Shen Yuan ushered his final customer out with a polite smile and locked the door to his shop. Then he turned and looked at his empty shelves with a complicated expression. He knew that his plants had some unusual properties, but really, he didn’t quite understand why they were so popular.
Nor could he understand why people were willing to pay such exorbitant prices for them. Was a colour-changing or a dancing plant really worth that many zeroes? But, well, who was he to criticize their purchasing decisions when he was the one benefitting from it?
He took his time sweeping the floor and wiping down the shelves and counter, removing bits of fallen dirt and the occasional abandoned leaf. He had sent his exhausted employees home shortly before closing, when the crowd was finally manageable. He didn’t mind doing these menial tasks himself, since he was here so rarely. (Perhaps if he took a little longer, it could delay his upcoming problem?)
Partway through, he received a phone call. “Er-ge,” he greeted after tapping his ear piece to accept it.
“All sold?” His brother’s voice was crystal clear, and Shen Yuan could even picture the smug way the man was probably fanning himself.
“I thought so.”
Shen Yuan doubted Er-ge merely thought anything. He had probably watched through the cameras the whole time. Really, his brothers were way too paranoid. Shen Yuan suppressed a fond smile.
“Will you be home for dinner?” Shen Yuan asked as he chased some dust out the back door.
“Not tonight. We have a deadline to meet.”
Ah, that meant that Da-ge wouldn’t be home either. His little sister was out with friends too, which meant that Shen Yuan should probably stop somewhere and pick up something to eat.
“Don’t you dare eat junk food again,” Er-ge said, as if reading his mind.
“… I wasn’t going to.”
“You were. Probably those horrid instant noodles. Absolute trash. I can’t believe you let such filth touch your body.”
“It’s not that bad,” Shen Yuan muttered, putting away his broom.
Er-ge sniffed in disagreement. “Go home early and rest up for tomorrow.”
Shen Yuan sighed at the reminder. “I will.”
“Good.” His brother said before hanging up with a click.
Pouting, Shen Yuan finished cleaning and peered out the front of the shop. Sure enough, there was still a small crowd of people gathered, vainly hoping that he would magically produce more plants to sell.
Truthfully, Shen Yuan mostly sold regular plants that he outsourced from a company his parents had bought for him when they noticed his interest in gardening. It was only when he had accumulated a large number of his own ‘defective’ plants that he would show up himself.
Most days, sales were decent. He had built up a good reputation, so people were willing to buy his plants, whether he had bred them or not. He also liked to think that his shop was attractive enough to customers on its own. He had decorated the shop using natural materials and warm colours and when it was full of plants it looked like a veritable jungle. The store saw many customers each day.
But somehow, every time Shen Yuan showed up in person, there was always a crowd of people waiting outside before he even turned on the lights! And they would proceed to buy every single plant he had. First they would buy the defective plants he had bred, paying far too many zeroes for the little things. Then those who hadn’t managed to snag one of those would console themselves by clearing out the rest of his shelves.
Shen Yuan actually suspected that someone in his family was selling information about which days he would be at his shop with new stock, because he never publicly announced which day he was going to be open, only mentioning it briefly in passing to his siblings a day or two beforehand. Ah, Shen Yuan thought fondly. His family really was industrious!
He sent a quick text to his manager and to his stockist. They were both quite used to this, so they would be able to handle it tomorrow morning. Then he locked the place up, turned off the lights, and headed home, stopping only to pick up some congee on the way. If he had to think about tomorrow’s problem, he would do so on a full stomach.
- — -
Shen Yuan had the questionable fortune of being born into a family of villains. His parents were so successful that they had retired early and were currently travelling the world. They had left their legacy to their eldest two sons, who were just as successful. Shen Yuan was proud of them, but he couldn’t help but wish he didn’t have the same expectations on his head.
He didn’t really mind being a villain, but it was just so much work. His da-ge had a mind for these things. He ran the family business with rather terrifying ability. In the five years since he had taken over, he had ruthlessly crushed the majority of their enemies, and redirected many incessant heroes towards the rest.
Shen Yuan couldn’t help but be relieved that da-ge was his brother, and not his enemy. Not to mention er-ge, who invented such powerful spy machines that any information da-ge wanted, he could get by planting one of er-ge’s bugs. Though in truth, Shen Yuan didn’t know what was scarier: er-ge’s intelligence or his sharp tongue.
Ahhh, his brothers were too competent!
Shen Yuan sighed as he prodded the plant in front of him. It wiggled shyly at the attention. Its leaves turned red as if it was blushing, then promptly fell from its branches. The plant drooped and Shen Yuan patted it consolingly. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “I made a mistake when you were a sprout. You’re doing very well.” He averted his gaze from the sadly empty branches. The leaves were supposed to rustle soothingly, but secretly over time would disrupt the mind. Unfortunately the plant was prone to dropping all its leaves every time it got any positive attention (and, in addition, it was an attention-seeking plant. Go figure).
Still, it was trying, and Shen Yuan could only blame his own incompetence for its failure. Ahhh, he really wished he didn’t have to go through a villain initiation! He just — he wasn’t ready. Even the various plants he had grown specifically for the occasion weren’t quite right.
His first few plants were such utter failures that he hadn’t even bothered considering them. One of them was so embarrassingly off that it ended up being a medicinal plant. It was about as un-villain as it could possibly be. Shen Yuan had pulled up his hood and shoved it into the hands of some random kid on the street, not wanting to be associated with something so helpful. He was a villain, after all.
In fact, about half of his plants turned out similarly, which was why he had eventually resigned himself to his fate and opened his plant shop where he sold them at exorbitant prices. His only consolation was that he charged a premium and made quite a lot of money doing so. That was… that was pretty villainous, right?
“Yuan-gege?” His little sister’s sweet voice was muffled by the door.
Shen Yuan immediately stood and went to let her in. “Xiao mei, is something wrong?” He looked over her in case someone had tried to bully her, but she seemed fine. She looked sweet with wide eyes and a small face. Her hair was tied up with a pink ribbon, making her look fresh and cheerful.
Shen Yuan knew, though, that she had her whole school under her thumb. Even the principal. He smiled and patted her head. She was growing up well.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said, grabbing his wrist and latching onto his arm. “I just remembered that you have your big battle tomorrow so I came to cheer you on!”
“Ah, that…” Shen Yuan hesitated. He glanced at the large vines that crawled the length of his room. They came from the large greenhouse attached to his room. Xiao Hong was quite a fierce fellow and could probably beat quite a few heroes, it was just that…
She blinked up at him. “Are you nervous? That’s normal. I’m always nervous before exams.” She reached into her pocket and held up a folded piece of paper. “Here, I drew this for you.”
Shen Yuan felt himself tear up a little, feeling touched by her sweet gesture. “Thank you, Xiao Mei.”
She winked at him and patted his shoulder before stepping back, waving goodbye as she bounced off to her own room.
Closing the door, Shen Yuan gave Xiao Hong a complicated look. It really was quite a powerful plant, and it enjoyed fighting, it’s just that…
It was a soft blushing pink, not the violent red he had aimed for. It also had a strange fondness for red ribbons. It wasn’t too horrible, but it was not the perfect plant that he had hoped to breed. He was fond of it, but he just couldn’t call it his masterpiece when it looked like it belonged in some shoujo anime. Could he even have his battle tomorrow? How could he proudly show off his plant when he knew in his heart that it just wasn’t quite right?
The paper in his hand crinkled in reminder and he lifted it, his anxieties fading away in the face of his little sister’s thoughtfulness. He unfolded it and studied the drawing.
His sister was quite talented, for he could immediately see his features in the character standing triumphantly over his opponent. He had a foot on the other character’s back, holding him down. He was smirking, his long Shen outer robe waving in a gentle breeze.
Around them were ordinary citizens staring up at him in awe, and even the hero was — wait, why was the hero blushing??
There was an arrow pointing at the unknown hero followed by the words: even heroes can’t resist your might!
Shen Yuan really, really didn’t know if he should laugh or cry. What was this? Had those ridiculous novels she read gotten to her at last? In what world did he of all people gain the admiration of a hero??
Shaking his head, he nonetheless refolded it carefully and placed it in a folder along with all the other sketches she had given him — from when she was a child until now. No matter how strange her ideas were, his sister was still too cute!
Still, he was feeling a little better and he checked on his creations, trimming the leaves of one of them, watering another one, and arm wrestling the latest one that was still young and energetic.
He patted Xiao Hong on his way out. He ducked a vigorous vine, stopped another with a quick step and sweep of his foot, and caught a third in his hand. “It’s bedtime,” he frowned. “Behave.”
Then he brushed his teeth and crawled into bed and very happily did not think about tomorrow’s battle.
- — -
Tomorrow’s battle was suddenly today’s battle and Shen Yuan stood in front of Xiao Hong, a small spray bottle dangling from his fingers. It was filled with a mixture that would stimulate any plant into a frenzy, and would be more than enough to ensure that his opponent would suffer a severe defeat.
The sun shone through the glass of his greenhouse, illuminating the soft, gentle pink of his plant, just a few shades too light. Shen Yuan pursed his lips and turned away decisively. That just wouldn’t do!
He opened his closet and changed into a green shirt with white trousers, followed by a green over robe made of silk and embroidered with cranes, as was the Shen tradition. His Da-ge had worn the same outfit, as had Er-ge during their battles. Shen Yuan was not one to break such a tradition.
Then he placed his mask on his nose, the plant-like filigree obscuring the top half of his face, leaving his mouth free to smirk in an appropriately villainous manner. (He had practiced in front of the mirror for this, not that he would admit to it.)
With a resigned sigh he straightened his shoulders, tilting his head in an indulgent manner, and stepped out of his room. He knew that his brothers were waiting to see him off in the living room, so he escaped out the greenhouse door. He couldn’t face his brothers, knowing what he was going to do.
He snuck into the special hover craft that Er-ge had designed just for him, and flew off to the location of his battle. He felt perfectly safe travelling this way, for the craft had a button to turn invisible, and it was completely silent. One of his brother’s favourite spying techniques.
In an unspoken agreement, most battles took place somewhat out of the way. Not completely isolated, which allowed villains to choose areas near their enemies, but also far enough that heroes didn’t have to worry overly much about innocent civilians. These were formal battles, after all, not every day villainous or heroic raides.
He disembarked and looked around, lips twitching slightly when he realized that they were right near the Liu estate. Er-ge must have been the one to negotiate this location, then. Ever since his brother’s initiation battle, Er-ge had kept a strong enmity with the Liu clan heir, their most prominent hero Liu Qingge.
Ah well, he wouldn’t be here for long anyway, and the Liu clan was far too respectable to interfere in a formal battle.
The hero arrived not long after Shen Yuan stepped onto the neatly trimmed grass of this cheerful park. Ah, his Er-ge really was thoughtful, placing him in such a green space. Shen Yuan hoped he wouldn’t be too disappointed later.
The hero looked fairly young, his form tall but not fully filled out. Behind his mask, his eyes glimmered with great enthusiasm. He had long curly hair that was partially tied with a red ribbon, and his outfit was red and black. It was quite a stunning look, Shen Yuan had to admit. He could see the beginnings of a sharp jawline and though Shen Yuan didn’t stare or anything, he couldn’t help but notice that the buttons on the boy’s shirt were showing a faint sign of strain.
Pointedly looking back up to the hero’s face, Shen Yuan bowed. The hero bowed back, then quickly straightened, his hand reaching for the sword at his side.
Shen Yuan sighed at his hastiness. Heroes were always so eager to throw themselves into the fray.
“Should we start, then?” The hero said, drawing his sword. It was quite a pretty sword, but all Shen Yuan could do was hope that the boy wasn’t a muscle-head like Liu Qingge, charging into battle without reason.
“Actually,” Shen Yuan said, keeping an eye on the sword, “I’m afraid I’ll have to postpone our battle.”
This made the hero pause. “What?”
Feeling a little embarrassed, Shen Yuan gave a small cough. “I do have an ultimate creation, but I’m afraid it just… isn’t quite perfect yet. So, you see, our battle will have to be delayed.”
The hero shifted uncertainly. “Can you do that?” He asked finally, sounding a little perplexed.
It wasn’t an unexpected reaction. Heroes tended to be very straightforward and a bit too fond of the rules. It certainly made it easier for villains to go about their nefarious sneaking when they could slip through the cracks in the rules.
Shen Yuan sniffed. “Who says I can’t?” In fact, he bet there would be more than one villain who wished they had thought of this first.
“The… heroes?” The boy replied like an uncertain student in front of his teacher. It was actually a little bit endearing how earnest the boy was.
He couldn’t help the small smile that touched his lips and he gave the boy a wry look. “Indeed,” he said.
The boy blinked at him, then flushed when he realized that his question was a little foolish.
“Well then,” Shen Yuan took a step back. “Be ready next time.”
“Ah!” The hero said, moving forward. “I can’t just let you go!”
Shen Yuan sighed. Perhaps a little more persuasion? He rested his chin on his hand, his other hand supporting his elbow. Then he studied the hero for a while. “You look very strong,” he said.
The hero startled and blushed. “R-really?”
“Very heroic,” Shen Yuan continued. “It would be most disrespectful of me to fight without giving my all.” He took another step back. “Until that time comes… I hope you’ll keep working hard.” Okay, that part was a lie — no villain wanted a hardworking heroic enemy. But the boy was like a little white sheep, fluffy and cute. He just couldn’t help the words that slipped out.
“Wait!” The boy, still determined, leapt forward, sword in hand.
Having expected this, Shen Yuan took out his small spray bottle. He sprayed a small seed, then threw it at the hero. Immediately the seed sprouted long roots that entangled the hero, covering him completely like a ball. It wasn’t particularly strong, but it was enough to buy him enough time to slip into his hovercraft, turn on the invisibility, and escape.
When the hero cut his way out, all that remained was a small slip of paper with a time, date, and location of their next meeting. It was finished off with a friendly smiley face.
- — -
Shen Yuan, in the end, did not have to worry about his family’s disappointment. After all, villains were very pragmatic. A hero might be labelled as cowardly, but a villain would be applauded for having good self-preservation, something that sometimes fell to the wayside when young upstarts let their delusions of grandeur overwhelm their actual abilities.
There were occasionally villains who tried to lord their successful battle over others. Er-ge’s apprentice Ming Fan was one of them, but luckily the boy was far too scared of Er-ge to even look at Shen Yuan the wrong way. (He had tried once, and Er-ge had given him such a thrashing that he hadn’t dared hold his head up when Shen Yuan was around. Plus… Shen Yuan may or may not have sent a nightmare plant as a get well gift.)
His phone rang before he had even reached home. Of course his parents must have been watching the whole thing through the cameras on the hover craft.
“A-Yuan, Mama is so proud of you — “
“Papa is too!”
“Hush Papa, Mama is speaking — “ there was a sound of crackling as if they were fighting over the phone. “A-Yuan is the smartest, Mama raised the very best son. Only fools jump into battle before they’re ready.”
In the background there was the sound of sniffles then a loud voice trying to speak over his wife. “P-Papa will buy A-Yuan whatever he wants as a reward. Does A-Yuan want a plane? Or how about an island?”
His mother tsked. “Obviously he would need both! How is he supposed to get to the island without the plane? Honestly, I married a fool. A-Yuan, don’t learn from your Papa.”
Shen Yuan didn’t know if he should laugh or cry. He barely managed to say a word before they were saying goodbye, promising to stop by home soon before their next destination.
He hung up with a fond smile. He entered the large house only to get smacked on the head with his brother’s fan.
“Leaving out the back door?” Er-ge scowled. “Not even a goodbye? Were you raised a manner-less beast?” He ushered Shen Yuan to the dinner table and pushed him into his seat before loading his plate with food. “Honestly, I’ve never been so ashamed of my own family.”
“You did well,” Da-ge said calmly, taking a sip of his tea. “I couldn’t have done better myself.”
“Of course not,” Er-ge said, rolling his eyes. “He’s a beast, not a fool.”
Shen Yuan hid a smile, ducking down to take a bite. He recognized his Er-ge’s cooking and his heart felt warm.
To the side, his little sister was looking a little disappointed. “Xiao Mei?” Shen Yuan prodded.
She glanced at him with a pout. “The hero didn’t swoon as much as I thought he would,” she said with a sigh.
Shen Yuan resisted the urge to slap his hand to his face. Of course the hero didn’t swoon! Why in the world would the hero swoon? His life wasn’t a romance novel! Honestly, it was those books of hers! (Okay, so maybe Shen Yuan read some weird trashy novels too but that was beside the point!)
Patting her on the head, he served her a few dishes to take her mind off of her strange thoughts, and thought instead of his current project. He had given himself a month, which should be enough. For the next battle, he would absolutely be ready!
- — -
He wasn’t ready. He really, really, wasn’t ready. He had grafted two plants to Xiao Hong, increasing its combat prowess as it gained wind and fire elemental abilities, but the wind vines were translucent and iridescent and the the fire vines were a bold red and altogether it looked very romantic and not at all what Shen Yuan had envisioned.
“It absolutely sends the wrong message,” he muttered even as he patted one of its vines. “Makes it look like I’m about to go romance someone.” He sighed.
Xiao Hong curled a tendril and nudged his shoulder questioningly.
“Not this time,” Shen Yuan replied apologetically. “Just a few more adjustments and then you’ll be ready.”
Xiao Hong retreated and Shen Yuan tried not to feel guilty. It wasn’t the plant’s fault it was just a little off. He would have to make it up to it. Perhaps grow him a sparring friend. Xiao Hong got restless sometimes and was prone to pulling up parts of the nearby forest. Every time it did more damage, Shen Yuan’s family would applaud him for its might, but Shen Yuan was a little tired of having to replant so many trees all the time.
Donning his outfit, Shen Yuan strode out the door.
“Be smart,” Er-ge said, waving him off with his fan.
“Make him kneel,” Xiao-mei giggled.
Shen Yuan rolled his eyes at her and strode off. This time they were meeting in a somewhat more rural area, close to a factory owned by Da-ge’s rival. He couldn’t help but wish that Xiao Hong was ready, if only to help his Da-ge a little.
The hero had arrived first this time, and went on alert the moment he saw Shen Yuan appear. “This time I will defeat you,” the hero said. It had only been a few weeks but somehow the hero already seemed a little taller and broader than before. The hero bowed, then drew his sword.
Pleased at the his manners, Shen Yuan bowed in return. He had been ready in case the hero decided to use an underhanded move. Er-ge was well versed in such things and had taught Shen Yuan all the tricks to use and to look out for. But it seemed that this hero was one of the noble types. Er-ge would hate him on sight. Shen Yuan, though, couldn’t help but feel a little fond of the young man.
“My dear hero,” he said, a small smile curving his lips as he stepped forward. A classic wind swept between them, rustling his robe and the leaves between them. “Eager, are we?”
“I-I’m — “ the hero stuttered, a slight blush staining his cheeks.
Cute. Shen Yuan wondered if he’d been teased before for being so enthusiastic. Ah, he was probably the teacher’s favourite.
“But I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed,” Shen Yuan said, not willing to apologize, but feeling slightly guilty at the way the hero’s face fell.
“Again?” The hero asked uncertainly.
“Perfection does not come to those who rush,” Shen Yuan bullshitted.
The hero hesitated. “You’re not just… avoiding fighting because it’s me, are you? I — I’m sure if you wanted you could switch heroes.” The way his expression dulled made sympathy spark in Shen Yuan’s chest.
“Of course not. If such were the case, I wouldn’t have shown up in the first place.” Shen Yuan made a tutting sound, a finger pressed to his lips as he observed the boy’s wide-eyed look. Like a small fluffy sheep stepping apart from its flock.
“R-really?” The hope in the boy’s voice made Shen Yuan soften.
“Of course. Master hero is very powerful. I can tell. That is why I accept nothing less than perfection of myself. Otherwise I would not be giving face to master hero.” Shen Yuan paused when the hero’s eyes looked like they were — beginning to water? Wait, he hadn’t said anything mean, had he? Why was the boy crying? Shen Yuan was a villain, not a bully. There was a difference! He didn’t want this on his record!
“Th-this one is not a master hero,” the boy said, cheeks red. He ducked down his head. “This one is Luo Binghe.”
Wait — wait, you weren’t supposed to give out your real name! Family name was alright, but it was an unspoken rule that civilian names were kept private.
“Don’t just go spouting information like that,” Shen Yuan couldn’t help but scold. “Didn’t anyone teach you such basic rules?”
Luo Binghe’s head jerked up, eyes still unfairly wide. Then he shook his head.
“Oh,” Shen Yuan softened again. He didn’t really know what hero schools were like. Villains tended to take on promising apprentices in mentorship programs, but he’d heard that heroes went to large schools for mass-taught education. Maybe this Luo Binghe’s teacher had been less than stellar? “Well you shouldn’t tell anyone your civilian name. Not in this business. Such information is best kept secret, only shared with the ones you’re closest to. Your parents or siblings or your partner.”
Luo Binghe scuffed his foot in the grass. “I don’t have any of those,” he said a little softly.
Shen Yuan felt bad for him, but what was he supposed to say? He was a villain! He wasn’t supposed to have to comfort a hero. But the boy’s fluffy hair and brown eyes were a killer combo, and Shen Yuan sighed. “You will. Master hero Luo Binghe is strong and just. He will draw many admirers and will have a difficult time choosing his perfect partner.” Unable to resist, he reached up and patted the fluffy head. “You will see.”
Realizing what he had just done, he quickly withdrew his hand and coughed lightly into his fist. Luckily the hero didn’t seem to take offence. Instead he was beaming up at Shen Yuan as if he had received a great gift.
“This humble hero thanks master villain for his encouragement! May this humble hero know master villain’s calling?”
Shen Yuan fluttered a sleeve. “You may call me Shen Qingqiu.” It was the name all Shens took until they gained notoriety and with it, a new name that defined their success.
“Master villain Shen Qingqiu,” Luo Binghe bowed. “Please forgive my rudeness, but I must defeat you today.”
Shen Yuan laughed in an appropriately villainous manner, as was expected of him. “You can try,” he agreed. He dodged the first strike, then the second. He took a seed from his pocket and sprayed it, throwing it at Luo Binghe.
But the hero spun, his sword flashing as he cut the roots to small pieces.
Shen Yuan couldn’t help but hum in approval. “A quick learner,” he praised.
Luo Binghe blushed.
It was cute, but not cute enough to stop Shen Yuan from taking out a small plant pot, two inches in size, from his pocket. Two small white blobs jiggled in the dirt. “Xiao Bai, time to get to work.”
The jelly-like plant wiggled in response, then spat out a white sphere at the hero. Luo Binghe raised his sword, splitting it in two, but could not count for the way the plant responded to the spritz Shen Yuan had given it with his spray bottle. Cut in two, it divided then surrounded the young hero before merging once more, encasing him in a semi transluscent blob. Only Luo Binghe’s head remained free as he struggled.
“Master Shen Qingqiu seems very powerful to me,” he said, his moves sluggish, slowed by the thick goop of the plant.
“You flatter me.”
“No really,” Luo Binghe insisted. “This humble hero would be most honoured to witness Master Shen Qingqiu’s great masterpiece.”
Shen Yuan looked away. “That… it really isn’t ready.”
“You should bring it next time,” Luo Binghe said, with an encouraging smile. “Even if it isn’t ready, we can at least practice.”
Shen Yuan hesitated, looking a little uncertain. “I do aim to have it ready, but…”
“It’s alright,” Luo Binghe was just so earnest. “Master Shen Qingqiu has been very kind to this humble hero. I would be most honoured to help you in return.”
Ah, what a little white lotus. Show him a small bit of kindness and he would feel indebted. Shen Yuan almost felt bad for the way he was so tempted to agree.
“Master Shen can think of it as… as a workshop if he prefers,” Luo Binghe said. He wasn’t struggling against Xiao Bai any longer, seeming quite content to float there.
Actually, Shen Yuan had to admit that it was a pretty good idea. His family had given him many compliments but he knew that they would praise him even if he grew a withered sprout. A fresh, unbiased pair of eyes really could help.
Shen Yuan smiled. “Then,” he said, a small piece of paper held lightly between his fingers, “until next time, dear master hero.” The paper fluttered to the ground as Shen Yuan disappeared into his hover craft and made a strategic retreat.
A few minutes later, having finally broken free, the young hero picked up the piece of paper and smoothed it with careful, gentle fingers. “Until next time,” he said softly with a brilliant smile. “Next time.”
- — -
Shen Yuan grunted as he pulled Xiao Hong’s pot out of the hover craft. His lovely plant was very cooperative, drawing in its vines, but even so, the its root ball was almost as large as Shen Yuan himself. If Xiao Hong so desired, it could easily dig its roots into the ground and wind its vines around a tall skyscraper, toppling it in a matter of minutes.
Luo Binghe made a sound of amazement and Shen Yuan appreciated the young man’s flattery.
“Just a moment,” he called. “It’s a little heavy.”
“I can help!” Luo Binghe didn’t wait for his reply before going around to the other side to help push it onto the large open field.
“Thank you, Binghe,” Shen Yuan said a little absently as he maneuvered the pot off of the rolling cart.
“It is most impressive,” Luo Binghe said, looking oddly pleased.
“Hm? Oh, I just added lightning to his repertoire, but…” Shen Yuan’s face twisted beneath his mask. A multitude of firework-like sparks showered the air around him, and only seemed to emphasize the plant’s amorous colours. He couldn’t help but turn away from the eager hero, busying himself with Xiao Hong’s vines, which were beginning to spill out in curiosity.
One of them curled between his fingers and another nudged his cheek. Shen Yuan swatted it away with a light scolding. Then he turned to Luo Binghe, who was blushing. Was it just him, or had Luo Binghe gotten even taller? He swore the young man had been shorter than he was when they first met, but now Shen Yuan had to tilt his head just a little to look into his eyes.
Well, Luo Binghe probably was still growing. Heroes tended to jump into their formal battles earlier than villains. Over-eager and brash, they were often barely out of high school when they made their debuts. Villains, on the other hand, preferred to wait until they were more established. Indeed, Shen Yuan had recently graduated university, while Binghe looked like he had barely begun. Shen Yuan felt a little bad that heroes were so rushed to begin their careers as heroes. Shouldn’t they enjoy childhood a little longer?
“This is Shen-ge’s masterpiece?”
Shen Yuan startled at the name, but found it endearing. He couldn’t help but worry that the young man had too few people close to him, to call a villain so intimately.
“I can’t call it a masterpiece,” Shen Yuan said, eyeing Xiao Hong’s sweet colours and eye-catching sparkles.
“Really?” Luo Binghe said, dodging backwards as one of Xiao Hong’s vines struck out. “It seems very powerful.” He glanced at the crater that had formed where he had been standing a moment before.
“Ah, my apologies. Xiao Hong is always eager for battle. Please don’t take it personally.”
“It’s alright. I’m honoured that Xiao Hong considers me a worthy opponent.”
Shen Yuan shot him an odd look. Was that something to be proud of? But, well, Luo Binghe seemed very pleased to fend off Xiao Hong’s attacks, so Shen Yuan didn’t say anything.
“I just can’t help but feel,” Shen Yuan said with a sigh, “that it gives off the wrong atmosphere. Not at all what I’m trying to portray.”
Was that disappointment he saw in Binghe’s eyes? Nah, must be the way the light reflected oddly off the hero’s mask.
“I think it’s very striking. In — in a good way! In fact, just looking at it makes me burn with fire!” Luo Binghe patted his chest, expression determined. “It fills me with desire to — “ his eyes shifted for a moment, “to fight for what I want.”
Ah, probably for world peace or something. What a cute hero.
“You don’t think the colour is misleading?” Shen Yuan frowned.
Dirt scattered as Xiao Hong wailed its vines. A tree flew past.
“Not at all,” Luo Binghe said, sword flashing as he blocked multiple hits. “I think it’s very intimidating.”
Shen Yuan perked up. “You think so?” he stroked his chin. “The red is very bold… perhaps if I added some dark blue…”
Just then, Luo Binghe let out a cry, his sword falling to the ground with a dull thud. He had dodged Xiao Hong’s main strike but missed the one that followed a moment after. Luo Binghe ended up strung up in Xiao Hong’s vines. His arms were pulled behind his back as Xiao Hong dangled him in the air. There was a ripping sound, as the front of Luo Binghe’s shirt tore to reveal his toned, muscled chest.
Shen Yuan flushed bright red. Blinding, too blinding!! Ahh, it was as if this hero had some kind of male lead hero, making him appealing no matter the circumstance.
“Ah,” Luo Binghe said, wiggling in Xiao Hong’s grasp. The rip widened, revealing more tanned skin. “I lost.” He flushed, likely in shame. “Shen-gege is free to do with me as he pleases.”
“No no,” Shen Yuan protested. “This was just a workshop, remember? It doesn’t count. Don’t worry, this isn’t a loss.”
Luo Binghe drooped, probably in relief. Shen Yuan ordered Xiao Hong to let him go, and the plant did so reluctantly. It only perked up when Shen Yuan planted a few sticks of fertilizer as a reward.
“This was very helpful,” Shen Yuan said, smiling at Luo Binghe. “Next time I will be sure to bring a far improved version.”
Luo Binghe let out a sigh as he was released. He peered down at his ripped shirt, pulling it open a little more as he inspected the damage.
“Ah, if Binghe needs a new shirt I can definitely replace it. It’s my fault it was ruined in the first place,” Shen Yuan said apologetically.
Luo Binghe smiled. “There’s no need to worry, Shen-ge. The academy will replace it.”
“Good,” Shen Yuan nodded approvingly. “As they should.” It took a few minutes to stuff Xiao Hong back into the craft. He waved goodbye to Luo Binghe, sending him his usual note with their next meeting. “I’ll see you then.”
- — -
It had only been a few months since their last meeting, but somehow Luo Binghe seemed to have grown yet again, looking far more adult than he had when they first met. Shen Yuan wasn’t short, but now he was half a head shorter than Luo Binghe.
“I hope this still fits,” Shen Yuan said, holding up the shirt he had ordered for the hero. Even if Luo Binghe insisted that his ripped shirt was no big deal, Shen Yuan still felt bad. He worried that Binghe had no one to take care of his needs. What if they gave him the wrong size? Or an ugly colour? What if their resources were scarce and they made him sew it up himself? Shen Yuan didn’t know how these hero schools worked, so he decided not to let Binghe suffer. He didn’t think he could bear it if someone bullied his little white sheep over something as simple as a shirt!
The one he had commissioned was thin but strong, made of stretchy fibres that would protect Binghe from knife and sword attacks. It couldn’t stop a bullet, though it would slow it down. It was the bare minimum someone in this business should be wearing, he thought.
Luo Binghe’s eyes looked dangerously shiny as he took the shirt. “Shen-ge is too kind,” he said, not hesitating to take off his shirt and put the new one on and wow Shen Yuan had to look away because Binghe’s muscled chest was like a super powered magnet and Shen Yuan just wanted to reach up and squeeze and —
Coughing into his fist, Shen Yuan turned around. “Binghe shouldn’t just change out in the open in front of strangers like this. What if someone takes advantage of you?”
“Shen-ge isn’t a stranger.”
Was Binghe’s voice deeper than before? Why did it reverberate through Shen Yuan’s body like that, making his knees weak?
“Besides,” Binghe continued, “if Shen-gege took advantage of me, it would still be okay.”
Shen Yuan’s brain stuttered to a halt. Parts of it melted and flowed out his ears. “W-we should start,” he said weakly, feeling his face turn red.
“Start?” Binghe’s voice came from right behind him, a gentle breath touching Shen Yuan’s ear. “Anything Shen-gege wants, this humble hero will provide.”
Shen Yuan swallowed. Then swallowed again. Then he walked towards Xiao Hong, his arm moving with the same leg. He tottered like a wind-up toy soldier.
He almost couldn’t squeeze his spray bottle. The first try nailed himself in the face, the second went wide as he blinked the droplets out of his eyes, and the third finally hit his plant. He sighed with relief when Xiao Hong burst into action, vines moving in a frenzy that would cover his embarrassment.
Xiao Hong wasn’t quite perfect, but it was… better, he supposed. He had managed to add blue to it, though it was a softer colour than he had intended, and it gave off a faint scent of blueberries.
He heard Binghe draw his sword and turned to see him dodging lightning quick strikes, his body bending and flipping and wow, the man was flexible. And strong. Binghe had buttoned up the shirt, but even this durable material looked strained when he flexed, blocking Xiao Hong’s attacks.
Shen Yuan swallowed and watched Binghe begin to move faster and faster, slipping around in circles, until Xiao Hong’s vines began to twine around themselves, twisting into knots and smacking into itself as Luo Binghe angled himself in just the right way.
Wow. Binghe seemed to glow in a backdrop of bold red and gentle pink and an undercurrent of blue, all finished off with firework sparks and shimmering iridescence. He looked like a work of art. Shen Yuan could barely bring himself to blink.
He absently sprayed Xiao Hong again, encouraging the plant to untangle itself and to stop falling for Binghe’s taunts. He murmured out commands, slightly dazed at the way Binghe’s skin gleamed with a faint sheen of sweat, and the way his long, curled hair would flare out behind him and the way his body arced when he dodged and —
And then Binghe was shooting towards him and Shen Yuan froze at the intensity in his eyes and Xiao Hong aborted its attack, unwilling to risk hitting him and then Binghe had him pinned to the ground, his sword planted in the ground next to him.
Binghe held Shen Yuan’s wrists above his head, his body holding down his legs. He beamed. “Shen-ge won last time. This time I won.” His eyes took on a peculiar gleam. “Does this mean we tied?”
Shen Yuan blinked up at him, his brain still trying to catch up with the past few seconds. “I suppose it does,” he mused, his brain struggling to register his defeat and the way Binghe’s body was pressed against his, hot and powerful, and the way Binghe’s lips were curled so sweetly and…
This was unprecedented. What happened when a hero and villain tied?
- — -
Shen Yuan stared at Binghe’s stupidly handsome face made even more beautiful by the brilliant red of his wedding robes. Perfectly embroidered to match his own.
They exchanged vows. They drank their nuptial wine. They did their three bows.
And, staring into Binghe’s eyes, his heart swollen to bursting, he thought that postponing his formal battle really had been the best choice.