Luo Binghe is observing one of Shen Yuan’s memories. It’s perhaps the memory that he returns to most often.
It’s a simple, sweet memory: Shen Yuan, aged twelve or thirteen, going to a park with his grandmother. Before they leave their dwelling, as they’re sitting together at the curiously tall dining table, Shen Yuan puts down his spoon and says, “But Nainai, I’m too old for the park.”
To which his grandmother replies, “Nonsense. Yuan-er’s been cooped up inside for much too long, playing on that computer. It’s no good for your health.”
“I’ve been doing catch-up work for school,” Shen Yuan protests.
His grandmother snorts good-naturedly. “I may not understand much about computers, ah, but I’m not a fool.” She pinches his cheek lightly. “Don’t try to lie to this old lady.”
He flushes slightly after she lets go. “Can I bring a book with, at least?”
She quirks an eyebrow. “Is Yuan-er getting tired of this granny’s stories?”
Shen Yuan’s face falls, abashed. “I don’t have to bring one.”
“Aiya,” she says, breaking out into a cheeky smile. “This granny’s just teasing. Go grab a book once you’ve finished your soup.”
Later, when they arrive at the park, they sit together on a bench. Shen Yuan’s grandmother whips out a thin book titled Shu Du, along with one of the wooden writing utensils that seem ubiquitous in this world, while Shen Yuan takes out a much thicker book titled The Smiling, Proud Wanderer.
Before Shen Yuan starts to read, however, he takes a look around the park, and then at his grandmother. A sweet, joyful smile spreads across his face.
This memory isn’t pleasant to watch. It hurts Luo Binghe, every time. The envy, the jealousy, the longing: they coalesce as an inferno within him, scorching his insides to dust.
But still he returns, over and over and over again. Still, he longs to see that smile--despite it being a mere facsimile that Luo Binghe has constructed from Shen Yuan’s first-person recollections.
He's certain that the real thing will be even more beautiful.
Suddenly, he becomes aware that somebody is probing at the edges of Shen Yuan’s dreams.
This new impostor? The one who’s supposedly more adept at dream manipulation than even Luo Binghe?
If so, perhaps he’s being so clumsy on purpose. Trying to get Luo Binghe’s attention.
Luo Binghe has never been the sort to back down from a challenge. He shifts to a blank dreamscape and ‘invites’ the interloper inside.
A figure emerges from the mist. It is indeed another Luo Binghe, dressed in elegant black robes, with his hair done up in a high ponytail.
“You,” the imposter snarls. “Where’s Shizun?”
Luo Binghe is momentarily stunned. This isn’t the new impostor at all, but the old one! He quickly suppresses his shock, smirking lazily. “You found a way to come to this world without Xin Mo. This lord is impressed.”
The impostor’s face contorts in rage, telling Luo Binghe exactly what he needs to know.
“Ah, so you haven’t found an alternative. Instead, you’ve somehow managed to reach out to Shizun through dreams.” Still impressive, Luo Binghe admits begrudgingly, even though he can tell that it’s taking a toll on the impostor. His form keeps going in and out of focus, blurring at the edges. Threatening to dissolve back into mist.
To the impostor’s credit, he doesn’t demand to see Shen Yuan, since he must know it’s futile. Instead, he says, “I’ve already found a way to rescue Shizun. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Rescue?“ Luo Binghe asks, his smirk widening. “This lord has already made Shizun feel so good. Do you really think he’d go back to you, after having a taste of the pleasure that this lord can grant him?”
“Liar,” the impostor hisses. “Shizun would never let you touch him!”
Luo Binghe thrills at the pain he sees in the impostor’s eyes. “This lord can show you, if you’re really so skeptical.” He isn’t really going to show him, of course. Shen Yuan’s beauty is for nobody's eyes but his own. “The pretty sounds he made...I’m sure you’d like to hear them.”
Curiously, this doesn’t inflame the impostor any further. Indeed, it seems only to calm him. “The fact that you would even consider dishonoring Shizun in such a manner proves that you’re nothing but scum.” The impostor’s gaze is cold and piercing. “And Shizun doubtlessly knows it as well. If he really did that with you, then it must have been because he had no choice.”
The words strike Luo Binghe directly in his heart, causing a sudden surge of agony and rage. “Even if you do find a way here,” he spits out, “Shizun won’t remember you. All those precious memories from Qing Jing Peak? This lord will erase them all, and make new, better memories for him--where he isn’t in constant fear for his life. This lord will bring him more happiness and pleasure than you ever did. Or ever could.” He grins, the expression stretching his cheeks uncomfortably. “And when this lord kills you, Shizun won’t shed a single tear. You’ll be nothing.”
He expels the impostor from the dreamscape before the impostor can respond.
The rage fades from a blaze to a simmer. He tries to exit from the dreamscape himself, only for something to prevent him.
“So,” says the voice of ‘Luo Binghe’, “erasing Shen Yuan’s memories. That’s how Little Bing plans to resolve this?”
Luo Binghe whips around, and comes face-to-face with yet another impostor. And although this one looks identical to the other impostor--right down to his choice of fine black robes and hairstyle--there’s something about his demeanor that makes it easy to tell the two apart.
“I went through Little Bing’s more recent memories,” the second impostor explains, “and I know about your little interrogation session with Shen Yuan. Therefore, there’s no need for me to hide anymore.”
Even if the impostor’s dream powers surpass his own, surely it's not to the extent that he can study Luo Binghe’s memories without being detected. Could it be that the impostor is lying, and Shen Yuan had actually been the one to warn him? Shen Yuan has made it abundantly clear that he feels no loyalty whatsoever to Luo Binghe, after all.
Come to think of it... “Was that other impostor just a trick?”
The new impostor shakes his head. “As much as I’d like to take credit for that, I can’t. That really was Bing-di. Since he and Shen Yuan have a deep connection, it makes sense that, with the right tools, he could project his consciousness through that connection. I’m actually surprised that it’s taken him this long.” He smirks. “Though of course, I could be lying. I guess Little Bing will just have to wonder.”
Luo Binghe glowers at him. “Your skills at dream manipulation may exceed this lord’s, but you’re still in the body of that weak, pathetic woman. Killing you will be as easy as swatting a fly.”
The impostor’s smirk drops away as he lets out a long-suffering sigh. “The only pathetic thing here is how Little Bing projects the traits that he disdains in himself onto women. It’s true that Xiao Feifei isn’t a Heavenly Demon, but she's anything but weak. In fact, she’s far more emotionally resilient than you or I have ever been--and without even having to rely on an evil sword to turn her into a malignant narcissist.”
Luo Binghe doesn’t know what this foreign phrase is supposed to mean, let alone this bunk about ‘projecting onto women’, but it’s clear that both are intended as insults. He will not give the impostor the satisfaction of reacting with anger.
“But you’re definitely not ready to have that conversation, so let’s move on to the much more pressing topic.” The impostor’s expression darkens. “Do you have any idea how delicate and dangerous memory alterations are?”
“Of course.” Meng Mo had already told him in no uncertain terms. Moreover, he’s learned that it can’t be done with dream manipulation alone, but requires a certain artifact, to amplify one’s powers, and a certain flower, to induce a suggestible state--both of which are extremely difficult to obtain.
But once he has Xin Mo again, that shouldn’t prove to be too much of an obstacle.
The impostor says, “Then you know that you could just end up with a living corpse? Or another version of Shen Jiu?”
“This lord will not fail,” Luo Binghe says simply. He can’t. This is the only chance he has left to fix things.
“Even if you succeed,” the impostor says, “you’ll still remember. You’ll still know that he didn’t really choose you.” Something melancholy passes over his face. “And you’ll never be able to make up for all the times you hurt him. Not really.”
Ridiculous. “Shen Yuan will be much happier without the memories of the way he suffered in that other world.” The memories of Luo Binghe being cruel to him. Of the ugliness and resentment between them. “And, through that happiness, this lord will make it up to him a thousandfold.”
The impostor sighs a second time. This one sounds tired. “You really are...unbelievably childish.”
Once again, Luo Binghe doesn’t dignify the insult with a response. The impostor will be dead soon, anyway.
“I know you’re just going to ignore me, Little Bing, but maybe one day you’ll remember these words...” The impostor expression hardens, and his voice becomes very cold. “There’s no such thing as victory without sacrifice. Not even for you. And the sacrifices that you don't see coming...are always the worst.”