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Ah, well, this roommate choice was on a whim. Shang Qinghua had thought the coincidence funny. Shen, like the lord high puppy-kicker of his magnum opus! Kind of funny, right? For a real person named Shen to enter his life like this... It was fate. It must be! 

It wasn’t like he was inviting the villain himself into his apartment. They’d messaged, and Shen Yuan sounded like an upstanding well-bred type. He typed with capitals and punctuation! Moreover, when Shang Qinghua secretly nudged his prospective roommate’s “half” of the rent to more like sixty percent, this Shen Yuan had thought it was a good deal! An ideal roommate, really. 

It was time for a new one anyway. Shang Qinghua had just finished clearing the detritus of his last roommate out of the apartment, and more importantly, his heart. You see, he needed the rent money, obviously, but he also had the soul of a writer. If he couldn’t write whoever his current roommate was into his novel, then where would all his inspiration come from? The time he had lived alone, in an expensive, misguided endeavor for privacy and productivity, his character writing had been panned by some hateful commenter as “the flattest and most disrespectful caricature of humanity I’ve ever seen.” 

The previous roommate—a tall graduate student with a soft voice, intense glare, and massive biceps—had inspired the 19th most popular character in Proud Immortal Demon Way! Hey, that was pretty impressive, considering Mobei Jun was the first character who wasn’t the protagonist or a wife on the ranking. But he’d graduated, and on his departure earnestly thanked Shang Qinghua for being a good (!) roommate, with the first smile that Shang Qinghua had ever seen out of him. 

This had managed to fuel Shang Qinghua through a desperate eight hour writing session in which Mobei Jun dramatically (and temporarily—nothing could happen to his favorite!) sacrificed his demonic powers to calm Luo Binghe’s fever, which of course made Mobei Jun basically just a squishy human who could experience touch from a non ice demon for the first time, which meant that Luo Binghe could gratefully and forcefully give him the love that Shang Qinghua—

It wasn’t particularly publishable. By the end, Shang Qinghua’s eyes had been raw, his stomach growling, and his apartment lonely and empty. He’d dashed off some nonsense about Sha Hualing, a whip, and Luo Binghe’s fear of being abandoned, and then some more nonsense for the classifieds about seeking a roommate for a 2brs apartment near the subway.

By the next morning, his inbox had been full. Part “very sex y thx,” part “uh hey airplane dude you doing alright?”, part “I can’t believe you’ve managed to destroy what little you’ve achieved in this arc so far with this wild self-indulgence. Luo Binghe’s emotions in this chapter are out of character considering that he’s never shown vulnerability this great to Sha Hualing before, especially considering there’s no buildup to this disclosure whatsoever. Binghe would never do this. He doesn’t even remember to grab the peony that they need to collect before the priestesses back at the crumbling temple die of their curse!” 

To be fair to Binghe, Shang Qinghua hadn’t remembered the peony either. They’d had other things on their mind! 

But he’d refreshed again, and just a minute after taking immense psychic damage, the one, the only response to his ad arrived. All hail Shen Yuan, god of mercy! 

So here he was, waiting—freshly showered, in a t-shirt without any holes in it—for his new roommate. 

And the buzzer sounded, and within minutes, Shang Qinghua was desperately trying to think of conversation topics for his very new, very intimidating roommate. How was a little guy that scary, huh? Shang Qinghua could probably pick him up and toss him out the window! 

He laughed awkwardly at the thought. “So, uh, why did you choose this place?”

The midget in a dry cleaned top was doing something on his phone. “Your name—”

“My name?” Out of everything to base your roommate choice on, why a name? How shallow are you! 

His roommate looked at him abruptly. “That is, I thought.” He put his phone away. “It reminded me of something.” 

“Haha, did you go there?” People love to bring it up to him. Ahh when will they learn he doesn’t care! 

But his roommate didn’t look like he was trying to brag. “There?” 

“Huh? Tsinghua University?” 

“Ah, that’s what you meant. No.” Huh????? What’s wrong with this roommate? What other associations were there with Qinghua? Where else have you heard Shang Qinghua? Why was he giving Shang Qinghua a judgmental look when he’s the one being confusing?

Shang Qinghua cast around desperately for something else to talk about. “Do—do you have any hobbies?” 

“I enjoy reading.” Finally! Something they had in common. 

“Oh? I’m a writer. What sorts of things do you like to read?” 

There’s a short pause. “I have diverse tastes. I particularly enjoy epics and complex characters. Like... Tolstoy.”

“Ah, Tolstoy.” Tolstoy? Fuck! How was he supposed to make conversation about Tolstoy? Actually, how was he supposed to admit that he wrote a webnovel called Proud Immortal Demon Way to a Tolstoy fan? Maybe he just wouldn’t! “I’ll, uh, let you get settled in.” 

His new roommate, the pretentious and ice cold Shen Yuan, just nods and goes back to ignoring him. 

Shang Qinghua does not retreat. He just. Very quickly goes back to his own room, and writes chapters for his backlog about a haughty little miss who’s won over by Luo Binghe’s overwhelming charisma despite his rough manners. 

There! Shang Qinghua thought after finishing the last of that wife arc. Not quite up to the inspiration from the last roommate, but it was just their first meeting. He was really more worried about his ability to write Mobei Jun well. What if he couldn’t write his best boy anymore?

Although... Shen Yuan was also an aloof type, with a sort of lord demeanor? Maybe... Shang Qinghua shook his head. Shen Yuan was short! Short! The most important part of Mobei Jun wasn’t just his icy glare, but his two meter height! And his built body! And his massive, uh, icicle! 

He wasn’t going to pine relentlessly for his unachievably hot roommate and write it into hundreds of thousands of words of unpublished side character venting again! He wasn’t! 

And Shang Qinghua realized, weeks later, he really wasn’t! Because Shen Yuan wasn’t unachievably hot, Mobei Jun style. He was just, ah, regular hot. 

It turns out that Shen Yuan actually wore glasses most of the time (!) and usually only looked that mean when he wasn’t wearing them. He made Shang Qinghua do chores (the grout didn’t look that bad? maybe?), and he... was actually really funny?

Or maybe the cleaning chemical fumes reprogrammed Shang Qinghua’s brain to find bitchiness endearing, because none of that should have been as appealing as it was. But whatever! Because whenever Shen Yuan looked over the apartment with a critical eye, Shang Qinghua’s spine straightened, and all he could think about was maybe possibly finally impressing Shen Yuan. 

Which might not be that out of reach! When he’d seen Shang Qinghua watching some shitty anime while eating dinner, Shen Yuan hadn’t judged him—he’d judged the living shit out of the “zero IQ male lead whose obliviousness loops past being a character trait into being a serious health concern” for five straight minutes instead. And then he’d just disappeared back into his room to work, or not work, or do whatever it was he did that got him rent money. 

Shang Qinghua wasn’t clear on his roommate’s job, but also he was the one who obfuscated the details of his own so as not to, you know, humiliate himself in front of a fan of Russian literature. Someone with taste. 

His own writing was actually going pretty well. Mobei Jun’s character wasn’t noticeably worse—or rather, no one had viciously commented on some decline in his writing—even with his old muse gone. And Shen Yuan was actually pretty good fuel himself.

While he wasn’t Mobei Jun—although Shang Qinghua did try to swipe some of the feeling of nervous energy that both of them induced—Shen Yuan reminded him of someone else that took embarrassingly long to figure out. 

It was that fucking villain with the same name, Shen Qingqiu! 

Something about the petty literary god that you love to hate or, Shang Qinghua guessed, it was hate to love now, was going directly to his brain stem and puppeting his writing. When would his readers wake up to the charm of a fastidious, prissy man who can’t communicate, but hides behind gestures! It just makes you want to take care of him, right? Do whatever he says, huh? Yes he does nothing but cause problems unnecessarily and spitefully, but isn’t that cute too? A guy who’s assertive! 

Well, his audience didn’t appreciate Mobei Jun enough, and they didn’t seem to appreciate the long flashback sequence that Luo Binghe’s protracted fight with Yue Qingyuan (punctuated with loving encounters with a wife or two or three, to keep Binghe’s spirit high) revealed either. 

Shang Qinghua went to the kitchen to take a break from being flamed online. There he found Shen Yuan glaring at his phone with laser intensity, even with glasses on. 

“Damn bro, what’s going on? Did you get some bad news?” Shang Qinghua was trying to judge whether or not he would be in the line of fire. 

“Ah,” Shen Yuan glanced up at him, with an incrementally more relaxed face. “It’s nothing.” 

“It doesn’t look like nothing. Do you, uh, want to talk?” Shang Qinghua was being a supportive roommate. This sort of thing was impressive, right?

“It really isn’t a big deal. It’s just...There’s been an upsetting turn in a... book I’m reading.” 

“Oh?” Shang Qinghua tried to look sympathetic. He was under the impression that most Russian literature was upsetting, but hey. If Shen Yuan thought this book was worth reading, then it was! 

“Yeah. You see,” Shen Yuan looked a lot more animated as he worked up speed. “At the part I’m at in the book, there’s been a weird focus on an irrelevant villain, that’s oddly sympathetic considering that literally no one likes him.”

Shang Qinghua waited until Shen Yuan paused to take a big breath. “Oh, you’re not into villains being redeemed?” 

“No! Well, yes. But that’s not what’s happening here! The villain’s not being redeemed; it’s just that the author keeps on showing off the villain’s horrible personality while all the other characters react like it’s charming.” 

“People like a bad boy, maybe?” Shang Qinghua said meekly, trying to defend the dignity of authors and their problematic faves everywhere. 

“There’s a bad boy, and then there’s this villain! He’s abusive! He’s the kind of guy who kicks puppies, and now we’re supposed to believe that that’s just gap moe?” This was the first time Shang Qinghua had ever met someone shameless enough to say moe in real life. Ah... He really was in the presence of a god! “Actually, he hasn’t kicked any puppies lately either, so his “redemption” is completely out of character too!”  

Shang Qinghua had to concede that that sounded kind of rough. “That sucks, dude. Is this Russian too?” 

Shen Yuan’s agitation suddenly stilled. “No. This is. Something else. Not... foreign.”

Shang Qinghua desperately cast around for authors this could be. Who’d won a Mao Dun last year? Fuck, he had no clue! He really was a hack writer. “Oh. Sorry I can’t help. I only really know nerd shit.” 

Shen Yuan’s face pinked up a little. “A-ah... That’s okay. I actually... read that kind of nerdy thing too. Maybe more often than literature.” The embarrassed face of a haughty geek?? Shang Qinghua’s sanity was taking critical blows. His fingers twitched. Maybe Shen Qingqiu had a secret hobby too, like he—

Wait, wait, he wrote very popular nerd fiction. (If he said so himself!) Maybe he could impress Shen Yuan for once. “Oh? Then maybe you’ve heard of me? I write under a pen name, though. I go by Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky.”

Shen Yuan dropped the phone he’d been madly gesturing with the whole time. “Proud Immortal Demon Way?

“You’ve heard of me?” Shang Qinghua had clout? Suddenly, the years of pain, of the once-or-twice daily updates, the years of soul-crushing reviews—it was all worth it. 

“Y-yeah.” Shen Yuan’s expression was hidden as he kneeled to pick up his phone. “I have.” 

Shang Qinghua abruptly reconsidered his habit of the whole basing his current favorite character off his roommate-crush-whatever thing. “That’s wild. Do you have, uh, any thoughts on its recent direction?” 

Shen Yuan looked like a deer in the headlights. “I. Can’t say I do. I’m more of a casual reader.” 

“Haha...” Thank god, thank god, thank god. He was saved! He had a normie roommate! He could carry on exactly as planned! “That’s cool, though! This is the first time I’ve met a fan in real life, you know?” 

“Oh, wow.” Shen Yuan shoved his phone in his pocket. “I’m going to go. Take a shower.” 

“We should talk more later!” Shang Qinghua called after him. Maybe he could get tips from a serious reader, and bond, grow closer over late nights, that sort of thing. 

But before long, Shang Qinghua really wished he could pin down his roommate and get those tips. As the Shen Qingqiu flashback arc continued, his most dedicated commenter, with their nonstop stream of constructive-ish criticism, had just... stopped. 

It’s not that he was, like, planning on taking any of that criticism! It was just that—was his writing that bad? Was the new Shen Qingqiu development that bad? That his faithful commenter, who’d persisted through the “endless slog of nonsense you dare to call slow-burn romance. It’s not slow if Ning Yingying and Luo Binghe just have contrived misunderstandings between vigorous rounds of [...]!” had finally tapped out, without even a goodbye. They’d been in this for years together! Years! 

And Shen Yuan was similarly evasive. Shang Qinghua—who hadn’t seen the inside of his roommate’s room since he’d moved in and therefore couldn’t say definitively he wasn’t in there but nonetheless—was pretty confident that Shen Yuan was actually leaving the apartment regularly to avoid him. Or maybe he just had errands to run for once. Maybe. 

So Shang Qinghua decided to plan a not-ambush. Where he’d wait, casually, in the kitchen until Shen Yuan left to do maybe-errands, and then Shang Qinghua would casually ask him how he was doing. And Shen Yuan would casually respond, and Shang Qinghua would casually say something witty, and back and forth until they were casually making out on the table. It was a good plan! 

Until Shen Yuan didn’t come out of his room all day. Had he gotten up even earlier than Shang Qinghua? He’d been waiting in the kitchen since 11am! 

Shang Qinghua tried again the next day. No luck. The only good thing to come out of it was that the natural light in the kitchen made writing all day less dreary. 

He was about to pack up his laptop for the night until he realized—Shen Yuan also had to come back from errands, right? If he couldn’t catch him on the way out, he could catch him on the way in! He just needed to wait a little longer. A little longer. A little lo-o-onger...

Shang Qinghua fell asleep at the kitchen table. 

But before long, the slow creak of a door woke him up from his drowsing. He froze. Shen Yuan had been killed because he was out too late at night, and they’d found his information and his keys, and now his murderer was breaking into his apartment to steal all of his things.

Wait. He hadn’t heard the sound of keys. The noise was coming from inside the house. Was it... He surreptitiously rolled his head in his arms. A ghost! A sickly looking ghost dressed in a familiar outfit! It was Shen Yuan, who hadn’t actually gone out, but had died and Shang Qinghua hadn’t even noticed because he was the worst roommate ever, too busy being stupid and horny! 

A ghost who was sighing and—putting a real physical corporeal blanket on him? How powerful was this ghost? How long has its resentful energy been growing? 

The ghost was continuing to touch things, and move things, and generally haunt the apartment thoroughly. It was even making instant noodles! 

“Huh?” Could ghosts even eat? 

The ghost jumped, flinging the ghost noodles on the ground. “Ah! You’re awake!” 

“Shen Yuan?” Regular, human, not-a-ghost Shen Yuan? “What’s going on?”

“Nothing! I’m just eating. You startled me,” Shen Yuan, very much alive, was scooping his noodles forlornly into the trash. 

“Oh. Sorry.” Shang Qinghua watched Shen Yuan wipe at the ground, feeling like a bit of an ass. Shen Yuan’s stomach growled, and he felt even worse. “Look. Don’t make more noodles. I’ll buy you something better.” 

“I’ve been waiting—I mean, it’s 3am. I’ll just make another pack.” Shen Yuan was looking away from him a little pointedly. 

“No!” Shen Yuan glanced at him, alarmed. “I’m hungry too. We can go to a 24-hour place. It’ll be good. My treat.” 

With only a little more coaxing, the two of them made it down to a restaurant. And once they had their noodles in front of them, Shang Qinghua temporarily forgot his original goal for the night and thoroughly ignored Shen Yuan.

“So, uh,” Shen Yuan started, setting down his chopsticks. “Why did you want to get dinner anyway?” 

Shang Qinghua licked the hot oil off his lips. “I don’t know! I just wanted to see how you were doing. It feels like it’s been a while.” 

Shen Yuan looked surprised, and then a little bit troubled. “Sorry about that. I’ve been... busy.” 

“Yeah, no worries, dude! I’ve been busy too. I’ve been trying to figure out some stuff with my novel, and it’s tricky.” Shang Qinghua poked a little at his broad noodles, trying to figure out how to explain his relationship with his erstwhile commenter/hater without sounding pathetic.

Shen Yuan seemed a bit guilty, weirdly enough. “If you want to talk about it, I can listen.” 

“Really? I’d feel kinda bad, dude. I dragged you out here, just to dump all my problems on you?” That wasn’t the original plan! It was the opposite! He was supposed to be hearing about Shen Yuan’s problems! In the comfort of their own apartment! 

“No, it’s fine. I am your... fan, after all.” Shang Qinghua’s brain shut off. Shen Yuan was pink again. Shang Qinghua really might just die in the middle of this noodle shop at 4am on a winter night. 

“Well—” The last of Shang Qinghua’s noodles grew cold, as he explained the ambivalent response to the Shen Qingqiu arc, and the difficulty he was having with writing a conclusion. “Maybe, it’s just, I just... want everyone to care a little more about him? I think he’s got some really charming points, even if he’s, you know, evil and all that.” 

Shen Yuan, surprisingly, seemed to have been paying attention. “So the impact is greater when he eventually dies? In a parallel to Liu Qingge?”

“Huh?”

“Well, if Shen Qingqiu is a fundamentally bad character who has good points, and Liu Qingge is a fundamentally good character who—” 

“No, I meant, who’s—who’s Liu Qingge?” Shang Qinghua said, hopelessly. 

“Liu Mingyan’s brother! The former Bai Zhan peak lord! Shen Qingqiu killed him in chapter 25!” Shen Yuan went from calm to looking like he was on the verge of beating Shang Qinghua to death in seconds. 

“Bro—that’s. That’s early on. You can’t expect me to remember all of my children.” 

Shen Yuan looked even more enraged at that. “You have the audacity to call him your child, when you can’t even remember his death, even though it directly leads to one of the most genuinely touching moments in your bloated piece of shit, when Binghe and Liu Mingyan are brought closer together by the shared trauma of weathering the cruelty of Shen Qingqiu’s jealousy, and come to realize that the only thing they can do is learn to care for one another in the places of those they’ve lost?”

Shang Qinghua wanted to cry. “You thought that was genuinely touching?” Also. “What you just said... seems a little familiar?” 

Shen Yuan turned around. “I don’t see why it would. I’ve never commented on your novel.” 

“Commented? That’s not what I meant.” Shang Qinghua thought it over. “Actually, that’s exactly what I meant. You’re the Cucumber guy? What the fuck, dude? It’s one thing to say you’re a fan of my webnovel, and it’s another to have commented on all—” He paused for a second.

“2587,” Shen Yuan snapped, back still to him.

“Yeah, 2587 chapters! Although, you’ve missed a couple lately.” Shang Qinghua tried to take another bite of his noodles. They were cold. He finished them anyway. 

Shen Yuan was facing him again, studying him intently, when Shang Qinghua looked up again. “You noticed?” 

Shang Qinghua thought of something diplomatic to say. “You’re one of the more memorable regulars.” 

There was a long pause in the conversation. Shen Yuan sighed. “I didn’t mean to stop. I just felt weird. Writing all that stuff to someone I knew in real life, it felt different.” 

“So you admit you’re a hater!” Shang Qinghua felt triumphant. Ha, constructive criticism, his ass! No one would feel guilty if they really meant to help! But Shen Yuan just looked a little more sad across the table from him. “Hey, uh, I didn’t mean it like that. I really... appreciated your comments.” 

Shen Yuan seemed to immediately regain some energy. “Then why didn’t you take them?” 

“Well!” Shang Qinghua was getting properly worked up, when the old aunty who took their orders came by and cleared her throat menacingly. “...we can talk about that later.” 

They didn’t talk on the way home.

Or the next day! To be fair, that might have been because Shang Qinghua slept all day, and desperately tried to revise his prepped chapter into something Cucumber-worthy most of the night. After he finally finished, in a zombie-like state, he ate the last pack of Shen Yuan’s instant noodles. Hope this isn’t the final straw for his semi-malicious roommate with a newly-discovered short fuse, but there’s nothing else left! 

And when Shang Qinghua woke up the next afternoon, he felt pulverized. Had Shen Yuan already got his revenge? He barely made it to the trash can to hurl in time. The door crashed open. 

“Are you okay?” Shen Yuan looked more frazzled than Shang Qinghua had ever seen him. 

“I don’t feel so good,” he groaned. Shen Yuan looked much taller when Shang Qinghua was on the ground. 

“No shit, dumbass! You ate my noodles!” 

“I’m sorry! I deserve this! I’m an awful rat, I know!” It was easy to be melodramatic when there was a bin full of vomit inches away from his head. 

“No, you idiot! They were—” Shen Yuan abruptly trailed off, and continued much more quietly. “—expired.” 

“Oh.” 

“Yeah.” Tall Shen Yuan looked down on him. “I guess this is the least I can do.” Shen Yuan wiped his face, gave him water, and helped him back into bed. “I’ll try to make some porridge, okay? You get some sleep.” 

“No!” Shang Qinghua suddenly and abruptly realized the most important thing in the world. “I have to update PIDW.” 

“Please don’t ever say that acronym out loud again. And you can write tomorrow.” Shen Yuan was leaving again, and that was unacceptable. Shang Qinghua grabbed his sleeve, fresh and starchy feeling. Did this man even know that washing machines existed? 

“If I miss an update, it hurts my income! And worse, my ranking! All I need to do is edit a prewritten chapter so it makes sense in the continuity. I just need my laptop, bro.” Shang Qinghua would beg, he really would! Don’t test him! He was the best at begging! 

“Get rest.” Shang Qinghua was about to wail, when—“I’ll take care of the chapter.” 

“Huh?” The door clicked behind Shen Yuan. “Hey, what did that mean? Hey? Hey!” But Shang Qinghua felt too drained to stay awake, even when he was this outraged and confused. He was dimly aware of waking up to be fed the shittiest porridge ever, sad and runny, but that could have easily been a nightmare, too. 

He woke up the next morning feeling surprisingly well-rested for it being 10am. Had he finished the chapters earlier than usual last night? Wait, he’d been sick— he hadn’t posted anything! 

Shang Qinghua looked to his desk, where his laptop was missing. He lurched out of his room, into the kitchen, where... Shen Yuan was sitting in front of it at the kitchen table? 

“What are you doing?” He was probably wild-eyed and yelling, but sue him, that was his laptop that Shen Yuan was using! 

“I was checking out the response to your latest chapter,” Shen Yuan responded coolly, as if this was something he did every morning with Shang Qinghua’s laptop. 

“My latest chapter?” Shang Qinghua hadn’t written anything! He was still stuck on the Shen Qingqiu problem! 

Shen Yuan just turned the computer around, so Shang Qinghua could read. The chapter was a normal chapter? The flashback had ended because Yue Qingyuan collapsed under Luo Binghe’s demonic aura, and then a prewritten scene about Luo Binghe and the Palace Mistress looking for clues as to why Yue Qingyuan was in the area followed. 

“I did my best to match the style,” Shen Yuan admitted. He looked soft and worn out, with a wrinkled shirt and undereye circles underneath his glasses. 

“You did this?” Shang Qinghua was surprised. He would have thought Shen Yuan, or rather, the semi-demonic Cucumber, would have brutally edited his pre-written chapter beyond recognition. Well, he kind of did. Cutting off the flashback like that! 

“You weren’t in any shape to.” Shen Yuan was staring at his phone, but this close, Shang Qinghua could see that his phone was off and he was flushed again. 

“But—how? Are you a hacker? A mind-reader?” This was the pre-planned ending to the arc, just a little early!

“You don’t have a password on your computer.” Ah. Yeah. In Shang Qinghua’s defense, he didn’t really take his computer outside. Or go outside. Whatever. “And you said you had prewritten chapters, so I just read through them until I found something that fit. Is it okay?” 

“This is basically what I would have thrown together last night, I think. It’s great, dude.” Shen Yuan fidgeted a bit more. Shang Qinghua wanted to ruffle his head. Good job! Shen Yuan cared; he really cared! “Why’d you have to cut the flashback though? I had more plans for Shen Qingqiu!” 

Shen Yuan glared at him. “Reread the ending, dumbass. I added that in just for you.” 

Shang Qinghua read the last passage properly, this time. “Okay, blah blah, the Palace Mistress screamed through another blah blah, the two laid back in bed, blah blah, Luo Binghe couldn’t help but think about the strange side of his former master that he had never seen before. What else did Yue Qingyuan know about that man, Shen Qingqiu, and why had it been so well hidden? There must have been something deeper at play, and Binghe was determined to find out what—bro! You did it! You really gave me a chance to bring it back!” 

“It would have been a waste, cutting the Shen Qingqiu arc out of the story, just because you got sick eating my food,” Shen Yuan said, turning the laptop back to himself. 

“Even though you think he’s evil? And a waste of time? And utterly irredeemable? And the only thing he’s good for is castration?” Cucumber’s most inspired polemics had been against the scummy master. It had been encouraging at first, knowing he could write such a hated villain. 

“Okay, I may have said that before, but it was years ago.” Shen Yuan was probably correct on the timing. Cucumber had pivoted to writing his screeds against the author directly in recent years. “I read some more, and I don’t know. I just felt bad.” 

“Some more of what?” 

“Your unposted chapters.” What? What had he written? Wasn’t it all trash? That’s why he hadn’t posted any of it. “You really seemed to see something in Shen Qingqiu. Even though he’s this unlovable guy who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, who’s spiteful, and sometimes cruel for the sake of it. Like, there’s the Shen Qingqiu who’s done unforgivable things on top, and then there’s this real person at his core.” 

Well, Shang Qinghua wasn’t going to explain any of that to Shen Yuan. “Ah, thanks. It feels like you get it! My love for my trash son!” 

“Don’t call him that.” Aaand the moment was gone. “Anyway, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten any of that from what you’ve actually posted. How come that shit made the cut and all this didn’t?” 

“Hey, that’s my shit!” Shang Qinghua would like to point out that it was first place ranking shit too, week after week! “And I have to consider the flow of story and how the audience is responding and all that. Pacing matters when you have—” 

“2589.” 

“—2589 chapters!” That was more than War and Peace! (Shang Qinghua had checked in a fit of inadequacy right after Shen Yuan moved in.) 

“So, do you actually like the story you post then?” Shen Yuan looked more alert than he had all morning, giving Shang Qinghua the intense stare he normally reserved for his phone. 

“Yeah!” Shen Yuan seemed a bit taken aback by that. “I’m proud of it! I think it’s a fun novel, and that I’ve come really far over the years. And I do really want all that stuff you talked about to come across. I thought it was, actually.” 

Shen Yuan took a big breath, and then just exhaled it out. No monologue! He just asked, “What part was that Shen Qingqiu development actually in?” 

“Okay, okay, so you know how Yue Qingyuan first runs into Binghe and tells him there’s only one thing he can’t forgive?” This sort of thing was easy for Shang Qinghua, like breathing. When a concept like this grabbed him, he couldn’t think about anything else! All he could do was turn it over and over and over in his head, and see it a thousand different ways and times until—“So, by developing a character arc that meditated on the nature of passive violence, Yue Qingyuan was supposed to become Shen Qingqiu’s foil, not that dead peak lord guy.”

The inhale Shen Yuan took was a lot shakier this time. “Well. That didn’t really. Come across. In my point of view.” 

“Well, people don’t get my faves! They always write them off as, like, flat or just regular villains. I think the most interesting characters, like Mobei Jun or Shen Qingqiu, add the most depth to the narrative!” Shen Yuan suddenly looked away at this, but Shang Qinghua was on a roll. “They’re multifaceted and clever and scheming and brutal, and they don’t adhere to the polite logic of righteous cultivation, but in a way, like, diametrically opposed to Binghe’s own demonic cultivation and it begins to suggest the limits of—”

“Oh, well, maybe you just have bad taste in...” Shen Yuan’s voice got hushed. “...men.” 

“Me? Gay? Why would you think that?” Wait. Oh my god. “Dude, why did you check my browser history? I thought some things are sacred.” 

“What? No! I read all of your rejected chapters. All of them! Including the... Mobei Jun ones. Like the, um, “Melting the Icicle” series?” Shen Yuan was bright red, the most vivid Shang Qinghua had ever seen him. He was pretty sure his face felt hot enough to match. 

“Yeah. I remember that.” His voice cracked halfway through. Something occurred to him. “But did you read it all, uh, the way through?”

“Shang Qinghua!” Shen Yuan smacked his arm, and looked away, and in the smallest voice yet: “...yeah.”

“Bro!” 

“It wasn’t nearly as bad as your heinous alleged love scenes with one of Binghe’s interchangeable wives,” Shen Yuan blurted out, looking a little defensive. “And I won’t hold it against you. That you’re. You know. Gay. Or that you have bad taste in men.” 

Shang Qinghua decided to risk it all. Maybe it was the lingering food poisoning, but it felt like the thing to do after accidentally outing himself to his crush via deliriously written (but apparently above average!) porn starring the last guy he liked. What’s the worst that could happen? “You’ve got to stop with the accidental self-drags. First, your hate for Shen Qingqiu, and now this whole taste thing—” 

“Huh? What? Shang Qinghua? What does that mean? Hey! Come back here! Why Shen Qingqiu? I’m nothing like him—your taste in men???? Wait! That didn’t sound romantic at all! Also, stop running! You’re still sick!” 


Shen Yuan caught him, of course. Shang Qinghua firmly maintained that this was only because he was still queasy. He had the stride length advantage after all! But Shen Yuan had caught him anyway, and then he’d threatened to kick Shang Qinghua into oblivion if he didn’t confess better.

One heart-stopping moment later and—“Well, are you going to respond?” 

Shen Yuan turned around. “No.” 

“You’re rejecting me after all that? What’s your problem, dude?” Shang Qinghua slumped onto the ground. He guessed it could get worse, after all.

“No! Not that. No, I’m not responding,” Shen Yuan said, mostly muffled, and slammed the door to his room. 

“Wait, wait, wait,” Shang Qinghua crawled over to Shen Yuan’s door. “Let me in. What did that mean?” 

“I’m putting on headphones! I can’t hear you!” 

Shang Qinghua sighed. “I’ll give you some space, then.” 

He went to his room instead, and wrote a new wife subplot. You Yuan was the daughter of an innkeeper, and Luo Binghe was traveling alone during a snowstorm, and the inn was full, and there was nowhere else for him to stay, but they couldn’t put him with a paying guest... But You Yuan was an innocent maiden, and didn’t know how to respond to Binghe’s charm. And she didn’t know how to admit what she wanted either. But with the two of them in such close proximity!

You Yuan blushed. “I... just wanted to hear it again. Properly this time.” She turned away from Luo Binghe. “There’s no deeper meaning to it.” 

“I’ll tell you I love you as many times as you need to hear it,” Luo Binghe said, catching her very small womanly waist in his very large manly hands. 

“There’s no need!” She said, hiding her blushing face behind her sleeves. “Like I said, it doesn’t mean anything to me!” 

“So you don’t have any feelings for me?” 

“I-I. I didn’t say that!” 

The response was pretty good: “holy shit 10k update? thanks for the food airplane!”; “haha omg she is too oblivious!!! there’s no way anyone would act like this in real life!”; “This makes no thematic sense in context of what the past several chapters have been. The setting is incredibly contrived, considering that an allegedly respected innkeeper would never let his unmarried daughter room with a stranger, especially when you mention that the innkeeper also has a room to himself. You Yuan’s behavior makes no sense, when she clearly wants to be confessed to! And I find it hard to believe someone so “innocent” is fine with [...] a man who has a hundred wives, on their first meeting no less! Why did you even write this?” 

Cucumber was back! 

Oh, a new notification? “die die die you piece of shit airplane i’m going to kill you i don’t act like this!!!” 

It was dark now, and when Shang Qinghua went into the kitchen, Shen Yuan was waiting there for him, staring into a cup of tea. 

Shang Qinghua cleared his throat nervously. “I’m, uh, glad to see what I tried to communicate in my writing finally came through.” 

Shen Yuan’s hands clenched around his mug. “Yeah.” 

Shang Qinghua tried to start again, when Shen Yuan burst out, “I don’t know if I like. You. Like the way you like me. But I don’t not like you, and it was. Nice. Really nice. To hear that you wanted to. You know. So I’m not rejecting you.” 

“So we’re boyfriends now?” 

Shen Yuan was basically fluorescent. “We’re not. Not boyfriends.” 

Good enough. “Okay, no take-backs.”