“You don't understand,” Shang Qinghua whines. “It's horrible there.”
Of all the tragedies in Shen Qingqiu's life (and there are plenty thanks to a certain terrible book), perhaps the greatest or at least the longest lasting one is that the closest friend he has in this world, the one that can understand and sympathize with his plight the most, is the same shitty author who is responsible for it in the first place. It is the sort of irony that he has to appreciate in the same way that he wants to murder the source of it – with bitter, resigned acceptance.
“Really?” Shen Qingqiu says, putting on his best air of hauteur. He's found the best way to improve it is inflicting it on Airplane-Bro since he doesn't react with sad puppy dog eyes or wistful smiles about days past. “I hardly think Zhangmen-shixiong is the type to hold grudges against past mistakes.”
Shang Qinghua shakes his head. “No, bro, it's not like that. Look, you leave for a little bit and when you come back, everyone's weeping over you, right, like their precious lost son has returned home?”
Shen Qingqiu vaguely remembers the last time he came back to Cang Qiong. He does seem to recall a lot of sobbing and people wailing “Shizun.” There may have even been Liu-shidi telling him to come back more often.
It was very touching and slightly damp.
“Yes? So what?”
“I come back and it's a mountain of paperwork and people complaining that I've neglected my duties as Peak Lord, when they're not busy glaring at me for being a traitor.”
That is not my fault, Shen Qingqiu thinks. You're the one that made this world, so it's only fair you have to live in it and take the consequences. “I don't see the problem. Just skip out on it like always. You've never had a problem running away.”
“Shizun's right,” Luo Binghe says and it jolts Shen Qingqiu. He's gotten so used to him being at his side that it can startle him when he's reminded that yes, there is another person in the room, one that at best, mildly tolerates other threats to his shizun's attention. “Isn't there someone else you could be bothering now?”
There is no need to say it that way, Binghe! True, Shen Qingqiu feels the same way, but put so bluntly – the protagonist really does have a terrible relationship with his creator!
Shang Qinghua sighs. “I'd feel guilty, though. They need me there since you're gone and Liu-shidi is dealing with that demonic infestation up North. Two of the disciples just disappeared the other day so--”
“Disappeared?” Shen Qingqiu's fan whips open, hiding his face. “Who? Where?”
“No one you know,” Shang Qinghua says hurriedly. “Just a couple of promising young ones from Bai Zhan. They were out on the trail of a reported monster and--”
Shen Qingqiu interrupts him again. He feels no shame in doing so. “Monster? What kind of monster?”
Shang Qinghua looks off to the side and mumbles something.
Shen Qingqiu narrows his eyes. “Repeat that a bit louder, Shang-shidi.”
His shoulders slump and then Shang Qinhua says, “The Shimmering Golden Worm of Cangcong.”
Shen Qingqiu's fingers snap the fan in two.
Luo Binghe leans over and whispers in a puzzled tone, “Shizun? Did you just let out a squeal?”
“I don't see why you have to be the one to defeat it, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says. He is almost pouting which is absolutely adorable and certainly not something Shen Qingqiu finds hot in the slightest. “They can take care of it on their own.”
“Binghe, for shame,” Shen Qingqiu says in his best teacher voice. “They are innocent young disciples that need our support and if both Liu-shidi and Zhangmen-shixiong cannot assist right away, then it is our duty to step in.” It sounds almost believable to his ears.
“So it's for their sake, then?” His pout turns into a frown and Shen Qingqiu wants to roll his eyes. Honestly, the protagonist is so predictable.
He hits Luo Binghe gently on his head. “It's all right, Binghe,” he says. “I'm not going anywhere.”
His smile is small and sweet. “I know, Shizun,” he answers,, and he bends down to kiss Shen Qingqiu.
After a few minutes, Shen Qingqiu has to thwap him with the fan again, because even if the protagonist has demonic stamina, Shen Qingqiu does not and in any case, they have disciples to save and a golden worm to find and finally Shang Qinghua's bullshit has paid off!
“We need to be careful,” Shen Qingqiu says. It's been fairly clear so far, but they're just about to the edge of the forest. If he remembers this right (and fuck, he better, he read it enough), once they pass the treeline, it will be difficult to navigate. It's no wonder the disciples went missing if this is where they were last seen. “The Golden Worm is not an easy prey. It may mimic the look of a lesser worm and it is very quick. We will not be able to defeat it head on.”
“Shizun seems to know a lot about this creature,” Luo Binghe says, and if his tone is all innocence, the next words are certainly not. “I often wonder just where Shizun gets his knowledge from. It seems beyond even that of some of the sages.”
Crap, Shen Qingqiu thinks. Once again, being a devoted reader of trash has backfired on him. Is it my fault that the most interesting things Airplane-Bro ever wrote were his monsters, even if he named them terribly? “I've just picked up some stories along the way,” he lies smoothly. “There were tales told of this beast and while I believed them to be nothing of substance when I first heard them, I now believe they are true.” Yes, that should do nicely.
Luo Binghe nods. “I see. Shizun was wise to remember this.”
Not wise. Just way too enthusiastic about this kind of thing. “We will need to stay together,” he says. “If it has taken refuge in the Forest of Serpentine Paths, then we may quickly become disoriented and end up separated.”
Luo Binghe's grip tightens around Shen Qingqiu's hand. “That will not happen,” he says firmly. “I will never leave Shizun's side.”
Shen Qingqiu refuses to acknowledge the overwhelming warmth that washes over him nor the prickle at the corner of his eyes. It seems a shame that someone who can say words like that so fervently is wasted on a scum villain like himself. “I won't either,” he manages to say.
He steels himself, then steps into the blackness.
The Forest of Serpentine Paths is just as foreboding and dark as every reader imagined it would be. Shang Qinghua had described it as “trees interlaced so tightly no light could reach within,” probably to stave off readers wondering why people couldn't just fly overhead on their magical swords and make it through that way. And to keep things dim and shadowy, the torchlight that Shen Qingqiu carries sputters in front of him from the unnaturally cold wind that blows throughout from no apparent source.
They pass along a gnarled tree and Shen Qingqiu represses a shudder. The wood is twisted, resembling a face contorted in agony, a mouth opening into a cavenous hole deep inside, an impossibly cavernous abyss.
So you can't write romance worth a damn, Airplane-Bro, but your horror skills are definitely on par with the best.
He makes sure to keep his fingers locked together with Luo Binghe's as they walk through the forest around the barely discernible, winding footpaths that lead through thick underbrush. To take a step in the wrong direction could mean a slow and lingering death, lost and unable to retrace your way back out.
There's no sound as they walk. Where a normal forest might have birdsong or animals rustling in the leaves, all Shen Qingqiu can hear is the sound of their footsteps, softly padding along. “Luo Binghe,” he whispers.
“Your senses may be better than mine,” he says. “If you hear anything--”
“I will tell you,” Luo Binghe promises.
They walk further. The light dims even more. The forest seems darker now. It would be comforting that the wind has stopped, but now the stillness is eerie, as if something is holding its breath, waiting...
There is no sound of life anywhere.
Shen Qingqiu notices a tree. Another one, its face twisted in pain. It looks similar to the first one and he thinks quite absurdly, really, Airplane-Bro? Repeating yourself?
Perhaps a few more minutes holding Luo Binghe's hand and Shen Qingqiu is deeply regretting his plan. Not the plan to cling to the protagonist, of course, because that has worked out surprisingly well, but Shen Qingqiu is beginning to believe that he can't blame all of his woes on Airplane-Bro, especially when he is the one throwing himself headlong into danger.
Not that he would ever admit it to Shang Qinghua. It would make him insufferable.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe asks softly.
“Do you recognize the tree?”
Shen Qingqiu does.
It's not Airplane-Bro being lazy, or if it is, it's a diabolically clever version of it. Because yes, the screaming tree is there and perhaps they had never theorized far enough on the boards about why it was called Serpentine Paths.
They are walking in circles.
“Shit,” he says.
That's when he sees the gold eyes, shining brightly through the hole in the tree.
He involuntarily drops Luo Binghe's hand.
And everything goes to hell.
The golden worm, as it turns out, is as fast as everyone thought.
It is also very angry.
Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu both move quickly, pull out their swords but it darts away faster than they can see. He would think that a creature that bright wouldn't be able to hide, but it's Shang Qinghua's creation, so of course it has a bullshit way to do so.
“Shizun!” Luo Binghe yells. “Grab my hand.”
“Don't be ridiculous!” Shen Qingqiu yells back. “We need to be able to fight.”
There's another flash of gold, and Shen Qingqiu lurches forward as he's taken off-balance. There's a sharp pain in his ankle and he hisses.
Before he can say anything, Luo Binghe is there, throwing the sword aside. “Shizun!”
“I'm fine,” he manages to say. “Just tripped on something. Give me a minute and we can get going.”
His head is swimming a little. It hasn't been that long since he's fought? Is his power really this unused to such exertion?
He wobbles a little bit, and Luo Binghe catches him in his arms. Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes, tries to steady himself. It's surprisingly warm all of a sudden. Did the appearance of the creature mean this heat? That's something that was never brought up, but perhaps...
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe says. “Your leg.”
Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes. There are dark spots dotting the bottom of his robes, and even through the very faint light, he knows what it is. Blood.
You have to be kidding me, he thinks.
“We need to get out of here,” Luo Binghe says. “We can come back later for the creature. Shizun needs to get his injury treated.”
It's nothing, he starts to say. We can keep going.
What comes out is, “Oh, shit. That's not good.”
Shen Qingqiu snaps his mouth shut. That was... unexpected.
“What is it?” Luo Binghe asks, his voice worried.
“Well, I'm not entirely sure,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I've never met this creature before, so even though it was really exciting to see firsthand, I'm regretting it.”
“Also, I thought I knew this forest, but I was clearly very wrong and now I'm wondering if I'm going to end up like one of the disciples. I probably won't die of hunger since I'm a higher level cultivator, but the forest will probably find a way to eat me long before that.”
There's a loud wail that almost deafens his ears. “I knew it,” Luo Binghe is sobbing now, holding Shen Qingqiu firmly to his chest. “I never should have let you go.”
Shen Qingqiu knows he should be focusing on the rather terrifying implication that the next time he wants to go do anything remotely dangerous, Luo Binghe will probably lock him up, but instead, he's a little more focused on the fact that apparently he's incapable of lying right now.
Coupled with the sickening sensation of something burning in his veins and the fact that this happens to him with an alarmign regularity, Shen Qingqiu can only come to one inescapable conclusion.
He's been poisoned. Again.
Then something even more terrifying flashes across his mind: Airplane-Bro's writing.
“Dearest, do not fret,” Xiaoling said, her tears falling like rain. “I only regret that it took a treachery like this to reveal how I truly felt towards you.”
“There must be some way to save you,” Luo Binghe said. “I am a demon of immense power, a lord with healers at my command. You will not die.”
But Xiaoling shook her head and coughed, one delicate drop of blood sliding down her pale skin. " You know as well as I do there is no saving me. That my family would stoop so low as to try to drive us away by poisoning me with the Longing of Eternal Night is something I can never forgive. For despite my seeming hatred towards you, my attempts upon your life and my words of vitriol, I have always loved you.”
Xiaoling then smiled, her lips red with blood. “This is my darkest secret, the truth I could never tell you.”
Luo Binghe bowed his head. His rage grew hot in his blood. “I promise you, those who made you suffer will pay.”
“Then having given you my last secret and known of your love, I leave you my heart.”
Xiaoling closed her eyes for as the confession was made, the pain passed and so did she.
Then Luo Binghe burned her family's house to the ground, chopped off all their limbs while they were still alive, and mounted their bodies on pikes as warnings to those who would tamper with his harem. As a revenge, it was only marred by the fact that Xiaoling had been introduced five chapters earlier and as such, no one really cared about her beyond Luo Binghe losing one of his harem members.
Shen Qingqiu could kick himself now, for hadn't they been speculating about where the poison had come from? One of the readers had suggested it had to be snake-based since it was described later on as a "burning venom", and once that was suggested, there wasn't much time before everyone just assumed that as canon. But looking back...
Weren't Xiaoling's family silk weavers as well, known to possess a golden treasure beyond compare? Did Shen Qingqiu really have to give Airplane-Bro credit for foreshadowing that she would be killed by the very thing that made her family's wealth?
Who could have guessed that Shang Qinghua actually knew what a jincan was? Shen Qingqiu had always assumed his cultural touchstones were limited to pirated xianxia dramas mixed in with a wish fulfillment MMO. After actually following the story to its conclusion, he updated it to include a plethora of danmei novels, but still, actual research?
No, he thinks. If I look long enough, I'll find where you stole this idea from too. Not that I'll be around to do it, since it's going to kill me.
“Shizun? Talk to me!” Luo Binghe had scooped up his legs at some point and shit, he hadn't noticed that he was being held like a bride by the protagonist. “Tell me what to do!”
Shen Qingqiu's body lets out a spasm and he tries not to moan, but is clearly unsuccessful. “There's nothing--” He bites his tongue so he can't say anything else, because he knows where this leads.
“I'll give you my blood, just hold on,” Luo Binghe says. “If it's like the last time--”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu says. First off, Airplane-Bro made it clear that the cure was not Luo Binghe's magical fluids and secondly, he's already in enough pain. He doesn't need that pillar inside him as well.
“There must be something I can do,” Luo Binghe says.
“You need to get help,” Shen Qingqiu manages to say through the pain. “Shang Qinghua should know of a possible cure.”
“Shang Qinghua?” Luo Binghe's voice is deeply doubtful and Shen Qingqiu can't blame him for that one. If he didn't know better, he'd be questioning his expertise too.
“Yes.” Shen Qingqiu is being very careful not to say anything unnecessary, but the waves of pain are making it harder to not slip up. “Tell him it's the Longing of Eternal Night and ask him how to cure it.”
“And he'll be able to save you?”
“I don't know,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I'm hoping he's thought of an antidote, but honestly, knowing him, it may have completely slipped his mind. I'm just hoping that by the time we reach him, I won't have hurt myself from not confessing all my dark secrets.”
Fuck. Oh, so not good.
Luo Binghe says nothing for a moment, but readjusts Shen Qingqiu in his arms slightly so his head is nestled against Luo Binghe's shoulder. Once he's satisfied with the position, he begins walking.
This is bad. This is really bad.
“So Shizun can't lie right now?” Luo Binghe says quietly. “Or else he would be telling me not to worry about him. He wouldn't be saying these words.”
“No.” There's no point in denying that part, especially as he can't without it being obvious. “I wouldn't.”
“And Shizun wouldn't be telling me that he has secrets that are hurting him. Ones that he still keeps from me.”
Shen Qinqiu is sure whether it's the movement or the truth of that that's causing the swell of nausea in him, but either way, he feels something bitter and choking at the back of his throat. “Luo Binghe--”
“It's all right, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, quietly. He moves his head away from Shen Qingqiu for a moment.
Shit, Shen Qingqiu thinks. There is no guarantee they will reach Shang Qinghua in time and really, he is just as much of a coward as his fellow transmigrator. If he is not willing to tell Luo Binghe the truth when it is literally killing him...
Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth.
Luo Binghe bends down, captures it. There's a familiar coppery taste as something wet pours down his throat.
“I thought I told you--”
“Go to sleep, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says gently. His lips brush Shen Qingqiu's.
Shen Qingqiu's body treacherously obeys, at the command of Luo Binghe once more, and his eyes close, wondering if this is a darkness he will wake from.
“Obviously, there was a cure, Bro,” Shang Qinghua says dismissively. “You didn't think I'd make something like that up without a way to reverse it.”
It's a good thing that everyone's cleared the room because Shen Qingqiu is deeply tempted to lunge for Shang Qinghua's throat and he really doesn't want Mu-shidi lecturing him on how he just recovered and he can't be exerting himself like that.
It's bad enough that he woke up to half a dozen Peak Lords standing around his bed. Again. He's pretty sure that if Maigu Ridge wasn't enough to do Zhangmen-shixiong in, Shen Qingqiu's constant almost dying will do the trick. I'm so sorry, he mentally apologizes. I'm seriously not trying to get myself killed; it just somehow works out that way.
Meanwhile, Liu-shidi has made it perfectly clear that Shen Qingqiu is to go nowhere near any reports of monsters and that if he has any questions about how capable Liu Qingge is with his sword...
Neither one of them really recovered from that statement.
But good news! The disciples are perfectly fine. It turns out they got to the edge of the forest and realized they were way in over their head. Unfortunately, bandits waylaid them on their journey back so they had to rest up for a few days before they could send word that they were safe.
Yue Qingyuan was a bit worried when Shen Qingqiu started crying at that but he said it was perfectly understandable, having been through so much lately.
So he's functionally under confinement and Luo Binghe as the chosen partner of their beloved Peak Lord is begrudgingly allowed to stay since it's clear he'd just run off and do something stupid again if someone wasn't there to watch him.
That was deeply unfair, Qi-shimei!
Also, he's very concerned that Luo Binghe's riding in on a sword, carring Shen Qingqiu draped in his arms, while blood dribbles from his lips, has spawned some truly terrible romances.
“Forgive me for doubting you,” he says coolly, “but I seem to recall Xiaoling's tragic demise and how there was nothing that could be done for her. Are you telling me you had a back-up plan all along?”
Shang Qinghua squirms slightly. “Well, to be honest, I wrote her and then she seemed a little OP. I mean, she could fight on par with the protagonist, she had unlimited amounts of wealth, and it was around that time I started writing Guiying, so it just seemed like she was kind of in the way of that.”
“Are you fucking--”
“So I wanted to get rid of her temporarily. Initially, I was just going to have her die, Luo Binghe would hook up with Guiying, and then Guiying would reveal that Xiaoling was her long-lost sister. Luo Binghe would feel bad and bring her back from the dead somehow, but then no one really cared about Xiaoling so I just sort of dropped that plot.”
Shen Qingqiu's hands grasp at the air, wanting to strangle something. “So the cure?”
“Oh. Yeah, that was just demon blood mixed with frost flowers. Isn't it lucky that you almost died that other time so you were able to--”
“Get out of here,” Shen Qingqiu says, feeling his headache come on. “Just go.”
Shang Qinghua, sensing the mood, makes his hasty exit. Luo Binghe, who had to have been hovering outside, quietly enters.
“Sit down, Binghe,” he says. “I'm all right now.”
Luo Binghe nervously perches above the bed, until Shen Qingqiu yanks him down. “I'm not lying,” he says. “I really have recovered.”
“I was so worried.” Luo Binghe's hands hover above Shen Qingqiu's hair, gently landing to brush through it. They're soft, careful, and Shen Qingqiu thinks that no matter what happens, it's moments like these that make putting up with all the bullshit of this world worth it.
He's done so much to Luo Binghe, deceived him, betrayed him, hurt him in so many different ways that he's always surprised when he's given love and forgiveness from him instead of hatred and rage. Even now, after everything that has happened between the two of them, there is a part of him that wonders if the original ending is what's supposed to happen and all that has changed is just a foolish dream, one that he'll wake up from back in his old, gray world.
Does Shen Qingqiu deserve happiness? Does a scum villain merit love? If you say you regret what happened, does that change the fact that you did it in the first place?
Those are questions he doesn't think he'll ever be able to answer to his satisfaction.
“Why didn't you ask me anything?” Shen Qingqiu says. “I would have told you anything.”
“I know,” Luo Binghe says. “But if you have secrets, then you have good reasons for keeping them. I trust you.” His hand smooths down Shen Qingqiu's hair, slides to his back. It rubs cautious circles around it and Shen Qingqiu realizes that he's been panicking, his breath coming too hard and fast.
“You shouldn't,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I've hurt you.”
“And I've hurt you,” Luo Binghe says.
“So that makes it right? Makes it even?”
He's seen the protagonist a young white lotus, sweet and innocent. He's seen him the demon lord, angry and betrayed. But until now, he doesn't think he's seen him so... tired. There's a sad weariness in his eyes. “It doesn't make it right, Shizun,” he says. “But I love you and I've learned that there's nothing anyone can do or tell me that will change that. Even you.”
Shen Qingqiu reaches up, brushes Luo Binghe's matted hair and makes a vow to himself. Not today. Not any time soon. But someday, when he's ready, he will tell Luo Binghe.
“I love you,” he says, and kisses him.
This time, he's not the first one to break away.
Luo Binghe's hands are careful down his side, removing his sleeping clothes. He's less cautious with his own attire, tossing it aside until—hello there, splendid body! If nothing else, Shang Qinghua can also be commended for his excellent taste in men.
It shouldn't make him giddy every time he sees Luo Binghe and thinks this is all mine, but it does. Take that, harem! I may have to put up with every single one of your damsel in distress scenarios, but I also get the rewards of it, too.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, and then his mouth is occupied by nipping down Shen Qingqiu's body, marking him. The one thing that never changes no matter what universe they're in is that Luo Binghe is deeply possessive and unfairly hot.
He's also a sheep in the body of a wolf, who falls apart if Shen Qingqiu even frowns a little, but that's his secret and no one else gets that privilege.
Oh. Shen Qingqiu lets out a little whine as Luo Binghe moves lower, takes Shen Qingqiu's cock in his mouth. He's definitely improved since the first time. Shen Qingqiu shudders in remembrance and Luo Binghe takes that as a sign to take him even deeper.
Is he... shit, is he crying?
“Binghe,” he says, and puts his hand against Luo Binghe's forehead to push him back. “What's wrong?” For a second, he wonders if it's been too soon. Surely, the protagonist is still dealing with almost seeing his beloved teacher, husband, love of his life die again. They should have taken it slow, waited until they were both recovered...
“Shizun's cock is just so beautiful,” Luo Binghe says. “Every part of him is just so lovely.”
Of course. Shen Qingqiu sighs and sits up. Binghe sits back on his heels on the bed, beaming at him. His eyes are teary, filled with love, and completely focused on Shen Qingqiu's hard cock.
He should feel more embarassed about this, but it's Binghe who adores him and worships him and he deserves something special for putting up with Shen Qingqiu and his tremendous ability to get himself into the worst situations.
“All right,” he says. “Then you should see it all.”
He pushes Luo Binghe back, watches his eyes widen then go soft and gentle and no one is ever going to take you seriously as a demon lord looking like that, Protagonist. It's a good thing you have me around.
It's the best thing.
His hair drapes over Luo Binghe and he wraps his slender fingers around Binghe's own huge cock. It's not that they haven't done this before, but each time is always something amazing. It's waking up and realizing that this is his life, this man is his, and that whatever shit he's done, he still gets to wake up to someone who loves him and will never stop loving him.
Maybe he doesn't deserve it. Maybe he never will.
But it's his story, it's his ending, and he wouldn't trade it for the world.
“Ah, Qingqiu-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan says the next day. Shen Qingqiu;'s a little tired, a little sore, and he doesn't think Ming Fan will be able to look in him the eye for a few days after walking in on... well, he's young. He'll recover. “You're feeling better.”
Shen Qingqiu bows his head. “Much better, Shixiong,” he says. “I am grateful to be under your care again.”
Yue Qingyuan smiles. “Shang Qinghua mentioned you had thought about staying here a bit. I can assure you that Luo Binghe will be met with a warmer reception than last time.”
Given that the last time involved people screaming and crying and Liu Qingge trying to find a way to stab someone on a flying sword, it would have to be a distinct improvement. “About the Golden Worm?”
“I believe Bai Zhan Peak is taking care of it. Liu-shidi was most insistent that it be tracked down and destroyed.”
“Good,” he says and does not offer to assist this time. It's been made fairly clear that his part in this chapter is over.
“However,” Yue Qingyuan pauses, “it does leave us with a problem. Since both he and Shang Qinghua are gone...”
Wait a second.. “Shang-shidi is gone? Where?”
“I believe he said he had to do some research up North,” Yue Qingyuan says. “It's apparently very urgent and vital to the safety of Cang Qiong.”
You liar, Shen Qingqiu thinks, you absolute cowardly treacherous... and then he actually processes Shang Qinghua's earlier words. “He said I was staying?”
“To help with logistics while he's gone. I believe there's quite a bit of paperwork built up.” Yue Qingyuan pats him on the shoulder. “It will be nice working side by side with you again.”
Fuck you, Airplane-Bro, he thinks desperately as he smiles weakly and nods. Just you wait.
I'll show you what a true villain looks like.