Shen Yuan rarely dreamed. Or, he probably dreamed, but they always were gone from his memory before he woke. The few dreams he remembered were incredibly banal, everyday actions on repeat before blearily waking up.
Which is why he was so surprised to find himself lucid dreaming. He was sitting in a beautiful bamboo forest, warm wind shaking the narrow leaves and the thought rose in him like a bubble rising to the surface -- this was a dream.
As soon as it crossed his awareness he knew it was true, and he couldn’t help being excited. A real lucid dream! Like Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly! Shen Yuan immediately tried to turn himself into a butterfly, scrunching his eyes up and holding his arms in front of him, but nothing happened. Ah, well, not like he had the abilities of a Taoist monk, he’s not too disappointed. He still had this beautiful forest to investigate.
He wandered between the stalks of bamboo, feeling the leaves between his fingers. They felt so real, the fuzzy underside tickling his skin, and when he plucked one and held it up to his nose he could smell it. The only thing distinguishing it from reality is how vibrant and preternaturally perfect every stalk was, not a single blemish marring the green.
He isn’t sure how long he spent wandering the forest. Time was fuzzy, blurring together, but eventually he became aware that there was someone else there, in the way knowledge comes in dreams. He turned, but there was no one behind him.
Huh. Maybe they were further in? He decided to leave the forest, and within the next few steps he stumbled into a clearing that opened to the edge of a cliff. There was a man in ornate black robes, the gold embroidery of dragons glittering in the sunlight of the open canopy.
Shen Yuan smiled happily. A dream character! Maybe they can chat! He walked over and called out to them politely.
The figure turned and holy shit, didn’t they kind of look like Luo Binghe? The demon mark on the forehead was a dead giveaway, even if all the official art gave the Demon Lord straight hair. Ignoring that, the severe face, the haughty look of importance, the confidant stance that oozed power -- this could totally be Luo Binghe from Proud Immortal Demon Way!
Good job dream abilities! He dreamt up his favorite character, and he must say he did a great job. This was probably the coolest thing to ever happen to him.
Probably-Luo Binghe flicked his eyes over Shen Yuan, assessing him quickly, before dismissing him. “You’re not who I’m looking for. Leave.”
Wow, maybe he did too good dreaming up this Luo Binghe. He’s totally a dick. Very in character, Shen Yuan can’t remember the last time Luo Binghe treated a man with any sort of respect in the story. Probably the last time Mobei-jun made a 5-second appearance to info-drop.
But hey, this was his lucid dream, and he wanted to talk to his favorite character! So, undeterred, Shen Yuan tried again. “Who are you looking for? Perhaps I can help.”
Luo Binghe glanced at him like he was dirt. “I doubt it.”
Shen Yuan puffed out his cheeks in indignation. “How do you know that?” He read every chapter of that shitty plothole-infested novel! If you are looking for someone, who better to ask than the man who once made a catalogue of every character based on the very few archetypes they all seemed to fall into?
Luo Binghe went from severe indifference to annoyance, his voice taking on a distinctly dangerous edge. “I told you to leave.”
’This is my dream, how about you leave?’ Shen Yuan thought, but he doubted it would do him much good to devolve into an argument about dreams with his own dream. Also, it didn’t seem as he had as much control over the world as he thought, because otherwise he would totally make this a dream where he traveled around and fought monsters with Luo Binghe.
“Well, I don’t know why you have to be so rude, but I suppose if this one is intruding I could leave you to your thoughts,” he said in his best dignified tone. Luo Binghe turned back around, leaving Shen Yuan with only a view of his broad shoulders. Pouting, Shen Yuan gave one final try. “I hope you find who you’re looking for.”
Luo Binghe didn’t move. “I will.”
And then Shen Yuan woke up.
When he next had the dream a few days later, he was in the clearing already. He was facing Luo Binghe, Xin Mo pointed to the earth where it was grasped in his hands. His expression quickly turned sour upon seeing Shen Yuan.
“You’re back,” he said, his jawline twitching as he clenched his teeth. Who gave this man the right to be so incredibly, terrifyingly handsome? Even when looking like he was about to make Shen Yuan into a meat stick he still looked like a model! Unfair!
Shen Yuan glanced away, unable to speak when confronted with a face of literal perfection. “I suppose so. Hello again, can I assume you haven’t found your person yet?”
Luo Binghe glared, which Shen Yuan assumed was a yes. What a weird plot this was. “I will also assume you still don’t want my help.”
He only got a derisive snort in response. “What can you do? You don’t even appear to be a cultivator.”
Looking down at his distinctly modern sweatpants and shirt, Shen Yuan was forced to agree. It wasn’t his fault there was no cultivation in real life, dream man!
“However, I am curious how you managed to return,” Luo Binghe asked, appearing to be mostly talking to himself. “You’re obviously not him, yet this is the second time you appeared in his place.”
Him? How odd, Shen Yuan would have bet anything Luo Binghe was looking for a woman. Some future one-off love interest that his brain generated a plot for from reading the same romance executed poorly over and over. But it’s man! How different, how intriguing! Take that, shitty Airplane, his dream-brain could write a more compelling story than you!
“What do you need this man for? I find it hard to believe there is anything you would require assistance with,” Shen Yuan asked. OP protagonist never needed help, every problem he encountered he overcame, even if it meant writing in a new power with no buildup or foreshadowing whatsoever.
“I don’t need him,” Luo Binghe spit venomously. Yes, like that, Shen Yuan nodded in his brain. Your self-sufficiency is what draws in the young male audience, protagonist, don’t isolate the majority of your readers by relying on others for help!
“I don’t need you, either,” he continued, which was absolutely true, but hey. Luo Binghe sheathed Xin Mo, which didn’t make him any less threatening but did stop images of him cutting Shen Yuan into pork slices from dancing through his mind. “I don’t know how you managed to get back here. There must be some mistake in the summoning, but it won’t be happening again.”
Shen Yuan briefly wondered if it was a self drag to have a dream creation insult him before he woke up again.
In the days after, Shen Yuan couldn’t stop thinking about his weird dream series. He went about his usual routine of waking up late, eating leftovers, checking all his ongoing webnovels for updates, writing reviews of those updates, playing video games, ordering food delivered for dinner, staying up all night finding and reading new webnovels, and then passing out with only the occasional deviation to shower. But he kept finding himself distracted, staring off into space and thinking about the way the Luo Binghe in his dream seemed so cold, how his face twisted in anger, the way his eyes remained completely empty.
He was almost relieved to find himself back in the bamboo forest, though he immediately knew something was different; he could hear a conversation.
“Tell me who you are,” came the commanding voice of Luo Binghe. The irritation made it sound as though this was not the beginning of their talk.
“Is there nothing left in your brain but rot? I find it hard to believe you don’t know who I am,” came another voice, calm and haughty, drifting on the breeze. Shen Yuan made his way to the clearing, following the sounds.
“Why are you always the same, how come none of you are him?” Luo Binghe said, voice breaking in frustration. “Every Shen Qingqiu I’ve summoned and they’ve all been the cruel, disgusting creature you are, so what made him so different?”
Shen Yuan peeked around the stalks of bamboo to see Luo Binghe standing, a sword pointed at the throat of a kneeling man. Shen Yuan could see the man’s face, that of a cold beauty, an imperious sneer present even from his position on his knees.
“I have no inclination as to what you are speaking off, and can only conclude they are the ravings of a lunatic,” the man replied.
Could this be Shen Qingqiu? It made sense, given what Luo Binghe had said, and the description of the master from hell given in the novel. Shen Yuan felt he should be excited to see a face-off between his favorite and least favorite characters. After all, how many times had he called for Shen Qingqiu’s castration in the comments? Instead, he just felt uncomfortably voyeuristic.
“Of course,” Luo Binghe laughed bitterly. The point of his sword drew a bead of blood. “How foolish of this lowly disciple, for expecting esteemed Master Shen to ever grace him with aid. After all, when have you provided me with anything but more torment?”
Shen Qingqiu deepened his glare. “Ungrateful beast. I hope you never find what you’re looking for.”
The swordpoint wavered before pressing harder. The bead turned into a thin stream. “Well, there has always been one way you’ve been able to bring me peace.”
Luo Binghe drove the sword through Shen Qingqiu’s throat. Even then, the glare never left his face as he crumbled into grey dust, discorperating beneath the blade.
A long moment passed, where a convenient wind blew the dust from the ground and off the mountainside. Eventually. Luo Binghe placed his sword back in its sheath and let out a breath. “You can come out, you know. It’s not as if you can hide from me here.”
Shen Yuan emerged from the forest. “Sorry. I thought you might want to be alone.” Gah, why did he feel so weird! It was like he had just intruded on some deeply personal moment, even knowing it wasn’t real didn’t assuage the guilt. Which made no sense! Stupid dream feelings.
He walked over slowly, but Luo Binghe never turned to acknowledge him. Instead he kept staring off the side of the mountain, where endless clouds passed beneath them, hiding the landscape.
“I thought I did too,” he said, sounding oddly vulnerable. “But you keep coming back, so I might as well let you stay.”
Ah yes, what an endorsing compliment. It was pretty accurate to his whole person though, he didn’t have much going for him other than just sticking around like old gum in his real life either.
“Well, thanks for not getting rid of me this time,” Shen Yuan tried to joke. “I haven’t gotten the chance to enjoy this view yet.”
Luo Binghe paused before he responded, speaking quietly. “I hate this stupid place. If I could manage the summoning anywhere else I would.”
Shen Yuan wanted to ask what the hell he meant by that, but he was probably supposed to know and he didn’t want to look stupid in front of the hero to beat all heros, so instead he said, “Ah.” Like an idiot.
Another long moment passed as they watched the undulating forms of the clouds. “I don’t know how you came here this time,” Luo Binghe said. Like the last dream, it felt more like he was talking to himself, and Shen Yuan just happened to be there to hear it. “Last time it was just some mistake that brought you through the tear in the worlds, but this time it brought that Shen Qingqiu. How did you manage to come as well?”
Great, so now he was a mistake. This whole dream was doing wonders for his self confidence.
“Maybe I’m meant to be here,” he bullshitted, playing along.
Luo Binghe actually turned to give him an assessing look, and this time it didn’t end with a dismissive turn. “What world are you from?”
“Uh,” said Shen Yuan, having no idea how to respond to that. “Earth?”
“What’s it like there?” Luo Binghe asked, sounding almost interested. Not quite, but almost. “You look... different, despite clearly being human.”
“Well, there’s no cultivation,” he started, “so we use technology to make tools to substitute for things like transportation or communication. And with that we can make bigger cities, since we don’t need as many farmers. And buildings are a lot taller, and there are a lot more people.”
Luo Binghe hummed. “It sounds interesting. It seems those changes extend to appearance as well,” he said, gesturing to Shen Yuan’s short hair and modern clothes.
“Some people still dress like your world, for festivales and stuff, but short hair is much more common, especially for men. It was more common in the past, though.” Shen Yuan probably didn’t have the knowledge to explain colonialism and Western influences to a dreamed-up demon lord, so he just stopped at that.
“Hm.” The lack of response wasn’t too encouraging, but when Shen Yuan looked closely at his face he seemed significantly more relaxed. That horrible, cold rage was gone, at least. He didn’t look like he was one step from falling apart, either.
The silence that followed seemed much lighter than before. “You should leave, now,” Luo Binghe said.
Shen Yuan tried not to take it personally. Of course he would be too busy to keep some random guy company, he was the emperor of the combined realms. Even dream logic couldn’t erase that.
“Okay,” Shen Yuan said, trying not to sound like a bitter mistress asked to leave before the wife got home.
“You’ll be back,” Luo Binghe said. Shen Yuan jerked to look at him in surprise. It wasn’t an invitation, or even any sort of promise. Just sort of a statement of the inevitable. Shen Yuan felt a small smile cross his face anyway.
“I will! See you soon,” he said cheerily.
The last thing he saw before he woke up was Luo Binghe rolling his eyes.
It was over a week before he had the dream again, and embarrassingly enough it was probably the best his sleep schedule had been since he dropped out of university. Every night he would go to bed at an almost normal hour in the hopes that he would have the dream again, though he always woke up well-rested and disappointed.
When he did end up back in the familiar clearing, he almost jumped for joy. Even with how awkward things had been last time, these dreams were the most interesting thing to happen to him in his entire life. Which was definitely super pathetic, but he wasn’t going to think about that.
This time though was a little different. There was a low table in the clearing, with a teapot on an iron stand in the center.
“I thought we could enjoy some tea together,” said a voice directly behind him, and Shen Yuan’s soul briefly left his body.
“Ah! Don’t scare me like that,” he scolded, whipping around to glare at Luo Binghe, a hand over his heart.
Luo Binghe chuckled. “Don’t be so easy to sneak up on,” he replied, waving a dramatic sleeve over to the table. “Sit with me.”
Shen Yuan wasn’t about to say no to tea with Luo freaking Binghe. Didn’t rich fans pay huge sums just to have meals with their favorite celebrities? And here he was, getting to do it for free! Even if it was all a dream, he was not about to pass this up.
They sat together, Shen Yuan pouring the tea for both of them when Luo Binghe made no move to do so. Which, of course he wouldn’t, he was royalty; everyone served him, not the other way around.
After they had taken their first sips of the tea, Luo Binghe began the conversation. “I’ve had some time to think, since our last interaction. Tell me, is violence a common occurrence in your world?”
Where was this coming from? Was this some sort of threat? Shen Yuan tried to keep his cool, not showing his panic on his face. “In fact, no. It’s very rare to experience any extreme violence where I’m from.” At least, for a wealthy son like him who never left his apartment it was.
“Then I’m curious,” Luo Binghe stated, setting down his teacup with a clink, “why you were so calm watching me kill that creature in front of your eyes.”
Shen Yuan nervously gulped his tea. He couldn’t exactly say he had read Luo Binghe brutally torture the man, and a little light stabbing was nothing compared to that. Shen Yuan watched more violent deaths in movies all the time. But for some reason, he felt like bringing up that Luo Binghe was a character and watching him kill the villain was no big deal would break whatever suspension of disbelief was happening in these dreams.
“Did he deserve it?” he said instead. “It sounded like you two had history.”
Luo Binghe looked down at his tea. “Yes, we do. He deserved much worse than that, for all he’s done to me.”
Shen Yuan nodded, trying to look thoughtful and wise. “I don't see how it is my place to judge the affairs of others. I can hardly look down on your cruelty, if what you say is true.”
A bitter smile crossed Luo Binghe’s face. “Even without knowing the whole story?”
“That is private,” Shen Yuan said, as if he hadn’t read their entire dirty history already. “Though we don’t know each other well, you don’t seem the type to dole out unjust punishment, and he didn’t sound like the kind of person who deserved mercy. I won’t demand personal, painful details just so I can play at some sort of judge over your actions.”
A cold gust of wind blew from the edge of the cliff, causing Shen Yuan to shiver and the bamboo leaves to rattle. Luo Binghe looked away from him, his face horribly blank. “What if I deserved it too, back then?”
Rage clawed its way up Shen Yuan’s chest. Oh, bullshit! No way was he letting Luo Binghe talk about himself like that! His piece of shit Shizun deserved no mercy!
“Forgive me, but that man was your old master, correct?” Shen Yuan began, voice hot and fast with anger. “That means you would have been a child training under him. Anyone who mistreats a child has no excuse, ever, for that sort of cruelty. It doesn't matter what you did, no one deserves to be hurt by an adult in charge of their care and protection. It was his job to raise you, and he betrayed that bond, and that is not your fault.”
During his rant, he had risen up on his knees, palms flat on the table so he could lean closer to Luo Binghe, who was looking at him with some level of surprise. Probably over how impassioned he was, over an issue he had no personal involvement in.
“Perhaps I was a failure of a disciple,” he said, even though Shen Yuan knew he knew that wasn’t the case. He’d had that realization after he fell into the endless abyss, that it wasn’t him who was the beast, but his shizun. “Perhaps I disrespected him at every turn, or was weak and pathetic, unable to master any cultivation.”
Shen Yuan gaped. Even though he was sure Luo Binghe knew that he had been sabotaged, he remembers these insecurities coming from the narration of a young Binghe, unsure and miserable without a single person to tell him he was worth something.
Reaching across the table, he confidently grabbed Luo Binghe’s large, callused hands between his own. “Luo Binghe, even if you had spit in his face every day, you would not have deserved what he did to you. No child deserves that, no matter how badly they behave, because they are children. It doesn’t matter if you had been the perfect disciple or the worst, he still would have treated you that way and you still would not have deserved it.”
Luo Binghe stared back at him, his face unreadable, eyes dark. “You speak so confidently of events you claim not to know. Tell me,” and he switched their hands so his were the ones grasping Shen Yuan’s wrists, “how do you know my name.”
“Um,” he started, but the sentence had nowhere to go.
“You’re him, aren’t you,” and there was something worryingly predatory in those eyes. The table below them disappeared and Shen Yuan dropped forward where his weight was leaning on it, but Luo Binghe didn’t let him fall. “You’re Shen Qingqiu.”
Alert! Alert! Protagonist has just accused you of being the guy who he brutally murdered! Multiple times! You are about to die!
Shen Yuan vigorously shook his head. “No no no, I’m Shen Yuan, I’m just some guy, I am definitely not Shen Qingqiu.”
“But you are,” and Shen Yuan was still leaning forward, which made their height difference even more profound, as if Luo Binghe needed any additional help on that front. “You look nothing like him, which is why I never suspected, but how else could you appear when I was trying to summon that kind Shen Qingqiu?”
Have you lost your mind?! What kind Shen Qingqiu, when has Shen Qingqiu ever been kind?! Shen Yuan kept looking up at Luo Binghe towering above him, shaking his head.
“You sound like him, when you speak sometimes,” Luo Binghe continued. “No one has ever spoken to me like that, like I’m... something to be protected. No one, except him.”
He pulled Shen Yuan’s arms to press against his chest, and Shen Yuan stumbled closer. His breath tickled Shen Yuan’s hair, and he suddenly felt very warm. This dream has gotten out of hand! Brain, he wants out, you’ve lost the plot and nothing is making sense, your characters are OOC and he is inches away from dying, let him wake up!
The dream began to grow dim and indistinct around the edges, a hazy darkness obscuring the details. Luo Binghe growled and gripped him tighter. “No, you can’t leave.” A hand dropped from his wrists, sliding down to between his shoulder blades to press them closer. Shen Yuan’s hands were securely trapped between them, and no amount of wiggling was setting him free. “I’ve spent too long trying to find you, I won’t let you leave.”
His tone sent shivers down Shen Yuan’s back. He really was going to die in this dream. Even if it wasn’t real, he really did not want to experience that. Wake up, wake up, wake up!
The other hand that had been holding his wrists went to Luo Binghe’s mouth as he punctured the skin with his canine, bringing the bloody finger down to Shen Yuan’s forehead. Shen Yuan redoubled his efforts to wiggle free, because he knew exactly what that demon blood could do, and he didn’t want to experience the worst agony possible, no thank you! Curse him for reading YY novels, maybe if he had stuck to innocent, conflict-less novels, he wouldn’t have been able to imagine this stupid torture scenario!
But Luo Binghe didn’t bring the blood to his mouth; instead, he pressed it to his forehead, drawing something Shen Yuan couldn’t see. His vision was growing even darker at the edges, and everything was blurred except for Luo Binghe’s face in front of him.
“Don’t worry,” Luo Binghe said. “I’ll find you again.”
Shen Yuan woke up before he could scream, ’That is exactly what I’m worried about!’
As he lay awake in his bed, sheet twisted around his clammy legs, cars honking on the busy street below, he swore he was never going to sleep again.
Shen Yuan had gone without sleep for long periods before, mostly on accident when he got really sucked into something and didn’t notice until he opened his curtains and realized it was midday. Normally, he would just go to bed once he realized how long he had been awake, crash for a solid day, and then reset and be fine.
He knew staying up wasn’t a good long-term plan, but what else was he supposed to do? His mother probably would have told him to go to some traditional medicine shop and buy something for dreams, but then he would have to drink some disgusting tea that took hours to even figure out how to brew right and he would probably still have Luo Binghe trying to murder him when he went to sleep. So he figured he could just stay up until he was so tired he wouldn’t be able to dream.
By hour thirty-something, this plan was looking even stupider than it had at the start. His hands were shaking so bad he dropped a cup on his foot, and he hadn’t even registered it had happened until a minute later. He was jumping at every noise from the surrounding apartments, and at one point he’s pretty sure he almost ate soap. The only thing keeping him going was the terrifying anxiety of what he would dream when he finally fell asleep.
After almost two days straight he was playing video games, the moments between blinks getting shorter, when he found himself curled up on the arm of the couch and he couldn’t bring himself to care to keep himself awake any longer and passed out.
Thankfully, he didn’t dream. It was a blissful, blank sleep, like those he had enjoyed his entire life before two weeks ago. He woke up slowly, eyes crusted shut, awareness coming in waves, before he finally was fully awake. Shen Yuan was ready to weep tears of joy. No freaky dreams of Luo Binghe chasing him through the woods with Xin Mo!
He rubbed the crust off his eyes, opening them blearily, only to see that he wasn’t alone. Leaning over where he laid on the couch was a tall, darkly dressed man.
“Found you,” Luo Binghe crooned, a devilish smirk pulling at his features in the half-light.
Shen Yuan screamed and slapped him across the face.