Actions

Work Header

lonely little heartbeat

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe is willing to die for Cang Qiong Mountain. They saved him from the streets; his life already belongs to the sect, and it’s the only thing of value he has to commit. For all that he’s tried, missing sleep and meals to practice, his cultivation has not progressed. Since Shizun chose him based on his natural potential, the failure must lie in his ability to realize it. He is failing to live up to his promise. Shizun, never a warm man, sours on him every day.

Even so, it stuns him when Shen Qingqiu flicks his sleeve, raises his chin to the Demon Saintess and says, “Luo Binghe, come forward.”

Even as he stumbles forward, sword in a clumsy two-handed grip, he can’t believe it was his own name he heard. It so rarely falls from Shizun’s lips. The surrounding crowd is as silent as the space inside him, holding their breath as one. He tries to ground himself against the cold steel in his hand, the biting mountain air at his throat.

The demon Tianchui rises before him like a great tower. The hammer, despite its heft, is no greater a weapon than the demon’s massive limbs, each large and heavy enough to kill even without cultivation. The spikes covering his armor glisten wickedly.

A whole mountaintop of people. A mountaintop of witnesses. There were startled murmurs when Shen Qingqiu called for Luo Binghe, and Ning Yingying cried out in protest, but even she is quiet now. Every disciple on this peak is willing to stand by and watch Luo Binghe die on Shen Qingqiu’s command.

Luo Binghe is accustomed to being singled out. Shen Qingqiu does not dirty his own hands. He’ll simply wave his fingers and watch, face placid and cool as a winter lake. After two years, Luo Binghe is quite used to it: the sawdust smell of the woodshed, light barely reaching through the slats; the taut, sharp sound of being hit. It’s often cold on Qing Jing Peak, but when he curls up on the floor after, it burns hot everywhere he’s been struck. He should be able to use his cultivation to heal fast. Since he can't, he works hard to conceal his injuries.

That is Qing Jing Peak. Shizun’s will becomes the will of his disciples. It’s natural, no different from how rain follows from the swelling of the clouds.

This is different. They’re on Qiong Ding Peak now, and the majority of the disciples here are not from Qing Jing. They don’t know Luo Binghe or his poor cultivation, or how he never meets Shizun’s inscrutable standards. And they are facing demons who threaten the prestige of the sect. Shen Qingqiu is standing by to watch Luo Binghe be hurt, not in discipline by his own subordinates, but by an enemy of Cang Qiong Mountain. And the complacency of the crowd proves that it’s his right. They may find it unfair, uncouth even, for Shen Qingqiu to send out such a young, untested student. But they will not object. Luo Binghe’s death is Shen Qingqiu’s to dictate.

He may be inadequate, troublesome, disgusting in Shizun’s eyes, but in his foolishness, he never once expected public execution.

Tianchui hefts his hammer, and Luo Binghe mirrors the action with his sword.

Once the battle starts, there’s no more time to think. The blows come fast and hard, and even someone small and agile like Luo Binghe cannot dodge all of them. He can’t even think of fighting back. His qi responds sluggishly to his call, overtaken by the panic that trembles through his body. A swing of the hammer knocks him flat on the ground. He glances back to the little clump of Qing Jing cultivators. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t look malicious or triumphant. He looks bored.

That hits Luo Binghe harder than Tianchui. He spares enough attention to roll out of the way as the hammer crashes to the ground at his side, and scrambles to his feet while Tianchui pulls it back up. His sword jerks unsteadily in his grip.

He’s been making excuses for Shizun all this time, telling himself that Shizun is simply strict. That it’s all been some kind of test he keeps failing. Reminding himself that someone as revered as Shen Qingqiu, entrusted with a twelfth of the world’s greatest sect, must be acting on deep wisdom. Wanting to believe that what Shen Qingqiu does to him is education. An act of care.

His shizun sent him out here to die, and he’s barely even watching.

Luo Binghe snaps. All the anger he’s kept tight under his skin when Shen Qingqiu beats him spills over, a buried spring deeper than he thought possible. Rage tightens his muscles and swells his mind, dark and heavy like he hasn’t felt since he was kept from bringing his dying mother her congee. He turns back to the demon, all fear extinguished. His qi has always been unreliable, but now it burns so hot in his veins that he knows he could burn the world to dust. He raises his sword and slashes it diagonally in the air, sending a wave of qi at the demon strong enough to make him stumble backward.

There must be scores of people here: demons, Qiong Ding disciples, Xian Shu, Qing Jing, the Demon Saintess herself, Ning Yingying, Shen Qingqiu. None of them will lift a finger to save him. The lofty world of the immortal cultivators has the same rules as the streets he wandered as a child: Luo Binghe can only rely on himself. And he will not give up.

The battle ends quickly after that. Later, Luo Binghe barely remembers how he did it. When awareness of his surroundings returns to him, everyone who had been standing by to watch is cheering for him. Only Shen Qingqiu barely spares him a glance as he finishes chasing off the demons.

Luo Binghe is the hero of the day, the only disciple to win his battle. But he ends up back in the woodshed, curled up on the floor as always, shivering as the energy of the battle drains away from him.

How could he have trusted Shen Qingqiu? It was stupid to make such a mistake. He squeezes his eyes shut, all the anger still coursing through him turning inwards towards himself. It pools in the center of his chest, his body curling around the weight of it. Throughout his life, the only person who’s ever been truly kind to him was his mother. Was he so spoiled by her love that he forgot the rest of the world? He thought immortal cultivators would embrace him like a parent?

Why hadn’t it occurred to him before? The reason he can’t seem to do anything right is because there will never be a right way, not for him. There is no correction he could make to his form, no talisman he could study that would make up for being Luo Binghe. It’s a simpler explanation than the ones he came up with to rationalize Shizun’s behavior. Shen Qingqiu simply hates him, and no one cares enough to stop it. It’s as clear and sharp as a knife’s edge. He puts his fingers in his hair, making his body as small and tight as possible to try and contain the hurt that feels as big as the twelve peaks.

If there’s not going to be a hand reaching out to him in kindness, then he has no choice but to keep fighting. The anger of the battle ate up every part of him, obliterating him as thoroughly as it defeated Tianchui. And yet it protected him more than Shen Qingqiu ever has.

If he won against Tianchui today, then there is nothing inside or outside of him that he can’t fight. He just has to be prepared to do it on his own.

✿❀✿

[[Ding! System automatically initiated. Activation code: “Fucking hell, poor kid.” Welcome, User 001! This System operates in line with the design concept: THEN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. We hope to provide you with the best possible experience. It is our sincere wish that you can fulfill your desire and complete the mission A Lost Lamb in a Cruel World: Mend the Protagonist’s Broken Heart! Please work hard to complete your quests to reduce Luo Binghe’s Heartbreak Points by at least 95%. We hope you enjoy your experience!]]

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.

Chapter Text

When Luo Binghe next wakes, it’s so early that the night sky is just barely turning gray near the horizon. He shifts onto his back, taking in the strange way the bed gives under him and the unfamiliar smell of this dwelling, mellower than the sawdust he usually awakens to.

So he’s still here. Whatever process snatched him away has not been reversed, and whatever Shen Yuan’s nefarious motives, he allowed Luo Binghe to sleep through the night unharmed. More than unharmed—his various wounds ache less than they did yesterday, and his body is strangely light, free from the accustomed pains of sleeping on a hard wooden floor.

There is one wound from the fight that is still raw. Shizun’s dispassionate face when Luo Binghe looked to him. As though Luo Binghe’s certain death was beneath his notice.

But even that does not tear through him as acutely as it did the day before. Perhaps only because Shizun is so far away. In this little room, surrounded by soft, pillowy bedding that smells of rare citrus, the pain is dulled. Padded. He turns his mind from it before it can go sharp again.

Between him and his shizun, there is nothing salvageable. But Shen Yuan seems more malleable than the icy, untouchable Shen Qingqiu. Luo Binghe is starting to regret being so hostile the day before.

When he joined Cang Qiong, he believed that if he was dutiful, respectful, and diligent in his training, he would eventually—if not succeed—at least not fail. It’s not the survival strategy he learned on the streets; it’s what his mother taught him. Even when it doesn’t work, to continue trying—to hold back the animal desire to scream and hit back when he’s pushed—is respectful to her memory. He has no idea what Shen Yuan wants from him, but it can’t hurt for him to see Luo Binghe in his best light. So why not act like a dutiful disciple? Why not figure out what Shen Yuan wants, and give it to him? It’s better than trying to fight. Until he knows why he's here, there’s no point in antagonizing his captor.

After all, he’s in no hurry to return to Cang Qiong Mountain. There’s no one and nothing there that he longs to return to. His heart squeezes once, thinking of Ning Yingying, but—it’s not enough. His fate here may be uncertain, but certain suffering awaits him there.

Satisfied with this plan, he gets out of bed to take stock of Shen Yuan’s dwelling.

He looks out the window first. The shock nearly knocks him to his knees. Despite how strange Shen Yuan’s rooms are, he still hadn't been sure if Shen Yuan was telling the truth about this being a realm separate from Luo Binghe’s. But the view out the window is entirely alien, the shapes and colors like nothing Luo Binghe has seen. The room he slept in is high off the ground, surrounded by even taller buildings, all oddly squared and sharp. The buildings are covered by immaculate panels of what Luo Binghe realizes is glass, as a number of them are lit from behind, competing with the lightening sky.

Luo Binghe thought Shen Yuan, wealthy as he clearly is, would live in a secluded compound. Since he hasn’t seen any servants, he believed he and Shen Yuan to be the only people close by. But he can see into some of the buildings around him, revealing a shocking number of people beginning their days: to his sides, higher up, lower down. He’s suspended in a moving, breathing, active hive of humanity. Looking down makes his head reel with vertigo—it’s not any higher than Qing Jing Peak, but nowhere on the mountain has he seen such a sheer drop. More people trickle over the streets, even at this early hour, alongside strange vehicles that glisten in the yellow lamps.

Luo Binghe stands there until the sun has nearly made it over the horizon, the orange at the sky’s edge bleeding away. There’s an endless amount to see; the sheer amount of activity is overwhelming. But Shen Yuan may wake soon, and Luo Binghe doesn’t want to waste this opportunity to look around.

The door to Shen Yuan’s room, where Luo Binghe first woke up, is closed, snoring audible even through the wood. Besides that, there is a sitting room with—Luo Binghe tests it—very comfortable, lavish furniture, all as high-quality and expensive as the bed. He finds what seems like a kitchen, with a table, a basin for water and some familiar cooking tools, although he can’t see where to light a fire. Another small room is austerely decorated with another basin and a tub wrought in white porcelain.

The front door is locked, but unlocking it proves simple. He doesn’t have a key for the other side though, and Shen Yuan might be displeased if Luo Binghe is gone when he wakes up. Or there could be a ward Luo Binghe can’t sense. But he pokes his head out to see that Shen Yuan’s quarters are situated in a long corridor lined with other doorways. Servants’ rooms? Shen Yuan’s family?

Luo Binghe goes back to his room and, with nothing more pressing to do, turns to the stack of books Shen Yuan left near the bed.

The library at Qing Jing Peak does not store novels. Luo Binghe’s mother never owned any either. These look particularly lurid, and Luo Binghe opens the first one with a scoff. Frivolous nonsense.

He forgets to look up again until the sun is well risen.

✿❀✿

Shen Yuan knocks on the frame of the open door. Luo Binghe startles, nearly dropping the book he’s reading. His forehead creases with annoyance, but smooths over almost immediately as he looks up at Shen Yuan.

“I liked that one when I was your age,” Shen Yuan says. It’s a time travel harem drama: every time the protagonist goes through the time loop, he acquires a new woman. Embarrassing trash, but Luo Binghe can’t judge him. He’s the protagonist of an even more embarrassing novel!

It’s strange to wake up to a fictional kid in his guest room, but perhaps Shen Yuan should find it stranger than he does. He reads so many novels that sometimes novel plots seem more possible than real world events.

He expects Luo Binghe to sulk at being interrupted—honestly, his teenage prickliness is a little bit cute—but instead Luo Binghe smiles up at him sweetly. “Thank you for lending it to me, Yuan-ge.”

Shen Yuan’s insides go soft and sticky. What a polite child! So endearing! It makes you want to pinch his cheeks. Ah, he’s behaving like an old man, wanting to coo and tell Luo Binghe how big and strong he’s getting these days.

“Did Binghe sleep well?”

Luo Binghe nods. “Yuan-ge,” he says. “This student is too stupid and didn’t understand well enough yesterday. What is my purpose here? What would you like me to do?”

Great question! Shen Yuan checks in with the system. It seems that nothing he’s done so far has brought down Luo Binghe’s Heartbreak Points. How about an intro quest or something? A tutorial? How does Shen Yuan earn EXP on this thing?

[[Good morning, user!]] the System chirps at him. [[Beginner quest Protagonist Skill Grind is available. Completing this quest will entitle the user to a special luxury package! Do you accept?]]

Sure, sure. Shen Yuan gestures affirmatively at it.

Immediately, a task list appears before him.

PROTAGONIST SKILLS:

☑ sleep in a modern bed

☐ take a shower

☐ use a phone

☐ use a stove

☐ watch 30 minutes of television

☐ ride public transportation

Shen Yuan internally rolls his eyes. So basically, just show him around. He was going to do that anyway! This is supposed to cheer Luo Binghe up?

“Ah, Binghe, you don’t have to do anything,” Shen Yuan says. Fuck, he used his first name again. Shen Yuan was up late last night rereading the first 60 chapters of Proud Immortal Demon Way for information, and skimming the smattering of forum threads that have sprung up. Most of the comments on the novel chapters are pretty flavorless, just “Thank you for the chapter” or complaining that it’s taking so long to introduce more women. There just isn’t that much interest in a novel that so far is just about a kid losing his mom and being bullied in detail by every minor character, although some people are already into the Luo Binghe/Ning Yingying CP. Shen Yuan must have been up too late, though, because his eyes kept watering again while reading about all of Luo Binghe’s torments. Annoying!

Luo Binghe doesn’t seem to mind the too-casual address. He bows his head politely and says, “I am a worthless youth of no great upbringing, but I have some skill at preparing food. I would be happy to—”

“No, no, you don’t have to do that,” Shen Yuan says quickly. Well, using a stove is on the list, so he can show Luo Binghe how to do it, but he’s not going to have a teenager cook for him. How embarrassing. “Binghe, you believe that I didn’t kidnap you, right?”

“Of course, Yuan-ge.” Ah, he’s being so much sweeter than yesterday. It’s hard to suspect such a pleasant child of bullshitting, but suspect him Shen Yuan does. Well, if Luo Binghe is the protagonist, doesn’t Shen Yuan get to have a character role too? This is his opportunity to act like a wise old mentor and impart some of his knowledge.

“Do you remember what I was saying yesterday,” he says, “that people are... brought together for a reason?”

Luo Binghe nods. “Yuan-ge speaks of the will of fate.”

“No, I—” Wait. “Yes, basically that. I have no control over the force that brought you here, and I don’t know how long it will take for... the winds of fate to blow you back home. So until then, you should learn what you can about this world. Okay?”

Luo Binghe takes a moment to absorb this. “Then... Yuan-ge will be my teacher?”

Shen Yuan waves a hand thoughtlessly. “Sure.”

[[Ding! Protagonist’s Heartbreak Points reduced by 0.5%. Congratulations!]]

Congratulations over such a pathetic stat... seems a little sarcastic. Is the System mocking his lack of progress? Shen Yuan ignores it.

“You’ll let me show you around, then?” Luo Binghe nods eagerly.

✿❀✿

Shen Yuan speaks to Luo Binghe as to a brainless child. Of course he plans to learn everything he can about his surroundings as quickly as possible.

But it doesn’t feel insulting to be treated this way. No one has ever bothered guiding Luo Binghe so gently, certainly not when he was a child. Certainly not his teacher.

Shizun’s disdain for him has been painful for years, but what he’s freshly lost is his respect for the man. It’s only now that he realizes there was something comforting in believing that Shizun was someone to be admired, even if he was cruel to Luo Binghe personally. The revelation that he’s nothing but a petty bully has left Luo Binghe hollow.

He lets Shen Yuan “give him a tour of the apartment,” taking him around to all the rooms he already examined in detail. But he listens like a diligent student. Even though he’s seen everything, he likes hearing Shen Yuan explain it. Overexplain it, really, like he’s anxious to make sure Luo Binghe has every possible question answered.

He has a nice voice. Luo Binghe watches him more than he looks at the apartment.

This realm holds many unfamiliar objects and devices. Their workings are unknowable, but their functions are fairly straightforward, and it doesn’t take Luo Binghe nearly as long to grasp them as the amount of time he lets Shen Yuan soothingly tell him about everything.

Shen Yuan leaves him alone to bathe in the bathing chamber. Just as Shen Yuan showed him, it’s a simple matter to release hot water stored in the walls, a convenience so luxurious it feels illicit. Luo Binghe tries to use as little water as possible, not wanting to take advantage. It unsettles him to be naked, faced with the lurid colors of the bruise on his torso, still dramatically dark despite beginning to heal.

Although Luo Binghe is nearly Shen Yuan’s height, his childhood has left him much scrawnier. Shen Yuan pushes clothes on him that he claims to have grown out of, but they’re still large on Luo Binghe’s half-starved frame. The styles are strange—not what Luo Binghe would think of as outerwear, but with the images on the shirt and the stiff, structured fabric of the pants, they’re clearly not intended as undergarments either.

Shen Yuan studies him intently in the too-big shirt and pants before letting out a strangled “...Adorable.” Luo Binghe flushes warm. Strategically, there’s no reason to object to Shen Yuan dressing him however he pleases, which is good, because he doesn't intend to.

“Yuan-ge is being very generous,” he mumbles. His discomfort is not feigned—if there’s one thing he really hates, it’s being indebted, especially when he doesn’t understand the motives behind the favor.

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” Shen Yuan says. He pats Luo Binghe on the head and then ruffles his hair affectionately. Luo Binghe’s heart leaps into his throat. He’s warm all through from the hot bathing water and his skin is nearly tingling.

He stares up at Shen Yuan, aware that the pleading must be naked on his face, but he can’t help it. Shen Yuan pats him one more time for good measure and says, “Let’s go get some breakfast!”

✿❀✿

Shen Yuan hurries the kid out the door, deeply embarrassed. Luo Binghe’s a teenager! He probably doesn’t want to be patted like a little kid! It’s just that he’s such a good kid, so sweet and noble, like a protagonist should be!

He herds Luo Binghe in the direction of the FamilyMart on the corner to get some coffee and buns for breakfast. The terrible thing is, Shen Yuan already wants to ruffle his hair again! It’s just so ruffleable.

But Luo Binghe doesn’t seem annoyed. He’s just taking in his surroundings solemnly, his gaze sharp. Shen Yuan remembers from the book that Luo Binghe is a fast learner, which is why his scummy no-good shizun had to sabotage him to stop him developing his cultivation in leaps and bounds. When they get to the store, Luo Binghe stares at all the snacks like he’s trying to memorize them for a pop quiz.

“Ah,” Shen Yuan says. “Is—is there anything you want to try? We can get whatever you want.”

Luo Binghe shakes his head, but he’s still looking. Shen Yuan’s heart aches. He’s a poor street kid, and almost everyone has been nothing but cruel to him. The details are fresh in Shen Yuan’s mind from last night’s reading binge.

But the protagonist is supposed to suffer in silence, right? Because if he’s too entitled, no one will root for him. Luo Binghe is probably, like, narratively prohibited from asking for Doritos.

“I’ll just get a few things,” Shen Yuan says, “and you can try them later if they look interesting.” He gets the buns and coffees—decaf for Luo Binghe, he’s a growing boy, caffeine might stunt his development!—and grabs one of every snack food. They leave with six bags of snacks, Shen Yuan carrying three on each arm.

He watches Luo Binghe to see if he’s cheered up at all, but although Luo Binghe thanked him police for the food, he’s still silent and lost in thought as he chews on his bun. The System doesn’t give him any credit either. So jokingly agreeing to be Luo Binghe’s teacher brought his Heartbreak Points down an infinitesimal amount, but buying out the snack aisle does nothing? Who can be gloomy about snacks?

Well, it was only the first stop. The System also told him to take Luo Binghe on public transportation somewhere. Where would a xianxia character want to go in Shanghai?

It probably won’t be interesting for Luo Binghe if they go somewhere too traditional, like a garden or a temple or the Old City. He lives in Ancient China already, and not even the real one, but the stereotypical one! It probably looks just like all the tourist attractions! They just ate, so they can’t go to any famous restaurants or food markets. And something like a museum feels dangerous. How much real world knowledge can Luo Binghe bring back to PIDW without fucking up the book?

Maybe the zoo? If Shen Yuan were in a new world, he’d want to see all the coolest animals right away. “Let’s, um, go back and put all this food away,” he says. “And then we can go somewhere you can learn more about this world. If you want?”

Luo Binghe nods and they start to walk back, but after a minute he says, “Would it cost money?”

“What?”

“I haven’t seen Yuan-ge use any coins,” Luo Binghe says, “but I think... isn’t Yuan-ge spending quite a bit of money?” Ah, the protagonist doesn’t know about Alipay.

“It’s no problem,” Shen Yuan says quickly. “These things really aren’t expensive.”

But Luo Binghe’s cute little forehead only furrows deeper. “I don’t have any money,” he says quietly. “Certainly not of this world, but not... not of my world either. So I can’t...”

Oh shit, does Luo Binghe think Shen Yuan expects to be paid back? Shen Yuan feels awful.

“Don’t be silly, of course you don’t, you’ve never been here before. It’s no trouble at all.”

Luo Binghe bites his lip, looking miserable. Shen Yuan’s guts seize with panic. He needs Luo Binghe to stop making that face right now.

“Yuan-ge must let me cook for him later, or—Shizun has never permitted me to tend to his house, but I used to take care of the modest place where my mother and I lived. I could—”

“No, no,” Shen Yuan says. “Binghe, it’s fine.” What kind of monster would he be to make a kid do chores for him to earn food and shelter?

Luo Binghe’s backstory is brutal. He’s not used to people offering him things for no reason, even small things like what Shen Yuan is doing, which is nothing special. Shen Yuan wants him to know he doesn’t have to give anything in return. This is the real world, not some crapsack novel; it’s normal to help out a child with nowhere else to go.

But saying so only seems to discomfit Luo Binghe further. His cute little face twists up with worry. Shen Yuan’s panic gets louder.

“If—if you really want to...?” he says hesitantly. It seems unlikely, but Luo Binghe’s expression instantly relaxes. Well, okay! “You may cook,” Shen Yuan concedes. “But only if you really want to.”

“I do,” Luo Binghe insists.

“But the place I want to take you is free,” Shen Yuan lies shamelessly.

The tension in Luo Binghe’s stance relaxes a little further. “All right.”

-

The rest of the day goes smoothly. Almost disappointingly so. Shen Yuan was looking forward to showing off all the cool conveniences of the modern world, but Luo Binghe is difficult to impress.

Shen Yuan himself rarely uses public transportation, so he has to spend an embarrassingly long time looking at the metro map, but he does manage to get them to the Shanghai Zoo. He’s prepared for questions—about the trains, or cars, or electric lights—but Luo Binghe just absorbs it all. He’s an intense kid, smart and thoughtful and serious. Shen Yuan finds that he rather likes that about him. It’s kind of like watching your kid in a school production, the little beat of pride he gets when Luo Binghe picks something up terrifyingly quickly.

But even Luo Binghe can’t fail to be impressed by all the animals. The PIDW world does have its regular animals as well as monsters, but Luo Binghe, a city orphan who moved to a secluded mountain, has never seen most of the exotic ones. They see big cats playing, lemurs leaping from branch to branch, pandas drowsing in the sun, elephants, wolves, bears, and all kinds of monkeys. Luo Binghe doesn’t say much, but his eyes grow wider and more dazzled with every exhibit. After ascertaining that Shen Yuan’s knowledge of real world animals is limited, he reads every plaque or sign avidly for more information.

It doesn’t budge his Heartbreak Points, so it may not be healing Luo Binghe’s pain. But at least he has fun.

On their way back to the apartment, Shen Yuan buys Luo Binghe a phone and SIM card. Luo Binghe is probably going to want to explore on his own at some point—the very idea gives Shen Yuan heart palpitations, but ah, they do have to leave the nest!—and at least he can give Luo Binghe a way to contact him. If Luo Binghe has to learn to use a phone anyway, he might as well have his own. "Very cheap," he assures Luo Binghe, waving it at him, although honestly he just grabbed the latest model without even looking at the price tag.

The last stop they make is at the small supermarket in his neighborhood. Luo Binghe has his heart set on cooking dinner, and Shen Yuan doesn’t have much food in the house, so he figures Luo Binghe can pick out whatever he needs.

It’s a mistake. The array of foods at the supermarket affects Luo Binghe more than seeing polar bears did. He stares at the produce section in wordless awe, and his face goes tight and pinched around the eyes.

“Yuan-ge can’t—” he stammers. “I can’t ask—I—”

“Binghe!” Shen Yuan swats him lightly on the shoulder. “Stop that! This isn’t a gift, you’re cooking the food for us. We have to eat, don’t we?” Luo Binghe swallows and nods reluctantly.

They spend an hour in the store, Luo Binghe insisting on examining every ingredient new to him: imported produce, pre-made sauces, instant broths, dried noodles, spices. In the end, everything he picks out—vegetables, meat, and four or five flavoring ingredients—could have come from Ancient China after all. Maybe he’s nervous to branch out.

Shen Yuan shows him how to light the stove and sits down to watch him cook, in case he needs help. But it doesn’t take him long to figure out, and he easily handles Shen Yuan’s knives, which are sharp from being so rarely used. Shen Yuan gets that school play feeling again: Luo Binghe is so smart and talented, surely no one could match up to him! And the food he makes is heavenly.

Desperate to make him look happier, Shen Yuan compliments him profusely. But Luo Binghe only gets that stretched-thin look again and blinks too many times before bowing his head and saying, “I am very glad that Yuan-ge is pleased.”

What the hell! If Luo Binghe was only a year or two younger, this might be easier. But he’s so moody, exactly like a modern teenager who spends all his time sulking and thinking dark thoughts.

Shen Yuan thought it would be easy. Everyone in Luo Binghe’s life is so cruel to him; surely a little approval and affection is all he needs to blossom? Why isn’t it working? Shen Yuan’s best option is to finish up his tasks from the System and hope it gives him something useful as a reward. “Listen, Binghe,” he says, clearing his throat. “It’s time you learned about anime.”

He sits Luo Binghe down on the couch and spreads out all the snacks they bought on the coffee table so they can graze while they watch Gundam SEED. “You can try anything you want,” he says encouragingly.

Luo Binghe slants him a dark look. It’s the most suspiciously he’s looked at him since their first interaction, when he was convinced Shen Yuan kidnapped him.

“Why?” he says.

“Huh?”

Luo Binghe’s hands clench into fists where they rest on his knees. “Why is it so important to you for me to eat these things? Or—to learn about your strange creatures, or your communication devices, or gundams? What is it that you want? I don’t get it.” Frustration bleeds through his voice, like he’s angry at Shen Yuan for offering him cheap convenience store snacks. “It’s clear that you’re not lying about this being a different realm. No one could fake these kinds of marvels. But if you’re telling the truth that you did not bring me here intentionally, then we have no connection. You have no obligation to—feed me and house me and entertain me.”

He lets out a breath in a frustrated huff. “I wish you would just—You’ve rendered me all kinds of favors. I can do whatever it is you want. I would rather know than wait to find out.”

Shen Yuan tried to tell him the truth before: that they were brought together so Shen Yuan can help him. Although he didn’t want to be like, “It’s because your life is such a pile of garbage that the universe had to intervene to stop readers from jumping off a bridge.”

He does have a task, so he does have ulterior motives. He’s trying to cheer Luo Binghe up because he’ll get points for doing so! That’s his main motivation. But also, even the world’s most heartless man wouldn’t just abandon a poor abused kid in an unknown world, especially someone as sweet, hardworking, talented, admirable and adorable as Luo Binghe! He just doesn’t want to say that and watch Luo Binghe’s face go all conflicted and strange again. It gives him heartburn.

“Binghe thinks highly of himself,” he says dismissively. “I haven’t inconvenienced myself at all. I merely went on an outing I intended to go on anyway. But Binghe’s skills in cooking far outstrip mine. To buy food and be repaid by service is a sensible arrangement. It’s selfish of me,” he insists. “I would like to keep you here so you can cook for me more conveniently, that’s all.”

Luo Binghe doesn’t respond to that. But after a tense moment, he cautiously reaches for a bag of sesame rice crackers.

Yes! An incredible victory for Shen Yuan!

He’s still riding that high half an hour later when the System interrupts the show with one of those annoying cellphone chimes. [[Congratulations! User 001 has completed the Protagonist Skill Grind!]]

PROTAGONIST SKILLS:

☑ sleep in a modern bed

☑ take a shower

☑ use a phone

☑ use a stove

☑ watch 30 minutes of television

☑ ride public transportation

[[The user is now entitled to a special luxury package. Would you like to activate it now?]]

Okay, they did all that, but none of it reduced Luo Binghe’s Heartbreak Points! So what was the point of this stupid mission? The luxury package better be good. “Yes, yes, activate it.”

[[You have chosen to activate Montage Mode. In Montage Mode, you can increase the pacing to skip over insignificant events until the next major plot point. The user's subjective experience will not be affected. Well done! Please continue to work hard!]]

What the hell.... This System is useless.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

To Shen Yuan’s relief, Luo Binghe bounced back quickly from his cold. Still, it’s weird that it happened—why would a stallion novel protagonist get sick? Probably just because he’s in the real world now. Otherwise, a vulnerable situation like that would only happen to a protagonist if it’s helping him get closer to a girl!

The weirdest part is that it caused the biggest reduction in Heartbreak Points so far. A whole twenty-five percent! The points dropped in fits and starts, as if hesitant, while they were just eating takeout and watching Dragonball Z. Does Luo Binghe like anime that much? Or maybe he felt so sick, he forgot to be sad? Either way, Shen Yuan will take it.

Luo Binghe has had more energy since then, although some effects of the cold have lingered. He’s been clumsier these days, tripping and falling against Shen Yuan more than once. Once, he tripped so hard he had to put his arms around Shen Yuan’s waist and nearly faceplant into his chest to keep from falling! Shen Yuan told him sternly to be more careful, but Luo Binghe didn’t seem too contrite when he said, “Yes, Yuan-ge.”

He’s also started to be more independent. Ah, what a good kid. He picks things up so fast, Shen Yuan doesn’t have to worry too much about him going out by himself, especially knowing he has his phone charged and knows how to use Baidu Maps.

Shen Yuan has had the money conversation with Luo Binghe a thousand times, so he’s not surprised when Luo Binghe tells him over dinner that he’s been looking for a job. Even though Shen Yuan has made it clear it’s not necessary. It’s in the first chapter of PIDW: “Luo Binghe was the kind of person who always repaid his debts, and returned the treatment given to him tenfold.” Shen Yuan doesn’t want Luo Binghe to feel indebted to him, but it must be hard to go against your canonical characterization.

So when Luo Binghe tells him he met a shopkeeper willing to let him assist for money under the table, he tries not to feel too wounded. It’s not like he needs Luo Binghe to spend every minute of every day with him. Although... he is getting used to it. If Luo Binghe has to work, what is Shen Yuan going to do? He’s probably just going to end up scrolling online the whole time Luo Binghe is out, which is especially useless because PIDW hasn’t updated, so there’s nothing to read!

But Luo Binghe is adamant. It’s charming to think of him as a helpful little shop assistant anyway, and it’s only part time, so Shen Yuan sighs and agrees.

“You’ll have to tell me where, so I can come visit you at work,” he says. Luo Binghe nods obediently.

But he won’t let Shen Yuan come right away, claiming to be embarrassed as he’s learning the ropes. Shen Yuan doesn’t believe that for a second—Luo Binghe’s only lived in this world about a month, and he knows the Shanghai metro system better than Shen Yuan. He can certainly handle restocking shelves. But maybe Luo Binghe just wants some time to himself? He’s a growing teenage boy, after all. It would be odd if he actually wanted some old man hanging around all the time, even at work! So Shen Yuan doesn’t push him.

A few weeks after that, Shen Yuan gets a text from one of the only other people he hangs out with.

“I’m going to meet a friend for lunch,” he tells Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe stares at him, eyes big. “What?”

“I’m going to lunch with a friend.” Luo Binghe’s not working today, so normally they would spend the whole day together. But just because that's what always happens doesn't mean it's any kind of formal agreement. So it’s fine for Shen Yuan to make other plans, right?

Luo Binghe doesn’t say anything else, but his shoulders slump. His face is clouded as he says, “All right. I’ll stay home.”

Aaaaah, protagonist! Don’t look like that! Shen Yuan can’t take it. He just doesn’t know how to explain why he’s dragging a fifteen-year-old boy around!

Luo Binghe gives a dejected little sigh, sealing Shen Yuan’s fate.

“You can come if you want, Binghe.”

Luo Binghe brightens immediately, giving Shen Yuan that sweet, humble smile of his. “If Yuan-ge says so.”

-

Shang Qinghua is a friend from the Zhongdian forums, where he goes by the ID “Typing With One Hand.” So gross, but it’s not like “Peerless Cucumber” Shen Yuan can talk. They mostly talk online despite living in the same city, but every once in a while Shang Qinghua wheedles free noodles out of Shen Yuan. He’s always broke, although Shen Yuan’s not even really sure what he does for a living.

Shang Qinghua’s taste in webnovels is awful, but he seems to find it funny when Shen Yuan berates him on the subject. Or maybe he’s just willing to put up with it for free noodles? Either way.

He meets Shang Qinghua at their usual place, Luo Binghe tagging along behind him, and slides into the opposite booth. Luo Binghe sticks right to his side. Poor thing must be nervous about meeting a stranger.

“This is Luo Binghe,” Shen Yuan says, getting the explanation out of the way. “He’s—a family friend’s kid, from—out of town. He’s staying with me for a while.”

“Sure, that’s—wait, what?” Shang Qinghua always looks hastily put together—his clothes a little sloppy, his hair falling down from how it’s put up. He has darker circles under his eyes than usual, though. He goggles at Shen Yuan like he has two heads. “Who?”

“Luo Binghe,” the protagonist himself says politely, bowing his head.

Shang Qinghua clears his throat. “That’s—um—so—that’s an unusual name,” he manages. Shen Yuan frowns at him. He’d better be nice to Binghe.

“I was found during winter—” Luo Binghe starts, but Shen Yuan cuts him off.

“Ah, it’s a long story. Binghe, here, take a look at the menu.” Luo Binghe’s whole orphan foundling baby backstory is a little intense for the real world. And besides, he shouldn’t have to talk about all that!

Shang Qinghua wrestles his face back into a normal expression, but he’s still pale, a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. Is it possible that he’s read Proud Immortal Demon Way? No way. Shang Qinghua doesn’t read stallion novels! Shen Yuan has never even mentioned it to him.

“It’s nice to meet a friend of Yuan-ge’s,” Luo Binghe says. See, he’s so polite and adorable! Surely he’ll win Shang Qinghua over in no time. But Shang Qinghua looks at him with his brow furrowed, almost suspiciously. Unbelievably rude!

“Have you and Yuan-ge known each other long?” Luo Binghe continues. “He’s never mentioned you before.”

“Ah... sort of. Sorry, where exactly from out of town—”

“How’s work?” Shen Yuan cuts in.

Shang Qinghua cuts his gaze back and forth between Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe. “Slow.”

As Shen Yuan suspected. This lunch is just a scam to get Shen Yuan to pay again!

The three of them make an awkward group. If it were just Shang Qinghua, Shen Yuan could pull him into a conversation about novels or donghua or whatever, but Luo Binghe doesn’t know about that stuff. Shen Yuan has tried to keep the subject of webnovels in general away from him, because the last thing he wants is for Luo Binghe to find out about PIDW. Luckily, the kid hasn’t even learned about the internet yet.

But Shang Qinghua doesn’t seem to want to talk about his job, Shen Yuan doesn’t work, and Luo Binghe is a fictional character, so there’s not much to talk about. It’s a relief when the food arrives and Shen Yuan can stuff noodles in his mouth instead. Although after Luo Binghe’s cooking, he’s getting too spoiled for other food!

At least Shen Yuan stopped Shang Qinghua from asking Luo Binghe too many personal questions. Luo Binghe’s been entirely normal, but Shang Qinghua still seems unsettled, picking at his food with none of his usual enthusiasm.

Shen Yuan feels a pang of concern. Maybe he really is struggling? He does look tired and a little pathetic, slumped over his bowl of noodles, somehow listless and twitchy at the same time. Shen Yuan tries to catch his eye, but Shang Qinghua keeps glancing at Luo Binghe. When Shen Yuan follows suit, his gaze meets Luo Binghe’s for an instant before Luo Binghe looks away. Was he just... watching Shen Yuan watch Shang Qinghua eat?

When Shen Yuan gets up to use the bathroom, Shang Qinghua sits up straight and says, “Oh, I’ll come with you.”

Luo Binghe immediately stands. “Me too.”

Shang Qinghua makes an incomprehensible face. “Someone has to stay at the table and watch our things.”

Luo Binghe’s face solidifies in the way that means he’s about to be stubborn. “I’ll go with Yuan-ge first. You can go after.”

“Binghe!” Shen Yuan exclaims. “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s no big deal.” Hello? Don’t try to stop someone else from using the toilet?!

Luo Binghe’s face grows more mutinous for a moment, then clears. “Of course,” he says, and steps out of the booth to let Shen Yuan pass, the picture of courtesy. Teens and their mood swings!

Shang Qinghua is sweating again. “Ah. Um. You should let—I’ll—I would hate to trouble... Luo Binghe.”

“Don’t be silly, all this fuss over who’s going to the bathroom when. Come on, bro.” Luo Binghe’s shoulders twitch at the casual address. What, now he thinks Shen Yuan should be more formal, after he was just so rude to someone older than him? This kid!

But Shen Yuan does feel a little bad leaving Luo Binghe sitting there all alone. He looks especially small and lonely at the table when Shen Yuan sneaks a glance back. When he turns away, he catches Shang Qinghua looking at him incredulously.

Shang Qinghua grabs his sleeve and tugs him into the men’s room. “Bro,” he says. “You’re being nice to that kid, right?”

“Of course. What do you think of me?”

“He’s—he seems—I was just...” Shang Qinghua rubs the back of his neck. “Just making sure?”

Is this why Shang Qinghua wanted to get him alone? Just to check that he was treating his houseguest well? What kind of impression is Shen Yuan giving off online??

“You were worried? I’m perfectly capable of taking care of my family friend’s kid!”

“No!” Shang Qinghua bursts out. “It’s not you, it’s—um, haha, I think I must have been confusing Luo Binghe with someone else. I think I—heard about—someone with that name—being really good at holding grudges! So I just wanted to make sure you haven’t done anything that could be interpreted badly, that’s all.”

He must have read PIDW. Shen Yuan is sure of it. No one else would be named “Luo Binghe.” The realization relaxes him a little. It explains Shang Qinghua’s weirdness, and gets Shen Yuan off the hook for any explanations. If Shang Qinghua knows Luo Binghe is fictional, then they’re on the same page, no need to talk about anything too directly.

“I know Binghe’s a little... unusual,” he says. “But don’t worry, I have it all under control.”

Shang Qinghua looks unconvinced. “Bro, do you really... I thought you were just doing what you had to, but it seems like you’re actually really fond of him?”

Shen Yuan’s neck heats up. That’s not any of Shang Qinghua’s business! Why is he asking about Shen Yuan’s feelings, anyway? Like they’re a couple of women gossiping!

“Did you really just follow me to the bathroom for this? I actually have to pee, go back to the table!” He shoves Shang Qinghua in the direction of the door.

“Okay, okay!”

Shen Yuan does his business, and then heads back himself. But when he catches sight of their table, Luo Binghe is leaning forward over the table, his mouth moving. Shen Yuan can’t hear him over the crowded room, but his face is blazing with intensity. Shang Qinghua, on the other hand, looks like he wants to evaporate. Shen Yuan moves closer to them, stepping behind a coat rack to partially obscure himself so he can eavesdrop. Luo Binghe is speaking in a hushed, furious tone, and he can only make out a few phrases.

“...don’t know what... doesn’t need anyone else... he’s... best for you...”

No, this is pointless, Shen Yuan can’t hear anything anyway. He goes over to join them, tapping on Luo Binghe’s shoulder so he’ll slide out of the booth. Luo Binghe does so, and then sits right back down next to him, sliding a little closer.

“Binghe,” he says, surprised, “weren’t you going to go to the bathroom too?”

“I changed my mind.”

Okay... weird kid!

Shen Yuan looks at Shang Qinghua, raising his eyebrows questioningly, but Shang Qinghua only shakes his head and looks away from him.

They settle back into uneasy companionship. Shen Yuan feels a little bad. Luo Binghe’s been acting so strange and clingy. He’s not used to interacting with people from this world other than Shen Yuan. It must be overwhelming for him.

He signals for the check basically as soon as it’s reasonable to do so. But when Shen Yuan starts reaching for his wallet, Luo Binghe reaches out and grabs his wrist.

“Yuan-ge, let me pay for it.”

Huh? “Binghe, no, it’s fine. You should save your money for your own stuff. And besides, I wouldn’t ask you to pay for my friend—”

But Luo Binghe won’t let go, his grip like iron. “I can take care of it. I can take care of... whatever Yuan-ge needs.” He looks at Shang Qinghua as he says it, as if to make sure he’s listening.

Shen Yuan tries to make eye contact with Shang Qinghua again to share a fond little eyeroll, but Shang Qinghua is making some kind of meaningful expression at him that Shen Yuan does not understand. Before he can say anything else, Luo Binghe reaches his other hand into his pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. What the hell, how much is he making from working a couple days a week? Shen Yuan watches, stunned, while he peels off some bills and slaps them onto the table.

“There,” Luo Binghe says. “That should be enough. Let’s go home, Yuan-ge.” He doesn’t even want to wait for change?? A novel protagonist is way too powerful!

Shen Yuan bids an embarrassed goodbye to Shang Qinghua. He’s going to have to text him later about... whatever just happened. Maybe he should offer to buy him another lunch soon, if he doesn’t stop looking so peaky.

As they walk back to the apartment, Shen Yuan nudges Luo Binghe’s side.

“You didn’t have to pay. I’m supposed to be taking care of you.”

Luo Binghe looks at him sharply. “Why are you supposed to?”

Because he’s been assigned to do so by a capricious supernatural entity, Binghe!

“I’m older than you and I grew up here. I have money from my family. You shouldn’t have to spend your shop earnings on me.”

Luo Binghe is quiet for a moment. When he speaks, it’s addressing something Shen Yuan didn’t expect. “Yuan-ge, how much older than me are you?”

It’s embarrassing, really, to admit that he’s twenty and not in college or the workforce. Oh well, it’s not like Luo Binghe knows about the social stigma of being a NEET. “Five years, I think?”

“Not that much older.”

Does that matter? The point is, Luo Binghe is still young enough not to worry about Shen Yuan spoiling him, okay!

He gives up and changes the subject. “I can’t believe my little Binghe is so well-paid, though! You must be doing so well at your job.” That makes Luo Binghe clam up, flustered.

The rest of the day continues as it usually does: they play some video games, and then Luo Binghe makes dinner and they eat it on the couch while watching classic shonen. But Luo Binghe is quieter than usual, and Shen Yuan’s not surprised when he speaks up during the One Piece ending song.

“Yuan-ge, have you ever had a girlfriend?”

Shen Yuan grimaces. Is that really an appropriate question? Does he seem like such a loser that Binghe doesn’t think he’s ever had a girlfriend??

Well, Shen Yuan knows what genre Luo Binghe is from. Even if it’s too early in the book for Luo Binghe to be doing... all that, maybe he’s getting curious about girls. That’s natural for a boy his age. And of course he would ask Shen Yuan, his respected mentor, for advice! He has to step up and do his best.

“Um. Nothing too serious.” He’s gone on dates, most of them arranged by his parents or set up by acquaintances. A few of them ended with a kiss. He’s never really seen the point of dating. If he meets someone, then he meets someone—there’s no need to chase after it. And since he has two older brothers, only one of whom is married, he has some time before his parents start applying pressure.

“Has Yuan-ge been promised to anyone?”

“What? No!” What’s with this line of questioning??

“So you’re free to choose your own match one day?”

Shen Yuan frowns. “I guess so.”

The idea of marriage is nice in the abstract, but in reality, the thought of sharing his life with someone else is stressful. Wouldn’t they object to the lazy, spoiled way he lives? Wouldn’t they want him to get some more serious interests? Some ambition? It’s just easier to be on his own. Well, it’s been fine having Luo Binghe stay with him, but that’s different.

He clears his throat. It makes sense for Luo Binghe, future ruler of a bountiful harem, to be preoccupied with marriage. He should be sensitive to that. Isn’t the stallion genre kind of like Binghe’s native culture? It’s like having a foreign exchange student. He needs to be understanding of Luo Binghe’s views.

“Does Binghe want to be married one day?”

Luo Binghe’s gaze is piercing and dark. The TV has already started autoplaying the next episode, but he hasn’t even glanced at it. “Does Yuan-ge think someone like me would be suitable for marriage?”

“Of course.” Binghe, get some self-esteem!

The System startles him with an announcement that Luo Binghe’s Heartbreak Points have dropped again. Yes, he gets it, the kid has been feeling better lately. He waves that away.

But Luo Binghe doesn’t look particularly happy. His forehead creases anxiously as he continues to stare straight into Shen Yuan’s eyes.

“Am I... When I’m older. Would I be the kind of person Yuan-ge might choose?”

What a silly question. Luo Binghe is sweet, considerate and clever, with impeccable cooking and cleaning skills, and the beginnings of what is sure to be an astonishingly handsome face and figure. No one alive could ask for more in a spouse. Teenage insecurities really do affect everyone, even the best of the best.

Shen Yuan pats him on the head. “Binghe, you don’t need to worry about the opinion of an old man like me! You’ll have hundreds of women fighting for your hand when you get older. You’ll probably get married long before I will, no need to be nervous. You’ll have to come visit this tired old bachelor and introduce me to your wives.” He gives Luo Binghe’s hair a good ruffle.

Luo Binghe turns away, not quickly enough to mask the hurt that flashes across his face. The System chimes in again. [[Attention! Protagonist’s Heartbreak Points reverted to previous level.]]

Did he say something wrong? Is this just that sensitive of a topic for Luo Binghe?

Maybe Shang Qinghua was right, and it’s easier than he thought to do something Luo Binghe might be hurt by. “Was there... anything else you wanted to talk about?” he tries.

Luo Binghe takes Shen Yuan’s hand from the top of his head and clasps it in both his own hands, squeezing a little too tight. “No, Yuan-ge. Let’s keep watching One Piece.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe sleeps lightly and wakes fast. He understands what’s happened almost as soon as he comes into awareness. The floor is hard under him, and Shen Yuan’s soothing weight is nowhere to be found.

Shen Yuan often drowses in the morning, taking a long time to throw off the weight of sleep. Luo Binghe wishes he could do the same. He would give anything to drift back into sleep and delay the truth.

Instead, he scrambles to his feet, every familiar sight causing a ripple of panic.

It’s not fair. He only just learned to value what he had. He was taken from Cang Qiong Mountain at his moment of greatest despair, deposited into Shen Yuan’s apartment like a benediction. But this time he was torn right from Shen Yuan’s arms, after Shen Yuan whispered forever in his ear.

Luo Binghe, Qing Jing Peak disciple, would usually wake earlier than his peers so they couldn’t berate him for sleeping in. He would leave the woodshed immediately to make himself harder to find and use the early morning solitude to train. He would be as quiet as possible. If anyone noticed him, they would see him doing chores or practicing with his sword. Dutifully contributing to the peak.

But now the idea of doing these things makes him furious. He looks at the piles of wood that he himself split and stacked against the wall, and anger fills his spiritual veins like power.

How could he have been made to do this? How could he have devoted so much time and effort to this place and people who have never loved him? What was all that suffering for? It’s hollow now that he knows he could exert himself for Shen Yuan instead.

He understands now that whatever force brought him to that world was not Shen Yuan’s doing. Because Shen Yuan would not have sent him away. He said he wouldn’t, and his still-fresh injuries were a warning not to doubt him again. So that means someone, something, some power he doesn’t understand took him away from Shen Yuan. The thought causes an upwelling of hate, black as char.

The inside of him is so dark and violent sometimes, a storm that could swallow him. It’s the opposite of that pure kindness and light that Shen Yuan radiates. Luo Binghe needs him.

And he needs Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe never got to hear the extent of his injuries, but Shen Yuan couldn’t even stand when he left, and his right hand was useless. He won't be able to take care of himself, all because of Luo Binghe’s suspicions. Shen Yuan was so generous to Luo Binghe that he nearly shed tears over Luo Binghe’s minor cuts and scrapes, that first day. Luo Binghe repaid that kindness by leaving him in a much worse state. Tending to him while he recovers is the only way Luo Binghe can think to redeem himself. Without that option, he’s left to imagine Shen Yuan’s suffering—he doesn’t even like to eat anything not cooked by Luo Binghe—with no way to help. He must be alone as well as in pain—or with someone else to tend to his needs. The way that possibility hurts worse makes Luo Binghe hate himself more.

He’s long known that fortune does not favor him. But it would have been easier to just resign himself to being fate’s kicked dog, never given a scrap. Instead, he’s been allowed to know two precious people—his mother and Shen Yuan—only to have both taken from him.

In a fit of rage, he turns to the piles of stacked wood and pulls them apart, throwing them into disarray all over the small shed. He usually keeps it neat, not only as part of his duties, but because it’s the one space that might charitably be considered his own. If he’s to be confined, he can at least take pride in his cell. But it’s all useless now. Nothing good he has can last. This dark, cramped room is nothing to be proud of.

He wants to end all of this, the depressing routines of his life here. Every small, inadequate defense against despair he’s managed to construct. It’s all worthless. He draws his sword and hacks at the logs, splintering them into kindling.

When his appetite for destruction finally wanes, he stands in the center of a maelstrom of wood and sawdust. It occurs to him then for the first time that he will be punished for this.

The thought makes no impact. Nothing can be worse than losing Shen Yuan. He gets back down on the floor and curls up in the tiny space where he’d been standing.

He told himself after the tea incident that he’d never let Shen Qingqiu make him cry again, and he’s kept that promise. But if he cries now, it’s not for Shen Qingqiu’s cruelty, but for Shen Yuan’s kindness. He doesn’t want to close himself to that; he gives consent for it to hurt.

Luo Binghe puts his face in his hands and cries until his eyes are sore. If Shen Yuan were here, he might wrap him in his arms again, like he’s done every time Luo Binghe has cried in his presence. Not having him hurts, but knowing that he would helps a little.

The thought of never seeing him again is unbearable, so Luo Binghe refuses to bear it.

He will not live without Shen Yuan forever. Some force brought them together, which means that a form of magic must exist that bridges their worlds. There must be some secluded sect, some demon clan with closely-guarded family secrets, some rare spiritual artifact—something in some corner of the world that can take him back to Shen Yuan. So he needs to do everything he can to find it.

Shen Yuan wanted him to be a good cultivator? Luo Binghe’s going to become the best. He’s going to read every book on the Twelve Peaks. He’ll travel to every remote wasteland, talk to every renowned master. Whatever it takes, not only to get back to Shen Yuan, but to be what Shen Yuan wants him to be, the version of himself that Shen Yuan thought he saw and loved.

He’s not good, and Shen Yuan knows that now; he knows what Luo Binghe did. But he promised to care for Luo Binghe anyway. Luo Binghe wants to deserve it.

-

The next few days pass in a blur. Luo Binghe does his duties as needed. Because he is the one who most frequently enters the woodshed, what he did in rage is not discovered right away. So Luo Binghe cleans it up himself, restacking the wood he didn’t break to pieces and sweeping out the dust. He complies with what’s expected of him, not out of fear as before, but out of shock. Like an animal with its leg caught in a trap, he just doesn’t know what else to do.

But he observes the trap, trying harder than ever before to learn its weak points.

From the perspective of those around him, it’s only been a few days since Luo Binghe won the fight that sent demons running from their mountain. The shine of victory still clings to him, making his fellow disciples hesitate before treating him as they’re accustomed, but he knows nothing has changed in Shen Qingqiu’s dead heart. His shizun may be biding his time now, while Luo Binghe’s name is being spoken with approval all over the mountain. But his opinion of Luo Binghe remains the same, and the Qing Jing Peak disciples take their cue from him. Shen Qingqiu may even resent him more now for not dying when he was meant to.

For three nights, he sleeps dreamlessly. On the fourth night—several days after the demon battle—he finds himself dreaming of a desolate wasteland, the soil dry and infertile, unable to nourish any plants to break up the expanse of the horizon. The landscape before his eyes, strange patterns flickering against the gray sky. He turns, disoriented, and sees that he’s not alone. The person standing near him is unmistakably Shen Yuan.

“Yuan-ge!” Luo Binghe sprints to him, not sparing a moment to think before throwing himself into Shen Yuan’s arms. Shen Yuan laughs and pats his head.

When Luo Binghe peers at his face, he’s not quite solid. There’s a soft, blurry quality to him, the details fading when he looks too closely. It must be a dream, but seeing him like this has Luo Binghe’s heart running wild with hope. Dreams can be strange; they say some demons even have the power to enter them. There is magic in the world that pushed Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan together before. Mightn’t it be possible for Shen Yuan’s soul to be able to communicate with him this way? Couldn’t the insubstantial quality be due to Shen Yuan’s body residing in another realm? Stranger things have happened.

Even if it’s only a dream, Luo Binghe is so glad to dream of him.

“Binghe,” Shen Yuan says warmly. “Binghe, it’s so good to see you. Should we look around a little?”

“Yuan-ge...” He wants to be doted on and fed spicy snacks, but he lets Shen Yuan gently prise him off and push him to start exploring.

It’s so good to walk by his side. It’s not only Shen Yuan’s kindness he loves. Being with him gives Luo Binghe a respite from his darkest feelings, the ones that stalk him like nighttime monsters when he’s curled up with only his thoughts. He spends his days under the shadow of Shen Qingqiu’s hatred, with only his resentment and anger to keep him alive. But it feels so much better to be Shen Yuan’s Binghe, praised and petted. He’s lightheaded with relief, buoyant as they wander together.

Where they started was nothingness, but as they walk, a city takes form around them. Luo Binghe thinks at first that the dream is recreating one of his outings with Shen Yuan, until he gets a closer look at the people passing by. Where their facial features should be is smooth skin.

A nightmare after all. Luo Binghe clings to Shen Yuan’s hand. “Yuan-ge, who are these people?”

“I don’t know,” Shen Yuan says. “Stay close, Binghe, okay?”

Luo Binghe happily listens. He’ll endure any nightmare if it means staying close to Shen Yuan.

Then the dream goes wrong.

It’s recreating Luo Binghe’s memories. They start badly and only get worse. He’s forced to watch himself being beaten and humiliated on the streets; failing his dying mother; losing his precious jade Guanyin.

He doesn’t want Shen Yuan to see these memories. Luo Binghe’s past is so shameful. He's always been too weak to stop these things from happening, always at the mercy of whoever decides to be cruel to him.

In the way of dreams, nothing he does seems to have any effect. With the training he has now, he should be able to pick off the older boys who bullied him over stolen congee; his improved speed should be enough to get him to his mother’s door before she passed. But nothing works. His attacks do nothing but distress Shen Yuan.

“Binghe, it’s okay,” Shen Yuan says, reaching out to hold him back as he tussles with his fellow disciples. “Don’t be upset.”

“Yuan-ge, I can’t...” He can’t just watch these things without doing something. He tears away and leaps toward the illusory Ming Fan. Ming Fan smirks and pulls his elbow back to throw a punch, which Luo Binghe prepares to absorb, but at the last moment Shen Yuan shoves him aside.

The moment hangs in the air. Luo Binghe freezes as he realizes what’s happening. The memories started with his early life and moved forward in time. Now the dream is shifting into his most immediate nightmare, forcing him to relive Shen Yuan getting hurt on his behalf. Just as before, he’s too slow and too late to stop it.

The instant the blow makes contact, there’s a feeling like glass shattering around him. The dream Ming Fan disappears, and Luo Binghe runs forward to catch Shen Yuan as he falls.

Shen Yuan looks up at Luo Binghe tenderly, and for a moment Luo Binghe thinks he’s done it—he’s finally changed something. But Shen Yuan fades under his hands, unraveling into clouds of smoke that slip through Luo Binghe’s desperate fingers.

“Yuan-ge!” He doesn’t want to lose him again—the pain of it is so fresh, blood still pouring from the wound. But Shen Yuan is already disappearing along with everything else. The city around them collapses to dust, and Luo Binghe ends up in the same wasteland he was in before, still curled around the absence of Shen Yuan’s body.

Once again, he’s not alone. There’s an old man facing him with his arms crossed, eyebrows raised appraisingly.

“Very good,” he says. “Surprisingly good.”

Luo Binghe jumps to his feet, clenching his fists. “Where’s Yuan-ge?”

“Who—the construct you made?” The old man laughs. “Very good. I’ve never seen anything like that. I hope you don’t mind me dismissing him so we can talk.”

“Give him back!”

“Calm down,” the old man says, amused. “There will be plenty of time to dream whatever you want to dream. Typically, you know, there are two ways to respond in a dream trap. The first is to fall for the illusion and lash out at your memories until you fall into a coma and die. But some knowledgeable cultivators can recognize the nature of the trap and ignore it, maintaining their inner peace. I’ve never seen anyone respond like you—you fell for it completely, but broke the trap through sheer force. And you even made your own construct to help you! Which he did, of course, because you cared enough for him to tear apart the illusion.”

Luo Binghe doesn’t know what any of this means.

“It shows natural talent,” the old man says, “for the demonic arts.”

And he offers to make Luo Binghe his apprentice.

Before the demon battle, Luo Binghe would have said no. For all Shen Qingqiu’s cruelties, he was a loyal disciple of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. But he understands now how completely Shen Qingqiu has failed him as a teacher. The thought of betraying Shen Qingqiu behind his back—and how could Shizun find out what happens in dreams?—gives him a vicious stab of pleasure. Besides, he can’t shy away from the demon realm. The key to returning to Shen Yuan’s world may well be there.

“You said that I created a construct. Does that mean he also came from my memories?”

“He must have,” the old man—Meng Mo—says. “You have a natural affinity for dream magic. When your mind felt itself being pulled into the trap, it reached out for something to protect itself, and stole some of my power to manifest it. Now, no more answers until you agree to be my disciple! I can’t just explain dream manipulation to anyone who comes asking!”

So no part of it was real. He imagined Shen Yuan there because he wanted him.

He’s still learning the shape of the wound that Shen Yuan left. It’s not yet old and familiar like the rest. It hurts inside him, raw and ruinous.

The illusion was almost right, the heft of Yuan-ge’s arms around Luo Binghe almost solid enough. Luo Binghe could nearly smell him. If Luo Binghe can learn this power... It’s only a dream. But he wants to dream of Shen Yuan as often as possible.

At least it gives him something to do, something real he can work on. He’s given up on learning anything from Shen Qingqiu.

“Yes, Shifu,” he says. He gets to his knees and prostrates himself in a bow.

-

The agreement with Meng Mo gives him the first spark of excitement he’s felt since returning to this realm. He feels a little better for the next couple of days, knowing that whatever happens on Qing Jing Peak, he can learn and train in his dreams.

It lasts until he manages to run afoul of Shen Qingqiu again. Shen Qingqiu finds some flaw in materials Luo Binghe delivered from An Ding Peak, after choosing him for the errand likely so that he could find a flaw.

Shen Qingqiu has him tied to the ground and beaten bloody. He doesn’t cry or scream, just absorbs it, his body and mind hardening against the pain. All the blackness in him swarms to the surface, poisoning his thoughts like spilled ink.

He’s long learned to expect this treatment. But lying on the ground after, he worries for the first time about what thoughts come to him when Shen Qingqiu punishes him: violent urges, fantasies of lurid gore. He wants to be Shen Yuan’s little sheep, a good companion for sightseeing and watching anime. Shen Qingqiu scours all of that out of him, turning him into an incubator for hate.

He remembers the suspicion and hostility he directed toward Shen Yuan when he first came to that realm. How could he have treated Shen Yuan that way? How could he ever have suspected Yuan-ge was anything but perfect? It was because of this, because of the way the world darkens around him and within him when Shen Qingqiu hurts him. He doesn’t want to get back to Shen Yuan only to find himself ruined, the good parts of him already beaten to dust.

And now that he knows his cultivation is being sabotaged, he can’t stay here. He needs to learn cultivation properly. Everything depends on it.

He tells Ning Yingying as much when she comes to check on him: “I’m going to leave Qing Jing Peak if I can.”

“A-Luo, no!” She bursts into tears. “You can’t!”

“Shijie, I have to.”

Yingying reaches for his hand, squeezing it. “I know it’s hard, but—Shizun has to see that you’re improving. He’ll get better. He’ll stop being so mean to you.”

If there’s any form of him that would please Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe doesn’t want to warp himself into it. He just wants to go back to where he’s already welcome.

Yingying really does care about him. He heard her protest when Shen Qingqiu sent him out to fight. It just wasn’t enough. Just like she’ll come to check on him after Shizun is done hurting him, but she can’t do anything to stop it.

It’s better to have her, his only real friend, than no one. He really does love her. It’s just not enough.

He lets her put her arms around his neck, carefully avoiding the fresh welts on his shoulders, and fuss over him. His bruised heart soaks in every drop of affection it can get. She kisses him on the cheek and then pulls back, blushing and looking down. He'll take that too. Whatever she can give him. He puts his head on her shoulder while she cries, everything in him wanting to be close.

In Shen Yuan’s world, the qi exercises he did seemed to have little effect. But here, where his qi flows more freely, his cultivation is finally working as it should. For once, his injuries improve significantly overnight, the skin knitting itself back together. He’s only a little sore when he goes over the rainbow bridge to Cang Qiong Peak and asks for an audience with the sect leader.

“Tell him it’s about Shen Qingqiu,” he says. Everyone knows the sect leader has a soft spot for him; some say it even goes back as far as when they were training together as head disciples. Sure enough, Luo Binghe is ushered into Yue Qingyuan’s small but opulent residence.

It’s more lavish than Qing Jing, where the peak’s reputation for ascetic study outweighs any need to demonstrate the wealth of Cang Qiong Mountain. Luo Binghe kneels and presses his forehead to the floor, his stomach fluttering at his own daring for coming here.

If it weren’t for the fight, he wouldn’t have come, because Yue Qingyuan would likely never have even heard his name. But everyone now knows that there exists a disciple named Luo Binghe who resides on Qing Jing Peak.

The sect leader mentions it right away, saying, “I heard we had Luo Binghe to thank for chasing a whole army of demons away.”

“Zhangmen-shibo, I did nothing but my duty,” Luo Binghe says without looking up. “But if I’ve earned even a moment of Zhangmen-shibo’s time, I would like to spend it.”

Yue Qingyuan gestures for him to sit up. Luo Binghe settles in a kneeling position, head still bowed respectfully. His hands tremble with nerves, but he has nothing to lose.

“I would like to train at Bai Zhan Peak,” he says.

Yue Qingyuan regards him coolly. “I believe the Peak Lord of Qing Jing selected you as his disciple personally. Isn’t that right?”

Luo Binghe swallows. “That is right. I... no longer believe I can reach my full potential at Qing Jing Peak.” He takes in a breath, pushing past the rapid pound of fear in his chest. “Zhangmen-shibo, there are... things about Qing Jing Peak that are not clear to outsiders. There are things only Shizun’s disciples know of him.”

That Shizun’s cultivation is unstable, resulting in frequent qi deviations. That Shizun returns from town at late hours, or early in the morning, smelling of rouge. Shizun’s volatile temper. All the secrets that Qing Jing disciples keep for the sake of the sect. Surely Yue Qingyuan must know.

“I wish to train at Bai Zhan, but if it can’t be permitted, then I plan to leave the sect and seek instruction elsewhere. So then... the things that I’ve learned here in Cang Qiong Mountain... might leave the sect with me.”

Shen Qingqiu will hate it if he tries to leave Qing Jing, and Yue Qingyuan dotes on Shen Qingqiu. So if he doesn’t get the sect leader’s assent, he’ll only be forced back into Shen Qingqiu’s clutches.

His strategy has long been to avoid bringing attention to himself, so this meeting goes against all his survival instincts. If Yue Qingyuan is as cruel as Shen Qingqiu, he might simply decide to kill Luo Binghe for, essentially, blackmailing him. But remaining on Qing Jing Peak is killing him in a different way by ruining him for Shen Yuan. The risk is worth it.

Yue Qingyuan takes a long time to respond. “It’s a terrible thing for a child to be kept from his best chances,” he says finally. And then: “Don’t speak to your shizun about this. I’ll tell him myself.”

-

Bai Zhan Peak has no Peak Lord. The man died in a qi deviation only a few months ago, and has not been replaced. Moreover, he never chose a head disciple to be his successor, so Bai Zhan disciples are left to learn from each other. Bai Zhan students have a fearsome reputation, but the peak’s lack of a shizun was Luo Binghe’s main reason for choosing it. The last thing he wants is to be stuck with another Shen Qingqiu. If he can improve his combat skills, all the better.

Where Qing Jing Peak disciples mostly studied, Bai Zhan Peak disciples mostly fight. Luo Binghe doesn’t prefer one or the other. Both are ways to keep his mind occupied for some precious time—maybe even half a shichen—not thinking about how much he wants Shen Yuan.

As he grows used to being back in his world of origin, it starts to feel less wrong when he wakes up every day not in Shen Yuan’s extra bedroom. He spent five months there, but he’s spent fifteen years in his own realm. But becoming more accustomed to being without Shen Yuan doesn’t mean it hurts any less. After all, there’s no one who could possibly replace him, no one who will treat Luo Binghe like a precious thing to be sheltered and guarded.

Certainly no one would shelter a Bai Zhan Peak student. Still, something lifts from him when he moves to Bai Zhan, leaving him lighter on his feet. Shen Qingqiu will not come here.

He doesn’t have his own room with cloud-soft blankets and a mountain of pillows, but he gets a small, sturdy wooden bed in the disciple dormitories. And when he’s hurt, it’s from training, not punishment. It’s not an easy existence, but no one hurts him with malice. Yingying even comes to visit him sometimes, although it makes him nervous. Not that Shen Qingqiu would ever really punish Yingying, but Luo Binghe doesn’t want to remind the man of his existence at all.

Bai Zhan Peak disciples are always fighting each other, but also sharing knowledge. If you are beaten in a fight, it’s acceptable to ask the victor to explain where you failed. Luo Binghe is already better off now than he would have been half a year ago, thanks to his improved qi circulation. With people willing to teach him, he learns fast.

He improves even more quickly under the guidance of the only shizun he has now: Meng Mo. Luo Binghe is ravenous to learn dream cultivation, not least because he is starting to be able to manifest a watery version of Shen Yuan on his own. It’s essential that he learns this now, while the memories are fresh. This way, he can preserve them. He can hold in his mind the fall of Shen Yuan’s hair, the shirts he wore most, the way he always laughed as if startled by his own enjoyment.

A month passes. Luo Binghe still loses almost every fight, but he’s getting stronger. Whatever the outcome, every night he dreams of crawling into Shen Yuan’s lap and telling him about it. He makes Shen Yuan pet him like a scared animal and tell him he’s done well.

It’s childish and weak, but Shen Yuan really does care for him. Luo Binghe won’t ever doubt it again. So perhaps he wouldn’t hate Luo Binghe too much for using him this way.

He can’t bring himself to make his dream Shen Yuan do anything they haven’t done in the waking world. It would be disrespectful. But the desire for it is there, weighing heavily on the atmosphere of the dreams. In daylight he thinks about it constantly, in terms so explicit that at first he’s ashamed knowing Meng Mo can read his thoughts. But the old demon has seen so many lurid thoughts, dreams and memories that nothing phases him. So Luo Binghe’s fantasies grow bolder.

He doesn’t know much about physical pleasures; none of the books on Qing Jing Peak or the techniques practiced on Bai Zhan have given him any information on the matter. He picks things up from rumors, conjecture, bawdy songs and his own imagination, and every tidbit he learns is immediately integrated into his thoughts of Shen Yuan.

Luo Binghe is carrying water up the mountain and deep into a daydream involving the Shanghai metro when Meng Mo finally speaks up. “Hell’s demons, kid—that’s not even how any of it works!”

"That is how the metro works," Luo Binghe says loftily.

After that, Meng Mo outlines some basics for him, complaining all the while. “Not at all what I signed up for—I’m meant to be training you in dark demonic arts! Not my fault you don’t have any older brothers to tell you—”

Despite his grumbling, Luo Binghe is grateful. He courteously makes sure his subsequent fantasies are as detailed and accurate as possible, to spare his teacher any further trouble.

After he’s been at Bai Zhan for a while, he starts to notice something unusual. There’s a young woman who sometimes shows up to watch the students spar, wearing the colors of Xian Shu Peak. He recognizes her, not by her face, but by the fact that it’s covered. She participated in the demon fight too, squaring off against the Saintess, although he doesn’t recall her name.

She watches the fights coolly, her dark eyes following the movements with ease. Luo Binghe knows she’s an excellent fighter herself, although the style of Xian Shu is unlike anything he’s been trained in.

So after a fight that he loses, he approaches her and asks if she’s noticed any weaknesses in his technique. She stares at him, her arched eyebrows drawing inward.

“Are you mocking me? I know you’re Luo Binghe. You won your fight after I lost.”

He’s in no mood to dole out flattery. “Come spar with me and we’ll see.” After a moment, she nods.

They fight. By the end of it, her expression—what little of it he can see—has loosened. She is more comfortable speaking with a blade than with words. As Luo Binghe expected, his fighting style is not well matched to hers. Although he wins in the end, he can barely land a single blow without her spinning sinuously away.

Luo Binghe has no need of friends, but he can’t ignore a path to improving his skills, not when he’s betting everything on becoming powerful enough to discover this world’s hidden secrets. So he bows his head and tells her he would be honored if she would continue sparring with him on her visits to Bai Zhan Peak. She inclines her head in return, not wasting any more words on the matter.

For several months, it goes on like this. The young woman comes every once in a while to watch the daily goings-on of Bai Zhan Peak, and then she and Luo Binghe fight and she leaves. They barely exchange a word; he doesn’t even know her name.

But eventually, they do start to talk about the fights. As with the other Bai Zhan disciples, Luo Binghe occasionally asks her for training advice, which she gives openly and directly. He treats her with the respect she shows him and answers her questions the same way.

One day, Luo Binghe starts explaining a scholarly work he read regarding the timeline of core formation, and the girl says bluntly, “Did you learn this at Qing Jing Peak?”

“Yes.”

“From Shen Qingqiu?”

Luo Binghe hesitates. Of course, after the demon battle he was well known as one of Shen Qingqiu’s disciples. Although he left the peak, it would be better not to speak disrespectfully of his former teacher. But he’s never minced words with his Xian Shu sparring partner before.

“I learned nothing from Shen Qingqiu.”

Her eyes narrow just slightly, as if she’s smiling.

“You don’t like him?”

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “He’s scum.”

She likes that. He watches her run a finger down the hilt of her sword in its scabbard. Then she says, “I think Shen Qingqiu killed my brother.”

He abruptly remembers her name.

They end up talking for a long time, until the shadows are long and the sun is threatening to sink behind the mountain. Luo Binghe’s never met anyone who hates Shen Qingqiu, truly hates him. Yingying didn’t like what he did to Luo Binghe, but she still respected him, like all the Qing Jing disciples. Luo Binghe never wanted to talk to Shen Yuan much about it, preferring to hide Shen Qingqiu in as dark a corner of his mind as possible. But he can tell Liu Mingyan everything Shen Qingqiu did, every piece of evidence of what a vile, petty, hateful man he is, and she takes it in seriously.

In return, she tells him about her brother, the target of Shen Qingqiu’s jealousy. She says she didn’t think anyone would believe her. Luo Binghe believes her.

"I want him to pay," she says. "I want everyone to find out about what he's done, and for him to die in disgrace. Don't you think about revenge?"

Of course he does. Even now, away from the man's influence, his thoughts turn violent when they turn to the Qing Jing Peak Lord.

"I'd help you," he promises. "I would help you expose him, and then I'd gladly run a sword through his heart."

He has fantasized about doing much worse. But now that he's met Shen Yuan, seeing Shen Qingqiu suffer no longer feels like the most important thing. Shen Qingqiu just needs to die, his life like a candle that's burned too long and should long have been snuffed. But the answer satisfies Liu Mingyan, whose eyes glitter in the waning light.

After that, she stays away from Bai Zhan for half a month. When she comes back, Luo Binghe is eager to spar with her and talk some more. But when they get away from the other disciples, instead of drawing her sword, Liu Mingyan says, “When we get older, I think we should get married.”

Luo Binghe freezes, stunned.

“Now that my brother is gone,” she continues, “I will be expected to find a husband. We’re both smart and good in combat, neither of us has any close family, and we share the same sentiments. A strong marriage alliance could benefit us both. I think we could find each other very tolerable.”

The idea of marrying her is unthinkable. But what she says makes sense. Luo Binghe does want to consolidate power, and having a wife confers status. Marrying into the Liu family would be an especially valuable connection. Does he really think he can gain the kind of power he wants on his own?

But his foolish heart doesn’t want anyone but Shen Yuan.

“You may consider it,” Liu Mingyan says, and pulls her sword on him. He draws his own in response, deeply relieved.

That night he lies awake in his dormitory bed, sleep evading him. He doesn’t want to betroth himself unless it’s to Shen Yuan. But is it arrogant to think Shen Yuan could desire him in the way Luo Binghe wants him to? And Luo Binghe doesn’t know how long it might be before he sees him again. Isn’t it even more arrogant to expect Shen Yuan to remain unmarried? He’s beautiful and wealthy, with an exceedingly alluring personality, and already twenty years old. His parents must be flooded with offers.

The thought of it makes Luo Binghe half-crazed. He’s powerless to stake any claim on Shen Yuan—even if they weren’t in separate realms, Shen Yuan made it clear he saw Luo Binghe as a child. He can’t expect that Shen Yuan will wait for him.

And he doesn’t know how long he will have to wait for Shen Yuan. The thought of a romantic attachment to anyone else makes him sick. But the thought of being alone for so many years floods him with panic. Just as with Ning Yingying’s blushing gestures, there’s a part of him that can’t turn away from any offer of companionship. Like a plant under the shade of a spreading tree, growing toward any hint of light. Liu Mingyan is offering to stand by his side. Luo Binghe is ashamed of how appealing an offer it is.

Marrying Liu Mingyan would give Luo Binghe access to wealth and influence like nothing he can reach now. If he distances himself from her after he finds Shen Yuan, she’ll still have the security of being a married woman, and his support against Shen Qingqiu.

It’s an option he can’t afford to refuse without considering. Still, he is paralyzed with fear, curled up on his sleeping mat with his face buried in the crook of his elbow. If he marries, will Shen Yuan be angry?

He likes Liu Mingyan, but he feels no urgent need to be close to her, no dizzying euphoria. His heart has committed no infidelity, and it never will. Is that good enough? He’s terrified of making the wrong choice, changing too much from the child Shen Yuan liked.

Even if he says yes, it will be a few years before the issue is raised again. Liu Mingyan is a year younger than him, and they are both too busy right now with their cultivation training to think of marriage.

When he sees Liu Mingyan again, he agrees, on the condition that they keep it between them until it’s necessary to announce. He can’t stand the thought of being congratulated on the engagement.

To his relief, Liu Mingyan doesn’t try to kiss him, or even lift her veil. She just nods, pleased. To seal the agreement, they switch the tassels on their swords.

A little after that, Liu Mingyan is officially selected as the head disciple of Xian Shu Peak, and her duties ramp up. She doesn’t have as much time to spend hanging around Bai Zhan Peak. Luo Binghe is horrified to find that he misses her.

He didn’t think he was that attached to Liu Mingyan. Can anyone who simply becomes familiar to him have the power to hurt him by drawing back? He can’t let that be true and survive. When she does come by, he tries to speak to her as little as possible.

-

After a year at Bai Zhan Peak, something strange happens. Luo Binghe starts winning fights.

In the year since he left Shen Yuan’s realm, he’s had a growth spurt. As he’s grown taller, the benefits of being fed regularly and training properly have started to show on his body. His arms and legs develop some bulk that he puts to good use in combat.

He trained just as hard at Qing Jing Peak, but he was constantly being set back by injury and sabotage. But once his strength starts to build, all the theory he learned in Qing Jing’s library starts to make sense. His muscles and his spiritual power grow in tandem.

When it’s time, he draws Zheng Yang from the cave at Wan Jian Peak. This feat causes his name to once again be whispered around the twelve peaks. Luo Binghe’s not conceited, but he can tell that the matches he has with other disciples are becoming fiercer and more competitive. He can feel the difference in strength. And he notices the way women look at him—and some men, too—nudging their friends and whispering.

His dream cultivation has improved in leaps and bounds, even after only two years. He’s only a little behind the skill of Meng Mo himself. Luo Binghe is almost certain that he has a good chance to make a name for himself at the Immortal Alliance Conference.

It’s the first chance he’s had to earn any real prestige. What’s more, everyone from Cang Qiong Mountain knows that he was once Shen Qingqiu’s student and chose to leave him. He’s not arrogant enough to think he might win, but if he makes an impression, it will be humiliating for Shen Qingqiu. Luo Binghe’s most powerful motivation is Shen Yuan, but he can’t let go of his spite.

He intends to move quickly through Jue Di Gorge, destroying every monster in sight, but he’s soon weighed down by a retinue of weaker cultivators who flock behind him like ducklings. Luo Binghe has no intention of wrecking his chance for the sake of others, but he’s stilled by something he hears one of the Huan Hua Palace sisters whisper to the other: that Luo Binghe is so kind for helping them.

Most people would not say that of him. He gets along fine with the other Bai Zhan disciples, but no one’s ever accused him of being kind, much less selfless. The only people who might think that are his late mother and Shen Yuan.

It keeps him delaying the moment he has to cut them loose. They see him as some kind of hero. Isn’t that what Shen Yuan would expect of him? Being near these grateful women gives him a shameful, weak hit of that feeling, like being looked at through Shen Yuan’s loving eyes.

He’s close enough to leap into action right away when things go wrong, rescuing Qin Wanrong from the powerful demon lurking in the river. Qin Wanyue clasps his hand in gratitude, her eyes shining with tears.

What she’s seeing isn’t him. He is not someone to act out of the goodness of his heart, or graciousness towards the weak. But if he must wear a mask, at least someone finds it pleasing. He’s startled to find himself smiling at her in return, the moment only made headier by the way she blushes.

Many of the weaker disciples scatter after that, in the confusion of violence breaking out in the gorge. Qin Wanyue, though, just sticks closer to him. Luo Binghe is by far her superior in combat, but Qin Wanyue is smart and fast, quickly proving her worth. They do their best to cut down any demons who come near, but eventually they’re forced to run for cover.

In the darkness, surrounded by screams echoing off the sides of the gorge and masking everyone’s location, they get separated even from Qin Wanyue’s sister. She cries when she realizes, and leans in close to Luo Binghe, offering herself to be comforted.

Her vulnerability strikes him as familiar, and when he recognizes it, he nearly flinches with humiliation. It’s like the way he seeks comfort from his dream Shen Yuan. The only person he can be so unguarded with is a construct of his own creation. He embraces Qin Wanyue, filled with pity for her and for himself, and she clings to him like he’s done something right.

They manage to rest in a clearing for some time before they're thrown back into combat. This time the demonic beast they face catches Qin Wanyue’s cheek with the tip of its barbed tail, leaving a needle-thin scratch. Luo Binghe kills it quickly, but it doesn’t take them long to realize that Qin Wanyue’s qi is blocked. She is unable to summon even enough of it to make her hand glow. The beast must have been venomous.

If the venom is strong enough to stagnate her spiritual power so quickly, it must be potent. Neither of them has to say it, but Qin Wanyue’s eyes are round with fear. Luo Binghe starts to panic.

He's not afraid of facing these monsters alone. But Qin Wanyue likes and trusts him. There aren’t enough such people that he can afford to be careless with their lives. Qin Wanyue held him in the dark, preferring his company to anyone else’s. He can’t stand the thought of failing her.

He let his mother die before he could run back to her. He let Shen Yuan get hurt, and was torn away before he could repay the debt. Is caring about him such a death sentence? Can he not protect a single person who loves him?

Luo Binghe has an excellent memory. Even years later, he remembers seeing “Jue Di Gorge” in a book he read on poisons. It is the native habitat of the Thousand-Leaves Fresh Snow Lotus, a flower that acts as a panacea. Even if they don’t know the nature of the poison, it should save Qin Wanyue.

They’re already a day and most of a night into the conference. Finding the flower takes the rest of the night and well into late morning. Between fighting off creatures and Qin Wanyue’s worsening condition, they don’t have a single moment of rest.

By the time Luo Binghe presses the little white bloom into her hands, Qin Wanyue is fading. His panic has been mounting for hours with the helplessness of knowing he’s not doing enough to save her. But it’s done. He found it.

He cups her jaw in his hand as she swallows it down, feeling oddly tender. In all of this chaos, Qin Wanyue has given herself to him as something to protect. As terrified as Luo Binghe is of failing her, he is grateful. It’s something, for someone to stay by his side and put their faith in him. He doesn't want to lose it.

But to his horror, the flower has no effect. Qin Wanyue’s qi is still blocked, her face bloodless and drawn. She stumbles, her legs too weak to hold her. Luo Binghe catches her and guides her to the ground.

“We can—” he starts. “This valley is full of strange magic. We’ll keep looking. There has to be something—”

“I can’t,” Qin Wanyue says gently. She reaches up to brush his hair behind his ear. He swallows, thinking of Shen Yuan.

“Luo Binghe, you’ve done everything you can for me,” she sighs. “I wonder if it might be too much to ask for one thing more.”

They’re kneeling close together on the grass, concealed by the white trunks of birch trees around them. Qin Wanyue presses her forehead to his.

“What do you need?” he says.

She kisses him.

The only thing he feels is foolish. Of course that’s what she meant. They are a young man and woman traveling together. Qin Wanyue has stuck closer to him than to her own sister. Why didn’t he realize?

But it's different for him; his heart is not free to give. As she kisses him, he feels nothing but the familiar dullness of nothing and no one in this realm being what he wants.

He pulls back, but is stopped by the sight of her, so weak and fading fast. Can he really reject a girl who is dying? He’s already failed to save her. Does he have to hurt her too? Luo Binghe knows what it’s like to feel unwanted.

As she looks at him, her eyes flicker with tender apprehension.

No one has wanted Luo Binghe in this way before. Qin Wanyue is the only one who has ever looked at him like this. Not even Shen Yuan has.

He is Shen Yuan’s, in his heart, mind and body. But Shen Yuan isn’t his, not yet. What might it feel like to lie in the arms of someone who really desires him? It might not be so bad. Better than turning away a dying girl, and watching her affection for him vanish.

“I’ve never shown anyone such favor before,” he whispers.

She shakes her head. “Me neither. Shall we try together?”

He doesn't like how she says it, as if they're united in purpose. But when she pulls him toward her, he can’t bring himself to say no.

It’s not so bad. Qin Wanyue likes him so much.

The act itself is short and would be unremarkable but for one thing. Despite her eagerness, Qin Wanyue is very weak. Luo Binghe passes her qi throughout, trying to ameliorate her condition as much as possible. To his shock, after some time, the blockage in her meridians begins to clear, and her qi circulates back to comingle with his.

It’s this startling recovery, rather than any physical completion, that ends their liaison. As they share energy back and forth, the poison miraculously, inexplicably, cleanses itself.

They cling to each other in the grass. Qin Wanyue buries herself in his arms and weeps with relief, no longer on the point of death. Luo Binghe is filled again with that gnawing tenderness. He didn’t fail; everything he’s done for her has been right. She never hit the point most people do, where they suddenly realize that Luo Binghe is too much, too dark, too desperate. To her he is still a hero and a protector. He clutches her to his chest, struck with the urgent desire to bind her to him, to make her always look at him with the sweetness she does now.

She responds, pulling him close in kind. He is guilty with the knowledge that she thinks his sudden outpouring of emotion is due to passion or love, when really he is so relieved he can barely stand it, just to have someone look at him that way.

They are not yet out of danger, still trapped in the gorge with countless beasts, but both of them are exhausted. Without meaning to, Luo Binghe slips into an uneasy sleep.

When he drifts off, he manifests Shen Yuan immediately. It should shame him to run straight into Yuan-ge’s arms after lying with another, but he wants it so badly he doesn’t even bother hating himself for it.

His height has shot upwards in the past two years, and he must be taller now than Shen Yuan was when they parted. But in his dreams he’s still small. Shen Yuan easily gathers him into his arms.

“You did well,” Shen Yuan murmurs. He presses a kiss to the top of Luo Binghe’s head. “My Binghe is good.”

Luo Binghe clutches at him. He’ll never regret meeting Shen Yuan, and he’ll never give up trying to find him. But the yearning is so painful. Sometimes loving Shen Yuan hurts more than anything else he’s experienced.

He and Qin Wanyue are only able to rest for about a shichen before the trees explode with the approach of another beast, a creature so massive that at first Luo Binghe can’t even make out what it is. It charges forward with lethal force. Qin Wanyue pulls him out of its path, but it’s moving fast and erratically, churning up the trees and dirt everywhere around it. It won't be possible to avoid or hide from it for long.

Luo Binghe takes a moment to observe the animal. The beast is black as night, four-legged with leathery skin and huge, powerful haunches. A sharp, cruel-looking curved horn juts from its forehead. As Luo Binghe watches, it lowers its head and rams the horn into a stand of trees, reducing them to splinters. Then it opens its mouth and howls, its tongue sinuous and writhing like a snake.

Now that Qin Wanyue is cured, she should be able to help him fight. But when Luo Binghe looks over at her, she’s still pale, her sword shaking in her grip. Exhaustion can be as deadly as poison. Luo Binghe feels it too, but he has to go on. He draws his sword and leaps at the beast.

It takes everything Luo Binghe has, every last ounce of his flagging strength, to take the monster down. It is seemingly tireless, its hide so thick that Luo Binghe can barely damage it. The beast throws him off more than once, flinging his weary body into the hard ground, where he’s forced to scramble to his feet before it can trample him. He loses track of Qin Wanyue at some point in the fight—she must have fled while he kept it distracted. He doesn’t have the energy to feel hurt.

It reaches a point where he can barely lift his sword, his muscles too worn out to obey him anymore. He thinks of Shen Yuan living out the rest of his life alone, not ever knowing what happened to him, and something snaps.

A moment ago, he was down to the last sputter of qi in his veins. Now, a dark energy floods him, filling him with power like he’s never known. It feels like a hallucination, the kind of dream that comes upon a man when he’s dying, but it continues. The power spills out of him and warps everything around it, wreaking pure destruction on everything it touches. The monster falls to the earth, dead.

When it all clears, Luo Binghe finds himself at the point of Shen Qingqiu’s sword.

“Shizun,” he says, the word tumbling out reflexively through numb lips.

“Don’t call me that.” Shen Qingqiu always looked at Luo Binghe like he was nothing. It’s only now that Luo Binghe sees real hate in his eyes.

“You’re a demon,” he snarls. “I always knew there was something wrong with you.” He jabs forward with Xiu Ya, forcing Luo Binghe to stumble back.

At Luo Binghe’s back is a wall of heat, the air filled with crackling and hissing.

Even against his former Shizun, Luo Binghe could probably put up a fight. But he’s exhausted, physically and emotionally, and barely lashes out at all before he falls.

-

Shen Qingqiu is right. There is something wrong with him. Luo Binghe’s always known it, and people have always been able to sense it.

So he’s a demon. Half-demon, Meng Mo suggests, after explaining the broken seal. Maybe that’s why so many people have been repulsed by him. But he can’t quite believe that that’s the whole reason. Is it more loathsome to be a demon, or Luo Binghe?

He doesn’t care what Shen Qingqiu thinks of him. He burns with hatred for the man for sending him to this hell, especially when he was on the verge of making a name for himself: glory from the conference, and a potential marriage alliance with Huan Hua Palace, after he made good on his promise to Liu Mingyan. Down here he’s barely surviving, the frantic pace of the Immortal Alliance Conference now his everyday existence. Yes, Shen Qingqiu will pay with his life. But the fact that Shen Qingqiu rejected him for his blood is no surprise and no great sorrow.

But Shen Yuan?

Luo Binghe is not supposed to question Shen Yuan’s loyalty to him, not when that’s what got him hurt in the first place. But he didn’t know that Luo Binghe was a demon. What human’s feelings could remain unchanged?

For the first week in the Abyss, Luo Binghe doesn’t sleep at all. He tells himself it’s out of vigilance, even though rest would help him fight. In truth, he’s afraid of facing his dream Shen Yuan.

He can’t stand the thought of making a construct of Shen Yuan embrace a demon without his knowledge. Not when the thought might horrify and disgust him. But neither can he face the thought of not dreaming of him again.

Eventually, Meng Mo gets fed up with him.

“I’ll never understand,” he says, “how you can have such control, and such a limited imagination! If you don’t want to dream of him then maybe we can do something interesting for once.”

“I want him,” Luo Binghe says miserably.

“Then sleep, and dream him.”

“I can’t.”

“Then don’t! Either way, stop making me listen to it.”

He’s not such an accomplished cultivator that he can put off sleep indefinitely. He tries not to dream, but perhaps his control isn’t as good as his master thinks.

He’s endured so much, and he can’t stand to lose even the illusion of Yuan-ge. But it’s tainted, even Shen Yuan’s comfort now illicit and shameful.

He can’t stop himself from changing, growing further away from the child that Shen Yuan held and petted. Physically, he’s already different, so much taller and stronger than before. Slowly every part of him is eroding. Soon he won’t be the same person at all.

The only good thing about the Abyss is that it forces him to concentrate on nothing but his survival.

The Abyss is monotonous, all black craggy rock and burning sky. He quickly learns how to stay alert. How to go from fight to fight as if he’s never known rest. With his demonic abilities unlocked, he has more power than ever before, but more to learn, too. Any time he spends not fighting or grabbing sleep and food where he can is dedicated to training demonic cultivation.

Time stretches on. He’s not sure how to measure it here, with no moon or seasons, but he can measure it in his own development. His improved cultivation. The way the last of his body’s teenage awkwardness firms up into adult strength.

And as time goes on, he learns something else about the Abyss. There are beasts everywhere, and there are also women. There are women everywhere he goes, succubi and fox demons and princesses and spirits made flesh. He is thrown together with women with baffling frequency, and somehow they always end up sleeping together.

At first, he tries to resist their advances. Promising himself to Liu Mingyan was sensible. A favor to a dying girl was benevolent. But no woman—or man—could possibly compare to Shen Yuan. Yet circumstances often make it difficult to turn them down, and after he’s acquiesced a number of times, it seems like hollow pageantry to act unwilling.

Sometimes it happens due to poison or a curse, or an obligation Luo Binghe must fulfill to move on, but sometimes they simply want him. He still can’t stop himself from wanting to be wanted. And despite everything wrong with him, women continue to want him. For so long he wanted to be liked, and now he is, as long as he is compliant.

Luo Binghe’s will is strong enough to have carried him through the fight with Tianchui all those years ago, and strong enough to puppet him through this hellscape. But when the raw loneliness in him rises up in his throat, his conviction to stay chaste dissipates like smoke in the wind. He tells himself he is making himself into the perfect lover, honing himself into a tool for Shen Yuan’s satisfaction. But even the long-held fantasy of existing for Shen Yuan’s use, which once made him burn with desire, loses some appeal as he starts to realize something awful.

Luo Binghe spent so long picturing all the things he wanted to do with Shen Yuan someday. But by the time he’s spent a year in the Endless Abyss—by the time he’s slept with a number of women that makes him blush to count—he’s realized he doesn’t particularly like sex.

It’s fine for his purposes. But the rush of heated lust, the overwhelming passion he anticipated does not materialize. What he likes is everything around it. Being looked at with desire and spoken to with affection. Someone taking pleasure from his touch. Lying close afterwards, basking in the feeling of connection, that fragile strand of silk linking two people who have shared something.

As he approaches eighteen, then nineteen, then twenty, he starts to think it must have been the lusts of youth that had him lying awake at night dreaming of Shen Yuan’s body.

But he will have sex with Shen Yuan, of course. If it’s Yuan-ge, it doesn’t matter if Luo Binghe likes it or not. He will be whatever Shen Yuan wants him to be. And if his willingness with his body is his most appealing quality, then he will use it.

And despite his many indiscretions, he is determined that Shen Yuan will be the first man he lies with. At least he can save some part of him for the only person he wants to have any of him.

In leaving Shen Yuan, Luo Binghe was torn from his home. Cang Qiong Mountain was the location that felt foreign, the sounds and smells all wrong. As if he could have turned and run and found Shen Yuan right behind him. He wanted to always feel that close to Shen Yuan, but after two years at Cang Qiong Mountain, his memories were not as fresh as they once were. And then the Abyss ripped him from everything else he’d ever known.

Down here he is a new person entirely, his identity, abilities, fears and priorities all burned away and built anew. And although he still dreams of Shen Yuan nearly every night, the dreams are murkier than ever before, Shen Yuan’s presence not the relief it once was.

After three years in the Abyss, it’s hard to imagine ever leaving it. But he refuses to give up. Shen Qingqiu might have done him a favor—he expected to be restricted to the world of righteous cultivators, needing to maintain a good reputation. Here, in the sordid seam between worlds, he can investigate all kinds of strange rumors and artifacts. If there is a way to access the third world that only Luo Binghe seems to know about, it’s more likely to be found here.

He follows every lead he can, but most turn out to be nothing, or introduce him to a woman. It’s Meng Mo who tells him about the Xin Mo sword. The old man wants to escape the Abyss, claiming that it’s making Luo Binghe even more tedious. Luo Binghe has tried many times to open a crack between worlds like the one he fell into at the conference, but even all his power is not enough. Meng Mo tells him that there is a sword that can greatly increase his demonic power and even, according to legend, cut its own path between realms.

It takes a long time to track it down, following rumors, hints, and any trace of energy that might herald its presence. At long last, Luo Binghe slashes open the corpse of a primordial behemoth and finds the sword buried deep within.

But he can barely use it. His own Zheng Yang has always been straightforward and dutiful, happy to do his bidding. Xin Mo seethes with malice. The sword hates him, and it will only respond to hate.

Luo Binghe knows he has to conquer it, but its energy feels polluted. Everything in him resists taking it in. The first time he tries to use it, the backlash hurts him badly enough that he has to hide out, defenseless, for a day and a half, while Xin Mo’s black aura poisons the surrounding air.

Xin Mo is powerful, but that’s not the problem.

For five years now, Luo Binghe has been trying to keep alive the small amount of brightness in him. He was already a suspicious, underhanded person when he met Shen Yuan, warped by a life expecting cruelty and receiving it. But he was a child. He was still vulnerable, weak to the slightest gestures of kindness. He mistreated Shen Yuan horribly, but when Shen Yuan forgave him—embraced him—he felt that he could still be saved. He’s never been the person Shen Yuan thought he was, but he wanted to become that person.

And since returning, he has tried. He removed himself from Shen Qingqiu rather than simmer in his hatred. He tries to help people when he can, but it’s so hard without Shen Yuan’s faith in him, and without anyone Luo Binghe can put his own faith in.

Xin Mo will only obey him if he can overwhelm its darkness with his own. There’s no doubt that he’s capable; the amount of loathing and spite within Luo Binghe could level a city. He just doesn’t want to gain Xin Mo and lose Shen Yuan.

But he needs the sword. He has to master it.

The darkness within him is as deep as the Abyss. He needs to believe that if he gets lost within it, he’ll be able to find his way out. With Shen Yuan’s help. With his love.

As is his habit, he uses the dream Shen Yuan to give himself permission. In his dream, Shen Yuan lies with him in a meadow full of wildflowers, plucking one and tucking it into Luo Binghe’s hair. He tells Luo Binghe that everything will be okay once they’re together.

It’s shameful to use Shen Yuan like that, but Luo Binghe’s already so disgusted with himself that shame rarely stops him from anything anymore.

So he dedicates himself to mastering Xin Mo, whatever the cost.

When the sword lashes out at him, he responds with his own darkness, infusing his demonic qi with malice. That satisfies the sword, tempering it to his will. Even so, it’s another year before he can use it very much at all.

The sword does greatly increase his power, but it violently unbalances his qi. It’s not a trait of the sword itself, but a problem with being Luo Binghe. It’s a sword meant for demons, and when he wields it, it fills him with its vicious demonic energy. But it drains his human spiritual qi like a broken dam. In theory, if he can maintain both sources of energy, then he could be stronger while wielding Xin Mo than any purebred demon could be. But for a long time it’s like trying to make a pet out of a rabid dog.

Finally he figures out the trick of it. It takes a long time because there are so few humans who stumble their way into the Abyss, and that turns out to be the answer: sharing power with a human cultivator through dual cultivation. That way, he can restore his spiritual qi and bleed off some of the excess demonic qi, providing the person is strong enough to handle it. With that breakthrough, he is able to use the sword more and more.

Xin Mo submerges him in his worst impulses. A mild irritation turns quickly to anger, then to violence. His blackest thoughts are manifested by the sword’s power before he can think to soften them.

The more he uses it, the harder it is to remember how to be without it. After returning to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, it was hard to believe he’d ever experienced the fragile contentment of his life with Shen Yuan. In the Abyss, even the tiresome routines of Bai Zhan Peak were unimaginably distant and longed for. Now he would settle for the early days of the Abyss, when he was terrified, but full of hope and love. His days now are filled with darkness, the satisfaction of his victories like drops of water in a cistern of ink.

All the while, even in the Endless Abyss, he is laying the ground for his planned rise to power. Making connections with the groups of demons who frequent this place, with their own methods of traveling in and out. Rescuing the few humans trapped here from the ravaging beasts, and then receiving their favors in gratitude. Promising himself to such and such daughter of a prominent house in exchange for her family’s support. Always, he can feel Xin Mo’s power, too fierce yet to be fully wielded. But surely enough for what he wants, if anything is.

Despite everything—all the time now he spends marinating in hate and rage, all the sex, how much of his life has been swallowed up by this hellscape until it feels like the Abyss is all that’s left inside him—still, he wants Shen Yuan. He can’t live and not want him.

Until finally, five years after Shen Qingqiu pushed him down here—seven years after leaving Shen Yuan—he is able to use the sword’s powers of transportation. With Meng Mo’s help, he learns to make portals, over small distances at first but quickly improving.

And then one day he is able to rip a hole in the air that leads to the human realm. He stumbles out onto the grass, breathing in the scent of it, astounded by his first sight of the sky since he was seventeen.

He’s run out of patience. It’s time to use the sword for what he intended.

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe wants to bathe off the years of the Abyss, to dress himself well and make himself presentable. But he wants to see Shen Yuan more than he wants any of that, so instead he simply cuts the portal and steps through.

He could never be entirely sure if it was possible to bridge their worlds, but even before he’s all the way through the portal, he recognizes Shen Yuan’s living room. He lets out an involuntary cry, his heart suddenly hammering so fast it makes his head hurt.

Bridging his world and Shen Yuan’s takes more power than anything else he’s done. For a few moments he’s blinded by the strain, his sight blacking out, but Xin Mo pours demonic energy back into him. He welcomes it.

When he can focus, he sees that while it is certainly the same room he remembers—all the walls and doorways in the right places, the same flooring, even the right smell—none of the furniture is the same. Instead of a sofa there are two armchairs, the television placed against a different wall than before. The sound of something sizzling in a pan wafts in from the kitchen along with an unfamiliar voice softly singing to some of the strange music of this world.

A horrible suspicion grips him. He doesn’t want to believe it, but he needs to know as soon as possible. He charges toward Shen Yuan’s room and wrenches the door open.

This room, too, is entirely changed—decor in all different colors than Shen Yuan had before, and most tellingly, no anime posters on the walls. No shelf of manga. No desktop computer. There’s no possible way Shen Yuan lives here.

Of course. How could he be so naive? So much has changed for Luo Binghe in the last seven years. Did he really expect that Shen Yuan would be sitting at home waiting for him?

He stops and stares anyway, rooted to the floor. Even if Shen Yuan isn’t here, this was his home—Luo Binghe’s home—and the sight of it has his heart spinning. The disappointment is paired with the elation of knowing that this is real. Luo Binghe’s life here did exist. It makes the ragged place in him that wants Shen Yuan scream with urgency.

He turns at the sound of footfalls in time to see an unknown woman emerge from the kitchen, see him, and shriek.

Luo Binghe doesn’t have time for this. The last thing he needs is to get arrested. Xin Mo still in his hand, he slashes it in the air and steps out onto the sidewalk in front of Shen Yuan’s building, ignoring some ambient yells from passersby.

He’s gotten good at using Xin Mo, but using it so much in such a short span still winds him. The passing Shanghai pedestrians give him—a large man in what must look like a historical costume holding a sword and panting—a wide berth. Luo Binghe doesn’t care. He needs the Internet.

Luckily, he knows this neighborhood. He sprints to the nearest store that can sell him a phone, hesitating only when he remembers he no longer has any of this world’s money. No matter. He doesn’t like to use force, but he’s too desperate to slow down. But he can’t just walk out with a phone, he needs someone to help him connect it to an Internet company. Brandishing Xin Mo gets it done quickly.

Then he heads for the nearest metro station, not wanting to further strain himself by using Xin Mo, but also not wanting to be here when the store calls the police.

Luo Binghe takes himself to a park he and Shen Yuan used to frequent. They would buy food off the street and come here to eat it. Luo Binghe was never satisfied with the quality of the food, but he cherished Shen Yuan’s insistence on feeding him.

Memories of Shen Yuan crowd him, pushing him to the edge of mania. Out of habit, he reaches for Meng Mo in the back of his mind and finds him comfortingly present. He’s seen all of this in Luo Binghe’s dreams, of course, but Luo Binghe can tell from his attitude that he’s mildly surprised any of it is real.

Luo Binghe sits on a bench and grabs the phone, his hands clumsy with need. He opens the default browser and taps in “Shen Yuan Shanghai”—he could never forget how it’s spelled.

In an instant, his hopes are dashed to pieces. There are too many results, far too many to find the Shen Yuan he needs.

Despair washes over him. What can he do? There’s nowhere Shen Yuan particularly frequented besides places near the apartment. Luo Binghe doesn’t know his phone number, since Shen Yuan programmed it into the phone for him. He has only one friend that Luo Binghe knows about, and he doesn’t know how to contact him either. He never met Shen Yuan’s family. This city is enormous, and that’s assuming he stayed in Shanghai and didn’t move to another city—or another country.

Xin Mo can take him anywhere, but only if he knows where he’s going. He buries his face in his hands, his breath going tight and rapid.

No. He didn’t come through all of this to give up. There has to be something. His mind is in pieces, thoughts fragmented by panic, slipping away every time he tries to concentrate.

Finally, he grasps at something. “Shen Yuan” may be a common name, but “Luo Binghe,” borne of his own unusual life circumstances, is not. And only Shen Yuan knows him in this world, so if he searches his own name and finds it, it must lead back to Yuan-ge.

He taps in “Luo Binghe.”

For a long moment, Luo Binghe doesn’t understand what he’s looking at.

Tens of thousands of results. Lists of instances of his name appearing online—in website titles, blog posts, passing mentions. And images. Pictures of him how he is now, not how he was when he lived in this realm. Not photos, but drawings of Luo Binghe with his eyes red and his demon mark blazing. Pictures of him looking even more monstrous than he does in real life, with batlike wings or twisting horns. And pictures of him with women, ranging from full illustrations to crude pornography.

He goes back to the web results and clicks on one titled “Luo Binghe - Proud Immortal Demon Way Wiki.” There in the sidebar is a rundown of his current age, weapons (Zheng Yang listed as “former”), abilities, even a listing for his parents, followed by two names he doesn’t know. And a heading that says “Wives,” followed by—Luo Binghe slams the phone face down on the bench.

Is this—this—this can’t all be from Shen Yuan?

No. Never mind how abhorrent the thought is, it doesn’t make any sense. How could Shen Yuan—or anyone—know such intimate details?

But Shen Yuan has always known more than Luo Binghe told him. His mind is working fast now. He’s always wondered how Shen Yuan knew what to say about his shizun at their first meeting. How he knew about the fake cultivation manual.

Why didn’t Shen Yuan ask more questions? Luo Binghe assumed his strange knowledge was part of his sinister agenda, and once he realized that didn’t exist, he never questioned anything about Shen Yuan again. Yuan-ge never seemed curious about Luo Binghe’s background, but when something came up, he was never surprised. Of course he had some other source of information about him, the same one that must be the cause for—all this.

He doesn’t want to look at those search results ever again, but he needs to find the source, whatever or whoever is spilling Luo Binghe’s secrets all over the Internet where Shen Yuan can see. He glances back at the page he’s on and flinches at a paragraph that says, “Personality: Luo Binghe’s childhood experiences have given him a warped sense of justice, leading him to acts of excessive—”

No, he can’t. He squeezes his burning eyes shut, the sound of his own blood in his ears all he can hear.

This can’t be the right thing, anyway. It's summarizing something else. He goes back and scrolls all the way up to the top link, the one the search engine thinks he must be looking for. Proud Immortal Demon Way.

It’s a novel, that much is clear. There’s a paragraph of labels describing the content: stallion, harem, xianxia, adventure, cultivation, straight male protagonist, erotica, no happy ending.

He’s scared to read it. But he has to know, and—whatever is in here, Shen Yuan must have read some of it before he met Luo Binghe, and he still cared for him. Shen Yuan’s opinion is the only one that matters.

It’s too long to read the whole thing, not with as crazed and jittery as Luo Binghe feels, but he skims enough to get the gist. It’s his life written down as if it were entertainment, in verbose and lurid detail. And looking through it, he can almost understand why.

Hasn’t he, after all, been fighting monsters and growing his power like the protagonist of a cheap novel? And his... sexual encounters. The thought sickens him. But it can’t be denied that he’s more experienced than the average man of his age. It might make for an interesting story.

It’s clear what’s happened. Someone in here must have an insight into Luo Binghe’s world. Perhaps a portal that’s locked on Luo Binghe somehow, or visions or dreams. And they’ve written it up as the kind of trashy adventure novel that—Luo Binghe suddenly remembers—Shen Yuan loves.

He skips to the end of the novel and finds that it breaks off only a quarter shichen ago, when he finally escaped the Abyss. So that means it’s been running concurrently with Luo Binghe’s life, which means Shen Yuan must know everything.

Even...? He reads frantically, skipping from chapter to chapter, trying to remember the timeline of events in his life. The demon battle at Cang Qiong is rendered as a victory over Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe’s first landed blow against him. Afterwards, the book skips right to Luo Binghe going to study at Bai Zhan Peak. No Shen Yuan. Not even any mention of Luo Binghe thinking of him, although his mind was full of nothing else back then. The book describes his guide through Meng Mo’s trap as an indistinct apparition. He reads enough to confirm that the content of his dreams is vague, the details of his training with Meng Mo never described.

There’s sharp relief in knowing that Shen Yuan doesn’t know of his fantasies. But at the same time, it hurts thinking of Shen Yuan reading this and believing himself to be entirely absent from Luo Binghe’s life. He must have thought Luo Binghe had forgotten him.

Under each chapter is a sprawling wall of commentary debating Luo Binghe’s motivations, his strength, his value. His stomach churns with nausea. If Luo Binghe himself hasn’t poisoned Shen Yuan’s affection with his actions, any of these people could have persuaded him to turn on Luo Binghe.

He didn’t try hard enough to be good. He wanted to do what Yuan-ge would have wanted, but he never imagined Shen Yuan’s watchful eye was on him the whole time.

The real Shen Yuan won’t be as pliable as his dream version. Perhaps the dream Shen Yuan will forever be all he has. After all, it may be entertaining to read about a violent womanizer, but who would want to embrace one? He shuts his eyes again, unable to take anything else in.

But still.

He has to know. Even if what’s ahead of him is only rejection, he needs to see it. He’s not capable of giving up on Shen Yuan, even if he wanted to. His whole life is built around Yuan-ge’s shape, and without it, everything would collapse.

Shen Yuan must have some kind of connection to this book. There must be a way to find him through it.

He makes an account on the website. Well, it’s more difficult than he thought—surprisingly, the name “Luo Binghe” is already taken. So is “Heavenly Demon,” “Cang Qiong Disciple” and “Xin Mo." Eventually he settles on something that can be registered. He ignores the prompts exhorting him to fill in information about himself and upload a picture, and goes right back to the info page for the novel. He finds the author and opens a private message.

The Frozen River's Cold Heart: Do you know Shen Yuan?

He expects to wait a while for the answer; he knows talking over the internet can be a slow process. But to his surprise, he gets a response almost instantly.

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: who the fuck is this????

The Frozen River's Cold Heart: Luo Binghe

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: lmfao???

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: haha. okay. prove it

Easily done. Luo Binghe fumbles with the phone, turning the camera on with shaky hands. The sun is in his eyes, making him squint and washing out his face, but the picture is clearly him. He uploads it and sends it over.

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: okay 🙄 noncanonical demon mark try harder

How is Luo Binghe meant to prove himself? Anything this man knows about him would have gone in the book, public knowledge to all. Except the one thing the book is missing.

The Frozen River's Cold Heart: I lived in this realm for five months when I was fifteen, and left after my mistakes caused the one I love to be hurt. Did you know that? I assume not, or else, knowing I have access to your world, you would not speak to me so flippantly.

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: oh fuck.

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: shit.

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: you really came back??

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: thank god you have NO idea how mopey shen-bro was after you left

The Frozen River's Cold Heart: Then you know him?

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: ummmm. okay i do think it’s you, but i feel like i shouldn’t doxx my bro

Luo Binghe’s grip tightens on the phone, until he has to rein himself back so as not to crack it. His immoderate use of Xin Mo is making his frustration difficult to control. The thought of this person standing between him and Shen Yuan, after everything he’s gone through, makes him crave bloodshed. Xin Mo amplifies it, showing him visions of carnage that he strains to look past to keep communicating.

The Frozen River's Cold Heart: I am losing my patience. Tell me where to find him.

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: UH. i really want to, please don’t be mad, but. you’re not going to do anything to him, are you?

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: I told him to always be nice to you, so if he did anything wrong, it’s NOT my fault!

He doesn’t want to be affected by anything this charlatan says, but that cuts deep. Is that what he looks like to someone who has spent so much time writing about him? Nothing but a threat?

The Frozen River's Cold Heart: I would gladly tear off my own legs before hurting Shen Yuan. I would cut out my eyes and tongue.

The Frozen River's Cold Heart: I would burn a thousand kingdoms to the ground before allowing Shen Yuan to be hurt in my presence.

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: okay okay you’ve convinced me, you’re definitely luo binghe. or at least a dedicated enough cosplayer/LARPer to make all shen-bro’s dreams come true hahaha

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky: FUCK i’m sorry i can’t stop saying stupid shit. please don’t kill me. shen yuan lives at—

And an address.

It’s in Shanghai. Shen Yuan still lives in this city.

It takes three tries for Luo Binghe to type the address into Baidu maps. He doesn’t know the building, but he knows this neighborhood. A wealthy one, no surprises there, even more luxurious than Shen Yuan’s previous location.

He’s been waiting for seven years. Waiting half a shichen more to get there on the metro—or even by car—is too much to bear. He draws Xin Mo one more time and slashes his way to a corner he can picture.

It pushes him right to his limit. His qi fluctuates wildly like it hasn’t done since he first found Xin Mo. He needs to stop and stabilize it, but if he can just hold out a little more...

Vertigo causes the street around him to buckle and swell in his vision as he stumbles to the given address. He can’t wait for someone to call up to Shen Yuan’s apartment, so he pushes right past the doorman, ignoring several attempts by security workers to stop him. As if any human mortal could get in his way.

By the time he makes it to Shen Yuan’s door, he’s almost too exhausted to be afraid anymore. He just wants to rest. If—if Shen Yuan doesn’t want him anymore—then at least he’ll know. He’ll be able to stop all of this. He knocks on the door, then leans heavily against it.

He nearly stumbles as it opens, but catches himself at the last moment.

And he’s there. Yuan-ge.

Luo Binghe tried so hard to fix all the details in his memory, but Shen Yuan’s face is brighter and more beautiful than even his most self-indulgent dreams. He’s older, of course, the bloom of youth developed into a more mature handsomeness. His body is a little softer and rounder as well, which gives Luo Binghe a painful jab of relief. Luo Binghe has suffered, but Shen Yuan has continued to live a soft, pampered life, his needs taken care of, just as he deserves.

Shen Yuan takes him in, his eyes growing wide and shocked.

“Binghe??”

“Yuan-ge.” He never decided what to say. His voice breaks. “Will you give me a hug?”

“Binghe?” Shen Yuan says again, something desperate in his tone. He’s much shorter than Luo Binghe now, the top of his head only reaching as far as Luo Binghe’s chin. He grabs Luo Binghe by the shoulders, pulls him forward, and throws his arms around him.

Everything catches up to Luo Binghe at once, all the waiting and yearning and suffering. Tears well up in his eyes. He clutches at the back of Shen Yuan’s shirt and sobs into his shoulder. His body feels so good in Luo Binghe’s arms, so unlike any of the other bodies that have found their way there. He feels a sudden, vicious hatred at the thought that he ever let anyone else take Shen Yuan’s place.

“Binghe—” Shen Yuan’s voice wobbles. “Is it—it’s really you? You’re so big, what happened to my little sheep?”

That makes Luo Binghe cry harder. “I’m sorry,” he gasps.

“What—for getting tall? Binghe—hang on—I don’t understand what’s—”

“I came to find you,” Luo Binghe gets out. “Yuan-ge, I couldn’t live without you. I—”

Shen Yuan’s arms tighten around him. One hand comes up to pet the hair at the back of his neck.

“Binghe, don’t try to talk while you’re crying. Just calm down a minute, okay?”

But Luo Binghe feels wetness against his neck where Shen Yuan’s face is pressed. He has to make an effort not to crush Shen Yuan, he's holding him so close.

Xin Mo’s backlash is catching up to him. He sways forward, dizzy with it, and Shen Yuan yelps in alarm. Every sound he makes is precious to Luo Binghe.

“Binghe! Are you okay?”

“Qi instability,” Luo Binghe mumbles into Shen Yuan’s shoulder. When he closes his eyes, he sees blood. He struggles to keep them open.

“Oh—” Luo Binghe feels Shen Yuan’s body tense against him. He hugs him a little tighter in panic, scared that he said something wrong, something that will make Shen Yuan reject him after all. Xin Mo roars in his mind at the thought.

But Shen Yuan clears his throat. “Do you, um—do you need—I know, um, dual cultivation—”

It startles Luo Binghe so much that Xin Mo quiets for a moment. “Yuan-ge... are you offering...?”

Shen Yuan makes a half-swallowed noise. “Wh—me? I don't—you wouldn't want—but if you need—” He breaks off without completing a single thought.

“Yuan-ge. How can I dual cultivate when there are no cultivators here?”

“Oh,” Shen Yuan says, clearly embarrassed. “Yeah.”

Another wave crashes over Luo Binghe and he groans, his legs weakening. He’s seeing things with his eyes open now, blood and metal and teeth and bone. Darkness encroaches at the edges of his vision.

“Um,” Shen Yuan says. “Binghe, if you pass out, I really can’t carry you to bed. Can you walk there?”

“If Yuan-ge helps me,” he says pathetically. Shen Yuan softens, just as weak to that tone as he ever was.

Maybe he leans on Shen Yuan slightly more than necessary, as Shen Yuan leads him to the bedroom, but by the time they get there his lucidity is slipping away from him. He doesn’t want to dirty Shen Yuan’s bed with his filthy clothes and his boots still on his feet, but he can’t push himself any further. He collapses on the bed with just enough time to register that the sheets smell exactly right before he blacks out.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

As Luo Binghe paws through Shen Yuan’s clothing drawers, he feels Meng Mo’s presence settle in the back of his mind.

“Well?”

The old demon snorts. “Why don’t you just look for yourself. You know, I always thought you were making too much of all this, but really... you two are well suited.”

Luo Binghe swallows against a fearful tightening in his throat. “Has he been with anyone? Has he... Has he loved anyone else?” He’s bracing himself for the answer. If it’s a yes, he can handle it. He can still make Shen Yuan his.

“As far as I can tell, there’s only one person he’s thought about much at all these past seven years.”

Luo Binghe’s heart seizes. “What—? Who?” Shang Qinghua?

Meng Mo refuses to answer, claiming that it’s better for Luo Binghe to see for himself. Luo Binghe clenches his fists in frustration. Why did he think Meng Mo would be helpful?

Most of Shen Yuan’s clothing is clearly wrong for him, but he finds a pair of track pants he can at least wear. The waistband is a little loose and they’re far too short, but Luo Binghe is generously equipped below the waist, and the swell of his rear fills them out well enough.

He doesn’t bother with a shirt, not after the way Shen Yuan’s eyes lingered on his pectoral muscles. Instead he turns his attention to stripping Shen Yuan’s bedding, intent on washing it after falling asleep in his dirty clothes.

But after he gets the sheets off, he’s hit with a dizzy spell that makes him sit down heavily on the sleeping pad. It’s been a while since he used Xin Mo without dual cultivation for support. He forgot how much it could take out of him.

The attack drains him so quickly, he has no time to fight it.

✿❀✿

Shen Yuan unpeels himself from the kitchen counter, his brain empty of everything but the growing feeling of hearing an alarm sound from somewhere in the building and not knowing what the emergency is.

Luo Binghe asked him to marry him, and then... almost kissed him. Right? There’s no possible other way to interpret that, right? He couldn’t have been trying to clean a smudge off Shen Yuan’s face? That required breathing on his mouth?

No, that’s stupid. Even trying his hardest, Shen Yuan can’t think of an explanation that makes more sense than Luo Binghe just wanting to kiss him.

Did he do this? Did he turn Luo Binghe gay? Luo Binghe, a stallion protagonist, was exposed to Shen Yuan at a formative age instead of a beautiful woman, and this is the result. He’s like a duckling who imprinted on the wrong species. His instincts developed all wrong!

Shen Yuan grabs his phone and texts “HELP” to Shang Qinghua. Then he doesn’t know what else to do, so he goes back to making breakfast, grabbing some toppings for the tofu pudding.

But once that’s done, he’s left floundering again. Isn’t Luo Binghe done looking for clothes yet? The tea is going to get cold! Shen Yuan can’t possibly go in there, right? What if he’s still naked!

A thought strikes him that makes him shiver with horror. Would Luo Binghe... want him to go into the room while he’s naked? Is that the kind of gay thing he’s interested in now? If Luo Binghe, protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon Way, really nearly kissed him, then anything is possible!

How is he supposed to react to this? He can’t marry Luo Binghe. Can he? He can’t. Right? Has anyone ever said no to Luo Binghe before? But he can’t! Luo Binghe is a fictional character who lives inside a book! And also a man!

But he seemed serious. He came all this way to find Shen Yuan, and hurt himself with Xin Mo’s power just to be here. It would be unfair to say no to him. Luo Binghe has suffered so much. Shen Yuan can’t stand the thought of disappointing him.

His best option is to just try to avoid the topic until Luo Binghe comes to his senses and realizes that he already has all the wives he could possibly need. And then he’ll probably just... go back into the book to be with them. Shen Yuan clutches his mug of tea, suddenly feeling the chill in his apartment. That’s what’s best for Binghe, so... so Shen Yuan will be happy for him, when that happens. Yes.

But where is Luo Binghe? Shen Yuan is worked up enough to go knock on the door to his bedroom. The sooner he sees Luo Binghe again, the sooner they can start forgetting about the whole gay marriage thing and geting back to normal.

There’s no response, which freaks Shen Yuan out enough that he puts aside the very real possibility that this is a gay trap and Luo Binghe is waiting for him naked. He pushes open the door a crack to see Luo Binghe curled up on the bare mattress, dozing again. Ah, poor thing... He must be so worn out. Shen Yuan doesn’t want to wake him, but he also wants Luo Binghe to have tea and food. He didn’t even have the energy to put on a shirt! And Shen Yuan’s pants are sitting very low on his hips. He’s going to get cold if he sleeps like that!

Shen Yuan puts Luo Binghe’s tea and breakfast down on the bedside table, and then gets a clean blanket from the closet and drapes it over Luo Binghe’s sleeping body. It almost seems a crime to cover it, like cloaking a statue.

Luo Binghe stirs at the feeling, blinking at Shen Yuan with heavy eyelids.

“Yuan-ge...?”

Ah... like this, he really could be Shen Yuan’s little Binghe again. He is Shen Yuan’s little Binghe, just grown. The thought makes him inhale slowly, suddenly feeling his eyes prickle.

Luo Binghe was so sweet and charming when he was here. Even if he did get involved with organized crime and hire a dark web hitman, it’s hard to believe that his bright little sun was really responsible for everything he did in the book. It must have been hard for him.

Shen Yuan sits on the bed near him, drawing the blanket further up so it properly covers Luo Binghe’s torso. He pats his shoulder, satisfied, and Luo Binghe makes a soft noise. Shen Yuan knows he’s supposed to be a scary powerful demon, but he’s still really... cute.

“Binghe, there’s tea and breakfast,” he says gently. “I can go out and buy you some clothes while you rest.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes fly open immediately. “No, stay here!”

“Ah...” Shen Yuan rubs his shoulder again. “Silly child, you’ll only be asleep! You need something to wear.”

Luo Binghe puts his hand over Shen Yuan’s, closing his eyes again.

“I don’t want clothes, I want Yuan-ge to stay.”

Honestly... how spoiled! And yet Shen Yuan knows his childhood was far from pampered. Who taught him to act like this?

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll stay here. But you have to eat something.”

Luo Binghe nods blearily. “Will Yuan-ge feed it to me?”

What?? “No! Sit up!”

He pulls some bare pillows over to prop Luo Binghe up so he can sit up in bed and drink his tea. Luo Binghe is clearly exhausted, so he stops making conversation, letting him focus on not falling asleep with hot tea in his hands.

Luo Binghe looks down into the mug and sighs. “Yuan-ge, I really, really missed you.”

Fuck. Shen Yuan thought having breakfast together would be safe, not give him another one of those excruciating squeezing feelings he doesn’t know what to do with.

Then Luo Binghe makes it worse: “Did you miss me?”

Didn’t this kid ask Shen Yuan to marry him just an hour ago? He was ready for a marriage proposal, but wasn’t even sure whether Shen Yuan missed him? It’s too sad. Shen Yuan can’t take it.

“What kind of question is that? Of course I did.”

Luo Binghe breathes in fast. Shen Yuan looks away so he doesn’t have to see Luo Binghe cry into his tea, but he lets him squeeze his hand hard.

Obviously he and Luo Binghe aren’t going to get married. But... it’s nice sitting with him like this in the morning and having breakfast. Shen Yuan wouldn’t mind doing it more, as friends.

Once Luo Binghe’s settled back into sleep, Shen Yuan looks at his phone again.

🍜 what's up

🍜 bro??

🍜 shen-bro??? what happened

🍜 oh my god you're dead aren't you

🍜 i fucking killed you

🍜 shit shit shit

I'm not dead 🥒

What do you mean, you killed me?? What would you have to do with it? 🥒

🍜 hahahahahahahahaha

🍜 anyway what's up

Nothing. I mean I was kind of freaked out because Binghe sort of tried to kiss me but I’ve dealt with it 🥒

🍜 how did you deal with it

I’m just going to ignore it until he forgets about it 🥒

🍜 oh god

🍜 you’re really going to die. i can’t believe the only person who reliably buys me food is going to die

Shen Yuan rolls his eyes. It’s no use talking to Shang Qinghua when he’s in this mood.

By the time Luo Binghe wakes up a few hours later, Shen Yuan has ordered him some clothes for next-day delivery and is boiling frozen dumplings. Honestly, Luo Binghe is here and he’s too wiped out even to cook. Shen Yuan wants him to rest, but he’s really missed Luo Binghe’s cooking!

Luo Binghe shuffles out into the kitchen—still shirtless! Binghe, you can’t just spring your half-naked body on people!—and walks up to him. Shen Yuan’s heart rate roars into high gear. Is he going to—like the last time he interrupted Shen Yuan making food—?!

But Luo Binghe just drops a little black cloth pouch on the countertop, laced shut with a red cord.

Shen Yuan glances up at him. “What is this?”

“For the money I owe you.”

Shen Yuan opens the bag. The contents inside are vaster than could possibly be contained in—wait, is this a qiankun pouch? He knows Luo Binghe is from xianxia, but it’s different seeing an actual xianxia artifact right here! So cool! Inside the qiankun pouch is a jumble of precious stones, several buckets’ worth of them. Shen Yuan’s no expert, but they look expensive.

“I didn’t know how much it would be in your world’s currency,” Luo Binghe says, eyes downcast.

He cannot possibly accept this. Especially when he has plenty of money, and Luo Binghe...

“Binghe, I thought you said you didn’t have any wealth?”

“That’s all of it.”

“Binghe!” Shen Yuan pushes the bag back at him. “I can’t take all your money!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Luo Binghe says. “What’s mine is yours, always. I would like to share everything with you, but if you don’t...” His voice wavers. He swallows unsteadily before continuing. “If you don’t want me, then you should at least have what you’re owed.”

What the hell... So the only way he’ll take it back is if he gets to marry Shen Yuan instead?? The protagonist is really too smart. Shen Yuan can’t beat him. At this rate he's going to be forced to accept his proposal!

“Just take it back for now,” he says desperately. “We can figure it out later, okay?”

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “It’s not only because of the money you spent on me,” he says. “I... caused Yuan-ge’s injuries. I can’t live with myself if I don’t repay at least some part of the harm I’ve done to you.”

Shen Yuan waves this away. “What did I always tell you when you lived here? Pay me back in food.” That makes Luo Binghe smile, maybe because he referenced that time when... when they were both really happy. Shen Yuan breathes a sigh of relief.

After that, things really do start feeling more normal. Since Luo Binghe doesn’t have any clothes to wear, they can’t go outside, and Luo Binghe is still clearly exhausted anyway. So they just hang around the apartment and watch TV like they used to do.

“Yuan-ge still doesn’t have much to do,” Luo Binghe notes, but he sounds approving, like Shen Yuan should be allowed to do nothing. There’s no way in hell Shen Yuan is going to tell him that he called out of work. Luo Binghe will just add his wages to his imaginary debt.

The only problem is... Well, it’ll be a relief when Luo Binghe gets some real clothes. It’s very distracting having such a paragon of the perfect masculine body hanging around the house. Like any man, Shen Yuan can barely look away!

Other than that, having Luo Binghe here feels shockingly right. Like he never should have left. All those seven long, lonely years are burned to nothing by the radiant heat of his presence. If only some of the Zhongdian posters could see him, they would understand that Shen Yuan was right all along. Every woman in the world wanting him is perfectly realistic.

Nothing else of note happens until after dinner. Luo Binghe did his best with the food Shen Yuan had in the fridge. Tomorrow, they can get proper groceries. They get comfortable on the couch, and Shen Yuan puts on Princess Mononoke.

Halfway through the movie, they reach for the Doritos at the same time, and their hands brush. Come on... what a cliché! Even if Luo Binghe is trying to seduce him, doesn’t Shen Yuan merit more original material??

But Luo Binghe grabs hold of his hand and tugs it closer. Binghe, don’t look so closely... Shen Yuan’s fingers are coated with Dorito dust!

“Yuan-ge,” Luo Binghe says, “let me help you with this.”

He drags his tongue up Shen Yuan’s index finger, from joint to tip.

Shen Yuan is paralyzed. What the fuck kind of seduction technique is this! Licking Dorito dust off his fingers? If this was in a romance novel, the readers would close it in disgust!

But Luo Binghe seems to be really enjoying it. He sucks two of Shen Yuan’s fingers into his mouth with a soft moan, swirling his tongue around the tips. That urgent alarm starts going off again somewhere deep in the recesses of Shen Yuan’s mind.

Binghe, aren’t you paying attention to Miyazaki’s masterpiece??

He’s too stunned to say anything, forced to just sit and watch while Luo Binghe sucks on his hand. He shifts in his seat, uncomfortably warm. It’s not just the excruciating drag of Luo Binghe’s hot tongue, but also the charged look on his face while he does it. Luo Binghe is unfairly beautiful, his hair falling into his face and his dark lashes lowered, cheeks just barely tinged with pink.

He’s relieved when Luo Binghe finishes with a little scrape of teeth against the pad of his thumb. But now he has a different problem. He can’t just keep eating Doritos. He’s supposed to take the hand Luo Binghe just slobbered all over and bring it to his own mouth?

He lets his hand hover, unsure what to do. Now he’s the one not paying attention to one of Studio Ghibli’s most iconic works! Luo Binghe is too distracting!

When his hand air-dries, he just puts it gingerly back in his lap and keeps it there.

He should have said something. He can’t just let Luo Binghe do things like this to him. If he can’t find the right words, he should at least pull back and try not to encourage him. It’s not right when he still hasn’t answered Luo Binghe’s question, especially knowing what answer he’ll surely have to give.

But this is the second time now that Luo Binghe has actually... made a move on him. He thought maybe Luo Binghe asked to marry him out of some kind of stallion protagonist compulsion, or genre-poisoned ideas of what’s normal. But he actually... wants Shen Yuan? Everything that comes with being married?

A married couple would wake up together, spend most days together, eat meals together, and be intimate with each other, even like this, unexpectedly on the couch during movie night. It’s too easy to imagine it with Luo Binghe. If he could only convince his brain that it sounded strange and unappealing, it would be easier to turn him down. But they already lived together when Luo Binghe was a child, and it was as simple and satisfying as Luo Binghe’s congee.

But this would be different! Luo Binghe is an adult now, and Shen Yuan isn’t gay. It’s absurd to think of marrying a man. It sounds like a joke.

His mind whirls like a high-speed blender. He barely hears when Luo Binghe says, “Here, Yuan-ge shouldn’t dirty his hands.” When he looks over, Luo Binghe has a Dorito between his thumb and index finger, and he’s holding it up to Shen Yuan’s mouth. Shen Yuan is so startled that he eats it without thinking.

Luo Binghe looks so pleased that Shen Yuan immediately knows he’s going to keep doing it. He abruptly grabs the remote and turns off the TV, unable to handle the thought of just sitting here while Luo Binghe, Heavenly Demon and wielder of Xin Mo, hand-feeds him Doritos. Shirtless.

“It’s getting late,” Shen Yuan says. “We should just go to bed.”

“If you want,” Luo Binghe says, confirming that he wasn’t even watching the movie. How disrespectful! Only Luo Binghe could get away with this!

Going to bed, however, causes another problem. Luo Binghe stripped the sheets earlier, but he passed out before he could put them in the laundry, and Shen Yuan left them crumpled on the floor. He has spare bedding, but only one set. If he makes up his own bed, there won’t be any bedding for the guest room.

“I’ll sleep on the couch,” Shen Yuan says.

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “I’ll take it. I won’t inconvenience you.”

Shen Yuan hesitates. That’s it? After Luo Binghe insisted on snuggling this morning? He half expected him to pout and complain, like some moe anime waifu in the type of series where Shen Yuan fast forwards all the sex scenes. When Luo Binghe was a teen, he used to whine and exaggerate his distress whenever he wanted something. Shouldn’t... Shouldn’t he want to share a bed? Since he’s gay now? Shen Yuan didn’t misread that, right?

“Binghe, you’d be fine on the couch?”

“Yes, Yuan-ge. It will be more comfortable than what I’m used to.”

That’s right. Luo Binghe spent the last five years sleeping on the ground, prepared to wake at the slightest sound of danger. Of course he wouldn’t complain about being kicked to the couch. He doesn’t expect any better.

Shen Yuan’s stomach hurts.

“Ah, that’s okay,” he says. “You can sleep in the bed with me. It’s alright if we share.”

Luo Binghe looks up at him, shocked. Like he really didn’t think he’d be allowed. It drowns any remaining hesitation. Whether or not Luo Binghe has any... expectations... of Shen Yuan, he’s still Binghe. Shen Yuan can’t make himself be afraid of him, even when knowing what he wants makes him dizzy with panic.

“Yuan-ge,” Luo Binghe says, almost at a whisper. “You’ll really sleep next to me all night?”

Why doesn’t he look teary? Shen Yuan is feeling a little choked up! Binghe, please cry fast so your old friend won’t be the only one humiliated!

It takes all the face Shen Yuan has to spare, but he can’t let Luo Binghe think his permission is at all in doubt. “Binghe, of course.”

He looks away, unable to watch how nakedly vulnerable Luo Binghe is made by something so minor.

Luo Binghe puts sheets on the bed while Shen Yuan gets into his pajamas and brushes his teeth. Having perfect teeth with no maintenance must be a fictional character thing.

When they get into bed, Shen Yuan stays self-consciously on his side, almost to the edge. But when Luo Binghe crawls closer, he doesn’t have the heart to push him away. He’s starting to think he’s not capable of pushing Luo Binghe away, no matter what he does.

He’s prepared for Luo Binghe to snuggle up to him like he did this morning, but instead he reaches for Shen Yuan’s hand, resting beside his head on the pillow, and interlaces their fingers. Then he closes his eyes.

Before long, Luo Binghe's breath slows into a steady rhythm. But Shen Yuan can’t sleep. His heart beats in his palm where it’s held against Luo Binghe’s. He can almost feel Luo Binghe’s hearbeat too, their pulse points pressed together.

What a fragile thing, to sustain something as big and precious as Luo Binghe’s heart. Shen Yuan has never held so much of it before. The responsibility is terrifying.

He would give anything for a guarantee that he won’t hurt Luo Binghe. He can’t stop going around in circles, his mind turning away from the thought of being—what Luo Binghe wants him to be—and then turning again from the unthinkable idea of breaking his heart.

Luo Binghe wants so little of him. To sleep nearby. To hold hands. Yet at the same time, he wants something so big that it feels like the greatest part of Shen Yuan, like giving it to Binghe will leave him unrecognizeable.

But what good is he, the way he is now? Luo Binghe has achieved so much. He’s a legend already at age twenty-two, one of the most powerful beings alive in his world. Shen Yuan is nothing. If he could make Luo Binghe happy, it would be the first thing he’s done that he might be proud of.

Chapter Text

When Shen Yuan finally drifts off to sleep, he dreams.

Luo Binghe starts with the last few days, skimming the surface of Shen Yuan’s memories. He sees himself showing up unexpectedly at Shen Yuan’s door.

Luo Binghe remembers being exhausted, crying and on the verge of collapse. But in Shen Yuan’s memory, his tears are sweet and crystalline, his face handsome, his body even stronger and more defined than it is in real life. His eyes catch the light, revealing shades of color Luo Binghe has never noticed in a mirror.

He was too bleary to so much as look at Shen Yuan’s room before he collapsed in his bed. But in the memory, after he passes out, he watches Shen Yuan leap back and run to start pulling things off the walls.

The items come into focus as Shen Yuan approaches them. A large poster of Cang Qiong Mountain, peaks and rainbow bridge clearly shown. An image of him, sitting on a throne in a room of flames, eyes glowing red, with a selection of scantily-clad women that he’s—that he met in the Abyss draped over him and each other. A poster of him as a child on Qing Jing Peak. A close-up of him pointing Xin Mo at the viewer.

There are smaller images, too, glossy card showing him in a variety of poses and outfits that Shen Yuan has taped to the wall in neat rows. His demon mark. The jade pendant his mother gave him. Various magical artifacts he’s picked up in his travels. Everywhere Shen Yuan might glance around his room, he must see Luo Binghe.

These pictures, too, are nicer than the reality, especially the ones that depict Luo Binghe in the Abyss. He knows he’s handsome, but he was half-alive there, unwashed and covered in muck. In the images, he is pristine. Alluring.

Once Shen Yuan has shoved all the wall hangings into the back of his closet, he grabs a plastic tub and starts grabbing things off his desk and bookshelves: plastic replicas of Luo Binghe’s belongings, plastic figures of Luo Binghe—some more realistic, some with exaggerated features and proportions—even a couple of soft toys, like one might give to children.

Luo Binghe knows exactly what he’s looking at, and it leaves him breathless. It’s Shen Yuan’s version of his dreams. His way of pretending Luo Binghe is close. He must have thought of him every day; he couldn’t not, surrounded by all this.

And he had to acquire all these items. One at a time, searching for more images of Luo Binghe, tapping his bank account over and over. The level of devotion it implies stuns Luo Binghe, leaving him so paralyzed he almost forgets that he has much more to look at.

Why did Shen Yuan hide all of this from him? Could he have been shy about the depth of his affection for Luo Binghe? Is it possible that even with all the care Yuan-ge shows him, there is yet more he's concealing? The idea trembles within Luo Binghe, almost too insubstantial to stand up to the storms of his anxieties.

He pulls away and sifts through Shen Yuan’s memories, going backward in time and looking for anything involving him. He meant to look for anyone else important to Shen Yuan, too, any hint of romance or yearning. But so many of Shen Yuan’s thoughts are yelling Binghe! at him that he couldn’t possibly view them all in one night.

He dips in to see Shen Yuan sitting at the computer, typing furiously. He recognizes the website as the one where the novel about him is hosted. In his dream—in Shen Yuan’s mind—every instance of Luo Binghe’s name on the screen glows with importance.

It’s nice to see you’re not one of those PIDW fanatics who just want to suck Airplane’s dick all day, Shen Yuan types. But criticizing Binghe is just as idiotic. It could not be more obvious that Binghe is carrying the whole book. You think this would even be readable with a different protagonist? The wives are boring. The setting is cool, but mostly because of how Binghe interacts with it. Every time someone brings up this book, it’s like everyone voluntarily flushes their brains down the toilet. If you don’t like Binghe, why even read the fucking book?

It takes less than a minute for a reply to pop up: “lol dude it’s porn.” It frustrates Shen Yuan so much, he shoves himself away from the desk and leaves the room.

Another memory shows him in a tiny room, smaller and grubbier than any in Shen Yuan’s apartment, lying on the bed while Shang Qinghua taps away at his computer—this must be his apartment.

“—don’t understand what the problem is,” Shang Qinghua says, addressing Shen Yuan without looking at him. “I thought you liked the monster fights.”

“I like them,” Shen Yuan says. He’s frowning up at the ceiling, hands clasped behind his head. “I just don’t get why there are so many. It’s repetitive.”

“You said the same thing about the wife-collecting.”

“It is repetitive!” Shen Yuan insists. “But with the fights, I just don’t see why Airplane has to make things so hard on Binghe. Like, we get it! It’s an Endless Abyss! It’s spooky and full of monsters! It’s too one-note. After such a cliché tragic backstory, Binghe really still has to suffer so much before he gets super powerful? It’s excessive. Readers don’t want that.”

“Bro,” Shang Qinghua says, kicking a foot against the floor to turn his chair around. “Don’t you think you might be a little biased? And most readers like it when the protagonist faces challenges and grows from them?”

“That’s not—I’m not saying this because of—it’s about good writing! And he can grow without getting hurt so much. How fucking unoriginal is that? Oh, Binghe has to get stronger so just keep throwing shit at him until he can’t handle it anymore? It’s not a fucking video game where he has to grind EXP. He can get strong on his own.”

“But you still want him to fight monsters sometimes.”

“Dude, yes, I like it when Binghe’s a fucking badass, obviously. I just want him to win every time and not get hurt so much. Or poisoned! Why is there so much poison that conveniently suppresses Heavenly Demon immunity? Airplane is such a fucking hack.”

“A hack who gets that the protagonist winning all the time with no struggle is a shit story,” Shang Qinghua mutters. “Bro, I know you worry about him.”

“This isn’t about that!” Shen Yuan protests. “I don’t worry about him. Can you stop accusing me of—we’re talking about the integrity of the book!”

“Bro, it’s just a shitty harem novel. It doesn’t have to be good.”

“Then why would he make a character like Binghe! Why waste him on bullshit?”

Shang Qinghua sighs.

There are a number of conversations just like this: at Shang Qinghua’s place, at Shen Yuan’s place, in cafes and restaurants. Luo Binghe spends a long time listening to them, enraptured.

Shen Yuan’s complaints are consistent: Luo Binghe is suffering too much, and the sex scenes are irritating. Although when Shang Qinghua presses him on what he dislikes about them, Shen Yuan always changes the subject.

“I don’t think you even read the sex,” Shang Qinghua says over dim sum, pointing at Shen Yuan with his chopsticks. “You just object on principle.”

“Yeah, duh! None of the wives are good enough for Binghe, they’re poorly-written! Liu Mingyan was the only interesting girl, and she was the first one. Everything since he entered the Abyss has been shit. There’s not even any romance, it’s just woman swooning into his arms and giving it up immediately, it’s stupid and tedious.”

“So you want more romance? Between Luo Binghe and women?”

“That’s obviously not what I’m saying!” Shen Yuan gives an irritated huff and shoves a dumpling in his mouth instead of elaborating further.

Luo Binghe drinks it in like a hooked fish finally thrown back into the water. Shen Yuan is right, even if he’s under the misapprehension that that fraud Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky has any control over Luo Binghe’s actions. None of those women were good enough for him. Only one person can make him happy.

These conversations seem to last hours and hours. Luo Binghe notes with pleased awe that the topic has taken over Shen Yuan’s entire relationship with Shang Qinghua.

When he goes back further, though, closer to the time he left, Shen Yuan stops talking to Shang Qinghua about him. Or talking to anyone much at all. He spends a lot of time online, reading the book and arguing, or just rereading old chapters.

It’s funny. Luo Binghe rarely if ever saw Shen Yuan online when they lived together. He knew Shen Yuan was trying to pretend he didn’t know the internet existed, but still. He spent most of his time going out with Luo Binghe, trying new things, or watching TV. Or reading his bad novels.

Without Luo Binghe he seems stuck in his room, staring at the computer late into the night until his eyes are red with exhaustion. Sometimes Luo Binghe sees him reading other online novels, but most often it’s Proud Immortal Demon Way.

Luo Binghe should have been there. He wanted to be there. He wanted to take care of Shen Yuan. It’s not fair that he was prevented. Where are Shen Yuan's friends and family? Don’t they understand that his happiness is the most important thing?

Impatient, Luo Binghe goes back further. He sees Shen Yuan drinking tea with Shang Qinghua, although he’s mostly staring into his cup without touching it. Finally, he sighs and says, “Shang-bro, let’s just say it. You know Proud Immortal Demon Way, right?”

Shang Qinghua nearly fumbles his own teacup. “What?”

“You recognized Binghe. At the restaurant. You’ve read it. You know he’s not my family friend.”

“A-Ah,” Shang Qinghua says, relaxing a little. “I’ve... read some of it. I don’t really keep up.”

Shen Yuan frowns. “Why not?”

“Isn’t that the stallion novel you hate?”

“I don’t hate all of it,” Shen Yuan mutters.

“Mm.” Shang Qinghua hesitates. “Did you... want to talk about it?”

Shen Yuan scowls even more. “Can you not act like—I said I’m not upset about Binghe, okay? I don’t need to talk about anything.”

Shang Qinghua rolls his eyes. “You brought up the novel.”

“I just.” Shen Yuan hesitates. “I just don’t think it’s fair that Binghe transferred to Bai Zhan Peak but he still doesn’t have a good mentor.”

“Mhm,” Shang Qinghua says, grimacing.

“But it’s better for him to be there, right?” Shen Yuan continues, tapping the rim of his teacup with his finger. “Not Bai Zhan Peak. I mean... in the book. He has this whole grand destiny thing. He’s gonna become emperor and have a harem of thousands. He’s meant to be there.”

“I guess so.”

“He wouldn’t have been—happy.” Shen Yuan’s voice goes a little strange on the last word. “Staying here.”

“Are you asking me?”

“I don’t know,” Shen Yuan says. “Never mind. Let’s talk about something else.”

Luo Binghe drifts further back.

In this time, Shen Yuan is still recovering from his injuries in his apartment. There are two women who drop by every day to take care of him, probably his mother and sister.

Luo Binghe watches him converse politely with his mother, tease his sister and bat her away when she tries to fuss over him. But every evening, once they leave, he turns his face into the pillow for a long time, his breath tellingly loud and ragged.

A few times he calls out for Luo Binghe in the mornings, like he used to when he was too lazy to get up for breakfast. When no one comes, he gets annoyed, turning red and scrubbing his face with his hands, chastising himself under his breath.

Watching it is tearing Luo Binghe apart. It hurts to see Shen Yuan so upset, even in his quiet, understated way. But there’s also a part of him that is unspeakably relieved that Shen Yuan missed him. Luo Binghe was shattered by their separation. He wouldn’t have been able to bear it, if Shen Yuan had been unaffected.

The memories aren’t neatly separated into days. They blur together, murky and indistinct. Every memory Shen Yuan has involving Luo Binghe—talking about him, reading about him—is bright and detailed, clearly revisited many times. But these weeks after Luo Binghe left are dark and untouched, the details missing.

He can’t stop pushing for more, unforgivably greedy for Shen Yuan’s private suffering. He lets himself be pulled into the darkest point, the memory of the morning he was sent back.

This one is detailed, almost painfully so, the artificial lights in the medical center too bright and the texture of the bedding scratchy and uncomfortable. He watches Shen Yuan stir, and sleepily realize Luo Binghe is gone.

“Binghe?” Shen Yuan calls out. When there’s no answer, his eyes flutter shut, and he goes back to sleep.

When he next wakes up, his eyes fly open, He shoves himself partway up on the bed, before wincing and flopping back down. “Binghe? Hey, Binghe?”

But Luo Binghe doesn’t come. Shen Yuan’s brow creases in consternation.

“Hey—” he says, seemingly to no one. “Where’d Binghe go?”

He listens for a response, but none comes. Shen Yuan’s face slowly registers what’s happened, going slack and shaken.

“Hey, what the fuck,” he says. “This isn’t—hey, answer me! Where are you? This isn’t fair, we didn’t—Hello? Hello? You fucking—”

He stops and makes an effort to reach into his pocket. It’s a slow, careful process, but he manages to take out his phone and hit a few buttons.

“Come on,” he says. “Come on, Binghe...”

Luo Binghe’s phone was broken in the fight in the alley. Shen Yuan’s phone doesn’t even manage to connect with it, going straight to his message box. Shen Yuan hangs up with a frustrated noise.

Then he closes his eyes, too immobilized by his injuries to even hide his face as tears slip down it. His eyebrows draw inward like his own sadness is making him angry.

Luo Binghe’s seen him tear up—at some parts of Sailor Moon, for example—but he’s never seen Shen Yuan cry like this, in small gasped bursts. Like he’s being punched over and over. It’s worse than when he was lying on the street, injured and bleeding. At least then, Shen Yuan kept protesting that he was fine. Now the pain is bitter and raw, unhidden. It’s awful. Luo Binghe can’t stop watching.

Then Shen Yuan gasps out, “Please—I can’t—I don’t want to relive this, please—”

Luo Binghe tears the dream apart, horrified. He didn’t think he’d brought Shen Yuan’s consciousness in with him. He’s somewhere deeper than where Shen Yuan would normally be dreaming. It must have been like that first dream that Meng Mo inflicted on him—some part of him reached out and dragged in the person he most wanted to be with. He should have more control than that. He’s not a child anymore.

He rushes over to Shen Yuan, now standing in the undefined dreamspace, his face still streaming with tears. Luo Binghe wraps him up in his arms.

“Yuan-ge, I’m sorry,” he says desperately. “I didn’t mean to—I’m so, so sorry.”

“You really have dream powers,” Shen Yuan sobs. “That’s so cool.”

“I shouldn’t have been digging around in your memories.” Luo Binghe presses Shen Yuan hard to him, overwhelmed with self-loathing. Even if he hadn’t gone straight for some of Shen Yuan’s most painful memories, he shouldn’t have been spying at all.

Isn’t he just repeating his old mistakes? He didn’t trust that Shen Yuan cared for him enough, so he checked for himself, only for Shen Yuan to get hurt. He clutches him, at a loss for what to do besides hold Shen Yuan close.

“It’s fine,” Shen Yuan says. He pushes Luo Binghe away, wriggling out from his grip. “Don’t apologize so much.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Shen Yuan wipes at his eyes. “It’s not a big deal.”

Shen Yuan downplays so much of what he feels. He would never cry in front of Luo Binghe—or at all—unless he was truly unable to help it. Luo Binghe’s heart fractures like glass, cracks spiderwebbing out from the point of impact.

“Yuan-ge, I apologize. It was wrong of me.” Please, please don’t let Shen Yuan change his mind about letting him stay.

Shen Yuan looks away, face wet. “What were you looking for, anyway?”

He’d wanted to know Shen Yuan’s romantic history. But once he started looking, he was drawn in by the attention. The incredible bounty of riches in how Shen Yuan talked and thought about him, startlingly fond and longing. And the satisfying ache of watching Shen Yuan mourn their separation. It still hurts now, remembering how Shen Yuan cried, but some miserable part of him is tucking the memory away deep in his heart.

And that’s even more wrong, isn’t it? He’s not suited for Shen Yuan, too intense and controlling, too volatile where Shen Yuan is simple and sweet. Two years of Xin Mo’s influence have made it worse. It’s all too clear, here in Shen Yuan’s presence, that the adult Luo Binghe is not right for him. If he had stayed, he could have become someone who deserved to be with Shen Yuan, but the demands of his world were too harsh. He’s grown into a cruel, grasping man, who will always want more from Shen Yuan than what is freely given.

Knowing it doesn’t make him want Shen Yuan any less. The thought of Shen Yuan with someone else, someone uncomplicated, makes him sick.

“I wanted to know what I’d missed.” He takes both of Shen Yuan’s hands in his. “Yuan-ge, let me make it up to you. I’ll show you something private of mine.” He tenderly wipes Shen Yuan’s face with the back of his hand. Shen Yuan shrugs, visibly uncomfortable.

Proud Immortal Demon Way excised all traces of Shen Yuan, as if he was never there. So, still holding Shen Yuan’s hands, Luo Binghe takes him to the woodshed where he woke up alone after leaving Shen Yuan’s bedside. His younger self sleeps on the floor, curled up as if Shen Yuan’s arms are still around him.

“This is where you used to sleep?” Shen Yuan says. Luo Binghe nods. He didn’t think revisiting this would stir his emotions, well-practiced as he is at tolerating this particular pain. But looking at the smaller version of himself is like a sunburn on the inside of his skin. This child has so much yet to go through.

“I’m sorry, Binghe,” Shen Yuan says. “You deserved better.”

“You gave me better,” Luo Binghe says. “Otherwise I would have stayed here. But Yuan-ge, look.”

They watch the young Luo Binghe wake up. He pushes himself to his feet, face already slack with horror. And he stands there, frozen, staring at the woodshed around him, that familiar animal panic rising.

Luo Binghe turns to look at Shen Yuan, but he’s already run forward.

“Binghe, it’s okay,” he’s saying. “I’m here, I’m right—Binghe”—he says, louder, directing it at the adult version—”can’t you make him see me?”

“Yuan-ge, it’s a memory. It won’t change anything.”

“I know, but—”

The teenager makes a sudden convulsive movement, making Shen Yuan stumble back. His eyes are dark with anger.

Luo Binghe remembers that. The anger hit before the pain, like lightning preceding thunder. His own emotions disconnect as he watches. He’s not this child anymore. He’s stronger, and he’s made his way back, never mind the cost.

His younger self has no armor against the loss that Luo Binghe has lived with for so long. He’ll learn. Luo Binghe has no sympathy for him.

But Shen Yuan’s face twists with distress, watching the dream Luo Binghe melt down. He begins to destroy the woodshed around them, a child throwing a tantrum.

“Binghe, stop!”

Luo Binghe goes to him, clasping his hand again. “Yuan-ge,” he says gently. “It’s okay. It happened so long ago.”

“It’s not okay! Binghe, can you please—can you please make him see me?”

Luo Binghe doesn’t get it. It’s a memory—it happened like it happened, no matter what Shen Yuan does now. He wasn’t there.

His younger self, finished raging, slumps back to the floor and begins to cry. Shen Yuan makes a wounded noise and shakes Luo Binghe off to kneel beside the child, uselessly trying to put his arms around him.

Luo Binghe’s heart breaks apart. He lets his dream self lean into Shen Yuan. Shen Yuan clutches at him fiercely, one hand gripping his shoulder and the other stroking his hair.

“Binghe,” he’s saying, “don’t cry, please, it’s okay.” He pulls the younger Binghe fully into his lap so he can hug him properly, the child only sobbing harder as he grabs at Shen Yuan’s shirt.

Luo Binghe’s own throat convulses, his eyes hot.

“Yuan-ge,” he says softly. Shen Yuan just hugs his dream self harder, as if he’s the one who called out.

All he’s doing in the memory is crying. A few days after this, Shen Qingqiu beat Luo Binghe into the dirt. How would Shen Yuan react to that? Would he drive Shen Qingqiu away and pet Luo Binghe’s hair, dress his wounds like he did on their first meeting, whisper sweet words to him? Call him by name, take him into his arms? Could Luo Binghe have had that, in this place, as a child, if anyone in this world had cared for him?

Jealousy for the dream Binghe lances through him, a spasm of hate that makes him break off the dream without meaning to. It shatters apart and he lets go of Shen Yuan’s consciousness, lets go himself so they can wake up.

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan wakes with his face wet. The room is still dark—they didn’t sleep long—but the moonlight through the blinds illuminates Luo Binghe’s beautiful face as he stirs into consciousness. Shen Yuan squeezes hard where their hands are still interlaced.

“Binghe,” he says. Mortifyingly, his voice cracks, and he can feel more tears bubbling up in his throat. “I’m so sorry.”

Luo Binghe looks at him, wide-eyed and unsure. Tears spill from his eyes as well. “Yuan-ge has nothing to apologize for. I—I thought it might make you feel better to see—that I missed you too.”

Shen Yuan’s chest clenches over and over. “I didn’t want you to miss me. I wish I had been there. Oh, Binghe.” He pulls him closer, close enough that he can hear Luo Binghe’s breath shaking in his ear.

It won’t do for his pretty face to be covered in tears. Shen Yuan wipes them away, then leans in and kisses Luo Binghe’s forehead. That makes Luo Binghe choke, so Shen Yuan does it again, one hand caught up in his hair.

“Yuan-ge,” Luo Binghe gasps. “I did miss you. I needed you. I didn’t know how to grow up without you and I don’t think I did it well on my own.”

“Binghe, don’t say that. You’re—perfect.”

Luo Binghe makes a noise like he's been gutted. “Yuan-ge thinks I'm perfect?”

Of course, what could possibly be wrong with him? Shen Yuan’s always admired Luo Binghe. His perseverance and courage. His beauty, more striking than any pop idol. His ingenuity. His natural aptitude for most things, and his willingness to work on the few he doesn’t master at once. And most of all, he’s perfect in Shen Yuan’s life, a bright spark whose absence made living unbearably dull.

“You must know you are,” he says, trying for reproachful, but his voice is still embarrassingly weak. “Who could be better than you?”

Luo Binghe falls apart completely, sobbing into Shen Yuan’s shirt collar. Just the same as his younger self in the woodshed.

“Yuan-ge,” he sobs, “do you know I never cry over anything but you?”

Shen Yuan’s chest squeezes so tight he can barely breathe. He makes a tch sound with his tongue.

“I don’t want you to cry over me.”

“Yuan-ge!”

Shen Yuan pulls back so he can take Luo Binghe’s face in his hands. He meant to wipe his tears again, but the sight of him, red-eyed and wild, strikes something in him that he didn’t know existed. He leans in to plant kisses on Luo Binghe’s cheeks instead, hands cupping his face, stroking just under his ears.

Luo Binghe surges forward and presses his mouth to Shen Yuan’s. Shen Yuan’s mouth falls open in surprise and Luo Binghe kisses him harder, smearing tears all over his face.

Shen Yuan can’t think, his whole body shivering with heat. Luo Binghe is too worked up for finesse. He kisses Shen Yuan like he can do it hard enough to erase the last seven years. Shen Yuan lets him.

He knows how deep the well of Luo Binghe’s desire goes. He knows Luo Binghe has had to fight for everything he has, sometimes nearly at the cost of his life, the odds always stacked against him. He knows Luo Binghe was rejected by his shizun, disrespected by the other disciples, underestimated, and pushed into hell. He doesn’t want Luo Binghe to have to fight for him too. He’s scared of everything Luo Binghe wants from him, but at least he can give him this.

“Binghe,” he says. “Do you want—um—do you want to—”

He can’t say it. He doesn’t even know exactly what he’s asking, but he knows Luo Binghe wants him. He couldn’t be there when Luo Binghe needed him. Isn’t it the least he can do, to give him what he wants now?

“Yes,” Luo Binghe groans. “Yuan-ge, I really want it. I’ve never—I’ve never wanted it so much.” He attacks Shen Yuan’s mouth again, pushing his tongue in. Shen Yuan slides his hands around the back of Luo Binghe’s neck and holds on tight.

He hopes Luo Binghe knows what to do from here, because he has no idea. But Luo Binghe has a whole harem. If there’s one thing he knows how to do, it must be pushing down a willing body and having his way. Shen Yuan shudders, goosebumps rising on his arms.

The way all those women cried out for him. Shen Yuan skimmed the sex scenes, but he saw enough. It was always “fuck me” and “I need it” and “Luo Binghe’s massive cock bringing her overwhelming waves of pleasure” and so on. That can’t really be what it’s like, can it? Shen Yuan is giddy, the heat of Luo Binghe’s mouth pushing him right up to the verge of insanity.

“Please,” he tries. Let Luo Binghe interpret that however he wants. Shen Yuan is incapable of contributing any more to the situation.

Luo Binghe whimpers, pushing the blankets down with one hand and shoving the other up Shen Yuan’s shirt. His hand rests on the soft curve of Shen Yuan’s hip. He grips hard, moaning like he’s the one being touched. Fuck, fuck, why is Luo Binghe so into this?

Luo Binghe breaks off the kiss and pushes his face against Shen Yuan’s neck. Shen Yuan shivers involuntarily, thinking Luo Binghe is going to kiss him there, but he only breathes raggedly and lets his hand wander up Shen Yuan’s side.

“Yuan-ge,” he pants. He gets his other hand under Shen Yuan’s shirt and rests it on his stomach—humiliating, because Shen Yuan’s stomach clenches hard when Luo Binghe thumbs his nipple. What the hell? Binghe’s really treating him like a wife!

And why is he so good at it? He’s barely done anything, why is Shen Yuan’s body aching with desire? Even for a stallion protagonist, it’s too much!

Luo Binghe swings a knee over to straddle Shen Yuan's hips and pushes him onto his back with the hand on his stomach. He leans down to kiss Shen Yuan again, mumbling into the kiss.

“Yuan-ge, it’s really okay?”

Come on, this is what Luo Binghe does! All the time! Does he really have to ask?

Shen Yuan chooses to turn his face up into the kiss in lieu of answering. It should be perfectly clear what he means.

Luo Binghe swallows, an audible wet sound. Then he crawls downward, pressing his face into Shen Yuan’s stomach, smearing his mouth against the softness there. Shen Yuan squeezes his eyes shut, too embarrassed by his own body’s reactions to look.

But... if he does that, he can’t see Luo Binghe. He opens his eyes again to look at his favorite character, the person he most likes to read about, who is looking back up at him.

Luo Binghe’s face is flushed, his hair mussed from Shen Yuan’s hands. Despite his wide range of experience, the look on his face is hesitant. He blinks too hard when Shen Yuan’s eyes meet his, almost a wince. Like he’s afraid.

Luo Binghe should never be afraid of him. Shen Yuan reaches down to pat his head, messing his hair up more.

“It’s okay, Binghe,” he says. “Do what you want.” Luo Binghe turns his head into Shen Yuan’s hand, his breath coming fast.

“I want to make Yuan-ge feel good.”

Shen Yuan squirms with embarrassment. Why does he have to say everything so directly? A line like that should be a joke, something Shen Yuan would laugh at for being over-the-top in a stupid novel.

It’s not funny. Sweat prickles at the back of his neck.

“Please,” Luo Binghe says. “I want to—Yuan-ge, please. I used to think about—I—”

“Shh,” Shen Yuan says desperately. “Just—okay. Okay.” He really can’t handle Luo Binghe, sex god that he is, too worked up over Shen Yuan to even beg properly. Fuck. Oh, fuck.

Luo Binghe tugs down the waistband of his pajama pants. Shen Yuan closes his eyes, bracing himself for a touch in a place he can barely acknowledge even to himself.

Instead, he feels Luo Binghe’s tongue lick all the way up his dick.

Shen Yuan jerks in surprise, which only presses Luo Binghe’s mouth harder against him. His eyes fly open.

“What are you—?”

Luo Binghe wraps his hand around Shen Yuan’s dick and holds it close enough to his mouth that Shen Yuan can feel his damp breath.

“Yuan-ge is so aroused,” he says. “You really—” He moans again. Shen Yuan’s face is burning. Does he have to draw attention to it? Then Luo Binghe licks the tip, and he stops being able to think.

For a while, that’s all Luo Binghe does, just licking the head over and over, seemingly enjoying it too much to stop. Then he tightens his grip and lowers his mouth onto Shen Yuan's dick.

Immediately, there’s a scrape of teeth against Shen Yuan’s slit where he’s most sensitive. He seizes up with a yelp of pain. Luo Binghe freezes, then practically spits Shen Yuan’s dick out of his mouth. His hand tightens, squeezing too hard.

“Ah!” Shen Yuan yelps. “That hurts!”

Luo Binghe drops him, eyes wide. “I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s—it’s okay, just be careful,” Shen Yuan manages. Luo Binghe dips his head again and slowly takes Shen Yuan back into his mouth, flattening his tongue against the head. Ah, it feels good, Luo Binghe’s mouth so hot and yielding. Shen Yuan is right back in, sparks flaring down his spine.

Luo Binghe’s teeth drag against him again. He can’t help but flinch, his hips jerking, and Luo Binghe pulls off with a gag as Shen Yuan’s dick jabs into the roof of his mouth.

Shen Yuan stares at the ceiling. The air is cold on the slickness of his dick. Luo Binghe coughs a few times.

“Binghe,” he says, “are you okay?”

Luo Binghe makes an upset noise. “I’ll do better.”

“You’re doing fine, it’s just—um.” When it comes down to it, Shen Yuan has no idea what he’s doing wrong. How are you supposed to keep your teeth out of the way of something in your mouth? Why don’t novels go into more detail about this? “It’s fine,” he says again, resolving not to interrupt Luo Binghe anymore. What’s a little pain? He can endure it.

Luo Binghe redoubles his efforts. His tongue perks up Shen Yuan’s flagging erection instantly, and Shen Yuan lets himself relax. But now Luo Binghe seems too scared to put his hand on Shen Yuan’s dick, even to hold it in place. Without any leverage, all he can really manage to do is mouth at the tip. It feels good, but it’s nowhere near enough stimulation.

Shen Yuan groans, which Luo Binghe seems to take as encouragement. He wraps his fingers loosely around Shen Yuan’s dick and takes him into his mouth properly again. Ah, fuck, that’s right—Luo Binghe may be new at this, but he’s a fast learner. No teeth this time, just a slick warmth that quickly becomes overwhelming as Luo Binghe sucks hard. Shen Yuan tosses his head back, his thigh muscles clenching. He won’t last long, his body already wound up nearly to the tipping point. Luo Binghe’s so good, so sweet—

There’s a wet, convulsive noise. Shen Yuan looks down to see Luo Binghe’s lashes lowered, his face awash with tears. One slides down Shen Yuan’s shaft, making him spasm. Luo Binghe struggles to breathe through his nose, sniffling and half-choking on Shen Yuan’s length.

“Binghe!" Shen Yuan slaps at his shoulder. “Stop, stop, stop!”

Luo Binghe pulls off him, wiping snot on the back of his wrist. Shen Yuan tugs him up into a hug. Luo Binghe falls into his arms with all the weight of his big, muscled body.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes out.

“What—no! You’re—Binghe, I was scared that you couldn’t breathe!”

Luo Binghe opens his mouth to speak again, but Shen Yuan silences him by pushing his head deeper into the hug. They can talk after Luo Binghe calms down. He drops a kiss onto the top of his head.

“It’s okay,” he says. “No one is good at things the first time.”

Luo Binghe shoves him back, his face twisting in disgust. It startles Shen Yuan, until he realizes it’s directed at Luo Binghe himself.

“I’m good at it,” he says viciously, his eyes dark. “I should be able to please you.”

Please him? What nonsense. This was all for Binghe!

“You don’t have to,” Shen Yuan says, but Luo Binghe only looks more upset.

“If I can’t bring you pleasure, then what good was all of it?”

“All of—what we were just doing?”

“No! I—Yuan-ge, you know about the women I was with.”

Shen Yuan nods, baffled.

“I wished every one of them was you,” Luo Binghe says. “I didn't want them. But I thought if I practiced with them, I could make you look at me with the admiration they did. Sometimes I hated them for not being you.”

Since he’s arrived, Luo Binghe has said and done so many things that have upended Shen Yuan’s ideas about him. But this sends him spinning out, all familiar ground obliterated.

“But,” he says. “But you liked those women.”

“I didn’t. I told you I never did! I’m just good at sex, Yuan-ge, and people want it—you want it, too. You know what I am. It’s a porn novel.”

Shen Yuan has heard as much many times from the denizens of Zhongdian. It stuns him to hear that dismissive sentiment from the protagonist himself.

“Do you think I don’t know what it is I’m good for?” Luo Binghe says bitterly. “You know it yourself. You won’t say yes to marrying me, but you say I can do what I want to your body. So if I can’t please you, what use would you have for me?”

Shen Yuan has always wanted Luo Binghe to be happy. This evidence of something broken far deeper than he can fix right now cuts him deep.

“That’s not true,” he says.

“Which part? Yuan-ge, I’ve seen how you look at me. You’ve let me make advances on you. But you don’t—” Luo Binghe’s breath catches. “You don’t want all of me.”

Shen Yuan presses his mouth shut. That hurts, the sting of it hitting right behind his eyes. All at once, it makes him angry. Don’t want all of him? He has Luo Binghe in his bed with his dick out. What more is he supposed to do?

“I don’t want all of you?” he says. “Then who is more qualified to? Who knows you better than I do, Binghe? After all the months we lived together, all the time I’ve spent thinking about you and reading about you, all the meta I’ve written—how can you say I don’t want you? That I only like part of you?” Honestly, after all the money he’s sunk into that novel! Shen Yuan would dare Luo Binghe to try to find someone who likes him more!

Luo Binghe gazes at him, thunderstruck. “Yuan-ge...”

“Stop that!” Don’t look at him like that! Luo Binghe is forcing him to say these things, and now he has the nerve to act surprised about it? As if Shen Yuan would just sit here and let him talk about himself that way? Shen Yuan is so pissed off. “And don’t ever talk about what use I could have for you. What a stupid fucking thing to say. Why would I need you to do anything? You’re Luo Binghe, you’re—just—the best. The best ever.”

Luo Binghe makes half a noise and throws himself back into Shen Yuan’s arms, effectively shutting him up. Thank god.

“No one’s ever said anything like that about me,” he says, his voice muffled against Shen Yuan’s chest.

That’s not true. Shen Yuan’s said it about a million times, to anyone who would listen.

“Then they’re stupid. Everyone likes you so much, Binghe. That’s why all those women slept with you.”

Luo Binghe actually laughs, in a weird, choked way. “Yuan-ge, you’re wrong, but thank you.” Shen Yuan pats his back.

They stay like that for a while, with Shen Yuan stroking Luo Binghe’s back and Luo Binghe breathing deeply into his shirt. It’s long enough for Shen Yuan to start feeling awkward about his dick hanging out. He reaches between them and tucks himself back in. The poor thing has long since given up the ghost anyway.

Luo Binghe’s wrong about another thing, too. Shen Yuan didn’t say no. He said he’d think about it.

“Binghe,” he says. “Does Xin Mo wipe you out like that every time you use it?”

Luo Binghe shifts in his arms to look up at him. Ah, together they’ve made such a mess of the protagonist, his face stained with tears and his eyes and mouth all red.

“Not every time. It was unusually exhausting to go between worlds.”

“But eventually?”

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “I can use it safely as long as I dual cultivate regularly. To balance my spiritual and demonic qi. Or,” he adds hesitantly, “I suppose I could drain a human cultivator’s qi without dual cultivating, but... it would destroy their meridians, likely permanently.”

Well, that’s no good. Shen Yuan’s not going to let him go around doing that.

“So. If we... what you asked. You would take me with you?”

Luo Binghe jerks to attention, his gaze tightening. “If you agree to marry me?”

Shen Yuan covers his face. Don’t just say it! They’re not talking about it! He just wants to know some logistics!

“Yuan-ge.” Oh god, Luo Binghe’s voice is lethally sincere. “I have plans in my world that will soon bear fruit. I’m close to gaining full control over the northern demon realm, and now that I have access to the human realm, there are people in place to assist me there, too. I will kill Shen Qingqiu and begin my campaign to gain power over the major sects. If you come with me, we will rule over both realms together. You’ll lack for nothing, I swear it.”

He’s not... against the idea. He really likes xianxia, okay? Who wouldn’t want to be at the right hand of the emperor, sharing in the spoils of his conquests? Luo Binghe would look so right on a throne, his eyes blazing, subjugating all who come before him.

It would be really fucking cool. But.

“But I’m not a cultivator. So if you used Xin Mo for all that, you’d need a harem, right? You’d need strong dual cultivation partners.”

Wouldn’t that make Shen Yuan... part of the harem? And not an especially valued member, with no cultivation. A useless non-spiritual human. Even if Luo Binghe liked him and wanted to spend time with him, he couldn’t. He would need to spend most of his time with other cultivators.

Luo Binghe looks distraught. “Then I won’t use Xin Mo. I’ll shatter it to pieces. If you’re with me, I won’t need it. I only mastered it to find you, anyway.”

Wait, what? No, Shen Yuan can’t process that right now. One thing at a time.

“Then wouldn’t we not be able to come back?”

“Yuan-ge.” Luo Binghe’s voice is thick, the consonants getting caught in his throat. “Would you want me to... stay here with you?”

It wouldn’t be fair. Luo Binghe has spent so long working towards everything. In his world he has political connections, allies, incipient power. Shen Yuan’s life is boring. It wouldn’t mean as much to give it up. If Shen Yuan leaves, he’ll only lose his family and a handful of friends. If Luo Binghe stays here, he’ll lose two kingdoms.

“You can’t,” he says.

Luo Binghe’s face falls. Shen Yuan panics. “No, no, that’s not what I meant! Of course you can—Binghe, I want you here—it’s just—I can’t offer you what you offered me. It’d be dull.”

Luo Binghe puts a trembling hand on Shen Yuan’s face. “But you want me to stay?”

The atmosphere in here is too stuffy with feelings. Can someone open a window?

He can’t meet Luo Binghe’s eyes. “I liked it when you lived here.”

“I’ve never been happier in my life,” Luo Binghe says.

That can’t be right. It’s Shen Yuan whose life is so tedious that half a year spent in proximity to Luo Binghe is still his dearest memory. It’s Shen Yuan who was lucky just to be able to touch Luo Binghe’s life, no matter how briefly. And it took five months for Shen Yuan to make Luo Binghe happy at all, according to the System. Surely that can’t have been the happiest Luo Binghe has been? With all the battles Luo Binghe has won and the rewards he’s reaped, can the high point of his life really have been lying close to a dazed and medicated Shen Yuan in a dingy hospital bed?

“But, Binghe,” he says, “I can’t ask you to give everything up for me. When you’ve worked so hard.”

Luo Binghe shakes his head fervently. “Yuan-ge, everything I’ve done has been to position myself to ask for your hand in marriage. I searched for Xin Mo so I could return to this world, and I pursued strength and influence so it wouldn’t shame me to present myself to you. If I am enough for you, I don’t need anything more.”

There’s an entire book about all the things Luo Binghe has done in the last seven years. It was really... all for him?

“But what about all of those women you promised yourself to? And what about Shen Qingqiu?” If PIDW was clear about anything, it was Luo Binghe’s intention to take revenge on Shen Qingqiu. That was always meant to be his first task after escaping the Abyss. Although... Luo Binghe escaped the Abyss, and he came here instead.

“I want to stay here,” Luo Binghe insists. “Yuan-ge, the last time I was here, I hurt you. And when I went back, I wanted to be better, so nothing like that would happen again. But I’ve only gotten worse. And you know that. You’ve read the book.”

“Not worse—” Shen Yuan protests, but Luo Binghe’s not finished.

“I’m not a good person, so wanting to stay with you is selfish. If I were better, maybe I would want you to be with someone whose insecurities never hurt you, who could stand to be apart from you sometimes. But I can’t live without you near me. I’m cruel enough to want to inflict myself on you permanently.”

Luo Binghe feels everything so intensely. All his passion is concentrated into a ray of light that threatens to fry Shen Yuan like an ant.

If Luo Binghe stays here, that’s a different matter than Shen Yuan moving to PIDW. In this country, they can’t, legally, get married. Unless they went somewhere else—but Shen Yuan can put that to the back of his mind for now.

What Luo Binghe wants, basically, is to be with him. Living in his apartment. Making his food. Sleeping in his bed. Maybe—practicing. At what he was trying to do before.

If Shen Yuan can have all that... wouldn’t he be incredibly lucky?

“If Binghe wants to stay here,” he says slowly, “and he claims he can’t live without me, then how could I possibly let him leave?”

“Yuan-ge!’ Luo Binghe bursts into tears. He brings Shen Yuan’s hand to his mouth, turns it over, and kisses his palm—ah, his scar. "Really?"

Shen Yuan hums affirmatively. "Stay."

"I will," Luo Binghe says fervently. "Yuan-ge, I'll stay with you as long as you'll have me. I'll be a good wife, I'll take care of my husband."

Shen Yuan’s heart slams in his chest. A what? A good what? Take care of who?? Shen Yuan kisses him to make him stop talking.

Luo Binghe may have things to learn in the bedroom, but he is an excellent kisser. His tongue flicks into Shen Yuan’s mouth, just enough to tease before he pulls back and sucks on Shen Yuan’s bottom lip. He holds Shen Yuan’s face in his hands, softly stroking his cheekbones as he kisses him dizzy.

So this is how Proud Immortal Demon Way is going to end? Not with any bloody revenge or violent conquest. Just with Luo Binghe leaving to live with him instead.

It should be disappointing, but Shen Yuan... doesn’t really mind. Luo Binghe is hot against him, the warmth spilling all through his body.

It’s actually a really good ending.

Luo Binghe breaks off and dips his head to kiss Shen Yuan’s neck, not sucking or biting, just soft, wet kisses. Shen Yuan moves against him involuntarily, drawing out a heated breath. Luo Binghe grabs his hands and places them on his chest, right under his nipples.

Shen Yuan can't move. Luo Binghe's skin is taut over his tight muscles, his chest heaving as he breathes hard against Shen Yuan's throat.

"Please touch me," he whispers.

Shen Yuan wants to listen to him without thinking about it. He's tired of thinking. He wants Luo Binghe to do what he wants and tell Shen Yuan what to do to him in return.

But Luo Binghe has told him several times now that he didn't like being with any of his wives. The book made him seem happy to do it every time. He's been acting like he's trying to seduce Shen Yuan all day, but then he said all that awful stuff about what he was good for.

Shen Yuan slides his hands around to Luo Binghe's sides, holding him in place. He draws back just a touch from Luo Binghe's mouth, making Luo Binghe pull back to meet his gaze.

"We don't have to," Shen Yuan says. "You can stay no matter what."

Luo Binghe's eyes water. "You told me something like that before," he says. "That you'd—that—you said you'd take care of me forever."

Shen Yuan winces. Did he really say something that cheesy? Luo Binghe makes him so stupid.

"Yeah," he says, enduring a wave of self-consciousness.

Luo Binghe's expression is fragile, awe shining behind his eyes.

"I want to," he says.

Shen Yuan swallows back the sound that almost pushes its way out.

He doesn't want to say the next part. It's going to be so embarrassing. But Luo Binghe is a novel character, so it must be okay to use the cringiest, most cliché novel lines on him. "Then... you don't have to hold back."

Luo Binghe jumps him. He's all over Shen Yuan, clambering on top of him and straddling him, knees squeezing his hips. He pushes his tongue into Shen Yuan's mouth, hands shoving Shen Yuan's shirt up to cup his chest again—he's too used to being with women, what the hell. It's humiliating beyond belief to be groped like that, and even worse that Shen Yuan lets out a helpless little mm when Luo Binghe palms his nipples. He's really going to be treated like one of Bing-ge's wives, pushed down and pawed at and made to take Luo Binghe's legendary dick until he can't take anymore. He squirms under Luo Binghe, panting uncontrollably.

"Yuan-ge," Luo Binghe moans against his mouth. "Ah, Yuan-ge, take me."

Shen Yuan tenses under him, his muscles locking up. Luo Binghe nips under his jaw, making him gasp before he can gather the lucidity to push Luo Binghe's face away.

"Binghe! What did you say?"

"Take me," Luo Binghe says again, just as shameless as before. As if it makes sense. He pushes his hips down against Shen Yuan's, his eyelids fluttering. "I want to feel you inside me."

That kills any possible ambiguity. Shen Yuan reels, the universe breaking around him for the dozenth time today.

"Wh—What?"

"Please..." Luo Binghe grabs Shen Yuan's hands again and puts them on his own hips, pressing hard so Shen Yuan is forced to squeeze. He won't give Shen Yuan a single moment to take things in. Luo Binghe ducks his head to the side and attacks Shen Yuan's ear, scraping his teeth against the shell of it before mouthing his earlobe.

"Binghe! Fuck—hang on a second, slow down! Ah," he breathes as Luo Binghe kisses the soft skin right behind his ear, and then presses his tongue to the side of Shen Yuan's throat.

"Don't want to," Luo Binghe says indistinctly.

"Binghe, wait, wait. Shouldn't we—um—" The semi-disastrous blowjob is fresh in his mind. "Don't you think we should start with—something you're used to?"

Luo Binghe sits back, resting his weight on Shen Yuan's stomach. He hooks a finger in the neck of Shen Yuan's T-shirt and pulls it down idly, his eyes locked on the patch of skin it exposes.

"I don't want to do what I'm used to." He licks his lips, his gaze sliding down Shen Yuan's chest. "When I was here before—" His eyes snap back to Shen Yuan's face, so abruptly it hits Shen Yuan like a slap. "You were taller than me."

What the fuck does that have to do with anything? The confusion must show on his face. Luo Binghe's expression gentles. He cups Shen Yuan's cheek with his palm, looking at him with soft, sweet eyes, like he's worth more than the pouch of jewels.

"I always thought you would take me," he says in a low voice. "It was just that—it ended up being different, what I did with—other people. I thought I wanted to be good at it for you, but—if it's okay—I want..."

Luo Binghe keeps taking him apart, his words hooking right into Shen Yuan and unraveling his guts.

"It's okay," Shen Yuan says in a rush. "If you... really want it. But I've never..."

"I know." Luo Binghe strokes just under his bottom lip with his thumb, smiling. Then he leans down and kisses the spot he just touched. Shen Yuan moves his head to meet Luo Binghe's mouth with his own.

Luo Binghe maneuvers them so Shen Yuan is on top, and slides his big hands up Shen Yuan's body to pull his shirt off. Shen Yuan lets him take the lead. They kiss long and slow in between everything else, leisurely taking off clothes or tying back hair as needed before diving back into each other. Shen Yuan has never felt so much of another person's skin. When Luo Binghe slips off Shen Yuan's ill-fitting track pants, he's shockingly big, hard, and so beautiful it leaves Shen Yuan speechless.

The late hour and the yellow city light through the windows lends everything a dreamlike quality. It's hard to believe that the world outside still exists, with its traffic and smog; that his life of commuting, work and drudgery still awaits him in the daytime. There's nothing in his head or heart but Luo Binghe's body pressed to his, Luo Binghe's voice in his ear whispering his name, barely audible, like he's saying it for himself.

Shen Yuan tries to get up to get—something—he'll have to excavate his bathroom cabinet again, for a very different reason this time—but Luo Binghe stops him by pulling out a small clay pot from somewhere unknown. Shen Yuan is first startled, then embarrassed by his own surprise. Of course Luo Binghe is prepared for... that. He's been pressed into action in all kinds of strange circumstances.

"Um," he says. "Have you ever..."

"I don't often seek my own pleasure," Luo Binghe says.

Well, of course he wouldn't need to. The decadent, lazy kissing and touching has dampened Shen Yuan's anxiety up to this point, but now it's climbing to a high pitch. Doing this scares him more than what he thought they'd be doing. It's one thing to mindlessly acquiesce and endure whatever comes of it. But Luo Binghe expects him to play an active role. He has no idea what he's doing; he hasn't even read or watched much porn of this specific thing. And if he does it wrong, he could really hurt Luo Binghe.

"Don't worry, Yuan-ge," Luo Binghe says, even though he didn't say anything. Luo Binghe presses the pad of his thumb between Shen Yuan's eyebrows, rubbing his forehead smooth. "I'm ready for it. Feel how ready I am."

He clasps Shen Yuan's hand and guides it between his legs. Shen Yuan is grateful—it would have taken him hours on his own to work up the nerve to touch there. With Luo Binghe's hand over his, he presses two fingers up against his entrance. Luo Binghe was right; he's so relaxed that the tips of Shen Yuan's fingers slip in involuntarily, even without the lube. He breathes in unsteadily. Luo Binghe touches his face affectionately, then pulls him down to kiss. It's an awkward angle, but Shen Yuan welcomes the distraction from the twitching heat around his fingertips.

When Luo Binghe breaks the kiss, he has the little pot open in his hand, offering it to Shen Yuan. Was he doing that with his hands while kissing Shen Yuan? Shen Yuan is overwhelmed by how out of his depth he is in comparison to this clever, handsome young man.

Luo Binghe takes his fingers so easily, Shen Yuan doesn't even have the chance to fret. As soon as he tries to put his fingers in, they're in, and Luo Binghe's beautiful body is wriggling under him. It's hardly any time at all before Shen Yuan is slicking up his dick, Luo Binghe pushing his hips forward to urge him on.

When Shen Yuan pushes in, Luo Binghe makes no sound. He holds Shen Yuan's gaze as though it would hurt him to look away, his eyes open, his only reaction the wild, erratic shaking of his breath. Shen Yuan shoves in at a glacially slow pace, terrified, pausing to add more lube whenever there's the slightest bit of resistance. Luo Binghe watches him silently the whole time, thighs trembling with the effort of staying relaxed.

Shen Yuan catches a glint in his eye, and thumbs the corner of it. His thumb comes away wet.

“Binghe?” he whispers, alarmed.

Luo Binghe shakes his head, taking a moment to find words.

“Really good,” he gets out. “Really—Yuan-ge—keep going. Please.”

When he's in, Luo Binghe wraps his arms around Shen Yuan and tucks his chin over his shoulder. They embrace, hot and slightly sticky, and Shen Yuan rocks his hips into Luo Binghe's. Luo Binghe moves with him. It's quiet, even with the low hum of cars outside on the street, so quiet that Shen Yuan can hear every sound of their bodies coming together. The intimacy is nearly unbearable. Luo Binghe is the only person he could bear it for.

Shen Yuan comes first, the pressure of Luo Binghe's body around him echoed by the pressure of his chest, building and building until it overwhelms him. For a precious second, he's entirely unable to think, at the mercy of the pleasure that crashes through him.

He tries to pull out, but Luo Binghe wraps his arms around him and pulls him so close that Shen Yuan can't move. He clenches around Shen Yuan's softening dick, making Shen Yuan gasp. Luo Binghe's dick is trapped against Shen Yuan's stomach. He ruts against Shen Yuan mercilessly, whimpering, leaking between them, until Shen Yuan is lightheaded with overstimulation. He tangles his fingers in Luo Binghe's hair and holds on tight while Luo Binghe jerks against him and spills all over his stomach.

Shen Yuan collapses on top of him, pressing kisses all over his face.

"Yuan-ge," Luo Binghe breathes, "was it good?"

Ah, he really won't stop asking Shen Yuan to say embarrassing things. Well, if it'll make him happy.

"Very good, Binghe." Shen Yuan pats his head. “Did... did you like it?”

He takes time to respond, every silent second making Shen Yuan’s worry rise like bile.

“I didn’t know I could like it so much,” he says. Shen Yuan exhales, too overcome to respond.

Luo Binghe won't let go of him, seemingly unbothered by the mess between them. They stay like that for a while, Shen Yuan catching his breath, Luo Binghe crying a little into his hair.

Eventually, Luo Binghe summons the energy to get out of bed, and returns with a glass of water for Shen Yuan and a damp cloth to wipe them both down. The protagonist stamina is no joke; Shen Yuan is absolutely down for the count. He barely moves when Luo Binghe crawls back into bed, letting Luo Binghe pick up his arms and put them around himself however he likes. Luo Binghe puts his head under Shen Yuan's chin with a pleased noise, drawing Shen Yuan's hand down to his head. Shen Yuan dutifully ruffles his hair.

✿❀✿

What might the world look like, with Luo Binghe gone forever? Escaped through a trap door no one else knows exists? His plans with his allies will fall through. The demon lord in the north who he's finally brought to heel will have to carry out his own rebellions if he wishes to gain the territory they deemed vulnerable.

He will have to release his claim on Shen Qingqiu's life. It was more properly Liu Mingyan's anyway. The man's death is not worth trading for Shen Yuan.

A number of women who expect some benefit from Luo Binghe's favor will go unfulfilled. No matter. It won't ruin any of them.

Other than that, who would miss him? Cang Qiong Mountain must already believe him dead. None of the people he's made trouble for will lament his absence. None of the women who professed to love him would ever have known his love in return, had he stayed.

Perhaps Meng Mo might like to return to their world and find a host who doesn't intend to live the rest of his life in quiet domesticity. Luo Binghe could send him back before he destroys Xin Mo, but for all the old demon complains about being Luo Binghe's companion, Luo Binghe doubts he'll bother leaving. Shifu is impossible to please, which means he is often content with displeasure.

And Xin Mo must be destroyed. It's already taken root too deep in Luo Binghe's mind. The sword is restless now, in counterpoint to Luo Binghe's drowsy state, its appetite whetted but not sated by what they did. Luo Binghe has long permitted it to make demands on him, but he won't let it make demands on Shen Yuan.

His whole world in trade for one man. Perhaps his willingness to make the trade speaks to the pointlessness of Luo Binghe's life, how meager and pathetic all his efforts have been, if what he's scraped and clawed together can be so easily abandoned. Or perhaps Shen Yuan's worth is simply beyond estimation.

Luo Binghe breathes in his smell, thinking of everything that's transpired between them. Tomorrow there will be more to see and do, new dishes to make, new wonders for Shen Yuan to show him. More ways to explore how their bodies might join.

"Yuan-ge," he says. "There's just one thing I still don't understand "

"Hm?"

"In your memories," Luo Binghe says. "In the dream. Why were you talking about Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky as if you don’t know him?”

Shen Yuan stirs, turning his head so his mouth isn't pressed to Luo Binghe's scalp. “What do you mean? I don’t know him.”

"But he knows you. He told me where to find you.”

Shen Yuan jerks awake. "Wh—? That's not possible."

“He did. I made a Zhongdian account and asked him for your address, and he gave it to me.”

Shen Yuan pulls back to gape at him. His eyes are so wide that even in the low light, Luo Binghe can see the whites.

"You're serious?"

Luo Binghe nods.

“Can I see the messages?”

Luo Binghe has to get up again to find his phone. He pulls up the Zhongdian page and passes the phone to Shen Yuan.

Shen Yuan scans the messages frantically, the disbelief on his face quickly turning to affront.

“Oh my god,” he whispers. “I’m going to kill him.”

✿❀✿

You little piece of shit smug fucking ASSHOLE 🥒

It's been SEVEN YEARS?? You've been writing PIDW for SEVEN YEARS???? 🥒

🍜 uh oh

UH OH IS RIGHT 🥒

I can't fucking believe you 🥒

YOU TOLD ME YOU DIDN'T EVEN KEEP UP WITH IT 🥒

🍜 well it seemed important to you to get to explain it to me

SEVEN YEARS. MY BEST FRIEND 🥒

🍜 aw bro...

DON'T AW BRO ME. I AM NOT BEING NICE. I'M GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS 🥒

You put Binghe through hell you worthless dumbfuck 🥒

You gave him a SWORD THAT EATS HIS BRAIN 🥒

And don't get me started on Shen Qingqiu. WHY EVEN MAKE THAT CHARACTER 🥒

🍜 it was just a story! i was just making it good

YOU LITERALLY DID NOT MAKE IT GOOD 🥒

🍜 okay listen. i know i should have told you. i really am sorry about that.

🍜 and i'm sorry about everything with binghe. after he went back, he just seemed like my fictional character again?

🍜 like, i was making up what happened and what he would do.

🍜 it didn’t feel like i was creating a world with my brain or some shit. i'm still not sure how that even works. i was just writing what i came up with.

🍜 and when the book took off (lol), i was kinda stuck with it

DON'T MAKE AN AIRPLANE JOKE. WE ARE NOT AT THE JOKES STAGE 🥒

🍜 i was making money off it. you know how broke i've always been, bro. i had to write what people would like. i don't even like the book myself.

You don't like Binghe's book?? 🥒

🍜 YOU don't like the book.

BECAUSE it doesn't handle Binghe well! You could have made it better! And you know that! I've told you exactly what I thought Airplane should do! 🥒

🍜 oh geez

🍜 listen, shen-bro

🍜 it kind of seemed like you needed to talk about that stuff.

🍜 not for me. for you?

🍜 it seemed like it made you feel better.

Feel better from WHAT 🥒

🍜 oh my god are we still pretending you weren't fucked up after binghe left

I was fine and that has nothing to do with this 🥒

🍜 well i mistakenly thought that you were really sad, and it seemed like the best thing to do was shut up and let you work through it, okay? i didn't think it would help to tell you that i'm. you know. your archnemesis or whatever

Don't fucking flatter yourself 🥒

🍜 okay well i really am sorry and i'm glad binghe's back and you got to suck his dick or whatever

I didn't suck his dick! 🥒

🍜 yet

Shut up fuck you I hate you 🥒

🍜 yeah yeah. well you better buy me noodles when i'm out on the street because my income's gone

Wait what do you mean 🥒

🍜 well i can't write about binghe when he's here. it’s like writer’s block

🍜 the last time it happened was so early, you were the only reader who would have cared about me taking a hiatus. but people are gonna start getting mad if I don't update PIDW

Good. You deserve it 🥒

🍜 lol peerless cucumber, i know

🍜 but really, if you keep binghe here, i'm fucked

Well 🥒

Um 🥒

He's not going anywhere 🥒

🍜 hahaha

🔪🔪🔪🔪🔪🔪 🥒

🍜 so are we even? if you're gonna marry my livelihood

We are not even 🥒

I have not even begun to be pissed at you 🥒

🍜 you didn't dispute the marriage part

Don't talk to me ever again 🥒

🍜 haha

✿❀✿

It's a week later that Shang Qinghua gets a box in the mail. There's a Binghe sticker where the return address should be. Undoubtedly, Shen-bro is going to want him to cut that out and give it back. What a nerd.

There's no note inside the box either, just a little black pouch tied shut with red string. Shang Qinghua tugs open the drawstring and peers inside.

His mouth falls open.