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rolling in the deep

Chapter Text

The air was frosty with the onset of winter; Ye Xiu rubbed his hands together, his thin gloves doing nothing to shield him from the cold.

The convenience store was a short walk from his apartment. In Beijing, everything seemed to be designed to take as little ground space as possible. Thin slivers of buildings stretched up into the heavens, framing the midnight sky with metal and glass.

Ye Xiu certainly wasn't complaining. Housing was cheaper in this district, compared to some of the richer areas where half an acre of land could sell as much as a hundred million yuan. He stalked into the apartment complex lobby, releasing a long sigh of relief as the warm heater washed over him, then traced the familiar steps to the elevator.

He stopped in front of the small door labelled 903, knocking against the thin plywood.

"Took you long enough," his roommate groaned. There was the sound of objects shuffling around, and then footsteps. Wei Chen slammed the door open a moment later, scratching his stubble.

Ye Xiu slipped out of his shoes and stepped through the threshold, throwing his jacket onto the sofa. The entryway was dim, the only light source Wei Chen's open PSP in the corner. More light was present further into the shared common room, the billboard from the club across the street flickering red and pink against the cabinets.

"I got ramen," Ye Xiu offered, slipping the plastic bag off his wrist. He threw the packages out on the kitchen counter one at a time: spicy, chili, curry, Thai-style, seafood. "Your choice today."

Wei Chen swooped next to him. "Thanks, bro," he crowed, grabbing the ostentatious green packaging of the curry ramen. "I haven't had something decent for weeks."

He bent down under the counter, digging through the piles of junk before he found a cigarette lighter. With expert ease, the small burner stove was happily lit, the blue flames trembling in the dark. A pot was dug out from one of the dusty cabinets, and the cheap bottle of water Ye Xiu had also bought quickly emptied.

Ye Xiu found two relatively clean bowls, wiping them down with a kitchen rag for good measure. Afterwards he settled himself comfortably against the sofa, opening his phone to the newest release of Revelation.

Wei Chen had finished cooking by the time Ye Xiu defeated the first BOSS. The smell of curry pervaded the small flat, strong and pungent. There was also a faint aftertaste of gas, although it was a regular enough occurence that Ye Xiu could disregard it entirely.

"Food's ready," Wei Chen called from the other side of the room, spooning the ramen into both bowls. He set them on top of the kitchen counter, grabbing two pairs of chopsticks from a drawer.

"Coming," Ye Xiu responded lazily, tossing his phone to the side on top of his jacket. He stood up too fast, wincing at the sudden ache that burned at the side of his waist.

"Aiyo, it still hasn't healed?" Wei Chen asked with no small amount of concern. He flicked on one of the switches, flooding the kitchen with a sudden influx of light. "Didn't the hospital clear you a month ago?"

Ye Xiu shook his head. "Turn it off," he said, gesturing at the light. Wei Chen did so with some reluctance. "It's nothing. You try getting hit by a truck and then we'll talk."

It wasn't the worst he'd experienced ever since the System had forced him through the grueling transmigrations. He didn't miss any of the worlds he'd had to endure in; the absence of zombie rampages or bloody civil wars was anything but unwelcome.

"Don't overestimate yourself, Old Ye," Wei Chen warned, but didn't say anything else. Ye Xiu was grateful for the silence. He scrambled over the piles of discarded clothing and the newspapers Wei Chen was so fond of collecting, settling into his seat with quiet dignity.

The noodles were too hot in his mouth. He paused, blowing on the chopstick, before slurping the mass down in one smooth movement. It tasted cheap and powdery. The curry flavor was mostly concentrated into smell; Wei Chen had put too much water, rendering the soup a watery mess.

"You good?" Wei Chen asked from the other end of the counter.

"It's good," Ye Xiu responded slowly. They both knew it was a lie. Wei Chen looked faintly embarrassed at having cooked something so bland, although any offer for Ye Xiu to avoid cooking was a welcome one.

"Tell me if your hip starts working up," Wei Chen muttered, slurping a mouthful of noodles. "You remember Lin Jie? He broke his leg tripping over a set of stairs last month."

Ye Xiu hadn't thought about Lin Jie for over half a decade. "His age finally caught up to him?" he tried to joke, but the humor came flat.

"That's a cheap shot," Wei Chen said. He sighed. "You can't heal so easily forever. You have to be more careful."

"Like I'll be hit by a car every different day of the week," Ye Xiu responded dryly.

"We're finally all old men," Wei Chen groaned, running a hand through his hair. He hadn't noticed Ye Xiu's poor attempt at deflection, too distracted by his own self-wallowing pity fest. "Nine more years and I'll be classified as the old geezer. No girl wants will want to marry a relic like me."

"Chen Guo's running up on her years, too," Ye Xiu offered, thinking of his boss. "I should introduce you two someday." It was unusual for her to be single at her age, especially as a young, pretty woman. If Wei Chen bothered to clean himself up he was decently handsome, although it was mainly the personality that turned girls away. Given Chen Guo's own spirited disposition, there was half a chance they'd get along enough to avoid murdering each other.

"Oh, forget it," Wei Chen said. He slurped up the remaining soup from the bowl. "What do you even know about love?"

How ironic, Ye Xiu thought to himself. Faces came to mind, although his memory was already starting to become fuzzy. What did he know?

Wei Chen collected the empty bowls and piled them up in the sink. "I'm going to sleep," he muttered, walking towards the direction of the bathroom. "Don't stay up too late."

Ye Xiu, left alone, shrugged and walked to his bedroom, holding back the yawn he'd repressed the entire evening. Sleep came to him easily.


The phone, left abandoned on the sofa, suddenly buzzed.

SU MUCHENG: Ye Xiu, there's a strange man looking for you.

SU MUCHENG: You aren't involved with any shady people, are you?

SU MUCHENG: He said his name was Wengzhou or something like that.

SU MUCHENG: Call me if you need help.

SU MUCHENG: Ye Xiu???

Chapter Text

The morning arrived quickly. Ye Xiu yawned, turning the alarm clock off, before pulling off the blankets, shoving his feet into the pair of dingy white slippers next to the futon.

He dressed frugally. Usually one sweater was warm enough to sustain him in the cold Beijing winter, although sometimes he'd borrow the winter coat from Wei Chen if necessity dictated it. He disliked wearing more than he had to. Melted snow never quite dried fast enough for the next day.

He'd forgotten to brush his teeth the previous night, so his breath was faintly rank, a mixture of cigarettes and curry. Ye Xiu wrinkled his nose, stalking to the bathroom and washing up for the morning.

Wei Chen was still asleep; he worked the afternoon shift, so he was never up until noon. Night was the only time they interacted, as Ye Xiu had a tendency of taking periodic naps and waking up in the evening, where they would then eat dinner together. It was a decent arrangement, and meant that one of them was in the apartment at all times. Ye Xiu felt faintly assured that if he were to go missing, there would at least be someone who noticed.

The elevator groaned as Ye Xiu stepped onto it. The apartment lobby was dark, all of the lights closed, and none of the front desk workers were present. The dawn sky was a faint pink.

Even in Beijing, which never seemed to sleep, the streets were quiet. A thin layer of snow blanketed the city, white and sterile. A few bicyclists swung through the streets, dragging dark tracks through the melting snow, and elderly couples hobbled on the sidewalks on their canes. It was too early for the businessmen to be out and about during the mid-morning work rush, but here and there a few yellow taxis could be seen, their motors shuddering in the cold.

Ye Xiu stopped by a vending machine, digging into his pockets for spare change. When he found none, he reached into his bag for his phone, hoping that his WeChat account still contained some funds.

There was nothing. He must have left his phone on the sofa last night. Ye Xiu cursed under his breath, but decided that Chen Guo's wrath wasn't worth going back for it. Despite everything, she paid relatively well for a service job. He could always deduct something from his salary for breakfast, and as long as he kept an eye on the customers it wasn't like he wasn't able to slack off.

He pushed through the rest of the half hour walk, ignoring the way his stomach growled with hunger.

A bell chimed as Ye Xiu pushed the door open to the Xingxin Internet Cafe. There were a few players scattered here and there that looked like they'd been pulling an all-nighter, but otherwise the room was relatively empty.

"Good morning," he said, greeting the young looking woman who worked the night shift. "Where's the Boss?"

She smiled at him gratefully, collecting her things. "She's upstairs sleeping," she replied. "She didn't look too well last night."

Ye Xiu had a faint suspicion that going upstairs to alert her to his presence would be a terrible idea.

"Thanks," he said, taking her place into the till. "You have a ride back?"

The young woman nodded. "My boyfriend's picking me up," she told him, the redness in her cheeks deepening. She hoisted her bag onto her shoulder. "He got a car license, actually, just so I wouldn't have to walk home in the snow."

It was so sweet it was almost sickening. Ye Xiu couldn't help but suddenly be reminded of a scenario back in Gloria, when that man had purchased him a...

He tried not to think about it.

"That's good," Ye Xiu says. It was methodical, almost, the way the routine happened every day. "Get home safe."

He tapped his fingers against the counter. His stomach happened to growl in that moment, low and insistent.

Ye Xiu dug through the cabinet under the counter, looking for something to fill his stomach for the time being. There were a few granola bars and potato chip bags scattered around. Chen Guo hadn't opened the hot food bar yet, so he made do with a pack of onion flavored chips, ringing the cost into the system.

The computer had been booted up by the previous employee. She'd evidently forgotten to log out of her jjwtc account, so Ye Xiu exited the tab for her, typing in the url to Dragon Oath instead. He hadn't played for a while; he had a while of time to kill.

Chen Guo came down an hour later, her hair mussed up and all over the place. She was dressed in a thick white winter coat, the edges flapping around her knees. A blue face mask hung sadly under her chin.

"You're already here?" she yawned, stretching a hand up to her mouth. She scratched her head. "Where's Ah Li?"

"She already finished her shift," Ye Xiu replied, his gaze sweeping over her and then back to the computer. "Her boyfriend picked her up."

Chen Guo nodded. "That must be nice," she said, and Ye Xiu's mind flashed over again to the ludicrous idea of setting her up with Wei Chen. The thought was dismissed as soon as it appeared; Ye Xiu had no wish to be caught in the aftermath.

They worked in relative silence for a while. Chen Guo put on her mask and began setting up the hot food station, which displayed a rather extensive array of breakfast foods. Chicken congee steamed from the open tin container, and the oily smell of you tiao sizzled under the heat lamp.

Like zombies, the internet cafe users began leaving their computers and shuffling to the food. Dark circles sagged under their eyelids, blearly from facing a screen for so long. No one said anything. Ye Xiu watched with morbid fascination as dollar coins and crumpled red bills were produced seemingly out of nowhere.

"How many?" Chen Guo said to a customer, pointing at the baozis. Her voice was slightly muffled from the face mask.

The man gestured with three fingers. Chen Guo grabbed the tongs and shoved three of the buns into a cheap paper bag, then opened her hand to catch the crinkled ball of fifty yuan that was thrown her way.

"Next!"

"How many," Chen Guo said to a young girl who couldn't have been much older than middle school age. She wrinkled her forehead slightly in disapproval at the sight, although she said nothing. Business was business, Ye Xiu thought to himself sardonically.

The girl stared dully at the counter. "Two," she said quietly. She looked like she would collapse any moment, supported only by the strings of pure resolution.

Chen Guo produced the buns, shoving it across the counter. A series of blue tens were dropped in succession.

And then rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

The line disappeared as soon as all of the gamers had been fed. Ye Xiu had managed to convince Chen Guo to give him the leftover you tiao, which he snacked on as he killed another mob on the computer with dextrous fingers.

 "I'm going out to buy cold medicine," Chen Guo announced after she'd closed the bar. The coat flapped ridiculously whenever she moved, reminiscent of an overfed goose. Which made sense in a way, Ye Xiu thought, because much like a goose, Chen Guo was unnecessarily aggressive, violent when unprovoked, and her attacks stung like nothing else. "Don't get up to any trouble, will you?"

Ye Xiu glanced briefly at the clock on the wall. He only had one more hour on his shift for today, something he intended to take full advantage of to defeat a particularly grueling dungeon.

 "Yeah," he nodded, if only to pacify Chen Guo. It wasn't like it would take long for her to return, anyway; what was the worse that could happen?


Nothing, it seemed. Chen Guo returned in another half an hour brandishing a prescription bag, scolded him for wasting employee hours playing games, and promptly disappeared upstairs, presumably to recuperate. Ye Xiu was left packing his bags in the last five minute interval of his shift, waiting for the afternoon employee to come and relieve him of his duties.

"I'm sorry I'm late," the newcomer gasped, holding onto his knees as he panted in exertion. "School let out late today, and Teacher Su punished me to stay behind and clean up because my deskmate Jiang Litian was messing around, and—"

"It's fine," Ye Xiu said, glancing at the clock again. He'd stayed overtime by fifteen minutes, which meant that he'd missed the afternoon bus and would have to walk home. It was hardly a loss, although Ye Xiu wasn't exactly the greatest fan of walking in the dark in the Beijing winter. It reminded him too much of—

"Get to work then, xiaozi," he said, resisting the urge to reach out and ruffle the boy's hair. He hadn't been too fond of Chen Guo's policy of hiring anyone who needed the job, which had resulted in quite a number of flaky employees and bored high schoolers, Still, Xiao Yue was hardly the worse employee they'd had in the shop; Ye Xiu supposed he could tolerate one or two tardies from him, especially when he knew the boy's less than stellar family situation.

"Thank you so much," Xiao Yue said, bowing down. His chin-length hair flopped all the way down with the movement, revealing the black roots to his dyed blonde hair. "I can't thank you enough thank you thank you thank you so much—"

Ye Xiu looked away, his stomach twisting knots. "I told you not to worry about it, brat," he said, trying to feign normalcy. It was hard to when his hand refused to stop shaking. "I need to get home now, so if you'll..."

"Oh, of course," Xiao Yue nodded eagerly, trading places with him to the registrar. "Stay safe, Mr. Ye."

Mr. Ye, Ye Xiu thought to himself as he exited into the cold evening chill, wrapping his arms around the base of his thin sweater. He regretted not taking Wei Chen's jacket that morning—Beijing's nights were infinitely less forgiving than her mornings. Am I that old now?

He wasn't young anymore, that was sure. Wei Chen was only three years older than him, and yet Ye Xiu had a hard time thinking of him now as anything other than a grizzled middle-aged man.

They'd been college students when Ye Xiu had first met his fellow enthusiast in Zhejiang University's Gaming Club, both of them fresh-faced and hopeful for the future. And now, ten years later, they were two leftover men sharing a shitty apartment on the ninth floor of an ancient (and probably not up to building code) skyscraper, raising, of all things, a varied collection of potted plants.

It really was cold. Ye Xiu couldn't help but shiver some more as he trudged through the icy streets, watching the sunset wrap itself around the sky in gauzy red. It would be dark in another ten minutes or so, and he had another twenty-five en-route to go.

He stopped at a vending machine hoping for a hot drink, only to remember that he'd left his phone back in the apartment with no spare change in sight. It was a miserable feeling, Ye Xiu contemplated, trying to distract himself from the inhospitable weather, to realize that he'd never fulfilled anything worthwhile in his own world. He'd never completed his dream of becoming a professional gamer, he'd never settled down to have kids, he'd never made any important contributions to the society around him that would be remembered through the ages.

He'd gotten hit by a truck and transported to other worlds, Ye Xiu thought, but that didn't really amount to anything that he did in this one. Unless, of course, one meant impact via insurance rates, but he'd ended up paying most of the bills with his own savings in the end regardless.

Although it hardly mattered now. He'd paid everything to go back to this world of mediocrity, and it wasn't as if he was unsatisfied with what normalcy had to offer.

His feet were cold and numb by the time he trudged back into the apartment complex. There was a supervisor sitting behind the apartment front desk this time, an old woman whose beady eyes seemed to linger on Ye Xiu for far too long for his comfort.

"Hurry along," the old woman finally said, seeing Ye Xiu glance strangely at her. "Don't dawdle now, hurry along, don't dawdle now..."

Ye Xiu, who was an upstanding Chinese citizen with strong moral values and filial feelings for the elderly, decided to show this reverence by jabbing the elevator buttons as quickly as he could to given the woman as much time to herself as she needed.

Strangely, the entire atmosphere of the building seemed off. Ye Xiu rubbed his hands together, feeling none of the characteristic warmth in the lobby as he usually did.

"Wei Chen," he said, knocking against the door to their shared apartment. The lights above him flickered, and Ye Xiu didn't understand the strange wrongness that seemed to be emanating around him. "I still don't have the key."

There wasn't a response. Ye Xiu frowned, considered making the journey down to the front desk to ask for a temporary duplicate, and then remembered the beady-eyed woman sitting in the spot now and decided against it.

"Wei Chen," he repeated, rapping his knuckles against the thin wooden door. "Are you still asleep?"

There was the sound of footsteps and objects being moved around. Ye Xiu sighed, crossing his arms as he waited for his roommate to open the door.

The door creaked open. Ye Xiu walked forward out of habit, striding into the crowded living room without looking, only to come to a pause when he saw the limp figure of Wei Chen sprawled over the sofa.

A pair of hands landed on Ye Xiu's shoulders from behind.

"Who's this Wei Chen?" a quiet voice asked, dangerous but all too familiar for comfort. "He lives with you?"

Ye Xiu froze. And then, despite his better judgement, slowly turned around.

Chapter Text

He had known who the voice belonged to the moment he had heard it, but it was still jarring to meet eye to eye with the young man in front of him once again. 

"Wenzhou," he said, his voice cracking.

Yu Wenzhou smiled at him warmly. "Ye-shishu."

He looked the same as the image in Ye Xiu's distant memory. As always, his hair was pinned up into a high bun, with little wisps framing his ears and forehead that gave him a scholarly impression. He was wearing a dark blue robe with dragon patterns lining the sleeves, one that Ye Xiu recognized but couldn't quite place. His blue eyes emitted a faint twinkle.

The words, however gentle they were, sent a cold shiver down his spine. He had never thought that he would ever hear that address directed towards him ever again, nor did he ever hope for anything of the sort. 

He realized he was trembling.

"How did you get here?" Ye Xiu demanded, taking a step back towards the still-open doorway. As he plotted his escape, a thought suddenly struck him. "And what did you do Old Wei?"

A sudden gust of wind blew past him. Behind him, the door slammed closed.

Yu Wenzhou, still smiling, clasped his hands together from underneath the long sleeves of his robes.

"I missed you, shishu," Yu Wenzhou said. "I missed you a lot."

He stepped forward, reaching his hand out, and grabbed one of Ye Xiu's shaking wrists.

"But now I've found you."

At the sudden skin-to-skin contact, a thousand memories began flashing past him—impossible tall mountains and weathered peaks—his robes fluttering in the wind—the air rushing around him as he swooped into the clouds, and everything was so small and insignificant below him, and he could stand there forever—

—and from when it all started: a young boy with innocent eyes, blinking impossibly big.

"Shishu, I missed you."

...

fuck!

Ye Xiu looked up, and cursed the System and all its ancestors with every centimeter of his entire one-hundred-and-seventy-eight glory.

"And what about Wei Chen," he said, and steeled himself to look back at the still body of his roommate. "What did you do to him?"

"Who is he?" Yu Wenzhou said, tilting his head casually, as if asking the weather. The air seemed to drop below freezing. Ye Xiu's quiet tremors grew into full-body shivers.

"My roommate," Ye Xiu said. At seeing Yu Wenzhou's blank expression, he quickly continued, "He only lives with me. I can't afford to live in this apartment alone, so someone else has to help me pay the bills—I mean, the rent."

Just as quickly, the atmopshere returned back to normal. Yu Wenzhou stepped forward and pulled him closer, until Ye Xiu was pressing against the crook of his shoulder. They were the same height, but Yu Wenzhou's frame was so much broader, and the size difference made it impossible for him to pull away. Not that he could, in his current state—the truck incident had placed him in a coma for a week, and his muscles had atrophied far beyond any hope for complete recovery in the meantime.

"You won't have to worry about rent," Yu Wenzhou murmured. "After all, shishu, you will be coming back with me."

???

??????

Ye Xiu tried to pull away, to no avail. There was a gleam in Yu Wenzhou's eyes that was anything but reassuring.

"How did you get here?" Ye Xiu repeated, almost desperately. "How did you find this place?"

"After shishu left, it was too lonely," Yu Wenzhou said. The edges of his lips curled up into an unsettling smile. "So I cut through all the boundaries of the worlds until I found shishu's."

That... was not a reassuring explanation. In fact, it only elicited more questions, all of which died at the tip of Ye Xiu's tongue when Yu Wenzhou grabbed his other wrist and pulled in one broad movement so that he was holding both of Ye Xiu's arms with one hand.

"Let's go home, shishu."

Let's not, Ye Xiu thought, but knew enough to reign in his sharp tongue for now.

Instead, he looked away from Yu Wenzhou's face, his interest caught by the delicate gold patterns on the sleeves of the robe in front of him.

Yu Wenzhou chuckled. "Has shishu recognized it, and perhaps still retains some fond memories of our time before?"

Ye Xiu tried to remember, but his memory failed him. Still, it wasn't hard to guess what significance the robe probably had to Yu Wenzhou: the man's habits were peculiar, and with the four decades of which Ye Xiu had known him, he could develop a broad guess.

"I bought it for you."

"So shishu does remember," Yu Wenzhou said, pleased. "It was back when I first became a direct disciple. Shishu told me that although it was big on me then, I would grow into it eventually."

With the context given, Ye Xiu realized that he did, in fact, remember:


It had happened a good two years since the System had deposited him into a cultivation world involving sects, wuxia, and all the mystique the avid novel reader he had been in the past could take. In this time, he had long adapted to his identity of "Ye Xiu", a Nascent Soul cultivator in the Lanyu Sect.

He had been drinking tea with the other Nascent Soul old fogeys, when his shixiong Fang Shijing had announced to all present that he was accepting his first disciple.

At the time, the mechanical ding of the System was unmistakable. He remembered sneaking his gaze to the side and reading the objective that the System assigned him, the start of almost half a century's worth of suffering:

「Obtain Yu Wenzhou's complete affections. Countdown: 49 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds」

「Affection level: +/- 0 %」

After he had finished inwardly panicking, a feat involving choking on tea and then rather ungracefully faceplanting on the table in front of his concerned sect members, he resolved to present himself as a doting, caring shishu and earn the young Yu Wenzhou's trust. Therefore, using the excuse of introducing his new martial nephew to the cultivation world, he began his quest by taking Yu Wenzhou out shopping for a brand new robe and some spare talismans.

That young orphan, deprived of love since birth, had latched onto him after the first act of real kindness in his entire life.

Every point towards completion that Ye Xiu had earned back then had been music to his ears. Every percentage of affection meant one step closer to finishing the objective, and finally, finally, returning home.

But it would never be that simple. What he would only realize much, much, later, was that Yu Wenzhou, for all his warm and virtous outward appearance, had been a blackened character from the start.


"Oh," said Ye Xiu, and closed his mouth. "So I did."

Yu Wenzhou's smile grew wider. "Shishu's memory has grown faint, so this lowly one will have to slowly assist shishu with remembering."

Suddenly, Ye Xiu remembered in graphic detail everything that had happened in Yu Wenzhou's underground "cultivation" palace, and decided that he wanted to take part of nothing of the sort.

"You really don't," Ye Xiu said, and even added a polite, "but thank you" at the end to show his sincerity.

Yu Wenzhou ignored him.

"You really are cruel, shishu," Yu Wenzhou said, pulling the hand that was grasping both of Ye Xiu's wrists. Ye Xiu jerked to the side, regaining his balance awkwardly a second later. "We were even dual cultivators, but you abandoned me without a second thought."

That... was a misleading statement. Dual cultivation implied dual consent, and his "abandonment" of Yu Wenzhou was less abandoning and more fleeing for his life.

Or not life. Yu Wenzhou never liked throwing away the things he loved, but being a little rough with something from time to time was nothing out of the ordinary, Ye Xiu included.

"I didn't abandon you," Ye Xiu said, trying to buy time. He considered his options: distract Yu Wenzhou (with what?), flee (could he even make it down the stairs in his current condition?), or somehow talk his way out of this (did he have the capability?). "My time ran out."

He wasn't exactly lying. The system had transported him away the moment the affection level had reached 100%, and that had just been that before he was whisked off to the next world.

Yu Wenzhou narrowed his eyes, loosening his grip on Ye Xiu's wrists. "Time?"

This. This was something he could work with. Ye Xiu swallowed, and then spoke.

"I can only spend so much time in another world," he said, a thousand different excuses running through his head. "I'm bound to my original world. If you try to bring me back, I'll be sent back regardless."

He could see Yu Wenzhou pausing in thought. Good. Yu Wenzhou took risks, but they were all carefully calibrated and calculated. He wouldn't risk losing Ye Xiu, at least not yet.

Perhaps Ye Xiu could even convince him to let him go for now.

Out of the sudden, Yu Wenzhou nodded.

"But that's simple," Yu Wenzhou said, and chuckled, his blue eyes twinkling. "I simply won't bring shishu back, then. I'll just remain here with shishu."

Ye Xiu froze.

"You can't," he said.

Yu Wenzhou's eyes narrowed dangerously. 

"Rent," Ye Xiu protested weakly. "I have someone else paying half of it. Beijing's too expensive to live alone, and you don't own any of the currency here, so you—well, you can't...."

"I'll just get rid of him for now, then," Yu Wenzhou said, looking pointedly at the still-unconsious Wei Chen. "Then, I'll find a way to bring shishu back."

"No, wait, don't, don't," Ye Xiu said hurriedly, and regretted bringing the topic up. "I suppose we can... make arrangements for you. Here."

Yu Wenzhou smiled, his expression almost akin to a satisifed cat. Ye Xiu felt a foreboding sense of deja vu.

"Wenzhou, let me go," Ye Xiu said, gesturing his chin at the two hands still in Yu Wenzhou's grip. "It isn't like I can run anytime soon in this state. Let me just pull out the sofa bed..."

He was babbling now, anything to distract Yu Wenzhou. Yu Wenzhou was still cautious, and in a territory that wasn't his own. If he could take advantage of this and make Yu Wenzhou think that Ye Xiu wouldn't ever be able to return back to that world, and then escape Beijing while he still could...

Yu Wenzhou looked at him, and for a second his eyes seemed to see entirely through Ye Xiu.

"En," he hummed, warmly. Ye Xiu relaxed, a second too early. "I'm afraid I can't, because, shishuyou were lying to me."

And before Ye Xiu could react, Yu Wenzhou's face was an inch away from his, and they were flying away through a dimensional talisman and into oblivion.

Chapter Text

He came to in small increments. 

Ye Xiu groaned, pressing an arm against his head. Everything ached. Stars spun in the back of his eyelids.

What...

And then it was all coming back: the apartment in shambles, Wei Chen missing, the talisman.

Right. The talisman.

Yu Wenzhou—!

Ye Xiu opened his eyes, but what he saw in front of him was nothing like what he expected. He was lying on the floor of what seemed to be a dilapidated warehouse, his surroundings dark and murky. The walls were covered in peeling paint and the tattered remains of what looked like were once posters. He was surrounded by a haphazard pile of empty boxes on his left side, on which a thick layer of dust had accumulated over time.

Nothing, he realized with what was quickly becoming a cool rush of relief, seemed like it belonged in a wuxia world.

He sat up slowly. A cloud of dust erupted with the movement. He choked on it, and spat out a mouthful of grey-tinged blood.

Something had gone wrong, he was sure of it. The dimensional talisman Yu Wenzhou used had misdirected somewhere in-between the space that overlapped worlds.

Now, the question was—where was Yu Wenzhou?

Ye Xiu spat out another mouthful of old blood onto the floor. It tasted of rust.

He wiped the corner of his mouth, and pressed a hand against the floor to steady himself as he crouched into a standing position. The first priority was to find out where he was, and if Yu Wenzhou was in the proximity.

There was a thin sliver of light in the corner behind the boxes. Ye Xiu pushed away a box near the bottom, only to find the entire stack crumbling down in a resounding crash.

The light came from the bottom of an immense steel roll-up door, about the length of a large van. What Ye Xiu was surprised to see, however, was the number of chains and padlocks that covered the door, barring the warehouse form the inside out.

He reached a hand out and attempted to pull at the chains, but they only clanked uselessly against each other. Further attempts resulted only in a blister on his right pointer finger and a stubbed toe which a chain had unceremoniously fallen on.

"Fuck," he swore under his breath. 

There had to be another exit. Ye Xiu looked around, but the rest of the warehouse was enshrouded in a dim gloom and impossible to decipher. Still, he wasn't ready to give up just yet. Pressing his uninjured left hand against the wall, he walked along the sides of the warehouse until he reached the other corner, then again, and again, until he was back to where he had begun. There were no other doors or exits that he could find.

How had he ended up here? He tried to think. No, that wasn't the important question. Where was he? What world was this? It seemed modern enough, so he crossed out the idea of magic or futuristic. Had he been here before? Was this a capture target world?

He ran through the names in his head. Yu Wenzhou... Han Wenqing... Fang Rui...

Nothing seemed to make sense.

Suddenly, in the distance, there was a low keening sound. Ye Xiu's head perked up immediately, following the direction of the sound. It was a low moan, as if some large animal had been injured. 

He froze. The only sound in his head was that of his pulse, a constant rhythm. 

Had he been transported into a rural area? Maybe it was only a dhole or leopard. He was overreacting. It wasn't a threat to him...

But there were more moans now, and now he could hear a loud shuffling noise accompanying it. It sounded like something was dragging its foot against the ground, almost like...

Suddenly, everything seemed to click together.

"Zhang Xinjie," Ye Xiu murmured.

A low chill spread through his body.

Zombies.

He tried to laugh, but it came out as a hoarse half-choking noise. Of all the worlds he could have ended up, the world with the ongoing zombie apocalypse was definitely the one he was least inclined to return to.

The noises were louder now, and closer. He could hear a faint rumbling sound as more and more of them approached his direction. Soon, there would be enough of them to surround the warehouse, and then his only fate would be to starve or be eaten.

It was the blood. The rational part of him remembered how zombies could detect the smell of blood in the air up to as far as a quarter mile away. The old blood he had coughed up must have drawn them out.

Before, the System would have given him plot armor. He remembered in his past run-through he had always been armed with guns and knives and basic first-aid kits. There would always be scenario-pushers to have the ML show up before it was too late.

Now was different. Without the System's protection, he was no different than any other cannon fodder NPC in this world.

Ye Xiu grit his teeth, reluctant to have everything end just like this. He needed to calm down and think.

Think, think, think

But there was nothing.

Would it really end up like this? Dragged away from his original world by Yu Wenzhou's crazed machinations, left to rot in an abandoned warehouse in the midst of the zombie apocalypse?

He needed a cigarette.

Ye Xiu looked around again. Some of the boxes that had overturned on the floor, he realized, weren't as empty as he'd thought. He desperately scrabbled for one, tearing it open. Inside there was what looked to be a stack of linens and a small flashlight.

He grabbed a linen, ripping apart some of the fabric near the edge to form a make-shift bandage for the blister. There wasn't any other use for them, so he tossed them aside, reaching for the flashlight.

It wasn't much bigger than his thumb. He turned on the switch at its side, directing it against the wall. The light was dimmer then he'd expected, but it was enough for him to get a good view from one of the untorn posters on the wall.

CITY D PROCESSING CENTER WORKER ATTENDANCE RECORD

Ye Xiu looked closer, frowning. In his memory, Zhang Xinjie's base was established in City B, which was located a sizable distance away. There would be no way Zhang Xinjie could appear now to play hero.

So he really was on his own. 

The thought overwhelmed him. Some part of him had hoped that the presence of zombies would attract Zhang Xinjie's attention, but now all hope was lost.

He found another wrapped box and opened it, but it only contained a stack of linen. Two more unboxings yielded the same results. It seemed that this factory only mass-produced fabric, and the flashlight in his hand had just coincidentally fell into one of the boxes during packaging.

Another dead end.

The moaning and shuffling noises were louder and louder now. From the barred roll-up door, he could see the shadows of something moving outside.

He sighed. 

How troublesome.

He sat down again, and sneezed as dust entered his nose.

Maybe it wasn't all that bad. He could see Su Muqiu in the afterlife and make amends once and for all. Maybe, in their next lives, they could even reincarnate together.

He had been chosen as a suitable host by the System because of all his regrets. In the current world he lived in now, what was there to live for?

The zombies were pounding on the door now. The sound echoed. The warehouse was creaking and shaking and dust was floating in clouds everywhere, and Ye Xiu sat there silently, staring blankly at the wall.

Suddenly, there was a new sound: a strange mix between banging and scraping, with the crunch of heavy footsteps intermixed between. The moans were increasing in intensity, until there was a sudden uneasy silence.

Ye Xiu jerked his head up as the roll-up door crashed down from its frame, the chains and padlocks crashing onto the floor below. A man appeared in front of the open doorway, covered in grime and rot.

"Lieutenant Colonel Ye," said the man.

Ye Xiu scrambled to his feet, scarcely believing his eyes.

"Han Wen—no, General Han?"

Han Wenqing stalked into the room in all his militaristic glory, a multitude of gold and silver metals hanging from his shirt. Even caked with a half-inch of dirt, he somehow looked valiant and handsome, the kind of impenetrable hero in nationalistic movies that young mothers brought their sons to in hopes that they'd end up more successful than whatever Ye Xiu had turned out to be (Ye Xiu, as the son of one such woman, was not bitter).

Somehow, Ye Xiu thought to himself, his eyebrows seemed to have grown an inch thicker in his absence.

"What are you doing here?" Ye Xiu asked in spite of himself. "How did you find me?"

Han Wenqing's forehead furrowed, which only made his eyebrows increase in size even more. "I was teleported here after a malfunction in the Transport System." He paused. "I sensed your presence in the warehouse, only to follow it and find it surrounded by monsters."

A malfunction? Was this really a coincidence?

Ye Xiu shook off the ominous thoughts and looked back at Han Wenqing again. "Thank you. For saving me."

Han Wenqing watched him stiffly.

"That time... why did you leave?"

That had been the question Ye Xiu wanted to avoid the most. He blinked, struggling to think of an excuse on the spot. What had he told Yu Wenzhou again? "My time ran out."

Han Wenqing looked at him calmly. "You blink in patterns of three when you attempt to hide the truth."

Which was a convenient thing to learn now, Ye Xiu thought sardonically, instead of a good some hours ago when he was trying to lie against a deranged maniac.

Instead, he said, "That's not important right now. General Han, we need to leave this world immediately."

Han Wenqing was the commanding general of an interstellar mecha fleet in 5000 AD. His presence in a post-apocalyptical world set in the twenty-first century was more than a little troubling. 

Something had gone very, very wrong. Something, Ye Xiu was beginning to suspect, had much to do with one Yu Wenzhou.

What had the man said again? 

I cut through all the boundaries of the worlds until I found shishu's.

"The equipment is currently unusable," Han Wenqing said. "There is no return route until it's fixed. For now, we are stranded here."

"..."

Ye Xiu inwardly cursed Yu Wenzhou's ancestors to the eighteenth generation. 

"Don't worry about the monsters," Han Wenqing said. "They aren't a threat to me."

Ye Xiu: "...I'm not worried about that."

Han Wenqing looked at him.

They stood there for a long moment before Han Wenqing spoke up again. He asked, "Why did you leave?"

Ye Xiu looked away. "I had to."

Han Wenqing nodded slowly. "Okay."

Ye Xiu ignored the guilt crawling up his spine. "We need to find a way to return to our worlds soon."

Something flashed in Han Wenqing's black pupils, dark and foreboding. "Are you going to leave again?"

Ye Xiu didn't look at him. "Let's not talk about this for now, General."

"Oh," said Han Wenqing. He didn't say anything else, but the corners of his mouth set into a firm frown.

Ye Xiu walked past him, stepping outside of the warehouse. It was a gruesome sight. The zombies Han Wenqing had dealt with had been rendered into chunks of twitching flesh, with oozing putrified entrails littered across the dirt. He caught sight of the head of what had once been a young woman, who stared back at him blankly with red eyes. There was still makeup visible on her face—she had been blissfully ignorant of her fate when she had put it on.

Han Wenqing stepped behind him, a silent presence.

"Let's go," Ye Xiu said, when the nausea passed. "We should try to get to City A by tonight. I have the directions."

He wanted to avoid another capture target at all costs. City A had also been reclaimed by humans, and was far away enough from City B that they would be able to avoid Zhang Xinjie. The last thing he needed was to have Han Wenqing and Zhang Xinjie meet each other and start a second apocalypse. 

Han Wenqing produced a handkerchief and wiped his grime-covered hands, then pressed a few buttons on his watch. In an instant, a digital hologram appeared over his arm. A second later, a motorcycle unfolded from what seemed to be thin air. 

"Here."

Ye Xiu climbed awkwardly onto the motorcycle behind Han Wenqing. He barely had enough time to accept the helmet that Han Wenqing offered him before they were speeding along the abandoned roads, the only sounds the whirr of the motor engine and the distant moans of the dead.