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Protagonist Rehabilitation Programme

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[Peerless Cucumber posted at 3.32 am]

Replying to:

> gets pussy every night he’s living the dream, anyway he’s always kissing them and telling them he loves them, obviously he’s in love 

 

You’re telling me that he has romantic feelings for each and every one of his three thousand and something wives? Really? How many hearts does this man have that he can just give them out to every woman he pushes down? Obviously he gets something out of it but isn’t it too much like those playboys who sleep around because they’re too afraid of commitment?

 

And inb4 someone says “they’re all married”, yes and? There’s three thousand of them bro that’s less of a commitment and more of a calling card! 

 

Everyone scoffs at the more imaginative sisters on this board who write Luo Binghe as a softer, pained man, but what proof is there that he’s actually happy? Sure he smiles sardonically a lot and laughs at people and gets a lot of satisfaction out of chopping people’s limbs off but... does that really mean anything? Has he ever said in the narrative that he’s actually, genuinely happy? No! Just because you guys have simple tastes in life and would be content living a hollow existence where you get to bang chicks and fight people doesn’t mean that everyone else does too! 

 

Shen Yuan posted his response and laid his head on the desk with a soft thunk. Insomnia again. These hours were the prime time to post on the PIDW discussion boards and argue with idiots. Now he just had to wait for a response. 

 

Stupid book, stupid author. But what else could he do? Nothing was open, and leaving the house was a pain in the ass anyway. Insomnia was a bitch, but he was its humble servant. 

The desk wasn’t comfortable. He brought his arms up to pillow his head, even though he knew it would kill his muscles when he woke up later. But just a little nap wouldn’t hurt. Just a little nap..

 

As he drifted off to sleep, he had the strangest dream that a robotic Google translate voice was saying something like “Congratulations valued user...”, but he quickly forgot all about it, and dreamed of counting sheep instead. 

 

When he woke up, he mumbled slightly and winced, feeling his neck twinge. He started to turn it gently to avoid making it seize up, only to feel something cold and sharp press against his skin. 

His eyes flew open.

Looming over him was a handsome man wearing a terrifyingly blank expression. He was holding a knife to Shen Yuan’s throat. 

What the fuck. What the fuck! Wait a minute, how did he get in? Don’t tell me - I’m finally experiencing the plague of bored rich people’s sons, the infamous kidnap and ransom plot? 

“If you want money, we can pay,” Shen Yuan said instantly, because he was a coward and a baby of a man. “There’s a roll of money under the bed, I can walk you to an ATM outside, and my family will happily pay anything you want instantly without calling the police.”

He sounded like a professional kidnap victim. His mama would be proud. 

The man who had a knife to his throat listened intently. His eyes flickered over Shen Yuan’s face as if assessing him. He noticeably did not withdraw the knife. 

“Why did you bring me here,” he said in a dispassionate tone of voice, as if he wasn’t concerned at all with how much money Shen Yuan could dole out for him. And then Shen Yuan processed the question. 

“Bring you - this is my house! I didn’t bring you here!”

There was a series of musical bings from somewhere in Shen Yuan’s brain, and a smooth, robotic voice said:

 

[Canon link complete. Thank you, valued user, for accepting the Protagonist Rehabilitation Programme. Timer until protagonist returns to original setting: set to three months. Your time will start when this dialogue box closes.]

 

Wait, wait, what? Shen Yuan blinked, trying to make sense of everything. Protagonist Rehabilitation what? 

 

[Your task: ensure the protagonist’s happiness. Penalty of failure: the protagonist will return to original setting. Reward: one hundred years of happiness.]

 

Shen Yuan, notable NEET, experienced shut in and veteran of every kind of transmigration novel he could get his greasy hands on, wondered if he was still dreaming. After all, wasn’t this just like some shitty book where the main protagonist of a book gets brought into the real world? And weren’t these tips just a little too convenient and helpful? 

But... if this guy holding a knife to his throat was the protagonist... which book did he come from?

The dialogue box closed with a bing. The man came back into full view, handsome and terrifying, exuding a cold kind of aura that was sharper than the actual knife, which Shen Yuan hadn’t sharpened in a long time. 

“I don’t even know who you are,” Shen Yuan said quickly. “Who are you? What do you want?”

The man leaned forwards, his eyes lighting up with dark fire. “I want you to tell me how you dragged me here,” he said in a low voice. “And my name is Luo Binghe.”

Luo - Luo Binghe? Wait, Luo Binghe? 

Wait, Luo fucking Binghe?

Shen Yuan felt another wave of cold sweat break out down his back. Not the Gary Sue from Proud Immortal Demon Way. Not the cold blooded killer who would slaughter swathes of people without so much as a backwards glance. Oh fuck, this guy would absolutely slit Shen Yuan’s throat without any second thought and leave him bleeding like roadkill. 

The terror on Shen Yuan’s face must have been obvious, because Luo Binghe leaned in even further, his voice silky as his hair draped across Shen Yuan’s face. 

“You know who I am. You know what I can do. If you tell me everything of your own volition, I promise I will be kind to you.”

Oh, sure, well that was fine then - kind his ass! Shen Yuan didn’t dare say it, but he knew Luo Binghe like the back of his hand. That was a lie! A blatant lie! This wasn’t ending well for Shen Yuan no matter how he answered!

“I didn’t bring you here,” he said quickly, eyes staring down at the handle of the knife. “I don’t know why you’re here in my house. Why my house? Why me? Ask someone else!”

Luo Binghe let out one single laugh, more like the expulsion of air. And then, suddenly, he turned the knife, and dragged it down Shen Yuan’s collarbone. 

Shen Yuan screamed. It burned, it burned, it... didn’t hurt so bad, actually? He blinked and felt his skin. It wasn’t even broken. 

... 

That was right. Shen Yuan hadn’t sharpened his knives once since moving in. He recognised that handle - it was from the knife he used to spread butter, because it couldn’t even cut tofu now. 

The protagonist and the unwilling NEET stared at each other in silence for a microsecond. And then, suddenly, Luo Binghe darted forward, his hand reaching out to - to what, strangle him? Gouge out his eyes?

But Shen Yuan slid off his chair like it was coated in oil and out of Luo Binghe’s grasp. He picked up the chair and yielded it like a weird battering ram, holding it between him and the crazed protagonist. 

“I’m telling you, I didn’t do this! No amount of torturing is going to get you a better answer!”

Luo Binghe paused, as if considering something. Then he turned around and walked out of Shen Yuan’s bedroom. 

Wait. Did that work? Did he really just... leave? Was the nightmare over?

Shen Yuan cautiously put the chair down, though he was too scared to actually move. Fuck, fuck, fuck, call him Ol’ Silver Tongue Shen, because he just smooth talked his way into safety-

Luo Binghe appeared again, and this time he was holding the entire wooden block full of knives. Shen Yuan realised he was going to test them all one by one for sharpness. 

He immediately grabbed the nearest hard object to his hand, wielding it like a club. 

“Don’t come near me! I’m armed!”

Luo Binghe smiled and walked forward anyway. He kicked the rolling office chair aside. 

“Shizun sure is going to great lengths to protect himself. It’s a pity that we both know they’re useless against me.”

Shizun? Shen Yuan had no time to process whatever the fuck that was about - Luo Binghe was right. This was the Demon King, the blackened OP lead male, the one who never got beaten at his own game. Hah, and Shen Yuan thought he could stand off against him? He would be ground beef in seconds. Call that a Shen Yuan Burger and Fries.

Silently, Shen Yuan straightened his spine out and sent off a prayer. He hadn’t expected to live this long anyway, but still, he thought he would get a few more years stuck on this miserable mortal coil. He lit a candle for himself in his mind. Sorry, mama, this son is about to be unfilial. 

Luo Binghe stepped forward, his hand grabbing a random knife from the block. 

Shen Yuan, in one last act of desperate self preservation, took his chances and raised his arm, before smashing what he was holding onto Luo Binghe’s head. 

He noticed two things at once. The first was that the hard thing he had grabbed was actually his rare extremely collectible figurine of his UR Nico Yazawa in her Little Devil costume, made up of very fragile and breakable parts, but containing an incredibly dense core. It had cost him a lot of money. He had stayed up all night to preorder it. It shattered on impact like a delicate vase, shards flying out like petals in the wind. 

The second was that when the incredibly dense core of the body collided with Luo Binghe’s head, there was a fat clunk. The protagonist’s eyes rolled up into his skull, and he fell like a ragdoll to the floor. 

...

Holy shit.

Shen Yuan had killed Luo Binghe in one shot.

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan had panicked. Luckily, Luo Binghe was not dead. When Shen Yuan got the confidence to finally move, he checked the poor guy’s pulse, and found it going strong. However, Shen Yuan was in a metric fuck ton of trouble. 

One: he could call the police and explain that he hit this guy in self defence, but then what? Then they had Luo Binghe locked up in the cells, which... actually, wasn’t that ideal? Keeping him somewhere he couldn’t make any trouble?

 

System, what happens if I can’t ensure the protagonist’s happiness again?

 

[Protagonist will return to original setting.]

 

That’s it? No punishment?

 

[The shame of giving up such a significant and happy event  is considered punishment enough.]

 

Hahahaha, that would only work on someone who felt shame at giving up! And Shen Yuan was the king of giving up on impossible tasks! He gave up the opportunity to enjoy many significant and happy events in his life - family dinners, dates, chances to enrol in university again - and he felt no shame at all!

He swore! No, he wasn’t crying!

 

[...]

 

The ideal solution was to give Luo Binghe up to the police and make him their problem. But as he looked down at the once powerful protagonist, killer of men, seducer of women, emperor of the known world, clocked out on the messy floor of his bedroom...

...

This was really too pitiful. Just one shot and he was out cold? Where were his powers, his magic, his strength?

 

[The protagonist has been nerfed in accordance with the rules of this reality.]

 

Luo Binghe was just a guy, then. A psychopath and a megalomaniac, yes, but just a guy with no demon blood to back him up. Shen Yuan’s heart ached just looking at him. Come on, Mister Protagonist, where’s your dignity? Your honour?

First, because he wasn’t 100% an idiot, Shen Yuan tied Luo Binghe up with some of his old work ties that he bought when he was well enough to work in an office and pretend to be a normal intern. 

Then he checked that the wound wasn’t fatal. It didn’t seem fatal. It seemed like just a scratch. 

He sat Luo Binghe up against his bed, and waited. And waited. And waited. 

Oh fuck, this guy really wasn’t waking up. Shen Yuan began to panic again. Was the damage internal? Was his brain bleeding? Should he call a doctor?

He looked too pitiful sprawled against the bed, lolling like a sack of potatoes, so Shen Yuan summoned all of his strength and rolled him onto the bed. Then, because he felt guilty, he ran to the kitchen and grabbed a packet of frozen beans, and then ran back to put them on Luo Binghe’s wound. 

And then he started to worry that Luo Binghe would get too cold, so he drew his covers up and tucked Luo Binghe in. 

He fluffed the pillows. He made sure he was lying in a comfortable position. 

... Wait, wasn’t this scene eerily comforting? What happened to all the murder and fighting from just now? This was like some mother tenderly tucking her sick child into bed! What was Shen Yuan doing?

But the truth was that Shen Yuan couldn’t leave this guy in the cold like that. This was Luo Binghe. Shen Yuan had been by his side, reading every detail of his sordid life for hundreds of thousands of words. He had watched as he was tossed into a river by an absent mother, as he wept by the empty bed of a washerwoman, as his heart broke when his face was splashed with tea. He had even endured through thousands of pages of bad papapa - all for Luo Binghe! He couldn’t abandon his favorite character through such heinous and dark times! Stay strong, Luo Binghe, push that sister down and hold back your tears, Shen Yuan is here too!

In the end, he sat on his office chair and eagerly waited for Luo Binghe to wake up. He also hid the knives in his bottom drawer. Just in case. 

Finally, after what felt like far too long, Luo Binghe’s eyes snapped open. He wiggled once - and then seemed to realise that he had been tied up. Shen Yuan watched as his eyes flickered in naked disbelief up to the cold compress on his head, to the thick blankets on top of him, and then finally back to Shen Yuan. 

Shen Yuan gave him an awkward wave. 

“Ahaha, how do you feel boss, ahaha...”

Luo Binghe’s expression did not change. “Do you think that sucking up to me now will delay what I owe you for what you did?”

Shen Yuan shivered. “That was just a misunderstanding, okay? I know you don’t believe me, but I really didn’t bring you here, and I didn’t want to hit you either.”

Luo Binghe rolled his eyes. “This is a well constructed dream. My respectful congratulations on such realistic but nonsensical verisimilitude. As soon as we wake up, I’ll have you write a book before you’re skinned.”

Gee, thanks. “It’s not a dream! You were actually brought here by...”

 

[WARNING: revealing the system to the protagonist will instantly deduct 500 Play Coins.]

 

The fuck are Play Coins? Are you just making shit up on the fly? What happens when I go into negative Play Coins?

 

[Slave labour to repay your debts.]

 

Shen Yuan smoothly changed his sentence without changing his expression. “Forces far beyond our reckoning.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes narrowed. “Explain.”

Yes, he liked this role. Being the wise old sage who knew the answers, like an NPC explaining the plot to the Main Character in the first three minutes of the game. It was very fitting. “You come from a world much different to this one, do you not?”

Maybe he was laying it a little thick on the formal tone. But Luo Binghe nodded.

“One with things like cultivators and demons, and commonplace magic, whereas this world is very different... whatever brought you to this world is ineffable and strange, and doubtless has its own cosmic motivations...”

 

[The system has no such cosmic motivations.]

 

“... regardless, you’re here now. And it has nothing to do with this helpless bystander.” Shen Yuan bowed apologetically. “You’ll probably go home again soon.”

 

[Time remaining: two months, three weeks, six days, twenty two hours and thirty three minutes.]

 

Luo Binghe tilted his head. He looked unfairly attractive even when he was bundled up in blankets. “You seem knowledgeable about this kind of thing, senior.”

Senior?! Wait, no, senior was good. Shen Yuan nodded wisely. If he had a beard, he would stroke it. 

“I have studied many dense texts about this exact thing by hundreds of learned authors. This is my first time experiencing it first hand.”

What a poetic way of saying he read too many trashy novels. 

The doorbell rang. Shen Yuan jumped up while Luo Binghe startled. “Ah, that’s the doorbell! My food! Don’t move,” he said sternly, pointing at the trapped protagonist, before darting out the door. 

Chapter Text

The delivery drivers knew his face by now. If Shen Yuan felt shame, he would have been embarrassed, but actually he appreciated that they now knew him well enough that they could predict his usual order. Sometimes it was just too hard to get up and make food, or go out and get it. He raised a salute for all delivery drivers and the valuable service they did for sick boys with no energy or stamina. 

Wait, what was he saying? Oh, right, his food order for him and Luo Binghe.

While the protagonist slept away his concussion, Shen Yuan had ordered them both dinner. He wasn't sure what Luo Binghe liked, so he ordered a little of everything...

That was a lie! Of course Shen Yuan knew what his favourite and least favourite foods were! They were the subject of about ten chapters each!

Subconsciously, Shen Yuan shied away from the foods Luo Binghe hated, and picked the ones he loved. He just hoped Luo Binghe wouldn't notice this blatant favouritism. 

When he got back to his bedroom, he was pleasantly surprised that Luo Binghe was lying exactly as he left him. Good boy!  He hovered by the bed and unpacked the bags of food onto his desk, before turning to hand Luo Binghe his dishes - oh, right.

"Ah, hang on," Shen Yuan said, looking for somewhere to put the bowl. "Let me just - I'll untie one of your hands - ahh, where should I-"

"Allow me," Luo Binghe said smoothly, and took the bowl from his hands. 

"Thank you, thank you. Now I can... untie..."

Shen Yuan stared at Luo Binghe's conspicuously untied hands, holding the bowl carefully. He untied himself so quickly? What the fuck! 

He let out a deep breath through his nose, before abruptly sitting on his desk chair again. "Well, if you're going to kill me, do it after the meal please as I'm hungry." 

Luo Binghe snorted. Cautiously, he popped open the plastic bowl. The warming smell of fresh noodles wafted out, filling the room with salty goodness. 

There was a grumble. Shen Yuan paused and stared at Luo Binghe, who looked equally shocked. Was that his stomach? 

Shen Yuan silently apologised again. I'm sorry, protagonist, for making you suffer through something as mundane as hunger... your dignity... your honour...

They ate in silence. Shen Yuan didn't dare call it a companionable silence, but now that he had accepted his death, it was a lot easier to sit back and enjoy his meal. After all, how many people got to eat dinner with the protagonist of their favouri... their least favourite novel? Not many! And Shen Yuan had a hundred questions for him. Like... did he really love all his wives? What did it feel like when he put his blood in someone else? How the fuck did he keep stumbling across all the papapa flowers and herbs in the wild - was he doing it on purpose? 

Luo Binghe elegantly slurped his noodles, and then placed his bowl aside. He looked over at Shen Yuan, who blinked at him. More food? More food. He passed over the bowls of extra stuff he had ordered.

"Senior has gone to great expense for me," Luo Binghe said, noting that Shen Yuan was only a quarter done with his bowl. He waved it off easily. 

"Relax, relax, it wasn't any trouble. I usually get a lot of food delivered at once so I can keep it in my fridge and have it for a few days afterwards. Maybe this will force me to cook for once."

Luo Binghe tilted his head again. He was like a dog hearing a strange noise. "Senior doesn't cook?"

"Not if I can help it," Shen Yuan said, before putting aside his bowl. "You can have as much as you want. I'll just order more if you're still hungry afterwards."

"I'm fine," Luo Binghe said, swallowing the last of the gyoza. "Senior hasn't eaten much."

Shen Yuan winced. He was used to people telling him off about his low appetite, but it really wasn't his fault! The medication they gave him messed up his stomach long ago. "I'll have the rest later. But, ah... um... let's talk."

Luo Binghe looked at him. Holy shit, his eyes were just like they were described in the book: deep, dark, black as the velvet night. Shen Yuan forced himself to look away, or he felt like he was getting sucked into them. 

"Let's talk, senior."

"Ah, you don't have to call me that! My name is Shen Yuan."

Luo Binghe stiffened. "... Shen Yuan."

Shen Yuan nodded eagerly. "And I'm probably not older than you. I'm only twenty four. So, uh... just call me, um..." 

Luo Binghe thought for a moment. "Shen Laoshi."

"No," Shen Yuan said automatically, before pausing. Wasn't he kind of the teacher in this situation? Didn't he have to teach this headstrong son of a bitch how to survive in the modern world with no magic? "Yes," he said suddenly. 

“... xiao gege?” Luo Binghe said quietly. 

No! No no no! Not like that! Protagonist, please, your dignity! The cute way he said it sent chills down Shen Yuan’s spine. “Laoshi is fine, is fine! I’ll teach you everything you need to know about this world. It’s fine!”

"This disciple thanks laoshi for his hard work in advance."

Don't bow like that, Binghe! Your dignity, for god's sake! 

"Anyway," Shen Yuan coughed, "since you're probably going to be a little lost and confused in this world, you're welcome to stay with me if you need to. But you don't have to. It's a big world out there. Much to see, much to do. Many people to meet."

Many women to seduce. Many gangs to take over in bloody war. Many demons to summon to do as thou wilt, oh demon emperor. Shen Yuan bravely hoped that Luo Binghe would take one step outside, see this fresh new world ripe for the plunder, and immediately decide he didn't want to be stuck around in some grotty apartment with a sick boy weighing him down. 

After all, that was the sensible option. The world had always been the choicest of oysters for Luo Binghe. For Shen Yuan, it had been a rotten clam sealed shut with mud. Who would willingly hang around all day with a shut in? 

"Tell me about this world," Luo Binghe purred. He sat up on the bed, looking quite attentive. 

How to summarise a planet to a man who once conquered every inch of two worlds? What was the ploy here? Why was Shen Yuan suddenly sweating with the idea that what he said here was quite important for the fate of the people of Planet Earth?!

Shen Yuan paused. "It's... quite nice," he said, thinking about the tasty coffee shop down the road where they knew his order and gave him extra syrup on weekends. "Complicated, but nice. Some parts are bad." He frowned. That was possibly the vaguest thing he had ever said. Even Binghe looked unimpressed. 

"Ah, what I mean is, it's hard to describe in words like this. The best way to understand it is to see it. But I'm afraid you'll find it boring compared to what you're used to." He sighed. All those cool monsters that were trodden under the protagonist's foot. He would trade his soul to see them in the flesh. "And the people may act very differently too. Ah, listen to me, Luo Binghe–" 

Shen Yuan looked Luo Binghe in the eye, and then immediately regretted it. However, he was committed to the act, so he couldn't look away. "You must not kill or hurt people in this world. This isn't a violent place. You don't need to fight anyone or stab anyone or hurt people for any reason, and if you do, the police - the, ah, city guard - will lock you up in prison. And then you won't get to enjoy anything while you're here. Okay?"

Luo Binghe tilted his head. A small, innocent smile spread over his face, like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. 

"... okay, if laoshi wishes it," he hummed. 

...

Why did Shen Yuan suddenly feel as if Binghe had worked out the right things to say? This guy was quick. This was all an act, right? An act to disarm Shen Yuan, to make him stop being so cautious. 

What did it say about Shen Yuan that Binghe decided the best way to disarm him would be to act as a cute, innocent student?

"Ah, so," Shen Yuan said quickly, checking the time on his watch, "it's already five in the morning, and look at us. Still awake. So, if you want to sleep here tonight, you can take this bed. I'll go sleep on the couch."

Binghe raised a single eyebrow. "I'm sleeping on your bed?"

"It's fine," Shen Yuan said, already shuffling out the room. "Help yourself. The couch is comfortable anyway. Goodnight, sleep tight!"

And then he scurried out. 

 

The couch was not comfortable. That was a lie. But if Shen Yuan was going to hug this protagonist's thighs to try and convince him he wasn't a threat, then a few sacrifices had to be made. 

Shen Yuan was going to become the world's best thigh hugger. He was going to cling to them like a weeping maiden, unable to separate from her true love. He was going to water them with his tears. He would kiss those thighs, caress those thighs, tuck them into bed with a glass of warm milk and a bed time story and then hug those thighs again, all in the name of making sure Luo Binghe didn't keep testing out those knives on him. 

It took Shen Yuan a long time to fall asleep. 

 

When he next woke up, it was day time, and the apartment was flooded with the kind of light that suggested it was far too late in the day to reasonably consider it a "good morning". 

He sniffed and looked around. What had happened last night? A nightmare? A strange dream? Why was he on the couch again? 

He heard the rustle of fabric behind him, and whirled around to face a very handsome youth with tumbling dark hair, his eyes like black pools. Luo Binghe hurriedly hid something behind his back. Shen Yuan suspected it was another knife. 

"Good morning, laoshi," Binghe said with a polite smile. 

Shen Yuan checked the time. It was indeed no longer the morning. "How long have you been standing there?" 

"Not long. Does laoshi want breakfast?" 

Shen Yuan slowly eased himself off the couch. Various muscles complained, making tears spring to his eyes, and he had to settle back and rub his neck and his legs to get some blood back in them. "Ah... ah, fuck, I don't feel like cooking today. Binghe, could you fetch me the..."

He nearly said painkillers, until he remembered what an astronomically bad idea it would be to introduce Luo Binghe to his large and plentiful store of medication. 

"... a glass of water," he said instead. 

"Are you in pain?" Luo Binghe asked. If Shen Yuan didn't know he was such a good actor, he would have thought that Binghe was being genuine. 

"It's just the couch," Shen Yuan replied, waving away his concern. "I'll be fine once I stretch."

Not true. Even now, when he wasn't constantly at risk of hospitalisation, Shen Yuan's body was like a faulty truck that was long overdue its MOT. Every single warning light in the cabin was on. One more pot hole would probably make the engine implode, and yet it still kept driving. 

But Luo Binghe didn't need to know about all that. 

"Let's, ow. Let's go down and get some breakfast from the bakery. That way you can get a look at the neighbourhood and get used to this world. Alright?"

Binghe nodded respectfully. He stood back and watched dispassionately as Shen Yuan eased himself up from the couch and hobbled to the bathroom and bedroom to make himself presentable. 

... Maybe some sweet cakes would help subdue Luo Binghe's murderous urges. 

Chapter Text

When he came out of his bedroom, Shen Yuan suddenly realised something. Luo Binghe was wearing his incredibly ornate robes, black as night with delicate silver details woven in, slashes of dangerous scarlet poking through the oppressive but elegant outfit. 

He looked like a cosplayer. 

"Binghe, do you want to borrow some clothes?" he said, walking into the kitchen to find Binghe going through all the cupboards. 

Binghe raised an eyebrow. "Is my outfit inadequate?"

"No, it's..." Shen Yuan said. "It's fine, it's just... well, we don't really wear stuff like that for no reason. Look, just pick some things out my wardrobe and we'll go get breakfast. Lunch."

 

Luo Binghe stripped in Shen Yuan's bedroom without any sense of shame. This made sense. The man got naked more often than most people sneezed. 

Shen Yuan, however, was unused to seeing anybody's naked body in his room that wasn't his own (and even then, he usually had the lights off), let alone one as healthy and buff as Binghe's, and so he hurriedly turned away and covered his eyes while suppressing a small shudder. 

As expected of the infamous deflowerer of maidens! This guy was built like a brick shit house under those robes. In comparison, Shen Yuan looked dangerously skinny. 

The problem with that was that when Shen Yuan turned back around, Luo Binghe was squeezed into a shirt that was ripping at the seams, with a pair of joggers that wouldn't squeeze up around his thighs but got stuck just below his hips.

He glared at Shen Yuan with a murderous expression. 

"... You can keep the robes until we buy you new clothes," Shen Yuan said hurriedly, before stepping out the room to bite his hand hard enough that he wouldn't burst into laughter and get himself killed. 

Dignity, dignity, dignity! Important things must be said three times! 

 

Shen Yuan grabbed his walking stick from beside the door and ushered Luo Binghe out of his apartment and towards the elevator. Let it be said that this was no shabby two room apartment in a broken down block. His parents had not been able to stomach the idea of him having to sometimes take the hundreds of stairs up and down to his front door, so of course, they put him in one of the fancier blocks in town. It even had a lobby with a doorman and a receptionist. 

Luo Binghe watched as Shen Yuan hobbled along with his walking stick, a strange expression on his face. 

"What?" Shen Yuan said finally when he couldn't take any more of Binghe's stare. 

"Laoshi is injured?" Binghe asked. "Do you want to take my arm?"

Shen Yuan quickly shook his head. Who was taking whose arm? He didn't need any support. "This is just in case it gets worse while we're out. Don't worry about me, worry about yourself."

And with that, they stepped out onto the sidewalk, surrounded by the noise of the city. 

 

Luo Binghe didn't startle like Shen Yuan had expected. He didn't jump when the crosswalk started beeping loudly. He didn't run away screaming from the cars, and he didn't start asking strange questions at the people who walked past. He just watched everything with those glittering black eyes of his with a shrewd expression, as if he was absorbing everything and filing it away for future reference. 

When an airplane droned overhead, he looked up, but he still didn't look alarmed. 

"That's an airplane," Shen Yuan explained quickly. "It carries people all over the world."

"It's loud," Binghe remarked idly. 

"That's because it's burning fuel to go extremely fast. I can find you a book or a magazine about it if you want." 

Binghe nodded once, and then looked back down at the road. He read a nearby road sign and a billboard advertising perfume with an unperturbed expression. 

Shen Yuan cautiously spoke up. "You know, you're taking this a lot better than I expected..."

"Either this is the best dreamscape I've ever been sucked into, or I really have been brought into another world," Binghe said calmly. "In the case of the first, it's just a case of waiting for a weakness in the psyche of whoever is holding me here and then exploiting it. If it's a case of the second, then the best way to proceed is to accept I'm at your mercy for now. I have to learn how this world works first."

Shen Yuan got a creeping feeling of dread. "... and then?"

Luo Binghe turned and gave him a pleasant smile. "And then I'd like to see what this world has to offer me."

"It will be much harder without your powers," Shen Yuan said, hiding the fact he had broken out into a cold sweat. "Ah, if I understand correctly, this world doesn't have any magic, and I haven't seen you use any strange abilities or supernatural feats so far."

"That's right," Binghe said with that same smile. "Laoshi seems knowledgeable about many things. But in my case, since my level of education in these matters is much lower, I must watch and work out what form power takes in this world. Who has power and why? What did they do to obtain it? By learning this, I can roughly mimic them until either my powers return or I go home."

He really did have this all worked out. Shen Yuan awkwardly nodded. "It's good to have a hobby," he said weakly. The protagonist really did never get a holiday from being the protagonist, huh? 

 

They got to the bakery in one piece, somehow. The only incident had been when a young woman bumped into Binghe because she was in a phone call and wasn't watching where she was going. Shen Yuan had winced - but as expected from that black bellied bitch, all he did was smile at her apologies and help her up. 

She looked quite flustered when she walked away, casting backwards glances at this strangely dressed but handsome man. Ah, so it was beginning already. Did the protagonist miss his harem so much that he was already considering another one?

Shen Yuan didn't have space for that many people in his apartment. 

Binghe caught his glum expression, but he didn't say anything. The rest of the walk was spent in an uneasy silence as Shen Yuan mentally tried to picture how he would fit in so many wives into his lounge and bedroom. They would have to sleep head to tail, packed into the bed like sardines. Would he have to buy some blow up mattresses? Good god, what if Binghe wanted to get frisky? And the squabbling...

Shen Yuan tearfully bid a fond farewell to his lonely bachelor existence.

He was snapped out of his thoughts by the entry bell of the bakery jingling away as they walked in. He brightened up and gestured to the long displays of fresh bread and delicious pastries and buns available to purchase. 

Shen Yuan quickly asked for a few of his favourites, before turning to Luo Binghe expectantly. Binghe was reading the labels with a look of intense concentration. Finally, he pointed to a bun. 

"I'll take two," Shen Yuan said quickly, thinking about tomorrow's breakfast. "Anything else?"

"More?" Binghe said. "How generous." 

He smiled, but his eyes narrowed in a challenge. Shen Yuan watched as he selected five more buns, several pastries, and then finally pointed to the biggest, gaudiest cake on display. 

"... Binghe, your stomach..."

"Is it okay, laoshi?"

Shen Yuan, who was fully committed to lovingly wrapping himself around the protagonist's thighs, nodded firmly. "If you think you can eat this much. Ah, to go, please..."

 

That was how they started wandering back to Shen Yuan's apartment with two boxes of cake held in their hands each. Once again, people stopped and stared as they passed. Luo Binghe was tall, dressed like a fantasy demon king, and had hands full of cake boxes. They looked like they were on their way to a party. Some people even stopped and started taking pictures - people were so nosy! Shen Yuan wanted to wave his stick around and hit them, but he would have fallen over. 

Luo Binghe took the attention in his stride, though he stiffened when he saw the phones pointed at them. 

"... Laoshi, what are people holding? They look like strange spiritual devices."

"Those are phones, and people are using them to take instant portraits to share with their group chats," Shen Yuan explained tiredly. "Oh, a group chat is like a..."

He thought back to other wuxia novels he had read to try and find an equivalent that Luo Binghe might know. 

"... A communication array? Is that a thing?"

Luo Binghe made intense eye contact with a teenage girl who was photographing him from the front. She squeaked and ran away. "Tch. Is my appearance so outlandish?"

King, you're hot as hell! Shen Yuan wept inside. There was no polite and heterosexual way to say "you're literally so attractive people would pay to eat off your toned but evil abs". Instead, he hummed thoughtfully, trying to sound dignified. 

"It's the clothes. We should buy you some normal t-shirts and jeans so you don't stand out so much."

Holy shit. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit! Luo Binghe in a t-shirt and jeans! Shen Yuan felt his little fanboy heart flutter. Finally, he would get to see his favourite protagonist in a real life modern AU! He could dress Luo Binghe up like a model! 

"Then we should go and buy the clothes."

Shen Yuan's dreams shattered and fell around his feet. "Ah... this walk has already taken a lot out of me. I don't know if I could make it all the way into the high street and back before my back gave out. I'm sorry."

Binghe turned and looked at him, giving him that same strange look from before. 

"Why does laoshi push himself to leave the apartment when he is clearly sick?"

Shen Yuan internally rolled his eyes. To Luo Binghe's face, however, he just gave him a strained smile. 

"This weakling is always sick. If I stayed indoors every time I felt under the weather, I would never leave my place. Some days are good, some days are bad. I can't do as much as a normal person can in one day no matter what kind of day it is."

Binghe frowned. Did he look irritated? Shen Yuan was used to that. People often got annoyed when he had to duck out of social plans because he simply didn't have the energy to join in. 

Sorry friends, I can't join you for after work drinks because I can feel my knees crunching, so sorry so sorry please drink in my absence! 

Sorry cute girl from Tinder, I have to cancel our date at the park because I'm trapped in bed all day, so sorry so sorry please feel free to find a cute boy to flirt with in my absence! 

Hahaha, it was fine. Shen Yuan had entire worlds to explore from his apartment anyway. Thank god for the almost endless supply of shitty webnovels! 

Still, Luo Binghe couldn't be happy about this. Shen Yuan wanted to hug his thighs as sweetly as possible. 

"I know what we can do," he said with a grin. "When we get home, I'll take your measurements, and then we can order clothes online. Next day delivery!"

"... online?"

Shen Yuan paused, sensing that perhaps he had uncovered a very dangerous tool if left to Luo Binghe's devices. 

"... It's nothing! Just a form of communicating. Oh, look, here's my apartment, I'm going ahead haha-"

 

"Okay, strip down to your underclothes."

Shen Yuan's brain caught up to his mouth. Luo Binghe was staring at him. 

"... to measure you! Online shopping is a very precise skill. The less clothes we have to return because they don't fit, the better!' 

Luo Binghe slowly started taking off his outer layers, revealing the soft white robe he wore next to his skin. His black and silver robes dropped to the floor.

They clanked.

Shen Yuan frowned, and then parted the robes with his foot. His toe dislodged a kitchen knife that had been tucked into the many layers. 

"... Binghe!!" he squawked. "You took a knife with you?"

Luo Binghe looked unapologetic. "I was scared."

Scared? Scared my ass! You just wanted a weapon, you little shit! 

"Forbidden," Shen Yuan said immediately, before kicking the knife under the sofa. "Absolutely forbidden. No knives outside the flat. You don't need them and you'll only get arrested."

"If laoshi says so," Binghe said, inclining his head. Shen Yuan did not believe him for a second, but he got back to work holding the measuring tape up to Binghe's broad shoulders. 

...

XXL. Luo Binghe had been on the protein. 

Shen Yuan measured across his chest, and then his neck circumference, and then his waist. He got to his hips, and then suddenly a strange feeling started prickling at the back of his neck. 

...

......

Wait a moment. He was getting a little close to the protagonist's body. In the novels, Luo Binghe was a paranoid little bitch who refused to let anyone get close unless he was either about to bite out their carotid artery or he was about to push them down and papapa. But here he was, patiently allowing Shen Yuan to wrap a tape measure around his ass. 

It was a good ass. XXL.

No, he was getting distracted! The point was that Binghe should have been threatening him by now! Shen Yuan shot a nervous look up at the back of Luo Binghe's head. 

Binghe looked over his shoulder. 

"... is something distracting you?"

"No," Shen Yuan said quickly. "Measure your own inseam. Dick to foot, in centimetres, chop chop don't make me wait."

He tossed the measuring tape at Binghe before making a hasty retreat to his room to retrieve his laptop. When he came back, Binghe was lounging across his sofa. 

His white robe was tantalisingly open at the neck. What the fuck kind of protagonist halo was this? The "always looks like he's about to ravish someone" halo? Why couldn't he walk back in and find Binghe in an undignified position looking like a normal ugly person? 

"It's eighty four," Binghe said, holding up the measuring tape. "Are you sending my measurements to a tailor?"

Shen Yuan was already loading up all the fashion websites his sister had sent him a long time ago when he asked for tips on how to dress for a date. He never quite felt hot enough to pull off these looks... but this was Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe. In the flesh. 

Shen Yuan didn't care if he would have to return all these clothes in a few weeks. It was worth it to see Luo Fucking Binghe in ordinary clothes. 

"Something like that," he said sagely. 

Binghe nodded. "Laoshi is once again going to great expense."

"Ah, it's really nothing. Think of this like a gift to say, welcome to Earth!"

Just like an NPC who gives away key items in the first few minutes of the game, Shen Yuan thought to himself in approval. This was Luo Binghe's tutorial island! He was learning how to be a normal human being! 

"And... ordered. They should be here by tomorrow at midday. That's the power of modern convenience." Shen Yuan smiled to himself and closed the laptop. "And the endless grind of rapid consumerism. But hey!" 

Luo Binghe was staring at him. Shen Yuan hid his shudder. 

"... what's up?"

"I was just thinking that laoshi reminds me of someone," Binghe said with a small nod, not even apologising for staring like a creepy unblinking freak. "But his behaviour is much too different."

"Who?" Shen Yuan said curiously. Could it be... one of the peak lords? No, no, most of them ended up dying early, and Binghe didn't really know them all personally. Actually, now that he thought about it, Binghe didn't know a lot of men, did he? There were his subordinates, but most of them got weeded out for either perving on his wives or selling secrets to his enemies. In fact, most men Binghe met died horribly somehow. It was only the women who tended to survive long enough for him to get to know them, and even then, that was only until they became papapa fodder. 

...

Wait. 

Did he remind Luo Binghe of one of his wives? 

No, no, no! Shen Yuan was a manly man! A strong and independent man! He wasn't anything like those wives who, in the words of that beloved and talented author, "mewled and whined for a taste of that heavenly pillar" without any sense of shame! 

Luo Binghe's eyes curved into crescents. "I'm not sure laoshi would recognise the name. Just an old, old friend of mine."

... Ning Yingying?!? 

"I... look like this person?" Shen Yuan said faintly. 

"Very much so," Luo Binghe said with a smile. "Though actually... laoshi is smaller. His body is more lithe."

More lithe! Smaller! Ning Yingying was already pretty small! She was described as a curvy but short girl, a wholesome kind of little sister vibe. How was Shen Yun even smaller and more girly than she was?? She was one of the girliest girls in the entire harem! 

Shen Yuan closed his eyes and massaged his forehead to try and mask his expression. "But Luo Binghe says... my behaviour is different, right?"

Right? Right? Please say he doesn't act as naive and sweet as she does. 

"Laoshi acts very differently to anyone else I've ever met," Binghe said. "I'm still trying to work him out."

That... was probably a good sign. Though Shen Yuan didn't know what there was to actually work out. He was quite a simple guy, with simple tastes. Perhaps Binghe thought there was more under the surface than there really was. 

"We all have to amuse ourselves somehow," Shen Yuan finally said, letting his hands drop. "Now let's cut this cake up, and we can eat it while I show you what television is."

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe watched television the same way he watched everything else in this world. No matter what came on the screen, he watched it without a hint of excitement, the most emotion flickering over his dark eyes being either bored disinterest or sharp, unwavering calculation. 

Shen Yuan decided to flick through the channels and see what Luo Binghe liked. Unfortunately, it didn't seem like Luo Binghe liked anything. 

"... It's like a mini theatre in a box," Shen Yuan explained, just in case Luo Binghe still didn't understand the concept of television. "Except the actors are moving pictures that can't see or hear us."

Luo Binghe waved him off with an imperious hand. "I've worked it out."

Of course he did. He was the protagonist after all. That mind was too clever to get stumped by something as simple as television. Shen Yuan rolled his eyes and put a generic action movie on. 

It was fine, until one of the characters pulled out a surprise gun and shot another character in the chest. He slumped over dead in a pool of his own blood. Luo Binghe leaned forward in his seat, his eyes subtly widening with interest. 

Shen Yuan immediately changed the channel. 

"... laoshi, what was–"

"No," Shen Yuan said quickly. "Nothing. Just a made up weapon."

Nightmare visions of Luo Binghe with a gun danced in front of his eyelids.

Luo Binghe settled back into his seat, once again bored. "Is that so? Ah, I will take your word for it."

Nightmare. Nightmare world. Luo Binghe was never allowed to learn the word gun. Or bomb. Or chainsaw. Especially not chainsaw. 

"Eat your cake," Shen Yuan said primly, as the comedy on-screen showed a man struggling to open a jar of pickles for ten minutes. 

 

They spent a companionable few hours watching films and eating cake together, but Shen Yuan was under no illusions that this was the kind of exciting life that Luo Binghe was used to. 

Luo Binghe said as much when the comedy ended and Shen Yuan immediately put on a new film. 

"... laoshi, is this a regular occurrence for you? Do you often just sit in your home and... watch films?"

If Binghe wanted to shame him for his lifestyle, he needed to try harder than that! Shen Yuan was used to judgemental people. He just gave Binghe a polite smile. 

"I'm afraid so. This miserable bastard must seem quite pitiful to you, but this kind of life isn't so bad. It's hard to go outside, so I bring the world in here with me. This way I can travel all over the universe without getting up from my sofa. But... I understand if it's too boring for you. Your life must be quite different in your own world."

Binghe regarded him with a neutral look. "Different?"

"Less free time, I guess. In the... texts I studied... a lot of different worlds seem to be constantly at war or going through a crisis."

Binghe nodded, turning his gaze away. "I was kept busy. My responsibilities never stop. But that is just the price to pay for having all my affairs in order. I suspect that I will have to work hard to undo all the untold damage my current disappearance has done." 

Shen Yuan frowned. "You never get a break from your, um, work?" 

Luo Binghe laughed. It almost sounded genuine, but it rang hollow. "A break? I'm not a slave. I get time to sleep."

"... but do you get time to just relax like this?" Shen Yuan pointed to the cake and the television. "To just do nothing, and hang out with a friend?"

Binghe shrugged indifferently. "I make time to visit my wives."

He just said it! He just out and said he had wives! Shen Yuan saluted his confidence, and then frowned even deeper. The whole deal about having to papapa with his wives to keep Xin Mo from blowing up and destroying his mind... did that really count as doing nothing? Or hanging out with a friend? It was more a matter of survival, wasn't it? That was like saying that taking medicine was fun, or that having an operation was fun. 

But Shen Yuan couldn't just reveal that he knew this much about Luo Binghe's personal life. Binghe would never trust him with this much information. 

"... Ah, it must be nice to have a wife," he said instead, trying to sound vaguely envious. "It's a lonely life when you're single." 

Binghe didn't say anything. He just watched Shen Yuan with that increasingly familiar expression, like he was a puzzle that Binghe was working out. 

If only he had some kind of fan or mask or something. This was really too much to bear. One man wasn't meant to be stared at this often! 

“Is Shen Yuan often lonely?” Binghe asked, his voice quieter than usual, a strange emphasis on the Shen . Like he was trying to signal something - but Shen Yuan had no idea what. 

That threw him for a loop. He was so used to Binghe calling him laoshi that hearing his full name so suddenly was jarring. And as for the answer... 

Shen Yuan chuckled to hide his nerves. “Ah, what? How could I be? I have people to talk to.” Online. But getting out to meet people was difficult. “What’s with this strange question?”

“It’s just that laoshi seemed to accept my company so readily,” Binghe said, his eyes boring in on Shen Yuan. His polite tone did nothing to hide that awful intensity. “He is yet to kick me out, despite the fact that he considers me dangerous. He’s even buying me food and clothes. Isn’t that a little...?”

Now Binghe said it... it did sound like Shen Yuan was trying to be his sugar daddy. He flushed bright red and turned his face away, trying to hide his mortification. Protagonist, no, you have the wrong end of the stick! I’m not a weird pervert or anything!

Shen Yuan’s words stuck in his throat. Unnervingly, he was a little afraid that there was some truth to what Binghe was saying. 

“... hahaha, what? What are you saying? Ah, maybe you’re right, maybe I do enjoy having someone to watch films with. But whatever weird things Luo Binghe is thinking of... I’m not desperate enough to pay you to stay with me. If you choose to leave, then go, that’s fine. You’re going back to your world in a few weeks anyway.”

“You seem so sure of that,” Binghe murmured. “Does laoshi want me to leave?”

Shen Yuan thought of Luo Binghe left to his own devices, unfettered, on his own against the modern world, and shuddered. “Not necessarily. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable being here...”

“Uncomfortable?”

“You know, indebted or, or like I’m doing too much, or like you just want to go... then I wouldn’t stop you. I would understand. But I’m not putting you up in my flat because of any ulterior motives. I just thought...”

Shen Yuan sighed. 

A little boy tossed aside by a cruel master. The broken heart, coldly festering away in a woodshed. Seemingly never ending cruelty, heaped on top of his too young shoulders again and again, all with the aim of making him even stronger when he broke and reforged himself...

“... that you could do with someone being nice to you for once.”

Ah. Oops. He just said it. Still, it was vague enough, right? Binghe wouldn’t be able to deduce much from it, right?

He really needed to watch his stupid mouth. 

Binghe didn’t answer. There was only dead silence from his side of the room. Shen Yuan didn’t dare look - he had no idea what he would end up seeing. What would he say in response to that? What could he say? No, you’re weird, I think I’m going to get out of here before you start drooling on me?

“Laoshi,” Binghe said after a few minutes of peace and quiet. “You said there was no food in the kitchen, but this disciple has found many ingredients which look perfectly serviceable. Allow this one to cook for you tonight?”

Shen Yuan whirled to look at him. “Binghe, we’ve just eaten so much cake!”

“Cake isn’t dinner,” Binghe said reasonably. “We can have some more tomorrow. I would just really like to cook for you tonight.”

He seemed strangely insistent. Shen Yuan couldn’t figure it out - until he remembered. Luo Binghe’s philosophy could be summarised as “an eye for an eye”. If you hurt him, he would hunt you down and exact his pound of flesh to the exact amount he felt you owed him. Most of the time, he did this literally. 

But if you were kind - if you did him a kindness - then the same concept still held true. Didn’t Binghe always repay good deeds done to him in PIDW, no matter how small? He was probably feeling uncomfortable about being given so much free stuff, and this was his way of making up for it without leaving the apartment. 

Shen Yuan smiled indulgently, feeling like he was on much firmer ground already. “If you insist. It’s been a long time since I used that kitchen, though. I should probably explain how to use the cooker...”

 

Binghe tolerated his presence in the kitchen for a short while - just long enough to turn on the hobs and show him how to use the various knobs and dials - but soon, Shen Yuan was being kicked out very politely but firmly. 

Feeling slightly lost, he wandered back into his bedroom, wondering what to do with himself. To his surprise, the broken pieces of Nico had been swept into his waste paper bin. He shed a single tear for his figurine. Her sacrifice was not in vain. 

And there was his bed. 

Luo Binghe had slept in his bed. 

Hey, system, that’s definitely Luo Binghe, right? It’s not just some dude from the street pretending to be him?

 

[There was no error with the transmigration process. You were assigned the protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon Way. There have been no mistakes or glitches detected in the system.]

 

Ah, great. Yeah. So Luo Binghe had definitely slept in his bed. If he smelled the pillows, he would know what Luo Binghe’s hair smelled like. 

Shen Yuan lowered his head into his hands and made a sound like a tea kettle whistling. That was too real! Protagonists of books weren’t meant to smell of anything! They were otherworldly, inhumane beings of pure perfection, always handsome, always powerful, and never doing anything as indignified as using the toilet or sleeping on pillows and leaving hair on them or getting bored while watching a movie! 

No, he was fine. This was fine and normal, actually. He straightened up again and sat at his desk, ignoring his bed completely, before booting up his laptop. 

Out of pure habit, he navigated to the latest PIDW chapter. It was out of pure curiosity. If Luo Binghe was here... then where was he in the novel?

Surprisingly enough, there was no update. This was strange. The fans were going rabid in the comments. Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had left some vague comment about being ill and unable to publish a chapter today. 

Hmm. It was time to do something he had never dared to do before. 

 

> Hello, Mr Airplane. That feels too formal after our, shall we call it an acquaintanceship. Airplane bro, allow me to introduce myself. I am Peerless Cucumber. 

 

It took a few minutes, but the reply came sooner than he had dared hope. 

 

what the fuck <

where did you get this number <

 

> It was leaked about a year ago. I never sent a message as I thought that would be too creepy. 

 

so you thought saving it til now would be less creepy? <

 

> Well, I mean. Maybe. 

 

it’s creepy. you’re creepy cucumber bro <

 

> We can talk about this later. I have to tell you something which will make me sound even creepier and weirder. I know our dynamic has always been somewhat antagonistic, but please, I am begging you, just hear me out. This is not a trick or a troll or anything. 

 

since u have been my most loyal reader for so long i am willing to hear you out <

SENT: donkey_kong_ONCE.jpg <

 

> I think Luo Binghe somehow transmigrated out of your shitty novel and is now cooking dinner in my shitty apartment. 

 

The next reply took even longer to arrive. Shen Yuan held his head in his hands again. He was crazy. He sounded crazy. Airplane Bro was probably going to block him, as he should. Anyone would after a message like that.

 

oh so thats where he is lul <

 

What. 

 

> What. 

 

yeah its weird man one moment i was prepping the next arc for pidw and bam he left my brain entirely <

i figured it was just major writers block finally biting my ass but nah hes just chilling with you? rad < 

 

> ... and this doesn’t strike you as... odd?

 

oh its odd as hell :weirdchamp: <

but at least he’s keeping himself out of trouble <

 

> Airplane Bro, a fictional character literally jumped out of a book and tried to stab me. This is neither something you should be so calm about, nor does this count as any form of keeping himself out of trouble. 

 

your problem now. i’m free ;) ;) ;) <

 

> No, you are fucking not. 

> Airplane. 

> Mister Fucking Airplane. 

> Dickhead. I know you’re reading this. I hope your address gets leaked too so I can send Luo Binghe over to show you his new knife collection. 

 

“Laoshi?”

Shen Yuan startled and slammed his laptop shut and locked his phone. He turned to Luo Binghe and tried to look as nonchalant as possible, and not like he was just talking to his weirdly belligerent... god, father, creator... uh...

“Hey. Yes.”

“Dinner is ready,” Binghe said, his eyes flickering over the laptop. “Is laoshi ready?”

“Yes!” In truth, Shen Yuan was stuffed with cake, but he wanted to get the fuck out of this room before Binghe could somehow work out how to open the laptop and access the internet. “Hungry! Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Was this... really all made with things from his cupboard?

Shen Yuan stared in awe at the spread of food in front of him. Sticky, soft white rice. Steaming soup with tender vegetables poking out from the rich broth. Everything smelled so good. 

He had forgotten that Binghe was so good at cooking. 

“... this is too much,” he said faintly as he sat at the counter to eat. Binghe quickly placed a bowl and chopsticks in front of him. “You really cooked all of this?”

Binghe nodded, his eyes half lidded as he looked at Shen Yuan through his lashes. "Laoshi had many strange things in his cupboards. What is a hot dog?"

Shen Yuan's eyes widened. He hid his snort behind his hand. Openly laughing at the protagonist was a one way ticket to being dismembered or something equally as horrible. 

"It's... a type of sausage, that's all."

He took his first bite of the food to hide the giggles – no, the very manly laughter – that threatened to burst out. 

Oh. Okay. 

Yeah. 

He could understand why this worked on all those wives now. 

"Binghe!" he said, involuntarily. "This is remarkable. What's this sauce?" 

"Thousand Peak Red Bean," Binghe said, watching him eat with thinly veiled interest. "It's a recipe I developed."

"Well, it's delicious. Make sure nobody steals your recipe."

"Oh, I think that would be very difficult, laoshi."

Hah, he bet! Before he knew it, Shen Yuan was polishing off the whole bowl, his tiny stomach be damned. He leaned back in satisfaction, before remembering that he was trying to be the distinguished teacher looking after his wayward student. He sat up straight and gave Binghe an austere look. 

"Aren't you going to eat as well?"

Binghe nodded and picked up a bowl with only plain rice inside, and started eating. Shen Yuan decided not to ask. It wasn't worth the ensuing mind games. Besides, it was probably something to do with repaying the kindness. 

He hoped that now they were equal again, Binghe wouldn't turn around and murder him for fun. 

... He was truly stuffed. Like a piñata. Or a big cushion. 

"That was the nicest thing I've had in a long time," Shen Yuan said as he idly stretched out slightly. "I don't cook very much, and certainly not to that level. Keep this up and I won't start asking you for rent." Then Shen Yuan remembered who he was talking to, and gave Binghe an apologetic smile. "Not that I would anyway. You don't even have your own bed here."

"... Is it really okay that I sleep in yours?" Binghe asked, his voice casual. 

Ah, fuck. Another night on the sofa. The last one wasn't too bad, but this one might just kill him. No, if he gets all his pillows and makes a nest... maybe, maybe his back won't start crunching...

Already crying internally, Shen Yuan just nodded. "It's fine. Though if you stay any longer, I may shell out for a blow up bed."

Binghe collected the dirty dishes without being asked and started cleaning them. A spike of guilt formed in Shen Yuan's singular brain cell, making it ping around his skull in a nauseating fashion. 

"It's okay," he said, quickly pushing himself up and inserting himself between Binghe and the dishes. "I'll do this. You go and... relax, I guess. It can be my treat since you already stuffed me full of food."

Binghe hesitated, before bowing and withdrawing. "As laoshi wishes," he said, and made to exit, when Shen Yuan spotted something on his hand. 

"You're hurt!" he said, grabbing Binghe's hand without even thinking about the consequences. "Did you accidentally cut yourself while chopping the vegetables and not notice? That's my fault for keeping the knives so blunt – you have to use so much force..."

"It doesn't bother me," Binghe said, his voice amused, but he let Shen Yuan dig around in a cupboard and pull out some antiseptic and some bandages anyway. Shen Yuan very quickly sprayed the disinfectant on, making soothing noises when he knew it stung – not that Binghe's pleasant expression cracked once at the feeling – before wrapping it up nice and sterile. 

He patted the hand once. A good hand. Wide and calloused and dextrous. And covered in the blood of unfortunate cannon fodder. Metaphorically, of course, because Binghe's hands were physically squeaky clean. 

"There. Be more careful next time. I don't need stray fingers slipping under my fridge when you accidentally lop them off." 

"I'll be careful," Binghe said, still darkly amused. 

Shen Yuan realized he was still holding Binghe's hand, and quickly withdrew with a faint trickle of mortification. Ah, he got carried away. This was the protagonist. He didn't need someone clucking over him like an overprotective mother. "Good. Well. Carry on." 

Luo Binghe lingered in the doorway for a moment, something running through that electric gaze of his – but then it was gone, and he left Shen Yuan alone in the kitchen. 

 

Shen Yuan winced as he took the box from the delivery man. Just as he predicted, his back was complaining very loudly about being made to sleep on the slightly too small sofa, and now he was going to be even more stiff and grouchy than usual. 

He dragged the huge box and bundle of parcels inside, before calling out: "Binghe! Can you come here?"

Luo Binghe seemed to materialise from the kitchen. His eyes landed on the box. "The clothes?" 

Shen Yuan nodded and tried to hide the gleam in his eye. He felt like his pupils had turned into red laser beams, threatening to give away his excitement. Domestic Binghe content... who wouldn't be excited about that?

"Come and try them on for me," he said, straightening out his expression. His calm words did not match the force with which he tore open the box. "If they don't fit, I'll have to return them soon."

Luo Binghe obediently trotted over. Again, with no shame, he stripped off in the middle of Shen Yuan's living room, and Shen Yuan quickly had to turn around and cover his eyes if he didn't want to see more of Luo Binghe's anatomy than he had ever previously wanted. 

"Binghe!"

"It's just you and me, laoshi. What's there to be embarrassed about?" 

"Look, just–" 

Shen Yuan reached blindly behind him into the box and felt around until he thought he had the right item. He threw it vaguely at Luo Binghe, and sure enough, there was a flumph noise as they made a direct landing onto his head. 

"Put this on first!"

There was a rustle. When Shen Yuan deemed it safe, he turned back around. 

Tits. 

No, he was not going to get distracted by Luo Binghe's fat bazongas. Even if they were as XXL as the rest of him, Shen Yuan was not about to turn into one of the perverted sisters on the PIDW board who kept talking about licking abs or armpits or whatever they were babbling about. 

Shen Yuan turned his gaze firmly onto the pants Binghe was trying on, and made a noise of contentment. "They fit! Turn around."

They were a pair of joggers, nothing fancy, but of course when Binghe wore them he looked like an advert for fancy loungewear. 

It was that protagonist's halo. The man always looked hot. It was the law. 

Binghe tugged something out of the box with narrowed eyes. He tugged it on – and stared down at his chest. 

"Laoshi, this one doesn't fit."

Shen Yuan, who was quickly realising that he had made a possibly fatal error, felt his soul start to leave his body. "Ah, no, I forgot I put that in my cart... that's a..."

He couldn't do it. He couldn't say "extreme cropped hoodie" to Binghe and admit he bought it on purpose. 

"... a mistake," he said quickly. "They must have messed up! It's missing half the fabric. Ah, what a shame."

Luo Binghe gave him a look that was entirely too knowing, but he took the cropped hoodie off with an innocent smile. The thing really was scandalously short. It only just covered his nipples. What had Shen Yuan been thinking. Dignity! Dignity, man! 

Most of the other clothes fit impeccably. There were a few sizing errors, but at the end of their little fitting session, Binghe now had a selection of clothes that would have been at home on the floor of any young, rich, professional hot person. He looked like an effortlessly casual son of a CEO but like, in a low key still goes to Starbucks kind of way. 

Shen Yuan was in heaven. This was how he would have dressed if he had the body for it! This was truly living via proxy - Binghe was living Shen Yuan's dreams! The combat boots! The jeans! The way all his shirts clung to his chest! His handsome, almost pretty face and his tumbling long hair, like spilled ink! 

"Binghe," Shen Yuan said, putting a proud fatherly hand on Luo Binghe's shoulder, "I can't let you go out in public. Somebody is going to try to marry you and steal you from me." 

Binghe's eyebrow raised. He looked at the hand, and Shen Yuan hurriedly pulled it back while trying to make the act look casual. Right, right, this wasn't some guy - this was the proud and untouchable demon of a man who wouldn't appreciate casual slapping and touching. Even if it was just a joke. 

"Do you like me in these clothes?" Luo Binghe purred. 

Shen Yuan held back his happy tears. Yes! Yes, Binghe, I do! But instead of saying so and embarrassing himself by gushing about it like some teenage girl, Shen Yuan shrugged nonchalantly. 

"Does Luo Binghe like them?"

There was a brief pause, and then: "I think I like them very much."

 

[Congratulations! Protagonist Happiness Points earned: +50HP! (人*´∀`)。*]

 

Happiness Points? HP? You didn't tell me I was earning a score on keeping him happy! Did you just make this up? Why didn't I get any happiness points before?!

 

[User has not made the protagonist happy until now. There were no points to award.]

 

Shit! Shen Yuan shivered. An unhappy Luo Binghe was a murderous Luo Binghe. But... an unhappy Luo Binghe was also going to get returned to his own book to leave Shen Yuan in peace. 

 

System, how many Happiness Points does the protagonist have? 

 

[-950.]

 

...

 

Why the fuck was it so low!? Don't say that Shen Yuan was right and Luo Binghe was deeply unhappy as the demon emperor? He had only really considered that as a theory! He didn't know it was canon!

 

Okay, okay, okay, system be serious with me. Is Luo Binghe really that unhappy? And if so... what happens if he gets any unhappier?

 

[Unless the user can gain enough Happiness Points to get the protagonist into positive numbers, the protagonist will return to his novel. If the HP balance is still in the negative, the remaining debt will be converted to Play Coins and transferred to the user as debt to repay.]

 

Eh! Eh, wait! You mean if Luo Binghe isn't happy, Shen Yuan ends up in debt to the system by however unhappy he is? What the fuck kind of scam is this! 

 

[However, if the HP is above zero, the user will receive an equivalent amount in Play Coins.]

 

Play Coin this, Play Coin that, what was the big deal? Cryptocurrency? Was it like a bitcoin? Was it edible? 

 

[Currency can be exchanged for goods and services. Play Coins can be used to purchase perks and benefits.]

 

System, can I install a mod? Is that a thing? Can I cheat and mod in more Play Coins? Where is your user interface, I want to get inside you...

 

[...] 

 

[Please control yourself, valued user...]

 

When Shen Yuan dropped back into the present, Luo Binghe was examining his appearance in the mirror Shen Yuan had dragged in from his bedroom. He was wearing a pair of black jeans and a loose silk shirt, also black, half tucked in and half left out like some kind of scandalous hussy. Entirely from his own volition, he had undone the top four buttons of the shirt - four! Shen Yuan could draw the line at three maybe, but four was slut behaviour! - and was admiring the view of a slinky silver chain that Shen Yuan had impulse bought as an add on in his basket. 

Ah, he could pull anything off. Shen Yuan bit back a sigh. 

"Laoshi, are you sure these are enough?" Luo Binghe shot him a dry look. "People in this world dress so freely..."

...

Was this man whore complaining that people didn't wear enough clothes in this world? Shen Yuan's eye twitched. He hid a laugh behind his hand as he tried to appear like he was thinking about it. 

"Do you feel uncomfortable without more layers on? You can put more layers on if you like..."

Luo Binghe tilted his head, and then smiled. "No. I like it."

Hah, you would. 

"Laoshi... would you like to go out again today?" Binghe said, turning his gaze onto Shen Yuan. "There is still so much that I want to see." 

"You can go out without me, you know," Shen Yuan replied with a smile. "But if you can stand to walk at my pace, then we could go for a walk to the park. There's a café there." 

Binghe thought about it. "I would like to go out by myself."

Huh. Shen Yuan just nodded, but inside, he felt a little stab of pain. Weird... did he need to check in with his nurse again and get an ECG? Or was it just that he was suddenly a little saddened that his eager disciple was ready to spread his wings and fly the nest? 

"Of course," Shen Yuan said. "Yes. That's super fine. Then by all means... wait, before you do."

He went over to the side table in his hallway and pulled out a Sharpie, before holding his hand out for Binghe to take. He hesitated but handed it over with no complaint. Shen Yuan quickly wrote his phone number on Luo Binghe's arm, as well as his street address and flat number. 

"There. Just in case you get into trouble."

Binghe was giving the black writing an inscrutable look. "Is this a sigil?"

"No, it's my contact details, show it to someone and they'll know what to do," Shen Yuan said. "Unfortunately, I don't know magic. But I do have a cell phone. So who's the real winner here?" 

Binghe pulled on his new boots and prepared to go as Shen Yuan hovered around him, feeling useless and annoying. Of course the protagonist wanted to scout his new territory without some reedy otaku slowing him down. All Shen Yuan could do was hope that Binghe wouldn't come back with some star struck girl under his arm. 

That he would come back at all.

"Ah, wait," he said, and dashed into his room. When he re-emerged, he pressed some paper money into Binghe's hand. "A lot of places might not accept this anymore since everything's gone contactless, but the street vendors might, so make sure you check before you buy yourself some lunch. And be careful. And don't get into fights. If you get lost, just show someone your arm and say you're a tourist, but – wait, no you might get mugged... show a policeman. Ah, what am I saying..."

"Laoshi," Binghe said, interrupting his spiralling sentence. "I'll be fine." 

He would. Shen Yuan wholly believed that he would. He unlocked his front door and let Luo Binghe out, feeling a strange sense of melancholy as the world's worst Gary Sue, the man of Shen Yuan's literary nightmares, strolled out into the busy streets of the city. 

He closed the door again, and then looked around his apartment, feeling at a loss. 

"... well," he said, and settled down in front of the TV to keep an eye on the regional news, just in case. 

Chapter Text

Man, it was quiet in the apartment. Not that Binghe was loud, but Shen Yuan had rapidly become very aware of his presence in the building. It filled the space with a kind of energy, a low humming buzz like background electricity. You couldn't not pay attention to him. It was impossible. 

The hours ticked on. Shen Yuan got bored of the television and looked out his window instead. He sat at his desk in his room and spun around on his chair. He took a shower, just for something to do. 

...

Was this how NPCs in video games felt when they were just sitting around, waiting for the player to appear? 

Shen Yuan nibbled on some of the pastries they had left over, but it wasn't as appealing as before. He surfed through the various online novels that had updated, but none of them caught his attention. 

Ah, what the fuck was this feeling!! Why was he lying around like some useless pining wife waiting for her husband to come home from work!! Shen Yuan had his own pride, his own dignity! He could do something! 

Doing something ended up being playing video games until he got bored of those too. 

He sighed and laid on his bed, before remembering who had slept in it just a few hours ago. Luo Binghe... well. He was probably out there having a great time. It wouldn't be long before his happiness points started shooting up as he re-established himself as the local tough guy, the linchpin in charge of the seedy underworld...

Shen Yuan's phone started ringing. He answered it immediately. Was Binghe already causing trouble? Was he lost? 

An unfamiliar male voice came through the speaker. "... Cucumber Bro?"

A shiver ran down Shen Yuan's spine. Nobody was ever supposed to know his internet moniker. "... Who is this?"

"It's me, Airplane Bro. Uhh, Mister Airplane. I think you also called me Dickhead in your last text..."

Shen Yuan sat up in bed, his eyes wide. "Are you being serious?"

"Uh... you are Peerless Cucumber, right?"

Shen Yuan had never experienced the mortifying ordeal of hearing someone say his shitty dick joke internet name out loud, with their actual flesh mouth. He closed his eyes momentarily and tried to sound as casual as possible. 

"... Mn."

"Great. So how's Bingge?"

Was he dreaming? Was this real? Had he fallen asleep on his bed and melted into a strange delusion? Was the author of his least favourite novel really calling him to ask how his main character was? 

"... he's fine," Shen Yuan said, feeling faint. This was way too casual. How was this happening. "I bought him some new clothes and he's been eating properly. I think I'll have to buy him a proper bed soon."

"He's not a stray dog," Airplane Bro snorted. "What's next, the vet?"

"Shut up."

"Is he there? Can you pass him the phone?"

Shen Yuan sighed - no, he did not sigh! He was not folorn! He didn't sigh at all as he said, "he's out."

"... out?"

"I think he's gone to the park."

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Airplane Bro exploded. "That's my son! He's only three years old! Why are you making him wander around all by himself? Huh? What if he-"

"He won't get hurt," Shen Yuan scoffed. 

"I was gonna say what if he kills someone!" 

Ah. Now that was a legitimate worry. "He's smart. He'll figure it out."

"Who knows him better, you or me?"

Shen Yuan puffed up in indignation. "Oh, you don't wanna do this, Airplane Bro. I edit the PIDW wiki for fun."

"Wha - bro, I wrote it!"

"And now it's your fault if anything bad happens to him!" Shen Yuan yelled. "Why did you have to make him so messed up, huh? You could have written him to have a nice day out in the park with his cultivator friends and not be a murderous Genghis Khan, asshole!"

"Oh, I'm sure that would have been popular," Airplane Bro said in a dry voice. "The Nice and Non Violent Adventures of Luo Binghe, Sweet Puppy with a Heart of Gold. Who do you think my audience is?" 

Shen Yuan could only massage his forehead. Airplane Bro was right. He would never have read PIDW if it was just endless syrupy sweet goodness. He liked Luo Binghe, fucked up evil dark side and all. In fact, that was one of his main draws. But still... having to deal with that in real life was just stressful. 

"... he'll be back soon."

"He better!" Airplane Bro sounded curious. "What city are you in?"

"Why? Do you want to meet him?" Shen Yuan teased, and Airplane Bro immediately stuttered.

"No! No no no, no way. He'll kill me. He'll skin me alive or something. I just want to know where my son is."

"Stop calling him that, it's weird." 

Against his better judgement, Shen Yuan ended up giving his vague address to Airplane Bro. By mutual agreement, they both decided not to ask each other for their real names. There was something too shameful about the whole exchange. 

After he hung up, Shen Yuan looked around his room idly. He wondered what Binghe made of it. He needed to change the sheets and tidy up the food packages on his desk, but mostly it was clean and tidy. He wasn't an animal, after all. 

There was his prized collection of figurines on his shelf, as well as a few limited run standees for the smaller series that couldn't afford things like Nendoroid or Goodsmile. And then, the most illicit of all, his collection of unofficial merch that he rarely splashed out on - only for the characters he really, really liked. 

His eyes landed on a plastic standee of Luo Binghe. 

... 

Fuck. 

He forgot he had that. He saw it every day on his shelf, so it didn't really register anymore, but it was totally obvious to anyone who was looking for it. The plastic print of Binghe was a piece of fanart that someone had drawn where he was extending his hand towards the viewer, an evil smile on his face as his demon mark glowed, as if he were inviting the person looking at him to take his hand, join him in his eternal empire as one of his wives...

Binghe had seen it. Binghe had definitely seen it. Okay, it didn't really look like him since it was that artist's interpretation, but there were too many similarities! And it was right there, on Shen Yuan's shelf! 

Heart in his throat, he grabbed the standee and wondered where he could hide it. Though now... if Binghe had seen it, and now it disappeared, wasn't it super obvious that Shen Yuan had hidden it?! And didn't that just confirm whatever suspicions Binghe might have had about it? 

To hide or not to hide? What should he do?

The doorbell rang, and Shen Yuan sat bolt upright. In a panic, he threw the standee under the bed and ran into his living room, calling himself down before finally going to answer the door. 

In front of him stood Luo Binghe. His hair was a mess. He looked dusty, somehow, and he was sporting a black eye. There was a spray of blood across his cheek. 

Shen Yuan yelped. "Binghe, you're hurt!"

Luo Binghe's expression was best described as "miserable". He gave Shen Yuan a tired look. "Laoshi, this world is very interesting." 

Shen Yuan paled when he saw the blood and pulled Luo Binghe inside. He couldn't stop thinking about what Airplane Bro had said. "That..."

"It's not mine," Binghe said, almost cheerfully, before his expression dropped back into murderous. "I got some on laoshi's clothes." 

Shen Yuan gaped at him. Who cares about the clothes? Did you kill someone or not, protagonist? 

"... Binghe," he said, in a pained kind of way. Luo Binghe waved an imperious hand. 

"I didn't do anything, I promise. Unfortunately, there was a mild accident, and a misunderstanding which almost led to a fight. I remembered laoshi's words and held back. Unfortunately, he didn't hold back on me." He smiled, and it was unpleasant. "I've remembered his face. I will be sure to apologise properly later for my misbehaviour." 

"No more details," Shen Yuan said, plugging his ears. "I want plausible deniability if the police come. Stay here."

He got up and headed to the bathroom to pick up his emergency medical kit again. When he came back, Binghe was standing by the window, his hands clasped behind his back, his face turned away as he looked down and out over the city through the glass. Shen Yuan paused. He cut such an impressive figure even when he was just standing around, like a lion surveying its territory. 

Shaking off his stupor, Shen Yuan moved up to Luo Binghe and hesitantly started to fuss with his black eye, reaching up to wipe away the blood with a shudder of distaste. Luo Binghe let him, or maybe he just didn't notice. 

"... Aside from the fight, did you have fun?"

Luo Binghe slowly shook his head, making Shen Yuan have to dodge jabbing him in the eye with a cotton wool swab. 

"No, but I did have a satisfactory reconnaissance of the area. This world is indeed very different to my own."

"I bet." Shen Yuan sighed again. He had taken to sighing a lot recently. He wasn't sure he liked it. "At least you're back all in one piece."

There was another long moment of quiet, and then Binghe spoke again. "Laoshi has me at a disadvantage. He did not tell me that he was rich."

Eh? Where did this come from? Shen Yuan blinked at him. "Uh... yeah, I guess. Why?" 

Binghe looked at him through the corner of his eyes. "Just an observation."

Well, quit observing, you freak. Shen Yuan moved away, satisfied he had patched Binghe up as much as the man would let him. "It makes up for having a body that wasn't supposed to live past twenty. Ah... don't worry." He turned around suddenly, his eyes meeting Luo Binghe's. "You don't owe me a thing, alright? I'm doing all of this because I want to, and anyway, I don't think you have the means to pay it back. So if you're suddenly worrying about weird things like debt and money, don't. If I'm a fool who's throwing money away, let me be a fool, okay?" 

Binghe nodded his head, a hint of a smile on his features. "Alright then, Mister Fool." 

Phew. Crisis averted. For some reason, Shen Yuan was absolutely certain that holding any kind of monetary debt over the protagonist was a one way ticket to somehow ending up at the sharp end of his sword. Better to be the strangely generous NPC, ah... 

 

And just like that, somehow several days passed by. They fell into a strange routine. Luo Binghe would cook breakfast for them both, and then Shen Yuan would take them on a walk around the city. They usually went to the bakery or the park, though Shen Yuan liked to take Binghe to new places to help him get acclimated to the neighbourhood. Then they would come back and watch some films, or Binghe would wander around for a bit by himself around the neighbourhood while Shen Yuan moped around in his room, and then they would have dinner together. 

And then Shen Yuan would lie down on his sofa and hold back tears. What did they stuff this thing with, bricks?

The routine wasn't the only strange thing. Airplane Bro actually started texting him regularly, ostensibly to ask after his son and make sure he was okay - but really, Shen Yuan got the feeling he did it more to enjoy the schadenfreude. 

It was... weird. Shen Yuan had never had a roommate before. It was kind of fun. Sure, his roommate was an ex-emperor who was used to being waited on hand and foot by a small city's worth of wives, but he seemed to transition into his new bachelor's lifestyle very well. 

The only trouble was that his happiness points weren't going up. They weren't going down either, but still, was he really not enjoying this life at all? Shen Yuan felt a spike of guilt. The system had told him to make Luo Binghe happy, and he had arrogantly accepted the challenge, but in this body... with his personality... was it really possible?

Wasn't he the worst possible person for the job? 

In fact, this all felt less like he was making Luo Binghe happy, and more like they were living under an uneasy truce. As the days passed, the tension kept growing and growing, suffocating the apartment until Shen Yuan was desperately hoping something would happen to make it break. 

 

As they say in all the best books: be careful what you wish for.

 

Shen Yuan woke up in pain. His back was completely twisted, and he could feel shudders of excruciating soreness racing up his muscles and making him twitch. He could tell already that it was going to be a bad day. Maybe it was the turn in the weather making the air cold and damp. Maybe it was the fact he had to sleep curled up like a prawn on the sofa cushions. Either way, he was fucked for the day unless he could down a couple of painkillers and crawl into a very hot bath. 

Shen Yuan tried to sit up, and gasped. No. Not possible. He gingerly lay back down and squeezed his eyes shut. 

When he opened them again, Luo Binghe was standing over him with a curious expression, like Shen Yuan was a bug on display under a magnifying glass. 

"Laoshi...?" 

"I'm just sore," Shen Yuan valiantly tried to bluff. "Nothing a good stretch won't fix."

Nevermind the fact he had started sweating from the pain. He gave Binghe a strained smile. 

Luo Binghe returned it, but on him, it looked much more sinister. "Does laoshi want me to fetch him anything...?"

Shen Yuan contemplated the pros and cons of telling Binghe about his medicine cabinet. On the plus side, he wouldn't have to walk there right now like a little hermit crab with the blankets wrapped around his waist. 

On the negative side, there were some powerful chemicals in there. He wasn't sure what Luo Binghe would do with them, exactly, but he didn't want to find out. Still...

Another wave of pain made him crack. "Ah, Binghe, please, the cupboard under the sink, in the bathroom. There's a plastic box in there. If you could go and get it for me, this useless old man would be incredibly grateful..."

Luo Binghe tilted his head. His eyes curved into pleased crescents. "When laoshi is like this, he reminds me of that person even more than before."

Now is not really the time, Binghe! Your venerable teacher is in a lot of fucking pain! "Luo Binghe, please. Just run and get it."

Binghe crouched beside him, bringing their faces level, still observing Shen Yuan as if he were the most interesting thing on the planet. Shen Yuan stared back at him, uncomprehending, wondering why he was stalling. 

Another wave of pain wracked through him. He could feel his impatient expression crumbling into distress. 

"... forgive this disciple his distraction," Binghe said quietly. That horrible, angelic smile was still on his face. "It's just been a while, that's all."

A horrible shiver of fear and helplessness ran through Shen Yuan. Why wasn't Binghe helping? What the fuck was happening here?

"It hurts," he said, as if it would snap Binghe out of whatever weird mood he was in. Binghe tilted his head again. Like a stupid dog. Shen Yuan was losing his patience. 

"If it hurts so much," Binghe chuckled, chuckled! Like this was some light-hearted conversation, "why don't you beg?"

Shen Yuan went stiff. 

Oh. Right. So Binghe was playing with him. Shen Yuan stared up at him, losing every shred of confusion and hurt and feeling something else, something worse, rush to take its place. 

"Beg?" he said coldly. 

Binghe nodded. "Beg."

Shen Yuan swallowed. And then, silently, he pushed himself up from the couch. It was painful, extremely painful, but he had had worse. Much worse. His face carefully blank, he pulled himself upright, but couldn't help the hiss of pain that escaped him as something in his back popped. 

Binghe's expression was complicated. "... laoshi?"

"Don't speak to me," Shen Yuan replied easily, turning his face away. Using the furniture as support, he made his way across the living room. Binghe followed just behind, just out of arm's reach. 

Shen Yuan stumbled as he reached the door, resisting the urge to bend double as his back gave another painful twinge that made his legs shake, and Binghe rushed forward to put a supporting arm under his elbow. Shen Yuan pushed it away. 

"Don't touch me," he said, voice firm. 

"Laoshi is struggling," Binghe replied, sounding incredulous. He tried again, but Shen Yuan pushed his hand away again. 

"I said get off!" 

"You're being stubborn."

Damn right he was being stubborn. He didn't dignify that with a response. 

Somehow, he got to the bathroom. Lowering himself down to the cupboard under the sink made more sweat bead upon his brow and his eyebrows twitch. Bending was not an option. And yet, he had to bend. Fuck, he was an idiot, didn't he learn from last time to keep the painkillers at a normal height? 

His fumbling hands found the packet of painkillers and he took as many as he was allowed, shakily grabbing a handful of water from the sink to help and swallowing them with practiced ease. When he turned around, Binghe was in the doorway. He was wearing a concerned expression, but he wasn't wearing it particularly well. Shen Yuan could see the contempt shining through underneath. 

"Move."

"Laoshi, you look unwell. Want me to carry you to the sofa?"

"I want you to move," Shen Yuan replied, holding back his anger. 

"No," Binghe said, and without asking permission, he moved forwards. It was humiliating how easily he picked up Shen Yuan, a hand under his knees and an arm under his shoulders in the perfect bridal carry. Well, the man had 3000 wives to practice on. 

Shen Yuan closed his eyes and counted to three. 

"Put me down."

"Drop you? Surely that would hurt worse?" 

"Fucking put me down or I'll start hitting you."

"I look forward to it," Binghe said, a strange gleam in his eye as he leaned down and invaded Shen Yuan's space. "Laoshi... ah, no, isn't that the wrong way to address you?"

Shen Yuan formed a fist. "One." 

"Wasn't I right first time?"

"Two."

"Isn't it time we gave up this pret-"

There was the sound of the front door unlocking, and then a woman's voice called out, "A-Yuaaan, a-Yuan, are you home? I'm hungry and cold, feed me. Hey, are you in the bathroom?"

Shen Yuan immediately started struggling, his facing turning red with fury. "Put me down right now, Binghe," he hissed. Binghe blinked in surprise, his body stiffening. 

"Woah, are these leftovers? San-ge, did you cook? What the fuck... I thought you threw out all your pots and pans. Lazy!" 

Binghe was not putting him down. Instead, he started walking, Shen Yuan still in his arms, towards the sound of the voice. Shen Yuan started beating on his chest with his fists, but that shit was solid. Binghe lifted, bro. It was like hitting a brick wall. 

And just like that, Luo Binghe turned a corner and met Shen Yuan's sister.

Chapter Text

Shen Lin was experiencing what some people might call an earth shattering change of heart. 

She tried not to think about her older brothers doing on dates or having girlfriends, mostly because it was weird, but she had always assumed that Shen Yuan was either going to die a virgin or he'd pick out some nice quiet girl who also liked anime and weird books and probably didn't have any bones, just like him. He was, secretly, her favourite brother, so she hoped that he would pick someone nice who would spoil him as much as he had spoiled Shen Lin growing up. He was the kind of person she could see getting taken advantage of by some cruel woman if he wasn’t careful.

So it was understandably a little disconcerting to see him being carried into the kitchen by the most handsome man she had ever seen. 

"..."

"..."

"Hahah, a-Lin, you're visiting so suddenly," Shen Yuan said. His face was very red. "Ah, this is my friend. Lu... Louie. He's foreign. Louie, this is my sister."

Louie. Louie?? What the fuck kind of fake name was that? Louie raised a single eyebrow, before bowing his head. "You look just like a-Yuan. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"A-Yuan?" Shen Yuan spluttered, at the same time as Shen Lin thought, a-Yuan? 

"I just came over to bother you for a moment or two," Shen Lin said uncertainly. "I didn't realise you had a friend over!"

"Mm, we were just," Shen Yuan said, and then seemed to think about it, "watching some movies."

The television was not on. Shen Lin nodded, and pretended that it was. "As per usual! You do love your movies!" 

She was beginning to think that she had wildly, horrifically, deeply miscalculated something here. 

"I've never met this friend before," she said, giving Louie a smile. Louie smiled back, and it was all teeth. Wow, he was... he was really hot. And really big. Wow. And he still wasn't putting her brother down. 

Her brother, who was trying very hard to look nonchalant. He caught her stare, and smiled. She noted, with dawning horror, that Shen Yuan was kind of sweaty. Was he shaking? 

"... um, are you okay? Is it bad again?"

Her usually very welcoming and affection San-ge seemed weirdly eager to get her off the subject and out of his apartment. 

"Haha, just back pain! Louie very helpfully volunteered to carry me to the bathroom to grab my painkillers. Haha."

Shen Lin, who was an avid reader of extremely badly written gay smut, suddenly remembered with vivid clarity several scenes from the latest novel she had been devouring where a certain half of the romantic couple was recovering from "back pain", and felt her smile grow rigid. "Haha." 

It couldn't be. Surely not. This Louie guy couldn't be... and her brother... 

"Actually," Louie said with a smile, "I'm troubling a-Yuan right now. He's helping me out while I'm in an unfamiliar city." 

"Stop calling me that," her brother said, still smiling, but now there was a fire in his eyes. 

Oh my god, she thought. They're roommates. 

"Well, I'll stop bothering you now," she said, her smile stuck in place like rigor mortis. "Haha, okay, bye-bye Yuanyuan!"

"Wait, you're going already?" Shen Yuan replied from Louie's arms. "But you just-"

"Don't let me interrupt! Haha!"

"Okay, haha!"

The two siblings nervously laughed at each other several more times as Shen Lin grabbed her coat, made her way out of the flat, and let Louie close the door behind her. 

...

She blinked at the door for a minute. 

Shen Lin was a resilient girl. She was flexible. She was modern. But most of all, she was a fast learner. 

The trouble was that it was completely different reading about it in a book versus... versus her brother being... with a... and he was... 

And they had been...

There was so much to think about. So much to come to terms with. 

She made her way downstairs again in a fugue state. 

 

Shen Yuan was sinking into the deepest pits of despair. 

When he thought of Luo Binghe amassing a harem in the modern world, he had never imagined that his sister would be at risk of getting pulled in. 

But he should have expected this. Regrettably and against his choice, Shen Yuan knew her type, and it was big buff hot guys that looked like they had about two brain cells. And the way she had looked at Luo Binghe, like a captivated rabbit in front of a snake...

Shen Yuan wept tears of blood. Protagonist, do you have no mercy? Couldn't you turn off your sexy aura in front of my sister? Please, any girl in the world but her! You're really too brutally efficient! 

He was broken out of his spiral of despair when Luo Binghe gently set him down on the floor, feet first. Ah, so now he put him down. Couldn't he have done that when his sister was still here to save Shen Yuan some face? 

It was all too much. As soon as Shen Yuan was standing by himself, he felt his shoulders tense up with the weight of everything that had just happened. The situation had been entirely out of control. It was truly lucky that his sister had been in the neighbourhood and decided to stop by. He got the feeling that she had saved his neck, somehow. 

"... sorry, laoshi, was a-Yuan too informal?"

Shen Yuan straightened up. He closed his eyes for just a moment, before opening them again and staring at Luo Binghe. 

"If you ever pull that shit again," he said, staring Luo Binghe down with a calm kind of rage he never knew he possessed, "I will kick you out onto the fucking streets." 

Before Luo Binghe could respond, Shen Yuan turned around and hobbled to his own room. He walked inside, and slammed the door shut. 

 

Shen Yuan probably wasn't going to get an apology, was he. Binghe was a mess of a man. He probably thought he was perfectly justified in doing what he did, in some weird and twisted way that was beyond Shen Yuan's rationality. Maybe he didn't even know how offensive he had been. Maybe he was broken beyond repair. But still...

He wanted an apology. 

Ah, what was he supposed to do? If this happened to anyone else, with anyone else, he would have kicked them out already. One thing his parents had always taught him was that if anyone started playing games with his health, they were to be forcefully and quickly ejected from the premises. 

Why was he giving Luo Binghe one more chance? 

His last chance. His final chance. Shen Yuan would not tolerate this kind of thing again. 

 

He wasn't sure how long he lay on his bed, not really feeling anything, until there was a knock on his door. When he looked at the window, the sun was already setting.

Ah, fuck. He had no idea how Luo Binghe was going to react to his little outburst. On the plus side, after the painkillers kicked in and he rested on an actual bed, his back felt much better. 

But he was still angry. 

"No," he said loudly. 

"Is Shen Yuan still mad?"

"Yes," he said. 

There was a beat of silence, and then the door creaked open. Shen Yuan didn't turn to look, but he suddenly smelled something delicious. 

"I made dinner." 

No. No, he will not give in. Binghe may cook like a Michelin star chef but Shen Yuan is strong! He is resilient! 

"Not hungry," he lied. 

There was a long beat of silence. 

And then,

"I talked to your sister."

Talk about rubbing salt in the wound! Shen Yuan swore he heard the ominous peal of wedding bells floating around his ears. Was it too late to forbid them from seeing each other?

"I ran after her and talked to her."

"Wonderful," Shen Yuan said grumpily. 

"This disciple must apologise," Binghe said. There was the scuffle of his shoes on the floor, and then Shen Yuan felt the bed dip as Binghe sat on it. "I thought..."

He trailed off. Shen Yuan scrunched his eyes closed, and then finally turned to look at Luo Binghe, steeling his expression. 

Binghe was watching him calmly. It wasn't the cruel impassive face he wore before, nor was it smiling. It just was. 

"Do you even know why you're apologising?" Shen Yuan said quietly. "Do you feel better now? Do you feel like a big man? I'm sorry if you're feeling helpless or vulnerable or far from home, but don't try and fix that by tormenting me." He turned away from Luo Binghe, his hands in his lap. "I've spent my entire life being vulnerable. This body always lets me down – you don't know how much I've had to rely on nurses and caretakers over the years to help me do the most basic of stuff. And if it isn't them, then it's my family. It's better now, but growing up, I had to ask someone to help if I wanted to do literally anything. I've been helpless every day for as long as I can remember, and then today, it was like it all came back but worse, because I was both helpless and at your mercy. And you decided to torment me."

Binghe nodded. "I thought you were faking the extent of your pain."

Shen Yuan's face crumpled up into incomprehension. "Why in the ever living fuck would I do that?"

"To make me feel guilty about taking the bed," Binghe replied, and what? What?! 

"Who the hell would do that?" Shen Yuan replied, completely at a loss. "Why would I? I offered you the bed so you would be comfortable, and I thought I could handle it, not... I mean, really, why–"

And then he remembered. In his world, this kind of twisted logic was normal for Luo Binghe when half the people he met were antagonists trying to topple him from his seat of power. Nobody ever acted normal in web novels. They were always overblown narcissists or calculating assholes. Look at who raised Luo Binghe. A master who would stop at nothing to embarrass and abuse his young disciple. 

"... However things were in the world you came from," Shen Yuan said after a moment, "that's not how they are in this apartment. I offer things to you because I want you to have them, not because I'm going to hold it over you later. And you can't treat me like I'm about to stab you in the back by preemptively striking first. If we have a problem, we talk about it honestly. And if you can't follow these rules, then you have to find somewhere else to live. I'm not your antagonist, Luo Binghe." 

Binghe slowly nodded. "I'm sorry. Thank you, laoshi."

"Don't thank me," he snapped. The smell of food wafted past him again, and he sniffed and looked away before holding out a hand. "The food is going to go cold."

Binghe froze for a moment, but then he passed a bowl of soup into Shen Yuan's hand. 

 

[Protagonist's Happiness Points reduced by 50 points!]

 

Hey, wait, what-

 

[Protagonist's Happiness Points increased by 50 points!] 

 

What do you mean they increased again immediately?? What the hell was going on in Luo Binghe's brain? What was with these wild mood swings? Was he happy or not, system?!

Shen Yuan ate his soup with a frown. The protagonist was way too complicated. How was he supposed to make him happy? 

They sat there as Shen Yuan slurped his soup and Binghe did what Binghe did best, which was sit there in heavy silence and stare very intensely at things. Mostly Shen Yuan. 

"I want to stay if laoshi will let me," Binghe said after a moment. 

"Then you can," Shen Yuan replied with a shrug. "As long as you don't start that again."

Binghe nodded. "But the bed..."

...

"We'll figure something out," Shen Yuan said. Maybe he needed to order that blow up bed after all. 

Luo Binghe raised a single eyebrow. "It's wide enough to share..."

"Don't be stupid," Shen Yuan said with a frown. "I'm not going to make you sleep top and tail with me."

"It's a double. We could sleep normally."

"Listen, Binghe, it's really okay. If you want to sleep on the bed that much, I can order an airbed. I'm not going to force you to sleep with me."

His face flushed as he realised what he just said, but he decided not to draw attention to it. Binghe's mouth quirked anyway, but he didn't say anything else. 

Ugh, this sucked. Inwardly, Shen Yuan wondered if he was actually a huge fucking pushover. He already just wanted to move on and get back to the abnormal normality their life had been before this freakout. 

Maybe they could start small and build up a little trust in each other again. 

"... Do you want to watch a movie?" 

"I'd like that," Binghe said, and Shen Yuan pulled his laptop towards him, patted the space on the bed beside him, and pulled up a very safe comedy about a useless man defending a mall at night from a band of thieves. A few of the jokes were lost in translation, but that was okay. Binghe didn't seem to mind. 

 

Shen Yuan woke up at some point just before the sun rose feeling a sharp crick in his neck and sweat running down his side. He looked around in confusion, only to realise that he had fallen asleep during the second movie. And for some reason...

Hey, wait a minute...

Why was he curled up against Binghe's shoulder? Why was he gently sleeping away, drooling all over the protagonist's soft shirt? Eh? Why did Binghe let him?! 

Even worse, in his sleep he had somehow managed to tangle his legs with Luo Binghe's, treating him like a big warm body pillow. The laptop was still open in front of them, the movie paused about halfway through. He shut it quickly. Shen Yuan looked at Luo Binghe in a panic, but the guy was also asleep as far as he could tell. 

He wouldn't put it past him to pretend, but...

Very, very slowly, Shen Yuan tried to shuffle away. It was only once he got some space between him and Binghe that he could start to calm down his racing heartbeat. Binghe didn't make a sound. He didn't even twitch. 

It was a lot colder on this side of the bed. 

Ahh, I'm sorry protagonist, Shen Yuan thought, his face burning as he turned away. You must be missing a wife to snuggle up with. But if you woke up and found me cuddling you like some kind of freaky koala, you probably wouldn't be pleased... We'll get you home soon, oh venerable one!! We'll get you a voluptuous sister to nap with as soon as we can!! 

For a moment, he thought about escaping back to the sofa, but then he nestled into his familiar old pillows and blankets and couldn't bring himself to move. Before he could second guess himself, Shen Yuan fell back to sleep. 

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe was gone when Shen Yuan woke up, which made him tempted to write off the whole thing as a weird dream. Except that things were different now. 

Binghe was watching him. There was no other way to describe it. Nothing had changed, really, except that now Shen Yuan could constantly see Luo Binghe’s glittering black eyes in the periphery of his vision. They were constantly tracking his movements, watching him as he carried himself, lingering on his hands and his fingers. 

It kind of reminded Shen Yuan of a wary feral cat. It was beginning to freak him out just a little. Airplane Bro was not helping matters. 

 

haha this is just like when this one woman had a pet python and one day it stopped eating and started snuggling up with her in bed so she went to a vet like help my python is sick it won’t eat! and the vet was like it isn’t sick lady it’s just saving itself up for a really big meal hahahaha <

 

she was the meal btw in case you didn’t get that <

 

cuz the python was gonna eat her <

 

> I’m literally three seconds away from blocking you. 

 

As for the sofa problem, it still hadn’t been solved. Shen Yuan kept trying to offer to sleep on the sofa again, or get Binghe to agree to sleeping there himself, except that Binghe had developed the habit of asking “laoshi, can we watch a movie on your bed again tonight” every night, and one movie turned into two, and then three, and then Shen Yuan would fall asleep without meaning to. 

It was fine. Just a little sleeping in the same bed with the homies. Totally not a big deal. 

...

Protagonist, please, your dignity... my dignity... someone needs to have dignity between us, I’m begging you...

Shen Yuan was rapidly running out of Demon King Safe films. That meant films that didn’t put any ideas into Binghe’s head about cars, motorbikes, explosives, better knives, or drugs. It felt a bit like Shen Yuan was being a wildly overprotective parent forcing his child to stick to the Kids’ section of Netflix, except Binghe was a fully grown adult male who wasn’t an impressionable baby, but rather a twisted black lotus who would then immediately start asking perturbing questions about how much guns cost and where he could buy one. 

Most of the time, though, Shen Yuan got the feeling that Luo Binghe wasn’t paying any attention to the films at all. Especially recently.

Luo Binghe was watching him. 

They were lying side by side on the bed, propped up with pillows, the laptop glowing blue between them. Shen Yuan had stuck some forgettable romcom on. He happened to glance at Binghe, who was looking at him with undue intensity given the situation, and then looked away. 

 

Hey, system... are you sure those Happiness Points haven’t changed?

 

[The system has muted HP notifications to avoid spam.]

 

Eh? Muted? I never gave permission for this! Unmute, unmute them now!

 

Immediately, a stream of notifications filled Shen Yuan’s vision, making it impossible to see the laptop anymore. He blinked and tried to clear them, but they truly were spamming his entire view. Happiness Increased, Happiness Decreased, Happiness Increased, Happiness Decreased...

 

What the fuck? Every time it went up, it immediately went down by the exact same amount, and every time it went down, it rocketed back up again, until the net total gain happiness was exactly 0. Binghe wasn’t any happier or unhappier - or rather, he was swinging between the two so wildly that his total happiness wasn’t going anywhere. 

 

... okay, okay, mute! Mute the notifications, I can’t see shit! What the hell is up with this? Is Binghe having some kind of breakdown? Is it even possible for him to qi deviate in this world?

 

Shen Yuan quickly closed the system dialogue box and turned to look at Luo Binghe in alarm. He didn’t look like he was rapidly vacillating between moods. But he was still staring at Shen Yuan. 

“... Binghe,” Shen Yuan began, trying not to falter. “Do you... are you feeling...?”

Binghe raised one dark eyebrow. “Feeling?”

“Feeling alright,” Shen Yuan said lamely. “Or, rather, ah... would you say that you enjoy staying with me?”

Binghe smiled, and it was like the sun breaking over the horizon. “Being around laoshi makes me very happy.”

Shen Yuan had objective evidence that that wasn’t true. Obviously, being around him made Binghe feel some kind of way, but whatever it was, it wasn’t happiness. He forgot what an excellent liar Binghe was - if he didn’t have the system backing him up, Shen Yuan might have believed him. 

“Well, that’s good,” he said uncertainly. “But if I ever did anything to make you sad, you know it would be okay to tell me, right?”

Binghe tilted his head. “What could laoshi do to make me sad?”

“I don’t know, that’s the problem,” Shen Yuan grumbled. “But after you mentioned about me being rich, I started thinking... maybe it’s inappropriate for me to keep buying you stuff if you feel like it means you can’t complain when I upset you. I don’t want you to think that all the - the clothes, and the bed, and the food - it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not compared to--”

Binghe darted forward suddenly, his hand grabbing at Shen Yuan’s wrist in a way that was just shy of painful. “What did laoshi just say?”

“Eh?” Shen Yuan said, backing up a little. The way Binghe was leaning into his space was making him flustered. “That it doesn’t matter what I buy you, you can still tell me... when I...”

Binghe was way too close. Shen Yuan could see every pore on his nose. Not that he had many. Protagonists didn’t get things like blackheads. 

“It doesn’t matter,” Luo Binghe repeated, his tone strange. He suddenly seemed incredibly excited. “None of it matters. That’s what you said, wasn’t it?”

“Was it?” Shen Yuan was bewildered. 

“Got you,” Binghe said, and then he was flying forward. He landed on Shen Yuan’s chest, blocking him in with his arms, expression feral. “Found you, shizun.”

Shizun again? Who the fuck was he calling shizun? Shen Yuan blearily tried to push him away, but Luo Binghe wouldn't be moved. His body was a warm, impenetrable force keeping Shen Yuan pinned. 

Oh, holy shit. There was something hard digging into his hip. 

"Binghe," Shen Yuan said, more bewildered than worried. "Get off. What are you doing?" 

Was that his...? No, it couldn't be. No, surely... but he didn't have any wives here... and Airplane Bro couldn't let him pass a few days without pushing down someone or other. Shen Yuan felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. 

"Ah, look, I'm flattered, but you're a married man, and also look, I'm a man too, so if you could get off - get off me! Get yourself off me! No, I mean-"

Luo Binghe reached down and grabbed something that was pressed between their crotches. He slowly pulled it up and - oh, it was a knife. It wasn't his heavenly pillar after all. Shen Yuan felt a flood of relief. 

Wait, it was a knife! That wasn't any reason to feel relieved! What kind of messed up priorities were these?

Luo Binghe toyed with the knife almost absentmindedly, as if he wasn't aware he had it in his hand. Shen Yuan was not fooled. 

"These last few days have been enlightening," Binghe purred. "I was very close to giving in. Shizun's skill with dreamscaping is truly unmatched by any other person - this is a very, very well kept secret."

Shen Yuan frowned, sweat beading on his forehead. "It's not a dream."

"Ah, still sticking to the illusion? Commendable," Binghe said, "but stupid. Would laoshi like to hear my working?" 

Slowly, fascinated despite himself, Shen Yuan nodded. If he was going to be subjected to a monologue, he wanted to get it out of the way quickly. 

"Every detail is impeccable," Binghe continued, "right down to the faces of people on the street. What a neat trick. Even Meng Mo would struggle to keep up this many faces on such a wide level. So, I concluded, there must have been some source of power allowing you to keep the dream running."

He smiled and leaned in. "Do you remember when I said that all I had to do was wait for a weakness in your psyche to present itself? Ah, shizun, you were all too obvious."

He looked sideways, and Shen Yuan looked too, only to see his laptop. He felt the blood drain from his face. 

Binghe must have watched him type the password in and memorised it. After he slept, Binghe opened it up and went on it. 

When he kept hiding the laptop from Luo Binghe, it must have alerted his suspicions. Obviously he saw the laptop as something important to Shen Yuan, a gap in his armour, and immediately tried to exploit it. And if he managed to work out how to use the web browser, and found all of Shen Yuan's open tabs...

He would have seen Proud Immortal Demon Way's latest chapter, still on hiatus. 

"You almost had me fooled," Binghe said with a smile. "Again, commendable. But shizun... tell me, what is Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky?"

Hearing this sent several very complicated expressions running across Shen Yuan's face. He was being interrogated at knife point by a man who would happily kill him without a second thought, only to hear a cheesy dick joke come out of his interrogator's mouth in utmost seriousness. 

He couldn't laugh. He really couldn't. If he laughed, he died. 

So, it had come to this. Shen Yuan relaxed slightly. It wasn't too bad, being held by the protagonist like this. He just wished he would stop digging his knee into Shen Yuan's calf, but at least all his limbs were still attached to his body. 

"So you read it," he said, trying to stay cool.

"I read it," Binghe confirmed. "What a comprehensive autobiography. There were things there that even I didn't know about myself. The details were quite frightening - it was like someone had inserted themselves right into my mind and helped themselves to my memories." 

He didn't look frightened at all. Shen Yuan prepared for the killing blow. This protagonist's intelligence was truly too high - he had worked everything out, hadn't he? 

"And so I realised something about this dream," he said, his voice low and soft and dangerous. "About how someone could know so much about me."

Here it comes. 

So long, cruel world! Luo Binghe has worked out that he's a fictional character, and now he's going to chop my limbs off! 

"This dream must be taking place inside my own head," Luo Binghe said, and wait, what? 

Shen Yuan stared at him. "Huh?"

"The only problem is how," Binghe continued. "How did you trick me into getting trapped in my own dream? And you, are you even real, or are you a character created by my own longing? After all, the way that you are," Binghe's eyes flickered over him, "it's like you were pulled from my own personal fantasies."

What! What the fuck! Protagonist, something has gone seriously wrong! This skinny guy isn't some delicate flowering maiden! What kind of fantasies do you have locked up in there?? Could it be that he was so desperate for, ahem, papapa that he didn’t care what kind of person it was with?

Shen Yuan was too shocked to do much more than stare. Binghe did not seem deterred. 

"But you're too unpredictable. If you were made of my dreams, I would be able to understand you, but I don’t. Which makes me think that this form of yours is a shell constructed from parts of my subconscious to be most appealing, to hide who you are underneath. But like I said... there is always a weakness. Your true self couldn't help but shine through. And who else could it be but you?"

But who? But who, Binghe? Shen Yuan almost forgot that he was the one being interrogated here. He was too invested in this weird logic loop Binghe was dancing through. 

Binghe smiled again, the knife tipping Shen Yuan's chin up. He enunciated every syllable clearly, one by one. 

"Shen Qingqiu."

...

If this had been a chapter of PIDW, Shen Yuan would have flipped the desk and smashed his phone. What kind of narrative bullshit was this, pulling some random scum villain out of nowhere to explain away the protagonist's wild theory? Why the hell would he be that shitty little man? 

Shen Yuan couldn't help it. He was so angry that all he could do was let out an incredulous laugh. 

Binghe’s expression darkened. “It doesn’t matter, Luo Binghe,” he said, in that strange tone again. “None of it matters. You can take it all from me. Take my left arm too, while you’re at it, because none of it will ever be enough.” 

Shen Yuan felt all the blood drain from his face. This sounded a lot like something Shen Qingqiu might have said. Had he really accidentally parroted him line for line? Talk about astronomically bad luck!

Binghe smiled. “And then I took your tongue,” he said calmly, his voice back to normal. “And it still wasn’t enough.”

Shen Yuan swallowed. 

This was the worst possible way to have his fan theory confirmed. 

“I think you may have misunderstood,” he said, managing to not let his voice break in sheer pants-wetting terror. “Binghe, I’m not Shen Qingqiu.”

Binghe paused, as if allowing him to continue explaining. Shen Yuan swallowed. 

“I don’t know why you think I’m that dickless piece of shit, but trust me, I’m not him! I’m just some guy!” Shen Yuan writhed out of Luo Binghe’s grasp just enough to grab his laptop and tug it closer to him. He quickly unlocked it, navigating to the latest PIDW chapter. “And you’re almost right about this being your past, but you’ve got it the wrong way around. This world isn’t a creation inside your own mind. It’s... it’s you. You’re the creation.”

Binghe’s expression was perfectly blank. His eyes landed on Shen Yuan’s, unavoidable, as if trying to read his mind. 

“You’re a character from a story,” Shen Yuan said, quieter this time. Something deep in his chest hurt. He thought it might have been his heart. “And Airplane Shooting To- look, he’s the author. He wrote you.”

Luo Binghe slid off the bed suddenly. He walked around to Shen Yuan’s side and, just like in the bathroom, easily picked him up. Shen Yuan yelped. Protagonist, my legs are still working, there’s no need to do this! Put me down!

Binghe brought them both to the window and looked out over the skyscrapers and apartment blocks, each window lit up with warm light, the bustle of cars just audible through the glass. Somewhere far away, a police siren wailed. 

“This is all real,” he said. 

Shen Yuan nodded. 

“And you’re real, you believe,” Binghe said, turning his gaze to Shen Yuan. 

“As far as I know,” Shen Yuan said irritably, before hurriedly nodding. “Yes.” Please, put me down Binghe, this atmosphere is incredibly strange. 

“And I’m...” Binghe trailed off, his eyebrows pinching together. “I presume Shen Yuan read the story that he thinks I came from.”

“Yeah. That's right. You're a character from that novel.”

“So why am I here?”

Now, that Shen Yuan couldn’t exactly say. Because the system had brought him here as a personal vendetta against PIDW’s most devoted hater? Because God was playing dice with the universe and just managed to roll a 13 with only two d6s? Because actually, none of this was real and Shen Yuan was hallucinating thanks to a gas leak in his kitchen?

“...”

Binghe’s chest was heaving, almost imperceptibly. “I always thought you knew more about me than you were letting on, but you knew everything this whole time. And you had a depiction of me with the rest of your idols.” Eh, wait, wait, idols? Binghe’s eyes flickered over to the collection of anime figurines - no, protagonist, that isn’t a religious or spiritual shrine! That’s something far, far worse and absolutely shameful! Don’t look at my otaku collection! “You gave me somewhere to stay. You looked after me as if I were a lost child.”

Shen Yuan pursed his lips. He did. He did do that. Protagonist, please don’t misunderstand, this lonely asshole wasn’t trying to adopt you. 

“And I couldn’t work out why. If not to torment me...”

Shen Yuan frowned. He couldn’t stay silent any longer. “Haven’t you been tormented enough?”

There was a long, heavy pause. 

Suddenly, it was like a fire lit in Binghe’s eyes, powerful enough to burn if Shen Yuan didn’t break eye contact. He had never seen the protagonist looking so... so...

He couldn’t work out what, exactly, but it sure was intense. 

 

... hey, system... should I unmute the happiness notifications? What’s it looking like in there?

 

[... please excuse the presumption, valued user, but you probably don’t want to know.]

 

Very calmly, Shen Yuan nodded and closed the dialogue box. 

“Binghe, if you wouldn’t mind,” he said, pointing to the floor. 

Luo Binghe did not let him go. “If this is a dream...”

“It’s not a dream,” Shen Yuan said flatly. 

“... then perhaps the one who should be worried here isn’t me, shizun."

"Not your shizun."

"After all," Binghe said, his mouth twisting up into a bitter smile, "what if I don't want to wake up?"

What were these cheesy lines? These cheesy, low key kind of hot but incredibly ominous lines? How did Binghe come up with this shit – did he spend his nights solemnly memorising sick things to say for every different occasion? 

"Luo Binghe..."

"Ah, no, what I really mean is," and Luo Binghe leaned forwards, his forehead bumping into Shen Yuan's as that creepy, captivating smile like liquid sunshine graced his features yet again, "I would like it very much if shizun didn't wake up either."

Protagonist, please, the sun doesn't revolve around the earth! You've got it all backwards! What kind of "I am the centre of the universe" logic was this?!

Shen Yuan felt like he was about to start hacking up blood. He wasn't Shen Qingqiu. He wasn't trapped in Luo Binghe's dream. Why was Binghe looking at him like that? Why wouldn't he believe him? 

... Was Binghe right? After all, he was the protagonist...

 

Oi, system, wait a minute... I'm not the dream, am I? 

 

[The system can confirm that this universe is the original universe.] 

 

Haha, you don't mean cinematic universe, right?

 

[...]

 

Hey, don't go silent on me now! This isn't a funny joke! Don't go all Matrix red pill on me! Your sense of humour is really fucked up, you know? 

 

It was at that moment that Shen Yuan had a brainwave. He didn't need to prove it to Binghe – after all, he only knew what the novel told him, which was the same as what Binghe had read. 

But if Airplane Bro could drop behind the scenes information that not even Luo Binghe knew about... surely that would be proof, right?

But could he do that? Was it kind to do that? 

 

System, don't joke with me this time. How long until Binghe gets sent back to his world again? 

 

[Time remaining: two months, one week, one day, seventeen hours–]

 

Okay, okay, I got it. 

 

[Valued user, this system would like to point out that your Politeness Points are in the negatives.]

 

Yeah yeah, points schmoints, the important thing was...

Was it kind to tell a man that he was a fictional creation and then send him back into his world with that knowledge? Especially when he couldn't do anything about it. But at the same time, if Shen Yuan let Binghe think this was all some weird Inception-esque mind trap and that he was that shitty scum villain, wasn't there a very real risk that he was going to end up like the original and have all his limbs carved off?

Binghe was watching Shen Yuan's expressions. Clearly he saw something there, because his eyes widened slightly, his smile becoming more twisted. 

"It's okay shizun – ah, no, laoshi . Please stay asleep in the dream for me. I like you like this."

Like... like!! Binghe, you only ever said you liked someone before you swapped out their torture for a slightly more playful and ironic kind of torture! That, or you married them! Don't throw around the word "like" so casually to a mortal man who did nothing wrong! 

Shen Yuan closed his eyes. It was so hard to think, so hard to feel anything but confusion, fear and maybe a smattering of awe when he was close to Binghe like this. He just needed room to think - room to breathe. 

He opened his eyes again. 

"Binghe, I need you to sleep somewhere else tonight."

Luo Binghe backed off a few centimetres. "The couch?"

"No. I mean somewhere that isn't the apartment," he said. Binghe's expression faltered. 

"Laoshi..."

"I'll book you into a hotel, okay? I'm not going to make you homeless. Just... I need some space and some time alone."

Binghe's grip was getting tighter. "Permanently?"

"No, but maybe for a night or two. I'll find you somewhere nice."

Binghe's frown deepened. "I don't want to."

Shen Yuan finally managed to get Binghe to let him down. He took a few steps back, putting some distance between them. "I know, but I need it. Don't make me kick you out."

It was difficult, saying no to the man who was as equally terrifying as he was beautiful, but Shen Yuan's head was overloaded, and he knew he needed this. 

There was a long, tense silence. Finally, Luo Binghe lowered his head. "As you wish, laoshi."

Ahh, thank god! No limbs were getting chopped off tonight! Shen Yun relaxed slightly. 

"Good. Let's pack you an overnight bag, okay?"

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan accompanied Binghe down to the taxi, and then watched as he drove off into the night to the hotel, a set of instructions written down his arm. He swore that as the taxi drove off, he could see Luo Binghe's glittering eyes watching him through the window, getting smaller and smaller as they got further away. 

Then he went upstairs back to his own apartment, sat down on the hell sofa made of bricks, and put his head in his hands. 

"What the fuck, what the fuck, what the ever living fuck!" 

He stood up and started pacing, yelling expletives to himself. It was cathartic. 

"Aaaah, what the hell is this! Why! Why me!"

Sinking down into the fetal position, Shen Yuan covered his face with his hands, feeling his cheeks heat up as his face turned red. He was held! Like a god damn wife! In Luo Binghe’s arms! 

Sure, Binghe was probably doing it to - to what, humiliate him? But then there were all those things he said about Shen Yuan being his personal fantasy, and liking him, and listen, Shen Yuan had read 6,666 chapters of Luo Binghe saying sweet but fucked up things to his harem before laying them down and fucking them six ways to Sunday, and honestly he couldn’t be blamed for getting a few wires crossed! 

He was pretty sure that reacting like this was stupid. Luo Binghe, the half demon who tore a hole in the world, who collided the human plane with the eternal hellscape of the demon world, who mowed down canon fodder left right and centre and had the ability to seduce the xianxia equivalent of supermodels and olympians, wasn’t some glass hearted maiden with a crush.

Nobody had ever had a crush on Shen Yuan before, as far as he was aware. He didn’t really think he was ugly, per se, more that he didn’t get out much. Sure, there had been people who were nice to him. The lady at the coffee shop always remembered his name, which was nice. And one of his physiotherapists had been so concerned about his health that he even gave Shen Yuan his personal number, just in case. Listen, the point was, he wasn’t some beautiful seductress with a thousand simps running after him. He was just... likeable. A good pal. Nonthreatening, his brother once called him.   

There was no reason to read into Luo Binghe’s words as anything other than a threat to life and limb. 

Quickly, Shen Yuan pulled out his phone and called the only person he thought would understand. 

 

When the honourable Great Author Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky picked up the call, he sounded strangely out of breath, like he had just run up seven flights of stairs. 

"What did my little murder baby do now?"

"Don't," Shen Yuan said darkly. "No. That's not sticking. I veto murder baby."

"Bro, listen, I'm kind of in the middle of something, uhh, here, did he murder someone or not?"

"Me," Shen Yuan replied. "He's going to murder me."

"Alright, I'm going to hang up now."

"He read Proud Immortal Demon Way."

Airplane Bro sucked in a deep breath, before letting it all out again. "Ah, so it's both of us he's going to murder."

"Yeah. Maybe. No, I don't know, it's weird," Shen Yuan said, massaging the stress out of his forehead. "He seems to think this is some kind of weird dream trap set up by Shen Qingqiu of all people..."

"Eh? His old shizun?"

Shen Yuan's eyebrow twitched. "Apparently. Where he got that idea from, I have no idea."

"Well, it was the last scene I was writing before Binghe disappeared from my brain," Airplane Bro said thoughtfully. 

"It was? Shit, tell me every detail!"

"Ah, it was just a draft. I wanted to do a scene where he stumbled across a group of young cultivators and started reminiscing about his time back in Summer Camp In Peak Lord Hell, but it got way too dark and weirdly sentimental..."

Shen Yuan paused. "By any chance... did Binghe remember something Shen Qingqiu said to him about, uh, nothing mattering? Something like..."

"None of it matters?" Airplane Bro hummed. "Yeah, actually, that was a pretty big part of it. You know, writing is weird bro, the characters always seem to take on a life of their own. And as I was writing, I always got the feeling that this was something important, you know? The feeling of being surrounded by hot women who want you, with the world in the palm of your hand, and yet somehow it just isn't enough, and all of it feels hollow... it wasn't intentional at all. Honestly, I always wondered how you picked up on it so well since I never really alluded to it in the novel."

Shen Yuan nodded, and then stupidly remembered that Airplane Bro couldn't see him. "I think I said something that reminded him of that. And then he got all weird and... he..."

Cradled me in his arms? 

"Anyway, I sent him to a hotel for the night."

"What?!"

"He was freaking me out! He's fine, I tipped them all extra in advance to take care of him..."

"Look at you, big spender," Airplane Bro grumbled. "Eh, it's probably for the best."

Shen Yuan let out a shaky exhale. 

"... shit, are you okay?"

"No," Shen Yuan answered honestly. "I don't know what to do. I don't want him to kill me and I don't want to be cruel to him. I feel like there's no right answer and I'm going crazy."

"... Listen... do you want to meet up for coffee tomorrow? I actually, uh, live in your city, so..."

Holy shit. "You what? Bro, what the hell? I mean, yeah I do, but why did you keep that secret!"

"Just in case you were a – mmph – hey, wait – ah, time's up, sorry Cucumber Bro but I gotta run–"

Airplane Bro, suddenly sounding very muffled, hung up. 

Shen Yuan, quietly and with a pounding tension headache, let himself fall backwards onto his sofa. 

 

System... what are the protagonist’s Happiness Points at right now?

 

[Protagonist HP: -900 HP. Happiness Increases and Decreases have stopped spamming the channel. Would you like to unmute the notification bar?]

 

Yeah, fine, whatever...

 

So, despite fluctuating all over the place, Binghe’s total happiness went up by 50 arbitrary happy points that probably didn’t mean anything. Good for him. Shen Yuan didn’t know whether to celebrate or not. 

Instead of doing anything, he went straight to his bed and hid under his covers. 



Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky. The man who thought that badly written heterosexual sex scenes were the best way to resolve any emotional conflict or unresolved story beat. The man who shamelessly sold his own creativity out to help lonely dudebros with an inferiority complex put themselves in the shoes of an overpowered Gary Stu who ran around acting like a murderous toddler (NOT a murder baby, that was not catching on) instead of doing any prsonal growth or development, all in the name of fulfilling unhealthy power fantasies under the guise of writing some kind of deep and meaningful story. A story that never ended, spinning out every possible plot twist and storytelling device for hundreds of chapters, leading the audience on in the hope of spinning more clicks and pulling money out of readers who were just too invested to cut their losses and quit. 

(Readers like Shen Yuan: but that just made it worse .)

Airplane Bro, a.k.a Mister Airplane, a.k.a Dickhead, was a short man with hamster cheeks who had a bad haircut. He gave Shen Yuan a wave from his seat. He didn’t look like the kind of man who had written reams of chapters about demon spunk, and yet here he was. 

“You,” said Shen Yuan, and sat opposite him. 

“You recognised me,” Airplane Bro said. He gestured to his bright green t-shirt. “I was worried, this coffee shop is so dark...”

Patience. Inner nobility. Strength. Shen Yuan took a deep breath. He was not going to go ape mode on this man. He was not. 

“So, how’s Luo Dick-he, huh?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you,” Shen Yuan yelled, “he’s so fucked up I can barely believe it! He’s an unreal amount of fucked up and now he knows my god damn address! He’s been sleeping in my bed and eating my food and he’s absolutely plotting to dismember me in my sleep, and it’s all your fucking fault for writing that self indulgent garbage you dare to call a novel-”

“He’s been sleeping in your bed?” Airplane Bro said, his tone strange. 

“Not with me in it!” Shen Yuan yelled, and then quieter, “wait,” and then, “I mean not like, intentionally - look I’m getting distracted here, the point at hand is, hey why did you do this to me personally, you little shit!”

Airplane threw his hands up protectively. “Aaah, calm down, Cucumber Bro! I don’t really see how this is my fault... I never asked the system to bring him here, did I?”

Shen Yuan paused. “You know about the...?”

“Uh, you mentioned it,” Airplane Bro replied. “Hey, so, why has he been sleeping in your bed with you?”

Shen Yuan hurriedly shushed him, looking around with a scandalised expression at the other café patrons. “We watch movies and I fall asleep sometimes, it’s not important. The man nearly ran off with my sister the other night. I doubt he reads into it as much as you are right now.”

Airplane Bro hummed. “Or as much as you’re reading into it?”

“I’m not reading into it. There’s no reading into anything. It’s just you.”

“Bro... he met your sister?”

“She surprised us,” Shen Yuan sighed. “While he was being a dickhead. It was really... really fucked. And now I’ve found out it’s because for some god forsaken reason, he thinks I’m Shen Qingqiu.”

Airplane Bro sipped on his coffee and didn’t say anything. 

“... what?”

“No, it’s nothing.”

“Don’t tell me you think he’s right or whatever. I’m not a fictional asshole.” Shen Yuan tried not to sound desperate, and failed. “I’m a real person.”

“Yes, you are,” Airplane Bro said soothingly, patting his arm. “I guess I can just see the resemblance, maybe, if I squint.”

“But then he said he...” Shen Yuan trailed off, and then continued in a smaller voice. “He said he liked me like this, and if it was a dream, he doesn’t want us to wake up.”

Airplane Bro choked on his coffee. “Hm?”

“What? What now?”

“No, no, it’s just... no, it’s nothing...”

Shen Yuan leaned over the table and gave Airplane Bro his best impression of a Demon Lord smile. “Is it nothing?”

“Ah, stop, you look so creepy! Maybe you really are... anyway, look, it really is nothing, it’s just that there was this deleted scene I always toyed with, but it’s stupid. Not even similar. Just a wife plot, you know how it is.”

Shen Yuan’s smile widened. “I do know how it is. I know about six thousand chapters’ worth of how it is. Maybe you should be more specific.”

“Bro! You’ve been spending way too much time with him.” Airplane Bro shivered. “I had this idea in my head that Binghe and the latest beauty of the week would get trapped somewhere, in a dream maybe, and she would be this really cold and cruel mistress type - you know, all hostile and unforgiving and strong, the exact kind of girl you say, step on me already-”

Shen Yuan hit him across the forehead. “No. Get to the point.”

“Ow! Ass, you’re so mean... anyway, it would turn out that underneath everything, she was a sweet and nurturing sister type who had been suppressed by years of cruelty and also, uh, maybe an evil flower or something, I didn’t plan that far ahead, anyway she would gently look after Binghe in the dream and unintentionally tempt him into never waking up because of her kindness.”

Shen Yuan felt a shiver run down his spine. And yet, at the same time, a sickened kind of intrigue. Honestly, he probably would have preferred this weird, uncanny dream trap to the six chapters dedicated to Liu Mingyan’s toes. 

He was about to praise Airplane Bro for coming up with a fairly intriguing plot that would have been a fun exploration of something that would actually challenge Luo Binghe’s indomitable thirst for power, when Airplane Bro opened his mouth again. 

“But I knew the fans were ravenous, so I was just going to make it so that Binghe could make her permanently nice by-”

The next few words out of Airplane Bro’s mouth were so explicit that Shen Yuan self censored them in his mind and replaced them with BLEEP noises. He spluttered in horror and put his hand over Airplane’s mouth to shut him up. 

“I hate you. I hate the ground you walk on.”

Airplane Bro pulled his hand away. “Anyway, it weirded me out because the whole point of the plot was going to be so Binghe could say something like, you know, please stay asleep in the dream for me ,” he waved his hands and did a fairly good impression of Binghe’s voice, “or whatever. The only trouble was that I never really wrote a wife who could fit...”

Shen Yuan let his head thunk against the table. “Did you envision Shen Qingqiu fitting in there?”

“No, that’s a weird one,” Airplane Bro conceded in a speculative voice. “That kind of came out of nowhere, huh. He really, really hates Shen Qingqiu, you know."

"I know."

"Has he been... threatening you?"

Shen Yuan shook his head, and then paused. "Ah, this makes sense now. He did hover over me with a creepy smile while I writhed in pain."

Airplane Bro choked on his coffee again. "He hurt you?"

"No, he just watched," Shen Yuan said, as if that made it any better. "Look, this isn’t the point, there was something I needed to ask you about.”

Airplane Bro was giving him a horrified look. “Is it that you need somewhere to hide? We can do that, bro. We can find you a nice sunny cabin somewhere far away, change your name, get you a fake passport...”

“No! No, listen. I was thinking... since Binghe thinks this is a dream... should I really tell him that he’s actually a fictional character from a book?” Shen Yuan shuffled guiltily on his chair. “I tried, but he didn’t believe me. Should I try and prove it? You could probably drop some facts about the book and make my idea seem more credible...”

Airplane looked close to panicking. “No! Are you kidding me? You can’t! You really can’t!” He grabbed Shen Yuan by the lapels and shook him, tears springing to his eyes. “He’ll kill me, bro! You’re mad at me for making him fucked up - how do you think he’s going to react!”

“Get off! Ugh, look, I get it, but what am I supposed to do! If I let him think this is a dream, that’s basically the same as admitting I’m his old shizun!” Shen Yuan grabbed Airplane’s lapels too and shook him, similar tears springing to his eyes. “Human stick, Airplane Bro, human stick!”

Someone the next table over coughed. The two men blinked at each other and suddenly let go, falling back into their chairs with twin faces full of chagrin. 

“... Cucumber Bro, you could always just kick him out for good,” Airplane said after a moment. “My darling, dear, awful son is kind of a messed up person. Nobody would blame you for wanting to protect yourself.”

Shen Yuan sighed. “I know. And I could kick him out for two weeks. Hire some security, go on holiday for a while... he’d go back home then. And he’d be fine.” He sighed again, sinking into his seat. “But I... I want him to have a nice time. Since he’s here... I want him to be happy, just for a little while, before he goes back to normal. If he threatens me again, then I’ll pack my bags and move away, but if he can behave, then maybe it will all turn out alright.” He took a deep breath and sat up, summoning all his energy into a determined stance. “Even if I have to superglue myself to his thighs, I’ll show him that I’m nothing like his shitty shizun.”

“Cucumber Bro, you’re so brave...” Airplane Bro said, his eyes going misty as he clasped his hands together. “Don’t die, Cucumber Bro...”

“Airplane Bro...”

They clasped sweaty hands over the table. 

 

On his way back to his flat, She Yuan’s phone buzzed. He opened it up in surprise. It was his sister. 

 

i've been doing a lot of thinking and i wanted to say that i will always love you and support you <

( ꈨຶ ˙̫̮ ꈨຶ )♥️♥️♥️ no matter what happens or what you decide to do with your life ❤️✨🌈❤️ i'm your sister and you're my brother and that's what matters and i love you ❤️❤️(´°̥̥̥̥̥̥̥̥ω°̥̥̥̥̥̥̥̥`) <

 

never let anyone ever tell you you're not my family ಥ_ಥ🥰😓♥️ if anyone is ever mean to you send them my way and i will BEAT THEM UP (ノ•̀ o •́ )ノ 💢💢😠 i love youuu and you can tell me anything at any time and i will never be angry < 

 

okay??? <

 

> Um... okay. Thanks? 

 

does san-ge have anything to tell me? it's okay it can be anything!!!!! ♥️🧡💛💚💙💜 <

 

> ... I don't... think so? Love you too, meimei. ♥️ Do you want your big brother to come see you...?

 

only if you want to!!! actually mom and dad have been talking about a family dinner this weekend so you can come see us then but NO PRESSURE OKAY YOU DON'T HAVE TO COME OR SAY ANYTHING but i'm sure they would like to meet louie... < 

 

> I'll think about it? 

 

SENT: rainbow_otter_OK.sticker <

 

SENT: waving_rainbow_flag.sticker <

 

Shen Yuan felt like he was missing something. Was Shen Lin trying to signal something to him? And did she suggest bringing Binghe along? Unless...

His heart sank into his shoes. His sister had fallen in love with the protagonist, hadn’t she. He was too late to stop it. Should he even try to fight it? Or was it inevitable? Not his precious little sister! Not his white steamed bun face sister who was secretly a huge gremlin when nobody else was looking! He would have to do everything in his power to keep Binghe away from her. 

Feeling gloomy, Shen Yuan locked himself in his apartment like a hermit to sulk. 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan booted up his laptop, opened up a word processor, and sat down to work out what he was going to say. 

Binghe , he began, and then corrected it to, Luo Binghe , and then, Dear Luo Binghe . None of these felt right. He erased the header entirely. 

You come from a book called Proud Immortal Demon Way , he put and then put his head in his hands. This was useless. 

 

[Warning, warning! Protagonist’s Happiness Points are decreasing at a steady rate of ten points per hour! Continued absence from the valued user will increase the rate of dissatisfaction!]

 

He can wait! I’ve got to draft the god damn Magna Carta here! Binghe can sulk for a little longer!

 

[Friendly reminder that revealing the system to the protagonist will incur...]

 

I know, I know, but how else am I meant to explain it? You’ve really left this valued user in a tough spot...

 

[For a small loan of Play Coins, valued user, you can choose from a small selection of bonus features during the rehabilitation period.]

 

... I can what now? 

 

Shen Yuan grinned and mentally sidled up to the system. 

 

... you didn’t think to tell me about this? Alright, I forgive you, show me the bonus features...

 

[Valued user can choose from BONUS FEATURES: Director’s Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Fanservice Extras, Concept Art-]

 

Shen Yuan rolled his eyes. These really didn’t sound all that useful. Thanks but no thanks, system, he wouldn’t get into any more debt over this nonsense. Especially not the...

Wait. Deleted scenes? Director's commentary? Weren't these all things that would help him convince Binghe that he wasn't Shen Qingqiu? He could draw upon things Binghe he no way of knowing about and prove, once and for all, that he wasn't a figment of his imagination and nor was he a weird dream shard of his shizun. 

 

Hey, system... can I get one of those deleted scenes? 

 

[Thank you for your purchase! A total of one (1) PlayCoin has been deducted from your account. Your current PlayCoin total stands at: -1 Play Coin(s). Please enjoy your BONUS CONTENT: Deleted Scene! ♡(˃͈ દ ˂͈ ༶ )] 

 

The air shimmered around Shen Yuan. His eyes rolled up into the back of his head, and he felt himself growing limp. Black clouds rolled across his vision – they coagulated and coiled around themselves like a writhing pit of snakes, until finally, they condensed around him, forming the vague shapes of figures that he could barely make out. 

He steadied himself. 

"A-Luo... a-Luo."

A soft, feminine voice called out from somewhere. The clouds shifted – and Shen Yuan found himself in a clearing in a bamboo forest, the sun glowing deep orange as it set. 

There was a sob. Shen Yuan jolted and looked down. Just beyond the hillock he was standing by were two figures kneeling on the grass together. One of them was a very pretty girl, her hair done up in playful braids. In front of her was a pitiful figure. Shen Yuan's eyes nearly boggled out of his skull. 

That was very clearly a young Luo Binghe. He was scrawny and skinny, his face swollen up, but it was unmistakably him. 

He was crying. 

"Ah, shimei, don't look, it's – it's shameful," he stuttered. 

"I have to look to see where I'm putting the medicine, a-Luo," the girl replied, her hand reaching out to rub something on the weeping flesh around Luo Binghe's blackened eye. She sounded so gentle it made Shen Yuan's heart hurt. "Crying doesn't make you shameful. It's the ones who made you cry who are shameful."

Shen Yuan edged closer. His feet didn't make a sound as walked over the grass, peering around the bamboo. Luo Binghe was in clean white robes, marred only by a few drops of blood and dust where he had scuffled around, with no demon mark on his forehead. This must be the peaceful Qing Jing Peak in the years before Binghe was outed as a half demon, and the girl tending to him must be Ning Yingying, the usually silly sisterly type that was one of Binghe's first successful conquests. 

There had been plenty of scenes like this in the book, where Ning Yingying sneaked medicine or food or bandages to an injured and abused Luo Binghe, but she would always get caught later down the line somehow, and it would always end up with Binghe somehow getting punished even worse for it. 

Honestly, after the first few times, hadn't she learned not to keep repeating the same few mistakes?! Shen Yuan had wanted to shake her so many times during the book – Yingying, your gentle naivete is sweet but so infuriating! Please learn an ounce of situational awareness! 

Was this really a deleted scene? What a rip off. Shen Yuan started sulking. 

"Shimei, you wouldn't say that if you knew who did it," Binghe replied, his voice breaking. He didn't sound bitter. Shen Yuan still thought he seemed bitter. "You wouldn't disrespect our shizun like that."

Ning Yingying fell quiet. She slowly kept patching Luo Binghe up, hee eyebrows furrowed. 

"... Shizun must have his reasons," she said uncertainly. "Still, he is always too rough with you..."

"What reasons?" Binghe croaked, tears streaming down his face. "Is it me? I know I'm too stupid to cultivate the same way everyone else does, and I know I'm not strong like the others are... but I don't know how to fix it, I don't know what I can do to, to be better–"

Ning Yingying looked out of her depth. Shen Yuan didn't blame her. She was only, what, fifteen? "Binghe isn't stupid..."

"I am," Binghe said. "I don't know why he doesn't kick me off the peak. Why he keeps, keeps tormenting me and looking at me like he's expecting something, but then whenever I do anything he – it's not the right answer – I keep doing it wrong!"

His voice broke again, the high pitched crack of a teenager in full despair, and now Shen Yuan could see why this was a deleted scene. Luo Binghe in the novel was never allowed to cry. Or, rather, he never did cry, not genuinely. Airplane had always shied away from making his protagonist a "weakling crybaby". 

Who knew? Airplane had wanted to include a crying scene after all, but it apparently got deleted. 

Perhaps, if this were in the original novel, Shen Yuan would have complained too about Binghe being a crybaby. Now, though... god, now he just wanted to run forward and pick that small boy up and run, far far away from Qing Jing Peak, far away from the man who hurt him, far from all of the pain and bullying, and just keep him wrapped in cotton wool and bubble wrap. 

Ning Yingying reached forward and hugged Luo Binghe. "Don't cry, don't cry," she murmured softly, petting his back. "A-Luo, don't cry... let's patch you up, okay? And we can–" 

There was the crunch of a footstep from across the clearing. Ning Yingying and Luo Binghe both reared back and gave each other terrified looks. Before anything else could happen, Binghe was rolling sideways into a bush, arms tucked underneath himself as he hid from sight.

Ning Yingying looked around in a panic, before stuffing the medicine down the front of her robes. She pulled out her guqin from her sleeve and quickly held it in front of her.

Shen Yuan approved of her uncharacteristic quickness. Just in time, too – before him, stepping into the clearing, was a man with a contemptuous expression, his long, sleek hair pulled up into a half-up ponytail. 

He needed no introduction. Shen Yuan could recognise a bastard when he saw one. 

"Where is he."

Ning Yingying flushed, but she gave Shen Qingqiu a pleasant smile. "Shizun! Ah, but, who are you talking about?"

"The little beast," Shen Qingqiu replied, eyes flickering around the clearing. "Both of you were missing from evening rolecall."

"Ah, I don't know, I think I saw him," Ning Yingying replied thoughtfully. "He was going to the Cold Pool... he looked like he was limping." 

Shen Qingqiu snorted. "A glutton for punishment. He knows he is forbidden from using the cold water to soothe his rightfully given injuries." 

Ah, poor Ning Yingying, every word she said turned into an extra lash of the whip for poor little Binghe.

"What are you doing here?"

Ning Yingying gestured to her guqin. "I was... practicing my finger technique. I noticed that I was slow compared to my shijie, and so I got a little embarrassed and thought I would practice..." 

Something in Shen Qingqiu's face softened, almost imperceptibly. "Practicing by yourself will only reinforce your mistakes. You should practice with someone."

"Yes, shizun," she replied with a nod of her head. 

"Show me where the difficulty lies."

Ning Yingying took this as the invitation it was intended to be, and started playing. It was a nice enough tune. If it had spiritual side effects or any deeper meaning, it was lost on Shen Yuan. 

Shen Qingqiu sat beside Ning Yingying, the picture of elegance. In a cold voice, he ordered her to repeat several sections over and over and over, until Shen Yuan was sick of hearing them, but he was never violent. When Ning Yingying looked away, Shen Qingqiu watched her, something frosty in his gaze melting slightly. 

Shen Yuan shuddered. He crouched by the hidden body of Binghe, feeling pity deep in his soul. What kind of shitty NTR scenario was this? Binghe was supposed to have a nice sweet "you just got injured now I'm tending to you" scene with his sweet shimei, and now he had to lie in a bush, watching his hated shizun practically drool on the girl and watch her play music? 

It was too much. Softly, Shen Yuan reached out and patted Binghe's hair, his fingers failing to move his fluffy curls. Little Binghe didn't move, though Shen Yuan thought he saw him shudder slightly. 

Shen Qingqiu lifted the guqin from Ning Yingying's hands and played something with an impatient expression. "Pay attention. This is the melody to Willow Bending. If you cannot master this, then there is no hope for the rest of your guqin form."

"Thank you shizun. This shimei has never heard this melody before..."

"It's not a melody that any disciple can hear. Practice it by yourself and only yourself. It is from my... personal collection."

Shen Yuan pulled a face. So slimy. It was obvious that he just wanted to gift Ning Yingying this song alone as a weird gift. Shen Yuan didn't care – except for the fact that it gave him something to help him out. 

Shen Yuan clucked. The world began to turn into smoke again, but the soft texture of Binghe's hair persisted under his hand. "You didn't deserve this. Ah, you didn't deserve any of this..."

And like that, he was back in his apartment, sprawled over the sofa. 

 

Ah, system, that sucked. That was nothing. I want a refund. 

 

[No refunds. (◉‿◉)]

 

Alright, alright, gimme some Director's Commentary then, but make it good this time. Or I'm suing you for false advertisement. 

 

[Thank you for your purchase! A total of one (1) PlayCoin has been deducted from your account. Your current PlayCoin total stands at: -2 Play Coin(s). Please enjoy your BONUS CONTENT: Director's Commentary!] 

 

The smoke never fully cleared this time. Shen Yuan looked around in curiosity to see that a strange window had opened up in the fog, revealing a handsome yet troubled face, frozen in a still image. 

"Oh yeah, the whole delivering Shen Qingqiu's legs thing was so fun," Airplane Bro's voice rang out through the smoke. 

"Airplane?" Shen Yuan said in surprise, but Airplane didn't acknowledge him. This was probably some kind of recording then, right? 

"Kind of a shame that so much got lost in the cut, but I still thought it hit. Though once you realise that poor Xiao Jiu never learned his only friend actually did try to rescue him from Bingge's clutches... hah, talk about some tasty, tasty angst. I never decided in the final cut if Shen Qingqiu knew his legs were getting sent to Yue Qingyuan or not, but I'm leaning more towards not. He thought he was alone down there, forgotten and abandoned, while Yue Qingyuan was battling his way through hordes of demons and being a real pain in Binghe's ass just to get this shitty little man back... of course, he lost, because everyone loses to Binghe. That's my boy! My horrible little boy!" 

Airplane Bro's rambling was even more annoying when Shen Yuan couldn't physically interrupt him. Still, this was all incredibly useful information. To think that there was something deeper between those two peak lords than canon suggested... 

This would be enough, right? 

As soon as he was back in his apartment, Shen Yuan bolted upright and wrote down everything he had just learned. He also took a moment to wonder what the fuck was wrong with Airplane, but that wasn't anything new. Then he sat back and wondered what to do next. 

Surely the next step was... confronting Binghe with this new information. Ah, he really didn't want to. But he had to. He had decided to go down this path after all, and now he had to stick with it. 

With a sigh, he pulled out his mobile and rang the hotel. They quickly patched him through to Binghe's room, and after a moment, the phone picked up. 

 

"... Laoshi?"

"It's me. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, laoshi. This place is very comfortable."

"Okay, okay... good."

"... laoshi, can I come back now?" 

"Ah, no. I mean, yes, maybe, but I need you to agree to some things first."

"Hm?" Binghe sounded intrigued. Shen Yuan swallowed his nerves. 

"First, I need you to promise to listen to me when I'm saying that I'm not your shizun and I'm nothing like him. I am one hundred percent not Shen Qingqiu. Understand?"

"I understand," Binghe purred, which didn't mean anything because Shen Yuan knew how much he lied. 

"And stop saying laoshi like that."

"Like what?"

"Like you're just pretending to say laoshi but actually in your mind you're saying shizun."

"... okay, laoshi."

"Second... no more knives. No threatening me with knives. No knives in public. If I catch you with a knife when you're not cooking, then I'm throwing it away and you'll have to learn how to chop onions with a spoon."

"Okay."

"Thirdly..." Shen Yuan swallowed. "If you hurt me again or try to hurt me, then you'll get kicked out for good and you won't see me again. You'll get a hotel or something, and some money, but there will be no more contact. And similarly, if I hurt you, then you don't have to live with me either. I'll get my sist- my brother," he hastily corrected himself, "to bring you money if you need it and you won't have to see me. Okay?"

Luo Binghe hummed. He sounded amused. “You’re so concerned for my wellbeing...”

Who wouldn’t be when their life is on the line!! Shen Yuan sighed. “Is it too much to ask for us to be normal, regular flatmates who aren’t trying to injure or mess with the other person? Am I asking too much here?”

“No, laoshi,” Binghe said quickly. “I agree.”

“Good. Alright. Then I’ll come pick you up. And then... we should have a talk.”

 

[Protagonist Happiness Points have increased by +10 HP!]

 

Shen Yuan instructed Luo Binghe to wait for him in the lobby of the hotel while he got a taxi over. When he arrived, he found himself watching as a smiling receptionist laughed at something Binghe said, her eyes filled with warmth. Even though he knew what Binghe was like and he was powerless to stop it, Shen Yuan still felt a strange, irrational beat of anger - like he wanted to run over there and wave his hands in her face and say, hey, he has three thousand already! That’s enough! You’re not invited to my apartment!

But he didn’t. He just stood there, leaning on his stick, and said: “Binghe.”

Luo Binghe turned to him immediately. His expression while talking to the giggling receptionist had been perfectly polite, maybe a little welcoming. But when he saw Shen Yuan, his eyes widened and glittered with interest, his grin curling up at the edges like crisp burning paper. 

“Laoshi.”

“Let’s go. But, uh, not to the apartment. We need to get you something.”

Binghe swiftly walked up to his side, head tilted in curiosity. “Not more clothes?”

“No, no,” Shen Yuan said. “A bed. Just a blow up mattress, if you can stand it.”

Binghe’s eyes narrowed. “There isn’t any need.”

There is a need! Protagonist, there is a need! Shen Yuan just coughed and averted his gaze. “Well, it will be good to have one anyway. Come along.”

 

In the department store, Binghe quickly managed to wrap his head around how to use a shopping cart. He seemed eager to push the cart along, watching with a faint smile as Shen Yuan tossed various bits and pieces into it. A blow up bed - just a single, it would fit nicely into the living room - and a clean set of sheets, and a very warm blanket in case Binghe got a chill, and a pillow. 

“Do you need anything else...?” Shen Yuan mused. Binghe shook his head. 

“Laoshi says I will be returning to my world soon. Perhaps he shouldn’t waste his money.”

“Don’t tell me what is and isn’t a waste. If you use it and are comfortable while you’re here, then how is it a waste?”

Binghe stayed silent. After a moment, he resumed pushing the cart. “How does laoshi know that I will be returning?”

Ah, time to bullshit. “You see... well... it’s an educated guess. In most books where this kind of thing happens, there’s usually a three month time limit. It’s a famous trope.” Hah, good one. “And since you come from a book, I just figured that tropes probably apply to you...”

Binghe picked up a cushion that had “live laugh love” written on it with an expression of mild disgust, before tossing it into the cart. “Laoshi must read many novels to be so familiar with the rules. I wonder if this has ever happened to him before.”

Did Binghe accept that he was fictional? Shen Yuan gave him an askance look. “So, you finally believe me that you come from a book? And.. no. Never before. I didn’t know it was possible, until you arrived.”

“I did some thinking while I was alone. My apologies - it’s not that I believe you, it’s more that I believe that you believe it.”

“What if I,” Shen Yuan said, and swallowed. “What if I could prove it?”

“Oh?” Binghe raised a single brow. “How?”

“Well... okay, if this is a dream and I’m Shen Qingqiu, then I shouldn’t be able to know anything that Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t know,” Shen Yuan reasoned. “And before you say I could have read it in the book... well, if I knew stuff that wasn’t in the book and couldn’t have been known by Shen Qingqiu, then where could I have learned it?”

Binghe was watching him. He was always watching him, out the corner of his eye, but it was always a thrill when he switched to being shameless about it. “... from the author himself.”

“Precisely!” Shen Yuan decided not to ask how Binghe worked that out so fast. Protagonist’s intelligence. It was truly formidable. “So, if I was Shen Qingqiu... how would I know that you once hid from him in a bush while he taught Ning Yingying Willow Bending on the guqin without realising that you were there?” He held a finger up. “Go ahead and read the book, it isn’t in there. And he never found out, did he? Ergo, I am not him.”

Binghe smiled. “That could have been a lucky guess. There were a million ways he could have found that out later on.”

“Fine,” Shen Yuan said. “But he never found out that Yue Qingyuan came back for him, did he?”

Binghe stopped pushing the cart again. His smile dropped. “No. He didn’t.”

“Ergo, I’m not him!” Shen Yuan repeated, oblivious to the danger. “You see, you see, even if you don’t believe you were written by someone, surely this is enough proof I really am just an innocent bystander in all this...”

“For you to know all this... laoshi has spoken to the author?” Binghe said, his voice low and smooth as black treacle. “You’ve spoken to Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky?”

Shen Yuan couldn’t miss the way goosebumps erupted down his arms. Uh oh. “Ah... uh...”

“Because I was thinking, laoshi,” Binghe said slowly. “If, somehow, you were correct, and there were someone who wrote the world I came from, and he created me, and decided what happened to me... I should very much like to meet him.”

Alarm bells sounded in Shen Yuan’s head. “He lives very far away. Extremely far away. I don’t know where. Okay, let’s go check out, we’re all finished here, haha...”

Chapter Text

As soon as they got home, Binghe thanked him for letting him back in, and then made a beeline for Shen Yuan’s bedroom. Before he could protest or try to stop him, Binghe knelt down and reached under his bed and pulled out the hastily hidden standee of himself.

Shen Yuan felt all the blood rush to his face. “Ah, don’t look - that’s nothing, that’s...”

He tried to grab it back, but Binghe was both taller, stronger, and apparently imbued with the determinism of every dog who had ever had something in its mouth that it wasn’t supposed to. He held the standee up and examined it with glittering eyes, before turning around and grabbing Shen Yuan’s laptop and letting himself onto it. 

“Okay, this,” Shen Yuan said, struggling to keep his composure when all he wanted to do was melt into the floor, “this is the kind of behaviour which will get you sent back to the hotel for the night. Why are you like this.”

“My apologies,” Binghe said, his eyes fixated on the screen. Shen Yuan leaned over his shoulder and saw that he was on chapter one of PIDW, and sighed. 

“Fine. But it’ll take you a while to finish. And it isn’t great.”

Binghe looked up at him. “It’s about me. It isn’t great?”

“Ah, no,” Shen Yuan said urgently, realising his mistake, “the writing is shit, yes, and the side characters are kind of shallow, and the sex scenes are quite frankly very bad, but you... you were the only reason I kept reading, actually. It’s not you. It’s everything else.”

Binghe’s gaze was burning him. Then he turned back to the screen, his face set with something as hard as flint. Shen Yuan felt snubbed, somehow. 

“Alright, guess I’ll leave you to it,” he said, before wandering off to go watch a film. 

After ten seconds, he poked his head back through the bedroom door. “If you even so much as look at my browsing history, you’re back in the hotel. That is a promise.”

“Yes laoshi,” Binghe said distractedly. 

Not mollified in the slightest, Shen Yuan slunk off again. Stupid book, stupid author...

 

When Binghe re-emerged from his reading fugue, Shen Yuan was miserably reheating leftovers from the meal he tried to make the day before. It was... edible. It was fine. It just wasn't as good as when Binghe cooked, that was all. 

Who could blame him, huh? Shen Yuan never took a cooking class! He was raised with a private chef and 24 hour food delivery! So what if Binghe spent hours grinding his cooking skills so he could seduce pretty maidens by going straight for the umami – Shen Yuan was a pitiful bachelor, let him eat his crunchy overcooked chicken in peace! 

As the plate span in the microwave, Shen Yuan watched it, feeling strangely off beat. It had been three and a half days. Binghe had not been distracted by anything. He had sat there on the blow up bed, reading chapter after chapter of terrible smut and awful plot, his face unchanging. Shen Yuan had been left to shuffle around the house like a cat that wanted feeding. 

"Laoshi," Binghe said, which made Shen Yuan jump in surprise. 

"What the– oh my god, you startled me..."

"I've finished."

What. Shen Yuan must have misheard. 

"What? You... finished?"

Binghe nodded. His eyes were bloodshot. "I finished."

"Binghe, that's – six thousand chapters, what do you mean you finished? Good grief, how did you – what did you – what's wrong with you!" Shen Yuan hurriedly stepped over and hovered, for lack of a better word, in case Luo Binghe suddenly passed out. Or died of rage. "How did you read it so quickly?"

"I knew a lot of it already. It didn't require close reading for the most part," Binghe said, a touch of sarcasm in his voice. His eyes were on Shen Yuan. "Laoshi was indeed correct. Willow Bending was not in the book."

"Did you do it just to prove me wrong?" Shen Yuan almost wailed, shoving Binghe down into a spare seat. 

"Not just for that." Binghe's eyes were drooping. "Also to confirm... that nothing was a surprise. Or that..."

Shen Yuan put a glass of juice in Luo Binghe's hand. Before he could register the intention to do so, he reached out and patted Luo Binghe's head, feeling his hair bounce under his palm as he stroked his scalp gently. It was only then that he realised what he was doing. 

Luo Binghe cut himself off with a yawn, and then stiffened. He blinked around, as if surprised to find himself where he was, and then stared directly up at where Shen Yuan's hand was petting him. 

His expression was very strange. Shen Yuan let out a strangled noise and pulled back, covering for himself with a laugh. 

"You must be so tired. Did you even sleep? Go settle in bed and have a nap. I won't disturb you"

Luo Binghe frowned. "You don’t want to watch a movie?"

"Binghe, you literally haven’t slept in three days," Shen Yuan said with a fond chuckle. "Ah, actually, I’m not ready to sleep, so you can go sleep in my room so I don't disturb you. If you're already this sticky, what are you going to be like when I leave you to go and have dinner with my family, huh? How will you entertain yourself, I wonder?"

Maybe it was because he was sleepier than usual – Shen Yuan's heart skipped a mysterious beat when he thought of that, of a sleepy demon lord with his guard down – but it seemed like Binghe was pouting more than usual. 

Shen Yuan had the mental image of someone's bored husky ripping the apartment apart while its owner went off and left it by itself. 

"Laoshi, you never go anywhere. Why are you going somewhere now." 

"I’m not going anywhere tonight," he replied with a laugh. "Anyway, it'll only be an evening away, you can handle it. I mean, it's not like I'm especially interesting usually–" 

Binghe looked up at him through his lashes with an unreadable expression, his mind clearly crunching numbers. His hand darted out, and with impossible strength, he held Shen Yuan's wrist in both hands. Dragging it back to the top of his head, he made Shen Yuan's hand flop onto his scalp again, nuzzling against the unresponsive palm, before staring up at Shen Yuan again. 

"Shen Yuan always interests me," he said in a low voice. "I'm very interested in him."

Shen Yuan was blue screening. 

He was struggling to work out what, exactly, the vibe was here. It didn't feel like killing intent. But then again, Binghe was a great actor, and a complicated man, so it was entirely possible that he was one false move away from snapping that wrist in half.

... but protagonist, please, don't say such misleading things! Don't you know that to be interested in someone is to... to like them? 

Shen Yuan mentally slapped himself. This wasn't a BL otome game. Of course Binghe didn't mean it like that

This was a survival horror, and Shen Yuan didn't have any extra lives. And of course Binghe was interested in him – interested in catching him out as his old shizun! This creaky old man didn't dare pet his hair again, or his hand would get chopped off later! 

"Laoshi read my story all the way through," Binghe purred, his eyes closing like a content cat's. "He read it all. This venerable one wonders what he made of it." His eyes wheeled back up to stare at Shen Yuan, his mouth in a playful smile. "Whether the story was entertaining for him. Which parts he liked best. Whether he liked reading all those private scenes between me and my wives." 

Shen Yuan swallowed. When he spoke, it sounded like his voice was coming from far away. 

"Binghe, it's nap time. Go to your room."

Binghe seemed to suppress a laugh. "And if I don't? Will you scold me?"

Shen Yuan didn't dare! He didn't dare! 

"Binghe..." 

"I'll be obedient," Binghe said in a voice which did not promise anything at all, "if laoshi lets me come to his family dinner."

...

You... You black bellied brat! You just want to get closer to my sister! 

Shen Yuan pulled his wrist back forcefully. "Nap right now or you're going to spend the night in the hotel."

With plenty of resentful looks, Binghe shuffled into Shen Yuan's bedroom and closed the door behind him. Shen Yuan held himself perfectly still, and then buried his face in his hands. 

The sex scenes. All those mortifying sex scenes. Luo Binghe definitely thought he was some kind of weird pervert now, didn't he. After all, who obsessively reads six thousand chapters of smut if they're not at least a little bit into it? If Shen Yuan knew that Binghe was real (and by extension, his poor wives were real too...) then he wouldn't have creeped on their papapa scenes like a strange obsessive voyeur! 

Not that he was into them! He was not! He read them with a kind of fascinated horror, in the spirit of science, as an experiment, the experiment being "how many terrible sex scenes can I withstand before I give up on this whole novel", and the answer was a deeply uncomfortable amount of sex scenes. Like a lot of them. And Shen Yuan had never given up. 

Maybe he was a little bit into them. 

He was screwed. With a small whine, Shen Yuan curled up into a prawn shape on the kitchen floor. Goodbye, legs. Goodbye, arms. It was nice having you. 

 

Shen Yuan had an emotional breakdown on the floor for a self indulgent amount of time, after which he had to give in to the ache slowly creeping up his back. He picked himself up, settled himself on the couch, and promptly got right back into it. 

When Luo Binghe emerged from his bedroom at some horrendous time in the AM, he found Shen Yuan in a nest of pillows, reading an article on how to change his name and move to Cuba. He had fallen asleep on his phone screen. 

In his dazed post-breakdown state, Shen Yuan was vaguely aware that someone was lifting him up like it was nothing. 

"Laoshi, you can't sleep on the sofa again. You'll hurt your back."

"Hurt your back in a minute," Shen Yuan grumbled nonsensically, grumpy at being disturbed. 

"Is that a promise?" A rumble of laughter, and then Shen Yuan was being lowered into his bed. When the voice next spoke, it was quieter and strange. "It's alright, shizun, you can nap too. I know it's tiring. Let this disciple take care of you."

Shen Yuan groggily wondered what the fuck the voice was talking about, before promptly falling back to sleep. It was a problem for future him. 

 

Future him woke up staring at a pair of tits. 

They were good tits. Firm pecs. Big ol' jugs. The guy who had these clearly worked hard on 'em, for sure. Just smooth skin, no scars, no scratches, barely covered by a loose sleep shirt. Shen Yuan gave them his full approval. 

Ah, wait. 

He blinked several more times, stiffening up as he remembered just whose pecs these were. 

...

... protagonist, not again! Why do you insist on climbing into bed with this geriatric old shut in! Furthermore, why do you always end up so close by the time he wakes up?? 

Wait, why was Shen Yuan here? Did Binghe carry him here? Did he sleepwalk and climb in? To wake up with his face practically pressed into Luo Binghe's chest – the protagonist was definitely going to think he was a pervert now! 

"Good morning, laoshi."

Shen Yuan froze. Fantastic. Binghe had spotted him. 

Carefully, stiffly, he rolled over away from Binghe to stare at the ceiling instead. "Binghe, why isn't one of us on the airbed."

"Ah, we must have been too tired to get up and go, laoshi."

Binghe, this old man was on the sofa! The sofa is right next to the airbed! How did it take less energy to somehow come all the way into the bedroom and lie on the bed instead! Too tired, who was too tired!?

That being said, Shen Yuan couldn't write off the possibility that he did, in fact, choose to walk all the way to the bedroom while he was asleep. So he just nodded. 

"I see. I hope I didn't disrupt your sleep." 

"Not at all. Laoshi shouldn't worry about something like that. I'm very good at sharing a bed with someone."

Shen Yuan screamed internally. Luo Binghe was taunting him already, and he had barely been awake five minutes. He rolled out of bed and hobbled into the bathroom, face red, to go brush his teeth. 

There was the sound of Luo Binghe sliding off the bed. When Shen Yuan next looked in the mirror over the sink, Binghe was leaning against the bathroom door, watching him with a grin. 

"Has anyone ever told you that you're easy to fluster?"

Shen Yuan glared at him. "Brush your teeth." 

"Yes, laoshi..."

After a few minutes of desperately avoiding eye contact, Shen Yuan left to get dressed, only for Binghe to stop him. 

"We should go out again today."

"Ah, alright," Shen Yuan replied, pleasantly surprised. "Coffee? We just need to be back for five – that's when my sister is picking me up."

Luo Binghe nodded and let Shen Yuan pass. 

Huh. Alright. Coffee with a demon lord. How badly could this go?

 

Binghe was only reading the menu. Why did he look like a male model starring in a coffee advert? 

Shen Yuan could only stare and shake his head. The girl behind the counter looked a little starstruck. It was understandable. Who wouldn't be left speechless when confronted by Luo Binghe's concentrated gaze? 

Shen Yuan nudged him with his cane. "I think you'd like the matcha."

Binghe nodded, and then watched as Shen Yuan smiled at the girl to get her attention. 

"Ah! Let me guess, caramel latte?"

"Thanks," Shen Yuan said, and popped a tip into the tip jar. The girl gave him a cute smile. She was always so good with the customers – always taking the time to check his order was right, and to make sure his name was spelt correctly, and sometimes she even brought extra biscuits to his table. Talk about five star customer service. 

He ordered for Binghe as well. As he waited for their drinks, he watched as she made eye contact with Luo Binghe – and blanched, ducking her head and getting on with making the order. 

Binghe was making some pretty serious eye contact. 

Ah, Shen Yuan thought with a tired kind of feeling. The protagonist's seduction halo. Making pretty girls too shy to make eye contact. 

When they took their seats, Shen Yuan looked a couple of times between the girl and Binghe, but she didn't seem interested in looking at their corner of the café anymore. 

"I've never seen her this shy," Shen Yuan mused. "I bet she likes you."

Binghe raised an eyebrow. "Does laoshi think so?"

"What's up with that?" Shen Yuan took a sip of his coffee. "Are you interested in meeting anyone while you're here?"

Do I have to make room for a bunch of girls in my bachelor pad? 

Luo Binghe slowly shook his head. "Nobody but laoshi."

"Haha, no kidding. I've seen plenty of girls staring at you when we go out. You're not interested in adding any of them to the collection?"

Sorry girls, this lonely virgin doesn't mean to talk about you like you're trading cards... he just doesn't have any stakes in this game! 

"There's no need," Binghe said, taking a sip of his own drink. 

"Eh? What do you mean?"

"There's no Xin Mo in this world."

Shen Yuan gaped at him, before remembering – right! Of course! No murder sword constantly filling his brain with black rage pus! 

"I didn't even think about that. You must miss it."

Binghe shrugged. "Less impulses to act on. Less shrieking in the back of my mind. Fewer demands to murder whole villages and slate my bloodlust on a warm body." He sat back in his chair. "Its absence has been startlingly clarifying. It's easier to know what I want, rather than what it wants. And I'm starting to know what I want."

Shen Yuan waited patiently for Binghe to explain what he wanted, but he just kept staring with those glittering black eyes right at him. Fine, protagonist, keep your secrets. Shen Yuan gave him a fond nudge on the elbow. 

"This sounds like... it's good? Ah, it sounds kind of depressing, to not know whether you want something because you want it or because the creepy murder sword is making you think you want it. Between you and me, I don't think Xin Mo is very good for you, even though you did manage to suppress it."

"Laoshi even has an opinion on this," Binghe remarked, both of his eyebrows raising. "So concerned with my wellbeing."

Yeah, because if you're not happy, this poor asshole goes into extra dimensional Bitcoin debt! Shen Yuan coughed into his hand and looked away. "Can't I be worried about you? Drink your tea."

"May I try yours?"

Shen Yuan nodded without thinking about it. Luo Binghe leaned forwards across the table, took Shen Yuan's cup and then – Shen Yuan was too slow to react, too slow to stop him – turned it so he ended up taking a sip from the same spot Shen Yuan did. 

Horrified, Shen Yuan considered slapping the cup out of his hands. Did he not notice?? That was... in the same spot... 

Binghe passed the cup back. Shen Yuan stared at him helplessly. Binghe, your lips have been contaminated! You don't even know how contaminated they are! 

And then Binghe pulled a face. "Laoshi enjoys this?" 

The spell was broken. Shen Yuan huffed and pulled the cup closer, carefully angling it so he was drinking from a new clean spot. He didn't dare put his lips where Binghe did. They were entirely different classes of human – Shen Yuan didn't have the right. 

"Yes, I like this. Coffee is good, bean drink tasty, leaf drink bad, whatever. I said drink your tea." 

Binghe’s eyes did that thing where they curved into pleased crescents. Shen Yuan found it difficult to stay cool when he saw that look, like the demon lord was a playful kid teasing his crush. It was really freaky. 

Well... maybe also a little charming...

“Cucumber bro?”

Shen Yuan blinked. Just behind Binghe’s seat, a smallish man with his hair in a little ponytail waved at him. He was holding two iced coffees to go. 

“Airplane-!” Shen Yuan said without thinking, his eyes flying open in panic as he tried to make several frantic motions to turn around, go, run, leave now! 

Binghe tilted his head, and then with the deliberate slowness of an apex predator, turned in his seat to make direct eye contact with the ever unfortunate author of his own story. 

There was a moment of absolute stillness. Airplane Bro’s face turned green. Shen Yuan could just see him mouth the words “oh no”. 

In one graceful movement, Binghe slid up and out of his chair. Shen Yuan stood up too, his eyes fixed on where Binghe’s hand slid into his pocket and emerged with a stray chopping knife that Shen Yuan swore he had hidden in the last big knife purge. 

“Binghe, no!” Shen Yuan yelled, hugging onto Luo Binghe’s waist from behind. “Get out of here, idiot!”

Airplane Bro didn’t need telling twice. He turned tail and ran, leaking drops of iced coffee everywhere as he high tailed it out of the cafe. Luo Binghe tore himself from Shen Yuan’s clutches and began to follow, every step full of intention, but Shen Yuan tackled him from behind and clung on like a koala. 

“No! I said no! Take another step and you’re sleeping in a hotel!”

Binghe slowed. In the ensuing silence, Shen Yuan realised with no small amount of dread that everyone in the café was staring, some people were out of their seats, and the nice girl behind the counter was on her phone talking rapidly to what he assumed was either security or the emergency services. 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan put his head in his hands. Beside him, Luo Binghe still hadn’t relaxed. They were sitting on a bench a respectable distance away from the coffee shop, which was about as far as Shen Yuan could speed walk while dragging a resistant Luo Binghe along before he ran out of breath. 

“My favourite coffee shop,” he whined from between his fingers. “Banned. For life. Binghe, Binghe, Binghe... why did you try to murder someone in broad daylight, in my favourite coffee shop of all places...”

“I wasn’t going to murder him,” Binghe said lightly. “I just wanted to talk.”

Pull the other one, Binghe, it’s got fucking bells on! Shen Yuan glared at him. “Do you know how lucky we were that she agreed not to press charges?! Incredibly lucky! I had to all but promise we would never darken their door again!”

Luo Binghe tilted his head, and then seemed to radiate smugness. “Ah, I’m sorry,” he said, in that patented “I’m not sorry at all” kind of voice. “I can make you coffee from now on.”

“It’s not the same! Ack, what a mess...” Shen Yuan slumped in his seat, before giving Luo Binghe a despairing look. “Why? What was going through your head, huh?”

Binghe thought about it. “Didn’t laoshi say it himself? Haven’t I been tormented enough? If I believe you about my life being a story, then why did things have to go the way they did?” His tone was cool, unruffled. Playful, almost. “Laoshi read it too. I’ve always wondered what god I angered, to have had such a miserable fate. I wondered if it was the fault of my birth. Whether all men are destined to hate me - they sense what’s other, what’s unholy, and despise it. So I thought I crushed fate under my heels and forged an empire out of it.” He smiled. There was nothing playful about it now. “And now you tell me that even that was because some person ordained it to happen exactly as it did. I’ve been following a script, thinking I was fighting against the fabric of reality, like a mindless puppet that can only feel sorrow. Laoshi, forgive me, but wouldn’t you feel angry too?”

Shen Yuan hesitated, before nodding. 

Ah, damn it, damn it, fuck, he knew this would happen if he told Binghe the truth! He wasn’t equipped to deal with this kind of existential crisis! He took a business apprenticeship, not philosophy! 

With a sigh, he did his best to think of something encouraging.

“I don’t think that anyone is born deserving to suffer. If you were a real person, I don’t think that Airplane would have piled so much angst onto you - ah, but you are a real person, aren’t you,” he said with a surprised jolt. He wasn’t sure when he had stopped thinking of Binghe as a fictional character and as his own person instead. Maybe it was embarrassingly quickly after Binghe first arrived here. “You’re here and you’re real. And nobody is writing your story for you now. Proud Immortal Demon Way is still on hiatus, and yet here you are, talking and walking around. Maybe the choices in the past were all made for you. But when you’re here in this world, nothing is set in stone.” He reached out and patted Binghe’s shoulder. “And right now you’re choosing to make my hair turn grey with stress, Binghe.”

Binghe hummed. “Laoshi... don’t you worry you’re being written by someone too?”

“If that's true, then I can’t change it, so why bother,” Shen Yuan replied with a laugh. “I would probably ask why they keep giving me so much back pain...”

Binghe leaned forward. “What if you had been written in my story?”

Hah, Shen Yuan the NPC. What would he have been like? Either a low IQ cannon fodder antagonist or a snivelling underling who got crushed by the villain of the week - those were the only male roles available in PIDW. Or brother. But Binghe was an only child. For some reason, imagining himself as Binghe's brother made shivers run down his spine.

He shuddered. “I think it’s better that I wasn’t. I don’t think I would have been very kind to you.”

Binghe's mouth tightened at the edges. "What laoshi is saying is that if he were given the choice... he would choose to be kind to me?"

Shen Yuan nodded. "If I could, I would. Every time." 

His gaze was heavy on Shen Yuan's face. 

"A-Yuan," Binghe said quietly. "I don't know if I could make that same choice. Sometimes I think I must be quite a bad person." 

Shen Yuan shook his head. "Good person, bad person... don't think about it like that. There's no such thing as being good or being bad. It isn't something that can be measured and detected like your blood type or your eye colour. You do good things, you do bad things, you wake up and you choose what kind of person you are that day, and then you go home with the decision you've made and it's up to you whether you're at peace with it. Anyone has the capacity to do good." He smiled ruefully, remembering long passages about slow torture and wicked, painful death. "And anyone has the capacity to do awful, evil things."

Binghe was searching his face for something. "Clearly. Does laoshi also consider himself capable of that?"

Shen Yuan slowly, tentatively nodded. "If it was the only thing I knew. If something had gone wrong, maybe. Just as I think that if someone had been kind to you when you were a teenager, you would find it easier to do kind things in turn."

Binghe swallowed. "Laoshi thinks I'm cruel." 

Hah, aren't you? Shen Yuan shook his head. 

"Ah, I can barely blame you. You were only written that way, after all."

Luo Binghe's eyes widened, his lips parting slightly. 

 

[Protagonist Happiness Points reduced by 500 points!]

 

Shen Yuan froze solid. Panicked alarm bells started ringing in his mind. So many points at once... so quickly...

Oh, fuck. He had really managed to fuck this up. 

As if nothing had happened at all, Binghe's expression straightened out into one of plain neutrality. The only thing that slipped past his tight control over his face were his nostrils, which flared wildly as if he was forcing himself not to take in deep breaths. 

 

[Achievement Unlocked: When A Good Thing Goes Bad!]

[Achievement Unlocked: Boys Don't Cry!]

[Congratulations! (ʃƪ^3^) You can view these trophies in your Achievement Cabinet at any time!] 

 

Shen Yuan rapidly closed the dialogue boxes. He couldn't care less about the stupid achievements. "Binghe–"

"Excuse me," Luo Binghe said, perfectly politely. "Laoshi, I'm going to take a walk." 

"O-okay," Shen Yuan replied, as Binghe stood up from his seat. "I'll wait here for–"

"No need," Binghe said roughly, and stalked off.

Shen Yuan was left to sit by himself on the bench, feeling perhaps the most guilt that he had ever experienced in his life. 

 

When Airplane called him, Shen Yuan answered in a daze.

"Am I safe?"

"Huh?"

"I asked if I'm safe, Cucumber Bro! Binghe came at me with a knife, dude! My man! My guy! I almost lost my life in a coffee shop! Did you forget?!"

Shen Yuan hummed. "Oh. Yeah. Yeah, you're safe, you're... ah, uh. No. Wait. Probably not. No, you're not safe."

Airplane squeaked. "Where is he?"

"I don't know. I lost eyes on him."

There was a stunned silence. When Airplane next spoke, it was tragically mournful. 

"Take responsibility and pay for my funeral, bro. Lost eyes on him... how do you lose eyes on the protagonist..."

"He..." Shen Yuan said, and then trailed off. "He wanted some space from me."

"Eh? Space from you? I thought you said he was annoyingly sticky."

"Mm. But I. I did something bad." Shen Yuan shakily held his phone closer to his ear. "I hurt him a lot." 

"Hah, yeah right. I saw him. He's made of bricks and mortar. What did you do, elbow him?"

"I'm being serious, Airplane. I think I said something cruel."

There was a moment of quiet. 

"... you're sure he was upset?"

Airplane didn't sound doubtful. He just sounded like he wanted to make sure. Shen Yuan made an affirmative noise. "I'm certain."

"What did you say?"

"A bunch of bullshit. Stuff about how he's from a story. About how he was written. I don't know. I was trying to comfort him – I'm really not equipped for this," he said, panic entering his voice. "I'm supposed to make him happy but it took this long to work out how to make me happy, let alone another person. I knew I wasn't the right person, and now I've really hurt him. I shouldn't have told him he was from a novel. Ah, fuck, I should have just let him think this was a dream after all and let him go back home." 

"Bro, it's alright, calm down," Cucumber said. "He's a grown man. He can take it."

"He shouldn't have to!" 

"You can't stop yourself from ever saying any hurtful things ever, bro. It's gonna happen. We're only human. All we can do is apologise afterwards and do our best to make up for it."

Shen Yuan groaned. "How do you even make up for giving a man an existential crisis."

Airplane Bro snorted. Despite himself, Shen Yuan laughed slightly too. It was ridiculous. The situation was hysterical. 

After a moment, he calmed back down. 

"If Luo Binghe was an ordinary person," Airplane Bro said thoughtfully, "I would say that you should talk to him when you next see him and just... ask what happened. Let him explain what hurt and why, and then see if you need to apologise."

Shen Yuan felt a bolt of cold dread at having to do that, but it did sound like the reasonable thing to do. 

"But since this is Luo Binghe we're talking about... I've been thinking about faking my own death," Airplane said casually. "We could do a fake suicide pact and run away to Cuba."

Shen Yuan laughed again. "Asshole."

"What? It's better than having all my fans in my comments threatening to doxx me if I don't release another chapter. This hiatus is stressful, bro... it's okay when it's a side character who wanders out of the plot, but this is the protagonist...!"

Didn't he know it. Shen Yuan smiled a little. "Speaking of which."

"Yeah. Good luck. Ganbatte and everything."

"Hah. Thanks." 

He hung up, and looked around. Luo Binghe was out there somewhere. Shen Yuan just needed to find him. 

Just before he moved away from the bench, he threw the chopping knife into the trash can to his side. Just to be safe. 



Shen Yuan looked everywhere until his hips began to ache. Binghe was not in the nearby park. He wasn't in any of the other coffee shops. He wasn't on any benches. 

Feeling defeated and regretful, Shen Yuan made his way back home. To his surprise, he found Luo Binghe crouching outside the door, face dark, waiting for him. 

He quietly let both of them into the apartment. Binghe sat on the sofa. 

"... do you want some space?" Shen Yuan asked quietly. 

Binghe shook his head. 

"Can I sit with you?"

There was a dark frown on Binghe's face, but he didn't say no. Shen Yuan hovered for a second, before sitting himself a seat away from Binghe, back straight. 

"I hurt your feelings," Shen Yuan said quietly. 

Binghe shook his head. "Laoshi was perfectly correct,” he said bitterly. “He is always so astute in his observations. This venerable one is indeed inhumanely cruel.” His hands clenched in his lap. "Nothing is making any sense, and yet at the same time, everything seems to be following some sick pattern that I've never been able to see until now."

System, help me, the protagonist is talking in dramatic monologues again! 

"The same things happening over and over. People always act the same. They will always want repayment in kind. I cannot afford your kindness, Shen Yuan, and you can't afford my cruelty. Cruelty is all I have left to give. It's all I was created to give." 

He turned his face to Shen Yuan, eyebrows twitching. "For some reason, I have always wished that you would look at me and see something else. But that isn't possible. I'm exactly what I was born to be."

Shen Yuan sighed. He reached out, and placed a hand on Binghe's head. "Luo Binghe," he said quietly. "You're not in a story now. Haven't I already told you this?" He gently ruffled that fluffy hair. "However you want me to look at you, you should act accordingly. Prove me wrong. Show me how wrong I am."

Binghe's mouth opened, and he looked as if he were gathering his thoughts. A whole circus of emotions were racing across his face, too quickly to identify but too strong to ignore. Finally, he said, "promise?"

Promise what? 

Before Shen Yuan could wonder any more about what that meant, the doorbell rang. 

"My sister," he said in sudden realisation, sitting up from the couch. "I'm supposed to go to a family meal. I forgot."

Binghe was giving him a mutinous look. It was only slightly better than the dark despair that had been there only a moment ago. "I want to go too."

Shen Yuan decided to ignore this in favour of running to the door. He opened it to reveal his little sister standing there with a strange smile on her face. She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, her touch gentle. 

"San-ge," she said, very seriously. 

Shen Yuan gave her a puzzled smile, before reaching out and pinching both of her cheeks. Ah, he couldn't help himself. Even though she was a grown adult now, she would always be his cute little meimei with her steamed bun cheeks. Too soft, too pinchable. He felt so much better whenever he could bully her like this. "Why so serious? Huh?"

"San-ge," Shen Lin whined, trying to slap his hands away. "Quit it. You're gonna mess up my foundation."

"My little sister doesn't need foundation, she's too beautiful," Shen Yuan said in the annoying voice which always got him a punch to the arm from his sister. 

Shen Lin punched him in the arm. Who could have foreseen this coming?

Suddenly, Shen Lin's eyes widened. She stared past Shen Yuan and swallowed nervously. "Hi."

"Hello," Binghe said. He was doing his trademark trick of looming over Shen Yuan's shoulder. "I hope you're doing well, meimei."

While his little sister said something garbled, her tongue tripping over itself, Shen Yuan rolled his eyes. "Okay, bye bye Bing– Louie. See you later."

"Ah, uh, wait," Shen Lin said, recovering from her sudden bout of incomprehensibility, "actually, Louie should come along too. We thought you were going to invite him." 

She sounded terribly nervous. Ah, first love. 

"I'm invited?" Binghe said. Oh, so now he sounded like a perfectly normal and polite young man. Why couldn't he be weird like usual and make his sister retract her invitation? "If you'll have me, I would love to come along."

Shen Lin's eyes were shining slightly as she nodded. "You're welcome. You're always welcome. You never have to feel unwelcome in our home." 

Hang on a moment, little sis, this is laying it on a little thick don't you think? Shen Yuan wondered if this kind of shameless flirting worked on guys. 

"You're not invited," Shen Yuan said flatly. 

"But meimei said–"

"He's invited," Shen Lin said, and punched him in the arm again. "Louie, don't listen to him, you're invited." 

Great. A whole evening of playing third wheel to his cute little sister who had never had a boyfriend ever, never, didn't even know what sex was and never would, and a man who, according to Airplane Bro's fantastic writing, had absolutely no qualms about hitting third base in front of a potential wife's parents. 

(Fine, okay, she had had quite a lot of boyfriends in high school and she read weird, intriguing BL novels that absolutely had disconcerting and sometimes downright disturbing sex scenes in them but he liked to pretend he didn't know that.)

(Not that he knew that about the novels from reading them. He could just infer. From context.)

"I'm not going," he said. 

Shen Lin dragged him out the front door. As she pulled him along, she whispered in his ear, letting "Louie" trailed behind them to close the front door. "I know you're nervous, but there's no need. I'm here to support you. Really, it's all going to be fine."

Shen Yuan stared at her, before helplessly shaking his head. "It's just a dinner. Why would I be nervous?"

His little sister's eyes were shining again. "It's okay to be nervous. I know you're bad at admitting to what you're feeling..."

"I'm not – I don't – feeling ," Shen Yuan spluttered, before getting shoved into the elevator. 

And then Luo Binghe stepped into the elevator, his face calm, no sign of his earlier upset anywhere. If anything, he looked reinvigorated, which made Shen Yuan even more worried than he was before. At least he looked presentable: he was dressed in the clothes he had thrown on before heading to the coffee shop – a black turtleneck with a chain and a loose jacket, like some kind of stupid model for a stupid fashion magazine. There was even a smug little grin hiding in the corner of his mouth. Damn it damn it damn it, his mom was going to love him.

"B– Louie," Shen Yuan said desperately. "You don't have to come if you don't want to." Don't come. "I know it can be uncomfortable being suddenly made to meet someone's parents..." I'm uncomfortable! I'm the uncomfortable one here! "... so don't let my sister pressure you. She can be very enthusiastic." She's a spoiled rotten girl with no manners! Go home! 

Binghe thought about it, before shaking his head. He was giving Shen Yuan one of those intense looks again. "I'm honoured to be able to meet your parents for the first time. I wouldn't miss this for the world."

Shen Yuan gave up and miserably accepted his fate. He was outnumbered, destined to become a third wheel.

Chapter Text

"So, Louie," Shen Lin said, looking in the rear view mirror at Binghe as they drove along to the Shen house. "Which country do you come from?"

Binghe opened his mouth, but Shen Yuan was quicker. "Treeland."

Shen Lin stared at him. "I've never heard of Treeland."

"Sure you have. There's Iceland and Greenland and Treeland." Shen Yuan was sweating through his shirt. "Stop asking stupid questions."

"Is Louie a traditional Treelandian name?"

"I don't know, is it, laoshi?" Binghe said in his most shit eating kind of voice. 

"Don't call me laoshi in front of everyone," Shen Yuan hissed. 

Binghe hummed. "Ah, I'm sorry, a-Yuan ." 

"That's not good either!" 

"Hmm... gege?" 

His sister was suddenly extremely interested in the road. Shen Yuan really really didn't want to be having this conversation in front of her. It was embarrassing! He didn't want her to know that he had set himself up as Binghe's wise old teacher of the modern age! 

"Gege is even worse," he hissed, his face red. "Just don't say anything."

"Isn't he mean?" Shen Lin said in a teasing voice, meeting Binghe's eyes in the mirror again. "Big brother a-Yuan is so mean to the people who like him. You should call him whatever you like."

"He's very cruel," Binghe purred. "He bullies me terribly."

Shen Lin turned white, and then red, and then concentrated on the road again with a strange giggle. 

What the fuck! What was with this instant alliance between his little sister and his evil housemate? Were they ganging up on him already?! 

"Anyway," he said forcefully, trying his best to divert the conversation away from wherever it had been going, "how is my little sister doing? Have you been studying hard?"

"I got a 98% on my test," she said smugly, wiggling on her seat.

That's my meimei!! Clever girl! Shen Yuan wanted to pinch her cheeks all over again, but he held back, settling on giving her a proud smile. 

"You see? You were so worried about it. Who was crying at me saying she was going to fail her module? Who was right in the end?"

Shen Lin stuck her tongue out at him. "Okay, okay, san-ge is always right, I get it. Now you need to play the pigeon dating sim with me like you promised."

"No," Shen Yuan said bluntly, his smile not changing. 

There was a familiar glint in his sister's eye – the one that promised she would get exactly what she wanted later on – but she just shrugged, before sending her attention backwards again. "What are you doing right now, Louie? Are you a student?"

Binghe seemed to think about it, before answering, "Laoshi is tutoring me." 

Shen Yun froze. Really, Binghe?! He had been dreading the answer anyway – he was almost afraid that Binghe was going to say "international demon lord and emperor of the two realms" – but this was worse somehow! 

"Tutoring?" Shen Lin said in surprise. "Tutoring you in what?"

"Ah hahaha, it's nothing formal, I'm not living with my student," Shen Yuan said quickly, sending a desperate look in Binghe's direction. "It's just a little in-joke. Binghe is... in between situations right now." 

"I used to be a student," Binghe added. "I had to leave my course of study early."

Shen Yuan felt a sudden sense of dread crawl up his spine. His sister, oblivious, gave Binghe a curious look. "Ah, what happened?"

"I fell off a cliff." 

"What?! Are you serious? That's terrible, what happened? Are you okay?" Shen Lin couldn't hold back her questions. 

Binghe shrugged. "I got better. Ah, laoshi, are you alright?"

Shen Yuan was deathly pale and practically drenched in sweat. "I'm okay. It just upsets me to hear about it."

"There's no need to be upset," Binghe said, leaning forward to get slightly closer, his face in a pleasant, bemused smile. "You didn't push me in, did you?" 

Shen Yuan shuddered. Damn it, that Shen Qingqiu really screwed him over. Why couldn't that asshole get some god damn therapy and leave his poor disciple alone! Now he's gotta handle the consequences while the scum Peak Lord gets the sweet reprieve of death! 

"No, but it made me so angry when I heard what happened," he said, entirely truthfully. 

Who wouldn't be angry when the protagonist that you've been rooting for gets blatantly targeted by his shizun for an opportunistic assassination attack? The whole point of reading exciting novels is to feel the rage of the protagonist as life pushes him down again and again and again, knowing that he's going to get through it stronger than ever, get revenge, and pay back the villains for every misdeed they did. 

Ah, fuck. Shen Yuan could feel it. The 3 am forum posting impulse. The Rant Button had been pushed, and he was not responsible for what happened next. 

"Seriously, who does something like that? What the fuck was wrong with him? You didn't even do anything to him and he just pushes you down like that without even getting caught? And nobody suspected him for so long! I was practically foaming at the mouth! I mean, he didn't even have a proper motivation aside from being mean to you – to get pushed by such a two dimensional character! Are you kidding me? Where's the dignity? The honour? As if some shallow piece of cannon fodder like him gets the privilege of killing you!" He made a spitting noise and threw his hands up. It felt like his blood was boiling. This was a captive audience, and Shen Yuan had a lot to say. 

"And that's another thing! I knew you were going to crawl back up and get him back one day, but it couldn't come soon enough! Ah, I really don't know whether to laugh or to cry – at least he got what he deserved, but after everything he did to you, it wasn't enough. It wasn't ever enough! I'd bring him back just to spit on him all over again!"

The car was filled with stunned silence. Shen Yuan slowly felt himself come back to his own body, his hands in the air, one finger pointed magisterially at the sky, as the red mist that usually descended when someone got him started on the finer points of PIDW lore slowly faded away. 

His sister's mouth was hanging open. In a small voice, she said "someone... pushed you off a cliff?" 

"Uh," said Shen Yuan. 

"Someone that san-ge knows?"

"I wouldn't say I knew him, exactly, I just heard the story..."

Luo Binghe's eyebrows were up in his hairline. Shen Yuan had never seen him looking so taken aback. He shook himself, wearing a strange smile as he settled back to some kind of normal. "Laoshi is embellishing slightly. I did indeed get pushed, but as I say, I got better. The one who hurt me did indeed get his appropriate punishment." That innocent smile. Shen Yuan shuddered. If he didn't know Luo Binghe dismembered him, there was nothing in that angelic smile with a single dimple that suggested the perpetrator got more than a prison sentence. "He was imprisoned for a long, long time. I no longer dwell on it."

Shen Yuan frowned, looking behind at Binghe in the rear seats. He wasn't sure that was true. 

"That's terrible," Shen Lin said breathlessly, full of concern as she shot Binghe worried glances. "I can't even imagine what it feels like to know someone really tried to kill you. Oh, Louie, I'm so sorry. No wonder a-Yuan was angry." She gasped, using a hand to cover her mouth. "And I brought it up just like that! Ah, I shouldn't have been so nosy. I'm sorry."

"There's no need to apologise," Binghe said smoothly. "It really doesn't upset me anymore."

That's a lie! Binghe, that is an egregious lie! 

But Shen Yuan didn't trust himself to open his mouth without launching into another rant and possibly revealing that Binghe was a fictional character, so he sealed his mouth shut and just shook his head. 

"Still. God, I'm always like this," Shen Lin chuckled ruefully. "I'm not great at being tactful. Er-ge always has to run around apologising for me." 

"I know someone like that," Binghe said. He was smiling like he was trying to reassure Shen Lin, and it seemed to be working. Shen Yuan watched carefully. He was being treated to a close up view of the black bellied protagonist's skill with acting and manipulation. "She also complains she's not very good at being tactful, but I think she makes up for it with her honesty." He laughed. It was incredibly pleasant to listen to. "It may be blunt, but at least it isn't a bald faced lie." 

Hypocrite! 

A slightly uncomfortable silence settled in the car. Shen Yuan rapidly cycled through safe things he could say to break the oppressive atmosphere. Weather? Taxes? 

Just as he decided to open his mouth and ask Shen Lin whether she had seen any good TV shows lately, Luo Binghe stepped in with a grin. 

"Meimei, have you read Proud Immortal Demon Way?"

"Bi- Lu- Louie!" Shen Yuan spluttered, enraged. 

Shen Lin shook her head. "Ew, no. I don't really do stallion novels like that. That's the one that you like a lot, right san-ge?" 

"I don't like it!"

"Haha, he's so embarrassed, look at him! He must really like it. Your taste is so bad, a-Yuan, it's giving me second hand embarrassment!" 

Shen Yuan glared at Luo Binghe, who just gave him a very knowing, very mischievous smile. Why was he doing this? Was he enjoying fucking with Shen Yuan like this? Of course he was. Binghe loved to torment his prey. He liked to play with his food, as it said in the novel. 

"Well, it's better than your taste," he said, doing his best to gather himself up so he could claw back some remnants of his dignity. "When was the last time you read a novel that wasn't BL, huh?" 

Shen Lin looked oddly sheepish. "Actually, lately... um, I've been struggling to... well, nevermind."

Binghe leaned forward again. "Laoshi, what's BL?"

Shen Lin nearly crashed the car. 

 

Shen Yuan found himself becoming inexplicably embarrassed when the car drove into the Shen mansion and parked in the underground garage. It was a big place – complete with its own security system and automatic gates – but Binghe was either being too polite to mention it, or he simply didn't care. 

His nerves kept mounting as they were ushered into the front living room. This was a terrible idea. What if his parents hated Binghe? What if he slipped into old habits and held his sister to ransom? What if they found out he was keeping his favourite fictional character hostage in his bachelor pad? 

Just as he was considering jumping back in the car and driving away, his mother and father appeared, dressed in nice outfits. They always liked to dress up for family dinners in matching colours. It was sickening. 

"Here's my darling a-Yuan," his mom said, sweeping forward and gathering him into a hug. She peppered his cheeks in kisses. "Look at you, so handsome. We never get to see you anymore!"

Shen Yuan allowed himself to be kissed until he hit his limit. He quickly stepped out of his mom's sticky grasp, hair rumpled and clothes askew. "I see you all the time."

It was then that his mother and father noticed Binghe standing to the side. Shen Yuan swallowed down his nerves and hastily introduced him. "And this is my flatmate, Louie."

His father grunted and nodded his head, swapping a look with Shen Lin. His mother's eyes widened, and she moved over to shake his hand. "This is the first time our son has brought someone home with him for us to meet. Ah, so exciting, make yourself at home. You can call me aunty, okay?" 

Binghe blinked, before immediately entering onto the charm offensive. "Thank you very much for having me, aunty," he said, sounding both eager and nervous all at once. 

Shen Yuan watched as his mother's eyes widened, a pleased smile aimed at this polite young man. 

Hey protagonist, don't tell me you're planning to add my mother to your harem as well? Turn off the seduction halo, I'm begging you! Turn it off right now! 

Shen Yuan's father shook Binghe's hand with a grunt, before settling on a nearby sofa with a newspaper. 

"Don't mind him, he's tired after a long day," his mother said, before eagerly ushering everyone onto the sofas. "So, Louie, how did you meet our little Yuan?"

Shen Yuan quickly stepped in before Binghe could say something that wasn't quite the truth, but was close enough to make everyone uncomfortable. "We were neighbours. And then Louie's landlord kicked him out illegally. So I'm letting him stay until he can find a new apartment."

"But we were more than just neighbours," Binghe added, because apparently he was in a trouble making kind of mood. "He has always been looking out for me."

So that was how they were gonna say 'obsessively read about his life and all of its minute details'. 

"Illegally kicking you out? That's awful," Mama Shen said, her feathers ruffled. “Dear husband, honey darling, you could look at it, couldn’t you? I thought you owned the building our little Yuan is staying in.”

“Next building along, pumpkin pie,” dear husband, honey darling, grunted behind his newspaper. 

“There’s no need. I’m much happier this way,” Binghe said. He shuffled closer to Shen Yuan on the sofa. Hey, what kind of ploy was this? Getting closer to the parents by sucking up to their lonely son? Their knees were touching. 

This struck Shen Yuan as vaguely comical, as the sofa could seat seven people, and yet they were both plastered up against one of the arms. Sure, Binghe usually invaded his space anyway, but it was somehow more noticeable in front of his parents. 

Mama Shen looked delighted, before her face fell. “Ah, wait a moment. I thought the apartment we got for you was only a one bedroom apartment...?”

There was another dense, pregnant silence. Papa Shen put down his newspaper. He looked between his son, whose eyebrows were twitching as he tried to come up with an excuse, and his mysterious guest, who seemed allergic to leaving any space between his thigh and Shen Yuan’s. He put his newspaper back up. 

A waiter stepped in smoothly, melting out of the background. “Mesdames and messieurs, if you would step into the dining room. Dinner is ready.”

 

Over the table, Mama Shen fussed over her two kids, making sure their plates were piled high. 

“Where are the other two?” Shen Yuan asked. She sighed. 

“Too busy. Abandoned by my own sons. I raised them myself and they’re too busy to come and eat with their poor ailing mother because they’re partying in America...”

“They’re brokering the biggest deal of the decade with our largest competitor,” Papa Shen said. He was hidden behind a pile of vegetables. 

Shen Lin huffed. “Good. They’re even meaner to me than a-Yuan. Don’t talk with your mouth full, meimei, it makes you look stupid. Stop stealing my shirts, meimei. Don’t interrupt my meetings with donuts and coffee, meimei, we have secretaries for that.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, meimei,” Shen Yuan said absently as he kept his eyes on Binghe, just in case. 

“Hmmph!”

Mama Shen passed a huge plate of meat to Luo Binghe, her eyes sparkling. “Put more of this on your plate, Louie, and put some on little Yuan’s plate too. You must both be losing so much weight. Two young bachelors living together - I bet it’s take out dinners every night! Little Yuan is so lazy, he never cooks.”

Binghe politely took some meat, and gave Shen Yuan a conspicuously juicy cut. “Thank you, aunty,” he said bashfully, “but actually, I cook for both of us.”

“You cook?” Mama Shen was delighted. “A-Yuan, you didn’t tell us he cooked!”

“He cleans too,” Shen Yuan said, miserably resigned to the fact that his mother did indeed immediately fall in love with Luo Binghe the moment she saw him. 

“Did you hear that, darling? He cooks and he cleans! If only you were my son, Louie, you could be such a good influence on our boys.”

“That could be arranged,” Binghe said, playful and light. Shen Yuan glowered at him. Protagonist, stop talking about marrying my sister!

Mama Shen just laughed. Shen Lin was watching with round eyes, sneaking vegetables off her plate and onto Shen Yuan’s when nobody was looking. Papa Shen grunted from behind the vegetable pile, and there was the vague sound of a newspaper rustling. 

Somehow, the rest of the conversation went... okay. It wasn’t too awkward, weirdly enough, though that was mostly because Mama Shen and Shen Lin were twin forces of personality that could chatter enough for ten people. They kept asking Binghe questions, and every single time, Shen Yuan would freeze and think “wuh oh here it comes”, but Binghe was on his best behaviour. His answers were, if you squinted, almost normal. 

“Louie, Lin Lin says you’re Treelandian, but you don’t have an accent at all!”

“Actually, I moved when I was very small, and it wasn’t so different from here really. In fact, I was surprised at how similar it is.” 

“So, Louie, who taught you how to cook?”

“I mostly taught myself, but I know a few family recipes.”

“Louie, you’re so handsome, you must be a model...”

“Ahaha, is that so? What a compliment, to be admired by two such beautiful women...”

Shen Yuan choked on his food. His mom and his sister just tittered and waved away the compliment, looking pleased. 

But the weirdest part of the evening came just as they finished the main course, and a full dessert was laid out on the table. There was ice cream and trifle, and Papa Shen was hidden behind a huge, elaborate chocolate cake. 

“... he was always my favourite secretary because he was just so efficient,” Mama Shen was saying, continuing her story as she scooped a massive bowl of cake and ice cream and sent it down to Shen Yuan. “This was the first day off he ever asked me for, so of course I asked him why, and he said, I’m proposing to my boyfriend, ma’am. Boyfriend! I had no idea! I was so shocked I gave him three paid days off. He kept it very well hidden! I mean, did you know, darling?”

Papa Shen, who remembered that secretary very well, also remembered that he wore a “subtle” rainbow lapel pin, mentioned his boyfriend in every conversation that wasn’t about work, and once accidentally used his work credit card to order one hundred red roses for his boyfriend’s birthday, which he then had to explain (red faced and mortified) to Papa Shen while stammering and promising never to make the same mistake again. 

Papa Shen, who was annoyed that that was the reason why he couldn’t get one hundred red roses from the same florist for his wife’s birthday, had to buy one hundred strawberries instead. It wasn’t the same. They both got stomach aches. 

“I had an inkling,” he said from behind the cake. 

“Well, I think it’s great. Gay rights and all that. Good for them,” Mama Shen continued. “It’s not like I know any other gay people, but they all seem nice to me.”

Shen Lin’s hands had started shaking, making her trifle wobble all over the place as she tried to eat it. She put down her spoon with a clink. “Well, I think gay rights are really important,” she said loudly, staring at the table. “Because you might know some without knowing it. And hypothetically if you did know them, then it’s good. That you support them.”

Shen Yuan watched this with a mouth full of cake, mildly amused. He had always known his sister was a vehement fujoshi, but this was taking it to another level. 

“I would know it,” Mama Shen said proudly. “I have a gaydar.”

There was a stunned moment of quiet. From behind the cake, there was an amused snort. 

“I’m serious! I can just tell,” Mama Shen continued. “Most of the time. If there were a gay person at this table, I would know.”

Luo Binghe had been watching the conversation with a faint smile, one eyebrow hitched. At Mama Shen’s confident assertion, he tilted his head, curly hair falling adorably from his ear and onto his shoulder. 

“That must be why you can’t detect me then,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, I’ve always liked both.”

Three sets of eyes swivelled to stare at him. Mama Shen looked shocked, her mouth falling open. Shen Lin’s eyes were wider than saucers. There was a quiet but unsurprised “ah, really” from behind the massive cake. 

The moment was broken when Shen Yuan dropped his spoon with a ringing clatter that echoed around the table. 

What ?!”

Chapter Text

Now everyone was staring at Shen Yuan. Binghe smiled in a puzzled kind of way, a corner of his mouth quirking. 

"You didn't know?"

Shen Yuan was floating in a sea of confusion. This was more than a shock – this was a crack right down the middle of the fragile vase that was his world view, and now all the water inside threatened to spill out. 

Luo Binghe, the man with three thousand wives, liked men as well? He was okay with kissing them? No, even worse, he liked... to be kissed by...?

His brain broke. There was nothing but white noise in there. 

"Both?" Mama Shen said, sounding just as confused. "I didn't know you could like both."

"You can like both," Shen Lin yelled, banging her hands against the table and standing up suddenly. "And what's wrong with it? Huh? Nothing's wrong with it! It just means you have more options!"

"Sit down," said her father calmly from behind the cake. Shen Lin sat down, her face bright pink. 

"But... but you never..." Shen Yuan stammered. 

"Didn't I?"

Didn't you? Didn't you, protagonist? Did you go around kissing guys when the narrative wasn't looking? Airplane Bro, did you do this or was this a weird side effect of coming to this world? 

"It's like I already told you," Binghe continued. "It's easier to know what I want now. But that doesn't mean I haven't always wanted it."

There were too many double negatives. Shen Yuan was getting lost. "Oh," he said, feeling faint. 

"Huh. That reminds me of a girl I met back in college," Mama Shen said thoughtfully. "She said she liked both as well. I asked her how she knew, and she said she thought girls were pretty and boys were hot. But I always thought, well, that's just normal isn't it? Everyone thinks girls are pretty and boys are hot."

The table digested this. Binghe nodded solemnly, while Shen Lin was giving her mother an incredulous look. 

"No, mama, that's not what it... nevermind."

"Ah, college was a fun time. That was when I met your father. He wouldn't leave me alone for a second. I remember I was walking to class and he..."

As Mama Shen launched into a well loved story about being courted by the quietest boy on campus, Shen Lin and Shen Yuan were having their own mini crises, while Binghe nodded attentively. He looked as if he were taking notes. It was a worrying sign. 

And then, slowly, dinner seemed to go back to normal. Shen Yuan was too flabbergasted to do much more than listen, most of the words failing to sink in. Two words kept swirling around his head – Binghe... Both... Binghe... Both...

When dinner was over and the plates were cleared, Shen Senior stood up from his seat and walked over to the nearby door onto a rooftop balcony. He paused, turned back to look at the group, raised an eyebrow at Binghe, and then let himself out onto the dark balcony. 

"Ah, he wants to talk to you," Mama Shen explained, giving Binghe a pleased look. "Go on, dear, he won't bite."

"Yes aunty," Binghe said, standing up from the table and bowing slightly. "Thank you for the delicious food."

With that, he followed Papa Shen out onto the balcony, throwing one last look back at Shen Yuan with something strange in his gaze. 

Shen Yuan's father was a notoriously antisocial man. His wife loved to throw parties: he would escape onto the balcony, alone, and bar anyone from entering unless they had a good reason to bother him. He would tolerate some chicanery and japery, but after a while, you would find him out on the roof looking over the lights of the city, puffing on his cigarette contemplatively. Alone. 

A personal invitation to the balcony was reserved only for his beloved and spoiled wife, his children on their birthdays, and people he had an exceptional interest in. 

Shen Yuan watched Binghe step out onto that famous balcony with a sense of foreboding dread. Twenty minutes ago he wouldn't have suspected anything, but now, knowing that apparently Binghe had no strong preferences as to who he took into his harem...

Don't tell him that the protagonist's seduction halo... worked on his father too...? 

"Hey, a-Yuan, we're playing dating sims now," Shen Lin said, dragging him up from the table by his wrist. She was nothing if not opportunistic. "Let's go let's go let's go!"

"But–"

"No buts, it's pigeon time!"

Shen Yuan allowed himself to get dragged deeper into the Shen mansion, only managing to catch his mother fondly calling after them: "I'll send Louie when your father's done with him!"

Done with him... mother, don't condone this... 

 

Shen Yuan was unreasonably invested in the pigeon dating sim. 

Shen Lin still lived at home with their parents. Her suite was still messy – the mezzanine overhead was overflowing with clothes despite her walk in closet, and while the gaming station underneath was pretty awesome decked out in RGB lights, it was also a minimalist's worst nightmare. 

Still, her sofa was comfortable. Shen Yuan quickly forgot the mess in favour of picking which pigeon he was romancing. 

"So," Shen Lin said after a little while. "That went well. The dinner. Louie seems nice." 

"Of course he does," Shen Yuan said. "Do you like him, meimei?"

"I do," she replied, nodding vigorously. "If you like him, I like him."

Shen Yuan tutted and shook his head. "Oi, no flirting with him. He's off limits. I mean it."

He was expecting some resistance from his sister when he said that, but surprisingly, Shen Lin only laughed wetly before hugging him around the middle. "I know. I wouldn't, I promise."

"Hey, what's this for? Get off," Shen Yuan said, but he didn't really mean it. Huh. Maybe she wasn't as interested in Binghe as he thought, if she was so happy to promise not to flirt with him. Something about that made him feel a lot lighter all of a sudden, like a great weight had been taken off his shoulders. 

"I'm just happy," she said quietly. "San-ge seems happy with Louie, so that's all that matters." 

Good girl. Shen Yuan indulgently patted her head before pushing her off. "You're so clingy. You're never going to get a boyfriend if you keep embarrassing yourself like this."

"Ah, you're so mean! I have five boyfriends!"

"Don't lie to your brother! Who are these five boyfriends, show me their profile pictures right now–" 

As they bickered and play fought, Shen Yuan couldn't help but wonder. Was he happy with Binghe? 

 

When Binghe finally reunited with Shen Yuan, he had already beaten one of the endings and was well on his way to beating another. He had seen the photos of the five boyfriends, given his sister a stern lecture on playing with people's hearts, was stunned to learn that the five boyfriends apparently knew what was going on and were engaging in an intense battle against each other for his sister's hand, most of which involved playing DOTA and sending each other gross-out shock images while buying her Discord Nitro subscriptions and video game vouchers. 

The world was a strange place these days. 

As they started a new run – time to see just what was the deal with that quiet library bird – Shen Yuan picked up the sound of his mother's voice from the hallway. 

"Shh, shh, quiet Louie, before he hears us..."

"Of course, aunty."

"Hehe, let's take a peek inside." 

Oh no. Shen Yuan jumped off the sofa – and winced when his knees cracked loud enough to echo. He darted over to the door, threw it open, and discovered his mother and Luo Binghe peering inside his room with twin expressions of delight and curiosity. 

"Hey!" 

"Caught!" Mama Shen giggled. "I just wanted to show Louie your old room."

Binghe was peering around the dark room with wide eyes that hid a powerful gleam. Shen Yuan rushed over and felt like tugging him back by the hair, but in the end, all he did was squeeze himself into the space between Binghe and the door and try to cover the gap with his hands. 

"Ahahaha, mother , what are you doing? Louie, don't look, haha, there's nothing in here..."

Mama Shen, who was doing her best impression of a saint, flipped the light switch on. Shen Yuan yelped and tried to cover Binghe's eyes. 

It was too late. He had seen the posters. 

"Stop looking!" he yelled. "Let's go back downstairs and have more cake or something!" 

"Laoshi has so many men pasted up on his walls..." Binghe murmured, tone awed. 

Shen Yuan wondered if his face would ever stop being so red. "It's anime! It's just anime!" Wait, why was he justifying himself? It was normal to have anime posters on the wall when you were a teenager! "Ah, it's from when I was fifteen, okay?"

Shen Lin had joined them. She peered over Binghe's shoulder. "Huh? But we only watched Gurren Lagann just before you moved out, a-Yuan, and there's a poster right there!" 

Shen Yuan pulled the door shut with a firm slam. "What posters?" 

As he glared at each person in the group, daring them to keep teasing him, Binghe smiled. It was so soft that Shen Yuan had to do a double take, unused to seeing Binghe looking so nostalgic. "I think it's nice that your room is still the same as it was when you were growing up. There must be a lot of happy memories from that time." 

There was a short moment of silence, which Mama Shen broke. "I'm sorry, sweetie. It's just that you were so cute when you were little. I couldn't resist letting Louie have a glimpse of how nerdy you used to be."

Shen Lin raised an eyebrow at "used to be", but didn't say anything. Shen Yuan was slightly mollified. He relaxed his shoulders just an inch, though his face was still red. "I keep meaning to clear that room out! It's so embarrassing... Why couldn't you just show him my baby photos like a normal person?" 

A raging fire lit up in Binghe and Mama Shen's eyes, and Shen Yuan immediately regretted saying anything. 

"What an excellent idea," Binghe said. He sounded completely normal. It made Shen Yuan's hair stand on end. 

"I'm sure I have one or two photos lying around," Mama Shen said, equally as normally. Extremely casually, they started edging away. 

Hey, protagonist, do you think you're being subtle? Get back here! Stop teaming up with my mom! 

 

Shen Yuan ended up wedged in the middle between Mama Shen and Luo Binghe as they went through the pile of photo envelopes in a big box. 

Mama Shen was cooing with every photo, passing them along to let Binghe hold them and examine them. 

"Look at his round cheeks!! He was such a photogenic baby. Everyone kept telling me to get him into baby modelling, but his father wanted to keep him all to ourselves. Here he is in the garden, playing with the neighbour's cat. And here he is in a big floppy hat – ah! He was so cute! Little baby a-Yuan! And here he is in the bath–"

Shen Yuan grabbed that photo with lightning speed and tucked it under the sofa cushion. The other photos were okay, but his face was just a few millimetres too thin for bubble bath photos. 

Binghe said very little, though he did make appropriate cooing noises whenever it was necessary. His eyes kept flickering between the photos and Shen Yuan as if comparing him. It was... so, so embarrassing. 

But also kind of sweet. Shen Yuan would never admit this out loud, but he liked it when his mom cooed over him. 

That secret would stay with him to the grave. 

Ah, it was kind of nice though. There were the photos of him sleeping on his father's chest, a fat baby with a pink face, looking too small for his age. He'd never quite been big enough every time they measured him. Photos of him at parties, sitting to the side as he looked yearningly at the other kids, shy and excited, and photos of him blowing out candles. And, more frequently, photos of him in hospital gowns surrounded by presents on a sterile bed, pale but smiling. Photos of him hugging people in costumes, that despised drip running out of his nose – how he'd hated that thing with a passion. It had been such a relief when they took it out for the last time. He still had dreams – not quite nightmares – where he was trying to do ordinary things while hooked up to the stupid machines. 

Binghe politely asked to see more photos, and Mama Shen happily obliged. Photos of him sleeping, curled up on the hospital bed with one of his big brothers, taking a nap together. Photos of him with his hair in messy pigtails being his sister's "dressing up doll", a blurry nurse passing by in the background. 

They'd tried to be as normal as possible, but there was a conspicuous lack of "first day at school" photos, and "first sleepover at a friend's house" photos, and "anywhere that wasn't vaguely medical" photos. 

Mama Shen was still as cheerful as before, holding each photo with gentle care as she chattered away about what was happening in each one, carefully skirting around the rather obvious elephant in the room. 

Somehow, it all stopped being a funny joke about showing Shen Yuan's vaguely embarrassing but ultimately harmless baby photos, and started being an all too real (and all too tender) moment where they gently invited Binghe into that once endless period of their lives where Shen Yuan's second childhood home had been the hospital. Strangely enough, it didn't feel bad. It felt heavy, but not bad. 

Mama Shen excused herself to get another drink. Shen Yuan quickly used that opportunity to check in with the captive guest. 

"Ah, Binghe, we can stop if you like. I know this isn't exactly, um, light hearted fun. If you're uncomfortable..."

Binghe looked back at him and shook his head. "It's an honour to be allowed to see these memories. Are they real?"

Shen Yuan gave out a shocked laugh. "Of course they're real. What, you think I faked being sick?"

"No, not that," Binghe said quietly. "The nice parts. They're not... staged?"

Ah, what weird thoughts his protagonist had. Shen Yuan shook his head with a fond smile. "No. The camera doesn't lie. Actually, my parents did their very best to make my life as happy as possible, whether they were taking pictures or not."

"They took a lot of pictures," Binghe remarked, though it wasn't cruel. 

"Well, they weren't sure they were going to have much else left of me," Shen Yuan replied with a shrug. "I feel a bit sorry for my siblings though. They have to make do with two boxes of photos each instead of three..." 

He trailed off. Binghe was watching him again. 

"What?"

"I wonder how laoshi can speak about his own death so flippantly." 

Shen Yuan looked away. "There's no use being scared of it, or I would have been too scared to do anything for most of my life. Ah, they tried to hide it from me, but I would overhear stuff. Maybe I was terrified at first, but it's funny what you can grow used to over time. Now it doesn't bother me at all." He even laughed a little, just to show he wasn't too upset. "Mostly, I just appreciate the hard work that everyone put into keeping me going. Not that they're going to get much of a return on their investment..."

Binghe slowly picked up a photo and held it up. It was of Shen Yuan sandwiched between all three of his siblings, when he was about seven or eight, grinning like he had just won the lottery. His mom was taking the photo, and his dad was standing behind the quattro with his arms around them, his head just clipped out of frame. 

"On this point, I feel that your parents and I agree," he said, voice low. "That there is no repayment necessary and no cost too high, when someone we care about is at risk of leaving us." 

"Sometimes people leave us anyway," Shen Yuan said, idly thinking about the time limit before Binghe returned to his world. 

 

[Time remaining: two months, one day, four hours, thirty six minutes and twenty three seconds.] 

 

"Not if I don't will it," Binghe said, placing the photo down and turning to give Shen Yuan a long, self assured look. "Nobody dies unless I will it." 

A shiver ran down his spine, and he had to break the gaze first. You think I don't know that, Binghe? Who exactly was it that read all those chapters about you keeping Shen Qingqiu alive against his wishes, crippling his body but never allowing him to quite slip beyond your iron grip? This old man knows exactly what he's getting into when he starts talking about life and death with you, venerable junshang! 

"In your world, maybe," he said lightly. "In this one, all we can do is hope." 

Something caught his eye, and he looked up to see his mom watching them with a vulnerable smile, a fresh drink in her hand. Shen Yuan looked at how they were sitting on that huge couch, the two of them practically in each other's laps, heads bowed as they talked quietly between themselves, and for some reason he felt himself growing flustered again. It felt like getting caught, except there wasn't anything going on. Actually, there had been something going on – confronting the fact that Luo Binghe didn't have any power over the mortal coil in this world – but this atmosphere was all wrong. 

"Don't mind me," she said. "Ah, it's just... I'm glad." 

There seemed like more she wanted to say, but she stopped herself. Instead, she wandered over and gave Shen Yuan a pat on the head, and then, haltingly, she gave one to Luo Binghe as well. 

A part of Shen Yuan wanted to laugh. Mother, you just gave a demon a head pat. 

"It's been a long evening. Are you boys staying the night here, or shall I call a driver for you both?" 

Shen Yuan had a sudden nightmarish vision of being crammed on his childhood bed next to Luo Binghe, surrounded by his old merch and his scribbly drawings he had made as a kid, under the same roof as his parents and his sister. 

"We should probably get back," he said quickly. "Louie didn't bring any pyjamas." 

"Surely he can borrow some of yours?" Mama Shen said.

The nightmare vision returned, but this time, Luo Binghe was wearing a pair of his too small pyjamas and fluffy bunny slippers. 

Shen Yuan felt unhinged. "No, it's really okay," he said, feeling like his face was made out of wood for how stiff he was keeping it. 

It was at this point that Binghe yawned and leaned over the couch cushions, throwing Shen Yuan a sleepy look. "Aunty, I think I'm too tired to get a car all the way back to the apartment..."

Binghe, which wife did you learn this trick from!? These are not words a man should use! This is a textbook line straight from the "how to play the coy mistress" handbook!

Mother, why is it working on you!?

There are times in a man's life when he can see defeat rushing towards him, teeth bared, sword sharp, and he has two choices. He can turn and run and die an ignoble death, or he can turn and face his doom with his dignity intact, knowing full well that he's about to be skewered into kebab meat. 

Shen Yuan had a moment of startling clarity. If he was going to lose, then he would lose on his terms. 

"Louie can sleep in the spare room."

The delight on his mother's face was matched only by Binghe's horribly smug grin. 

Chapter Text

Binghe was given free roam of the spare room, complete with its own bathroom suite and living room. He was impeccably polite. In the end, Shen Yuan ended up thrusting an old t-shirt and some oversized pyjama bottoms at him, as well as a toothbrush from the "visiting child forgot their overnight bag again" stockpile. And then he escaped and went back to sleep in his old room. 

Yeah. It felt about as weird as he expected. But not too weird. 

(There was a reason he hadn't changed the room much over the years.) 

Still, he found it difficult to sleep. He was a night owl these days anyway, and looking over the photos had made him feel... strange. It scraped up old feelings he didn't like remembering. 

When there was a knock at his door at 1 am, it was almost a relief from having to force himself to sleep. He crept over to the door and opened it, fully unsurprised to see Binghe standing there.

"Laoshi," he said quietly. "This one wonders if we can watch a movie tonight." 

"I didn't bring my laptop," Shen Yuan replied ruefully, before remembering where he was. "Hey, what are you doing awake? Go back to your room." 

Binghe shrugged. "Couldn't sleep."

That did make sense. As nice as this house was, Shen Yuan remembered how paranoid and careful Binghe was in the novel when sleeping somewhere he didn't know. There was always the risk that someone would creep in his room to get and take him out while he slept. Sure, that wouldn't happen now, but old habits died hard. 

"... Okay, just for a little while. And don't look at anything," he said, cracking his door open wider for Binghe to come in. 

The room was like his sister's, with a lower section that had a desk, a couch and a television, and an upper mezzanine where his bed and dresser were. There was a skylight through which he could watch the planes go overhead when he lay on his bed. 

He let Binghe lie on the bed as he wished, and awkwardly hovered by the side feeling like an intruder in his own room, before Binghe raised a single eyebrow and made him feel stupid for wavering. 

Together, they looked up out the skylight. The sky was a dusky kind of purple blue, fading into orange from the artificial glow. 

"No stars," Binghe said quietly. 

"It's the light pollution," Shen Yuan said. "This close to the city, you don't see any. I bet it's different in your world."

"It is. The nights are darker. The world is quieter." He snorted. "The people are less kind."

"... what did my father talk to you about?" Shen Yuan said, overcome with curiosity. 

"Ah, he asked me a little about my situation. Whether I was working, whether I was in education." Seemed normal so far. "Laoshi, what's a sugar daddy?"

Shen Yuan choked on air, before turning to Luo Binghe in a panic. No way. Don't tell him Binghe had charmed his father so much he was suggesting...?

"What did he say exactly about that?" Shen Yuan demanded. "Tell me. Binghe, what did he say?"

"He... said that if I was struggling financially, he could offer me a job," Binghe said, which didn't help matters at all. "He asked whether you were giving me an allowance. And if you were, he would pay it instead directly, or give me a job working for him."

That was so... Father, you're trying to poach my man!  It's not even like that, but still, stop trying to steal him! Shen Yuan gaped at Binghe in obvious outrage. 

"And?" he demanded. 

"I told him laoshi only gives me money sometimes," Binghe said, a trace of amusement on his face. "And that's not why I'm interested in you anyway."

Shen Yuan snorted. "I know it isn't. Did you try and explain that you're convinced I'm your old shizun from another world? Or did he try and deal you a counter offer?" 

Binghe smiled. "I told him that all the money in the world couldn't buy my obedience, and that I would only leave your apartment when you told me to go." 

"Binghe! And he didn't kick you out!?"

"No, laoshi. He seemed amused."

Shen Yuan covered his face. This was all too embarrassing. His overprotective dad meeting his overly familiar housemate... truly, this was a battle for the ages. If only he got to see it! 

Actually, he probably would have died of embarrassment. Maybe it was better he was spared the indignity of being bartered over like a noble girl's dowry. 

"What else did you say?" he said, voice laced with dread. 

"Nothing at all, laoshi." 

"I don't believe that."

Binghe rolled over across the bed. His eyes seemed to glow, reflecting the orange of the sky above. "Uncle was very polite to me. I didn't have any reason to fight him." 

"Uncle already?" Shen Yuan cut himself off with a yawn, laying back on his familiar old pillows. "Ah, truly, you know how to woo 'em, Binghe..."

"Do I?" 

"Mm. What a pain. After you're gone, I know they're going to keep bothering me about where you went. Hah, how am I supposed to explain..."

It didn't take long after that for Shen Yuan to lightly drift off. Just before sleep could claim him entirely, he pulled his eyelids open long enough to look at Binghe across the bed. Soft, hair down, his eyes half lidded. Truly, his wives got to see him at his most vulnerable. How nice for them. 

"Not going back to your room?"

"In a while. I'm not used to sleeping alone."

That made sense. With three thousand flowers competing for his bed every night, of course he was never granted the luxury of an empty single bed. Binghe should take advantage of the peace and quiet while he can. Shen Yuan nodded, and once again sank into the blissful quiet of sleep. 

 

Binghe watched him go. If this were his own world, he would have already invaded that sleep a hundred times seeking answers that the other man kept carefully locked away. 

He crept closer across the bed, painfully slowly, judging the rhythms of Shen Yuan's breathing, until finally he could pull that delicate head onto his chest and curl around it. 

His eyes remained wide open. There was an unfathomable darkness to them as they flickered around the room, landing on the posters, the stickers, the signs of a happy child in his own space, oblivious and preoccupied. One of his hands reached up and clenched a handful of Shen Yuan's short hair, tight and jealous, but not pulling at the scalp. Not hurting him. 

Eventually, as if through great force, the fist loosened, and the hair slipped out of his grasp. 

He stared at Shen Yuan again, and slowly, slowly succumbed to sleep. 

 

Not again. 

Shen Yuan woke up around midday only to find himself using Luo Binghe's chest as a pillow. He sighed to himself in resignation. For some reason, this sticky demon lord refused to sleep in a different bed. 

Hah, it was like he had enfolded Shen Yuan into his harem, except that wasn't possible because Shen Yuan wasn't a...

... wait...

The words "Binghe... both..." echoed around his head once more. Shen Yuan felt his face turn bright vermilion. No, no, no , this was nothing like that, it was obviously just Binghe accidentally going through the motions with the only person he knew would allow it. Shen Yuan wasn't a wife! He was a stand in for a wife, a temporary bed fellow, a completely platonic buddy for the indomitable Luo Binghe to use as a body pillow for a while until he returned back to his palace wing full of fluttering beauties. Just because it was becoming increasingly apparent that Binghe cared less about the gender of the person he shared his sleeping space with than Shen Yuan thought... it didn't mean anything weird! 

Anyway, who would snuggle with someone they thought was their shizun? That would just be uncomfortable. It was like calling the teacher "dad" accidentally. 

If Shen Yuan hadn't read PIDW, his heart would of course have been deeply moved for Binghe. He would have wondered if the poor guy was feeling lonely, and whether he just wanted a cuddle with no ulterior motives, and of course he would have offered a friendly hug between bros to help banish those night time blues. Maybe. Okay, he probably wouldn't, but it wouldn't have been so weird if he did. 

But Luo Binghe was a crafty liar who was a bundle of ulterior motives wrapped up in a trench coat, so Shen Yuan was a little wary of opening the cuddle floodgates. 

He climbed out of bed – fuck! Fuck, okay, his back was twinging in a way that threatened total horizontal immobility if he didn't go slow today. 

He carefully climbed out of bed and was surprised when Binghe didn't wake up. The man was usually on a hair trigger, waking up if even the air in the room changed slightly, so it was nice to see him peacefully asleep for once. Shen Yuan snorted to himself in fond amusement, tempted to bully Binghe awake somehow – plugging his nostrils maybe? Pinching his cheeks? – but he didn't want to tempt fate and risk getting human sticked for real by a shocked sleepy half demon taken unawares. 

It was a Saturday, so he ran into his sister on his way to the kitchen. She laughed at how sleepy he looked and tapped her watch. 

"I was just coming to find you. I thought I would tell you both that you missed breakfast, but you're just in time to have lunch. I looked in Louie's room, but it was empty... did he leave?"

"Ah, no, he slept with me last night," Shen Yuan said with a yawn. 

Shen Lin's eyebrows twitched. "Ah, oh. Okay, of course. Um, is he hungry?"

"Probably." As he stepped around Shen Lin, he couldn't help but wince and grab his waist as a spike of pain ran through him. All that running around he did yesterday looking for his big sulking demon lord. "Damn it, Binghe..."

Shen Lin's face crumpled into something approaching mortification. She quickly turned and walked away, shoulders up by her ears, before escaping into her room. 

Huh. Shen Yuan shrugged and made his merry way to the bathroom, wondering what was up with her. He didn't make it very far before his sister was stomping back out of the room and back towards him, one finger raised in accusation. 

"Wait, his name is Louie Binghe ?" 

Shen Yuan choked. "Um."

"Like Luo Binghe? That's so weird. Does he know about that book? Wait, is that why he asked me? Is Binghe a Treelandian name too? Should I call him Binghe Louie...?" 

Thankfully, Shen Yuan was saved from answering when Binghe himself materialised behind him, yawning and rubbing his eyes, one hand resting on Shen Yuan's shoulders. "Laoshi... oh, good morning meimei."

Shen Lin's face turned red again, and she spun around and walked very quickly down the hallway, squeaking a "good morning - uh, afternoon" as she went. 

"Stop calling her meimei," Shen Yuan grumbled, turning to give Binghe a shrewd look. "It clearly flusters her."

"Hm." Unrepentant as always, Binghe just smiled. "Is it too familiar? I call laoshi laoshi, after all, and she isn't my real sister..." 

Oh no, no no, Shen Yuan was not doing the name thing again. If he had to hear Binghe saying any variation of "gege" once more, he would end up weeping. It was too much to see the protagonist losing the last of his dignity on something so stupid. 

"Eh, it's fine. You've already been adopted. It's too late to back out now." He said this with a menacing edge. "So. Lunch?" 

 

Luo Binghe was the picture of etiquette as he said goodbye to the Shen clan. Shen Yuan watched in muted disbelief as his various family members displayed their own unique tells for how quickly they had become enamoured with "Louie". Mama Shen insisted on giving him some of her husband's old formal shirts and ties for if he ended up getting an interview somewhere. Papa Shen didn't say much, but the fact he had turned up at all to wave Binghe off spoke volumes. Shen Lin still looked slightly pink as she hugged them both goodbye, her eyes darting to the ground. 

It was just as well his two big brothers were on the opposite side of the ocean, huh? Shen Yuan didn't know if he could stand seeing da-ge and er-ge throwing the protagonist soppy eyed looks and offering to drive him home! Dear protagonist, there's nothing wrong with being bisexual, except now your seduction halo has gone from being 50% effective to being 100% effective! Please contain yourself! I'm begging! 

In the back of the taxi, Shen Yuan sighed and looked at Binghe, just drinking him in without worrying about his family watching them. 

Ah, it was surreal, but he couldn't be too mad. It was nice seeing Binghe get fussed over for once. Maybe this would help soften him up a little once he got back to his harem, right? 

As for Binghe, he was looking out the window thoughtfully, his eyes staring out into the far distant horizon. 

"I hope that wasn't too overwhelming," Shen Yuan said quietly. "What are you thinking, Binghe?"

Binghe turned to him, expression neutral. "I'm torn, laoshi. What a beautiful fantasy to live in. I can't work out what's worse – the possibility that I can only experience this kind of warm welcome in a dream, or that I was deliberately denied this much naïve kindness my whole life." 

Shen Yuan shivered, but it wasn't anything new, and he sensed that falling over and begging forgiveness for having a nice family wasn't exactly the best way to go. Wouldn't that be more like rubbing it in Binghe's face? 

Instead, he gave Binghe a small, sad smile. "Airplane didn't mean to deny anyone. He didn't even know you were real."

"And yet, here I am," he said, "and here you are, defenseless as a kitten, utterly without cruelty. I keep waiting for the mask to slip." Binghe looked at Shen Yuan. "Nobody has ever treated me the way you treat me. I'm waiting for the knife between the ribs, for the poison in the food, for the humiliation and the betrayal and the pain to start all over again. Laoshi, you are either impossibly kind, or so achingly, endlessly cruel, making me wait for so long. I'd almost think you were afraid of me, but you fall asleep in front of me like it never occurred to you that I'd slit your throat. I considered the idea that you didn't know me, but laoshi, you read my story. As soon as you heard my name, you knew I came to you drenched in blood. I wondered: what's wrong with you? What part of you is this? You must be insane – but the more I see of this world, the more I realise that your foolishness, your weakness, they're normal here, and nobody seems to notice, as if you're nothing special at all. And then I thought – what's wrong with me ?" 

He raised a hand to his forehead, a startling laugh ripping from his throat. 

"What's wrong with me for imagining a world where someone could treat me with kindness that doesn't want repaying? What's wrong with me for wanting to live like this – quietly, sweetly, so ingloriously, kept like a pet by someone who wouldn't last three seconds in my palace? I should have torn you apart and ended this facade the moment I got here, but I didn't. Hah, and now look at me." 

Shen Yuan hoped his face wasn't doing anything weird. Internally, his heart was full of question marks. Protagonist, your dramatic monologues... are they getting longer? 

He tried not to think about the whole "should have torn you apart" thing too much. It was a little too horrifying for him to handle right now. 

There was something wrong with this whole scene. Usually, such strong words would be followed by a hateful cackle and the swing of Binghe's sword as he cut down his enraptured audience, but the guy was looking at Shen Yuan like... like he was both in the pits of despair and the heights of paradise all at once. The expression on his face was glorious. It was hard to look at without being blinded by the intensity, both good and bad. 

Shen Yuan took a deep breath, before giving Binghe a lopsided smile. "A pet, huh. What, should I take you to the vet to get you neutered?" 

Binghe blinked, seemingly surprised at being met with gentle humour. Honestly, Shen Yuan wasn't sure what he was expecting – he hoped Binghe wouldn't be too mad. If he did have something to hit Binghe with, he would have done it now, gentle across the forehead. Maybe it was lucky he didn't. 

"This lowly teacher will try not to take offense at being called weak, foolish, and ah – nothing special at all," he continued teasing Binghe. "After all, how can I disagree? You're used to great hulking swordsmen and cultivators who can probably lift trucks over their heads. I can barely unscrew a pickle jar." 

One of the perks of keeping Binghe around: fantastic jar opener. Really, the best Shen Yuan has ever had. 

"You agree," Binghe said. He sounded perplexed. Shen Yuan shook his head. 

"Let's be honest with each other. I'm soft, Luo Binghe. My desires are very simple. I would like to eat nice food and watch trashy films, and go on short walks with a friend, and drink coffee in my favourite café. I would like to sleep well and often, and wake up without any pain. Sometimes, even that isn’t possible, so how can I dream any bigger? I just want to be happy and safe and see the same for people I care about.” He smiled at Binghe, his eyebrows tilting up in a quiet, helpless kind of way. “I must seem very boring to a man who sundered the fabric of his world apart, but the truth is, I don’t want anything you could offer me from that life. Well, maybe flying on swords - but really, I’m content just like this.” 

Binghe took a deep breath. “Then what does laoshi want... from me?”

Always with this sense of obligation. An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind. Shen Yuan tutted and shook his head, giving Binghe an exasperated look. “Do you have your spiritual powers back and a sword lying around? No? Then I suppose I’ll have to make do with your company then.”

“My company?”

Shen Yuan turned to look out the window, nodding his affirmation and hiding a smile. “Mhm.”

Binghe was silent for a little too long. Shen Yuan felt one of his long-dormant survival instincts flare up like a squeaky door hinge, and he slowly turned his head to see what kind of expression Binghe was making. 

It was... dark. But determined. Not exactly what he had been expecting. 

“So it’s like that,” Binghe purred. 

Like what. Like what, protagonist. 

The temperature steadily dropped in the taxi as they got closer and closer to Shen Yuan’s apartment. He was desperately trying to work out what was going on. Was this the infamous killing intent that the book said always radiated off Binghe in waves like deadly radiation? What offended him so much? Asking to hang out? Being presumptuous enough to ask to be the demon emperor’s friend?

“... Binghe?”

Binghe stayed silent. He didn’t talk even as they excited the taxi and headed to the elevator. Shen Yuan let Binghe walk ahead along the corridor before whipping out his phone and sending a text to Airplane Bro. 

 

> If I don’t send you a text in half an hour, call the fucking police to my apartment. 

 

“Laoshi?”

“Just paying the taxi,” Shen Yuan lied. “Binghe, why don’t you stay here and watch some TV while I go get some take out-”

Binghe’s hand closed on his wrist like an iron manacle. Binghe could probably feel his pulse hammering as he was all but dragged into the apartment, the door closing with a final click behind him. 

Shen Yuan opened his mouth to say “one more move like that and it’s hotel time for you, buster”, but then his mouth was full of Luo Binghe’s tongue, which was making it somewhat difficult to form coherent sentences.

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan had been kissed before. Once, and only once, and then he decided that kisses were a bit like driving a car: completely overblown in movies and books, and a bit boring in real life. 

He had been maybe fourteen, and during a prolonged stay in the hospital, he had made friends with a girl around his age who had been in a car accident. Luckily, she was fine aside from a nasty broken leg, and so was the driver, but she had been kept in overnight, and she had been crying rather pathetically after her mom went back home, so Shen Yuan stayed up all night and kept her company by talking with her. It turned out that she liked the same fantasy book series he did, and almost immediately she looked happier for talking to him. 

She was in and out of hospital all the time to get physiotherapy on her legs, but she always made a point of visiting whichever ward Shen Yuan was in. She would bring a book with her, and they would swap so Shen Yuan didn't get bored during his prolonged stay. 

One day, they had taken a walk outside to the hospital garden. Underneath a blossoming peach tree was a small bench where they sat together, talking about the latest books they had read, Shen Yuan's legs swinging in the air while hers were stiffly crossed. 

She had been quiet for a while when Shen Yuan asked what was wrong. She blushed and quietly said that she thought they should practice kissing. Because, her reasoning was, they were both trapped in hospital a lot and weren't allowed to go out and play with other kids, so really, if they didn't practice now, then by the time they were allowed to leave everyone else would be so far ahead of them that it would just be embarrassing. 

Shen Yuan couldn't see any flaws in this logic. With a shrug, he agreed to help her practice. 

It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm spring day. The blossoms were falling in drifts like pink snowflakes, catching in their hair and on their eyelashes. For a moment, the rest of the hospital seemed very very far away. She leaned in, and kissed him. 

It was okay. It was a bit like kissing his grandma. Shen Yuan waited until it seemed like it was finished, and then politely leaned back and asked if they could go back to reading books. 

The girl burst into tears and ran away. He was at a loss, but he assumed that he would see her again tomorrow after her next physiotherapy appointment. 

 

The next day, Shen Yuan was released from hospital and allowed to go back home for a while. 

Thinking about it, he realized that the girl probably waited for him under the tree the next day like usual, and he simply didn't turn up. Ah, she probably assumed he died, didn't she? Oops. 

The point was. The point was that he thought kissing was boring. He thought it was a bit dry and chapped. 

 

Luo Binghe kissed like he was trying to burn Shen Yuan alive. 

 

[Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations!! Achievement Unlocked: Your Kiss Is On My List! New reward available-]

 

Shen Yuan couldn’t pay any more attention to the system notifications. 

Protagonist... protagonist, what are you doing? Shen Yuan couldn't breathe, couldn't swallow, could only make a noise at the back of his throat that startled him. His eyes crossed trying to see Binghe until he had to give up, white heat flashing down his spine. This was... this was...! This was the protagonist's seduction halo in action! This was the mouth that kissed three thousand wives! These lips had made empires fall and cured poison and did strange, possibly physically impossible things with parts of people's anatomy that should never see the light of day! 

And they were kissing – kissing Shen Yuan – why the fuck was he kissing Shen Yuan, and hey, why was it kind of hot? Every alarm bell in his mind was screaming at him, but unfortunately, there was something else screaming even louder, and it sounded incredibly pissed off at being repressed away for so long. 

No, concentrate, why was he...

 

[Protagonist Happiness Points decreased by -10!]

 

Shen Yuan felt something cold drop into his stomach.

He wrenched his hands free of Binghe's grip and put them over the protagonist's face, pushing him away like he was trying to stop a cat from eating his food. Binghe's face was pulled into a deeply unflattering grimace as his cheeks were pulled back. 

"Stop!" he screeched. "Binghe!" 

As he panted for air, Binghe took the hands off his face. He was giving Shen Yuan an intense, seductive glare, except something was wrong in his eyes. They seemed dull. Unsurprised. "What."

"You – you should ask before you kiss someone!" Shen Yuan found himself still a little tongue tied, when was this strange feeling going to wear off? "You can't just launch yourself at a man! Ask!!" 

Binghe's eyes narrowed. His half-lidded gaze flickered over Shen Yuan's lips. "May I kiss you?" 

"No!" 

"..."

Luo Binghe looked genuinely puzzled. This was possibly the first time that someone had said no to him and meant it. Airplane Bro always made it explicitly clear that the wives were deeply into getting down and dirty with Binghe even when they gave small, token protests against protecting their chastity or whatever. Typical porn logic. 

But this was real life. Binghe was unhappy. No matter if Shen Yuan's traitorous mind was asking why they stopped, how could anyone keep kissing when they knew it was hurting the other person? 

Shen Yuan pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and finger, which also conveniently acted as a shield between their faces. 

"Then laoshi wants..." Binghe said, his gaze sliding down Shen Yuan's body. "... wants my mouth elsewhere?" 

Protagonist!! 

Shen Yuan's mind shut down for a moment, the Windows rebooting jingle playing through his brain, before it started back up again with a passion. 

"No!" he snapped. "No, why are you – where's this coming from?! I didn't ask for it and you clearly don't want to, so what's the pressure to do anything?"

Luo Binghe gave him a look like he was spouting nonsense. "You did ask. You said you wanted my company." 

Company! Protagonist, please! Shen Yuan slapped his forehead. "Your regular company, Binghe! Watching films, hanging out, being friends. Not.... not that! Not...!"

"Sex?" Luo Binghe replied, bluntly. He still looked confused. Shen Yuan could see the cogs turning inside as he tried to work out what the motive was here. If only he could prove that there wasn't one...! "You want me to hang out with you. And not have sex." 

There was a slightly derisive tone in Binghe's voice. Shen Yuan sighed. "Yes. I know, I know it's pathetic. I know I'm essentially paying you to be my friend because I'm a lonely shut in. You don't have to remind me – but I'm not pathetic enough that I would expect you to s-sleep with me as payment!" 

Luo Binghe took his hand and tugged it forward to rest against his own cheek, his brows curving in what looked like genuine distress, but only just. "Am I that ugly to you? Are you not pleased with this disciple's appearance?" 

Luo Binghe knew exactly how attractive he was. Shen Yuan was not fooled. He tried to jerk his hand back, away from the soft peach flesh of Luo Binghe's cheek. "Stop it! We are not doing anything, especially something neither of us want!”

There was another long silence. Luo Binghe gave him a heavy look. "How does shizun know what I want or not?"

Because there's an all powerful eldritch being monitoring your mood for me, protagonist...

"Not your shizun," Shen Yuan said as an aside, and then, "do you really think I can't notice when you do something out of a sense of obligation instead of genuine enjoyment? On the same note, don't assume to know what I want without asking." He pinched Luo Binghe's cheek sharply. "Ask, Binghe, always ask. I will always have an answer for you."

Luo Binghe stared at him. "Can I kiss you, shizun?"

"No."

"...?!"

Seeing that Luo Binghe was growing mutinous, Shen Yuan pinched his cheek again and pushed him away, gentle and mild. "Calling me shizun and then trying to kiss me. It's disconcerting. What's the fascination?" 

“Alright,” Luo Binghe replied. “Can I kiss you, a-Yuan?”

"Why?" Shen Yuan yelped. "What's wrong with you?"

Luo Binghe raised a single eyebrow. He was starting to look impatient. "You're the one who asked for my company. Is this some kind of game?"

Company, company... For fuck sake. Shen Yuan took a very deep breath and willed himself not to explode. "Not that kind of company." 

There was a rustle of movement from down below. Shen Yuan squeaked. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and willed himself not to slap the demon emperor. 

“Luo Binghe. Get your hand off my ass.”

“A-Yuan-”

“I am sleeping in the hotel,” Shen Yuan said, cutting him off and pushing him away, “until you get this - this - whatever this is, out of your system. What has gotten into you?”

"I don't–" Binghe growled, before immediately cutting himself off. "Just tell me what you want from me! A-Yuan, what do you want from me? What do you mean, company?”

“I mean...” Shen Yuan began, before trailing off. What did he mean?

What did he like doing with Luo Binghe? He truly hadn’t given the question much thought before. Watching films? Yes, he enjoyed that, especially when Binghe deigned to turn an eye to the screen and ask what something meant. Just hanging out together? He liked that too, because it meant he got to sneakily watch his favourite character try to navigate things like the television and the microwave for the first time. 

It wasn’t really that he wanted anything from Luo Binghe. He just liked having him around, for some god forsaken reason. Maybe his fanboy brainrot was just that strong. 

“I know,” he said suddenly. “I'm not that great at explaining things. So how about I just show you? Tomorrow. Let’s wake up bright and early.”

Luo Binghe gave him a disbelieving look. 

"Okay, early-ish. Just trust me. Clear out your busy schedule. Shen Yuan's got a plan." 

After a tense moment, Luo Binghe finally sighed and nodded. "Alright. I'll trust you."

"Thank you." Shen Yuan realised something. His face flushed a brilliant red, but he forced himself not to react. "Binghe..."

The hand finally withdrew from his ass cheek. Shen Yuan wondered why it had lingered there so long. There was nothing there. Flat ass. It was obviously nothing like the plush peaches available for Luo Binghe to pluck from his menagerie of wives. 

He decided not to examine the ghost of warmth that ran through him. Protagonist's seduction halo. It worked on everybody. 

 

[Valued user, you still have an unopened reward in your inventory–]

 

A reward? Shen Yuan was getting rewarded for this? What kind of fucked up system was this? Who was the manager? Why were they a pervert?

 

System, I demand to speak to your human resources team about a sexual harassment problem

 

[There are no humans here, only resources (。•̀ᴗ-)✧]



Ugh. Fine. He went to see what the reward was when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It had been buzzing the whole time. He had just been slightly too busy to check it until now. 

He was met with a slew of messages from Airplane Bro. Oh, shit, the police!

 

oh fuck it’s go time i was waiting for this <

wait i dont <

bro your ADDRESS <

I DONT HAVEYOUR ADDRESS <

i called the police but they can’t help you because i DON’T KNWOW WHERE YOU ARE<

bro please say sike i’m begging <

oh my god you’re fucking dead. you’re no longer with us <

rip bro. this is so fucking sad < 

 

> Sike.

 

oh youre fine lol <

WAIT unless.... is this... <

 

> It's not our demonic little friend in common, no. Shitbag. Useless. What if he had killed me. 

 

are you dead <

 

> :|

 

so stop complaining. what happened anyway <

 

Luo Binghe was standing off to the side, looking uncharacteristically awkward. He was watching Shen Yuan with uncertain eyes, his pupils darting from place to place. Ah, poor protagonist. He looked like a dog waiting to get punished for shitting on the carpet. 

Shen Yuan sighed. "If you can behave yourself – and keep your hands out of my personal space – then we'll be okay. It was a misunderstanding this time. Right?"

Luo Binghe nodded, before bowing respectfully. "Thank you for clarifying, sh– laoshi. Let this disciple prepare dinner for us tonight." 

Worrying. It was always worrying hearing "shizun" spill from those pretty lips. It meant there was something boiling away in that mind of his, something that probably wasn't anything good for Shen Yuan's future. 

"... are you sure? If you're too tired, we can order takeout..."

"No," Luo Binghe responded firmly. "I want to cook."

Well, if it was what Binghe wanted... who was he to stop him? With no excuses left and feeling to exhausted to argue, Shen Yuan waved a lazy hand in the direction of the kitchen. "Then I leave dinner in your capable hands."

Luo Binghe nodded and darted into the kitchen. Shen Yuan took a moment to lean against the wall, covering his eyes with one hand. 

 

Dangerous. The moment felt very dangerous. Luo Binghe hadn't asked permission – but he thought he had been granted it. He stopped when Shen Yuan insisted. It hadn't escalated. There had been no follow through to the dark promises hidden in that hungry kiss. 

... 

Oh god. Shen Yuan had a horrible moment of startling self clarity. If he hadn't had that notification from the System... 

Would he really have stopped Luo Binghe from continuing? 

 

System, wake up, this is too much. Can you switch off his seduction halo please? 

 

[Valued user, all halos and protagonist buffs have been disabled in this universe.]

 

Really? I don't believe you. How come everyone wants to kiss him, then? How come I want to kiss him? Obviously there's a halo!! Why would I want that? 

 

[...]

 

Don't go silent on me now! Turn it off!!!

 

[User, this is clearly a touchy subject. Would you like to review your reward instead?]

 

Shen Yuan shrugged and tapped the "yes" button. Immediately, he was greeted by a strange screen that he had never seen before. 

 

[Novelty Loot Gacha Game! Congratulations, user, you have unlocked your first Spin! ✧◝(⁰▿⁰)◜✧]

[Spend your Spin Tokens to win the chance to earn R,SR, SSR and UR rewards!]

[Note: all rewards are randomised. The probability of earning a reward decreases as rarity increases. Current drop rate adjusted to 30% R, 10% SR, 0.5% SSR and 0.1% UR. No refunds, exchanges or discounts except in cases of NOVELTY EVENTS which rotate per season.] 

 

A fucking gacha game. Shen Yuan knocked the metaphorical hood of the system with a wry expression. 

 

Hey, isn't this gambling? Has this game passed through government regulations? Are you paying your taxes?

 

[Would you like to spend your Spin Tokens now? User has THREE (3) Spin Tokens available due to unlocked achievements!]

[Note: take advantage of our Spin to Win Sale! Spend ten Spin Tokens at once, and receive an SSR reward guaranteed!] 

 

Hesitantly, Shen Yuan spent his first token. The screen flashed, and a box appeared on screen. It shook violently before bursting open to reveal...

A miniature Luo Binghe chibi wearing nothing but a pair of swimming trunks. 

 

[Congratulations! R reward unlocked: New Pusher Scenario: Day at the Beach! Item has been stored in your inventory.]

 

What the fuck. Shen Yuan felt his eye twitch. If he wanted a day at the beach... wouldn't he just go to a beach? Why did he need this game to do it for him? 

Maybe his next pull would be better. He spent another token. 

 

This time, the box opened to reveal a picture of a small black fluffy dog. It looked disconcertingly familiar, somehow. 

 

[Congratulations! SR reward unlocked: New Skin: Bingpup! Item has been stored in the protagonist's inventory.]

 

System, explain! Is Binghe going to turn into a dog? You're insane!  

 

[Would you like to quit?]

 

I still have one more token, don't I? Spin it already...

 

This time, when the box opened, fireworks appeared and burst in rainbow colours. 

 

[Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations! UR reward unlocked: Demon Ability: Randomised! Item has been stored in the protagonist's inventory.]

 

From the kitchen, there was the sound of a metal pot being dropped on the floor. 

 

Oh no. 

No way. 

No. Not today. 

 

Shen Yuan opened the front door, slipped outside, and slid all the way down the hallway to the elevator to summon a taxi. He was checking himself into the hotel tonight.

Chapter Text

When Shen Yuan woke up the next morning, it was at some ungodly hour long before he was supposed to. It felt horribly early. It must have been around five in the morning, six at the latest. 

He looked at the alarm clock. It said 10:12. 

Well, damn it! It felt early. 

He tried to get up off the hotel bed, and froze as a scalding hot stripe of pain raced down his back. Muscles twinged everywhere. 

Ah. Well. He had over exerted himself the past few days. Hotel beds were not excessively comfortable. The hotel bathroom had a shower, not a bath, which would only make his back hurt worse. And he left in somewhat of a hurry, meaning he didn't have any pain meds to ease himself out of bed with. 

To make things worse, he was fairly sure he was coming down with some kind of illness. Every now and then, all through the night, a shiver would run down his spine from the inside, his skin becoming too sensitive and goosepimpled, his body crawling as if the blood was itching inside him – but then it would ease, as sudden as it came, leaving him with a strange sensation of stillness afterwards. It felt a bit like the shivers he got when he had a fever. God, he hoped it wasn't a fever. He always took so long to recover from those. 

He lay back down on the stiff mattress and waited until it no longer felt like his spine was twisting itself up into a knot. Stupid. He was so stupid. 

Not just for rushing out without packing anything, but for humouring the system like that. Those rewards – of course he should have expected something like this. He didn't dare ask what the demon ability was that had been unlocked. There were too many options to choose from, each one worse than the last. 

He didn't sleep much last night. He kept waking up at every single noise, wondering if it was a megalomaniac emperor here to turn his bones into dust or tear his arms off or – or kiss him again, hard like he wanted to leave bruises...

...

Shen Yuan shivered. That was another thing that he was desperately trying not to think about, and failing. 

Repress, repress, repress! We can't let people know we feel! 

Useless. Stupid. Lonely. 

Ah, how nostalgic. Here he was in a sterile white room, splayed out on an uncomfortable bed, unable to move and without a soul to talk to. He could call room service and order a meal, but what was the point? He was going to die soon, he was fairly certain. That was another nostalgic feeling, but at least back then he hadn't thought it would possibly end up being dismemberment that did him in. Besides, he didn't want the hotel staff to see him like this. It was mortifying. 

He could call Airplane Bro and beg for his help, but again, he just didn't want to. He could call his family, but they would take it as proof that he couldn't live by himself and he needed to move back home immediately. 

In lieu of doing any of that, he could just lie here and stare at the ceiling. Yeah. That sounded good. 

There was a knock at the door. 

"Occupied," he yelled out. 

"Laoshi," a deep, calm voice replied. 

So. The time of his death was going to be 10:16. Not even an auspicious number. Disappointing. 

He didn't answer. 

"Laoshi, I'm coming in."

Luo Binghe made good on his promise and opened the door with the keycard he must have charmed out of the receptionist. Shen Yuan watched him the way you watch an apex predator through the bars at the zoo. 

"You're breaking the rules of the hotel time out," Shen Yuan said weakly. "No turning up unannounced."

Luo Binghe looked bemused. "Laoshi was the one who put himself in timeout. I waited as long as I could before coming to get you. Although it took a moment for this one to understand – you left me without a word." 

Deeply sorry, oh venerable junshang, but you're definitely 100% more deadly than before now that you have a demonic ability back in your possession. Shen Yuan didn't answer again. It felt like there was no good answer. 

Luo Binghe closed the door behind him and walked over to the bed. He sat down, making the mattress dip. Shen Yuan resisted the pull of gravity that was encouraging him to flop over and put his head on Luo Binghe's thick thigh. 

"You promised we would do something today," the half demon said quietly. "You broke your promise and ran away."

Shen Yuan couldn't let that slide. "I didn't intend to spend today in bed," he snapped. And then shut his mouth. The last thing he wanted to do here was upset Luo Binghe. It felt like the man was a powder keg, waiting to go off. He just... didn't like the implication that he broke his promise on purpose. 

But as always, Luo Binghe defied expectations. "I know. Laoshi is in pain again."

Considering how well it went last time he was this helpless in front of Luo Binghe, Shen Yuan didn't say a word. His heart rate spiked in anticipation. So, what kind of torture was it this time? What fun and sexy things would Binghe do with his new demonic toy, huh? 

 

System, you're directly culpable for whatever happens next. 

 

[Valued user, all use of this system is at the user's own risk. The system accepts no liability nor responsibility for any harm that may occur from misuse of our products and services.]

 

Seemingly unsatisfied by the lack of response, Luo Binghe leaned forward. His hand came to rest on Shen Yuan's cheek, hot and unavoidable. 

"Just before you ran away, something very interesting happened to this lowly disciple."

Shen Yuan swallowed. I know, Binghe, I know! I was the one who did it! 

"Forgive me in advance for taking such a liberty with you, laoshi, but you did promise me that you would do something with me today. Allow me to make that promise easier to keep."

Goodbye, cruel world. 

Shen Yuan stared at Luo Binghe. If he was going to get murdered, he was going to look his killer directly in the eyes and show them that he was fearless. 

Well. 

No. He was very scared actually. 

But the point was that he'd be watching them! So shame on them! Shame on their mother! Shame on their cow!

The feverish feeling came back, but ten times as intense. His mouth opened in a quiet, wordless yelp as it felt like a thousand fire ants suddenly started marching under his skin, his heart pounding in his ears, his cheeks flushing–

Ah. The blood. 

Shen Yuan would have given Luo Binghe a betrayed look if he wasn't too busy writhing like an eel. How? When? Sneaking it into his food? Into his drinks? Pouring it in his mouth while he slept?! This was truly a low blow. And of all the abilities to gain back...

It was going to get worse. He braced himself for the all encompassing agony that the book described happening to the blood parasite victims. Oh, Airplane, why did you have to be so graphic about the feelings of fire running through their veins, tearing at their own skin for relief, every limb twitching in pain...? What did I ever do to you?!

Surprisingly, the pain ebbed. Instead of growing, it faded down into a low but powerful rumble. It tingled. 

The tingling concentrated itself along his back. 

Shen Yuan's pained expression changed into one of utter bewilderment. Huh? Did the parasites get nerfed as well? This felt more like one of those massage chairs you found in shopping malls, not a deadly torture method! It was like being pressed against a purring cat! It was...

Kind of nice...

"... Binghe, what are you..." 

"Relax, laoshi. Let this venerable one take care of you." 

The warmth grew but in a pleasant way, like a hot water bottle or a radiator. It had the same soothing effect as a warm bath. Shen Yuan let out an involuntary pleased murmur. 

"This is... you're..."

"It's weak," Luo Binghe said, moving closer so his hair fell in sweet smelling curls across Shen Yuan's shoulder, "but it's better than nothing. I apologise for putting it in your food, laoshi. I did it the first time I cooked for you. I assumed that without my powers, that method was useless, but what a surprise for me when suddenly I became so... intimately aware of your heartbeat, even in the other room." 

Why do you have to say it like that, protagonist? You make it sound so weird...

"I can't feel or mend as much as I should," he continued, hand coming to rest on the mattress just by Shen Yuan's head, and if he moved his hand, just a little, they would be touching, "but I can do this for you. I know you didn't sleep much."

That's creepy. That's a creepy sentence. Giving Luo Binghe his blood powers back was a mistake. Still, it felt so nice that Shen Yuan didn't feel unnerved for long. He nestled back into the mattress with half lidded eyes. "I slept fine."

Luo Binghe snorted. "When does laoshi ever sleep fine? Did you even eat? You ran away before you could have dinner." 

"..."

Shen Yuan's stomach rumbled on cue. "I'll take that as a no," Luo Binghe chuckled. 

"We can order something up," Shen Yuan said, his eyes drooping. "Pass me the phone."

"No." 

"Binghe..."

"Just relax. I said I was taking care of you."

Ah, in that case, what was a tired old man to do? He only had maybe three hours of uninterrupted sleep, and he was feeling so comfortable now. Everyone would be signing up for a dose of demon blood if they knew it could do deep tissue massages. Shen Yuan kind of appreciated that he was being pampered by the world's most invasive spa treatment. 

He said something, but even he didn't know what it was. Luo Binghe was here, and he wasn't killing him, or kissing him, and his hair smelled nice and the bed wasn't comfortable, but everything else was. 

Shen Yuan closed his eyes. He was not sleeping. He was just... taking a little break from seeing things. Not sleeping. 

 

Shen Yuan woke up on his bed back in his apartment.

Eh!? He really did fall asleep after all? 

Wait, but this meant... Did Luo Binghe carry him home? Past the receptionist at the hotel? Into the taxi? Oh, god, everyone saw him sleeping in the protagonist's arms like a fainting maiden. Let the mattress swallow him whole now and never regurgitate him. 

Within seconds, Luo Binghe opened the door, a huge tray of food in his hand. 

"You didn't sleep for long. Are you sure you don't want to sleep any longer?" 

Shen Yuan stared at him in abject horror. Was his sleep being monitored now? Had Luo Binghe turned into a living REM tracker? 

"No? In that case, please would laoshi sit up and allow me to feed him?"

The staring did not stop. Feed him? Like he was a baby? "I can feed myself," he said, feeling more and more perturbed. "Binghe, what the hell are you doing?"

Luo Binghe placed the tray on the end of the bed and started arranging things in dangerous positions within easy reach of Shen Yuan. He turned and gave him an innocent look, though it was ruined slightly by the smile playing over his lips. "Bringing you food, laoshi. You must be hungry." 

Shen Yuan was a weak and hungry man, and so he helped himself to a bowl of fresh salted beans – before pausing. 

"Is there blood in this?"

"No."

"Is there blood in any of this?"

"No, none at all."

... So what the hell was this about? Shen Yuan poked at the food, but there truly was no trace of blood anywhere to be found. As far as he could tell. 

"Binghe, if this is another attempt to exchange your way into my good books-”

“Not at all,” Luo Binghe replied quickly, moving to his side with a rather intense look. “Aren’t you the one who keeps saying I should only do things because I want to? I want to do this. It makes me happy to see you eat my food.”

Well. There was an easy way to test that hypothesis. Shen Yuan cautiously brought some food up to his lips and took a bite. 

...

Ah, once again! So delicious! So tasty!

He wondered how blissful his expression was. He couldn’t help it. Having a supernaturally good cook as a housemate would make anyone happy. 

“As exquisite as always,” he muttered. 

 

[Protagonist Happiness Points increased by +5!]

 

Breakthrough! He did it! He made Luo Binghe happy for once! And it was something as simple as eating his cooking? But he did that so many times before, what was different now?

Ah, who cared. Easy points. Shen Yuan was fully prepared to eat his way to Luo Binghe’s happiness, one bite at a time. 

He sat up a little more so he didn’t choke on his food, only for something to nag at his subconscious. There was no searing pain when he moved his back. There was a very low, very dull ache, a little like what he imagined period cramps to be like, running from his pelvis up his spine, but it was manageable. He blinked in surprise, doing a few careful stretches to test his range of motion. 

Luo Binghe looked smug. “Is laoshi feeling better?”

“What did you do?” Shen Yuan said, feeling a little awed and intimidated all at once. 

“I wanted to show you what I could do for you once I have all of my powers back,” Luo Binghe said quietly. “That I am beyond what you think I can be. I can do more than this, if it makes you happy.”

Makes me happy? Protagonist, you’ve got it backwards!

Still, if this was what he wanted, then...

Shen Yuan took another bite, feeling all of his worries dissolve with the pleasant flavour. 

Luo Binghe’s eyes were half lidded with delight. “And anyway. How can laoshi keep his promise to show me what he meant by company if he can’t get out of bed? 

Shen Yuan snorted. “Don’t get too excited. But now that I’ve made that promise, I don’t intend to break it. I will take you somewhere nice.” He massaged his waist in wonder. “Sooner than I expected.”

“Does laoshi want me to do it again?”

More of that bone melting deep tissue massage? Shen Yuan could have cried. He held back his tears and merely waved his hand. “I don’t want to take advantage if it’s too much of an inconvenience...”

“It’s not an inconvenience.”

“Well then...”

 

Thirty minutes later, stomach full of good food, a cheesy romance playing on the laptop, Shen Yuan sighed and sank into the pillows with Luo Binghe lying next to him, watching him melt as the blood did its thing again. Once again, the protagonist was displaying his wealth of experience in pampering his wives. This must have been how they all felt getting wooed by him. What an experience.

He felt Luo Binghe grab his hand and start digging his fingers into the tender skin between his joints. 

Huh, wait. What was this? Shen Yuan froze out of surprise, which made Luo Binghe freeze too, his hand warm but still as it held Shen Yuan’s in a tight grip. He stared at Shen Yuan with wide eyes, the blood thrumming to a strange crescendo. 

“Does it hurt, laoshi? Where?”

“No, it’s just...”

I know you’re just massaging my hand, protagonist, but it feels a little like you’re holding it...

Shen Yuan coughed and turned his face away. Whatever stupid thoughts these were, he just needed to forget them. “Nothing. Just not used to being so thoroughly attended to.”

He really should be terrified by this. Luo Binghe didn’t just do nice things for no reason. There were all kinds of things he should be taking into consideration, so much work he had to put into unravelling Luo Binghe’s motivations, so much caution he had to have surrounding everything he said... 

And yet. It was so tempting to just lie back and feel the least pain he had ever had during one of his attacks, and let the tension in his hands and wrists get squeezed out by clever fingers, and let himself doze. 

 

Luo Binghe still had not yet worked out if this was a dream or not, but surely it must be. How else could he explain this? His shizun, sprawled out and loose limbed, his shirt open at his collar and folded like a crumpled petal, his face lax and hazy with sheer quiet pleasure... 

He forced his fingers not to grip too tightly onto his shizun’s fingers. To squeeze them hard enough to break. Calm. He could remain calm. 

He knew that he should have been more cautious, that he should still be testing for possible weaknesses in this illusion. That he should be doing this purely to gauge where the line was before this vision of shizun kicked him out again, or worse, finally used Luo Binghe’s assets to his best interests.

And yet how tempting. Like a cat revealing its belly, one just wanted to reach a hand in and tickle the soft fur. 

Amusing. This shizun was so amusing. 

No harsh words. No sharp edges. Everything to take. Luo Binghe just had to reach out and violate that easy trust that the fool had placed in him, and this whole world would shatter back into the cold, hard reality he knew. 

“Binghe, I’ve been wondering...”

But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t. 

“Yes, laoshi?” he murmured softly. 

“Which of your wives is your favourite?”

There was a playful look in his shizun’s eye. Like he thought he was asking something he wasn’t supposed to. What a privilege, what a novelty, to be treated to such an attempt at coquettishness. What was the motivation exactly? Jealousy? Insecurity? Hah, this shizun would have him believe that it was mere curiosity, no doubt, but such questions rarely came without an associated hissy fit and endless pleasing word games to soothe a wife’s ego. 

“This lowly one couldn’t possibly choose.”

His shizun rolled his eyes. “Diplomacy just doesn’t work for you. Come on, you can’t tell me that you like the Little Palace Mistress as much as you like, say, Liu Mingyan.”

So opinionated. Opinions on everything, and each one governed by some internal logic that Luo Binghe was yet to fully comprehend. He delighted in working out why his shizun should like one particular wife over the other when, in fact, he had no apparent investment in their existence. “Oh? Does laoshi have a preference?”

Now this was what he really liked. When an array of emotions passed over his shizun’s face. What he wouldn’t give to hear the accompanying internal dialogue. 

“... alright, being honest, when I read your story, I really didn’t get the appeal of one or two of your harem members.”

Oh, today was a good day. Luo Binghe was going to get a rant. 

“Hm?”

“Look, you can’t blame me, a lot of them were two dimensional sex dolls. Or they were just unpleasant. Binghe, you really have to stop marrying the ones who try to kill you first, it’s not conducive to marital bliss. I would get so frustrated every time yet another wife sabotaged you - but, ah, what I mean to say is that some wives seemed more genuine than others. Or - okay, fine, just tell me who the most attractive was.”

Luo Binghe snorted. “They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Yes, I know, but we all have eyes, Binghe. Was it Liu Mingyan? You saw her without the veil.”

Was shizun obsessed with Liu Mingyan? What was his fascination?
“She was indeed very beautiful,” he said, leaning forward to take his shizun’s other hand and start massaging it as well. “All of them had their own charms.”

His shizun smiled ruefully. “I guess that with that many women so ridiculously in love with you, you might have trouble differentiating them all.”

In love? 

Luo Binghe let out a startled chuckle. Such unbearable naivete. “Love had nothing to do with what happened between me and my wives, laoshi.”

Ah, something struck true with that arrow. His shizun froze yet again. His pleasant face folded inwards in pain, but this time, Luo Binghe knew that it wasn’t from his many extensive injuries. 

“Does this surprise you?”

“No, but,” his shizun said hesitantly. “I guess I knew that you didn’t love them all, but I thought...”

“That they loved me? No, laoshi. There were things that they wanted from me. My power. My attention. My body,” he said, licentiously leaning forward to emphasize exactly which part of his body they wanted, which sent his shizun skittering away with an alarming blush. “And I’m sure they want those very much indeed. Obsessively, maybe. In some cases, begrudgingly. But whatever you think love is... perhaps not.”

His shizun turned to look at him with wide, hurt eyes. Beautiful foolishness. Looking like his world was about to collapse. “Binghe,” he breathed, perhaps not knowing just how sad he sounded. “You... that’s...”

“Mn?”

His shizun turned and closed his eyes, his free hand coming to rest over his own. Shizun’s left hand in his palm, shizun’s right hand holding it there. Squeezing. A mockery of the tight grip that Luo Binghe had to hold back with his own hands. 

“I will take you somewhere really nice tomorrow.”

A thousand promises in one sentence. Truly, a thing made to tempt him to stay asleep forever. Who would ever wake up from this?

“Tomorrow,” he agreed, staring at the sorrowful tilt of his shizun’s delicate eyebrows. 

And each tomorrow after that. Until this, too, shattered.

Chapter Text

The rest of the day was spent in a pleasant blur on Shen Yuan's bed, watching movies, passing a few words every now and then, until Shen Yuan couldn't take it anymore. He begged Luo Binghe to go to the corner store and buy some snacks, which he pouted about but went anyway. 

As soon as he was gone, Shen Yuan pulled his phone out and called Airplane Bro. 

 

"... Yeah?" 

"I need you to promise me something," Shen Yuan said immediately. 

"Bro! You're alive! Like for real!"

"Yes I'm alive! No thanks to you. No, I'm not going to let myself get side tracked. This is important."

Airplane Bro hummed. "What happened anyway? Why did the murder baby get so... murdery? Did you piss him off?"

"No, I... It's not important!"

"It is important, bro! He's insane! You don't need to be running around making him even worse!"

"Listen to me!" Shen Yuan snapped, raising his voice. "One day, soon, you might have to start writing PIDW again. And when you do, I need you to write in a character for me."

Airplane Bro was silent for a moment. "You... what?"

"A character! You're an author, aren't you? You know what a character is! But nothing like any of the other characters. You need to write in someone who Luo Binghe can trust explicitly, all the time, who will never ever betray him, who would rather die than lie to him or hurt him. But the character can't die! Give them invincible plot armour for god's sake!"

"Wh–"

"And make them nice! No secret knives, no tragic backstory, okay maybe a little tragic but in a sad and harmless way! And – you should probably make them quite powerful and rich so that they can spoil Binghe and buy him nice things and be on a more equal level with him. No helpless maids and no conniving jezebels!"

"Jeez, not asking for much, huh? You want them to be handsome and a martial arts expert as well?"

"Maybe!" Shen Yuan yelled. "But that's not the important part! Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, you better listen to me! Don't you dare just write in another cold and loveless marriage! This character needs to be – they need to be tough and firm with Luo Binghe, but also kind and indulgent, and they need to be patient, and warm, and he needs to be able to always rely on them, and c–count on them whenever he's upset, and know he can... that he can trust them with his life..."

"... bro... are you, like, crying?"

"No!" Shen Yuan said wetly. 

"Bro..."

"Shut up!" 

Airplane Bro sighed. "What you're saying is that when Luo Binghe goes back into the narrative, you want me to introduce a whole new Mary Sue out of nowhere. After 6000 chapters. With no build up. And no explanation. Just the perfect soulmate, who also might be your original self insert character."

Shen Yuan swallowed. "I don't think it sounds that strange."

"I'm already getting flayed alive by my readers for not updating in like, a month! I'm in deep shit here, bro! I can't just pull someone like that out of nowhere in the last few chapters!"

"... The last few chapters?" Shen Yuan repeated. "What do you mean?" 

"Ah, it's just... everything was wrapping up," Airplane explained, his voice oddly wistful. "I was beginning to tie things off. There are some plot holes that unfortunately will never be filled. You know, I had this whole plan with some of the Peak Lords of Cang Qiong, and there was the issue of Luo Binghe's parents... I guess they'll never be more than a plotbunny now. Nobody really wanted to read all that anyway. So I decided to end things as they were." 

Shen Yuan felt nothing but dread. Once, he might have heaved a sigh of relief that the story he wasted so much money on was ending, but now, his thoughts were foggy and unpleasant. "As they were?"

"I had a plan," Airplane Bro continued quietly. "But as time went on, I kept thinking... doesn't it make more sense for Luo Binghe to die?"

Shen Yuan's grip on his phone tightened so much that his knuckles creaked. "What?"

"What else is there for him to do? What to conquer? Who to take his revenge on? I was already planning it before he got dropped into this world and out of my mind. The only thing I was stuck on was how."

"You can't," he hissed, the venomous tone of it surprising him. "You can't. He's real. He's living under my roof. If you saw him – met him–"

"It doesn't matter anyway," Airplane said idly. "He's not going back. I've already started thinking about my next novel. I'll probably have to rush an ending for PIDW and tell everyone that I got sick or something. Anyway, it doesn't matter, because he isn't going back, right? You're just going to make him happy so he stays here."

Shen Yuan thought about the aching chasm between Luo Binghe's current Happiness Point Total, and the Happiness Points he needed to make him stay. He shook his head numbly. "I... I'm trying, but..." 

"You got this, bro. But even if he goes back, isn't that a good thing?"

" No . You can't do this. If you kill him I'll – I'll..."

What threat could he possibly act upon? What power did he hold over what happened to Luo Binghe in the fictional world? 

"Okay, okay," Airplane Bro said quickly. "I'm sorry. But you don't know what it's like when you're an author and you get this idea stuck in your head. Having to change it... it feels so wrong. I've already had to cut out so many things from my story. It's painful! That's my baby! Now people think I'm a shitty horny virgin author with no talent. Your reviews weren't kind, bro, remember? But I did have ideas. I had so many ideas." He sighed. "Sometimes, when you write stuff, it feels like the story is in control and not the other way around. I'll try and work something out, but bro, I genuinely can't promise that Bing-ge won't get chopped up if he goes back home. Sorry."

"You are a cowardly piece of shit," Shen Yuan spat, before hanging up. 

 

Fuck. 

 

He put his head in his hands and fought the urge to yell. The worst part was... he understood where Airplane was coming from. 

The Binghe from before did so many unforgivable things. Narratively, maybe he did need to die. Preferably in a blaze of glory, loud and glorious and unforgettable, a true anti-hero blazing through the sky like a comet towards an unforgettable death. 

But now... but now...

Now the thought made him sick. Luo Binghe, the man living in his apartment, didn't deserve to die. 

Shen Yuan was going to let him down. 

The sound of the front door opening made him shiver. He pulled himself into a fairly normal position as Luo Binghe re-entered the room, two bags stuffed full of snacks under his arms. He paused on the doorway, immediately picking up on Shen Yuan's bitter silence. 

"... Laoshi?"

"Binghe," Shen Yuan said, and gestured for him to come closer. "You..."

He trailed off. He wasn't entirely sure what to say. Every time he opened his mouth, a thousand things wanted to come out. Things like "I'm so sorry" and "I promise I will make you happy" and "I tried" and "when you go back, run", but in the end, all he could do was stare helplessly into Luo Binghe's shining black eyes. 

Luo Binghe stared back. "Laoshi," he repeated, much lower this time. With slow, deliberate steps, he wandered back over and knelt on the bed, grabbing Shen Yuan’s chin with his hand. 

“Something upset you.”

Wouldn’t you be upset too, protagonist, if someone else’s life depended on your ability to make them happy? An ability that, so far, you have failed miserably at? Shen Yuan shivered and averted his eyes, feeling the guilt wrack up. 

“Luo Binghe... what if you... never went back?”

There was a sharp intake of breath. “To my story?”

“Mn.”

The grip on his jaw tightened. Shen Yuan heard something like a warning siren going off in his brain as he found his face being turned towards Luo Binghe’s. “What a dangerous thing to say,” he murmured. “Does laoshi believe he can keep me here?”

“You may go where you wish. It’s just that. If you do return. Back to the palace.”

“Yes?”

Shen Yuan found it increasingly hard to swallow his nerves. “I just worry that somebody there will harm you. Maybe even try to kill you.”

Luo Binghe surged forward, his eyes searching over Shen Yuan’s face with an expression of fond disbelief. “You’ve been crying.”

He noticed?!? That was kind of mortifying! “I-”

“Could it be that laoshi worried so much for this lowly mongrel that he even shed a tear for me?”

Well, technically yes, but--

“What a pained expression,” Luo Binghe all but breathed, something feral and ecstatic in his eyes as he drew even closer forward. “Laoshi read my story and knows that there are kingdoms full of people who wish to serve my head on a platter, and saw what I did to deserve this bloodlust, and yet he still weeps for me like he thinks it’s unfair.”

Shen Yuan felt himself grow suddenly flustered and enraged all at once. So what if he cried! Stop making such a big deal out of it! 

“When I see laoshi like this, it really makes me...”

Luo Binghe was looming closer and closer, and Shen Yuan was instantly filled with the sense memory of being kissed like he was the last bubble of oxygen for a drowning sailor. He panicked and reached out with his hand to grab the nearest thing, putting it up against his mouth as a protective shield just in time to stop Luo Binghe’s lips from crashing into his own. 

Cursed progeny of a Heavenly Demon, Emperor of the Known World, found himself kissing the tiny, well sculpted face of a figurine of Sasuke Uchiha.

“I told you to ask!” he snapped loudly to hide the fact he was panicking. “You didn’t ask! It’s like you want to go to the hotel tonight!”

“I don’t,” Luo Binghe said mutinously as he separated himself from Sasuke. 

Then don’t just throw yourself lips first at any old man you live with! Just because you haven’t papapaed with anyone for like a month doesn’t mean you can use me as a stand in! Save it for the wives! 

Perhaps sensing that he had crossed a line, Luo Binghe pulled back and had the grace to look apologetic. "This disciple apologises sincerely for forgetting to ask. It's just that the sight of sh– Shen laoshi was a pleasant surprise. Learning that you were worried that someone in the palace seeks to kill me..."

"Aren't you worried?" Shen Yuan said, once he remembered why he had been crying in the first place. Not that he had been crying! He hadn't! "I know you're usually pretty untouchable, but this time... this time it could be..."

"Serious?" Luo Binghe curled up beside Shen Yuan, resting his head on his hand and leaning on his elbow. "Don't look so bullied, laoshi. I'm safe here, aren't I?"

After a moment, Shen Yuan nodded. "Of course. No matter what, you're safe here. As much as this crumbling fossil can look after you. I'm afraid I wouldn't be of much use in a fight."

Luo Binghe was practically purring like a cat as he nudged Shen Yuan's thigh with his knee. At least they were out of the kissing danger zone. Shen Yuan could allow a little leg touching, if only because he didn't think that anyone considered the knee an erogenous area. 

Ah. Wait. This man was the papapa emperor. He probably did get turned on by knees somehow, Shen Yuan just knew it. 

Packing away this train of thought into little boxes and shoving it away, Shen Yuan reached out and poked Luo Binghe's cheek. And just like that, his bad mood vanished. 

Mostly. 

Okay, he mostly repressed the dread he was feeling. But Luo Binghe had a very soft pokeable cheek. Like a steamed bun. He wanted to pinch it, but Luo Binghe was still a little too intimidating to bully like he would his sister. One day...

 

Shen Yuan didn't wake up early the next day, per se, but he did roll out of bed the quickest he had ever rolled. Luo Binghe was already out of bed, presumably in the kitchen making something incredible. 

His back... didn't hurt. 

Hallelujah! Miracles are real! His back didn't hurt! 

Protagonist, I take it all back! I'll let you chop off any limbs you like as long as you keep doing your demonic blood magic! Eat all of my tofu! I'm made out of tofu, eat as much as you like! 

Blissful, pain free tofu! 

He quickly got dressed, before practically bouncing to the kitchen. Just before he went in, he slowed to a more dignified speed, adjusting his expression so he didn't look quite so unhinged. 

Poking his head around the door, Shen Yuan coughed. "Is Binghe ready for our trip today?"

Luo Binghe looked at him in surprise. He was pouring something into his portable cup, the smell of coffee and caramel thick in the air. "Laoshi, you're up."

"I am. Thanks to your efforts yesterday, I am pleased to announce that today looks like it's going to be a good day."

"I'm glad." Luo Binghe passed him the cup with a smile. "Since we can't stop by the coffee shop before we go, I thought I would try and make your order instead..."

Shen Yuan took a sip. He felt tears springing to his eyes. It was good! It was really good! Did the protagonist somehow manage to take a barista training course while he was sleeping? 

"An acceptable substitute," he conceded with a sniff. Luo Binghe wasn't getting a compliment for this, considering how he got them both banned in the first place. But still. It was quite nice. And Shen Yuan was no good at holding grudges. 

Luo Binghe's face still turned as pleased as if Shen Yuan had called his coffee the ambrosia of the gods. "Good. This one is going to do his best to make up for the trouble he has caused before."

It was a good start. What a surprisingly well behaved demon lord! 

"Come along then," Shen Yuan said, pulling on his shoes and grabbing his cane. "Places to go, things to do."

 

Luo Binghe was clearly curious as they travelled, but he politely held back from asking too many questions. He seemed quite content to go wherever Shen Yuan placed him, watching him with a lazy smile, like a cat that had just caught a fat bird. 

Shen Yuan found himself chattering away as they rode the bus out to his Super Secret Location. Luo Binghe was actually very easy to talk to. He listened with such keen interest as Shen Yuan explained how the modern world worked, and what little history knowledge he had, and how buses ran, and why having the ability to fly on swords in this world would save so much time but probably get you arrested very quickly. 

He seemed absolutely enthralled by everything Shen Yuan had to say. What a star student! 

Finally, they arrived at their stop, and Shen Yuan hobbled out before throwing his arms wide. 

"Ta da!"

Luo Binghe looked up at the impressive building, reading the word "Aquarium" with a faint frown. Maybe he didn't know what an aquarium was. 

"It's a place where they keep a lot of rare fish and other aquatic animals," Shen Yuan explained, tugging him by the sleeve to the entrance queue. "I haven't been here in a while, but it's my favourite place in the city. If we're lucky, we'll get to watch them do one of their killer whale shows – those things are huge. I bet you've never seen one. I wish they had a blue whale, but I think they might actually be extinct now? At least they'll probably have a skeleton replica, but..."

Luo Binghe sounded amused as he waited in the queue with him. "Somehow, I didn't expect laoshi to be so enthusiastic about this kind of thing. Especially not the dangerous animals."

"What? Really? But the dangerous ones are the whole point." Shen Yuan pointed to a poster of a mantis shrimp. "That son of a bitch could turn your arm into mush with one punch. I'm serious. It could punch a chunk right out of your flesh. And that harmless squishy little jellyfish?" He laughed. "Neurotoxin. Deadly neurotoxin. Actually, that's an interesting question... I wonder if the venom would work on you...?"

At the welcome desk, he paid for two tickets, still rambling about deadly animals while Luo Binghe listened carefully. He raised his arms to allow a bored looking attendant to swipe him over with a metal detector, keeping his cane out of the way to avoid a false positive. He walked on, fully expecting Luo Binghe to be right behind him. 

There was a loud beep coming from the metal detector. Shen Yuan turned back to find a horrified attendant pulling a very large knife from Luo Binghe's sock. 

 

Outside on a bench, Luo Binghe tentatively inched forward. "Laoshi... I'm sorry."

Shen Yuan silently turned away again, his shoulders hunched, as he ignored Luo Binghe. 

"I really didn't know the wand would do that." 

That's not the problem! The knife is the problem, not the metal detector! But Shen Yuan did not say that, as he was steadfastly pretending that Luo Binghe did not exist. 

"I told you not to take any knives out the house. I don't even know where you got that one. What, did you think one of the fish was going to jump out and eat me?"

"I really wasn't trying to sabotage the trip. If it's laoshi's favourite place in the city, then I wish to see it. Anything that he wishes to show me, this lowly disciple wants to experience it.”

Shen Yuan sighed, and let his shoulders lower slightly. “It’s fine. They might forget all about us in a week or so. Or not.”

The silence reigned for a moment. Shen Yuan clapped his hands and stood up. 

"Well. I'll get over it soon. Shall we wander around and see if there's anything worth investigating?" 

Luo Binghe stood up too and came to a stop by his side with a quiet hum. Together, they walked away from the aquarium. Shen Yuan was determined not to ruin the first good day he had had for a while, and firmly pushed the matter out of his mind. 

"Hey, maybe this is a good thing. Now we have the chance to stop and get some food." He gestured over to a roadside van that was selling deep fried snacks. No, he was not eating his feelings! He just skipped breakfast! 

Luo Binghe sniffed the rancid oil and frowned. "This food is dirty. I have lunch in my bag for us both."

Shen Yuan stopped for a moment, intrigued. He pictured the protagonist getting up early to cook some lunch before stuffing it into tiny plastic boxes and hiding it in his backpack. How disgustingly cute. 

He still wanted doughy oily mush for breakfast though. "I'm sure that your cooking is as delicious as always, but we never get any take out anymore. My arteries are, perhaps, too clean. I need to grease them back up again.”

“...”

Luo Binghe sulked slightly as Shen Yuan bought two paper parcels of greasy trash and handed one over. He looked so wronged - it was kind of funny. 

They stood together in silence, chewing away as they stared up at a large billboard that was advertising the shark tank in the aquarium. Luo Binghe broke the silence after a moment. 

“So a-Yuan likes these kinds of things. Huge, terrifying beasts and terrible food.”

Shen Yuan shrugged to hide the fact that the protagonist had hit the nail on the head. “Perhaps.”

“Considering how rare it is for you to openly admit you like something, this graceless disciple apologises for ruining something you were looking forward to.” Luo Binghe turned to him, eyes sorrowful. What a seasoned actor! “I will make it up to you. I promise.”

Shen Yuan waved his hand. “There are other aquariums. Look, let’s stop thinking about it and do something else.”

“Like what?”

“Like...”

Chapter Text

The fun fair was loud and bright. Shen Yuan leaned on his cage and let a gaggle of people walk past him, while Luo Binghe stared at the bumper carts with a look of mistrust. 

After much cajoling and bribery, Shen Yuan got them in the cue for a small rollercoaster. He figured that Luo Binghe could handle a little adrenaline, but still, he made sure to sit by the poor guy and watch him closely as the rollercoaster started. 

Luo Binghe was stone faced the entire time. When they got off, Shen Yuan, feeling slightly deflated, asked him if he didn't enjoy it. 

"I can fly faster than that." 

Shen Yuan laughed. "I bet you can. That was only a small rollercoaster. There's a bigger, faster one too – it goes so high you can see parts of the city from above..."

Luo Binghe consented. 

This time, he did not remain stone faced. When they got off the ride, his teeth were bared, his beautiful hair was blown back from his face, and there were red marks on his hands from where he clutched the bars too tight. 

Reaching up to tidy his hair, Shen Yuan couldn't help but laugh. He looked like he had been caught in a hurricane. "I did warn you it goes high!" 

Luo Binghe looked at him, and it held such a sense of betrayal that Shen Yuan laughed again. It was like looking at a dog that learned it was going to the vet, not the park. 

"You're still alive, aren't you? I wouldn't take you on something that could genuinely kill you. Look, here's a more sedate one – it's just a big set of swings..."

This one was indeed much slower. The seats hung from chains, and when the ride span around in a circle, the seats were pulled up into the air through centrifugal force. 

Luo Binghe looked much more at ease. He held the chains loosely as his feet dangled through the air. He was dressed nicely today, taking full advantage of the wardrobe that Shen Yuan had furnished him with, and now he once again looked like a listless male model on a fairground themed photoshoot. 

No, more than that – he kind of looked like...

He looked like the love interest on a date! He had main love interest written all over him! 

Shen Yuan fumbled with his phone and quickly took a few selfies, eyes gleaming. POV: You Are Going On A Date With Luo Binghe (Modern AU). The PIDW boards would go wild for this – if only they knew. 

He considered setting a particularly pretty picture of Luo Binghe as his background photo. His hair was tumbling across his face and he was looking away at the view, handsome and mysterious, perfectly poised as if someone had carefully pointed a wind machine at him in a carefully controlled photo studio...

"Laoshi?"

Shen Yuan put his phone back in his pocket. "Yes?"

"You... enjoy this kind of thing?" 

Shen Yuan waggled his hand vaguely. "Actually, rollercoasters make me nauseous. I don't mind the scary parts, but the last ride was... well, a little rough."

Luo Binghe tilted his head. They were having to raise their voices slightly to hear each other as the seats span around. "Then why are we on here?"

The ride finally came to a stop. Shen Yuan took a few wobbly steps off and held his hand up, before straightening out. He wasn't going to let his delicate tummy get in the way of a good time. "Because I never got to do this kind of stuff very often when I was younger, and I want to know what it's like," he said once Luo Binghe was back at his side. "And you didn't either. I wanted to find out whether you enjoyed it or not."

Luo Binghe laughed once in disbelief. His hand came to rest under Shen Yuan's elbow, supporting him as they walked along, possessively clinging to the crook of his arm. "I see."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"I enjoy anything that I do with you, laoshi."

Shen Yuan hit his shoulder lightly. "You old charmer. Since you're going to act like a protagonist, let's go play some games. I never get any prizes, you'll have to win them all for me..."

 

Perhaps a little predictably, Luo Binghe was very good at fairground games. Shen Yuan got a sick sort of satisfaction from watching the sour faces of the vendors behind the stalls as he exposed their games for the rigged scams everyone knew they were. 

If there was a ring, Luo Binghe would always land it on a pole. 

If there was a duck with a huge prize on the underside, Luo Binghe would always hook it first time. 

If there was a coconut on a stick, Luo Binghe would always knock it off with a beanbag – and reveal the glue that had been holding it in place. 

Shen Yuan's arms were stuffed with plush toys. He felt faintly ridiculous as they walked around the fair, and people kept staring at his collection, and then at the exceedingly handsome man walking beside him. 

As they made a beeline to another vendor (who, to his credit began to look nervously at their plushie collection), Shen Yuan tugged on the venerable demon lord's sleeve and coughed. 

"Perhaps we have enough prizes now."

Luo Binghe gave him a smile that made it clear he was having an inordinate amount of fun. "I'm not sure we do. A-Yuan looks so pleased every time I win – all I want to do is keep making you have that expression. Indulge this lowly one, I beg."

Shen Yuan hit him with a plush dog. "Don't–! Don't just–!"

Don't use your lines from your wives on me! Saying you like to win just to see me smile, what the hell kind of gooey nonsense is this! 

"Which one does a-Yuan want from this stall?"

"The wall-eyed blue tiger," Shen Yuan said immediately, before slipping back into being flustered. "When I said win me prizes, I didn't actually mean all of them!" 

Luo Binghe picked up the pellet gun and held it in his hands. He moved it back and forth, testing the weighting of it, before holding it up and looking down the sights. 

Shen Yuan knew for a fact that those little guns had a crooked barrel. The barrel and the sights were misaligned in such a way that it was almost impossible to get a bullseye, no matter what kind of marksman you were. 

Luo Binghe took a single breath, aimed the gun, and fired. It was a bullseye. 

"Fuck yes!" Shen Yuan shouted despite himself. "Eat that! My Binghe is the best!" 

Luo Binghe had to forcibly pull the blue tiger out of the resentful stall holder's hands. He handed it to Shen Yuan with a palpable air of smugness. 

"Hardly a challenge," he sniffed. 

 

All good things had to come to an end. Even Luo Binghe's deep tissue massage blood parasites could only do so much, and after a solid day of wandering around the fun fair, Shen Yuan knew he only had a few more things in him before his back twisted up again. 

Looking around, he wanted to find a bench – but then his eyes landed on something else. He stared for a moment. Could he...? It wasn't a very exciting ride, and he wouldn't blame Luo Binghe for getting bored halfway through, but it would be nice... 

Luo Binghe noticed that he had stopped moving and his attention was diverted. He stopped also, and stared at the ride thoughtfully. 

"... do you want to go on that ride, laoshi?"

Shen Yuan shook his head and turned away. He had seen far too many couples in the queue, taking photos for their social media feed and holding hands and being all cute. "Ah, I'm not sure that ride is any fun..."

"Shen laoshi doesn't like the fun rides," Luo Binghe said smartly, and began insistently tugging them both towards the ride. "Let's go on it."

"Binghe!"

 

That was how they found themselves in a snug little compartment steadily climbing up a huge Ferris wheel. 

 

The ride was going to last around fifteen minutes in total, so Luo Binghe took the opportunity to unpack the lunches he had made and serve them up as well as he could considering the lack of a table. 

Shen Yuan sat, surrounded by plushies, a plastic bowl of exquisitely cooked food in his hand, and felt like something was off. 

A private, concealed place... Just the two of them alone together... Surrounded by a breathtaking view of the city and complete with a bowl of Luo Binghe's cooking...

"Is something wrong, a-Yuan?" Luo Binghe asked innocently. 

Yes. Something was wrong. He just couldn't put his finger on it. 

After all, if one of them was a girl, this would definitely be a date. This scenario was straight out of a shoujo manga! The only thing it was missing was fireworks and random roses blooming in the background! 

(On the wind, Shen Yuan's mind helpfully supplied the ghostly echo of the words "Binghe... both...")

"It's fine," he said firmly, and began to eat. "I hope you're also enjoying yourself as much as I am."

"Very much so."

"Look at the view... I wonder if you can see my apartment from here."

Luo Binghe looked out the window. He looked down. He kept looking. 

Shen Yuan assumed that it was just a lull in the conversation, but after a full minute of staring, he began to grow nervous. He cautiously cleared his throat. 

"... Are you nervous about how high we are?" 

"Nervous?" Luo Binghe's voice was distant. "Not at all."

Ah, of course. He wouldn't be nervous of heights, that would be silly. After all, it wasn't like he ever... fell from a great height...

Oh shit. 

Shen Yuan shuffled closer, taking the seat next to Luo Binghe and wincing at how it made the compartment shudder. "I'm sorry. I wouldn't have brought you up here if I remembered that, ah, well... you're uncomfortable."

Luo Binghe laughed. " Uncomfortable , he says. No. Not uncomfortable. Not at all. Just marvelling at what a world this is. Loud and busy and filled with so many people, and all unremarkable, all mortals without a spiritual vein in their body...”

Rude. Shen Yuan just so happened to be one of those unremarkable mortals. He tried not to take it personally. He opened his mouth to say something, when Luo Binghe turned back around, his gaze heavy. 

They were both sitting on the same side, and as a consequence, when they looked at each other, their faces were very close. If Shen Yuan leaned forwards just a little, they could rub noses. 

Luo Binghe seemed to pause as well, taking in their closeness. Shen Yuan watched him swallow. The wind started blowing in those unhelpful words again, itching the edges of Shen Yuan's consciousness. Main love interest... Binghe... both...

“A well constructed fantasy. Truly, a puzzle like none I have ever come across before. Shen laoshi... Shen laoshi...”

He reached up, his hand landing on Shen Yuan’s cheek, his thumb brushing the soft skin just beneath his eye. 

“... is this world made of the last dying fantasies of your mind, or mine?”

Too close. Shen Yuan’s face went pale as he realised just how heated the little compartment had become. With a cough, he wheeled backwards, away from the warm palm that felt like it was burning his skin and leaving a red mark behind. He thought everyone might see it when they got off the ride, and his mind reeled with mortification. If he didn’t move away, everyone would know that he sat there and let his face get cradled like... like some kind of tender maiden!

“Neither of us are dying,” he said in exasperation, quietly covering his cheek with his hand as if to wipe off the trailing sensation of Luo Binghe’s thumb. “It’s just a Ferris wheel.”

“... is this what you wanted from me? Just to do things like this?”

“Mmn. Just like this. Why?” He fixed Luo Binghe a cautious look. “You don’t like it?”

“I like it just fine,” he replied, low and even. “I like it just fine.”

He went back to staring out of the window, and Shen Yuan let out a sigh of - relief? Definitely relief. No more risk of kissing. Definitely a relief. 

 

After twelve more minutes of only slightly awkward companionship, they both stumbled out of the compartment, and Shen Yuan quietly suggested that they go home. The bus was quiet. The sun was going down, slowly, and the bright glow of the city waking up contrasted against the dusky blue sky. 

“That was nice. We should do it again before you go,” Shen Yuan said, feeling sleepy. 

Luo Binghe nodded. “Yes. Before I go.”

When the bus pulled in at the station, it was only a short walk back to the apartment, so they waddled along saddled down by the many many plush toys that they had won. He gave away a few to people who had been passing by, much to Luo Binghe’s displeasure, but he kept the ones that he liked best - especially a fluffy dog with beady eyes and a lolling tongue. He decided not to tell Luo Binghe about the uncanny resemblance. 

As they went along, Shen Yuan leaning on his cane, Luo Binghe laiden with stuffed toys, two men stepped out of the shop and crossed their path. There was a taller man with long hair, his face stern as if someone had just made a particularly offensive joke about his mother, and then there was a much shorter, round faced man with his hair in a messy bun. He was chattering away, his arms full of grocery bags. Neither of them had spotted either Shen Yuan or Luo Binghe. 

Kill Bill sirens went off in Shen Yuan’s head. Airplane Bro

He was about to say Airplane Bro’s name out loud, when Luo Binghe must have spotted them at the same time, because he came to a complete stop. Before anyone could do anything, he took a step forward. 

“Binghe, no,” Shen Yuan said sternly, hitting him across the stomach to prevent him from going forward. “I am not going to allow you to murder that horrible little man in public.” He took a step forward instead, rolling up his sleeves. “Allow me.”

In less than five steps, he strode up to Airplane Bro and socked him right in the eye. 

 

It was possibly the most pathetic fistfight in history.

Neither of them were especially athletic or strong men. Shen Yuan had seen er-ge, da-ge and even his sweet little meimei get into bloody battles with each other, but as soon as he tried to join in, Papa Shen would usually pick him up by the back of his collar and put him back on the hospital bed. He didn’t know how to throw a punch. 

Luckily, neither did Airplane Bro. 

The initial hit mostly took him by surprise, but as soon as he recovered, he started hitting right back, letting a hail of blows start raining down on Shen Yuan. It was not dignified. There was biting. Someone hit someone else with a stuffed giraffe. 

Shen Yuan distinctly remembered the tall strange man looking like he wanted to step in, but Luo Binghe said “no, let them, I want to see how this goes” in that horrible delighted voice of his. In the end, what stopped them was the fact that a passing delinquent who looked about thirteen years old started laughing at them. 

There was nothing quite as scathing as the derision of a pre-teen. 

Once they had separated, Airplane Bro raised a finger and pointed at Shen Yuan in disgust. He had a very mild black eye. 

“You’re insane! What did you do that for!”

“You know what you did,” Shen Yuan replied. His collar had been ripped open. “You’re lucky I didn’t sic Binghe on you!”

Luo Binghe presumably did something suitably threatening over Shen Yuan’s shoulder, because Airplane squeaked like a rat and scurried behind his mysterious companion’s back, peeking out like a scolded child behind his mother’s skirt. 

“And who the hell is this?” Shen Yuan demanded icily. 

He didn’t expect Luo Binghe’s voice to come from behind him. “Mobei Jun.”