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game, set, match

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Generally speaking, Luo Binghe avoided trends.

It wasn't out of apathy nor some sense of detached superiority—the simple fact was that trends were made for those who could afford it, and Luo Binghe could not.

So it's to his surprise when his mother, the person companies specifically made those #1 MOM mugs for, came home one day with a brand new computer in tow.

It wasn't exactly brand new, she explained to him with a smile. One of the kids at the house she worked at bought a new laptop and tossed this one, after only a few months of use, away. She was lucky enough to intercept the disposal and brought it home to replace the old slow thing that Luo Binghe struggled with to complete his homework.

Connecting it to the downstairs fast food place's wifi is enough to get it up and running, and when he searches up specifications for the device itself, he's met with a long list of impressive sounding words. His mother, sitting next to him, listens patiently as he reads them out.

"A separate video card," she muses over after he's finished. "Isn't that nice? Now Binghe can play the same games as the other children."

She looks at him with all the confidence in the world, and in that moment, Luo Binghe forgets all the whispers and jeers—stupid, annoying, an unwanted child of an unwanted woman—and believes he'll finally make friends.

 

It isn't that easy. He's just as much an idiot as everyone says, turning on voice chat (put yourself out there, the cartoons tell him, easiest way to make friends is go out there and say hi!), and messing up immediately.

lol, one of the players types. you talk into the mic, not blow into it.

A string of reactions follow, Luo Binghe feels his face grow hot.

"Sorry!" he says, making sure he's far away enough now. "I'm new." he tries to explain.

no shit, another replies.

wait, a player with that expensive skin the game's advertising says, luo binghe?

"Umm, yes?"

Luo Binghe wants to punch himself the moment he answers. Who would remember him? Besides his mother, who would address him and think something nice?

you know him?

yea, they respond. he goes to my school.

hes awful. The words continue, each dropping like a stone in Luo Binghe's stomach. a total suckup, good thing the teachers dont buy it, he's always staring at everyone's things, trying to steal them.

ugh, someone types.

those kinds of people are so annoying!! dont they know acting like that is creepy?

maybe that's why he's always trying to eat the mic

only way to keep it safe

LOL 😂

Luo Binghe stops reading the chat.

The game itself isn't much better, people keep shooting in his direction, enemy and teammate alike—he doesn't want to know if the bullets are going to hurt and keeps running. As the timer counts down, he realizes they're herding him into a specific area.

And then. The tornado comes.

No matter how fast he runs towards the boundary line, it's faster. He can't outrun it, can't even heal because the action takes up precious seconds he could have used otherwise.

His health bar in the red, Luo Binghe waits for his character to die. He quits the match seconds after it happens, and goes to pour himself a glass of water.

 

He makes sure to have his mic disabled for the second game, hoping everything will go all right this time. As he jumps out of the aircraft, he spots a familiar username.

He goes out of his way to land further from the pack this time around, taking his time to explore. He finds that hitting things yields materials, and soon an empty fort is reduced to nothing outside of Luo Binghe's inventory.

It's a few minutes before he runs into another player, this one just as intent as wandering around as him. PeerlessCucumber, the name floating on top of their character reads. He walks up to Luo Binghe slowly, pausing to take in the mass deforestation, and types. you're new?

Luo Binghe bites his lip. He seems nice enough…

Yes, he replies.

And then thankfully, want me to show you how to build things?

Luo Binghe's response could not be more enthusiastic.

They play away the rest of the match with little pvp. Luo Binghe mostly breaks things while PeerlessCucumber demonstrates how to make new ones. The sounds of battle are far in the distance.

They chat a lot, his new friend undoubtedly older, every question of Luo Binghe's answered within seconds. By the time it ends, there's a friend request waiting in his inbox.

wanna go again, PeerlessCucumber asks as soon as Luo Binghe is done introducing himself (not too badly, he hopes) and thanking him for everything. i'm up for a couple more rounds.

Sorry, Luo Binghe types out, with no small sense of guilt. I promised mom I was only going to play for an hour.

He hit send, but Peerless Cucumber's usual lightning fast responses don't come. After a minute, he sighs, logging out and closing the program.

There was no doubt that his new friend was probably laughing at him for being such a baby. If Luo Binghe was lucky, he'd only make fun of him a little should they find themselves in a new match.

 


 

Several cities away, twelve year old Shen Yuan's fingers grip his mouse tight. This kid! He was way too cute!! Sincerely thanking him for a friend request! Sweetly talking about how his time was up! Who allowed this!?

Even he, himself, threw fits when he had to quit before he was done playing! Honestly! A kid, two whole years younger than him, being a literal angel? The cutest bun? Seriously, who allowed this!

Scrolling through the item store, Shen Yuan marks out some of his own favorite skins and taunts to gift later. As his senior, as an experienced player, it was only right that he teach this new kid the ropes.

Chapter Text

"And that's why you should give up on this dumbass idea right now!" Shen Jiu finishes up his lecture with a pointed finger and flourish, his complaints about his brother's current life choices temporarily coming to a stop.

"That's nice." Shen Yuan says, not bothering to lift his gaze from his recently acquired map. He shifts it slightly to catch the light better, and squints at the water-blurred letters. The sun-heated rock, his favorite spot for napping, had dried down the salvaged paper substantially, but the damage caused would remain.

Honestly, Shen Yuan could never fully understand humans. Why would you keep something meant to be recorded on something so fragile? They waved around giant blades of metal all the time, was it so hard to learn how to carve messages? Did their brains dry up from all that time out of the water?

There were a few exceptions to their disease, of course, he recalled with no small amount of fondness, thinking of the guest residing in his quarters 

After a few moments, Shen Yuan sighs and gestures for his brother to come closer, pointing at one specific label that the ink has smudged into incomprehensibility. "Can you tell what city this is?"

Shen Jiu's claws, carefully sharpened and perfect for hunting, press themselves into his own palms, drawing pinpricks of blood.

 

Siren gossip, as a whole, was incredibly boring. It was to be expected, of course, given that interactions between pods often led to bloody territory disputes, the aftermath too depressing to be appropriated for idle chatter.

The humans they came across—while capable of communicating—were generally relegated as dinner, and as such, asking about their stories and travels was not only rude, but also incredibly tasteless.

What that left was the constant and recycled complaints about the oceanids being pretentious assholes. And while those were technically correct, being incredibly generic and repeated ad nauseum could make anyone sick.

And then, when Shen Yuan felt like he would just rip out his hair and scream, he heard it. The story of a faraway prince.

Luo Binghe, named to honor the naiad who saved the queen, was the prince of a small but wealthy kingdom thousands of leagues away. It was an idyllic place, or so the story said, the lands fertile and a good natured king ruling with his wise queen by his side.

It was natural for this luck to inspire resentment and opportunists alike, and so, upon the request of a rival ruler, a group of bandits snuck into the palace one day and made off with the couple's precious son. Publicly, they would hold him for ransom—and have an unfortunate accident when transporting him back. Privately, the aforementioned ruler would pay off the bandits and sacrifice the child at the altar of whichever god was more popular at the time.

Hypothetically, the plan was simple and would remain quiet for eternity. However, with it spreading so far that even a backwater siren like Shen Yuan knowing the details, it was easy to infer that something had gone wrong

For you see, the only thing the gods liked more than throwing around their weight, was indulging in the opportunities it gave them. Namely, having sex. A lot of it. From nymphs to humans to other highly ranked deities, the gods fucked their way through them all, a preference for human royalty often reoccurring.

Naturally, this led to children of royalty carrying no small amount of divine blood, and out of fear of offending a god, they were rarely disinherited.

Luo Binghe, while born out of the king and queen's union, was no exception. Centuries of this practice had left what flowed in his veins a virtual salad bar of divine blood. And that popular god, having the intelligence to make it this far, decided not to risk their long-term work relationships for the prayers of a single, not even that loyal, mortal.

Appearing physically in front of the ruler to confront them would ruin their carefully cultivated "nice and approachable god" image and so outsourced the clean up onto one of the local nymphs. That specific nymph just happened to be cousin of the naiad who was honored by Luo Binghe's name. (At this point, Shen Yuan thought the relationships were getting a bit too complicated, but did not speak lest the tale end too soon).

That nymph, metaphorically speaking, flipped her shit, did the usual famine thing, and proceeded to misplace the child in the hustle bustle. And so, Luo Binghe was taken in by a sailor who thought he was the cutest ankle biter ever. He proceeded to forget about his heritage as he grew up, an unwillingness to push his luck going a bit too far, and similarly was reminded when he accidentally offended a minor god (who also did not want to fuck too much with that blood cocktail) and got himself cursed.

What did the curse actually do? Nobody knows, but legends (or soon to be ones, there was a waiting period for these things) say that he sailed these seas, intent on returning the home that he just now remembered.

The tale was repeated often, several sighing about how romantic it was, how tragic it was, and oh do you know which god cursed him? It was probably a tree nymph, I fucking hate tree nymphs.

And so, Shen Yuan, never one to ignore the call to adventure, set out to find this famed prince and see him for himself. In a little under two weeks, he had.

 

It was a bit depressing how easy it was. The first ship that he decided to do a catch and release strategy for—Shen Yuan would get information, they wouldn't get eaten, a win/win—just so happened to be a single manned vessel consisting of (1) very lost prince. Unlike Shen Jiu, who could tone down his allure through his generally shitty attitude, Shen Yuan hadn't practiced being an asshole enough and unfortunately caused that boat to crash against the rocks, giving the prince quite the unexpected dip.

Fishing him out, Shen Yuan did his best to expel the water from the prince's lungs, letting out a few tears of relief when he stirred.

Nursing him back to health was hard. Shen Yuan's pod were rather distant from the general area of deity induced smitings, and as such were not afraid of the consequences of consuming divine blood. It was only his position as technically their leader that had them stay their hand. His patient didn't help matters by being so overcome by the loss of his ship by turned red and looking away every single time Shen Yuan approached. He was sorry! Really!

In the meantime, Shen Yuan searched and guessed (but mostly guessed) to what kingdom Luo Binghe could have hailed from, the man's childhood memories vague and the stories even more so. The maps he salvaged from more intentionally sunk vessels, not as helpful as he imagined them to be.

And so, when Luo Binghe was healed, Shen Yuan presented him a new vessel as an apology—painstakingly liberated from a crew of pirates—and a list of locations where could either find his family or more information.

"I haven't actually been to any of these places," Shen Yuan said as he handed over the piece of carved wood to the prince. "But from what I inferred from the story, it should help?"

The prince reads through it with a solemn look, and then for the first time in months, looks him in the eyes, hesitance etched across handsome features.

"Would you like to?"

Chapter Text

Breakfast is a lonelier affair, nowadays. It's strange how its come about—as a child he always dreamt of luxury, of reclining on numerous silk covered pillows, pampered until he melted away. But now, honored as a guest of one of the most powerful merchant families in the west, praises of his eloquence sung in the streets, and only the purest of oils and herbs pressed into his morning meal, he can only focus on what is no longer there.

Images of a bright-eyed youth superimpose themselves over the empty spot besides him, a voice, determined, tells him that he'll definitely make something like this when we get back home!

His host smiles as he describes his daughter and her fiance. He stresses which qualities to publicize and what to skip over. He promises, as he winds down, to discuss the missing apprentice's symptoms with his associates and see if they have heard of anything similar.

Shen Qingqiu nods, his face blank.

 

Loving Luo Binghe is both the easiest and hardest thing that Shen Qingqiu has done.

The child he found years back, stealing from Cang Qiong's trees to feed his bedridden mother—the one he took in on a whim, promising both medicine and a future—soon grew into a handsome young man. He impressed even Shen Qingqiu's over-critical brother with his capability, his voice low and melodious as he repeated his teacher's verses, as he crafted his own.

He drew in admirers of all ages and genders with his allure. The young giggled and blushed at the descriptions of a celestial being whom his love could never reach, the elders hung on to his every word.

Last winter he had turned twenty, and given his accomplishments, a number of marriage requests were to be expected. Shen Qingqiu was almost buried underneath the flood. Royalty, merchants, farmers, even his brother's old fiancee, all had eyes on his apprentice.

After a moment of quelling down the pang of loneliness at the thought of his apprentice leaving and firmly deciding to be happy for him, Shen Qingqiu heads to Luo Binghe's rooms intent on relaying the good news.

What he found was his adorable apprentice spread across his mat, snoring lightly. Approaching quietly, Shen Qingqiu tucked Luo Binghe's loose hair behind his ear and covered him with a blanket in preparation for the evening's chill. He would tell him tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and Luo Binghe did not wake. Neither did he the following day, nor the one after.

The physician was called, all sorts of medicines were brewed, and yet, Luo Binghe did not wake.

His brother cut his trip to the north short, swayed by Shen Yuan's pleading and tear stained letter. His knowledge of curses was reputed to be unparalleled. But even after several weeks worth of rituals, exhausting Shen Jiu's most expensive ingredients, Luo Binghe still did not wake.

 

The Hijaz's yearly festival was the opportunity several could only dream of. Poets traversed continents in order to show off their skills. Months back, Shen Qingqiu had planned to stop by to showcase Luo Binghe's growth and establish him as a master in his own right.

With him absent, Shen Qingqiu headed out alone—ignoring every tribe's request to present a piece glorifying them—speaking only of what lay in his heart.

It's by far the hardest composition he's worked on, the standard opening lines of a lost beloved struck far too close to home. The description of healthy glowing skin growing thin and sallow as an uncaring world marched on, had him in tears.

He pours everything he has into the piece and more. Days are spent with little food or rest, his main nourishment relegated to the dipping of his pen in fresh ink.

It is then of little surprise that he collapses as soon as his recitation is over. A fellow poet carries him to a shaded area, the esteemed daughter of the Liu family offers him her waterskin. He drinks gratefully but waves off the concern and all offers for him to stay as a guest. I have already acquired lodgings, Shen Qingqiu says in a voice that is a tad too raspy for his companions' comfort and when he is able to move, he heads to the gravesite, carrying only an extra cloak to shield him from the desert's winds.

 

Day and night he waits amongst the snakes and constantly upturned bones. Disembodied voices cry out in agony and desperation, but none of them are for him. A girl, who he doubts is human, takes pity on him, leaving a meal of meat and bread every day before dawn.

On the hundredth night, Shen Qingqiu dreams. It isn't the usual hazy images of Luo Binghe shyly writing down verses or smiling as he inferred the hidden meanings of Shen Qingqiu's own—rather its of a faceless bodiless oppressive force that pushes down all his limbs and presses on his neck.

I heard your tale, it says in a voice that seems to resonate in all directions. Your request.

"Y-yes." Shen Qingqiu barely manages to make out. "My apprentice…."

Will die in a year if this continues.

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head, unaware that his bindings have already loosened. "No! That cannot happen!"

The original curse was milder, the voice continues, unmoved. Intercepting it increased its danger.

Intercepting? Shen Qingqiu can't help but think it impossible. His own brother stated over and over again that Luo Binghe was specifically targeted, why would he lie? The only reason he can think of is–

It seems you understand.

Shen Qingqiu nods, shaking. "Will you help me?" The cost of the assistance of a being like this must be high, but! For Luo Binghe he would!

When giving fealty to humans, blood is often demanded. Sacrifice is a given. One must prove their devotion. However–

A shiver travels down his spine.

It is useless to demand things of the soon to be departed. Your words are enough. The price has already been paid.

Shen Qingqiu wakes with the memory of a new ritual implanted in his mind. His usual meal is placed by his feet.

He eats ravenously. He has a lot of traveling to do.

 


 

 

The first thing Luo Binghe sees in over a year is his teacher's face. The past few months have weathered his features, smooth skin has grown flaky and rough, but he is no less beautiful for it.

He holds Luo Binghe's hand tight, smiling as tears slowly roll off his cheeks. It's only after spending several moments to memorize the sight that Luo Binghe speaks. "Teacher, you…" broke it? His weak voice ends his question on a gasp.

"No." Shen Qingqiu shakes his head, understanding intrinsically. "Apologies to Binghe, but your teacher was unable to locate the source." He pauses for a second, brushing away Luo Binghe's hair with a familiar touch.

"All he could do was throw it back onto the original target."

It takes a moment to sink in, but the moment it does, Luo Binghe sits up with strength he didn't know he had. "Teacher, you!"

Shen Qingqiu bows his head low, shaking as he fights the onset of the curse for a few more minutes. "I have but one simple request."

"Anything!" Everything, Luo Binghe wants to say. Curse or not, he would give Shen Qingqiu the world.

"Please stay by my side. This teacher knows how much he's asking. Binghe should be looking for partners now, but for a year, it would be nice to…"

Its then that he crumples, falling face first onto Luo Binghe's sleeping mat.

Tired as he is, his apprentice can only rearrange his limbs to lay him flat, curling around the figure.

Forever, he promises.