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lonely little heartbeat

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Luo Binghe sleeps for a day and a half. Shen Yuan spends most of it freaking out, cleaning his apartment, and texting Shang Qinghua, who weirdly sent him a “hey bro is everything okay?” text a few hours after Luo Binghe passed out in his bed.

Luo Binghe crashed into his life again with even less notice than the first time. Shen Yuan can’t get used to it. He never expected to see Luo Binghe again; he had a given role in Binghe’s life, giving him a little extra morale boost for his hero’s journey, and it was complete.

He always knew Luo Binghe was here temporarily, but the System took him back so abruptly that it did make Shen Yuan a little sad. He’d just grown so used to him being around, it was hard to adjust back. But that was Shen Yuan’s fate, after all. Luo Binghe is a novel protagonist, so of course he brought color and activity and life with him, and took it back when he left.

Shen Yuan calls out sick for the rest of the week from the family job his parents finally made him get, and panic-texts Shang Qinghua again. Luo Binghe passed out with all his clothes on. That can’t be comfortable. Shen Yuan should at least take his boots and his belt off, right? And tuck him under the blankets!

But is that weird to do for your bro? Take his belt off? It would seem like Shen Yuan is undressing him, right? He wouldn’t do it while Luo Binghe was awake, so how can it be okay while he’s asleep? But when he thinks about Luo Binghe waking up stiff and sore, he can't calm down!

Shang Qinghua’s response to this is “lol.” Okay, Shang-bro, if you’re not going to fucking help then why text in the first place!

If he can’t take off a belt, he can at least remove Luo Binghe’s sword. That can’t be very nice to lie with. But when he touches the handle, it flashes hot, burning his hand. The heat must be magical, because his hand doesn’t redden or swell, although it takes several minutes to shake off the sting.

Shen Yuan settles on taking off Luo Binghe’s boots, silently begging his forgiveness for touching his protagonist feet. Oh god, not the time to think about that scene with Binghe’s feet.

The other problem is that he put Luo Binghe in his own bed. Which made sense! The guest bed wasn’t made up, and he was panicking with his arms full of heavy half-demon! He just headed for the most familiar bed, okay?

But then Shen Yuan doesn’t want to sleep in the guest bed himself, because what if Luo Binghe wakes up and needs something? He doesn’t know the apartment, so he’d have no idea where to find Shen Yuan!

He ends up making a pile of blankets and pillows on the floor next to the bed and sleeping there, which means Shen Yuan is the one who wakes up with his neck and shoulders aching. Twenty-seven is too old to be doing that kind of thing, huh.

He had vivid dreams about the trips he and Luo Binghe used to go on when Luo Binghe was a teenager. Getting lost on the outskirts of the city. Holding Luo Binghe’s hand so they wouldn’t get separated in a big crowd. Ah, he really was a little fond of that kid back then.

It actually makes him... quite happy to see Luo Binghe again. And to see how well he’s grown up! Of course, Shen Yuan knew from PIDW that Bing-ge was strong and powerful, but it’s different to see it. He takes up so much space in Shen Yuan’s bed, his defined biceps visible even through his robes. And Luo Binghe is wearing something practical for combat, his outer layer short with pants underneath, so Shen Yuan can see how the fabric settles on his calves and thighs as well.

It’s very impressive.

He spends a lot of time sitting on the edge of the bed and just watching Luo Binghe, trying to adjust to his presence. Luo Binghe looks so gentle with his eyes closed and his mouth slack, his long hair spread over the pillow and half-covering his face. It’s nice listening to him breathe, like a white noise machine. Shen Yeah’s eyes start stinging as he looks at him. Allergy season is early this year.

He reaches a hand out to brush Luo Binghe’s hair out of his face, but before he gets there, Luo Binghe’s eyes open. They slide over to Shen Yuan, taking in him sitting frozen with his hand outstretched. But then he groans and closes his eyes again, his brow creasing. Is he in pain?

“Binghe, you’re awake,” Shen Yuan says. “You must be hungry—I’ll go get you something, okay?” He starts to get up, but Luo Binghe’s hand shoots out to grab his wrist. When he turns back, Luo Binghe’s eyes are still closed. His lips part.

“Yuan-ge, stay.”

Shen Yuan sits back down.

Luo Binghe tugs on his wrist, trying to bring him closer. “Lie in bed with me.”

Shen Yuan squirms in his hold. It was one thing to let Luo Binghe snuggle up in his bed when he was a child in need of comfort. It’s quite another to share a bed with a grown man!

A very grown man! Grown in his chest and arms and thighs!

But that was how they left things, wasn’t it? Luo Binghe disappeared from his hospital bed before they’d even finished talking things out. Maybe he feels it was unresolved.

And, well. Luo Binghe is the same person. If Shen Yuan was fine cuddling him then, it’s hard to remember why he shouldn’t do it now. He remembers how tightly Luo Binghe clung to him every time Shen Yuan gave him a hug—yesterday, too.

Of course, it’s different now. Luo Binghe was so lonely as a child, and now he’s been with so many women. He’s certainly had his fill of hugs and affection. But none of those women are here now, so he has to settle for Shen Yuan.

Shen Yuan lets Luo Binghe pull him down onto the bed. He thought Luo Binghe might scoot over a little to make space, but if anything he moves closer, his body pressing against Shen Yuan’s side. The sword ends up sandwiched between them. Luo Binghe grunts, waves a hand, and dematerializes it into nothing. Very fucking cool.

Luo Binghe’s breath evens out as he falls back asleep. Now Shen Yuan is stuck here, like having a cat sit on you. He puts his arms around Luo Binghe, burying his face in his hair.

It’s actually not too bad.

Now instead of just listening to Luo Binghe breathe, he can feel Luo Binghe’s chest rise and fall against him. Shen Yuan slept badly himself, so hugging a combination space heater and white noise machine soon makes him drift off too.

✿❀✿

Luo Binghe wakes up with his face pressed against Shen Yuan’s shoulder, Shen Yuan’s hot breath on his scalp. Shen Yuan is holding him even in sleep.

He feels a little stronger, but recovering from Xin Mo’s backlash is a slow and tedious thing. Still, lying in Shen Yuan’s arms while he gets his strength back is infinitely preferable to the fast solution, so preferable that Luo Binghe is ashamed he ever relied on dual cultivation. He doesn’t even want to think about it here.

It reminds him of when he was sick. How attentively Shen Yuan cared for him. Without question, as though it were natural. Luo Binghe is impossibly lucky to have met him not once, but twice. If his suffering is the price required for this, it has been worth it.

He lies absolutely still, unwilling to disturb the scene, but he can’t stop tears from slipping down his face and soaking through Shen Yuan’s shirt. Shen Yuan stirs under his cheek.

He pulls back, and Luo Binghe is able to gaze at his beautiful, kind face. He’s so pleasing to look at that this alone makes Luo Binghe’s heart clench painfully, and more tears overflow.

“Binghe?” Shen Yuan says anxiously. “Are you hurt?”

“I missed you.”

“Ah...” Shen Yuan’s face tightens with embarrassment. It’s one of his charming qualities that he doesn’t seem to understand how valuable he is. “You’re feeling better though?”

Luo Binghe lowers his eyes, looking through wet, blurry lashes. “Thanks to Yuan-ge’s care.”

“Binghe, I really didn’t do anything...”

Luo Binghe ignores him in favor of taking stock of how they fit together, Shen Yuan fully pressed against him. He slides a hand down to Shen Yuan’s hip. The proximity is disrupting his thoughts, making his heart race and his body hot everywhere it’s close to Shen Yuan. The frenzy he felt when he was racing through Shanghai has not abated.

He wants to be even closer than this. He wants to feel Shen Yuan’s skin against his, get his hands on every part of him. Feel him, touch him, know that he’s really here, that he’s Luo Binghe’s to hold. He wants to put their faces close and let Shen Yuan breathe against his mouth, so he can shudder with relief knowing that Shen Yuan is present and alive. He’s done so many things with so many people, but he never wanted any of them as much as he wants to press his mouth to the little bit of skin revealed where Shen Yuan’s shirt collar is tugged down. The thought makes him aware of how filthy he is, how filthy he’s making Shen Yuan’s bed. And he wants to indulge in one of this world’s greatest wonders—a hot shower—but there’s also a grimy satisfaction in how even Luo Binghe’s disgusting state does not disgust Shen Yuan.

As always, Xin Mo responds to his desires, a pulsing black presence in his head. Even when it isn’t physically present, the sword is always with him, and his resistance to it is lower than usual. It doesn’t make him want anything he wouldn’t otherwise want, but it amplifies his hunger, making it urgent and intolerable. He must take care to suppress it. Luo Binghe doesn’t want to imagine what the darkest iteration of his feelings for Shen Yuan might look like.

Remembering the state Shen Yuan was in when they were last together, Luo Binghe clasps his hands and turns them over. The right hand bears a white line across the palm, a scar barely noticeable unless you’re looking. Luo Binghe strokes his thumb against it. He hates seeing evidence of how he harmed Shen Yuan, but something burns hot in his stomach at the thought of Shen Yuan being permanently marked by their past.

“I should have helped Yuan-ge recover from his injuries,” he says. “I wanted to. I would have taken care of you.”

Shen Yuan pulls his hands from Luo Binghe’s grip, his cheeks tinged pink. He clears his throat. “I should really—get you some water. Tea?”

“All I need is for you to stay here with me,” Luo Binghe says quietly.

He’s been waiting all these years to ask the question, the one he wanted to ask before but allowed Shen Yuan to avoid. He may have been a timid child, after being denied so much for so long, but things are different now. He’s learned to expect that he will get what he wants. He’s learned that not only will people acquiesce to him, but that they will want to. He can’t wait any longer for an answer. He trails the backs of his knuckles along Shen Yuan’s cheek, intoxicated by having so much that he wants close at hand.

“Yuan-ge, I would like you to consider me as a prospect for marriage.”

Shen Yuan stiffens, his eyes growing wide.

“What??”

“I know it’s not an appealing offer. I had hoped to secure more power before presenting myself to you. I have ambitions, but no wealth, no land or assets. I know that you deserve better than what I can give you. But I will work my whole life to be worthy of your regard.”

Shen Yuan’s face is getting redder and redder. “What—that’s—don’t say that about yourself! Anyone would—but I’m a man! And you’re engaged already! To, like, thirty women!”

Shame claws at Luo Binghe’s throat. “Yuan-ge,” he says, his voice shaking. “If it’s your wish, I’ll break all those engagements and gladly be called cruel and inconstant. Or if it’s your wish to have a large household to manage, you will be the first of my spouses, and all others will take your word as mine. Or—or if you’re already promised—I would take a role as your concubine. Anything, anything.” Tears well up once more. “All that I am, and all that I’ll ever be, is yours.”

He shuts his eyes, unable to speak any more. He thought he had nothing to lose by asking, already having lived so long without Shen Yuan, but now that he’s here, he doesn’t know how he could bear rejection.

“Binghe—” Shen Yuan’s voice is panicked. He wipes the tears from Luo Binghe’s eyes with warm fingers. “Don’t cry, don’t cry, I’m—it’s just—I don’t understand? You’re straight!”

“What’s that?” Luo Binghe whimpers.

“You don’t like men! You’re—you could have any woman you want! Every beautiful woman throws herself at you within minutes!”

That makes Luo Binghe start crying for real. He hates remembering how many times he’s betrayed Yuan-ge. How weak he’s been, grasping at pale imitations of intimacy. If that’s what makes Yuan-ge not want him, he couldn’t live with it.

“I’m sorry,” he gets out. “Yuan-ge, I’m so sorry. I wish I could scrub every one of them from my past and be yours alone.”

Shen Yuan takes a long time to respond. Luo Binghe shudders, sure that he’s furious, that he’s weighing Luo Binghe’s worth and finding him wanting.

Finally, Shen Yuan speaks. “What?”

Luo Binghe is starting to suspect they’re not understanding each other. “What?”

“I just, um. When did you turn gay?”

He’s so confused it makes him stop crying. He opens his eyes to meet Shen Yuan’s bewildered gaze with his own.

“What are you talking about?”

“Binghe’s always liked women, so—when did you start liking men?”

Luo Binghe blinks, his eyelashes sticky with tears. “I’ve never liked women? I’ve always liked you?”

Shen Yuan’s eyes grow wide again. “Are you saying this is my fault? I turned—?”

“I—Yuan-ge, I asked you to marry me. You haven’t answered.”

Shen Yuan shakes his head in confusion. “I’m—I just—I’m straight, Binghe!”

Luo Binghe casts back desperately for what Shen Yuan said that meant. “You want beautiful women to throw themselves at you?”

“No! I mean, yes! Well, in theory—not right now, but—”

“Yuan-ge, I can give you courtesans,” Luo Binghe says, mystified. He hates the idea, but if it’s so important...?

Shen Yuan groans, turning his face into the pillow. “I think I need some time to think about this.”

Luo Binghe swallows down a spasm of anger. He has spent the long years reckoning with how important Shen Yuan is to him, how bleak and senseless life feels without him. How can Shen Yuan not know whether he wants Luo Binghe?

He is bad at waiting, not a naturally patient person. He has endured such a long separation only because he had no choice. He wants to force an answer, but if he does so now, it would only be a “no.”

“Please do consider it,” he says.

“Okay. Okay.” Shen Yuan picks the pillow up and puts it over his head. Muffled, he adds, “Did you want tea?”

That touches Luo Binghe. It’s clearly making Shen Yuan fret that he hasn’t had anything to eat or drink. He doesn’t need it, but he remembers how Yuan-ge used to push snacks on him when he was younger.

This evidence of Shen Yuan’s care is enough to placate him. He hasn’t said no, after all. Luo Binghe can be patient when the reward is the only thing worth having.

“If Yuan-ge would like to make it. May I use the shower?”

“Yes,” Shen Yuan says. He’s audibly relieved, even through the pillow, that the conversation has turned to something else. Luo Binghe endures another sting of hurt. He wants to pull Shen Yuan back into his arms, to check if he’s still allowed. Instead he moves to get up.

✿❀✿

Wechat screenshot of SY texting SQH. SY: BRO. Help me. SQH: are you still worried about binghe maybe being a little cold. SY: NO. He. I can’t even say it. It sounds so stupid. Never mind. SQH: ???????

🍜 what is going on over there

🍜 okay i know i was making jokes but you're okay, right? he didn't kill you or anything

Binghe wouldn't kill me!!!! 🥒

🍜 i mean

Shut up shut up everything's fine. Stop talking 🥒

🍜 you messaged me????

I know but I think I must have misheard him or something. Like it doesn't make any sense 🥒

🍜 just tell me what happened. this is already a fictional character who's in your apartment, it can't be that crazy

Okay but if you laugh I'm going to come over there and wring your neck 🥒

🍜 i cannot make that promise

I fucking hate you and I wish we'd never met 🥒

Binghe asked me to marry him 🥒

🍜 ok

I'm serious 🥒

🍜 yeah i believe you

Don't patronize me. I know it sounds made up 🥒

🍜 it really doesn't

Okay so here's what I think. Maybe he doesn't know how to just be friends with someone. Since he's a stallion protagonist. Like for him marriage is like shaking hands, right? 🥒

🍜 dude is this what you said to him

No I said I'd think about it 🥒

🍜 so you're thinking about marrying him?

NO 🥒

🍜 then why not tell him no

🥒 is typing...

🥒is typing...

Stop 🥒

🍜 stop WHAT

You're acting like this is real 🥒

🍜 if he really proposed to you then what do you think it is, bro?

I don't know 🥒

A joke. Or a trick. A misunderstanding 🥒

🍜 okay there is definitely a misunderstanding here

I've been saying that!! 🥒

It doesn't make sense. Binghe could have anyone 🥒

🍜 so you don't think he'd want you? bro, that's really sad

Shut the fuck up. This isn't a self-esteem thing, it's not about me, it's about BINGHE 🥒

He's literally the perfect man 🥒

🍜 he's got tons of baggage and solves every problem with sex, violence or both

Yeah which is so fucking cool of him 🥒

🍜 ...

Anyway I'm straight 🥒

🍜 again, you can just say no

I can't say no to LUO BINGHE 🥒

🍜 if you don't want to marry him then you have to

Shen Yuan closes the app.

✿❀✿

Luo Binghe stays in the shower for a long time. He hasn’t bathed properly for the past five years, just rinsed himself quickly whenever he came across clean water. And even for the two years before he fell into the Abyss, his world had nothing as good as this.

Shen Yuan still uses the same kind of soap. Luo Binghe opens the bottle and holds it under his nose, breathing in the smell that used to cling to Shen Yuan’s skin when he emerged freshly damp and clean, water dripping from the ends of his hair down his jawline.

Luo Binghe has always loved Shen Yuan fresh from the shower, especially right before bed when he would change into his soft sleep clothes. He looked so warm and touchable. It was easy to imagine sharing his bed.

By the time he convinces himself to put the soap down, his chest is tight, and he’s half hard.

Luo Binghe knows the idea of sex is better than the reality. But being here is making his mind run wild again, full of the heady desires of his youth.

He just wants to be close to Shen Yuan. Next to him, under him, inside him. Everything and anything. If only he could open Shen Yuan’s body and fully crawl inside, live in the dark behind his ribcage, soothed to sleep by the thrum of his beating heart.

What would Shen Yuan think, if he knew the kinds of things Luo Binghe wanted? When even the thought of considering him as a marriage prospect alarmed him so much? Luo Binghe leans against the shower wall, the water hot on his face like tears.

He was prepared for Shen Yuan not to say yes immediately. But he didn’t expect the confusing response he got, as if he and Shen Yuan were talking about two different things. Shen Yuan never showed much interest in women the last time Luo Binghe was here. But then again, Luo Binghe’s own experiences are so different now from seven years ago. Did Yuan-ge develop such a taste for women in that time? Does he, too, have a trail of lovers in his wake? Ones he still desires?

“Shifu,” he thinks in Meng Mo’s direction. “Will you sift through his memories for me?” He doesn’t have to say for what. Meng Mo knows more than anyone what Shen Yuan means to him.

“You sure you don’t want to do it yourself?”

Tethered to his own body and consciousness while awake, Luo Binghe can only enter Shen Yuan’s mind in dreams. Meng Mo can do it now. And if there is a string of passionate love affairs in Shen Yuan’s memory... Luo Binghe doesn’t want to see it.

“I’m sure. Don’t hurt him.”

It’s not until he gets out of the shower that he remembers he doesn’t have any of this world’s clothing. He was slipping back into old habits, treating Shen Yuan’s place as his own. But Luo Binghe’s old wardrobe wouldn’t fit him anymore, if Shen Yuan even kept any of it, and Shen Yuan’s probably won’t fit him either. And the clothes that are stained with the filth and rot of the Endless Abyss should be burned. He dries himself off and wraps a towel around his waist to go ask Shen Yuan’s assistance.

Shen Yuan is in the kitchen, standing at the counter and spooning something into a bowl.

“Yuan-ge.” Shen Yuan looks up at him and drops the spoon, splattering tofu pudding across the tile.

“Binghe,” he says in a strangled voice. “You’re naked.”

Luo Binghe can tell when someone is looking at him with lust. Those instincts light up as he watches how Shen Yuan’s eyes track the droplets of water rolling down Luo Binghe’s defined chest. One drips off Luo Binghe’s nipple. Shen Yuan looks faint.

“Ah,” he says weakly. “We’ll have to buy you some clothes, I’m not sure mine will fit.” He can’t take his eyes off Luo Binghe’s body. Heat flares under Luo Binghe’s skin, watching Shen Yuan look at him like that.

Shen Yuan desires him.

It’s all he’s ever wanted, but seeing his unguarded reaction right after Shen Yuan shied away from his marriage proposal leaves Luo Binghe raw, his skin itself thin and fragile, ready to spill blood the instant Shen Yuan is careless with him.

Luo Binghe wants him so much. His attention. His affection. His devotion.

He steps closer, close enough to reach out and put his thumb on Shen Yuan’s chin, just under his mouth. His curled knuckles brush the underside of Shen Yuan’s jaw.

“Yuan-ge will have to take care of me.”

Shen Yuan’s lips part. Luo Binghe moves his thumb to rest over them, stroking Shen Yuan’s bottom lip. He’s getting turned on again, likely visible under the towel if Shen Yuan’s eyes flicked downwards, but Shen Yuan’s gaze is glued to his.

Luo Binghe can’t get over him being real, present and available to touch. Willing. Lust simmers in his stomach.

He leans in, closing his eyes, and presses a lingering kiss to his own thumb over Shen Yuan’s mouth.

Then he pulls back and drops his hand. “If Yuan-ge would allow me to look through his clothing for something suitable...”

Shen Yuan is frozen, flushed all down his neck. “Wh—huh? Yes—of course, Binghe, that’s—fine.”

Luo Binghe ducks his head, as demurely as his teenage self ever did. “Thank you, Yuan-ge.”

He leaves Shen Yuan clutching the kitchen counter behind him.