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lonely little heartbeat

Chapter Text

It takes several tense minutes for Shen Yuan to convince Luo Binghe that he hasn’t been kidnapped. The kid is understandably upset to have fallen asleep on a tranquil mountain of spiritual scholarship and woken up on Shen Yuan’s bedroom floor. The first thing he did after scrambling to his feet was reach for a sword that luckily didn’t make the journey with him.

Shen Yuan didn’t mean to leave him on the floor; after he nearly stepped on the kid’s sleeping body, he tried his best to lift him onto the bed. But it’s not like he goes to the gym, and Luo Binghe is a teenager! A real teenager, dressed in the practical white disciple uniform of Qing Jing Peak, with gangly limbs suggesting a recent growth spurt. All the graceless tugging on his limbs did was wake him up, and probably add a few more points to the “deranged kidnapper” column in Luo Binghe’s calculations.

He gets Luo Binghe to sit down on the edge of the bed. The kid perches there suspiciously, his hands clenched on his knees and his shoulders tensed like he’s ready to spring into action if Shen Yuan makes any sudden moves. His eyes narrow, shockingly dark and distrustful in such a cute, sweet face.

“If you didn’t bring me here for nefarious purposes,” Luo Binghe says, “then why am I here?”

A very good question.

The thing is, Proud Immortal Demon Way is only sixty-three chapters long. Shen Yuan double-checked it on his phone right after finding Luo Binghe. Sixty-three chapters is nothing! Certainly not enough content for a reverse isekai event, complete with a cliché mission-assigning System.

He’s read plenty of novels about fictional characters coming to life, although usually those are hentai stories about some shut-in nerd meeting his favorite busty anime waifu or something tedious like that. Or sometimes it happens when the two characters are linked across worlds, cosmically fated to change each other’s lives. Why would this happen to him, when he only just started reading the book? Why him over any other readers? Can it really be just because he pitied Luo Binghe? It’s hardly that important to him.

Okay, he was getting a little invested. His eyes got a little watery reading the last chapter, sure, but that’s a normal reaction. It’s supposed to make you sad! He doesn’t get why Luo Binghe needs his help to become less sad. Surely that’s what the rest of the novel is for? He’s read the tags. Binghe may be a bullied little lamb now, but that tragic backstory is just the setup for him to come into terrifying power. Why is Shen Yuan being conscripted to destroy the narrative momentum?

“I don’t know,” Shen Yuan says. “Whatever force brought you here, I’m just as much of a victim of it as you are. Listen, have you ever heard stories about people traveling across worlds?” Do they have transmigration novels in PIDW?

“Of course,” Luo Binghe scoffs. “There are several known places where the path between realms may be traversed.”

“Ah...” He must be talking about the realms of his own world, the separate dimensions of the humans and demons. “I meant, like... stories where people come together from different universes? Sometimes to help each other, or—complete a quest?”

Luo Binghe looks even more doubtful. “Do you mean like in Springtime Across the Veil?”

“What’s that?”

“A popular ballad in which a humble human merchant is kidnapped by a group of vigorous demon maids, who quickly divest him of—”

“No, no,” Shen Yuan says quickly. “Not that!” Okay, so they don’t have xianxia Inuyasha or anything? Explaining this may be a lost cause. “This isn’t the demon realm,” he says, “but it’s not your realm either. It’s... a different place. You must have fallen through some door between our worlds. That’s all I know.”

“Then you are neither human nor demon?” Luo Binghe says. “What are you?”

“No, I’m human! This is just a very different world than yours—you’ll see. Look—” He waves up at the overhead light, a bright globe. Shouldn’t Luo Binghe be struck speechless by the wonders of technology already? “We have things like this.”

Luo Binghe frowns more deeply. “An exceptionally bright night pearl?”

No, it has wires! Be impressed by the wires!

“If you didn’t bring me here,” Luo Binghe says, “then you should have no objection to me leaving. I will be disciplined if I neglect my duties to my sect.” He stands before Shen Yuan can protest, but Shen Yuan catches a wince and a pained little huff as he does.

“Wait,” he says, “are you hurt?”

Luo Binghe glares up at him, seemingly more angered by this question than by the assumed kidnapping. “No.”

Ah, wait. Did Luo Binghe come here right from the most recent scene in the novel? Wasn’t he in a huge fight?

“Sit down,” Shen Yuan says sharply. To his surprise, and apparently Luo Binghe’s given the look on his face, Luo Binghe does. “Let me see where you’re injured.”

Luo Binghe crosses his arms over his chest protectively, radiating resentment. “Why?”

“I might be able to help.” He has a fully-stocked bathroom cabinet, after all.

Luo Binghe looks even more offended by this, which is fair. If Shen Yuan was training to be an immortal cultivator who has transcended physical needs, he also might resent the offer of some generic drugstore antibiotic cream. But Luo Binghe’s not at Cang Qiong Mountain Sect now, he’s in Shen Yuan’s apartment, so Shen Yuan is going to offer to help.

“Remember what I was saying about stories of people meeting across worlds?” he says. “I don’t know why you’re here, but it might be so that I can help you.”

In fact, the Siri in his head told him as much. Helping Luo Binghe with his injuries seems like a perfect way to reduce his Heartbreak Points. “Do you even know how badly you’re injured? Have you looked at it since you fell asleep last night?”

This last point seems to get somewhere. Luo Binghe’s face shifts from hostile to hostile but considering. Without taking his eyes off Shen Yuan, he loosens his robes and pulls them apart to take stock of the situation.

He is, overall, banged up. There’s a scrape on the underside of his chin that’s already scabbing over, and more small scrapes and bruises over his torso. But the worst is a huge bruise on one side, so dark that Shen Yuan is surprised the blow that dealt it didn’t crush Luo Binghe’s ribcage. The skin is purple and swollen, even shading to maroon further down where blood vessels have burst under the skin. It starts at Luo Binghe’s armpit and continues down past where it disappears under his robes.

“Is that from that big hammer?” Shen Yuan says. Luo Binghe glances up, startled.

“Yes,” he says. "How do you know about that?"

Shen Yuan waves the question away. No need to get into the whole "book character" thing and give the kid an existential crisis on top of everything else.

The state of him makes Shen Yuan queasy. It’s one thing to read about a fight in a book, and another to see a child who looks like he’s been hit by a wrecking ball. Didn’t Luo Binghe’s villainous shizun volunteer him for this fight? Not only does it seem wrong, but Shen Yuan is starting to question the entire premise of the cultivation novels he loves. Don’t they often require teenagers to fight horrible magical threats? It makes sense when you know that the teen character is the protagonist, whose power and reputation should be established when he’s young to mark him as special. But Shen Yuan wouldn’t have wanted to do it at Luo Binghe’s age.

“What?” Luo Binghe demands.

“What?”

Luo Binghe tugs his robes shut again, the movements vicious. “You look upset.”

“Wh—I’m not upset!” Now Shen Yuan is annoyed too. He was just thinking. “Stay here.”

He sprints down the hall to the bathroom and grabs anything that might be useful: ointment for bruises, antibiotic cream, band-aids, and several other things just in case. When he gets back to the bedroom, Luo Binghe has slid his robes down again. Shen Yuan pauses in the hallway, watching him drag his fingers lightly over the bruise, his forehead creasing unhappily. Shen Yuan’s stomach churns.

Luo Binghe is turned away from him. At this angle, Shen Yuan can see his shoulderblades and back, which are covered in brownish-purple marks. Healed scars. Understanding jolts him like a sudden slam on the brakes: the lashes of Shen Qingqiu's whip.

Luo Binghe’s only about five years younger than Shen Yuan, but there’s something unformed about him, his sweet features still that of a boy. He’s scrawny from eating too little and growing too fast, making him look small and pathetic despite his decent height and martial arts training. The thought of such vicious cruelty directed at him—even, Shen Yuan knows, when he was much younger than now—is nauseating.

He can’t remember the name of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s author, but he resolves to be his mortal enemy starting now. What kind of twisted person puts a child through such inhumane treatment? Can’t a tragic backstory start at age eighteen?

He hurries over to Luo Binghe and dumps all the medical supplies onto the bed next to him.

“Here.” Something’s wrong with his voice; it’s tight, hard to get out. He rubs at his eyes, the corners itching from dust in the air or something.

Luo Binghe rifles through the tubes and boxes, then glances up. “So—” But the sight of Shen Yuan’s face stops him. He stares at Shen Yuan like he’s never seen another person before, and isn’t sure if he likes it. His face struggles to resolve into an emotion, darkening with suspicion one moment and softening into something naked and uncertain the next. His eyes flick down at the contents of Shen Yuan’s medicine cabinet, then back up.

“These are...” His voice wavers. “These are for me?”

The weight of his gaze is suddenly too much to carry. Shen Yuan clears his throat and looks down at the bed, flipping one of the tubes over to show the label.

“Just basic first aid,” he says as evenly as possible. He nudges one of the creams toward Luo Binghe. “This one’s good for bruising.”

He doesn’t know what you’re supposed to say in this kind of situation. If he acknowledges how bad everything looks, it might make Luo Binghe feel bad. And anyway, he’s a novel protagonist. He’s built to handle this kind of stuff, surely?

But he can’t do nothing, either. “Should I—do you want me to get your back?” He’s sure one of the things he grabbed was vitamin E cream, which could help with scarring. Of course, Shen Yuan has used it for acne scars, not anything like this.

Luo Binghe shoots him a look of sheer disgusted disbelief in the way that only a teenager could. Shen Yuan nearly laughs. Okay, sorry, Mr. Protagonist! This humble servant will just let you do it!

Luo Binghe uncaps the tube and starts smearing it over the huge bruise on his side, not very gently. He speaks without looking at Shen Yuan, his voice full of resentment. “I know it’s not healed well. You don’t have to tell me.”

Shen Yuan is taken aback. “That’s not what I meant,” he stammers, but Luo Binghe’s hand tightens where he’s working the cream into the bruise, and a wince flashes across his face. WTF, don’t hurt yourself more!

“I’m not a good cultivator,” Luo Binghe says savagely. “So if you thought you were getting the best when you kidnapped a Cang Qiong Mountain student, I’m sorry.”

Shen Yuan is startled into silence. Is the protagonist supposed to have self-esteem issues? Also, who’s a kidnapper!

But of course, Luo Binghe is still in the part of the book where he’s struggling to succeed despite many hardships. His OP vigor hasn’t been unlocked yet. He’s surrounded by people who doubt him and denigrate him.

“That’s only because you were given a fake cultivation manual,” Shen Yuan says, remembering. “So the more you study, the more your qi will be thrown off. It’s a cruel trick.”

Luo Binghe’s hand freezes. He looks up at Shen Yuan, eyes wide. “What?”

“It’s not your fault. It’s sabotage.”

Luo Binghe’s fingers tighten again—Shen Yuan can see the mottled skin around his fingertips go white—but his face doesn’t even flicker. There’s something dark and unflinching behind his eyes, a sheer rock wall that none of Shen Yuan’s reassurance can penetrate.

“What do you mean?” he demands. “How could you possibly know that? My shizun—” He cuts himself off, his breathing unsteady. “Why—?”

His shizun? His shizun is a stock character, a pothole in the road for the protagonist to skip right over on his way to glory. He’s nothing. Space filler. But Luo Binghe blinks too hard, the whites of his eyes reddening at the corners.

Ah, Shen Yuan can’t help it. He knows this little puppy might bite his hand off, but he reaches out to pat him on the shoulder. “He’s just a villain, Binghe. It doesn’t have to make sense. He only knows how to be evil. He’s bad and you’re good.” Luo Binghe doesn’t respond, his eyes flicking back and forth between Shen Yuan’s face and the hand on his shoulder.

Oops, he used Luo Binghe’s first name too. A habit from the Zhongdian comments section, but far too casual an address for the protagonist, even this little baby version. Ah well, better forge ahead before Luo Binghe calls him out on it.

“Anyway,” he says, dropping his hand. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? Shall I make some tea?”

Luo Binghe huffs out a breath through his nose, the tip of which is going pink, presumably from the effort of holding back the tears that still visibly threaten. Shen Yuan forces his own breath to remain steady. The last thing Luo Binghe needs is some stranger getting weirdly emotionally invested in his life.

Shen Yuan just has to make him feel better. He has to.

“I’m not hungry,” Luo Binghe says quietly. “I’m just... I don’t think I slept very much.”

Relief washes over Shen Yuan. Something specific he can fix. “Of course,” he says, jumping to his feet. “You should go back to sleep! I’ll go make up the guest room, it’ll only be a minute.”

✿❀✿

Shen Yuan isn’t like anyone else Luo Binghe knows. His hair is scandalously short, his accent and his clothes are strange—although him being so scantily clad is understandable if, as he claims, Luo Binghe’s arrival in his private quarters was a surprise. Luo Binghe doesn’t believe that for a second, but it’s not like he’s desperate to get back to Cang Qiong Mountain, so he might as well stay kidnapped for now.

Shen Yuan is softer and rounder than any of the trained cultivators Luo Binghe lives with or the starving kids he fought with on the streets. And his emotions are easy to read, like his insides are uncommonly soft to match. He was visibly upset over Luo Binghe’s injuries, as if they meant something to him. He’s like a hothouse flower, a sheltered favorite daughter of a rich house raised to be nothing but beautiful and kind. Like a child who cries over a dead bird.

Luo Binghe knows better than to think Shen Yuan's concern is genuine. He’s just learned that even the people he lives with every day won’t lift a finger to save him from certain death. And he’s supposed to accept all this from a stranger? He's meant to believe that a stranger could be moved nearly to tears by Luo Binghe’s old discipline scars?

The cream Shen Yuan gave him has quieted the pain of his injuries to a dull, cool tingle. It has a faint herbal smell, unnaturally cool against his skin.

It’s the differences that keep throwing him off. He wants Shen Yuan to be different in this way too, to be the one person besides Luo Binghe’s mother ever to reach out a hand and not strike him with it. He clenches his fists, so angry with himself that it’s hard to breathe. He knows he can’t trust anyone—he doesn’t have any excuse to feel this way. Is he just going to be weak and stupid forever?

What Shen Yuan said about the cultivation manual probably isn’t even true. How would he know? Except it is true that Luo Binghe has followed the instructions meticulously, and his cultivation has only ever gotten worse. It is true that Ming Fan sneered when he gave it to him. All this time, has everyone been laughing at his expense? It’s more humiliating than being beaten.

And if Shen Yuan is right about that, then how—Luo Binghe’s throat sticks when he tries to swallow. How can he say something like—what he said about Shizun—as if it’s just as self-evident?

When Shen Yuan comes back, he leads Luo Binghe to another room in his dwelling containing a bed made up with big, soft-looking blankets. Although the bed is small, it’s more luxurious than anything Luo Binghe has seen with his own eyes, the fabrics lush and inviting—likely more luxurious than what his own shizun has in his bamboo cottage, although Luo Binghe’s never seen inside it.

“I’ll leave some water,” Shen Yuan says, “in case you do get thirsty. And I put some books by the bed in case you get bored.” He pats Luo Binghe thoughtlessly on the shoulder again, touches something that makes the light go dark, and leaves him alone in the room.

Luo Binghe sits on the edge of the bed. It sinks under him, somehow yielding and supportive at once. His head hurts. He’s never even slept in a bed, and he hasn’t had a blanket to sleep with since his mother died. Why is Shen Yuan doing this? Between the fancy lights, the medicines, and all the different exotic materials on display in his home, he must be very wealthy. What is he hoping to gain?

It hurts to think about, because if Luo Binghe thinks about it, he has to acknowledge all the soft parts of himself that Shen Yuan is exposing. He doesn’t want to feel grateful. He doesn’t want to roll over like a dog thrown a scrap of meat.

But if he did, would Shen Yuan pat him again, like a dog? Luo Binghe nearly shudders.

He climbs into the bed, under the blankets, and curls up. It’s so soft, Luo Binghe isn’t sure at first if he’ll be able to sleep. But the thick sleeping pad envelopes his sore limbs and tired bones, holding him, and he easily drifts into unconsciousness.