Luo Binghe hates it here.
That first day, he meant to be nothing but sweet and polite. He planned to lie low and play the perfect little disciple until he could observe Shen Yuan and draw his own conclusions. But he nearly lost it when Shen Yuan started gushing over his cooking. It hooked into something deep in him and tugged, and he ended up blinking back dangerous heat.
He hasn’t cried in years. But his mother taught him to cook, and no one has ever complimented him on it before.
The surge of emotion unsettled him, and he ended up snapping at Shen Yuan. Stupid mistake. He vows not to question Shen Yuan’s motives again. Either Shen Yuan doesn’t want to tell him, in which case it won’t help for Luo Binghe to push, or he really is this simple and sincere. And after Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe is terrified to let himself imagine that that’s true.
He doesn’t mean to get accustomed to Shen Yuan, but they fall into a routine. Most days, Shen Yuan takes him somewhere in the city. Sometimes to markets filled with street vendors hawking their wares. Sometimes to indoor shopping centers filled with goods made from what seem like impossibly rare materials. Sometimes to a park to see music playing, or to take a boat ride on a river. One time they get tea and cake at a cafe with cats lounging everywhere, several of them coming over to rub against Shen Yuan’s legs, although they all ignore Luo Binghe. They usually buy lunch while they’re out, from a street stall or at a restaurant.
On the way home, they buy groceries. Luo Binghe cooks dinner and cleans up, and then they watch one of Shen Yuan’s talking picture stories. They’ve been working through one about a dragon’s balls.
Shen Yuan remains unflinchingly kind. He even gets more affectionate: patting Luo Binghe’s head or shoulder absentmindedly; tapping Luo Binghe admonishingly on the forehead when he does something against this world’s rules; steering him through crowds with a hand on his back. It’s so casual that it can’t be part of any deception. He does it like it means nothing. Luo Binghe tries to ignore it, but Shen Yuan’s touch sets off reverberations all through him. Sometimes it’s so powerful that he can’t sleep for how his heart throbs and his stomach jitters, just thinking of the times Shen Yuan has touched him. He lies awake at night and catalogues them. It’s a tense fight not to let it mean too much.
The longer Luo Binghe stays here, the less any of it makes sense. He promised himself after the fight with Tianchui that he would get better at being unloved. He told himself he would never again read too much care into someone’s actions, desperate to believe in tenderness that has not been offered to him. And yet Shen Yuan’s true motives have yet to materialize. What kind of plan could involve spending every day with Luo Binghe in friendly companionship? The possibility that there is none—that Shen Yuan simply likes him—shines so brightly that Luo Binghe is afraid to look at it. He can’t keep hurting himself in the same ways over and over.
He hates being so dependent on Shen Yuan. None of his discomfort over it is part of his sweet little disciple act. Shen Yuan is housing him, buying him food, and graciously spending all his time teaching Luo Binghe about his city. Shen Yuan saying Luo Binghe is paying him back with cooking is obviously an act to make him feel better. He is desperate to balance the scales of their relationship.
He needles Shen Yuan about how he can make money, but Shen Yuan keeps waving him off. He tells Luo Binghe over and over that it’s impossible for him to work because he doesn’t have official documentation. Some kind of registry in this world of all the people that exist, which is inconvenient for Luo Binghe, who has only existed here for a short time.
But Luo Binghe has his own way of learning about the world. When Shen Yuan bought him the communication device, he showed him how to tap a certain pictogram to bring up his name and connect to his device. That was all the guidance he gave, but Luo Binghe has explored the other pictograms on his own time. One of them brings up a blank field in which he can write any question he has and be presented with an endless wealth of information.
Since Shen Yuan didn’t show it to him, he only looks at it when Shen Yuan isn’t paying attention, or when he’s in his little room late at night. But the things he learns from his device are much more useful than Shen Yuan’s vague explanations.
So he reads, acts his part, and bides his time. He tries not to attach any importance to how his bruises are fading, and for once there are no fresh ones to replace them.
One morning, he wakes feeling drained and fuzzy. He slides in and out of awareness without properly waking for what feels like a long time, and when he does force his eyes open, his limbs are heavy as stone.
His first thought is poison: has Shen Yuan finally showed his hand? He curls over and coughs into the crook of his elbow. But no blood comes out—it’s just a regular cough, like when he used to get sick as a small child. There’s pressure built up in his head behind his nose and eyes, giving him a headache, and his throat is raw. He squints at the morning light, rolls over, puts his face into the pillow and goes back to sleep.
The next time he wakes, it’s to Shen Yuan’s voice coming from beside his bed. “Binghe? Is everything okay? There’s just usually already breakfast, so...”
Luo Binghe makes some kind of noise. He turns onto his side, unearthing himself from the pillow, and pries his eyes open again. “I’m sorry,” he croaks.
“No, you don’t have to apologize, I was just—Binghe, you sound like you have a cold.”
“I don’t get sick.” He hasn’t for many years now. Luo Binghe’s health is generally good, and he does practice his cultivation, although he hasn’t done that since Shen Yuan told him he was doing it wrong.
“Maybe not, but—you probably don’t have any immunity to viruses in this world!” Shen Yuan reaches out and presses the cool back of his hand to Luo Binghe’s forehead. He makes a face, clearly trying not to look worried in case it alarms Luo Binghe, which it doesn’t.
Luo Binghe didn’t realize he knew what Shen Yuan's face looks like when he’s trying not to show that he’s worried. The bruise on Luo Binghe's torso barely hurts these days, but he's tender and sore in the center of his chest. It hurts every time he breathes in, not from his illness, but from how worked up Shen Yuan is getting on his behalf. With his thoughts so disoriented, he can’t remember why he shouldn’t let it mean something. Yuan-ge is babbling away now about how Luo Binghe should learn to nourish his qi properly, and that maybe he can find a helpful e-book. It’s silly. He’s making a fool of himself.
Shen Yuan disappears and comes back carrying a small bottle and a little stick that he makes Luo Binghe hold in his mouth. After a minute, the stick makes a high-pitched noise. Shen Yuan looks at it and makes another face of muted dismay.
Luo Binghe flops back onto the pillow and tries to look pitiful to see if it makes Shen Yuan look more worried. He pushes his hair away from his forehead in case Shen Yuan wants to put his hand there again.
“Yuan-ge,” he says, making his eyes big. “Am I dying?”
Shen Yuan goes gratifyingly pale. “No, no! Binghe, no! It’s just a little fever, you’ll—I’ll—I can give you something for it!”
Luo Binghe closes his eyes. “I feel bad,” he says. Shen Yuan puts his hand on his forehead again. Luo Binghe makes a small noise, and his hand shoots up to grasp Shen Yuan’s wrist and keep it there.
“Poor Binghe.” Shen Yuan sighs. He strokes his thumb across Luo Binghe’s forehead, making little soothing noises. “This must be scary. All alone and sick in an unfamiliar place...”
The sweet little disciple act is working far too well. Obviously Shen Yuan is just playing along. Because if not... then he’s really very manipulable.
“Here,” Shen Yuan says. “I brought you some cold medicine. It tastes gross and it’ll make you sleepy, but it might help you feel better.”
“Okay.” Luo Binghe lets his eyes flutter open pathetically. It’s only a little bit of an act. He really does feel awful.
The blankets are heavy and suffocating, but when he sits up and lets them slip down, the air is unbearably cold on his shoulders. He shivers as he watches Shen Yuan pour a thick liquid from the little bottle into its removed cap.
He drinks it—it’s somehow syrupy, sweet and bitter all at once—and then lies back down. Shen Yuan pulls the blankets back over him. He puts his hand back on Luo Binghe’s forehead. Luo Binghe feels a strange thrill at having trained him to do that.
It’s probably too soon for the medicine to be working, but Luo Binghe is already so tired. He closes his eyes, his head hot and dizzy. After a moment Shen Yuan starts stroking his hair, sighing like Luo Binghe is being troublesome. As if he was the kind of child whose failings only caused people to sigh at him.
“Poor thing,” Shen Yuan mutters.
Luo Binghe keeps his breath even and pretends to be asleep, scared that Shen Yuan will stop, until he drifts off.
When Luo Binghe next wakes, the strong light streaming through the window suggests it’s midday. Shen Yuan is gone from his bedside, which makes Luo Binghe’s heart spasm. In the next moment, he’s angry at himself again.
He was intrigued by the little crack of concern Shen Yuan showed. He wanted to dig his fingers into it. He only meant to test what Shen Yuan might do to make him feel better. He didn’t mean to make himself want it, much less expect it.
But he fell asleep with Shen Yuan’s fingers in his hair, and now Shen Yuan’s absence is unbearable. He clenches his hand in the blankets. No one else in the world would be so kind to him during an illness, even if it’s fake. Even as a trick. No one would even bother pretending to be nice. He breathes through a sudden rush of vertigo.
It’s hard to take. Not being sick, or being inexplicably transported to another realm. He doesn’t care about those things. Not living with Shen Yuan, which is fine. Not even the things he suffered at Cang Qiong Mountain, which he’s used to. It’s the way he can’t trust Shen Yuan that’s so intolerable he wants to peel off his skin. The fact that Shen Yuan is acting like this to him, and he can’t believe in it.
The anger builds inside him, so hot it burns his throat and sinuses. He doesn’t care about the things Shen QIngqiu has done to him, but why can’t he be allowed to feel good when someone is kind?
Shen Yuan appears at the open doorway. “Oh, Binghe,” he says, “you’re awake! That’s good—hang on.” He leaves Luo Binghe to simmer in his conflicted feelings, and then returns holding a bowl of something that steams.
“I really can’t cook,” he says, “so it’s just bouillon packets, but I made some broth. Is—is that okay?”
Luo Binghe stares at him.
The illness is draining him of all his strength. His limbs are so weak, he could barely lift a sword if he had one. It’s too confusing to keep thinking about what he wants and doesn’t want, what he’s allowed to like and what bad things might happen.
His eyes overflow with tears.
Shen Yuan yelps. He rushes over, putting the soup down on the bedside table and hurrying to take Luo Binghe’s face in his hands. “Binghe! What’s wrong?”
Luo Binghe hides his face in the nearest thing available, which is Shen Yuan’s shirt. He’s too busy trying to swallow down the tears to speak. It doesn’t work, anyway. Shen Yuan freezes, hands curling by the sides of Luo Binghe’s head as Luo Binghe starts to sob.
“Um,” he says. “It’s—it’s okay! It’s just a cold, Binghe, you’ll be fine!”
He’s really so stupid. Luo Binghe cries harder. Shen Yuan cautiously brings his arms around him, patting his back. “Please don’t cry,” he says desperately. “I can make better soup.”
After Shen Qingqiu’s first petty cruelty, Luo Binghe told himself that he wouldn’t cry on Cang Qiong Mountain ever again. He took it as a lesson about what kind of treatment he could expect. What he needed to be able to handle to succeed as a cultivator. But he’s not on Cang Qiong Mountain now.
He should pull himself together, but he’s sick and he can chalk it up to feverish delusions. And he can’t stand to make Shen Yuan stop doing what he’s doing: awkwardly patting Luo Binghe’s back and stammering formless words of—comfort?—or possibly just panic.
He just wants it to be real so badly. He wants to believe Shen Yuan is doing all this because he cares. There’s no other reason that makes sense, no sinister scheme that would require Shen Yuan to make him soup when he’s sick.
With his defenses down, the obvious conclusion he’s been avoiding slips through. It doesn’t make sense for it not to be real. Shen Yuan is not some kind of sick mastermind. But Luo Binghe spent the last three years believing with all his strength of will that Shen Qingqiu cared about him, and he can’t survive being wrong again.
Everything since he came here has carried him away, step by step, from that pitch-black night in the shed after the fight. He does not want to end up back there.
He twists both hands in the front of Shen Yuan’s shirt and clings to him, terrified. What if Shen Yuan hates him too? Or what if it’s real now, but Luo Binghe does something wrong and Shen Yuan changes his mind? What if he gets tired of spending time with Luo Binghe? Or if he leaves? What if he meets a nice girl and gets married?
Luo Binghe doesn’t know how he ended up here or how long he’ll be able to stay. If Shen Yuan really cares about him, then this respite from his life, where all he has to do is spend time with Yuan-ge... It might be important. It might be something vital.
“What’s there to cry about, huh?” Shen Yuan scolds him, no real reproach in his voice. “You’re almost a grown man, is there any reason to be so upset?”
“No, Yuan-ge,” Luo Binghe manages. He wipes his face on Shen Yuan’s shirt, letting himself breathe in what Shen Yuan smells like. Then he pulls back, still wiping at his eyes with his palms.
When he glances up at Shen Yuan’s face, Shen Yuan’s eyelashes are suspiciously wet. It’s a punch in the stomach. This is the second time Shen Yuan has shed tears for him. How can anyone like him exist?
“You’ll feel better if you eat something,” Shen Yuan says. “I can order us some food. Is that—are you—?” He rests a hand on Luo Binghe’s shoulder hesitantly, like he’s scared of Luo Binghe falling to pieces. Luo Binghe wishes he’d put his arms around him again.
He might as well take advantage of his moment of vulnerability. He dives forward again and wraps his arms around Shen Yuan, burying his face in his chest.
Like he expected, Shen Yuan clicks his tongue in faux disapproval, but lets him do it. He puts his arms around Luo Binghe with a long-suffering sigh. “Getting upset over some mediocre soup... Isn’t Binghe supposed to be a big strong cultivator, hm?”
“Yes, Yuan-ge.” He would rather be someone who gets to be talked to like this by Shen Yuan. He feels like he died in that woodshed and has been reborn here, except that he didn’t do anything good enough in his life to deserve such a reincarnation.
“Can we watch anime?” he says.
Shen Yuan taps his back lightly. “Of course.”
Shen Yuan orders them food. Once Luo Binghe has calmed down, he notes that he is feeling a little better. The cold medicine helped reduce the pressure built up in his head, and he feels more awake than he did this morning. Although there’s still the shaky too-hot feeling of a fever, and full-on sobbing like an infant didn’t help his sore throat.
He closes his eyes while Shen Yuan puts in an order on his phone. Then he follows him into the other room and curls up on the couch. Shen Yuan scoops up all the blankets from Luo Binghe’s bed and dumps them on top of him.
He’s unsteady and weak from crying, and too fuzzy to follow the plot of Dragon’s Balls right now. Instead, he lets his eyes unfocus and thinks about what just happened.
If he lets himself think of Shen Yuan’s care as real, it ignites something that threatens to consume him. If Shen Yuan is really just this nice person who gets irritated easily over animated pictures, and can’t cook for himself, and likes to show Luo Binghe his favorite parts of the city, and can’t admit when he’s worried—if he’s really that, then Luo Binghe can’t ever let him go.
He has to know the answer to that question once and for all. Because if it’s real, he needs to make Shen Yuan his permanently.