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There was no air. He gasped, struggling to breathe. Shen Yuan tried to grab his throat and couldn't move his arms, wheezing in the darkness. No. No. It was all a dream, just a dream.

He blinked rapidly to clear his eyes and the ‘room’ he was in became clearer. Somehow he’d gotten from his high-rise apartment to a cave. Outside and him never got along. Kidnapping?

Somewhere in the distance water dropped down steadily, plinking. Otherwise, he was alone in the dark, unable to move but look around. His head rested on the dusty, damp-smelling ground, lower body and arms unmovable, yet he could lift up his chest. It was when he discovered the snake, curled under him. A tiny thin little thing.

“The fuck?” he rasped. 

What type of shitty nightmare was this? 

[System welcomes new Host to ‘Cultivating a Happy Family.’ *\(^o^)/*] a mechanically happy voice popped up with a ding. 

Oh he’d definitely had too many muscle relaxers before bed. 

“System?”

[Hint: try breathing in a circular state to charge up your new body then escape the mountain to continue the story. You can do it Host! (^_−)−☆]

“Do what?”

[Answering Host's silly question: Have what you’ve always wanted. A loving family ^-^]

“I have a family. This is just a dream,” he attempted to explain away. The voice didn’t return. 

Time passed and the dark cave grew slightly chillier, the snake curled up tighter and to protect the very docile reptile, Shen Yuan carefully laid back down. With no end in sight to this boring dream, he breathed in, held it, then breathed out. Like his Pain Management Doctor taught him to meditate through pain. Relaxing his muscles, focusing his mind inward.

At first, nothing happened. His mind drifted, no longer docked or burdened by thoughts and worries. Bobbing adrift until a tiny spark lit. Warmth ignited in his center, gradually spreading across his chest down to his unmovable limbs. 

The tiny snake snuggled closer perking up as his core warmed. The tiny reptile rose up, seeking more heat, then settled lightly around his neck, tongue flicking over the underside of his jaw. Despite having a dangerous predictor around his neck, Shen Yuan did not feel fear or worry. Small adorable danger noodle.

He meditated, circling his breaths, becoming a furnace. Slowly the small spark caught fire and the glow grew.

[Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! Auspicious things must be said three times. (*´∀`)♪ You have ignited your soul into the hearth of this body. It’s now yours! Enjoy your free membership trial!!!!] The ping interrupted his breathing. 

Startled out of his trance Shen Yuan opened his eyes again to the dark room only this time he felt pain. His arms and legs crushed under an oppressive weight. Something else weighed him down like hooks in his skin. He could hear much further, every movement of the earth. 

This was not a dream.

It was hell.



***

 

In a process he never wants to think of again, Shen Yuan managed to free himself and only lost one arm, on top of various abrasions and chunks of flesh. It was in the moment the rotting appendage ripped from his shoulder, he howled, sobbing and realized he was healing at an unsettling rate which normal humans did not possess. Which was frankly a terrifying observation and in clear denial he pretended the dark was too dark to see. 

Just escape. Don’t dwell. Get out.

The tiny snake became a trusted companion during that time, twisted around his neck weakly, seeking out heat and refusing to leave him even when he nudged it away to go feed. It lapped up his tears, nudging his cheek with its tiny cold nose in encouragement. What a good danger noodle.

Such a loyal thing. He petted its head, cooing praises in a baby voice his sister would have made fun of him for if she’d been there. The tiny thing flicked its rough tongue, licking the tips of his fingers, like a kitten. It made him coo more. 

“Who is the best snake in the world? You are. As soon as we escape I am feeding you a nice rat.”

 

***

 

Finally, he got free from the rock, left arm still trapped and a puddle of blood on the floor he ignored. Taking his new friend, who he needed to name, Shen Yuan stood up after who knows how long and hit his head on the low rock ceiling. 

“Mother fucker-, really?” He hissed, his tiny friend flicked at his ear, tickling him. 

Another thing that stood out to him was how smart the snake was. If his arm could grow back then really how odd would it be for him to have an intelligent snake? Which brought to light the fact that he didn’t know how he’d gotten inside this tall body or why the poor guy had been crushed in an unfortunate spelunking accident. 

One thing at a time.

Rubbing the bruised area he ducked, grumbled and felt around with one arm, the other growing back in a process that felt exactly like baking bread which he didn’t want to dwell on. His “clothing” had ripped off during his struggle, which left him naked but covered in dried blood and dirt. Not that anyone was there to see, thank all the deities. Luckily his new body had long matted hair that covered his backside. His scalp didn’t itch but live were a concern in the back of his mind. 

He refused to look down at the dick swinging between his legs as he walked. It wasn’t his. The weight of it, and where it hit his thigh gave him a very good idea how long and heavy it was . . . nope . . . nope think of something else. Anything.

“This is the worst dream, and I’m saying it’s just a dream because otherwise I'll think that system is right and that means …” he shook his head, following the path upwards through the darkness. Even hunched down, he continued to hit his head. “What should I name my good little pet?” 

Light peeked through the darkness and caught on the first shiny thing. The tiny snake around him glistened like a just polished emerald. Scales glossy. The top of its spine had a small yellow ridge that was not unlike any snake he’d seen before and its eyes were yellow like large pieces of inlaid amber. It sort of looked like a dragon, if he squinted.

“Qinglong, like the ancient green dragon. You’re my fierce little dragon,” he decided on a fitting name, booping Qinglong on the nose.

Said snake licked his dirty fingers. Adorable pink tongue wrapping around his long nails. It tickled and he giggled. Mood lifting.

Together they’d crawled, squeezed, and stumbled up and through the twisting maze of the cave until true sunlight appeared and Shen Yuan crawled through a tiny howl, pushing a rock out of the way and into fresh air. Sunrise —maybe sunset?—painted the sky in a haze of orange and pinks. He inhaled the fresh air deeply then let out a triumphant yell.

“We made it Qinglong,” Yuan cheered, throwing his arms up. His tiny dragon wiggled in excitement.

Noise, glorious noise. Crickets chirped, leaves rustled, a chorus of noisy frogs, owls hooting filled the air. In the distance to his far left he heard the rushing of water. He needed a bath, possibly seven. He smelt so bad. Lightly stepping through the forest, careful of his feet and pointy rocks, he found a river as the sun dipped over the horizon and darkness descended. 

Washing felt wonderful. Indescribably pleasurable in the way the crust of blood and dirt washed off -how long had he been stuck?- and the cool water soothed his flushed skin. Rubbing his hands against his toned and muscled skin until he became slightly red, he forcefully didn’t think about how he shivered at even the lightest touch, nipples hardening from the cold. His new skin was soft and firm at the same time, muscled in a way he’d never been but always admired. How a dead body had such a great body eluded him and with every other uncomfortable thought he chucked it to the side.

His little dragon circled up on a rock nearby watching as he chattered, unnerved and thus easing the tension by talking. Pretending this was a normal day for him. 

Yep, just a regular tall extremely muscled dude -with amazing pecs-, covered in blood, regrowing an arm, naked, bathing in a strange forest.

Totally normal.

Dreams were weird, it was weird. Moving on.

It was while bathing he discovered his pointy ears. Cool, was he an Elf? Using a random rock he filed down his sharp nails, feeling like an Auntie at the salon but no one to gossip with except Qinglong. His emerald friend bobbed its head as he filled the space with rambling. His sister's latest test results -failed-, his older brother's boyfriend's proposal -lackluster in his opinion-, lack of jobs -stressful and soul crushing-, best and least favorite nurses, and how much he loved the smell of popcorn but detested the flavor. 

His matted hair couldn't be saved without shampoo or an entire bottle of conditioner so he did his best tugging at it before twisting it up into a literal knot. He thought there’d been residue first on his face, scrubbing furiously until it hurt only to discover his body had a tattoo on it. A slightly familiar tattoo. The ripping water made a terrible mirror.

Family lineage? Magic type? Criminal? Marriage indicator? An Elf cultural tattoo? There were so many things it could be.

“Time for food,” Yuan told his little dragon, picking up the small thing and putting it back against his throat, walking through the forest, dripping dry in the summer night air. If he didn’t think about it, he wasn’t flouncing around naked, for the world to see.

It was a dream. Nothing mattered here. 

Qinglong would not leave him to hunt. Every time he set down the snake it would curl around his ankle, twist back up his arm or refuse to be tugged off his neck. He gave up by sunrise.

“I’ve got to be in a magical world. How else would I have pointed ears and not be hungry,” he waved his newly grown arm in the air. “Or this.”

Was he a lizard person? He didn’t have scales? Had to be an Elf.

Qinglong wiggled without answer. 

Shen Yuan paused and waved his hands in the air, attempting to draw out magic. Nothing happened. Closing his eyes, focusing on his inside -at least that's what people did in novels he read- he searched for his wellspring of magic and didn’t feel anything. Nothing to pull, tug, or gather. Just to be certain he punched the air and waved his hands trying to summon something. Nothing, again. Disappointed he didn’t have magic, he continued trudging through the forest.

At least as an Elf he had amazing stamina, and tough skin. The underbrush barely scratched at him, twigs and rocks under his bare feet didn't even register. He should find a bow. Or make one? No, definitely buy it. Arts and crafts had always been outside his scope.

They kept walking. Heading somewhere. Walking naked through the forest, talking to a snake. His sister would laugh herself sick if she could see him. He pretended the heat on his face was from the sun.

“How am I supposed to find a loving family? 

Qinglong squeezed his neck, nose pressing against his lips in a type of kiss, if snakes knew what kisses were. Even a smart magical snake wouldn't understand that. 

He chuckled and kissed its head. “Well, you’re my family. My beautiful guardian dragon. Aren’t you the prettiest little thing? Yes you are, so green like emeralds, shiny and cute. I could just eat you whole and put you in my pocket.”

If he had clothes. 

Which he needed to find. 

ASAP!

 

***

 

Shen Yuan was not his uncle. 

Zhushi-lang had already said goodbye to his uncle. Cruelly imprisoned by those disgusting human, rotting and tortured for years. He heard the emperor’s last rattling breath and curled under the body to pass away too - as any worthy general should- when the body seized and a new heartbeat thumped inside. 

Shen Yuan was not his uncle but Zhushi-lang would follow him anyway. Master Shen had saved them both, called him- a lowly ugly half breed demon no one really liked- a dragon. His adorable dragon. Zhushi-lang preened. 

Master Shen had caught him three mice, stroked his head, and talked to him, cooed at him in a way his own mother never had. Master Shen was warm, so warm Zhushi-lang, now renamed Qinglong, would know only coldness away from him. 

However large his loyalty was, even -newly named- Qinglong could admit Master Shen had all of the survival skills of a baby. Luckily, he resided in Junshang’s body, which even partially healed terrified those lesser than him, and so all manner of animals and creatures steered away from the two. 

When the sun rose, and Master Shen had walked the entire night, they found a cave and slept. Curled together. The process repeated for three days. Qinglong did not ask where they were headed, now more healed himself, content to bask in the heat of the body under him, petted and cooed at. He suspected even Master Shen did not know but continued onward, despite traveling further into the human territory. His snake spies would alert him of trouble.

For now he soaked up the warmth. Content.

 

***

 

Having the most adorable snake for a pet did wonders for Shen Yuan's loneliness as he made observations about the area they walked. He had to keep stopping every time he saw a familiar weird flower, animal or plant, cataloging it. The longer they traced through the silent forest, that didn't seem to end, his growing suspicion worsened. This wasn't a high fantasy world, it was a cultivation one.

The occasional person on a sword flying by, did give that away. Equally cool.

However, not just any story. He had found himself in Proud Immortal Demon Way. His inner nerd squealed like a child on Christmas, however who was he? Scanning his memory he came up blank. Did the character whose body he’d taken have a role?  He doubted it since his arm had rotted off of him, and everyday he healed more, skin freshened and plump despite not eating. 

“I need clothes, Qinglong, what if someone's see’s me. I’ll die of embarrassment or they’ll have me arrested for being a pervert and thrown in jail. Or scream at me ‘ah, zombie’,” Shen Yuan laughed at his own joke.

Qinglong shook his head, as if to say ‘no silly Yuan you won’t be arrested, they’ll see how pitiful you are and help you.’ Shen Yuan agreed with his adorable little friend. 

“We get clothes and then I am going to see where Luo Binghe is.”

The idea of seeing the protagonist in his natural habitat was too good to pass up. Now he just had to find out when and where he was. Shouldn't be too hard.

This was the coolest dream ever. He could run in his new body, not that he would because then that flopped around, but the sentiment remained. A healthy body, cute snake-buddy, in his favorite/hated book by that hack author. What an amazing dream.

Chapter Text

Worst dream ever. Shen Yuan takes back everything he ever thought. He hates it here. Qinglong ate some weird-ass flower-thing while they stopped in a cave a few days back and had been lethargic, wiggling in pain even as he pet his small fierce dragon. 

Worried his tiny buddy might be sick, Yuan had found the nearest village and stole clothes that were too small for him, went barefoot and tried to find a doctor only to determine that he wasn’t an Elf but a demon. Even better! 

However, the humans did not agree with his rad assessment of his new lineage. They screamed at him out of the huts, pointing fingers and throwing rocks. Rude. Someone went to find a ‘cultivator’ so Shen Yuan got the fuck out of dodge. 

Which was rude. He didn’t want to eat anyone, they smelt weird. And he wasn’t sure he felt hunger. Which was disappointing since he couldn’t eat unless hungry. So he didn’t, and nothing happened. Did he photosynthesize? Gather energy from the forest? Did he have a stomach?

“This time should work,” Shen Yuan muttered to Qinglong. “I’m a super spy on a mission,” he hummed the first few bars to the popular song. 

He tried it two more times. One with a hat the wind blew off to expose his forehead tattoo and cute ears and the last attempt at night. He towered over the humans and they screamed. It was sort of funny at first. Now it annoyed him. 

“I’m not ugly, Qinglong,” Yuan morosely pouted, crouched in the woods after being run off the last time. His too tight shirt barely closed over his muscular chest, making him feel even more exposed than when he’d been naked.

His little friend barely moved now. If Qinglong died. Shen Yuan would be alone. Again.

An iceberg floated in his chest, freezing the waters around his throat, choking him, memories of nights alone, crying into his pillow, internally yelling at himself flooded his mind. In a new body, a new world he could admit how lonely he’d been before. How he wanted to grip someone’s sleeve and make them stay. He didn’t want to smile and say “it’s fine” anymore. 

Qinglong couldn’t die. His buddy needed to be here, around his neck. Safe. His hands shook as he softly petted the snake, whispering assurances he’d heard all his life, praying this time they meant something. 

“If I’m a demon, I have magic. So logically I should be able to hide myself. You need help. I’ll help you. You’ll be just fine. Hold on buddy.”

From there, in the woods, he practiced in a puddle until he could hide his ears, and forehead tattoo with a small illusionary magic -he thought- stole a knife and cut off half his matted hair. Badly braiding it.

The next village from there he found a nice doctor, who laughed at him. The old pudgy man with a thin white beard did not even take the plants or animals he offered in trade for services rendered. 

“Snakes hibernate, you worry for someone so pretty, find a nice wife.”

[Cultivating a Happy Family trial still locked. Complete tasks to open mission and begin your journey]

Qinglong in agreement snapped tiredly at the old man's fingers and Shen Yuan left with a bow. His heart rate wouldn’t slow down no matter how many deep breaths he took. 

 

***

 

From there they traveled slowly as Shen Yuan got used to his demon powers, filing down his nails every week. He was disappointed he couldn't fly on a sword like a cultivator but if he focused his attention his ears disappeared and no one noticed his demon tattoo. He still thought it was cool.

Qinglong got better as the weeks passed. Finally, they reached the Qin Sec Mountain only for him to be rejected, like running into a glass wall, bouncing away from it. 

Ah right, demon.

Ugh, he’d wanted to see where Binghe grew up. Disappointed and changed out by cultivators suddenly swarming the area, he booked it.

“Well, Qinglong, let’s go to the demon realm. Maybe he’s there?”

Another few weeks or is it months? Time starts to flow oddly for him. He got to the demon territory to ask around, now wearing slightly more fitting clothes and a veil around his face, unsure if anyone might recognize a dead-man or not?

“Does the name Luo Binghe sound familiar?” He asked everyone he could.

“Who?”

“Buy something or leave.”

“Weird name?”

“You mean the river?”

“Why are you looking for a human? Want him killed?” a creepy demon with green skin leered at Shen Yuan despite being only as tall as his waist. Qinglong moved as if to spring forward and bite, a cool trick that worried Shen Yuan. He settled a hand on his friend.

“Then who is the emperor?”

“Tianlang-Jun was the emperor until the cultivators,” the small demon spit on the ground, a thick blue mucous blob Shen Yuan wanted to both examine and shy away from, “trapped and killed him. Now there is no Emperor. Just kings.”

“Stupid hack author,” he cursed.

He didn’t have a single clue who that was, the name had never come up in the stallion novel. Undeterred, the young man continued to ask around, and while he’d get a funny look no one didn’t not answer him, which was surprising. Also not being screamed at all the time felt nice.

Still not eating, and not even missing it, Shen Yuan walked through Demon towns, asking questions about the lack of books and reliable information, Qinglong occasionally wiggling in answer. He has assumed the place would smell of dirty laundry and brimstone. The dry air, vast cloudless sky, faint whiff of smoke and lack of vegetation reminded him of California when he’d visited as a kid at Disney. A hateful place we’re he’s knocked out a tooth, threw up on Aladdin, and accidentally lost his sister on the same trip. The demon real, was slightly better, but only slightly.

His too tight, unflattering clothing wasn't even a blimp on anyone's radar. In fact some just walked around naked. Of course, those demons usually had fur, scale or feather, which he debated under his breath to Qinglong if they counted as clothes? He thought no.

“Either too much time has passed or he’s still a tiny bean. Worst case he’s in the Endless Abyss.”

“Endless Abyss?” A meaty demon’s ears perked up as Shen Yuan openly talked to Qinglong as he walked through a stall of useless items in what the demons considered a market. “There’s a crack not far from here.”

“A crack?” He stopped.

Qinglong tightened at his throat hissing and shaking his head. Shen Yuan patted his head. Yes, he was excited too. What new monsters lived around there? And plants? Maybe he could pick some purple rotted roots, in the novel they were good for healing and temporarily changing shapes.

Was it egotistical to say that after having existed in his new body, he felt less fear at approaching a deadly area? He’d grown an arm back after having cut it off himself. He hadn’t eaten, or drinken since his escape and sleep was fleeting. 

It was a terrible, terrible idea but Shen Yan was a slave to his impulses. He wanted to see what a crack looked like. Did it smell? Bright like the sun? So many questions finally with answers in reach.



 

In hindsight, he was an idiot.

 

 

Said demon didn’t even push him into the abyss. No he fell himself, like a fucking idiot. Who falls into the abyss? By Accident, looking at a flower? He’ll never get over it and never admit it to anyone.

The first few days? Hours? Time? He ran, screaming until cornered by a eight-legged green-spotted scorpion and in a fit to save Qinglong grabbed the leg about to stab into his chest and easily ripped the leg, spraying blood. From there it was laughably easy to shred the scorpion apart. His strength awed him and then it became fun. 

No longer hunted, he became the hunter.

He practiced with his fists until he fashioned two curved ribs of a small cobra-headed sand dragon that functioned as his current swords. Not that he actually needed them, he just thought they looked cool. The mammal-like animals he defeated, he ripped their skin off and learned to carefully flay an animal (with his nails- gross, but needs must) and fashioned badly made clothing as his fell off. 

Qinglong began eating parts of the monsters he defeated and as days passed grew larger. So like any responsible pet owner he leveled his little dragon up by finding monsters he could eat, the prey increasing in size as the sneak grew. His little buddy began to slowly elongate and fatten, becoming as large as an anaconda yet still slithering around his torso wanting to lightly wrap around his neck.

Days? Weeks? Months? Who knew what time it was? He didn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep— not that he’d try? Nightmares were a real possibility from all the shit he’d seen and done. The sky stayed the same. He didn’t grow. Never before had he wanted to know what a montage felt like but he was living one.



***

 

Qinglong's body twisted one day, writhing in pain. Hissing, scales dropping off it like sand shaken off a towel. Emerald scales littered the orange sand around them.

“Qinglong, what’s wrong?” Shen Yuan panicked, his hands waving in the air nearby, careful of his long nails-he’d grown now specifically as a weapon in the abyss- planning to file them back down when they finally found Xin Mo and escaped. 

The snake-predictably did not answer.

“Please don’t leave me,” Shen Yuan begged, wrapping his arms around the underside of the snake's throat right under its jaw, feeling the vibrations of its pained hisses. What little he understood of cultivating and demonic magic he attempted to send his qi or aura, something, anything into his friend. Attempting to ease the pain or heal it. Qinglong shuddered, tip of his tail thumping against the ground. Then it began shrinking. 

One moment his arms were wrapped around the thick torso of an emerald green worm the next he held a young -naked- boy in his arms. 

“Uhhhhhhh,” Shen Yuan expressed heartfelt.

The young boy, no more than fifteen, blinked up at him through long black eyelashes, emerald green eyes wide. On the sides of his face were matching scales. 

“Qinglong! Are you still in pain?” Yuan asked when the boy didn’t say anything. Didn’t attempt to extract himself from his arms either.

Did he address the nakedness or let it slide? The boy had been around his neck when he’d trounced naked through the words. Fuck, he didn’t realize the snake was a person? Could be a person? What did this mean? Was he a father now?

“It was painful to transform but only for the first time, it will become easier with practice,” the boy responded, scooting closer in the way that was familiar when the boy had been a snake, begging for pats and to cuddle around his neck.

They were still hugging.

He was Still Naked.

Were there police in the Abyss? A half-clothed -blood crusted- muscled man shouldn’t be hugging a small naked boy. 

“What should I call you?” the boy asked, tilting his head. From instinct when the snake made the same action Shen Yuan wanted to boop his nose.

Shen Yuan blinked, casting his gaze up towards the hazy red and purple sky, a menacing galaxy above. Of all the questions, names had not made the top twenty. 

“I-,” he hesitated. The snake had been with him since the beginning. Did he know the original body's name? “What did you call me before?”

Qinglong? Or who he would refer to as until given another name, snuggled closer. Still. Naked. Where could he get clothes? Give up his own? He needed to kill something and skin it fast. Don’t look. 

“Jungshang,” the boy stated.

Being called Emperor felt like an ominous name to have as a person. Maybe that’s how he ended up crushed under a mountain? Was it a nickname? Shen Yuan floundered, unsure if he should just admit to being another person or play at having memory loss. Qinglong made a low humming noise.

“Jungshang must have lost his memories. This one was called Zushi-lang, but now prefers Qinglong. You are my uncle, who took me in when no one else would.”

“Your parents?”

Qinglong shook his head. “Dead”

“So I’m your parent?”

The snake boy smiled, a shy expression. “Father.” He agreed, cheeks tinted green. 

“Ah, well I have forgotten some things and because of that I have been calling myself Shen Yuan in my head. Just a random name,” Shen Yuan pretended that he hadn’t spent weeks? Months? Chatting to the snake demon about other worlds, books, and people. If Qinglong chose to ignore it he was more than happy to follow suit. The poor boy must have been so alone he gripped onto the first adult he had. Not that twenty-two really counted as an adult.

The loyal boy had followed him into the abyss, wrapping delicately around his neck, licking his wounds and accepting head pats. He didn’t have parents and Shen Yuan resided in the body of his last relative. They were alone together. It was his responsibility to raise him. First they had to escape and then he could get a house and buy his precious little dragon all the fluffy warm blankets. 

“Yes, I am your father.”

Qinglong nuzzled into his neck attempting to wrap his thin arms around Shen Yuan's chest. “Father,” he hissed, dragging out each syllable.

DING! [Cultivating a Happy Family Unlocked! +100 Happy points!]

Chapter Text

Time? Whatever that was passed and the two continued, basically sauntering through the abyss towards larger monsters, which Shen Yuan assumed would have made them harder to defeat. No. They were easier. Mostly because there would be like one black massive dragon and he’d have to jump up and punch it a few times in the head before its skull concaved in a spray of oozing green blood that sizzled on his skin. 

Boring. He was over this level.

A sword, glowed ominously on an impressive black altar, Shen Yuan wished he could take pictures of or just rip it from the ground. How awesome would the black stone look in a kitchen as a counter? He bet it wouldn't have any scratches, ever.

“Father,” Qinglong, clung onto his arm, hissing and pressing against him. “What is that?”

He patted his fierce little dragon's head and the boy vibrated with a purr. Cute.

“Freedom. With this we can leave.”

Qinglong made an adorable huffing noise.

Shen Yuan pulled the small red sword, more like a long dagger, out of the altar and waited. Nothing happened. He examined the legendary sword. Wasn’t this Xin Mo? The sword which allegedly took a toll on every user that wielded it? Could they have accidentally found a different sword? Other than a vague sense of warmth, the sword didn’t do anything. No whispers. No bloodlust. No excess of demon energy. Not that he wanted to go into a berserker blood-rage.

Huh.

Boring.

Ding! [Host has found and bonded with Xin Mo] The system unhelpfully supplied.

“Father?” Qinglong tugged on his arm like a spoiled little master. 

He turned his gaze away from the stupid boring dinky glowing dagger and down towards his precious little boy. As if in a haze of compulsion, the only thought, the most nagging thought he had to accomplish or he’d die, Shen Yuan was overcome with the urge to hug his son. He scooped the boy with one arm, holding him, perched like a tiny dog, just as heavy in his left arm. Qinglong gasped and threw his thin arms across Shen Yuan's neck and didn’t protest the hug. He needed to feed his son. Wrap him in a blanket. Baths for both of them then snuggles, in the sun. Oh, even better, Qinglong lying on his chest in the sun, so he’d be warm on both sides and protected and Shen Yuan could pet his hair.

Yes. Great plan!

Shen Yuan focused his mind, imagining his desire to escape the abyss. In a smooth motion he cut the air. A rip in space, swirling and distorted at the edges, appeared in front of them. A dark forest lay beyond. Qinglong tightened his hold around his neck and Shen Yuan patted his leg in comfort. 

They stepped through and the rip sewed itself back as if nothing had happened. The dim forest they stood inside was abuzz with noise. Crickets chirping, wind howling, an owl hooted, brown leaves rustled and fluttered with the wind. He felt a chill in the air as if in a distant afterthought. Above their head, clearly seen through the leafless tree branches, the sliver of a moon dimly cast long shadows.

They were free!

Yelling in excitement, he sheathed the sword on his belt made of the twelve-eyed yellow trapping spider hide. Wrapping his arms around his son, he spun them around in a  circle laughing and cheering. Qinglong shrieked at first - the first time he’d heard the boy yell followed by a delighted laugh as they spun and he bounced the boy. They grinned widely at each other, eyes shining. Happy.

Shen Yuan kissed the glowing demon mark on Qinglong's forehead. “We need a bath and new clothes.”

“Yes.”



Unbothered by the chill, the two of them found the nearest rushing river, only waist deep and scrubbed themselves raw. Qinglong insisted he assist with Shen Yuan's back and hair, citing that it was his job as a son to help his father. Seeing no reason to refute, and needing help with his long disasterous hair, Shen Yuan accepted. However, he insisted after his son was done - having slowly taken his time, which was cute how diligent he was- cheeks pink, that he do the same. His adorable little dragon purred in his hands, melting with a content sigh. They scrubbed and scrubbed, using sand and rocks. By the river a few cold winter bushes bloomed and they smashed the berries and flowers with the sand to help with the stench of death and blood. Once clean, having washed countless times, the two of them then scrubbed their clothes. 

The sun peaked out from the sky, the noises of the forest changed, birds woke up and joined in. Creatures prowled and howled. 

Qinglong held his arms up, and Shen Yuan scooped up the boy without thought. Either in snake form or his human one Qinglong needed to be held and would whine and wiggle if left to walk. Shen Yuan was a weak weak man to his cute son and relented, feeling better knowing his boy was safer next to him.

“We will eat then rest.”

Qinglong yawned and rested his head against his shoulders with a cute yawn. Feeling energized, Shen Yuan patted his son’s head, uncaring that they were both still wet. At his hip Xin Mo pulsed like a rapid heartbeat. He ignored the boring dagger. 

Finding food was laughably easy. Even one-handed, his son sleeping adorably against his chest, he caught, killed, skinned then cooked a deer over a fire. Amazing how living in the Abyss for . . . however long they were down there desensitized him to blood and killing. That or it was his demon body? Or maybe the dagger was finally doing something? Probably not.

Qinglong, too tired to move from his spot, shivering slightly and burrowing into his skin, opened his mouth to be hand fed. Shen Yuan relented to his son, more than content to feed the small baby in his arms. Cooing over how cute he was and how he wanted to fatten him up and snuggle him. Once both of them were fed, only bones left, he stomped out the fire and walked. No direction in mind. 

The sun beat down, the air chilled but not cold. Finally there was a small clearing with long yellow grass and a manifold of ripe autumn pink holly berries that could be used either for a vibrant pink dye that permanently smelled like strawberries and crisp air or used in medicine to promote firm skin and boost immunity. He considered picking them but the grass called.

“Nap time.”

Easing the two of them down into the long grass, Shen Yuan sighed in contentment. His small dragon curled atop him and echoed his sigh. Yes. Warm.

Rays of light warm the two and as they relaxed. The grass swayed occasionally with a wind, their clothes dried and skin flushed with heat. They lay until the warm rays began to dim, an entire day lazing in the long grass, cuddling in silence. 

A thought occurred to Shen Yuan and his hand paused mid-backrub. Qinglong wiggled, pressing his back into his hand as if to self-rub himself. Xin Mo pulsed strongly at his hip. Qinglong didn’t have parents and he’d adopted the small dragon. Technically sort of kidnapped the small boy. This was Ancient China, who was to say he couldn’t adopt other orphans? And as a demon dad himself, wouldn't he be the perfect candidate for other demon children? Which meant, that depending on when the story was happening Luo Binghe didn’t have parents. He could adopt the protagonist. Pat him. Cuddle him. Teach him how to be a demon- not that he was too sure on every detail. Which didn't matter. But he’d read the web novel fastidiously. He’d taken care of Qinglong just fine. 

Shen Yuan had never thought himself father material, but then again he’d never believed that transmutation could occur and here he was, a powerful (he thought) demon who’d tamed Xin Mo, the most boring dagger. He could one hundred percent be a dad. 

He’d be the best dad!

Giddy, his hands shaking, Shen Yuan sat up, Qinglong sliding down to pout cutely in his lap, cheek resting on his left shoulder, fluttering his long black eyelashes, Shen Yuan now knew it was the ‘pat me I’m cute’ look. It worked every time. His hand just moved on its own.

“Father? Did I do-”

“No, no, my fierce little dragon,” Shen Yuan crushed the boy to his chest in a tight hug, the boy relaxed into a content purr, eyes closing. “We are going to go find someone.”

“Luo Binghe?” Qinglong hissed the name, his adorable forked tongue flicking over the name. 

“Yes,” Shen Yuan vibrated with excitement. How old was the protagonist? Hopefully not older and beaten. If the gods were listening the protagonist would still be a white lotus then he could swoop in and adopt him. Qinglong would be a great older brother. Xin Mo pulsed in time with his rapid heartbeats. Yes. The perfect plan. 

Save the world, cuddle the protagonist. 

Qinglong jutted out his lower green lip, “Father why? Who is this person?”

Standing, keeping his son pressed to his chest, feet never touching the ground, Shen Yuan grabbed his sword. Qinglong whined but didn’t protest, wrapping thin arms around his neck tightly, nuzzling his cool face into Shen Yuan's neck. His smooth scales tickled him slightly and sent shivers tingling down his spine. 

He had to go now. No waiting. The sooner the better. Ripping another whole in the air, the sun setting across the horizon, he thought of Qing Jing Peak, all the fanart work he’d seen and how the web novel had described it. On the other side was a deep groove of bamboo, silent and full of shadows. 

“My little dragon, can you make yourself look human?” Qinglong nodded and his scales, forehead tattoo, and ears disappeared. Shen Yuan, with barely a through did the same, pleased how he’d progressed in using magic. 

Now where would he find the boy? If this was his younger disciple years he’d be in the woodshed. Where ever that was? Did he just wonder about the peak sneaking into every shed? Qinglong relaxed in his arm, draped over his shoulder like a limpet. It wasn’t like he didn’t have time. 

Vague plan in mind, Shen Yuan picked a direction (up?) and began moving swiftly through the silent bamboo grove. Voices shouted behind him and he picked up his pace, breaching the grove of bamboo just as the sunset over the horizon and the sky darkened. Ahead of him was a small shack and he paused. No. No way had he found it on the first try? His luck with gatcha’s had been abysmal. 

Approaching the small shack, he dithered until the shouting voices behind him grew louder. Opening the door he gasped as dim light cast upon the protagonist strung up, his feet barely brushing against the dirty floor, head bowed and rips crisscrossing across the back of his legs. His back was to the door and at the sound of the door opening he raised his head, back tensing. Yet didn’t speak.

Swiftly, Shen Yuan used Xin Mo to cut the boy, catching him with one hand. Through his dirty and thread-bare uniform, lovingly patched up, he felt the protagonist's bones and had the violent urge to feed him. The boy turned and gasped at the two. Hands raised as if to defend himself except that his hands were bound, trails of blood running down his thin arms from where the rope had cut into his skin. 

Shen Yuan cut the ropes on his wrist with a clean slice then sheathed Xin Mo.

“Who are you?” Binghe’s voice wobbled like his knees.

They looked like demons or cavemen, dressed all in skinned clothes, with scaled decorations, cleanly washed but not properly done up. 

The words come out of his mouth before he could even process it, a joke from his old world. “Binghe, I am your father.”

Said boy's eyes widened. He pointed a hand at Qinglong.  “Who is that?”

“Your brother. Qinglong. We were trapped somewhere for a long time and as soon as we escaped I came for you. You do not have to come with us but I want to care for you. I can teach you what I know and you can live with us.”

“I have a brother and a father?” Binghe breathed in, biting his lower lip “This is the best dream I’ve ever had.”

The voices were louder now, almost at the shed. The cultivators must have sensed his demon presence. The whole in space could not have gone unnoticed. 

“Father.” Qinglong spoke up. “We have to leave, they’ll kill us.”

Shen Yuan took out his dagger again and sliced another rip, thinking of a town he’d visited once. The other side showed the forest nearby. He stepped through and offered his hand to Binghe. 

“Choose what will make you happy. I might not be able to come back for a while if you stay but we could write and I can-”

He didn’t even finish his sentence before Binge launched himself at him. He had to drop Xin Mo at his feet to catch the small boy -smaller than even Qinglong- and easily lifted him, cuddling him to his chest. The boy's raw legs must have hurt from the beating he’d received but he didn’t make a noise of protest. The rip sewed up and the three of them breathed in the sounds of the dark forest. 

How would he get his sword now? Understanding his father’s dilemma, Qinglong got down long enough to pick it up, and put it on his belt then climb back into his arms. Luo Binghe tightened his hold on his neck, rubbing his cold little nose on his chest, breathing him in deeply. Content both of the boys secure in his arms, Shen Yuan marched into the small village and secured a room for the three, requesting one large bed when the two protested at separate rooms. 

The older inn-keeper cooed over him and his cute sons, which made him preen. They were adorable and more people should acknowledge that. She gladly gave him her largest bed when he plopped down a gold bar on the counter, after fumbling the two in his arms to get to the dragon hide purse he’d found in the abyss, along with a bunch of gold and treasures he knew would amount to something when they eventually escaped. Yeah knowledge.

In the plain room, a boy on each side of him, as he took the middle, Shen Yuan couldn't cease ginning. Luo Binghe passed out almost as soon as he lay down but continued to cuddle his left arm like a pillow. It was cute but also prevented him from giving the boy head pats. Oh well, there was tomorrow. 

“Is he my brother now?” Qinglong whispered, hours after he should have been asleep.

“Yes. We couldn't leave him.”

“He's who you were looking for, the next demon Emperor?” The boy sat up slightly.

“Yes.”

“But he’s a human cultivator?”

“He's half heavenly demon.”

Qinglong sat up all the way, hovering over him. “I didn’t think there were more than us?”

“What? There’s only one?”

“You don’t remember?” Qinglong shook his head, silky loose hair swishing over his shoulders. “I’m half heavenly demon. You’re my uncle, the last full heavenly demon. I’ve never taken a wife but you had a human lover who betrayed you.”

No.

Way.

That's what the system meant. They were an actual family. He didn’t remember this from the web novel. Which also meant he was Binghe’s real father. How cool. He could raise the protagonist right. Show him family love with his cousin/brother. 

“Then we are family.”

Qinglong sighed and laid back down, pillowing his head on Shen Yuan's chest. “I will be a good older brother.”

“I know you will. You’re a good boy. We’ll look out for each other.”

DING! [Congratulations the prologue has just ended. Host has entered Chapter One: A new type of loving family will begin.]

That was good. 

Right?

Chapter Text

Qinglong woke up with the sun and woke up, shortly after, Shen Yuan with his staring. Used to his son’s intense unblinking gaze, Yuan yawned loudly and reached up to ruffle the snake demon's smooth hair. The day he saw it messed up would be the day his son was possessed or sick. Even in the Abyss it had remained mostly silky and soft. Qinglong closed his deep amber eyes and nuzzled into the hand on his head. The body on his left arm stiffened and Shen Yuan turned his attention towards his other son, continuing his petting. He smiled gently. So. Adorable.

Binghe, so small, only fourteen but appeared ten with his frail frame, large doe eyes and fluffy helmet of hair, stared back. Had the two been having a staring contest. How cute of Qinglong to look away and let his new baby brother win. 

“Food and then we can discuss more,” Shen Yuan, the oldest by body, decided.

“Yes father,” Qinglong chirped detangling himself from the thin bed sheets. He got to the door and paused when his father called back to him.

“See if there is a shop that sells clothes.”

“Yes, father,” the eldest son nodded his head.

Left with the protagonist, clutching tightly against his left arm, Shen Yuan had more space to study the boy- his actual son. Technically the body he was possessing’s son. But ultimately his son. 

Luo Binghe’s wrists had bruises and dried blood on them, ripped and dirty clothes, a few bruises marred his right temple. Thin, with pale skin. Hair matted and sweaty. Poor Baby. Moving slowly, as one might approach a feral cat, Shen Yuan placed his right hand gently a top Binghe’s head and sat up with the boy. 

“Let’s get you clean up before-”

The boy leapt like a startled cat, throwing himself off the bed and onto the floor.

Binghe’s large eyes filled with tears, kowtowing on the ground. “This lowly one means no disrespect to his elder. I should be doing the cooking and-”

“No, don't sit up, Binghe. Don’t hurt yourself, please. I could not come and find you until now. We had both been trapped but once free I came to get you as soon as I was able, so we could all be a family.”

He wanted to stand up but with Binghe on the floor and his tall frame he didn’t want to intimidate the boy. On the table in the middle of the room was a pitcher of water. He had some medicine in his pouch but was unsure of the potency or how it could affect the unawakened boy. 

“Please, will you bring me the water from the table?”

“Yes,” Binghe mumbled what he thought was either master or father.

Binghe crawled on his knees to do so then presented the jug. Yuan opened his mouth to reprimand his son and closed his mouth. Baby steps. He pulled a cut up spider silk robe Qinglong and he had been using as handkerchiefs they tore off a demon woman's dead body from his pouch and wet it. 

“Please, may I clean your wrists?”

Still on the ground, Binghe raised both of his wrists. Mouth dropped open, eyes wide, he resembled a fish. The cutest fish. Yuan took one wrist at a time and gently wiped the blood and grime away. His youngest son needed a good scrub then a soothing soak. A hot springs trip. Gods above Qinglong and him also needed one. That could be their first family outing, a relaxing spa trip. 

Despite how it should have hurt, even with him being careful, Binghe didn’t make a sound. Once clean, Shen Yuan pulled out more strips of red and used them to wrap the boy's too-thin wrists up to his boney elbows. The effect looked cool, like ninja wraps. Very fitting for the protagonist.

“Does anywhere else hurt?”

Binghe stared up at him, eyes glassy and didn’t respond. His chest barely moved, the small protagonist was hardly breathing like prey caught in the sight of a hungry predator. Feeling subconscious of his large and now bulkier frame, from all the fighting in the Abyss, Shen Yuan gently released Binghe’s arm. It flopped down to his lap. The boy didn’t avert his intense stare. He let Binghe study him.

Qinglong returned and Binghe’s gaze snapped to his older brother. The elder son let in the older woman from last night, carrying a tray laden with dishes. She chatted cheerfully despite the very early morning, placing cups and bowls down. Once done, she bowed and told him she’d send an apprentice to his room when the seamstress’ shop opened. 

“Please, will you eat with us?” Shen Yuan continued trying to give the abused boy choices, carefully picking each word and saying it in a soft soothing voice.

He knew he looked scary but he wasn’t, honestly.

Qinglong took a seat and once Binghe sat next to him, Shen Yuan stood and took the seat across from the protagonist in front of the window to block the sunlight streaming behind him. They ate in silence. Qinglong would place more food in Binghe’s bowl as Yuan did the same for both. Binghe trembled where he sat, eyes darting around, eating quickly and hunched over his bowl. 

As much as Shen Yuan wanted to keep the protagonist, the poor baby looked like a scared cat. If the boy wanted he would laden him with treasure and send him back. Buy him any land or house, even find a way to get him into a different Sect. He had essentially kidnapped his own son.

“If you want to return, you can.” Shen Yuan broke the silence. “You are not my prisoner,” “This lowly-” Binghe began saying, wobbly lip

Shen Yuan held up a hand to interrupt the youngest. Binghe shrinked in on himself. “You are not lowly. Please do not refer to yourself as such.”

Binghe nodded and didn’t straighten up. “This Binghe asks to know the name of his father and older brother?”

“Qinglong, my fierce little dragon,” Shen yuan reached over and cupped Qinglong's face. The boy preened, then shuttered. He considered saying his real name even though Qinglong- actually Zhushi- knew and decided against it. Too confusing. “I am Tinglong-jun but you can just call me father.”

Binghe set down his bowl, hands clutching at the hem of his tattered shirt.

“Do you not want this-” he floundered over the word - “me?”

“Of course I do. We want you to be a part of our family.”

“What does a family do?”

Huh, good question. Shen Yuan had a family in his old life, a wealthy one which hadn’t done more than throw money at him and required him to attend bi-annually parties to prove his existence. However, he’d read enough slice-of life to have the general idea of what families did. The bar was extremely low but as long as he fed his son’s well, gave them attention, a roof over their heads and nurtured their passions he’d be doing well enough. It couldn't be that challenging.

Down below the small village began making noises. Feet crunching against the packed dirt road, the clicking of donkey hooves, shouting, doors and windows banging open, and the soft sounds of many crackling fires. 

“Eat together, take baths together, cuddle, and laugh together,” he answered in all seriousness, not realizing all of that qualified for more than one type of relationship.

“This low-, um, This so-, uh.” Luo Binghe blinked, his too-thin fingers curling back around the bowl of food.  “ I don’t want to return but I want to be a cultivator. Stay with you.”

Extremely doable. “Easy enough, we can get you manuals.” Okay so with Xin Mo he’d just jump into Sect libraries and steal some copies. Fun. He’d be James Bond. 

“Will you teach me how to be a cultivator?” Binghe looked at his hip where Xin Mo rested.

Ah, that's right, Qinglong and him were disguised as humans. Binghe didn’t know he was a demon. Oh. Um. Damn. Should he wait? Maybe one surprise at a time? If he overwhelmed the boy he’d leave. He didn’t want his son’s to leave him. They just started their family.

“I can teach you our families secret technique after you’ve learned the basics and your core is stronger,” he bullshitted. 

Qinglong met his eyes then turned to Binghe and nodded, playing along. “Me too.”

Satisfied, at least for now, the protagonist returned to scarfing down food as quickly as it touched his bowl. 

 

***

 

When the apprentice came to fetch the three, Shen Yuan all but bolted from the room. His skin itched and legs burned, needing to move, do something. Possibly lingering agitation from time in the Endless Abyss. 

The seamstress, a middle-age woman with long fingers, callused and a soft face with a stern glare took one look at his large frame, that he had to duck to enter and exit doors and shook her head. “Too large.”

“For these two I can have some clothes ready within an hour, for you,” she walked around him, critically examining his body. Qinglong stepped in front of her, arms crossed. Shen Yuan patted his head. How cute his son was. “I could have a few items in the week. Where are you staying?”

Well shit. He was a terrible father. He didn’t have a house for his sons. If there was an Xianxia child services they’d be taken for sure. Damnit, one more thing for him to do. Bees buzzed under his fingers as he tapped them at his side. 

“I can pick them up in a week. Would it help if I had cloth?”

Her eyes widened, flickering to the tattered clothes of Binghe, and the rough leather and scaled garb of Qinglong and him. She probably thought they couldn't afford better. He pulled a solid gold plate from his pouch then set down the rest of the red silk cloth, a pile of soft black fur, large pieces of tanned leather, a spool of demon thread, and a pouch brimming with small cute green scales Qinglong shedded. The woman’s hands shook as she gaped. Binghe approached the pile with equally large eyes gawking at him.

Yes, he was very impressive. 

See he could provide for his son’s

“We’ve been traveling long enough, I decided we needed a more stable home. Use more of the scales for my oldest and the red silk for my youngest. I want five outfits for all of us. Use what you can and what you cannot, you may keep.”

She bowed deeply and exclaimed the gold plate, heavy in her hands. “Yes, my lord.”

He had much more where that came from. After that she respectfully measured them, and told them to return by mid-day for a clean set for the boys. Shen Yuan, elated and buzzing with energy, took the boys around the small village. Shopping. Spree.

Every store they visited if either of the boys' eyes lingered on an item he bought it. The more he bought, the better he felt. The sparkle in their eyes, their soft smiles filled his chest like a hot-air balloon until he thought he’d drift away. 

They took Binghe to a healer who gave them his best medicine and then just in case, Shen Yuan bought everything the man had for sale. What if his youngest got hurt? Binghe gaped every time he pulled a gold spoon, plate, bowl, or coin from his purse. Completely over paying but needing to show his son he’d be taken care of.

By mid-day the boys were flagging and Shen Yuan had probably bought most of the village. The seamstress, good on her word, had two sets of clothes for the boys. She also provided a private place for them to wash up and change. In proper clothes, face cleaned, Binghe and Qinglong wore matching brown and orange robes. He wanted to squeal and press them to his chest. How cute his son’s were.

Binghe kept smoothing down his robe as if admiring the clean and new cloth. Qinglong took his hand and held it. “Didi.”

Binghe blinked too large eyes and softly whispered, “Gege?” 

Qinglong nodded and Shen Yuan swore he was having a heart attack. 

So. Cute.

Must. Pat.

But he didn’t. He kept his hands tightly fisted at his side. Luo Binghe had to come to him first, or tell him it was okay. If he scared his small son he'd never forgive himself. Just because he was tall and full of muscles didn’t mean he didn’t also want cuddles. Was this baby fever? In his old world Shen Yuan had never understood why people collected dogs or babies, but watching his sons shyly interact, he got it. 

It was an innate need, like breathing. He had to make them smile. 

They would have everything they could ever want and more. No if or when, it was a now feeling. His arms shook from how hard he clenched his fists at his side, pressing down his desire to crush the two into his chest. Pat their heads. Press kisses and praises into their skins until the precious babies glowed with self-confidence.

No, down. He scolded himself. 

Control. 

Inhaling a shaky breath, attempting to clear the haze in his mind, he relaxed his body.

One step at a time.

The seamstress cooed at him. “Your boys are so lovely they look just like you.”

Chest puffed up in pride, Shen Yuan led the boys out of town, promising to return in a week for their clothes. Now a house. Huh, it was like one of those farming simulator games he’d played on his phone in the hospital. Not that he really knew how to farm but it couldn't be that hard in a fantasy world.

If that was the case he should find a plot of land near a forest with sunlight to grow food that was near a water source, and close to a village or town. Where had he seen somewhere like that? Oh right, the waterfall in that valley. In his travels with Qinglong as a snake before he’d accidentally fallen into the abyss, they’d come across a beautiful clear waterfall near a fairly large city and open lands. Perfect. Look at him nailing this.

And the valley even had-

Wait.

Wait!

W. A. I. T. a damn minute. The valley by the waterfall had herds of jewel-eyed demon oxen -stupid-ass name but Airplane was a hack author- that looked like fluffy large cows with large gem eyes and opal curling horns. Sure they were aggressive like hippos and roamed the valley in a herd, trampling anything in their path, oftentimes houses or farms, but he was a fearsome demon. His son’s would look so fucking precious cuddling in soft fur. They were tiny enough they could even ride them. Was this death? His heart wouldn't stop hammering in his chest, electricity zoomed through his veins and they had to go right now. He had to see this. 

Only the best for his son’s.

What was the valley called? 

It didn’t matter.

“Father?” Qinglong tugged on the back of his make-shift hide kilt, pants were too advanced for him to figure out. 

Turning to his son’s realizing they’d walked into the forest he grinned down at them. “I know the perfect place where we can build a house. It has a valley, and a waterfall and we can raise fluffy cows.”

Qinglong exchanged a look with Binghe who squeezed his elder brother's hand and nodded shyly. Shen Yuan squealed inside his head. Yep decided. 

He took Xin Mo in hand, ignoring how warm it got in his grip, the energy buzzing through his veins decreased. In time with his pounding heart the dagger thrummed. Imaging the valley he cut through space to open a portal. It ripped open and on the other side roared a waterfall so close droplets of water splashed through. Binghe gasped and took a step forward.

“How did you do that?”

“One day you can learn, but this dagger”- he waved it -“is for adults only.”

Binghe accepted that explanation and went when Qinglong pulled him through the portal. The space zipped back and the three stood next to the waterfall, the sun reflecting off the clear water like liquid diamonds. The forest around was boisterous with more birds and animals making noises to rival the roar of the water. Binghe walked to the edge of the river and gazed into it.

Right. Acquire land, build a house, a farm and fences to keep the oxen in line. Get the boys books. Feed them. Pat them. Should he get them practice swords? Fluffy blankets. Oh a cat. Binghe would be so cute with a cat or a puppy. Qinglong could get a pet snake or a bird, or a bear. The house had to have four rooms minimum. Maybe he could go back and get Xin Mo’s black altar and use it in the kitchen. How cool would that be?

“Who wants to go swimming?” Shen Yuan called out, already taking off his robes, ready to play in the cool water.

The boys were hesitant until he splashed some water on their feet. Qinglong tugged his baby brother along, stripped down to their white under robes, until they were all swimming in the refreshing water. Shen Yuan taught Binghe how to dive down and open his eyes underwater. 

Binghe collected so many colorful shells they weighed him down and Shen Yuan had to take them. “You can put them in your room and decorate your walls with shiny things if you like them so much.”

“I get my own room?” Binghe hedged shyly.

“And you can do anything you want with it. Have anything you want,” Shen Yuan promised, proud he could afford his son anything, confident he could find it if not.

The small protagonist burst into tears. Shen Yuan dropped the shells in the water and lunged for his youngest son, Scooping the boy up into his arms so he wouldn’t tire himself out. Sitting on the edge of the river, Binghe cradled in his arms, Qinglong came to drape himself on his back, petting Binghe’s hair with him and reassuring the boy. It only made him cry more.

“Oh baby, why are you crying? Did I say something to upset you? I’m sorry I dropped your shells.”

Binghe threw his arms around his neck hugging him tightly, arms shaking. 

“Didi, what's wrong. How can I help?” Qinglong offered, nuzzling his nose against the top of Binghe’s wet hair.

“Is this a dream?” Binghe mumbled through his tears. “Did I die?”

“Oh my sweet baby this is not a dream, we’re real and you’re with us. You will be with us until you want to leave.”

“You promise?” Binghe pulled back, eyes narrowed in a teary glare. “You won’t abandon me? I’m not that smart or good at cultivating, I’m dirty and-”

“Shut up.” Qinglong gently wiped his tears away with a harsh hiss. “You are our family. You’re ours.”

“Mine?”

“Yes baby, you belong with us and we will take care of you and love you.”

Binghe cried again. Shen Yuan motioned for Qinglong to come around and the older boy snuggled into his other side, cuddling Binghe in his lap. He kissed the top of their heads. “You are my sons and I will love you even if you do nothing for the rest of your lives. I’d be proud to keep you. But I know, deep into my bones, you will both be great men.”

Qinglong also buried his face in his neck. The two cried, one much louder and messier than the other until they were boneless hugging each other tightly within his embrace. He rocked and hummed, letting them cry it all out. The sun warmed his skin and even after they had fallen asleep, puffy eyes and damp hair he kept them safe in his arms, watching the river and the colorful fish swim. 

His mind felt lighter. Inhaling, he meditated lightly, more at peace than he’d been anytime in his life, content to sit and hold the boys.

One step at a time.

Chapter Text

So maybe, just maybe, mobile games and his own -newfound- impatience led him to believe that obtaining land and a house would be easy. To be fair, the land part had been as easy as walking into the lord of the city's house, demanding the land by the waterfall be given to him and throwing a gold vase at the stuttering man’s face. 

The house. Not so much.

So he had land now, yeah, his parents in the other world would be proud. But he’d never built anything by hand and it showed. His precious son’s let him twitter around for half a day before -gently- suggesting he hire someone to build the house for them. He wanted the best for them. They deserved the absolute best. 

“Just three bedrooms, my lord?” The constructor questioned. 

The city lord himself had suggested the man, claiming he could build a palace if given the opportunity. Shen Yuan wanted less than that.

“On either side of mine,” he nodded.

The builder frowned and rubbed his scraggly beard. Sitting across from the man, Shen Yuan towered as if standing and to compensate he leaned forward on his elbows, examining the paper in front of them detailing the layout of the house. Binghe pressed to his right, Qinglong pounded on his left. The boys had insisted on the placement of the rooms themselves when he had suggested the two have rooms away from him. Yet he was glad and didn’t question. 

“And a lady’s room?”

“No,” the boys said.

“A spare room.”

The builder blinked, pursed his lips and wisely leaned back from the table not saying a word. 

Shen Yuan eyes his son’s. “It’s polite, if nothing else it can be an office.”

Binghe, clingy since that day by the waterfall, rubbed his cute face against his arm like a cat, grumbling. Qinglong sighed in the perfect mimicry of a spoiled young master not getting his way.  The act would have been complete with a beautifully painted fan with dragons.

He would commission one. 

“A spare room for undetermined use.”

The builder inclined his head. “All you have asked for would generally take a year, however, the funds you have provided will afford more workers and I can almost guarantee six-months.”

“Deal.”

Until then they would stay at the Inn. Cramped in one large bed. Not that he hadn’t tried to send his son’s off to another luxury room, they simply refused and he could not deny them the comfort. 



***

 

“Your children are beautiful,” the woman at the fan stall started a conversation with him. 

Two weeks at the village and the three had understandably become infamous. His children were adorable so he understood. Finally dressed in proper clothes not made in the Abyss, he cut a less looming figure himself but only slightly. His size and muscle mass intimated people. Children cried at his approach. People shrank away even when he smiled.

Said adorable children were at a nearby stall selling candy, which the two indulged in frequently. Probably more than was healthy. He didn’t think Heavenly-Demons got cavities but if worse came to worse they could have their teeth removed and grow them back. Just thinking of them losing their teeth made him consider how his son’s must have looked as children. Heart clenching, he ground his teeth. So. Fucking. CUTE. Those chubby cheeks and pudgy stomachs. In his imagination Binghe would have two lost front teeth and Qinglong would be seriously asking him if the tooth-fairy truly existed. 

“My lord?” The woman pressed when he didn’t answer right away.

“Yes, they are. I am blessed to have them.”

“Their mother must be beautiful too,” she inquired in a light tone. She raised a sleeve to her mouth and looked away but her sharp eye tracked him.

Not the first attempt to dig such information out of him but certainly the boldest. 

“She was,” he answered in what he hoped was the truth. 

“Ah, apologies, my lord,” the older shopkeeper fluttered her hand in the air. 

She paused and he hoped that was the end of the awkward conversation. His eyes trailed behind him, searching the crowd for his boys, they approached, hands full of candied nuts. How precious they looked, wearing matching robes and twin smiles. If he had his way, they'd do nothing but smile for the rest of their lives. Damn the novel to hell and the literal hell it put Binghe through. 

“Do you have designs to find another wife to help you raise your sons and tend to your house?”

“I-”

“I’m really good at chores and cooking,” Binghe announced loudly, clutching his arm as he often did whenever he could. 

Qinglong, equally as affectionate yet less tactile than his younger brother, leaned on his other side. “I am also useful.”

“How wonderful that your son’s help you,” the shopkeeper laughed in delight despite being rudely cut off. “They’ll be catches when they grow up.”

Shen Yuan reiterated his words, “I am blessed.”

“Let me know if you become interested in wives or concubines for yourself or them? I can recommend a good match-maker.”

Binghe tightened his grip. “You want to send me away?” His eyes watered. 

Shen Yuan knew by this point he was being played but unable to resist or deny the teary look bent down and with one arm scooped the boy up. “No, I would never. Only if you want to leave.”

Qinglong tugged his green sleeve, large amber eyes pleading, lower lip slightly wobbling. He gave into his other son and scooped him up as well. While technically both teenagers neither boy even reached to his mid-chest. However, to be fair, he had a giant body. Still the teenagers were cute and he indulged their acts of childishness. They deserved to reenact the childhoods neither had.

“Either of you,” he amended.

Qinglong curled a piece of his curly hair around a slender finger as if it was one of the tiny brown snakes he kept in his sleeves. Binghe, no longer faking tears, beamed. The shopkeeper laughed joyously and cooed at them. Accepting his fate - oh no how horrible his children love him- Shen Yuan carried the boys out of the shop. 

At first people stared at their skinship, now no one even looked. Not that he cared at all.



***

 

Qinglong admired the fan father had commissioned and gifted to him. It was painted with a beautiful green dragon on the front. In honor of him. 

Didi pouted as he usually did. “I don’t want a mother. What if she hates us, and locks us away and then father stops hugging us?” The younger complained as they watched their father build a fence which would be used to, allegedly, keep in the jewel-eyed demon oxen. 

Qinglong fanned himself daintily as he’d seen some people do in the city. Father’s insistence on play-acting as humans felt like a slight betrayal to his own heritage yet at the same time came with a sense of freedom he never expected. Here there were no expectations. No one screamed at him in fear or tried to attack him. Father insisted they couldn’t even help with the building of the house. The two of them had, at times, ripped apart monsters as large as the massive trees shading them in the Abyss and yet his new silly father didn’t want him to ‘exert’ himself. 

Warm. 

He was incredibly warm and smothered with affection. It wasn’t enough.

Binghe, like a snake he was not, clung to him when father was not around. The boy might as well have been part barnacle. Not that Qinglong minded. It soothed something cracked inside his chest. He patted the fluffy hair. 

“We will not allow that.”

Binghe’s baby kitten act froze at his hissing tone, eyes sharpening with understanding and hidden malice. He tightened his hug, like a snake would squeeze its prey to death. 

“No, we won’t,” he agreed in the same serious tone. “Father is . . . ours.”

“Mn,” Qinglong agreed. 

Returning to watching, Binghe occasionally would flip through the books surrounding their small ‘play-pit’ father had said with a smile. They’d been instructed to lounge under a shaded area by the edge of the forest, sitting on a thick blanket surrounded by pillows with books, water, snacks and even blankets in reach. A place for babies, which Qinglong thought fit Binghe but not himself. However, he lounged as was asked of him, soaking in his brother's warmth, watching father, and listening to the sounds of their house being made. 

Warm.

How odd. 

A year ago he thought that his Junshang dying would be the end of him, and here he was with everything he’d never dreamed of wanting. The greedy gleam in his didi’s eyes spoke of the same.

“Gege, What if he wants another wife?” Binghe prodded at the discussion again. 

Qinglong titled his head up to stare at the sunlight through the soft green leaves that reminded him of his own scales and those of the dragon on his fan. Father called him ‘my fierce dragon’ and he wasn’t as beautiful, as honorable, as powerful but father seemed to think so.

“Why would he need anyone else when he has us?”

Binghe chewed on his lower lip, left bare foot, tapping against the blanket in clear agitation. “What if he wants an actual baby?”

“He won’t.”

“But what if he does in a few years?”

“He won’t.”

“But-”

“Didi, he can’t have a baby without a wife.”

“He could steal a baby and then I won’t be his baby any more.”

“Trust me, he won’t.”

Binghe wrinkled his nose, unsatisfied, then huffed  and buried his nose in the book father had gotten -stolen- from somewhere with that sword. Understanding his didi’s unspoken anxiety, Qinglong ran a hand down his back as one would pet a cat, the younger melting. 

A lesson he’d once overheard while hiding for his life before Junshang saved him from the pit, was that when a demon found a partner they desired they gave them everything, slowly luring them into a room and trapped them. That detestable human woman, Su Xiyan, had done the same to Junshang before betraying him. Their little house would be the nicest trap ever created. Shen Yuan wanted to be their father, wanted to shower them in attention and live the life of a human herder - whatever that meant. Qinglong would make all of that happen. Overfill their father with so much happiness he would never have time for another.

Qinglong had been too nervous to stop Junshang from seeing that wretched woman, from protecting his uncle, and in the end Junshang had apologized to him in his last breath. Ordered him to leave and ‘be happy.’ Now he had a family. 

He wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice.

Petting didi until the younger boy gave up reading and melted in his lap, Qinglong fanned himself thinking. Shen Yuan felt the gaze of his son, and stood up and waved with a large smile. Qinglong felt warm. The sun glinted against the red sword at his belt, the strange sword that made father act more intense at times.

“Didi,” he said, his brother responding with a content little hum and smile. “You will ask him for more. Ask him for anything you could possibly desire and father will get it. He wants to give us things and we would honor that.”

“What if I ask for too much?” Binghe mumbled.

“I doubt we can,” he said in all seriousness, believing so himself.

“Gege, I don't want to be alone again.”

“You won’t, neither of us will ever be alone again. I’m not going anywhere and he won’t leave us. How can father have time for anyone else if we take all of it?”

“I never learned much with a sword but I’ve always been swift with a knife.” Binghe stared up at him with that same unblinking intense stare, understanding. He nodded then settled back. “Father said he wanted to garden. I learned that dead things buried under the plants makes them grow better.”

“Father was right, you’re a smart baby.” Qinglong leaned down and kissed the top of the younger's head. Binghe wiggled and blushed in his lap but didn’t reject the cute nickname. Preening and humming under the praise. 

He kissed him again because he could.

Qinglong would lead them all into the room and trap them together. Forever. And they’d be happy. He’d make sure of it, and he had an inkling that his new brother felt the same and would help him. 

Why did they need anyone else? They were happy.

Chapter Text

Everything had a price. 

Luo Binghe learned that lesson intimately well through the first beating he got as a child from the others, not much older than him. Vicious, ugly, spitting children who hated him for breathing. Even existing had a price. 

And nothing was free. 

Not Time.

Not Growth.

Not Love.

He had to beg, cry fake tears, tilt his head and take a strike from a hand, push away his pride and keep climbing up a muddy hill as everyone around him threw rocks. 

How cruel would this be if it was all just a dream only to corrode away or worse suddenly father (and what a strange thing to say) would begin hitting him with that gentle smile. Maybe he was the beast Shizun called him because even if father shoved him in a cellar, starved him and beat him like the dirty thing he was, he didn’t think he had the energy left to keep climbing. 

Let this be his final resting place.

“Ask him for something,” Gege reminded him that morning as the two minded the boiling pot over the fire. 

Well he minded it, Gege kept him company, completely useless in cooking. In Gege’s hands a small purple snake twisted between his fingers as he hissed a coo at the tiny thing. 

What could Binghe ask for? Father was building them a house? And Binghe had his own room? All for him. Father brought them so many clothes, shoes, gloves, and coats, Binghe -like his brother- had three chests full. Father even got him cultivation manuals. Binghe suspected he stole them with the glowing red sword just like father had stolen him

He got fed good food, so much food they had a chest with preservation talismans on them and he was told to eat from it when hungry. Father didn’t let them do many chores. He slept cuddled between the two at night, warmer than he’d ever been in his life. No one raised a hand to him, they patted his head and smiled at him.

What else was there?

“What do I ask for Gege?”

Qinglong’s large amber eyes widened, mincing the sun and outshining them with warmth. “I-,” he hesitated and looked over the pleasant valley around them. “A weapon?”

Oh, that was a good idea. He could do that.

The two drifted back into companionable silence for a moment, Qinglong held up the book in his lap. “Should I continue reading?”

Binghe nodded, stirring the pot. His brother had such a lovely voice. 

 

***

 

“Father?” Luo Binghe tasted the word, still unsure but hopeful it would one day leave a sweet lingering taste on his tongue. 

His father turned his intense gaze towards him, and smiled wide. Whenever the older man -looking no older than thirty- smiled in the city,  anyone nearby man or woman swooned -not that father noticed- and Binghe wanted to slap a hand over his fathers face and hide that way. Those were his smiles for him and his brother. If other people knew father smiled like sunlight and being around him was like swallowing butterflies and honey, he’d be whisked away. 

“Yes Binghe?”

Words left him. He clutched the meager bowl of soup he’d made for lunch in the valley. Father and Gege had praised him for his efforts but he still didn’t think they were worthy. 

“This son wants-” the word felt so foreign to the voice. 

Oh, he knew he was a greedy little thing. He wanted before he even knew what wanting was, yet he’d learned to swallow down the words, never let others or his exhausted mother see him wanting. Gege insisted father would be overjoyed to give him anything, and part of him understood but a larger part whispered that the moment he wanted they would take from him.

“What can I get you Binghe?” Father pressed, setting down his bowl by his feet. “Clothes? More books? Toys? A hug? Candy? Another room in the house? Do you want to go somewhere?”

“A weapon,” Binghe blurted out the word, overwhelmed by fathers insistent offers.

Father leaned back, his eyes studying his youngest son hunching in on himself. “You need a teacher before you can use a sword -I’ll find one for you both- but a small one would be a good idea. How about a knife, or a small hand ax? Knuckles? Throwing Stars?”

Gege bumped his shoulder and Binghe turned his attention back to the bland soup in his lap, blinking back tears. He nodded and that was that. They finished lunch outside and then went shopping.

 

***

 

Gege, a head taller than Binghe, did his hair in the mornings, a comforting ritual for them both, tying simple ribbons and braiding intricate patterns across his scalp. Qinglong did the same for father and always commented how fluffy and soft both of their curly hair were. 

“Ask him for more ribbons, and hair ornaments.” Gege whispered as the three got ready to leave their shared room in the Inn. Father insisted on building the fence along their property himself -badly- while the boys ventured around, studied, or tried helping.

Binghe touched the small knife strapped to his waist in a thick sturdy sheath. Father had also given both of them throwing stars to tuck in their shoes and hair. Insisting his boys should always be protected, before patting their heads and promising to find an instructor. 

The words were easier this time. “Father, can this one have another ribbon?”

“Of course, Binghe. Thank you for asking me.”

By the end of the day he had more ribbon than he’d ever know what to do with. In every color. Gege asked for another pillow and their shared bed leaked pillows like a sink overflowed with bubbles. 

They asked and father gave with a smile.

Binghe wanted to grab at everything and gorge but he worried about throwing up. 

What was the limit?

 

***

 

“Lord Luo, your son’s are so well behaved,” a new merchant began the same conversation Binghe had heard others use. His ears perked up two stalls away, admiring a collection of wooden spoons. 

The older woman, a new merchant in the city, didn’t know of them, and hadn't been warned away from father yet. She eyed him like Binghe saw housewives judge silks. Father -as Gege lovingly called him- the innocent fool who would help anyone in need, began boasting about them. Luo Binghe dropped the spoon he’d been testing out and made his way over.

“Are you looking for a wi-”

“Father, I want a tea set,” Binghe blurted out the first thing he could think of.

Father turned his attention away from the merchant, scooped Binghe up in his arms with a wide smile. He nodded at the woman and took Binghe further into the town, gathering Gege along the way. Father hummed under his breath, steps light for such a large man, towering above the average person.

“What color do you want? A design? How many cups should we get?”

“At least three,” Gege supplied.

“So eight, for guests when our house is finished.”

“If we have too,” Gege grumbled. The two shared a look that said they’d do anything to keep guests from encroaching into their bubble. Maybe he’d break the extra cups ‘accidently.’

By the end of the day, they had a new tea set, with extra cups,  and three containers of tea leaves. Binghe’s fingers shook, remembering how Shizun poured hot tea over his head. Father and Gege praised his meager skills again. 

That night, after their nightly story from father, cuddled together in the large bed which felt cozy piled with blankets, he stared at the ceiling. The beast inside of him rumbled and grew. Gege held his hand and whispered praise. 

He wanted more. 

 

***

 

“Father, your son wants a hug.”

And he got one. More of a cuddle but he didn't complain.

 

“Father, can this humble one have another book?”

He had three new story books and a new cultivation manual in his hand by sunset.

 

“Father, can we go swimming?”

The rest of the day was spent playing in the water, work forgotten until tomorrow.

 

“Gege, I want a flower crown too.”

Qinglong weaved him an identical crown of bright yellow blossoms, father squealed and cooed over them for hours. His chest filled with butterflies and sunshine. 

 

“Gege, pet my hair as you read.”

He fell asleep under the tree, listening to a story of far off places, never wanting to leave the small valley or the warm lap.

 

“I want tanghulu.”

Both father and Gege got him candy.

 

He wanted and he got. It never seemed enough. More. More. If he gorged until he died it wouldn't be enough. He’d gotten a taste and like an addict, he was hooked. Like drops of honey on his tongue he wanted more. 

 

***

 

Lord Yan Yuxuan who presided over the city Caojing was stuffy but polite. The older man reminded Shen Yuan of a school principal but with more pretentiousness and in ancient robes. The man clearly found him intimidating and fascinating -as one would treat an alien- yet treated him with respect and answered his summons within the day. As a transmuter, he might as well have been an alien. He attempted to act with decorum and manners but the Endless Abyss had dulled his already low social skills and increased his intimidation factor. 

The two men sat at a table in a fancy reception hall, cold tea in front of them. With every meeting between the two men, Lord Yan relaxed a smidgen more. 

“Who would you recommend to teach my boys swordsmanship?”

“Send them to a Sect for training?” Lord Yan raised a thinning eyebrow, as if the answer was that simple. “If your boys are even a fraction as talented as you, they will flourish.”

It wasn’t mentioned that he wasn’t part of a Sect or ever had been. Lord Yan, like him, ignored the irrelevant and focused on the important parts. Shen Yuan lived at the top of  the valley, took care of monsters that hunted nearby for free and spent more money on items that were necessary with seemingly unending gold flowing from his pockets. Odd man but polite if a touch intimidating, wanting to gush about his children at the drop of a hat.

“No Sect. Are their private tutors?”

“Yes,” Lord Yan clasped his hands behind his back, turning his profile to look out his round office window. “However, those people would not teach your children?”

“Why?”

Lord Yan’s face scrunched up, causing his wrinkles to deepen along his mouth and eyes. The man nervously glanced at him then back out the window. Shen Yuan hunched a bit more, attempting to come off as non-threatening as possible while also smiling widely. 

“An unknown family.”

Ah, right. Classism. How could he forget such a stupid thing?

“They cannot be paid?”

The Lord of the city pulled his eyes away from the window with a sigh giving Shen Yuan who was twice as large as him a look of pity. “Lord Luo,” the Lord himself as others in the city called him. It had been a split decision he didn’t regret, using the protagonist's last name in lieu of any other. His last name ‘Shen’ belonged to another body and held sad connotations to Binghe’s cruel Shizun. So by the slip of a tongue they became the Luo family. “Any instructor not working for a Sect will still want notoriety, your coin purse can only get you a mediocre instructor.”

Shen Yuan sighed, he thought as much. Could he steal an instructor from a Sect? At his hip Xin Mo pulsed. He frequently portaled into various Sects and stole from their libraries. Manuals, books on herbs and medicine, cultivation, even just some novels. It was a small thrill he didn’t feel too terrible about. Who doesn't love a good breaking and entering? 

He was currently ‘terrorizing” Hua Hua palace by obviously breaking into rooms he shouldn't have access too and leaving various items that had no reason to be there. His favorite heist prank to date was leaving an entire tree in the food storage. He prayed they thought it was a ghost. Just thinking about it cracked him up.

No point in making a river bend where it doesn't want to. If push came to shove, he’d steal an instructor. 

“Tell me about the caves behind the waterfall,” he asked instead.

“The caverns were said to belong to a beautiful fairy tha-”

Shen Yuan nodded as the Lord hammered on about some ancient tale that didn’t actually explain the caves but sounded an awful like a Japanese fairytale. 

“Nothing lives inside, just poisonous mushrooms,” Lord Yan nodded solemnly. 

No, the mushrooms in the cave were glowing spirit hearts, a rare fungi that was poisonous to non-cultivators but useful to those with a golden core or in formation. They omitted a hazy mist that when breathed created the effect of being slightly tipsy and assisted in meditation. In the two months since Shen Yuan and the boys had lived in the city on the border between Sect territories, they hadn’t seen a single cultivator. Crucial for trade, the city only hosted humans. 

“I want to buy the cave behind the waterfall, so my boys can play there and make a secret base. Maybe meditate.” He tossed out. 

Lord Yan shrugged, and Shen Yuan placed two more gold vases on the table in front of him. “As long as you don’t restrict water from the falls to the farmer below.”

“No.”

“Then the cave is also yours, Lord Luo. Would you be interested in another game of go?”

While he had yet to win, the two could play for hours and it was part of Shen Yuan's twelve step strategy to befriend the older Lord. He relented and Lord Yan’s thin lips twitched at the corner. 

“How are your boys this week?”

Oh good, his favorite subject. The two men indulged each other in the other's favorite pastime until the sun began to set and Shen Yuan returned to the Inn.

Chapter Text

A week ago, a demon creature started targeting his oxen and the city’s farms further down the valley. At first he noticed only a few missing oxen. Thirty-six was a small herd for the jewel-eyed demon oxen, or fluffy black cows as he thought of them, but when four disappeared he noticed and investigated. 

He found blood splatters near the forest, deep drag marks through the foliage, hair, but no body or even bones. Whatever it was hunted at night.

“Don’t play outside at night,” he firmly told his sons that night in the Inn.

Binghe shared a look with Qinglong who shrugged and ate more of his grilled fish. The two wore bright yellow robes accented in a lovely white fur at the collar and blue hide of a poisonous lizard from the abyss. Qinglong had braided their hair the same too. 

“Yes, father,” Binghe lowered his eyes and put a piece of bamboo shoot in his bowl. 

He ruffled the boy's hair. Binghe hummed and leaned into the touch. 

At his hip, Xin Mo pulsed, like a heart rate beginning a jog. His long fingers tapped against the low table, annoyed. Whatever it was didn’t belong in his valley. A potential threat to his herd, his new life,  and his children. He didn’t like it. 

Despised this unknown threat. Energy simmered under his skin. His left leg shook. 

The next morning he checked on his herd and found another missing, the largest male oxen in his herd. Lovingly named ‘Big Mac.’  No one else got the joke but he did and it made him laugh every time. A young farmer ran up to him as he was soothing the matron of the herd, ‘Moochelle.’ The female oxen bumped his chest with sad large emerald sparkling eyes. 

“Lord Luo, an entire flock of chickens were eaten last night. Nothing but blood and feathers left,” the woman shook, wringing her hands in front of her. The poor woman had red eyes, dirt at the hem of her robes and messy hair. “Lord Yan sent guards and they said it’s just foxes or wolves. Please help us.”

“This Lord-” he remembered to be formal- “will take care of it. Tell the others in the valley to stay in tonight after sunset.” 

She bowed, gushing over with praise at his benevolence which made him blush and stutter, unused to such sincerity. When she reached out as if to take one of his hands, Qinglong slid up beside him and took the arm before he could even reach out. 

“Don’t waste time here, go prepare to lock up,” the older boy said in a frosty tone.

The woman stiffened up then turned and fled. Huh. No need to panic yet.

Binghe appeared at his other side, tugging his sleeve. “Pick me up, father, I’m sore from swimming.”

His hair was indeed a wet mess, and regardless that Shen Yuan knew he’d be wet as well, he did as asked. Binghe laid his head on his shoulder. Qinglong held his hand. 

A warm summer breeze circled the three in the large open field full of fluffy cows and flowers, the river nearby lapped at the shore. Bugs hummed in the air, competing for noise with lively birds. The sunny valley was beautiful and peaceful. 

“I can hunt with you,” Qinglong gave him a meaningful look, reminding him how expertly the snake demon had handled himself in the Abyss.

He would take Qinglong if Binghe were not with them. Binghe may be the protagonist but untrained he’d still get injured.

“After you both have a teacher,” he amended.

Binghe whined like a puppy, nuzzling his neck. “Father, I want to go with you.” He pleaded, fluttering his large eyes in a way that usually got him whatever he wanted.

Shen Yuan definitely spoiled his kids. He knew. 

The entire city knew. 

Worst of all his sons knew. 

Hell, even traders and merchants new to the city knew that to get his service they had to talk about his boys or appeal to them.

However, on this he could not relent. The single notion of Binghe, despite being an OP protagonist in the future and currently the baby of their small family, falling into harm, caused a dark anger to swirl within his mind. He wanted to rip and bite and tear any threat apart. And with his power level he didn't doubt that he could. Those videos he’d seen back in his past world, of parents doing amazing feats when their children were in dire need, made sense to him now. Which was why with the power of parental instincts he would swiftly take care of this demon then return home. 

“No, baby, you cannot.” He hated saying no

Binghe gaped at him, mouth open, eyes wide, cheeks flushing. This was the first instance of him denying his son anything in the five months they had him. 

“You don’t love me,” Binghe wailed, thick tears falling down his face. 

What! What? Where did that come from?

Mystified and anxious, Shen Yuan moved on instinct and began rocking shushing the boy. His other hand was tightly held by Qinglong, who tugged on his fingers leaning close to pat his brother's knee. 

Binghe cried a lot. He got overwhelmed with happiness at receiving a gift as simple as nice clothing and cried. A gossamer crystal butterfly landed on his nose last week and he cried at how beautiful it was. The sight gave Shen Yuan such cute aggression he worried he’d file down his back molars from grinding his teeth so hard. When they complimented his cooking he cried. When he wanted to manipulate Shen Yuan into doing something, he cried. But these tears were not the same.

“Baby, I do love you, that's why you need to stay at home with your brother. When you’re stronger, you can come with me. I’d love for us to go on night hunts as a family.”

“What if-. Wh-Wha-What if you don't come back?” Binghe stuttered through hiccupping tears.

Blessed Deities it was too early to explain he was a Heavenly Demon and how incredibly difficult they were to kill. In the Abyss -however long he’d been in there, years? Months?- his arm had regularly been ripped off. He was pretty sure as the protagonist's actual father and  full blooded Heavenly Demon he might be stronger? A theory to test when his baby is older. 

Of course that all meant nothing when he remembered the traumatic backstory the  protagonist had. Abandoned at birth, raised by a washerwoman that died. Orphaned a second time, Luo Binghe traveled to a sect hoping to find a new life only to be mistreated by his scumbag teacher and classmates. Shen Yuan was the only positive male influence in his entire life and the thought of losing that when he’d lost so much and only recently gained a new family scared his tiny sheep. He nuzzled his head against the top of Binghe wet hair, breathing in the familiar scent.

A breakdown in the making, Shen Yuan had wondered when Binghe would finally let loose. The forest didn’t seem like the most appropriate place though.

“That will not happen. I swear it.”

“You cannot swear it. People die. Don’t abandon me daddy.” He continued to cry.

Shen Yuan sat down on the grass. Around them the jewel-eyed demon oxen grazed lazily. A few drifted over and laid down next to the three. Qinglong eagerly crawled into his lap and gathered Binghe into his arms. The youngest shook with the force of his sobs, unable to stop once the dam had broken. 

Shen Yuan rocked the boys, humming and kissing the top of their heads. Moochelle lay at his back, barely flicking her tail when he leaned back into her ultra plush curly fur. The sun slowly drifted across the sky. Binghe ran out of tears, his hair dried and poofed up. After some time he passed out on Shen Yuan's chest, cuddled in Qinglong's arms and surrounded by his father and their adorable herd. 

“Father, he-,” Qinglong frowned, his words trailing off.

“I will be back in the morning,” Shen Yuan promised. “My fierce precious dragon, you are in charge. Do not let him leave the Inn. You have my permission to restrain him.”

“Didi won’t like that.”

Shen Yuan tapped Qinglong's nose then leaned down to kiss his forehead. “No. And I know you are also not happy to stay. I won’t be long.”

Qinglong captured his hand and pulled it to his cheek, closing his eyes. For a moment the illusion over his face wavered and his beautiful green scales on his cheeks were visible. Shen Yuan stroked them with his thumb. How could he forget, Qinglong has suffered as much as Binghe, his fierce dragon remained strong, but equally deserved to cry and be babied.

“You don’t always have to be strong one little dragons. I will be back, you won’t be alone again.”

“Promise?” 

“Not even death can take me away from my cute sons.”

“Yes.”

Magic words said, Qinglong relented and together they returned to the Inn and tucked Binghe into bed. Qinglong cuddled at his side and they stuffed pillows around the two, creating a warm nest. Shen Yuan kissed both of them on the head, his chest swelled with affection for his sons. Xin Mo, ever at his side, pulsed.

This was his happiness. He had to leave his precious babies because something didn’t know better than to stay out of his marked territory. Anger that had been suppressed bubbled back to the surface. A dormant volcano ready to explode.

He would be back at sunrise. 

Stalking through the streets of the city, Shen Yuan waited until he reached the forest just outside then ran at full speed through the shadowy forest. 

“Sense. Hunt. Kill.”

In a process that took an embarrassing amount of time to learn in the Abyss, Shen Yuan sensed around him. Tasting the air for an aura that didn’t belong. To the northeast he sensed a power flux. A light flickering on in the dark. Changing course, he sped, silently through the trees like a shadow. A cry echoed through the too quiet forest. 

He came upon a fight already in progress.

A cultivator, wearing what might have once been a white robe danced gracefully among a small horde of thirty  red-spotted eight-legged praying mantis that came up to his knee. The cultivator, however skilled, was overwhelmed with opponents. The idiotic cultivator kicked and swung his sword at the creatures, not even dodging when they spit small globs of red saliva at him, hissing and swiping their bladed arms, cutting him. 

Ripped clothes, mud everywhere, a tree branch in his ponytail, and blood of various shades staining his robes, the man looked as if he needed a nap and a snack.

“Don’t let them spit on you, it’s poison,” Shen Yuan jumped into the fray, unsheathing Xin Mo and backhanding a mantis into a tree.

The cultivator grunted and turned to him, slicing off a mantis’ head. In the moonlight, surrounded by tiny feral insects, covered in mud, Shen Yuan lost his breath for a second staring at the most beautiful man he’d ever seen in both of his lives. Distracted, a mantis bit his calf and he returned to battle. Smashing the thing under his boot. It sprayed green blood. He’d need new shoes and clothes after this fight.

At least he knew now what had been terrorizing the valley.

The beautiful man did an amazing spinning attack, landing on a tree branch above and Shen Yuan was helpless but gushing at how cool it was. Said man then fell off the tree branch, face bright red. He landed on a mantis, squishing it before being swarmed by five. He fought them off but still got bit.

Xin Mo pulse din time with his heart beat, that thundered louder and faster every swing he made and every death he caused. Damn these creepy threats. When the two finally demolished the horde of poisoned inschests, both covered in dirt, leaves, and guts, they assessed each other. Neither sheathed their swords.

Kill. He should kill the intruder. What if this cultivator is looking for his Baby. He could take him. A righteous cultivator would kill Qinglong or make him a slave. He tightened his grip on his sword. What if killing the cultivator drew more to his valley? 

Do it.

Wait.

Do. It.

Wait!

Kill the threat!

The beautiful man seized, his entire body jerked, sword falling to the ground in a puddle of gross green blood. His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground. 

Oh shit, the poison. Humans, even Cultivators were susceptible to it. The red-spotted mantis’ poison caused the body to lock up and the mind to hallucinate, incapacitating the mantis’ prey so it could feast without a fight.

Shen yuan rushed to the man shaking on the ground, he bent and before his hand could brush the man’s face, his eyes popped open, bloodshot and unseeing. The energy around the man fluxed and increased to a chaotic unbalanced degree.

A Qi Deviation.

Beautiful man bolted upright, and grabbed his throat. Shen Yuan jumped back, slipping on a mantis carcass and accidentally dodging a swipe at his head. The pretty man panted, his eyes unseeing. Even crazed, he was pretty. This world wasn’t fair at all.

Kill the threat.

Rising Xin Mo, Shen Yuan’s grip loosened at the top arc of his swing, changing directions he aimed the pummel of the sword at the man’s head. Crazed pretty man lunged forward, digging his blunt fingernails into Shen Yuan's chest. He cried out and hit the man in the head. 

Beautiful man dropped like a sack of bricks. 

The Fuck?

How did one heal a Qi Deviation without spiritual energy?  If he didn’t help the man he’d die. And no one that pretty -or fought that brutally graceful- deserved a horrible end covered in green guts in a forest. 

Was there a plant, or flower nearby he could-

The cave behind the waterfall.

Scooping up the man in one hand, Shen Yuan flew through the forest towards the river then up stream to the waterfall on his land. Gently, he submerged them both in the cool waters of the river, thankful for warm summer nights. Cleansing as much dirt and guts as he could without taking the man's clothes off, Shen Yuan walked behind the waterfall into the small glowing cave. He took out a clean blanket from his pouch, a few pillows, food and water. Arranging the unconscious man as best as he could he went about pulling a glowing mushroom off the wall and pounding it into a paste which he mixed with water then slowly fed the man. 

Nothing happened. Not that he thought it would be instantaneous. 

There were still a few hours till sunrise so he sat next to the man talking about his children and their farm. Occasionally making him drink more of the mushroom mix. 

“Where am I?” a rough voice interrupted his story about how Binghe liked to ride Moochelle around the valley.

“You’re awake. You had a Qi Deviation in the middle of a fight. I told you to be careful of the red-spotted mantis’ spit, it's poisonous. I took you to this cave to recover. How are you feeling?” He leaned over the beautiful man, his face flushing bright red.

“Too close,” the man attempted to push him away, as weak as a kitten. 

He didn’t move back. “You’re not recovered. Can you stand?”

Pretty man struggled to sit up, panting and sweating, his messy ponytail tilted to the left side and strands of black hair sticking to his forehead. By the time he sat up he appeared drained of energy. 

So, no, he could not walk.

“What's your name? I’m-” oh fuck he'd never given someone a first name, the city folk just called him Lord Luo and he could not say the name Tianlang-Jun. “Luo Yuan.”

Damnit, he panicked.

“Liu Qingge,” the pretty man spat out with a frown.

Like the peak lord of Bai Zhan? No way. Pretty man had to be lying? A peak lord wouldn't be this far in the boonies fighting low tier monsters. Must be a common name? 

“I’m going to take you to the city. Rest and good food and clean clothes and you will recover in a few days. My house isn’t finished being built, otherwise I’d offer you a place to rest there.”

Without asking, Shen Yuan, or is it Luo Yuan?, scooped Liu Qingge into his arms. The man weakly protested which ended him weakly slapping at his chest and coughing, face red with a fever. Luo Yuan ignored him and left the waterfall. 

“Rest,” he squashed the man as if he was one on his sons, concerned at how red the man’s face was.

Could he have a second Qi Deviation? 

“I owe you a life debt. What do you want?”

Absolutely nothing. Luo Yuan was happy with his life. Overflowing with contentment and cuteness everyday. However, he saw how Liu Qingge fought. 

“My youngest son needs a sword fighting instructor. I have been told none could be hired even with money due to our lack of status. If you must pay me back, which you really do not have too, I would like you to teach my son some sword fighting. They need to know how to protect themselves. I’d pay you, and you could stay in our house when it finishes this month.”

“Night hunts,” Liu Qingge grumbled as the two approached the city gates and he hid his head in Luo Yuan’s shoulder.

“What?” He leaned down, close enough their noses almost touched. Over the scent of damp mushrooms and lingering mantis blood the man smelled of Jasmin. A fitting scent for such a beautiful young master. 

Maybe this Liu Qingge was a young master, run away from his home to make a name for himself. His thread-bare and dirty clothes spoke of long nights sleeping outside. Poor boy needed to rest and be taken care of. 

“Go on a night hunt with me. You fight well.”

Luo Yuan threw back his head, his laugh echoing down the empty city street on the way to the Inn. “After you recover we can fight together again. It was fun, you fight beautifully yet vicious like a swan.”

Liu Qingge snorted. “Shameful.”

“Don’t discount the fact that they are the most aggressive protectors of their children in the animal kingdom.”

“Yes,” Liu Qingge whispered as Luo Yuan climbed the stairs of the Inn as silent as he could.

DING! [Congratulations Host has entered Chapter Two: You Got a Friend in Me will begin. Sub Chapter Two-Point-Five: Intruder Alert, Battle Stations Everyone will also begin.]

Huh a new friend.

Luo Yuan smiled down at the pretty man in his arms. “Thank you.”

The man’s heart rate skyrocketed. Could his face get any redder? One handed, Luo Yuan opened the door to his room and was swarmed by his boys. 

Binghe opened his arms only to drop them at the sight of Liu Qingge in his arms. He frowned, eyes hardening in an expression. Qinglong wore an identical expression. The tension was so thick he could have cut it with Xin Mo.

“I found a sword fighting teacher,” he proudly announced. Holding Liu Qingge up like a prize. The man grunted.

Frowns all around. Tough crowd. The sun peeked over the mountain range, soft beams of sun lightning the dark sky. Everyone had dark bags under their eyes. Naps for everyone. 

Luo Yuan desperately wanted to take a proper bath, change clothes then sleep cuddled with his babies, knowing he’d protected them. Adrenaline coursed through his veins like a kid doped up on sugar and while he one hundred percent could rip three heads off a dragon and relish in the violence, back in the room with his boys, he just wanted to cuddle. 

“Father, who is he?” Binghe said in a low tone.

“This is Liu Qingge. We fought off all the red-spotted eight-legged mantis that had been attacking the valley and he had a Qi Deviation. I took him to the cave to recover then brought him back here. He agreed to teach you boys some sword fighting.” A soon to be new friend.

Binghe’s frown turned into a scowl, crossing his arms over his chest. Qinglong mirrored his Didi. Even angry his boys were cute.

Why weren’t they happy? He found a teacher? 

“You should put him down, father,” Qinglong gestured to the couch in the room across from the large bed. 

Oh, right. Setting Liu Qingge carefully on the couch, he brushed the loose hair from his sweaty forehead and pulled a blanket up to his chin, fluffing some pillow behind his back. Liu Qingge stared at him dumbly. Was he still affected by the poison? A doctor would be summoned in the morning when he reported to Lord Yan about the monster's defeat. 

Binghe grabbed his hand and pulled him away, holding out his arms to be picked up. 

“Baby I’m dirty.”

Binghe widened his arms, glaring over at Liu Qingge. He appeared seconds away from crying and stomping his foot on the floor. Wordlessly Qinglong tugged on his sleeve for the same. 

“After I’m clean.”

“Let me help,” Binghe reached for his dirty robes.

Relenting Luo Yuan let his son’s drag him over to a chair in the large suite by a dressing table. Qinglong set up a privacy screen between them and Liu Qingge on the couch. Completely unneeded, they were all men. Binghe assisted him in getting out of his ruined clothes then gingerly wiped down his chest, face, and hands. He had such filial piety taking care of his old dad. Qinglong undid his hair, pulled out twigs and leaves he hadn’t noticed then combed and braided it simply. They both went as far as to wash his feet, which he tried to stop and was glared into submission. 

Once clean, smelling better, and changed into a loose set of white sleep robes they herded him to the large bed. 

“Liu Qingge,” he said.

“You want a stranger to sleep with us?” Qinglong hissed as Luo Yuan was pushed into the bed. 

“No.” Binghe climbed into his lap, wrapped arms around his neck and nuzzled his face there, taking deep breaths. 

“He has wet clothes on, he needs to be changed.”

Qinglong looked over the privacy screen. “He’s asleep. He’ll be fine.”

Rude boys. And to their new teacher. Show some respect!

Bullied into bed, a son on each side, curled onto his chest like cats, Luo Yuan stared at the ceiling. He felt content yet still restless. His mind whirled like a tornado. Thoughts too fast to process. 

Liu Qingge would need new clothes, medicine, and a bed. The boys needed practice swords, practice clothes, gloves, maybe weights? What went into training? Should he request a gym in the house? A training yard? How much should he pay his new friend? How did he make friends in fantasy china? What could he talk about, cows, and his sons? Oh gods above he was boring.

How did red-spotted mantis, usually a more tropical monster, end up in a temperate valley? Muscles locked, ready for another threat, energy simmered prepared to boil at a drop of a hat. Would monsters and other threats start attacking the valley? His heart rate spiked, and breathing stopped. 

“Sleep daddy,” Binghe kissed his forehead and patted his cheeks, just as Luo Yuan did to his son on nights he woke up from nightmares. “No more thoughts. Sleep.”

Helpless but to listen to his son, Luo Yuan settled into the soft bed, closing his eyes. At least he gained a new friend.

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe hated to admit the intruder was beautiful which made hating him easier and more challenging at the same time. Gege openly stared at the man, their so-called new teacher. He would never again call someone “Shizun.” The only people who had ever taught him things had even more precious names attached to them like “Gege,” and “Father.”

Liu Qingge, who Binghe was almost certain was the actual War God from Bai Zhan Peak, didn’t notice him- he thought? Father chatted happily, sometimes the only one making noise at the table as three silent people watched him animatedly recall the fight from last night. Liu Qingge- the War God!- grunted and shoved his face full of food, cheeks stuffed like a tiny chipmunk. Qinglong, usually enthusiastic to eat, picked at the rice in his bowl, eating one grain at a time, glaring at the war god.

“I had them,” Qingge huruped in a grumpy tone.

Was the great War God not a morning person? 

“I need to check my herd.” Father clapped his hands after breakfast. “You need new clothing and then my son’s can show you around town.”

“Acceptable,” the war god nodded curtly.

“How can you trust a stranger, father, he could be a deranged killer and kidnap us then eat us or use our organs for demonic cultivation.” Qinglong waved a green sleeve at the war god.

Said man crossed his arms and looked his brother and him over. “Too small to eat.”

Qinglong hissed and Binghe turned his head to cover his laugh with a cough. Gege grabbed his thigh under the table and squeezed. 

Father placed a hand on both of their heads. “If you feel threatened by anyone, attack without mercy.”  He gazed into both of their eyes with full seriousness. “Your lives are more important than theirs.”

“Getting away from a predator will be the first lesson.” Liu Qingge, the War God people would hack off their own arm to get lessons from, offered.

Shen Qingqiu, his abysmal Shizun, had once told Binghe mid-whipping session that the war god had actually seen him first and Shen Qingqiu stole him from the ‘brute.’ Some nights, bruised and starved in the cold dark woodshed, he'd imagined how his life would have been different had he studied on Bai Zhan. However, if that meant he’d never have met Father or Gege, or worse wouldn’t have gone with them, he'd take any amount of beatings from Shen Qingqiu. 

He whispered as much to Gege, holding his hand as they followed closely after father leading Liu Qingge through the city, pointing out shops and food stalls. The man’s beautiful face barely moved yet his sharp eyes tracked every movement. When he wasn’t observing the city and the shadows, the war god watched father. It wasn’t like the hungry stares of the women or men who lusted after their wonderful father. More of the gaze children gave him, a mix of awe with fascination. 

“He’s a threat,” Gege hissed. 

Maybe it was the dirty grubby beggar inside of him that hesitated. Liu Qingge didn't just watch father, he observed them too. Binghe thought the stares the blank faced man gave them were confusion, but he couldn't pin-point what Liu Qingge was baffled by. But he would. And until then his judgment was withheld. Gege frowned at him when he said as much and let go of his hand. 

“Daddy, up.” 

Binghe fluttered wet eyes up at his father as the war god stood to get measured for clothes, the most constipated expression on his face. Gege chatted with the assistant, pointedly ignoring Binghe. His chest tightened.

Father bent down and swooped up, pressing a swift kiss to his cheek. “It’s it exciting, Baby? You have a sword fighting instructor. He will help you so much.”

Did Binghe tell Daddy he knew who the war god was? Gege met his eyes and frowned, he stuck his tongue out in reply. Stupid Gege. 

“When I get better, I can go hunting with you?” Binghe laid his head on Father’s shoulder, inhaling the perfect mix of the three of their scents. Father stroked his hair. 

The War God subtly observed them from the corner of his eye. Taking peeks every few seconds. He inhaled briefly when father kissed his head, cradling him close. Gege, unable to resist the call of cuddling with daddy, drifted back over and also tugged on fathers robes. Father lifted him easily and they were both in fathers warm embrace. Gege’s nose wrinkled at him in silent displeasure and in return Binghe copied the gesture. 

The Bai Zhan Peak Lord wanted something, but the more Binghe observed the man studying them, he was convinced it wasn’t father. Not quite. It also had to do with the three of them. 

Binghe knew he was a pretty kid, more than once he’d been approached on the streets from hungry adults with lustful eyes. He’d seen other pretty kids taken and never returned. Some he’d found again in brothels, others were whispered to be hidden in rich peoples houses or dead. He'd been looked at in so many ways; contempt, lust, jealousy, disgust, pity and even love. Yet Liu Qingge’s eyes held an emotion he didn’t have words for yet.

Patience had always been his best virtue. He could wait and watch. As he’d always done. 

“I will pay you back-”

“Nonsense, a good Lord takes care of those under his service. You teaching my son is payment enough. And assist me, should more demons dare approach the valley again.” Father waved away the War Gods' attempt at breaking even.

The beautiful man’s face pinched up but he nodded. The robes were not as fine as the ones on Cang Qiong Mountain but the man didn’t appear to care. Father carried them to the meadows, greeting the city’s merchants and citizens. The Peak Lord’s gaze fell heavy on father’s back, who as always didn’t notice. Binghe peeked over father’s shoulder and met the man’s gaze head on. Liu Qingge tilted his head, eyes narrowing.  Gege kicked his foot to draw his gaze from the man.

In the meadow, father sat them down, patted their heads, clasped Liu Qingge on the shoulder and left them alone. 

“What do you know?” Liu Qingge asked.

“How would we know what we don’t know?” Gege crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow. 

The Peak Lord ignored the aggressive question and turned his intense attention towards Binghe. He felt seen and unworthy. Averting his gaze to the ankle tall waving grass under their feet, Binghe shook his head. 

“Nothing.”

Deep insecurities he’d been keeping at bay, drowned by cuddles from daddy and Gege bubbled to the surface. A volcano of uncomfortable feelings ready to explode. He hadn’t told them how terrible he was at cultivation, the reason Shizun had beat him, his martial siblings had teased and kicked him. He tried and tried. He did. Practicing until his muscles shook. Sometimes not sleeping for days. Muttering the words he’d memorized from that manual while doing chores. In the end, the failing was so deep rooted inside of him, his practicing, wanting, and determination didn’t amount to anything.

Daddy never asked, never pushed, always gave him whatever he wanted. But would he keep being so kind if he found out one of his son’s was useless? Daddy’s strength protected the whole valley. The City Lord himself spoke to father in a formal manner. Gege never demonstrated his strength but Binghe felt it at times, an aura so thick with aggression he wanted to back away. Only ever directed towards those approaching him or daddy. His family was strong and he was the runt. 

If they knew, would they leave him? Would the War God sneer at him and laugh? He couldn't be alone again. He can't sleep alone again. Cold. Empty. Useless. Unloved. Unwanted.

Shoulders hunched, Binghe wrapped his arms around himself. Being a cultivator had been his life-long dream. The thought of Gege and daddy leaving him was not worth it. He’d rather be a human than lose them.

“A good place to start,” the Bai Zhan Peak Lord told him.

Startled, Binghe glanced up. Gege slid up to him, bumping his shoulders, gaze intense, asking what was wrong. He bit his lip. The words caught in his throat.

Liu Qingge walked away to break a branch off a tree and give them to the two. He then spent an hour going over the first forms. Slowly moving for explanation. He didn’t elaborate unless asked and even then his answers were bereft. Binghe, despite Gege’s growing annoyance with their instructor, enjoyed the first lesson with Liu Qingge. 

“Too much strength, not enough skill.”

“You keep saying that,” Qingge seethed, repeating the form, slicing at the air. His stick broke.

Gege had a growing pile of sticks at his side. Every time he broke one, Liu Qingge would just give him another and tell him to try again. As the sun lowered in the sky so too did Gege’s patience. The dark aura around the boy increased yet the War God never flinched away as Binghe had seen others do. 

Said War God placed a hand on his head, pausing his own practice. “Good form. Rest.”

Gege broke another stick and shouted at the man for touching his head. He smiled brightly at Liu Qingge but didn’t sit down to rest, preferring to keep practicing. Over and Over.

“Did you boys have fun?” Father asked them when he returned back before sunset. 

“This one has talent,” Liu Qingge pointed at him to daddy, when asked how their lessons went. Binghe swore he’d float off into the sun. Liu Qingge then pointed at Qinglong. “This one should not be holding a sword. Maybe a hammer.”

Father grabbed them both into a hug, kissing their heads and exclaiming he knew how talented and wonderful his son’s were.

“I’m proud of you,” daddy kissed his cheek.

Like the crybaby Qinglong made fun of him for being, Binghe burst into tears and threw his arms around daddy’s neck. Maybe he wasn’t useless. He made daddy proud. Him.

“Tonight we celebrate in town,” daddy decided.

 

***

 

“You ran away.” Lui Qingge said after Gege had left to fill up their skins with more water during a brief break. 

Startled, Binghe froze, gripping the stick he used so hard it snapped in half. He stared down at the broken wood in his lap. Three weeks. He’d kept the same stick in one piece for three weeks during training while Gege could scarcely last a day and now he’d broken it. 

The War God sat down next to him on the soft grass of the valley, looking out into the beautiful lands surrounded by lush tall mountains on all sides. Father was further down the valley, finishing up his massive fence for the Oxen.

“You noticed?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to tell?”

“No.”

What did he want? Binghe glanced to the side, unable to read the older man's stoic face. After a month with the man he still couldn't understand him. Liu Qingge wanted something? Was this is?

“My father came for me. Shizun said I’m terrible at cultivating nothing but a bea-” he cleared his throat and averted his eyes. “No one would miss me.”

“Shen Qingqiu is a shameless snake who only knows underhanded tricks and deception. Do not take his word for anything. I say you have talent and you do. One day, if you keep practicing and with the right instruction, you will be as strong if not stronger than your father.”

It was the most Binghe had heard the man ever talk in one setting. It was also the most wonderful compliment anyone had said to him. 

Him like father? 

“Will you teach me more?”

“I have to leave tomorrow,” Liu Qingge said. 

Gege returned at that sentence, handing Binghe a skin of water. Predictably he didn’t have one for their teacher. The Peak Lord raised an eyebrow at his brother, in response, Gege made a rude gesture. 

“Good,” Qinglong took a long gulp. “Forever?”

“Not forever?” Binghe questioned.

“I have,” Liu Qingge’s pretty face scrunched up, “things I need to do.”

He had been with them for the past month. It was a known fact that the Bai Zhan Peak Lord traveled a lot and was rarely on the mountain yet it was inevitable he’d have to return.

“You can come with me,” the War God looked at him, eyes serious.

Gege leapt over Binghe and shoved his entire skin of water into the Peak Lords face. “No. Get out of here. You cannot take my brother.” Qinglong wrapped long arms around Binghe’s shoulders and yanked him back, glaring at the older man.

Wet and unfazed, the man held Binghe’s gaze. Binghe’s cheeks heated up. He’d been recognized -a second time- by the Peak Lord. How wonderful it felt to be picked yet it wasn’t worth giving up the warmth of Gege’s arms or daddy’s hugs. He literally could not live without them. Sometimes when he thought about it he wanted to claw at his skin or pluck someone's eyes from their head. 

No one could take them from him. 

They were his. His family. He loved them the most. 

“I’m happy here, with my family,” he answered.

The War God nodded then got up, walking away towards their father.

Gege sat back with a loud exhale, pulling him into his brother’s lap. “He’s lucky I won’t tell father or his fingers would be ripped out.”

“Father wouldn’t hurt his friend.”

Gege tilted back his head then touched their foreheads together. “You won’t leave.”

“No. Never.”

Gege kissed the top of his head, forceful and lingering. Binghe melted into the attention. “You wouldn't let me go.”

“Never,” his wonderful brother promised, kissing him again.

He smiled up at Gege, his chest full of butterflies and sunshine. Here he was wanted. They loved him as much as he wanted. Even when he felt greedy asking for more daddy and Gege would happily give and give. 

He could barely even imagine how his life would be without them. Even if he became a talent cultivator. How could he live forever without them? Rich and powerful people always had lovers, the streets taught him that, but he’d never know if they truly loved him. An entire harem would never be satisfying. The entire world couldn’t appease him. Not all the money in the world or the powers of a god.

Twisting around in Gege’s arms, Binghe settled more in the taller boy's lap, cradled like father usually held him. His favorite position. 

“I know you don’t like our teacher but I’ll miss him.”

Gege’s pale cheeks flushed and he hid his expression in Binghe’s sweaty hair. “I thought he was going to take you. He kept watching you.”

“And you now know I wouldn't go.”

Gege grumbled something in his hair. 

“What?”

“He wasn’t that terrible.” Gege muttered a touch louder.

Binghe laughed and kissed his brother’s cheek. Everyday he felt like the sun had been stuffed into his chest. He understood all those songs about love. How a person could go insane or do terrible things for it. His family could lead him anywhere and he’d follow. Even down into the Abyss. As long as he had them, he was happy.

 

***

 

That night over dinner, father announced that their house had finished. “We move into tomorrow.” He clasped a hand on Liu Qingge’s shoulder. “When you return I’ll have a room furnished and ready for you.”

“He's coming back?” Qinglong slammed his hands on the table and pointed at the War God who leaned back with an actual smirk.

Father threw back his head with a joyous laugh. Binghe wormed his way into daddy’s lap, who fed him from his bowl. Liu Qingge watched them with that same expression.

“I am thinking of naming him your honorary uncle, call him Shushu. No one else makes as great of a child-minder or teacher. I trust him.”

Liu Qingge blushed and Qinglong sunk back into his seat with a groan. 

“Can you bring us back some books?” Binghe asked.

Liu Qingge looked up, cheeks still read. “And practice swords.” He gave Qinglong a stern look. “Sturdy ones.”

“One day I will strangle you,” Gege promised, as he did.

Shushu smiled. Actually smiled for the first time. All three Luo men stared in stunned silence as the War God smiled at Gege. “You can try.”

Chapter Text

LiU Qingge left and a new threat, a more dangerous one, swooped in. 

Had Qinglong been back in the Abyss, with father, he would have transformed into his larger snake form and either eaten the threat or strangled it dead. Unfortunately, in the human realm, pretending to be a human, he could not. Everyday it got harder to remember. Reluctantly he admitted having Liu Qingge, who he refused to call Shushu, around had kept the pests away.

A week after Qingge left, it all went sideways. 

Sitting at the small low table for dinner, in their new house, knees and legs bumping under the table, father made a happy announcement. His curly hair wet, having bathed before to clean himself up after fighting a monster in the forest earlier. The strange sword, always at his side, lay by his thigh, glowing like an ember. Binghe had been serving them rice and paused, hands hovering in the air, too stunned to even start crying. Qinglong himself couldn’t breathe.

The night air was muggy, in the distance the waterfall could be heard, frogs croaked loudly and insects hummed. In the kitchen a small hearth crackled and popped. Was Qinglong having a nightmare? He glanced towards the front door. Would a giant woman just smash through the roof and take his father and brother? Leaving him alone?

He shook his head. Father leaned back on his arms with an easy smile.

“Father, please, we don’t need a nanny,” Qinglong said slowly, the words sounding far away. 

Had his skin turned to ice? Why couldn’t his heartbeat slow down?  

“Until Qingge returns, I was thinking you two have a different teacher. Lord Yan recommended a music instructor, a calligraphy, dance, and tea ceremony teacher. I think it would be good, you boys have something to do during the day and get to become proper young masters.”

“We don’t need them, we can study by ourselves.”

“My son’s are both smart but having teachers would be better. You won’t go to the school in the city so I’ll bring the teachers to you,” father argued with a bright smile.

No. No. No.

This was wrong. Bad. Horrible. Strangers in their space? Potential threats in the territory?

Binghe was still frozen, blinking slowly, processing. Qinglong stood on his knees, slamming his hands on the table, making the clay tableware rattle “No.”

“You’ll make friends.”

“We have each other,” Qinglong shot the suggestion down. 

Demons didn’t have friends.

Binghe slowly set down the bowl in his hand, half full of rice and the wooden spoon in his other hand. “You want to get rid of us?” His bottom lip wobbled.

“No, Baby, I would never,” father cooed at the youngest, petting his head. He tried to also pet Qinglong’s head and he ducked away, pouting. “You and my fierce little dragon mean the world to me. I want you both to have the best education, every skill you could possibly need in this world.”

Qinglong met father’s steady gaze and remembered all the man had babbled to him when he’d been trapped as a weak snake all those years? months? ago. Father was not from here, he knew things. Yet, the man lacked understanding of other people. He never noticed when people from the city stared at him with lustful and greedy eyes. How could someone so smart be so stupid? Maybe that was why he’d taken over Junshang’s body, so that Qinglong could be his fierce dragon and protect him. 

Dragons guarded their treasures. Long ago, when Qinglong had been Zhuzhi-lang he’d certainly fought every battle he could in Junshang’s place, more than willing to be his uncle and emperor's shield and sword. He moved for another's ambition and will. 

It wasn’t until his father took over the corpse of Junshang that Qinglong understood, to a deep personal level, human greed.  He wanted now. Desire rooted deep into his heart, deep enough to never be pulled out. His new family was his treasure. 

Binghe set down the bowl and crawled into father’s lap, fake crying. Qinglong wanted to roll his eyes. Save those tears. Use them when they really need something, not at every inconvenience. Didi was lucky they’d come for him when they did, he was too soft to be a good demon.

Time to use the argument he’d been saving. “What if they hit-”

Qinglong didn’t even get to finish before father’s other hand snapped out, curled around his waist and pulled him into father’s lap with Didi. The air crackled with his demonic power, eyes bleeding red for a split second, lips curled into a snarl. The odd sword from the Abyss glowed and pulsed in time with fathers heartbeat. Qinglong felt a ghostly hand reach out a grab hold of his heart, squeezing it.

Dragons guarded their treasures. 

“I’ll rip them apart. No one hurts my sons.”

Binghe cried, this time for real, latching onto father’s neck. Qinglong, sighed and rested his head on father’s shoulder, mindlessly playing with father’s sleeve as it covered him like a blanket. There was no point in arguing. Lulled by the heat, father and Didi radiated, Qinglong closed his eyes. 

Maybe he could tell his snake minions to bite their new teachers.

 

***

 

Qinglong had yet to stoop to whining like Didi, but he considered it. 

Their new teachers were not men, as he’d assumed. No, they were young, marriageable, young ladies, twittering and blushing. They arrived with the beginning of the rainy season, on a warm muggy morning. Overhead the clouds rumbled and covered the sun. Father preoccupied with building a large stable for the Oxen to find shelter in and left them with the women.

The City Lord’s wife’s sister’s youngest daughters, who were twins - Meilian and Meiqiu, came of age and came to stay. They were offered to father as a packaged deal. Of course, adorably, father did not exactly understand what had been proposed to him. Yet still denied believing they were servants. Instead, horrifyingly, the Luo household got two new teachers, who came everyday. Qinglong and Binghe hated the twin sisters with a passion which could not be justified in front of their father. Pathetically they were reduced to glaring and underhanded comments to the two women, who smiled and dreamily stared at their father.

“How cute, they dress as twins,” Meilian- maybe- cooed during their forest introduction. She shared a sparkling smile with her identical sister. The girls wore soft green, while Binghe and his brother had chosen vibrant blue robes. Father wore a deep crimson and brown robe. The five of them looked like a matching set and Qinglong ground his teeth together.

“Aren’t my son’s adorable?” Father gushed, hugging them.

Their lust stunk up the air in the house, even with all the doors and windows open, whenever father came home, soaked with sweat and rain from working in the valley. Qinglong wanted to bite their heads off.

The twins began coming everyday. If it rained, they stayed longer. Qinglong cursed the sky.

“What if he married one of them?” Binghe whispered, biting his fingernails, nipping at the skin hard enough to bruise and bleed.

Qinglong took the slimy hand from his brother's mouth and held it in his hand. He squeezed it and settled closer. Their knees and shoulders knocked together. The two crowded into each other at the small dining table, tracking the twins move about the house as if they were the new Ladies. Meilian had insisted on cooking dinner, while Meiqui cleaned the house, washing the bed sheets and dusting. 

Binghe, the baby, stuffed his face in Qinglong’s neck, breathing in. Qinglong had wondered how long it would take his cousin’s demon's senses to begin rising. The boy's sensitivity to smell pointed in that direction. Poor Binghe couldn't even express why he hated the women in his space other than smell.

Snake demons were said to have the sharpest senses. To him they smelt of peonies, rouge, some mercy powder, and lust. Disgusting. 

They boldly wandered the house of a dragon, touching everything they could, leaving their scents on every surface and the air like a signaled threat or like animals pissing on trees in the forest.

“Daddy they smell,” Binghe complained the night before.

“People smell Baby, it's natural. Is it their perfume? I will tell them not to wear it tomorrow.” Father said but the problem persisted. “How are your lessons? I can tell your calligraphy is improving. Do you want to learn to play an instrument?”

And have even more women come to their house? 

No.

No.

No.

Qinglong’s skin itched, as if he was shedding. The itch grew every day. 

“You and daddy smell good and they reek,” Binghe mumbled into Qinglong’s skin.

Qinglong pet didi’s hair, never taking his eyes off the woman in the kitchen. Binghe shook beside him, nervous without knowing why. When Meiqiu had stripped the bed, Binghe began biting his fingers. Qinglong worried he’d draw blood.

Outside thunder rolled. The insects had quieted as the wind began moaning and howling softly, tree branches knocked against the house and each other. Lightly the windows rattled.

“We could sit outside.” Qinglong tried to help.

The inner courtyard of the house had a covered section they could sit under.

“No. Cannot leave.”

Binghe shook his head, eyes wild, lips red from biting them, shoulders hunched. If he was a dog, Qinglong could perfectly imagine his hackles being raised. Since the woman had arrived didi had also been more agitated.

The woman cooking smiled over at them and attempted to coo at how smart they were for finishing their calligraphy. Binghe frowned at her and when her hand reached out as if to touch his hair, he flinched back. Qinglong grabbed her wrist mid-air.

“No.”

Meilian -maybe?- chuckled in a light tone, masking her nerves. Qinglong felt her rapid heartbeat and smelled her perspiration. He narrowed his eyes, gave her small thin wrist a light squeeze of warning and let it go. 

“A-long,” the woman said sweetly, tugging her wrist away and holding it. “Don’t be so rough with this one.”

“Don’t touch us,” Qinglong replied in a serious tone. “You are not our mother. Do not call me that.”

She backed up and shook her head, the beads on her hairpin clinking, spreading her poignant smell of flowers. “Qinglong, this one knows how scary it is to let strangers into your house. A-Qiu and this one lost our mother when we were young too and our father remarried. One day your father will marry again and you’ll have a new mother, or two, isn’t that nice?”

“No.”

She chuckled nervously, behind her the pot of soup bubbled on the stove, the fire lightly crackling under. She practically pushed Binghe from the kitchen, not even letting the boy assist her in preparing. Her sister returned from outside, hanging the laundry and the twins' eyes met, silently communicating. With the two of them, the stench in the room smelled like dog shit in the sun. Binghe nuzzled into his hair, wrapping arms around his waist. 

As a half snake demon, Qinglong was always cold and seeking warmth. His father and didi were wonderfully opposite, running warm. Binghe snuggling into his cold neck, warm nose and lips on his skin sent a shiver down his spine. It felt nice. 

“The boys don’t want a mother,” the twin in the kitchen told her sister.

The twins shared a sad sigh and gave the two boys sad smiles. Qinglong wanted to rip their faces off. “We understand the young master's feelings of loss. Young masters will not lose a father but gain a mother, possibly even more siblings.”

Even worse. More children meant less time for them. The back of Qinglong’s eyes prickled.

Together as one they approached the table and sat across, moving as one. Qinglong despised these women in his territory, yet admired and wanted their closeness with each other. How wonderful it would be if he and didi could just share a look and know what the other thought? To move in sync as if they shared one mind.

“We don’t need a mother,” Binghe mumbled.

“Lord Luo cares for you both deeply, even we sisters knew that coming to the city. Yet the Lord has needs that only a wife can meet,” the one on the left said.

“What needs?” Qinglong stroked Didi's soft hair. 

Outside the wind picked up, branches banging against the house, ripping leaves and flower petals off stems and dancing them around.

The sisters shared another look, eyes wide and eyebrows wiggling. The one on the right covered her mouth with her sleeve and blushed. They shifted as one.

The one on the left spoke up after a minute. Her voice wobbled, face flushed with a blush. “Sleep with him and kiss him. Take care of him in ways only a wife can. Adult activities.”

Qinglong did not understand but in spite of his confusion, his own face heated up at the thought of father kissing another person. If they got a mother, they’d have to sleep in another bed. Could he live without the heat of father and Didi, without the sounds of their breathing or heartbeats lulling him to sleep?

Without them, he’d remember the quiet cold cave with the body of the only person who’d cared for him, dead. The realization of spending eternity alone, cold, unwanted. He shook, trying to keep a scream lodged deep inside his chest, pushing down the tears that wanted to push out of his eyes.

“We do that?” Binghe tilted his head.

The girls, not much older than Binghe and certainly younger than Qinglong, twittered like birds. Neither spoke for another moment. What was making them nervous about what they were discussing?

“It’s different. When adults kiss it makes-” the one on the right faltered and glanced to the side unable to continue.

“Babies,” her sister finished for you.

“How?” Binghe sat up, leaning forward, his tears dropping onto the calligraphy papers in front of them, staining the work. 

“On the lips,” the one on the right said, then stood up probably and went back to the kitchen.

Binghe tried to ask more and was directed elsewhere. The women stayed for dinner, sitting on either side of their father, their spots, and trying to feed him. Father talked about his oxen and then listened to the women talk about how talented his son’s were. Because of the rain, he agreed to walk the women back to the city and ordered the boys to stay home. 

Alone, Didi crawled into Qinglong's lap, forcing him to put down his book. The light from the lanterns wiggled with the brush of the wind, the sky dark and rumbling, lightly pattering rain.

“Can they really give daddy more than us?” Binghe blinked up with large wet eyes full of tears. 

Qinglong tilted Didi’s head back, cradling the back of his skull with one hand. Binghe’s head lolled to the side, trusting Qinglong completely, which had heat stirring in his chest. No one other than Qinglong’s new father and his didi had ever trusted him this way.

“No Didi. We make him happy, he-” his heart pounded so loudly in his chest all other sound was drowned out “-loves us,” he finished with a whisper.

Binghe sensed his hesitancy, twisted around, and wound his arms around his waist. Burying his head in his chest. Outside, close by lightning struck the ground, followed by a boom of thunder.

“He’ll leave us. They’ll give him adult kisses. We won’t be able to sleep with him anymore and he’ll have other babies. We’ll be alone.”

“No, Didi, no,” Qinglong tried to calm his brother. 

Binghe pulled his head back, eyes wild and chest heaving. “We need to kiss him. If we give daddy his needs and adult kisses, he won’t leave.”

Qinglong knew a miniscule amount about humans, but he did know that humans were violent lustful creatures. Binghe didn’t know that father came from a proud and royal bloodline of demons. Junshang hadn’t shown much interest in bodies until that human cultivator. Although new father was not Junshang. Maybe he had needs? 

Binghe’s fingers curled over his shoulder blades and dug in. 

If the only way to keep strangers and women from their house was to give father his needs, were they not supposed to do that? Father had saved Qinglong, given him a home, clothes, a brother, love, and anything he could ask for. Father had never asked anything of them. Never said he wanted anything. Was he unhappy? Unfulfilled?

The idea that father might be displeased or wanting stabbed Qinglong in the heart. 

He was a bad son.

“He needs kisses on the lips?” Qinglong said, unsure and hurting.

“We can do that,” Binghe nodded. He looked down. “I’ve never kissed someone on the lips. What if I’m bad at it?”

“I haven’t either.”

“I’ve seen brothel workers kissing,” Binghe whispered, not looking up. “They hugged close and kissed deeply. I liked watching them. It made me warm.”

“Kiss me,” Qinglong tilted Didi's chin up, staring into his brother's deep eyes. “Practice with me and then we can kiss father.”

Lightning struck again. The rain increased to a loud downpour. Close to Didi, Qinglong could smell nothing else. His head swam.

“Yes,” Binghe whispered and leaned forward.

Their lips pressed together. Didi’s lips were softly wet from tears, and warm. Qinglong’s body had always been colder and the warmth of his brother felt indescribable, like laying in sunshine. His eyes closed and he pressed in for more. Wrapping his arms around Binghe.

Oh.

The young boy breathed through his nose, tickling Qinglong’s cheeks, one hand clutching his sleeve the other reached up and settled right over his heart, fingers spasming in time with the thundering organ.

Binghe broke away, eyes fluttering, eyelashes lightly flicking across the top of his cheek. Qinglong met his brother's gaze, heated, hooded, and wanting. Binghe licked his lips. Qinglong in a daze, as if poisoned, slow, licked his own lips. They tasted sweet with a hint of something that had to be Didi. He licked his lips again, chasing the flavor and heat.

More.

Lightning flashed, brightening the room momentarily. 

“More.”

They dove in, a harder kiss, more teeth, harsher panting noises. Their noses bumped and Qinglong titled his head to better slot their lips and deepen the kiss. He sought the smell and taste of his brother. The warmth burned him. He couldn't get enough. 

Their lips moved against each other as if speaking without words, using their bodies to talk and demand. Qinglong made a whining noise when Binghe pulled back, only for the younger to lightly kiss him, a loud smacking noise that echoed. He kissed him again and again.

Qinglong's lips warmed from the heat of their kisses, tingling. It wasn’t enough. Was the world spinning? He felt untethered.

“We need to be better.” Binghe broke away from their kiss, a string of saliva connecting their swollen lips. 

Qinglong licked his lips, and hummed in agreement. His heart pounded in his chest, right under where Binghe’s small hand rested. Eyes never leaving his brother's swollen lips, his head spun. The world ceased to matter, ceased to exist.

“We need to practice.” Qinglong reached forward, head fuzzy, chasing after the rush and heat that covered his body when they kissed.

“Often,” Binghe murmured into his lips, pulling him closer until not even air escaped between their sealed lips, as if they were desperately trying to eat the other. 

Qinglong understood why humans wrote songs and books about such acts now. Pressing impossibly close to his brother, their chests heaving as one, the air simmering with visible heat, Qi, and demonic energy around them, they kissed. Qinglong’s left hand moved up to cradle the back of Binghe’s skull, threading his fingers through silky locks, his other hand wrapped around the boy's waist, thumb caressing his side. Binghe gasped and the sound was like an electrical shock.

He had to hear more. 

Had to taste more. 

A board creaked, followed by the whoosh of the front door opening and the two jumped apart, eyes wide, lungs heaving for air they'd been denying themselves. Binghe scuttled backwards, Qinglong picked up the forgotten book at his side. His fingers shook, skin buzzed as if ants crawled under.

Father walked into the room and looked between them, his face twisted in concern. Without a word he opened his arms and the two melted into the embrace. Denying hugs would be like fish swimming up the stream.

“Do my boys have fevers?” Father knelt, stroking their hair, pressing their flushed faces into his neck.

Qinglong met Binghe’s eyes over father’s head and the heat returned to his chest. Binghe swallowed, eyes glued to his lips. He licked his lips, suddenly conscious of how dry they were and how wet his brother's warm mouth was. 

More.

“Just a bit warm,” Qinglong managed to say, tightly holding onto father. Binghe nodded.

The heat pooled lower in his stomach. If kissing felt this good, what else was there? Was this that those women wanted to give to their father? No. They would give this to their father, let him feel how they did, give him this warmth.

Then he wouldn’t leave. Qinglong would be a good son. 

 

***

 

Later that night, the storm rolled past the valley, clearing the skies and allowing the moon to shine down, sending soft beams of light through the closed window of their room, the three snuggled close in bed together. As they did every night. Qinglong had not been able to think of anything past his brother’s soft lips and warmth. His heart continued racing in his chest. 

On the nightstand the weird sword pulsed.

Binghe sat up in his sleep as if hearing Qinglong’s inner thoughts, he leaned over father’s face, his hand snaking over father’s chest, palm up, seeking Qinglong. Unable to deny his brothers, Qinglong placed his cold hand in his brother’s warm one. It felt right to be connected to didi. Something shifted in his chest. The sword glowed brighter.

“Mine,” Binghe whispered, squeezing his hand.

Qinglong smiled and squeezed back. “Mine.” He agreed.

They looked down at father’s sleeping face, then met each other's glowing gaze in the dark, leaning over father to kiss again. “Ours,” they breathed into each other's mouths then resumed kissing, wetly smacking their lips together and leaning forward to reach each other better, teeth clashing and breathing labored.

More practice was necessary. Qinglong smiled against Didi’s warm lips, licking into them to chaste the taste he’d been consumed with all evening. No one would take his treasures. 

Chapter Text

Before being saved, there were only a few things that Binghe loved. He hated much more. The hate festered deep inside like maggots he’d picked off meat to eat when he’d grown desperate enough. 

The opposite was true now. Binghe loved so much it overflowed and he willingly surrendered to drowning under the weight of it. His love was mostly directed towards his father and brother and even split in two it choked him with the intensity of it. 

As much as he loved, he craved their love in return. Their warmth. Their care. Their attention. It was never enough. More. More. More. Drown him. Consume him. Burn away the hate and flood his veins with love.

“Didi.” Gege pulled him from his thoughts.

Straddling Qinglong in the middle of their bed, shoving his tongue as deeply into his brother's warm mouth as possible, Binghe burned and writhed. Gege cupped his face as they kissed-as if Binghe would ever move away, sucking in each other's air, spreading their scents on the bed those vile twins had touched again. 

The more they kissed, the more he wanted.

In the silence of the night, the comforting hum of insects in the air, owls hooting and the river gurgling in the background, the wet noises of their mouths intersected by quiet hums of pleasure when one pressed closer or scraped fingernails against sensitive skin, could have been screams. Their lips moved, speaking devotion and love wordlessly. Pouring heat and need into each other. Feeding off the other’s greed and generosity.

Give. Take. Push in. Pull back. 

Gege dug his fingers into Binghe’s back, making him mew and writhe. He bit his brother's bottom lip. Nibbling as if savoring a delicious candy. Gege groaned and surged up, a hard biting kiss that knocked their teeth together with a clack.

During the day Gege and him had a few moments to peck kisses against each other’s skin. Cheeks flushing and eyes growling large at the lingering heat of skin and promised time later. Their only time to steal more intimacy were the nights the twins stayed for dinner and father walked them back to the city. Less than half a shichen to devour each other's mouth, whispering praise and reassurances. 

A torture and pleasure wrapped into one day.

“Stop thinking,” Gege growled, tightening pressure on his cheeks, forcing his jaw to open wider. Gege shoved his longer tongue into Binghe’s waiting mouth, heat pooling inside his stomach. 

The more they kissed, the more their scents and taste mingled. Like they were becoming one person and it eased a tightness in his shoulders and chest. He couldn’t decide which part he enjoyed more. The closeness of his brother, the intensity in which Gege ate his mouth or roamed his hands against his skin, the wet squish of their lips, the pounding of his heart, blankness of his mind or the idea that they practiced to one day share with Daddy. 

Shen Qingqiu had been right, Binghe was a filthy greedy beast and he had no plans to stop. 

Free falling off a cliff, knowing anyone who found out would despise them, condemn them, and he did not care. Gege would follow him into hell. Father too. Yet a small tiny part of him feared daddy would also look at them in disgust if he saw them kissing on the bed, rubbing their scents into his spot. They couldn't stop now. It was addicting. They needed it.

“They keep coming,” he whined between loud wet smacks of lips, his hands fisting the soft blue robes that covered his brother's skin. He wanted to worm his hands inside and feel the warmth of his skin. “Gege, they’re going to ruin our family.”

Gege groaned and released Binghe, flopping back onto the bed from where he’d been craning forward attempting to devour his brother's mouth. Qinglong panted, lips red and wet yet his hair, haloed around him, was untangled. Binghe picked up a strand of Gege’s long straight black hair, admiring the softness.

“We can’t do more than we’ve been doing.”

“We could get them married? Or push them in front of an oncoming cart.” Binghe leaned backwards, settling his weight more firmly on his heels and Gege’s hips. He also panted, raising his hand and kissing the end of Gege’s hair, it ticked against his tingling lips. Gege’s groaned, shifting under him.

Gege started up at the ceiling with a frown on his beautiful face. Absent-mindedly his hands moved to Binghe’s thighs and lightly stroked as if to sooth them both while keeping the warmth in his chest kindled. “Didi, at this point if we kill them they’ll know it was us.”

“Have a snake eat them.”

His wonderfully beautiful brother sighed then finally turned his green eyes back on him, piercing him with a glowing stare that sent tingles down Binghe’s spine. Briefly the hands on his thighs tightened. Binghe bit his lip to keep from mewling. He hated when Shen Qingqiu or the bullies on the peak hurt him, and dreamed of ripping their skin off. When his brother lightly hurt him, it roared a fire of need. Shame burned his cheeks but he didn’t stop. Long fingers traced his skin, leaving burns and tingles in their wake. The heat in his stomach rose to a boil.

He was just a filthy beast. An animal to be left in the shed and beaten when it pleased the master. Stupid. Greedy. Bad. Wrong. Useless.

His brother squeezed again, sensing -in a way only he could- Binghe’s swirling thoughts of deprecation. Gege took one of his hands and lightly kissed his knuckles, soft wet lips traveling slowly down to his fingers. Binghe shivered. Qinglong traced the pads of his fingertips against his lips. Kissing and rubbing. Eyes never leaving him in an intense stare. Binghe’s shame evaporated as love bloomed in its place.

“If only I could.”

“Why not?” Binghe whined, lowering himself to press into Gege’s chest, luxuriating in the warmth and rise and fall of his breathing. Like being rocked by water. Gege moved his hand to his hair, petting him. 

He blinked through his eyelashes at his brother, begging him in the way that always got him candy.

“Didi, we can get them another match. But killing them would not be wise. They’ve been here too long, father built us this house and is happy here.”

“Just have one of your snakes bite them.”

“People see me with snakes, I’ll be the first they point their fingers to.”

Binghe huffed and closed his eyes with a frustrated whine. Despite his and Gege’s attempts to rid the bed of the twins' scents, it lingered in the air. Unnerving him and making him restless. Sometimes he couldn't even sleep at night, as if the scent scraped at his bones. A slow torture he couldn't articulate. Tears filled his eyes in helplessness. 

Gege swore to him Daddy wouldn’t leave them, wouldn’t get more babies but doubt lingered and festered like a oozing wound. 

“Binghe,” Gege breathed, one hand pressing him into his chest. They kissed again but the heat that had pleasantly tingled under Binghe’s skin and stomach had dissipated. 

Gege sighed and pulled away. Binghe tipped himself off and over. He turned on his side to stare at his brother’s profile. Shen Qingqiu’s words hissed in his mind, beast, filthy, greedy, thing. 

Without taking his narrowed eyes off the ceiling, Qinglong reached out, taking one of Binghe’s hands in his and squeezing. Binghe closed his eyes, a tear escaping down his cheek. He should be happy. And he was. But doubt festered, lingered, and choked him.

“I’ll figure out a way, Didi,” Gege promised into the humid night air. 

Binghe didn’t answer, instead pulling the hand close, pressing his still wet lips to their interlaced fingers. How could a person be so happy and miserable at the same time? What was wrong with him?  He trembled and squeezed his brother's hand. 

Inside his chest, his heart shuddered threatening to crack in two from despair or swell out and burst through his ribcage in happiness.

 

***

 

“Father.” Qinglong approached, climbing up to sit on top of the fence Luo Yuan had built to enclose the jewel-eyed oxen. A slightly chilled breeze ruffled his robes and hair.

Yuan smiled up at his oldest son, patted the animal he’d been checking, then walked over, leaned on the fence next to Qinglong. Now at eye-level with each other. He wondered how tall his son would grow to? He sort-of wished they’d stay small so he could keep holding them both in his arms. One day they’d grow up and no longer wish to be carried everywhere by their silly old dad. Hopefully not for a few years.

“Yes, my dragon?”

The tip of his ears heated up. How cute. He couldn’t resist and pinched Qinglong’s puffed up cheeks. 

“We should tell him.”

Yuan knew who ‘he’ was. “No.”

“Father, we need to. He thinks that when he gets older he can open portals like you do. He believes it's a special family gift.”

Qinglong reached down as if to touch Xin Mo and Yuan snatched his boy’s hand out of the air before he could touch it with his skin. So far the weapon hadn’t poisoned or deteriorated his mind but inside like a tiny seed he could feel the dark madness. A secret fear he held was that one day he’d snap and become a danger to his son’s. A monster. 

He didn't want either of them to be more exposed to the sword. 

“No.”

“He’s going to have questions. We’re the only three left and Heavenly Demons have unique physiology.”

It's times like these that reminded Luo Yuan that Qinglong was a lot older than his youthful face and playful personality. He didn’t actually know the supposed boy’s age and hesitated in asking since he had a sinking suspicion Qinglong never got a childhood and was reliving it with him. And it was his honor to baby the snake demon. Which brought up an uncomfortable topic the two had been skating around for months? years? Luo Yuan knew that Qinglong knew he wasn’t his real uncle but neither had actually said the words and acknowledged it. 

For all of Shen Yuan’s obsessiveness with the web-novel PIDW there had been little known about Heavenly Demons outside of what Binghe, the blackened- protagonist, found out through trial-and-error. There could be some unique Heavenly Demon physiology that he didn’t know because the hack author spent way too much time writing badly done pappa scenes. He’d read one in the beginning, just to see, and hated it so much he’d never read another. 

The silence dragged on between them, both staring at the other as if waiting for one to cave. Luo Yuan conceded, looking away across the valley. His cheeks burned with embarrassment.

“You might also need a refresher on how Heavenly Demons work.” Was as close to him admitting he didn’t know anything.

Qinglong bit his lower lip, tilting his head down and tugging on the end of his dark green sleeves, an act of an innocent young boy. “No, father. I don’t. I know that we’re immune to poison. We’re the strongest demons, and we have fast healing.” He said in a tone of voice as if he was actually a sixteen year-old trying to prove his knowledge.

Luo Yuan, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, didn’t comment on the act and patted the boy's head. “That's good. What else do you remember from our lessons.” He played along.

At his side Xin Mo glowed into life like a red ember in a pile of ash. Luo Yuan covered the glowing hilt with his hand, angling his hip away. Not now.

“Heavenly Demons originated and fell from heaven, damned to earth. We mate only once in a lifetime and-”

Mating? What the fuck? Since when?

DING! [Important backstory information added to profile. Romantic Interests have now been unlocked. An important entity has listened and decided to magnanimously assist. Will you accept their help in pursuing life mate(s)?]

[Choose an option: Yes/No]

No. He had more important things.

Holding up a hand. Yuan interrupted his son, “Mating?” 

Qinglong’s narrow eyes widened briefly then scrunched into a face Yuan recognized as his processing face. He spoke slowly, “we mate for life. Once a partner has been chosen there will be no one else.”

That didn’t sound right. Binghe had hundreds of wives.

“Qinglong, my dragon, you are mixing up legends with facts, Heavenly Demons can have multiple wives.”

The boy sucked in a breath, eyes narrowed like assessing a threat before returning back to the submissive and small act. “Wives are not the same as Mates.”

[Choose an option: Yes/No]

The? Fuck? Extremely cool world building and information but also frustrating. Why was this not mentioned? Did that mean Binghe hadn’t found his mate? But he had 600+ wives. He basically fucked an entire world. Traveled everywhere. How? 

“While father has had a wife once,” Qinglong said haltingly, as if hating the words, “his body had never reacted to any mates, yet.”

Mates? Now he was confused.

“Mates? More than one?”

Qinglong’s cheeks burned and he looked away across the valley. licking his lips. “Trios are rare but happen.” The boy trembled next to him and he rubbed a soothing hand against his back.

“How do you know?” Yuan asked. “Do you remember what I told you about how one knows they’ve found their mate or mates?”

Qinglong straightened up, no longer playing the submissive shy boy. Regarding his father he stared directly into his eye. The air shifted, tense. “The heat, when you burn for them. The longing to never part. How the heart stutters and slowly you grow insane for them, possessive and needy. Only them.”

For a moment Luo Yuan couldn't suck in a breath, hypnotized by the words and his son’s serious gaze. Under his left hand the stupid dagger buzzed, the vibrations crawling up his arm and to his neck. 

“Hm,” he considered the information Qinglong had laid at his feet. “You remember a lot, I'm proud of you.” Qinglong blushed and ducked his face, the tension in the air easing. “But not yet. Let him still believe he’s a human.”

“Why? Didi wouldn’t be scared. He loves us.”

How cute. His son’s were the best.

“Demons cannot be cultivators and that’s what he’s always wanted to be.”

Qinglong shook his head then reached over and patted his fathers fluffy hair. “Yes, wanted. Ask Didi if his dreams are the same now.” He jumped down, smaller now. Yuan wanted to hug him, crush the boy to his chest and keep him safe in his arms. “Dinner is almost ready.”

“And yours?” Luo Yuan stopped his oldest. “What are your dreams?”

“To have a cozy home with my family. I’m happy now, daddy.” Qinglong took his hand and squeezed it. Cold fingers against his larger warm palm. “This is more than I’d ever dreamed of before. I just want more of this.”

Luo Yuan’s mind caught on one part of Qinglong’s pretty speech and latched on like a starving dog to a meaty bone. Family? Was he not enough? Did his precious child want to get married?

[Choose an option: Yes/No]

“Qinglong, you are sixteen, too young to marry.”

Qinglong tugged on his hand with a pout, play-acting a child again. “Daddy, the marriage age is fifteen, like Binghe. I could marry someone and have a family now. We both could.”

Luo Yuan blanched at the idea. “No.”

“If I find my mates.”

“You’re too young.” Luo Yuan gathered the boy to his chest. His heart pounded so loudly he couldn’t hear the outside world. Qinglong sighed and laid his head on his father’s chest. 

“What’s the right age then?”

“At least eighteen.” 

“Eighteen? Then I can pursue my mates?”

No Thirty. Fifty. Could he say never? He couldn’t open his mouth. The words choked him and he squeezed the boy closer to his chest. He thought he’d have more time before his boys left him. Qinglong bonelessly accepted the tight hug for a few minutes before squirming away.

“Dinner, daddy.” He walked back to the house.

Luo Yuan stayed behind, watching Qinglong distance himself from him. An itching under the skin intensified, the seed in his chest grew darker. Insecurity crawled over him like ants. He rubbed his arm to chase away the feeling. Xin Mo pulsed and he patted the hilt as if to sooth the blade. 

Under his palm the demon sword, which he jokingly referred to as a dagger, warmed. How sentient was it? Was it like a computer that had quirks, an animal with intelligence or an AI with a personality? He imagined it was trying to comfort him. His heart had taken a direct hit at the thought of his boys leaving.

“I won’t leave you. When they fly the nest it’ll just be the two of us . . . forever alone”

[Choose an option: Yes/No]

The option flashed as Xin Mo burned him, glowing brightly red for a moment as if to admonish him. The idea of his boys leaving him, finding mates of their own and him living forever alone had ash collecting in his lungs. The message flashed angrily as if asking him to make a choice. 

Standing in the way of his children's happiness would be wrong, even despite how much he didn’t want them to go. He didn't have an actual interest in another person, and the idea that this body could have a mate was interesting yet he couldn't believe said mate would be perfect for him . He didn’t belong here. 

Melancholy settled over his shoulders as he walked back home. At his hip, Xin Mo hummed, a noise it hadn’t made before. Wow, how sad was his life that a sword was trying to comfort him? His boys would be ashamed to introduce their life partners to their sad lonely dad. Something clenched and twisted in his chest, ice running through his veins. 

Sitting down to dinner, the boys chatter filling the room, he considered his options. At his side the stupid glowing dagger began humming. Neither of the boys acted as if they heard the quiet humming. It didn’t have a melody or pause. Soft and low. Almost pleasant. 

[Choose an option: Yes/No]

He loved being Luo Yuan and dreaded the future of being alone. He was selfish, wanting to keep his children with him. Preserve this moment forever. A bubble with just them and happiness but he knew it wouldn't last. People left and he’d stay. Watching from the outside. The idea of a potential mate or mates, of having someone around forever to starve away the gaping loneliness he hadn’t felt since transmutting into PIDW itched at his spine. 

The responsible thing would be to find his mate or mates and show his boys how healthy relationships worked. Give them more love and people who cared for them. He couldn't chain them to him. Keep them from grinding the happiness that he desired for them, above all else, even his own future. 

“Father?” Binghe reached out and touched his arm, leaning forward with large hopeful eyes that tugged on his heart strings every time. 

Overcome with emotions and only one outlet, Luo Yuan grabbed his boys and hauled them into his lap, burying his face in their hair and breathing, pressing them close. They didn’t resist, snuggling closer and asking what was wrong. Just as content to find comfort in his arms as he found holding them. 

He was a horrible parent for wanting to keep them forever. But he couldn’t imagine them leaving. Whenever he did, his chest got tight and his vision blurred. He had to let them go. He was their father, their guardian, and the person who loved them the most. 

[Yes]

DING! [Chapter Four: What is Love? Fated or Made? will begin shortly. One step closer to your Happy Family!]

Chapter Text

Crickets chirped all around the shaded forest, light dotting the foliage and occasionally tiny beams of sunlight reached through to brush against the ground. A cool breeze rustled the emerald green leaves ahead and brushed against their hot flushed skin. 

Qinglong’s fingers scrambled to hold onto Binghe’s sleeve robe as the younger pressed him up against a tree, their lips connected, and breaths mingled. They’d been sent into the forest by their father to collect mushrooms and berries. His basket rolled on its side; bright blue berries scattered on the ground from where his younger brother had surprised him. Pushed him against the tree and took from his willing mouth. 

Aware of his age, Qinglong resolved to go at his brother's pace, not wanting to push. Although to be fair to himself, he knew about kissing and sex yet had never participated in either. He couldn’t even tell his brother when asked the exact logistics of sex. They were both blind and fumbling in the dark together.

Binghe bit his bottom lip, chewing on it playfully as his fingers ran up his spine and into his hair, tugging lightly. He moaned and arched his back slightly, overcome by a warmth in his belly. Who needed the sunlight when he had this? 

“More. More,” Binghe whispered against his lips, pressing in and against his body. 

“Yes,” Qinglong exhaled into his brother's mouth, tilting his head down further, pressing his lips firmly against the other. His arms wrapped around Binghe’s waist, tugging him upward for a better angle. 

A jolt of electricity shot down his spine, startling a drawn-out moan as his growing erection rubbed into Binghe’s. He panted, fingers digging into the soft flesh of Binghe’s hips. Oh. Oh. He’d never felt that before. His brother dug sneaky fingers further into his hair, yanking his face closer then rolled his hips, brushing their hard-ons against each other again. Qinglong’s legs shook, another moan ripped from his lungs. Oh. Yes. This.

Binghe set the pace, rolling his hips as Qinglong held on. 

“Hold me,” Binghe demanded with a growl, locking his arms around Qinglong’s neck then wrapping his legs around his hips. Their hard-ons flushed, pushed against each other through their robes. 

Qinglong leaned against the back of the tree, legs unsteady but grip firm. His hands moved downward naturally, down Binghe’s spine, admiring the bones and muscles that flexed and moved under his fingers until he found himself cupping the youngers butt in both palms. Binghe let out a breathy exhale and arched his back when Qinglong gave an experimental squeeze. He felt this brothers’ moans vibrating against his tongue into his skull

Oh. Gods strike him down. 

He squeezed Binghe’s butt against, pressing his lips forward at the same time pressing his brother into him, their erections rubbed together in a delicious friction. Binghe mewled into his mouth, their lips never breaking apart.

Where did his air end and his brothers begin? Together they breathed as one, grinding into each other. The wet sounds of their lips and tongues pressing against and into each other, added to the muffled moaning and keening, and the light ruffling of fabric gliding filled his ears. The world dropped away.

Closing his eyes, Qinglong moved instinctively, letting his body guide him where nerves threatened to stall him. He squeezed Binghe’s butt, loving the squishy flesh, allowed Binghe to fist his hair and yank his head back, grinding their erections against each other faster. 

Binghe broke their kiss first and began peppering his chin then down his neck with open mouthed, wet kisses that sizzled on his flushed skin. He panted his enthusiasm, praising Binghe’s mouth. His hands fully occupied he jerked his hips and pulled the boy down more forcefully right as Binghe bit the side of his neck hard enough to draw blood.

Yes. Oh. Yes. He needed more.

“Close,” Qinglong stuttered, eyes watering from the edging and slight stinging pain at his neck.

Binghe pulled his face away, lips red with his blood as if painted on rouge like he’d seen many courtesans. Their eyes met, hazy and lustful before their mouths crashed together against, tinged with the taste of his coppery blood between them. Binghe didn’t know but sharing his blood meant he’d always be able to find his brother. 

Their grinding and frenzied kisses sped up, inelegant and almost brutal in pace. No longer lingering and full of sweetness, their lips and teeth clashed, drool ran down his chin and he didn’t care. He gripped Binghe closed, possibly bruising the soft butt under him and delighting in the idea that he was also marking his brother. The tree behind him, scratched into his back, adding to the thrill.

Binghe’s tongue darted into his mouth, and he bit it. Binghe hissed and jerked in his hands, eyes crossing. He sucked at the wet appendage, able to wrap his own -much longer- tongue around it like a hug. When he tasted his brother's blood he moaned. Now they were linked. Connected. A part of each other.

Their noses bumped into each other. No longer able to kiss, they breathed in each other's air, chasing the edge, staring into each other's eyes. Qinglong fell first, his release catching him by surprise with a choked off yell as he jerked and threw back his head, against the trunk of the tree, knees wobbling. Binghe watched him, intensely, grinding against his oversensitive dick until he too came with a whine. 

Electricity tingled throughout his body, sunlight burst through his ribs and the warmth Qinglong felt couldn't be described in words. The world rushed back to him in the color green around them and the chirping of birds. 

Gently he relaxed his hands on Binghe’s behind and bent forward slightly to set his brother down. Missing the warmth as soon as Binghe detangled himself. Their blue robes were wrinkled, and he could feel the wet mess in his pants yet couldn't stop smiling. That was . . . his brain faltered unable to even describe how wonderful it had been.

He got why people killed for that closeness. Songs he’d once scoffed at now took a different meaning.            

“We should do that again,” Binghe panted with wide smile on his lips.

“Yes. That. Yes.” Qinglong nodded, breathless, warmth bubbling inside his chest. “We should clean ourselves.”

Binghe darted forward and stole a quick peck. Qinglong giggled, widely grinning. Together they picked up the fallen berries, only a few bruised. Adjusted their robes as best as possible and left the forest. Checking before they left the tree line the boys held hands and ran back home, breathlessly laughing and sharing knowing glances as they quickly changed.  The bite on Qinglong’s neck had already healed and it saddened him slightly. 

“It’s so hot, I want to swim,” Binghe said.

Qinglong, helpless but to always agree, followed after his brother in a loose top robe and pants, holding hands. Together they left the house, dirty clothing shoved in the laundry basket, and jumped over the fence into the field where the jewel-eyed Oxen grazed. 

Father was in the middle of finishing the massive stable for the herd. Wearing just pants, sword at his hip, his chest bare and sweaty, long hair tied up in a fluffy ponytail, a few strands sticking and curling against his glistening skin. Binghe came to a stop, lips parted, staring. Qinglong swallowed. The heat he’d felt with his brother pressed against him, hips rolling, and breaths mingled returned. He squeezed his brother's hand. A blush painted the boy's nose and cheeks.

“Father,” Qinglong called.

Said man stopped at his voice, turned and then this face morphed into a joyful smile. “Boys.” Father left the hammer and nails on the roof and easily jumped down. He opened his arms, realized he was sweaty at a pace from then lowered his arms. 

Of one mind, he and Binghe surged forward and nuzzled into fathers’ arms. As always father wrapped his arms around them, tilted his head down between them, kissing the tops of their heads and squeezed them close. Qinglong turned his face to his right to stare into Binghe’s eyes. Pressed against father’s muscled chest, breathing in his heavy scent, the warmth ignited. He wanted to lick. Binghe, as if in agreement, kicked his own lips then swallowed thickly. 

“Daddy come swim with us,” Binghe used his cute begging voice. 

“I need to finish this Baby, maybe tomorrow,” Father said.

“You haven’t played with us in days,” Qinglong argued, attempting to use the same bratty tone Binghe always managed.

Father pursed his lips, shook his head, eyes momentarily dazed then smiled and lifted them up. In a practiced move, they sat in father’s arms, wrapping their own arms around his neck. Binghe squealed like a child and kissed father’s temple.

“Swimming,” Binghe cheered. 

Qinglong didn’t understand why Binghe occasionally acted as if he’d regressed into a child, but it made both him and father happy. It was also cute. Following, as he did, his brother’s example, Qinglong pressed a shy kiss on father’s other temple. Qinglong noticed the sword at father’s hip, because it pressed into his own. It hummed and he glanced down to see that it glowed. Pulsing as if it had a heartbeat. He frowned, momentarily distracted until Binghe squeezed his hand, drawing his attention back. 

Father began walking, a jump in his step, towards the waterfall and the large pool of water in front of it. Qinglong could feel father’s muscles shaking. At the edge of the water, father bent down as if to put them down and Qinglong held on. He felt emboldened from the rush of pleasure stolen with his brother in the forest.

Would it work?

“You didn’t give us a kiss.”

Father’s face split in a blinding grin. He swooped in and pressed a quick kiss against both of their heads. Binghe preened and Qinglong considered the options. He glanced down at the sword, a bit brighter now. Resolved, Qinglong pressed a quick kiss to father’s lips. 

“Like that.”

“No fair, me too.” Binghe picked up and played along.

Father leaned his head back, eyes wide and a blush over his cheeks. Yet he didn’t move to set them down. His arms tightened around them, muscles quivering. 

“That's not-, family doesn’t-.” He couldn't find the words, eyes darting between the boys.

“I’ve seen families kiss that way,” Binghe claimed. Qinglong doubted it but appreciated the assistance. 

“Our people do,” Qinglong added to the lie, watching father’s face to see if he knew the truth or not. 

Father blinked rapidly, glancing between the boys. Overwhelmed. Slowly, a furrow between his brows, he leaned forward and lightly kissed Binghe on the mouth. His brother shot him a triumphant look. 

“My turn,” Qinglong reached out, boldly took fathers face in his hands, turned his head and kissed him with a smacking sound. 

“No, now you’ve had two. I need another,” Binghe whined, slapping his hands away only to turn father’s face and kiss him quickly and loudly. 

“Another,” Qinglong demanded, taking another kiss from father, relishing in the soft warmth and the slight wetness he knew was from his brother's saliva. They playfully giggled.

The two continued to take kisses from father until his entire face and neck had flushed red and the arms holding them up trembled so badly, he wondered if they’d fall. Father finally pulled them away and hurriedly set them down. 

“Water.” He stuttered, dropped his sword at the edge of the pool of water and jumped into the cold water. 

Binghe and him, abandoned on the shoreline, flushed and excited, exchanged triumphant looks then shared a kiss between them in front of father. Fingers laced, they waded after him. 

A feeling, one he didn’t have words for rose in Qinglong’s chest. An itching need that whispered for him to take more. Beg for more. Have more. A shiver traveled down his spine, across his arms and over to Binghe. 

Just as they started splashing, the tension in the air, present but lessened, a voice called out from the shoreline. Qinglong turned and frowned. Liu Qingge had returned. 

“My friend,” Luo Yuan called out with a wave of his hand. “Come join us. We can play a water game of chicken, now that there’s four.”

“Welcome back,” Binghe called out with a happy wave and wide grin.

“Birds should not be in water,” Liu Qingge said but began taking off his outer robe. 

“How do we play?” Binghe asked, draped over fathers’ shoulder like a scarf. 

When Liu Qingge waded into the freezing water, his chest also exposed, Qinglong glanced away with a frown, despising the blush across his face. Liu Qingge reached them in the middle and their shoulders bumped, warm skin brushing against his in the chilled water. The man reached out a hand and ruffled his hair, dripping water down his face, a droplet dangling at the end of his nose. 

“Practiced?”

“Of course, I’m going to beat you someday,” Qinglong responded, not slapping the hand away.

“I can wait.” The man said, the edges of his lips twitching. 

“Have you seen the house?” Father asked the man. “There’s a room just for you.”