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lonely little heartbeat

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Shen Yuan is driving Luo Binghe out of his mind. If he weren’t so mild-mannered, Luo Binghe would suspect him of being a demon. There is something demonic about how he’s lit a wick deep within Luo Binghe that burns with unquenchable fire.

He’s so kind, so solicitous. Luo Binghe can’t stop himself from testing it, making his desires obvious—the more respectable ones—and watching, captivated, as Shen Yuan scrambles to fulfill them.

The more it happens, the more he craves it. His need for Shen Yuan’s attention grows louder every day, until it begins to drown out the pain and hopelessness he worried he’d feel for the rest of his life. He can’t think of anything but Shen Yuan, and he doesn’t want to.

Every trap he lays, Shen Yuan stumbles into, as tender and naive as a baby goat. Luo Binghe lets his mouth turn down a little; Shen Yuan asks what’s wrong immediately. Luo Binghe idly complains of being cold; Shen Yuan insists he takes his jacket, and lets Luo Binghe wrap it tight around himself and inhale his scent. The best times are when he can see Shen Yuan realize that he’s exaggerating, roll his eyes, sigh, and hand over his jacket anyway. Like there truly are no limits.

Shen Yuan spaces out once on the metro, gazing at some man with broad shoulders. Luo Binghe just says “Ow,” his voice small and pathetic. Shen Yuan’s attention snaps to him instantly: “Binghe, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Fine, Yuan-ge, I just shocked myself on the metal pole,” he lies.

Shen Yuan fusses anyway, rubbing Luo Binghe’s fingers between his palms until he announces that he feels better. And he does.

What he wants most is for Shen Yuan to hold him close again, like he did when Luo Binghe was sick. But he can’t quite bring himself to dig up the feelings that made him so shamelessly needy then. Even though Shen Yuan comforted him, the sight of Luo Binghe crying like a child cannot have endeared him to Shen Yuan. On some level it must have disgusted him, despite his kindness. And deep in a shadowy corner of his heart, Luo Binghe is afraid that a second time would be too much. Finally the thing that pushes Shen Yuan away.

There has to be something. There has to be a boundary to Shen Yuan’s indulgence. The deeper Shen Yuan digs into his heart, the more certain Luo Binghe is that finding that boundary will destroy him.

So he has to find it as soon as possible. He needs to know where it is.

Time passes. Luo Binghe can be patient. He may be going mad with the rush of Shen Yuan’s care, every day a delectable torment, living on the razor-thin edge between ecstasy and despair. But he can endure until it’s the right time.

In the meantime, Shen Yuan gets serious about fixing Luo Binghe’s cultivation. He tells Luo Binghe that there are limits to the power of qi in this world. No amount of cultivating it can make one fly, for example, but people still learn to nurture their qi circulation for health. He takes Luo Binghe to a little bookstore and loads him up with books on this world’s qi development techniques—meditation, breathing, and body forms that he insists Luo Binghe practice.

Shen Yuan is more of a shizun to him than anyone else has been. The boldness of the thought makes Luo Binghe’s breath catch in his throat.

They keep going on their little trips. They see huge markets with stalls heaped with food and fascinating trinkets. Buildings that Shen Yuan calls “historical” that resemble the wealthiest residences in Luo Binghe’s world, leading him to wonder aloud if he might have traveled in time rather than between realms. (Shen Yuan insists that’s not possible, but he goes charmingly red when Luo Binghe pushes for a reason.)

They visit the top floors of buildings so high they defy rationality, and look out together to see all of Shen Yuan’s city laid out before them, glittering and sharp, streaming with people and cars like blood through the veins. A captivating lure indeed. They while away balmy afternoons in huge, beautiful gardens, lavishly flourishing, but lacking anything to rival Shen Yuan’s allure. They even spend a day in a strange park full of huge metal devices that humans strap themselves to so they can be flung through the air—clever inventions from a world where no one can fly. Luo Binghe likes them, but Shen Yuan won’t go near any of the biggest ones. He encourages Luo Binghe to go by himself, but it’s more pleasant to simply walk at Shen Yuan’s side, being fed whatever treats Shen Yuan spies being sold nearby.

He hates being in debt to Shen Yuan. It’s another thing that could sour in Shen Yuan’s mouth when he decides Luo Binghe isn’t worth it anymore. But he likes the thoughtless way Shen Yuan spends money on him.

So he lets it happen, and then pays Shen Yuan back in cash from his personal activities. Shen Yuan doesn’t like that. But it’s become clear that the amount of money he’s spent on Luo Binghe is, horrifyingly, more than Luo Binghe can hope to pay back. Especially if the tally includes housing, food, and the clothes Shen Yuan keeps buying, presenting Luo Binghe with new items that “made me think of you” whenever Luo Binghe leaves him alone too long. So Luo Binghe does what he can.

Shen Yuan says he should be thanking Luo Binghe for giving him a reason to see more of the city. “Honestly, I’ve never even been to a lot of these tourist places,” he admits.

But Shen Yuan doesn’t work. So what on earth did he do all day before Luo Binghe came here?

“Um,” Shen Yuan says when he asks, not meeting his eyes. “Anyway!”

Luo Binghe files that away as another thing to consider.

Shen Yuan has his secrets. There are things he knows about Luo Binghe that Luo Binghe never told him. Questions he transparently evades. Well, Luo Binghe has his secrets too, and he’s better at hiding them.

Time passes. Months. Luo Binghe tries not to think about anything that happened to him before Shen Yuan. If he tries hard enough, devotes himself to this life every minute, he can forget there was ever anything else.

One day Shen Yuan looks over at him, a smile breaking across his face like the gentle light of dawn, and says, “You’re feeling a lot better these days, huh?”

That makes Luo Binghe seize up with fear. Is he feeling better? Doesn’t that just mean there’s more for him to lose? That dark night after he saw Shizun’s true nature... If there was anything he had that night, it was certainty. The knowledge that he could only rely on himself, and the faith in his own determination to keep going. Has he let Shen Yuan weaken him? If he needs it again, will that diamond-hard will be there for him, or has it cracked?

And what would it cost him, to be stripped again to nothing but resentment? After this? Has his skin softened, where it once bore callouses to protect him from Shizun’s beatings?

“Hey,” Shen Yuan says, alarmed. “Don’t look like that, Binghe. I didn’t mean to make you self-conscious.”

“I know.” He forces himself to smile. “I am happier here with Yuan-ge.”

It feels like a lie in his mouth, but only because he can’t bear to acknowledge the truth of it.

He knows that his feelings frighten and confuse Shen Yuan. But still, Shen Yuan wants him near.

Idyllic as it all is, it can’t last. As the weather shifts from spring to summer, the heat rises within Luo Binghe until he can barely think. He spends all his time watching Shen Yuan, cataloguing his reactions, searching obsessively for a motive that makes sense. Sometimes he is consumed by hatred for Shen Yuan for doing this to him. Other times he wants to weep with contrition and gratitude.

It’s almost a relief when something happens. They’re walking through the city together, Luo Binghe hyper aware of how close Shen Yuan’s hand is to his own as it hangs at his side.

Luo Binghe knows something’s going to happen. There’s a sharp scent of danger in the air, a thump of footsteps where they should not be. Shen Yuan is oblivious. Luo Binghe’s heart squeezes, full of sudden anger at a world that dares to be anything other than what Shen Yuan expects.

But Luo Binghe expects it. Even in this new world, he hasn’t been sheltered from its harsh realities. He is not surprised when the feeling of danger sharpens as they turn down a secluded side street, the buildings on either side crowding them in, the summer air muggy and suffocating. He is not surprised at the man who jumps out and tugs him into an even darker alley, twisting his arm up behind his back and pressing a knife blade to his throat. His other arm is trapped under the man’s hold.

The voice in his ear growls, “You’re Luo Binghe? I didn’t think you’d be a kid.”

He’s not afraid. His body and qi have strengthened thanks to Shen Yuan’s help, and the ability to finally train uninjured for months on end. This nobody criminal is not prepared for a trained martial artist, no matter how young.

But Luo Binghe is not prepared for Shen Yuan to yell and throw himself right at the man with the knife.

“Binghe, get away!” he shrieks, and wraps his hand around the blade edge of the knife to yank it away and throw it to the ground.

Shen Yuan shoves Luo Binghe down by the shoulder, and he hits the street. He rolls over, pushing himself up, but by that time the man has Shen Yuan on the ground. He swings his boot into Shen Yuan’s soft body with the force of a club. When Shen Yuan cries out and jerks away from him, he stamps down with his heel.

Luo Binghe’s vision blurs. He launches himself forward, dragging the criminal off Shen Yuan, and bites down on the most sensitive place he can reach: the man’s ear. The criminal screams. Underneath it is a sound that scrapes across Luo Binghe’s rawest nerves: Shen Yuan whimpering in pain. Luo Binghe needs to get to him, not waste time with this. He snaps the man’s neck and lets him fall limp to the ground.

No, better to get him out of sight. If someone comes looking, they should help Shen Yuan, not get distracted by a body. Luo Binghe drags the body deeper into the alley and hides it behind a large garbage receptacle, throwing a few full trash bags on top. He grabs the bloody knife—it’s hinged, so he folds it up and shoves it in his pocket. Then he rushes to Shen Yuan’s side.

Luo Binghe’s not sure how many kicks the man got in before he could get to him. He falls to his knees and curls over Shen Yuan, lightheaded with fear. Shen Yuan’s hand is streaming blood from where he grabbed the knife, and his shirt is filthy from the sole of the man’s boot. He screws his face up with pain, his breath coming in high, harsh gasps.

“Yuan-ge.” Luo Binghe’s voice is wild and high-pitched. He can’t remember the number Shen Yuan told him to call, even though Shen Yuan made him repeat it so many times. His throat constricts with panic, and he has to force out the words. “Who do I call?”

Shen Yuan pants out the number again. Luo Binghe pulls his phone from his pocket, but it’s cracked—he must have landed on it when he hit the ground. But a few other people have wandered down the side street, drawn by the screaming. Luo Binghe looks up at one of them and pleads, “Can you call medical services?” Then he turns back to Shen Yuan, putting a hesitant hand on his hair. When it doesn’t seem to hurt him, he threads his fingers through and holds on, careful not to pull.

“Binghe,” Shen Yuan groans, curling up tighter.

Luo Binghe’s chest convulses. “Yuan-ge?”

“Are you okay?”

That pushes him over the edge, all the tension in him winding so tight it snaps. He clings to Shen Yuan’s hair and starts to sob.

“Don’t cry,” Shen Yuan says weakly. “Please.”

“I won’t,” Luo Binghe says. He cries harder.

“Shameless liar,” Shen Yuan gets out, before grimacing with pain. Luo Binghe wipes his eyes over and over, trying uselessly to keep his vision clear enough that he can look at Shen Yuan, who has proved himself to be the most precious person in any world Luo Binghe’s ever known.

“You tried to save me,” he sobs. “You really tried to save me.”

Shen Yuan huffs. “Of course I did. You’re my responsibility, aren’t you?”

“Yuan-ge!” Luo Binghe dissolves into tears, helpless to do anything else.

When the emergency healers arrive, they insist on taking Shen Yuan to a medical facility.

“Honestly, I’m fine,” Shen Yuan says, in a reasonable approximation of his usual dismissive tone. “A little sore, but that’s all.” But he hasn’t gotten up yet, and when one of the healers puts a hand against his chest, he flinches hard.

“You’re hurting him!” Luo Binghe yells, smacking the hand away.

The healer gives him an exasperated look. “I’m just examining him. But he should go to the hospital and get an X-ray. And that cut will probably need stitches.”

So they take Shen Yuan to the medical facility, and when they get there, they take him away from Luo Binghe for evaluation.

One of the workers pats him on the shoulder. “You’ll be able to see him once he’s settled. You’re his family?”

“Yes,” Luo Binghe says immediately.

“Then you can see him soon. Don’t worry!”

Shen Yuan has a real family living in the city. Luo Binghe knows about them, but he hasn’t met them, and he has no way to contact them.

He waits in a hard, uncomfortable chair in a harshly lit room, his head swimming with dark thoughts and his heart clenched so hard it feels like it’s struggling to beat. He can’t stand that Shen Yuan is hurt, but... he really got hurt trying to protect Luo Binghe? He threw himself at a knife for Luo Binghe? He’s in freefall, the edges of the world he knew suddenly wider than he thought possible.

He waits for hours before one of the physician’s assistants comes to get him. She leads him to a room where Shen Yuan is curled up, his eyes closed. His hand is bandaged. The assistant tells him they’ve given Shen Yuan medicine for the pain that makes him sleep, but that Luo Binghe can wait here until he wakes up if he wants.

Luo Binghe chews on his lip anxiously. What if Shen Yuan wakes up hungry? Luo Binghe should make him something—but then he’d have to leave—and what if it got cold? He can’t serve Shen Yuan cold food, so he’d have to throw it away and make something fresh every few hours. And then he might not be here when Shen Yuan wakes up.

Luo Binghe sits down by the bed, heavy with exhaustion. Shen Yuan got hurt because of the stupid, careless stuff he’s been doing. He needs to do everything right from now on so he can fix it.

Shen Yuan is so much better than he even knew. Precious. Priceless. Irreplaceable. Luo Binghe watches him sleep and aches with devotion.

✿❀✿

Shen Yuan wakes up when the meds start to wear off. The pain is waiting for him as the fuzziness clears. It has his chest in a vice grip, too tight for him to breathe in all the way.

The first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is Luo Binghe. The kid is sitting by the bed, but pulling a chair over seems to have been his only concession to comfort or relaxation. He’s tense, wide-eyed, his bottom lip chewed bloody.

“Yuan-ge?” he says shakily.

Ah... Shen Yuan is... really fond of this child.

“Don’t look like that,” he says. “Such a fuss, you’d think I died or something.”

Luo Binghe makes a choked noise. “Yuan-ge, I wanted to make you some food but they wouldn’t let me use the kitchens here.”

Shen Yuan’s head is floaty from the meds, everything still dreamlike and blurred around the edges. He lets that drift past him, not sure he wants to think about how that conversation might have gone.

Some things are more important, anyhow. Shen Yuan pats Luo Binghe’s hand where it rests on the bed. “You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

“No, I—”

“Ah, that’s all right then.”

But Luo Binghe’s face goes even more strained, like a drum skin stretched too tight. His eyes redden.

“But Yuan-ge got hurt.”

Shen Yuan wants to wave a hand dismissively, but he’s pretty sure he can’t do that without making some kind of noise in pain, which wouldn’t help. “It’s fine.”

They told him he cracked a rib and broke his collarbone. And sure, he got some stitches in his hand. The cut turned out to be a lot deeper than he expected. But it’s not a big deal! A few months and some physical therapy and it’ll be like it never happened! It doesn’t even hurt that much if he doesn’t move at all. He’s not about to tell Luo Binghe the details. The kid worries too much, he’ll blow it all out of proportion.

And besides, doesn’t he already have a live-in cook and housekeeper? This just gives him more of an excuse to be lazy and let Luo Binghe handle everything.

“Yuan-ge...” For some reason, Luo Binghe is still acting like a kid in a sports anime whose beloved senpai got injured right before the big match. A little dramatic, isn’t it?

Luo Binghe’s eyes overflow with tears. “This is all my fault.”

“Hush, Binghe, how could it be your fault? You think everything I do is for you, hm?”

No,” Luo Binghe says, too forcefully. He presses his palms to his eyes and takes in a breath. “I have to tell you something. But you’ll hate me. I have to tell you, but—Yuan-ge, I’m so sorry, okay? You can hate me, but I’m sorry, you have to believe that.”

Honestly. Book characters! Shen Yuan doesn’t know how to tell Luo Binghe that this is the real world, not the climax of some cheap drama.

“I won’t hate you, Binghe.”

“No, don’t say that,” Luo Binghe bites out, frustrated. He drops his hands, his face the picture of despair. “It is my fault. The assailant... I hired him.”

Shen Yuan stares at him. For a moment he wonders if the pain meds are making him hallucinate.

“Huh??”

“I hired him. To attack me. I didn’t think you’d—” He cuts himself off with a wet noise. “I just wanted—I knew that I could take him and I wanted to see... how you’d react.”

“How I would react? If you were attacked??” He would hate it! He hated it!

“I’m sorry,” Luo Binghe says miserably. “I didn’t... believe you. That you actually liked me. I didn’t think you’d get hurt. I thought if I was in danger, I could see if it upset you, and then I would know if you cared about me for real. I didn’t expect...” His breath spasms, the shape of his mouth twisting. "I was wrong."

Shen Yuan gapes at him. He knew Luo Binghe didn’t really trust him, but this is the real world! This is Shanghai! You can’t just hire hoodlums off the street so you can learn a lesson about friendship!

He knew Luo Binghe was still struggling, but he thought this was a heartwarming adopted orphan tale. Bonding! Found family! Maybe they get a dog! He didn’t know this was a crime drama, okay!

“But how—I don’t—” How could Luo Binghe even come up with an idea like this? He’s just a sweet little boy!

“Yuan-ge, I haven’t been working in a shop. I met some people who offered me... opportunities to make money faster.”

“Binghe,” he says faintly. His beloved little sheep?? What on earth has he been doing?

“You don’t need the details,” Luo Binghe says quickly. “I wouldn’t have done it, but—I did try to get a job, but everywhere required identification—”

“Binghe, you can’t get involved with those kinds of people! They’re really dangerous!”

Luo Binghe gives him a joyless smile. “Yuan-ge, criminals are much the same everywhere. They’re dangerous in my world too. It’s okay. I’m fine.”

Shen Yuan turns his head so he can bury his face in the pillow without moving his body. This is really too much. He can’t help but feel a little at fault. He should have exercised more oversight. What kind of responsible person wouldn’t at least investigate where the kid worked? But he thought Luo Binghe just wanted more independence! This is like being called into the principal’s office to find out your kid set the school on fire.

“Yuan-ge, are you angry?” Luo Binghe says, his voice shaking.

Ah, he can’t take that sound! It pierces straight to his heart, more painful than the broken collarbone.

“I’m not,” he says, muffled. “I’m just trying to understand. So, you—you’ve been involved with some kind of—organization. So that’s where you met this guy, and thought he’d be a good person to hire for—that?”

“No, Yuan-ge, I didn’t want to use anyone I knew for that. I hired him on the internet.”

Shen Yuan needs more pain meds for this conversation. He takes a minute to breathe into the pillow. It smells fresh and clean, like a hospital room. It’s soothing. “Okay. How. What website did you use.”

“I don’t... think I should say. If you download Tor, you can—”

“Oh my god, Binghe. Did you...” He takes a deep breath. “Did you hire a hitman off the dark web?”

Luo Binghe hesitates. “Do you want me to answer that?”

“Binghe! Did you use—do you—do you have Bitcoin?”

“Not much anymore,” Luo Binghe says in a tiny, shamed voice.

Shen Yuan turns his head so he can look up at the kid again. Luo Binghe looks even more unwell than when he was sick, his hair disheveled and his face blotchy and streaked with tears.

“Binghe, don’t—just don’t—”

Don’t look so sad. He can’t stand it. It feels like the world is ending. But Luo Binghe’s face falls before he can finish, taking it as chastisement.

“I know,” he sobs. “I’ve been—I’m not a good person. That’s why I couldn’t believe... that Yuan-ge could be so good.”

He can barely get the words out before he’s crying too hard. Shen Yuan panics.

“No, no, that’s not what I—Binghe, please, I’m not mad, please stop—”

If he could move, he would wrap Luo Binghe in his arms. But he can’t, so he pats the space on the bed next to him.

Luo Binghe toes off his shoes and crawls into the bed, gingerly burying his face in Shen Yuan’s chest, careful not to put any pressure on it. He’s crying so hard, it soaks through the paper hospital gown almost immediately. It hurts to raise an arm, but with a lot of effort Shen Yuan manages to maneuver one around Luo Binghe’s shoulders so he can rub his thumb against his back.

“I don’t hate you,” he says softly. “But—you have to stop doing those things. I don’t want you getting involved in anything that could hurt you.”

“But you’re the one who got hurt,” Luo Binghe sobs. “I should have been able to protect you—”

“It’s no big deal, don’t worry about that.”

“But it is! Yuan-ge wanted me to get better at cultivation, and—you’re not a cultivator—so it’s my responsibility—”

When will this child get it through his head? Shen Yuan has been bending over backwards, forwards and to all sides trying to make him happy, okay?

Luo Binghe’s obsessed with this idea that he has to earn his keep. Who taught him that? Certainly not Shen Yuan. He didn’t need Luo Binghe to start a criminal enterprise just to pay him back, or test his loyalty or whatever. He would be happy with Luo Binghe as a cute little shop assistant. No plot twists!

“You don’t have to do anything.” Mortifyingly, Shen Yuan’s voice cracks. Stupid voice, can you leave him alone right now? This is already embarrassing enough to say! “I’m happy to take care of you forever, no matter if you can’t pay me back, or if you don’t get any better at cultivation, or if you don’t want to do the cooking anymore. It doesn’t matter, okay? I’ll just take care of you, so stop crying and stop... investing in crypto, seriously, Binghe, it’s bad news, I heard about it on a podcast, alright?”

Yuan-ge,” Luo Binghe wails. Was that a good wail? Shen Yuan can’t tell. He desperately doesn’t want to make things worse. He doesn’t know what to do except to keep patting Luo Binghe awkwardly. Sorry you had to transmigrate into someone’s care who’s so bad at this, Binghe!

It’s at this point that the nurse enters with Shen Yuan’s next medication dosage. She takes in Luo Binghe curled up on the bed, clinging to Shen Yuan and sobbing his heart out. Shen Yuan gives her a sheepish look, but he doesn’t stop rubbing Luo Binghe’s back.

She smiles. “Your little brother is very dedicated. He refused to move from your bedside until he could talk to you and see for himself that you were okay.”

“Uh.” Actually, it’s probably easier to let that assumption slide than try to explain. “He’s... sensitive. Binghe,” he adds gently, “let go for a second so I can take my meds.”

Luo Binghe nods and sniffles, pulling back. He wipes his eyes on the sleeves of his hoodie. Shen Yuan downs the meds, and Luo Binghe puts his face right back where it was. Shen Yuan sighs.

“Binghe, you’ve learned your lesson, right?” he says once they’re alone again. “You won’t do those things again.”

“I won’t do anything that could hurt Yuan-ge ever again.”

Well, that’s—hang on, completely different from what he asked!

Oh well, there will be plenty of time to hash that out later. And they will! He is not going to be a pushover on this one. Maybe he’s let Luo Binghe get away with a small thing or two, but organized crime and dark web assassins are absolutely out of the question!

For now, he just pets Luo Binghe and tries not to question if all the wetness against his chest is tears, snot or both.

“It really doesn’t hurt too badly?” Luo Binghe says weakly.

“It’s fine.”

“Yuan-ge, I do still want to do all the cooking.”

“Okay, you can.”

As the pain meds start to kick in again, Shen Yuan’s eyes close. He’s drowsy, and dealing with all these feelings is exhausting. At least Luo Binghe is quieting down. Shen Yuan is definitely going to fall asleep; hopefully Luo Binghe will too, and won’t just stare at him in anguish for hours or something.

As he drifts off, though, there’s a familiar chime.

[[Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! Protagonist’s Heartbreak Points reduced by 95%, which qualifies as an acceptable level! The mission has been completed!]]

Ah, at least there’s that. He can’t have done too badly at all this, then, if Luo Binghe found a way to be happy about it. Strangely, Shen Yuan finds himself feeling happier too.

Shen Yuan never had much of a daily routine before Luo Binghe. He didn’t dislike his life, but there wasn’t much to like either. He just existed, eating and sleeping when necessary and filling the rest of his hours with whatever came to mind. He thought it would go on like that forever. Now when he wakes, he thinks about Luo Binghe first, anticipating the day they’ll spend together. Come to think of it... he really likes it.

Luo Binghe is small and light against him, although he’s put on some weight since he showed up in Shen Yuan’s apartment scrawny and bruised. Ah, it’s good he didn’t have to fight that man in the alley, even if he said he could take him—wait, what happened to him, anyway?

Oh, that’s right. Shen Yuan’s thoughts are blurring with sleepiness, but he remembers now. Luo Binghe hired that guy, so he probably just called him off. Shen Yuan sighs and pats him one more time. Luo Binghe’s so good at stuff. He may have gone a little overboard with... all that, but having him around is still... quite nice.

Shen Yuan falls asleep.

✿❀✿

It takes Luo Binghe a little longer to rest. After he calms down, he doesn’t want to leave the fragile aftermath of what happened. Shen Yuan’s forgiveness is hard to believe in. He wants to stay in the midst of it as long as possible.

And he’s never gotten to be so close to Shen Yuan for so long before. He’s never seen Shen Yuan lying next to him in bed, sweet and content with Luo Binghe’s presence. It’s a whisper of something too desirable even to be hoped for. But he wants it anyway, with all the power of a street kid raised on want.

But eventually the hours of agonized waiting catch up to him. The luxurious feeling of warmth and safety—of being comforted for as long as he wants—soothes him into sleep.

When he wakes it’s to the familiar scent of drying lumber, the must and dust of the woodshed where he fell asleep months ago, the early morning sun just starting to peek through the slats, and the sounds of Qing Jing Peak stirring itself for the day.