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Betwixt mine eye and heart

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan opens his eyes.

He’s surrounded by darkness—no light, no discernible shapes, nothing. Breathing deep, he feels the sensation of his body floating as though it’s in zero gravity, buoyant and weightless. His fingers twitch and his head turns from side to side, but he can’t move much else. Can’t smell, or hear, or feel anything, either.

Where the hell am I, he thinks, heart seizing.

As if in response, a mechanical voice echoes through the void, coming from all directions.

[Welcome to the Proud Immortal Demon’s Way. Please wait while the System is booting...]

“The Proud Immortal Demon’s Way," created and developed by Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky.

An indie love simulation game that’s a horrific, unoriginal blend of the British magical school system from Harry Potter, Japanese high school romance from shoujo manga, and Chinese fantasy concepts from xianxia novels. The plot is unimaginative, the dialogue cringe-worthy, and the characters, one-dimensional. It’s like the game developer puked out this putrid mess after an extended acid trip, and yet, the damn thing is Shen Yuan’s greatest guilty pleasure.

What man can resist playing as Luo Binghe, the male stallion protagonist? A handsome half-demon student of Cang Qiong School of Cultivation that possesses god-like traits and the option to bed any female character. There's the whole tragic childhood bit, of course, being the son of a demon and a human, but he surmounts the pain, the abuse, and the story ends with him exacting revenge on all the scums who tried to break him and getting the woman of his choice. 

For Shen Yuan, who spends his free time with his game consoles and his books, it’s the perfect fantasy. One that allows him to look past the fatal flaws of an otherwise idiotic game.

And now he’s in said idiotic game?

All right, Shen Yuan. Think. Focus. What happened before the floaty black void?

Last he remembers, he was crossing the street with the green walk light on. He also had his head down. Why did he have his head down? Ah yes. He had his head down because he was rummaging in his bag for his phone; the stupid thing was ringing, ringing, ringing incessantly, and then… then he looked up to the sound of a horn—

—oh, right, that’s the last thing he remembers.

The front of a bus rushing up towards him.

So he’s dead, then.

Dead as a doorknob.

Deader than his great grand-aunt who keeled over from eating too many dumplings last week. 

...dear god, he’s fucking dead.

And, somehow, transported into a love simulation game.

Shen Yuan breathes again. In and out, in and out.

It’s fine, he tells himself. Totally fine. There must be worse hells than building a harem as a male stallion protagonist in a love simulation game.

Even if it’s the shittiest game of the century.

The voice rings out, loud and clear.

[Thank you for your patience. The System is ready for you.]

Darkness consumes him before he can truly panic.

 


 

Shen Yuan opens his eyes.

For a start, it’s not darkness that greets him. No, he’s on a bed this time, with white curtains and mint-green tassels hanging at the corners. He sits up, gaze dropping down as he lifts his hands—long, delicate fingers, gauzy inner robes, pale slender legs.

Not at all how he recalls Luo Binghe from “The Proud Immortal Demon’s Way.”

Rolling out of bed, Shen Yuan grabs the mirror from the desk, looks at his reflection—

—and promptly screams.

He’s not Luo Binghe! He’s Shen Qingqiu! The scum villain NPC that abuses the protagonist throughout their school days, gets expelled for his wicked, scheming ways, and then is tortured to death by the protagonist.

Tortured. To death.

Shen Yuan believes the exact phrase was, “carved into a human stick.”

“System,” he shrieks. “Why’d you put me in a character that’s going to die?”

The mechanical voice returns, reverberating in Shen Yuan’s mind.

[Once again, welcome to the Proud Immortal Demon's Way. Your soul has bound to the body of Shen Qingqiu.]

“Are you ignoring me!?”

[Your mission is to achieve a Romantic ending within the academic year before graduation. Otherwise, the System will reboot itself.]

“Reboot?” Shen Yuan yelps. “What does reboot mean? Am I going to die? Why would that matter if my character dies anyway? And how I supposed to get a Romantic ending as Shen Qingqiu? Steal women from the protagonist? Like that’s not going to lead to my death?”

A pause, before the voice chimes in again.

[Would you like a profile of your character?]

Shen Yuan drops his head in his hands. No matter what, this stupid System isn’t willing to answer any of his questions.

“Yes,” he says through gritted teeth.

There’s a loud ding sound.

[Shen Qingqiu. Birth name: Shen Jiu. 22 years old. 7th year student and Senior of Qing Jing Peak in the Cang Qiong School of Cultivation. Passed the Comprehensive Cultivation Examination (CCE) in his 5th year. Sword name: Xiu Ya. Anticipated graduation: end of this academic year. Starting parameters are as follows:  ]

Well, of course. Shen Qingqiu was conniving and wicked and loathed by everyone and their mothers; it’s no wonder his Respect and Kindness parameters are so low compared to his Intelligence. But a Romantic ending typically requires a specific set of parameters based on the chosen partner. A character who values Kindness, for example, would want Shen Qingqiu to have a Kindness level of 200, whereas a different character might prefer higher levels of Culture. He'll have to raise his parameters like a mad man within the academic year.

The thought calms him, somehow, gives him something to latch onto. It's a game, that's all. A shitty game in the afterlife, but a game nonetheless.

Raising his head, Shen Yuan takes stock of his room. It’s neat and immaculate, the complete opposite of his own room in the real world. Fans are also on display, rows and rows of fans of all patterns and designs. In-game illustrations of Shen Qingqiu always depict him holding a fan, but Shen Yuan didn’t think the character’s obsession went quite this far.

After brushing his hair (good thing he's had experience combing his sister's hair) and pulling on the green uniform of Qing Jing Peak (Shen Qingqiu sure loved green), Shen Yuan takes his time choosing a fan from the vast collection. He picks a light grey one with a trail of green leaves across the front. Slips it in his belt before he straps on his sword, marveling for a moment at the light weight, that he even has a sword to carry.

Then, he spends the next few minutes staring at the door, fists curling and uncurling by his sides.

He can do this.

He can do this.

No longer is he Shen Yuan—awkward and sardonic Shen Yuan, who hasn’t found a job or girlfriend for longer than he’s embarrassed to admit.

He’s Shen Qingqiu, Senior of Qing Jing Peak. Cool, elegant, cultured.

Also: bitter, resentful, and petty as all hell, his mind supplies unhelpfully.

Exhaling, Shen Qingqiu slides the door open and steps out.

Below the flight of stairs is the common room, a cozy space where the students of Qing Jing Peak spend their free time. They leap to their feet the second Shen Qingqiu arrives, fear reflected clear as day on their young faces.  

Just what on earth did the original do to these poor kids?

“Good morning, Senior Shen,” the students chorus in unison, fists hitting palms in salute.

Shen Qingqiu nods, letting his eyes roam over them as he flicks open his fan. He picks out two that he can recognize from his gameplay: Ning Yingying and Ming Fan.

Ning Yingying is the first female the protagonist meets in the original, and the first option to flirt with and seduce into bed. Pure and innocent, this sweet sister is considered among fans as one of the easiest to win over in the game.

Ming Fan, on the other hand, is trouble. He fanned the flames of the protagonist's vengeful heart, adding pranks and dumb tricks to the original Shen Qingqiu's abusive treatment. (Ming Fan didn't survive Luo Binghe's wrath, either.)

“Luo Binghe is waiting for you in the bamboo house, Senior Shen,” says Trouble, with eager eyes. “I’ll bet he failed the assignments you gave him again.”

Shen Qingqiu has the sudden image of a small dog humping frantically against his ankle. He hides the smirk that threatens to surface behind his fan.

Despite the obvious effort at sucking up, Shen Qingqiu is thankful for Ming Fan's reminder of the plot. The original Shen Qingqiu had offered to tutor Luo Binghe when the protagonist transferred as a second year student from the Institute of Demonic Cultivation. Bullied and ostracized for his demon heritage, Luo Binghe was initially filled with gratitude for what looked like a gesture of kindness. Little did Luo Binghe know that Shen Qingqiu had merely wanted a slave to answer his beck and call, to call him “Shizun” as he believed he rightfully deserved.

“Please, Senior Shen,” Ning Yingying speaks up, her wavering voice as gentle as a spring breeze. “A-Luo is really trying his hardest.”

Shen Qingqiu resists the urge to clutch at his chest. What a sweet child! What a pure heart! The “world's little sister” is not an exaggerated fan title for this character.

“I won't hurt him,” he assures her.

And with that single declaration, he sweeps out of the common room, missing the exchange of startled looks among the students.

 


 

The bamboo house would have been cramped if not for the sparse furniture inside. One table, two chairs, and a small bed in the corner—just enough for the night. Barely. And Luo Binghe has accepted it as his living quarters, wholeheartedly, assuming that this is all the generosity that the original Shen Qingqiu can afford to provide. (It’s not.)

When Shen Qingqiu enters, Luo Binghe’s reaction is no different from the other students. Rising to his feet, he greets Shen Qingqiu with a “Shizun!” and a salute, before he pushes a crumpled sheet across the table. Mumbles, head bowed, that he tried his best to copy the Heart Sutra as Shizun has instructed, he really did, please forgive him for his bad handwriting.

Shen Qingqiu smooths out the sheet before he makes a great show of studying the writings, eyes flicking up to study Luo Binghe instead.

So this is the male stallion protagonist of the Proud Immortal Demon's Way.

It’s so easy to forget that Luo Binghe starts out as a sweet, humble boy. Naive, even. Hard to believe that this is the same character who will, later, want to crush Shen Qingqiu's bones into dust.

Yet, with the long eyelashes, the high cheekbones, the broad shoulders and lean build, his handsome looks are already every inch a protagonist’s. And his eyes, oh those eyes. Bright as stars, every female sings verses of his eyes, the way they glint like dark obsidians in the light, the way they can make even the straightest man pregnant with a single gaze.

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. Right, that's enough of that. He should be figuring out Luo Binghe's current status, not topping Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky's flowery descriptions.

A quick mental calculation helps him to place this Luo Binghe as a 3rd year, at the tender age of eighteen.

One year of mistreatment, evident in the dark bruise peeking out from under Luo Binghe's collar.

Time to rectify that bullshit.

Shen Qingqiu flips over the sheet and sets it down on the table. Luo Binghe’s throat bobs as he swallows, hands clasped behind his back as if awaiting punishment.

Well, punishment is not what he'll get. Not today, not anymore.

“How have you been?”

Luo Binghe blinks, surprised. Then, with a nod, “Well. Ning-mei has been kind to me, and I am grateful for Shizun’s tutoring.”

Ah, so he has affection for Ning Yingying, just as he did in the original. Even if the player chooses not to pursue Ning Yingying, Luo Binghe will continue to have private scenes with her, some of them alluding to a more intimate relationship than mere allies. It’s to be expected, given the circumstances.

“And your classes?” Shen Qingqiu asks.

“I am learning a great deal,” Luo Binghe says, carefully.

The students continue to mistreat me, is left unspoken.

Binghe ah, Binghe. This Shizun can't help you if you don't admit that you're being bullied. 

Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth to pursue further, when a gong sounds in the distance.

Really? Now?

“It’s the gong for breakfast,” Luo Binghe says, mistaking his frown for confusion. “With the Peak students at the dining hall.”

“We’ll continue this later then,” Shen Qingqiu says, moving towards the door. He looks over his shoulder when he realizes that Luo Binghe hasn’t shifted from his position. “Are you not coming?”

Luo Binghe’s eyes go wide. “...Shizun advised me to stay here, since the students don’t take well to my presence.”

“Oh. Right. Of course.” Shen Qingqiu lets out a string of swear words in his head. This is what he gets for skipping dialogue in his recent playthroughs. “Then where do you get your meals?”

“Ning-mei will bring me snacks later.”

Shen Qingqiu’s brows furrow. Luo Binghe isn’t starving by any means, but his noble form certainly isn’t as filled as it should be, and snacks are hardly nutritious.

No, this won’t do.

“I’ll be back,” he tells Luo Binghe, whose eyes only grow wider.

 


 

Walking into the dining hall makes Shen Qingqiu want to grab Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky and shake him till his teeth rattle and fall out. 

Floating candles, long oak tables that span the length of the large hall, endless heaps of delicious food? With the Cultivation schools and Peaks replacing houses, and now this hall, this setting couldn't be any more of a Hogwarts rip-off.

Copyright infringement, Airplane bro! Your idiotic game is full of it! You're just lucky that billionaire author can’t be bothered with some small-time love simulation game that only sold a few hundred digital copies!

(What the hell does that make him for buying the stupid thing?)

A deep, involuntary shudder pulls him out of his thoughts. Turning, he finds a group of students seated at the end of one of the long tables, their stares fixed on him with burning intensity. 

The Peak Seniors of the Cang Qiong School of Cultivation.

Mentally, Shen Qingqiu runs through the list.

There’s Liu Qingge, 6th year and Senior of Bai Zhan Peak. His sword skills and core cultivation are unrivalled, and if his glare is any indication, he’d like to use both techniques on Shen Qingqiu until every last bone is shattered in Shen Qingqiu's body. That’s no surprise, given that the original Shen Qingqiu, jealous of Liu Qingge’s fighting prowess, used every trick in his book to sabotage Liu Qingge’s assignments and tests. The fiasco of Liu Qingge’s CCE was the culmination of their one-sided rivalry, with Shen Qingqiu spilling scalding hot tea on Liu Qingge’s sword hand, nearly costing the other Senior his entire exam. In the original, Liu Qingge died from qi deviation, allegedly brought on by Shen Qingqiu, who was then expelled without trial. 

Next to him is Shang Qinghua, 5th year and Senior of An Ding Peak. Every teacher at Cang Qiong still questions how this bumbling fool has managed to pass the CCE. His skills are average at best, abysmal at worst, yet he has clawed his way up to the top, sitting at the apex of his oft-forgotten Peak. In the original story, not only did the protagonist have little to no interactions with him, he also died early, no more than background cannon fodder.

On Liu Qingge’s other side sits Mu Qingfang, 7th year and Senior of Qian Cao Peak. He’s the sensible one, and no less attractive than the others. Well-versed in herbs and plants, he pursues the path of healer, and as his path calls, he remains neutral in the face of all the hatred for Shen Qingqiu. Not much is known of this Senior, as the game has relatively few scenes of him compared to the rest.

Missing are two other Seniors: Qi Qingqi, a 7th year and fierce Senior of the all-female Xian Shu Peak, as well as Yue Qingyuan, an alumnus and former Senior of Qiong Ding Peak, who returns as an adjunct teacher and to occasionally fill in the role of Headmaster for the ever-sickly Elder Wu. The only kind Senior willing to look past Shen Qingqiu's flaws, he, too, died a sad death under the hands of the vengeful protagonist. 

Save for Shang Qinghua, this is a group of powerful, formidable cultivators.

And most of them hate his guts.

Shen Qingqiu quells down the urge to bolt, glides past their table to the buffet with his head held high. He can't even fathom how the original swallowed his food under the weight of such scrutiny. At the very least, he holds the knowledge that he won’t die under their hand, no matter how much they might desire it.

Still, he’s relieved to find a friendly face in Ning Yingying, who greets him cheerily at the buffet table. “Senior Shen. How was A-Luo’s scriptures today?”

“Good, good,” Shen Qingqiu says absently.

Something flickers in Ning Yingying’s eyes before it vanishes as quickly as it appeared. “That’s the first time Senior Shen has complimented A-Luo’s assignment.” Beaming, she takes a plate and offers it to him. “What will you be eating today?”

“I haven’t decided quite yet,” Shen Qingqiu hums, reaching past her to take a second plate. She gives him a puzzled look. “Can I ask you a question?”

Ning Yingying straightens, eyes as wide as Luo Binghe’s in the bamboo house. “O-Of course, Senior Shen!"

“What does Binghe like to eat?”

For a moment, Ning Yingying stares at him, mouth open. Then, a smile spreads slowly across her face, soft and bright. “I’ll tell Senior Shen everything he needs to know.”

An obnoxious ding rings out, before the System’s voice fills Shen Qingqiu’s head.

[Kindness +10, Respect +5. Well done on your first parameter increases!]

That’s it? Shen Qingqiu thinks, while Ning Yingying gives him the lowdown on Luo Binghe’s favorite foods. Just those parameters? In the original game, this sort of action was usually rewarded with at least one Heart for the increased affection.

[The Heart level parameter is not available for Ning Yingying.]

What, why? Romantic options get the Heart level parameter, so it should be available for her. It’s because she’s too easy, is that it? Or is she off-limits because the original protagonist has eyes for her? 

The voice is deadpan.

[The Heart level parameter is not available for Ning Yingying.]

I fucking hate you, Shen Qingqiu declares, flashing a mental middle finger.

Plates loaded with all of Luo Binghe’s favorites, he sweeps out of the dining hall, muttering to himself about crazy Systems and their crazy, arbitrary rules.

Back at the bamboo house, Luo Binge looks as if he's about to swoon at the sight of so much food. Shen Qingqiu busies himself with searching for utensils in that godforsaken little hut, deciding that he's going to bring in more items for Luo Binghe to use. The maternal instinct is a side effect from having a younger sister who lacks basic survival skills, like remembering to eat, or bathe, or even sleep.

Part of him wonders how she's faring now, without him.

“Shizun...” Luo Binghe's voice is filled with wonder. “Shizun did this… for me?”

Right, Shen Qingqiu thinks. He should be focusing on the present, on this poor hungry student of his. 

“Eat, eat,” he says, pushing one of the plates closer to Luo Binghe. The mountain of food wobbles, slightly. “I’m not exactly welcomed at the dining hall, either, so let's have our meals together from now on."

Luo Binghe frowns. “Did someone insult Shizun at the dining hall?” 

More like the past version of him offended everyone else in there.

Sighing, Shen Qingqiu settles onto a chair, twitching at the way it creaks in loud protest. (Yeah, these damn things need to be replaced.)

“I realize I haven't been the most… agreeable person. Nor have I done right by you.”

Luo Binghe shakes his head, about to protest, but Shen Qingqiu holds up a palm. “I haven't, you and I both know it. So, from this day forth, I intend to treat you with the respect you deserve.” He tilts his head, fan snapping open with a flick of his wrist. “Does that sound good to you, Binghe?"

Luo Binghe's smile rivals that of a thousand suns. “Yes, Shizun!”

Ding, goes the System.

[Heart level +1! Congratulations on your first Heart level parameter!!]

What the fuck???

 


 

In his room, Shen Qingqiu feels the rise of an impending seizure as he paces back and forth, carving grooves into the floor.

“The protagonist is a Romantic option? The protagonist is a Romantic option??”

[That is correct.] 

“But how can the male stallion protagonist be a Romantic option? For me, another man?”

[Gender and sexual orientation are fluid and limitless in the Proud Immortal Demon's Way.]

“All the Romantic options in the original were female!”

[Gender and sexual orientation are fluid and limitless in the Proud Immortal Demon's Way.]

“Well I’m not! I’m straight! Straight as an arrow! Straight as a right-angled triangle! So straight I'd crack if you bent me in half!”

The System is silent.

Shen Qingqiu slaps his hands to his cheeks.

Hold up.

Is this a Boys’ Love adaptation of the original game? Is that why Luo Binghe has turned gay?

Oh god, he realizes, falling back onto his bed. If this is a BL version, then he’s screwed. So screwed. Because he’s seen what happens to the male protagonists of his sister’s BL games, and they actually, literally, get screwed. Hard. Often without consent.

This must be his karma.

But karma for what? What atrocious crime has he committed to have warranted such a damning fate?

As far as he can tell, the worst thing he has ever done is call someone a “fucking asshole” for pulling his sister’s hair, but he paid for it in the form of a broken nose immediately after. Or maybe this is punishment for lying in bed all day, wasting away his parents’ money like the unfilial son that he is.

Fuck his life.

“If anyone forces himself on me, I'm kneeing the bastard right where the light don't shine,” Shen Qingqiu declares.

The voice returns then, with a slight hint of amusement.

[Remember that you can increase your parameters by attending class.]

Shen Qingqiu snorts. He just learned that his entire life has culminated into him having to seduce the male stallion protagonist of the worst love simulation in the world. Classes are the last thing on his mind right now.

“I'm taking a walk. Do I get access to a map or a list of locations?”

A whirring noise starts up.

[Please wait one moment. Opening Dating Spot Menu…]

Shen Qingqiu flinches as a translucent pop-up screen appears before him like some futuristic hologram.

[Dating Spot Menu loaded. Please select from the following:

Bamboo House
Pasture
Forest Park
Local Town
Lake  ]

“...why's the bamboo house a dating spot?”

Silence, then,

[Please select from the follow—]

“Forest Park, Forest Park,” Shen Qingqiu snaps, kneading at his forehead with a thumb and forefinger. The System never answers important questions, he should have learned that by now.

The screen slides off to reveal a second menu option.

[Where in Forest Park would you like to go? Please select from the following:

Botanical Garden
Hiking Trail
Frozen Pond  ]

Shen Qingqiu chooses the Hiking Trail, seconds before a map pops up on screen to reveal his current location and the route to the trail. Oh good, the trail leads to the Botanical Garden; he can meditate there for a while, in peace and away from his worries about Romantic endings and non-consensual dick attacks. 

Ensuring that he has Xiu Ya on him, he departs. 

The trail is beautiful at this time of year, with the warm fall colors, the smell of crisp, clean air, the refreshing brush of wind against his cheeks. It's one thing to view this as an image on the screen of a game console, quite another to actually experience it.

He's just starting to relax, admiring the scenery around him, when he hears it, just above the chilled autumn breeze.

A harsh wheezing sound.

Shen Qingqiu halts mid-step, seconds before a burst of spiritual energy strikes him, nearly throwing him off his feet. Swiftly, he rights himself, hand flying to the hilt of Xiu Ya.

His first thought is an enemy from a rival school. Some upstart from The Huan Hua Academy for Gifted Cultivators, maybe. Or a hungry demon from the Institute of Demonic Cultivation.

The last thing Shen Qingqiu expects to find is a familiar figure in pure-white robes, stumbling towards him with jerky, uneven movements. 

He stares at the handsome face, drained of all color, just as it stares back at him through bloodshot eyes.

“Liu-shidi…?”  

 


 

MESSAGE FROM THE GAME DEVELOPER

Hi friends, this is Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky! You might have noticed a few changes to the way characters are addressed in here. Because this game version of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way takes place in a school setting, the Sects are schools, the Peaks are houses, and so the characters aren't Peak Lords, but Seniors. Kind of like head prefects, but for each house! (I was inspired by the HP books, okay, inspired.)

Also, only Seniors address each other as fellow disciples, hence Shen Qingqiu's way of calling Liu Qingge “Liu-shidi.” Other students who have yet to pass the CCE and attain seniority rank must address them as “-qianbei,” or “Senior.” Of course, our Luo Binghe is special and gets to call Shen Qingqiu his Shizun!

I don’t usually elaborate this much, but some of you can be such purists when it comes to names and titles…….. (ノдヽ) wuwuwu

Oh, and if anyone wants, I'm happy to provide more explanations on the cultivation schools!

Until next time!

PS: if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all…..

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge’s breaths are harsh, his chest rising and falling at an uneven pace. He takes a step forward, swaying, the Cheng Luan sword tightly clutched in one hand, energy pulsating in the other. His feverish gaze sears deep into Shen Qingqiu as the temperature rises around them, spiritual energy fluctuating wildly in the air.

“Liu-shidi?” Shen Qingqiu ventures again.

No recognition in the dark eyes, not even the hatred reflected in their depths at the dining hall.

This situation can only mean one thing:

Qi deviation.

A plot point in the original game that, along with other events, led to Shen Qingqiu’s eventual expulsion from school.

So it wasn’t the original Shen Qingqiu that caused it, but a natural phenomenon that occurred as a result of Liu Qingge’s overzealous warrior spirit. Which is great! Fantastic, even! If he can save Liu Qingge, then expulsion may not be imminent after all. As it is, this plot point is already happening sooner than it should; Liu Qingge's qi deviation had occurred towards the end of the game.

Only problem is, how does one go about stopping a qi deviation?

From what Shen Qingqiu can recall, Liu Qingge’s meridians will have to be unblocked and his energy redistributed, both of which can only be accomplished with spiritual energy. Except this Senior is not going to be happy about having Shen Qingqiu’s hands on him right now.

Using Xiu Ya isn't an option. He has never trained with a sword nor cultivated with it; the last thing he wants to do is kill Liu Qingge by accident.

Bare fists aren't going to work. Even if Shen Qingqiu’s body has the muscles to pull off a decent punch, he doesn't have the actual skills.

He'll have to use some kind of cultivation ability to stop Liu Qingge. Slow him down, at least.

In that case, Shen Qingqiu thinks, as Liu Qingge raises his hand, energy gathering in his palm.

First things first.

Spinning round, he bolts down the path he came.

“System!” Shen Qingqiu yelps, ducking as a bolt of energy whips over his head.

The voice drops in with the usual ding.

[How may I be of service to you?]

“Give me a list of Shen Qingqiu’s abilities!”

[Do you mean cultivation techniques?]

“Yes, techniques, spells, incantations, whatever!”

A pause, before the voice returns, sounding somewhat affronted.

[Shen Qingqiu’s cultivation techniques include the following: Plucked Leaves and Flying Flowers, Thousand Leaves and Blossoms.]

Three bursts of energy, in quick succession. Shen Qingqiu barely dodges the last one. What is this, DBZ? How the hell is this mad man still so energetic during a qi deviation??

“What else?” he snaps at the System.

[That is all.]

Shen Qingqiu reins in the string of expletives that almost spills out.

It’s fine, he tells himself. It’s all good.

He’s familiar with the techniques, at least, having watched Luo Binghe use them in his playthroughs. Both involve channeling spiritual power into leaves and sending them flying at one’s opponent, with the latter as the upgraded version. Pretty useful techniques for the situation, all things considered. Plucked Leaves and Flying Flowers is perfect for a beginning cultivator like himself, and he can use it to distract Liu Qingge. Pin him down just long enough to unblock his meridians and redistribute his energy.

Easier said than done.

Flinging himself to the side of the path, Shen Qingqiu snatches a handful of leaves and sinks energy into his palms. In his panic, his first attempt turns the leaves to dust; the second rips them all to shreds. It's the third, after a deep breath and a gentle nudge of power, that finally lights up the leaves in a soft glow.

He turns just in time to find Liu Qingge shoot toward him, sword raised.

Shit—!

With one throw, the leaves slice through the air, sharp as knives.

Swiftly, Liu Qingge parries them off. Hastily, Shen Qingqiu sends more. The more Liu Qingge fends off, the more Shen Qingqiu adds to the fray, fall leaves dancing and darting around Liu Qingge like a swarm of deadly colored butterflies.

Though grateful that the season has provided him with an endless amount of projectiles, Shen Qingqiu soon starts to feel uncomfortable with how the tide is turning. If anyone were to stumble onto this scene, it would look as if he’s the bully here, attacking a victim of qi deviation!

Still, he swallows past the guilt and keeps up the flurry of leaves until he sees the way Liu Qingge’s chest heaves harder, the way his movements grow more sluggish.

The way he stumbles, just for a beat.

A beat is all Shen Qingqiu needs.

He strikes—a palm full of spiritual power slamming into Liu Qingge's back. It's meant to be a light shove, enough to drop Liu Qingge to his knees, but Shen Qingqiu hasn’t gotten a handle on his strength, on the thrust of energy into the blow.

So he can only watch in silent, slow-motion horror as Liu Qingge—great warrior of Bai Zhan Peak—smashes face-first into a faraway tree.

Oh god, he thinks.

He really did kill Liu Qingge.

Flitting over, Shen Qingqiu catches Liu Qingge before he falls, cradling the man in his arms as they sink to the ground. Breathes a sigh of relief when he hears life in the ragged breaths.

Liu Qingge's skin is burning hot, his eyes glazed with agony and confusion. There's a mark on his forehead, red and darkening, from where his face hit the hard tree trunk. Brows knitted, he stares up at Shen Qingqiu, recognition dawning, before he rasps out his first words since breakfast. “You…! What are you…”

Shen Qingqiu shushes him, gently, a finger to his lips. The gesture alone startles Liu Qingge into silence for some reason, but Shen Qingqiu isn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Uttering a mental prayer, he rests his hand on Liu Qingge's chest and sends out a surge of spiritual energy. Tries his hardest to picture a map of energy pathways in his mind's eye.

It takes what feels like eternity, but slowly, gradually, the wheezing sounds lessen, the uneven breath steadies. With each wave of energy, Liu Qingge's eyelids flutter as his body grows heavy, finally relaxing against Shen Qingqiu.

Good. Now all he has to do is carry Liu Qingge back to his room.

Shen Qingqiu spots Cheng Luan lying some distance away.

Liu Qingge and his sword.

Shen Qingqiu lets out a long exhale.

“System.”

[How may I be of—]

“The route to Bai Zhan Peak dormitories, please.”

 


 

“What have you done to Senior Liu!?”

Apparently, no one attends class in this school.

Shen Qingqiu sighs when the Bai Zhan Peak student glares at him as if he had murdered Liu Qingge and his entire family. The boy wasn't in the original often, but Shen Qingqiu knows him as Yang Yixuan, an admirer of Liu Qingge and the one student slated to take over Liu Qingge’s coveted Senior position.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t blame Yang Yixuan for his suspicions; the original Shen Qingqiu’s envy of Liu Qingge wasn’t exactly a secret. But Liu Qingge is heavy on his back, the two swords hang like weighted dumbbells on his waist, and all he wants to do is lie down and sleep for the next three days.

“Look, your Senior experienced a qi deviation—” Yang Yixuan’s gasp is more than a tad dramatic “—so I’d appreciate if you could point out his room where I can lay him down and fetch Mu-shidi.”

For a second, Yang Yixuan looks torn between yelling some more and guiding Shen Qingqiu to Liu Qingge’s room. Then, to Shen Qingqiu’s relief, he turns, gesturing for Shen Qingqiu to follow him.

Liu Qingge’s room is just as Shen Qingqiu imagined: clean, sparse, and everything in its place. No frivolous items on display, only a shelf of books and an antique writing desk, rustic and dark. Even the walls are white, devoid of paintings and scrolls. Of a life beyond cultivation.

Shaking his head, Shen Qingqiu sets Liu Qingge on the bed—white sheets, of course—before he places Cheng Luan on the desk and hurries out to Qian Cao Peak dormitories.

Mu Qingfang is unruffled but his motions are quick. He examines Liu Qingge as soon as he arrives, while Shen Qingqiu pulls up a chair, barely holding back the satisfying groan of an old man as he sinks onto the seat. The original was more of a scholar than a fighter; this body may be more physically limited than he thought.

Minutes later, Mu Qingfang turns to face Shen Qingqiu, arms folding into his sleeves. His lips are pressed in a line, and for one brief moment, Shen Qingqiu can't hear anything above the pounding in his ears. (But he unclogged the meridians, he rechanneled the flow, he—)

“Liu-shixiong is fine.”

Mu Qingfang's lips curve as Shen Qingqiu slumps against the back of his seat in relief.

“You have redistributed his energy in the nick of time.”

Someone exhales, loudly, by the door.

Mu Qingfang clicks his tongue. “You may come in if you'd like.”

A squeak, a solid thump. Then, Yang Yixuan cracks the door open to offer hasty salutes (“Thank you, Senior Mu, Senior Shen!”) before ducking out again, no doubt to spread the good news.

Shen Qingqiu understands; the joy is palpable. He brings his fist to his palm as well, head dipping in a bow. “Many thanks to Mu-shidi for his swift actions.”

Nodding, Mu Qingfang returns the salute. “I should say the same to you, Shen-shixiong. If not for you, Liu-shixiong may not be with us right now.” His eyes shift to Liu Qingge, before darting back to meet Shen Qingqiu’s. “Though I must admit that I am surprised.”

“As… as am I.”

The hoarse voice draws their attention at once, heads whipping in its direction.

On the bed, Liu Qingge is struggling to rise, sweat beading at his brow from the effort. Mu Qingfang reaches for him, pushes him back down with firm hands. “Rest, Liu-shixiong. Your body has been through an ordeal.”

Liu Qingge shoves at him, weakly, his other hand gesturing at Shen Qingqiu. “You. What are you up to?”

“You can do this later,” Mu Qingfang chides.

“I will do this now,” Liu Qingge barks, voice cracking with the force of the last word. “What the hell do you want from me, Shen Qingqiu?”

Shen Qingqiu smiles ruefully. He'd be suspicious too, if an enemy saved his life out of the blue. Especially one that has made it his life's goal to ruin Liu Qingge’s.

“Nothing,” he says.

Liu Qingge freezes.

“I want nothing,” Shen Qingqiu says again. Drifting to the bed, he takes Liu Qingge's hand in his. Brushes his thumb over a patch of skin that's rough and pink, a scar left by scalding tea. “Just your forgiveness for all I've done.”

In the silence, Liu Qingge stares up at him, eyes wide, while Mu Qingfang’s smile turns soft.

Boy, thinks Shen Qingqiu, have his mother’s period dramas come in handy. If memory serves him well, this is the point when enemies-turned-friends would grasp each other’s hands and vow to be sworn brothers, the sound of violins swelling to a crescendo in the background.

Instead, what he hears is the dreaded ding.

[Kindness +10! Respect +10! Coolness +10!]

[Your sincere actions have also greatly touched your fellow cultivator!]

[Heart level +1, Mu Qingfang! Well done, well done!!]

Motherf—

Feeling his face contort, Shen Qingqiu’s hand darts down for his fan.

Only to find it gone. His protection, his cover, his shield—gone.

Mu Qingfang frowns. “Are you all right?”

Carefully, Shen Qingqiu schools his expression into one that would return dignity to his character. “Apologies, I seem to have lost my fan. My favorite fan,” he adds, when he realizes how silly that sounds. Not that calling it his favorite makes things any less embarrassing.

“Shen-shixiong does treasure those fans,” Mu Qingfang says, kindly. Liu Qingge seems to have recovered from his surprise, his gaze now contemplative. But he remains silent as Mu Qingfang speaks again. “I’d suggest you return to your dormitory and have a good rest. I will stay to provide Liu-shixiong with some restorative herbs.”

“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu agrees, a little quickly. “Of course.”

Perfect opportunity to have a screaming session at the System in the privacy of his room.

 


 

Shen Qingqiu throws his arms into the air.

“After all that trouble I went through? He’s the one I earn a Heart with?”

[Mu Qingfang is a viable candidate for a Romantic ending.]

“He hardly showed up in the original!”

[Liu Qingge is also a viable candidate for a Romantic ending, but requires different conditions for his affection to increase.]

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes narrow at the ceiling; it feels right to assume that the voice is coming from above. “Who said anything about Liu Qingge?”

[It seemed as if you had a preference.]

“Yes, for women.”

The System goes quiet.

Shen Qingqiu sighs. “Can you at least tell me who the ‘viable candidates’ are?”

[Are you requesting for the Love Meter Menu?]

“...how about telling me what menus there are first.”

[You have access to three menus: Dating Spot, Love Meter, and Self-Growth. Dating Spot offers you a list of locations in the Proud Immortal Demon's Way; Love Meter shows romantic candidates and their current Heart levels; and Self-Growth provides your current parameters.]

All right, that's fairly similar to the original.

“Open the Love Meter Menu,” Shen Qingqiu says.

The translucent panel pops up faster than before, revealing illustrated profiles of Luo Binghe and Mu Qingfang. Above their heads sit a gaudy heart-shaped fuel gauge, the first bar of ten colored in to depict the first Heart level. Based on Shen Qingqiu’s experience with love simulation games, he’ll have to fill all ten bars, along with achieving the required parameters, to get a Romantic ending with the character of his choice.

“I only see two,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Where are the others?”

[The menu only displays the candidates you have earned a Heart level with.]

“Okay, but the whole point of this was to answer my question of, ‘who are my viable candidates’?”

[There is no menu option for that.]

Then why suggest this one!?

Muttering curses under his breath, Shen Qingqiu selects another fan—white with red camellias—and accesses the route for the Botanic Gardens. He'll meditate, bring Luo Binghe their lunch, then meditate some more. He needs clarity, reorientation. Maybe he'll even encounter his first female candidate.

With his luck, though, some demon’s more likely to show up as a viable candidate and eat him alive.

The voice slips in without warning.

[I believe the correct term is ‘voring’.]

Who asked you!?

 


 

Shen Qingqiu's sleep is restless, filled with dreams of faceless men going down on one knee and asking for his hand. He’s barely awake when he brings breakfast to Luo Binghe the next morning, his eyes and mind still cloudy with exhaustion. All this thinking and worrying, even in sleep; he really should just give in and take whatever comes his way for his own sanity.

“You look tired, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says.

Shen Qingqiu looks up at him from across the table that's made of sturdy oak, unlike the rickety thing that had the appearance of a table when he first entered the bamboo house. He replaced the chairs last evening as well. Had Qing Jing Peak students carry in a bed and shelves and a box of papers, brushes, and ink from the dormitory. (“This student will never forget Shizun's generosity,” Luo Binghe declared, practically prostrating at his feet.)

“I’m fine,” Shen Qingqiu says, offering a small smile to assure Luo Binghe, whose cheeks turn pink in response. “How is the new bed?"

“Very comfortable,” Luo Binghe says, pink cheeks darkening a shade. “All thanks to Shizun.”

“Good,” Shen Qingqiu hums.

Luo Binghe’s gaze lingers on him for a moment, before he speaks again. “Shizun seems to like congee.”

Shen Qingqiu blinks, spoon hovering in mid-air. That's right, he had a bowl of congee for dinner, too. There's just something comforting about the dish, something that grounds him amidst the madness.

“It reminds me of home,” he tells Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe nods. “Where is home for Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu considers the question; he can't exactly say an alternate reality.

“Not where, but what. For me, home is any place that has warmth in it, that has loved ones greeting me when I wake or return after a long day. A place that makes me feel safe, like a guiding star in the night when I am lost without a map.”  

Luo Binghe presses his lips together, as if deep in thought. “I see,” he says, softly.

They eat in silence for the rest of the meal. In the distance, the gong signals the start of classes.

Shen Qingqiu mentally plans out his day as he stacks the dishes for Luo Binghe to bring to the kitchens. There's the option of exploring the other locations, the other Peaks’ dormitories. Maybe even observe how Luo Binghe is faring in his classes. But he really should attend his own classes this week, if only to see how they affect his parameters.

“Binghe, would you happen to have a schedule of my classes?”

“Yes, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, brightly, ever so pleased to be of help.

How on earth could the original abuse such an earnest little lamb?

Schedule in hand, Shen Qingqiu sets off to his first class.

When he sees the rows and rows of guqin in the classroom, he can't believe his luck. Two decades of guqin under his belt; more, if the tremor in his hands hadn't ruined all chances of a career. To think he would find a use for it again in the afterlife.

Fingers curling into his palm, Shen Qingqiu chooses an inconspicuous seat in the corner, avoiding the stares of other students. He can't tell which is worse: seeing the contempt in people's eyes or feeling completely invisible in a crowd. But it's fine, really, doesn't matter. All he has to do is focus on the lesson and not make a fool of himself.

“Joining the back row today, Qingqiu-shidi?”

The way he's addressed, the voice as gentle as the ebb and flow of waves in a low tide—there’s only one person in the game that can inspire such a serene feeling.

Shen Qingqiu turns and salutes. “I’m afraid I'm not at my best, Yue-shixiong.”

Yue Qingyuan, the Senior who stood by the original Shen Qingqiu despite the barbed insults thrown at him in every game dialogue they shared. It's as though the original found Yue Qingyuan's kindness distasteful, like it made him physically ill to be within reach of such genuine compassion.

True to form, Yue Qingyuan’s smile falls at Shen Qingqiu's words. “Are you not feeling well?”

“Restless sleep,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Don't push yourself,” Yue Qingyuan says, still frowning. “I would hate for—”

He stops mid-sentence, the class stirring behind him.

Liu Qingge has stalked into the classroom and, without a word, taken the seat next to Shen Qingqiu.

“Liu-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan says above the students’ flurry of whispers. His eyes flick from Liu Qingge to Shen Qingqiu, then back to Liu Qingge again, unsure of what to make of this new development. (Neither does Shen Qingqiu, honestly.) “Mu-shidi has informed me about your qi deviation. Surely you can do with more rest.”

“I appreciate your concern." Liu Qingge cups his hands in a salute. “But that is why I have chosen the back.”

“Fair enough,” Yue Qingyuan says. He shoots a final glance at Shen Qingqiu, expression unreadable, before he sweeps to the front of the classroom and settles behind the guqin.

As Yue Qingyuan begins his lecture, Shen Qingqiu takes the opportunity to sneak a look at Liu Qingge. It's a wonder that he's not more popular with the female cultivators, with that angled jawline, the sharp cheekbones, the fire burning in those intense eyes. The bruise on his forehead has faded to a light brown, likely thanks to Mu Qingfang's miraculous poultices.

“You're staring,” Liu Qingge says, suddenly, his gaze still fixed on the front of the classroom.

Heat rises to Shen Qingqiu's cheeks. “Sorry,” he murmurs. “I was merely wondering how Liu-shidi feels this morning.”

Liu Qingge's eyes shift to him, just for a beat.

“Better,” he says.

Nodding, Shen Qingqiu returns his attention to Yue Qingyuan, who is now handing out sheet music for them to play.

It's not a hard song by any means. But Shen Qingqiu learns, within five minutes, that Liu Qingge is absolute shit at music. No sense of rhythm, no accuracy to the positioning of his hands, nothing but fingers plucking clumsily at strings at some random beat.

Any illusion Shen Qingqiu has of Liu Qingge’s charms shatters into tiny pieces. With every wretched sound torn from the instrument, he can hear the poor guqin cry for help, feel his own soul weep for mercy. Still, he tolerates it. Reminds himself that not everyone has had his experience, nor his affinity for string instruments.

Until the distinct, unmistakable clunk.

Clunk? Clunk? No guqin should ever produce a noise that sounds like the head of a man striking wood.

Or the sound of Shen Qingqiu banging his own head against his guqin.

(This close, this close. Another clunk will probably do it.)

Taking a deep breath, he turns to Liu Qingge. “Would you like some assistance, Liu-shidi?”

Liu Qingge raises an eyebrow, as if surprised by the offer.

What’s so surprising about this, Shen Qingqiu screams in his head. Even a battle-obsessed nut like you should know what a guqin sounds like!

“Fine,” Liu Qingge says then, much to Shen Qingqiu’s relief.

Shifting closer to Liu Qingge, he points out the symbols on their scores, demonstrates the placing of hands and fingers on the strings. Shows the way he grazes his fingers against the silk, barely using any force.

On his part, Liu Qingge is the perfect student. He listens intently, nods his understanding with each demonstration. Then he plays under Shen Qingqiu’s watchful eyes, and Shen Qingqiu is pleased to hear the clear, brisk notes, an instant improvement in the quality of sound.

“No one has ever corrected me,” Liu Qingge says as Shen Qingqiu moves back to his seat.

Probably because no one cares to, Shen Qingqiu realizes, chest clenching. Liu Qingge’s prowess as a fighter is clear to all; what need would he have to learn the basics of an instrument?

The same way everyone in Shen Qingqiu’s life had told him to concentrate on mastering the guqin and only the guqin.

“I’m happy to help,” he says, quietly.

Liu Qingge lets out a grunt. "Just last week you looked at me as if I was the dirt beneath your shoes." His eyes narrow, gaze piercing. “You’ve changed.”

Understatement of the year.

“‘Be not afraid of growing slowly. Be afraid only of standing still*.’” Shen Qingqiu smiles. “My growth is slow but there is growth nonetheless.”

For a moment, Liu Qingge doesn’t respond. Then, he nods toward the guqin in front of Shen Qingqiu.

“Let’s hear you play.”

Shen Qingqiu gladly accepts the request. Enjoys the feel of the silk strings against his fingers as he immerses himself in the rich melody, filled with memories of lighter, happier times, back when his hands were sturdy—when he felt alive.

Eyes closed, he doesn’t see the way Liu Qingge’s face turns soft, the way the rest of the class has stopped their practice to gawk at him in wonder.

The way Yue Qingyuan is also watching him, with bright eyes and quivering lips.

 


 

“Thank you.”

Shen Qingqiu’s head snaps up so fast, he feels his neck crick.

Liu Qingge has risen to his feet, his hands at his sides.

“Thank you,” he says again.

Students halt at the door, the classroom gone so silent that Shen Qingqiu can almost hear the gears spinning wildly in their heads.

Anyone else might have assumed that Liu Qingge is referring to the impromptu guqin lesson, but Shen Qingqiu knows it’s more than that. Far more.

“You’re welcome,” he says.

Liu Qingge flips his sleeves and strides out of the room, students parting for him like the red sea.

The loud ding that follows is no less obnoxious.

[Heart level +1, Liu Qingge! You’ve earned the trust of one faithful warrior!]

Yeah, well, Shen Qingqiu thinks, resigned. Even he saw that one coming a mile away.

He’s about to take his leave when Yue Qingyuan calls for him. So he waits, flicking his fan open as Yue Qingyuan glides up to him. The other students have filed out of the classroom, having lost their source of entertainment.

“When did you and Liu-shidi become this close?” Yue Qingyuan asks.

Strange, how the gentle voice sounds so strained.

“Not at all,” Shen Qingqiu says, the edge of his fan fluttering. “I’d be lucky to even call Liu-shidi a friend at this point.”

“Lucky,” Yue Qingyuan says, breathless.

Shen Qingqiu frowns, lifts his free hand to rest it on Yue Qingyuan’s forehead. “Are you well? You sound as if you’re—”

“A-Jiu.”

Shen Qingqiu stiffens, just as long fingers slide around his wrist, his hand brought to soft lips.

“Are you angry with me, A-Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan whispers.

—what the ever-loving fuck???

“You’ve always come to me, clinging and refusing to let go. Always taken the front row to hold my attention, distract me from lessons. Yet, today, you’ve chosen the back row and flirted with Liu-shidi. Today, I had to come to you.”

Yue Qingyuan draws in a breath.

“What have I done wrong this time?”

Shen Qingqiu’s pupils shrink to dots.

What he’s done wrong? Where to even begin??

First of all, he needs to stop kissing Shen Qingqiu's knuckles, that's just creepy and weird. Also, it tickles.

Second of all, who the hell was flirting with Liu Qingge!? The guqin lesson was necessary to end the torment on his soul! And isn’t it Yue Qingyuan’s fault for not teaching Liu Qingge the proper techniques in the first place?

Third, and most important, was this the relationship between Yue Qingyuan and the original Shen Qingqiu? What were all the insults then, some kind of ruse to conceal their real relationship? What game developer hides a fucking BL story in a love simulation game for straight men??

One star, Airplane bro! Your idiotic story totally deserves its one-star rating!!

Shen Qingqiu wants nothing more than to snatch his hand out of Yue Qingyuan’s grasp and run for the hills, but from the way Yue Qingyuan is looking at him, eyes filled with hurt, he should probably put the man out of his misery.

“I’m just tired,” Shen Qingqiu assures him. “After everything that happened yesterday, I’m just very tired.” He clears his throat. “And I could never be angry with you.”

“A-Jiu is always angry with me,” Yue Qingyuan sighs, the gust of breath warm against Shen Qingqiu’s skin. “Ever since Liu-shidi’s CCE…”

Ah, that’s right.

In the game, Yue Qingyuan never came to Shen Qingqiu’s defense when the original insisted that he hadn't meant to spill the tea. It was an accident, he cried. Shen Yuan didn’t believe him as a player—no one did—but if these two did, indeed, have an intimate relationship with each other, he can’t fault the original Shen Qingqiu for letting his resentment fester. Because, accident or not, Yue Qingyuan had chosen face and reputation over his lover.

God, his lover.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t want to know just how far these two have gone in terms of physical intimacy. (Judging by the way Yue Qingyuan won’t release his hand, probably further than he’s comfortable with.)

“Look, um…” Shen Qingqiu selects his words with caution. “I’m not angry. Truly. Next time I’ll be in the front row again, I promise. I’ll practice solely on the guqin and I won’t, uh, flirt. With anyone. So please believe me, um...” He pauses, recalls the way his sister addressed her boyfriends. “...Qingyuan-ge?”   

That does the trick. Yue Qingyuan finally lets go of his wrist, face aglow with joy.

“I never thought I'd hear you call me 'ge' again,” he breathes.

Men, Shen Qingqiu thinks vehemently. He resists the urge to rub off Yue Qingyuan’s touch against his clothes. Folds his arm behind his back, instead, and raises the fan with his other hand, revealing no more than his eyes.

“I wouldn’t want you to get used to it,” he says, truthfully.

“I will never get used to it,” Yue Qingyuan chuckles, now in higher spirits. “And I mean that in the best way possible.”

“Mn." Shen Qingqiu's eyes dart to the door. “If you don’t mind, my next class…”

Yue Qingyuan holds up a palm. “One last thing. Would you like to have dinner tonight, at your favorite restaurant?”

“Oh,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Sure.”

Yue Qingyuan smiles.

Ding.

[Culture +10, Kindness +10, Respect +5!]

...no Heart level? After all that??

The voice takes on a tone that actually sounds apologetic.

[This is an automated event that would have occurred in some form, regardless of the preceding events. Ergo, it does not count.]

So Yue Qingyuan would have cornered him no matter what?

[That is correct.]

Fuck, Shen Qingqiu concludes.

Definitely a BL adaptation.

 


 

The next few classes are a blur, resulting in ten-point increases in Cultivation, Intelligence, and Coolness.

As soon as the gong sounds for lunch, Shen Qingqiu hastens to the bamboo house, seeking refuge from sad, jealous Seniors. Luo Binghe’s affection for him may be overwhelming, but it doesn’t frighten him, not the way Yue Qingyuan's did. If Ming Fan is a small dog, then Luo Binghe is akin to the wolf from that one Japanese film, massive but docile.

Shen Qingqiu is almost there, the house in his sights, when he hears a familiar nasal voice.

“Who do you think you are, demon scum!?”

Speaking of Trouble.

Frowning, Shen Qingqiu darts behind a tree to observe the situation.

Luo Binghe is standing at the front of the bamboo house, broom in hand, surrounded by male students in Qing Jing Peak uniforms. Ming Fan is the clear leader of the group, mouth pulled in a smirk as he prods a finger at Luo Binghe’s chest.

“I said, who do you think you are, demon scum!”

Luo Binghe lifts his chin. “I heard you the first time,” he says, calmly.

Good boy, Shen Qingqiu thinks, heart full of pride. No need to rise to their bait.

It’s strange, though. He remembers encountering this automated scene in his playthroughs, and each time, it’s Ning Yingying who comes in to yell at the boys and gain more of Luo Binghe’s affection.

This time, she’s nowhere to be found.

Ming Fan prods Luo Binghe again. “It’s not fair, the way you monopolize Senior Shen’s time. He’s the only Senior in our Peak, yet he’s forced to tutor you, forced to take his meals with you! He even made us carry all that heavy furniture, just for you!”

“Unfair, totally unfair,” the students echo, some pumping their fists in the air. “You tell ‘em, Ming Fan!”

Luo Binghe huffs out a laugh, his lips curling with an air of arrogance so unlike him that Shen Qingqiu leans forward, intrigued. “I can’t help it if Shizun wants to spend his time with me. Why don’t you take it up with him?”

“You—!” Ming Fan’s hands curl into his fists, his teeth bared like an animal about to strike. “You think Shizun wants to spend time with you? He's only doing it out of pity. Poor little Luo Binghe, unloved and unwanted… you're just a project to relieve his boredom until he graduates!”

What the hell? Who does this brat think he is, putting words in his Senior's mouth?

Just as irritation spikes within Shen Qingqiu, the sigil on Luo Binghe's forehead flares a bright, crimson red. The students, Ming Fan included, take a step back at the murderous intent in Luo Binghe’s eyes.

“Insult me all you wish,” he snarls, jabbing the broom at them. “But I won't have you question Shizun's benevolence.”

That's it, Binghe! Don't listen to a word he says!

“D-Do you think I'm scared of you? Huh?” Ming Fan gestures at the group behind him. “There's eight of us and one of you!”

Behind the tree, Shen Qingqiu slaps a palm to his forehead. 

“Fine.” Luo Binghe wields the broom like a sword, his eyes glowing blood red in the light. “Then let's see how many of you cowards I take down with me!”

Oh shit, Shen Qingqiu thinks, while Ming Fan shouts the command to attack. He's not worried about Luo Binghe’s safety, no. He's more concerned about the punishment that will befall his tutee if he let Luo Binghe beat the crap out of a group of human students.

Even if they deserve it.

Snatching up a bunch of leaves from the ground, he takes aim at the Qing Jing Peak students and sends the leaves flying.

The screams are instantaneous.

“Ow! Something bit me!”

“And me!”

“What is this?!”

“Leaves! Someone’s ambushed us with Plucked Leaves and Flying Flowers!”

Shen Qingqiu peeks out from his hiding spot. In the middle of the chaos stands Luo Binghe, his brows knitted in confusion as he watches the students race about with flailing arms.

“Luo Binghe, you cheater,” Ming Fan shrieks. “You’ve had an accomplice in the shadows all along!”

Not good; the students will place all blame on Luo Binghe anyway.

Looks like he'll have to play Ning Yingying’s role in this event.

Thanks, System. Thanks a lot.

Breathing deep, Shen Qingqiu smooths down his robes before he steps out into the open. A flick of his wrist ceases the onslaught, the leaves falling around the stunned group in a rain of orange.

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe calls out, face lighting up and sigil fading, so happy in a way that makes Shen Qingqiu’s heart flutter in his chest.

What happened to all that arrogance from before?

“Senior Shen,” Ming Fan starts, only to wither under Shen Qingqiu’s glare.

“You speak of unfairness but challenge one to a fight with eight. Tell me, Ming Fan. How is that fairness?”

Ming Fan trembles. “I was only speaking for you, Senior Shen! The way he uses your time…”

Shen Qingqiu swats him across the head with a closed fan. “If you want to blame someone, then blame me. I’m the one at fault for playing favorites, so I will tutor all of you if you so wish. Now, apologize to Binghe.” He directs his fan at the other students, who cringe under his glare. “All of you.”

Mumbles of “M' sorry,” “Won’t happen again” rise up from the group.

“Good,” Shen Qingqiu says, fan tapping his chin. “Go get your lunch, you must be hungry after all that menacing.”

At least Ming Fan has the sense to flush at the light jab as he slinks away with the rest of the students.

When Shen Qingqiu turns back to Luo Binghe, his eyes are bright with unshed tears, the broom clutched to his chest.

“Shizun… this student doesn’t deserve your kindness...”

[Coolness +10, Respect +5, Heart level +1! Luo Binghe’s devotion has reached new heights!!]

Right, of course. The bamboo house is a dating spot, after all.

Sighing, Shen Qingqiu reaches out, hand ruffling Luo Binghe’s hair. Probably best for his blood pressure to take these things in stride.

 


 

The original’s favorite restaurant is an upscale, classy joint in the local town. The decorations are a festive red and gold, the walls covered with ink paintings of rivers and flowering trees on polished surfaces. Even the plates and utensils are lacquered with gold designs.

Shen Qingqiu shifts in his seat as Yue Qingquan smiles at him across the table. He can play the part of a cultured scholar, but he’s unused to such opulence and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. It figures that the original would like this place; it must remind him that he was special, above the plebeians in the world outside.

“The usual,” Yue Qingquan tells the waitress when she enters their private room.

Shen Qingqiu feels sweat gathering on the palm of his hands. What’s the usual? What do rich people eat in these settings? But he can’t ask, lest Yue Qingyuan suspect he’s not the original or, worse, possessed.

Dinner would have been so much simpler with Luo Binghe. The boy’s entire frame drooped like a wilted flower when Shen Qingqiu informed him that Ning Yingying would be bringing his dinner tonight. He looked so sad, so endearing, that Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but pat his head and promise to visit after dinner.

“I am so glad to see you happy,” Yue Qingyuan says, pulling Shen Qingqiu out of his thoughts.

Oh. Was he smiling?

Shen Qingqiu nods. “It’s nice to be back here,” he lies, smoothly.

Yue Qingyuan chuckles. “How rare for you to be so honest.”

(Talk about irony.)

Thankfully, the food isn’t anything too alarming—assorted meat dishes, vegetables, noodles.

Shen Qingqiu watches Yue Qingyuan as he serves a portion of each dish to Shen Qingqiu, ever so proper and well-mannered. He’s different from the other three: wiser than Mu Qingfang, more sophisticated than Liu Qingge, and definitely more level headed than Luo Binghe. His features are different too, soft and elegant, with warm eyes that crinkle at the corners when he laughs.

“Do you remember,” Yue Qingyuan says, “When we used to peep through the windows of this restaurant as children? How we fantasized about all the dishes served to the beautiful customers that passed through its doors?”

No, Shen Qingqiu thinks.

“How could I forget,” he says instead.

“Indeed,” Yue Qingyuan says, gaze soft. “Hard to believe that a pair of orphaned street urchins can come so far together.”

....is this a backstory? An actual backstory for a one-dimensional scum villain?

So this is why the original likes this restaurant, a symbol of his upward mobility to the highest possible social class. This is why the original loves and hates Yue Qingyuan, a childhood friend who went through thick and thin with him, yet abandoned him at his hour of need. Why Yue Qingyuan was so adamant about receiving Shen Qingqiu’s forgiveness, even just for that one moment in the classroom.

Shen Qingqiu wonders if he might have underestimated Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky. (Then again, a good game developer would have found a way to include these things in the gameplay.)

“A-Jiu.”

Shen Qingqiu looks up to find Yue Qingyuan gazing at him, the look on his face expectant.

“Will you call me that again, once every so often?”

Shen Qingqiu blinks. “Call you what?”

“Well…” Yue Qingyuan taps his chopsticks on the gold lacquered plate. “What you used to call me as a child. What you call me when you’re…” He trails off, flushes, then looks up at Shen Qingqiu through his lashes. “What you called me in the classroom.”

Shameless!

Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks burn as he ducks his head, fingers tightening on his chopsticks. Just what is it with men and their love for being called “gege”? He’s called “gege” all the time by his sister, and it means absolutely nothing to him!

“A-Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan says, softly.

Ugh, fine. A Romantic candidate is a Romantic candidate.

“Only in private,” Shen Qingqiu mutters.

“Ah.” Yue Qingyuan tilts his head, eyes gleaming. “We’re in private now.”

Mentally, Shen Qingqiu lists out every swear word in every language he knows.

“Qi... Qingyuan-ge…”

Yue Qingyuan’s smile is blinding.

Off goes the damn ding.

[Heart levels +4! Congratulations on passing Heart level 3! You may now ask Yue Qingyuan out on dates, yay yay yay!!]

Shen Qingqiu is fairly sure he’s about two seconds away from a mental breakdown.

Four!? he screams at the System. Everyone else got one for each event!

[Yue Qingyuan has long had affection for your character.]

Then why wasn’t he on the Love Meter Menu?

[The Love Meter Menu only displays characters you have encountered and gained Heart levels with. You had neither encountered nor gained Heart levels with Yue Qingyuan at the time. Now that you have, you may ask him out on dates. Yay yay yay!!]

Why don’t you show yourself so I can shove that ‘yay yay yay’ right up your—

“Is the food not to your taste?” Yue Qingyuan asks, frowning.

“Oh, no,” Shen Qingqiu says, hastily smoothing out his expression. “It’s delicious.”

The rest of dinner is relatively uneventful.

Yue Qingyuan, the gentleman that he is, escorts Shen Qingqiu back to school grounds. On the way, they pass the Qian Shu Peak dormitories where two ladies are conversing at the entrance, dressed in the light purple uniform of their Peak. Shen Qingqiu recognizes them right away—Qi Qingqi and Liu Mingyan, Senior and top-ranking student of the all-female Peak.

Qi Qingqi is a popular option among the older fans for her ferocity and temper (“Step on me, QQQ,” a fan once wrote), whereas Liu Mingyan’s beauty, hidden beneath a thin veil, is a source of great debate on the forums. Not once in the game has she removed her veil, but many are adamant that her beauty is unparalleled, citing her brother, Liu Qingge, as the basis for their argument. Beauty must run in the genes, they say.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t realize that he’s staring until he locks eyes with Liu Mingyan. She looks back at him with an even gaze, eyes flicking to Yue Qingyuan once, before she turns away.

Qi Qingqi doesn’t even spare him a glance.

System, he thinks, wearily. Is the Heart level parameter available for Qi Qingqi and Liu Mingyan?

[The Heart level parameter is not available for Qi Qingqi and Liu Mingyan.]

Of course, it isn’t.

Once Yue Qingyuan parts with him at the dormitories, Shen Qingqiu heads straight for the bamboo house. He made a promise and he has every intention of keeping it.

“Shizun!”

That, and after all the insanity, there’s just something comforting about Luo Binghe.

 


 

MESSAGE FROM THE GAME DEVELOPER

Hi friends, it’s Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky!

Since no one asked about the cultivation schools, I’m going on a rant instead.

Listen, I’ve got plenty of interesting storylines for all my characters! But it’s not easy including them in the game when you’re pretty much restricted to the pov of the main protagonist.

Shen Yuan bro is lucky; his character might be hated, but his privilege as a Peak Senior allows him to roam school grounds without getting into fights wherever he goes! Luo Binghe, on the other hand, can’t have a decent interaction with any of the human males, much less be privy to their intricate backstories. I mean, why would he care that Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu were sworn brothers? He used it to his advantage, sure, but they were as good as dead in his eyes anyway.

And yeah, you read that right. Sworn. Brothers.

Not my fault Shen Yuan bro tickles the romantic bone of every male he meets.

Or lust.

Then it’d be a lust boner hahahahaha

(don’t kill me bro you need me remember)

Until next time!

Chapter Text

Morning. The birds are singing, the gong is sounding in the distance, and light is pouring through the window, golden and warm.

And the first thing Shen Qingqiu does is fall off the side of his bed.

It’s not intentional.

He's Shen Qingqiu, the impeccable, imperious Senior of Qing Jing Peak. Despite his notorious penchant for cruelty, he is grudgingly admired for his elegance, the way he carries himself with great dignity. After years of guqin performances in the real world, dallying around with elderly traditionalists who uphold the most refined aspects of their culture, this is easy enough for Shen Yuan to imitate. 

But it's hard to pull that off when his eyes open to Luo Binghe gazing down at him, inches away from his face.

“Shizun!”

Shen Qingqiu lets out a squeak as a hand grabs the lapel of his robes and jerks him back onto bed—right up against Luo Binghe’s hard chest. Instantly, Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks flare a bright red before he shoves Luo Binghe off, scrambling as far away as he can without another undignified tumble.

No homo, no homo, he shrieks at the System.

The voice responds, far too cheery.

[Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Please repeat your question.]

I— you— what—

[Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Please repeat your—]

Is this an automated event!?

[This is a novel event, brought on by a preceding one.]

Oh, fantastic. So this was something he triggered.

Shen Qingqiu stares at Luo Binghe, who has dropped to his knees beside the bed.

“What,” Shen Qingqiu croaks, “What are you doing in my room?”

Luo Binghe looks up, eyes bright. “I’m sorry, Shizun, this student didn’t mean to scare you.” He pats the mountain of sheets bunched up at the edge of the bed. “Your covers had fallen off and I didn't want you to catch a cold.”

How, in any way, does that answer the question?!

Shen Qingqiu breathes deep, calming the riotous heart in his chest. With the initial shock fading away, he’s better able to take stock of the situation.

Luo Binghe is in his room. Luo Binghe, somehow, entered the Qing Jing Peak dormitories and found his room without detection. And Luo Binghe is, for some strange reason, wearing a black apron with an embroidery of hearts and strawberries across the front, the thick curls of his hair tied in a high ponytail that sways with every movement of his head.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t quite know where to begin.

“How did you get in?” he tries first.

“Ning-mei let me in,” Luo Binghe says. “She lent me this apron, too.”

Ning Yingying! What is she trying to do, give her old Senior a heart attack?

Shen Qingqiu kneads his forehead with his thumb and forefinger. “Why the apron?”

Luo Binghe beams at Shen Qingqiu as he scoots, on his knees, to the low table in the middle of the room. That’s when Shen Qingqiu notices the clay pot on the top of the table, the whiff of a familiar scent wafting through the room.

“I made Shizun breakfast,” Luo Binghe declares, one hand lifting the lid of the pot to a cloud of steam.

The full smell hits Shen Qingqiu like a brick to the nose.

Congee.

A dish that Shen Qingqiu called home.

Shen Qingqiu’s chest goes tight. Creepy as it is for Luo Binghe to invade his room without permission, far be it for him to drive Luo Binghe out after all the trouble his tutee took to bring him—no, make for him—a small piece of home. The gesture is as sweet as the eager look on Luo Binghe's face. 

Also, the congee smells really, really good.

Carefully, Shen Qingqiu straightens his sleeping robes, before he moves to sink down beside Luo Binghe, who offers him a spoon. To retain composure and some semblance of dignity, Shen Qingqiu's next movements are slow and purposeful: dipping the spoon in the pot, blowing lightly at the steam rising from the mouthful of food, bringing the spoon to his lips.

All while Luo Binghe stares a hole into the side of his face.

Shen Qingqiu almost tells Luo Binghe to turn away so his Shizun can actually swallow his food. But the congee touches his tongue first, and he can't help but make the most embarrassing sound.

It’s good, like his mother’s cooking. Better, even.

“You did well,” he tells Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe glows, a bright sun chasing away the clouds.

“Since Shizun likes it," he says, softly, "Shall this student make it everyday?”

Shen Qingqiu feels his cheeks warm for the second time that morning. That line is a dialogue option Luo Binghe feeds to his romantic candidates in the original game, especially the women who enjoy that sort of pampering. It figures that he, Shen Qingqiu, is getting that same treatment in this BL adaptation.

“I would like that,” he murmurs.

Luo Binghe smiles, and Shen Qingqiu is struck by the curl of his lashes, the pink bow of his mouth, the soft tufts of his hair and the way the light catches on it. The protagonist was designed with effortless beauty, the kind that draws attention from men and women alike. Shen Qingqiu knows that. Appreciates it in the context of a harem game. 

What he doesn't expect is the sudden urge to reach out. To touch the black curls of hair and trace the curve of those soft cheeks, the pad of his fingers itching.

So Shen Qingqiu stuffs his mouth with congee. Keeps his hands busy as he swallows his mortification with every bite.

Get it together, Shen Yuan! He’s the male stallion protagonist, not some pretty flower for you to admire!

“Shizun is eating well this morning,” Luo Binghe says happily.

Shen Qingqiu chooses to just nod. “Have you eaten?”

“I have.” Luo Binghe’s smile turns razor sharp. “I stocked up food from the kitchen while cooking Shizun’s congee.”

Shen Qingqiu frowns. 'Stocking up' is one way to put it. "How much did you take?"  

Luo Binghe rolls his broad shoulders in a shrug. "Why does it matter? My very existence is a problem anyway."

Ah. Luo Binghe's distaste in humans is understandable, given the abuse he suffered under their hands. But that resentment, that arrogance, will only breed in the protagonist and turn him into a dark beast that's anything but noble. 

The original game is proof of that.

"I know that most of the school treats you poorly," Shen Qingqiu says. "But 'don't do unto others what you don't want done unto you.' I learned my lesson," he adds when Luo Binghe opens his mouth in protest, "So, too, can you."

Brows furrowing, Luo Binghe closes his mouth, gaze lowered to the tabletop. Then he looks up again, face filled with conviction.

"I don't need anyone but Shizun."

...wait, what about your Ning-mei? The one who let you in and lent you that too-adorable apron?

Luo Binghe plunges on, his voice taking on the tone of a petulant five-year-old.

"And I don't like that I have to share your time with the others." 

Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes with a sigh. To his surprise, the Qing Jing Peak students have actually taken up his offer for tutoring sessions, requesting help with music, calligraphy, even reading the scriptures. He's not a star student, by any means, but his status as a Senior seems to overshadow his actual skill level for the subjects.

"Next time, take only what you need from the kitchen," Shen Qingqiu says, gently. "And if it's difficult to be nice to your peers, at least treat your Seniors with respect." 

Luo Binghe's lower lip juts out in a pout. "Fine. But I'm only doing it for Shizun."

Shen Qingqiu can't help it; his hand moves on its own, sinking into dark hair and ruffling the silken strands.

Like magic, Luo Binghe's anger vanishes, his eyes shining with unbridled joy. 

Ding, goes the System.

[Heart level +1! Congratulations on hitting Heart level 3! You may now ask Luo Binghe out on dates, yay yay—]

Oh, shut up.

 


 

It feels odd, changing with another man in the room.

Being naked around other men has always felt odd to Shen Qingqiu—lord knows he's seen enough swinging dicks to last him a lifetime on his visit to a Japanese hot spring—and this feeling is only exacerbated by the fact that he's in a bloody BL game. 

He's thankful that Luo Binghe keeps his back turned, gaze fixed resolutely on the door.

(He doesn't want to know, though, why the back of Luo Binghe’s neck is a shade of crimson.)

The common room is full of students when Shen Qingqiu steps in, Luo Binghe at his side. They rise to greet him, fists to palms, before they return to their conversations, barely sparing a glance at Luo Binghe. Only Ning Yingying waves at them both from the couch, her eyes wide and her cheeks pink. On closer look, the male students have formed a circle around her, hanging onto her every word.

Shen Qingqiu sneaks a glance at Luo Binghe, who appears unperturbed by Ning Yingying’s popularity.

“Senior Shen! A-Luo!” Ning Yingying beams at them. “Are you doing anything for the Mid-Autumn Festival?”

Oh right, Shen Qingqiu realizes. It’s September.

Every few months, the game has set events for the holidays—events in which the protagonist has the option of spending more time with his partner of choice and increasing her affection for him. Seems like those preset events occur in this version too.

“I bet Senior Shen has tons of people lining up to watch the fireworks with him,” Ming Fan chirps, while the other Peak students bob their heads vigorously in unison.

Shen Qingqiu lets out a chuckle.

Kiss-ass.

But when he looks back at Luo Binghe, his tutee's face has gone darker than a thundercloud at Ming Fan's words. Probably something to do with his contempt for Ming Fan; the two of them have always been at it like cats and dogs, even in the original game. 

At the sound of the gong, the students disperse, with Shen Qingqiu also leaving the dormitory for his classes. Luo Binghe accompanies him in silence, so he lets his mind drift to the upcoming event.

At this point, he has four romantic candidates: Luo Binghe, Liu Qingge, Mu Qingfang, and Yue Qingyuan. All male, unfortunately, but he’ll work with what he has. A game is a game, and all he has to do is set his sights on not dying.

Question is, is he only restricted to candidates with Heart level 3 or more for preset events?

On cue, the System enters his mind.

[You may ask any of the characters listed in the Love Meter Menu.]

Well. That doesn’t help.

“Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu smiles up at Luo Binghe. “Yes, Binghe?”

Luo Binghe’s cheeks dust pink. Strange, how much the male stallion protagonist blushes like a virgin maiden in this world. 

Strange but endearing, Shen Qingqiu’s treacherous mind supplies, before he beats it back into submission.

“Does, um…” Luo Binghe shakes his head, as if tossing out whatever thought he has inside. “Does Shizun have any plans for the festival?”

It's as if Luo Binghe had read his mind. “I’m not sure," Shen Qingqiu says.

“Shizun went alone last year. Would Shizun like to attend the festival with…” Luo Binghe fidgets with the edge of his sleeve. “...with someone this year?”

Shen Qingqiu frowns. How unexpected for the original Shen Qingqiu to be alone last year. Even if the rest of the school detested Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan should have been there for him. Surely, with the amount of adoration that Yue Qingyuan had for him, they would have spent it together.

No wonder the original’s hatred for Yue Qingyuan ran so deep.

Shen Qingqiu turns to Luo Binghe with a soft exhale. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Oh,” says Luo Binghe, oddly crestfallen.

They’re quiet for the rest of their walk.

 


 

At the door, Shen Qingqiu stares wide-eyed at the rows of students sparring in pairs, the sounds of clashing swords reverberating through the massive hall.

The first class today is on swordsmanship.

Shen Qingqiu’s hand falls to Xiu Ya, nervousness bubbling up inside him. The other lessons were easy enough to catch onto, but he’s had no experience with weapons. This class is going to reveal him as an imposter.

“Over here."

Shen Qingqiu looks over to find Liu Qingge beckoning on the other side of the room, Yang Yixuan standing like a shadow behind him. If Liu Qingge’s fierce aura doesn’t make them stand out, the pristine white of their Bai Zhan Peak uniforms certainly do the job. Letting out a breath, Shen Qingqiu heads over to the pair, relieved to see familiar faces in the room. 

“Liu-shidi,” he says with a salute.

Liu Qingge returns the salute, while Yang Yixuan greets him with an enthusiastic Senior Shen!

“Shifu has given us a free sparring period.” Liu Qingge spreads his feet apart, draws out Cheng Luan with a hiss. “Let’s have a round, you and me.”

Just like that!?

Let’s have a civil conversation first, Liu-shidi, some small talk about the weather at least!

Yang Yixuan’s gaze darts back and forth between them, his entire frame practically vibrating with excitement at the prospect of witnessing the sword techniques of two Peak Seniors. Shen Qingqiu wants to tell the boy to calm the hell down; all he'll get is Shen Qingqiu making a fool of himself. Or, worse, stabbing another student by accident.

Shen Qingqiu eyes Cheng Luan’s polished blade, fingers twitching against the handle of Xiu Ya.

“Liu-shidi’s sword skills are legendary,” he says, keeping his voice steady. “I am not a worthy opponent.”

“Nonsense,” Liu Qingge scoffs. "You're as much a Peak Senior as I am."

And then he strikes.

Without thought, Shen Qingqiu whips out Xiu Ya, sparks flying as the blades clash between them.

Liu Qingge's lips curl in a smirk. He backs up a step before thrusting Cheng Luan through the air, straight as an arrow.

Again, Shen Qingqiu reacts. He side-steps to the left, the tip of the blade grazing his sleeve. A moment too slow, and that move might have taken his arm off. But he does dodge, and then he spins, pivoting on one foot as Xiu Ya whirls to Liu Qingge's side. There's another clang of steel against steel, Liu Qingge turning just in time to parry the blow. 

"Not bad," Liu Qingge says, eyes gleaming.

Yang Yixuan has his hands over his mouth, but no one's more surprised than Shen Qingqiu.

What is this, animal instinct? A desperate drive for survival? Or has he somehow inherited the original's sword skills? 

The voice, this time, does not provide an answer.

Shen Qingqiu barely releases a swear word before Liu Qingge attacks again.  

The fight lasts for longer than Shen Qingqiu expects. Where the original lacks in strength, he makes up for in speed and technique. There’s a certain refinement to his movements, a flair to the way he darts in and out of range, dancing around Liu Qingge’s relentless strikes. But Liu Qingge is faster, stronger, more skilled, and it soon ends with Shen Qingqiu on his back, the flat side of Cheng Luan's blade against his neck.

Shen Qingqiu’s breath is ragged as he looks up at Liu Qingge, the hand stretched out towards him.

Holy shit, I can use a sword, is his first thought.

His mind then tunnels onto Liu Qingge’s smile, the way the corners of Liu Qingge's lips tip upward ever so slightly. A smile so different from Luo Binghe’s, guarded but warm at the edges, offered only to the rare few he trusts with his life.

Luo Binghe’s smile, in contrast, is bright and exuberant and completely uninhibited, blooming across Luo Binghe’s face like the first blossom in spring.

Shen Qingqiu feels his chest clench as he lets Liu Qingge pull him up. Feels Liu Qingge's fingers tighten around his hand for a brief moment before releasing him.

He’s with Liu Qingge now!

Why the hell is he thinking about Luo Binghe?

"You leave your right side open," Liu Qingge chides. "An enemy will take advantage of that if you don't correct it."

Nodding, Shen Qingqiu flicks open his fan—green with purple wisteria flowers—the beat of wind on his face helping him think. Calm and focus him on the present, rather than a certain male stallion protagonist.

"May I ask for more advice?"

Liu Qingge's brows rise an inch. "Go ahead," he says after a beat.

“What if I had done a feint and went for your sword arm on that last move? Would that have prevented you from overpowering me?”

Liu Qingge makes a contemplative noise. Then he turns to Yang Yixuan, jerking his chin at the student. “Take up your sword.”

"Yes, Senior Liu!"

Immediately, Yang Yixuan draws his sword and gets into position in front of Liu Qingge.  

"Perform the move exactly as suggested," Liu Qingge instructs him.

"Yes, Senior Liu!"

Yang Yixuan lunges forward with his sword, only to be struck down by Liu Qingge's swift counter—all in a matter of seconds.

Shen Qingqiu winces behind his fan. Some part of him wonders if Liu Qingge might have gone easy on him. "I see that doesn't work."

"Not if the enemy has fast reflexes or a light, close-ranged weapon." Liu Qingge turns to Shen Qingqiu as Yang Yixuan picks himself off the ground. "Any other thoughts?" 

Shen Qingqiu takes a moment, head tilting. "What about ducking down to sweep at the feet?"

In an instant, Yang Yixuan slams to the floor for the second time.

"Try again," Liu Qingge says above Yang Yixuan’s groans.

And they do. Again and again and again, with Shen Qingqiu offering an alternative and Liu Qingge beating Yang Yixuan down with ease. By the fifth time, a crowd gathers; by the eighth, others begin shouting suggestions. Until, finally, Yang Yixuan stares up at Shen Qingqiu with the most beseeching expression, his mouth moving to form the words, please stop.

The situation is amusing in so many ways that Shen Qingqiu is tempted to continue. But he decides to take pity on the poor boy.

"Liu-shidi's fighting prowess is too great," he concludes, fists cupping together.

Liu Qingge's breath catches, before he averts his gaze to the side. "All it takes is training," he grunts.

The tips of his ears are pink.

Cute, Shen Qingqiu thinks, as the other students drift back to their own practice. He never imagined that Liu Qingge could ever be bashful.

The same cute Senior clears his throat, eyes shifting back to Shen Qingqiu. "What are your plans for the Mid-Autumn Festival?"

Shen Qingqiu's fan flutters. "I'm still thinking about it. I'd like to watch the fireworks with a cup of tea and a plate of mooncakes, but it might not be as enjoyable doing that on my own."

"No," Liu Qingge says, quietly. "It wouldn't."

Shen Qingqiu smiles at him. "What about you, Liu-shidi? Will you have a companion for the festival?"

"I…" Liu Qingge swallows, his grip tightening around the handle of Cheng Luan. "I have someone in mind."

"Oh, of course." Shen Qingqiu glances at Yang Yixuan, who's nursing his bruises against the wall. The pair were inseparable in the original game. "I'm sure Yixuan would be honored to attend it with you."

Liu Qingge's expression turns incredulous, seconds before the gong sounds for the next class.

Snapping his fan shut, Shen Qingqiu thanks Liu Qingge for the invaluable lesson and heads out of the hall. The last thing he hears is Liu Qingge's voice cracking like a whip ("Get up, your stance needs work!") and Yang Yixuan bursting into tears ("Y-Yes, Senior L-Liu!").

The System sidles in with a happy ding.

[Cultivation +10, Respect +5, Heart level +1 with the indomitable Liu Qingge!]

Shen Qingqiu offers Yang Yixuan a silent prayer.

 


 

The walls of the classroom are covered with vines, while a potted plant rests on the teacher’s desk up front, its trunk twisting and elegant, the leaves small and green and fine.

Plants and herbology is the second class for the day.

Shen Qingqiu claims the desk in the far corner of the classroom, out of sight and earshot of his classmates. After an eventful sparring lesson, he wants nothing more than a quiet, normal class.

But his hope for inconspicuousness is short-lived.

“Shen-shixiong.”

There’s a flurry of whispers as Mu Qingfang takes the seat beside Shen Qingqiu, graceful even with his salute. On the other side of the classroom, Shang Qinghua twists back to stare at them, his eyes as wide as dinner plates.

Shen Qingqiu flushes. For once, he’s glad that social media doesn’t exist in this world; he’d rather remain ignorant to whatever gossip that has spread since that first guqin lesson with Liu Qingge. One handsome man after another, all choosing to befriend the school’s scum villain out of their own volition—it’s as though madness has descended upon the Cang Qiong School of Cultivation. 

Mu Qingfang leans in close, voice low between them.

“I can move if this bothers you, Shen-shixiong." 

God, must he say his name like that, with his tongue curling around the syllables just so?

Flush darkening, Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. "I don’t mind at all.”

Mu Qingfang’s smile is soft and pleased.

(Different, again, from Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge.)

The teacher enters, and the lesson begins.

“Today, we shall review the species of bonsai trees that are native to our region,” the teacher starts, and Shen Qingqiu already feels the shutters of his brain coming down. One thing he enjoyed about the original game—out of maybe three things—was how lessons were breezed over with a simple animated icon. The game wasn't meant to be educational, especially not with a game developer who clearly had the intelligence of a radish. 

Not the case for this version, it seems.

The teacher gestures at the plant on his desk. “Can anyone tell me what type of bonsai tree this is?”

Shen Qingqiu startles when, from the corner of his eye, he sees Mu Qingfang’s arm shoot up into the air.

“The Chinese elm,” Mu Qingfang says when the teacher calls on him. 

“Correct. And does anyone know what the ideal conditions are for optimal growth?" 

Mu Qingfang's hand flies up again.

"Warm climates and being kept indoors."

"Very good."

For the rest of the lecture, Shen Qingqiu watches in awe as Mu Qingfang answers virtually all of the teacher’s questions. Mu Qingfang’s passion for medicine and healing was clear in the original game, but Shen Qingqiu had no idea that he was also a perfect student. So perfect, in fact, that Shen Qingqiu can’t help but compare Mu Qingfang to that intelligent, bushy-haired character in the Harry Potter books.

(Really, Airplane bro. Is there any originality to your game?)

When the teacher assigns an in-class reading, Shen Qingqiu whispers to Mu Qingfang, “You’re very knowledgeable.”

Mu Qingfang nods. “Only because I enjoy this class.” He smiles at Shen Qingqiu like it’s a secret. “As much as you enjoy the guqin.”

Heat rises to Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks. “You’ve heard.”

Mu Qingfang laughs, a small huff of breath. “The rumor mill grinds hard and fast in this school.”

…...must you use such a crude description, Mu-shidi!?

But Mu Qingfang is unfazed by the grimace on Shen Qingqiu’s face. “What are your plans for the Mid-Autumn Festival?”

Shen Qingqiu rearranges his expression, smoothing it into the self-righteous look the original was known for. (Sometimes he wonders if it just turns into a look of constipation with all his effort.)

“You’re the third person to ask me that,” he tells Mu Qingfang.

Mu Qingfang arches an eyebrow. “Who are the others?” 

“Luo Binghe and Liu-shidi.”

“Did they say anything else?”

Shen Qingqiu considers the question, head cocked. “Binghe asked if I planned to attend the festival alone, Liu-shidi said he’s attending it with Yixuan.”

“Yang Yixuan of Bai Zhan Peak?” Mu Qingfang’s brow creeps higher. “Liu-shixiong said that?”

“He said he had someone in mind.” Shen Qingqiu shrugs. “Who else would it be?" 

A pause. Then Mu Qingfang chuckles, arms folding into his sleeves. “Seems I shouldn’t beat around the bush here.”

Shen Qingqiu blinks at him. "About what?"

"About the festival." Mu Qingfang leans in again, lashes dipping, voice going soft. “I’d like to attend it with you.”

Shen Qingqiu’s heart leaps.

Yue Qingyuan aside, none of the other men have expressed their interest in so many words. It’s one thing to know their Heart levels on the Love Meter Menu, it’s quite another to hear such a sincere confession. 

But Mu Qingfang is only at Heart level 1, Shen Qingqiu thinks, fingers digging into his knees beneath the desk. Can he invite Shen Qingqiu to a date at that level?

The voice is full of amusement.

[For preset events, all romantic candidates may extend an invitation no matter the Heart level.] 

Oh.

Shen Qingqiu takes a moment to breathe, and think, and breathe again. He has little difficulty rationalizing away Yue Qingyuan’s affection; the man’s love is for the original Shen Qingqiu. But Mu Qingfang is different. Mu Qingfang likes him.

And Mu Qingfang is good at reading people.

“It’s all right if you’re not keen,” he says, kindly. 

“No, nothing of the sort,” Shen Qingqiu says, eyes dropping to his desk, fingers still pressed against his knees. Somehow, it feels wrong to decline Mu Qingfang outright. (So this is what his sister dealt with all the time.) “I’ve just… never had anyone ask me out before.”

It’s not the reason why he’s on the brink of a panic attack.

But it’s also not a lie.

Mu Qingfang nods. “I understand. Why don’t you take the next few weeks to decide?”

There’s nothing Shen Qingqiu can do but agree.

 


 

"Qingqiu-shidi."

Shen Qingqiu freezes, hand on his fan and heart in his throat. He had beelined for the bamboo house as soon as the gong signalled lunch, hoping for a calming meal with Luo Binghe. Yue Qingyuan is the last person he wants to see at the entrance of his sanctuary, not with the way his mind is still reeling from Mu Qingfang's mellow, baritone voice, Mu Qingfang's soft gaze and ever-warm smile. 

How does Yue Qingyuan know to wait here anyway?

Yue Qingyuan's lips curve as Shen Qingqiu approaches. "Your Peak students said you would come this way."

The little rats…!

Shen Qingqiu plasters on a smile, fan shifting the air near his face. "What can I do for you, Yue-shixiong?"

In response, Yue Qingyuan’s eyes well with sadness.

"Must you be so formal with me, A-Jiu?"

You’re the one who started with the formal title!

Shen Qingqiu bites back his retort. The man is infatuated, and there's a fine line between love and insanity. "I have a lot on my mind," he mutters instead, eyes averted.

“What is it?” Yue Qingyuan asks. “If there’s something I can do to help…”

“It’s far too trivial for someone of your station,” Shen Qingqiu says, a little too quickly.

The look on Yue Qingyuan’s face makes Shen Qingqiu’s stomach wrench. He meant what he said; his romantic turmoil is not something a star alumnus like Yue Qingyuan should concern himself with. That, and Shen Qingqiu is all too aware of the sheer amount of pain Mu Qingfang’s invitation would inflict on the poor man. But his statement can also be taken as a sharp jab at Yue Qingyuan’s betrayal, the way Yue Qingyuan chose status over love.

It’s how the original would have meant it. And it’s certainly how Yue Qingyuan interprets it, judging by the way his eyes and lips tremble, the way his throat works just above the lapels of his pale blue robes. As though Shen Qingqiu had stabbed him through the heart with a keen blade. 

“You are important to me,” Yue Qingyuan says, his voice gone strangled and rough. “So very important. In fact, I’m here to tell A-Jiu that I’ve reserved your favorite restaurant for the Mid-Autumn Festival.” He draws in a shaky breath. “The long wait upset you so much last year that you just… left.”

Huh.

So the original wasn’t alone like Luo Binghe thought he was.

Shen Qingqiu feels pleased for his former self, knowing now that he wasn't completely unloved by others. But, as appreciative as he is, Shen Qingqiu isn’t sure he can tolerate another dinner date with Yue Qingyuan so soon after the last one. Not when the Peak Senior carries so much guilt on his shoulders.

“I think I’d like to watch the fireworks this year,” Shen Qingqiu says.

Yue Qingyuan’s breath seems to stop entirely. “At the pier? With other students?”

It’s hard to tell if Yue Qingyuan is simply startled by the uncharacteristic request, or if he’s reluctant to make their relationship public.

Either way, it works for Shen Qingqiu.

“If Yue-shixiong is not comfortable—”

Yue Qingyuan cuts in, head shaking, “I will do whatever A-Jiu wants of me."

So fucking troublesome!!

Shen Qingqiu's grits his teeth behind the folds of his fan. No wonder the original was always on edge around Yue Qingyuan. “Keep the reservation then,” he says, “While I consider how I’d like to enjoy the celebrations." 

“As A-Jiu wishes.” Yue Qingyuan hesitates, just for a beat, before he reaches out. Brushes a loose lock of hair behind Shen Qingqiu’s ear. “Shall we have lunch together, since I am here?”

His hand lingers, knuckles caressing skin, and Shen Qingqiu stares back at him, cheeks flushed and irritation dissipating. How does someone turn from a wreck of misery and guilt to something so soft and gentle in the same breath?

“I… um…”

“Shizun.”

The surge of dark energy behind Shen Qingqiu nearly knocks him off his feet. 

Shit, he thinks, as Yue Qingyuan pulls back his hand, eyes narrowing.

Luo Binghe’s jealousy is a key feature of the Proud Immortal Demon’s Way. Even with a bevy of women vying for his attention, he’s protective of the ones he claims, growling and snapping at would-be rivals like a wild dog defending its territory. Fans enjoy it, Shen Qingqiu included; not many of them have a partner they can call their own in real life.

For the first time, Shen Qingqiu is that piece of territory.

Slowly, he turns back to find Luo Binghe gazing at him, his chest covered with hearts and strawberries, a clay pot in his hands. The sigil on Luo Binghe’s forehead glows a faint pink, tendrils of demonic energy wavering around his frame. But it’s Luo Binghe’s smile that sends a shiver down Shen Qingqiu’s spine, the way it curves across his features and fails to reach his eyes.  

“I've made wonton soup for Shizun’s lunch," Luo Binghe says.

"How considerate," Yue Qingyuan says, his voice even and mild. "You have quite a devoted student there, A-Jiu."

At the nickname, Luo Binghe's smile twitches at the corners, his sigil darkening. "This student is only sorry he wasn't there when Shizun was wrongfully accused of sabotaging Senior Liu's CCEs."

"Binghe," Shen Qingqiu says sharply, but Yue Qingyuan is already rising to his full height, face twisting. "You speak of things you know nothing about."

Luo Binghe chuckles, not a hint of mirth in the quiet sound. "I know I would have defended Shizun to the death, come hell or high water."

"If I had a choice—" 

"You did." Obsidian eyes flash with contempt. "And you chose poorly."

Yue Qingyuan's spiritual energy bursts forth in a deep, furious grey. 

Make it stop, Shen Qingqiu shrieks internally.

[Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Please repeat your question.]

Useless!

"Uh," Shen Qingqiu starts, then cringes as both men turn to him, identical smiles on their faces.

Creepy, much??

"Since…" He digs his fingers into the wooden frame of his fan, barrels past his hesitation. "Since Binghe has made lunch, I will dine with him today."

Luo Binghe smirks while Yue Qingyuan bristles. 

"And I will have lunch with Yue-shixiong tomorrow," Shen Qingqiu adds hastily.

In seconds, the mood shifts, and Yue Qingyuan is now the one looking smug. He takes Shen Qingqiu's hand in his, brown eyes boring into Shen Qingqiu's. "I will see you tomorrow then, A-Jiu." 

Shen Qingqiu's own eyes dart to Luo Binghe, whose expression has turned unfeeling, glacial. Bleak as the grey skies of an arctic winter.

This is at Heart levels 3 and 4. What are these idiots going to do at higher levels, tear each apart with their bare hands?

Though Luo Binghe's frostiness thaws out significantly by the time they've settled for lunch, the silence hangs over them like a heavy cloud, with Shen Qingqiu shoving Luo Binghe's homemade dish down his closed throat. 

Boy did the scriptures get the afterlife wrong. Hell isn't levels of gruesome physical torture. Hell is choking on delicious food because one is suffocating beneath the oppressive weight of another man's jealousy. Over him, no less.

Shen Qingqiu sucks in a breath, and lets it out again. The bamboo house is supposed to be a safe space, a place for him to relax and just be. Not feel overwhelming guilt for upsetting Luo Binghe.

Why is he feeling guilty anyway?

Mustering what’s left of his will, Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth to—what, apologize, ask about Binghe’s lunch, about Binghe’s classes?—but Luo Binghe beats him to it.

“Is it good?” Luo Binghe asks, nodding toward the soup. It comes out so soft, so sweet, and in a voice that sends a completely different shiver skittering down Shen Qingqiu’s back.

No, that’s not helping Shen Qingqiu swallow, either.

“The best I’ve had,” he murmurs.

Luo Binghe brightens before his expression quickly turns solemn again. “This student thinks Shizun is too kind to a traitor like Yue—” he pauses, spits out the next two words as if they’re poison, “—Senior Yue. But having you with me, right here, right now… I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter. How Shizun spends his time with other students and Seniors—none of that matters. What matters is Shizun’s happiness.“

Luo Binghe's gaze is soft as he smiles at Shen Qingqiu, dark eyes shifting with warmth.

“I am happy as long as Shizun is happy.”

......

Bullshit...!

Luo Binghe can’t curb his jealousy; it’s an animalistic impulse, born from his demon heritage. As long as he favors a person, he won't let anyone else have them, whether or not that person returns his affection. A trait that's more trouble than it's worth, if his blatant provocation of Yue Qingyuan is any indication.

And yet.

Shen Qingqiu can hardly think over the thunder of his own heart.

So this is the full power of the protagonist’s charm. Shen Qingqiu recalls a similar vibe in the dialogue selections of the original game, but he never imagined that he'd be on the receiving end of it, that he would fall for its magnetic allure.

And what is this feeling that's making his chest burn, his stomach roil and churn?

The System makes a whirring noise, followed by the clink of a gear coming to a sudden stop.

[Might I suggest fondness, excitement, and perhaps a hint of sexual arou—] 

Get the fuck out of my head.

 


 

Weeks pass. All of Shen Qingqiu’s parameters increase by five points.

But the same can’t be said of his health.

Shen Qingqiu hasn’t had much sleep. 

Mu Qingfang and Yue Qingyuan are waiting for an answer, with Mu Qingfang’s unending patience stirring feelings of shame inside him, Yue Qingyuan’s unnerving stare prickling his skin. Meanwhile, Liu Qingge is acting stranger and stranger, growing increasingly grouchy each time Shen Qingqiu asks after Yang Yixuan. (“He’s not the one I want at the fucking festival,” Liu Qingge snaps once, only to ram his fist through a tree trunk when Shen Qingqiu replies with, “Is it someone I know?”) 

Thank goodness for Luo Binghe, who brings him congee every morning and takes in his lessons three times a week. Who keeps him sane with their shared routine, minus the stress, the pressure, or in the case of Liu Qingge, just plain bewilderment.

The voice returns the day before the Mid-Autumn Festival.

[Please note that your Blood Pressure is now at level 50. At level 80, you will be bedridden for a week.]

“Whose fault is that,” Shen Qingqiu hisses. He has been awake for hours, watching the cool, grey light of dawn spill through the window and up against the gauzy curtains around his bed.

Stupid, this is so stupid.

When he played the game as Luo Binghe, he rejected women left and right. Focused all his efforts on a single target without care or concern for anyone’s feelings. Maybe there’s something about the computer screen, the emotional distancing that it affords. But there’s no reason for him to be so affected by a group of men. He’s not even interested in men, for crying out loud.

So why is it so damn hard for him to make a choice this time?

[You will only lose Hearts if you reject a romantic candidate more than three times.]

“I’m not afraid of losing their affection,” Shen Qingqiu sniffs.

Or… is he? After years of hiding in his room, away from the world’s scorn and ridicule, it has been nice to feel loved. To be loved. He hasn't felt that since the tremors started in his hands, since he had to give up the guqin and lose all will to keep trying. The thought of that gone, of going back to the way things were, makes Shen Qingqiu’s heart lurch in his chest.

The voice actually sounds sympathetic.

[Perhaps a pros and cons list might help.]

“Maybe. Lists don’t really work for me, though.” Shen Qingqiu rolls onto his back, glaring up at the top of his canopy bed. “You’re weirdly chatty today." 

[I, too, have my moods.]

Shen Qingqiu snorts. The System has a personality, at least. “Then maybe you’ll answer this question for me. Do friendship routes exist in here?”

[Only one candidate has a predetermined friendship route. The others will shift into that route if you achieve maximum Heart level but fail to hit the required parameters.]

“So does Liu Qingge have the predetermined route?”

There’s the barest pause.

[No.]

“Really?” Shen Qingqiu folds his arms across his chest. “He hasn’t shown a single ounce of romantic interest in me.”

[...would you like him to?]

“No,” Shen Qingqiu shoots back. “God no. I was just curious, that’s all.”

The voice hums like a chorus of spinning wheels.

[Your request has been filed for consideration.] 

The fuck!?

“Nonono, that wasn’t—”

Three raps on the door, followed by a soft “Shizun?”

Hurriedly, Shen Qingqiu flings the covers over himself and wrenches his eyes shut. Just as he wonders why the hell he’s acting as if he has been caught cheating, Luo Binghe slips into the room, apron on and clay pot in his hands. He's carrying something else too, held fast by the length of his forearm.

A paper lantern, red and round, with a small black base.

Rising up, Shen Qingqiu’s eyes follow the shift of Luo Binghe’s muscles as he deposits the clay pot and lantern on the low table. Notices the way Luo Binghe quivers, ever so slightly, excitement threatening to explode from his being. 

“You brought a lantern,” Shen Qingqiu observes, seated on the edge of his bed.

“For the festival.” Luo Binghe chews on his bottom lip, lashes fanning over dark eyes. “This student hopes for Shizun to write a poem on it, so he can hang it at the bamboo house.”

Asked so endearingly, how can Shen Qingqiu resist? He motions for Luo Binghe to bring the lantern over, ignoring the spike of something in his chest, a fledgling flame that ignites when Luo Binghe’s face lights up with such earnest delight.

The poem is a perfect distraction.

Bai Juyi’s “Grass” feels most fitting for Luo Binghe, with the smooth portrayal of wild grasses growing in adverse environments. Though burned by fire, they rise again when spring comes, and Shen Qingqiu sees that same tenacity in Luo Binghe. A tenacity that can overtake him and fill his soul with hatred, if not properly cultivated. 

Brush in hand, Shen Qingqiu looks up at Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe, who is gazing in awe at the characters written on the folds of the lantern. Luo Binghe, who gets up before him to make his favorite dish. Who listens and learns and tolerates all the teasing, the bullying. Who wears his heart on his sleeve and wants to do everything, be everything, for Shen Qingqiu.

Fuck it. 

Fuck propriety, and feelings, and doing what’s right.

“Bring more lanterns,” Shen Qingqiu says, “So we can send them out on the lake together.”

Luo Binghe’s head jerks up, his eyes gone impossibly wide. “Does Shizun mean what I think he means?”

Shen Qingqiu looks away, huffing. “What do you think I mean?”

“That…” Luo Binghe inhales, breath wobbling. “That Shizun wants to spend the festival with me?"

Some internal embarrassment meter makes Shen Qingqiu want to shake his head, deny everything he ever said. Instead, holding his ground, he forces out a slow, deliberate nod.

For a long moment, Luo Binghe doesn’t move. He’s frozen to the spot, eyes still wide and mouth agape, as though someone has flipped the off-switch on him.

Wow, thinks Shen Qingqiu. He broke the male stallion protagonist.

“Binghe?” he ventures, leaning forward. “Are you—unf!” 

His words snap off as Luo Binghe yanks him into a tight embrace, face burrowing deep in the crook of his neck. 

“I didn't dare to hope for Shizun's time at the festival, didn't think I deserved to hope,” Luo Binghe sighs, a gust of air against Shen Qingqiu’s collarbones. “Even now, this feels like a dream.”

The System sweeps in with multiple dings.

[Heart levels +3!!! Not even death can pry this faithful student from your side!!]

Shen Qingqiu pats Luo Binghe awkwardly on the back. Bit of an exaggerated reaction there, but it's fine, it's the least he can do for Luo Binghe. All he needs now is to face Mu Qingfang and Yue Qingyuan's disappointment.

Easier said than done.

 


 

“The fireworks look so much brighter with you here, A-Jiu.”

“More tea, Shen-shixiong?”

A group of students walk by their mat, pointing and whispering, and Shen Qingqiu’s teeth clench down hard enough to shatter. It’s crowded enough with all the lanterns Luo Binghe had brought with him—bless that boy—but with the addition of Mu Qingfang and Yue Qingyuan flanking his sides, there’s barely any space left between them. Something that seems to please Yue Qingyuan to no end.

Luo Binghe, on the other hand, looks about ready to murder someone.

All right, so Shen Qingqiu failed. Big time. What was meant to be a clear, explicit rejection of their invitations turned into some nervous, wishy-washy, “it’s not a date” and “come if you want, it’s a pretty big lake.”

And that resulted, of course, in Mu Qingfang showing up with a basket of herbs and tea leaves, and Yue Qingyuan, with mooncakes of all flavors.

Mu Qingfang is pleasant enough, greeting Luo Binghe as he would any other student, even offering Luo Binghe a cup of tea. Yue Qingyuan does the same, but it's clear to anyone with eyes that he reserves his smiles, his touches, for Shen Qingqiu and only Shen Qingqiu. 

That's going to be a problem.

Sure enough, Yue Qingyuan’s hand shifts, resting on the top of Shen Qingqiu’s knee. “I’m so glad you decided to make it a party. Only A-Jiu could have rallied us together like this.”

There, right there: beneath the explosion of colors in the sky, the sudden flare of black around them is unmistakably Luo Binghe’s qi.

Shen Qingqiu jolts to his feet; he can’t let these two make a scene in such a public area. Ironic, really, given Yue Qingyuan's initial reluctance.

“I’m taking a walk,” he declares. Before the other two men can react, he flicks his fan in the direction of Luo Binghe. “Come.”

Grinning, Luo Binghe scrambles to join him.

The moon shines a deep silver tonight, casting long streams of light across the still waters of the lake. As they walk down the pier, Shen Qingqiu feels the wood boards creak beneath his feet, hears Luo Binghe’s quiet breaths beside him. Some distance from the fireworks, it’s peaceful, tranquil—or it would have been, had Shen Qingqiu been firmer with the other two. Luo Binghe deserves to get what he wants for a change. And all he wants is to enjoy the festival with Shen Qingqiu.

“Your demonic energy,” Shen Qingqiu blurts out.

Luo Binghe blinks at him. 

“It's leaking out of you like an old man with incontinence, and it's... concerning. I know Binghe was hoping to spend the festival with this teacher, not with two other Seniors. I know that, yet here we are, what's done is done, and I… I...” Shen Qingqiu trails off. I what? Suck at apologizing? Wish he could chase the Seniors off somehow, so Luo Binghe would stop looking so mad? ...wonder where the last scraps of his dignity have run off to??

Luo Binghe studies Shen Qingqiu for a moment, before he cocks his head to one side, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Did Shizun call me out because he regrets the other Seniors' presence?" 

Shen Qingqiu shoots him a withering look. Then, muttering, “Don’t ask a question you know the answer to.”

Luo Binghe laughs, a happy sound that replaces the lump in Shen Qingqiu's chest with warmth. “I’m not angry with Shizun. Maybe a little at first, but I forgave Shizun as soon as he called for me.” His expression shifts, irises flashing red. “This student is displeased with the other Seniors, for taking advantage of your soft heart.”

Oh, well.

That’s okay then.

“Let’s float a few lanterns out on the other side of the lake,” Shen Qingqiu suggests. “Just the two of us.”

Luo Binghe nods, brightening. “If that’s what Shizun wants—”

“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.” 

...it’s hard to be alone on these blasted school grounds.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t realize Luo Binghe has a problem with Liu Qingge until he sees his tutee stiffen, jaw tight, when the Peak Senior strides up to them. Certainly doesn’t help that Liu Qingge meets Luo Binghe’s stare head-on, lips curling at the sight of him.

Where is this mutual animosity coming from?

“Greet your Senior, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu says, in an effort to break the tension.

“Senior Liu,” Luo Binghe mutters, almost too low to be heard. 

Liu Qingge snorts but thankfully holds his tongue. Pulling his gaze away, he withdraws a fan from the inside of his robes, presents it with two hands to Shen Qingqiu.

“Happy Mid-Autumn Festival,” he says, gruffly.

Shen Qingqiu makes a noise of surprise as he spreads open the gift. The fan is beautiful. Light and delicate, a white silhouette of Chang’e rests across the navy blue folds, her slim figure perched on a crescent moon. The kind of sensibility that’s unexpected for a brusque warrior like Liu Qingge. 

“You’ve outdone yourself, Liu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu breathes.

Liu Qingge’s ears pink. And then he straightens, as if Shen Qingqiu’s reaction has given him some newfound resolve. “I've been meaning to tell you who I wanted at the festival.” 

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe starts to say, but Shen Qingqiu shushes him. Just because the System says Liu Qingge has a romantic route with him doesn’t change the fact that Liu Qingge might secretly have another lover. 

“Is it Mu-shidi?” he guesses. The two are sometimes found together in the original game; it’s not far fetched for them to have a hidden relationship the way Yue Qingyuan did with Shen Qingqiu. 

At Liu Qingge’s blank look, Shen Qingqiu tries again.

“Qi-shimei?”

“No—”

“Yue-shixiong?”

No.”

“...Shang-shidi?”

“Oh for…”

Liu Qingge grabs Shen Qingqiu by the shoulders and hollers loud enough for several students to turn their way.

“You! The person I wanted at the festival is you, damn it!!”

In an instant, Luo Binghe is between them, roaring, “Let go of Shizun!" 

“Stay out of this,” Liu Qingge hisses.

Luo Binghe's demon mark gleams. “Touch Shizun like that again, and I’ll kill you.”

Liu Qingge bares his teeth, hand dropping to his sword. “I'd like to see you try.”

Shen Qingqiu watches them, slightly dazed. A crowd is gathering, spiritual energy crackling like bolts of electricity in the air. He was so cautious about avoiding a fight between Yue Qingyuan and Luo Binghe that he hadn’t thought to factor in Liu Qingge. Hell, he hadn't considered Liu Qingge a factor to begin with.

The voice chimes in with a hint of triumph.

[Request fulfilled.]

 


 

MESSAGE FROM THE GAME DEVELOPER

Hi friends, it’s Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky!

I see some of you wondering if I'm in the game. 

First of all: SPOILERS.

Second of all… I don't actually have a second point, just felt important saying "first of all" hahaha.

But for real, I'm happy to see so much interest in me? Not even my parents show that much interest in me! Maybe y'all should talk to them. Especially my dad; he thinks game development isn't a real job. Which stings a little, but what can you do, am I right? I mean, it's not like I can change the old man's mind, he's like 200 years old or something. 

…anyway. Uh. How about Shen Yuan bro, huh? Really making progress with his romantic options there! Not enough to gain Heart levels, but hey, all that vinegar is no joke.

There should be a Vinegar level, don't you think? Goes up every time a rival shows up in an event. Though Luo Binghe's probably hits max levels whenever Shen Yuan bro so much as looks at someone. Why'd I make him that way? Because it's a change of pace, you know? All that power and charisma, plus the physical capability to actually fight for the one you love. How many of us have that in real life? How many of us wish we have that? 

For every complaint I've received about the game, there'd always be someone reveling in Luo Binghe's jealousy. 

It's self-worth, in a way. Confidence in the belief that we're worthy enough to stake a claim on someone. I think we deserve to feel that confidence just once in our lives. I don't know if I do, but well... you all deserve it, for sure! 

Oh, and to the person who wanted to talk - I'm not broadcasting my location over the internet, or... whatever this thing is. If you have something to say, say it on here, and I'll get right back to you.

Until next time!

Chapter Text

[Good morning. You have nine months until graduation. Would you like a reminder of your parameters and Heart levels?]

As the voice fades, Shen Qingqiu rises from bed to slip on his outer robes, the light fabric whispering against his sleeves.

It's November now, two months since he died and entered this body, this world—long enough for him to adapt to his new role and daily routine. He has grown accustomed to the reverent salutes of the Qing Jing Peak students, to Ming Fan’s simpering and Ning Yingying’s bright calls of Senior Shen. Even to the whispers in classes and on school grounds, each time another Peak Senior interacts with him.

Shen Qingqiu glances at the window, the spot of sunlight a soft hue of orange. There’s still an hour before Luo Binghe arrives with his breakfast.

“A reminder would be nice,” he tells the System out loud.

[Understood. Your parameters and Heart levels are as follows…]

With a whirring noise, the translucent panel pops into view.

Shen Qingqiu sinks down on the seat to his dresser. Gazes at his reflection, pensive, as he runs the comb through his hair, pausing now and then to untangle a knot. He can’t decide who to ask out; they're all good men with different qualities to them. Mu Qingfang seems like the person to start with, given his low Heart level, but it might work better to maximize Luo Binghe’s so Shen Qingqiu can attend to the others.

...attend to the others?

Shen Qingqiu exhales, slowly. He's strategizing as if the men were objects to be used and discarded, and the thought makes his heart clench to the point of aching.

[May I remind you that you have yet to encounter all your romantic candidates?]

work on your timing, will you!? 

“Just how many are there?” Shen Qingqiu huffs, hands lifting to draw dark strands into a top knot on his head.

A pause, then,

[Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Please repeat your—]

Shen Qingqiu jams the headpiece so hard in his hair, the curved edge digs into his scalp. “I hate you,” he grounds out. “So, so much.”

The System lets out a sound that’s almost like a chuckle.

Scowling, Shen Qingqiu carefully picks out the fan with a design of Chang’e on the front—Liu Qingge’s thoughtful gift for the Mid-Autumn Festival. He tucks the fan into his belt, just as Luo Binghe knocks on the door: three soft taps, followed by a whisper of Shizun.

It's just a game, Shen Qingqiu reminds himself. A game that could end in permanent death if he doesn’t play it right.

He settles on a cushion, watching as Luo Binghe lifts the lid off the claypot and smiles at him, mouth curved, eyes shining. Feels his heart do a flip that was once unfamiliar but now a regular occurence in Luo Binghe’s presence.

Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth.

It’s just a game.

 


 

The first class is on the reading of scriptures, involving a reflection period steeped in meditative silence.

Shen Qingqiu looks up, startled, when something hits the side of his head. Next to him, Liu Qingge nods toward the crumpled ball of paper on the ground. On Shen Qingqiu’s other side, Mu Qingfang glances over, eyebrows raised.

Their classmates are clearly distracted by this line-up, heads whipping back for a peek every so often.

So much for "meditative."

Slowly, eyes on the teacher in front, Shen Qingqiu leans over to retrieve the note. Smooths it open on his desk, revealing Liu Qingge's small, haphazard scrawl.  

Are you participating in the tournament?

It takes Shen Qingqiu a moment to recall this event.

The interschool tournament is an annual fighting competition among the top cultivation schools in the region. Only the best students are selected for the tournament through a practical examination that tests their cultivation and combat skills.

The System sidles in.

[Please note that your Cultivation level must be at 100 to participate.]

At level 70, Shen Qingqiu is nowhere close.

But in the original game, Shen Qingqiu had found a loophole, cheated his way into the tournaments, then used underhanded means to defeat his opponents. Or so it seemed, based on rumors; there was never an in-game explanation for what that loophole was, or what the underhanded means were. The original was written as such a one-dimensional scum villain that Shen Qingqiu had believed every accusation lobbed at him, without question.

He's not sure if that speaks highly of Airplane bro’s writing, or if he gets far too invested in the characters.

More likely the latter.

Whatever the case, Shen Qingqiu would rather not cheat. He’s a terrible liar as it is; he broke into hives that one time he broke his sister’s favorite perfume bottle and kept it from her.

I'm afraid I don't qualify, he writes, curving his characters in the most elegant penmanship he can muster. Then, he tosses it back to Liu Qingge, who deftly catches it with one hand.

One glance, a frown, before Liu Qingge's brush sweeps over the page, and the note bounces back to Shen Qingqiu.

I will train you. Meet me in the back of the Bai Zhan Peak dormitories this evening.

Shen Qingqiu feels a rush of excitement. Special one-on-one training with the strongest warrior in the Cang Qiong School of Cultivation? That would definitely raise his Cultivation level.

And give you quality time with Liu Qingge, supplies his idiot brain, but Shen Qingqiu resolutely squashes the thought.

I look forward to it, he writes.

When Liu Qingge reads the reply, his face lights up, lips tilting up slightly at the corners.

It's not quite the same flip as with Luo Binghe but, again, Shen Qingqiu's heart does something strange in his chest.

Damn these handsome men.

Ever the perfect student, Mu Qingfang waits until the end of class to approach him. Liu Qingge has left by then, not one for lingering conversations.

“Liu-shixiong looked pleased,” Mu Qingfang observes, head cocked.

Shen Qingqiu nods as he gathers his books. “I have accepted his training for the tournament.”

"Ah." Mu Qingfang clicks his tongue. “Then you will need herbs and bandages. They haven't been pretty, the injuries I have seen on Bai Zhan Peak students after a round of training.”

At the gravity in Mu Qingfang’s words, Shen Qingqiu lifts a hand to his mouth, holding back a laugh. It’s not like he’s heading to his death or anything, but the concern is appreciated nonetheless. “Thank you, Mu-shidi. Binghe has been using your herbs in his cooking, and they are indeed refreshing.”

Mu Qingfang’s brow twitches. "The herbs I gave you at the festival," he says. “Luo Binghe adds them in his cooking for you?”

Shen Qingqiu nods. “Every morning."

"I see," Mu Qingfang says. He smiles then, lips pressed together in a thin line. "Where, if I may ask, have you taken your relationship with Luo Binghe?”

Something he said about Luo Binghe has displeased Mu Qingfang. But Shen Qingqiu doesn't quite understand what that might be. He hasn't taken anything anywhere with Luo Binghe. Aside from falling into a comfortable routine, their relationship hasn't changed at all since the festival.

So he opts for simple honesty.

“I tutor him," Shen Qingqiu says, "Just as I do with the other Peak students."

“Mn,” says Mu Qingfang, still smiling. "And do the other students cook for you as well?"

Shen Qingqiu pictures Ming Fan in an apron, and snorts. "Binghe is enough."

Mu Qingfang makes a contemplative noise.

He doesn’t ask any more questions after that.

 


 

Shen Qingqiu’s next classes are devoid of Peak Seniors, allowing the rest of his morning to go by smoothly, with an increase of 10 points in Intelligence and Culture. Typical of a love simulation, BL or otherwise, for any presence of a romantic candidate to lead to an event of some sort. Life would move so much faster if it resembled these games, yet Shen Qingqiu misses the tedious, humdrum motions of living, like the awkward small talks that go nowhere, the repetitive meals, the relationships that grind to a halt without reason.

It feels like he’s running, always running, and sometimes, it’d be nice to slow down for a breath.

“Zhajiang noodles, pork dumplings, and garlic dou miao,” Luo Binghe lists cheerily.

Only sometimes, Shen Qingqiu thinks, as he stares at the dishes spread out on the table.

“There are seconds if you want more,” Luo Binghe says, mouth pulled in a beaming grin. After passing over chopsticks with two hands, he sits across from Shen Qingqiu. Rests his cheek on one hand, head tilted, as if he’s studying a rare and peerless piece of art.

Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks warm. Finally convinced to eat with him instead of before, Luo Binghe still insists on waiting until after Shen Qingqiu has taken his first bite. And the waiting is fine, the waiting is somewhat endearing. The problem lies in the staring, and that smile—that smile—filled with so much adoration that it makes Shen Qingqiu squirm.

"I will be training with Senior Liu this evening," Shen Qingqiu blurts out.

In an instant, Luo Binghe's expression shifts. "What training could Shizun possibly need?" he asks, quietly.

Well, fuck. He meant to bring that up toward the end of the meal.

Shen Qingqiu clears his throat, straightening. “I intend to enter the tournament this year, and Senior Liu’s training will aid me greatly in passing the exam.”

Luo Binghe’s cheek is still resting on his palm, seemingly relaxed. But around them, the temperature plunges, sending a shiver up Shen Qingqiu's spine.

“Did Shizun not pass the exam last year?”

Shen Qingqiu draws in a deep breath. Half-demon or not, he will not be intimidated by a student of Qing Jing Peak. Even if this student did rip his limbs off in the original game.

“It has been a year,” he says, "And I am rusty."

Luo Binghe nods. "I see," he says, in the exact same tone as Mu Qingfang earlier.

When it doesn’t seem like Luo Binghe has more to say, Shen Qingqiu hastily pops a dumpling in his mouth, before flicking his chopsticks at Luo Binghe, a gesture to start eating. To his relief, Luo Binghe picks up his chopsticks and reaches for a dumpling.

They eat in silence for a while after that, Shen Qingqiu choking down food under the heavy weight of Luo Binghe's petulance. Why must this always happen at mealtime? All Shen Qingqiu wants is to do is savor every bite of Luo Binghe’s cooking, not suffocate in this thick cloud of negative energy.

Swallowing, Shen Qingqiu breaks the silence.

"How are classes?"

"Fine," Luo Binghe says, eyes hooded as he pushes dou miao around on his plate.

"Students are treating you well?" Shen Qingqiu continues.

"Yes,” Luo Binghe says.

"Teachers, too?"

"Yes."

Shen Qingqiu takes a moment to gather his patience, breathing in and out, before he soldiers on ahead.

"And how is—"

“What are Shizun's plans for dinner?” Luo Binghe cuts in suddenly.

Shen Qingqiu blinks, then replies without thought. (Any topic is better than silence.) “This teacher will have it with Binghe, of course. Unless,” he adds, realizing how presumptuous that sounds, “You’d rather not wait—”

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe breathes.

Shen Qingqiu stops mid-sentence. There’s a flush to Luo Binghe's cheeks that wasn’t there before, and his smile has returned, the one that makes his entire face glow.

“This student will always wait for you.”

It’s Shen Qingqiu’s turn to blush, which he evades by cramming noodles in his mouth. Luo Binghe’s laugh doesn’t cool the heat in his cheeks any more than the fondness in Luo Binghe’s gaze. How can a person’s mood swing this much? One minute Luo Binghe is angry and sullen; the next, he’s happy again, changing so fast that Shen Qingqiu feels like he was swept up and spun around in a tornado.

Maybe that's why his heart won't stop performing somersaults.

On his way back to classes, Shen Qingqiu seeks out Ning Yingying in the dormitories and pulls her aside. “Make sure Binghe eats if he’s hungry,” he instructs.

"Of course, Senior Shen," Ning Yingying chirps.

The stupid ding is obnoxiously cheerful.

[Kindness, +5! Your care for Luo Binghe has touched Ning Yingying's soul!]

Touched her soul, and all he gets is a measly five points?

When no response comes, Shen Qingqiu rolls his eyes and moves on. Arbitrary, is what it is. All his level-ups are completely arbitrary, and he’ll just have to accept them as they come.

 


 

At the stairs to Bai Zhan Peak dormitories, Shen Qingqiu runs into Liu Mingyan.

There’s a soft “ah!” as the books in her arms fall to the ground, and Shen Qingqiu hastily apologizes, crouching down to retrieve them for her. This is his fault for getting lost in his head, as usual, pondering about the game and the men around him.

“Don’t you use your eyes?” Qi Qingqi snaps.

Shen Qingqiu thinks of WeChat ID QQQTrash and his fervent exclamations of step on me queen, before he violently shakes the disturbing image out of his head. “I apologize, Qi-shimei, I was a little distracted…”

“By what, all these new friends you’re making with the other Peak Seniors?” Qi Qingqi stares past her nose at him. “I still don’t trust you, Shen Qingqiu.”

Now that's a more reasonable reaction to his sudden personality change. Funny, how the female characters actually display great sense once they're out of the romantic role. Is this some weird message about love clouding our judgements and rotting the brain, Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky?

"I don't expect you to," Shen Qingqiu says. "Trust is to be earned."

Qi Qingqi's nose wrinkles. "Two months ago, you would have sneered some caustic remark and walked away. Did you hit your head on something?"

Got crushed by a bus, is all, Shen Qingqiu thinks.

"Everyone is capable of change," he says instead. "If we could give each other a chance to… to, uh…"

He trails off, frowning, when his hand lands on a book with a gaudy pink cover, hearts trailing around the border. The figures on the cover, hand drawn, look vaguely familiar. Brows needling together, Shen Qingqiu brings the book up close, eyes narrowed in a tight squint.

Huh.

They look…

They look like—

He flinches when Liu Mingyan snatches the book out of his hands.

“Thank you,” she says, her voice soft and silvery behind the veil. And with a dip of her head, she’s gliding away.

Qi Qingqi strides after Liu Mingyan, tossing a smirk over her shoulder.

"See you around, Shen Qingqiu." 

Ding.

[Respect, +5!]

….how the hell was that, in any way, a sign of respect? Surely there's a limit to the random level-ups. Or has all semblance of common sense been thrown out the window?

The voice chimes in, slightly miffed.

[There are reasons for every point increase.]

"What are the reasons for this instance, then?"

[That is for you to discover.]

Shen Qingqiu squashes down the spike of frustration. "Okay, but what was that book?"

The figures on the cover looked like him and Luo Binghe, holding each other in the same manner as the couples on covers of Western harlequin novels. Or was it something else? It must be something else. Has he turned into that much of a narcissist that he'd identify random 2D drawings as a rendering of himself??

The System doesn’t respond.

“Asshole,” Shen Qingqiu mutters under his breath.

His mood follows him all the way to the Bai Zhan Peak dormitories, where Liu Qingge is waiting for him at the empty space in the back. 

"What's wrong?" Liu Qingge asks, the second he sees the look on Shen Qingqiu's face.

Focus, Shen Yuan!

Schooling his expression, Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. "It's nothing." When Liu Qingge eyes him, a thin brow arched in concern, he huffs, "I promise you, Liu-shidi, I would have told you if it were important."

And it's not important that Liu Qingge’s sister possesses a book with main characters that appear to resemble Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe.

Not one bit.

Unconvinced, Liu Qingge stares at Shen Qingqiu for a long moment, piercing and sharp. Shen Qingqiu lifts his chin and stares back, arms in his sleeves. Two months ago, he might have caved. Babbled on about the entire encounter. But he knows, now, that Liu Qingge is far softer than he appears.

Finally, as Shen Qingqiu predicts, Liu Qingge breaks off his gaze, exhaling, and nods toward the space in front of him.

“Let’s start with your stances.”

 


 

The training with Liu Qingge is challenging but helpful. Especially for Shen Qingqiu, who has thus far used his spiritual energy by sheer instinct and without any understanding of what he’s doing.

His stances are off, he learns. Proper stance and proper breathing help to circulate his qi and maintain a fine balance between his mind and body. Allows him to channel it whenever and wherever he needs, without fear of qi deviation. So Liu Qingge spends an inordinate amount of time correcting Shen Qingqiu's various stances and movements, warm hands pressing into Shen Qingqiu's shoulders, back, arms, hips. It might have felt intimate with anyone else, but Liu Qingge keeps his touches light, his voice curt as a drill instructor, and Shen Qingqiu is grateful for that.

Shen Qingqiu is also grateful that Liu Qingge hasn’t voiced any doubts about his passing of last year's exam, either. He has every right to, given how abysmal these stances are.

“This is a good place to stop,” Liu Qingge says while Shen Qingqiu shifts out of his last pose. “Practice the different forms, and we’ll meet again in three days.”

Nodding, Shen Qingqiu tugs out his fan and flicks it open. “Many thanks, Liu-shidi."

Liu Qingge’s eyes widen, his breath catching in his throat.

“You’re using it.”

For a second, Shen Qingqiu is perplexed, before he recalls that he had chosen Liu Qingge’s gift this morning. It wasn't his intention to show off his appreciation for the gift, but it seemed appropriate, judging by Liu Qingge's reaction.

“Of course I’m using it. The design is elegant and the fan itself well-made.” He looks up at Liu Qingge through his lashes, mouth curving, fan parting the air by his cheek. “Liu-shidi has a good eye.”

Liu Qingge flushes, pink rising in his cheeks and slipping down his face and along his jaw. He opens his mouth, closes it. Flounders a little. Then, with a sigh that melts the tension in his shoulders, he smiles back at Shen Qingqiu, so soft and unguarded that Shen Qingqiu’s breath hitches in turn.

“I’m glad.”

They stand there for a moment, the silence rising between them. This, somehow, feels far more intimate than having Liu Qingge’s hands on his body, with Shen Qingqiu struck by the color in Liu Qingge’s cheeks and the light in his eyes—golden, like the sun. It makes Shen Qingqiu want to see more of Liu Qingge—this Liu Qingge—the side that’s warm and tender and more of a man than a warrior.

Ding, goes the System.

[Heart level +1! Congratulations on hitting Heart level 3! You may now ask Liu Qingge out on dates, yay yay yay!!]

A pause.

Then, in a solemn tone,

[Cultivation, +10]

read the mood, idiot!!!

Spell broken, Shen Qingqiu dips his head, fan hiding the scowl on his face. There’s really no reason for him to stay; the silence is just growing more awkward by the second, thanks to a certain disembodied voice. “I will see you in three days.”

He makes it as far as the steps to Bai Zhan Peak dormitory before he hears Liu Qingge’s voice calling out.

“Hey.”

Shen Qingqiu turns to find Liu Qingge glaring at some point in the distance, back straight and arms folded across his chest.

“Join me for dinner.”

It's not a question.

Shen Qingqiu’s traitorous heart leaps. Is this a part of the System’s meddling again? Or is this coming entirely from Liu Qingge’s own—

[Him.]

The voice sounds a little too triumphant.

[All him.]

Oh.

“I’m afraid I’ve promised Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu says, feeling just terrible. Game or not, he knows the feeling of rejection, and it hurts, it always hurts. Liu Qingge doesn’t deserve that sort of pain.

Except Liu Qingge doesn’t take it lying down the way Shen Qingqiu did.

“I see,” he says, and Shen Qingqiu wonders if this is some of verbal tic in the world. “Then let’s have dinner together.” Liu Qingge’s eyes gleam. “All three of us.”

The loud ding this time is completely unexpected.

[3P mode activated! Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations!!]

Ex-cuse me???

What the fuck is 3P mode? That didn’t exist in the original game!

[3P mode stands for 3-Person mode, in which you, the player, may date two romantic candidates at the same time. Please be informed that a 3P ending is considered a viable romantic ending and therefore qualifies as meeting the goal for your continued existence.]

No thank you, Shen Qingqiu shrieks internally. Cancel it! Deactivate it!!

[3P mode cannot be canceled once activated.]

Are you telling me I have to sit through a meal with not one, but two men!? Two powerful men with the worst tempers in all of Cang Qiong!?

[That is correct.]

Shen Qingqiu lets out a string of curses that would have wilted his mother’s house plants. He, the player, who ought to be deciding his own fate, has no choice in the matter. The irony is not lost on him. Makes him want to stab and rip things apart with Xiu Ya.

A thought that Luo Binghe seems to share, when Shen Qingqiu shows up at the bamboo house with Liu Qingge by his side.

“What is he doing here?” Luo Binghe growls. Even in his apron, he strikes an imposing figure in the doorway, irritation radiating off him in waves.

“Respect your senior,” Shen Qingqiu chides, just as Liu Qingge says, “What the hell are you wearing?”

Luo Binghe ignores him, gaze fixed on Shen Qingqiu. “I’ve only cooked enough for two, Shizun.”

At that, Liu Qingge’s eyes narrow. “He cooks for you? How long have you allowed this nonsense?”

When Luo Binghe bristles, Shen Qingqiu reaches out to rest a hand on his arm, just above his elbow. It works, and Luo Binghe calms, fists slowly uncurling.

Liu Qingge's expression, on the other hand, goes dark.

Just kill me already, thinks Shen Qingqiu.

"I take meals with Binghe in the bamboo house because the other students don’t take well to him,” he hastens to explain. “The cooking naturally followed, given his affinity for it.”

Liu Qingge snorts. “Ridiculous. He’s a student of Cang Qiong, is he not? We will eat at the dining hall.” His lips tip upward on one side. “Or is he not man enough to take a few stares?”

Luo Binghe rises to his full height, and Shen Qingqiu realizes with a start just how tall he is. “I only refrained so Shizun’s reputation won’t be affected. And because Shizun enjoys our meals in the bamboo house.”

He mirrors Liu Qingge’s smirk with one of his own.

”Our private meals.”

Liu Qingge’s mouth twitches. “I will see to it that no one speaks ill of him at the dining hall.”

“And what am I do to with all the food I’ve prepared?” Luo Binghe asks.

“Bring it with you.”

“It’s for Shizun and Shizun only.”

“I assure you,” Liu Qingge says dryly, “I have no intention of trying any of your cooking.”

“Fine,” Luo Binghe says.

“Fine,” Liu Qingge says.

Fine,” Luo Binghe says again, with vehemence.

They glare at each other for a beat, an eternity, while Shen Qingqiu fights the urge to bolt. Run to the Qian Cao Peak dormitories and spend a peaceful, relaxing evening with Mu Qingfang instead. Even Yue Qingyuan’s overwhelming affection is far more tolerable than whatever the hell this is supposed to be.

And it’s for this that people stare at him in the dining hall. Him and his dining companions, who keep snapping at each other at the buffet line ( “Shizun doesn’t like fruits.” “So you only feed him things that bring him closer to death?” ).

What is this, some kind of twisted love triangle? Why is 3P mode even a thing??

On cue, the System hums to life.

[Typically, 3P mode occurs with two romantic candidates who are friends with each other.]

A loud snort.

[But nothing with you is typical, is it?]

Shen Qingqiu wishes the System has a corporal body so he can kick it right where the sun don’t shine.

 


 

Dinner is uncomfortable.

Shen Qingqiu thought his meals with a sulking Luo Binghe were bad. Oh, he had no idea what “bad” truly meant. Both Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge are exuding such thick and oppressive qi that every student has given them a wide berth, leaving the three of them to fester in discomfort at the end of a long table.

On the lookout for Peak Seniors, Shen Qingqiu snatches for the edge of Shang Qinghua's sleeve when he attempts—and fails—to sneak past.

“Help me," Shen Qingqiu hisses.

Shang Qinghua shoots Shen Qingqiu a startled glance, takes one look at the other two men, then scurries off to the furthest table.

Useless cannon fodder…!!

“Is the food not to your liking, Shizun?”

Slowly, Shen Qingqiu turns back. Luo Binghe is pouting at him from across the table, while Liu Qingge pins him down with that penetrating stare.

“I can bring you something else,” Liu Qingge says.

“Shizun hasn’t said anything yet,” Luo Binghe snaps.

“He doesn’t have to say anything,” Liu Qingge sniffs. “It’s written all over his face.”

“Uh,” Shen Qingqiu says. The mountain of food on his plate has started to tip dangerously to one side. “With Binghe’s cooking, you have both brought me enough food to feed a family of six…”

“That much food can’t be healthy for you,” says a familiar voice.

Shen Qingqiu whips around to find Mu Qingfang smiling down at him, an angel descending from the heavens.

“May I join you?”

Shen Qingqiu’s head bobs up and down so fast, he feels his neck crick.

YES, LORD AND SAVIOR. GIVE HIM A HEART, SYSTEM.

The voice is wry in its response.

[Heart levels indicate Mu Qingfang’s affection, not yours.]

The presence of Mu Qingfang lightens the atmosphere, Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge respectfully regaining control of their spiritual energy. He returns their greetings, courteous and gentle, as he slides into the spot beside Shen Qingqiu. Even compliments Luo Binghe’s cooking, bringing a grin to Luo Binghe’s face.

Shen Qingqiu gives some serious consideration to selecting Mu Qingfang for his romantic ending.

“How was training?” Mu Qingfang asks, shifting his gaze to Liu Qingge.

“Fine,” Liu Qingge says with a shrug. “We’re starting from the basics.”

“From the forms?” Something flickers across Mu Qingfang’s face before it vanishes as quickly as it appears. “Sounds like a good place to start.”

“Liu-shidi is an excellent teacher,” Shen Qingqiu says.

Liu Qingge’s eyes soften, pink suffusing his cheeks.

A low rumble creeps up Luo Binghe’s throat, like a beast defending its territory.

Mu Qingfang lets out a cough. “Student Luo,” he says, and the rumbling stops. “I’d imagine you’ve picked up a few tricks from the Demonic Institute of Cultivation. Perhaps you and Liu-shixiong can demonstrate your feats with a sparring session.”

Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge exchange glances.

Then, in unison, they agree without missing a beat.

“Tomorrow.”

“Yes, tomorrow.”

Shen Qingqiu stares at Mu Qingfang, who looks back at him serenely. To think he was counting on Mu Qingfang to end the madness! Does rationality and logic drop to the lowest common denominator in this group?

“Mu-shidi,” he starts but Mu Qingfang pats his hand in reassurance.

“Not to worry, Shen-shixiong. I will be there to provide medical support.”

Luo Binghe cracks his knuckles. “That means we can go all-out.”

Liu Qingge lifts his chin, mouth tilted. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Fuck 3P mode, thinks Shen Qingqiu.

 


 

Within hours, the rest of the school has caught wind of the upcoming fight. A betting pool starts, first among the Qing Jing and Bai Zhan Peak students, before spreading to the other Peaks. Infuriatingly, none of the teachers have tried to stop the fight, and Yue Qingyuan, the only person who might have intervened, is away on a cultivation trip with Master Wu. Shen Qingqiu suspects they’ve all bet on Liu Qingge, hoping for their star pupil to defeat Luo Binghe.

It’s for that reason that Shen Qingqiu strides up to the betting boxes in the common area and tosses coins in the one labeled Luo Binghe.

“Senior Shen,” Ming Fan gasps, scandalized. “You… do you really think that half-demon can beat Senior Liu!?”

“It wouldn’t be fun if we all bet on the same horse,” Shen Qingqiu reasons. With a flick of his sleeves, he sweeps out of the common area, Ning Yingying’s giggles trailing after him.

“As expected of Senior Shen!”

[Kindness +10, Coolness +5! Keep up the good work!]

Go to hell.

The System pauses.

[Your foul mood is lasting longer than usual.]

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t correct it.

Luo Binghe didn’t stay for breakfast that morning, and it felt strange—too strange—for Shen Qingqiu to eat his congee alone, devoid of those warm, dark eyes, that brilliant smile that lights up the room. He didn’t like it. Didn’t like the tightness of his chest after Luo Binghe left, the gnawing ache of loneliness that he avoided for years before his death.

Shen Qingqiu has grown attached to Luo Binghe, and it’s the last thing he needs.

“Am I still in 3P mode?” he mutters, making his way to the location of the fight. Mu Qingfang has chosen the arena in the middle of school grounds, the same venue where the interschool tournament holds its matches.

[3P mode will only deactivate if you lean toward one candidate over the other.]

“And how would I do that?”

[By spending more time with that candidate and increasing his affection for you.]

Shen Qingqiu nods, slowly. “Will this event affect it?”

[Depends on your choices.]

“What choices would I have in a sparring session?”

[That is for you to discover.]

Shen Qingqiu sighs. Of course it is. “Hey, System.”

[Yes.]

“I die if I lose. But what happens if I win? Like say, I won with Luo Binghe. Hypothetically speaking,” he amends quickly. “What happens then?”

The noise of a gear turning before the System reaches a conclusion.

[That is for you to discover.]

“Helpful, as always,” Shen Qingqiu says.

[You are most welcome.]

 


 

The arena is filled with spectators—students from the various Peaks. Xian Shu Peak is the only Peak that has chosen to sit out of the fight, Qi Qingqi deeming this to be “nothing but a spectacle of masculinity at its most fragile.” So the roars of the crowd are distinctly male as students wave their fists and banners, cheering on their chosen fighter.

On one end stands Liu Qingge, a spot of white, ponytail swaying in the breeze. His eyes scan the students above him, fingers curled around the hilt of Cheng Luan. On the other is Luo Binghe in jade green, arms crossed, a large sword strapped to his waist.

Xin Mo, the demon heart sword.

Shen Qingqiu has yet to see Luo Binghe use it in this version, but he knows the might of that sword from the original. Bequeathed to him by his demon father, Xin Mo has the power to devour souls and break realms. To taint its wielder with whispers of power and dominance. For a good deal of the original, Luo Binghe used the sword sparingly, aware of its destructive potential. Until, that is, he was ready to destroy the world and everything in it.

Is this it? Is this the choice?

Is he, Shen Qingqiu, meant to stop Luo Binghe’s use of Xin Mo in this fight?

The System remains silent.

“So this is what Luo Binghe meant by ‘all-out’,” Mu Qingfang remarks, coming up to Shen Qingqiu with a cloth-wrapped box in one hand. They’re on the arena grounds, close enough to the action but far enough to avoid accidents.

From this distance, Xin Mo’s snow-white scabbard is hard to miss.

“Should I stop him?” Shen Qingqiu says, frowning. “He has a perfectly functioning sword that won’t bend his mind to its will.”

“Zheng Yang, was it?” At Shen Qingqiu’s nod, Mu Qingfang hums, fingers rising to stroke his chin. “Perhaps Luo Binghe has a better handle of that demon sword than we believe.”

“I don’t—”

“Shizun!”

Luo Binghe is waving at him now, face lit up with fierce pride.

“Watch me, Shizun. This student will win for you, as proof of your teachings!”

Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks burn as all eyes drop to where he stands. He hides his embarrassment behind his fan, hastily snapping it open without thought for the design across the front. The same fan he chose yesterday, he realizes belatedly, when Luo Binghe’s smile fades.

On the far side of the arena, Liu Qingge smirks and stands a little taller. “Ready?” he calls out, drawing Cheng Luan from its sheath.

Luo Binghe’s sigil flares. “Anytime you are,” he says.

Cheng Luan rises into the air, before Liu Qingge throws two fingers forward, sending the blade hurtling toward Luo Binghe. Xin Mo half-drawn, Luo Binghe blocks with the exposed edge, sparks flying from the impact.

The crowd cheers, and Shen Qingqiu forgets to breathe.

The fight has begun.

 


 

Liu Qingge is strong.

The original game made that abundantly clear, from male students and teachers overflowing with praises for his fighting prowess, to female students tittering about his muscles each time he appeared on screen. Players were so annoyed by his flawlessness, Shen Qingqiu included, that there wasn’t a single complaint when this perfect character died off-screen.

Liu Qingge isn’t perfect, not in this version. He has a temper, he can’t speak his mind about certain things, and he blushes, often, like a pure maiden. Traits that Airplane bro failed to show, traits that that idiotic game developer probably didn’t think to show.

But Liu Qingge is strong.

And that’s no more obvious than when Liu Qingge is engaged in battle, spiritual energy roiling off his body like boiling water. Cheng Luan responds to his every command, his spiritual blasts powerful enough to crack the stone walls of the arena, one particular blow rocking the stands above.

Luo Binghe, on the other hand.

Luo Binghe is unpredictable.

His attacks are not as precise, his defenses not as solid. But what he lacks in skills, he makes up for in strength. Inhuman, monstrous strength. Where Liu Qingge’s qi simmers and churns, Luo Binghe’s erupts like an explosion, sudden and violent. He uses that to his advantage, lobbing such a massive wave of spiritual energy that it knocks Cheng Luan off-course. Gives him an opening to lunge at Liu Qingge, Xin Mo raised over his head.

Liu Qingge dodges to one side, robes flying, before he slams his palm on Luo Binghe’s shoulder. The move drives Luo Binghe backwards, makes his eyes flash a bright red.

Again, energy explodes around them, dirt showering where they stand.

“Mu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu says, voice tight.

Mu Qingfang turns to him, hands clasped behind his back. “Yes?”

“Why did you suggest this fight?”

“Because it might help them gain respect for each other.”

Shen Qingqiu looks back at the pair. “All I see are two mad men trying to kill each other.”

“And that will never change,” Mu Qingfang agrees. “But with this, they may do so with grudging respect for the other, which in turn, might lessen the bloodshed.”

“...I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Mu Qingfang chuckles. “I would explain it to you, but I believe Qi-shijie might relish in that opportunity more than I."

On the grounds, there’s another burst of light and sound—

—seconds before something flies past Shen Qingqiu and smashes into the wall behind.

Mu Qingfang is already moving, uncovering his box as he goes.

It’s not who Shen Qingqiu thinks it is.

“Liu-shidi,” he gasps, falling to Liu Qingge’s side. The man’s right arm is twisted in an odd angle, blood trickling down the corner of his mouth. He was fine just minutes ago; only an immense force could have reduced him to such a state.

Immense and possibly demonic.

But the warrior of Bai Zhan Peak is far from done. “Get off,” he snarls at Mu Qingfang, whose fingers work deftly at his robes, exposing his chest and collarbones.

“Your energy has become dangerously imbalanced,” Mu Qingfang says, soft but firm, one hand on Liu Qingge’s bare chest, rechanneling his qi. “Unless you want another qi deviation, I’d suggest throwing in the towel.”

“Like hell I will,” Liu Qingge hisses, eyes wild.

“Senior Liu."

The voice is low and smooth as velvet, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Heart in his throat, Shen Qingqiu rises to face Luo Binghe. His student is smiling, head cocked, Xin Mo leaking black aura around its blade. “You shouldn’t have lost your temper so easily,” he says, lightly.

Liu Qingge struggles against Mu Qingfang, spitting out rage and blood through his teeth. “The things you said about him…! Your own Shizun!”

“Like you weren’t thinking about the same things?” Luo Binghe says, mouth curling in a grin. “Of how it’d feel against him, inside him, his breath in your ear and his heels in your back—”

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu snaps, horrified.

Luo Binghe’s crimson eyes shift to meet his. “Shizun.” It comes out as a croon, and Shen Qingqiu shivers.

So Xin Mo has turned his cute student into a formidable pervert.

Any lingering doubts Shen Qingqiu might have had about this being a BL adaptation up and evaporated, just like that.

“Come here,” Luo Binghe says.

Shen Qingqiu hesitates. He has seen his sister’s game collection; he knows exactly how this goes. Possessed, Luo Binghe is going to XXXX his XXXX, then XXXX him in front of the whole arena until he cries for mercy, and not even then.

He should have confiscated Xin Mo when he had the chance. The expression on Mu Qingfang’s face suggests that he’s thinking along the same lines.

System, Shen Qingqiu yells inwardly.

[How may I be of service to you?]

You’re always in my head. What do you think I need??

[......a lubricant of some sort?]

Shen Qingqiu feels the vein throb in his temple.

Not funny, asshole.

[I’m sorry, but what you need will ultimately depend on your choices.]

…...

Right.

Choices.

In the original, Luo Binghe was the protagonist, the one with the plot armor, the one who decided the fate of every character. The game's shitty writing put him through hell, but he forged his own path with the player's choices. 

In here, now, Shen Qingqiu is the protagonist and his own player.

In this version, he can choose to whinge and complain and go along with the events tossed his way.

Or, he can choose to do something about them. 

Shen Qingqiu breathes deep, and steps forward. Closer, and closer, while Luo Binghe’s smile grows, slowly, across his face.

“You—” Liu Qingge, for the first time, sounds panicked. “What are you doing!?”

“Shen-shixiong,” Mu Qingfang says, strangely quiet.

Sorry, Binghe, Shen Qingqiu thinks.

A step away from Luo Binghe, Shen Qingqiu's foot flicks out. Kicks Xin Mo out of Luo Binghe’s hand, while his own hand thrusts up against Luo Binghe’s chest, the sudden blast of qi rocketing Luo Binghe out into the grounds.

But no one’s sticking anything up this ass.

There’s a distant sound of cheering, growing louder as Shen Qingqiu reorients himself. Xin Mo lays by his feet, now dulled and seemingly harmless. Luo Binghe is a sad lump in the distance, having bounced a few times off the dirt, and Liu Qingge is staring at him, eyes wide and back slumped against the wall.

“Liu-shixiong must be an excellent teacher, indeed,” Mu Qingfang says, the corners of his eyes crinkling.

Liu Qingge swallows. “No.” His gaze falls to his lap, jaw clenched. “With such poor focus, I am not fit to train you.”

Flicking his sleeves, Shen Qingqiu returns to Liu Qingge’s side. “Nonsense,” he huffs as he joins Mu Qingfang in offering spiritual energy. Ignores the way Liu Qingge stiffens, cheeks dyeing pink at his touch. “Anyone would have been distracted by provocative words like that.”

Liu Qingge shakes his head. “But—”

“No ‘but’s,” Shen Qingqiu says. He leans in, a whisper, hand still on Liu Qingge’s skin. “I will see you in three days.”

Liu Qingge’s flush spreads down his neck.

Mu Qingfang smiles.

And the System enters with several excited dings.

[Heart levels increased! +1 for Mu Qingfang, +2 for Liu Qingge!! Work those choices, stud muffin!]

Who even says “stud muffin” anymore??

When Mu Qingfang steps out to examine Luo Binghe, Shen Qingqiu announces a draw to the students, who let out groans of disappointment.

For a brief moment, he spots Liu Mingyan at the top of the stands, flitting away with a flash of purple before he can greet her.

What an odd woman.

 


 

Luo Binghe is doleful all the way back to the bamboo house.

Compared to Liu Qingge, his bruises are small and few, thanks to the healing capacities of his demon blood. But he was dismayed—globs of tears rolling down his cheeks when Mu Qingfang shared the things he had said in front of his Shizun—and he stayed dismayed, head kept down like a dog with its tail between its legs.

Shen Qingqiu realizes, quickly, that he doesn’t like seeing Luo Binghe angry or sad.

He bops Luo Binghe’s head with his fan. “Enough. This teacher knows it wasn’t you who said those words.”

“I… I have vague memories of my thoughts when I was under Xin Mo’s enchantment.” Luo Binghe’s lips tremble. “If Shizun hadn’t knocked sense into me…”

Shen Qingqiu bops him a second time. “Again, that wasn’t you,” he says, sharply. “Just promise me you’ll never use that sword again.”

“I promise,” Luo Binghe says without hesitation. “Zheng Yang is my only sword from now on.”

“Good," Shen Qingqiu says. "Because with Zheng Yang, you might be eligible for the tournament.”

Luo Binghe perks up, eyes shining. "Shizun will let me participate in the tournament with him this year?"

Now that's more like the Binghe he knows and—

Shen Qingqiu snaps his fan open, flutters it lightly by his heated face.

“Xin Mo aside, you fought well today.”

Luo Binghe’s smile is wide and bright.

[Heart level, +1! You have made great progress today, well done, well done!]

Has he, though?

Shen Qingqiu is still stuck in that stupid 3P mode, and he hasn’t encountered anyone new. 

[There is always the tournament!]

Ah, yes. The tournament.

Perhaps there are romantic options in other schools.

Shen Qingqiu freezes, Luo Binghe giving him a sidelong glance of concern.

…….he has four options and he’s thinking about more?

What the fuck is happening to him!?

Somewhere in his mind, the voice definitely laughs this time.

 


 

True to his word, Liu Qingge trains Shen Qingqiu until he hits Cultivation level 100.

And, alongside Luo Binghe, he passes the practical entrance examination just one week before the interschool tournament.

 


 

MESSAGE FROM THE GAME DEVELOPER

Hi friends, it’s Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky!

I have questions from the void! Actual questions, asking about me and my thoughts as a game developer! (You won’t believe how many of these are just excuses to rail on my writing skills and call me names.)

Uh, anyway! First question: 

@ Shang Qinghua, did you develop both a harem and reverse harem version of the game and hid the BL version until the first was popular!?

Well, yes and no. Yes, my original idea was a BL version. I mean, look at this Luo Binghe! This is the kind of complexity I wanted in my protagonist: handsome, loyal, and strong, but filled with enough loneliness and vinegar to drive him mad! Not some overpowered male stallion that goes around carving men’s limbs off and papapa-ing every woman in sight.

But was I going to release it if the harem version was popular? No, probably not. Just developing the harem version was a long process by itself; creating another full game with the original BL version would have done me in.

Airplane-bro you're quirky af and it's great. Is Mobei-Jun gonna be a Romantic Option? Will Shang Qinghua ever talk to SY?

Aw thanks, that’s real sweet! Why can’t more people be like you?

And to your first question: no, absolutely not, unacceptable.

Keep the questions coming, friends, it gives me something to do around here, haha.

Until next time!

Chapter Text

On the day of the tournament, the town square is bustling with activity. Booths of assorted kinds have been set up on the path leading to the stadium where the tournament will be held, and the townsfolk are out in droves, bargaining with stall owners at the top of their lungs.  

There’s noise and movement all around—far too much for Shen Qingqiu—and his shoulders are raised in constant tension as he stalks through the crowds, his fingers tightly clasped around his fan. Given a choice, he’d be resting in the dormitories until the start of the tournament, but he had accepted an invitation from Yue Qingyuan to visit the stalls that morning. It feels like ages since Shen Qingqiu has seen Yue Qingyuan, and with Yue Qingyuan’s responsibilities as interim headmaster, it would only become harder for them to meet once the tournament begins. 

Yue Qingyuan glows in the crowd, his head tilted, his expression soft. People flow around him in a steady stream, and Shen Qingqiu can’t help but drift toward him with the current, drawn by his presence.

Creepy as Yue Qingyuan’s adoration can be, there’s no denying his charisma as a leader and master cultivator of this world.

Yue Qingyuan reaches for Shen Qingqiu, fingers slipping under Shen Qingqiu’s hand and lifting it to his lips. “A-Jiu,” he sighs, a gust of sadness against skin. “I have been so lost without you.”

Shen Qingqiu shudders. 

Creepy trumps charisma, every time. 

“It has been a while,” Shen Qingqiu says, gently tugging his hand back. 

Yue Qingyuan smiles, gestures for Shen Qingqiu to walk with him. “Congratulations on passing the entrance exam for the tournament.” 

“Haven’t I always?” Shen Qingqiu asks, eyebrows raised.

“That has been a point of contention among the staff.” Yue Qingyuan’s lashes dip, his mouth tipping upward at the corners. “Not this year, however.”

Shen Qingqiu’s heart softens. The original Shen Qingqiu had cheated his way into previous tournaments, somehow, and this year must have been the first in which the examiners couldn’t detect any abnormalities with Shen Qingqiu’s cultivation level. It must have been hard on Yue Qingyuan, having to defend the original’s questionable honor in his position. 

“It is my graduation year,” Shen Qingqiu hums. “Best to do things right.” 

“Yes.” Yue Qingyuan’s smile fades, ever so slightly. “Best, indeed.”

Shen Qingqiu blinks, surprised by the sudden switch in mood. What did he say to spark such a change? And what is it with these men and their unpredictable reactions? Luo Binghe is easy enough to understand—once Shen Qingqiu actually knows how he got to that point—but Yue Qingyuan is somewhat of an anomaly, an enigma, an uncrackable code. Unlike Luo Binghe, who wears his heart on his sleeve, Yue Qingyuan hides his behind a smiling mask, and not even Shen Qingqiu is privy to what lies inside.  

“You don’t agree?” Shen Qingqiu ventures.

The mask slips on. “Oh, I do. I always knew you had it in you to change, to feel more at ease with yourself.” A pause, Yue Qingyuan’s voice wavering as he goes on. “It’s just that…”  

“That…?”

Yue Qingyuan turns to look at Shen Qingqiu, eyes bright. 

“I wish the kind A-Jiu I’ve always known had surfaced after graduation, so I wouldn’t have to vie for your attention.” 

Shen Qingqiu’s brows furrow. He didn’t choose to enter the original’s body during the school year; he didn’t choose to enter this body, period. Besides, the System is to blame for all this attraction to him. He’s just trying to survive. “What difference does it make—”

“A great deal,” Yue Qingyuan says, with such vehemence that Shen Qingqiu takes a step back in alarm. “I have heard about your tutoring sessions with Luo Binghe, your training sessions with Liu-shidi, your conversations in classes with Mu-shidi. I have heard of how Luo Binghe’s grades have improved, the way he is more respectful to his seniors. How Liu-shidi is less prickly, and fewer Bai Zhan Peak students have had to turn up at the infirmary after his training. How Mu-shidi gives away his precious self-grown herbs to you like they’re nothing but air.” 

Yue Qingyuan lets out a long exhale.

“I have even heard about the fight between Liu-shidi and Luo Binghe, the way they battled for your affection.” 

Shen Qingqiu barely restrains his eyes from rolling to the heavens.

Affection, ha! All that, just to show off who had the bigger sword! Their discovery of Xin Mo’s dark influence was the only positive consequence of that stupid display of masculinity.

Best to nip this in the bud before Yue Qingyuan gets any ideas.

“This isn’t a competition,” Shen Qingqiu huffs. “There’s no need to fight for my attention, affection, or any of the sort.” He lifts his chin, snapping his fan open with a flick of his wrist. “I’m here with you now, am I not?”

Yue Qingyuan’s mouth twitches. “So you are, yes.” 

"And I agreed to meet as soon as you returned from your travels, did I not?"

"So you did."

"Then, I see no issue," Shen Qingqiu sniffs.

Yue Qingyuan's mask lowers just enough for a genuine smile to shine through, soft and warm. "A-Jiu is right, as always."

Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth to agree, only to stop when Yue Qingyuan grasps his arm and steers him toward a stall. 

“Come take a look at this.” 

“Noble Sirs,” the stall owner greets cheerily. “Please pick any that catch your discerning eyes!” 

“Do you see anything you like?” Yue Qingyuan asks.

Shen Qingqiu peeks over his fan. On the booth sit rows of pendants, charms, rings, every little jewelry piece intricately designed and glinting in the light. He has never seen this much jade, this much gold, in his life. Frugality is a value that the Peak Seniors are expected to uphold at Cang Qiong School of Cultivation, which is why the original Shen Qingqiu had sought indulgence through his fan collection instead. 

But if the interim headmaster is asking...

Ding, goes the System.

[Please choose a gift for your champion!

  1. A jade bangle
  2. A gold coin necklace]

Shen Qingqiu's eyes bulge in consternation.

Champion? What does the System take him for, a princess choosing her noble knight!? 

[A warrior princess choosing her noble knight.] 

Shen Qingqiu bites back his retort and concentrates on this new and ridiculous task. It’s obvious who his knights are; Mu Qingfang is participating as an on-site physician, whereas Yue Qingyuan is watching over each fight as referee. Which, of course, leaves…

Which gift is for Binghe, Shen Qingqiu tosses out mentally, And which one is for Liu-shidi?

The voice sounds slightly amused. 

[You must pick based on what you think your champion will like and present it to him at the tournament. Should the gift be to your champion’s liking, his Heart level will increase. Should it not, your champion will still accept it, but without change to his Heart level.]

In other words, you can’t tell me what is for who? 

[No.]

...useless!!

Fan fluttering at his chest, Shen Qingqiu makes a great show of examining the accessories under Yue Qingyuan’s gaze. First, he has to decide on his champion—or giftee, yes, giftee sounds far better. Given Liu Qingge’s track record in the original game, he’s sure to progress to the final round, with or without Shen Qingqiu’s support. Luo Binghe, on the other hand, is a wild card. He showed potential in his fight with Liu Qingge, but has never participated in the tournament before. On top of that, unlike Liu Qingge, who is confident in his skills and seeks no one's approval, Luo Binghe will undoubtedly be looking for Shen Qingqiu’s. 

So maybe Luo Binghe could do with a bit of encouragement, Shen Qingqiu decides. His student could do with a reward as well, really, for showing respect to all the seniors who have insulted his demon heritage and called him names.

Now to decide which gift Luo Binghe is more likely to appreciate. 

Gold seems a little excessive for Luo Binghe, though he does wear a necklace where a jade guanyin hangs, small but bright between his collarbones. If Shen Qingqiu recalls correctly, it’s a necklace given by Luo Binghe’s human mother, therefore making it priceless and irreplaceable.

Shen Qingqiu taps the edge of his fan against his chin. 

In that case, a jade bangle seems like the better choice, as a matching set with his necklace.

The System slips back in with a whirring noise.

[Is the jade bangle your final answer?]

Yes

[Understood.]

No sooner than the end of their exchange, the stall owner reaches over to select a bangle from the rows of accessories. “I see you’re looking at one of my best bangles, Noble Sir,” the owner exclaims. “Please, try it on!”

“Oh, no,” Shen Qingqiu says, inwardly swearing at the System. He had planned to pick it up later, without Yue Qingyuan by his side. “I was actually—”

“Let me get that for you,” Yue Qingyuan says as he pulls out a coin pouch from inside his robes. 

Nonononono.

Eyes wide, Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. The last thing he needs is for Yue Qingyuan to pay for a gift meant for another man; the last thing he wants is to tell Yue Qingyuan that he’s chosen a gift for another man. He shudders to even think of how Yue Qingyuan might react. “That’s really not necessary—” 

“Nonsense,” Yue Qingyuan chuckles. “No need to stand on ceremony with me.” The coin pouch clicks open. “How much is—”

“I’m actually interested in two items,” Shen Qingqiu snaps, while the stall owner’s eyes sparkle in delight. “I’ll take this one and you may buy, uh…” His fingers close around a random piece of jewelry on the stand. “This one!”

At that, Yue Qingyuan’s smile turns soft and pleased. “A-Jiu,” he says, as if the name itself is a benediction. “You remember.” 

Lord, what now?

Shen Qingqiu swallows, grip loosening to reveal the item in his palm—a silver bell attached to a blue tassel. Judging by Yue Qingyuan's reaction, it must signify some past memory that the original shared with Yue Qingyuan and, somehow, Shen Qingqiu had picked it out from all the pieces displayed on the stand. 

Just his bloody luck.

“Of course I remember,” Shen Qingqiu scoffs. Hastily, he sifts through his mind for a bluff that would throw Yue Qingyuan off the truth about his sudden personality change. Settles, after a quick moment, for something that should sting.

“I’m surprised you do.” 

Sure enough, Yue Qingyuan’s smile falls. 

“How could I forget? We rang that bell on the pier so many times as children. You were so happy then, A-Jiu.” Yue Qingyuan sighs. "So happy."

Oh. Right. The little bell pavilion at the end of the pier.

It’s a dating spot, as Shen Qingqiu recalls, where he’d bring women—as Luo Binghe, of course—and have them ring the bell for good fortune on their relationship. And Yue Qingyuan had rung it with the original Shen Qingqiu as children? 

Just how long has Yue Qingyuan loved the original? 

The hesitant call of ‘A-Jiu’ draws him out of his thoughts. 

“I could buy both items for you,” Yue Qingyuan offers, face still lined from Shen Qingqiu’s last remark. 

Shen Qingqiu’s heart twinges with guilt.

“Just the bell,” he mutters, averting his gaze. “If rumors are to spread that the interim headmaster has bought me a gift, let it stay at one rather than two.”

“People will talk, regardless,” Yue Qingyuan says, quietly. “But I will do as A-Jiu wishes.”

“Sirs are most generous,” the stall owner chirps, palms turned upward to accept their coins.

As Shen Qingqiu slips the jade bangle into his robes, Yue Qingyuan takes the bell and, crouching down, begins to loop and tie the end of the tassel around Shen Qingqiu’s belt. Shen Qingqiu can hardly breathe; Yue Qingyuan is close, too close, and Shen Qingqiu can smell the light waft of jasmine, feel the brush of knuckles through the layer of fabric. 

It takes an eternity for Yue Qingyuan to finish securing the bell.

“It looks perfect on you,” he tells Shen Qingqiu.

Seconds before he frames Shen Qingqiu's cheeks with his palms—and presses a kiss to Shen Qingqiu’s forehead.

A single thought fleets through Shen Qingqiu’s head in neon, flashing colors.

What. 

The.

Fuck.

What the fuck what the fuck what the everloving fuck.

Only his mother has ever done that, and even Luo Binghe hasn’t gotten this far with him! More importantly, why the hell are Yue Qingyuan’s lips so soft? Are men’s lips supposed to be that soft? God knows his own lips are dry as a desert in this climate. Yue Qingyuan must have applied something, but what could that be in a historical setting? Oil? Animal fat?? Spit???

Ding!

[Heart level +1! At level 5, you’re halfway to paradise with this besotted intellectual!]

Get lost, Shen Qingqiu shrieks.

“I’m afraid it’s time we head back,” Yue Qingyuan says, unaware of Shen Qingqiu’s internal panic. He takes Shen Qingqiu’s hand, fingers lacing through Shen Qingqiu’s. “Let me walk you back to your dormitories.”

Still stunned, Shen Qingqiu can only nod in response.

 


 

Shen Qingqiu remains stunned until the official opening ceremony for the inter-school tournament. Dressed in their full regalia, students from cultivation schools across the region join the ceremony, which includes welcome speeches, a parade of each schools’ participants, and announcements of the match-ups for the first round of the tournament.  

Cang Qiong has an impressive line-up, with five representatives from each Peak, including the Peak Seniors. Shen Qingqiu isn’t surprised to find Yang Yixuan and Liu Mingyan among the selected. But he is surprised that Shang Qinghua, that hopeless cannon fodder, has actually managed to pass the exam. 

Among the many schools include Cang Qiong's rivals—students from the Huan Hua Academy of Gifted Cultivators. In uniforms of white and gold, the Huan Hua students stand at attention, eyes forward and hands clasped behind their backs. Unlike the noise rising from the Cang Qiong students, many of them engaged in conversation and laughing, there’s nothing but silence from the Huan Hua students, the air thickened to a point of suffocation around them. 

Shen Qingqiu would have chuckled. Compared them to the proud Bai Zhan Peak students who shoot glares at the others for their frivolous ways, if his forehead weren’t still tingling from the sensation of Yue Qingyuan’s impossibly soft lips.

“Shizun?”

Flushing, Shen Qingqiu turns to find Luo Binghe staring at him, brows furrowed. Trust Luo Binghe to notice when he’s out of sorts.

“I’m fine,” Shen Qingqiu says, a little too quickly. When Luo Binghe’s brows draw in tighter, Shen Qingqiu lifts a hand to squeeze Luo Binghe’s arm. Something about the move relaxes Luo Binghe instantly, Shen Qingqiu realizes, all the tension melting away from those broad shoulders. It’s convenient enough that Shen Qingqiu uses it often these days, perhaps a little too much.

“If it’s about the tournament,” Luo Binghe starts, just as his gaze falls on the bell hanging at Shen Qingqiu’s waist. He stops then, eyes narrowing. 

Shit, Shen Qingqiu thinks. He should have removed the accursed thing before the ceremony. 

“Shizun.” Luo Binghe’s voice goes so quiet that Shen Qingqiu has to restrain the urge to bolt. “That’s not something you usually wear.”

For a fleeting moment, Shen Qingqiu considers lying. He could say it’s a good luck charm he wears for battles; Luo Binghe simply never noticed it before. Or, he could say it’s an item he just bought this morning, having taken a fancy to it while browsing the stalls. But Luo Binghe knows he was with Yue Qingyuan this morning. Luo Binghe also has an uncanny ability to make him feel thoroughly exposed, that intense stare boring straight into his soul. 

Shen Qingqiu sucks in a deep breath and prepares for the worst.

“It’s… a gift, of sorts.” 

Luo Binghe nods, his face still carefully, frighteningly, blank. “Who is it from?”

You know who it’s from!!!

“Yue-shixiong,” Shen Qingqiu says through gritted teeth.

The pause that follows is surly and drawn-out. It’s times like these that Shen Qingqiu wishes telepathy was a part of cultivating one’s spirit. Luo Binghe’s anger is practically flowing off him in waves, but it’s unclear, exactly, what he’s thinking. For all Shen Qingqiu knows, Luo Binghe might be contemplating ways to kill Yue Qingyuan, Shen Qingqiu, or all three of them together in some horrific act of murder-suicide.

From the corner of his eye, Shen Qingqiu catches Liu Qingge glance over from his row.

As if Luo Binghe isn’t trouble enough…!

Shen Qingqiu tightens his grip on Luo Binghe’s arm and tugs him closer, ignoring the way Liu Qingge’s face shifts into a frown. “I have something for you,” he blurts out in a whisper. 

Like smoke, Luo Binghe’s anger dissipates entirely. “For me?”

“Yes.” The din around them begins to fade as Yue Qingyuan makes his way to the front of the square for his welcome speech. “After the ceremony.”

Luo Binghe brightens, the curve of his mouth soft and beautiful, and Shen Qingqiu has to turn away before his heart leaps too far out of his chest. 

At the front of his row, Liu Qingge is still frowning. 

 


 

When Shen Qingqiu presents the jade bangle later, describing Luo Binghe’s reaction as ecstatic is an understatement. 

The boy looks as though he might swoon. In fact, he does, almost, when Shen Qingqiu slides the bangle up his wrist, fingers brushing skin. 

“This student will treasure it, always,” Luo Binghe breathes, pressing the gift to his heart. 

Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks heat up, his hands whipping back into his sleeves. Luo Binghe isn’t that much taller than him, yet he can’t help but feel like some bashful schoolgirl offering a gift to her biggest crush. He’s glad to have found this alleyway now, away from prying eyes.

“I thought it might go well with your pendant,” he mutters, forcing himself to meet Luo Binghe’s bright eyes.

“It’s perfect. Just like Shizun.” 

Shen Qingqiu swallows. Damn this male stallion protagonist and his dastardly silver tongue.

“Right. Well. We should head to the stadium—”

“Not yet,” Luo Binghe says.

Shen Qingqiu barely has time to register that Luo Binghe has stepped into the small space between them, or that his back has hit the wall, until Luo Binghe’s hand slams against it. Mouth open, he looks up into Luo Binghe’s dark eyes, lost in their depths as Luo Binghe leans in, hair falling just so across his face.

His sister’s cheery voice chooses that very second to slip through the cracks.

(“A kabedon is a Japanese term for when the top hits one hand on the wall with a ‘don’ sound, while pinning the bottom down with his or her body. It’s really, really hot, dage, so maybe you should try it sometime instead of nerding over your stupid harem games. Although, you know, with your personality, you’d probably be more of a—")

I am not a bottom,” Shen Qingqiu screams.

Luo Binghe’s head tilts. “...Shizun?”

Shen Qingqiu slaps a hand to his mouth. “Sorry, I was… that is…” 

Get a hold of yourself! No Peak Senior would be caught dead stuttering the way he is right now!

Kicking his blasted sister out of his head, he steels his nerves and gives Luo Binghe his fiercest glare. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Unfazed, Luo Binghe chuckles, close enough for Shen Qingqiu to feel the gentle vibration against his chest. “I just wanted to ask Shizun... “ A shake of the bangle on his wrist. “...if you had bought presents for everyone, just for the tournament?”

Oh. Was that it?

“Of course not,” Shen Qingqiu huffs. “Your Shizun isn’t made of money.”

Luo Binghe’s breath catches. “So Shizun bought a gift, just for this student? Even though Headmaster Yue gave him one?”

“Um, yes—”

Shen Qingqiu squeaks as Luo Binghe yanks him into a tight embrace, Luo Binghe’s face buried into the crook of his neck. 

“I’m sorry I ever doubted Shizun,” Luo Binghe whispers.

...doubted him for what? Did Luo Binghe think he had bought everyone a gift as a bribe of some kind? To be fair, the original Shen Qingqiu might have tried something to that effect with Yue Qingyuan, a referee. Not that Yue Qingyuan needed any more persuading to hide the original's cheating.

Shen Qingqiu decides it prudent not to ask, raising a hand to pat Luo Binghe’s head instead. Luo Binghe's arms tighten around him, trembling.

Ding!

[Heart level +2!! Congratulations on selecting the right gift for your chosen champion! Two more, just two more to your Happily Ever After with Luo Binghe!!]

Why the hell are his levels going up so fast!? 

The System doesn't respond, too busy playing victory anthems in celebration.  

 


 

Fighting is exhausting.  

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t understand why Liu Qingge takes so much pleasure in it; all it does is deplete his energy, curdle his qi. Still, the training pays off. He can finally control Xiu Ya with precision, the sword weaving through air, swift and light as an autumn leaf. The best part is the iron fans that have joined his arsenal—folding fans with spokes made of iron—an accidental discovery made upon lifting a fan that looked deceptively light in weight. Perhaps that’s what Liu Qingge enjoys, the element of surprise, like the bewilderment on his opponent’s face when Shen Qingqiu counters the sword blade with an open fan embroidered with peonies.

But then, there's the roar of the crowd. A stadium of this size can take in thousands, and it’s filled from top to bottom with students and staff of every school, their cheers loud enough to echo within and around the fighters on the ground. 

For Shen Qingqiu, who was invisible most of his life, the whole affair was strange and more than a little draining. 

“You fought well, Shen-shixiong,” Mu Qingfang says, softly. 

Medicine bag in one hand, he observes from a corner of the arena, congratulating Shen Qingqiu after every victory. It gives Shen Qingqiu the odd image of a wife praising her husband for a job well done, but he appreciates the quiet support. Certainly far more than Luo Binghe’s embarrassing crows of Shizun is the best, or Yue Qingyuan flashing what he thinks are inconspicuous grins of delight. (They’re extremely conspicuous.) 

“Many thanks, Mu-shidi.” Shen Qingqiu flicks his fan shut, thrusting it back into his belt with a whirl. He may have savored the way Mu Qingfang’s mouth quirks up at the corners, just a little. “Have you had any casualties so far?”

“A few,” Mu Qingfang says. “Nothing serious, just a broken bone or two.”

“Not for you, maybe,” Shen Qingqiu laughs.

“Might I add that one of them was an opponent of yours from Huan Hua Academy?”

Shen Qingqiu snorts. “The one who broke down in tears after I tapped his wrist with my fan?” 

Mu Qingfang chuckles. “A ‘tap’, was it?”

“A tap,” Shen Qingqiu affirms, lips pulled into a grin.

Mu Qingfang smiles back, and Shen Qingqiu finds himself wanting to stay, to make Mu Qingfang smile more often. He's most relaxed with Mu Qingfang, whose warm countenance sets him at ease. Like a brother he's always wanted. 

There’s a wave of screams, a large section of the stadium rising from their seats. Shen Qingqiu turns to find Liu Qingge striding out of the arena, ponytail swaying, sleeves sweeping behind him. His opponent lies flat on the ground, mercifully unconscious, while Cheng Luan flits back to Liu Qingge, blade sheathing into the scabbard with a hiss.

Shen Qingqiu and Mu Qingfang raise their hands in salute, with Liu Qingge returning the greeting. His uniform is still a pristine snow-white despite the dust swirling about the grounds.

“Congratulations on another win,” Shen Qingqiu says as Mu Qingfang steps out to examine the fallen student. 

Liu Qingge’s head bobs, once. “Same to you.” His eyes dart down to the fan in Shen Qingqiu’s belt, lingering, before sweeping back up. “It suits you, the iron fan.”

“Oh?” Shen Qingqiu flicks the fan open and hides his smile behind the edge. “Thank you, Liu-shidi.”

Liu Qingge turns away, but Shen Qingqiu doesn’t miss the way the tips of his ears turn pink. For a battle hardened warrior, Liu Qingge sure blushes a lot. “It seems we’ll be facing each other in the semi-finals,” said warrior mutters. 

“That’s the next round, isn’t it?” Shen Qingqiu’s lashes sweep over his cheeks, the corner of his eyes crinkling. “I’m looking forward to it, Liu-shifu.”

The shade of pink darkens, spreads down the back of his neck. “As am I,” Liu Qingge says after a moment. 

 


 

Liu Qingge doesn’t go easy on him. 

It’s not that Shen Qingqiu expects him to, but—oh fuck it, fine, Shen Qingqiu did expect Liu Qingge to let up a little. But it’s not an unreasonable thought, given how much lower Shen Qingqiu’s cultivation level is compared to his. Surely, from one Peak Senior to another, he could give Shen Qingqiu some face?

Evidently, that’s not how Liu Qingge thinks; the Bai Zhan Peak Senior is pushing Shen Qingqiu to his limit, Cheng Luan biting into the surface of his iron fan. Shen Qingqiu strains against the sheer force of the blade, his feet leaving grooves in the earth as Liu Qingge pushes forward, stronger, harder. His endless barrage of attacks remind Shen Qingqiu of his qi deviation, when he had lost all control, unaware of his surroundings.

Only, this time, Liu Qingge is completely lucid.

With his free hand, Shen Qingqiu summons Xiu Ya. Liu Qingge leaps back to avoid the blade, the pressure lifting off of Shen Qingqiu. There’s but a second to breathe, one blessed second, before Cheng Luan flashes toward him again, unrelenting. Unforgiving.

Teeth clenched, Shen Qingqiu parries it with Xiu Ya, then pivots on one foot to thrust his fan, now closed, at Liu Qingge's chest. Ducking backwards, Liu Qingge recalls Cheng Luan in the same move, hand clasped around the carved hilt.

Vaguely, Shen Qingqiu hears the noise of the spectators growing louder around them.

“Liu-shidi,” he gasps. “I think you’ve more than proven your fighting prowess…”

Liu Qingge frowns. “What do you mean?”

“Why else would you be fighting me at full strength?” Shen Qingqiu snaps.

A pause. Then, eyes soft, Liu Qingge nods his head toward the stands.

“Because it’s the best way to prove your fighting prowess.”

Chest heaving, Shen Qingqiu stares at Liu Qingge, just as he finally, gradually, filters through the yells and garbled shouts from the crowd. 

Since when did Senior Shen fight like that—” 

He’s using a fan as shield! Against Senior Liu!! A FAN—” 

Senior Liu’s going all out on him, and he’s still standing—” 

“Our Peak Seniors are the best fighters! Cang Qiong for Champion, Cang Qiong for Champion—"

Shen Qingqiu’s chest tightens. 

All this for him, a man scorned for his underhanded victories.  

Luo Binghe would have refused to fight him, Yue Qingyuan would have lessened the power of his attacks. Even now, on the grounds, Yue Qingyuan is watching their fight with hand balled into fists, clearly disapproving of Liu Qingge's methods but unable to call foul and stop the match. Both men would have confirmed the rumors of the original's cheating, both would have made him look weak. 

Instead, holding his own against Liu Qingge here, before an assembly of cultivation schools, has surely erased all doubt about his battle skills.

This is Liu Qingge’s unique brand of kindness.

“So.” Liu Qingge points the tip of Cheng Luan at Shen Qingqiu, his voice rising above the din of their captive audience. “Ready for more?”

Xiu Ya comes to a rest beside Shen Qingqiu. Slowly, he straightens and snaps the heavy fan open in one sharp movement. Ignores the throb in his wrist, the beads of sweat rolling down his temple. He's going to lose, that much is certain. But if Liu Qingge wants to help him go out with a bang, far be it for him to ruin the show.

“Always, Liu-shidi."

The crowd goes wild, nearly drowning out the System’s triumphant cry.

[Respect +20! Coolness +15! Well done, well done!!]

 


 

“Hey, are—”

Liu Qingge’s sentence cuts off mid-way.

Shen Qingqiu looks up from where Mu Qingfang is applying salve on his wound. Lets out a huff of amusement at the way Liu Qingge freezes in his tracks, the way Liu Qingge's cheeks flush and his eyes go wide. He must look indecent, with half his robes slid past his shoulder and down one arm, the plane of his chest bared for all to see. Granted, the fabric is shredded, his arm covered with a gash the size of his sister’s BL collection, but the amount of exposed skin must still be inappropriate to a straitlaced man like Liu Qingge.

“What is it, Liu-shidi?” he asks, serenely.

“I wanted to ask if you were all right,” Liu Qingge says after floundering for his words.

“He’s fine.” Mu Qingfang glances at Liu Qingge. “It seems Liu-shixiong let up a little on that final blow.”

“I might have lost an arm if he hadn’t,” Shen Qingqiu grumbles without heat. “How far would you say I skidded, Mu-shidi? Half the length of the arena?”

“At least,” Mu Qingfang agrees.

Liu Qingge clears his throat, his face decidedly turned to the side. “I’m glad you’re not too hurt,” he says, voice rough. 

Shen Qingqiu can’t help but smile; Liu Qingge can be so endearing with his bashfulness. “I appreciate what you’ve done for me, Liu-shidi. Even if it did rip a trench down my arm.”

Liu Qingge’s gaze flicks back, softening, only to whip away the second it lands on Shen Qingqiu’s bare skin. “I have a question for you,” he says.

Shen Qingqiu’s brows rise an inch. That’s an abrupt change of topic. “Yes?” 

“What was all that whispering between you and Luo Binghe during the opening ceremony?”

Mu Qingfang’s fingers twitch before they continue their ministrations, steady and calm.

Shen Qingqiu blinks at Liu Qingge. Has he carried that question with him the entire time? To think Liu Qingge, of all people, would care about something as trivial as a brief conversation between a tutor and his tutee! Which obviously means Shen Qingqiu can’t tell him the truth, or risk inciting another fight between the two most quick-tempered men in his list.  

“I was just offering encouragement,” Shen Qingqiu says. “It’s Binghe’s first time in the tournament, after all.”

Liu Qingge’s shoulders appear to fall in relief. “Is that all?”

“Of course. What else could it be?”

“I thought—” Liu Qingge shakes his head. “No matter. I was leaping to conclusions.”

Damn these men and their animal instincts.

“Go win us the championship title, Liu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu says, smiling.

With a nod, Liu Qingge leaves, gaze still averted. 

Ding!

[Heart level +1! Making good progress with—]

“Just encouragement?” Mu Qingfang asks suddenly, cutting into the System’s declaration. He’s gazing up at Shen Qingqiu through his lashes, an odd glint in his eyes. 

God, not you too, Shen Qingqiu thinks. 

He turns his smile to Mu Qingfang, wide and open as he can make it. “Just encouragement.”

For a moment, it looks as if Mu Qingfang has more questions on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he returns to applying the salve, still gentle in his movements. “You will need someone to clean your wound and apply this medication several times a day,” he says. Then, glancing up again, “Shall I pass on the instructions to Luo Binghe?”

Shen Qingqiu cocks his head. “Why Binghe? Mu-shidi would be a far better choice.”

“Surely it’d be more convenient, since you see Student Luo every day.”

Shen Qingqiu huffs, “Binghe has rough hands. This body would do better with Mu-shidi’s soft touch.”

A slow smile spreads across Mu Qingfang’s face at his words.

“If you wish.”

[—aaand Heart level +1, this time with Mu Qingfang! You’re on a roll!!]

Everyone is feeling affectionate today, it seems.

 


 

Being out of the tournament means he can finally observe Luo Binghe in action, and Shen Qingqiu is pleased to find that his student is faring well. Luo Binghe’s initial control of Zheng Yang was off-kilter at best, clumsy at worst; it irritated Shen Qingqiu to watch his own Qing Jing Peak students sniggering at Luo Binghe’s efforts. But Luo Binghe is a fast learner, and by his third match, Zheng Yang is moving with such seamless precision that even Ming Fan runs out of insults. 

The sense of pride is also undeniable, each time the jade bangle catches the sunlight with every swing of Luo Binghe’s arm. No one has worn Shen Qingqiu’s gifts before. His parents would thank him, only to put the item aside and never lay hands on it again. It might have something to do with his lack of employment, his parents’ fear that people would ask about him if they were to talk about his gift. Whatever the case, Luo Binghe is different in the way he shows off the bangle with his enthusiastic waves at Shen Qingqiu, the way he reaches for it instinctively mid-fight. The way he presses it to his lips in silent reverence at the start of every match.  

This gift wasn't System-enforced and not given by choice. But it makes Shen Qingqiu’s chest ache to watch Luo Binghe, makes him want to give Luo Binghe more presents to see what Luo Binghe does with them.

Although, yes, that last bit is slightly embarrassing. More so, when Shen Qingqiu hears snatches of conversations from the female students sitting beside him in the stands—Huan Hua students, judging by their gold and white uniform. 

“Who do you think was brazen enough to give Senior Luo a present?” 

“Made of jade, no less!”

“I thought we had agreed not to give him anything last year? So as to avoid any needless competition?”

“We did! Even if it were to be his first tournament, we said!"

"Someone must have missed the discussion.”

“Or ignored it, the shameless bitch.”

Shen Qingqiu drops his face in his hands. Of all the names the original was called, ‘shameless bitch’ must be a new one.

“Shizun!” 

Shen Qingqiu looks up to the sound of tittering from the students, as Luo Binghe jogs up the steps toward him. He glows in the sun, a literal halo cast against his dark hair, muscles shifting just beneath the fabric of his uniform. It’s easy to see why he’s the protagonist of the original Proud Immortal Demon’s Way, why even the women in this BL adaptation can fall so completely under his spell. 

Until one notices the tears gathering at the edge of his eyelids.

“You’re hurt,” Luo Binghe chokes out, grabbing Shen Qingqiu’s hand with his. “Senior Liu hurt you, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.” He lets out a hiccup, lifting a sleeve to his eyes. “This student has never felt more useless, Shizun.”

The women stare at Luo Binghe in disbelief, the illusion of a manly man shattering before their very eyes. 

RIP, male stallion protagonist. 

“There’s nothing to cry about,” Shen Qingqiu chides. “Focus on your matches, I don’t want you distracted when you’re doing so well.”

Luo Binghe’s face lights up through his tears. “Shizun thinks I’m doing well?”

“Of course. You’ve been winning, haven’t you?”

“I have,” Luo Binghe says, chest puffing. “Does Shizun think I’m better than Senior Liu?”

“You have both been winning,” Shen Qingqiu says, diplomatically. 

Luo Binghe’s smile wavers. “But… Shizun gave me the bangle...”

Exhaling, Shen Qingqiu shoos him back to the arena for his next fight, ignoring the burn of the women’s stares on the back of his head. Part of him itches to whirl around and declare that yes, he’s a shameless bitch, what of it. But the other part, a larger part, wants to run for the nearest cliff and fling himself off out of sheer embarrassment. 

And that part grows exponentially, when he catches a glimpse of Liu Mingyan watching him, an unreadable expression on her veiled face. She’s present every time Shen Qingqiu is with Luo Binghe, and like Luo Binghe, Shen Qingqiu wishes he could tell what she’s thinking. Judging him silently behind that veil, no doubt. 

Another bout of girlish tittering draws Shen Qingqiu's attention back to the women.

“A-Xiao,” one of the students calls out. “Shouldn’t you be preparing for your next match?”

“I should, Qin-jie. I should, but...” 

“You just had to come see us?” a second student chirps, leading to more giggles. 

“Well…”

It’s a male voice, light and soothing. Smoothing the creases on his robes, Shen Qingqiu rises to leave; he’s eavesdropped more than enough today. Mu Qingfang shouldn’t mind having an assistant of sorts for the next few matches—

“Ah! Master Shen, wait please!"

...Master Shen?

Shen Qingqiu turns. 

The Huan Hua student sparkles, sunlight catching in the soft tufts of his hair. His lashes are long, sweeping over fair cheeks—fairer, even, than his female schoolmates—the finely pressed uniform fitted just right to his slender frame. Yet another beauty to add to the roster of ridiculously attractive men in this game. 

(Is there something you want to tell us, Airplane bro???)

“Master Shen,” the young man says, eyes shining, hands clasped together. “The way you fought with your fan! I’ve never seen anyone fight with such elegance, such grace!”

Shen Qingqiu feels his cheeks warm. Two men fawning over him in a span of minutes. 

The Huan Hua women are definitely starting to look distressed now.

“That’s kind of you to say,” he mumbles.  

The man’s smile is different from Luo Binghe’s but no less bright. “I wonder, Master Shen, if you might indulge this humble student in—”

Demons,” someone shrieks, followed by blood-curdling screams from below. “Demons flooding the arena!"

Instantly, the Huan Hua women crowd around the man called A-Xiao, who might be addressing him now—his mouth seems to be moving, forming words—but Shen Qingqiu’s mind tunnels in on a single name.

Binghe.

Shen Qingqiu remembers this from the original game, knows too well where it’s heading. It’s a fixed event that changes the course of the story and the original Shen Qingqiu’s life. The very one that turns Luo Binghe into a bitter, vengeful killer, tainted by Xin Mo's dark energy.

How could he have forgotten it?

Heart in his throat, Shen Qingqiu leaps onto Xiu Ya, soaring down to the fighting grounds as pandemonium ensues in the stands. He flies past Qi Qingqi barking at cultivation students to evacuate all civilians from the town square, Liu Mingyan slicing off the head of some beast with a flash of her sword, Yang Yixuan rounding up a group of wailing children, Mu Qingfang tending to injured students. There’s even a flash of blue and a panicked face—Shang Qinghua, running for his life. 

But Shen Qingqiu doesn’t stop, not until he spots the emerald-green of the Qing Jing Peak robes, the silken thick curls, the dazzling smile that greets him as soon as he lands. 

“I knew Shizun would come,” Luo Binghe says, unscathed and untainted, much to Shen Qingqiu’s relief. He reaches for Luo Binghe, the pads of his fingers brushing a stray lock of hair on Luo Binghe's forehead, when he hears a low growl. 

It’s only then that Shen Qingqiu realizes that the arena is filled with large demonic beasts, fangs bared and dripping with saliva as they prowl around them in a wide circle formation. 

Like predators stalking their next meal.

Luo Binghe steps before Shen Qingqiu, Zheng Yang held in both hands. “Stay behind me, Shizun,” he says, eyes narrowed.

What is he, a damsel in distress!? He fought Liu Qingge and survived, thank you very much!

“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu says, indignant, but Luo Binghe cuts in before he can say another word. 

“They’re here.”

In the whirl of dust, the shadow of a woman appears, curved in all the right places. She saunters toward them, hips swaying, gauzy robes leaving little to the imagination. Covered in jewelry, from her silver headpiece to the bronze bracelets on her wrists and ankles, a soft clinking noise follows every step of her dainty, bare feet. Behind her looms a hulking man, a sledgehammer braced against his spiked armor.

Sha Hualing and Tian Chui, students of the Institute of Demonic Cultivation.

Tian Chui was a minor character that brought little to the original game, but Sha Hualing was the catalyst for everything that happened beyond this plot point. A purebred demon born and raised, she’s not just a romantic option in the original, but also the devil on Luo Binghe’s shoulder—the gateway to his ruthless, demonic ways. 

Shen Qingqiu would rather die than let that happen here.

Sha Hualing's eyes sweep across the arena before falling on them, her red lips pulled in a smirk. “If it isn’t Master Shen and our very own Luo Binghe.”

“I was never yours, Sha Hualing,” Luo Binghe hisses. He falls silent, calming, when Shen Qingqiu steps forward, one hand on Luo Binghe’s arm. 

“What do you want, Miss Sha?” Shen Qingqiu asks, quietly.

“Respect, Master Shen.” Sha Hualing lifts her chin. “Respect and acknowledgement that the IDC’s unfair exclusion from the inter-school tournament is purely due to outdated prejudice against demons.” 

Shen Qingqiu arches an eyebrow. “Terrorizing staff and students isn’t the best way to earn that respect, I’d wager.”

“As Ling-er understands it,” Sha Hualing’s smirk widens, “Respect and fear go hand in hand.”

“Or so the IDC likes to think,” Luo Binghe snorts. “I thought Shizun followed the same principle, at first, but I realize now that true respect is earned through kindness, compassion, and love.”

Shen Qingqiu's heart swells in his chest. "Love" might be a tad dramatic, especially given that his original Shizun probably did follow that same principle. But! This conversation is new! And that means his methods have, hopefully, steered Luo Binghe toward a future devoid of resentment and hate and humans turned into sticks.

Sha Hualing pins a dark glare on Luo Binghe. "You dare betray your own kind?" 

"I was sent to Cang Qiong because my mother's dying wish was for me to connect with humans," Luo Binghe growls. "Shizun's benevolence has shown me that your kind has been doing it wrong for centuries."

"Your Shizun's benevolence?" Sha Hualing's laugh reverberates around the stadium, the beasts snapping their jaws with the sound. "Master Shen is known for his lies and tricks! How do you know he's not turning you against us for his own gain?" 

Luo Binghe bristles, sigil flaring crimson red. "You dare suggest—"

"Binghe," Shen Qingqiu says, squeezing his arm. 

Again, it works like a charm, Luo Binghe relaxing in his grip. 

"Look at you." Sha Hualing’s lips curl. "He has you tamed like a pet dog." 

Luo Binghe scoffs. “As if Tian Chui is any different."

Silent this entire time, Tian Chui heaves his hammer up with a deafening roar. "Insolent whelp! I’ll crush your precious Shizun’s head in for that, you little—”

Like lightning from the sky, a sword flashes down, blade slamming deep into the ground between them.

Cheng Luan! Its might strong enough to stun Tian Chui, startle Sha Hualing, even push the beasts back from where it’s buried! 

Liu Qingge and Yue Qingyuan follow right after, landing noiselessly in front of Shen Qingqiu before straightening to stare down Tian Chui with thunderous expressions. 

“Who’s crushing whose head in?” Liu Qingge says, voice low.

“Any who harm Qingqiu-shidi will face ten times the punishment,” Yue Qingyuan says, evenly, Xuan Su hovering by his side. 

   

 

Cool, Shen Qingqiu thinks, the fanboy in him cheering louder than the filled stadium. Too freakin’ cool!

Luo Binghe shoots a glance at Shen Qingqiu, bottom lip jutting out in a pout.

To her credit, Sha Hualing recovers quickly. “So the stars of Cang Qiong have deigned to grace us with their presence,” she croons. “Perhaps one of you can explain to Ling-er why the IDC hasn’t been invited to this adorable little event.”

Yue Qingyuan’s smiling mask is on full display. “We have a no-kill policy for the inter-school tournament, Miss Sha. Students from the Institute of Demonic Cultivation have unfortunately been banned because of their tendency to ignore that particular policy.” 

“You humans and your delicate constitutions,” Sha Hualing sneers, Tian Chui grinning behind her. “Where’s the fun in fighting if it’s not to the death?”

Liu Qingge draws Cheng Luan from the ground and swings it at her. “Then let’s settle this, right here, right now.”

“Liu-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan says sharply, but Sha Hualing is already clapping in agreement. 

“A fight to the death between your best student and ours,” she purrs. “You win, we leave. We win, we thrash your silly human town.”

Liu Qingge snorts, “Who said anything about a one-on-one fight?” He tosses Cheng Luan upward, the sword flying into the sky to form hundreds upon hundreds of copies, blades angled at every demon and beast in the surrounding area.

Blood drains from Sha Hualing’s face. “You can’t do that!”

“You demons and your delicate constitutions,” Liu Qingge laughs, cold as ice. “Didn’t you want more deaths to your fights?”

Sha Hualing splutters. “You—you—Tian Chui!” 

Wielding his hammer, Tian Chui charges at Luo Binghe. 

Several things happen at once: Xuan Su pierces Tian Chui’s hand, the sledgehammer falling out of his nerveless grip, while Zheng Yang and Xiu Ya run through him in unison, both blades ripping out his back with a wet, tearing sound. Even then—even with blood spurting from his wounds, his eyes glazing over in death— brute force and rage drive Tian Chui forward, those thick arms reaching for Luo Binghe.

Shen Qingqiu’s blood goes cold. 

This foolish demon means to crush Luo Binghe with his spikes...!!

Without thought, Shen Qingqiu reacts. Channeling qi into his palm, he shoves Luo Binghe aside and slams his hand into Tian Chui’s armored chest, ignoring the stab of pain that follows. The explosion of energy sends Tian Chui flying, leaving blood in his wake, the demon beasts watching the path of his body with hungry eyes. 

In the silence, Sha Hualing starts to laugh. The softness of it, the way she heaves into it, sends a shiver up Shen Qingqiu’s spine.

“What’s so funny?” Liu Qingge says, scowling.

“Poisoned,” she cackles. “Your beloved Master Shen has been poisoned by Tian Chui’s spikes!”

Luo Binghe’s face twists. Snatching Shen Qingqiu’s hand, he turns it over to find a bloodied pinhole in the corner of Shen Qingqiu’s palm. 

“Shizun…!”

At the pained cry, Liu Qingge jolts for Sha Hualing, but Yue Qingyuan beats him to it. The edge of Xuan Su’s blade cuts into Sha Hualing’s swan-like neck, Yue Qingyuan’s quiet fury rolling off his frame in tendrils of grey energy.

“Hand over the antidote,” he demands. “Now.”

“Oh, I would,” Sha Hualing giggles, “But this poison is aptly named ‘Without A Cure.’ There is no antidote, no hope for a cure. It will spread through Master Shen’s body and damage his meridians, stagnate his blood until his organs fail him in a slow, painful death!”

Without A Cure!

The poison also showed up in the original game, used on a hapless female character just for Luo Binghe to valiantly save her and gain her favor. Curse Airplane bro for his stupid plot devices. Curse him even more for his stupid naming sense! 

Now if only Shen Qingqiu could remember how the original Luo Binghe found the cure...

Right then, a siren rings loud and piercing in his head.

[Blood Pressure rising to dangerous levels... 70... 80…. 90….] 

At 100, the world shifts, and Shen Qingqiu feels himself topple backwards, knees giving out under him. 

Luo Binghe cries for him again, strong arms catching him before he hits the ground. He’s tired now, really tired, the hole in his hand stinging, the gash in his arm throbbing like a bruise. He wonders, absently, how he managed to botch this playthrough so damn badly.

“Don’t,” Luo Binghe whispers, voice broken and lost. “Don’t close your eyes, Shizun, don’t go to sleep.”

Shen Qingqiu reaches up to touch Luo Binghe’s cheek. When did it get so wet? “Make sure you eat well without me,” he murmurs.

Luo Binghe lets out the keening noise of a wounded animal.

The last thing Shen Qingqiu registers are the howls of agony as Cheng Luan’s spiritual copies rain down on the beasts, the burst of light as Yue Qingyuan’s qi explodes where he stands. 

 


 

When Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes, it’s to a cold cloth on his forehead and Mu Qingfang watching over him. The bed feels harder, smaller, and certainly not covered with the silk sheets of his own bed in the Qing Jing Peak dormitories. Still, it's far more surprising to Shen Qingqiu that he can feel at all. 

“I’m alive,” he croaks. 

“Very much so,” Mu Qingfang says, gently. “Would you like some water?”

At Shen Qingqiu’s nod, Mu Qingfang helps him into a sitting position and offers a cup of water.

“I’ve given you medicine to repair the damage to your meridians,” Mu Qingfang adds as Shen Qingqiu takes large gulps, “But the poison will continue to affect your qi.”

Shen Qingqiu nods again, swiping at his mouth with his sleeve. Water has never tasted so sweet. “Affect it… how?”

“It will cause a blockage to Shen-shixiong’s circulation from time to time,” Mu Qingfang explains as he takes the cup, eyes roving Shen Qingqiu’s face. “Treatment will require both medication and assisted clearing of that blockage. At least until I find a cure.”

Shen Qingqiu understands why Mu Qingfang is assessing his reaction. For a senior cultivation student, a blocked qi circulation is akin to a death sentence. But Shen Qingqiu is merely playing the role of a cultivator; his real goal is to survive and achieve a romantic partner by the end of this game. As far as he’s concerned, surviving an idiotic plot contrivance like Without A Cure is a huge win for him. 

Take that, Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky!

“Many thanks, Mu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu says, hands cupped together in a salute. “I assume Mu-shidi will be the one providing this treatment, in addition to the salve for my arm?”

Mu Qingfang smiles. “All but the cleansing of your qi. Yue-shixiong and Liu-shixiong have agreed to visit you on alternate evenings to assist with that.”

Shen Qingqiu looks around the room then, taking in the sparse furniture, the scatter of books and brushes on the table, the Qing Jing Peak robes flung carelessly over a chair. An incense burner wafts over the smell of cedar, subtle but soothing—a scent that Shen Qingqiu had personally chosen for a certain clingy student of his. Now that he’s more awake, it’s clear that he’s in the bamboo house, lying on Luo Binghe’s bed.

“Where is everyone?” he asks, frowning.

“Yue-shixiong left to settle the aftermath of the demon invasion once he knew you were out of danger. He has promised to visit you as soon as he is available.” Mu Qingfang pauses. “As for Liu-shixiong…”

Shen Qingqiu hears a thump outside the house, followed by a loud crashing noise. 

Mu Qingfang exhales. “Liu-shixiong and Student Luo have been fighting since you collapsed.”

“...what?”

According to Mu Qingfang, Liu Qingge and Luo Binghe first fought over who got to carry Shen Qingqiu. Then they fought over where to take him, with Luo Binghe insisting on the bamboo house, and Liu Qingge pushing for Shen Qingqiu’s dormitory room. Though it ultimately ended with Yue Qingyuan carrying Shen Qingqiu to the bamboo house, the proximity of which Mu Qingfang suggested was more suitable for emergency treatment, the two fools are now fighting over where Shen Qingqiu should spend his resting time and who, between them, gets visiting rights. 

Shen Qingqiu kneads at his forehead with a thumb and forefinger. “How long have they been at this?”

“Five days,” Mu Qingfang says.

Again, Shen Qingqiu puts serious consideration into choosing Mu Qingfang for his Romantic Ending.

“Shall I let them know you’re awake?” Mu Qingfang asks.

Another crash, then a shout of that was Shizun’s favorite bonsai!

“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu sighs. 

Oddly enough, neither of the two approaches Shen Qingqiu upon entering the bamboo house.

Luo Binghe lingers at the doorway, brows knitted and hands wringing together, while Liu Qingge pads over to lean against the window, arms folded across his chest. Their hair and robes are a rumpled mess, Luo Binghe sporting a bruise on one eye, Liu Qingge favoring the weight of one leg as he stands.

Mu Qingfang looks over them and heaves a sigh.

You and me both, Mu-shidi, Shen Qingqiu thinks.

“I’m sorry for causing you worry,” he starts, but something about that sparks vigorous head shakes from Luo Binghe, tears welling up in his dark eyes. 

“Shizun shouldn’t be the one apologizing! Shizun was poisoned because he saved this student’s worthless life! And, and when Shizun said—when Shizun wouldn’t wake up—I, I…..”

Luo Binghe drops to his hands and knees, head slamming so hard against the wood floor that Shen Qingqiu winces.

“This foolish student has failed you, Shizun!”

Shen Qingqiu stares at his prostate figure. Was that really necessary!? He could have given himself a concussion!! 

By the window, Liu Qingge clears his throat. “I will cleanse your meridians starting tonight,” he says, roughly. When Shen Qingqiu’s eyes shift to meet his, he can’t help but notice that Liu Qingge’s eyes are red at the corners. 

Could these two express themselves any more differently? Both overwhelmed with guilt and fear, but one shows it freely, while the other keeps it bottled inside. 

Bless heaven and earth for taking Yue Qingyuan out of this mix. 

With the authority of a school teacher, Shen Qingqiu claps his hands together. Time to restore some level of normalcy here. 

“First, Binghe. You should know better than to call your life ‘worthless’ after this Shizun sacrificed his own to save it. Now get up, before you rot the wood with your tears and bring in the termites. Where will you sleep then?”

Luo Binghe raises his head, lips trembling. “Shizun…”

“Second, Liu-shidi. Thank you for everything you have done for me. I will see you tonight for the cleansing."

Liu Qingge nods, mouth tipped up slightly.

“Third, I don’t mind recovering in the bamboo house, as long as Binghe brings in bedding for himself, and I'd like visitors, anyone, anytime. Is that clear?”

Liu Qingge and Luo Binghe exchange looks. 

“Fine.” 

“If that’s what Shizun wants.”

“One last thing.” Shen Qingqiu flexes his pricked hand. “What happened to Sha Hualing?”

Expressions darken at the name, even the gentle Mu Qingfang.

“The beasts retreated with her before we could interrogate her further,” Luo Binghe says, scowling.

“What was left of them,” Liu Qingge adds grimly.

Shen Qingqiu breathes a sigh of relief. Definitely a different direction from the original. The demons would have won, otherwise, the town square destroyed. And Luo Binghe wouldn't be with them right now. With him.

The System returns with a cheery ding.

[Respect +50! Coolness +50! Kindness +80! Cultivation -40!]

[Heart levels increased! +1 for Liu Qingge, +1 for Yue Qingyuan, +1 for Mu Qingfang, +2 for Luo Binghe!]

[Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! You have hit max Heart levels with Luo Binghe! Your parameters still need work, but you are well on your way to a Romantic Ending with this gorgeous half-demon!]

Startled, Shen Qingqiu gazes at Luo Binghe, who looks back at him with eyes full of warmth, fingers curled around the jade bangle on his wrist.

"Is Shizun hungry? This student can make you congee."

Well, Shen Qingqiu thinks, heart skipping a beat. 

He could have done worse. 

 


 

  MESSAGE FROM THE GAME DEVELOPER

Hi friends, it’s Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky!

I can’t believe you all have so many questions for me? Me?? I’m just blown away, thank you so much! (cries) Let’s see if I can actually answer any of them for you...  

 

@ Airplane bro, will we ever meet the real shen jiu in this BL version? Yqy really loves sj and it would kill me to see yqy’s misguided romantic efforts directed towards shen yuan instead noo

I don’t know, I don’t know what happened to Shen Jiu in this version. It's pretty sad to see Yue Qingyuan gunning for the wrong Shen, though. Honestly, I think Shen bro can afford to be a little nicer to him, but don’t tell Shen bro I said that (shhh).  

 

@ shang qinghua was there ever consideration for some side pairings in the bl game that players would catch rumor about as some fun world building?

Side pairings? Like what? Liu Mingyan and Ning Yingying? Qi Qingqi and Sha Hualing? Or do you mean Shen bro’s male options hooking up with each other while Shen bro’s busy?? Listen, I’m not the type of game developer who’s like, THERE IS ONE TRUE PAIRING AND EVERY OTHER COUPLE SUCKS BALLS, so, you know, create your own pairings! Pair characters with yourself! Do whatever makes you happy!

Just, uh… don't tell me what you do with, uh, Shang Qinghua. Or Mobei-Jun...

 

@SQH COULD THE VILLAINS BE ONE OF THE OPTIONS??? TIANLANG JUN? HUAN HUA PALACE HEAD?? HEART DEMON???????

 

………

 

………

 

……..(maybe Tianlang-Jun….)

 

So Airplane-bro, you seem very adamant on not having Mobei-jun as a Romantic Option eh? Wonder why…

Hahahahaha I have no idea what you're talking about 

  

Yo Airplane, just how big can SY's harem get? Kidding, kidding (but not really). My actual question: is there any way for us (or SQQ) to view his own 'affection levels' for the romantic options?

Bigger than any man can handle on his own. But Shen bro isn't just "any man," is he? (lol) And if you want to know Shen bro's affection levels, you'll have to ask him yourself! 

 

Shang Qinghua... are you secretly the system???

I WISH.  

 

@Airplane Bro, who're you rooting for Shen Yuan to pick~ you've got to have an opinion on that, right??

Me? No, no, no, I keep my lowly opinions to myself. Take it from me, friend, that's the best way to survive in life. 

 

I don't know why some of you are calling me Shang Qinghua but I figured I'd respond anyway, ahaha, ahahaha..... 

K-Keep the questions coming, okay! Until next time!

Chapter Text

It takes two weeks for Shen Qingqiu’s Blood Pressure to drop. Not once, however, does he feel lonely. Luo Binghe cooks him three meals a day, Mu Qingfang checks his pulse and tutors him on missed lessons, Liu Qingge and Yue Qingyuan take turns cleansing his meridians. Even the Qing Jing Peak students, with Ning Yingying and Ming Fan in the lead, come by to make a din in the bamboo house until one of the Seniors kicks them out. 

Shen Qingqiu has never felt more cared for, more loved.

And he doesn’t quite know how to feel about it.

The System is amused when it chimes in.

[I’d enjoy every second of this.]

“It’s overwhelming,” Shen Qingqiu hisses. 

[Why?]

"Because I’ve never had anything like—"

“What was that, Shizun?” 

Eyes bright, Luo Binghe looks up from where he’s massaging Shen Qingqiu’s foot. His fingers press into sore spots that Shen Qingqiu didn’t even know he had, digging in with such a perfect mix of pain and pleasure that Shen Qingqiu bites back moans more than once. (Lord knows how Luo Binghe would react if he’d let one go.)

“Nothing,” Shen Qingqiu says, mentally swearing when the System barks out a laugh. "I just…” He hesitates, then plows ahead. “I just feel really lucky to have you here, with me.”

The smile that spreads across Luo Binghe’s face is incandescent. 

It’s bloody unfair how attractive this student is!

Face heating, Shen Qingqiu tugs his foot back, only for Luo Binghe to follow the movement, strong arms snaking around Shen Qingqiu’s waist. He feels the warmth of Luo Binghe’s cheek through the layers of fabric, the vibration of what seems like contented purring as Luo Binghe nuzzles against his belly. In his chest, Shen Qingqiu’s heart thuds. 

I’m the lucky one,” Luo Binghe sighs. 

Shen Qingqiu breathes in, swallows. Runs his fingers through Luo Binghe’s dark curls, lightly, fondly.

For once, the System doesn’t interrupt. 

They stay that way for a while—Luo Binghe’s face pressed into Shen Qingqiu’s stomach, Shen Qingqiu’s hands stroking Luo Binghe’s hair—until the gong for dinner sounds in the distance. 

Luo Binghe is a comforting presence, is the way Shen Qingqiu rationalizes it. A comforting, familiar presence.

 


 

When Shen Qingqiu returns to classes, his first instinct is to whip around and bolt right back to the bamboo house. Every student stares at him with wide-eyed admiration now, the atmosphere turned into something out of his sisters’ idol fanmeet videos. Some approach him, shyly asking about his use of the iron fans and could he please, if he doesn’t mind, train them in his spare time? Others titter and giggle the second he steps into the classroom, as though he’s one of his sister’s favorites, looking ridiculous with their pastel clothes and pastel-colored hair. 

Shen Qingqiu is thankful that the Peak Seniors treat him the same, for the most part. In classrooms, the seat next to him is always left open, filled by either Liu Qingge or Mu Qingfang. They would greet him, chat with him, slip him notes that assist in lessons. A perfectly normal interaction among perfectly normal people.

And then there’s Yue Qingyuan, who fusses and hovers over him like a shadow waiting on his every need. At one point, he lingers a little too long behind Shen Qingqiu during a guqin lesson, the back of Shen Qingqiu’s neck tingling from his presence. Shen Qingqiu has half a mind to tell Yue Qingyuan to please back the hell off, when Yue Qingyuan bends down to correct his finger movements for a particular verse—chest against his back, hands over his. 

Shen Qingqiu’s pulse quickens.

Yue Qingyuan turns to look at Shen Qingqiu, hair falling across his eyes, mouth tipping up just inches from Shen Qingqiu’s lips. The smell of jasmine wafts up Shen Qingqiu’s nose, clouding his senses with its sweetness. This, coupled with that forehead kiss from weeks ago, makes Shen Qingqiu’s insides squirm. 

Next to them, Liu Qingge watches with raised brows. 

“Are you feeling better, Qingqiu?” Yue Qingyuan asks, softly.

Somehow, that sounds far more intimate than “A-Jiu.” 

Nodding, Shen Qingqiu stares resolutely at the strings of his guqin, hands quivering beneath Yue Qingyuan’s palms. Yue Qingyuan’s smile spreads, the corner of his eyes crinkling. “I’m glad to see that I still have some effect on you,” he murmurs before, finally, drawing away. 

Shen Qingqiu feels a twinge in his chest at the sudden loss of warmth. Hates that he feels anything at that loss.

“Hey.”

Shen Qingqiu leaps out of his skin. Turns, slowly, to meet Liu Qingge’s piercing stare. There’s so much the Bai Zhan Peak warrior could say: what is going on between you and Yue Qingyuan; could you not do that in a public classroom; what about Luo Binghe? 

Hang on. What about Luo Binghe?

Is he really that much of a lost cause? 

“Hey,” Liu Qingge says again. 

Shen Qingqiu straightens, flushing. “Yes, Liu-shidi?”

“I want extra lessons on the guqin.” 

Shen Qingqiu blinks at Liu Qingge for a moment, before his mouth lifts in delight. And amusement, when Liu Qingge’s eyes dart away, the tips of his ears gone a warm shade of pink. It’s not like Liu Qingge to ask for help, much less help on something as cultured as music. All in an effort to distract Shen Qingqiu from the awkwardness with Yue Qingyuan.

Liu-shidi! This shixiong will follow you to the ends of the earth!

“Perhaps this evening,” Shen Qingqiu says, still smiling. “More, if you’d like?”

Liu Qingge’s eyes flicker back to him, softening. “I would like that.”

Shen Qingqiu’s mood stays lifted for the rest of the lesson, even prompting him to link his arm through Liu Qingge’s as they leave the classroom at the end. The oddest noise comes out of Liu Qingge’s throat but Yue Qingyuan, thank the gods, is engaged in conversation with another student. 

The System slips in. 

[Culture +10! Well done on increasing a Parameter status! While we're at it, might I remind you that you have yet to ask anyone out on a date?]

Shen Qingqiu frowns. He hasn’t had to, not with the men themselves initiating events every time, but it’d be worth a try. Just to see what it’s like. Luo Binghe would be an easy one—he’d say yes before Shen Qingqiu even finishes his question—but he’s already at max Heart level. So maybe he ought to try it with someone else. 

Clearing his throat, he turns to Liu Qingge, one hand sliding up Liu Qingge’s arm. Liu Qingge stiffens, the curve of his bicep firm beneath the fabric of his sleeve, and it takes Shen Qingqiu a second to refocus his thoughts. 

What is up with the men in this world? They're all too hot for their own good.

“Would you like to go somewhere after our guqin lesson?” Shen Qingqiu ventures. 

A pause, then Liu Qingge lets out a rush of breath, as if bracing himself for a fight. “Where to?”

Instantly, the translucent panel resurfaces before Shen Qingqiu’s eyes. 

[Dating Spot Menu loaded. Please select from the following:

Bamboo House
Pasture
Forest Park
Local Town
Lake
]

“Hmm.” Shen Qingqiu leans toward Liu Qingge, whose shoulders tense up to his ears for the third time. "What would you like to do, Liu-shidi?"

"Whatever you want," Liu Qingge says, his voice a notch higher than usual. 

The System makes a whirring noise.

[To increase his Heart levels, I would recommend choosing a location he prefers.] 

Huh. Well what would that be for Liu Qingge? Bamboo House and Lake are out, each of those spots claimed by Luo Binghe and Yue Qingyuan, respectively. Liu Qingge might enjoy a walk through the Local Town or a ride on the horses in the Pasture. He might also like the Forest Park; they first met at the Hiking Trail, after all. 

Decision made, Shen Qingqiu selects the Forest Park.

[Where in Forest Park would you like to go? Please select from the following:

Botanical Garden
Hiking Trail
Frozen Pond
 

Please note that the Frozen Pond is only available during the winter months.]

Limited availability! That’s just begging to be chosen. Besides, on a frozen body of water, what more can one do in a fictional Ancient Chinese setting other than ice fishing, a manly enough activity for someone as fierce and battle-hardened as Liu Qingge? 

Indeed, when Shen Qingqiu proposes the Frozen Pond for their date, Liu Qingge looks pleased with the choice. 

“This evening?” Shen Qingqiu affirms.

“This evening,” Liu Qingge says, relaxing visibly, lips curving.

 


 

“Welcome back!”

When Shen Qingqiu steps into the bamboo house, Luo Binghe is dusting the bookshelves, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Dropping into a chair, Shen Qingqiu allows himself the treat of watching Luo Binghe’s forearms flex with each move of the duster, the way his broad back stretches with every reach. 

This is what it’s come to, hasn’t it? From a game about a male stallion protagonist’s revenge, to one of an old man in an armchair, perving on his younger tutee. 

“Shizun, you’re not wearing that bell.”

Shen Qingqiu yanks his gaze up to Luo Binghe’s eyes. “What bell?”

Luo Binghe’s face lights up, soft and pleased. Shen Qingqiu decides not to question it. 

“Oh, I will be out tonight,” he says instead, “So don't wait up.”

“Out?” The smile fades. “With who?”

“Liu-shidi.”

Shen Qingqiu regrets it the instant that name slips out of his mouth; in seconds, the temperature has plunged to freezing around them, Luo Binghe’s expression gone dark.

Idiot, idiot, idiot, Shen Qingqiu berates himself, as Luo Binghe rests the duster on the wing of one shoulder, hips cocked to one side. There’s arrogance in that pose—arrogance and anger—and the sight of it makes Shen Qingqiu turn to cursing Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky for filling the protagonist to the brim with vinegar. 

That’s right. That’s right. He has every right to spend time with whomever he wants, whenever he wants! Not have his relationships dictated by a poorly written character in a shitty love simulation game. 

Still, Shen Qingqiu flinches when Luo Binghe speaks.

“Is it a date?”

Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth. 

“Of course not,” he lies.

Luo Binghe’s face lightens considerably. 

“If it’s not a date...” His eyes widen, sweet and innocent. “Can I come?”

Shen Qingqiu inhales, considers his options. Saying no would only incite Luo Binghe’s jealousy, whereas saying yes… well, he could say yes, then sneak out with Liu Qingge before Luo Binghe even knows they’re gone. It’s possible, entirely possible, especially if he ropes Liu Qingge in on the plan. 

With Luo Binghe, better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

“...yes,” Shen Qingqiu says.

Ding!

[3P route activated! Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations!!!]

Motherf—

 


 

Catching wind of the private lesson, the Qing Jing Peak students clear out of the common room by the time of Liu Qingge’s arrival. 

Shen Qingqiu greets Liu Qingge with a quiet melody on the guqin, fingers plucking lightly at the strings. Smiles as Liu Qingge slips the cloth off his guqin and sets it down alongside the large bag on his shoulder, sinking onto the cushion Shen Qingqiu prepared for him. The sight of the Bai Zhan Peak warrior carrying a musical instrument is so unusual that Shen Qingqiu wishes he has a way to capture it with a camera. If only this world were just a little more modern.

“What’s in the bag?” he asks, head tilted to one side.

“You’ll see,” Liu Qingge says.

How mysterious. Though the contents must be fishing gear, no doubt, given where they’re headed.

Shen Qingqiu drags his fingers down the strings, a gentle strum. 

“What shall we start with?”

Liu Qingge shrugs, arms folded across his chest. “You tell me. I still don’t know how this works.”

Shen Qingqiu laughs. “The basics, then.”

Like martial arts, Shen Qingqiu explains, the positioning of one’s fingers is crucial in playing the guqin. He adjusts Liu Qingge’s hands, shows him the forms needed to play certain notes and techniques. It’s not the first time he's started from the basics with Liu Qingge, but he’s also not surprised that Liu Qingge has forgotten everything he was taught about the guqin. The warrior of Bai Zhan Peak must have a memory capacity that's reserved for nothing but combat techniques.

“You're not wrong,” Liu Qingge grumbles, when Shen Qingqiu voices that thought out loud. “We learn martial arts to protect our country and loved ones. The guqin, though? What’s the use of a frivolous hobby like the guqin?”

Shen Qingqiu chuckles. It’s certainly a different mindset from all the pompous guqin players he’s met in his world, and a part of him wishes Liu Qingge were there to put them in their places. But the guqin was his livelihood. Until it wasn’t anymore. 

“I believe they are interconnected. Learned well, the grace, elegance, and rhythmic skills developed from playing a musical instrument can add a great deal to our fighting skills.”

For a moment, Liu Qingge is silent, his gaze contemplative and riveted to the guqin strings. Then, he turns to look at Shen Qingqiu, mouth curling in what could've a smirk if not for the fondness in it. 

"You do have a graceful combat style, one that no one can possibly hope to emulate." 

Shen Qingqiu laughs, hand to his lips. He'd been admiring Liu Qingge's side profile, that angled jawline and impossibly high cheekbones, but the last thing he expected was a silver tongue. "That sounds like a compliment."

Liu Qingge lifts his chin. "It is." 

They lock eyes, Liu Qingge's gaze searing into Shen Qingqiu in a way that makes his insides melt. Funny, how silence with Liu Qingge is a whole different animal from silence with Luo Binghe. It's not as comforting, not as familiar, but there's something about it—something that crackles between them, hot and electric. Shen Qingqiu swallows, lashes lowering, just as Liu Qingge leans in—

"Shizun! Are we leaving yet?"

Liu Qingge jolts backward, ears pink and eyes wild. 

Shen Qingqiu lifts his fingers to knead at his forehead as Luo Binghe pokes his head through the door to the common room. 

"Good evening, Senior Liu," he says, fist to palm, a jaunty grin on his face.

The System pops in with a chipper voice that makes Shen Qingqiu want to break things.

[3P mode commencing in 3…]

"Can't you detach yourself from your Shizun for one evening?" Liu Qingge hisses.

Luo Binghe's grin widens in such an infuriating manner that Shen Qingqiu can't blame Liu Qingge for bristling. "Shizun doesn't mind. So I don't see what the problem is."

Liu Qingge stares at Shen Qingqiu, who flicks his fan open to give himself more air. "Is this true?"

"Well…"  The fan flutters, and Shen Qingqiu breathes. He had, mistakenly, banked on Binghe waiting at the bamboo house until he was called. "I didn't think it was a bad idea for all three of us to spend some time together…"

[... 2…]

"Senior Liu." Luo Binghe's head is cocked, his hands clasped behind his back. The picture of innocence. "I don't know why you'd object to my presence, unless you had some impure ideas on how the evening would go?"

"Fine," Liu Qingge says through clenched teeth. "He can join us." 

[...1. Have a wonderful evening with your two suitors! Viva la 3P mode!!!]

Go to hell.

Outside the dormitory, Ning Yingying is there to wave them off. Shen Qingqiu can’t help but smile, the ache in his head fading in the light of Ning Yingying’s cheeriness. All that testosterone in the common room was beyond suffocating (”I thought your only use for a guqin was as a blunt object, Senior Liu.” “We can easily put that to the test, Luo Binghe.” ) and Ning Yingying was the breath of fresh air he desperately needed. 

“I knew there’d come a day when Shizun’s worth would be recognized,” Ning Yingying chirps, beaming at Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge, who shoot icy glares at each other. 

“I could do without that much recognition,” Shen Qingqiu sighs. “Make sure Ming Fan and the others behave, will you?”

“I’ll keep them in line, Shizun,” Ning Yingying says, brightly.

In lighter spirits, Shen Qingqiu nods toward the two men. “Ready?” 

“Ready,” they say in unison before they exchange another round of glares.

Shen Qingqiu’s head throbs. 

This is going to be the longest date ever.

 


 

The pond can be seen through the trees, stretching toward the horizon, its frozen surface brilliantly illuminated by the hanging lanterns and the soft glow of the setting sun. It’s bigger than Shen Qingqiu imagined, and he can see it covered with a blanket of water lilies and lotuses in the summer, bright and fragrant in bloom.  

Behind him, there’s a clunking noise as Liu Qingge drops his bag to the ground. Shen Qingqiu turns, expecting him to pull out fishing rods and bait and the like. But no, it’s not fishing gear he’s brought with him. It’s… leather shoes, two pairs of them. With a single iron blade on every sole. 

Shen Qingqiu balks. 

Skating? 

He didn’t think a historical fantasy like The Immortal Demon Way would include ice skating. Definitely not in the version he played! Regardless, it’s a date he could do without. Shen Qingqiu has never been great at ice skating; his only memories are of falling on his ass and face, the sound of his sister’s raucous laughter echoing in the background. Oh, he’s so going to lose Coolness and Respect points for this. 

“Here,” Liu Qingge says, handing him a pair of skates.

Shen Qingqiu accepts them, bottom lip pulled between his teeth. “Thank you, but—”

“How’d you know Shizun’s shoe size?” Luo Binghe growls.

“I just do,” Liu Qingge says, mouth lifting at one corner. “Don’t you?”

Luo Binghe’s expression darkens, and Shen Qingqiu hastens to step between the two, lifting the skates with one hand. “I’m grateful for the skates, Liu-shidi, but I’m afraid I’m not good at skating.”

“It’s fine,” Liu Qingge says, bending over to change into his skates. “I’ll teach you.”

“Oh. Well. Could I watch first?” 

Liu Qingge straightens, brows raised. “Why, what are you afraid of?”

Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth to grumble that he’s not afraid, he just needs time—only to have Luo Binghe grasp his wrist and tug him back, Luo Binghe himself stepping forward like a human shield. 

“If Shizun doesn’t want to skate, I will skate with you, Senior Liu.”

“Out of the question,” Liu Qingge barks. “I have no skates for you.”

“You’ll just have to hold my hand, then,” Luo Binghe says, grinning.

Liu Qingge’s face contorts. “Who wants to hold your hand!?”

Luo Binghe’s grin turns feral, like a shark circling its prey. “I won’t let you force Shizun on the ice if he doesn’t want to be on it.”

“You’re one to talk,” Liu Qingge says, voice gone low and dangerous. “Making him take you with us today.”

“I didn’t—”

“Binghe, Liu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu cuts in. He’s already put on the damn skates and taken the time to swear at the System, profusely, for the existence of something as idiotic as a 3P mode. “It’s fine, I’m ready.”

“But Shizun,” Luo Binghe starts, then backs down at Shen Qingqiu’s narrowed eyes.

“Let’s go,” Liu Qingge says, his tone softened a great deal. Smoothly, he slides onto the ice. 

Shen Qingqiu inhales, slow and deep. At least no one is around to witness his falls, of which there will be many. Lifting one foot, he sets the blade on the ice—and promptly topples backwards, one leg flying up, arms flailing in the air. 

He hasn’t even started yet; god how embarrassing. 

Shen Qingqiu wrenches his eyes shut, waits for impact. The last thing he expects is a pair of strong arms snaking around him, pulling him into a finely muscled chest.

“Ah, sorry, I—… Binghe?”

A huff of breath, the arms tightening around him. 

“...Shizun smells really nice…”

Shen Qingqiu’s mind blanks. Is that Luo Binghe nosing into his hair? Luo Binghe’s chest against his back? Luo Binghe’s hands on his waist? 

Feels warm and safe, a voice sighs in his head. A voice that sounds distinctly like his own. Except it’s not his voice. It can’t be his voice, the way it sounds so breathless and… content. He's held Luo Binghe in his arms before, much like a mother with a child, but this feels different. This feels—

“Hey!” Liu Qingge glides up to glare at Luo Binghe. “Who was the one talking about impure ideas?”

Luo Binghe’s voice is smug. “I was only catching Shizun when he fell.”

Hastily, Shen Qingqiu pulls away from Luo Binghe, hands waving, straightening as best as he can on the ice. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I—”

Off goes the blade with a life of its own, and he tips over again, forward this time. Straight into Liu Qingge’s arms. 

There's a beat before Liu Qingge chuckles, a low rumble that runs down Shen Qingqiu’s spine. “You weren’t kidding about your skating ability."

Really? Really? What is he, a ping pong ball bouncing between two of the world’s best players? Not even his sister’s BL games got this ridiculous! Also, he'd very much, please, like to lodge a complaint about the fabric of their winter uniforms. How are both their robes so thin that Shen Qingqiu can practically feel the hard planes of their chests through the layers!? 

Especially Liu Qingge, lord, all that training did him some good—

Fuck, and now his voice sounds like a horny teenager.

The flare of Luo Binghe’s qi is hot enough to melt the entire pond. “How long are you going to hold Shizun for?” he snarls.

“I was only catching him when he fell,” Liu Qingge hums.

“And I will do my best to stop doing that,” Shen Qingqiu huffs before Luo Binghe can shoot back a retort. Pushing himself out of Liu Qingge’s hold, he stumbles slowly, clumsily, down the icy surface, arms and legs stiff as planks. Liu Qingge trails after, watching over him without a word.

“I’ll be right here if you need me, Shizun,” Luo Binghe calls out, pouting.

The System slips in, disappointed.

[Not much of a 3P mode.]

Like that’s my fault!?? We wouldn’t be skating if I had any choice in the matter!

Somehow, the voice manages to feel sulky in his head. 

It takes a certain finesse to pull off ice skating and Shen Qingqiu confirms, yet again, that he has absolutely none of that. Not even in this cultivated, immortal body. He doesn’t fall anymore, at least, but he moves at a glacial pace, his joints locked in place. Liu Qingge is impressively patient with him, voice gentle as he offers guidance that Shen Qingqiu’s muscles just refuse to obey, no matter how hard he tries. 

“I’m not much fun, am I?” Shen Qingqiu mutters.

Liu Qingge snorts. He's skating backwards in front of Shen Qingqiu, arms behind his back and matching Shen Qingqiu's snail-like speed. “More than I was with the guqin.”

Shen Qingqiu lets out a laugh. “That’s a fair comparison.”

“I thought so,” Liu Qingge says lightly.

The tenderness in Liu Qingge’s gaze sends ribbons of warmth throughout Shen Qingqiu’s chest, and he averts his own gaze, suddenly bashful. It lands on Luo Binghe, who’s sitting at the side of the pond, arms and legs crossed, face black as a thundercloud. Gut twisting with guilt, he waves, relieved to see Luo Binghe perk up almost immediately to return the greeting. 

“Liu-shidi,” he says, turning back to Liu Qingge. “Why let Binghe join us if you knew you wouldn’t have skates for him?”

Liu Qingge scoffs, “To teach him a lesson.”

This is when his sister would speculate with her friends, in far too much depth, what exactly Liu Qingge means by ‘lesson’. 

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head wildly to throw out the thought. That very, very disturbing thought. “I think he knows better than to intrude now, so maybe we could—”

“Shen-xiong.”

Shen Qingqiu’s mouth falls open, eyes darting up to meet Liu Qingge’s. The man never calls anyone by nicknames. Hey, or you, or full names and formal titles, but heaven forbid an affectionate nickname. For Liu Qingge, this is close, maybe even equivalent, to something as sickeningly loving as gege. That, and the sheer heat of his stare makes Shen Qingqiu’s heart pound. Harder, still, when Liu Qingge reaches out to take his hands in his. 

Shen Qingqiu's brain freezes, his feet carrying him forward on their own. 

“Hey!” Luo Binghe yells.

Liu Qingge continues on, unfazed. “I see the way Yue-shixiong looks at you, the way Mu-shixiong smiles at you, the way Luo Binghe—” he spits out the name as if it’s poison “—clings to you, refusing to leave.” His thumb strokes the rise of Shen Qingqiu’s wrist. “But it’s hard to tell what you think.”

Shen Qingqiu flushes. “What are you saying? You want me to share what I think of them?” 

“No,” Liu Qingge says. “I’m asking if I have a chance. Because if I have even just a tiny bit of a chance, then I won’t give up.” He leans in close enough for Shen Qingqiu to see the brown flecks of his eyes, bright as stars. “Until my dying breath.”

Hey,” Luo Binghe yells again. 

“I, um... “ Shen Qingqiu’s eyes flick to Luo Binghe. “I think we should…”

“Shen-xiong.” 

God, Shen Qingqiu thinks, heart fluttering. He needs to stop doing that.

“Do I?” Liu Qingge says, softly. “Have a chance?”

Shen Qingqiu swallows. What happened to the shyness, the blushing, the unspoken words that sizzled in the air nonetheless? He likes that about Liu Qingge, finds it endearing. Charming, even. Would hate to lose Liu Qingge, the way he's so kind, so generous and patient and dutiful and chivalrous...

Ah. 

That’s his answer, isn’t it?

“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu says. 

Liu Qingge smiles, warm and open and so unguarded that Shen Qingqiu feels a little lightheaded. 

The ding is still as obnoxious as ever.

[Culture +10! Kindness +10! Aaand, of course, Heart level +1, with our tenacious warrior! Two more! Two more Hearts to complete and utter devotion!!!]

In the distance, Luo Binghe withers. "Shizun," he says in a keening whine, no different from a sad, neglected puppy.

Without thought, Shen Qingqiu spins around to strike out toward Luo Binghe so quickly, so abruptly, that his stupid feet whiz him straight into his final, most spectacular fall for the day. Right on his behind. 

“Shizun!” “Shen-xiong!”

The System’s voice turns grave.

[Coolness -15]

3P mode recommences as the two men shove at each other and argue over who gets to carry Shen Qingqiu down the forest path and back to the Qing Jing Peak dormitories. Shen Qingqiu’s protests go unheard over the escalation of insults ("Bite me, you bastard." "I'd like to see you try.") and he tries in vain to say that he's fine, the only injury was to his dignity ("Nonsense, you still have poison in your system." "Yes, Shizun shouldn't walk in this state." )

Is this what it's like to feel dismissed in the middle of two obstinate, feuding men? Because this idiotic mode has definitely given Shen Qingqiu a newfound sympathy for women.

"Enough." Shen Qingqiu whips out his fan to jab it at their startled faces. "Since you insist on this madness, then Liu-shidi will carry me for the first half of the journey, Binghe will take over for the rest of it. Happy now?"

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe says meekly, while Liu Qingge exhales. "Fine." 

"Oh, and these skates—"

"Keep them," Liu Qingge says, mouth curved. "For next time." 

Shen Qingqiu pauses, cheeks warming, before he smiles back at him. "For next time, then."

Luo Binghe, surprisingly, chooses not to comment.

 


 

Ming Fan greets them as soon as they return to the dormitories, practically simpering over Liu Qingge with a honey-filled voice. It wasn’t revealed, but Shen Qingqiu suspects Ming Fan is the one who gave out his shoe size to Liu Qingge. No other student would dare enter his private room and examine his boots for Liu Qingge; no other student would want to please Liu Qingge as much as Ming Fan. 

By the look on Luo Binghe's face, he seems to have reached the same conclusion.

May the gods have mercy on your soul, Ming Fan. You're on your own.  

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe says, his voice slipping into Shen Qingqiu’s thoughts. He’s carrying Shen Qingqiu to the bamboo house, not a single bit out of breath, hands warm against Shen Qingqiu's knee and back. (Liu Qingge went for a classic piggyback—the wings of his shoulders rippling under Shen Qingqiu’s palms—but of course Luo Binghe chooses the princess carry. Both are intimate in their own ways, and Shen Qingqiu’s face hasn’t stopped burning since the idiocy started.) 

“It’s the first time we’ve been out together since the Mid-Autumn Festival.”

“Oh,” Shen Qingqiu says, chest curling with guilt. “That was months ago.”

“That’s all right,” Luo Binghe says, with too-bright cheeriness. “I’m happy spending time with Shizun. Even if it’s just sharing meals, or tutoring lessons, or… or watching you skate.”

The unspoken words, with another man, lingers in the air between them.

As if on cue, the System pokes in.

[Regular maintenance is necessary in order to keep Heart levels maxed.]

In other words, it’s fine and important for him to go on dates with Luo Binghe.

All right, then.

Shen Qingqiu bops Luo Binghe on the head with his fan. “Silly. Why don't we explore the Town Square together, next time we're free?" 

At that, Luo Binghe looks down at him. His eyes are soft and bright and the curve of his lips hold the world. 

"With you, Shizun? Anywhere."

Shen Qingqiu’s chest goes tight. 

His mind hasn’t made a choice, but why does it feel like his heart has?

“Oh! Um, hello...!”

Just steps away from the bamboo house, Luo Binghe pauses, while Shen Qingqiu’s brows inch up his forehead. At the entrance stands cannon fodder Shang Qinghua, face bright red, hands wringing together. 

“I-I’d like to speak to Shen-shixiong,” he squeaks, wide eyes flickering to Luo Binghe. “Alone, if you don’t mind.” 

Luo Binghe sets Shen Qingqiu down, stare pinned on Shang Qinghua, who shrivels under the intensity of it. “Whatever you want to say, Senior Shang, you can say it in front of me.”

“But, uh, but…” Shang Qinghua’s fingers curl and twist and bend. “But it’s… it’s important, um, confidential, um, secret—” His voice rises in pitch when Luo Binghe’s eyes narrow. “—secret Peak business…”

Shen Qingqiu can’t help but rescue the poor bastard.

“It’s all right, Binghe,” he sighs, resting one hand on Luo Binghe’s arm, the tension in it melting with the gesture. “Go work on your scriptures; I’ll meet him in my dormitory room."

"Yes, Shizun."

As soon as Shen Qingqiu closes the door, Shang Qinghua lets loose, the words pouring out of his mouth like a broken dam. 

“Things have changed. A lot. Characters, events, relationship dynamics. Everything’s the same and yet everything is different. Liu-shixiong’s still alive; Yue-shixiong’s still alive; Luo Binghe hasn’t turned to the dark side and he’s still using Zheng Yang. I’ve thought about it—thought about it really hard—and the one common denominator, the source of all the changes…” He breathes in, then out. “...is you, Shen-shixiong.”

Sinking into a chair, Shen Qingqiu hides his confusion behind his fan. Why is Shang Qinghua talking as if he knows the content of the original game? How could he, a character in the game, possibly know anything about the original? 

“I’ve changed. So of course everything else around me will change.”

“Yes, but your change is, dare I say it…” Shang Qinghua’s eyes dart down to the open fan, as if ascertaining it's not made of iron first, before darting right back. “...OOC.”

There's a loud crack as the fan snaps apart, Shen Qingqiu’s knuckles gone white from clutching it so hard.

“What did you say?” he breathes.

In the blink of an eye, Shang Qinghua has moved to the door, hand on the doorknob, ready to bolt at the first sign of violence.

“OOC,” he gasps, as if he's on his last breath.

……

Just who the hell is Shang Qinghua!?

 


 

MESSAGE FROM THE GAME DEVELOPER

Hi friends, this is Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky! 

He’s here, he’s here! A monumental event involving an important character in the story! Hahaha

I don’t have more to say, really, other than that 3P mode was developed with the intention of giving players the uncommon experience of having two siblings, best friends, teammates bond and fight over them on a date. Like the System said, they typically have some semblance of a healthy relationship before the player comes between them, so Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge are a bit of an anomaly. But then, we all know what happens in BL games between bitter rivals, right? Right??

Anyway. Thank you again for your questions! 

@Airplane Bro i guess we call you Shang Qinghua bc you’re kept so busy working all the time like An Ding Peak. So when you created the game did you ever consider a diff protag than Shen QingQiu?

That is so nice of you to acknowledge my hard work (sob). Not many people do, especially Shen bro. It’s like he deliberately avoids doing that, honestly. He can be kinda mean, sometimes. So! The game! Luo Binghe was the original protagonist, so yes, I did consider a different protag than Shen Qingqiu.

Did I consider anyone else besides those two? Mm, maybe Liu Mingyan? She definitely has admirers of all genders!

@ shangqinghua can’t we give a-jiu some proper love too!!!!

Like what, a hug? 

I think he’d rather rip his own arms off than accept a hug...

@AirplaneBro Thank you very much for your hard work! If say you were transmigrated into the game though, would your harem include a powerful ice demon lord? :3c Haha Looking forward to seeing more of the story progression!

You are so welcome, friend! Well, um, I doubt I’d have a harem ahaha. But that aside, that would be... really nice. If the Great King isn't opposed to the idea. Ahem. I hope you like how it all plays out~

Keep the questions coming, you've all been so kind (sob). Until next time!