smell.
So he knew who had made these even before he recognized the handwriting responsible for 'In these mountains lives a holy fox. Death awaits those who intend harm.'
He looked at the small pile before him, then looks back at Liu Qingge. "...how many of these are there?"
Liu Qingge shrugged.
...when Luo Binghe came back, Shen Qingqiu felt, beating him over the head with this sign would be a just punishment.