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Deluxe System 2.0: Co-op Mode!

Chapter Text

From the moment he heard 【You can you up!】 in the cheerfully soulless tones of a Google Translate voice, the moment he was – against his will! – locked into the character of that scum villain Shen Qingqiu, Shen Yuan knew he was fucked.

He just never fully considered how fucked until he stood on the edge of the Endless Abyss, the point of Xiu Ya carving a shallow wound into the chest of his no-longer-so-little bun, Luo Binghe. Translucent windows, tinted the universal red of emergency, popped up at the center of his vision, emphasizing in text the words that the System was blaring with increasingly forced cordiality.

【WARNING! 10,000 Coolness Point deduction imminent. This System suggests that User kindly proceed with prime mission. Failure to do so will result in deactivation of account. Do you wish to continue Y/Y?】

Shen Qingqiu shunted the warning windows aside with a flick of his fan, leaving Luo Binghe’s teary-eyed confusion the only thing in his sight.

“Does Shizun… is this disciple now such a monster in Shizun’s eyes that he would throw me away?” Luo Binghe’s words choked on hitched breaths, each rise of his chest digging the point of Shen Qingqiu’s sword a little deeper. But Luo Binghe stood firm, waiting. Waiting for Shen Qingqiu’s decision.

He’s the protagonist! His halo will protect him!

He has to go through this or he won’t become the Heavenly Demon Lord of both realms, never find Xin Mo, never join the worlds, never gather his harem of jade-like beauties!

And anyways, he’s only a character! A blackened OP stallion in a badly written web novel!

Shen Qingqiu’s grip firmed with the strength of those arguments, Xiu Ya digging deeper into the muscle beneath skin. Luo Binghe refused to retreat. The tears spiking his lashes fell, diamonds and rubies in the glow of his newly awakened demon mark. Even crying, he was beautiful.

This sticky disciple of his, this fluffy little sheep. What is with this crying, Binghe? Always so quick to cry. You’re not some little mistress! You’re the protagonist of that trash <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>!

But… was he really?

Shen Qingqiu drew a shaky breath at that thought. No, Luo Binghe wasn’t the character he’d read about, no more than he was the scum villain who’d abused his disciple for years. And while he might have made the role of reserved Peak Lord his own, while he might rationalize doing terrible things to improve a trash story that he’d died loving to hate, this didn’t feel like a story anymore. This was his life. Luo Binghe was his lovingly raised white lotus.

And he wasn’t Shen Qingqiu.

“I… I can’t,” Shen Yuan whispered, Xiu Ya’s tip sliding clear of Luo Binghe’s flesh. He stepped back, as much to escape the cascade of warning windows flashing up before his eyes as to keep from stumbling and accidentally knocking them both into the Abyss.

A tingling numbness crawled up his limbs; his sword and fan dropped as he lost control of his grip. His knees locked, the only thing that kept him from also dropping to the ground. That, and Luo Binghe’s hands on his arms.

“Shizun?” he whispered. The devastation had fallen away, leaving only the confusion. “What—”

【User error. 10,000 Coolness Points deducted. Initiating failsafe in five…】

“Not… Binghe’s Shizun.” Shen Yuan shook his head, the only part of his body still under his control, and even that was fading.

【Four…】

“This disciple… he… I…” Luo Binghe’s fingers dug bruises into Shen Yuan’s arms to keep him upright. “I don’t understand.”

【Three…】

“Don’t worry.” Now they were both crying. Ah, so embarrassing! Shen Yuan was no better than this sticky disciple of his. “Binghe is safe now. This master won’t let him be blackened.”

【Two…】

“Blackened? What blackened?” Luo Binghe’s grip loosened, and Shen Yuan started to sag. “Shizun, is it Without a Cure? Tell me how I can fix this.”

【One.】

Shen Yuan could barely see Luo Binghe through the array of pop-up windows, barely hear him over the System’s alarms. This wasn’t the way he would have chosen to die, but it was better than a compromised immune system and a freak encounter with expired ramen. It was preferable to being turned into a human stick. At least he’d done the right thing and protected his Binghe.

“Tried to make me,” he whispered through lips grown numb. “But I won’t. I can’t…”

【Failsafe engaged. Reverting host body control to original user.】

Strength surged through Shen Yuan, yet none of it was his. He floated above it, outside it, an observer only. Vision whitening at the edges, he watched with horror as the body he no longer controlled swept its arms out to break Luo Binghe’s loosened hold, as its tear-streaked face froze into a sneer, eyes empty of anything but disgust.

“But I can,” it said, raising a booted foot and planting it into Luo Binghe’s stomach with enough power to send him hurtling over the edge of the chasm. The last thing Shen Yuan saw before his senses failed was Luo Binghe falling while Shen Qingqiu coldly retrieved his sword and fan.

 

***

 

【System rebooting. Initializing in three… two… one…】

Shen Yuan groaned – a sound that seemed to rattle around his brain like old pipes in a vast, empty warehouse. The voice sounded more like Siri than Google translate – more pleasant, but just as inane. It did nothing to alleviate the hollowed-out ache in his chest.

【Welcome back, Original Player, to the offshoot world of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>. Due to a System processing error, you have been granted a free upgrade to Deluxe System 2.0: Co-op Mode!】

Wait, what was with this new voice? Offshoot world? System error?

Co-op mode??!!

Shen Yuan tried to move, but his brain still felt disconnected from his limbs. He could feel them – the weight and warmth of a blanket, the tickle of a soft breeze across his brow, the slight tug on his hair where it was pinned under his arm – but he couldn’t move. Not even to open his eyes to see where the System had dumped him.

Wasn’t he supposed to be back home? Wasn’t he supposed to be dead? What had happened? The Immortal Alliance Conference, the Endless Abyss, losing 10,000 points when he refused to push down his disciple Binghe.

Binghe.

Binghe!!

::Yes, yes. We are all very aware that the little beast is your first, second, and only concern,:: grumbled a voice in his head that was neither his own nor the System’s. Yet still oddly familiar.

Too familiar.

Shen Jiu?!

::In the flesh. Your flesh. Or rather, my flesh, which you’ve stolen, you… wait. You can hear me?!::

Shen Yuan hoped he was dreaming, even as he was increasingly certain that he wasn’t. You’re… here?

The silence that followed was extended enough to renew Shen Yuan’s hope, but then the voice returned, piercing his thoughts like a particularly vicious migraine.

::I have always been here, you impudent imposter! It’s my body. You are the one who shouldn’t be here. Interloper, insinuating yourself into my life without any concern about whose identity you were usurping.::

Shen Yuan cringed mentally as the tirade flayed him of every scrap of confidence he’d built up during his years as Shen Qingqiu.

And it drove on, relentlessly. ::I have had to sit and watch in screaming silence as you made a mockery of my position, destroyed the respect I’ve spent years drumming into my disciples, defrauded my shixiong and shidis with your wholly implausible impersonation, and coddled that sniveling, demonic viper who is – apparently – destined to annihilate us all.::

The ongoing barrage sent Shen Yuan reeling. No wonder Wei-shidi had tested him for demonic possession so many times with the Hongjing sword. Shen Yuan couldn’t compare to this. The Original Goods had cultivated cutting disdain into a fifth scholarly art!

I… I didn’t know, Shen Yuan offered meekly. The System never said. And in every transmigration novel I’ve ever read, the original goods was always gone when the transmigrator moved in.

A snort echoed through Shen Yuan’s thoughts. ::As though you would have done anything differently. I know what you are. I’ve watched you all these years, reaping the benefits of my efforts at cultivation, while all you do in your head is whinge about missing the baidu and the weibo and your ticking and talking. You are nothing more than a lazy, indolent, self-centered… millennial.::

Shen Yuan couldn’t.

He shouldn’t.

But… how could he not?

OK, Boomer.

【It’s wonderful that you both are getting along so well!】 the System interjected into the sputtering – from Shen Jiu – and the snickering – from Shen Yuan – that followed. 【Camaraderie and team-work will be essential for succeeding in Co-op Mode!】

Shen Yuan’s laughter died. Again with this Co-op Mode.

::What exactly do you mean?::  Shen Jiu’s question was colder than the Luo River in winter.

A coldness the System blithely ignored. 【Welcome to Deluxe System 2.0: Co-op Mode! This special feature has been made available exclusively for you! Both user accounts have been bound to the host body. All previously accrued point categories, awards, and deficits have been erased. Current categories and point totals are:】

【Original Goods Shen Jiu (User OG)

  • Reforming Villain Plot Points: 0
  • Heartbreak Points: 1000
  • Fix-it Fic Progress: 5%
  • Secret Stash: Empty
  • Tutorial Points: 0】

 

【Original Player Shen Yuan (User OP)

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 0
  • Heartbreak Points: 1000
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 5%
  • Secret Stash: Empty
  • Tutorial Points: 0】

【Compete for points to take control, or cooperate on quests to unlock special upgrades, secret questlines, and unique features. Until {System Requirement Pending} is met, this System will remain in sandbox tutorial mode. Good luck, Users. You Can Each Other Up!】

::What does any of that mean? System? System, you useless…::

Shen Yuan was tempted to rant alongside Shen Jiu, but he had to use what few edges he had. Who could guess that a millennial’s gaming experience would prove useful in a cultivation setting?

/DM: System?

【Hello User OP! How can this System assist?】

/DM: Is this a private channel?

【Of course!】

Given Shen Jiu’s ongoing rant, which had moved on to a sequence of artfully interlocking and increasingly insulting chengyu, Shen Yuan had to trust the System was telling the truth.

/DM: What quests are available right now?

【User OP Active Quest Log:

  • Activate User Mode】

/DM: That’s it?

【More quests will unlock after user mode is activated.】

Oh. Okay then. Ignoring the slight twinge of guilt at usurping – this time with full knowledge – what wasn’t his, Shen Yuan braced himself.

/DM: Activate user mode.

【User OP’s User Mode activated. Congratulations! 10 Tutorial Points awarded.】

The muffled cocoon around Shen Yuan burst apart. He surged upright, eyes opening to see the warm, lamplit space of Mu Qingfang’s infirmary. Residual spasms, like a backup queue of commands all activating at once, jolted through his limbs and nearly sent him tumbling off the bed. A firm arm around his back and hand on his shoulder kept him in place until the initial vertigo passed.

“Shen-shixiong. You’re awake. Here, lie back. Don’t try to move yet. You’ve been unconscious for several days.” Mu Qingfang spoke with the same studied calm of all the nurses who’d tended Shen Yuan in his first life. He obeyed out of habit.

::Wait, what? How did he… what is happening?:: sputtered a not-so-soothing voice in Shen Yuan’s head.

【User OP has successfully activated user mode and is in control of the host body.】

::I can see that! How?!::

【By activating user mode.】

Shen Yuan coughed to hold back a snicker at the System’s smug tone.

::Don’t get insolent with me, you disembodied bag of wind!::

You’re a disembodied bag of wind…】

“Shen-shixiong? How are you feeling?” Mu Qingfang asked, fingers drifting down to press across Shen Yuan’s wrist. His eyes narrowed as he monitored the pulse there.

I’m alive. I’m in control of my body. And this System seems to dislike the Original Goods more than it does me.

“I’m alright, Mu-shidi,” Shen Yuan said, taking stock of his aches, the roughness of his voice, and a hollow pain yawning at the edge of his awareness that didn’t seem to have any source.

/DM: Hey, System. You said more quests would be unlocked?

【Yes! User OP’s Active Quest Log:

  • Find out what happened at the Immortal Alliance Conference
  • Recover 【Special item: Fake Jade Guanyin】
  • Reforge Zheng Yang
  • Build Memorial
  • Mourn】

Shen Yuan’s breath caught as he read through the list, the distant, hollow ache blossoming through him until it was all he could do not to collapse around it.

Now Shen Yuan remembered those last moments when he thought he would die: stepping back, dropping Xiu Ya, and then… losing control to Shen Jiu, Luo Binghe falling into the Abyss—

::Give me my body back, you usurper!::

—and the look of devastation on Luo Binghe’s face as his Shizun betrayed him.

Fuck. You.

Shunting aside the mental flood of vitriol spewing through his mind, She Yuan asked the question he didn’t want answered. “Mu-shidi? What happened to Luo Binghe? Where is your shixiong’s disciple?”

Chapter Text

The first hurdle – after Shen Qingqiu convinced Mu Qingfang that he was well enough to return to his own bamboo house – came with the pressing realization that he hadn’t been practicing inedia while he was unconscious, with predictable consequences.

::Oh, for the love of little lotus pods, just go! It’s not like I haven’t spent the past five years witness to every excruciating detail of your existence. Believe me when I say that relieving yourself in this manner is the least you should be embarrassed about.::

Shen Yuan’s need to pee suddenly became less urgent. “I am never masturbating again,” he whispered aloud.

::We can but hope,:: Shen Jiu drawled. ::At the very least, perhaps I won’t again be subjected to the vile things you think about while you do so. Tell me, is everyone in your world so fascinated with tentacles?::

Ning Yingying and Ming Fan both came running at Shen Qingqiu’s yelp of horror, and it was a sichen of reassuring them that he’d merely burned his tongue on too-hot tea before he was alone again. By that time, Shen Jiu’s snickering had subsided, and he’d gone back to grousing about how undisciplined his disciples had become under Shen Yuan’s tutelage.

At least after that moment of sharing, pissing with an audience didn’t seem so impossible.

The next several days brought a constant stream of criticisms and corrections, from how Shen Yuan taught their disciples – ::So much coddling! We managed to master the guqin on our own. They should too!:: – to how to properly wield their fan – ::It should be unfurled slowly, like the opening of a flower or the onset of a maidenly blush. Slower. No, slower… No, that’s too slow.::

What about when I’m angry? Shen Yuan was a blink away from unfurling on Shen Jiu.

::Then it should snap like thunder and lightning. If you don’t produce a least a few sparks, you’re doing it wrong.::

Three of his favorite fans went up like dry tinder before he realized Shen Jiu was fucking with him.

His new passenger was a distraction, but not so much that Shen Qingqiu failed to notice the odd looks sent his way from his disciples. They were paired with overly-delicate treatment – hushed voices, timid movements – as though they thought their Shizun was in danger of shattering from one misstep.

If you don’t shut up, they’ll start assuming we’ve gone mad, Shen Yuan silently grumbled as he dug through boxes and shelves he’d half-forgot existed.

::You think I’m the reason they’re concerned?:: Shen Yuan felt a hitch in his breathing and a twitch at the back of his neck, as though Shen Jiu dearly wanted to sigh and shake his head. ::Why am I surprised that you’re this oblivious?::

“Hah! Found it!” Shen Yuan untangled the fake jade guanyin from a jumble of combs, guan, and various yaopei that had fallen out of favor. Waving aside the System’s congratulatory notice, he ran his fingers over the poor carving and the rough surface of the cheap nephrite. It wasn’t dear to him, of course, but to Luo Binghe it had meant the world. Why had he kept this from him? For points? Ah, what a cruel master he’d been. He dusted it off with care and tucked it away in his qiankun pouch before recalling his conversation with Shen Jiu.

Oblivious about what? Shen Yuan asked. But no matter how hard he tried to wheedle an explanation, Shen Jiu ignored him in favor of another biting lecture on fan forms.

When Mu Qingfang dropped by the bamboo house to check on Shen Qingqiu, his gaze was just as worried as the disciples’, but his questions were the same as all the doctors in Shen Yuan’s previous life.

And Shen Yuan’s answers were no different.

Yes, he was eating normally.

Yes, he was sleeping enough.

No, nothing in particular was troubling him, why do you ask, Mu-shidi?

Shen Yuan had mastered dodging such concerns years before he ever transmigrated. Why trouble doctors over things they couldn’t fix? He’d rather they leave him alone.

However, with Shen Jiu his constant complain-ion, the only time he was truly alone was at night after Shen Jiu fell asleep. At least, Shen Yuan assumed he was asleep based on the silence broken by the occasional incomprehensible mumble.

Then, finally alone and unobserved, Shen Yuan could turn his thoughts to the Immortal Alliance Conference and Luo Binghe’s fate.

Luo Binghe was alive. At least, Shen Yuan hoped that was still true. Could it have made that much of a difference that it was Shen Jiu who pushed him? No, the protagonist’s halo would still be in working order. Luo Binghe would fight his way through the Abyss and impress all those beauties who would eventually become part of his harem. He would recover Xin Mo, that unstoppable golden finger that let him conquer the demon and mortal worlds. And in five years, he would return to take his vengeance on his old Shizun.

For better or worse, Shen Yuan was still that person.

He pressed his hands to his eyes, blotting out the scant moonlight that striped the floor of the bamboo house. It was too quiet in Luo Binghe’s absence. Empty. And it left him feeling the same. He didn’t want to think of these things, of his cute little sheep alone, hurt, sad. Of the slow blackening that had already begun.

No, the one returning would no more be his precious disciple than Shen Yuan was that old, despised Shizun.

His Binghe was already gone. Forever.

The ping from the System was loud in the quiet of the empty bamboo house.

【User OP’s Quest: Mourn initiated. Please continue to work hard!】

 

***

 

::–such a waste. And it would be more appropriate to use black stones.::

Shen Yuan’s fist tightened around one of the river-smooth white stones under discussion, one of ten-thousand that had been delivered after the Immortal Alliance Conference. If only there was someone outside his head he could throw it at!

He knelt at the edge of his garden before the sword mound he’d made to house Zheng Yang. There was no wielding the sword any longer; the reforged blade was too brittle to be used for anything but remembrance – something Shen Yuan did with every stone he placed.

Softly in the background came the dí-dí-dí of his Tutorial Points racking up.

How many afternoons had he sat under the green-tinted shade of the bamboo leaves, playing the guqin or reading or simply letting his qi dance with the wind, listening to his little bun putter around the bamboo house? Studying. Or cleaning. Or bringing him delicious new snacks to sample.

Shen Yuan dragged his thoughts back to the present. His heart was weighed down by the memory of a thousand such moments, making it heavier than the pile of spirit stones he’d won betting on Luo Binghe. He’d sent his hovering disciples on pointless errands so that he could be alone with those memories. Instead, he was left with a sniping running commentary from the Severus Snape knock-off in his head.

“Do you ever shut up?” he muttered, placing another stone.

::I have been silenced for the past five years, while you consistently humiliated me with your blundering impersonation. You can hardly blame me for trying to mitigate this ongoing embarrassment.::

Maybe if Shen Yuan bashed his own head with a rock?

System, is there any sort of mute function?

【If only there were…】 the System sighed. Who knew that a Siri voice could sound so wistful? It perked up with forced cheer. 【Apologies, User OP. The mute function has not been unlocked. Please complete challenges in Co-Op Mode to access advanced communication features.】

What advanced? The System would turn off notifications if he asked. How was blocking a troll an advanced feature?! System support, he’d like to register a complaint!

Does using Co-op mode mean I have to give body control to him? Shen Yuan asked.

【All Co-op challenges require skill-sets from both users.】

What sort of answer was that? No way! He’d never get the body back.

“So, just let him undo all my efforts at making us look like less of an asshole,” Shen Yuan muttered, placing another stone.

::You undid all my efforts to show the world I’m no naïve weakling. Thanks to you, my disciples think they can get away with every form of insolence. That Liu Qingge makes moon-eyes at us like a lovelorn idiot, and Yue Qingyuan—::

Your efforts! Shen Yuan snapped. You mean the ones that were going to end with you as a human stick? Qingge-shidi is alive because of me. And there’s no way Yue-shixiong treats me better than he treated you. He would have let you get away with murder!

No response came, only a heavy silence that somehow revived Shen Yuan’s twinges of guilt. He returned his handful of stones to their basket, vowing to return and finish the mosaic when he wasn’t angry at the voices in his head and worried about completing quests to keep Shen Jiu in place.

Luo Binghe deserved better.

 

***

 

Perhaps the biggest indicator that life was returning to normal and Cang Qiong Mountain sect was moving on from the losses of the Immortal Alliance Conference was when a group of Bai Zhan Peak bullies came to hassle Shen Qingqiu’s disciples. Qing Jing Peak acquitted itself well enough in the ensuing brawl. Ming Fan in particular proved why the other peaks shouldn’t underestimate the martial ability of the scholars, and Ning Yingying turned as vicious as a Righteous Spiny Porcupanther when a few of the bullies targeted the disciples who had not yet reached early-stage core-formation.

But the absence of their shidi Luo Binghe was never so obvious as it was in the black eyes and bloodied noses and general miasma of shame that pervaded the dormitories when Shen Qingqiu visited them to see what the ruckus was about.

When his disciples told him, his fan opened with such a resounding snap that he nearly lost yet another one to fire.

“Begging Shizun’s pardon!” Ming Fan said, prostrating himself so low that his tears splashed onto stone. “These disciples are so lacking that we could not even defend Qing Jing Peak’s honor.”

What lacking? What defending? This was the very definition of kicking a wounded comrade when he was down. Weren’t the Bai Zhan Peak bullies the ones who should be scattering puddles of tears and blood on the ground alongside their apologies?

Shen Qingqiu’s fan stirred his head disciple’s hair, only pulling back at the last moment from rapping him gently on the head. His crying disciples caught their breath as one, watching with wide eyes and slack jaws as Shen Qingqiu withdrew the fan.

Ah, of course. How could he be so cruel as to strike a treasured disciple when he was apologizing so sincerely?

::Yes. That is why they’re shocked,:: Shen Jiu grumbled. ::Imbecile.::

Gently, Shen Qingqiu nudged Ming Fan up. “It is this master’s duty to defend his peak and his disciples, and his failing to not have done so. That will be rectified.”

He left the dormitories, spurring a mass exodus of disciples. They trailed after him like a ragged train of fluffy ducklings until he mounted Xiu Ya and they could follow no more.

::And how do you propose to restore our peak’s honor?:: Shen Jiu asked as they soared over the valley between peaks. They flew past the Rainbow Bridges and toward the Bai Zhan training grounds, kicking up a cloud of autumn leaves in their wake. ::Trick Liu Qingge into beating them up for you again?::

“Subtlety doesn’t work with bullies,” Shen Yuan said, a lesson learned from years of watching cloying high school web dramas. He dismounted at the training grounds and marched toward the nearest sparring pair, sword in one hand, fan in the other, and a firestorm of spiritually-charged leaf-fall at his back. “I intend to remind them who trained Luo Binghe in the first place.”

Camping his disciples? He’d show them what it felt like to be griefed. He’d take these turtles and turn them into soup!

By the time Shen Qingqiu’s vengeance had been sated, the training grounds were covered with groaning disciples and broken leaves. Liu Qingge had arrived at some point and was watching with a frown.

But he hadn’t interrupted.

“Pitiful showing,” he said, dismissing his disciples’ pain with a sweeping scowl of disdain. That scowl softened somewhat as he approached. If Shen Qingqiu had to guess, he’d almost say the look on his face was concern.

::Imbecile.::

Huh?? Ah well, Shen Jiu had never cared for Liu Qingge, but wasn’t calling him names just too harsh?

“Qingge is pleased to see Shen-shixiong leaving his peak, but have we taken to testing each other’s disciples?” Liu Qingge asked.

Shen Qingqiu brushed non-existent dirt from his robes and smoothed his hair into a semblance of order. “It seemed only fair, as I missed the demonstration they so kindly staged for my disciples this morning.”

“Much as I only caught the end of shixiong’s display.” Liu Qingge’s jaw firmed, and the scowl was back. “Perhaps that’s an invitation for me to return the favor.”

“To train Qing Jing Peak’s disciples? Liu-shidi is welcome to share his wisdom whenever he cares to visit.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice sweetened, innocent as a young mistress’. “Would you prefer to give instruction on the guqin or calligraphy?”

Leaving Liu Qingge sputtering for a response, Shen Qingqiu mounted Xiu Ya and left Bai Zhan Peak.

::I will give you this, that had all the subtlety of a herd of Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons. What peak honor? Even Liu Qingge was left breathless by your shamelessness.::

Shen Yuan had put up with enough of everything, and more than enough of Shen Jiu’s sniping. You’re just angry because I’m living your life better than you did.

That silenced Shen Jiu until they landed in the garden behind the bamboo house.

::Perhaps I am,:: he said. ::Perhaps I’m angry because nobody noticed or cared that I was replaced. Perhaps I am bitter that they all prefer a charlatan to this unpleasant master. But I wasn’t wrong about you.::

He sounded different. Quieter, like the anger that had been driving him had subsided.

Tired. Maybe even… sad?

What do you mean?

::When you first arrived, you didn’t know that I remained. Now you do. And yet you rationalize that you have some right to my life because you’re a better person. But can you really say that you are better when you’re stealing someone else’s body and life?::

By the time Shen Yuan recovered from the mental gut punch of those quiet words, Shen Jiu had gone silent, and no amount of ranting or cajoling elicited a response.

Chapter Text

/DM: System, display current points and quest log.

【User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 0
  • Heartbreak Points: 1100
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 5%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Fake Jade Guanyin
  • Tutorial Points: 180】

【User OP Active Quest Log

  • Contribute to Sword Mound (Daily)
  • Mourn (In Progress)
  • Confront Shang Quinghua】

Shen Yuan languidly waved his fan to disperse his sigh. He had to be careful these days because every sigh he let out drew worried looks and offerings of tea from his disciples. He could swim in the amount of tea forced on him since the Immortal Alliance Conference.

His drifting gaze caught on the sword mound he’d built for Luo Binghe, and he slowly closed his fan. He’d squeezed every tutorial point he could out of that, but more additions would turn the mound into a gaudy, tasteless display, and he couldn’t do that, not even for the points.

The second quest on his list, he preferred not to think about, and as for the new one that had popped up…

“Any news from An Ding Peak,” Shen Qingqiu asked, wafting away another sigh as Ming Fan appeared with a fresh pot of tea and a pinched brow.

“No, Shizun. Shang-shishu hasn’t returned yet.” Ming Fan seemed to be waiting for something after he’d poured the tea – a something Shen Qingqiu couldn’t be bothered to suss out at the moment, too irritated by the forced delay. System, how is he supposed to confront a ghost?! Isn’t this quest a bug?

With another pinched look, Ming Fan slipped away, leaving Shen Qingqiu alone in the garden with his tea and his fretting.

What about you? Still sulking? he prodded at the silent presence in the center of his mind.

::I have nothing to say to you. Feel free to carry on as you have been. You will anyway,:: Shen Jiu responded – the only response he’d given in the weeks since Shen Yuan had schooled the bullies at Bai Zhan Peak. Perhaps if he’d gone completely silent, Shen Yuan could have simply pretended he wasn’t there, but no. Shen Jiu responded just enough to make certain he wasn’t forgotten, and the cold cordiality behind his words was patently false, calculated to weigh on Shen Yuan’s guilt.

And most annoying of all, it was working.

“This is ridiculous.” Shen Qingqiu stood, snapping his fan closed, and strode from the garden. Ming Fan and Ning Yingying appeared as though summoned. What was with these hovering disciples? Don’t you have too much time on your hands to hang about like idle flowers? Hasn’t this master already ruined one sticky disciple?

Flicking his sleeves to wave their solicitousness aside, Shen Qingqiu said, “This martial uncle worries for his shidi’s disciples, left without guidance for so long. It is only polite to check on their progress. No need to follow. Surely you have studies you have neglected.”

Escaping them by dint of fleeing on Xiu Ya, Shen Qingqiu flew to An Ding Peak.

His suspicion that Shang Qinghua was avoiding him was confirmed when he caught his fellow Peak Lord crawling out a back window of his house with scrolls under both arms and a bun stuffed in his mouth.

“Ah, Shang-shidi. Leaving in such a hurry?” Shen Qingqiu chased Shang Qinghua back into his house with a pleasant look and an unsheathed Xiu Ya hovering at his side. “Surely Qinghua has time to share tea with his shixiong.”

“Fh-fhat fould bfe fice, bhut freally, fhis—Eep!” Tripping over the hem of his own robes, Shang Qinghua sprawled on his ass next to the tea table. His scrolls scattered across the floor and the bun popped free and tumbled into his lap.

Sheathing his sword, Shen Yuan sat and took charge of the teapot as though Shang Qinghua’s stumble had been an invitation.

“Qingqiu has questions,” he said, pouring a cup of tepid tea so overbrewed that it threatened to leave stains in the cups. “About the Immortal Alliance Conference.”

::Questions?! You should beat this rat like a drum. Like one of Qingge’s brainless disciples.::

Shen Qingqiu almost poured tea into Shang Qinghua’s lap, so startled was he by Shen Jiu breaking his silence.

Now you have something to say?

::We both heard him betraying the sect to that ice demon. I don’t understand why you haven’t said anything. I had thought your one redeeming quality might be your loyalty to these peaks. A beating is the least this scum deserves.::

Shen Yuan smiled grimly at the scum villain calling another villain scum. That is not all we heard, he  thought, smug that he’d noticed something Shen Jiu hadn’t. He set the pot aside hard enough to rattle the lid. His shidi rattled in response.

“Sh-shixiong? What… what about the Immortal Alliance Conference?” Shang Qinghua avoided his gaze,  wide eyes darting about like a mouse landed in a pit of vipers – from the teacup, to the bun in his lap, to the fallen scrolls.

Until Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan open like a cobra’s hood and forced Shang Qinghua’s to lock eyes with him. “Qingqiu thinks his shidi knows what about. Wasn’t it An Ding Peak that was tasked with setting up the grounds in Jue Di Gorge and finding the monsters for the visiting disciples to fight?”

“Ah, well. That was… the rifts. We could hardly anticipate—”

“And wasn’t Qinghua present when the demon Mobei-Jun came through a rift to threaten me and my disciple?”

“C-couldn’t be avoided. The Syst—er… that is... the sister and brother disciples needed our protection.” Shang Qinghua reached for the tea with a shaking hand, spilling more of it than he managed to get into his mouth.

::Where are you going with this? Just beat the traitor already. Nine times around his peak should do it.::

But Shen Yuan had reason to believe there was more than Shang Qinghua’s canonical sect betrayal going on here, reason backed by the quietly muttered ‘WTF?’ he’d heard when Mobei-Jun showed up instead of the expected Black Moon Rhinoceros Python, and corroborated by his near-slip just now.

“Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky,” he said, snapping his fan closed and striking the table with it.

Shang Qinghua yeeped, the teacup dropping to make a picnic with the bun in his lap. He used his hem to blot himself dry – and to delay responding – but Shen Qingqiu’s silence eventually broke him. He sagged into a soggy lump not unlike the poor, half-eaten bun.

“How do you know that name?” he asked, then with widening eyes. “You… you’re a transmigrator, too?”

“Hah!” Shen Qingqiu jabbed him in the shoulder as the System congratulated him on completing another quest and winning another coveted ten Tutorial Points. So he wasn’t the only transmigrator stuck in this shitty stallion novel! And perhaps he wasn’t the only one stuck with the Original Goods griping away in their head. What sort of transmigratory experience was this? Shouldn’t the previous tenant be evicted before the new one moves in? System, you are the worst landlord!

“I’ve blistered my tongue cursing that name!” Shen Qingqiu said. “To die with a golden parachute, only to have it drop me into this crappy excuse of a web novel – and as the scum villain, no less!”

“What, crappy! Isn’t that too much, bro, to kick me while I’m down,” Shang Qinghua said, eyes welling up as though Shen Qingqiu’s poking had been with sword instead of fan. “Like you have a right to complain. Everyone loves to hate Qingqiu, but nobody even cares about Qinghua. And at least you get a few comfortable years before your death. I only exist to be beaten and beaten and beaten again.”

::Comfortable years?!:: Shen Jiu screeched in his head, enough to make Shen Yuan wince. ::What do you know of comfortable? I’ll show you how comfortable my life has been!::

But all his passenger could do was rant. “You can’t change what happens, either? I tried, but the System…” Something tight lodged in his throat, sapping Shen Qingqiu as thoroughly as a bout of Without a Cure. He sank into a slouch that no self-respecting Peak Lord would hold and drank the tea that no refined Peak Lord would drink.

Shang Qinghua picked mournfully at his bun, plucking off fuzz. “I’m surprised it even let you try. I’ve had to follow the plot since I was born. I didn’t want to betray Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.”

“You’ve been here all your life?” Shen Qingqiu usually only pitied himself, but even he had to spare some sympathy for his new compatriot. Did he need any more proof that this was a third-rate, designer knock-off transmigratory experience? One of them trapped from birth, the other trapped with the one who’d been born here. “Then there’s no Qinghua besides you?”

“What other Qinghua would there be? I’m the only Qinghua there is.” Apparently deeming his bun clean enough, Shang Qinghua took a bite. Blowing crumbs, he mumbled, “Though if I’d known I’d transmigrate into my own canon-fodder, I would have written him a long-lost twin to throw in his place.”

What was this? This wasn’t some fellow reader? This was the trash author himself?!

::Now can we beat him bloody?:: Shen Jiu hissed.

“Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky?”

“Yes?”

You’re Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky?!”

“Er… yes? You’re the one who recognized me.” The bun lowered, the trash author’s mouth wet and slack in his confusion. “Though I have to say, it’s always nice to meet a fan.”

“A fan? A FAN?!” Shen Yuan screeched, not caring that he sounded a lot like Shen Jiu in that moment. Snatching up his own fan, he began whapping Airplane about the head with it. “I’ll show you fan, you shitty author! I’ll hollow you out with your own empty characterizations and poke you full of your own plot holes! I’ll take every cliché magical herb and papapa device and shove it up your—”

“Ah! Ah!” Airplane raised his arms to protect himself from the rain of paper-thin blows. “Okay, anti-fan! Clearly an anti-fan. But I love you guys even more.”

Shen Yuan hesitated, fan still half-raised for another righteous blow. “You do?”

“Sure. No such thing as bad publicity. Your hate posts keep me in ramen,” he said, examining the red welts crossing his arms. “Or they did until I spilled some all over my power strip and electrocuted myself. What was your ID?”

Non-plussed, Shen Yuan sank back on his heels, searching his fan for damage like Airplane was searching his arms. “It was… uh… Peerless Cucumber.”

No, he wasn’t blushing. He was flushed because he was still pissed.

That anger was harder to keep hold of when that trash author beamed brightly at him. “Cucumber-bro?! You really are a fan. You always had the best rants! The one where you demanded that Shen Qingqiu should be castr—OW!”

“That’s enough of that,” Shen Qingqiu said, tucking away his fan and drawing the jade-like mien of Peak Lord back around him.

“So harsh, just like your screeds.” Shang Qinghua poked at the final welt and managed to squeeze a few drops of blood from the scrape.

“You deserve it for—”

【User OG Quest: Meet Trash Author and Beat Him Bloody completed. Congratulations! 100 Tutorial Points awarded. Bonus x2 for completing quest on Co-op Mode! You now have enough points to access User Mode.】

Shen Qingqiu froze. What quest was this? Why so many points? System, aren’t we bros? What is this betrayal!

::Finally! Give me access to this user mode, you brainless spirit::

“Wait, don’t—” Vertigo rolled over Shen Yuan in a wave, tumbling his senses until he couldn’t tell which way was up. His limbs went numb, his throat closed up. The rest of his words came out as a thin scream into a yawning void.

::–give him control!::

“Ah. Finally,” someone said with his voice, running his hands over his arms as though trying on new robes.

Or… old, familiar robes they hadn’t worn in a very long time.

“C-Cucumber-bro?” Shang Qinghua cocked his head.

Shen Yuan felt his face twist into an expression that wasn’t his – eyes half-lidded, lips pressed into a flat line. What is this resting bitch face?

“Not anymore,” Shen Qingqiu said, drawing his fan from his sleeve and tapping it against the tea table with a menace Shen Yuan could only aspire to. “Now, let us discuss these comfortable years you wrote for me. Starting with my time serving in the Qiu Household.”

“Shit,” Shang Qinghua whispered.

::Shit.:: Shen Yuan thought.

Chapter Text

“You are not a god.”

That was the first thing Shen Qingqiu said after a long time of staring silently while Shang Qinghua did his best impersonation of a mound of overcooked noodles trying to gloop its way underneath the tea table.

::Huh?:: Shen Yuan thought.

“Huh?” Shang Qinghua said.

“You. Shang Qinghua, Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, whatever it is you want to call yourself. You are not a god. I refuse to believe that you made me. Made these peaks. Made this world.” Shen Qingqiu’s fan waved in a dance to take in Shang Qinghua, the room, and everything in creation.

That got Shang Qinghua sitting up straight. The brush haphazardly thrust through his guan in place of a pin quivered with his indignation. “Hey! Are you saying I plagiarized? I’ll have you know that every word of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> was written by me! All two million, five hundred three thousand, four hundred seventy-two!”

Shen Qingqiu blinked. “That is... an oddly specific number.”

::And wrong! It’s only two million, four hundred twenty-two thousand, eight hundred sixty-one.:: Shen Yuan should know. He’d choked on his own blood reading every last one of them.

Shang Qinghua blushed when Shen Qingqiu relayed that number. “Ah, well. That doesn’t count the worldbuilding notes, my dump file, and a few extras that I hadn’t gotten around to publishing. There would have been more, but I accidentally deleted my outline.”

::... You mean there’s stuff I haven’t read?!::

“Oh, for the love of little lotus pods. This is not the point!” Shen Qingqiu snapped, fan cracking down on the tea table hard enough to rattle the cups. “My point is, you may have some prescient connection to this world – a broken one, given that events have not transpired as written – but I reject the notion that you created me.”

“But I–”

And you should be glad that I do,” Shen Qingqiu hissed. “Because if I thought you were the author of my fate, that you were the reason I was taken in by the Qiu Household and suffered there, that it was your doing that my first mentor was a charlatan who further corrupted my ability to properly cultivate, that Qi-ge–”

::Wait, what are you talking about?:: Shen Yuan demanded. Was this something from those seventy-thousand unpublished words that he never got to read. ::What fate? What suffering? You mean you aren’t a straightforward scum villain?::

Is anyone?

While Shen Yuan puzzled over that cynical question, Shen Qingqiu said, “Suffice to say, if I believed you caused any of that? There would certainly be a human stick in this story. And it wouldn’t. Be. Me.”

Shang Qinghua’s squeak rivaled that of Shen Yuan’s dearly departed pet hamster.

“H-how are you even here. I mean, back? I mean... where is Peerless Cucumber?”

“Here.” The fan tapped Shen Qingqiu’s temple. “And I intend to make certain he stays there as long as I can. Now, if Shang-shidi does not mind, this Qingqiu has disciples who have been left without proper discipline for many years.”

Rising, he inspected the disrupted table and Shang Qinghua’s tea-stained and crumb-bedecked robes. “You are the author? I suppose it could have been worse,” he said, and departed.

Shen Yuan felt a little bad for the poor author after that acid-splatter of a burn. Sorry, Airplane-bro! No aloe-vera in this world. Just the slime of the Precious Azure Brilliance Kelp, and even that was primarily used for the burn of excessive papapa.

Besides, Shen Yuan had his own issues to deal with. Mainly, how to get the body back before Shen Jiu returned to his old scum villain ways.

/DM: Hey System, do I have any new quests?

【User OP Quest Log:

  • Mourn (started)
  • Assist Shen Jiu in his quest “Become a Better Teacher”】

If there had been a wall in the void of a purely spiritual existence, Shen Yuan would be beating his head against it. He was going to be stuck in here forever.

 

***

 

For Shen Yuan, watching Shen Jiu slipping back into his life was like watching his grandfather learning to use the internet. Every time Shen Qingqiu spoke to a student, Shen Yuan wanted to throw up his disembodied hands and shout, Stop! You’re breaking it! You’re breaking it!

It wasn’t that Shen Jiu didn’t know the subjects taught on Qing Jing peak, and better than Shen Yuan at that – he was the one who’d actually earned the position of Peak Lord, after all. In a week of watching him assert his old way of doing things, it became clear that there were nuances to the scholarly arts that Shen Yuan could never have picked up from a youth spent reading cultivation novels and a few years knocking his way through university. The worldbuilding in <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> was 80% focused toward facilitating papapa and 20% on fascinating monsters – who were wasted because they were also created to facilitate papapa. Since the story never delved into the details of the Four Arts, the setting apparently filled them in with the real thing. 

No, the problem was that Shen Jiu didn’t know how to teach what he knew. He would spot mistakes and, if he didn’t outright ignore them with a sneer and a cold, ‘do better,’ he’d point them out. All of them. In excruciating detail. Never to his favorites, like Ming Fan and Ning Yingying, who had the knack of learning by observation alone. No, Shen Jiu’s cutting critiques were delivered out of frustration at students who weren’t able to learn from watching. He did want them to do better, Shen Yuan realized. He just had no idea how to make that happen.

It explained the only quest in Shen Yuan’s log besides the ever-present ‘Mourn.’ He tried to assist, but Shen Jiu wasn’t open to advice, and he seemed particularly suspicious when Shen Yuan tried to give it. Like he knew that Shen Yuan was trying to get him to complete quests on his behalf.

Shen Yuan’s last thread of patience snapped a week after he lost control of their body. Shen Qingqiu had driven an entire calligraphy class to the point of tears, like they hadn’t been since Shen Yuan woke up in this trash novel of a world.

::STOP! You’re breaking it! You’re BREAKING IT!::

At least that mental shout got Shen Qingqiu to shut up. He coldly dismissed the sniffling class. Once they’d cleaned up their brushes and inkstones and fled the lecture hall, Shen Yuan said, ::Don’t you even understand basic pedagogy?::

“I do not know what that means,” Shen Qingqiu snapped, lifting his fan like a shield as though Shen Yuan was berating him to his face. He made his way back to the bamboo house with ground-eating strides.

If Shen Yuan had a brow at the moment, he would be pinching it. ::You can’t just rattle off a thousand corrections to students and expect them to learn,:: he said slowly, in the same voice he’d used to keep his grandfather from downloading malware or giving his private information to phishing schemes.

Shen Jiu sniffed. “They are lucky to have such corrections. I learned with no such benefits, and the consequences were far worse than a few sharp words if I did poorly.”

::So you had to put up with shitty teachers. Now you’re the teacher, and your solution is to do the same? Do better.:: He deliberately adopted Shen Qingqiu’s cutting tone, and was satisfied when the body they shared flinched.

Ning Yingying interrupted them with tea and snacks nowhere near the quality of Luo Binghe’s. By the time she left, casting worried looks over her shoulder, Shen Qingqiu’s ire had cooled into recalcitrance. 

“And what do you know of such things?” he asked, which was a victory in its own right – if he was asking, then he was at least somewhat willing to hear the answer.

::Given that I passed my teaching certification, quite a lot, actually.:: Not that he’d ever used it – too chronically ill to hold down a job, and too wealthy to need to, Shen Yuan had instead accelerated the decay of his brain and body with junk reading and junk food. It wasn’t until he died and woke as Shen Qingqiu that he was able to use what he knew. Not that he spent a lot of his time teaching; he was still a lazy second-gen at heart. But he’d put some effort into it, and better effort than the Original Goods. It hadn’t even occurred to him how much he cared until he had to stand by and watch a poor teacher tear down everything he’d built.

“They teach people to teach in your world?”

::It’s an art, a skill, and a science, so... yeah.::

“And that is what this pedagogy is?”

Shen Yuan swallowed a mental laugh. Shen Jiu’s pride would send him racing right back into his crabby little shell if he thought he was being mocked. ::More or less. It’s the study of how different people learn in different ways, and the different techniques that can be used to facilitate that.::

“Hmph.”  Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea and poked at the snacks. “Well, go on then. Teach me, Shizun.”

Vinegar-thin disdain dripped from the request, but it was a crack. And wasn’t that all a good teacher needed to plant a seed?

 

***

 

Shen Yuan got to see the fruit of that seed a few days later, when Shen Qingqiu stopped at the side of a particularly mediocre guqin student and said – stiffly, as though it greatly pained him – “Do not press down on the strings as though they are beetles to be crushed. One’s hands should be as kingfishers, touching down to pluck minnows from the water before taking wing again.”

A stunned moment of silence followed, the entire class suspended on a single note of shock. Then the disciple bowed so low his head touched the floor. “Th-this disciple thanks Shizun for the wisdom and clarity of his instruction, and will do better.”

Shen Qingqiu’s, “See that you do,” was drowned out by the System’s cheerful congratulations.

【OG quest: “Become a Better Teacher” completed. 50 tutorial points awarded. Keep working hard!】

【OP quest: Assist Shen Jiu in his quest “Become a Better Teacher” completed. 50 tutorial points awarded. Bonus x2 for completing quest on Co-op Mode! OP now has control of the host body. Keep working hard!】

Shen Qingqiu nearly tripped over the kowtowing student when control of his limbs returned to Shen Yuan. As several concerned students rushed to support their swaying teacher, Shen Qingqiu’s head resounded with Shen Jiu’s infuriated shriek.

 

***

 

Shen Qingqiu was relieved to discover that several years of competent teaching meant his disciples were quick to forgive him for two weeks of aberrant behavior. That didn’t stop the whispers that followed him about the peak that, try as he might, he couldn’t ignore.

... So unlike himself...

... More like before...

... Another qi deviation, do you think?...

And most puzzling of all,

... Maybe he’s just sad...

What sad? Why would Shen Yuan be sad about this or that? The only trouble in his life was the grumpy honey-badger hiding out in his head, but his disciples didn’t know about that.

:: You are entirely lacking in self-awareness, aren’t you?:: Shen Jiu said in the tones of the oh-so-done-with-this.

What do you mean?

::And my point is proven,:: he drawled, and would say no more on the subject.

However, on the subject of teaching, Shen Jiu only groused for a few hours that he’d been punished for doing something right. After that, he became a weed in dry ground, thirsty for every drop of knowledge Shen Yuan could give him. Why did Shen Yuan take this or that approach with a student? How did he decide what style suited them best? What if he was wrong? How could he even know such things?

“Haven’t you been in my head since the day I transmigrated?” Shen Qingqiu hissed behind his fan while pretending to examine one student’s work – a screen painted with… maybe ducks? “Didn’t you pay attention to what I was doing?”

::I did, but I didn’t understand it. You are the one who said that context-based learning is better when a student understands the theory being taught.:: When Shen Qingqiu moved on to examine the next painted screen, Shen Jiu sighed. ::Perhaps a field trip is in order. I don’t think that child has ever seen a swan.::

It made Shen Yuan nervous because no new quests had popped up in his log. Even the daily memorial quest was gone, leaving only the ‘Mourn’ quest that seemed to be bugged. Hadn’t he fulfilled that already? System, you forgot to award points!

But no, Shen Yuan was stuck, and every question from Shen Jiu was suspect as a possible attempt to manipulate Shen Yuan into completing one of his quests.

::Trust me,:: said Shen Jiu when Shen Yuan accidentally let that concern slip. ::I would rather remain trapped forever as an observer of my own life that cooperate with this shitty system’s demands.::

Shen Qingqiu laughed aloud at that, and then covered his warming cheeks when a few of his disciples gave him odd looks. You’re starting to sound like me.

::Shut up. Now tell me again how stealth assessment works. Can it be done without using that video game nonsense?::

Weeks passed, lulling Shen Yuan into complaisance, until one evening he felt a pricking of unease at the back of his skull, sending a wave of tingles over his scalp and tension squeezing down his spine.

He looked up from his contemplation of the moss lacing green between the spirit stones of the sword mound to see Yue Qingyuan standing placidly at the edge of his garden.

::We need to leave. Now.::

We should leave? This is our house.

::Then send him away.::

Dormant suspicions rose like a hooded cobra. Was this it? Did Shen Jiu have a quest to trick Shen Yuan into being rude to Yue Qingyuan? Every reader of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> knew they had some past together, but not even being in Shen Jiu’s head gave Shen Yuan insight into what that past might be.

“Zhenmeng-shixiong is a guest,” Shen Qingqiu murmured behind the guard of his fan. “We mustn’t be rude.”

Rising from his place before the sword mound, Shen Qingqiu returned to his house and signaled for Ming Fan to bring them tea. Already, a brazier had been set beside the tea table, making the house pleasantly warm after the chill of the garden.

“Winter comes early to the peaks this year,” Shen Qingqiu said. There. Not even Shen Jiu could fault him for that. Weather was always a safe topic.

“Too early. If only autumn loved these peaks enough to remain forever.” Sitting across from Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan smiled enigmatically. “Qingyuan will never tire of autumn’s presence.”

Or... not. Up came Shen Qingqiu’s fan. Ah, weren’t these words too inappropriate from a shixiong to his shidi? We don’t have the sort of relationship, Yue-shixiong. And if we once did, this Qingqiu doesn’t want to know about it.

And, given the incoherent sputters of rage, Shen Jiu didn’t appreciate the intimacy of Yue Qingyuan’s address, either. Shen Qingqiu poured the tea to give those sputters time to die out. “Is there some purpose to Yue-shixiong’s visit?”

“Talk has reached this shixiong that Qingqiu-shidi has not been feeling well.”

“Shixiong should know better than to listen to talk. Qingqiu is fine.”

As a big-brother type, Yue Qingyuan’s expressions were too mild to be called anything but genial, yet something in the tilt of his brows made Shen Qingqiu wonder if they might be on their way to furrowed.

::Because you’re being too friendly. And you say I’m the one who is going to give us away. If you continue to act like this, he’s going to think we’re having another qi deviation.::

So what do I do?

::Make him leave. And don’t be nice about it. He has nothing to say that we want to hear.::

Shen Yuan was about to do just that when he recalled his empty quest log. And the threat of co-op mode.

Hah! That’s just what you want me to do, isn’t it? We’ll see about that!

::No! Wait–::

“Yue-shixiong, there is something I have long wondered,” Shen Qingqiu began, taking a petty enjoyment from the protests ringing in his mind.

“Shidi should know that I am always at his disposal.”

“But are you?” It was a plot hole that had bothered Shen Yuan since his first reading of that trash novel, like gristle between his teeth. “Were you? In the past?”

He should have been thrilled by Yue Qingyuan’s indrawn breath, his whispered, “Xiao Jiu?” but he was too busy cursing the familiar deadening of his limbs and the cacophony of the System blaring congratulations.

【User OG quest: Talk to Yue Qingyuan About Shared History completed! 25 tutorial points awarded Bonus x2 for completing quest on Co-op Mode! Keep working hard!】

I hate you, Shen Jiu’s thoughts hissed, and Shen Yuan couldn’t tell if it was for himself, the System, or Yue Qingyuan. Shen Qingqiu gave himself a moment to adjust to the shift, lifting his sleeve to cover taking a sip of his tea. He set the cup down soft as a cricket landing on grass. “Qingqiu has said before, do not use that name.”

“Qingqiu is the one who brought up the past. Why? What has caused you to change so much?”

【WARNING! Revealing existence of the System or the parameters of Co-Op Mode will result in a loss of all Tutorial Points for the offending user.】

“So you have noticed.” The sticks of Shen Qingqiu’s fan cracked under the pressure of his tightened fist. “Perhaps when Zhenmeng-shixiong is willing to share the secrets he keeps, Qingqiu will share his.” Standing, he shook out his robes. “Until that time, I am tired. Please leave.”

Yue Qingyuan rose as well, but instead of stepping away, he set a gentle hand on Shen Qingqiu’s arm. “What happened to Luo Binghe was tragic, but you should not blame yourself for not saving your disciple. The circumstances are not the same.”

“You think I... you think there are any similarities between…” Yanking his arm from Yue Qingyuan’s grip, Shen Qingqiu hissed, “Get out. Get. OUT!

Ming Fan came running while Yue Qingyuan recoiled in shock, then watched in similar shock as his usually elegant Shizun chased the sect master from Qing Jing peak like a screeching fishwife.

Nothing Shen Yuan said could calm him down, and it was only after Ming Fan was curtly dismissed that Shen Jiu’s jumbled thoughts began to make any sense. 

Not that it was much sense.

He thinks I care that I cast out that beast? He thinks the two situations are anything alike? A bitter laugh followed. Of course. He thinks I am the beast, and he is the righteous cultivator who cast me into the abyss.

::I don’t think he knows about that,:: Shen Yuan tried to reason, ignoring the guilt that came with it. ::We told everyone that Binghe fell.::

“You know nothing!” Shen Jiu spun around as though he expected Shen Yuan to be standing behind him, but there was nothing but their empty bamboo house. “Why did you invite him in? Why did you bring up... that time, when I told you not to.”

::I thought you were tricking me into fulfilling your quest.:: Instead, Shen Yuan had outsmarted himself. It confounded him, just like the rest of Shen Jiu’s words. ::What do you mean, ‘that time’?::

“Don’t pretend you don’t know,” Shen Jiu snapped. “You said yourself that Yue Qingyuan let me get away with murder. Where else would you have learned that if not from that travesty of a novel?”

Shen Yuan cast his thoughts back to the two million-plus words, to the faint hints of a backstory for Shen Qingqiu that never lead anywhere, and to the conversation where Shen Jiu eviscerated Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky for what he’d done to his character.

::Does this have something to do with the Qiu household?::

“What else?”

It had been one of the many accusations brought forth during Luo Binghe’s slow and methodical demolition of Shen Qingqiu’s reputation – asserted by one of the many little sisters that made up Luo Binghe’s harem, Qiu Haitang – the accusation that Shen Qingqiu had once been betrothed to her, until he had murdered her family.

Honestly, it was such a strange detail to be dropped in without any warning or follow-up that Shen Yuan glossed past it as just another strand of the rope Luo Binghe wove to hang Shen Qingqiu, and just another hole that Airplane neglected to fill. But now...

::You really murdered them?::

Murder? System, is this call coming from inside the house? How could you trap me in here with a murderer?

Except it still made no sense. ::What does that have to do with Yue Qingyuan?::

Shen Qingqiu had been pacing, his robes whipping around him with every turn. At Shen Yuan’s question, he stilled and sank onto their bed. “You really don’t know?”

::It must be in those seventy-thousand words that Airplane never released.:: What he wouldn’t give to get his hands on that content. System, what quests would he have to fulfill to get that?

【Thank you for your request, User OP. At this time, supplementary unpublished materials are not available.】

“I assumed you knew,” Shen Jiu said softly. “I assumed everyone in your world... knew.”

The autumn wind rattled through the bamboo grove like long-hidden bones tumbling from a closet.

::Knew what?::

Roughly, Shen Qingqiu began pulling off his boots, removing his guan, making the other preparations they took before bed. “Nothing. Nevermind. It doesn’t matter. None of it... matters.”

He lay down, hands folded over his chest like a corpse, and refused to acknowledge any of Shen Yuan’s questions.

 

***

 

Sleeping in a shared body was a strange experience. Not so much when Shen Yuan was in possession. Then he would fall asleep and wake as normal. But when he was the passenger, sometimes Shen Jiu would fall asleep before him, and Shen Yuan would lay there, eyes closed, unable to move, and start to wonder if he was dead and this whole transmigration experience some death vision. It was hell.

Other times, he would wake to realize he was halfway through breakfast, or already out in the garden, meditating, or, on one memorable occasion, halfway through a demonstration of martial fan forms with a dozen disciples watching.

But the morning after Yue Qingyuan’s visit had to be the strangest by far, starting with the unexpected blaring announcement from the System.

【OG quest: “Lower Your Guard with Someone” completed. 25 tutorial points awarded. Keep working hard!】

【OP quest: Assist Shen Jiu in his quest, “Lower Your Guard with Someone” completed. 25 tutorial points awarded. Bonus x2 for completing quest on Co-op Mode! OP now has control of the host body. Keep working hard!】

The first thing Shen Yuan realized as he stretched his fingers and toes to confirm he was in charge was that he wasn’t in his own bed. The bedding was laid out on the floor instead of on a raised platform, the rumpled covers were soft, well-washed cotton. 

The second thing he realized was that he wasn’t alone. Something warm and soft pressed against his back, and from other parts of the room came the gentle snoring and snuffles of other sleepers.

Please let me be in the disciples’ dormitory, he thought, followed by, Please let me escape the disciples’ dormitory before anyone wakes up!

::We are most assuredly not in the disciples’ dormitory,:: Shen Jiu said, sounding oddly – and inappropriately – amused.

Where are we? Shen Yuan asked, both knowing and yet still dreading the answer.

::Someplace I’m certain that you have never been.::

Shen Yuan still hadn’t opened his eyes, and something – maybe the light scents of perfume and incense on the air – told him he didn’t want to. But he couldn’t very well stumble out of here with his eyes closed. Warily, he cracked one eye open. Silks in bright colors muted the morning sunlight peeking through cracks in the shutters. Sleeping pallets spread in neat rows across the floor transformed what had been a room for low entertainments into a sleeping space designed for functionality rather than frippery.

A sleeping space filled with women with fresh-washed faces and simply-braided hair. But the silks and the lingering perfumes left no doubt that this room saw other uses in the evening hours.

AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH–

::Really, there’s no need to overreact–::

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH–

::Nothing happened! I found it difficult to sleep, so I came–::

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH–

::System, is there some way for me to slap him?::

A shock jolted through Shen Yuan, making him choke on his internal scream. All his senses went dark for a moment before flickering back into existence.

::Thank you.::

【No worries, User OG. Sometimes it helps to turn it off and back on again.】

A murmur behind Shen Yuan reminded him that there were more pressing issues at hand than losing his shit or demanding to know what the System meant by turning him off. The warm shape at his back wiggled closer, soft and round and–

He sprang away with a squeak worthy of Shang Qinghua. The person he’d been sharing covers with stirred but didn’t awaken. After a moment’s blind groping, she found the end of the coverlet and pulled it around her tight as a dumpling wrapper. It was enough for him to see that she was a plump, motherly sort of woman with a smile permanently folded into her skin, and he wasn’t certain if that made everything better or worse.

::We should go before we disturb them. Their mornings are the only time they have to themselves. It would be rude to impose any more than we have.::

We?! What is this we? Shen Jiu’s face was thick beyond measure, to bring them to a brothel, stay until morning, and then behave as though Shen Yuan was the one who should feel shame.

A quick search of his sleeves confirmed he hadn’t lost his qiankun pouch or his fan during the night – and he refused to think of anything else he might have lost because he was asleep. But not even a fan imbued with spiritual energy was powerful enough to drive away the heat suffusing Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks as he hurried out of the brothel and flew back to Qing Jing Peak like a whole seraglio of succubae was in pursuit.

Only after a bath, a change of robes, and several rounds of tea under Ming Fan’s concerned gaze – at least it wasn’t Ning Yingying serving him today – did Shen Yuan feel composed enough to speak to Shen Jiu.

Why did we... why did you... how did we come to be in... that place?

::Come now, you eagerly read over two million words of poorly executed pornography, yet patronizing an honest business gives you pause?::

WAKING UP IN A STRANGER’S BED GIVES ME PAUSE!

Shen Jiu sighed. ::Xiang Xiu is a friend. I have been on Qing Jing Peak for many years, and I’ve known her since she was a girl. When I’m looking for a new fan or guan, I go to her. When I need information about local rumors, I go to her. When I... am reminded of past unpleasantness and cannot sleep, I go to her. I have not spoken with her in several years. It grew late. We slept. Nothing else.::

Now that his panic was subsiding – now that Shen Jiu was giving him an explanation that didn’t include papapa with a woman who could be Shen Yuan’s mother – he had time to consider what else had occurred that morning. How he’d completed a quest in co-op mode without knowing it was in his queue, and without actually doing anything.

System, how does that work?

【Co-op mode quest completion was granted on a technicality. User OG sought out his friend due to User OP’s questioning of Yue Qingyuan.】

Right. That was another thing.

About Yue-shixiong. What–

::I am not discussing it.::

No cajoling could draw more from Shen Jiu. Shen Yuan sipped his tea and considered. Well, if the Original Goods didn’t wish to discuss it, there was another source to be bullied.

 

***

 

After checking his quest log and confirming that the only quest assigned to him was the bugged ‘Mourn’, Shen Yuan sent a message to An Ding Peak. 

The next day, he sent another.

The third day, he mounted Xiu Ya and took the message himself.

“Send the messenger back! Much too busy, too much to do! Ah, everyone wants something from this pitiful master!”

Rather than putting the disciple who’d lead the search for Shang Qinghua in a difficult position, Shen Qingqiu swept into the third auxiliary storeroom where An Ding’s Peak Lord had taken to hiding out.

“Nonsense. This shixiong only wants to relieve Shang-shidi from his terrible burdens. Bring us tea,” he said to the disciple as he took in the stacks of paperwork surrounding Shang Qinghua’s temporary desk. “More brushes and inkstones. And snacks.”

“Cucumber-bro?” Shang Qinghua sniffled after the disciple had rushed off. “Is it really you?” As an afterthought, he lifted his arms to shield his head. 

Shen Qingqiu slowly folded his fan and tucked it away to prove he was no threat – as though he couldn’t beat Shang Qinghua with one of the scrolls around them if he needed. “Must you use that name, Airplane-bro?” he asked, taking a seat with a long-suffering sigh.

Lowering his arms, Shang Qinghua’s lips lifted in a grin. “You’re back! That was so strange. Did Shen–”

“He’s still here.” Shen Qingqiu tapped his temple. “That’s one of the things I wanted to discuss with you.”

Strangely, Shen Jiu hadn’t raised a fuss with Shen Yuan’s plan to seek out Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, even though he must have deduced why Shen Yuan wanted to speak to the trash author.

“In <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>, when Binghe returns from the Abyss, the accusation chapters... how much of that was true, and how much was falsified by Binghe?” When he read them, Shen Yuan had been so focused on the drama and the excitement of the blackened Luo Binghe returning and finally getting his revenge that he never thought to question the evidence. Luo Binghe had just been so cool, Shen Qingqiu so obviously vile and debauched and deserving of whatever punishment befell him. That was when Peerless Cucumber had started his forum campaign calling for the scum villain’s castration.

He’d never even considered they might be lies! Come on, Airplane-bro! Haven’t you ever heard of foreshadowing and signaling reader expectations and PoV consistency! 

“Not falsified, exactly.” Shang Qinghua said, fiddling with his brush until his fingers were stained with ink. “More like there were extenuating circumstances.”

“Qiu Haitang and her family?”

“He was engaged to her, and he did kill everyone except her, but... only because he was a slave, and all the years of abuse and... other bad stuff… drove him to it, you know?”

Shen Yuan suspected he did know, and that he didn’t want to. ”Liu Qingge’s death?”

“You stopped that from happening, so–” At Shen Qingqiu’s glare, Airplane’s shoulders curled forward like a hedgehog’s. “Self-defense during his qi deviation.”

“His first master, the rogue cultivator Wu Yanzi?”

“He was a bad guy, but... he was sort of blackmailing Shen Jiu over the Qiu household massacre. Didn’t give him a choice.”

“Ning Yingying and his other... indiscretions?”

::My what?!:: Shen Jiu broke in, ::I would never–::

I’m starting to get that. But you refused to explain things, so here we are.

Oblivious to the mental exchange, Shang Qinghua said, “All misunderstandings. Shen Jiu has only really ever felt safe around women, so he’s more comfortable with them. It’s... you know... character psychology and stuff.”

“So... he wasn’t just a one-dimensional scum villain?”

“No! I had plans. So many good plans. But then I lost my outline, and none of the fans wanted a complicated antagonist with a sympathetic backstory. They just wanted to see Luo Binghe bring down the pain-mallet. They wanted Shen Qingqiu to get what was coming to him. You know, to see him punished. Turned into a human stick. Castrated–” Shang Qinghua choked on the rest when Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes in warning.

::I hate your world.::

You kicked a child into the darkest hell imaginable because he had a glowy symbol stamped on his forehead. You don’t get to complain, Shen Yuan snapped. He wanted to rub his face until his skin came off. 

”What about Binghe. Did Shen Qingqiu actually abuse him? Did he actually throw him into the abyss?” That, at least, had to be true. If Shang Qinghua had ever heard of the term ‘unreliable narrator,’ Shen Yuan would spit blood.

Shang Qinghua edged back, like he expected Shen Jiu – or at least the fan – to make a reappearance. “Yes?”

It’s not a question, Airplane-bro!

“Why?” he asked Shang Qinghua.

Why? he asked Shen Jiu.

::Because I never should have accepted him in the first place. He was filthy, lice-ridden gutter-trash without a grasp of even the basics of the scholarly arts. He was so hungry for the approval of those around him that he bowed and scraped like a pathetic sycophant. He started too late for proper cultivation, and his core development was weak and stunted from the beginning. The best I can say for him is that he was obnoxiously stubborn. I did everything I could to dissuade him, to show him he didn’t belong and should leave, but he was too dense get the message.::

Shang Qinghua hadn’t yet answered, chewing on his chapped lower lip like it was the last meal of a condemned man.

“Well,” Shen Qingqiu prodded.

“Because he looked at Luo Binghe and saw everything he hated about himself.”

... Damn, Airplane-bro. Respect.

Shen Qingqiu considered what else he knew. “And when Luo Binghe returns, he destroys his scum master, his tormenters, and everyone who allowed his abuse to happen. He even burns Cang Qiong sect. Only Ning Yingying is spared.”

Such parallels, much awe.

“Exactly!” Shang Qinghua nodded eagerly. “It’s all, like, violence begets violence, and cycles of abuse repeating themselves, and staring into the abyss while the abyss stares into you and stuff.”

Right, but you put in an actual abyss. Isn’t that a little too literal, Airplane-bro?

::He is a trash author and knows nothing.::

Shen Yuan was not stupid enough to argue with Shen Jiu after Airplane’s brutal character assessment. ”What about–”

::Ask him if he knows why Yue Qingyuan never returned for me.::

When Shen Qingqiu relayed the question, Shang Qinghua flinched and twisted his brush in his hands. “That’s... yes. I know. But I’m not sure–”

::Stop. I know the answer. I just want to hear it from Yue Qingyuan.::

“Nevermind,” Shen Yuan said, even though he also wanted to know. Maybe he could ask Airplane-bro while Shen Jiu was asleep?

They fell into silence, Shang Qinghua fiddling with his brushes, his paper, his inkstone, as though he couldn’t stand to be still for a moment. Shen Yuan sifting through all the fascinating new canonical content.

“You said this was one of the things you wanted to discuss?” Shang Qinghua said.

Right. The main reason Shen Yuan came to An Ding wasn’t to learn all the canon he’d missed out on, it was to avoid becoming cannon-fodder. “We can’t keep doing this, this switching thing. It’s not right that I’ve taken Shen Jiu’s life over, but I’m also not ready to give up mine just because the stupid System screwed up and made us roommates. And then there’s Luo Binghe. He’s going to be back in five years, and I don’t think he’s going to care that we’re a complicated protagonist with a sympathetic backstory any more than your readers did. I think I have a solution to both these problems, but I need your help.”

My help?”

::His help?::

“Yes. What do you remember of the Sun-Moon Dew Mushroom?”

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was happy to leave the logistics of their trip up to Shang Qinghua. Not just because it was his job as An Ding Peak Peak Lord and he was, presumably, good at that sort of thing, but because that author owed him. If Shen Qingqiu had to lose his arms (and possibly legs!) refilling the plot holes riddling the story, then Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky could be their travel agent on their scenic adventure to Bai Lu Forest.

Besides, Shen Qingqiu had other important things to see to, like making certain his disciples had enough work to challenge them while he was away, and setting up an array to keep the Zheng Yang sword mound free of dirt.

And sit by in languid boredom as Liu Qingge cleared his meridians to counter the effects of Without a Cure before he left to go ‘flower picking.’

They were in his home on Bai Zhan Peak, as Shen Qingqiu’s Bamboo House was in too much disarray from packing for him to possibly receive visitors. Liu Qingge didn’t have enough possessions to create disarray. What he did have was weapons, displayed on stands and beautifully cared-for. Nothing to equal a spiritual sword like Cheng Luan or Xiu Ya, but just because a man was married, it didn’t mean he stopped looking at other beauties when they passed by. Shen Yuan was happy to spend an afternoon admiring Liu Qingge’s harem.

"I don't like you leaving without knowing how long you'll be gone," Liu Qingge said, blunt and straightforward as always, as he pressed sword-calloused fingers into the soft white jade of Shen Qingqiu's arm.

::I'm certain he doesn't,:: Shen Jiu snarked. Such commentary was becoming common now that they had a path toward separation. Shen Jiu's tongue was a blade honed even sharper than Xiu Ya, and dripping with acid. It was entertaining to listen to him carve people up with it. ::Spirits, man. He's not interested. He's not even aware. You’d have more luck if you were a beast or a sword. Have a little pride.:: 

Well, entertaining when it wasn't turned on Shen Yuan. What pride? I have plenty of pride, though nobody can fill the well as high as you.

::I wasn't referring to you, was I, noodle-brain? I mean this stupid egg before you.::

Shen Qingqiu glanced at Liu Qingge over the edge of his fan, but couldn't see any lack of pride in his posture or face. Mostly, he looked irritated, but that was often how he looked around Shen Qingqiu. 

"Shidi doesn't need to worry. It's only to gather some rare plants and perhaps the corpse of a low-level monster or two. And Shang-shidi will have his sword. He's a peak lord as much as any of us," Shen Qingqiu said, the same verse he'd sung to Mu Qingfang, Yue Qingyuan, and all his other shidis.

For some reason, saying that Shang Qinghua would be there for his protection made his shixiong and shidis more concerned for his safety rather than less.

::You'd be safer giving a sword to a garden vole.::

“You’d be safer if he didn’t have a sword at all.”

Shen Qingqiu hid his smile behind his fan. I don’t understand how the two of you aren’t friends. He shifted his arm, the skin tingling beneath the warmth of Liu Qingge’s fingers.

::I don’t understand how the two of you aren’t--::

“Liu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu blurted with a too-loud cough. He withdrew his arm and shook his sleeve down into place. “I think that’s enough for today. I still have much to prepare before we leave tomorrow.”

Shen Qingqiu bustled about collecting himself while Liu Qingge scowled and protested that an extra-long session might be necessary. The laughter in his head proved so distracting that it wasn’t until he was flying back to Qing Jing Peak that he realized his hands were empty.

“Damn. I forgot my fan.” He considered turning back for it, but he really did have a lot of preparation left to do, and he didn’t want to face Liu Qingge’s scowl again.

::Oh, I’m certain Liu-shidi will be happy for the excuse to return it,:: Shen Jiu said, sounding so smug and certain that Shen Yuan didn’t dare reveal his ignorance by asking what he meant.

***

::So much for your brilliant solution.::

Shen Yuan cringed at the cold disdain dripping off every syllable of Shen Jiu’s thought. A cringe he managed to hide from Shang Qinghua as he scraped another pair of failed corpses out of the trench they’d dug for the Sun-Moon Dew Mushrooms – the most recent of their failed attempts.

I don’t hear you offering any alternatives, Shen Yuan snapped back, pondering the logistics of striking himself with his own fan. If he timed the swap just right, his head would be in Shen Jiu’s control while his hands were still his own.

::Don’t even think about it, or I’ll flirt with Liu Qingge.::

Do you want to get us skewered by Cheng Luan?!

::Better Cheng Luan than Xin Mo,:: Shen Jiu countered with a dark laugh. Shen Yuan couldn’t figure out what was so funny about it. Skewered was skewered.

“Cucumber-bro? You’re… doing that thing again.” Shang Qinghua had taken off his sunhat – which defeated the whole purpose of it – and was worrying the brim between dirt-smudged hands.

“The Original Goods has opinions on your farming techniques,” Shen Qingqiu told him. The first month or two of working together, Shang Qinghua had flinched at even the mention of Shen Jiu’s presence; when the Original Goods was in charge of the body, he hid. Now, a year into their collaboration, he barely blinked. Both Shens were prone to cold looks that went nowhere, snarky put-downs that were usually funny because they were true, and breaking their fans on Shang Qinghua’s head and then pouting about it. But Shen Jiu was just as likely to mock Shen Yuan, and that had forged a bond between the shitty author and the scum character that no mere millennial transmigrator could tear asunder.

They were a strange threesome, often taking tea together, or debating questionable literature only sometimes of Airplane’s creation, or going out on day trips to check the hidden grove where their mushroom body experiments kept failing. Shen Yuan felt a strange, unpleasant twinge any time he considered that, when they succeeded, they’d go their separate ways. Shen Jiu to a new life as a rogue cultivator, Shang Qinghua back to his life as An Ding’s Peak Lord, and Shen Yuan…

Shen Yuan wasn’t certain what he’d do. Maybe once the realms were merged and Luo Binghe was on his throne surrounded by 600 wives, Shen Yuan could infiltrate the retinue of some visiting dignitary. It would be nice, just to see Binghe again from the safe distance of anonymity. Even if it meant that he wouldn’t see that special smile Binghe had only ever given him, or hear ‘Shizun!’ fall from his lips with sparking joy.

Softly enough that he could easily ignore it, the System di di di’d at him. He knew without looking that it was that stupid, bugged Mourn quest. Sometimes it updated, but it never closed out.

“Bro? Hey Bro, it’s okay. We’ll figure it out. You don’t need to—”

::Oh, for the love of…:: Wresting control of their body – they’d racked up enough tutorial points to unlock the sole-owner restriction and could now trade it back and forth at will – Shen Qingqiu wiped wetness from their cheeks. “Maudlin ninny. Just finish the quest and get on with your life. And you!” His glare landed on Shang Qinghua, “Clearly have no idea how to grow mushrooms.”

Shen Yuan caught the twitch of Airplane’s lips and brow the moment before he spoke. “And you’re an expert at growing mushrooms?”

“I’ve grown my share of mushrooms over the years.”

Shen Yuan giggled. A giggle echoed by Shang Qinghua even though he couldn’t possibly have heard Shen Yuan’s mental laugh.

But some things didn’t need to be heard to be understood. The more Shen Yuan laughed, the more Shen Qingqiu scowled at the laughter, the more Shang Qinghua echoed it back. The occasional sputtered, “Mushrooms!” only set the two transmigrators off again.

“I hate you both,” Shen Qingqiu muttered, flipping open his fan and pretending he was elsewhere until Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua had collected themselves.

Then he forced control back on Shen Yuan and, as punishment, made them build a compost heap big enough to bury two bodies.

***

Under Shen Jiu’s guidance the mushroom bodies took root. In every life, I’m born from filth, he muttered, and shot a glare at Shang Qinghua that sent the shitty author cowering as if he were faced with Mobei-Jun.

Months passed. Shen Qingqiu traveled gathering information on the flora and fauna of the world to fill out their shared knowledge. The compost heap rotted and steamed. They built it up regularly with waste An Ding collected from the various peaks – rice straw and tea mulch, melon seed hulls and mediocre student essays. Each time they turned the mulch, they checked the bodies and watched them grow from embryos to infants to toddlers and on. Shen Yuan was pleased to note that ‘his’ body seemed to be growing into a healthier, more robust version of his original body.

Shen Jiu seemed less pleased that his was doing the same. What is the point of having a new body if it looks like this one? More limbs for that beast to cut off? he’d groused. Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua traded a look, but neither of them was daring enough to point out that if Shen Jiu hadn’t abused Luo Binghe, that wouldn’t be a concern. Instead, they focused what energy they could into the body and managed, between the three of them, to nudge it into looking like something that could be Shen Yuan and Shen Jiu’s Shen-er ge.

Within two years, the bodies had hit their tweens, growth slowing as they began to gather spiritual energy. Shen Yuan was confident that by the time Luo Binghe returned, they’d have two fully-matured immortal cultivator bodies ready for escaping whatever torments the future Demon Emperor had in store.

::We should plan for what possessions to hide nearby for after the transfer,:: Shen Jiu thought the morning after their most recent progress check. ::Money, of course. Clothing, talismans. Swords. We’ll have to leave Xiu Ya behind. It’s too easily recognized.::

Shen Qingqiu’s breath caught, his hand shaking enough that his tea sloshed over the rim, burning his fingers. Yingying, busy setting down the rest of his plain breakfast of congee, cast him a worried look.

“Shizun?”

“Nothing. Just a thought.” He reached out to pat her head, but pulled back at the last moment when he saw the shock in her eyes. How rude that would have been, to dry his tea-wet hand on her hair!

For some reason, she looked sad as she bowed and made her exit.

::What brought it on this time?:: Shen Jiu asked, his irritation as baffling as Yingying’s sadness.

“Xiu Ya sword. I know it’s yours, but… I’ll miss it. Are you certain we need to leave it behind? Perhaps we could—”

::Don’t get attached to things. Or people. Either you abandon them, or they abandon you.::

It sounded so bleak. Not even Shen Yuan could understand such an outlook, and he’d lost his entire world – life, family, shitty web novels, precious buns. Everything.

::So. Swords, money, clothes. In qiankun pouches, of course,:: Shen Jiu continued, jolting Shen Yuan back to the present. He cleared his tight throat with tea and dug into the congee.

“I wish I could take my notes for the monster compendium,” he said wistfully, and then cringed in anticipation of Shen Jiu shooting down the idea.

Which made it all the more surprising when he said, ::No reason you can’t. Pointless to do all that work again. You have time to compile what you have and make a list of what you still need. That will provide a good guide for where we should go first once we’re free.::

Shen Yuan was rescued from asking ‘we?’ and awakening all of Shen Jiu’s dormant prickliness by a call from Yingying.

“Good morning, Zhangmen-shibo,” she said. Overloud. A warning.

::Ugh. And the day started so well. Get us out of here.::

We can’t run every time we see him, Shen Yuan thought, as though they hadn’t done just that the last three times Yue Qingyuan had sought them out during their brief returns to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Shen Jiu had control of their body then. But he didn’t now, and Shen Yuan ignored the tug at the back of his mind – the not-so-subtle demand to take over.

Let’s hear what he has to say. If he’s overly familiar, I’ll tell him off for you. He quickly poured and chugged the tea, leaving only enough for two cups.

Yue Qingyuan entered just as Shen Qingqiu was filling a cup for him.

“Zhangmen-shixiong. Qingqiu was not expecting company this morning. Apologies for my disarray.” He gestured to his robes as though he wasn’t elegantly attired in a full five layers of jade-green silk, his hair sweeping crane-like up to a delicate guan of silver and malachite. His long sleeves fluttered as he plied his fan. This was saying ‘I woke up like this,’ as shamelessly as Queen Bey. Flawless.

If nothing else, sharing a body with an even bigger diva than he was had upped Shen Yuan’s elegance cultivation to the Peak Nascent Soul Stage.

The System seemed to agree:

【Congratulations! 50 Heartbreak points awarded to OG. Bonus x2 for earning points in Co-op Mode! Earn Heartbreak Points to unlock special features.】

【New Co-op Mode Quest unlocked: Plague in Jin Lan City. Keep working hard!】

Yue Qingyuan did not seem to agree, sadness weighing down his usually amiable expression and shadowing his eyes. “I did not mean to inconvenience shidi, but in this case, the matter is urgent sect business.”

::If it was so urgent, why come here? You should have gathered all of the Peak Lords. Ugh. Why do I even?::

Shen Yuan had long ago given up trying to answer that question. Easier to move this along before Yue Qingyuan said something that really set Shen Jiu off.

“Is this regarding the plague in Jin Lan City?” he asked, swallowing a smile with his tea when Yue Qingyuan straightened in astonishment.

“You know about it already?”

“Mn. I had been planning on going to look into it. It doesn’t seem natural.” In fact, the System’s quest was the first Shen Yuan had heard of any such thing, but it was a real mission after so long doing nothing but gather quests and dailies. It had to be important.

A conviction solidified when Yue Qingyuan’s features came as close to a disapproving scowl as nature and narrative allowed. “Actually, I came to ask that you not involve yourself. Between Without a Cure and…” He made an incomprehensible gesture toward the wall, but there was nothing there, and nothing on the other side but the meditation garden that held Zheng Yang’s sword mound. What is meant by this, shidi? Are you incapable of explaining yourself?

::As you are at understanding yourself,:: Shen Jiu grumbled over Yue Qingyuan’s continued non-explanation. ::But if he doesn’t want us to go, then we are definitely going.::

For all that they spent most of their time squabbling, when it mattered, Shen Yuan often found that he and his roommate were in perfect agreement.

“Qingqiu thanks Zhangmen-shixiong for his concern, but arrangement have already been made,” Shen Qingqiu said, bowing over cupped hands. They hadn’t, but Shang Qinghua would lie for him if he valued his ability to hold a brush. When it looked like Yue Qingyuan might argue anyway, Shen Qingqiu sighed and added, “I suppose, as it is a plague, that Mu-shidi should accompany me. And if you are that concerned about Without a Cure, then Liu-shidi might as well come too. I trust that is acceptable?”

Before Yue Qingyuan could say that it was or wasn’t, Shen Qingqiu rose to his feet. “I’ll go speak to them at once. No need for shixiong to trouble himself escorting me. I can find my own way.”

While the System chimed an announcement of more Heartbreak Points, and Shen Jiu grudgingly admired the coldness of Shen Yuan’s dismissal, Shen Yuan watched Yue Qingyuan leave with proud shoulders just slightly rounded and pace just slightly dragging.

/DM: System, is there some sort of custom quest option?

【What sort of custom quest would OP like to design?】

It wasn’t a yes, but Shen Yuan realized that meant it also wasn’t a no. And considering the nature of the quests the System had already assigned to him…

/DM: Help Shen Jiu and Yue Qingyuan confront their shared history and reconcile?

【Well, that certainly would be something. What reward would OP attach to this quest?】

Huh. He hadn’t even considered that he might get a reward. He thought about the System’s other ‘rewards’ – the points that made no sense and couldn’t buy anything of use, the scenario-pushers that tended to only make things worse. Easy mode had been a joke; the only thing that had been useful was unlocking the OOC restriction.

/DM: Um. Maybe… a Fenix Down?

That was pretty standard and difficult to misinterpret. And the worst the System could do was say ‘no.’

【And what punishment for failure?】

Or that. That was worse than ‘no.’

But it wasn’t like there was a time limit. And it was apparently something Shen Yuan was going to attempt anyways. If he succeeded, he’d have a free life – which wasn’t a bad thing when a Demon Emperor Protagonist was out to get you.

Besides, he had an idea for how to game the game.

/DM: Losing access to body control and reverting to pre-tutorial state?

After all, he had another body waiting for him. Not even the System could screw that up.

【These are acceptable parameters. Generating new custom quest now. Will you accept? Y/N.】

Before he could second-guess himself, Shen Yuan focused on the Y. The System dinged with a new quest in his log.

【User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 0
  • Heartbreak Points: 1400
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 20%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Fake Jade Guanyin
  • Tutorial Points: 1625】

【User OP Active Quest Log

  • Contribute to Sword Mound (Daily)
  • Mourn (In Progress)
  • Plague in Jin Lan City (Co-op Mode, Started)
  • Go Big or Go Home! (Started)】

::Is there a reason we’re standing here, staring off into space?:: Shen Jiu demanded testily, shaking Shen Yuan out of his distraction. ::I thought we were going to speak to the useless chicken, the stupid egg, and Mu-gēgē.:: [1]

Shen Yuan laughed. “Does that make us the duck?” [2]

“I’ll duck you if you don’t get moving,:: Shen Jiu said with a level of surliness that Shen Yuan had come to realize was his version of affection.

An affection strong enough that Shen Jiu wanted them to stay together and work on the monster compendium after they parted bodily. It warmed a part of Shen Yuan that had long gone cold – the part that wished he could have said farewell to his parents, to his brothers and sister.

That chance was gone, but he had a friend who was maaaaybe a better writer than the quality of his published work suggested. He had a new… brother?... who was in some ways closer than any twin could be, and who deserved the truth from a man he’d trusted so long ago – a truth Shen Yuan was going to get for him. And he had two bodies waiting to give them a second chance when their past caught up with them.

If only Binghe… he thought, and then shut it down before Shen Jiu decided to mock him. Mounting Xiu Ya, he flew to Bai Zhan Peak, leaving the System’s soft di di di for ‘Quest: Mourn (Updated)’ lingering on the wind.

Chapter Text

The journey to Jin Lan City went about as well as could be expected. Mu Qingfang was a placid travel companion and Liu Qingge more focused on their environs than their accommodations. The less said about their method of arrival, the better. The dank, murky odor of the underground river clung to Shen Qingqiu’s skin and robes, and was echoed in the air in the cellar below the Jin Zi Weapons Shop.

Shen Yuan managed to keep his composure as Shen Qingqiu through their journey on the underground river and encounter with the shrouded, skeletal corpses of plague victims. He even maintained his neutral expression when faced with the absence of Master Wu Chen’s lower legs. But when the black wrappings were removed from the monk’s thighs, and the stench of rot permeated the cellar-turned-infirmary, laying like a heavy blanket over the smell of roots and mold, not even Shen Qingqiu’s fan was enough to thicken his face against revealing the nausea rising up in him.

Shen Yuan had spent much of this life studying monsters in books and in person, and much of his previous life in and out of hospitals, but monsters weren’t human, and hospitals were sanitary. This was someone he knew, rotting away from the knees-up. He could feel his face turning the color of the canal water.

::I’ve seen worse. Give me control.:: Without waiting for Shen Yuan’s agreement, Shen Jiu nudged into place behind their face. His fan snapped shut as he coldly – and unaffectedly – watched pus burst from the necrotic flesh of Wu Chen’s thigh when Mu Qingfang poked it.

::Thank you,:: Shen Yuan whispered in relief.

What thanks? I won’t have you embarrassing us in front of our shidi.

Out of gratitude, Shen Yuan refrained from pointing out that there was no face to lose when Mu Qingfang was distracted by medical matters. Nor did he attempt to retake control when Shen Jiu fled the cellar as soon as circumstances allowed. And in the interest of expedience, he left him in control when they collided with a suspicious figure swathed in black and Huan Hua’s head disciple clad in yellow, and led the latter in chasing the former into an abandoned brothel.

Which meant Shen Jiu was the one standing at the top of the stairs with Gongyi Xiao blocking his path of escape when they heard a familiar voice from down the corridor – and a different familiar voice broadcast through their head.

【Hibernation Mode Suspended. Searching for Activation Key.】

What?

::What?::

【Activation Key Found. Automatically Connecting to Universal Key: Luo Binghe.】

::Binghe?:: A shiver fizzed through Shen Yuan, fear and anticipation inexplicably intertwined. His thoughts stuttered to a halt until Shen Jiu’s frantic words jolted them into motion again.

Fuck. It’s too soon. Take over. Take over!

【Downloading Update.】

Shen Yuan scrambled push around Shen Jiu and take control of their body – these rapid swaps had become second nature to them over the years – but it was like they’d become mired in mud, unable to move. Only able to yell as they uselessly reached out to one another.

【Updates Downloaded. Deluxe Co-Op Mode Tutorial Completed. Tutorial Points Reset.】

::You useless System. Deluxe what? Let us switch!:: Shen Jiu and Shen Yuan shouted in tandem as the cluster of yellow-robed disciples at the end of the hall parted and the black hole at their center turned to see what had dragged their attention away from him.

【Normal Operation Mode Activated.】

They fell silent. Shen Yuan pulled up his point totals, certain Shen Jiu was doing the same.

【User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 0
  • Heartbreak Points: 1600
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 20%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Fake Jade Guanyin
  • Co-op Mode Points: 0】

【User OP Active Quest Log

  • Plague in Jin Lan City (Co-op Mode, Started)
  • Go Big or Go Home! (Started)】

What? Where were his points? Where was that stupid bugged quest Mourn that he’d never completed? System, revert to previous save! This one has become corrupted.

But the System said nothing, and they’d hesitated too long. Luo Binghe, grown tall and broad, with Xin Mo strapped to his back and black lotus robes swirling around his legs, with eyes like stars and skin pure jade and an aura of puissance thick as smoke, spotted them. And smiled.

“Shizun?” he breathed, taking a step in their direction. Shen Yuan felt their body tense, felt Shen Jiu’s urge to flee in the welling of spiritual power in their core, and the tightening of his grip on his fan. But none of it showed on their face. Shen Qingqiu lifted his chin. Arched a brow.

And said nothing.

“Ah. Not-Shizun, then,” Luo Binghe murmured, so softly that it was more a movement of his rosy lips than sound. The smile faded. The stars in his eyes grew cold and distant.

::Say something!::

What do you want me to say? He’s your disciple. I’m merely the scum villain who kicked him into hell for three years… instead of the five we expected.

Jiu-dage, is this really the time to throw blame? Airplane-bro isn’t even here to catch it! ::So act like you’re me. Be nice. I know you’re capable of it.:: Shen Yuan had seen it, once or twice. Well… nice-adjacent.

If you think he wouldn’t realize immediately it was a lie, you are every bit as oblivious as you seem.

While they bickered, Luo Binghe studied them. “Nothing to say?” he asked in a tone that made Shen Jiu’s seem warm in comparison. He hadn’t come any closer than that single step, still surrounded by disciples in Huan Hua robes – as beautiful as a black diamond in a setting of gold. “Will Peak Lord Shen not even spare a simple greeting for this poor disciple?”

“After our parting, does Luo Binghe think greetings are still appropriate?”

::What are you doing?:: Shen Yuan had never taken Shen Jiu to be suicidal, but wasn’t the gleam growing in Luo Binghe’s eye like honing the blade of your executioner? The point of all their plans was to keep their limbs, not lose them even faster!

He knows I’m not you. Any grudge he bears, let it be focused on me. That way, when we separate, you might be safe to return to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect and protect it from his wrath.

Shen Jiu knew what was to come. He’d heard Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua bemoan the events of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> often enough over the years – their fates, and the fates of others.

Wistfully, Luo Binghe said, “Who can say what is owed between a Master and his disciple?” His expression hardened again with killing intent. “And who can say what is owed between the two of us?”

::Stop provoking him! We have to--::

We have to get out of here so you can complete a quest and take over while we still have all our limbs, Shen Jiu snapped.

To Luo Binghe, he said, “All pointless ruminations at the moment. Other business brought this Master here.” Parting the menacing crowd with nothing more than his fan and a sneer, Shen Qingqiu looked down on the corpse they’d been standing over. “A sower. So they are the cause of the plague. This Master suspected.”

“What use are your suspicions,” said one of the more belligerent Huan Hua disciples, her hand on her sword as though she though she felt no fear or shame at speaking back to her elders. “You’ve only said what Luo Binghe already told us.”

She might as well have been a flea for all the attention Shen Qingqiu gave her. His gaze fixed on Luo Binghe. “I see you’ve found a pack to run with.”

Several more Huan Hua hands settled on their swords. Only a gesture from Luo Binghe kept them from drawing. Shen Yuan sank lower into the mud that held him fast. ::Couldn’t you practice a little restraint?::

That was restrained. I didn’t say anything about keeping his bitch in check.

Shen Yuan found himself wishing he could keep his own bitch in check, but Shen Jiu was no dog. He was a contrary cat, and trying to force him to behave was just an invitation to set him hissing and yowling. ::Just go before you make things worse.::

As though it was his own idea, Shen Qingqiu nodded and turned to leave. “Mu Qingfang set up an infirmary at the Jin Zi Weapon Shop. If you take the sower corpse to him, he should be able to find a cure.” He tossed a final taunt over his shoulder, not even deigning to meet Luo Binghe’s eyes. “Unless your great acumen now extends to medical knowledge.”

Luo Binghe bowed his head, hiding whatever his expression might be. “It will be delivered as Peak Lord Shen requests.”

And with that, he let them go.

***

Shen Jiu let Shen Yuan rant all the way back to the weapon shop, and all through a quick bath, and a change of robes, and a bowl of lukewarm congee, and half a pot of tea.

He only responded once Shen Yuan launched into the fourth iteration of the same complaints.

“There was no conversation to be had with that audience,” Shen Qingqiu said calmly, as though their death and dismemberment wasn’t stalking the streets of Jin Lan City. “We’re already constrained over what we can say. And anything Luo Binghe said would be a performance for those lapdogs of his. Better to leave him in no doubt that something strange is going on, then retreat to face him on a stage of our choosing.

::Face him?:: Shen Yuan was panicking enough for the both of them.

“I imagine he won’t keep us waiting long.” Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea.

::Then why are we still here? We need to run!::

“That is not the plan. The mushroom bodies are still far from matured. We can try to send a message to Shang Qinghua once the city re-opens. Perhaps he can speed up that maturation. But the most important thing is to stop the plague, save the people here, and restore our ability to switch. Jin Lan City is the only quest I have. You?”

Calmed by Shen Jiu’s self-possession, Shen Yuan checked his queue to confirm nothing had changed.

::Same,:: he said after a moment’s debate. The other quest seemed to glare a baleful red in the interface, but there was nothing Shen Yuan could do about it. Yue Qingyuan wasn’t here, so there was no point in upsetting Shen Jiu’s equilibrium by sharing it. ::But if we complete it while you are in control, I should receive double points. Assuming this works the same as the tutorial.::

Shen Qingqiu cocked his head, as though listening, then sighed and sipped his tea. “Then we will have to hope we can resolve this matter quickly.” Setting his cup down, he filled it. And then filled a second cup and called out, “Stop lurking and enter if you’re going to. This Master has no patience with your coy act.”

The door to their room opened, and Luo Binghe stepped through.

Xin Mo remained a malevolent presence strapped to his back, quiescent only for the moment, but Luo Binghe had changed into more formal robes. The black silk stitched with red spider lilies at the hem, cuff, and waist outlined his heroic form. His accessories had been upgraded as well, copper and carnelian twisting like frozen fire, but his hair remained too wild and fluffy to be contained. Something deep in Shen Yuan’s core twinged to see that last vestige of his little white lotus peeking out from behind the petals of the blackened protagonist.

“Is Peak Lord Shen done looking his fill?” Luo Binghe said after looming over them for several silent moments.

“I’m not looking for myself.” Shen Qingqiu paused as though waiting for something that never came, and then nodded and allowed the slightest smile to slip loose as he sipped his tea. “But it seems I’m done for the moment. You may sit.”

Something soft – another remnant of the little bun of the past – eroded a bit of Luo Binghe’s swagger. He knelt at the table, gaze fast on Shen Qingqiu as though he was searching for something.

It was such a familiar look, despite the unfamiliarly mature face, that Shen Yuan was halfway to reaching out to pat Luo Binghe’s head before he remembered that his hands were not his to control.

“Shizun?”

“Not at the moment.” Shen Qingqiu toyed with his fan. “But I believe we’ve already established that.”

The hopeful look died at Shen Qingqiu’s words. “But Shizun is close by.” The hardness of Luo Binghe’s tone said that he had better be, for Shen Qingqiu’s continued well-being.

Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth, and then flinched and shut it with a snap. Shen Yuan didn’t hear the System’s warning; he didn’t need to. The pain coursing through them was proof enough that Shen Jiu had been reprimanded for whatever he’d been about to say.

“I am… constrained as to what I may and may not reveal. I will say what I can and leave it to you to infer the rest.”

::What are you doing?:: Didn’t Shen Jiu realize that a Luo Binghe who smiled and took his time was the most frightening version? ::The more he knows, the more weapons he has to use against us.::

You and I share a brain. And I know you are generally intelligent. How is it that you can’t see that, however he feels about me, he still loves and respects his Shizun. You weren’t the one who kicked him into the Endless Abyss.

::That--:: Shen Yuan stumbled over the long-held assumptions that had cluttered up his thinking. ::All right, yes. That does make some sense. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to let you suffer his wrath.::

Nor am I willing to submit to it. But as long as we share one body, he isn’t likely to harm me if it means harming you.

Maybe not. But what about after, Jiu-dage?

While they’d been bickering – probably wearing ‘that look,’ as Shang Qinghua liked to call it – Luo Binghe had been quietly studying them. Now he said, “You were the one at the edge of the Endless Abyss.”

“I was.” Shen Qingqiu studied the folds of his fan.

“And Shizun?”

“Was also there.”

“Where is he now?”

Shen Yuan didn’t need to look in a mirror to know that Shen Qingqiu was giving Luo Binghe his most tried-upon ‘Don’t make your stupidity my problem’ expression.

Luo Binghe nodded as though the ungiven answer confirmed something he knew. “You’re possessing him.”

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. If anything, he is possessing me.”

Picking up his cup, Luo Binghe studied the tea like it might bite him. As though this protagonist had anything to fear from poison.

“Is he the one who took me into Qing Jing Peak?”

“That, to my everlasting regret, was me.”

The glass-smooth surface of the tea broke into ripples with the shaking of Luo Binghe’s hand. “And… the tea?”

Shen Qingqiu didn’t pretend to be unaware of what he meant. “Also me.”

“Then… when?” At another glare from Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe nodded. “The qi deviation.”

Shen Yuan would have smiled if he had a mouth to do it. Ah, the protagonist’s IQ is the best! Only a few clues, and he’s already figured out half the plot!

Letting out an explosive sigh, Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes and drained his cup. “Honestly, must you force this dog food on me?”

::What dog food?:: Can’t Shen Yuan take pride in his best disciple who also happens to be the most awesome protagonist?

That dog food, Shen Jiu’s response was sharp with vinegar.

“You’re speaking with him now,” Luo Binghe said, interrupting their bickering. “What… what is he saying?”

Another drawn breath, another jolt of pain, another flinch not shuttered quickly enough to avoid Luo Binghe’s searching gaze. The mockery tinging Shen Qingqiu’s expression this time was self-directed. “If you wish to know more, you must help us resolve the current situation in Jin Lan City.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes narrowed. “What do the sowers have to do with this?”

“I can barely string three honest words together, and you expect me to explain that?” Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan open and closed, and only a sharp ::Don’t you dare!:: from Shen Yuan prevented him from striking Luo Binghe with it.

The outburst and implied threat of violence only exacerbated the suspicion darkening Luo Binghe’s eyes. “How can I know that anything Peak Lord Shen says is honest? How do I know you aren’t using me to open the city so you can flee.” Those eyes flicked down to the red splotches darkening the pale jade of Shen Qingqiu’s hand – a mark that had only grown after their brush with the sower demon earlier. “Safely.”

“And how do I know that Luo Binghe isn’t the one who brought the sowers here in the first place? Like calls to like, after all.”

The malevolence from Xin Mo flared, and the tea table shook as Luo Binghe leaned hard into it as though he was moment away from tossing it aside. Shen Qingqiu’s fan flipped open, and he raised it like a shield, daring Luo Binghe to wage his assault.

“I didn’t,” Luo Binghe said, body shaking but voice steady.

“And we won’t.” After several moments of unbroken staring, Shen Qingqiu lowered his fan and filled his cup halfway with the dregs from the pot. He nudged it toward Luo Binghe. “Your blood should be guarantee enough, as well as dealing with the…” he lifted his marked hand. “Secondary problem.”

That leached away the fury, leaving Luo Binghe looking wide-eyed and young as the day Shen Yuan first met him. “Peak Lord Shen would willingly allow this filthy demon’s blood to touch his lips?”

“What willing?” Shen Qingqiu scoffed. “I know your character better than you imagine. You already have plans to feed it to me. If I said no, you’d only force me. So I choose to allow it.”

::What are you doing? With this, he can control us! Track us! There’d be no escaping!:: Shen Yuan suffered through several hundred chapters bemoaning the OP-ness of this demon blood.

It can cure the sower disease. Or would you rather our limbs rotted off slowly?

::Instead of being cut off quickly?:: Should anyone have to make such a decision?

The blood only affects this body. It means nothing once we’ve moved on. It’s a gamble, but the reward is that we earn a bit of his trust. We won’t survive long without it.

With Shen Yuan’s grudging agreement, Shen Qingqiu gave Luo Binghe an impatient quirk of his brow. Dragging a nail across his wrist, Luo Binghe allowed the blood drip into the tea.

He caught Shen Qingqiu’s wrist before he could drink it down. “Do not mistake me. I will find a way to banish you and recover my Shizun. And, assuming you survive, there will be a reckoning. This disciple remembers well the ‘kindness’ shown to him by Peak Lord Shen.”

Even with the warmth of the blood in the tea, neither Shen Yuan nor Shen Jiu could ignore the chill that coursed through them at the look of cold promise in Luo Binghe’s eyes.

::I won’t leave you to this fate,:: Shen Yuan promised as they watching Luo Binghe leave, uncertain when saving Shen Jiu had become as important as saving himself.

Familiar words, came Shen Jiu’s dull response. But you may not have a choice.

Chapter Text

“Well, that could have gone better,” Shen Qingqiu murmured to himself as an acid-green veil rained down around his stone platform, cutting him off from any avenue of escape. As though to emphasize his hopeless situation, the moment his Huan Hua escort stepped off the walkway, it sank into the corrosive lake that lapped gently against the platform. Even that thin thread of connection was severed.

Shen Yuan had control of their body again. Shen Jiu had relinquished it and withdrawn into the depths of their psyche the moment after the System awarded them points for completing the Jin Lan City arc… which, unfortunately, was about two moments after Shen Qingqiu surrendered himself to be taken to the Huan Hua Water Prison to prevent a war between the sects.

He took a moment to test his bonds, but the Little Palace Mistress had been the one to tie him up, and she seemed entirely too skilled at shibari ropework for someone who was supposed to be an innocent before entering Luo Binghe’s harem. No matter how Shen Qingqiu twisted or bent, the red cords bound his arms behind him and kept his spiritual energy firmly subdued – a quiescent pool he could almost sense, but not touch.

Rather like Shen Jiu seemed to have become.

Are you still there?

A long silence followed, long enough that Shen Yuan was about to ping the System to find out if the ropes had subdued Shen Jiu as well, when a quiet voice threaded through his thoughts.

::Losing my limbs would have been kinder than that.::

Isn’t that a little dramatic, Jiu-dage? Admittedly, listening to the cascade of charges had been difficult enough for Shen Yuan, and he had only been an observer in the back of their mind. From the wild accusations of the sowers, to the ancient history dredged up by Qiu Haitang, to the reports of abuse that went uncontested by Luo Binghe, none of it weighed on his conscience. The sowers words were a clear set-up, and he hadn’t been the one to murder the Qiu household or harm Luo Binghe.

Shen Jiu didn’t have the luxury of such separation. For a man who was equal parts pride and vinegar, to have his face so thoroughly stripped from him and ground into the dirt must be like being skinned alive.

It won’t matter so long as Shang Qinghua can ripen the mushroom bodies in time, Shen Yuan thought, as encouraging as he could be when there were still so many variables – most of them relying on Shang Qinghua’s competence and trustworthiness. Shen Qingqiu will be no more. You’ll have a new life. A new name. A fresh start. We can be whoever we want to be.

::But I’ll still be myself,:: Shen Jiu said, and then said nothing more, no matter how Shen Yuan tried to comfort or cajole.

***

Time was not something easily measured in Huan Hua’s Water Prison, where the only light came from the platform of milky, jade-like stone under Shen Qingqiu’s knees. However, most prisoners didn’t have a System that was only too happy to throw up a counter ticking off the moments they sat in isolation. Gongyi Xiao came and promised to pass along messages from Shen Qingqiu’s shidi if any should be provided. Guards came occasionally to confirm he was still there. Food did not come, perhaps as a deliberate form of torture, perhaps because his keepers forgot that a cultivator bound by Immortal Binding Cables couldn’t practice inedia.

And Luo Binghe did not come. But several days into Shen Qingqiu’s imprisonment, the Little Palace Mistress did come, and she brought her whip.

The curtain of acid ceased to fall, allowing the Little Palace Mistress onto the platform. One pretty hand rested lightly on the handle of her whip, the metal giving off a sheen of reflected light. Shen Yuan’s confusion grew. That whip was meant for love rivals. Why did she look like she wanted to use it on him?!

::Give me control,:: Shen Jiu said – the first words he’d spoken in days. Shen Yuan was so stunned that he almost complied without thinking. They hadn’t re-earned enough points yet that Shen Jiu could force his way to the front, but Shen Yuan could choose to cede control.

But something in Shen Jiu’s tone and the glint in the Little Palace Mistress’ eye made him pause.

Why?

::Because you have never been whipped before. You would break. I will not.::

Ah, Jiu-dage. Why do you have to be such a complete Tsundere? You ignore me for three days and now you say this? How could Shen Yuan be so cowardly as to let Shen Jiu be the one to suffer the Little Palace Mistress’ wrath?

Challenge accepted. Hold my beer, Shen Yuan thought back.

Apparently angered that he wasn’t paying attention to her ranting, the Little Palace Mistress raised her whip arm. “Is it a game to you, playing hot and cold, kind and cruel, until poor Luo-gege is so confused that he doesn’t know whether you deserve his loyalty or not? We’ll see if you persist with such two-faced behavior when I split your face in two!”

With such a lengthy villain’s monologue spewing from her pretty lips, the Little Palace Mistress gave Shen Qingqiu ample time to prepare. He darted out of the way as the whip came down, and spun to the side at the backlash. A series of cracks chased him in a semi-circle around the platform, the Little Palace Mistress’ cheeks growing as pink as her robes with anger and exertion.

“Hold still, you coward!”

Hold still so you can whip me? Truly your IQ is deserving of being one of Airplane’s villains, little mistress. Shen Yuan almost laughed at the thought – which meant he was too slow to dodge the lash. It ripped through his robes, as did the two following, leaving them in tatters held up only by the red net of the Immortal Binding Cords. The air of the Water Prison was chill against his bared skin.

Sadly, the cords did not seem to be susceptible to the same shredding force. They held fast, and Shen Qingqiu’s spiritual energy with them.

::Get close to her. The whip requires range to use. She can’t wield it if we’re underfoot.::

Shen Qingqiu ducked and rolled under the lash just as it came down, bowling into the Little Palace Mistress’ legs like a game of tenpin. The whip went flying out of her hand, landing in the acid lake with a plop and a sizzle. At the loss of balance, the Little Palace Mistress toppled down on him. He grunted, all air escaping him as her elbow punched it out of his stomach.

The Little Palace Mistress blinked down at him, lips parted in surprise. Shen Qingqiu gaped up at her, unable to draw breath.

“Peak Lord Shen’s skill at seducing beauties is undeniable,” came Luo Binghe’s voice from somewhere beyond the curve of the Little Palace Mistress’ shoulder. “Though he seems lacking in discretion and discernment, to indulge in such conduct even in this place, with this person.”

Shen Qingqiu’s struggle for breath was redoubled when the Little Palace Mistress’ knee crushed him in her scramble to rise.

“Luo-gege!” she wailed, actual tears springing to her eyes as she flung herself at him. “You’ve come to save me from this… this.” The tears broke into sobs. “I did not think he could overpower me when he was bound, I did not think he would dare when he is already guilty of so much, but he is so dissolute that…”

More sobs followed, as though even the Little Palace Mistress wasn’t bold enough to give more words to her lie.

::Now will you give up control? As long as he thinks it was me and not you—::

Why would it matter who it was? Was Shen Yuan shrieking? Perhaps, but didn’t the situation call for it? If there was one prohibition greater than ‘don’t abuse the protagonist’ wasn’t it ‘don’t abuse the protagonist’s love interests?’ Trifling with a future member of Luo Binghe’s harem is a death sentence no matter who you are!

::Clearly. If the Little Palace Mistress had even a modicum of intelligence, she would be cowering in fear right now.::

Before Shen Yuan could ask what Shen Jiu meant by that, Luo Binghe plucked the Little Palace Mistress from burrowing into his chest like a tick and set her on the causeway. “Leave.”

“Don’t… don’t kill him just to avenge my honor, Luo-gege. He needs to stand trial so the world knows what he is.” Her plea for clemency would have been more believable if she hadn’t shot a triumphant sneer at Shen Qingqiu behind Luo Binghe’s back.

Shen Qingqiu managed to struggle to his knees, his breath finally returned. A shiver buzzed under his skin as he looked up… and up… and up some more at his looming, blackened disciple. With his arms bound behind him and his legs folded under him, he was nearly like the human pickle of his nightmares.

And yet, he couldn’t quite keep the curve from his lips, the softness from his eyes, as he gazed upon his little sheep all grown up. So handsome and bright, even in darkness!

“Binghe.” The name slipped out. Shen Jiu’s groan echoed through his head, but Shen Yuan barely noticed it because the expression of amiable menace fell from Luo Binghe’s features, and Luo Binghe fell to his knees.

“Shizun?” He lifted his hands, held them hovering as though he faced an apparition that couldn’t be touched. They were of a height now, almost. Even kneeling, Luo Binghe was slightly taller. The smile tugged harder at Shen Qingqiu’s lips at the realization.

“You’ve grown so well.” It was an understatement. If once he’d been Shen Qingqiu’s precious little sprout, here was the protagonist bloomed to his full glory. The power that had only been a glimmer before, now it radiated off him like the sun. Shen Qingqiu swayed a little closer as though he could bask in the heat.

“I’ve grown strong for Shizun. Because of Shizun.” His dark eyes shimmered with tears, thick lashes spiked with them. Only with the protagonist would crying make him more beautiful. Ah, Binghe. You can’t do this. Isn’t this Master already weakened by Immortal Binding Cables? And with no fan to hide his thin face?

“What are these tears?” Shen Qingqiu chided. “I take it back. Binghe hasn’t grown at all, crying like this.”

The waterworks stopped, leaving Luo Binghe’s face washed clean of all anger. “No, this disciple is grown enough to meet Shizun as equals, I promise.” His hands clasped before him in a solemn bow that belied his words, then settled in his lap. “I have so many questions.”

Ah. Right. Like why Shen Qingqiu had been rolling around underneath the Little Palace Mistress. “Binghe mustn’t misunderstand. This Master was in danger and saw no options but to follow the urging of—” he broke off, so as not to incite the System’s wrath by referring to Shen Jiu. “It was the only way to be safe. This Master never intended...”

“This disciple knows, Shizun. He remembers. I didn’t understand, but I knew Shizun would never…” He blinked. Ah, here came the tears again.

“Enough.” Shen Qingqiu could barely meet Luo Binghe’s eyes. Yes, he harbored some terror at being caught with a future harem member, but mostly the whole debacle was deeply embarrassing. “If you know, then there is no need to mention it again. Let it be forgotten.”

A furrow carved a path through Luo Binghe’s brow. “If that is what Shizun wishes,” he said. Slow. Reluctant. Yes, Binghe! This poor cucumber no more desires one of your wives than he desires to become a pickle! Please forget what you saw and forgive him for the transgression.

::System, is there any way I can trade points for melon seeds?:: Shen Jiu asked, giving Shen Yuan a jolt of surprise. He’d forgotten for a moment that he wasn’t entirely alone with Luo Binghe.

【Special Item: Mental Melon Seeds may be purchased with Co-op Mode Points at an exchange rate of 1 point for 10 seeds.】

::Hm. Perhaps after a few more quests. I’m certain this won’t be my last opportunity to enjoy them.::

Luo Binghe’s frown deepened. His gaze dropped to Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders, then lower. The red flare of his demon sigil reflected pink off his cheeks.

“Shizun is…”

Shen Qingqiu glanced down, realized how thorough the Little Palace Mistress’ whip had been in shredding his robes, and hoped that the glow of Luo Binghe’s sigil was enough to explain any color in his complexion.

“… Cold. Yes.” He wasn’t. In fact, he felt overly warm. But then, why was he shivering?

With a swift movement, Luo Binghe swept off his outer robes and draped them over Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders. They were heavy, still warm with Luo Binghe’s heat, and smelled of cloves and honey as though Binghe had only just come from cooking in the kitchens. It should have been humiliating, to be treated so much like one of the pretty flowers decorating a wife plot, but better that than remain exposed.

“About the trial, this disciple will not allow Shizun to take the blame for things he did not do,” Luo Binghe said, gaze still fixed on the ground.

::Then perhaps he should have spoken up when everyone was dragging us down,:: Shen Jiu grumbled.

Shen Yuan agreed, but he was smart enough not to needlessly antagonize the protagonist. “This Master understands that Binghe is confused. It is a confusing situation, and one I cannot explain. But Binghe must realize that there is no separating this Master from things done in the past. Unless a way can be found to clear my name of those deeds, I will be the one to pay for them.”

::Or unless we can get the mushroom bodies ready in time.::

Yes, but I’m hardly going to tell him our plan. The best way to survive the plot is to avoid the protagonist entirely.

::It’s adorable that you still think he’ll let you.::

At some point, Luo Binghe had lifted his gaze. He watched Shen Qingqiu now with narrowed eyes. “Peak Lord Shen is with you still,” he murmured.

Shen Qingqiu chose his words carefully. “It is not possible to separate one from the other.”

“Isn’t it.” Luo Binghe’s words landed between them with the confidence of a bet being placed on a winning hand. “We shall see.”

::You just had to tell him something couldn’t be done,:: Shen Jiu said.

We’ll be safe in the mushroom bodies before it becomes an issue, Shen Yuan replied, as much to reassure himself as Shen Jiu.

Rising to his feet, Luo Binghe held himself with resolve. “There is much to be done.”

“Binghe, wait.” Shen Qingqiu shifted against the constriction of the Immortal Binding Cables, sending one shoulder of Luo Binghe’s too-large robes sliding down his arm. “Can you release me from the Immortal Binding Cables? This Master cannot even feed himself like this.” Not that there had been food to eat, but wasn’t this a reasonable request?

“Ah.” Reaching out with trembling hands, Luo Binghe slowly began picking at the knots that held Shen Qingqiu’s arms behind his back. Each tentative brush, each moment when a cord loosened and blood rushed to the abused area, excited another shiver from Shen Qingqiu.

“Wouldn’t it be faster to cut me free?” he asked. He couldn’t seem to raise his voice past a whisper.

Freeing his wrists, Luo Binghe brought them around to the front, thumbs rubbing at the pulse points imprinted with a harsh red echo of the loosened cords.

“It would,” Luo Binghe said, and looped the cord back around his wrists, tying it deftly.

“Binghe, what…?” Shen Qingqiu gaped down at his wrists, now bound in front instead of behind. How was this better?

Rising, Luo Binghe tugged the borrowed robe back into place and smoothed the collar so it wouldn’t slip again. His hands lingered until Shen Qingqiu could feel the warmth of them even through the robe.

“I’m sorry, Shizun. Until the one can be separated from the other, both must remain bound.” Luo Binghe’s hand skimmed Shen Qingqiu’s cheek as he withdrew it. “I will not let him take you from me.”

Shen Yuan fumed as Luo Binghe departed.

::See?:: Shen Jiu drawled, sounding smug. ::Adorable.::

***

Time passed. Luo Binghe did not return, but a disciple came at regular intervals with deliciously aromatic congee that could only be of his making, and teas brewed from Shen Qingqiu’s favorite blends. At least with his hands bound in front, Shen Qingqiu didn’t have to depend on anyone else to feed him.

That small mercy did not make him any less furious.

And at least he wasn’t alone in his head. Shen Jiu’s personality might be more acidic than the water enclosing their prison, but it had long ago stopped burning Shen Yuan. Now, it was no more painful than sinking into bathwater that was just a bit too hot.

::Where we went wrong,:: Shen Jiu theorized – he’d been doing that a lot over the days, compiling a catalogue of all the mistakes that had led them to this point. ::Was in trusting that the details written by that hack author could be relied upon. Five years my…::

Well, mistakes made by others, never his own. But as far as blaming Airplane went, Shen Yuan was in agreement.

::It is beyond foolish of us to expect that he won’t somehow bungle the mushroom bodies. We need another plan.::

After a week with no word, Shen Yuan was inclined to agree. “About that,” he said. The caverns of their prison echoed his hesitation back to him in a cascade of whispers. “I… haven’t been entirely honest with you about not having more quests.”

::Haven’t you?:: Shen Jiu’s silk-soft question made Shen Yuan’s face heat with shame. He shifted, feeling like a frog in a slowly heating pot. “Do tell.::

He shouldn’t have spoken. Perhaps he could dive into the acid lake. It would be a quicker death than being boiled alive by Shen Jiu’s ire.

“I said nothing because I knew there was no point. It’s something you would never agree to.”

The list of things Shen Jiu would not do to save his life was short, and most of them revolved around a particular person. Still, Shen Jiu growled, ::What. Is. It.::

Hunching under the drape of Luo Binghe’s robe as though the protagonist’s clothes were enough to hide him and protect him from Shen Jiu’s wrath, he said, “Help you and Zhangmen-shixiong confront your shared history and reconcile.”

His voice was small in the vastness of their prison, and only silence followed after the echo of it died, broken by the steady fall of the acid curtain.

“Don’t be angry, Jiu-dage! Doesn’t it make sense that I wouldn’t tell you when even the thought of it makes you want to spit blood?”

::Jiu-dage? Who’s your dage?:: Shen Jiu snapped. ::And why would I turn my anger on you? Isn’t it this bastard System who is our shared enemy? Putting us in such ridiculous circumstances and forcing us to do this and that nonsense task?::

Yes. That’s right. It’s totally the System’s fault. Aim your vitriol at the System!

【Such unfairness. Much sadness. This poor System doesn’t deserve such abuse!】

::You shut-up, you ephemeral non-entity!:: Shen Jiu growled, and to Shen Yuan’s vast relief, the System remained silent.

After several moments of silent fuming, Shen Jiu’s mental sigh broke the tension. ::But didi is correct in one respect – this is no option. Even if Yue Qingyuan was here to speak with, even if I stooped to speaking with him about such things, what good with more points do us? I doubt our situation is something that could be resolved with a scenario pusher.::

“Well… actually…”

Shen Yuan’s explanation of what a Fenix Down was and what it could do led to a ranking of all the Final Fantasy games from worst to best, which led to a rant about the hundreds of hours Shen Yuan wasted searching for the fabled cheat that would allow him to save Aerith.

::Why not use one of these Fenix Downs to resurrect her. That is what you’ve said they are for.::

Shen Yuan sighed. “Aerith’s death is like the Endless Abyss storyline. Unavoidable. Too much of the rest of the story depends on it.”

::Your world is strange and cruel.::

Before Shen Yuan could marshal a defense – or agree – footsteps echoed through the cavern. The acid curtain ceased to fall, and Gongyi Xiao stepped onto the platform.

“Senior Shen, I have brought a message for you from Senior Shang,” he said, and held out a note for Shen Qingqiu to read.

“Throw it into the lake,” he instructed – after he’d read it and translated Airplane’s broken Chinglish for Shen Jiu’s benefit.

Though he looked confused, Gongyi Xiao did as told – like a proper disciple should, Shen Yuan thought, twisting his wrists in their bindings. The acid bubbled as it devoured the bad news. As predicted, Shang Qinghua had bungled his one job.

At least there is still one body left, Shen Yuan thought, breaking the heavy silence in his head.

::Yes. Your body,:: Shen Jiu’s response was as bitter and cold as day-old tea. ::So you can escape this, but I cannot.::

Guilt dragged at Shen Yuan.

::What should I expect,:: Shen Jiu continued, so softly that Shen Yuan wasn’t certain it was a thought he was meant to hear. ::It has always been thus.::

“We will think of a way,” Shen Qingqiu said firmly, and then kept his expression blank when Gongyi Xiao cast him an odd look.

“Was there something Senior Shen wanted my assistance with?”

You could kick Shang Qinghua down some stairs. No need to make it look like an accident!

No, Shen Yuan wanted that pleasure for himself. And also, he had a more pressing request. “Can you help me leave this place?”

“… Eh?”

Shen Qingqiu launched a thousand arguments for why he needed to leave and – admittedly, false – promises that he would return, but none of them turned Gongyi Xiao’s face. He swore he wanted to help, but he could never do something so underhanded.

::I can convince him, but you will not like my method,:: Shen Jiu said after Shen Yuan had exhausted all avenues.

How?

A hesitation, then, ::You will need to give me control.::

Such cold words, Shen Yuan shivered at them. You aren’t planning to hurt him, are you?

::This boy will come to no harm from me.::

This boy was rising to his feet as though preparing to leave. Shen Yuan couldn’t let him. If they didn’t escape now, the sole remaining mushroom body – Shen Yuan’s body – would be overripe and rotted before the trial ever took place.

Fine, he thought, and faded back so that Shen Jiu could slip to the fore.

He jolted at the shift, and then sagged as Shen Qingqiu never would in front of another. “Of course you must leave me alone again. I…” he shivered. “I will contrive to bear it.”

Stunned at the crack in Shen Qingqiu’s famously thin face, Gongyi Xiao knelt again in concern. Shen Qingqiu flinched away. The movement caused the robe to fall from his shoulders, exposing the red cords, the shredded remains of his clothes as though a beast had clawed at him, the jade pale skin striped with red welts and bared to the chill air.

“Please don’t touch me,” Shen Qingqiu whispered, tight with fear. “Not you, too.”

“Who… who did this to you? Who defiled Senior Shen so?” Gongyi Xiao sounded as aghast as Shen Yuan felt. What was with this Oscar-worthy performance? What is being implied here?! It isn’t like this. How could anyone believe it could be like this?!

“I have had few visitors this past week. You, and…” Shen Qingqiu cringed and raised his bound hands as though warding someone off. His robes slipped further, revealing more abused skin. “At least he had the kindness to cover me up… after…”

“There is no kindness that can forgive such…” Gongyi Xiao stood, half drawing his sword as though ready to cut down that invisible foe. Shen Yuan didn’t know if he should be horrified or impressed.

::But… Binghe didn’t… He wouldn’t…::

I never claimed he did. I cannot help what other people assume.

::Isn’t this too much? To drag Luo Binghe’s reputation through the mud—::

It can keep company with mine. I warned you that you would not approve. Shen Jiu raised his hands again – raised them so that Gongyi Xiao could cut them free as he swore promises that of course he would help Senior Shen flee such bestial treatment.

But I also promised it would work.

Chapter Text

 

【User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 500
  • Heartbreak Points: 2000
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 40%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Fake Jade Guanyin, One (1) coil of Immortal Binding Cables
  • Co-op Mode Points: 200】

【User OP Active Quest Log

  • Go Big or Go Home! (Started)】

Shen Yuan closed his interface. No new quests. You?

::Nothing.::

He cast an eye over the plains below them, the fields a blur as Xiu Ya carved a silver swath through the air. Like a bullet train, if riders balanced atop the cars instead of riding inside of them. The wall and rooftops of Hua Yue City were a smudge on the horizon. And just beyond those was a very special field where Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua had become cultivators of a much more mundane sort.

It was so close, but what if it was the wrong direction for them?

If we returned to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, you could speak with Yue Qingyuan—

::I am not making myself into a puppet for the System’s amusement.:: The sharpness of Shen Jiu’s reply was enough to make a eunuch out of Shen Yuan. He abandoned that suggestion before his pillar was chopped off at the base.

Then what? Meet Shang Qinghua at the field and both transfer into the same mushroom body?

::Don’t be ridiculous. The array was set up to attract your soul. You will transfer. I will remain. This is my body after all. Why should I abandon it?::

But… Luo Binghe…

::I will deal with your unruly disciple. Watch out for those treetops!::

They’re nowhere near our path. You’re such a backseat driver.

::I don’t know what that is,:: Shen Jiu said primly.

They had left Gongyi Xiao behind on the edge of the Bai Lu Forest, still babbling guilt-ridden apologies for the indignities Senior Shen had suffered. Shen Yuan kept his face composed so that he wouldn’t give away that the worst indignity was Gongyi Xiao’s misconception about what Luo Binghe had done in the Water Prison. Two days flight with little rest had brought them this far. Soon, it would be over, and they’d be safe. Well, one of them would be. Theoretically.

Should we stop in the city for supplies and news before we meet Shang Qinghua?

::And risk being seen and caught? Everything we need will be in the qiankun pouches we prepared.::

Assuming Airplane remembered to bring them.

::For his sake, he better have.:: Shen Jiu’s words were as chilling as a serial killer’s. The call was coming from inside the house, and Shen Yuan was glad that Shang Qinghua was the one on speed dial. ::Fly faster.::

Any faster and we might trigger another episode of Without a Cure, Shen Yuan protested – their escape had already been slowed by one inconvenient bout – but he gave Xiu Ya a little more spiritual juice all the same.

As they neared the walls of Hua Yue City, Shen Jiu’s calm seemed to be fraying at the edges. ::I haven’t felt the parasites stir yet, but Luo Binghe is bound to notice our escape and come after us.::

That was another concern that Shen Yuan had been reluctant to raise. If Shen Jiu remained in his body, wouldn’t he be entirely at Luo Binghe’s mercy? The protagonist wouldn’t even have to lift a finger to tear off his arms!

::What a pleasant thought. Something to look forward to if you don’t. Fly. Faster.::

Do you want to take control—

::Stop!::

Shen Yuan halted so fast they nearly tumbled off the sword.

::Why is Shang Qinghua coming to meet us?::

Scanning the city wall, Shen Yuan realized there was a blot of blue that wasn’t a flock of birds like he’d first thought. It was Airplane-bro, flying towards them and waving. He was windblown and red-faced, and his waving seemed more like a frantic signal to flee than an excited welcome. His antics were drawing the attention of the guards at the city gate and atop the wall, and the merchants and travelers waiting on the road to pass through the gates.

::Something has gone wrong.::

You’re so pessimistic, Shen Yuan thought, even though he feared the same.

“Ah, Shen-shixiong! Fancy meeting you here. What brings you to Hua Yue City? Aren’t you supposed to be a guest of Huan Hua Sect?” Shang Qinghua called when they came within shouting distance.

Fuck. You’re right.

::Invariably. Flee.::

The blood parasites stirred, and Shen Yuan found that they were frozen, unable to command Xiu Ya to get them out of there.

“Ah, Shizun. It is Shizun, isn’t it?” asked Luo Binghe, emerging from behind a rampart on the city wall. He carried a dark bundle under one arm, and Xin Mo was a malevolent shadow at his back. The sword pulsed erratically with so much energy that Shen Qingqiu could feel it pressing against him like an unwanted lover. “At least, it is now. But it wasn’t when you convinced Gongyi Xiao to help you escape, was it?”

He tossed the bundle aside. It rolled and groaned, and Shen Qingqiu realized it was that same Gongyi Xiao, beaten bloody and half-conscious. At least he still had his life and limbs. Along the wall, other Huan Hua disciples stepped out from hiding. A few looked ready to draw swords, but held back at a gesture from Luo Binghe.

Shen Qingqiu studied him warily. Gone was the soft-eyed, crying disciple who’d been so happy at their reunion. Here was the blackened protagonist he knew so well from <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>, ready to right all wrongs perpetrated against him with a smile… and a whole lot of blood.

::Give me control. We’re close enough to the field that if we die, your spirit will escape to the new body.::

But what about you, Jiu-dage?

“If Binghe knows how this Master escaped, then he also knows that I intended to return once my business was completed.” Shen Qingqiu said gently, hoping to counteract Xin Mo’s influence and soften Luo Binghe’s ire. “How did Binghe know to find me here?”

“Does Shizun really think a message would be delivered to him, and this disciple wouldn’t know?” Luo Binghe’s eyes met Shen Qingqiu’s, glare for glare. “Since I couldn’t read the code it was written in, I could only follow Shang-shishu and wait to see for myself what business was so important.”

Damn this protagonist’s IQ, keeping him one step ahead. And damn Airplane for leading Luo Binghe to Shen Qingqiu!

::I’m going to kill him.::

Get in line, Shen Yuan thought. But then he recalled the sight of Shang Qinghua flying toward them, his frantic waving. The field was close, but it was still easily a li away. Or… not. He led Luo Binghe here, instead of waiting for us at the mushroom field.

::… I suppose he can live. Assuming we do.::

We will. Nobody was dying while Shen Yuan was alive. “What does Binghe want from this Master? I told you that there is no… removing the condition I find myself in?”

Mounting Xin Mo, Luo Binghe rose above the wall and edged closer. “But what if Shizun is wrong? What if this disciple has discovered a way to rid yourself of that poison?”

With fury flashing red in the depths of Binghe’s eyes and Xin Mo pumping it higher and faster like a heart of darkness, Shen Yuan was quite certain he didn’t trust any method Luo Binghe came up with. He might survive it. Shen Jiu would not.

But curiosity compelled him to ask, “How?”

“Return with me, and I will show you.” The blood parasites held Shen Qingqiu in place as Luo Binghe flew close enough to catch his wrist. Close enough to hold was close enough to whisper, “Xin Mo can cleave realms asunder. It will be no difficulty to cut Shizun free of that leech.”

Shen Yuan knew very well how good Xin Mo was at cleaving. He’d read two million words of that Golden Finger by Ginsu cutting through everything from scum villains’ plots to future wives’ protests. “You would risk destroying my spirit like that?”

“Never. This disciple has tested the process. Thoroughly.”

Tested on who?! Shen Yuan didn’t want to guess, much less know, the answer to that question. But it explained Luo Binghe’s slipping control, and the increasingly unstable malevolence radiating off Xin Mo. He didn’t want to go with Luo Binghe – not that the blood parasites were giving him much choice – but refusing might exacerbate that anger and trigger a nuclear meltdown.

::We need to get him away from all these people before that happens.::

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu said softly, conciliatory. He tugged on his wrist, but Luo Binghe’s grip held firm to the point of bruising. “Can we not speak of these things somewhere—"

“Unhand him!” A familiar flash of silver slashed between them, forcing Luo Binghe to drop Shen Qingqiu’s hand or lose his own. The blood parasites loosened their hold as well, as Luo Binghe jumped from Xin Mo and leapt up to face the oncoming onslaught from Bai Zhan Peak’s war god.

Shen Qingqiu would have fallen into the gawking crowd below at the abrupt freedom, if not for Yue Qingyuan swooping in on his secondary sword to catch him with one arm. Pulling him close, he snatched Xiu Ya from the air before it could skewer the spectators.

::Unhand me!:: Shen Jiu sputtered in a strange echo of Liu Qingge’s command. Shen Yuan quashed the phantom urges to struggle that shook his limbs– like Binghe’s parasites, but deeper than blood and bone. It was a good thing Shen Yuan was the one in control, or Shen Jiu would have sent them plummeting rather than remaining even one moment in Yue Qingyuan’s arms.

Black robes swirling and fluttering like a flock of death omens, Luo Binghe raised Xin Mo to counter the quicksilver strikes of Cheng Luan. Sparks flew where they met, the dark shadows billowing around them like smoke. “Liu-shishu. Zhangmen-shibo. Your presence is unexpected.” And unwanted, Luo Binghe’s glare said. That glare pierced in Shang Qinghua’s direction, causing him to pale and squeak.

“Ahahahaha. Yes! Totally unexpected. What a coincidence!” Shang Qinghua cried with a shaky laugh and an even shakier smile. So shaky that Shen Yuan feared he’d shake right off his sword. Ah, Shang-shidi, you really should consider taking improv lessons from your protagonist and scum villain.

“Shishu? Shibo? You still have enough face to call us that? Shameless!” Liu Qingge spat, his scowl bearing down on Luo Binghe with as much strength as his sword. Shoved away, he spared a glance for Shang Qinghua. “And what coincidence? Your message said the need was urgent.”

Shen Qingqiu stifled a groan. Maybe Liu-shidi can be your classmate.

::Why did you save that idiot’s life again?::

Because it was the right thing to do? Wincing at at Shen Jiu’s mental snort, Shen Yuan tried again. And because nobody else has a chance of stalling Luo Binghe or drawing him away from this city before Xin Mo implodes and kills everyone.

“Xiao Jiu, are you hurt? Did he… we heard…” Yue Qingyuan had yet to release him. Shen Qingqiu turned his face away from the depths of concern in his eyes. Concern that wasn’t meant for him.

::Don’t call me that.:: Shen Jiu hissed, softer than a snake.

“Don’t call me that,” Shen Qingqiu said, though not for the same reasons. The softness that crept into his voice was born of shame instead of anger. Whatever relationship existed between Shen Jiu and Yue Qingyuan was something he’d intruded into. He had no place here.

Passing Xiu Ya back to Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan helped him mount. In a desperate attempt to avoid his kind, searching eyes, Shen Qingqiu ducked his head and looked away.

And met Luo Binghe’s blood-hazed scowl. “Shizun fled so far and fights so hard, this disciple is left to wonder if he truly wants to be free of his condition.”

Why do you think we fled? Shen Yuan forced himself to remain calm. One of them had to be. “Healing requires finesse. Binghe wants to use a sword to do the work of a scalpel.”

::Why are you wasting time talking? There is no reasoning with him, especially in this state.::

‘This state’ was the miasma of malevolence that grew thicker every time Xin Mo clashed with Cheng Luan.

“And perhaps Shizun wants things to remain as they are. Perhaps Shizun would choose another over this filthy beast.”

Luo Binghe’s glare swept over Liu Qingge, Yue Qingyuan, even Shang Qinghua, who cowered at being included. But those words he called himself – filthy beast – revealed who Luo Binghe thought Shen Qingqiu was choosing.

Why does it have to be a choice? Shen Yuan wanted to wail. This is not one of your wife plots! I’m not some blushing maiden! You are not competing suitors!

::Well, I’m not. And I don’t think Shang Qinghua is. The others…::

You are not helping!

When Shen Qingqiu let the accusation pass without argument or rebuttal, the malevolence around Luo Binghe collapsed in on itself like a black hole, then exploded with such force that Liu Qingge was catapulted over the wall. Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan wavered on their swords. Shang Qinghua fell off his with an astonished squeak. Even the crowd below was flattened into the dirt. Guards and Huan Hua disciples dropped their spears and swords. Wagons toppled as the teams hitched to them bucked and pulled at their traces.

::It’s getting worse. We have to—::

Help him. I know! But how?

::I was going to say flee.::

No. He wouldn’t leave Luo Binghe to this self-destruction, any more than he would leave the innocent bystanders to become collateral damage. “Binghe, you need to stop using Xin Mo. It isn’t worth endangering everyone just to help this Master.”

Tears welled up in those hellfire eyes, turned to rubies by the light of Luo Binghe’s Heavenly Demon seal, revealed. “Why does Shizun show care for everyone else before me?”

Unfair! Doesn’t Binghe see that Shen Yuan’s first concern is – has always been – his precious lotus? His favorite protagonist? His Binghe?

::Now you decide to have an epiphany? Is this really the time to—duck!::

Slashing Xin Mo through the air, Luo Binghe sent a swath of killing energy hurtling toward Shen Qingqiu. Only the surprised lurch in reaction to Shen Jiu’s warning, that sent his stomach and Xiu Ya plummeting, saved him from being struck by it.

“Binghe, what—”

“Luo Binghe, you will cease these attacks and surrender your sword,” Yue Qingyuan said, setting his hand on the hilt of Xuan Su.

“You ungrateful punk! You still call him Shizun, and yet you dare to attack without warning?” Liu Qingge cried, flying at him with Cheng Luan. Another pulse of energy slapped both Peak Lords away like persistent gnats.

How strong Xin Mo was, to reduce Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s Master and Bai Zhan Peak’s War God to the state of bugs?!

“This is for Shizun’s own good.” Luo Binghe raised Xin Mo for another slice. “I will set him free, even if he despises me for it.”

The blood parasites seized control of Shen Qingqiu’s limbs, preventing him from fleeing or dodging.

::Even if this kills us, you’ll go to the mushroom body. You will be fine,:: Shen Jiu said with resigned stoicism.

But you won’t! And if Xin Mo’s power grew any more unstable, neither would Luo Binghe, or anyone within a li.

Unacceptable. System, is there some way to attune Shen Jiu’s spirit to the mushroom body array?

::What are you…::

【Of course! For the low cost of 100 Co-op Mode points, OP can initiate an account transfer.】

Good. Do it.

【Transfer Commencing…】

::No! Don’t you dare! System, I’d like to spend my 100 Co-op Mode points to block the transfer!::

【Transfer Successfully Blocked.】

Fortunately, Shen Yuan had twice as many points as Shen Jiu thanks to completing the Jin Lan City arc on Co-op Mode. System, can I spend the rest of my points to initiate another account transfer?

【Of course!】the system chirped over Shen Jiu’s howl of protest.

::Why are you doing this?::

I’ve been thinking, Shen Yuan said, watching Luo Binghe gather energy for another strike. The sun was setting gold, and for a moment the whole world stilled as though preserved in amber. About everything that’s happened. About the Endless Abyss. And I think maybe Shen Qingqiu’s death is like Aerith’s. Inevitable.

::Then I should be the one to die, you stupid boy!::

The blood parasites wouldn’t even allow Shen Yuan to laugh. Sorry, Jiu-dage. I wouldn’t kick Luo Binghe into the Endless Abyss. I’m not about to abandon you. System, spend the points.

【Transfer Commencing.】the System said, just as another wave of dark energy sliced through them and tore their souls asunder.

***

Shen Jiu opened his eyes with the odd feeling that he’d never opened them before, never looked through them before. Never seen the world in quite these colors or with quite this level of clarity. He was in two layers of simple sleeping robes, laid out on a pallet in a grove of bamboo. The stalks and leaves above overlapped thickly enough to blot out the sky and shelter him in a canopy of green. The soft rattle as some wild creature moved through them was like music heard for the first time.

Sitting up was the same. There was an unfamiliar newness to the movement of his joints, the stretch of his muscles, as though he was a new fan, unfolding. A newly awakened spiritual sword being drawn from its sheath.

Always, even as a child, a slave, he had been slender and long-limbed, but the arms he raised to push himself upright had a gracile delicacy foreign to him. His skin was peach-soft, jade-pale, and glowed with the translucent fairness of a body that had never met hardship or toil. It felt like even a hard look might bruise it, though it proved more resilient than that when Shen Jiu pressed fingers – as delicate and fairy-like as the rest of him – to his wrist to check the pulse beating there.

However much his body might look and feel like a strong wind might blow it away like eiderdown, the raw spiritual power that flowed through him suggested otherwise. It surged like a river, fast and clear without the obstruction of demon poisons or the uneven bedrock of improper cultivation.

An unfamiliar expression began to bloom across the face of this new mushroom body of his. His fingers pressed to his cheeks, his lips, feeling out the shape of it.

Was this… a grin?

His laugh rang high and clear through the bamboo grove where he lay – surroundings as unfamiliar as his body, but there’d be time to explore them later. First…

Shen Yuan? His mental voice, at least, was still his own – a silken-steel blade honed to cut away the stupidity and nonsense of the world. Yuan-didi, he coaxed. Don’t pout just because I woke up in control.

His call hung there, like a blade drawn with nothing to cut. His new heart began to beat faster. A chill washed over his new skin. Memories kept at bay by the confusion of waking began to flood through him, fragmented and disordered.

The beast and the idiot banging at each other with swords. Yue Qingyuan holding Shen Qingqiu too tightly. A mad escape from the Huan Hua Water Prison. A confrontation above the gates of Hua Yue City.

Answer me, you brat!

Nothing. Just the hollow awareness of being along that he’d always lived with… until an obnoxious gremlin moved in and made himself at home in Shen Qingqiu’s life.

System!

【Hello, User OG. This System is happy to provide 24-hour service. How can I assist you?】

Where is Shen Yuan? User OP. What happened to him?

【This System is sorry to inform you that User OP’s account has been deactivated and Co-op Mode has been discontinued. All remaining plot items, quests, and points have been transferred to User OG, per User OP’s final request.】

No. No. That couldn’t be! But the memories of those last moments were sorting themselves into coherence – the beast’s control of his demonic heritage and weapon rapidly degrading, the cutting swath of energy that ripped through Shen Qingqiu and severed the bond between Shen Yuan and Shen Jiu.

Shen Yuan, sacrificing his points to ensure that Shen Jiu’s spirit was sent to the mushroom body that should have been his.

But… that meant Shen Yuan remained behind, didn’t it? “What about Shen Qingqiu?” he demanded in a clear, soft tenor caught somewhere between a boy’s voice and a man’s. A voice he knew, because he’d bickered with it in his head for years.

His new eyes pricked with unexpected tears.

【This System is sorry to report that Shen Qingqiu is dead.】

A breath heaved out of Shen Jiu. Trembling, he curled around the hollowness gripping his heart, eyes closed against a world he was not ready to face. A truth he refused to accept.

A footstep sounded behind him, a boot crunching dry leaves beneath it.

“Ah,” said a voice Shen Jiu hated almost as much as he hated himself. “You’re awake at last.”

Chapter Text

“Zhangmen-shixiong,” Shen Jiu said, uncurling and wiping his eyes as though he hadn’t been huddled like an abandoned child a moment before.

He froze at Yue Qingyuan’s gasp and quiet, “It really is you.”

Fuck. So much for pretending he was someone else. He’d been caught by one of the two people he most wanted to hide from. He smoothed his sleeping robes and mussed hair, giving himself a moment to think.

“How did Yue-shixiong know this one was here.” He looked around the bamboo grove – it was reminiscent of his grove on Qing Jing Peak, but the growth here was new, the stalks spring green instead of the color of old jade. The stones shone white, clean of moss. Only the cover of fallen leaves gave any indication that the grove hadn’t sprung into being overnight. “Where is here?”

No answer came. Shen Jiu risked a glare at Yue Qingyuan and caught him staring with a look of naked longing and relief. What’s more, he didn’t look away when Shen Jiu caught him. Not even when he lifted brow and lip in a questioning sneer.

“What?” he snapped.

That broke Yue Qingyuan out of his daze. He looked away, red rising from neck to cheeks to ears. “Ah, you are on my Qiong Ding Peak. It was safer to hide you here than leave you on Qing Jing. Since Mu-shidi believed sunlight would help you recover, I thought you would be more comfortable if you woke in somewhat familiar surroundings. So.”

He gestured at the bamboo, and Shen Jiu understood. If Qing Jing Peak was known for its humble bamboo stands and Bai Zhan for its hardy plum blossoms, then Qiong Ding Peak was famous for its ancient pine trees. Yue Qingyuan must have razed a grove to plant these new shoots.

But not so new. These were tall enough to have a few years growth under their stalks.

“How long was I… how did you…” Shen Jiu shook his head to clear away his confusion. “What happened?”

And where was Shen Yuan?

“You’ve been sleeping for a long time. You need to—”

“I need to know what happened!” Shen Jiu batted away the hand Yue Qingyuan offered to help him, climbing to his feet on his own. Too fast, on legs that had never supported him. He stumbled and fell into Yue Qingyuan’s solid frame. Had he always been this tall? This strong and sturdy against any wind that might buffet him, like one of his damned trees?

No. Shen Jiu was just slighter now, slender as a new bamboo shoot.

He stared for several breathless breaths before he felt Yue Qingyuan’s hands on his hips, warm even through the thinness of his sleeping robes, and realized that their position bore little difference from an embrace.

“Let me go.” Shen Jiu shoved away, ignoring how that left him feeling cold and unmoored.

I may have a new body, but nothing has changed, he reminded himself firmly in the echo chamber of his head, and once again suffered a pang of loneliness when there was no affectionately snarky response.

“What. Happened?” he demanded through clenched teeth.

Folding his hands in his sleeves – an old habit he used when he was doing his best not to reach out – Yue Qingyuan asked, “What do you remember?”

That was a question rife with pitfalls. Carefully, Shen Jiu said, “Luo Binghe confronted me in front of the gates to Hua Yue City. Yue-shixiong and Liu-shidi arrived to defend me. And Shang-shidi,” he added reluctantly. If he was here under Yue Qingyuan’s protection, who else could have arranged that but Shang Qinghua?

Not that Shen Jiu was going to be grateful to that hack or anything.

“Luo Binghe attacked this Master with some sort of demonic energy released from his sword.” Shen Jiu could still feel the ragged edges where he and Shen Yuan had been connected, the agony of being torn apart. “That is all I remember. Then I woke up here.”

He looked around the grove again – the grove that had to have been planted several years ago.

“Shidi doesn’t remember what happened after?”

After? Did that mean that Shen Yuan remained in their shared body when Shen Jiu was torn away? He shook his head, unable to push words past the tightness in his throat.

“Shidi somehow managed to withstand the attack, but the demonic energy was consuming Luo Binghe. Shidi…” Now it was Yue Qingyuan who struggled to speak. “Shidi used his own spiritual energy to dissipate it. Flooding his meridians like that triggered a qi-deviation and… Shidi died to save Luo Binghe.”

“No,” Shen Jiu whispered, both an admission that he didn’t remember, and a denial of what it meant.

That stupid, stupid boy! Why had he…?

Shen Jiu swayed again on his feet. Yue Qingyuan steadied him with a hesitant, impersonal hand on his elbow. “Xi—ah. You have been through much. I will explain all, but please let us go in so you can rest and consume something more filling than sunlight. Let me call Mu-shidi to examine you.”

“Yes. Yes.” Shen Jiu felt too faint to resist. But… “How long? How long have I been sleeping in the sunlight?”

“Five years,” Yue Qingyuan said, and caught him again when his step faltered.

This time, Shen Jiu was too weak to push away the arms enfolding him. They were the only warmth left in the world.

***

By the time he had a cup of tea in his hands, a bowl of congee in his stomach, and Mu Qingfang’s assurances that not only was his new body healthy, but it was overflowing with spiritual energy, Shen Qingqiu had recovered his equilibrium.

Dressed in layers of robes in his preferred style, but taken-in to fit his slighter frame, he also recovered his sense of self. All that was missing was a fan.

System, he thought, hating that he was still dependent on the cursed thing but not seeing any other option – Yue Qingyuan’s explanation had been woefully lacking in details he needed to know. What are my current totals and quests?

Do I even still have totals and quests? After all, wasn’t the Systems tied to Shen Yuan and his transmigration?

【Of course! In addition to his own tally, User OG now has access to all of User OP’s points, assets, and quests. Please use them responsibly!

User OG Point Log

  • Reforming Villain Plot Points: 9000
  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 3000
  • Heartbreak Points (Yue Qingyuan): 7000
  • Heartbreak Points (Luo Binghe): 1000
  • Fix-it Fic Progress: 70%
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 50%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Broken Slave Cuff, One (1) Fake Jade Guanyin, One (1) coil of Immortal Binding Cables
  • Solo Mode Points: 0
  • Co-op Mode Points: Disabled】

【User OG Active Quest Log

  • Recover Shen Qingqiu’s Body
  • Save Cang Qiong Mountain Sect
  • Save Yue Qingyuan
  • Co-Op Mode Quest: Go Big or Go Home! (Started)】

He stared at that quest list, floating in translucent blue before his eyes, as a chill swept through him that neither tea nor congee nor sunlight could banish.

What was with this sub-standard fairy body? Why was he constantly so cold?!

So, nothing we have done has changed the ending of that stupid novel? My old body will still be defiled, Cang Qiong Mountain still razed to the ground, and Yue-shixiong…

He couldn’t even think it. Batting away the glowing interface, he closed his eyes and shivered.

“Qingqiu-shidi?” Yue Qingyuan stood in the doorway of his pine bough house – a sturdier and more spacious residence than Shen Qingqiu’s humble bamboo cottage, with beams of dark, polished wood interspersed with whitewashed walls and latticework screens of oiled paper. He’d been a long time seeing Mu Qingfang off. No doubt they’d been nattering about Shen Qingqiu’s health like a pair of old aunties. “Are you cold?”

“It would seem to be one of the detriments of this new body of mine,” Shen Qingqiu said, studying the hands wrapped around his teacup. His skin matched the delicate porcelain in both color and translucency. “I can’t stay warm.”

A heavy robe draped over Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders, all greys and blacks, thick with Yue Qingyuan’s body heat and the scent of pine resin and osmanthus. Shen Qingqiu tried to shrug it off on reflex, but Yue Qingyuan’s hands pressed down, holding the robe in place.

“Don’t be stubborn. If you’re cold, you’re cold.”

Shen Qingqiu struggled with himself, but finally relented with a dismissive sniff as though it had never been his intention to reject the robe. Refusing it now would only be proof that what Yue Qingyuan did still affected him. He was above that. Beyond that.

So not over that, he thought in a voice that sounded something like Shen Yuan’s. But it wasn’t. He knew the difference between his own thoughts and another’s.

Impatiently repressing another shiver, he said, “I assume I’m here because Shang-shidi told you about this body, but…”

What else did he tell you?

Why did you react as you did when I woke?

Who did you think it would be?

How much do you know?

For better or worse, his shixiong knew him too well. Shen Qingqiu didn’t need to voice the questions churning in his head for Yue Qingyuan to assume them.

“From things said during the confrontation with Luo Binghe, it became clear that something strange was happening with Shen-shidi’s spirit.” Sitting across from him, Yue Qingyuan poured himself tea and refilled Shen Qingqiu’s. “Shang-shidi admitted as much when I questioned him.”

That damned loose-lipped ship sinker! He never said anything useful, but useless things fell from his mouth like precious gems.

“What did he admit?”

“That during his qi-deviation all those years ago, Qingqiu’s spirit became… entwined… with another’s.” Yue Qingyuan looked away, giving Shen Qingqiu a good view of his reddened ear tips.

Ah, Qi-ge! It isn’t like that! Why do you need to make it sound so lascivious? This Qingqiu would not… Not with his Yuan-didi! And besides, wouldn’t Luo Binghe cut off more than his arms and his legs if he tried?

Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea and said none of what he was thinking, letting the uncomfortable moment pass unacknowledged.

“This… other one…” Yue Qingyuan resumed after clearing his throat.

“Shen Yuan,” Shen Qingqiu said. No harm in being honest if the System allowed it. “He is Qingqiu’s er-di.”

And much benefit in tacking on a small falsehood – if it could even be called that.

“He is the reason Qingqiu seemed so changed all these years?”

“Ah, so you did notice,” Shen Qingqiu sneered, not bothering to hide his bitterness.

“Of course I did! Why else test you so many times? I—” Closing his eyes, Yue Qingyuan drew in a calming breath and bowed his head. The perfect penitent man. “I have failed Qingqiu once again.”

Always, always it was the same. Just when Shen Qingqiu thought – hoped – that he might get an honest reaction, Yue Qingyuan hid himself away behind this amiable, inoffensive mien. Hand shaking enough to slosh his cup’s contents onto his fingers, Shen Qingqiu hurled it, tea and all, at Yue Qingyuan.

Not even that got a reaction. The master of the most powerful cultivation sect in the world and first among its Peak Lords just sat there, red mark blossoming on his brow and tea dripping off his nose, completely accepting this humiliation as though it was a punishment he deserved.

“A hell-spawned beast is more perceptive than you,” Shen Qingqiu snarled. “And he has more pride.” When Yue Qingyuan just nodded, as accepting of the verbal abuse as the physical, Shen Qingqiu’s rage snuffed out as quickly as it had flared.

“Oh, dry off,” he said, flinging a handkerchief at Yue Qingyuan’s face like it was another cup of tea. “I have more important concerns than your useless guilt. What happened to my body? What of Luo Binghe?”

He didn’t give a broken fan for the System’s stupid quests, but since they aligned with his own goals, there was no reason to ignore them. Retrieve his old body. Save Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. He refused to think about the others until he had to.

“Luo Binghe has completely taken over Huan Hua Palace. He rules there now. He has also taken your old body and preserved it somehow. Liu-shidi battles with him regularly in an attempt to recover it.” Once his face was dried, Yue Qingyuan folded the kerchief with singular care and attention. His fingers hesitated over the embroidery of bamboo leaves. “I thought it best to maintain the fiction. If Luo Binghe believes we are doing all we can to retrieve your body, then he is less likely to realize that you escaped him and are hiding here.”

Shen Qingqiu was almost inclined to laugh at such a dirty trick. Wasn’t that his area of expertise? “And Liu Qingge agreed to such subterfuge?”

“Ah… I may have kept certain aspects of the ruse from him. He is not very skilled at holding things back.”

“Right. I forgot for a moment. You are the master of that.”

“Xiao-Jiu—”

“Don’t.” Shen Qingqiu fought to keep his breathing even. When Shen Yuan had been with him, he’d always taken control when circumstances forced them to interact with Yue Qingyuan. Not counting brief moments of transition, Shen Qingqiu hadn’t spoken to him directly since his first death.

It was a strange addendum to the list of reasons he missed the little gremlin. He let out a shaky breath and stowed the thought away for future consideration.

“As much as it will pain us both, I believe Liu-shidi needs to know the rest. His preference for Shen Yuan is obvious, but perhaps that alone will convince him to help us.”

“Help us what?” Yue Qingyuan asked, rising when Shen Qingqiu did.

“Get my old body back,” Shen Qingqiu said. When Yue Qingyuan blinked in confusion, he allowed himself the smallest, cruelest of smiles. “Unlike some, I will not abandon my xiao-didi to the wolves.”

***

In the Peak Lords’ discussion hall, Shen Qingqiu continued to fight his smiles – or perhaps it was more accurate to call them smirks – while his shidi all gaped at him in astonishment. Their expressions only grew more comical as first Yue Qingyuan, then Mu Qingfang, then even Shang Qinghua, shared an implausible story about how this pretty youth before them was actually their Qingqiu-shixiong, and the one who had imploded above Hua Yue City was his younger brother.

Of course, Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang didn’t realize it was more fiction than fact, and Shang Qinghua, liar that he was, seemed perfectly happy to let the fiction stand.

“Which one was the one to help me in the Lingxi Caves? The one who always left his fans lying around?” Liu Qingge’s question thudded like a dead body cast to the ground, silencing the general murmur of shock and confusion that followed the unlikely tale.

“That would be Shen Yuan,” Shen Qingqiu said.

“Then I fail to see how this changes anything. He is still dead. His… your… body is still in the hands of that demon, and you have wasted my time when I could have been at Huan Hua Palace attempting to retrieve it.”

Ah, Liu-shidi, you are too easy to read. If only my didi had room in his heart for anyone but that beast. If I have to accept a brother-in-law, I’d much rather it be you.

“I realize you all prefer my brother,” Shen Qingqiu said. He shot Yue Qingyuan a glare before he could dispute that claim. “As it happens, so do I. Which is why I—”

“Zhangmen-shibo! Liu-shishu!” A disciple in Qing Jing Peak robes – Ming Fan, Shen Qingqiu realized – burst into the hall, red-faced, sweating, and breathless. Bending at the waist as though he might puke from exertion, he gasped out his message between great gulps of air. “Demons… gate… Luo… demanding… Shizun… body….”

It didn’t make much sense, but it was enough for every Peak Lord in the hall to draw and mount their swords. With no Xiu Ya, Shen Qingqiu was left facing Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge, both holding out a hand expectantly and glaring needles at each other.

“Shang-shidi. Thank you so much for offering,” Shen Qingqiu said, and hopped behind Shang Qinghua before he could protest or escape.

It was a shaky flight to the base of the stairs and the arrays that protected Cang Qiong Mountain Sect from demonic invasion.

Or… didn’t protect it. Luo Binghe had torn through the arrays like they were wet paper. He stood inside the gates with a colorful assortment of demons waiting just outside. Flanking him were that bell-wearing harlot who’d tried to steal Cang Qiong’s plaque, and a sullen block of ice carved into a man’s form. Shang Qinghua’s master, crush, and possible future murderer, if the nervous shaking of Qingqiu’s shidi was anything to judge by.

Luo Binghe had matured into full, blackened villainy in the years since Hua Yue City. Shen Qingqiu could just imagine the fawning admiration he’d have been subjected to if Shen Yuan was still around to share his thoughts. Ah, those sharp features with a beauty that could cut you, that wild hair that every jade-like beauty and wilting flower wanted to tame as her own, those broad shoulders and hard abs that blah blah blah.

Honestly, it made him want to gag just remembering how far gone his oblivious little brother was. Not that Shen Yuan was aware of his own feelings, or knew that they were returned, but Shen Qingqiu certainly wasn’t going to be the one to enlighten him.

“Are you so impatient for a beating that you come here instead of waiting for me to come to you?” Liu Qingge called out before he’d even dismounted. He leapt to the ground without breaking momentum, and Cheng Luan flew to his hand.

“Is Liu-shishu always so funny?” Luo Binghe asked, menace hidden beneath his friendly tone like a tiger stalking through the forest. “Who has beaten whom all these times? And yet like a dedicated student, you keep returning to be schooled again.”

“You—!” Liu Qingge lunged forward, and would have clashed Cheng Luan into Xin Mo if Shen Qingqiu hadn’t stopped him with smack on Liu Qingge’s forearm. Once again, he wished for his fan.

“This saves time. You.” He lifted his chin and faced off against Luo Binghe as though the beast wasn’t twice his size and the most powerful entity in this substandard novel of a world. “Will hand over Shen Qingqiu’s body and return to your sect without causing any further trouble here.”

Luo Binghe looked too perplexed to even laugh. He cast a confused glance at his lieutenants, at Liu Qingge and Yue Qingyuan. He might have included Shang Qinghua in that, if the coward hadn’t scuttled to hide behind his demon master.

“Who—?”

“I think you know who I am,” Shen Qingqiu said, and waited.

Luo Binghe swayed where he stood, and for just a moment Shen Qingqiu thought he might fall to his knees. “Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu snorted. “Are you so bereft of intelligence that you have no other thought but that one?”

“Ah.” The menacing smile returned. “Peak Lord Shen. Of course you would survive while my Shizun lies limp and lifeless. If the world was just, the opposite would be true. I suppose it is up to me to make my own justice.”

“Meaning?” Shen Qingqiu asked, as though he didn’t know exactly what Luo Binghe was threatening. But it was in his nature to prod crouching tigers. On reflection, was it really surprising at all that this easily provoked child made a human pickle out of him in Shang Qinghua’s version of events?

 “Meaning if my Shizun can’t be alive, then I’d like to invite Peak Lord Shen to join him in death.”

“So tedious. Is this how you show your love and respect for your Shizun,” Shen Qingqiu asked, nodding as though Luo Binghe’s disrespect was no more than he expected. “He sacrificed himself to save both of us, yet you would undermine that sacrifice. You would kill me out of some twisted notion of parity, and thereby make yourself the monster he hoped you would never become. He would be so proud, to see you acting like this.”

With a growl lodged in his throat, Luo Binghe curled his fingers around the hilt of Xin Mo and took a threatening step toward Shen Qingqiu. Liu Qingge was there to meet him with Cheng Luan, and Yue Qingyuan as well with one hand on Xuan Su and another around its sheath, ready to draw.

They held that stalemate until the fire banked in Luo Binghe’s eyes. A smile curled up his lips like smoke. “Ah, how could I forget what Peak Lord Shen is like, using words to wound and distract this poor disciple, and the so honorable Sect Leader and War God supporting whatever he does without question. But I have no time for this. Return my Shizun’s body to me, or I will tear down each one of these mountains to find it.”

Shen Qingqiu traded looks with Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge, each of them searching for clarification from the other.

“We don’t have the body,” Liu Qingge said. “You have the body. Have I not visited you often enough over these five years, that you would forget this?”

“Don’t think to lie to me!” Luo Binghe shouted. “The body was taken today. Who would do that, if not you?”

“I do not lie,” Liu Qingge replied, and suddenly everything was chest-bumping and swords drawn again.

Shen Qingqiu rubbed his temples at the beginning of a headache. “Would you both stop?! We don’t have the body. And if you don’t have the body, then somebody else has the body, and I would prefer to find out who and why than sit here and watch you lot compare swords all day. Luo Binghe, did anyone see or hear anything? I assume you didn’t leave the body unguarded.”

Eyeing all of them with mistrust, Luo Binghe loosened his grip on Xin Mo and backed down a step. “The guards were all killed. Poisoned, by a snake.”

Envenomed, Shen Qingqiu thought, and took it as a sign of his growth as a person that he didn’t distract the moment with his pedantry.

A squeak from the crowd drew his attention. Shang Qinghua squeaked again when the weight of Shen Qingqiu’s glare fell on him.

“You.” Catching him by the collar, Shen Qingqiu dragged Shang Qinghua out from behind the looming demon he was trying to use as cover. He shook him like an unruly dog. “What do you know?”

“Nothing! Nothing!” Shang Qinghua cried, raising his hands to fend off blows that hadn’t yet come. “Ah, my king! Will you let someone else beat this servant?”

“En,” said the glacier disguised as a demon. “Release him.”

Shen Qingqiu considered courting the death promised in those icy blue eyes, but that would not help Shen Yuan. He released Shang Qinghua and crossed his arms to withstand the urge to hit him.

Ah, if only he had his fan.

 “Why would I need to lay a hand on you,” he asked in a voice woven of silk, “when I can just tell everyone here about Airplanes.”

While Peak Lords, demons, and disciples alike muttered in confusion at the foreign word, Shang Qinghua shrank and cowered as though Shen Qingqiu had just threatened to exterminate his entire family line. “No! No need! I’ll tell you anything!”

“Where is my former body?”

“I don’t know! I really don’t know! I’m the Nie Huaisang of not knowing things!”

“Nie—?”

“Ahahah. Different story.”

“You know something,” Shen Qingqiu pressed, “or you wouldn’t have reacted.”

Shang Qinghua chewed his lip as though he wouldn’t be forced to speak if he gnawed through it. Until Luo Binghe laid a heavy hand on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder. The glacier glowered, but he raised no protest.

“If Shang-shishu knows something, he should share,” Luo Binghe said in that pleasant tone of his that was a promise of pain to come if he didn’t get his way.

Shang Qinghua squeaked again – really, was something wrong with the man’s lungs? – and blurted, “Zhuzhi-lang! If anyone could infiltrate Lord Luo’s palace, it would be a snake demon named Zhuzhi-lang. We met him in Bai Lu Forest, remember Shen-shixiong?”

When they’d gone to collect the Sun-Moon Dew Mushrooms. Shen Yuan had agreed to spare the demon, had even given him one of their precious mushrooms.

“I remember,” Shen Qingqiu said slowly. There was more to this. Shen Yuan hadn’t recognized the demon, which he would have if it was a character from the book, especially one deemed ‘cool’ like a spy-assassin. But Shang Qinghua wouldn’t know the name and abilities of a random snake demon unless he was somehow important to the plot.

Which left those 70,000 words of unpublished content that Shen Yuan was always whining about missing.

“Why would he be against Shen Yuan, who helped him back then?” Shen Qingqiu asked. Luo Binghe gasped at the name, and Shen Qingqiu could see him about to lead them off on a wild tangent. He silenced him by saying, “Not that his compassion has ever stopped others from hurting him.”

Luo Binghe winced, but all he said was, “Answer,” to Shang Qinghua.

“Ah, well, it wouldn’t be Zhuzhi-lang’s choice,” Shang Qinghua said hesitantly, wringing his robes like a washerwoman at a riverbank. “But if the master he serves ordered him… well…”

Shen Qingqiu raised a brow to prod him. “Name.”

“Tianlang Jun.”

That was a name everyone knew. It sent a ripple of unease through the gathered Peak Lords and their disciples. Yue Qingyuan joined Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe in the line of interrogators.

“What grudge would a Heavenly Demon have against Shen-shidi or his brother?” Yue Qingyuan asked. “Neither of them was involved in Tianlang Jun’s imprisonment.”

“Ah… as to that…” Shang Qinghua’s gaze darted around, landing on everyone and anyone save one person.

Shen Qingqiu studied Luo Binghe, suspicion catching on the sigil burning on his brow. He groaned and hid his face in his hand for want of a fan. “You hack author,” he muttered, too low for most to hear, though Shang Qinghua flinched and Luo Binghe cocked his head like a confused mutt.

“Peak Lord Shen has realized something?” Luo Binghe asked, almost as softly.

Shen Qingqiu sighed. “Isn’t it obvious?” Too obvious. Their intelligence must have been as low as the bottom of the Endless Abyss not to have realized. “He is the only other Heavenly Demon named in this farce. Clearly, he’s your father.”

Something hardened in those puppy-bright eyes. For once, that murderous glare was not directed at Shen Qingqiu. He reveled in the novelty of it.

“So his interest in Shizun is—”

“Because of you? We can assume so. You.” He turned his irritation back on the hack author. “You never mentioned Tianlang Jun or Zhuzhi-lang before.” One of the first things Shen Qingqiu and Shen Yuan had done after learning Shang Qinghua’s identity was force him to spill the tea for every novel plot point he could remember.

“Because it was just a bit of back-burner worldbuilding,” Shang Qinghua wailed. “I never thought it would become important!”

Which meant that in Shang Qinghua’s version of the story, Tianlang Jun had remained imprisoned under his mountain. Just more proof that Airplane was no god. At best, he was a second-rate soothsayer and a knock-off know-it-all.

“But why take a dead body? And where would he take it?” If only Shen Qingqiu had slogged through those two million words of trash himself, if only Shen Yuan was here, he might not need to ask. “Wouldn’t a live hostage be of more use than a dead one?”

“Not to me,” Luo Binghe murmured, which… really? So disturbing! What did Shen Yuan see in this dissolute creature? Shen Qingqiu eyed the sculpted chest exposed by half-open robes. Well, besides the obvious.

“Ah… well… if I was a Heavenly Demon and wanted to hide, I’d go where not even another Heavenly Demon could follow.” Shang Qinghua glanced about hopefully, but Shen Qingqiu wasn’t the only one with a blank look on his face. “The demon race’s Holy Mausoleum? Damn, I really miss Cucumber-bro.”

“I’ll get him back. I just need the body to do it. So,” Shen Qingqiu clapped his hands and regarded the group at large. “How do we break into an impenetrable Heavenly Demon crypt?”

Luo Binghe studied him for several long moments, as though Shen Qingqiu was a creature he’d never encountered before. “Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons.”

Shen Qingqiu grimaced. So much for hoping it would be easy. “We’re going to need one?” he asked, sighing.

Now Luo Binghe smiled. “We’re going to need a herd.”

Chapter Text

With the lack of trust on all sides, it fell out that most of the gathered demons and cultivators would be left behind at Cang Qiong Mountain. Luo Binghe’s demons, led by Sha Hualing, to act as a threat against Cang Qiong Sect, and the Peak Lords and disciples, led by Liu Qingge and Liu Mingyan, to deter said threat.

Though, with the way the Demon Saintess and the Liu siblings were eyeing each other, Shen Qingqiu would lay odds that even if it started with a fight, it would end in a LiuShaLiu sandwich.

“Protect yourself, Liu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu said to the doomed man as they made ready to depart, leaving him sputtering and confused.

There was no question that Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu would be going. Nothing could convince Yue Qingyuan to let Shen Qingqiu go off alone with a Heavenly Demon to confront an even worse Heavenly Demon, and Luo Binghe insisted it was only fair that he bring the glacier, Mobei-Jun, to balance their numbers.

Shang Qinghua was also dragged along, ostensibly to arrange their accommodations, but actually because Shen Qingqiu wasn’t about to leave behind their best source of inside information, however unreliable it might be. Conveniently, Mobei-Jun seemed reluctant to be parted from his lackey.

Nobody paid Shang Qinghua’s protests any mind.

“Where is Xiu Ya?” Shen Qingqiu asked once fans had been acquired, qiankun pouches packed, preparations made, and they gathered once more at the gate with an army on either side.

Mobei-Jun, Shang Qinghua, and Yue Qingyuan all looked to Luo Binghe. Silently, Shen Qingqiu held out his hand.

Drawing the slender blade from his qiankun pouch, Luo Binghe clutched it close like a child’s favorite blanket. “Xiu Ya is Shizun’s—”

“It was mine long before it was his. If you want him back, you’ll return it to me.” Either Luo Binghe or Mobei-Jun could carve a portal to transport them to the general location in the Demon Realm where the rhino herds roamed, but capturing so many beasts and getting them to the Holy Mausoleum could not be achieved by portal alone – and Shen Qingqiu refused to ride tandem with any of his options.

After a moment longer of clinging to the sword like it was a parent – or maybe a lover – Luo Binghe reluctantly passed it over. The dull silver of the blade glimmered with internal light as it returned to the hand of its master. Shen Qingqiu ran a finger down the flat, infusing it with spiritual energy in welcome after so long an absence, and the light strengthened to a soft glow the delicate silvery-green of moonlight through bamboo leaves.

Glaring at the light like he dearly wished to snuff it for such a betrayal, Luo Binghe said, “Peak Lord Shen is so certain he can revive Shizun, but this Lord spent five years looking for a way to do so and found nothing. What makes you so confident that you will succeed where I have failed?”

Such a snotty brat! His body might have grown, but how was this question any different than a petulant child’s? As though Shen Qingqiu couldn’t give classes on petulance.

“I have the right cheat code,” Shen Qingqiu said, deliberately cryptic because he knew it would annoy Luo Binghe. His gaze straying to Yue Qingyuan and flitted away. Half to himself, he muttered, “Aerith’s death might be inevitable, but I refuse to accept that my didi’s is.”

Luo Binghe’s confused, “Who is Aerith?” was drowned out by a loud sniffle and wail from Shang Qinghua. Everyone turned to see him gazing at Shen Qingqiu with wide, tear-filled eyes and hands clasped over his heart like it was trying to fly from his chest.

“My prodigal son,” he said through another sniffle.

Shen Qingqiu scowled. “I despise you.”

Shang Qinghua nodded as though this was inevitable and wailed, “I have never been prouder.”

Hiding a smile with his fan, Shen Qingqiu turned to Luo Binghe. “Take us to the Demon Realm.”

***

“That is… a lot of rhinos,” Shen Qingqiu murmured, looking down over a vast plain where stood a herd of obsidian dark bodies. At the moment, they were milling about peacefully, like a placid army of armored cows. They remained oblivious to the immortal cultivators and demon lords flying high above on their swords. Every so often, one of them would blare a lowing sound, and a python-tongue would emerge, hissing at the rhino’s neighbors. That would start a wave of calls throughout the herd, a lowing descant ending in a truncated hiss, with the drumbeat of massive feet pounding underneath. The herd would shift in the direction of the first call, and slowly the herd moved across the grass plain, leaving bare, trampled dirt in its wake.

“Sounds like this time I went clubbing,” Shang Qinghua said, forced to teeter on the edge of the sword he was sharing with Mobei-Jun. He followed up this odd statement with some nonsensical rhythmic mutterings about boots and cats. Shen Qingqiu’s appalled look was mirrored by the others. What idiot in his right mind would attack such beasts with nothing more than a club?

Rather than dive into an exploration of the nature of Shang Qinghua’s idiocy, Shen Qingqiu considered his inventory and said, “I have some immortal binding cables. Perhaps enough for two. How many do we need?”

“At least two hundred, and even that will only break the array momentarily.” Luo Binghe didn’t look away from his intense study of the problem they were trying to solve.

“So you brought us here with no plan for how to capture them?” Typical.

“Every herd follows a bull. I will simply beat them until they recognize me as theirs.”

“Brute strength, of course,” Shen Qingqiu sneered, disdainful glance flicking down to Xin Mo. “We don’t have time for you to fight every beast down there.”

Luo Binghe swooped closer, somehow managing to tower over Shen Qingqiu even though Xiu Ya hovered several hands above Xin Mo. “Peak Lord Shen thinks cunning and trickery can solve all problems. How would he solve this one?”

“A stampede. These beasts are brainless. Frighten them enough, and they will transport themselves. We only need to make certain they follow the right path.”

Another wave of moo-hiss swept through the herd below them. As the cows shifted, the buffer they provided between bulls thinned. Two massive, behorned heads raised as they scented each other over the calming odor of cows and calves. With sky-shaking bellows, they charged, clashing again and again until there was nothing but a bloody circle of devastation half a li wide.

Once the fight was over and peace restored, the cows and calves drifted together again, slurping up blood, brains and viscera of the fallen bulls and hapless bystanders.

“And how does Peak Lord Shen propose to keep that from happening to us?” Luo Binghe asked smugly.

Shen Qingqiu pressed his fan to his lips to fight the urge to vomit. Sullen, he asked, “Would it be any different from Luo Binghe challenging the bulls for the herd to follow?”

“They don’t follow bulls, actually. They follow bellwethers.” Shang Qinghua’s comment was quiet, the voice and volume he used when he was thinking to himself and forgot that he had a mouth attached to his brain, and no filter between.

“What is a bellwether? Some demonic creature or plant?” Luo Binghe directed the question to Shen Qingqiu, as though he knew the secrets to navigating the swamp of Shang Qinghua’s mind.

Shen Qingqiu snapped an echo of the question at Shang Qinghua, because only Shen Yuan had that skill.

“Ahahahah. Ignore this silly one. I was just thinking of nothing and speaking nonsense,” Shang Qinghua sputtered with a nervous laugh, leaning back from the Peak Lord and Demon Lord bearing down on him.

His flight was halted by the glacial wall of Mobei-Jun’s chest. Hands as solid and square as ice blocks clamed around Shang Qinghua’s upper arms, preventing him leaping from his sword to escape.

“Answer,” Mobei-Jun said, and that one command was the key that opened the floodgate of Shang Qinghua’s mouth.

“Ah. Well. I once took this class, Agricultural Technologies of the Pre-Industrial World: from the Aztec Empire to the Zhou Dynasty. Ended up being a waste of time – I thought it would help with my writing, but who cares about comparative terracing techniques for rice versus maize farming, or why horticulture is a more sustainable food production method than agriculture for small-scale populations—”

At a shake from Mobei-Jun, the drift of Shang Qinghua’s thoughts found its course. “Ah, but the section on pastoralism talked about shepherds putting bells around the necks of old castrated males – which are called wethers. The herd would follow the sound of the bell because it signaled safety, and the shepherds could follow the sound to find the herd. So… bellwether. But obviously, we don’t have a bell, much less the ability to put one on one of the rhinos, and there aren’t any castrated males, so…”

As he spoke, another wave of lowing and hissing sounded, and the herd shifted further along the plain. Shen Qingqiu looked at Luo Binghe, and found that the little beast was already looking at him.

Their smiles mirrored each other, sly and cruel and amused.

“Thank you, Shang-shishu,” Luo Binghe said.

“Eh?”

“For volunteering to be the wether,” Shen Qingqiu finished.

***

With a talisman amplifying his voice – which had the added benefit of silencing his protests because he didn’t want to spook the herd – Shang Qinghua flew in the direction of the Holy Mausoleum. A rhythmic chant of ‘Boots-and-cats-and-boots-and-cats-and-boots-and-cats-and-boots-and-cats’ trailed in his wake. Yue Qingyuan and Mobei-Jun were stationed at either side of the herd to prevent the stragglers at the edges from meandering too far off the path. And at the rear, Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe summoned a swirling cloud of spiritual and demonic energy to create an amorphous, looming threat that would drive the herd into flight without exciting the bulls to attack.

The work didn’t require them to speak. The wind of their passage dried the sweat of their efforts and cooled the heat of the scorching sun as it passed from morning through midday to red-burning afternoon. They stayed high enough above the herd to avoid the dust clouds and stink kicked up by their passage. It was… tolerable. Almost pleasant.

“The mausoleum is at the mouth of this valley. We should reach it well before midnight,” Luo Binghe said as the sun kissed the horizon and burnished the sky the copper of an active forge. At the opposite end of the sky, a full moon raised its sleepy head from under the blanket of the earth.

“Once we’re closer, we can drive the herd into a stampede.” Luo Binghe shielded his eyes with his hand, searching the horizon as though he could already see their destination. “That should be enough to break the array.”

“And what do you propose we do about Tianlang Jun?”

“That depends on what he has done to Shizun’s body. I spent much spiritual energy to restore it and fix its meridians. If he’s damaged that… I’ll return the damage tenfold.”

You’ll have to wait until I’m done with him and hope there is something left, Shen Qingqiu thought, but all he said was, “Ah yes. Your obsessive need for vengeance.” They might be working together, but Shen Qingqiu was under no illusion that Luo Binghe had forgiven him.

He hoped that was the end of the matter and the conversation, but he was not so lucky.

“Why did Peak Lord Shen cast me into the Endless Abyss?” Luo Binghe asked. Shen Qingqiu flew on as though he hadn’t heard the question, but the brat wouldn’t let the matter lie. “Why did he treat me so poorly from the first day? Why did he hate me before he even knew me?”

“Are you hoping for an apology?” Shen Qingqiu snapped, shooting him a glare. “A reasonable explanation? I don’t have either for you. What was done can’t be undone. The why of it does not matter.”

“I see.” They flew on as the blazing red sun yielded its command of the sky to a silver-green moon. “It’s strange. Peak Lord Shen says such things to me, and yet isn’t he angry at Zhangmen-shibo for just this reason? I suppose you learned this attitude from him. How alike you are.”

Sucking in a breath as though he’d been gut-punched, Shen Qingqiu whipped around. The cloud of spiritual energy he’d been using to drive the herd spiraled into a tight mass cupped between his palms. He twisted sidelong on his sword, drawing back in preparation for knocking this unruly brat from the sky for saying such ridiculous things. “You dare—"

Before he could unleash on his target, the herd below them let out a collective groan and sigh. As though some invisible signal had been given, they sank down on their haunches as one, closed their eyes, and moved no more.

Within moments, the valley rumbled with the collective snores of five hundred Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons.

“What the fuck?” Shen Qingqiu murmured, stealing one of Shen Yuan’s favorite phrases for when the unexpected occurred. Forgetting his grudge for the moment, he flew toward the rise bordering one side of the valley, where the glimmer of Shang Qinghua and Yue Qingyuan’s swords were already converging on the swirling black hole of one of Mobei-Jun’s portals.

“Now what?” Shen Qingqiu demanded when he was close enough to be heard. “Why did they stop?”

THE MOON—” Shang Qinghua slapped a hand over his mouth as his voice boomed as deafening as thunder. The nearest sleeping rhinos stirred, but didn’t wake from their slumber.

With Yue Qingyuan’s help, Shang Qinghua removed the amplifying talisman and ducked his head sheepishly. “Ah, the full moon is rising.”

“What. Does that. Have to do. With anything.”

“Ah, well… you see. It’s in the name.” Shang Qinghua winced as something like a growl emitted from Shen Qingqiu’s throat. “Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons. Because… you know. Bright moonlight causes them to lose their strength and go into hibernation. They’ll wake around dawn when the moon sets, and they’ll have twice the energy then. Very good for breaking the mausoleum arrays!”

It was the sort of detail that Shen Yuan loved. The sort of thing that he claimed kept him reading through two million words of harem shenanigans and wife plots. The monsters.

Luo Binghe landed and sheathed Xin Mo, and Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but think that it was one monster in particular that Shen Yuan had been fascinated by.

“Why didn’t Shang-shishu mention this before?” that monster asked, sounding oddly unruffled by the delay.

“Ahahahah. I may have forgotten until just now?” As though well aware that the concentration of the killing energy wasn’t coming from the protagonist, Shang Qinghua gave Shen Qingqiu a shaky smile. “You can’t expect me to remember everything! I’m not an obsessive fan like Cucumber-bro!”

Shen Qingqiu’s eye twitched. He closed the distance between them, hands raised in strangling position, Yue Qingyuan’s restraining arm around his waist yanked him back from the brink of justifiable homicide.

“It’s good that we know now. Thank you for telling us, Shang-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan said mildly, holding Shen Qingqiu back as though he was no heavier than a leaf. Tossing his qiankun pouch to Shang Qinghua, he said, “Why don’t you see to setting up our camp while Qingqiu and I check the perimeter.”

“Ah! Yes. Good idea, good idea!” Shang Qinghua said, and fled to the top of the rise, out of range of Shen Qingqiu’s immediate homicidal urges.

“You can let me go,” he muttered. It took a moment of shoving to free himself from Yue Qingyuan’s restraining embrace. With the onset of night, cold enveloped him, but he refused to shiver. Glancing away from Yue Qingyuan’s concerned gaze, he caught Luo Binghe watching them both with a bemused smile.

Well, it was better than the murderous one, or the dopey, adoring one he was always flinging at Shen Yuan.

“What?” Shen Qingqiu snapped when Luo Binghe didn’t look away or change his expression, uncomfortably aware of the conversation that had been abandoned when the rhinos stopped for their nap.

“Peak Lord Shen is usually so composed, it’s funny to see him playing with his martial brothers.”

Playing? What playing? Is there so little difference between killing energy and teasing that you can’t tell the difference?

“And this is something worth smiling over?” Shen Qingqiu huffed, tugging and smoothing his robes as though they’d fallen out of their perfect lines. This flimsy fairy body he’d inherited, it was hard to command the respect he deserved when Luo Binghe, Mobei-Jun, and Yue Qingyuan all towered over him. Even Shang Qinghua topped him by a few inches in both height and width.

“En. It has baffled me, how Shizun and Peak Lord Shen could possibly be related, but I think now I begin to see it.” The smile molted into something less benign and more enigmatic. “It will be interesting to witness their reunion.”

“Yes… well…” Shifting uncomfortably, Shen Qingqiu blindly grabbed for Yue Qingyuan’s wrist. “Shixiong… you said something about checking the perimeter? Why are you standing about? Let’s go.”

***

A thorough search of the surrounding area yielded nothing more dangerous than a Scintillating Spitting Venom Toad the size of a small melon. Everything else that might have been a threat had been trampled or driven away by the herd of rhinos. But though they found nothing to kill but time, they slaughtered enough of that rough beast that the camp was set up by the time they returned to the rise.

Which structure was intended for whom was immediately obvious. A decadent pavilion of swirling red and black silk and a simple tent of white canvas stood opposite each other. Between them, Luo Binghe tended a pot hanging from a tripod over a cheerily burning campfire.

Shen Qingqiu was about to sneer that they all practiced inedia and there was no point in cooking anything when Luo Binghe lifted the lid from the pot and the savory aroma hit him as strong as an orphan’s longing for family and home.

Suddenly, inedia or not, he felt weak with hunger. It didn’t help that, thanks to Shen Yuan, he had years to become spoiled by proxy from daily meals of Luo Binghe’s cooking. He had to swallow hard to keep drool from spilling down his chin like he was a damned stray mutt.

At his side, so faint he might have imagined it, Yue Qingyuan made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan.

Luo Binghe’s head perked up, his fluffy hair flopping out of the ribbon he’d used to restrain it. “Zhangmen-shibo and Peak Lord Shen were gone so long, I wondered if they eloped with each other,” he said with a taunting grin that suggested he knew exactly what he was implying. “Fortunately, you’ve returned in time. Mobei and Shang-shishu went ahead to scout the way to the Holy Mausoleum. I’m afraid dinner won’t be as appetizing by the time they return.”

As he spoke, Luo Binghe scooped simple congee into bowls and passed them to Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu before filling a third for himself. He settled on one of the low stones that had been dragged up to circle the fire, seemingly content to ignore them.

“You’re feeding us?” Shen Qingqiu asked suspiciously, laying a hand on Yue Qingyuan’s hand to keep him from shoving the food into his mouth. Luo Binghe was already several spoonfuls in to his own bowl, but that meant less than nothing. Few poisons existed in this world that could harm him.

“There’s enough for all of us,” Luo Binghe said with a half shrug as though he ever willingly cooked for anyone but his precious Shizun.

Shen Qingqiu sniffed cautiously at the congee, wishing he had a silver needle to hand, but he detected nothing more dangerous than the succulent aroma of fried pork, fresh spring onions, savory wild mushrooms, and ginger.

That still meant little, he told the growling from his stomach. “Blood parasites,” he surmised. This new body of his was clean of them, a state he was determined to preserve.

Sighing, Luo Binghe set his bowl aside. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, so the firelight illuminated his face in its golden glow. He was beautiful. He was deadly.

He was a pain in the fucking ass.

“If I wanted to feed you blood parasites, I could simply force them on you. If I wanted to poison you, I’d do it in a way that you’d never detect. As Peak Lord Shen observed, we are allies until such time as Shizun is returned to me, alive. That is what I want more than anything, even revenge. It would be stupid of me to sabotage myself. After. Well…”

He sat back, snuffing the fiery glow and leaving only the red embers of his eyes and demon sigil burning in shadows dark as ash. “If I decide to kill Peak Lord Shen, I promise to do it directly – no subterfuge or tricks.”

Which might be the biggest trick of all. But pride was Shen Qingqiu’s prime weakness, and it was a weakness Luo Binghe knew how to exploit. Shen Qingqiu refused to be cowed by the little beast’s games.

“You will try,” he said, and took a deliberate bite of the delicious congee.

Laughing as though Shen Qingqiu had just told the funniest joke, Luo Binghe took up his bowl and resumed his meal.

***

Yue Qingyuan escaped to the Cang Qiong tent as soon as he’d emptied his bowl. Shen Qingqiu weighed his options and decided that he’d rather remain outside across from a vengeful brat than enter the tent and bear the silent weight of Yue Qingyuan’s guilt.

He hoped that his presence would force Luo Binghe to retreat to his tent, but his life had never been filled with that kind of luck.

Much like the day chasing the rhinoceros herd, Luo Binghe kept his thoughts to himself as they watched the shifting movement of the fire between them.

Until he didn’t. “I don’t like Peak Lord Shen,” Luo Binghe said softly. “I will never like Peak Lord Shen. But I will tolerate his presence in this world. For Shizun’s sake.”

It went against everything Shen Qingqiu knew about his character. Everything Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua had assured him was true about the protagonist. It was… remarkably mature and un-beastlike, and a question slipped out before Shen Qingqiu could bite it back. “You really love him, don’t you?”

“He is the only thing I want in this life and the next.” Hanging his head as though the depths of his emotions pained him, he said, “I only hope that in this as in all things, he is kinder than you. I hope he does not keep me waiting until that next life.” He shot a pointed glance at the pale canvas tent.

“You make it difficult to tolerate you,” Shen Qingqiu said through clenched teeth, the moment of understanding undermined by Luo Binghe’s prodding. He forced himself to unclench. “But… I will try. For Shen Yuan’s sake.”

And speaking of doing things he’d rather not, for Shen Yuan’s sake… “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Storing Xiu Ya in his System vault – to make it harder for him to draw it on reflex if he got too angry – Shen Qingqiu squared his shoulders, tightened his grip on his fan, and entered the tent.

Yue Qingyuan was still awake. He sat atop a pallet of black, grey, and white bedding, a sheathed Xuan Su balanced across his knees. His hair was down, his eyes closed, his breathing steady. Meditating. He made such the perfect picture of the wise and benevolent head of a powerful sect that Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but be peeved. And a peeved Shen Qingqiu was a petty Shen Qingqiu. His foot caught the edge of Yue Qingyuan’s bedding as he crossed to his own pallet, streaking it with dust. His folded fan smacked the center tent pole hard enough to make the whole canopy shudder. Shen Qingqiu’s outer robe made a satisfying whump as he slung it over the creaking clothes stand.

A glance over his shoulder proved that it would take more than a small tantrum to shake Yue Qingyuan’s foundations. Sitting on his own pallet of bamboo-embroidered bedding, Shen Qingqiu waited.

And waited.

You’ve been waiting for decades, he thought, disgusted with himself that he expected a different behavior now that knowing the truth of the past was a necessity rather than just morbid curiosity.

“I need you to tell me why you never came back for me after you escaped the Qiu household,” Shen Qingqiu said, too heartsore to edge up sideways to the crux of the matter.

Yue Qingyuan’s eyes snapped open. His breathing stilled. Shen Qingqiu wondered if he meant to suffocate himself to avoid the topic, but after several suspended moments, it came out on a shaky exhalation of, “Xiao-Jiu?”

“Don’t call—” Clamping his teeth around the angry words, Shen Qingqiu took a moment to compose his own breathing. It went against everything in his nature, but he couldn’t afford to antagonize Yue Qingyuan now. Too much rode on finishing this quest.

“The Holy Mausoleum is dangerous. Tianlang Jun even more so. Tomorrow, one or the other – or both – of us might die. Before I leave this life, I just want confirmation from your lips that you abandoned me because you wanted nothing to do with anything from your life as Qi-ge. You moved on, and when we met again, you stayed silent because you were ashamed. If I’m to die, let me do it without this stupid hope that—”

He choked on the rest. He couldn’t do this. His eyes were stinging, his fan a mess of shredded paper and broken sticks that he didn’t even remember destroying. He studied the remains of it with clinical disinterest.

“That was never the reason why.” Yue Qingyuan’s soft words threatened to shatter Shen Qingqiu’s false calm.

“Then why? That is the most awful reason I can imagine, so what else is so terrible that you can’t tell me? That you’d leave me thinking I was a dirty, shameful thing in your eyes rather than just telling me the truth? What else am I to believe except that this is the truth, and you’re just too coward to admit it to my face!”

Rising to his knees as his voice rose, Shen Jiu tossed aside his broken fan, stripped away his elegant mask, and let Yue Qingyuan see the pain his years-long silence had wrought. Asked later, he would deny them, but here in this tent with only the two of them, he let the tears fall. His breathing grew as ragged as a wounded animal’s. He couldn’t seem to catch it and abandoned trying.

Yue Qingyuan looked away, uncomfortable, but unmoved. “It isn’t… Qingqiu needn’t worry. He won’t die tomorrow.” His fingers brushed the seam where Xuan Su’s hilt met its sheath. “I won’t allow that.”

Shen Jiu wanted to scream, to tear his hair out and rip this mushroom body of his apart. Why had he thought he could move Yue Qingyuan into speaking? Nothing ever had. Nothing ever would.

“Don’t bother. I neither need nor want your protection.” Sinking back on his heels, he rubbed his face to banish the tears and any that would follow. He was done trying. He’d find some other way to bring back Shen Yuan.

“Nothing the Qiu family did was ever as cruel as what you’ve done these many years. They never managed to break me because I felt nothing but hate for them, but you… I give up.” He rose to his feet, dragging his blanket behind him. He’d rather bed down with the brat and his icicle than remain anywhere in Yue Qingyuan’s vicinity. “Good night, Qi-ge.”

A broken sound reached Shen Jiu just as he was reaching for the tent flap. Strong arms wrapped around him, dragging him back into a warm wall of a chest. This is when he would struggle, but he felt swathed in apathy, like one of the Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons at the rise of the moon. His limbs were heavy, and all he wanted to do was lay down and sleep forever.

“You don’t hate me? I thought you hated me,” came Yue Qingyuan’s whisper, hot and close against his ear. “Tell me Xiao-Jiu feels something other than hate.”

Shen Jiu wanted to deny it, but what face did he have left to deny anything? “Don’t be more ridiculous than you can help. When has your Xiao-Jiu ever hated you?”

“You told me you weren’t my Xiao-Jiu any longer. You told me we were nothing to each other. You told me you hated me.”

“I was angry,” Shen Jiu snapped, the lethargy of despair burning away as Yue Qingyuan’s nonsense relit the fire. “I’m still angry. Because you still refuse to say—"

“I tried. I tried to come back to you.”

Shen Jiu stilled. If he was made of glass, he might have shattered. He barely dared breathe for fear of losing one word of Yue Qingyuan’s confession. He needn’t have worried. Once the dam burst, the words flooding forth with rising strength and urgency.

“I tried so hard that I claimed a sword more powerful than my cultivation could support, and sent myself into a qi deviation trying to master it too quickly. My Shizun imprisoned me in the Lingxi Caves for years until I wasn’t a danger to myself or others. By the time I was free and could seek you out, Qiu Manor was ashes, and you were…” His embrace tightened convulsively on a sob. “I thought you’d died in the fire.”

“That would have been careless, given I was the one who set it,” Shen Jiu murmured without inflection. He felt almost removed from his body, except he could still feel Yue Qingyuan’s arms around him, feel his lips warm against his ear. “This was the big secret? This was the thing you couldn’t tell me?” It was so preposterous that he was inclined to believe it on that alone.

“I was ashamed. It was my fault, my impetuousness, that kept me from saving Xiao-Jiu. And I never doubted his death, never searched for him after the fire. How could I earn forgiveness when I couldn’t forgive myself?”

Letting his head fall back to rest against Yue Qingyuan’s shoulder, Shen Jiu huffed a laugh. “You’re a fucking idiot. My forgiveness isn’t something you can ever earn.” He allowed himself just a moment of petty cruelty, of pleasure at the wounded sound that rose from Yue Qingyuan’s gut. Then, softening, he added, “It is something I choose to give you.”

Turning his head, he pressed his lips to Qi-ge’s cheek, an apology and a benediction in one.

An intrusive DING! broke the quiet moment, followed by an invasive pop-up and the System’s cheerful voice banging around Shen Qingqiu’s head.

【Co-op Mode reactivated. Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! Important things must be said three times!】

【OG quest: “Go Big or Go Home” completed. 500 Co-op Mode Points awarded. Keep working hard!】

【OP quest: “Go Big or Go Home” completed. 500 Co-op Mode Points awarded. Bonus x2 for completing quest on Co-op Mode! Special Item One (1) Fenix Down awarded. Keep working hard!】

In the wake of those echoes came another voice.

::Fucking finally! If I was forced to eat any more dog food, I would have vomited blood!::

“Shen Yuan?” Shen Qingqiu sagged against Yue Qingyuan as the full meaning of the System’s messages started to dawn on him. “How long have you…”

::Since we woke up! Now I know how you felt all those years before the Endless Abyss when I couldn’t hear you. I was—”

Anything else Shen Yuan might have said broke on a scream. It started in their head and tore out their throat as pain surged through them like a bolt of lightning that never dissipated. Shen Qingqiu thought perhaps someone caught his convulsing body and lowered him to the ground, perhaps more than one someone hovered over him uselessly. The pain eclipsed such concerns. Even the relief of Shen Yuan’s return was only a distant memory in the face of a world burning white hot.

And then… nothing. Darkness and cold engulfed him, quenching the pain and leaving him feeling like ice.

Shen Qingqiu opened his eyes to pitch blackness… and silence.

***

Shen Yuan wasn’t quite certain when the pain receded. Its aftereffects pulsed along his limbs like images after a strobe flash. But eventually, awareness that there was a world outside of him overcame his urge to cower from anything that might bring back that agony.

Opening his eyes, the first thing he saw was Yue Qingyuan’s worried face hovering over him. He choked down the urge to vomit blood, remembering the scene he’d been a silent witness to. Ah, he wanted to know extra content as much as the next reader, but he didn’t want to feel it slobbering into his ear!

Jiu-dage? he whispered mentally, unsurprised when he got no response. Unlike that useless Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, Shen Yuan could guess exactly what Tianlang Jun might do with a dead body at the Holy Mausoleum. He’d been shrieking it for days and gone unheard. And if he was staring up at Yue Qingyuan, then Shen Jiu was…

Fuck. Hold on, Jiu-dage. We’re coming. Groaning, Shen Yuan pushed himself up into a sitting position.

That’s when he noticed Luo Binghe at the opening of the tent, watchful eyes dark with suspicion.

“Xiao-Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan helped support him when Shen Yuan would have flopped back to play dead for a little while longer. A quicksilver rush of arguments and counterarguments played out in his head and left him holding only one option.

Luo Binghe couldn’t know the truth. He wouldn’t lift a finger to rescue Shen Qingqiu.

Swallowing blood, Shen Yuan reached blindly and caught Yue Qingyuan’s hand. “Shi—ah. Qi-ge. I’m fine. Your Xiao-Jiu is fine.”

“What happened?” Luo Binghe asked, tone devoid of sympathy for ‘Shen Qingqiu’s’ trials.

Weighing how honest he could be and the benefits of revealing the information he had, Shen Yuan went with a gamble. After all, if Luo Binghe really cared so much about rescuing him…

“Shen Yuan is alive. Tianlang Jun used the crypt at the Holy Mausoleum to resurrect him.”

Yue Qingyuan was pushed aside as Luo Binghe lunged for Shen Yuan. He paid no heed to Shen Yuan’s flinch, kneeling before him and gripping his shoulders tightly. “You are certain? How do you know?”

Forcing himself to meet Luo Binghe’s wild, hopeful questions with lip-curling disdain, Shen Yuan said, “I’ve read that the Heavenly Demons often used to use the Holy Mausoleum for such things.” That wasn’t a lie. He’d waded through 200 chapters of pointless dungeon-crawling filler on Luo Binghe’s quest to save wife number umpty-somethingth. The description of the traps had been the only interesting thing about that whole arc.

“This is what I meant when I said I knew how to bring him back, but it seems Tianlang Jun had the same idea and managed it first.”

“You are certain?”

Was he?

System, what’s the status and location of user OG?

【User OG has returned to his original body. He is alive and in good health. Location is the Holy Mausoleum’s Reclamation, Recycling, and Reuse Chamber. Please support for a kinder, greener planet!】

Shen Yuan indulged in a mental sigh. These stupid naming habits of the Great God Airplane were only made worse when he accepted sponsorships for product placements. At the very least, couldn’t he have promoted Cornetto? Shen Yuan would kill for ice cream.

Luo Binghe’s grip tightened just short of pain, a reminder that he was waiting for an answer. “Our spirits are still connected. The pain I felt just now was the pain of his return to the living. Yes, I am certain.”

As though only just realizing he was holding a man he despised, Luo Binghe released Shen Yuan and stood. “Then we must not delay. Pack up. We leave now.”

“But the rhinoceroses are asleep. How…” Shen Yuan scrambled to his feet, forcing himself not to shrink back when Yue Qingyuan slid a supporting arm around his waist. Ah, isn’t this too much PDA for a recently reunited couple?

“I will wake them up,” Luo Binghe said. “If I have to remove the moon from the sky to do it.”

The flap fell closed behind him. It was a good thing Yue Qingyuan was supporting Shen Yuan, because his knees gave out at the strength of Luo Binghe’s resolve. His cheeks were burning. Wasn’t it too hot in this tent? Ah, Binghe shouldn’t shameless things like that be saved for rescuing pretty, flower-like maidens? Don’t waste them on this old master.

Except… that wasn’t the only shameless thing Luo Binghe had said tonight.

He is the only thing I want in this life and the next. Shen Yuan shivered at the memory.

No. No, no, nope, and no. Not thinking about that right now.

“Xiao-Jiu, are you certain you’re not harmed?” Yue Qingyuan asked, giving Shen Yuan something concrete to worry about.

“En. There’s just one problem.” It was possible he could fool Luo Binghe long enough for them to rescue Shen Qingqiu, but not without help. He met Yue Qingyuan’s worried gaze. “Jiu-dage’s the one at the Holy Mausoleum. I’m Shen Yuan.”

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua returned while Shen Yuan and Yue Qingyuan were still planning, looking flushed and windblown. Shen Yuan wanted to ask just what he’d been doing out there with Mobei-Jun all this time, but it wasn’t the sort of gossip Shen Qingqiu would be interested in, so all he muttered was a clipped, “You’re back.”

“I wish I wasn’t!” Shang Qinghua wailed, flopping on the unused third pile of bedding. “Would someone tell me why Bing-ge yelled at me to take down the tents before running off with my king to attack the cliff? I just put them up! Can’t this poor Qinghua sleep for a shichen? Why does everything fall on me?!”

“Get up,” Shen Yuan said, prodding Shang Qinghua with his back-up fan – and grateful that Liu Qingge had forced them to take several replacements, given that Shen Qingqiu had shredded their favorite. “We have more important things to worry about than tents.”

He hadn’t decided whether to let Shang Qinghua in on the secret, but that decision was taken away from him when Shang Qinghua squinted up at him. “Cucumber-bro?”

Fuck! “How did you know?” Shen Yuan hissed. If he couldn’t fool this fool, how could he hope to trick the high-IQ protagonist?

“It is you!” Airplane launched himself at Shen Yuan, engulfing him in a stifling hug and twisting back and forth like an octopus with a jar. “I missed you so much! Nobody understands my references! Nobody respects my skills!” he wailed, his tears leaving a damp patch on Shen Yuan’s shoulder.

Holding himself as stiffly as a cat being mauled by a toddler, Shen Yuan awkwardly patted Shang Qinghua’s back. Come on, Airplane! Are we really hugging bros? Isn’t our dynamic feedback-starved author and discerning reader?

When the hug went on without an end to be seen, Shen Yuan began to struggle in Airplane’s grip. When that didn’t work, he laid into him with his fan.

“Let!” Smack! “Me!” Smack! “Go!” Smack! Smack! Smack!

And when that failed, he went for the nuclear option.

“If Luo Binghe catches us like this, you can forget human sticks. There won’t be enough pieces left of you to make a twig.”

With a terrified squeak, Shang Qinghua leapt halfway across the tent. His panicked gaze fixed on the opening as though his doom might enter at any moment.

“He knows?” Shang Qinghua whisper-screamed. “But then, why is he beating up a land mass instead of throwing himself at your feet? Did you reject him again?

“What reject?! Is there something offered for me to reject? I’ll reject you!” Hopping over the obstruction of the bedding, Shen Yuan punctuated each denial with a poke of his fan. “He thinks I’m still Shen Qingqiu. How did you know I wasn’t?”

“You never put any spiritual energy behind it when you hit me.” Shang Qinghua announced this difference in behavior with such a broad, happy smile that Shen Yuan almost felt bad for beating up on him so much.

“Ah.” He tucked his fan into his sleeve. “Well, at least that’s something Binghe isn’t likely to notice.”

“Also, you and Yue-shixiong were talking without any pottery being thrown.”

Wincing at the reminder that there was a witness to their lack of decorum, Shen Yuan slowly turned to the man sitting quietly in the corner. Yue Qingyuan watched them with a bemused, fond smile. “Now that I see, I don’t understand how I could have been fooled even for a moment. Though Shang-shidi should know that Xiao-Jiu and I have… resolved the issue that divided us.”

“What?” Shang Qinghua gaped at Yue Qingyuan, at Shen Yuan. “What?! And I missed it?! Howmmphh!”

Shen Yuan could feel the frown under the hand he’d mashed over Shang Qinghua’s lips. To Yue Qingyuan, he said with grave resolve, “We’ll get him back.”

Removing his hand from Shang Qinghua’s mouth before he did something disgusting like lick him, he added sternly, “Won’t we?”

Nodding fit to shake his head off his shoulders, Shang Qinghua said, “Yes. Yes. But why did you leave Luo Binghe in the dark? How did you get back? What happened?”

One infodump later, Shang Qinghua clutched his ears like his brain was about to leak out of them. “Aiyo, and you accused me of unnecessarily complicated plots! At least this game of musical bodies is over now?”

“I hope so,” Shen Yuan said. While a part of him would miss being the distant, elegant Peak Lord Shen, it was something of a relief to set aside the stiff posture and constant resting bitch face. He had a new and improved version of his body and face from his first life, but free of chronic illness, and brimming with ever-renewing spiritual energy. Shen Qingqiu might have been displeased with it; Shen Yuan couldn’t be happier.

Well, he could be, once they dealt with Tianlang Jun, rescued Shen Qingqiu, and freed Shen Yuan to explore the world or be as lazy as he desired, with no responsibilities or fear or threat of painful death and dismemberment hanging over him.

“But, speaking of plots and body-swaps, we need to figure out how to stop Tianlang Jun.” Shen Yuan had a theory about why Luo Binghe’s father might want to lure his son into a trap – Zhuzhi-lang had wanted that last mushroom seed for something, and Tianlang Jun would have needed a body if he wanted to escape being trapped under a mountain. But such a body would rot if exposed to so much demonic energy.

A son’s body, possessed, would not.

“He is powerful,” Yue Qingyuan said, oblivious to the ‘we know’ look that Peerless Cucumber and the Great God Airplane exchanged behind his back. “It took the cooperative efforts of all four sects to imprison him all those years ago, and even then, it only succeeded because we were able to lure him to the battleground of our choosing and lay arrays ahead of time. At his full power, in the Holy Mausoleum…” Yue Qingyuan sighed. “We are not strong enough to defeat him.”

The rest of us, maybe, but the protagonist is, Shen Yuan wanted to say, but he suspected there were limits to how much truth the System was willing to let him share. As long as his lies fit with the tropes of this world, he seemed to be fine. Stray from them, and…

He didn’t want to get shocked again by testing it.

But maybe there were clues in the bones of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>>. “How did you lure him?”

“Huan Hua Palace’s first disciple, Su Xiyan, gave her life to trap him.”

“Ahhhhh,” Shang Qinghua rocked back and forth like he was in pain. “As to that… That’s… not quite how it went.”

Pulling out his fan in case he needed to use it, Shen Yuan asked, “How did it go, then?”

Shen Yuan and Yue Qingyuan listened in appalled silence as Shang Qinghua rattled off a tale of poison, betrayal, doomed love, and egregious sexual harassment by a geriatric creeper. For once, he stayed on topic and didn’t embellish with his usual florid details – as if he knew that this secret backstory was too terrible to be prettied up for public titillation.

“How do you know all this?” Yue Qingyuan whispered when the story ended with Luo Binghe drifting down the Luochuan River in a basket while Su Xiyan bled out on the bank.

“Ah…” Rubbing the back of his neck, Shang Qinghua cast a pleading look at Shen Yuan.

“He’s a soothsayer,” Shen Yuan said, borrowing the explanation Shen Qingqiu used to reassure himself that Airplane wasn’t a god, great or otherwise. “He knows certain things about the past and future, but he can’t change them.”

“Yeah. Or talk about them, mostly.” Laughing nervously, Shang Qinghua glanced at the canopy above them. “I’m surprised lightning hasn’t struck me yet for having this conversation.”

The flap opened, and Mobei-Jun squeezed into the space.

“Spoke too soon,” Shang Qinghua grumbled.

“You’re still here.” Mobei-Jun glared at them as though their continued existence was a personal affront. “The herd is stirring. We’re leaving.”

Stirring? How? They hadn’t talked for that long. There were still hours of night – and moonlight – left.

Scrambling to their feet, they followed Mobei-Jun outside—

And doubled over coughing at the thick cloud of dust hanging in the air.

“Sword,” Mobei-Jun said to Shang Qinghua, who pulled out his sword and mounted up behind his king.

“But, the tents,” Shen Yuan said, glancing back at the dust-shrouded camp. So that’s why Luo Binghe had been attacking the cliff. He couldn’t remove the moon from the sky, but he could blot out its light.

“Leave them. Junshang says we go now.” At a nudge from Mobei-Jun, Shang Qinghua gave them a wave and flew off.

Sighing, Shen Yuan drew Xiu Ya from the System’s storage. He sent a lick of spiritual energy through it to wake it up…

And realized he had bigger problems to worry about than abandoned tents when the blade gleamed the gold-tinged green of sunlight on tender new bamboo shoots rather than its usual delicate silver glow.

“Uh…” he traded a worried glance with Yue Qingyuan.

“The name,” Yue Qingyuan whispered. Shen Yuan followed the line of his gaze to the calligraphy inscribed on the blade. The soul of the sword, Airplane had called it in an unusually poetic turn of phrase.

Where once the characters had been 修 雅 劍, now the middle character had been replaced with 媛.

Xiu Yuan Sword?

System! What is this trolling? Who’s a beautiful fairy princess? Your mom, that’s who! What did you do to my sword!

【Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! Important things must be said three times! User OP and User OG have unlocked the achievement “A Place for Everything, and Everything in its Place” and earned the weapon power-up “Jiu for the Price of Yuan!” The legendary Xiu Ya Sword has graciously agreed to be split into the two-part set “Age Before Beauty,” consisting of the serene old master Xiu Jiu Jian and the lovely young miss Xiu Yuan Jian.】

Lovely young miss? Isn’t this even worse that beautiful fairy princess? This user is refined and elegant and manly!

【This could also be interpreted as New Hotness, Old and Busted?】The System offered meekly, as though that would mollify Shen Yuan.

You would know old and busted! Useless system!

In the cheerful tones of a serial killer, the System chirped, 【User OP’s gratitude is noted. Please appreciate this gesture and use your weapon responsibly. Get tested! Use protection! Lube is your friend! Consent is sexy!】

Screaming internally, Shen Yuan shut the interface and stowed Xiu Ya before the System spewed any additional unsolicited nonsense.

“I will have to trouble shixiong,” he said mildly, as though he didn’t desperately want to kill something.

“It is no trouble, Yu—ah. Hm. Shen-shidi.”

Shen Yuan held himself stiffly in the circle of Yue Qingyuan’s arms as they flew in the general direction the others had gone, hoping nobody would comment when they reached the waking herd. The dust kicked up by Luo Binghe’s grudge match with geology didn’t just obscure the moonlight; it reduced visibility to nil. They were practically on top of each other before Shen Yuan noticed Xin Mo’s dull red glow and the eye-searing teal of Shang Qinghua’s sword. He nudged Yue Qingyuan to stop.

Luo Binghe’s eyes narrowed when he saw the two of them sharing a sword. Shen Yuan leaned back into Yue Qingyuan like he wanted to be there, and raised a brow at Luo Binghe as though daring him to say something.

It was a dare Luo Binghe took. “In only one night, these two have become so close,” he murmured, an edge to his words that Shen Yuan couldn’t parse. “Did something else happen that this ignorant disciple is unaware of?”

“The attack earlier depleted this Master’s spiritual energy,” Shen Yuan said, falling easily into the cadence of Shen Jiu’s disdain – hadn’t he played witness to it for days? “It is nothing to worry about. It will return. Yue-shixiong was kind enough to let me ride with him.”

“I see. Zhangmen-shibo is kind, indeed.” Folding his hands before him, Luo Binghe gave Yue Qingyuan a bow that was insulting in its exacting propriety. “But this arrangement does not work with the new plan.”

“What new plan?” Shen Yuan didn’t trust Luo Binghe when he was being respectful, and he especially didn’t trust that particular silken tone. Wasn’t it always the one that the Great God Airplane described as an omen of oncoming tribulations for Luo Binghe’s foes?

“Two hundred Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons are only enough to break the array for a few moments, so I’ve taken care to only waken the forward half of the herd. You and I will drive them to the Holy Mausoleum, confront Tianlang Jun, and take back what he has stolen. When dawn comes, Mobei and the others will drive the rest of the herd to break the array again so that we can escape.”

Shen Yuan wanted to argue on principal, but the plan made sense in every particular, and he wasn’t about to advocate being left behind while Luo Binghe went ahead to bargain for Shen Qingqiu’s release.

“So?” While Shen Yuan had dithered, Luo Binghe flew close enough for it to be an easy hop from one sword to the other. He even held out his hand for Shen Yuan to take, as though he wouldn’t drop Shen Qingqiu in a moment if it suited him.

“Shidi…” Yue Qingyuan’s protective embrace tightened. This was not the plan they had discussed, but what choice did they have? If they argued too much, Luo Binghe might notice something was amiss and refuse to save Shen Qingqiu.

“It will be fine,” he said, patting Yue Qingyuan’s arm before pushing it aside. “Luo Binghe cares too much about his Shizun’s opinion to allow this one to come to harm.”

“This is true.” Luo Binghe’s grip tightened as he helped Shen Yuan cross over to his sword. Shen Yuan resisted the reflexive flinch at the implicit warning, but he couldn’t fight down the flush that flooded through him as Luo Binghe’s arms circled his waist and pulled him closer.

It was no different than how Yue Qingyuan had been holding him a moment before, but instead of being able to pretend that he wasn’t in his body to avoid the awkwardness, now Shen Yuan was aware of every point of contact, no matter how innocent. From the hands large enough that they almost spanned his waist, to the marble-hard curves and dips of the well-muscled chest that pressed into his back, to the scent of smoke and ginger that surrounded him and drove away the unpleasant odors of dust and rhinoceros. Everything about Luo Binghe overwhelmed his senses.

And, in the back of his mind playing on a constant loop like a bad techno track, impossible words purred in Luo Binghe’s hypnotic voice.

He is the only thing I want in this life and the next

Shen Yuan closed his eyes and prayed for forbearance, only to open them again when Luo Binghe pressed even closer.

“Is there anything else this disciple should know before we enter the Holy Mausoleum?” he asked, his breath hot against Shen Yuan’s neck.

Holding very still to control an instinctive shiver, Shen Yuan said, “Our goals remain the same. I only wish to recover my didi. That is all Binghe needs to know.”

“If that is how you want it, then that is what we will do,” Luo Binghe said, and flew them toward the front of the herd.

***

Shen Yuan had been grateful he was buried in Shen Qingqiu’s mind behind a paywall during the whole bellwether debacle, or he might have died a third time from contact embarrassment. The more he could block out the memory of Shang Qinghua’s bad boy-band beatboxing, the better.

Luo Binghe didn’t bother with such nonsense. With the herd sleep-addled and confused by the dust, and the Holy Mausoleum so close, and the walls of the valley – what remained of them – acting like a natural funnel, it was enough to taunt a few of the bulls and then speed off in the right direction with a destructive tidal wave of obsidian fury bearing down on them.

Shen Yuan had watched Youku videos of the hijinks in Pamplona, Spain, marveling at the crazy things some people would do for an adrenaline rush. He never wanted to be one of them! He forgot all about closeness and awkwardness and the metaphorical state of the protagonist’s sleeves. Grip white-knuckled on Luo Binghe’s arms, he pressed further and further back into the firmness of that chest as though that would keep him from falling if Luo Binghe decided to push him off now.

“Peak Lord Shen is so tense.” Luo Binghe’s singsong taunt was hot against Shen Yuan’s neck, a heat that rushed along all his nerve endings and made him squirm in discomfort. “Is he afraid this one’s demonic blood makes his promises so untrustworthy?”

“How does Binghe’s blood enter into it?” Shen Yuan scoffed, struggling to keep his composure. Shen Qingqiu. He was meant to be the Original Goods. “Isn’t his sword cause for greater concern? Wasn’t it Xin Mo that clouded Binghe’s judgement once before, and would have killed him if not for his Shizun’s sacrifice.”

Breath catching, Luo Binghe pulled away enough to allow a bit of cooling space between them. “So cruel. How can you separate the sword from the wielder? Aren’t they reflections of each other,” Again came that taunting singsong, “Xiu Ya Sword?”

“Then perhaps I’m right not to trust Luo Binghe or his sword,” Shen Yuan snapped, panic driving him to the necessary harshness to support his cover. “So long as he holds it, he is susceptible to its influence. Without it…”

He reached for more cruelty, but couldn’t find it, so he did the best he could with a lifted chin and a quiet, “Binghe is Binghe.”

“And Peak Lord Shen is Peak Lord Shen. Shizun is Shizun. Words are empty. Promises too, it seems.”

There was something off in Luo Binghe’s voice, but before Shen Yuan could question it, they came upon the Holy Mausoleum, rising like a black-rotted tooth in the ragged maw of the Demon Realm’s landscape. The herd crashed into the glowing array embedded in its outer walls, shattering both. Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan sailed through.

The dust of the stampede had been enough to obscure the moonlight, but as it settled, so did the herd. After the noise and wind and the rush of their flight, the corridors of the Holy Mausoleum were eerily silent and empty. Still, that was a lesser danger than clinging to Luo Binghe. As soon as he could, Shen Yuan leapt from Xin Mo. He didn’t dare draw Xiu Ya – well, Xiu Yuan – especially not after those taunts, but at least he had his fan. That didn’t betray him as he filled it with spiritual energy.

Within moments, the walls and array had repaired themselves, leaving them trapped with only Xin Mo’s light to see by. It painted the walls of the corridor in danger’s color, making their situation seem even grimmer than it was.

And it was pretty fucking grim already.

“Peak Lord Shen appears to be recovering his spiritual energy,” Luo Binghe observed, dismounting Xin Mo, but not sheathing it.

“Mn.” Shen Yuan was more interested in their current predicament than whatever weasels were eating at Luo Binghe’s brain now. “We’ll need to be careful. This place is filled with traps designed to harm those with demonic blood. In this one place, at least, this Master is safer than Binghe.”

“And more informed, it seems. How is that?”

“I read about it somewhere.” Somewhere that buried the important details for surviving this adventure in hundreds of thousands of words of useless wife plots. Shen Yuan sifted through memories of late nights and bleary eyes as he clicked through to read just one more chapter, trying to recall useful nuggets.

“Sheathe Xin Mo!” he said, as one terrifying detail drifted to the surface of his mind.

“But that will leave us in the dark.”

“That’s the point. The light will attract—”

Too late. Down the corridor in both directions flashed the green witchlight of the Last Breath Candle streaking towards them. And, reflected by that glow, a horde of Blind Corpses clogging both routes and following the candle’s lure with arms outstretched and mouths wide in silent screams.

“Them,” Shen Yuan sighed, and flattened the vanguard with a wave of his fan – backed by a shit-ton of spiritual energy!

Turning to stand back to back with him, Luo Binghe did the same with Xin Mo. Shen Yuan allowed himself a little grin when he realized he’d taken out almost as many Blind Corpses as the protagonist!

Not that it was a competition or anything, he thought to himself as another wave of his fan sent the Bling Corpses flying back. Luo Binghe responded with a sweep of Xin Mo that cut the number of corpses he was fighting in half… by cutting them in half.

Show-off. Shen Yuan scowled to prevent the proud smile that wanted to hijack his expression. He’d taught Luo Binghe that limit break!

“There are more coming,” Luo Binghe said as the thinned numbers thickened again.

“They’re attracted to light. And their numbers are virtually endless.” Shen Yuan suspected that the Holy Mausoleum had spawn points. It was clear Airplane had ripped everything else here off of video games, so why not that? “Fighting them is useless. We need to get to the interior chambers where they can’t roam. That’s where the resurrection chamber should be.”

A quick GPS ping to the system confirmed that Shen Qingqiu was some distance to their left – through the interior wall.

Before Shen Yuan could relay this, Luo Binghe planted Xin Mo in the floor and let out a pulse that made their robes flutter and imploded the nearest hundred corpses into dust. Then, while Shen Yuan was clamping his lips closed and holding his breath so he didn’t inhale a bunch of corpse dust – A little warning, Binghe! – Luo Binghe yanked on the embedded Xin Mo like a lever. A crack opened up on the floor and threaded its way up the wall. A well-placed kick from Luo Binghe toppled it.

“This way,” he said and, not waiting for Shen Yuan to move, wrapped an arm around his waist and dragged him through the new exit.

“How did you know this way—”

“Blood parasites.”

Ah. Of course. Luo Binghe had spent years keeping Shen Qingqiu’s body from rotting, healing the damage Shen Yuan had done to it with his desperate sacrifice. How could he have done that without blood parasites?

The chamber they’d spilled into contained a row of marble sarcophagi, each one intricately carved with all manner of demonic beasts that Shen Yuan had never seen recorded in any bestiary. Any other time, he would have happily plopped down for a few days to document these wonders, but unlike the outer wall, the inner wall didn’t repair itself after Luo Binghe shattered it. Unharmed by the pulse from Xin Mo, the Last Breath Candles slipped through and flitted around their heads like gnats. Swiping at them with Xin Mo and Shen Yuan’s fan did nothing.

And from the far side of the hole came the echoes of more corpses moving, closing in, searching for that light.

“We can’t fight?” the uptick in Luo Binghe’s voice sent a curl of warmth through Shen Yuan’s chest. Instead of ignoring him or sneering at him, the protagonist was respecting his expertise! Ah, he’d missed this so much. Too much.

“And if we run, they’ll attract worse things long before we ever get to Shen… Yuan.” He pretended to cough on corpse dust to cover the near slip.

Brow furrowing, Luo Binghe said, “Then we hide,” and shoved open the lid of the nearest sarcophagus.

Shen Yuan was about to ask him to open a second, but the arm around his waist tightened, and he was flipped into the depths before he could do more than squeak in protest.

Xin Mo’s light was snuffed. Something heavy and warm landed atop him, crushing him into the dust that was all that remained of the last, long-dead occupant. More scraping of stone-on-stone followed, until even the light cast by the Last Breath Candles was obstructed by the lid. Luo Binghe had only left the smallest crack so they wouldn’t suffocate.

And yet, Shen Yuan could still easily make out his features, the curl of each eyelash and the curve of his lips.

“Your sigil,” he whispered. From outside, the sound of shuffling feet and scraping nails grew louder.

Luo Binghe squirmed, but his arms were spread above Shen Yuan’s head, and not even the protagonist could bend his bones in ways they weren’t meant to bend.

With his own hands pinned at the sides, Shen Yuan was in no better shape. And all this squirming was…

He shivered. It was going to attract attention, is what it was.

The scraping grew louder. Something nudged the top of the sarcophagus, and the opening widened to a finger’s width.

Not seeing any other option, Shen Yuan sighed and said, “Lower your head.”

When Luo Binghe gaped at him in surprise, Shen Yuan took matters into his own hands… metaphorically. Craning his neck, he covered the glowing sigil with his lips.

He needn’t have worried that they would attract the Last Breath Candles. The moment his lips touched the pulsing warmth of the demon sigil, all breathing in the sarcophagus ceased. Luo Binghe was shaking with the effort to keep quiet. Or perhaps he was just fighting the urge to strangle his old nemesis for inappropriate behavior.

Well, Shen Qingqiu did have a reputation for such things, deserved or not. At least this couldn’t be called OOC?

“Shh,” he whispered against the soft, heated skin. “Just a little longer.”

Was that a… whimper?

Shen Yuan’s words were prophetic. With no breath to attract them, the Last Breath Candles flickered and died. With no light to attract them, the Blind Corpses shuffled off. Soon, the tomb was as silent as…

Well…

Shen Yuan was not the hack that Airplane was. He wouldn’t even let himself finish that thought.

Pulling back, he had a moment to study Luo Binghe’s face, twisted as though he was in pain. “Was Binghe injured?” he asked, concern making him momentarily forget that he wasn’t supposed to care about things like Luo Binghe’s well-being.

Opening his eyes, Luo Binghe met Shen Yuan’s worried gaze.

“Shizun,” he said, his voice soft and young like the white lotus he’d once been. “For how long should I pretend that I don’t know it’s you?”

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan’s breath punched out of him, stirring the fluffy hair that dangled down to tickle his cheeks. This close, he could see his astonishment reflected in the gloss-dark mirrors of Luo Binghe’s eyes.

“You know?” he mouthed, barely above a whisper, and watched every emotion play across his face in the reflection of Luo Binghe’s gaze – fear, surprise, dread…

Relief.

No wonder Luo Binghe had figured it out, if Shen Yuan was this easy to read. With a face like this, he’d need botox to match his old Shen Qingqiu mask.

“How could this disciple not know his Shizun?” Tears welled, distorting the mirror, and suddenly Shen Yuan wasn’t looking at – or thinking about – himself. Instead, he saw a forlorn Luo Binghe who’d been hurt by his master once again. “What I don’t understand is why Shizun would lie.”

“I…” Breath had returned, but not enough to force the explanation past the constriction in Shen Yuan’s throat.

Head dipping so that his tears fell on Shen Yuan’s lips, Luo Binghe said, “You thought I would not come here, if it was Peak Lord Shen who needed rescuing.”

“Would you have?” Shen Yuan asked, tasting salt.

“If Shizun asked, is there anything I wouldn’t do? What use is my strength if I won’t use it to make my special person happy?”

“Special…” The more he heard such declarations, the more it became like one of those optical illusions. He wanted to keep seeing the rabbit and only the rabbit, but increasingly it seemed likely it was ducks all the way down. Mandarin ducks. Playing in water. Argh!!!

He couldn’t even lift his hands to tear at his hair or cover his ears.

Oblivious to how Shen Yuan was desperately clinging to the thighs of Denial, Luo Binghe said, “I like Shizun. More than I despise Peak Lord Shen. Shizun is the special person I made myself strong for.” And then, more softly. “I only want to be with you. To love you.”

“But… but…”

Shenyuan.exe has stopped working. Please close the program and submit an error report.

But… wasn’t this sort of Master/Disciple romance frowned on outside of danmei? What’s with this breaking genre?! What about <<Proud Immortal Demon Way!>> Binghe’s harem! The 600 wives! The two-million-word slog through bad papapa, all of it with women! Not once did book-Bing-ge ever take a man to his bed. You don’t like men! I don’t like men!

Except… if the hard length pressing into Shen Yuan’s hip was any indication, the first part of that belief was not true. And his ability to deny the second part was shattering like the walls of the Holy Mausoleum under the tread of a thousand Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons.

“Shizun does not feel the same. I know it,” Luo Binghe said, resigned. “How could he? It is one thing to tolerate demons and say they are no better or worse than humans, but to have affection for one—”

“Now, hold on a moment!” If Shen Yuan had full range of motion, he’d have rapped Binghe’s head for spewing such nonsense. Since Binghe’s thigh was the only body part in range, Shen Yuan smacked that instead.

Luo Binghe gasped, hips jerking into Shen Yuan’s and…

Oh.

Yeah.

Definitely more into men than he’d previously assumed.

Or, one man.

Was it possible to be Binghe-sexual?

Better question – was it possible not to be? Really, when he thought of it that way, didn’t it make perfect sense? It was almost inevitable.

He shifted slightly—to get more comfortable! —and the hardness digging into his hip shifted, Luo Binghe’s cock slotting alongside his own.

Luo Binghe hissed, eyes closing. Shen Yuan decided this was an excellent idea and followed suit. In the close confines of the sarcophagus, their harsh breathing engulfed them in their own personal windstorm. They were definitely going to attract the notice of the Last Breath Candles again. They should stop.

They should probably stop.

Shen Yuan continued rutting against Luo Binghe with small, restrained movements that he would blame on the rise and fall of his chest if anyone asked.

“Yes?” The breath of Luo Binghe’s question brushed Shen Yuan’s lips.

“Yes,” he sighed. Fuck it. Binghe-sexual it was. He pressed up, deliberately, and the closed space echoed with their groans. Yes. Yes!

“Shizun was going to say?”

Oh. Right. They’d been talking. Shen Yuan ripped his focus away from the pressure and heat building between them. There would be no multi-tasking while pressed against that heavenly pillar. With a nudge of his fan – backed by a lick of spiritual power – he forced a few fingers of space between them. Enough to return a few IQ points.

What had they been talking about? Ah. Right. Luo Binghe’s canonical lack of self-esteem. Doing his best to tame his frustration into fondness, Shen Yuan said, “When has this master ever given Binghe reason to think he didn’t hold him closest to his heart? Was it the first time I gave my life to protect you, at the edge of the Endless Abyss?” He ignored Luo Binghe’s indrawn breath, not certain he could come up with a System-approved half-truth to explain that one. “Was it the second time, in Hua Yue City? Binghe has always been my favorite person, since before we even met.”

Shen Yuan bit his lip, too late to catch that last admission before it slipped out. No retaliation came from the System, but Luo Binghe’s sigil flared.

“Is that why Peak Lord Shen hated this disciple from the start? Did he know? Was Shizun trapped even then?”

Not willing to risk the System’s ire, Shen Yuan hedged, “Who can say what weasels gnaw on my dage’s mind? But every moment I could, I treated Luo Binghe with the kindness and care he deserves.”

Sighing, Shen Yuan turned his head to rest his brow on Luo Binghe’s bicep. There were things that he deserved to hear, but even this new face of Shen Yuan’s wasn’t thick enough to say them while looking in his eyes.

“I know that can’t make up for what you have suffered. I haven’t forgiven Shen Qingqiu for his treatment of Binghe. If I can’t, then how can you? But… my Jiu-dage is still family. I can’t – won’t – discard him, whatever wrongs he’s done.”

“Then shouldn’t it be said that Shen Qingqiu is the one that Shizun holds closest to his heart?” Binghe asked, voice deep and dripping with bitterness.

Shen Yuan made an impatient sound in the back of his throat and only barely refrained from smacking Luo Binghe’s thigh again with his fan. Better not encourage those latent M tendencies.

“Can the affection one has for a brother be called the same as the affection one has for a…”

“What?” Luo Binghe demanded, pushing up as far as the lid would let him, as though seeing more of Shen Yuan would give him the answer stuck in his throat. “What am I to you, Shizun?”

Ah, leave this Master some face! “Can you really call me Shizun while asking such things?” He mumbled into Luo Binghe’s sleeve. And was this really the best time for this conversation? The Last Breath Candles and Blind Corpses had moved on. Shouldn’t they do so too?

“What else should I call you? What am I to you other than your disciple?”

Ah… Shen Yuan couldn’t do this. He was burning from crown to toes, and not in the good way from a few moments ago. This poor transmigrator only just had his Bing-ge-awakening! Give him some time to clear the sleep from his eyes and get a cup of rainbow coffee!

The System’s interface – suspiciously rainbow-tinted – flashed between them, shielding Shen Yuan from the direct light of the protagonist’s attention.

【Would User OP like to purchase a Small Scenario Support Package for 100 Co-op Mode Points to avoid the question?】

Avoid the question? Yes! Yes! Can this user get those in bulk?!

Shen Yuan dropped his fan and tried to yank his hand free to accept the offer, but, short of shoving Luo Binghe off, he was still pinned. The System seemed satisfied with a mental agreement.

【Purchase confirmed. Small Scenario Support Item Unlocked. Please use generously for maximum comfort.】

With a burst of glitter, the interface disappeared, leaving nothing to block Shen Yuan from the raw need for reciprocation shining in Luo Binghe’s eyes.

He patted around for his dropped fan, not that his favorite shield would do him much good right now. His restless fingers knocked into something un-fanlike. More… bottle-like? Porcelain-cool and rounded. Some sort of grave goods, he supposed. It tipped over, and something viscous and slippery poured over his fingers. The scent of strawberries filled the sarcophagus. On reflex, Shen Yuan wiped his hand on the nearest fabric.

He froze, hand pressed against the front of Luo Binghe’s pants, very aware that he’d stroked half the length underneath before sense caught up with him.

Scumbag System! Does this count as avoiding the question?! This user wants a refund!

【Sorry, User OP. All purchases are final!】the asshole System said, sounding entirely too cheerful.

Underneath Shen Yuan’s hand, Luo Binghe’s interest was rising again. Shen Yuan’s fingers shook as he realized he was still holding it.

“Shiz—ah!” Luo Binghe’s full weight collapsed onto him, trapping Shen Yuan’s hand right where it could do the most damage to their collective sanity. Luo Binghe’s brow pressed to Shen Yuan’s, the sigil a spark between them. Their lips were dangerously close. All he had to do was lift up like Binghe was pressing down.

No. He refused to have his first kiss in a coffin, lying atop the dust of some long-dead Heavenly Demon. He refused to fall victim to the most cliché trope of a recycled wife plot!

With a noise he would forever deny was a whimper, Shen Yuan turned his head to one side just in time for Luo Binghe’s lips to land on his jaw. Even that made him shiver and seriously question his resolve.

“This isn’t the time or place for this,” he said, fighting and failing to keep his voice steady. Shen Qingqiu was waiting to be rescued, he reminded himself. Dawn was coming soon and with it their back-up leading the second half of the rhino herd. Important things!

More important than the heat cupped in his palm, and Luo Binghe’s ragged gasp every time he tried to tug his hand free, and the pulse of his own cock in response.

“But I’ve waited so long to be reunited with Shizun.”

They were really going to need to discuss the title. And the whining. Shen Yuan almost patted Luo Binghe on reflex, until he remembered where his hand was. He was trying to stop this, not encourage it!

“We will continue this conversation later. That is this Shen Yuan’s promise to Binghe.”

The press of Luo Binghe’s body eased, enough for Shen Yuan to slip his hand free and find his fan next to the bottle of System sabotage.

“Shen… Yuan,” Luo Binghe whispered, tears glimmering in his eyes. “A-Yuan?”

“Ah, why are you crying over a name? Such a silly thing to waste tears on,” Shen Yuan grumbled, as though he didn’t feel a suspicious stinging behind his eyes that said they might not be entirely dry.

A smirk curved Luo Binghe’s mouth, distracting Shen Yuan from the pleasure at hearing his name and the desire to taste it on those lips. “Yuan-gege?”

“No.” Shen Yuan punctuated the reprimand with a rap of his fan. Better put a stop to any embarrassing gege-ing before Luo Binghe started thinking he could get away with anything. “Let me up before you suffocate me.”

Through a combination fan smacking and poking, and a generous application of knees, elbows, and glares, Shen Yuan forced Luo Binghe to push open the lid and climb out of the sarcophagus. He lifted Shen Yuan out before he could climb out himself – another thing to talk about. Shen Yuan might be filling the role, but he would not accept being treated like a delicate miss.

Ducking his head to avoid Shen Yuan’s scolding glare, Luo Binghe spent a few moments adjusting his robes.

And if, while Luo Binghe’s back was turned, Shen Yuan reached down into the sarcophagus to retrieve the half-empty bottle of oil and the stopper that had popped free, well… He’d already wasted the points! Might as well keep the loot in case…

Just.

In case.

***

Conveniently, the outside wall they’d rhino-smashed through was only a corridor, a crypt, and a few antechambers away from their destination. Shen Yuan’s spotty memory of the Holy Mausoleum arc – and the traps and dangers therein – provided enough details for them to get there relatively unscathed. Only once more did they have to squeeze into a burial niche – Luo Binghe pressing against Shen Yuan like he was trying to discover nuclear fusion – to hide from Last Breath Candles until the Blind Corpses attracted by their light shuffled off again.

If Luo Binghe tried for another kiss, Shen Yuan didn’t know. He kept his face tucked against that magnificent chest, getting high off the scent of smoke and cinnamon that clung to Luo Binghe’s skin. In the end, it was no more risqué than some intense – and highly frustrating – hugging.

“The resurrection chamber should be just ahead,” Shen Yuan whispered after they’d crossed through an antechamber with a platforming trap stolen directly from an Indiana Jones movie. Ah, Airplane. Your true talent is for shamelessness.

A talent he’d passed along to his son, who stood so closely behind that he was practically draped over Shen Yuan’s shoulders like a second outer-robe.

“Peak Lord Shen is still within,” Luo Binghe said, his whisper a caress along the shell of Shen Yuan’s ear. He refused to talk to the System after that Scenario Support Item betrayal, but Luo Binghe’s blood parasites told them all they needed to know.

Or maybe not everything, Shen Yuan realized as they peered into the chamber.

Shen Qingqiu, in jade pale robes, sat at a low stone table across from a ridiculously beautiful man in black. A piece of quartz had been used to scratch a careful grid into the dark stone, and it was currently covered with black beetle shells and white teeth in what was clearly the final moves of a long and cutthroat game of weiqi. They played by the green-tinged light of a single Last Breath Candle trapped in a small array. Ever so faintly, Shen Yuan could hear its agonized screams.

“You lose,” Shen Qingqiu said in a bored tone Shen Yuan knew far too well. It was the one he used to hide homicidal irritation.

“Ah, are you certain?” mused the other man, fiddling with the dead beetle that was serving as his weiqi stone. It had to be Tianlang-Jun. Those protagonist-level looks, that roguish smile and epic physique – weren’t they just too similar to Luo Binghe’s? Only the eyes were different. Luo Binghe’s could be soft, kind, bashful, eager. Human. In Tianlang-Jun’s eyes, there was nothing but demonic craft and capriciousness. He taunted like most people breathed. “There must be some strategy still open to me.”

Shen Qingqiu sat in the face of that cajoling grin with an expression as unyielding as the stone board they played upon. “There is not.”

“Ah well.” Shrugging, Tianlang-Jun ate his weiqi beetle. “Best five out of seven?”

“No.” Shen Qingqiu’s hand twitched as though he dearly wished for a fan snap open impatiently. “I will only win again. What is the point in stalling? You promised to release me. Or are Heavenly Demons no different than the common rabble you fail at ruling over – craven and untrustworthy?”

No wonder everyone could tell the difference between Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu. Here was the Immortal Master Peak Bitch Lord! Shen Yuan was like a TV doctor compared to a world class trauma surgeon in a burn unit. Get that Demon Lord some aloe vera!

Tianlang-Jun’s smile flashed like the edge of an executioner’s blade. The laugh that followed had the warmth of fresh-spilled blood. “Ah, I will, I will. But it’s so lonely here, and Immortal Master Shen’s company is so delightful! I can see why my son is besotted with you.” Those were the words on his lips, but his furrowed brow said, What the fuck does he see in you?

“Tianlang-Jun is mistaken,” Luo Binghe said, stepping into the chamber before Shen Yuan could withdraw and suggest a stealthier approach. “This disciple’s affections are for his Shizun, which Peak Lord Shen is not.”

Both players turned at the interruption – Tianlang-Jun flicking a few white teeth from the board once Shen Qingqiu’s attention was distracted.

“You’re late,” Shen Qingqiu said, scowling. The scowl deepened when he spied Shen Yuan half-hidden behind Luo Binghe’s bulk. “You brought my didi? I’d hoped at least you could be trusted to protect him.”

Shen Yuan pouted in affront. Here, now! He was a fully grown, reasonably capable, surprisingly powerful, and only occasionally lazy cultivator! He was just as able as anyone to help stage a rescue!

“Why would I leave him behind?” Luo Binghe asked. “This disciple can protect his Shizun without suppressing him.”

Shen Yuan pressed his fan to his chest, willing his fluttering heart to behave. He would not disprove Luo Binghe’s words by swooning just because the protagonist delivered such lines.

“I am confused.” Tianlang-Jun rose to his feet, the shadows swallowing his simple, dark robes and wildly cascading hair so that it almost seemed like his was a pale ghost-face floating before them. “Was it not Immortal Master Shen’s body that my son cared for so assiduously and… intimately.”

Aaaaaah! Why do you have to put it like that?! Binghe, tell him it wasn’t like that! This Master can accept you being an incurable M, but any sort of N is where he draws the line!

Luo Binghe drew breath to engage Tianlang-Jun on a topic Shen Yuan knew his face was too thin to endure.

“Binghe,” he said softly, touching Luo Binghe’s arm with his fan. “Do you owe anyone explanations?” Don’t fall for such a clear diversionary tactic! Did this millennial teach you nothing? Wasn’t this #2 after villain monologues in Top Ten Tired and Trite Tropes in <<PIDW>>, by Peerless Cucumber ?

“But Shizun, he—”

“Wait. If that is your Shizun, then who is this?” Tianlang-Jun asked, waving a hand first at Shen Yuan, then at Shen Qingqiu.

The wave released the faint, swampy scent of rotting vegetation. Shen Yuan let out a silent sigh of relief. He had been worried about how powerful this unlocked Mystery Character would be, but that smell supported his theory about what the other mushroom seed had been used for, and how it would respond to being maintained by demonic energy. Honestly, it was surprising Tianlang-Jun’s limbs hadn’t rotted off!

“Nobody I care about, except for my Shizun’s sake,” Luo Binghe said, causing Shen Yuan to wince and Shen Qingqiu to huff as though he expected nothing less.

System, has User OG checked his inventory since he returned to his body?

【Thank you for your inquiry! Neither User OG nor User OP have checked their logs or inventory since waking up in the mushroom seed body. QAQ, this poor System no get no love!】

QQ moar! Only those deserving of love will get it. Can you display those now for us? Shen Yuan wouldn’t be able to see Shen Qingqiu’s log, but that wasn’t important.

【Of course! Thank you for your inquiry!

User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 9000
  • Heartbreak Points: 100
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 70%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Fake Jade Guanyin, One (1) coil of Immortal Binding Cables, One (1) Fenix Down, One (1) vial of Strawberry Scented Scenario Support, One (1) Xiu Yuan Sword
  • Co-op Mode Points: 900】

【User OP Active Quest Log

  • Rescue Shen Qingqiu
  • Escape the Holy Mausoleum
  • Save Cang Qiong Mountain Sect
  • Save Luo Binghe
  • Save the World】

Shen Yuan groaned internally. No pressure there.

“I told you that you were wasting your time, using me as a bargaining chip.” Flicking a bit of cobweb from his robes, Shen Qingqiu stood and folded his hands in his sleeves. The smirk haunting his lips said that he’d gotten the message. “That one would sooner let me rot than rescue me.”

Shen Yuan transferred his fan to his off-hand. Speaking of rot…

“Binghe. I believe that the reason Tianlang-Jun tried to lure you here is because that body of his is nearing collapse, and he’s hoping to take yours.” He reached into his sleeve, drawing out his Xiu Yuan Sword. Across the room, Shen Qingqiu was pulling Xiu Jiu from his sleeve. “He’s no threat to us. I doubt he can even stay standing for much longer.”

“Is that so?” The dark energy around Xin Mo flared to match the sigils burning on Luo Binghe and Tianlang-Jun’s brows. “How very unfortunate. For him.”

“Ah… my life has been full of misfortune.” Backing up from the threat of three legendary spirit swords, Tianlang-Jun’s knees met the improvised weiqi table. He sat hard, scattering beetle carapaces and teeth. Catching one of the beetles, he studied it with a forlorn sigh. “I came to the Human Realms with no intention beyond exploring and experiencing them, but instead I found love. And then that love betrayed me. The world I only wanted to explore imprisoned me. Now, the son I didn’t know I had despises me, and this replacement body fails me. I am indeed unfortunate.”

Looking up, his forlorn expression slid into a grin. “But you are wrong that I am no threat.”

He flicked the beetle at the array trapping the Last Breath Candle, shattering it. With a screech loud enough to break eardrums, the green witchlight flared and went supernova before any of them could cover their eyes.

In the after-images of burned retinas that followed, the hungry groans of an army of Blind Corpses seemed to come from all sides. While Shen Yuan was blinking madly in an attempt to see what he needed to fight, an arm snaked around his waist. A cold hand covered his mouth. A strangely familiar voice hissed in his ear, “Don’t fear, Master Shen. Junshang has instructed this Zhuzhi-lang to protect you.”

Light-blinded and screams muffled, Shen Yuan was dragged off into the darkness.

Chapter Text

A hand in the dark clamped around Shen Qingqiu’s wrist, dragging him into a suffocating embrace heavy with the smell of smoke and cinnamon. His face was smooshed against a chest as hard as marble, one nipple practically poking out his eye. He’d been losing a staring contest with those nipples for the better part of a night, while he decimated their owner at weiqi, so he took great delight at ramming his elbow into that shameless demon’s kidney. The grip around his wrist loosened and Shen Qingqiu yanked, hoping to free his arm and perhaps tear off the other’s rotting vegetable limb in the process.

“Release me, you—”

“Shizun, what—?”

They both spoke at the same time, froze a breath later. Another moment passed while math was done and the spots dancing in Shen Qingqiu’s vision dispersed.

He found himself in the embrace of the wrong Heavenly Demon – though, that begged the question that there could ever be a right Heavenly Demon.

Luo Binghe released him and jumped away, leaving a chasm between them bridged by their raised swords, and a ring of Blind Corpses closing in around them. The ground was covered with a scattering of beetles and teeth. Tianlang-Jun was nowhere to be seen.

Neither was Shen Yuan.

“Reckoning later?” Shen Qingqiu snapped.

Luo Binghe grunted agreement like the beast he was, turning his back to Shen Qingqiu. His demonic blade gleamed a sullen red, drawing the attention of the circling corpses.

For the space of a moment, Shen Qingqiu studied that broad back and wide shoulders, weighing his chances. He could strike. He could escape and leave the demon and the dead to rip each other apart. But Shen Yuan was in danger, and Shen Qingqiu had better odds of saving him with Luo Binghe as his ally. Sighing, he turned so he was back-to-back with the little beast, letting the opportunity to be rid of him slip by.

By the blood-dim light of Xin Mo and the occasional moonsilver flash of Xiu Jiu – and whatever the fuck was up with that name, he’d bother to investigate later – they cleaved through the waves of Blind Corpses collapsing in on them. The glimmer of Luo Binghe’s demon sigil reflected off white-fogged eyes, marking the location of their foes. He was a heartbeat at Shen Qingqiu’s back – the thump of feet as he danced with the dead, the steady rise and fall of his breath, the rhythm of his swings. Together, they cleared the resurrection chamber.

Thankfully, the scream of the self-destructing Last Breath Candle seemed to have warned any others away. With no bright light to draw them, no more Blind Corpses came after the initial surge lay scattered among the weiqi pieces on the floor.

And a good thing, as Shen Qingqiu’s spiritual energy sputtered and choked when he dispatched the last of them. He sagged and would have fallen to his knees if not for the rough hand catching his elbow.

“Peak Lord Shen is wounded?” Luo Binghe didn’t sound concerned so much as impatient. Shen Qingqiu laughed bitterly.

“Years ago, and no thanks to you.” He shook free of the hold and used all his strength to remain upright, to maintain the pretense that he was unaffected. A pretense he broke with a grumbled, “You couldn’t fix Without-A-Cure while you were tending to all the other injuries your Shizun incurred on your behalf?”

He could hardly complain about the state of his meridians and his core, even if the cause was Luo Binghe. All the damage he’d done through his early years of faulty cultivation had been smoothed away like nicks honed from the edge of a battle-worn sword. But what good was that if the energy that coursed through him was prone to dying out at the most plot-inconvenient times?

“Ah.” Something dark and amused in Luo Binghe’s tone warned Shen Qingqiu that he was about to regret saying anything. “This Lord has learned of only one way to cure that particular poison.”

Yes, definitely regretting not stabbing him in the back when he had the chance. “You are disgusting.”

“If that was so, Peak Lord Shen would not now be having troubles. I would never have treated my Shizun’s body so disrespectfully, no matter what some others might believe.”

“No, you merely cling to him like a sticky bun and force him to put himself in danger.” Picking his way through the mess now covering the floor, Shen Qingqiu explored the limits of the room. Only one way in, one way out. How had Tianlang-Jun managed to grab Shen Yuan? How had he dragged him away in the dark?

At least Luo Binghe knew some shame. He flinched at Shen Qingqiu’s words and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “This one knows it. No matter how strong I become, it is never enough.”

It was almost – almost – enough to make Shen Qingqiu feel sorry for the brat. Of course, it was the fault of Luo Binghe’s affection that Shen Yuan now took the starring role in what he and that hack author had dubbed ‘wife-plots’, but that was a fate Shen Yuan chose for himself, and kept choosing again and again from the moment he unlocked the OOC function.

“Then stop moping and fix it. Find him.” Ah, he needed a fan. Such commands felt lacking when they couldn’t be backed up with a good smack for emphasis!

Peering out into the corridor, Liu Binghe murmured, “If Peak Lord Shen has a suggestion, this one is willing to entertain it, but if he expects me to track Shizun with blood parasites, he should know better than anyone that Shizun’s new body is free of them.”

Fuck. Of course. Which left an option that Shen Qingqiu despised even more than Luo Binghe.

System, what ridiculous demands do I need to meet to gain your assistance in finding Shen Yuan?

【Please clarify request. This System does not recognize the descriptor ‘ridiculous.’ All System-provided support is of the highest quality, designed to meet and exceed customer satisfaction in accordance with industry standards!】

Such a response only made Shen Qingqiu wish for his fan more. Had any disciple ever been as impudent and hungry for unearned approval as this worthless System? He would give all his points and then some for the opportunity to beat it until its tears flowed like blood.

Aware that Luo Binghe was watching him curiously, and that Shen Yuan was lost and in peril, Shen Qingqiu composed himself. Yes, of course. I will be certain to scribe a commendation to your superiors when this is all over. What entirely reasonable and not at all irritating price must I pay for your assistance in finding User OP?

【Thanking User OG. Reviews give this System life! For the cost of 100 Co-Op Mode Points, User OG can purchase a ‘Well, Duh’ hint.】

Muscle twitching in his eyelid at the implied insult, Shen Qingqiu thought, Very well, and waved a hand to accept.

【Reminding User OG that the while the legendary Xiu Ya Sword is currently split into the serene old master Xiu Jiu and the lovely young miss Xiu Yuan, it is still one sword.】

A moment later, a sputter of his dying spiritual energy licked into Xiu Jiu, and he felt a tug from elsewhere, as though the blade yearned to be rejoined with its other half.

Later, he would take exception to being cast as an old man in this equation, but for now… “He’s this way,” Shen Qingqiu said, and headed for the corridor. He paused when Luo Binghe didn’t move to follow. “Or is the urgency of this situation not clear?”

“It is clear enough that I wish to make certain we are clear,” Luo Binghe said. “I am surprised Peak Lord Shen has not yet warned this Lord away from Shizun. Or taken other measures to stop him.”

Ah, so he had noticed that brief hesitation before they fought the Blind Corpses. Shen Qingqiu considered for a moment, and then decided they didn’t have time for negotiation. Bald truth would have to suffice.

“I don’t own my didi. If he has the poor sense to pursue a romantic liaison with you, that’s his business. But, if you hurt him or place him in danger, I don’t care what sort of halo you have protecting you or what torments you’ll visit on me for it, I will find a way to end you.”

Thumb sliding along the edge of Xin Mo, Luo Binghe asked softly, “Is that threat reserved for this Lord alone, or does Peak Lord Shen promise to do the same to anyone who would cause Shizun harm?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re nothing special.” Shen Qingqiu could think of at least one Heavenly Demon he was certainly going to annihilate if his didi was harmed. “Shen Yuan is the one who matters to me.”

“Then we are in agreement.” Luo Binghe followed, and together they ventured out into the corridor, following Xiu Jiu’s erratic glimmers. “Peak Lord Shen should know that the feeling, and the promise of destruction, is mutual.”

“I would expect no less,” Shen Qingqiu said, thinking that, between them, they might actually succeed in keeping Shen Yuan from dying. Again. Almost fondly, he added, “Little beast.”

【Congratulations! Secret Bonus Quest “And You Get a Shovel, and You Get a Shovel…” successfully completed. Luo Binghe’s animosity level reduced to: ‘Manageable.’ Relationship status changed to: ‘Détente.’ Original Canon endings “Pickled Jiucumber” and “Spiny Por-Qi-ge-pine” avoided. Please keep working hard to reduce animosity levels and improve relationship status!】

No thank you, Shen Qingqiu thought. It was enough that he and Qi-ge would survive.

***

“What are your intentions towards my son?” Tianlang-Jun asked with all the cheer of a homicidal maniac as they slithered through the Holy Mausoleum astride a transformed Zhuzhi-lang. A pair of Scarlet Razorscale Constricting Vipers wrapped tightly around Shen Yuan like living Immortal Binding Cables. Their scales – used in <<PIDW>> to conveniently shred the clothes of future harem members – were now doing something similar with Shen Yuan’s robes. He could only stay as still as possible in the hopes of maintaining some shred of decency and dignity.

They passed places he recognized from his reading: the Halls of Desire, Sorrow, and Fury, the ice-tomb of the Mobei Clan, another tomb overgrown with trees and flowering vines and air thick with puffy spores that could only be the deadly QingSi. All traps Shen Yuan could have made use of, if they would only stop for a moment!

But his captors seemed to have a different plan in mind. Tianlang-Jun twirled the confiscated Xiu Yuan sword while he hummed some maddeningly catchy tune. Every so often he would slant glances back at Shen Yuan like he expected him to sing along.

Recalling the disastrous ‘Musical Episode’ that was ranked #2 on his forum post, Top Ten Chapters of <<PIDW>> You Probably Want to Skip, Your Sanity Can Thank Me Later, by Peerless Cucumber, Shen Yuan was not inclined to humor him in this or anything else.

“Eh?” Tianlang-Jun prodded Shen Yuan with the sheathed tip of his own sword when he didn’t answer.

“Apologies to Tianlang-Jun,” Shen Yuan said, as cold and elegant as he could manage with his arms pinned to his sides and no fan to protect his thin face. “This one doesn’t have intentions beyond leaving the Holy Mausoleum with his disciple and his dage.”

“Ah, call me gonggong!”

Not even Shen Yuan could hold back an affronted gasp at that. What is this, husband’s father? Who is the husband here? With as much as Bing-mei cries, shouldn’t you be yuefu?

“And I’ll call you nuxu!”

Ah. That was… slightly better. Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe would both be husbands, he supposed.

Wait! No! There weren’t any husbands here! Wasn’t this putting the cart before the Black Moon Rhinoceros Python?

Tianlang-Jun appeared to be the sort of orator who didn’t need responses. Or perhaps even an audience. He released a forlorn sigh. “Ah, but Shen-er gongzi is going to break my poor nephew’s heart. Are you certain you’re set on my unfilial son? Zhuzhi-lang here has much more to recommend him—”

“Junshang, please,” the Zhuzhi-lang under discussion hissed.

“Gentle, strong, soft-spoken, loyal, a good provider, not too bright,” that Junshang went on as though his nephew’s jade scales weren’t turning a sallow shade of greenish-yellow. “And very flexible. You could do much worse.”

“Luo Binghe is all these things.” Shen Yuan squirmed and found that the constrictors hold on him had weakened slightly, as though they shared Zhuzhi-lang’s urge to cringe. Perhaps if he encouraged this conversation, he might be able to squeeze free. The only question was, would Zhuzhi-lang’s face shatter before Shen Yuan’s did?

He couldn’t test it. There would be other opportunities. Lifting his nose, he said, “Assuming this master was looking for a husband. Which he is not.”

“Ah, so your intentions are not honorable,” Tianlang-Jun mused with a leer that would make a succubus blush.

Shen Yuan refused to give him that satisfaction. “And what are Tianlang-Jun’s intentions? What do you want from Luo Binghe, that you would go to such lengths for leverage over him?”

Turning so that he was riding backwards, Tianlang-Jun leaned towards Shen Yuan as though sharing a confidence. “Ah, he has something I need. But this Lord promises not to harm Shen-er gongzi, as long as you cooperate.” This close, the smell of moldy mushrooms was even thicker, and Shen Yuan could see spots of bruising where the demonic energy was beginning to eat through Tianlang-Jun’s substitute flesh.

 “As long as you don’t hurt Binghe, I will do what I can.” Shen Yuan was mostly confident that Luo Binghe could beat his father in a fight, but at what cost? Wasn’t it always bad news for a character to do something so unfilial? He might be a pain in the ass, but Tianlang-Jun was the only family Luo Binghe had left.

And Shen Yuan knew all about pain in the ass family members. “There are ways to maintain this body of yours rather than taking your son’s. A steady stream of clean spiritual energy is all you would need.”

“Thanking Shen-er gongzi for his offer and his cooperation, but just to ensure it…”

He unsheathed Xiu Yuan. With a sweep of his hand down the blade, Tianlang-Jun sliced open his fingers and shoved them past Shen Yuan’s lips.

Shen Yuan recoiled at the assault, struggling against the constriction of the snakes until his outer robe fell to pieces. Tianlang-Jun pressed down on his tongue, forcing his throat open. Blood, rusty and thick, filled his mouth, spilling over his lips and down his throat. He had no choice but to swallow or choke on it.

Heat crawled down the path into his stomach, flicked out to his extremities. He gagged, tried to cough it up, spit it out, but Tianlang-Jun’s hand filled his mouth until he thought his jaw might crack. Until the blood parasites had taken root.

“That should do it. Now, we wait.” Withdrawing, Tianlang-Jun dried his fingers on his black robes. While Shen Yuan collapsed on himself, choking and spitting, he waved at a passing archway. “In here.”

Slithering inside, Zhuzhi-lang shrank down to his human-ish form. Shen Yuan and Tianlang-Jun were lowered gently to the ground like flotsam washed ashore. The constrictors slithered free of Shen Yuan to wrap around their master’s arms and middle.

Perching atop a sarcophagus, Tianlang-Jun rested Xiu Yuan across his knees and watched in amusement as Shen Yuan did his best to recover. His outer robe was a hopeless case. He shrugged out of the tatters and used them to wipe the blood from his mouth and chin. He shivered, and decided to blame the chill. Certainly it wasn’t due to Tianlang-Jun’s attack, or the implications of being infected by his blood parasites.

Repression was the better part of valor. Shen Yuan fiddled with the fan tucked into his sash and pretended to be fascinated by their surroundings.

Here turned out to be another tomb – the Tomb of Eternal Peaceful Repose, if the script helpfully carved into the lintel could be trusted. Which… isn’t this a redundant name? Aren’t all tombs meant to be places of Eternal Peaceful Repose?!

That nit-pick was enough to snap Shen Yuan out of his daze, because he’d unleashed that same rant in the forums when he read the chapter where it appeared – just a minor bullet in a fifty-point magazine complaining about yet another papapa device disguised as a trap. The tomb was meant to enshrine the great lovers of the Heavenly Demon tribe so their shades would rest. Anyone entombed there who had a special person, the more they thought about their beloved, the deeper their spirits would slumber.

One of the prospective wives had lured Luo Binghe into the tomb, hoping to trick a confession out of him and improve her standing in the harem. She quickly sank into a doze. Luo Binghe… had not.

Really, when you thought on it, which was the sadder figure? The woman who loved unrequited, or Luo Binghe, who didn’t love at all? Shen Yuan had moped for days after that chapter was posted. Cruel, too cruel, Airplane-bro. Shouldn’t a protagonist like Luo Binghe be too awesome to be forever alone?

His jaw cracked on a yawn, jolting him out of nodding off. He had to figure out a way to turn this trap against his captors while not thinking about… certain people. Otherwise, he’d never escape.

Zhuzhi-lang had settled at the base of the tomb, idly stroking his constrictors and watching Shen Yuan with a snoozy softness that kept dragging his chin down to his chest. Tianlang-Jun, on the other hand, seemed as wired as an esports player slamming energy drinks before a match.

“What this master doesn’t understand is, why would Tianlang-Jun seek to protect him, offering his nephew in place of… others.”

“Perhaps it is not you that I mean to protect. Can’t a father keep his son from repeating his mistakes? Humans are untrustworthy, and cultivators are the worst of the lot. They’ll claim to love you and then betray you with a smile.”

Tianlang-Jun made this pronouncement with a smile – pale and brittle as a dirt crust over snow, ready to crack into tears at any moment. The sad, sorry expression looked so familiar – so much like Luo Binghe’s on the edge of the Endless Abyss – that Shen Yuan suffered a momentary pang of sympathy.

But it also gave him the clue he needed, the opening he was looking for.

“If Tianlang-Jun speaks of Su Xiyan, then he should know that those circumstances back then are not what he imagines.”

Xiu Yuan slid free of her sheath, though the blade remained dull and lifeless as iron without Shen Yuan’s spiritual energy to wake her. “Shen-er gongzi should not speak of pasts he knows nothing about.”

“Who said I know nothing? I know that Su Xiyan never betrayed you; that she was the one betrayed. I know she took poison, hoping to escape and warn you. I know that when she found she was too late, that the arrays trapping you were too strong for her to break in her weakened state, that she gave her life to protect your son from that poison. Her first and last act as a mother was to protect her last connection to you.”

Another yawn threatened, and Shen Yuan resisted the urge to pull out his fan for shelter. He was thinking too much of that certain person. He needed to stay focused. Tianlang-Jun’s eyes were drooping. Zhuzhi-lang had already curled up at the base of the sarcophagus. His eyes remained open and fixed on Shen Yuan, but that was a misleading lie. His mouth was soft and slack, and he snuffled in his sleep with cute little hisses.

“Su Xiyan loved you. She never betrayed you,” Shen Yuan drove on, relentless. “She would have left her sect and the cultivation world for you. Weren’t you ready to do the same for her?”

“I would have…” Tianlang-Jun’s chin lowered. Jerked up. Lowered again. “Given her… new world…”

He slumped to the side, sprawling across the top of the sarcophagus. Shen Yuan caught his sword before it could clatter to the ground. He did it! Now to find Luo Binghe before he tore apart the entire Holy Mausoleum looking for…

He made it halfway to the arch before he sank to the floor in his own endless repose.

***

Shen Yuan woke draped over Shen Qingqiu’s back, chin bouncing on his shoulder as he strode purposefully – not jogged, never that! – down the labyrinthine corridors of the Holy Mausoleum.

“M’up,” he slurred, blinking off sleep and trying to make the lie truth. He was swathed in a fine outer robe of black silk, stiff with crimson embroidery and smelling of home. Surreptitiously, he wiped his chin on the sleeve. No drool here! “I’m awake. You can set me down.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Shen Qingqiu asked in overly sweetened tones. “I seem to have lost my hearing from the deafening snores you were emitting just moments ago.”

Oh, it was like that? Shen Yuan wiped his chin again, this time on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder. “I’m awake now.” He glanced around and realized there were only two where there should be three. He wriggled to be put down. Why did everyone think he needed to be carried? “Where’s Binghe?”

“Dealing with the trash. He sent us ahead to escape.”

Gaping, Shen Yuan asked, “You’re working together?”

“A necessary evil. Which I suppose describes the little beast generally.”

“Don’t call him that.” Shen Yuan didn’t mind Shen Qingqiu’s sharp edges, but he wouldn’t let them cut Luo Binghe.

“Even if I mean it affectionately?”

“Do you?”

“No,” Shen Qingqiu said, and then, so soft that Shen Yuan wouldn’t have heard it if the corridor didn’t echo it back to him. “But I suppose I will have to try.”

Awww, Jiu-dage! Shen Yuan squeezed him like his own heart was squeezing in his chest.

“Ugh! Stop strangling me, you limpet!” Shen Qingqiu set him down and smoothed his robes. He frowned at the wet patch on his shoulder, tossing a scowl in Shen Yuan’s direction. Like a cat, Shen Yuan busied himself with his own diversionary cleaning, rolling up the sleeves of Luo Binghe’s outer robe so he could find his hands. When that didn’t distract, he pulled his fan from his belt and raised it to hide his grin.

He caught Shen Qingqiu staring longingly at his fan and dug into his qiankun bag for the back-up he’d brought along for just this reason.

“Here,” he said, holding it out.

Shen Qingqiu sniffed and looked away. “I don’t need your castoffs.”

So predictable. Shen Yuan gained control of his smile, copying Shen Qingqiu’s cold expression. “As though I would offer my dage a castoff. I kept the castoff. This one,” he held up the fan in question, “is the better of the two.”

“What nonsense. Just… give me that, since you bothered to bring it.” Snatching the offered fan, Shen Qingqiu snapped it open and raised it to hide his lower face, but not before Shen Yuan caught the muscle twitch that would be a pleased smile on anyone else.

Pulling Xiu Yuan out of thin air – likely the System’s storage – he said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting this in return.”

Shen Yuan happily took his sword, whispering apologies for letting that nasty Tianlang-Jun mess around with her.

“We’re supposed to meet your disciple where you first came in. Can you find the way?”

With a little triangulation and some points spent for System hints, they made their way back to the first tomb. Shen Yuan would recognize that crumbled wall and strawberry-scented sarcophagus anywhere. It was thankfully free of Blind Corpses. When Shen Yuan mentioned this, Shen Qingqiu made a pleased little noise.

He flipped his fan open, but didn’t bother to hide his smirk. “Yes, at my suggestion, your disciple started a forest fire in one of the tombs. Put out a lovely amount of light. Every Blind Corpse in this blasted place should be burning itself to a crisp right about now.”

“Peak Lord Shen is certainly inventive in his cruelty,” Luo Binghe said, emerging from the darkness with the red gleam of Xin Mo as his herald. “This Lord wonders what he might have learned, if circumstances had been different.”

“I suppose we will never know,” Shen Qingqiu said with a tiny cough. Never know?! As though there weren’t two million words of suffering that documented that alternate history?!

Well, they weren’t killing each other in this version of the story. That was a win in Shen Yuan’s book. “Binghe!” He rushed forward, tripping on the trailing edge of his borrowed robe in his haste. Luo Binghe caught him so that he face-smashed into that sculpted chest instead of the stone floor.

“Oh, sweet rice balls, do I have to bear witness to this?” Shen Qingqiu grumbled, but Shen Yuan hardly heard him over the white noise filling his head at having his nose buried in that warm, cinnamon-scented flesh. He wondered what it tasted like. He wanted to lick it and see.

“Shizun.”

“Ah.” Gathering his dignity and his borrowed robe around him. Shen Yuan pulled himself up and away from… whatever that had been. Another trap, certainly. Maybe Luo Binghe had wandered through some sort of pollen that made people who inhaled it lose their senses. The Great God Airplane had certainly seeded his book with enough of those to fill an herbarium.

Yes, it was definitely caused by some sex-pollen thing. “Binghe is unharmed? Tianlang-Jun didn’t…”He ran a hand down Luo Binghe’s arms, his chest, searching for injuries. Other than missing his outer robe, he seemed untouched.

In fact, he was smiling like Shen Yuan had invented sunlight. He caught Shen Yuan’s hands, both of them fitting in one of his own. “Shizun shows such care. How could this disciple have been hurt, when Shizun was crafty enough to trick those monsters into sleep? Can any other match me in the dream realm?”

Ah, how could he have forgotten?! Didn’t Tianlang-Jun ensure his own defeat, dragging Shen Yuan into that Tomb of Endless Restful Repose? He squeezed the hand engulfing his. “Of course Binghe is the best, but isn’t it a poor master who leaves his disciple to fight on his own? Binghe also deserves to be protected.”

“Yes, yes, you’re both brilliant.” Shen Qingqiu rapped their clasped hands with his fan, forcing them apart and earning a growl from Luo Binghe – which he ignored. “Can we please go before more plot happens?”

“It should be past dawn,” Luo Binghe said. “We only need to wait for—”

Pain erupted through Shen Yuan, emerging from his mouth as a choked scream. On legs he couldn’t control, he lurched out of Luo Binghe’s grasp and stumbled into the shadows, where a familiar set of cool, scaled arms wrapped around him.

“Shizun!”

“Didi!”

Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu both lunged toward him, but pulled short at another agonized cry from Shen Yuan.

“Ah ah ah.” Tianlang-Jun said. The echo of it jarred Shen Yuan’s bones, as though the blood parasites moved in time with their master’s voice. He remained cloaked in the shadows, save for his bone-pale face and his blood-bright sigil. “These plant bodies can be so delicate when demonic energy becomes involved. You wouldn’t want Shen-er gongzi to be torn apart. Not after all the work he went through to get a body of his own. Would he return to sharing with Peak Lord Shen, I wonder? Or would he simply… pffft!” A white hand fluttered, like a butterfly dying.

Luo Binghe flexed his grip on Xin Mo. “How did you escape the dream I trapped you in?”

“Silly child. I woke up. It was easy, once I realized that Shen-er gongzi was a liar all the others. Thanking him for the reminder that cultivators can’t be trusted.” The look he turned on Shen Yuan burned hotter than the blood parasites in his veins. Shen Yuan fought a whimper… and failed.

Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu traded a stricken look. “What do you want?” Luo Binghe asked.

“Hm. So easily? You don’t want to draw it out?” Another flick of his fingers, and the blood moved under Shen Yuan’s skin like he was being flayed from the inside.

He couldn’t swallow his cries of pain, but he could channel them, every exhalation a soft, “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.”

Don’t play his games.

Don’t give him what he wants.

Don’t sacrifice yourself for me.

Don’t you dare hurt Binghe.

Luo Binghe couldn’t hear what went unsaid, and Shen Qingqiu no longer shared Shen Yuan’s thoughts. “What. Do. You. Want?” Luo Binghe growled.

“Such a disappointing child.” Sighing, Tianlang-Jun dropped his hand and relief – carried on what was no doubt a bucketload of endorphins – coursed through Shen Yuan. He sagged in Zhuzhi-lang’s grip. “Your sword. That’s all.”

“Fine.” Luo Binghe drew back as though he intended to Ladyhawke Xin Mo at Tianlang-Jun, but Shen Qingqiu grabbed his arm before he could follow through.

“Wait.” Remaining alive despite the death glare Luo Binghe was giving him, Shen Qingqiu said, “Remove the blood parasites first.”

Tianlang-Jun laughed. “Why should I do that?”

“Why should we trust that you’ll let Shen Yuan go when you have the sword? Cultivators are liars, you say? I say that there is no point in being honest with a creature of deception like a demon. You expect us to give you something when we have no guarantee of reciprocity? Does Tianlang-Jun think this master a complete simpleton?” Removing his grip on Luo Binghe’s arms, Shen Qingqiu idly opened his fan as though he didn’t mind watching Shen Yuan be tortured.

It was a masterful performance. If not for the nervous tap of Shen Qingqiu’s toe, Shen Yuan would have believed it.

From the agony dragging down his face, Luo Binghe didn’t. Shen Yuan found his voice, though it felt like speaking through glass. “Don’t give him Xin Mo. I’m not worth it. He means to—”

“You, shut-up.” Tianlang-Jun made a fist, and Shen Yuan’s throat constricted like he was being choked. Some tiny part of his brain that wasn’t in agony and desperate for air was definitely going to yell at Airplane later – since when did blood parasites give demons force-choke abilities?!

“Well?” Tianlang-Jun prodded a distraught Luo Binghe.

Looking like he’d rather slash his own throat than watch Shen Yuan suffer, Luo Binghe rested the tip of Xin Mo on the stone at his feet. “Remove the blood parasites and you can have whatever you want.”

“And don’t think to cheat us. I trust my didi has ways to make certain they’re entirely gone from his System,” Shen Qingqiu added, snapping his fan meaningfully.

“Oh, very well,” Tianlang-Jun said, sounding bored with the entire negotiation. Another wave of his hand, and Shen Yuan began to jerk and heave up blood in viscous chunks that made him worry he was spitting up internal organs along with it. Only Zhuzhi-lang’s embrace kept him from falling to his knees.

System, can… track… levels?

【Thanking User OP for the query. For 100 Co-op Mode Points, you can purchase a one-time blood parasite level tracker.】

Do… it.

Zhuzhi-lang’s embrace tightened as Shen Yuan’s heaving grew more pronounced.

Also… can spend rest… points on… scenario pusher? No bottle… needed. Deploy on… signal.

【Of course! Thank you for using the System Online Store, for all your plot facilitation needs. Blood parasite levels are at 25%... 21%... 19%... 8% – oooh, that was a big chunk!… 5%. 2%. 1%. Clear!】

Spitting up the last meaty bits swimming around in his mouth, Shen Yuan nodded weakly at Luo Binghe, and met Shen Qingqiu’s gaze with a steady look that he hoped said, be ready.

“Your turn,” Tianlang-Jun said, and caught Xin Mo before it could skewer him through the face.

“Now, release Shizun.”

“Ah, I don’t recall agreeing to that. You really should be more specific in your negotiations.” With a sweep of Xin Mo, Tianlang-Jun sliced a hole through reality and backed toward it. Zhuzhi-lang followed, dragging Shen Yuan with him.

System, now.

The scent of strawberries burst through the tomb, cutting through the stink of bones and blood, as enough oil to fill a Turkish grease wrestling ring poured down on Shen Yuan and Zhuzhi-lang. Slippery as a lube-covered eel, Shen Yuan shot free of the snake demon’s grip. When Zhuzhi-lang tried to catch him, his hands slid off Shen Yuan’s skin. Overbalanced, he fell to the ground and then couldn’t get enough traction to get back up again.

A moment later, a blast of clean spiritual energy caught Tianlang-Jun in the chest, hurtling him to the back of the tomb with Xin Mo clattering at his side. The tear in reality stitched back together

Scrambling to stay upright, Shen Yuan sloughed Luo Binghe’s robe. He tossed Xiu Yuan into his System inventory before he butterfingered that and pelted towards Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu like an out-of-control speed skater on fresh ice.

“Go! Go!” They’d deal with Xin Mo later. They needed to regroup. Get out. Get backup.

Tianlang-Jun’s laughter followed them as they raced along the outer corridor, and then the demon himself came, dragging Xin Mo’s tip along the ground like he was auditioning to play Pyramid Head in a Silent Hill remake.

“Shen-er gongzi isn’t just a good liar. He’s also very resourceful. This Lord can see why his son’s head was turned.” Sparks flew up from the track Xin Mo was carving into the corridor floor. “But you’re still trapped in the Holy Mausoleum, and I hold your best means of escape. Do you really think you can make it all the way to the entrance without me hunting you down?”

Dust sifted down from above, catching Xin Mo’s light in a hazy red cloud. Shen Yuan fell heavily against Luo Binghe when the floor rumbled under his oil-slick boots.

“I don’t think we have to. After all, why bring two-hundred Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons when you can bring a thousand?” Luo Binghe said, just as the outer wall crashed in and buried Tianlang-Jun under a mountain of rubble.

Chapter Text

While Luo Binghe, Mobei Jun, and Yue Qingyuan dug through the remains of the Holy Mausoleum’s wall, Shen Qingqiu assisted Shen Yuan in toweling off the worst of the oil using Shang Qinghua’s outer robe. In return, Shen Yuan fed him qi to fix the imbalance caused by Without-a-Cure and exacerbated by that last spiritual blast at Tianlang-Jun. The sun had risen well above the horizon by the time the boys had cleared away the rhinos and the rubble and confirmed that no bodies lay beneath it. Shen Qingqiu could have warned the optimistic fools that Tianlang-Jun and his toady – snaky? – would be long gone, but that would have robbed him of the amusement of witnessing the little beast’s frustration that the big beast could not be found.

“Stupid villain halo,” Shen Yuan muttered under his breath as he patted his disciple consolingly, earning a curious look from Luo Binghe and a snort-laugh from Shang Qinghua. He raised his fan to cover his lapse, saying loudly, “Ah. I mean, it’s not Binghe’s fault.”

But more importantly, the excavation kept Yue Qingyuan occupied, which gave Shen Qingqiu time to compose himself and decide how to react to the revelations of the previous night. He’d been too busy outwitting Heavenly Demons and saving his didi to consider his own recent emotional upheavals.

When he saw Yue Qingyuan approaching with a determined look hardening his usually placid expression, Shen Qingqiu managed to put it off a little longer by suggesting that any important strategizing of their next moves should take place back at the camp.

“Assuming you didn’t disassemble the tents before coming to get me,” he said archly. Perhaps they had. It certainly felt like it took an unusually long time before Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe arrived. And though he’d deny it, his heart had lurched when he realized Yue Qingyuan hadn’t come with them. He understood the tactics of it – someone had to ensure that the second half of the herd got moving in the morning – but the part of him that would always be Xiao-Jiu had waited with hope he thought had been destroyed with the fire that freed him from the Qiu family.

Shen Yuan was so quick to agree with Shen Qingqiu’s suggestion that he wondered if his real thoughts were transparent – if anyone had insight into the twists of Shen Qingqiu’s mind, wouldn’t it be the person who’d navigated them with him for the past several years?

But then Shen Yuan slopped his oil-heavy sleeves against his sides, and the scent of strawberries permeated the air.

“This master would appreciate a bath and clean robes,” he said with an impressive amount of restraint for someone whose face could rival Shen Qingqiu’s for thinness. He drew Xiu Yuan for mounting, and Shen Qingqiu drew Xiu Jiu. The two blades gleamed like the sun and the moon, a resonant hum rising between them like a welcome between brothers.

“Of course, Shizun. This disciple should have arranged that at once!” As shameless as a dog bounding at his master’s side like he was still a puppy, Lue Binghe tried to crowd onto the sword with Shen Yuan. He was discouraged with a slippery shove.

“I’m not even certain that I can stay on Xiu Yuan,” Shen Yuan said, his ears as red as the sigil on the little beast’s brow “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for Binghe falling.”

Catching the pleading glance Shen Yuan sent his way, Shen Qingqiu widened his stance on his sword. “Don’t even think about asking,” he said. Luo Binghe could walk as far as he was concerned. Perhaps the stroll would cool him down and help work off some of that boundless energy. Shen Yuan really was too lenient with everyone. Disciples. Lovers. Friends. Family.

“Lord Luo can ride with me,” Yue Qingyuan said, ever the peacemaker. He drew the backup sword he used for such things. Now that Shen Qingqiu knew about the troubles around Xuan Su’s acquisition and the qi deviation that kept Qi-ge from coming back for him, he wondered if there was a more sinister reason why Xuan Su remained sheathed in all but the direst situations.

A question for later. Or never, now that he didn’t have to face emotionally fraught conversations to earn life-saving prizes from the System. Deciding the transportation matter was settled enough, Shen Qingqiu took off before he snapped and verbally eviscerated all these people who kept terrifying him by mattering.

Xiu Ya had always been a good sword for flying – sleek, responsive, and fast – and Xiu Jiu was no different. Better, possibly, with Shen Qingqiu’s restored meridians and reinforced golden core.

Unfortunately, Xiu Yuan was no different, and Shen Yuan’s plant body might appear delicate, but the spiritual power it contained was practically inexhaustible. He quickly caught up with Shen Qingqiu as they raced far ahead of the others.

Tossing up a talisman to keep the wind from ripping his words away, Shen Yuan said, “You’re angry with him.

Unable to flee the conversation or hide from his didi’s insight, Shen Qingqiu instead chose to misunderstand. “Anger is acute. Dislike is chronic. I dislike him.”

“I’m not talking about Binghe. Yue-shixiong didn’t come for you – again – and you’re angry at him for it.”

“You came. That is what matters.” He’d meant those words as a dismissal, but was surprised to realize they were true. They might have been forced together by circumstance, but wasn’t that so for everyone – disciples, lovers, friends, family? Of all the people he’d known, only Shen Yuan had seen every part of Shen Qingqiu, never believing he was better or worse than he was, and had chosen him anyway. Even over Luo Binghe.

Calling him ‘didi’ had been half habit, half convenient lie to cover the unexplainable nature of their connection, but the more Shen Qingqiu used it, the more it felt like a bedrock truth.

The plateau where they’d camped rose in the distance, the cliffs of the valley seeming more jagged and uneven than they had been when they made camp the previous night. White and black pavilions gleamed under the harsh demonic realm sun like the opening two pieces of a weiqi game.

“You had brothers in your life before,” Shen Qingqiu said. Not a question. He knew. There was little at this point that they didn’t know about each other. No, Shen Qingqiu’s question was, “Were any of them like—”

“Nothing like you,” Shen Yuan said as they landed between the tents. He caught Shen Qingqiu’s sleeve with fingers grown tacky from dust and oil. “Dage is his own person, not a replacement for someone I lost.”

Shen Qingqiu stifled a groan. All these sticky feelings. He’d had quite enough of them. “Stop perceiving me, you brat.” He pulled his robe from Shen Yuan’s grip, frowning at the smudges left behind. “And stop smearing your dirt all over me. One of the few positives about acquiring a brother later in life is not having to suffer through his toddler years.”

Spotting the others fast approaching, he sheathed his sword and use the sheath to bully Shen Yuan toward the white tent. “Let’s get you cleaned up before you embarrass our family name looking like this – and before your sticky disciple throws himself at you again. If that happened now, I’m not certain even a crowbar could pry you apart.”

“Shizun!” As though invoked by Shen Qingqiu’s words, Luo Binghe hopped off Yue Qingyuan’s sword before they’d even landed. He bore down on them, with Yue Qingyuan not far behind.

“Stop!” Shen Qingqiu took a moment to appreciate that he could stop demon lords and sect leaders with nothing more than a glare. “Use the other tent. This one is for brothers only.”

Both men opened their mouths like they were foolish enough to argue with Shen Qingqiu’s decree.

“Uh… what about me?” Shang Qinghua’s poor timing and inability to read the room saved them from death by a thousand cutting words. Shen Qingqiu prided himself on being a master of verbal lingchi.

“You…” Shen Qingqiu had so many reasons to dislike this author, this person that he refused to believe had any control over his fate. But… before he’d bastardized his divinatory gift to satisfy the perverted demands of the witless and morally-warped, that Airplane had tried to develop Shen Qingqiu’s character in all its complexity. Shen Yuan might see him best, but, in a way, this annoying rodent had seen him first. And he did have his uses.

“You,” Shen Qingqiu began again, lifting his chin and snapping his fan closed, “May bring us hot water.”

Turning his back on a chorus of protests in several different keys, Shen Qingqiu prodded Shen Yuan into the tent.

***

After the stress of the last… forever… Shen Yuan found the calm and order that Shen Qingqiu imposed with a few cold glares to be a blessed relief. The concerns of the outside world – Tianlang-Jun in possession of Xin Mo, Luo Binghe in possession of Shen Yuan’s affection, the System in possession of his freedom and future – those were problems for tomorrow’s Shen Yuan to deal with. For now, he used a bucket and cloth to scrub oil from everywhere it had seeped – his hair, his ears, between his toes! – before sinking into the hot bath to cleanse the stress and fear from his spirit.

Shang Qinghua babbled as he puttered, mostly about what a boring wait they’d had until dawn came, and how he’d never heard Yue Qingyuan sound so testy, it was almost like having two Mobei-Juns!

Shen Qingqiu responded with the occasional non-committal noise and a few barbed comments about the comparative intelligence between Shang Qinghua, a mute iceberg, a sentimental fool, a herd of rhinos, and the rocks on the cliff. Most of his attention was on laying out clothes for Shen Yuan to change into. And, Shen Yuan suspected, on quietly panicking now that he was running out of ways to avoid Yue Qingyuan.

But Shen Yuan had already pushed the boundaries of ‘Things We Talk About Out Loud.’ Instead, after he’d toweled off – leaving his hair spread loose down his back to dry – and donned spring green robes embroidered with bamboo leaves, he touched Shen Qingqiu’s arm with his folded fan.

“Thanking dage for everything he did to rescue me.”

Shen Qingqiu’s huff was soft, but full of the disdain that was always as much self-directed as it was outward. “I did little. Loath as I am to encourage him with any sort of praise, your disciple was resourceful and competent in his efforts to get you back.”

“Yes. But that’s who he is. Those sorts of things come easily for Binghe. You forced yourself to attempt things that are not easy for you. So, thank you.”

“Not that it proved necessary in the end,” Shen Qingqiu grumbled, but he laid a hand atop Shen Yuan’s, his ears turning the lightest shade of pink.

“Shizun?” Luo Binghe’s call from just outside the tent shattered the quiet moment.

“Oh, thank the gods,” Shen Qingqiu muttered, rushing to the tent flap. “I’ve never been so grateful to hear the beast’s howling.”

Perhaps it was Shen Yuan’s imagination, but it almost sounded like that gratitude softened Shen Qingqiu’s snapped, “Yes?” when he parted the flap.

The aroma of fried scallion cakes, roasted pork, steamed mantou, and a dozen other appetizing scents floated into the tent. Shen Yuan pressed his palms to his stomach to muffle a growl.

“Begging Peak Lord Shen’s indulgence, but I thought my Shizun might be hungry, and I—”

“Did you make enough for everyone?”

Luo Binghe tried to lean to one side and the other for a peek into the interior, but Shen Qingqiu shifted. All Shen Yuan could see was the top of his fluffy head, but he heard the pout in his voice. “I made enough to sate Shizun’s hunger, however great that might be.”

“I will assume that means yes. You had better ensure that it does. Have the others gather in your tent. We need to discuss what to do now that your sword is in the hands of someone even more unstable than you.”

Shen Yuan drew a breath to reprimand Shen Qingqiu – did he always have to be so cruel to Luo Binghe? Hadn’t they been getting along in the Holy Mausoleum? But Luo Binghe spoke before he could.

“If Peak Lord Shen thinks that this Lord made the wrong decision—”

“Did I say that?” Silence. Shen Qingqiu’s hand tightened on his folded fan, but it stayed at his waist rather than rising to strike. “I did not, so don’t presume to know my opinion. It was… necessary. And you showed some sense in supporting my suggestion regarding the blood parasites.”

Shen Yuan’s hands moved from his stomach to his heart. To hear such words from Shen Qingqiu. To Luo Binghe!

“It was Peak Lord Shen’s caution that showed sense.”

An uncontrolled grin dawned across Shen Yuan’s face. He must have made some sort of noise, because Shen Qingqiu turned to glare at him, giving him his first clear sight of Luo Binghe.

Like Shen Yuan, he’d bathed and changed. Though he wore robes fit for the emperor of the demon realm, all black brocade and red and silver trim, his face was as bright and smooth as a peach bun, his hair wild and fluffy, and it was like the best of both worlds – a white lotus whose petals were edged with deepest crimson.

Ah, too handsome. Binghe was too handsome, and Shen Yuan’s heart felt like the mushroom it had been grown out of, all smooshy and not nearly strong enough to take it. His fan fluttered up, far too late to hide his smile as he took in the sight of Luo Binghe looking at him, soft and adoring.

“Must you look so…” Shen Qingqiu waved a hand at them both, his scowl a study in disgust.

“My two favorite people are getting along,” Shen Yuan said. “I really must.”

“I’ll gather the others myself,” Shen Qingqiu huffed, and headed out of the tent. He caught Luo Binghe’s collar when he would have rushed in. “No. You. Food.”

It turned out that Luo Binghe had made enough for all of them – or perhaps just too much for Shen Yuan alone, but it worked out to be the same. It was one of the only good things about the summit that followed. Possibly, it even prevented bloodshed. In the moments when Luo Binghe slyly needled and Shen Qingqiu responded with his sharp tongue, Shen Yuan could divert them both from drawing blood by putting something delicious in their bowls that they simply had to try.

Eventually, when hunger had been sated and the encounter in the Holy Mausoleum had been shared, Yue Qingyuan asked the question they’d all been avoiding: “Why did Tianlang-Jun want Lord Luo’s sword? What does he intend to do?”

Shen Yuan cast a significant glance at Shang Qinghua, and was appalled to see that the Great God Airplane, who’d written three hundred chapters about what Luo Binghe had done with that same sword, seemed as confounded by the question as everyone else.

He’d hit that stupid author with his fan, if he didn’t fear that Mobei-Jun would rip it out of his hands, break it, and start a civil war in the demon realm when Luo Binghe took offense. Really, Shang Qinghua was oblivious on so many levels.

He studied the way Mobei-Jun’s stern gaze never moved from the oblivious Shang Qinghua. So many levels.

What?! Shen Yuan had survived his romantic heavenly tribulation. Now it was his right to sit in judgement and enjoy the suffering of those who had yet to go through theirs!

“What?” Shang Qinghua yelped when Shen Yuan continued to try to melt his brain with his glare alone.

Sighing, Shen Yuan said, “After hearing how he feels about Su Xiyan’s betrayal, and from other hints he dropped,” bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, “This master thinks that Tianlang-Jun intends to take Xin Mo to Maigu Ridge and use it to merge the demon and human realms into one.”

Of course, Tianlang-Jun hadn’t indicated anything of the sort, but Shen Yuan figured that the Luo Binghe of <<Proud Immortal Demon Way>> had done the same thing with much less reason. Like son, like father? And the System was a stickler for keeping plot points from the original novel. When it looked like one character wouldn’t serve, another was brought in to do the deed. Like Mobei-Jun at the Endless Abyss, or Shen Yuan being shoved into every love-interest peril and wife-plot. If he had to suffer through that nonsense, at least let him draw accurate conclusions from it!

“We’ll need to gather the sects,” Yue Qingyuan said. “It won’t be enough to stop him, but if we can slow him down—”

“Huan Hua will obey, and they have the best array masters. The demon armies will be harder to gather and control,” Luo Binghe said, stiffening at a soft snort from Shen Qingqiu, but relaxing again when Shen Yuan shifted and their shoulders brushed. “But they will follow if I command it. Mobei?”

“I will relay Junshang’s order. Qinghua.”

“My king?” Shang Qinghua cast a nervous glance at Yue Qingyuan, as though the sect leader wasn’t well aware – and apparently tolerant of – his divided loyalty.

“With me.”

With a squeak of obedience, Shang Qinghua stuffed one last pork bun into his mouth, three more into his sleeve, and followed his king out of the tent.

“I will return with Mobei-Jun so that I can gather the sects.” Yue Qingyuan cast a look so hopeful at Shen Qingqiu that Shen Yuan was practically dying from contact embarrassment. After several moments of silence, he sighed and turned to leave.

Shen Yuan nudged Shen Qingqiu’s ankle with his toe. When that yielded nothing, he kicked him.

“Ai!” Shen Qingqiu yelped, hopping away and shooting Shen Yuan a betrayed glare. Shen Yuan kept his face blank as though it had nothing to do with him. This is what is called the student surpassing the master.

“Xiao-Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan breathed, hopeful, so hopeful. He and Luo Binghe must also have studied at the same school.

“I… will go with you,” Shen Qingqiu muttered, and followed Yue Qingyuan’s blossoming smile like a grumpy badger drawn to honey.

He got his revenge at the tent flap, turning to fix a glare on Shen Yuan. And Luo Binghe.

Who would be left alone together. Without any buffer.

Shit.

Shen Qingqiu toyed with his fan, letting Shen Yuan see the mean little smile that curved his lips. “We’ll meet you on Maigu Ridge tomorrow. Try to get some sleep.”

Fuck. Wait! Jiu-dage! This didi didn’t mean to betray you! He takes it back!

Ignoring the hand Shen Yuan raised in silent entreaty, Shen Qingqiu left.

***

Necessity proved to be almost as useful a shield as Shen Qingqiu’s fan and his spite. He and Yue Qingyuan returned to Cang Qiong Sect by way of Mobei-Jun’s portal, and the four of them explained the situation to the two armies that had been left at the base of the mountain to wait.

At Luo Binghe’s command – as relayed by Mobei-Jun – the demons withdrew to make their own arrangements. Liu Mingyan joined them to act as coordination liaison because she’d struck up an inexplicable friendship with Sha Hualing in their few days together.

Liu Qingge looked unhappy about it, but that was only one matter in a host of issues he was unhappy about.

“You left him alone with that demon?” he demanded after they’d explained to the gathered Peak Lords that the shuffling of bodies had finally been resolved with everyone alive and in their appropriate housing. Cheng Luan flashed with his flare of anger.

Shen Qingqiu almost felt sorry for him. The man might be immune to succubus seductions, but he’d proved entirely susceptible to Shen Yuan’s oblivious allure.

And then Shen Qingqiu reminded himself that Liu-shidi was alive when he should have died, and that he didn’t even particularly like the brute, and the urge to sympathize passed like a bout of mild food poisoning.

“That demon will rip apart the world to protect him,” Shen Qingqiu said. It was slightly easier to say positive things about the little beast here, where neither Luo Binghe nor Shen Yuan could hear him. He ignored Yue Qingyuan’s soft, approving gaze at what passed for kindness from Shen Qingqiu. “Even the War God of Bai Zhan Peak is no match for him, or did the past five years not teach you that?”

“You—!”

Yue Qingyuan laid a restraining hand on Liu Qingge’s shoulder, soppy smile gone strained at the edges. Shen Qingqiu arched a brow. Let that be a reminder that kindness from him came wrapped in thorns.

Whatever protests he might raise, Liu Qingge had no choice but to accept that Shen Yuan was out of his hands. Grumbling, he took his new disciple and left to coordinate with Huan Hua Palace. Mu Qingfang, having formed a friendship with Great Master Wu Chen while treating his lost limbs during the sower debacle, went to convince the monks of Zhao Hua Temple to aid them. With a put-upon sign, Qi Qingqi offered to visit the daoist Tian Yi Overlook, muttering something about at least being able to see the triplets while she was there.

The rest of the Peak Lords dispersed to organize what aid they could, leaving Shen Qingqiu alone with Yue Qingyuan. Alone, and with many hours to pass until they flew out in the morning to fulfil the remaining quests in Shen Qingqiu’s queue.

So when Yue Qingyuan followed him back to Qing Jing Peak instead of returning to his own for the night, Shen Qingqiu hesitated only a moment before resigning himself to his fate and allowing it.

If they were to die tomorrow, then he would not waste tonight.

“Xiao-Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan said when they entered the bamboo house. It looked like only days had passed since Shen Qingqiu had left it, instead of years. Dust hadn’t been allowed to settle on his desk. Fresh bedding lay folded at the foot of his bed. A spray of plum blossoms, artfully arranged, freshened the air with their scent.

Ah, these disciples of his. They were far better than he deserved.

“Xiao-Jiu, Xiao-Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan kept repeating, not like he was trying to attract Shen Qingqiu’s attention. More like he was reveling in the joy of saying the name without having his tongue torn out of his mouth.

Well, couldn’t have that. Shen Qingqiu only had to look as far as his didi to see what happened when you got too complacent about training your special person.

“Stop that. You sound like that Luo Binghe, all ‘Shizun! Shizun!’ If you have something to say, say it.”

“Xiao-Jiu is something,” Yue Qingyuan reached out a tentative hand, like he was trying to coax a feral cat closer.

Shen Qingqiu batted the hand away with his fan. But… more gently than he might have before. Keeping his claws sheathed. “Xiao-Jiu hasn’t been anything for a long time.”

“I disagree. Xiao-Jiu is… has always been… everything to me.” As though that shameless statement wasn’t enough, Yue Qingyuan wrapped his arms around Shen Qingqiu, pulling him gently but inexorably into his embrace.

“Ah!” With his arms trapped at his sides and no fan to protect his face, Shen Qingqiu could only hide it against Yue Qingyuan’s broad shoulder. “How can you say such nonsense and live? I’m going to die of embarrassment, just hearing it.”

Yue Qingyuan’s embrace tightened to the point of discomfort. A shiver ran through him, shaking them both. He buried his nose against Shen Qingqiu’s neck. “Then I’ll be silent. I’ve lived through too many of Xiao-Jiu’s deaths. I cannot survive another.”

You won’t have to, Shen Qingqiu thought, inhaling the calming scent of pine and osmanthus that, even at the height of his resentment, had always made him feel safe. Safe to lash out, safe to hate, safe to hurt. He gave into his own shudder as he recalled the dream demon’s visions of Yue Qingyuan’s fate in that trash novel.

I will do anything to keep that from coming to pass.

“Xiao-Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan raised his head as though he knew that Shen Qingqiu was silently suffering through his own crisis.

Lifting his face from the safety of Yue Qingyuan’s shoulder, Shen Qingqiu said, “Nothing. It’s nothing. Just… promise me, before you do something foolish, that you will consider that your Xiao-Jiu also could not survive it if his Qi-ge died. The best way to ensure I keep living is to live yourself.”

Eyes wide and wet, Qingyuan studied him mutely. Then he nodded and whispered, “I promise.”

Shen Qingqiu’s breath caught as he realized what he’d just asked for. What Qingyuan had given him without hesitation.

A promise.

Grabbing Qingyuan’s chin, Shen Qingqiu let his claws out just enough to dig in and hold his attention. “And you had better keep this one,” he growled, and kissed him.

Shen Qingqiu was slender and graceful, but he was not a slight man – especially not compared to the body he’d recently inhabited that was now Shen Yuan’s – but he felt slight when Qingyuan dragged him up to deepen their kiss. And he hated being made to feel that way, so he wrapped his legs around Qingyuan’s hips, flung his arms around his shoulders, and used the leverage to climb his Qi-ge like a fucking tree.

Whether it was from the change in weight or the increased force of Shen Qingqiu’s kiss, who could say? Qingyuan staggered like a man drunk or drugged, bumped into the edge of Shen Qingqiu’s bed, and fell. Hard.

They landed with Shen Qingqiu straddling his Qi-ge, their teeth knocking at the impact. Shen Qingqiu tasted blood between them. His lips? Qi-ge’s? Who cared. He licked it clean, momentarily distracted by the reminder that blood parasites still swarmed through him. He’d have to get Shen Yuan make the little beast remove them before he accidentally infected his Qi-ge with them. Was contact infection even possible?

His attention returned to the here and now when Qi-ge’s large hands grabbed his ass and held it firmly in place so he could grind up against Shen Qingqiu.

Ah, fuck. That was… Shen Qingqiu couldn’t think for the sparks going off in his brain, his body. His Qi-ge swallowed his moan, lips seeking more noises to devour. Using his grip on Shen Qingqiu’s ass, he ground their erections together in slow, patient, devastating circles. Shen Qingqiu shoved and clawed at his Qi-ge’s robes, at his own, trying to find and expose flesh, to taste and smell the truth of it, the reality he’d denied himself for decades.

They were going to fuck. Now, and for a long time to come. He wasn’t quite certain how to manage the mechanics of it, but he was going to make it happen. Often. Thank the heavens that their cultivation didn’t rely on abstention, because that was going to be a thing of the past.

He stopped in the middle of sucking bruises all down his Qi-ge’s neck and chest to release a self-deprecating laugh against his nipple. It hardened at the ghost-breath, and Shen Qingqiu couldn’t stop himself from biting in response.

His Qi-ge surged up against him, holding them both still until the immediate urge, the need, the crest of the wave receded and they collapsed back down into the rolling sea of want.

“Xiao-Jiu laughed.” His Qi-ge’s breath was hot in Shen Qingqiu’s ear, his voice bright with wonder and ragged with desire.

You had better not laugh,” Shen Qingqiu warned, and then admitted, “but you should know that I have no fucking clue what I’m doing.”

Qingyuan’s fingers tightened, his rutting movements stilled. “But… the brothels…”

It hurt, a bit, that Qingyuan believed the rumors – that he thought so little of him. But Shen Qingqiu was not about to deny himself this just because his feelings took a bit of a hit. He’d torment Yue Qingyuan about it… later. After.

“To sleep. Only,” he said. “They’re the only places I could, at times.”

The only places that drove the nightmares away, until a gremlin from another world set up house in his head – something he’d eventually learned to be grateful for. Much like he was grateful now that the gremlin had moved out. If he was still here, Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t… he could never…

“Ah, I’m thinking again,” he groaned, resting his brow on his Qingyuan’s bare chest.

“That can only ever lead to trouble. Allow your Qi-ge to help,” he said, and slid his hand off Shen Qingqiu’s ass to wrap around his cock.

His robes were in the way, the silk made rough by the pressure of Qi-ge’s grip, and Shen Qingqiu didn’t care. He clung weakly to Qi-ge’s shoulders, back hunched to give him room to move, to stroke Shen Qingqiu through that sheath of silk.

He didn’t care about the impediment… until he did.

“Off.” Standing, Shen Qingqiu pulled off his layers… and layers… and layers of robes – honestly, why had he developed the habit of wearing seven layers? He threw them aside in frustrated haste. His Qi-ge, the useless idiot, just propped himself up on his elbows and watched the show with a fond smile and a flush that went all the way down to his belt.

Shen Qingqiu’s guan and pin clanked on bare wood where he dropped them. “If you don’t undress now, I’m going to blast apart your robes with spiritual power,” he said, which he thought was very kind of him, giving fair warning like that.

“They have protections embroidered into them,” Qi-ge said, but he also removed his guan and started undressing with appropriate haste, so Shen Qingqiu decided not to punish him for the insolence. “Similar to immortal binding cables.”

Naked now – the both of them – Shen Qingqiu resumed his place astride Qi-ge’s glorious thighs. Their cocks gently brushed and bumped against each other, a tease that made breathing harder and thinking utterly pointless. Shen Qingqiu fell forward, bracing his arms on either side of Qi-ge’s shoulders to hover over him.

“Then maybe next time, I’ll use them to tie you up.”

“Yesss.” Qi-ge surged against him, cock grinding, mouth catching in a kiss that was all desperation and need.

But need could only take them so far, and the more desperate they strained against each other, the less that spit and sweat could do to stave off the catching rub of friction.

Shen Qingqiu had a solution, but he despised the thought of turning to it – until the skin of their bare cocks caught on one enthusiastic thrust, and Qi-ge jerked back and let out a hiss that did not have its origins in pleasure.

Fuck it. Shen Qingqiu had already abandoned any face he might have had, tossed it aside with his clothing and old grudges.

System, how many points would it cost to acquire a bottle of that scenario pusher you sold to my didi? Shen Qingqiu considered a moment and then added, And how many points for you to never bring this up again?

A bit of haggling later – the System was reluctant to sell an unscented version of the oil but eventually conceded – Shen Qingqiu had a bottle in his hand, wrapped in a plain brown wrapper, and a vow from the System that all store transactions were secure and confidential.

For once, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t dredge up a speck of annoyance. He was too busy pouring oil over himself and Qi-ge where they slotted against each other, sinking into the glide and heat between their bodies – their tongues meeting in hungry, open kisses, their fingers twisting and tangling above their heads but never letting go, their cocks building heat, building pressure, building, building, building toward something that had seemed impossible for so many years, and now seemed inevitable.

It was all too much feeling for Shen Qingqiu to keep contained. He stilled, shaking like it might tear him apart. Overwhelmed by it.

“Qi-ge… I…” he sobbed, and then broke, his orgasm a sharp, violent thing that he was certain would shatter him.

But his Qi-ge held him together through it, with strong arms, tender kisses, whispers of, “Xiao-Jiu, my Xiao-Jiu. I have you.”

He came until he was wrung dry and lying limp atop his Qi-ge, all but purring at the lazy hand that stroked up and down his spine. He stayed like that, boneless and unmoving, until his sweat dried and the chill of the long-empty bamboo house caught him in a full-body shiver.

Gently shifting Shen Qingqiu to one side, Qingyuan felt around blindly until he snagged one of the robes they’d thrown aside and used it to wipe them clean.

“I didn’t notice… did you…” Shen Qingqiu started, and then couldn’t make himself finish. Now that he wasn’t stupid with passion, he couldn’t thicken his face enough to speak plainly about what they’d just shared. He gestured to the mess between them. There was so much of it. Surely it hadn’t all come from him.

“I did.” A kiss landed on Shen Qingqiu’s brow. “Xiao-Jiu doesn’t need to worry for his Qi-ge.” Another landed on his cheek. “Let Qi-ge worry about Xiao-Jiu.”

Shen Qingqiu let himself be distracted by Qingyuan’s slow, thorough kiss, but eventually he dragged himself out of it and batted him away.

“Stop being such a selfless fool.” Shen Qingqiu punished him for such nonsense with a bite to his shoulder, and then soothed it with a kitten lick and a kiss. “We’re not children anymore. It is possible for us to take care of each other.”

“I would…” Qingyuan’s breath caught, and were those tears? Ah, they were tears. “I would like that.”

Groaning, Shen Qingqiu rolled onto Qingyuan and pulled the covers over their heads. If he couldn’t crush the tears out of him, maybe he could smother them. Emotions. So much messier than sex. So much harder to clean up.

“Please take care of me, Xiao-Jiu,” his Qi-ge whispered against his lips, a plea hidden in the warmth and darkness that cocooned them.

And in that hidden space, Shen Qingqiu found the courage to whisper back, “As Qi-ge has always taken care of me.”

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan braced himself for a flood of words after everyone else left, but Luo Binghe remained silent, watching him, until it took everything Shen Yuan had not to fidget.

“Binghe?” he prodded softly when the silence lasted longer than he could stand.

“Shizun is so different.”

Ah. So it was disappointment hidden under that hooded gaze. Shen Yuan could hardly be surprised. This body and face might be healthier versions of his old ones, but they couldn’t compare to the refined beauty and elegance of Qing Jing Peak’s Peak Lord. And wasn’t that the face that Luo Binghe had grown to admire?

Smoothing away heartache until this less-interesting face of his was as unblemished as a river-worn pebble, Shen Yuan said, “This master knows his looks cannot be compared with his brother’s, but his heart and mind are that same Shizun that Binghe knew.”

“Not compare…?” Luo Binghe caught Shen Yuan’s hands, putting a stop to his nervous fiddling with his fan. “Why would I compare? Shizun is beautiful no matter what face he wears. I only meant that this face…”

He raised his fingers to Shen Yuan’s cheek, touch skimming over it as light as a dragonfly across a still pond. “Shizun smiles more with this face. His kindness sits on it better. If comparisons are to be made, Binghe prefers this face.”

Ah, now Shen Yuan really did need to hide, but with no way to do that, instead he shied away from the sincerity sparkling in Luo Binghe’s dark eyes.

As though Shen Yuan’s embarrassment had been a rejection, the warmth of Luo Binghe’s touch withdrew. Hesitation clouded his bright features, and he stepped away to clear the remains of their meal like they were still master and disciple sharing the bamboo house.

Shen Yuan appreciated being taken care of as much as the next lazy, rich millennial, but he didn’t want a servant any more than he wanted to be a pampered wife – which was to say, he wanted both a little bit, but not all the time.

Start as you mean to continue, Shen Yuan told himself, and stooped to retrieve the empty dishes that Luo Binghe didn’t have enough hands to carry.

“Shizun!”

“Hush. You cooked; I clean. Those were the rules I grew up with.” Which, given that they had a chef and a maid, didn’t actually mean much, but it was a nice rule.

Luo Binghe tried to dissuade Shen Yuan from doing the dishes, but Shen Yuan only relented after he’d knocked over the bucket, broken two bowls, and started to worry that he might drive the powerful demon lord protagonist to actual tears. Leaving Luo Binghe to sort out the mess he hadn’t intended to make, Shen Yuan used a little spiritual energy to heat fresh water and prepare tea.

Their accommodations might be strange – the tent with its black silk walls and crimson fittings, the ebony bedframe that had no place out here in the wilds of the demon realm, and the vermillion hangings and sheets that bore a disconcerting resemblance to wedding bedclothes – but the domestic puttering was so familiar and comforting that Shen Yuan’s nerves began to settle. This wasn’t some stranger, some untouchable protagonist or murderous tyrant. This was Binghe – his Binghe – who was his reason for being in this world.

“Binghe has questions,” Shen Yuan said once the dishes had been stashed in a qiankun bag. He forced Luo Binghe to join him by dint of pouring two cups of tea – to leave one untouched would be rude.

Binghe sat, but seemed more interested in his tea than interrogation.

Leaving his fan tucked in his sleeve so he wouldn’t be able to hide behind it, Shen Yuan said, “Go on. This master is ready to keep his promise, to continue our conversation from before.”

Binghe’s finger traced the edge of his cup. “Ah, Shizun did promise, but he also requested that we not discuss these matters again. This disciple isn’t certain which questions he’s allowed to ask.”

“When did I say that?” Shen Yuan had thought about their time in the sarcophagus more than was probably healthy, but that was definitely enough to be certain that he’d said no such thing.

“In the Huan Hua Water Prison.” When Shen Yuan’s confused frown deepened – who remembered what was said so long ago?! – Luo Binghe added, “After the Little Palace Mistress assaulted Shizun.”

Eh? Ah! He set his teacup down so that he didn’t accidentally spill it into his lap. Wasn’t it too hot in this tent? Binghe, let in some air if you’re going to bring up such painful memories!

“I think Binghe misunderstood,” Shen Yuan said. Yes, he recalled asking to never speak of that moment again, but at the time he thought he’d been caught trying to seduce a future member of the harem! How could he know then that he was the one facing such a future? “This master only meant not to discuss the… position… Binghe found him in. Not other things. Things that matter.”

“Does… Shizun mean it?”

Firming his resolve in the face of that tentative, hope-filled question, Shen Yuan said, “I can’t promise to answer all of Binghe’s questions, but I will answer all the ones I can.’

He braced himself to be grilled – about his connection to Shen Jiu, about the ‘possession’ and his years playing Peak Lord, about the confrontation at the Endless Abyss and everything that followed.

Instead, Binghe said, “Does Shizun truly return this one’s affections? Not only as master and disciple, but…”

Ah! Couldn’t you stick to the easy questions? Shen Yuan sipped his tea to steady himself. He owed Luo Binghe so much, certainly that included the honesty he was still struggling to admit to himself.

“I do.” Ignoring the indrawn breath, Shen Yuan closed his eyes and forced himself to fully communicate what he meant – start as you mean to continue – so that he never had to do this again. “Binghe has always had my admiration and affection. I cannot say when that changed from affection for a disciple to… something else, but I cannot deny that it did.”

“Ah.”

When moments passed and nothing else was said, Shen Yuan dared to open his eyes. Luo Binghe was leaning forward, elbow on the tea table, chin in his hand, watching Shen Yuan with a look of wonder, just like he had so many times before.

“Don’t you have any other questions?” He’d been so prepared with System-approved answers! He had a script! He felt like an actor whose role had been cut!

“Knowing A-Yuan’s true feelings, does any other question matter?”

There went his stupid mushroom heart, malfunctioning again. Did Shang Qinghua grow it wrong or something?

“That… I... Hn…” Shen Yuan tried to maintain his cool, unflustered mien, which only seemed to make Luo Binghe’s smile grow wider. Distraction, he needed a distraction.

Luckily, he had a distraction planned for when he flubbed one of the lines he didn’t get to use. “I have something for you.”

“What other gift could A-Yuan possibly give me?” Luo Binghe said, as though he was trying to break Shen Yuan’s teeth with his sweetness. Who wrote this dialogue?!

Reaching into his sleeve to hide the fact that he was actually reaching into his System inventory, Shen Yuan froze when a red window popped up and that Siri-sounding voice blared in his head.

【Warning! User OP is trying to access a one-time-use plot item. This item can be used to reduce up to 5000 of the protagonist’s heartbreak points. Heartbreak points are currently at… 5. Does User OP still wish to proceed?】

Shen Yuan sighed. I wouldn’t have tried to bring it out if I didn’t mean to proceed. Hand it over. He tried to pull like he did with his sword, but it seemed to be stuck. No… it pulled back.

【Yes but… is User OP sure? Like, really sure?】

It was cruel to keep it as long as I did just to protect my own ass. Hand—Yank—It—Yank—Over.

“Shizun?”

“Sorry. It’s… stuck.” Shen Yuan winced, knowing that made less than no sense when it looked like he was playing tug-of-war with his own sleeve. But Luo Binghe was apparently used to that from him and had stopped bothering to question it. A moment later, the System released its hold, and Shen Yuan nearly tumbled into Luo Binghe’s lap with the force of pulling the fake jade guanyin free.

Luo Binghe caught him, so Shen Yuan ended up in his arms instead of his lap. Warm arms, and strong. The bicep pressed to his cheek was hard, but had just enough give to be comfortable. Lying atop Binghe would be like having an extra firm heated memory foam mattress, and once that realization came to Shen Yuan, he couldn’t think of anything else but a bed made of Binghe.

“A-Yuan?” Binghe’s eyes searched his face like he was looking for permission to become Shen Yuan’s bed. His lips were parted, a deep, rosy red like candied tanghulu, and Shen Yuan wanted to bite into them, to taste them to see if they were as sweet.

Then Luo Binghe’s searching gaze fell from Shen Yuan’s eyes, to his lips, to his lap, to the item clutched in his hand, and he stopped breathing.

Sitting up, Shen Yuan caught Luo Binghe’s arm when it would have fallen limp to his side, and set the fake jade guanyin in his hand. When that hand trembled, Shen Yuan closed his over it so that there was no danger of the guanyin dropping and breaking.

“This… how…”

“It got caught on a tree branch. Binghe searched the ground that day, but he didn’t think to look up.” Now his own hands were trembling. Shen Yuan tightened his hold. “I can’t say why I didn’t give it back – I knew even then how much it meant to you. I thought I had to keep it for… small, selfish reasons. But at least I can return it now.”

“It really was you that day, who protected me.” Pulling free of Shen Yuan’s hold, Luo Binghe turned the guanyin over in his hands as though examining a treasure. Which… wasn’t it that? “Shizun had only just recovered from his qi deviation, he barely knew me, and yet he protected me.”

Shen Yuan smiled and stroked the long-healed place on his cheek where Ming Fan had struck him. “Of course. Didn’t I say that Binghe was my favorite long before we met?”

“Shizun is teasing now.” Mischief crept into Luo Binghe’s eyes, inviting Shen Yuan to join in its dance. Setting the guanyin carefully aside, he leaned so close that Shen Yuan was forced to lean back to avoid bumping chests. “Does he want this ignorant disciple to ask questions?”

He didn’t budge at the hand pushed against his chest, so Shen Yuan swatted him. “What Shizun?” And again. “Who’s Shizun? Wasn’t A-Yuan good enough a moment ago? Don’t call me Shizun when you look at me like tha—"

Nothing like tanghulu, was the stray thought that ran though Shen Yuan’s head as Binghe pressed lips to his. They suffered a few moments of awkward mashing until Shen Yuan – who had yelled at many a romantic drama during an unnecessary, multi-angle, extended first kiss scene – tilted his head and rolled Binghe’s lower lip between his.

Better than tanghulu.

Except tanghulu didn’t bite back! Yelping when Binghe’s teeth closed down on his lips like they were a chewy snack, Shen Yuan jerked out of the kiss and smacked his shoulder.

“What is this biting? Binghe is not a dog, and I’m not a bone for you to gnaw on. Kiss properly, or don’t kiss at all!” These were the moves of the protagonist with a golden finger, heavenly pillar, and harem of 600 wives? Maybe Shen Yuan shouldn’t have skimmed all those papapa scenes. He might have known beforehand that Binghe’s kissing was more eagerness than skill.

“Shiz-ah!” Binghe pouted at Shen Yuan’s pinch, which was unfair because it drew attention to that rosy lower lip that shone with Shen Yuan’s saliva. He wanted to suck on it some more. After all, he reasoned, eagerness shouldn’t be disdained, and skill could be acquired through dedicated practice.

But first… boundaries. Start as you mean to continue.

“What’s my name?”

“Ah. A-Yuan. I only meant to say that A-Yuan has done this before, where Binghe hasn’t. You’ll have to teach me how to do it right.” Binghe smirked, and that alone made Shen Yuan want to kiss him again. “Almost like a Shizun.”

Or… not.

Who’s done this before?! However much experience Binghe thinks this transmigrator has, it’s definitely less than that!

But it did explain Binghe’s skill issue, if he had no more experience than Shen Yuan. With a calm that belied his thoughts, Shen Yuan said, “Binghe is mistaken. I haven’t done this before, or anything else.” He touched the lower lip that was so tempting. “I’ve never wanted to.”

Which, if he’d thought about it, should have been his first clue. He’d never dreamed of doing this with another guy, it was true… but he also hadn’t imagined himself with a girl except in the abstract. And really, he was probably the only person in existence who’d read a two-million-word stallion novel full of papapa for the worldbuilding!

“But A-Yuan wants to now? With me?”

Shen Yuan considered how much those moments in the sarcophagus had dominated his thoughts, and how intimidated he was by the darkness that took the place of what might have followed.

“This? Yes. Anything else, I don’t know.”

“Then let this discip-ah! Me. Let me help you find out.”

“I suppose that is acceptable.” Smirking at the way Binghe rubbed the ear that he’d pinched in reprimand, Shen Yuan let himself be pressed to the floor under an assault of dragonfly kisses to his brows, his cheeks, his nose, his eyelids, his chin. Everywhere but his lips, which made them tingle from feeling left out.

Finding that lack of contact completely unacceptable, Shen Yuan grabbed two fistfuls of fluffy curls and guided Binghe’s mouth back to his.

This time, the kissing got better as they tasted and tested what worked between them. Really, if you took your time to learn it properly, wasn’t kissing this easy? And with a disciple – ah… a partner – who was so good at taking direction, Shen Yuan thought they improved rapidly He could be quite content to practice this for the remainder of the night.

But Binghe’s hands were a distraction. With Shen Yuan’s fingers all tangled up in his curls, they were free to wander. Soft touches at the sides of Shen Yuan’s face drifted down to brushes along his neck. His robes were parted, and those hands stroked along his collarbone like it was delicate porcelain.

Shen Yuan caught his breath, caught Binghe’s lip between his teeth – they’d discovered that some biting was acceptable – and dragged himself up to meet the touch.

But, with his hands in Binghe’s hair, it ended up more that he dragged Binghe’s head down to his collarbone. And then Binghe was kissing him there. And sucking. And a little biting, which also worked nicely in that context. Shen Yuan wondered if perhaps there was a bit of pup in Binghe’s soul after all, and if it was really that much of a hardship to be his chew toy.

“Does A-Yuan want this?” Binghe asked, his whisper pooling in the hollow of Shen Yuan’s clavicle and making him shiver. Shen Yuan stilled in confusion until he recalled Binghe’s offer – Let me help you find out.

“Yes,” he groaned. Ah, why hadn’t he just told Binghe to do whatever he wanted and resigned himself to only enjoying some of it? Wouldn’t that have been easier?

Start as you mean to continue, his brain supplied unhelpfully, and he wished it was Shen Jiu’s voice because then he could tell it to fuck off.

Ah. No. No, as Binghe’s teeth grazed a nipple, then latched on, holding it in his teeth as he sucked, Shen Yuan decided that he was very, very glad that his dage was far, far away.

“What is A-Yuan thinking?” Binghe asked, his mouth moving to tease Shen Yuan’s other, not-yet-abused nipple. Shen Yuan’s thoughts scrambled, but he couldn’t think of anything to say but the truth, and he couldn’t say that.

Then those teeth clamped down, and he couldn’t think at all.

“Binghe!” He arched into the sharp pleasure. It mellowed into something softer as tongue replaced teeth to soothe the pain.

“Good. A-Yuan should only think of me.”

Shen Yuan raised his head to glare down his body at this impudent black lotus of his. Had Binghe asked because he wanted to know Shen Yuan’s thoughts – or because he’d already guessed them?

He would ask, but Binghe met his glare with an unapologetic grin and started kissing lower down his chest, parted his robes and kissed lower. By the time Shen Yuan realized where he was headed, he’d forgotten the question.

“Does A-Yuan want this?” Binghe asked, kneeling between Shen Yuan’s parted knees. Both their robes were in disarray – though Shen Yuan’s more than Binghe’s – and it gave Shen Yuan a little thrill as he realized what a debauched picture they made together. He thought perhaps he should be embarrassed, that he should want to hide. But he wasn’t. And he didn’t.

Tenderly brushing the curls out of Binghe’s eyes, Shen Yuan asked, “Does Binghe want this?” After all, he would be doing the work, while Shen Yuan laid back to reap the benefits.

Catching Shen Yuan’s hand, Binghe pressed a kiss to each finger pad, and planted the last one in his palm. “I want to taste A-Yuan on my tongue. I want to swallow him down, drink him deep, and suck him dry.”

“Ah… all… alright,” Shen Yuan said, fingers curling around the words, toes curling against the floor, mind curling into a little ball of Fuck yes, now! He let his hand be placed atop Binghe’s head. Then he considered the extended eating metaphor and said, “No teeth.”

Chuckling, Binghe lowered his head and nuzzled Shen Yuan’s loose pants down until his cock sprang free. “No teeth,” he agreed, and ran his tongue up the length.

Shen Yuan couldn’t watch, so he closed his eyes. Then that tongue circled the head, ran along the slit, and when had he ever been able to not watch Binghe? He chanced a look down… and then couldn’t look away.

Binghe’s hair hung in his eyes, tickling Shen Yuan’s hip and generally getting in the way. After the third time Binghe had to pause to spit it out when it crept into his mouth alongside Shen Yuan’s cock, Shen Yuan reached down with one hand to gather it at the back of his head, fingers twisting and tangling into it like a poorly made guan.

That left Binghe’s face clear to be seen, his mouth free to lick and kiss and very carefully not bite. Shen Yuan’s other hand drifted down to pat Binghe’s head. Good. He was so good, doing so well, such a clever Binghe, such a good boy and Shen Yuan thought he was only thinking these things, but then Binghe hummed in pleasure, so perhaps he’d started babbling them out loud?

Binghe’s lips were red and swollen now with more than just kissing, and Shen Yuan considered dragging him up for a taste, but then Binghe took him fully into his mouth, as far down as he could go. Shen Yuan’s grip clenched, his fingers twisting those curls tight. Binghe’s groan reverberated through Shen Yuan’s cock, down to his toes, up to the tingling crown of his head.

Taking that as encouragement, Shen Yuan twisted tighter, pulling and tugging on Binghe’s hair, and the groan was reduced to a needy whimper. Binghe’s hands, that had been resting gently on Shen Yuan’s hips, caught hold and yanked him close, so that Binghe was swallowing him to the root, gagging around him. Shen Yuan tried to pull away, but Binghe’s hold tightened. Like he enjoyed it. Like he wanted it.

And what could Shen Yuan do at that but tighten his grip until it must have been painful and fuck the whimpers and groans out of Binghe’s throat? What could he do but watch in awe as Binghe continued to take all of him, while tears spiked his lashes and his cheeks grew red and his lips stretched around Shen Yuan’s cock.

There really was nobody who could compare to Binghe in the looks department, and Shen Yuan was ashamed to realize he might like this look on Binghe best of all.

Ah, he was so shameless. And he didn’t care at all as he watched his cock slide between those lips and chased the pleasure coiling within him.

When that coil tightened to the point of breaking, Shen Yuan tried to pull Binghe off him, but Binghe resisted. Wrapping his arms around Shen Yuan’s waist, he pushed until his nose was buried against Shen Yuan’s abdomen and swallowed around him.

Shen Yuan’s orgasm hit him hard enough to arch his back, like lightning coursing through him. It pulsed to the ends of his limbs and back to his center, all of it grounded at the point where Binghe’s lips wrapped around his cock. Binghe had pulled back enough so he wouldn’t choke, but he still swallowed, and swallowed, sucking Shen Yuan dry just as he’d promised.

Slumping back on the floor, Shen Yuan’s grip on Binghe’s hair loosened and his hands fell free to flop uselessly at his sides. He stared up into the shadows overhead, white flashing against the blackness of the tent’s roof. Tingles danced across his skin like sparking aftershocks. The only basic function he felt capable of was breathing, and even that was shaky and intermittent. Even blinking seemed too complicated.

A full body twitch shook him out of his daze when his cock popped free of Binghe’s mouth. He managed to rock his head to one side when Binghe slid up his body. His hair was a tangled, sweaty mess, his cheeks flushed and eyes bright from the tears. Their tracks stained his cheeks. He passed the back of his hand over swollen lips messy with spit, but not even that could wipe away the smugness of his grin. Like he knew he’d done well and was just waiting for his Shi—for Shen Yuan’s approval.

And how could Shen Yuan withhold it? If that was a first-time blow job, he was terrified to find out what it would feel like once Binghe got good at them.

“A-Yuan?” Binghe’s smile dimmed, his red-swollen lips pursing in concern. Shen Yuan gave him what he had no doubt was a blissed-out grin. Reaching up, he plopped his hand atop Binghe’s tangled hair in a parody of his usual head-pats.

“Binghe did well. Binghe graduates. There’s nothing this master can teach you. When I can move again, I’ll draw you a certificate of completion with honors for exemplary cocksucking.”

Laugher burst from Binghe, bright as sunlight. He buried it and his face in Shen Yuan’s hair, hugging him close until Shen Yuan found himself wrapped, his arms and legs tangled, in a cozy Binghe-blanket.

“I like this side of Shizun,” he said. And Shen Yuan was feeling mellow enough to let the slipped name slide.

“The naked one?”

“The funny one.”

“Ah.” Apparently, his blood flow was returning to normal because he could feel the flush crawling up his cheeks. “I like all sides of Binghe,” Shen Yuan whispered, wanting to cringe at such corny sentiments coming out of him, but the pleased sound Binghe breathed into his hair was worth the embarrassment.

Now that his awareness of things like embarrassment was returning, so came the awareness that every part of Binghe was pressed against him. And every part was firm. Hard. Including the impossible pillar pushing up against his hip.

He was inclined to avoid it rather than dive back into shameless things when he was feeling so relaxed, but was that fair? Didn’t the ‘you cook; I clean’ rule of relationships apply in situations like this?

Never having been in – or even considered – a situation like this, Shen Yuan couldn’t say. So he said what he could say, “Binghe made me feel so good, I want to make him feel the same.” He shifted his hip, pressing into the pillar that was pressing against him, hoping that was enough to make his meaning clear so he didn’t have to actually say it.

From the way that Binghe hissed, his hold tightening even as all movement stilled, Shen Yuan figured he’d gotten his point across.

“How would Sh—en Yuan propose to do that?”

Shen Yuan wasn’t a snake demon who could unhinge his jaw. He feared it would take three hands to cover the length of that pillar, and he didn’t even want to think about a weapon like that anywhere near his chrysanthemum. Any way you looked at it – and Shen Yuan was even a little afraid to look at it – taking on that heavenly pillar would be a heroic task.

Whenever he faced other plot hurdles, there was one source Shen Yuan could turn to for help, however unreliable it might be. Stymied and a little desperate not to be shown up by his own disciple, he gave in.

System. Is there any sort of scenario pusher to help with this?

It took several moments longer than usual for an answer to come – clearly the System was sulking about the guanyin thing – but eventually the Siri voice replied:

【Reminding User OP that he still has half a bottle of the scenario pusher he purchased before, and informing User OP that his Sun-Moon Dew Mushroom body is more pliant and elastic than a normal human’s and therefore able to accommodate unusually large objects with minimal discomfort.】

Oh. That was useful. Embarrassing enough that he was never going to interact with the System again, but… useful.

Thank you.

【The System is happy to facilitate the satisfactory resolution of the plot for both User OP and User OG.】

Wait, what? Was that… did the System just imply…?

No. Nevermind. Shen Yuan did not want to know.

He opened his eyes to see Binghe watching him curiously. “Ahhh…”

“No questions, except… A-Yuan is only A-Yuan, yes? There’s nobody…” Binghe bit his lower lip, looking just a little paler than usual, and oh god, Shen Yuan didn’t even want to think what he was probably thinking.

“Yes! Only me! There’s nobody here but A-Yuan and Binghe. I was only thinking…” He reached past Binghe’s shoulder like a magician pulling a coin from someone’s ear and drew back to present the bottle from the sarcophagus that he’d retrieved from his inventory. The outside was a little slick with oil, and Shen Yuan fumbled it. Binghe caught it before it could spill any more.

“This is,” he took a breath of the faint scene of strawberries still clinging to the bottle, and he hummed low and deep as though he’d reached enlightenment. “For me, or for A-Yuan?”

Had that even been an option? Eh, if it was, it was one they could explore later. “For me. But don’t just rush in! You have to make certain clothes will fit before you try them on, or else you’ll stretch them out or rip them or… ahhh.”

Binghe silenced Shen Yuan’s panic with a kiss, one he didn’t break as he got to his knees, hefted Shen Yuan up in a princess carry, and laid him out on the bed. When their lips did eventually part, it was only so he could ghost kisses across Shen Yuan’s eyelids.

“A-Yuan is made of such delicate material, I’m not certain this outfit will ever fit.”

That makes two of us! Maybe he should just have Binghe send him back and ask the clerk for a bigger size? But something in him resented being called delicate – and being treated as such. He palmed Binghe’s face and shoved away those careful kisses.

“I see how it is. Binghe sees this master as a doll or a decoration to be put on a shelf and taken care of. But this master is silk, He’s stronger than he looks. I can take it.” Snatching the bottle, Shen Yuan poured oil over Binghe’s fingers and shoved them between his legs. “So get to it.”

It was deeply satisfying, wiping all hints of smugness and self-possession off Binghe’s face. Almost as deeply satisfying as the moment when he stopped gaping at Shen Yuan and shifted his hand to run his fingers over the tight-closed bud of his chrysanthemum.

“Ah.” Shen Yuan let his knees fall open and flung an arm over his face – the better to feel than to think and lose his nerve.

Except Binghe pulled that arm away, pinning Shen Yuan’s wrist to the bed. The hand between his legs stroked softly, coaxing him to relax, to open, to let Binghe in. “A-Yuan is so brave, surely he doesn’t need to hide.”

And yes, Shen Yuan could have easily hidden behind his other arm, but with one quirk of an eyebrow, Binghe managed to turn the matter into a challenge – was Shen Yuan brave enough to let his face be seen?

Meeting Binghe’s eyes, Shen Yuan reached down with his free hand to pull himself open wider.

They both sucked in a breath when Binghe’s finger slipped in.

Chasing that breath to Shen Yuan’s lips, Binghe followed it into his mouth, kissing him as though he meant to steal the air from his lungs, and all the while he kept Shen Yuan’s wrist pinned while his finger worked deeper.

Binghe’s kisses ranged down Shen Yuan’s neck as he slid in a second finger, the sting of the stretch lost in the ache of the bruises being sucked into his skin. Shen Yuan struggled like a butterfly pinned, not because he wanted free, but because he couldn’t hold still. There was too much sensation spread over too many parts of his body, each distracting from the other and leaving him frustrated that he couldn’t feel it all.

Clearly, the answer was that he needed more.

“Is A-Yuan certain?”

Perhaps he’d said that aloud?

“Yes, A-Yuan is certain. Yes, A-Yuan wants this. Yes, A-Yuan can take it. Yes, A-Yuan is going to smack Binghe with his fan if he doesn’t get on with it!”

The fact that Binghe shivered and pressed his brow to Shen Yuan’s shoulder in response to that threat was definitely something to consider later. But all considerations fell by the wayside when a third finger – and a fourth?! – pressed into Shen Yuan.

Now he felt the bite of pain, stretching around a girth he wasn’t quite ready for. But… it was a good pain, like peppers adding flavor to a favorite dish. He hissed and squirmed, eyes watering, even as he shifted in a demand for more.

Binghe’s coherence wasn’t much better than Shen Yuan’s. He’d devolved into scattering bites across Shen Yuan’s shoulders and chest.

“Is A-Yuan ready?” he asked, mouthing wet kisses over the most recent bite. “Please say you’re ready.”

“Only one way to know.” Releasing his grip on his ass, Shen Yuan caught Binghe’s wrist and pulled his fingers free. “Don’t forget the oil. Use all of it. I can get more.”

He couldn’t think of a better use for his Co-Op Mode points.

Shen Yuan lay in a strange haze of anticipation as Binghe fumbled with the bottle and slicked himself up. He decidedly did not look down to catch a glimpse of the monstrous cock that was about to split him like he was tanghulu. His hand drifted across his stomach and… oh. He was hard again. When had that happened?

In the midst of trying to track the development of his arousal, Shen Yuan felt something much more substantial than fingers nudging at his entrance. Now he looked, not at the place where his legs were spread wide to make space for Binghe, but at Binghe’s face.

His brows were furrowed, mouth drawn into a frow, as he looked down with intense concentration – as though this was a test that would determine his whole future and bring shame to his family and his country if he failed. That intensity deepened as Shen Yuan’s rim gave way to the nudging head, and let Binghe slide in.

Shen Yuan’s breath caught, his heart twisting in something that couldn’t rightly be called pain, though it hurt. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he drew in a serrated breath that did nothing to counter the lightness in his head.

Binghe stilled, that small frown now tinged with worry. “Am I hurting you? Should I stop? Pull out? Shizun, what do you need me to do?”

“No. No, I just…” The tears fell the moment he tried to speak. Shen Yuan swallowed the rest and waved a hand above his face, batting away at these silly, ephemeral feelings that were completely ruining the moment. Beyond his flapping hand, Binghe’s expression was darkening from concern to full panic.

Shen Yuan gave up trying to fight whatever he was feeling and instead gave into it. He framed Binghe’s face with his hands, forcing his attention – as though he didn’t already have it. Always.

“I just… really like Binghe.”

Said aloud, it sounded just as corny as he’d feared, but it was worth all the embarrassment in the world to see the smile that broke across Binghe’s face – sunlight chasing off the storm of fear and uncertainty.

“I really like Shizun, too.” Not even the pinch Shen Yuan gave Binghe could dim that smile. It only got brighter. “A-Yuan. I really like A-Yuan.”

Weirdly pleased and disgruntled at once, Shen Yuan said, “If you really like me, you’ll remember not to ‘Shizun’ me when we’re…” He shifted, reminding them both that Shen Yuan’s hole was still stretched wide around the head of Binghe’s cock.

“Move,” Shen Yuan commanded.

Binghe moved.

Even with his new and improved body, and so much lube, and all the preparation, it wasn’t easy. Binghe coaxed him through it with kisses and comments about how good Shen Yuan felt around him, how tight, how warm, how perfect, until Shen Yuan felt inoculated against shame. But tight and warm and perfect was still uncomfortable from his end – in his end? His erection flagged, and a few times he was almost certain he couldn’t take any more. He already felt stuffed so full.

Maybe it wasn’t the brightest idea to try for full penetration for his first time? Hadn’t his first kiss been only a shichen ago?

But eventually, Binghe stopped pushing and let his brow rest against Shen Yuan’s, breath puffing lightly against his lips. Binghe’s arms trembled as though holding himself up was a test of even his strength. His eyes were squeezed tightly closed, tears wetting his lashes, and his demon sigil pulsed softly in time with his breathing, warm as an ember trapped between them.

Shen Yuan kissed that sigil, Binghe’s tear-damp eyes, touched his cheek. “Binghe?”

“A-Yuan… I… I don’t think I can…”

Shen Yuan wasn’t quite certain what the problem was, but he knew the solution. Hitching his ankles around Binghe’s hips, he said, “You can. Of course you can. Binghe is amazing. Binghe can do anything. Binghe is my favorite, and always has been. Haven’t I already said so?”

With a sob, Binghe nodded frantically and started to move. The burn had faded, and it just felt… strange. Not good, exactly, except for the way Shen Yuan’s hardening cock bounced with every careful thrust, but not bad. Shen Yuan shifted, trying to help, to meet and match Binghe’s movements. To make him feel good, which from the noises Binghe made each time their hips connected, he was succeeding at.

Then Binghe caught his knees, hooking them over his elbows to hold Shen Yuan wide for each thrust – and one of those thrusts hit… something.

A meteor-shower of pleasure burst through Shen Yuan, sharp and bright and edging into pain. A shout was ripped from his throat.

Before Binghe could panic at that, Shen Yuan cried out, “Again. That. Whatever you just did, do that again. Fuck… I…” He bit down on his fist to hold back a tide of desperate begging.

It took a bit of shifting and a few more thrusts, but Binghe quickly found the spot again. And, once found, he made it his target each time, reducing Shen Yuan to a sobbing mess.

“Let me hear you,” Binghe said. With his arms caught up and holding Shen Yuan in place to fuck him stupid, he could only nudge at Shen Yuan’s fist with his nose. “How can I know I’m doing well if I can’t hear you?”

How can Binghe doubt it when I’m like this?! Shen Yuan tore his fist away, not to humor Binghe, but because if he didn’t brace himself against something, he was going to get fucked right off the bed.

“What not doing well?” he gasped, raw and ragged, all elegance a faded memory. “How is this not doing well? Does Binghe need more praise?”

“From A-Yuan?” Binghe’s breath was hot against Shen Yuan’s lips. “Always.”

So Shen Yuan unhitched his mouth from his mind and let the praise pour forth unfettered by anything but kisses. And he gave in to Binghe’s other demands. When Binghe told him to hold himself open, he did. When Binghe told him to touch himself, he did.

When Binghe told him to come, Shen Yuan did.

And then Shen Yuan slapped Binghe’s flank, shouting that he’d better come, too, if he ever wanted to do this again.

And Binghe did.

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan dealt with the morning-aftermath of the night-time assault on his bodily integrity by hiding under the covers and pretending to be asleep.

It was a valid tactic. Sun Tzu totally wrote about it.

And it worked beautifully until the moment Luo Binghe decided this meant that Shen Yuan wanted breakfast in bed. Which was followed by the moment Shen Yuan realized that he was wearing nothing but the blankets and a bunch of bruises.

He’d bet that Sun Tzu never found himself in this sort of situation!

It was a good thing Shen Yuan didn’t accrue coolness points, or he’d be losing them by the moment. That thought was what finally goaded him. There was only one way to handle this.

Thickening his face, Shen Yuan sat up, letting the covers fall to his lap. He pretended not to notice the way the dishes rattled when Luo Binghe’s hands shook, or the puppy-like whimper he bit back.

Waving a languid hand at the table, he said, “There is no reason that today should be different from any other. Binghe will eat with this master at the table, as we used to do.”

“Sh-shizun?” Luo Binghe gaped at him like all his dreams had just come true.

“Ah, but first, this master would like to bathe. And does Binghe remember how to prepare my robes and accessories?”

“Yes. Yes!” Scrambling to obey an order that hadn’t actually been given, Luo Binghe abandoned the congee – no doubt a fresh batch would be made while Shen Yuan bathed.

Shen Yuan refused to feel guilty at putting Luo Binghe to work. His ass was still sore and his body covered in so many bruises he looked like an actual mushroom. He’d done more than his share of metaphorical cleaning last night. This was him giving Luo Binghe the chance to balance the relationship scales with a bit of cooking. And bath-drawing. And wardrobe assistance.

Honestly, Luo Binghe seemed to enjoy it as much as he enjoyed the sex.

By the time Shen Yuan was clean, properly attired, and feeling human again, Luo Binghe had indeed prepared another breakfast.

And yet, he looked crestfallen when Shen Yuan joined him at the table.

“Binghe is upset?” He didn’t expect Shen Yuan to eat naked, did he? That would be so unsanitary! And this wasn’t that kind of novel anymore!

“Ah, no. It’s only…”

With an impudence that he never would have gotten away with in his white lotus days, Luo Binghe touched Shen Yuan’s neck, fingers dipping beneath the high collar of his robe.

Shen Yuan sucked in a breath, feeling that touch in places that had no business waking up this early.

“Only?” he prompted, somehow managing to keep his tone cool and even.

“A-Yuan healed the marks I left on him last night.”

Unfair! Unfair! They had important things to do. It was daylight. Luo Binghe was not allowed to be seductive during the working hours of this office romance. Shen Yuan was going to file a report with HR!

Except that Shang Qinghua, as An Ding’s Peak Lord, was probably the closest thing they had to HR.

Ah. Nevermind.

With a greater effort of will than anyone should be expected to exert, Shen Yuan gently batted Luo Binghe’s hand away and smoothed his robe into place. “Binghe will just have to renew them later,” he said primly, sipping his tea to hide his smile when Luo Binghe choked on his own tongue.

Once Luo Binghe’s coughing fit had passed, Shen Yuan said, “Before we meet the others on Maigu Ridge, I need Binghe to help me find someone.”

“Shizun has a plan?”

“Binghe needs to ask? And before you do ask, it doesn’t include killing your father.”

Luo Binghe pouted. “What if he happens to fall on Xin Mo? That wouldn’t ruin the plan, would it?”

“No unfilial behavior.” It was pure habit that Shen Yuan rapped Luo Binghe’s head with his fan. And possibly a mistake. Luo Binghe’s eyes darkened, his sigil flared, and… was that a growl? These M tendencies were really too much!

“I promise not to bring shame to Shizun,” Luo Binghe grumbled when Shen Yuan remained unmoved, which… wasn’t actually the point? But he continued before Shen Yuan could argue. “What does Shizun need to find?”

“Ah, as to that,” Shen Yuan grinned at his own cleverness. “Does Binghe know what became of the Old Palace Master?”

Binghe did know. They set off on Xiu Yuan to retrieve the old man from the Huan Hua Water Prison, leaving the camp behind for someone else – probably Shang Qinghua, eventually – to clean up. Along the way, Luo Binghe shared in disturbing detail how he’d punished the Old Palace Master for arranging Shen Qingqiu’s public denunciation – disturbing at least in part because he related it all while wrapped around Shen Yuan like a muscled and very warm cloak. Shen Yuan’s brain rang with the dissonance of wanting to snuggle in to the arms around him while Luo Binghe spoke of torturing a man while Xin Mo laughed in his head.

“When we get it back, will Binghe promise this master to seal away that sword?” Shen Yuan asked, expecting to be denied, but he had to try. “You don’t need it to be powerful, and the cost of using it is unacceptable.”

“Yes. It caused Shizun to sacrifice himself.” Luo Binghe squeezed Shen Yuan as though he meant to shield him from future death with his own body.

Shen Yuan tilted his head, his nose bumping Luo Binghe’s cheek. “I meant the influence it has on Binghe. I like all sides of Binghe, but I fear what Xin Mo makes him become.”

His kiss hit somewhere in the vicinity of Luo Binghe’s jaw, but that was still enough to make him groan and dip his head to claim Shen Yuan’s lips. Ah, kissing in broad daylight! Shen Yuan had become truly shameless. But if that was what it took to get Luo Binghe to give his golden finger the middle finger, Shen Yuan was willing to bear the shame.

“Then this disciple will never touch it again,” Luo Binghe said, stealing more kisses, until Shen Yuan wrenched away. If Xiu Yuan listed anymore, he was going to end up crashing them into a tree.

“No more of that until your father is defeated,” he declared.

“But Shizun!”

“And don’t call me such things after kissing!”

When they arrived at Huan Hua Palace, the disciples and masters had already left under Liu Qingge’s command to meet at Maigu Ridge. And apparently, nobody had bothered to stay behind to guard the Water Prison, leaving the Old Palace Master the chance to just walk out.

Fortunately, Luo Binghe had infected him with blood parasites, the better to keep him alive during his torment. And those pulled them in the direction of Maigu Ridge.

“Is it possible he’s working with Tianlang-Jun?” Luo Binghe asked as they raced to catch up to where all the cool kids were gathering.

Shen Yuan had to laugh at that notion. He couldn’t think of a less likely pair. “No, but if he heard rumors that Tianlang-Jun was free, he might have gone to confirm them.”

“But why does Shizun need him? He’s a foul old man. He wouldn’t help except to save himself.”

“He knows the truth of what happened. He might be the only living person who does. Tianlang-Jun didn’t believe me, but if we force the Old Palace Master to confess what he did, maybe he’ll believe that.” Squeezing the arms that held him so firmly, Shen Yuan murmured, “Your father really loved your mother.”

The effects of the Tomb of Eternal Peaceful Repose had proven that.

“And you think knowing the truth about his love will be enough to make him reconsider?”

“I think he’s acting as he is because he feels betrayed by her. And I think you and he are more alike than you want to believe.”

Luo Binghe buried his face in Shen Yuan’s neck. “If that’s so, he won’t spare the Old Palace Master when he learns the truth.”

Shen Yuan thought about the pain the old man had caused, the true scum villain who’d never gotten his comeuppance in the original novel. “You know,” he said. “I’m okay with that.”

***

The number of people milling around Maigu Ridge was truly daunting – monks, daoists, cultivators of every path. Not since the conference at Ju Di Gorge had Shen Yuan seen so many people of the cultivation world in one place.

And, on the opposite side of the ridge, Luo Binghe’s demons waited with poorly-contained bloodthirst. If Shen Yuan didn’t know why they were here, he might have assumed it was the eve of a battle between the two realms – instead of a battle to prevent the collapse of both.

It was easy enough to find Cang Qiong Sect; the place where they’d gathered was a point of order amid the chaos. Shen Yuan suffered a moment of doubt when he landed Xiu Yuan and every eye turned to him. He’d lied to them for years. He was in a body they’d only met briefly when he wasn’t in control of it. And he had a demon lord – his former disciple – hovering at his back like he was daring them to say something.

“It’s about time you arrived,” Shen Qingqiu said, stepping out of the crowd – though Shen Yuan noticed that Yue Qingyuan hovered much the same as Luo Binghe was. “That means you can take charge of the Qing Jing disciples. I have enough to worry about, coordinating our strategy.”

Though their thoughts were no longer shared, a whole conversation took place in lifted brows, tightened lips, raised and lowered fans, and the occasional slow blink.

I see you and that shameless disciple of yours had a productive night.

Are you in a place to judge? You and Yue-shixiong?

Yes, but our productivity didn’t make us late.

That’s not why Binghe and I were late!

Then why—

We went to retrieve the Old Palace Master.

Ah. That’s… an idea with merit.

Shen Yuan let loose a soft smile, and didn’t bother to raise his fan to hide it. “Thank you, dage.”

Shen Qingqiu inclined his head. Then, with a scowl at their confused audience of Peak Lords and disciples, he snapped. “Well? Is this a fit greeting for the Shizun who took such care of you? I would make you run ten laps around this ridge, if it wasn’t about to be leveled by a despot throwing a fit.”

With leave given, the Qing Jing disciples flooded forward, a whole yapping pack of ‘Shizun! Shizun!’, and Shen Yuan couldn’t hold back a laugh of delight as he admired how Ming Fan had grown very sturdy and  very much not covered in flame ants, and how Ning Yingying had developed into a bright and independent young woman instead of pining after a boy who only existed in her memory.

His eyes caught those of the man that boy had become. Such a different man than the one in that trash novel, and now Shen Yuan had to hide his smile behind his fan, because anyone looking would see everything he felt… and only Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu were allowed that glimpse of him.

But wartime was no time for long reunions, and eventually Shen Yuan dispatched his eager disciples to duties they were best suited to.

“Has there been any sighting of Tianlang-Jun?” he asked, approaching the table map where the Peak Lords and representatives from the other sects had gathered to discuss their strategy.

“None,” Shen Qingqiu spat, like it was a personal affront. “The Huan Hua disciples have gone out to lay trap arrays, but he’ll easily avoid those. I suspect half the demons across the ridge are just waiting for the right moment to turn on us, and half of our forces are just waiting for the right moment to attack them. I’m starting to think a better plan might have been to take care of this ourselves – since we’re the only ones I trust to do it.”

“Shen-shidi.” The admonishment in Yue Qingyuan’s tone was as mild as a spring morning.

“What?” Shen Qingqiu’s fan rapped the edge of the table. “If people don’t like the truth, then they should strive to be more competent.”

“Perhaps we should tell them to disperse,” Shen Yuan said. “If my plan works…”

“What plan?” Qi Qingqi said, looking around to see if anyone else knew what she didn’t. “Nobody told us of a plan.”

Shen Qingqiu drew a breath, and Shen Yuan just knew the words to come would be like forge-heated knives. Forestalling Shen Qingqiu with a touch of his fan, he said to Qi Qingqi, “It is a delicate operation. We thought the fewer people who knew, the less likely we’d encounter sabotage from either side. Qi-shidi knows how to be circumspect, but who knows who else might be listening.”

“Ah. Well. That’s fine then.”

With a nod to the gathering of Peak Lords, most of whom were looking at him like he’d performed a miracle instead of just preventing a few cutting words, Shen Yuan drew Shen Qingqiu away.

“Once Binghe and I find the Old Palace Master, where should we take him?”

“I’m still infected with the little beast’s parasites.” Shen Qingqiu’s raised brow dared Shen Yuan to make a fuss about the insult. But Shen Yuan was starting to suspect that it was a fond nickname, and he had bigger battles to worry about. “Just have him find me. I’ll make certain I’m in the thick of it.”

“Xiao-Jiu had better mean that we will be in the thick of it,” Yue Qingyuan said, setting a hand on Xuan Su.

“Yes, yes. Live together, die together. So romantic.” He dismissed Yue Qingyuan with a wave of his fan. “Go away. I want to talk to my didi privately.”

Luo Binghe waited for a nod from Shen Yuan, and then followed Yue Qingyuan to wait by a nearby tree.

“Have you checked your log?”

Shen Yuan blinked. Ever since they’d separated, he hadn’t been thinking about their Co-op Mode. Even the rash of quest completion notices after they escaped the Holy Mausoleum had been swept aside in favor of searching for Tianlang-Jun. Was Co-op Mode even still in effect? It must be if he was still getting points.

System, can you display my log?

【User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 9750
  • Heartbreak Points: 1
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 90%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Coil of Immortal Binding Cables, One (1) Fenix Down
  • Co-op Mode Points: 400】

【User OP Active Quest Log

  • Save Cang Qiong Mountain Sect
  • Save Luo Binghe
  • Save the World】

Wait, what?!

One heartbreak point?!” He’d even returned the jade guanyin! Shouldn’t that total be zeroed out? “Why are there any heartbreak points? I’ll break something…”

Shen Yuan would have stalked over to smack Luo Binghe until that last point tumbled out of him like a candy bar stuck in a vending machine, but Shen Jiu caught his arm and dragged him back.

“I’m in the same situation. I assume it’s some sort of… what is the term? Glitz?”

“Glitch.”

“That. If we’re both affected by it, that makes more sense than the alternative.”

Shen Yuan nodded. Of course there was no way Luo Binghe or Yue Qingyuan had any heartbreak left! Easier to believe the System was broken than spend all his days trying to be a completionist for a bugged game. “My mourn quest was the same. Glitched and never gave me the points.”

Shen Qingqiu frowned. “That… does not actually support my theory.”

Before Shen Yuan could ask why, he waved away the issue. “One other thing. You left this cluttering up the garden.”

Shen Qingqiu stalked away – followed by Yue Qingyuan – before Shen Yuan realized exactly what he’d been handed. Hugging it close, he returned to a confused-looking Luo Binghe.

“Shizun is crying?” A threatening storm darkened Luo Binghe’s expression. “What did Peak Lord Shen say to make you cry?”

“No, Binghe misunderstands.” Shen Yuan batted away the tears. Ah, he really didn’t understand what was happening with his emotions these days. Maybe this mushroom body of his just carried more moisture? That must be it. “Binghe also misunderstands my dage. He brought this.”

Shen Yuan held up the reforged Zheng Yang that had been sitting atop the sword mound he made ever since Shen Qingqiu pushed Luo Binghe into the Endless Abyss.

Shen Qingqiu had been the one to see it. To bring it. Because he realized Luo Binghe would need it. And, just maybe, because he thought this ‘little beast’ disciple of his had earned it.

Luo Binghe took the sword, drawing it from its sheath as though he dreaded to see what had become of it. He released a shaky breath when it gleamed the same, pure white lotus light that had always seemed so fitting for a young Luo Binghe to wield.

And just as fitting now.

“But it shattered,” he said, and now he was the one with tears in his eyes, so hah!

“I had it reforged. It’s been waiting in the garden for Binghe to return and claim it.” Only after he’d said the words did Shen Yuan realize Zheng Yang hadn’t been the only one waiting.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when the System dinged and a screen inserted itself into the tender moment.

【User OP Quest: Mourn completed. Congratulations! 100 Co-Op Mode points awarded. Please continue to work hard and remember that this System does not suffer from coding errors or glitches, thank you very much!】

“Shizun?”

“Ah…”

“Another unanswerable question?” Luo Binghe asked wryly.

Shen Yuan fought a smile. “Binghe is so smart. His IQ is truly the best. Now come on. Let’s go find a creepy old man.”

***

The demon generals arrived shortly after Shen Qingqiu’s didi took off with their feckless leader, but Mobei-Jun and Sha Hualing seemed to have more day-to-day control over their forces. Between Shang Qinghua’s obsequiousness and Liu Mingyan’s quiet competence keeping them in check, the two demon generals were remarkably reasonable. They acknowledged Shen Qingqiu’s proposed deployments with a grunt from Mobei-Jun and a bit of suggestive innuendo from Sha Hualing.

Seeing that, the leaders and elders of the other sects also seemed mollified. Everyone was cooperating, and as long as Shen Qingqiu continued to listen to the memory of Shen Yuan in his head telling him to curb his most acerbic comments, they might actually manage to join forces without everyone turning on each other and saving Tianlang-Jun the trouble of annihilating them.

“The demon forces are best suited to hold the line at the base of the ridge, beating back whatever tries to climb out of the Endless Abyss,” Shen Qingqiu said, placing black stones along the map of the ridge like an attenuated game of weiqi. “Focus on the big things. Tian Yi Overlook, you’ll take care of the smaller threats and guard Huan Hua Palace’s people from those while they strengthen the trap arrays here, here, and here.”

Three more stones went down, white this time. Shen Qingqiu touched the edge of the map with his fan. “The Zhao Hua Temple monks will remain in reserve to meditate and provide spiritual energy to support the other cultivators.”

“What about me?” Liu Qingge watched him with narrow eyes as though he worried Shen Qingqiu would be petty enough to keep him out of the fight.

Which was fair. If the situation wasn’t so dire, he might have for his own amusement.

“There’s another demon of the heavenly bloodline – Tianlang-Jun’s nephew. A snake demon. Cunning as well as a formidable fighter. Even Luo Binghe found him a challenge. I’ll thank Liu-shidi to keep him occupied so he doesn’t trouble us.”

Ah, perhaps that had been a mistake. Now Liu Qingge was looking at him like… like he tended to look at Shen Yuan.

Unacceptable. Shen Qingqiu’s grip tightened on his fan. “Though he might be too much for you alone. Take a few disciples to assist you.”

Yes, that scowl was better.

“And the rest of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect?” asked one of the Tian Yi daoists with just a bit of a sneer, as though suggesting Shen Qingqiu was planning to shirk the battle.

Shen Qingqiu schooled him on how to smirk. This is called leading by example. “We’ll be at the front, directly engaging with the despot.”

A few demons hissed objections, and were quickly silenced by ice spikes impaling their tongues.

“Cultivators are not as strong as demons,” Mobei-Jun said. The most words the demon had ever spoken, and Shen Qingqiu realized he was subtly creating an opportunity to put the protesting demons in their place.

Dammit. He was not going to start re-evaluating his opinion on all demons. One was excruciating enough.

“Demonic energy makes Tianlang-Jun’s new body degrade faster, but Xin Mo will likely counter that decay. However, if we can disrupt the sword’s protection with spiritual energy, that will weaken him greatly. It might even trigger a qi deviation.”

The assembled crowd – demons and humans alike – shifted uncomfortably at the prospect of using such underhanded tactics, but Yue Qingyuan hadn’t given them much of a say. Shen Qingqiu was Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s strategist, so his was the strategy they would follow.

Let others be brave, foolhardy, and ultimately doomed. Shen Qingqiu chose to be effective.

“Such fine, upstanding cultivators.” A woman’s voice rose from somewhere near the back of the crowd, behind Huan Hua Palace’s masters and disciples. “A murderer and a liar leads you off the righteous path, convinces you to consort with demons and practice underhanded tricks, and you say nothing. Are you not ashamed to call yourselves honorable?”

The crowd parted for the speaker, and eyes from another life met Shen Qingqiu’s.

“Qiu Haitang,” he said evenly, as though his blood wasn’t burning cold in his veins and numbing his heart. “Is a war council the right place to bring forth another round of baseless accusations?”

“Ah, so Shen Jiu deigns to recognize me this time,” she said – not to Shen Qingqiu. She was playing to her audience. “No, I should call you Shen Qingqiu now. But what does the elegant and refined Xiu Ya Sword mean by another round? He has yet to face justice for the initial accusation. He fled before he could be tried.”

“You mean he died!” Yue Qingyuan stepped between Shen Qingqiu and Qiu Haitang, hand on Xuan Su’s hilt as though he meant to draw a god-level spiritual weapon against an unarmed woman merely for saying a few words. The ice hardening Shen Qingqiu’s heart cracked just a bit. “He sacrificed his life to protect the people of Hua Ye City.

Technically, that had been Shen Yuan, but Shen Qingqiu was willing to take the credit if it meant shutting this nonsense down and getting back to the business of saving the world.

Already, the restless murmurs were starting up, threatening to fracture this fragile alliance. The demons who wanted to cause trouble saw an opportunity in the human weakness on display, the cultivators who wanted to steal some glory saw a chance to reach for it by standing on Shen Qingqiu’s fallen reputation.

No. Better put a stop to this. Hard. And if the price was his own humiliation… Well, the people who mattered knew everything and didn’t think less of him. Fuck the rest of the world.

Reaching into his System inventory, Shen Qingqiu pulled out the item that had been mocking him every time he opened his log. He cast it at Qiu Haitang’s feet. The clanking of metal and rusted chains rang all the louder for the sudden silence.

“What is this?” Qiu Haitang bent to pick it up.

“You tell me,” Shen Qingqiu said.

She turned it over in her hands, avoiding the sharp, jagged edge where a hasp had been sheared off. “It’s a slave cuff.”

“It was my slave cuff,” Shen Qingqiu said. The shocked gasp and titillated whispers that followed his admission only froze his fury until he was certain he could give Mobei-Jun a challenge for icy demeanor.

“See the Qiu household crest? See the number I was given? What was the story you told those years ago? I was like a son to your house? Well-treated? Even treasured? Your brother’s boon companion?”

Every word was sharp and deliberate, honed for years against the stone of his resentment. “Ah, but see the nicks on the metal? Those are from a punishment whip that missed its mark, aren’t they? See how many there are? How many more strikes must there have been that struck true.”

Using his closed fan, Shen Qingqiu shifted Qiu Haitang’s hand to the light, so that others could see the battered cuff small enough that it could only have been made for a child.

“Your brother was fond of that whip. That must be why he used it so much on this beloved friend of his.”

Another clang echoed as Qiu Haitang dropped the cuff. Her head shook in denial. “No. No, you were precocious sometimes, that’s all. Impudent.”

“Me. Impudent.” He wasn’t the only one to laugh at that.

“Didn’t you say he was sweet and good-natured,” Qi Qingqi, of all people, demanded. “That’s hard enough to believe. So which was it? Was he a well-loved slave, or a mistreated one? Sweet, or a troublemaker?”

“And if she’s wrong about that, what else must she be wrong about?” Shang Qinghua said, a little too loudly to be natural, and gave Shen Qingqiu that childish thumb gesture that he and Shen Yuan used all the time.

The Tian Yi daoist who’d questioned Shen Qingqiu’s strategy puffed up with self-righteousness. “Perhaps Miss Qiu wasn’t aware of the punishment—”

“She was.” Shen Qingqiu’s glare dared Qiu Haitang to deny it.

“But I intervened!” Qiu Haitang wailed softly. “I stopped the beatings.”

“You stopped some of them.” Shen Qingqiu’s words might have been quiet, but Qiu Haitang’s silence spoke volumes.

Now to finish this and get back to the real problem they’d come to confront.

“Did I flee the Qiu household when the fire started? I did,” he said, eliding the fact that he’d been the one to start the fire. “Was I promised to you? I was. But was it my choice? It was not. And did I love you?”

He snapped open his fan with such force that several of the closest cultivators and demons jumped. “Only as a dog loves the absence of pain.”

Like the harsh cold of winter, his words swept across the ridge and made every person present shiver. Even Mobei-Jun looked impressed. Shang Qinghua’s lips moved like he was mentally transcribing the scene to use as fodder later.

Yue Qingyuan looked utterly besotted. Shen Qingqiu’s lips tightened in response. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t entirely fight the smile clawing to get out.

So of course, that was when the System decided to spoil the moment.

【Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! Important things must be said three times! User OP has successfully achieved maximum plot improvement and character actualization! Sandbox mode has been activated. Please continue to work hard to keep the world from imploding so that you can enjoy peak happy ending energy!】

【User OG Point Log

  • Reforming Villain Plot Points: 9999 – COMPLETE!
  • Heartbreak Points (Yue Qingyuan): 0 – COMPLETE!
  • Fix-it Fic Progress: 100% – COMPLETE!
  • Secret Stash: Empty
  • Co-op Mode Points: 1000】

Shen Qingqiu glared at the screen. I truly, and I cannot express this enough, despise you.

【Awww QAQ. Isn’t User OG pleased? He reached peak high score before User OP!】

What pleased? Do I still have the same quests? I’ll be pleased when I’m safe in my bamboo house and free to be annoyed that so many people care for me. Now go away. I have important things to do.

Batting aside the obnoxious screen that was flashing with fireworks, Shen Qingqiu said to Qiu Haitang, “If you have nothing left to say, I suggest you leave. This place will soon be unsafe, and I wouldn’t want to face more false accusations if you somehow came to harm.”

He turned away from her as though she meant less than nothing – because, after so long, that was exactly her worth to him. To Mobei-Jun and Sha Hualing he said, “If you have no more questions, take your forces to the base of the ridge. Huan Hua Palace and Tian Yi Outlook, see to the arrays. Zhao Hua Temple, we will find you a more peaceful place than this to meditate. Cang Qiong—”

Just then, a low rumble that had been steadily building broke into a resounding boom. It shook the ground, the trees, the air itself. A crack streaked across a shattering sky.

And, at its center, atop the highest point on the ridge, a miasma of black and crimson smoke roiled, marking the place where Xin Mo pierced the divide between realms.

“It’s starting,” Yue Qingyuan said.

Shen Qingqiu nodded. It was time. “Cang Qiong. With me.”

Mounting Xiu Jiu, he flew off to defy the destiny that had been written for him.

***

Finding the Old Palace Master using Luo Binghe’s blood parasites proved easy enough. Unfortunately, Tianlang-Jun beat them there.

With Xin Mo bleeding demonic energy like tarry smoke, Tianlang-Jun struck the air above the Old Palace Master. Over. And over. And over. And each time, the blackened blade stopped a handspan away from the old man’s head. Light flashed at each invisible impact, red and gold fireworks that sent sparks flying in every direction. Zhuzhi-lang was darting back and forth with a bucket, putting out nearby vegetation when it caught fire.

And a few times, putting out Tianlang-Jun when his mushroom body did the same.

Through it all, Tianlang-Jun’s rage was growing. It fed Xin Mo, which fed him in turn. And the Old Palace Master cackled with glee.

“There’s nothing you can do to me! Nothing tainted with demonic energy can. It’s such a simple, elegant array. Brilliant, really. She was always so brilliant. Do you know who invented it? Of course you do! But do you know why? She invented it for you. To protect herself when she eventually betrayed you. She made something to ensure you could never touch her again!”

A roar ripped out of Tianlang-Jun, and he threw himself at the array like a maddened dog. And like a dog on a short lead, his snapping teeth stopped just short of tearing out the throat of the Old Palace Master.

“Junshang! Junshang needs to calm down,” Zhuzhi-Lang said, hands slipping from Tianlang-Jun as he tried to pull his master back without accidentally ripping off a limb.

All three seemed to be too distracted to notice Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe hiding in the treetops. Still, Luo Binghe kept his voice low when he whispered, “Is he mad?”

Which one? Shen Yuan wanted to ask, though the answer really was ‘both’ and ‘yes.’

“The Old Palace Master is trying to taunt him into a qi deviation. The backlash of spiritual energy from the protection array he’s in is only exacerbating it, and Xin Mo’s power is feeding off the instability.”

“He’s a Heavenly Demon, though. He doesn’t have qi like a cultivator.”

“In that body, he does.” And when it exploded, all that Heavenly Demon energy would feed Xin Mo. Luo Binghe might not have a choice about taking it up. Who else could control such a weapon when it was bloated on power like a tick?

This was bad. Very bad. Even if they were able to drag the truth out of the Old Palace Master, Tianlang-Jun was in no state to listen to it, much less believe it. And maybe forcing Tianlang-Jun to self-destruct would stop him from collapsing the realms, but it still meant Luo Binghe’s father would die.

And the Old Palace Master would win.

Unacceptable. Shen Yuan needed a new plan.

“Can Binghe distract Tianlang-Jun and Zhuzhi-lang while I get the Old Palace Master out of here?” Shen Yuan asked.

Nodding, Luo Binghe asked, “How does Shizun plan to get to the Old Palace Master? The array is impenetrable even to Xin Mo.”

“To demonic energy, the Old Palace Master said. I suspect it’s nothing against spiritual energy. And once I get to him, I have these.”

He pulled the Immortal Binding Cables out of his inventory. Finally, after carrying the loot for so long, he had a use for it!

Luo Binghe wavered, and for a moment it seemed like he might fall off Zheng Yang, until Shen Yuan steadied him.

“Those are from the Water Prison,” he said, voice rasping like he was coming down with something. Could heavenly demons get sick? Luo Binghe hadn’t ever when he was a precious bun, nor could Shen Yuan recall it ever happening in the novel unless some plot flower was the true cause.

“Shizun…” Luo Binghe cleared his throat. “Shizun was bound in them.”

Ah, yes. When the Little Palace Mistress had whipped his robes to shreds. How humiliating. Shen Yuan ducked his head. “I had hoped Binghe would forget that time.”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Luo Binghe muttered. Then, louder, “Shizun should try to keep them in good condition. We… might have use for them later.”

Ah, Binghe! So resourceful. So prepared!

“I’m sure we will,” Shen Yuan said, patting his arm – and steadying him when Zheng Yang faltered again. “Is Binghe certain he is well enough to face his father and his cousin? I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“I’ll be fine,” Luo Binghe growled, then caught Shen Yuan before he could flit off to find a good spot to wait

Luo Binghe’s kiss was a surprise. Not that it happened – Shen Yuan was beginning to expect that – but the intensity of it. None of their kisses the previous night were born of this mix of hunger and fear. By the time Luo Binghe released him, Shen Yuan was the one having trouble staying on his sword.

“Don’t take risks,” Luo Binghe said, and flew off before Shen Yuan could give him the same warning.

After taking a moment – then two, then three – to collect himself, Shen Yuan circled around, landed, and crept closer to the Old Palace Master’s protective array.

When Luo Binghe descended like a heavenly tribulation – no shouted challenge, no posturing, just the flash of Zheng Yang, and Xin Mo rising at the last moment to counter it – Shen Yuan had to take another moment to watch.

He’d read so many scenes like this: Luo Binghe fighting through the Endless Abyss with only his fists and wits, Luo Binghe decimating armies and scum villains alike with his golden finger, Luo Binghe fighting fantastic monsters to protect some wife or another.

And yet Shen Yuan hadn’t had the chance to see it in real life. How could he not take a moment to admire the flex of those biceps and chest, the flowing hair and robes, the red flash of eyes and demon mark that were like indicator lights warning of the opponent’s imminent demise? Not to mention the cool execution of martial forms that Shen Yuan had taught him!

What was this fluttery feeling? Ah, this mushroom heart of his must really be defective. He should have Mu Qingfang look at it once this was over.

But Shen Yuan needed to end it first. Tearing his eyes off Luo Binghe being completely awesome, Shen Yuan quietly approached the array. The Old Palace Master was distracted by the fight, shouting taunts and insults at the combatants. He didn’t notice Shen Yuan step into the array – easily, and without any resistance.

He noticed when Shen Yuan slapped a silencing talisman over his mouth and tossed a loop of the Immortal Binding Cables over his head.

“Mmph-urk!” He squawked as the cables tightened and Shen Yuan looped a few more coils in place. The Old Palace Master lashed out with nails as long as claws, but with the cables draining his spiritual power, this venerable elder was no match for Shen Yuan. Avoiding those ragged nails, Shen Yuan caught up the Old Palace Master’s wrists and bound them as well. All the old man could do was mouth his outrage while the talisman flapped over his lips like an elephant’s trunk.

“Now, let’s get you out of here before you cause any more trouble,” Shen Yuan said. Using the end of the cable like a lead, he turned and yanked for the Old Palace Master to follow.

Possibly, he yanked too hard. The Old Palace Master stumbled and fell into Shen Yuan, knocking them both to the ground. The impact tore the talisman free, and the clearing rang with the Old Palace Master’s laughter.

Why was he laughing?

Quick on the heels of that thought came pain more excruciating than Shen Yuan had ever experienced – even worse than the blood parasites – searing through his gut like he’d been skewered with a red-hot poker. He looked down. No. Not a poker. Just a knife, sticking out of his side with a flower of red blooming around the point of entry.

The pain made everything seem a little fuzzy. He’d been stabbed? He’d been stabbed! By an old uncle who was tied up and had no spiritual power. How humiliating! Where was his fan. He needed to hide his face.

He felt around for it, found something long and hard at his side, and pulled.

And screamed.

Not… his fan.

Removing the knife seemed to numb the pain a bit, though. Or else, Shen Yuan was about to pass out from blood loss. Belatedly, his scream echoed back to him, with multiple voices, and some of them laughing until they weren’t anymore. He opened his eyes – when had they closed? – and saw the Old Palace Master standing over him with two swords piercing through his chest and a shocked look in his eyes as he spit blood down his chin.

He slid off the swords, lacquering the blades red, and collapsed at Shen Yuan’s feet.

Two Luo Binghes glared down at the Old Palace Master with undisguised hatred.

“Shizun!” One of the Luo Binghes stumbled over the dead body to kneel hard at Shen Yuan’s side. Gently, he lifted Shen Yuan enough to let him sit up against a tree. His hands were everywhere – on Shen Yuan’s face, in his har, flat on his abdomen and pressing down and the pain flared like Shen Yuan needed reminding that it was there.

Yelping, he swatted weakly. Binghe, that hurt!

“Sorry. Sorry, Shizun. I’ll be more careful,” Luo Binghe said through tears. “I’ll be more careful. Just… please don’t die. Please.”

What die? When did he say he planned to die? Just because he’d been stabbed?

Ah. Maybe he should do something about that. Shen Yuan nudged his spiritual energy, and it sluggishly responded, flowing to the site and sealing the wound before he dribbled out all his blood.

“You see,” said the other Luo Binghe, the one who looked more like the original protagonist than this precious lotus watering Shen Yuan with tears. “There is nothing good or beautiful in this world that they won’t destroy to keep it from us. So why should we leave the world in their jealous hands? I mean to make it ours.”

Ah. Not the blackened Luo Binghe then. That must be Tianlang-Jun climbing on Xin Mo and flying off, followed on the ground by a giant snake

“Binghe?”

“Yes, Shizun. I’m here!”

“Shush while this master is talking.” These interruptions made it harder to recall what he was going to say. Oh. Right. “You have to go. You have to stop Tianlang-Jun.”

“But—”

“I said shh. This master will be fine. See, already one less hole than there was a moment ago.” He lifted his hand to show it was true, but Luo Binghe seemed too distracted by the leftover blood to notice. Well… there was quite a bit of it.

Luo Binghe used his teeth to rip a gash in his wrist, but Shen Yuan stopped him before he could press the wound to Shen Yuan’s lips.

“No blood parasites. Trying to heal this body with demonic energy would do more harm than good. I’ll be fine. I have more than enough spiritual energy to heal. I just need to rest for a bit.”

He was already feeling better. Weak, but most of the pain had receded. And with it gone, clarity had returned about what needed to be done.

A low whine had lodged in Luo Binghe’s throat. Shen Yuan patted his head in reassurance. “I’ll be fine. But I won’t be fine for long if the realms collapse into each other. You need to stop Tianlang-Jun.”

“Even if it means killing him?” Luo Binghe asked softly, pressing into Shen Yuan’s touch as though that weight was all he needed to counter the burden being placed on his shoulders.

Shen Yuan briefly closed his eyes. Ah, why were these ethical conundrums left for him to decide? He just wanted to watch cool fights, discover cool monsters, and eat good food. And maybe let Luo Binghe kiss him on occasion.

Plot sucked.

“Even then,” he finally said. Opening his eyes, he let Luo Binghe see all the regret he couldn’t give voice to. “This master has failed you. Binghe shouldn’t have to do this.”

“Just stay alive. That is the only thing Binghe needs from A-Yuan.”

A chuckle ghosted out of Shen Yuan. “I think I can manage that. Go. Before it’s too late.”

Stealing a too-brief kiss, Luo Binghe snatched up the Old Palace Master’s corpse and flew off to stop his father.

Leaving Shen Yuan alone with a healing gut wound and racing thoughts. There had to be some way to stop this. Some plot coupon he hadn’t yet redeemed.

System? I don’t suppose I could spend my points to buy a hint?

【Apologizing to User OP, but the System Store is closed to take inventory. The only available function is viewing logs. Showing now.】

【User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 9900
  • Heartbreak Points: 1
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 95%
  • Secret Stash: One (1) Fenix Down
  • Co-op Mode Points: 500】

【User OP Active Quest Log

  • Save Cang Qiong Mountain Sect
  • Save Luo Binghe
  • Save the World】

Shen Yuan stared at the translucent screen for longer than he probably needed to, his epiphany moving as sluggishly as his blood and spiritual energy.

Then, it all snapped into place at once. His energy surged, his blood raced. His battered mushroom heart pounded a drumbeat in his ears.

And he laughed.

“System, I’d like to use my Fenix Down.”

【User OP shouldn’t worry. User OP is not near death at this time.】

“Not for me.” Grinning, Shen Yuan struggled to his feet and flicked the blood off his robes with a lick of spiritual energy. “I’d like to use it to bring back Luo Binghe’s mother.”

***

Shen Yuan didn’t waste time with long explanations for the surprised young woman in Huan Hua robes who found herself standing on a mountain ridge, healed and whole, when moments before she’d been dying on a riverbank. He covered the basics – over two decades had passed, Tianlang-Jun had escaped the trap and was bent on destroying the world, could she please help stop him?

She readily agreed, even kicked in a little spiritual energy to supplement Shen Yuan’s healing. By then, the sky had darkened, a crack running across it like frozen lightning. The ground trembled beneath their feet.

“We should hurry,” Shen Yuan said, mounting Xiu Yuan and holding out a hand for her.

“Not needed,” Su Xiyan said, drawing a blade the rippling blue of a fast-rushing river. “I can fly myself.”

The battle they came upon was truly epic, no expense spared in the special effects budget. Ash rained from the break in the sky, powdering the combatants and the ridge beneath their feet like a befouled snow. There was an entire bestiary of monsters pouring up from the depths of the Endless Abyss, and it seemed like some of Luo Binghe’s demon army had turned to fight in support of Tianlang-Jun. Or perhaps they simply had to defend themselves when some of the cultivators broke ranks to attack them?

In the midst of the chaos, the Peak Lords of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect fought alongside Luo Binghe against a giant snake and a multi-armed firestorm of demonic energy. And at the center of that storm, Tianlang-Jun used Xin Mo to pry the crack wider, the world rupturing with every pulse of demonic energy from them.

It was a terrible and awe-inspiring scene, but Shen Yuan was so giddy he could hardly stay on Xiu Yuan as he flew through it. This was it! Exclusive content only available to him! The key to so many secrets, the dirt that would fill all the plot holes! He was finally going to witness the epic love that was the spine to an entire body of misery. The tragic romance that had birthed Luo Binghe, and the sweet and tender reunion between the disreputable Heavenly Demon and the gentle and refined girl who claimed his heart.

“Hey, asshole!” Su Xiyan shouted as she charged directly at Tianlang-Jun. Anyone who tried to block her way, she shoved off their swords. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!”

Or… not.

The swirling firestorm died down. Both armies paused in their fighting as the shaking of the world quieted. Tianlang-Jun pulled Xin Mo from the rift and cocked his head like a confused dog. “D-darling?”

“Darling?! What darling? Don’t you darling me!” Swooping right up to him, Su Xiyan knocked Xin Mo aside and flicked his brow, right on the demon sigil.

“Ah! Ow!” He covered the spot, his confusion turning into something that seemed inexplicably like delight.

Ah. Of course. That was where Luo Binghe got his M tendencies. Shen Yuan would have hidden his face behind both hands, but he didn’t want to miss a moment of this.

“Well?” Su Xiyan demanded. Another swat to Tianlang-Jun’s head sent his fluffy hair into more disarray. “What is all this? I die for a few years, and you take that as a chance to sow a little destruction of the world?”

“I was upset! I thought you had betr—uh…” Tianlang-Jun bit his lip, finally looking a bit intimidated by her fury.

Su Xiyan’s eyes narrowed. “Yes? Go on. Finish that sentence… No? I didn’t think so.” She poked him in the sigil, and he backed up a step.

“I defied my master,” poke. “Drank poison,” poke. “Practically killed myself trying to warn you of his trap,” poke poke. “And when I failed, I did kill myself saving our child.” Presssssssss. “And. You. Thought. I. What?!

Tianlang-Jun fell to his knees as though the finger on his brow alone was stronger than his entire will. And yet, he gazed up at Su Xiyan like she was the only heaven he needed. “I thought… you were lost to me forever?”

Ah. Good save.

“Yeah. That better be what you were going to say. Now put down that tantrum stick of yours, fix the mess you’ve made, apologize to all these people for troubling them, and thank this nice young man for bringing me back before you did something irretrievably stupid.”

“And then, can this sad and unworthy one spend his last moments in your arms?” Tianlang-Jun asked. What should have sounded melodramatic and ridiculous instead came out unbearably sad – the wistfulness in his eyes too raw and sincere to be laughed at.

He was looking in a bad way, the mushroom flesh of his body soft and rotting in patches like a zombie. One of the mulchy kind.

“What final moments?” Grabbing the hand that didn’t hold a forgotten Xin Mo, Su Xiyan glowed with spiritual energy, pouring it into Tianlang-Jun. It was like watching a rushing river sweep away stagnant water. His face firmed and brightened, the rot faded – and the stink that went with it.

Softer, though still with an edge of irritation that Shen Yuan suspected was just her natural tone, Su Xiyan said, “No dying. I’m going to make you miserable for years to come.”

“Darling!” A sunlit smile broke through the dismal cloud, one Shen Yuan couldn’t help but admire because he’d seen it on Luo Binghe so often. Tossing Xin Mo aside like it was an old shoe, Tianlang-Jun swept Su Xiyan into his restored arms, raining kisses on her face.

Now Shen Yuan had to look away. What was this PDA? Shouldn’t the elder generation set good examples and behave circumspectly in front of their juniors? At least Luo Binghe hadn’t inherited this level of shamelessness.

His thoughts slammed into the wall of Luo Binghe’s chest – as did his body, as Luo Binghe caught hold of Shen Yuan. Only his fan protected him from Su Xiyan’s fate.

Luo Binghe kissed the fan’s paper instead. “Shizun is brilliant! Shizun is amazing! Shizun is alive.

“Shizun is going to give you a few good whacks if you don’t put me down!” The moment Shen Yuan’s feet touched the ground, he did give Luo Binghe a whack. But a light one. He would never have the heart to use the level of force that Tianlang-Jun seemed to enjoy.

“Ah!” Luo Binghe rubbed his shoulder, but even through fresh tears, he was grinning too much for Shen Yuan to believe he minded.

“And don’t Shizun me when you misbehave like that.”

Fan kissing was still kissing, after all.

“A-Yuan, then. A-Yuan is amazing. Only A-Yuan could stop these terrible events with love instead of hate.”

“Ahhh.” Glancing around, Shen Yuan realized that some of the attention that had been on the abrupt end of the battle and the drama of lovers reunited had siphoned off to focus on them. Mostly from his fellow Peak Lords and Qing Jing disciples, who watched with varying levels of disapproval, amusement, and scandalized delight.

And Shen Qingqiu, who looked so cold that anyone else might have thought he was furious instead of desperately struggling to contain his laughter.

Laugh all you want, dage. It’s nice here under this bus.

“As it happens, it wasn’t me alone,” Shen Yuan said. “Shen Qingqiu was the one who retrieved the spiritual essence necessary to resurrect Su Xiyan.

Shen Qingqiu hmphed. “Fenix Down?”

“Yup!”

“Well-played.”

Su Xiyan approached, dragging a besotted Tianlang-Jun by the wrist, the spiritual energy she was feeding him like a leash of light. “Then we owe you a debt of gratitude,” she said. “Both of you.”

“Son-in-Law!” Tianlang-Jun waved excitedly at Shen Yuan as though he hadn’t tortured him with blood parasites a day ago.

“Oh?” Su Xiyan looked puzzled for a moment, then her gaze shifted to Luo Binghe, still holding Shen Yuan’s hand. “Oh. Then this one is…”

“Luo Binghe,” Shen Yuan said softly. And then, realizing she wouldn’t have reason to know that name, added. “Your son.”

They studied each other with eyes that were the same. Luo Binghe’s hand in Shen Yuan’s was cold, his expression a study in conflict.

Whatever Su Xiyan saw in him made her nod and, for the first time since she’d returned from death, smile.

“Thank you for surviving,” she said.

A shiver passed through Luo Binghe, and he lowered his gaze to the ground. “Thank you. For making it possible.”

Chapter Text

Stickler that it was, the System refused to close out the final quests until Xin Mo was destroyed. It made sense – as long as a nuclear weapon existed, that weapon was a threat. But it meant Luo Binghe had to travel to the Endless Abyss to do it. Tianlang-Jun wanted to go with him – whether Luo Binghe wanted him was another matter – but Su Xiyan put her foot down on Tianlang-Jun’s and declared they were returning to Huan Hua Palace to whip the pathetic remnants of her sect into shape.

The stabbing incident had given Luo Binghe such a fright that he refused to take Shen Yuan, so in the end he headed out with Mobei-Jun. Shang Qinghua got out of it by offering to collect the tents that had been left behind near the Holy Mausoleum.

So when, a few days later, Shen Yuan’s morning was disturbed by a flood of System notifications and quest completes, he knew Luo Binghe had succeeded and would return soon. He rushed to complete his business, but he still didn’t make it back to Qing Jing Peak until the afternoon.

The moment he stepped into the garden of the bamboo house, Luo Binghe rushed him like he’d forgotten all his training. He’d changed out of his dark demon lord’s attire and into something bright, fresh and simple, suitable for an advanced disciple of Qing Jing Peak. Only his demon sigil – and the fact that he was five sizes larger with a chest like a marble god – marked him as different from the fluffy little sheep bleating Shizun! Shizun! for Shen Qingqiu’s attention.

“Binghe!” Shen Yuan snapped, and that was enough to halt him in his headlong rush.

Like a proper disciple, Luo Binghe folded his hands and bowed, though every line of his body hummed with barely restrained energy. “Greeting Shizun on his return.”

“And thanking all heaven that you’re finally back,” Shen Qingqiu grumbled, stepping out of the bamboo house. “I told him that you were aware of his return and would come as soon as you could, but the little beast only listens to you. He’s lucky I didn’t dump another cup of tea – cold this time – over his head to cool him down.”

“Peak Lord Shen is welcome to try,” Luo Binghe said, so silk-smooth that Shen Yuan couldn’t tell if his responding shiver was desire or terror.

Probably a bit of both. It was always a bit of both when the white lotus ducked his head and the blackened protagonist peered out from the shadows.

“Ah. Enough of that or I might become jealous of how well you’re getting along.” Shen Yuan stepped between them to ensure that eye contact was the only thing severed. “Dage, we’ll leave you in peace. Binghe, come with me. This master has something for you.”

Huffing, Shen Qingqiu returned inside.

“This disciple doesn’t need anything but Shizun,” Luo Binghe said. Which was sweet, but not at all conducive to what Shen Yuan had prepared.

“Perhaps, but Binghe was gone for so many days, this master needs to spoil him on his return. Will you deny me that?”

As though Luo Binghe could deny him anything. Mounting his sword, he followed Shen Yuan to the town at the base of the mountain. It was a lovely place, full of friendly people who appreciated their luck at living in the safest place in the world, nestled under the wing of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. They were happy to help when one of the Peak Lords – there were so many, who could keep them all straight – came asking for their assistance.

Finding a suitable empty house had been a bit of a challenge, but Shen Yuan finally settled on one that suited – three cozy buildings around a charming courtyard, and an oversized kitchen house in back.

The only signs of life came from that kitchen, so that’s where Shen Yuan took them. The air was rich with familiar aromas: steamed rice, roasted pork, fried scallions, fresh ginger. Luo Binghe’s brow furrowed in confusion as he landed beside Shen Yuan and sheathed Zheng Yang.

“Shizun cooked?”

Shen Yuan laughed. “Since when has this master had any skill in the kitchen? Binghe cooks; I clean. Remember?”

“Then Shizun hired others to prepare—no.” Luo Binghe’s nose twitched. His head cocked in confusion. “This smells familiar…”

Shen Yuan couldn’t find his fan, so he had to use his hands to cover his grin. His heart was racing fit to burst.

“It smells like—”

“Binghe?”

The woman who stepped out of the kitchen wasn’t an elegant beauty or a powerful cultivator. She had a kind, round face, wrinkles from sorrow, but just as many from joy. The hands she was wiping clean with her apron were reddened and worn from years plunged into washing vats.

Luo Binghe sucked in a breath when he spotted her, and held it like he feared letting it out would break the bubble of this moment.

But he could only hold that breath for so long. “A-niang?”

Binghe’s mother’s smile transformed her face into true beauty. “It is you. Look at you, grown so tall and handsome. Let this old woman look at you,” she said, and spread her arms.

Binghe rushed forward, somehow curling into his mother’s embrace like he was a small bun instead of a powerful demon lord. His mother grunted softly when he hugged her, then laughed through their shared tears.

Stroking Luo Binghe’s unruly curls, she said, “Ah, how can I see anything like this but the top of Binghe’s head? And all I can see here is that he neglected to brush his hair again.”

But she didn’t pull away. Not even when tears had subsided and the afternoon turned golden and mellow.

“How,” Luo Binghe asked finally, the question muffled by her shoulder.

“I don’t know. You’ll need to ask Master Shen. I found myself by a grave on the Luo River, with him nearby waiting for me. He explained that you were grown, but that you were safe and well, and that he could bring me to you.”

“Sh-shizun?” Binghe pulled away just far enough to look at Shen Yuan. “But… how?”

【User OP is a dirty cheater who cheats, that’s how,】the System grumbled in Shen Yuan’s head. It was still snarked off that he’d won this argument by rules-lawyering the fuck out of it.

“It’s thanks to the spiritual item that I used to bring back Su Xiyan,” he said. “Because I was vague in stating what I wanted, it brought back both of Binghe’s mothers.”

【You mean you cheated and said ‘mother’, knowing it was vague because you planned it that way because you are a dirty cheater who cheats!】

Suck it. You should be more careful with your semantic tagging. Shen Yuan refused to feel bad. Not when Luo Binghe’s face was streaked with happy tears.

Oh, and just out of curiosity, let me see my log.

Slowly, as though the System begrudged him even this, the log scrolled.

【User OP Point Log

  • Revising Protagonist Plot Points: 9999 – COMPLETE!
  • Heartbreak Points: 0 – COMPLETE!
  • Filling Plot Hole Progress: 100% – COMPLETE!
  • Secret Stash: Empty
  • Co-op Mode Points: 1500】

Ah. Finally that last heartbreak point was gone and Shen Yuan could relax!

A touch on his shoulder shook Shen Yuan from his mental victory dance.

“Is this another of A-Yuan’s unanswerable questions?” Luo Binghe asked. He’d pulled himself away from his mother’s arms, though she stood at the kitchen door, watching them both with a fond smile.

“Ah. Yes? I hope Binghe doesn’t—”

“I don’t!” Catching Shen Yuan’s hand, Luo Binghe pressed dry kisses to it. “How could I ever?”

Ah, don’t look at this poor transmigrator like that, Binghe! I haven’t had a chance to see Mu Qingfang about my heart issues yet.

Though, if Shen Yuan was being entirely honest with himself, he knew there was no cure for what ailed him. At least, nothing he was willing to do in front of Luo Binghe’s mother. He tugged his hand free and pretended like the architecture of the main house was very interesting.

“I think something is burning,” Luo Binghe’s mother said, even though there was nothing but delicious, savory smells filling the air. “Binghe, why don’t you and your husband search the storeroom for a jar of wine. It’s hard to think of you as old enough to drink, but it’s a special occasion.”

Wait! Husband?! Why did all of Luo Binghe’s parents think he’d already bowed to them? Wouldn’t they have noticed if something like that had happened?

“But…” Luo Binghe glanced between them, looking deeply torn.

“Go on,” his mother said, patting him on his head, even though she had to rise on her toes to do it. “I’ll be here when you get back, and the food will be ready.”

Shooed off, Luo Binghe followed Shen Yuan into the dry storage room at the rear of the kitchen house.

“A-Yuan.” Pulling him to a stop, Luo Binghe framed Shen Yuan’s face with warm hands. “Why didn’t you correct her when she said husband?”

Ah. Please let this master hide! Where the hell had he left his fan? Why wasn’t Liu Qingge swooping in to return it and interrupt this shameless moment.

“Why didn’t Binghe? She’s your mother.”

“Why would this lowly one correct what he wants to be true,” Binghe asked. His thumb brushed Shen Yuan’s lower lip, his eyes fixed on the path it took. “Would A-Yuan want it?”

He couldn’t answer that. He really couldn’t. Not with Binghe ready to kiss him the moment he gave his answer. Which meant Shen Yuan knew what his answer was. He just wasn’t ready to admit it yet.

“Perhaps,” he equivocated. Before Luo Binghe’s smile grew too wide, he said, “But only with dage’s blessing.”

Groaning, Luo Binghe rested his brow against Shen Yuan’s in defeat. “He will never agree to that.”

“He will when I tell him to.”

That perked Luo Binghe up. “Then really, it’s A-Yuan I have to convince?” He backed Shen Yuan into a shelf, rattling the contents on it. “I should start right away.”

They didn’t emerge until Luo Binghe’s mother rapped on the storage room door to tell them if they took any longer, she was going to eat the entire meal herself. And by then, Shen Yuan had been thoroughly…

Convinced.