Actions

Work Header

How to Grow A Cucumber

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan was a little desperate to get out of the house.

Don’t get him wrong, he loves his family he really does! Just... there is a limit to how much “love” he can give and take. Late night fun dessert runs with his brother have morphed to the same brother being an elitist about his fancy law degree. Emotional heart to heart conversations with his little sister come to mean nothing when the next day when she eats half of his food from the fridge. His cousin Shen Jiu and him hanging out turning into him accidentally getting ostracised from social events because ‘No one likes an asshole.’

Anyway, he needs to get out of the family house- hell, he needs to get out of the goddamn city. Somewhere where people don't know his face or his name, or immediately associate him with his cousin’s occasionally terrible attitude.

Then a legal letter arrives for him saying that Great Grandfather Shen Qingqiu, may he rest in peace, left Shen Yuan not only a fuckton of money but a farmhouse in the countryside. Of course, he doesn’t believe it until the deed to an estate shows up the very next day. Then at dinner, his brother begins talking about how great his life is going and his parents start expressing their desire for grandkids- well, no one can really blame him for deciding to get the hell out of the house right then and there. He’s pretty sure that the speed he packs bags at would put the local housewives at the limited time shopping sales to shame.

He just really wants a ‘Do-Over’ in life, one that doesn’t leave him in a dead-end job that has nothing to do with his agriculture degree he worked his ass off for. One only his grandfather had encouraged him to pursue.

The train ride to Tian Gong mountain range fills Shen Yuan with the nostalgia of summers past with his grandfather. The two of them had been very close, despite the generation gap between them. Shen Qingqiu was the one who got him interested in botany, agriculture, and folklore (which lead to his anime obsession, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Thinking on it, he’s never actually been to his grandfather’s estate. Shen Qingqiu usually chose to come to the city to spend summers at the family’s home in the city to escape the heat. He had never really invited anyone to come over either, preferring to keep to himself. They were also similar to that respect. Shen Yuan values his privacy, peace, and quiet. Living by himself in the country sounds like a dream too good to be true. He’s so giddy, he could do a little dance in his seat.

It’s only after he stepped off the train that he realizes he might have jumped the gun.

The village of Cang Qiong is a small town that absolutely screams “boonies” considering that it was smack dab in the middle of a bamboo grove. The architecture of the buildings look like they belong in some feudal era novel or something, hell the roads aren’t even paved, they’re just dirt paths. He feels so out of place in his sweater and jeans that it really wouldn’t surprise him if someone walked out of any of the surrounding buildings in robes or something.

What really makes him itch to get back on the train, however, two men are staring at him from across the road.

Two very handsome men.

Two very handsome men who are now walking towards him- shit.

Shen Yuan licks his lips, “Ah, hello there.” Keep your gay thoughts in check!!

One of them, the one with his hair in a ponytail, squints at him with a gaze that just about screams ‘I can and will break your arm in a second.’

The other man with impressive eyebrows nods at him, “Good afternoon. Is there anything I can help you with?”

He slips on a polite smile and nods, “If you’d be so kind. I’m afraid I don’t know the direction of the Qing Jing estate.”

The man blinks, “Oh, are you, Shen Yuan?”

“Yes that’s right.”

A soft smile graces him, “I am Yue Qingyuan, we spoke over the phone when you checked in about the farm. I had a feeling you would be moving to town soon. I thought it would be best to greet you in person.”

Right he’s the village headman. Just a handsome headman. One who just about shattered Shen Yuan’s stereotype of ‘frail old man in charge of town’ that he’s read in just about every novel.

No biggie.

“Ah, well it is nice to meet you in person.”

“I’d also like to introduce you to Liu Qingge-” The man with the ponytail nods- oh god he has a beauty mark- “He is head of the neighborhood watch here in town. I had asked him to make sure there were no wild animals on the estate before you arrived.”

Shen Yuan tries to not let his panic about fucking wild animals show. “Oh, many thanks to you both. I’ll be honest, it didn’t even occur to me to think about wild animals on the estate.”

Good god. He’s screwed as a farmer.

“One less thing to worry about them. Come, I’ll show you the way to the farm. It’s just outside of town.”

Liu Qingge picks up the other two bags he’s got on him.

“O-oh, that isn’t necessary I can-”

He’s silenced with a look, “It’s fine.” And that’s the end of that.

_

See, with everyone saying ‘farm’ Shen yuan had expected a cottage on a few acres of land. Not this regal looking traditional house!! What the hell!! There’s even a koi pond in a goddamn courtyard! Or is it the entryway? Who cares! It’s his now, he can call it whatever he wants! No wonder grandpa never invited anyone. Hell, he’s definitely not inviting anyone to this piece of paradise. No one would ever leave! He’s not sure he’s going to leave!

Screw society, this little oasis is now his.

It must show on his face because both men get a chuckle out of it.

Yue Qingyuan smiles, “Is it really so surprising?”

Yes.

“Just a little.”

“I’m sure you’ll adjust to it in no time. The power and water should be running again. Right Liu-ge?”

There’s another nod.

“Excellent. Don’t be surprised if you get visitors from townsfolk every so often. Many are curious about a new person in town.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I believe that’s- oh.” Yue Qingyuan pulls a folded paper out of his back pocket. “You’d probably like to have this. This is a map of the surrounding area, just so you don’t get lost. It details the land owned by other estates here in the town. Also the shops.”

He passes it to Shen Yuan. “If you have any questions you have my number.”

“I really can’t thank you both enough for the hospitality.”

Liu Qingge steps forward, holding out a business card. “In case you see a wolf.”

Shen Yuan blanches.

Yue Qingyuan chuckles, “He’s teasing you. But if you do see one, he or I will be able to assist you in scaring it away.”

Shen Yuan forces a laugh, “I’ll be in your care then.”

_

Getting settled is a simple task.

Most of Shen Yuan’s belongings would be shipped by his older brother to the house, probably within a day or so. His brother had been very excited to clear out his old room, babbling about making in a home office and ‘oh, I just got assigned this case-’ Shen Yuan had tuned him out after that.

There wasn’t much left in the house. Some furnishings here or there, but anything that gave the place a homey feeling was gone. Shen Qingqiu had passed some 4 months ago, in a hospital back in the city. While the house was a bit dusty, most of his grandfather’s belongs had long since been packed away or back at the Shen’s family estate in the city.

It doesn’t take him long to fill a shelf in what appears to be an office with the few books he has on him. He’ll set up his gaming desktop there once it arrives too.

Shen Yuan has some mixed feelings about taking his grandfather’s old room. But the two other guest rooms don’t have as nice of a view of an adjacent courtyard. He goes to sit on the bed, mentally chanting please don’t be a hard bed, please don’t be a hard bed-

He bounces on a foam mattress.

Bless you old man bones!! He’s going to sleep so damn good!!

Then he quickly apologizes to the spirit of his grandfather.

The furniture that’s left in the house isn’t modern by any means. It’s not bad, per se, but it’ll take some time to get used to. New furniture isn’t exactly cheap, so he’s willing to adjust to the traditional looking seats and tables for the time being.

After shoving his now-empty bags into a closet, he walks through the house to take stalk of what he’ll need to buy. A new mop, for sure because the one in the laundry room as definitely seen better days. Some food, batteries, oh some hooks to hang a few plants on along the outside halls would be nice. There are new bedsheets to purchase, laundry detergent, fabric softener, and a wifi router for sure. That’s priority.

The kitchen gives him a double take because, holy shit, it’s super nice. Stainless steel appliances, a hanging rack for pots and pans, marble countertops, and a huge gas burner stove. Too bad it’s all wasted on a man who can’t cook for the life of him. A quick test of the sink faucet and stovetop show the Yue Qingyuan was right about the water and gas are back. He leaves the gas flame burning and finds a kettle in an adjacent cabinet. Shen Yuan fills it with water and leaves it to boil, figuring he’ll eat some of the instant noodles he brought with him later.

He keeps wandering and finds a tv in a room off the entrance hall. A quick test shows cable television for the local area... so only three channels: news, fortune-telling (okay??), and the home improvement channel. That last one seems handy, you’re never too old to pick up on DIY. He leaves it playing for background noise while scouting the rest of the house. There’s no seating in here, definitely have to get a couch and a coffee table. Oh, maybe a nice leather recliner too.

It’s only after his stomach growls that Shen Yuan realizes some time has passed and he never heard the kettle whistle. Fearing a gas leak, he sprints back over to the kitchen.

Shen Yuan freezes.

A man is standing in his kitchen.

There is a drop-dead, gorgeous, ethereal man standing in his kitchen, making tea.

The man looks his way and Shen Yuan feels his heart skip a beat.

Holy shit.

The man smiles at him and Wow, yeah, there went his ability to process literally anything. That mental shopping list is loooong gone.

“Welcome, Shen Yuan.”

Oh.

Oh dear.

His voice should be illegal.

“My name is Luo Binghe, I worked as a farmhand for Shizun- ah, Shen Qingqiu.”

Shen Yuan mentally kicks himself, “Hi, um, hello. I’m Shen Yuan-” he already knows that you idiot- “It’s nice to meet you Luo Binghe. Um, how long did you work for my grandfather for?”

“Oh for some years when Shizun’s health began failing. He was a good mentor who taught me to live off the land.” A cup of tea is handed to him. “It’s only proper I come by to greet his family.”

Shen Yuan nods, (sure whatever you say) taking a sip of tea.

It’s absolutely divine! So light, but the flavor of citrus with a hint of jasmine is still there. It’s not the least bit overpowering.

Luo binghe is watching him.

“You have a talent for this.”

There’s a soft smile, “Shizun had said the same.”

“Well there you have it, he’s never wrong.”

They share a laugh, and Shen Yuan gets his flustered emotions back in check.

“I’d invite you to sit down, but there doesn’t appear to be any chairs here in the house.”

Luo Binghe pulls out a tray, putting a teapot on it and grabbing a Tupperware that Shen Yuan failed to notice before off the counter.

“This one doesn’t mean to impose. If you do not mind sitting outside on the edge of the porch, I would be grateful to get to know you.”

Well, he can’t just say no to that now can he?

Tea and snacks -he ascended to heaven Jesus Christ - pass with sharing fond memories of Shen Qingqiu: A firm but fair man who was the epitome of elegance and grace. A man with musical talent, artistic skill, and a whole library’s worth of knowledge on just about anything. A grandfather who had a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a rare smile for those who listened to his tales.

The two spend hours trading stories, laughing over their own past foolishness in the face of Shen Qingqiu’s knowledge. Getting helped out of ridiculous situations, being taught life lessons, and learning to communicate from a man who seemed to always know the right thing to say. It’s as the sun beings to set, that Shen Yuan realizes that he has passed the day talking with this stranger about his grandfather. It’s also the most he’s spoken, laughed really, in a long time since his passing.

Luo Binge sighs, “I think I have occupied too much of your time.”

“Oh, not in the slightest.” Shen Yuan hurriedly reassures, “It was very nice to speak to someone who knew my grandfather in his daily life. I enjoyed speaking to you about him.”

Luo Binghe smiles, “It was a pleasure to speak with you too, Shen Yuan. I don’t want to impose on you any longer today.” He looks to the side, hesitating. “I was curious though...”

Shen Yuan waits for him to finish the thought.

“This one wanted to know, what are your intentions with the farmland you have now inherited?” Luo Binghe’s expression, for the first time that he’s seen, is a guarded one. Like he’s skeptical of the answer.

Shen Yuan smiles, “I would think that’s obvious. I intend to get it back up and running.” Being a farmer sounds like it could be fun, at the very least.

Luo Binghe blinks, “Really?”

“Yes of course.” He laughs, “I have to put my agriculture degree to good use somehow.”

Luo Binghe grabs his hands in the blink of an eye.

Shen Yuan feels himself flush.

Way too familiar! Dear handsome man, we barely know each other!

“Uh-”

“I would like to help!”

“Um-” Earnest eyes shine back at him.

“I worked as Shuzin’s farmhand for years. It would be my honor to work alongside you to restore the farm and honor his memory.”

Well.

He really can’t say no to that, now can he?

_

Luo binghe is back bright and way too fucking early the next morning.

Like, seriously dude, the sky is still grey! The sun isn't even a-fucking-wake yet!

He barges into the bedroom and wakes up a ‘dead to the world’ Shen Yuan with a gentle voice saying something about how mornings are the best work time, midday heat, yadda yadda yadda-

He also brings breakfast and good lord, if the beautiful man softly guiding him to wakefulness could just stop being perfect for a minute that would be great for his little gay, half asleep, heart.

They don't have to walk very far to get to the actual farmland. Like maybe five minutes and over a bridge the covers a small creek to reach the flat plains that probably used to be farmlands. At the moment, nature seems to have reclaimed what was once hers and what appears to have been a chicken coop. Some bamboo stalks seem to have started growing wherever they please. It’s a little depressing to look at if he’s honest. Even Luo Binghe sighs.

“It didn’t use to be this bad. But after Shizun left town, I haven’t been allowed to work on it.” Shen Yuan nods, it makes sense not to want to trespass or anything.

“How long ago was that, if you don’t mind me asking?”

He gets a shrug, “I think maybe six or seven months.”

“Well, we certainly have our work cut out for us.”

“Shizun, I’ll take care of the bamboo and rocks if you mind the grass and stray wood.”

It’s quiet for a moment. Luo Binghe catches his slip.

“Ah, I’m sorry Shen Yuan. Um, it’s a force of habit.”

Shen Yuan adjusts his sunhat on his head. “It’s quite alright Luo Binghe. I miss him too.”

Luo Binghe stares at him for a moment longer- oh no is he crying- before turning away with a nod. With a swing of the axe, he begins to get to work. Shen Yuan stifles a sigh before adjusting the sickle in his hand to get a better grip. Then he begins to slice into the towering weeds.

Time seems to pass in a blur after that, but he only makes it an hour before his arms begin to ache. From doing just minimal housework to attempting to tame a field, he should have been taking breaks. Luo Binghe is still working, if the sounds of bamboo breaking are to be believed. So he takes a deep breath, telling himself 5 more minutes, and keeps swinging.

Five minutes turns into thirty-five more minutes and suddenly Shen Yuan is startled out of his intense concentration when a voice calls out.

A young girl and a boy are crossing the bridge onto the farmland. Luo Binge appears to know them, waving after setting more bamboo stalks onto a pile that he has slowly accumulated. Shen Yuan's pile of dried-out grass is just about the same size, so he can’t help but feel somewhat accomplished.

“A-Luo, I just knew you’d be here!” The girl has a teasing smile on her face. Luo Binghe just shrugs, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head.

As the two get closer, Shen Yuan realizes they’re not as young as he initially thought. The young man has a stern look to his plain face. The bubbly young woman has her hair done up in low, braided pigtails.

Luo Binghe motions to him, “Ming Fan, Ning Yingying, this is Shizun’s grandson Shen Yuan.”

She grins, “Well it’s nice to have a new company in town! It’s nice to meet you, Farmer!”

“Likewise, but my name Shen Yuan is just fine. No need to call me a farmer.”

“But you are a Farmer now, right?”

He laughs, “ask me again when I have items planted.”

Ming Fan looks around the farmland, frowning. “Things have gotten bad around here.”

Ning Yingying’s hand shoots into the air, “Okay, we’ll help out!”

Shen Yuan blinks, “Oh no, I can’t ask more you just to help.”

Ming Fan pulls out his phone, not bothering to look up. “Why not?” He shoots off a quick text.

“I really can’t properly compensate you all for your hard work.”

Luo Binghe smiles, “Shen Yuan, that isn’t how it works out here.”

“What do you mean?”

Ning Yingying picks up the discarded pickaxe. “It means, we help because we want to! Not for some silly reward.”

Shen Yuan blinks, “oh.”

“Yeah! Come on Farmer Shen, let’s get your field cleared up.”

_

People in the country, it turns out, are honest. Shen Yuan is struck by the sincerity of everyone here in this little town. Even more so when practically the whole town turns up not long after Ming Fan and Ning Yingying start helping.

He’s at a loss of what to do when first Liu Qingge arrives with a tow of teenagers behind him. Ming Fan had sent the man a text message, asking to bring extra hands. Ning Yingying explains that Liu Qingge is technically one of the few teachers in town, so he just brought the students with him. The group comes with their equipment and get to work under the stern man’s eye. Luo Binghe and he nodded to one another before each set to a task.

Shen Yuan starts to resume cutting the grass when one of the teens laughs- ‘Dude, you suck at this-’ Ning Yingying quickly coming to his defense. Liu Qingge silences the kid with a smack to the backside of his head. Luo Binghe wanders over, politely correcting Shen Yuan’s technique. The work continues much faster with their group, everyone seems to have much more energy than he does.

Ming Fan stops him at one point, saying it wouldn’t be good to overwork his body on Day One. Shen Yuan agrees to this, he’s the only one that seems to have broken a sweat, then notices even more people have arrived.

The village headman has come with three other adults following. Each of them seems to be carrying a basket of sorts.

Shen Yuan makes his way over to them.

“Hello, what brings you all here?”

The woman in the group laughs, “Wanted to meet the new Farmer Shen! Then name’s Qi Qingqi, I teach the kiddos at the school on Wednesdays home economics and stuff. I run the Inn in town.”

“Ah, It’s good to meet you.”

The headman moves to the side setting down a basket, with a polite nod to Shen Yuan.

A very tall man with a calming aura steps forward. “It’s nice to meet you, Shen Yuan.” He extends a hand, “I’m Mu Qingfang, the local doctor.” Shen Yuan dusts his hand on his faded jeans before shaking his hand.

“It’s nice to meet you too,” he offers a polite smile of his own.

The last person steps up, nervously wringing his hands. “Uh, hey... you probably don’t remember-”

“Shang Qinghua!?”

The man freezes, then breaks out in a grin. “Bro! You do remember me!”

Shen Yuan laughs, “Bro, how could I not! I haven’t seen you since that semester from hell.”

Shang Qinghua gives a full-body shudder, “We agreed never to speak of that semester again.”

Qi Qingqi throws an arm around Shang Qinghua’s shoulders. “So you two already know each other then?”

Shen Yuan can feel himself relax a bit more. “Yeah, we were roommates in college for a while there.”

Shang Qinghua nods, “You were the best roommate a guy for ask for during the transition from farm life to big city hell.”

“Hey, I knew my way around town and you kept me from accidentally giving myself food poisoning. It was a mutual relationship.”

Mu Qingfang raises an eyebrow as Qi Qingqi asks, “Food poisoning?”

“I used to eat a lot of junk food. Shang Qinghua taught me the wonders of a farmers market and better budgeting.” He doesn’t mention that he still eats stuff that's obviously bad for you from time to time. It’s okay, he works it off with morning yoga.

Qi Qingqi hums turning to Shang Qinghua. “Say, if I asked you to take a better look at the Inn’s expenses, would you?”

“Sure,” Shang Qinghua shrugs as best he can with her arm around his shoulder.

“Thanks Scarecrow.”

Shen Yuan sputters, “Scarecrow?”

“Bro, please don’t ask.”

Qi Qingqi winks his way. Oh he was totally gonna ask later.

Yue Qingyuan clears his throat, they all look his way. “I’m glad we got some introductions out of the way. Liu Qingge was with us when he canceled today’s lesson to bring the students here-” Mu Qingfang sighs- “So, we teachers thought it would be best to bring you all some lunch.”

The baskets are opened to reveal several bottled refreshments, apples, and a ton of steamed buns.

Shen Yuan stares at all the food.

Growing up in a perfectly manicured household had taught him that there were hidden intentions to everything. His little sister was nice to him for two whole days before she asked for a ride to the mall with her friends. His brother would play interest in his hobbies, then ask for him to come to sit in at a meeting neither of their parents could make it to. His cousin had tried to teach him that people were to be used to further yourself in society.

He has a perfectly crafted persona. One that is years in the making to hide the real parts of himself from people that would try to use him. Even his own family.

Shen Yuan looks up at the kind smiles of these fellow adults in front of him. He can hear the teenagers behind him working away and clearing the land. Luo Binghe can be heard laughing at something Ming Fan did while the latter begs Ning Yingying to not take pictures.

He can see why his grandfather never wanted to come back to the city.

Shen Yuan lets himself grin, whole and unhindered, putting away his beautiful mask.

“You guys are awesome.”

Mu Qingfang chuckles, “We’ve been told.”

_

As the afternoon changes to evening, Ming Fan and Ning Yingying volunteer to see the gaggle of teenagers home. Luo Binghe and the rest of the adults make their way to Shen Yuan’s home, the conversation light and flowing.

Small talk questions are exchanged and Shen Yuan gets to know his peers a little better.

Yue Qingyuan is the son of the former headman, as was his father before him and such. He knows the town better than anyone and keeps the community nicely balanced. His family is technically the landowners of the Valley, dating back to ancient times. It’s pretty impressive.

Liu Qingge, as when they first were introduced, in charge of the security of the town and its resident hunter. He is the head of the Guild in town that clears out the local mines and woods of any wild animals and creepy crawlers. On Fridays he teaches at the school, making sure the kids know basic trapping and tracking skills.

Shang Qinghua runs a carpentry business just outside or down. He uses knowledge from his architecture degree and family trade to try and help townsfolk save a penny. He teaches literature to the kids every Tuesday. The comment gives Shen Yuan war flashbacks to the giant bookcase of classic novels Shang Qinghua instead on keeping in the apartment.

Qi Qingqi is the owner of the town’s only inn, a very cozy yet large bed and breakfast. Her family used to do business with Shen Qingqiu, their food being cooked from his produce before his failing health put a stop to that. She mentions that she teaches in the school buildings on Wednesdays, making sure the kids in town know sewing and cooking so they won’t grow incompetent.

Mu Qingfang doubles as the town doctor and science teacher. He keeps his office open 24 hours as there are always accidents since people can't seem to keep from getting minor illnesses or injuries. He teaches sciences at the school every other Thursday. When asked what kind of science, he responds with a little of everything.

Luo Binghe moved to town from the city five years back, he now runs the general store with his friend Ning Yingying. His store also used to sell the produce the Shen Yuan’s grandfather once grew. He works at the school on Mondays and teaches math.

Shen Yuan holds up a hand, “Wait you mean to tell me these kids get their Mondays plagued with math?”

“Thanks,” Luo Binghe deadpans.

“I’m sorry, but that literally sounds like the worst combination possible. Child me would hate that, adult me hates the sound of that.”

Luo Binghe laughs, “The kids are quite adamant about continuing their education as far as they can, so we do our best. But it’s a struggle to get them to appreciate the complexity of numbers.”

Shen Yuan chooses to not point out that math is modern-day torture to him.

Instead he thinks back to his college applications, “I do have one question.”

The room looks to him. “If some of the students wish to continue with their academics, then extracurriculars are necessary to list. Do you have any of that offered at the school?”

Yue Qingyuan gives a thoughtful frown, “No, we don’t offer that.”

Shen Yuan sits up, “Then I’d like to offer myself as a teacher for the school.” All eyes are on him. “My nuclear family is very, well, posh. That’s putting it lightly. I’ve got years of musical lessons drilled into me, I can write a letter home to ask for my instruments and offer lessons for the students in town so they may add that to their high school or college applications.”

Mu Qingfang claps his hands together, “Oh that would be magnificent! You could teach on the days that I don’t hold science lessons.”

Yue Qingyuan gives him a look, “Would you have time for this?”

Shen Yuan nods, “I’ll make time for it, once the field is properly ready for plants, I can get a sprinkler system up and running-” Shang Qinghua nods, “I gotchu bro”- “before I have any seeds planted, it will leave me time for lessons for the school.”

The room all looks towards Yue Qingyuan, who seems to think on it for a tense minute before coming to a conclusion.

He looks up at Shen Yuan, “Then we are very fortunate that you have chosen to make Cang Qiong village your new home. Welcome to the teachers association Shen Yuan.”

He smiles in return, “Thank you for having me.”

Qi Qingqi grins, “I knew there was a good reason I brought a bottle of booze with me.”

Liu Qingge stares at her, “You didn’t.”

She pulls out a bottle from under a cloth at the bottom of her basket.

“Oh honey-” Liu Qingge sputters, ‘honey-’ “it’s like you don’t even know me. Let’s celebrate!”

_

He’s only missed the first three days of spring by the time the field is cleared; ready to be plowed and set with fertilizer. It’s not a small feat either. He truly owes it all to the students who were excited to have a ‘Spring Break’ (oh those poor sweet summer children) and help out their new music teacher. Luo Binghe has been a constant at his side as well, helping him get not only the farm but the house in order too. It’s now much cleaner and once his belongings showed up, it actually looks lived in.

Luo Binghe had looked surprised at all the anime merch in the boxes. Shen Yuan braced himself for some sort of ridicule or look, but instead been asked politely about what his favorite shows were. It was a nice surprise, considering his family had taken it upon themselves to constantly nag him about his interests over the years. So he gives a small explanation that somehow turns into a passionate monologue. After he was done, Luo Binghe had brought up putting together display cases in the office.

Honestly, it was such a simple suggestion but it was still super touching.

Once the wifi was set up, kitchen stocked (courtesy of Luo Binghe and Ning Yingying’s store), and furniture reassembled the estate started to feel like home. Which meant it was time to start focusing on his new source of income: The farm.

Now that he’s had a better look at it, and it was cleared of debris, the field itself is very promising farmland. A small pond sits closer to the deep creek that separates the huge estate from the plot of land in the east. A larger pond is located on the southern portion of the farm, as well as a pathway to what is the forest that the houses the Liu Ranch. The north and west of the farm are enclosed by cliff faces. A shallow cave was located in the north wall, seemingly empty and devoid of animals. There is a path near the cave that follows a trail north, it comes out near Shang Qinghua’s workshop by a great lake.

True to his word, Shang Qinghua really did have his back, and thanks to his own inheritance money, Shen Yuan was able to pay for the installation of a brand new sprinkler system. It didn’t cost as much as it could have, but considering the previous state of the farm, some upgrades were needed. Apparently, PVC pipes are the way of the future in plumbing.

His bro promised him that once he had the supplies for it, he would get to work on repairing the greenhouse and chicken coop. Shang Qinghua has also encouraged him to come to the workshop if he ever considered getting anything else built around the farm.

“You just want my money.”

“Hey man, I need to make a living too.”

What is notable, is that towards the corner of the northwest cliffs is a small family shrine. A trip to town is all he needs for some incense, then a quick word of prayer for his grandfather. Luo Binghe hadn’t actually been present at the farm that day, but after stopping in the shop at its opening and explaining his plan, the man immediately left the store to pay his respects. Ning Yingying also promised to come by later with his spring seed shipment.

Shen Yuan saw Luo Binghe off again sometime after 9 am, before making sure his hair was out of his face and getting to work.

It ends up taking a long time to layout six by six patches of fertilizer. The work is repetitive and mind-numbing. He’s gotten through setting up at least 12 groups of patches when his phone starts ringing from his back pocket.

He’s immediately irritated when he sees the caller ID.

Not even a second after he picks up he hears, “It wasn’t bad enough that you wasted your college years for an agriculture degree, now you’ve run off to be some common farmer-”

He hangs up.

Oh, it’s already noon. Damn, time flies.

The phone rings from the same caller again, he picks up again.

“YOU ACTUAL PIECE OF SHIT-”

He hangs up.

Maybe he should drink some water, he has been working for three hours now. He wanders over to the edge of the grove to sit in the shade. Unscrewing the lid of his bottle, Shen Yuan takes a nice long gulp of water.

“Farmer Shen!”

He looks over, to the direction of the voice. Luo Binghe and Ming Fan are crossing the bridge each holding two huge crates. He waves them over. The two of them stop to set down the crates closer to the field before approaching.

Shen Yuan smiles, “Would those happen to be my order of seeds?”

Ming Fan sits down on his left. “Yup, with all the land you’ve prepped so far, you should be able to get one crate’s worth in the ground today.”

“Oh that’s good to know.”

Luo Binghe sits on his right, “Farmer Shen, do you happen to have a scarecrow by chance?”

“Won’t I not need it until the plants are fully grown?”

“Not necessarily,” Ming Fan interjects. “Sometimes crows like to go for the seeds.”

Shen Yuan crosses his arms, “I see. Well, thanks for the heads up. I’ll look into making one tonight.”

Ming Fan shrugs, “No prob-”

Shen Yuan’s phone rings again.

He can’t stop the long, pained groan from coming out as he looks at the phone screen. It’s his cousin calling for a third time.

Luo Binghe blinks, leaning over to see the screen. “Are you getting a call from yourself?”

“No, my cousin just looks very similar to me.”

Ming Fan hums, “Creepy.”

Shen Yuan picks up the call, and after a split second decision of fuck it, puts it on speaker.

There’s silence on the opposite end.

Shen Yuan smirks, “Oh, are you done yelling at me now?”

“You’re pathetic. You can’t keep hanging up on me every time I start to-”

He hangs up.

Ming Fan snorts.

Shen Yuan decides to be a decent person again and calls back his cousin.

Shen Jiu immediately answers, “YOU-”

“Hi cousin, I’m doing good and loving my new life on my farm. Thanks for asking.”

There's a pause, then a sigh that comes across as static. “... Are you still eating well?”

“Yes, I’ve made sure to stock up on fewer starches and more veggies.”

“Hmm. Well, the real reason why I called was to let you know the office gave me a free weekend at towards the end of spring.”

“I see, I’m happy you have some time off. Did you book a trip to your favorite day spa?”

“No, which is why I expect the farm to be in top shape when I stay the weekend on the Twenty-First.”

“Wha-”

“Make it worth my time.” The call ends.

Luo Binghe is staring at the phone. “I can’t tell if your cousin is upset at you or concerned for you.”

Shen Yuan shrugs, “Fuck if I know.”

_

Ming Fan was right about his estimate and it’s evening by the time Shen Yuan drags himself and the remaining crate back to the estate.

He’s got to look into getting a storage shed is built on the farmland. And maybe a nice shaded gazebo by the small pond. Oh, a deck by the larger pond would be a good idea for hosting the townsfolk too.

He kicks off his shoes in the entryway, leaving them haphazardly laying there. After a quick shower to soothe his back, he dries the water off his body. Shen Yuan slings the towel over his head, rubbing at his short hair as he walks down the hall to his room to grab clean clothes and briefs.

Once he’s fully dressed, he makes his way over to the office to take stalk of the bamboo bundles, clay, and stone that would probably be required to get all three of those projects started.

“Famer Shen-”

Shen Yuan does not shriek but it’s a damn near thing. Heart racing, he spins around in his chair to see, surprise surprise, Luo Binghe.

“I’m so sorry,” Luo Binghe looks very apologetic. “I didn’t mean to startle you-”

Shen Yuan shakes his head “It’s fine, just gave me a bit of a scare.”

Luo Binghe looks down, “I’m so sorry. The door was open and Ning Yingying realized we forgot to give you the cauliflower seeds you had ordered. So I just let myself in, but I didn't mean to intrude or frighten you-”

“Luo Binghe.”

“I- yes?”

Shen Yuan smiles his way, “You’re never an intruder. Just as my grandfather always welcomed you, as will I.”

Luo Binghe stares at him, so Shen Yuan keeps going. “Feel free to come by whenever you wish. Just, uh, let me know when you’re here please.”

Tears swell in Luo Binghe’s eyes and immediately Shen Yuan feels panic. “Uh-”

The guy bows at a ninety-degree angle. “Thank you for your kindness Farmer Shen!”

“Please, there’s no need-”

“There is! I need to apologize for any misconceptions I had of you previously.” Luo Binghe looks up at him, still bowing. “I had been worried that whoever inherited Shen Qingqiu’s land would be disrespectful to his grandfather’s name or sell it out to the highest bidder. You’ve completely proved me wrong, you are truly as kind as your grandfather!”

Shen Yuan is a little at a loss for words.

Luo Binghe looks back down. “Also, I apologize for seeing you naked earlier.”

He finds his voice. “What-

“Your body is more toned than I thought-”

“Please stop talking.”

_

Although Luo Binghe has now seen his naked body (“in passing-” “that’s not any better!”) things between them stay friendly. If anything, they’ve grown closer because now Luo Binghe is dropping by every day for lunch. The only days he doesn’t stop by are Mondays, since that’s his turn to teach at the school.

Speaking of school, the first music lesson with the children turns out to be a huge success. The older children who are determined to do well throw themselves into the lessons wholeheartedly. Yue Qingyuan is present the whole time, to prevent any misbehaving he had explained, but there turned out to be no worry for that. The children are all ensnared in his demonstrations and explanations. He only has his violin, guqin, and an ocarina (that he may or may not have learned specifically because of a certain video game series). So after his demos, he decides to see who would be willing to learn how to read music. Gotta start with the basics after all.

It ends up being a good filter for the students, those who don’t wish to make the long commitment to music give their apologies after the lessons. Those who do ask for the beginners' booklet he had photocopied and mass printed for handouts. An older woman sitting in the back of the room comes forward asking if he wouldn’t mind another student, Shen Yuan can’t help but happily agree.

He skims through the booklet, then asks her to wait a moment so he can print up a copy with a larger font for her to read. She happily agrees to wait, Yue Qingyuan moving to sit next to her and keep her company.

The school building is just a glorified community center cabin. The building itself is huge, with plenty of space for the entire town perhaps. It may be a small town but that’s saying something. The school sits on top a hill overlooking the town, a playpark built right next to it and a nice water fountain as well. It’s a pretty nice setup, the builders knew what they were doing.

Shen Yuan leaves the single classroom and enters the left-wing of the building. The end of the hallway opens to a large kitchen with tables, which is where the children are treated to lunch and on Wednesdays be given cooking lessons. He walks past a door on the right of the hall that's marked pantry out into the large main hall. A central fireplace is dominant along the back wall and seating areas are set up in each of the corners in the room, except for the northeast corner which has a very impressive aquarium set up.

Down the right hall is a bulletin board with reminders and assignments posted. The office down that hall is technically the staff room. Since one teacher works for the school a day, there’s only one big desk and office chair. Shen Yuan heads for the giant copy machine and gets to work magnifying the booklet. There’s a file cabinet in the corners with keyholes, each one has a teacher’s name on it, marking it as their own for lesson plans and such. The building also has free wifi, so that’s a plus.

The owner of the library in town, Mobei Jun, doesn’t believe in wifi. So, most of the older students who wanted to get out of the house just stuck around in the one building in two with free wifi. Pretty good setup to keep an eye on them too.

Yue Qingyuan and the older woman, who asks to be called Granny, meet him back in the main hall. She then goes over to one of the sitting areas to start practicing reading.

The headman then leads him back to the office, closing the door behind them.

“I’ll admit,” Yue Qingyuan starts. “That went better than I expected.”

Shen Yuan slumps into a chair facing the desk, “I’m so glad it went as well as it did.” There’s exhaustion in his voice.

Yue Qingyuan laughs, “I take it you were worried about the lesson?”

“Extremely.”

There’s another laugh, “I don’t think you need to be, the students seem to like you well enough.”

“I think I’ve snagged about fifteen of them.”

“Yes, we can talk about getting proper instruments for them with the community funds later.”

“What,” Shen Yuan sits up. “No that’s alright, I was the one who suggested the class. I have my own money that I can use for the classes.”

The suggestion gets waved away. “You don’t need to worry about that, we take care of our students here in town. You will be getting compensated pay for this as well.”

“That’s not necessary-”

“It is.” He’s leveled with a look of authority. “I make sure all of our staff are paid their dues. You will be getting the same wage as Mu Qingfang since you’re both only working every other week.”

“That’s very kind of you Sir-”

“Shen Yuan please, you’re not my underling at some corporation. The teachers association works together not for each other.”

“Then thank you Shixiong.”

“Better.”

Shen Yuan shifts in his seat, “If you don’t mind me asking, how do you get the funding to keep all of this running?”

“Well, a good portion of it is from parent’s donations. They want to be sure their children have the opportunity to get into good schools. Some high schoolers here do community to and from the nearest government-funded school. Some stay to help their own families out on costs. But this center is open to all who live here in town, those who come home on the weekends usually receive tutoring here. Oh but, uh, you asked about funding. Some of it also comes from my own family’s business.”

Shen Yuan leans forward, “What’s your family business then?”

“We grow coffee beans here in the valley. Then send most of them off to the roasters and food companies to be rebranded. Most of the townsfolk here work at the factory.”

“Wait, so you’re a CEO?”

“In a sense, yes. But being headman comes first, school principal second, and then Boss last.”

“Does your wife run the factory while you’re away?”

Yue Qingyuan let’s out a hearty laugh, “Oh no, the only thing I’m married to are my jobs. My employees are smart, they know not to burn anything down while I’m gone.” He sighs, “It will probably stay that way, much to my father’s charging.”

“Hey, sometimes your single and just not ready to mingle.”

There’s another laugh, “That’s the story of my life.”

_

As he’s leaving town he gets stopped by Mu Qingfang, who waves him into his small practice. It looks very much like a small doctor’s office, and he gets invited into the back room for tea.

The Doctor has circles under his eyes.

Shen Yuan thanks him for the tea, then comments on this.

He gets a sigh, “Yes, there was a sighting last night of something near the mines.”

“Something?”

“Yes, not quite sure what it was, but for some reason Liu-shidi had the excellent idea of fighting it at 2 am last night.”

Shen Yuan sits up in alarm “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine, I had to give him a few stitches. But that man, I swear. ”

“Stitches?”

“Yes, he’ll have another scar to add to the collection.” Mu Qingfang takes a sip of tea. “He’s always been like this though, rushing headfirst into action. It seems that Liu-shidi is not one of those people who mellows with age.”

“What happened to the animal he fought?”

“Well, he killed it. Thankfully, one of his students had the foresight to call in his sister.”

“Liu-shidi has a sister?”

“Yes, she typically runs the family ranch. Anyway, the reason I’m telling you all of this is just to give you a heads up. Watch out for snakes or wild animals on your farm. Consider putting up some fences to keep them out. You just moved here and I’d rather not see you get hurt, Farmer Shen.”

“I appreciate that, thank you- ah Mu-shidi.”

He gets a soft smile for that. “Oh, do you happen to have a first aid kit?”

“No-”

“Well, that won't do. Come with me, I’ll be sure you’re properly sorted.”

_

Friday morning he gets a message from Qi Qingqi inviting him to the Inn for Friday Night drinks. His plans for the day just included setting up his handmade scarecrow (thank you online tutorials) and getting in the rest of the seeds. He’s done with the task before noon and gets to spend his day relaxing until the evening comes by.

Well, Binghe drops by and the two of them have their usual nice chat over lunch. But that’s about all he does, and his aching muscles are thanking him for a day off.

It’s 9 PM when he walks into the Inn for the first time. The girl working the reception desk walks him to the backroom, which happens to be a huge bar. The atmosphere is dimmed in comparison to the rest of the Inn, but there are lowlights under the counter and it’s bright enough that you can’t call the room dark. Qi Qingqi is working the counter and waves him over to a corner.

“Heya Farmer Shen.”

“Evening Qi-Shimei.”

She smiles, but this isn’t one of her usual smiles. This one is thin and calculating. “Okay, what’s your poison?”

“A Whiskey Sour.”

“Oh, strong but sweet. I respect that.” She winks his way and starts to make the drink. Shen Yuan takes a moment to look at all the liquor bottles along the wall behind her. There’s various types of liquor along the wall, some bottles of champaign, a good selection of wine. There are only two types of beer available, both of which are a standard commercial brand.

He makes a note of that for an Idea he has tucked away.

Qi Qingqi slides his drink to him, “You want me to open up a tab for you?”

He takes a tentative sip. It’s a perfect balance of the hint of whiskey fire with the sweet yet sour tag of lemon.

“Oh definitely.”

She laughs, also handing him a glass of water.

They chat here and there for a moment before more townsfolk wander in for the night.

Shen Yuan is nursing his drink when someone drops down in the stool beside him. He glances over then nearly chokes on his whiskey. An incredibly handsome man is now sitting next to him. His aura can only be described as chilling at best, long black hair tied up and his lose muscle tank top leaves little to the imagination. There is a tattoo sleeve on one of his thick muscular arms. It depicts a wild yet detailed ice blue dragon.

Qi Qingqi walks over with a drink in hand, setting it in front of the newcomer. “Gin and tonic, the way you like it.”

The man nods, taking a long sip.

She looks between the two of them. “Farmer Shen, meet head Librarian Mobei Jun. Mobei Jun, be nice to Farmer Shen.” Then she walks off to the other end of the bar.

This town is just set on destroying his set idea of stereotypes isn’t it.

Mobei Jun turns a little more to face him, “Farmer Shen.”

“Yes it’s nice to meet you-”

“You’re the one who looked after Shang Qinghua while he was away.”

Shen Yuan blinks, “Oh, yeah, we became friends after being assigned as roommates.”

The man stares at him, “Friends?”

Is he not happy about that? Maybe his bro exaggerated their friendship a bit once he moved back home.

“Yeah, I guess you could call us best friends though? He kept me from going broke and I kept him from going insane.”

Mobei Jun nods, “I know.”

“You do?”

Another nod, “Scarecrow was worried when he left for school. He called home frequently.” Mobei Jun looks him in the eye. “The calls became happy when he met you. Thank you.”

He gets the feeling that he’s being thanked for more than just keeping his bro focused on his studies.

Shen Yuan smiles to him, “He’s a good guy, couldn’t ask for a better friend.”

This seems to appease something in Mobei Jun because the corners of his eyes crinkle just a bit. They both take a long sip of their drinks.

Shen Yuan gets an idea, “Hey.”

Mobei Jun raises an eyebrow in question.

“I’ll tell you some college stories if you tell me the story behind the scarecrow nickname.”

Mobei Jun is not a very expressive guy, but having a childhood's worth of experience of getting to read people helps Shen Yuan out. There’s a glint of humor and interest in his eyes.

Qi Qingqi is immediately in front of them. “That's a deal Farmer Shen! Now finish your drink and spill the tea.”

10:30 PM sees Shang Qinghua staring at a shit-faced Mobei Jun, Qi Qingqi howling with laughter, and Shen Yuan doing his best to finish a story under the influence of alcohol. Then Shen Yuan spots him standing at the entrance.

“H-Hey! Scarecrow!!”

Mobei Jun gives a half-wave while Qi Qingqi enthusiastically waves him over. “Scarecrow come join us!”

His face is pure red, “You lying sneaks promised!” He marches right over to their section of the counter.

Mobei Jun sorta smiles at Shang Qinghua and that’s how he knows the man is drunk. “But your best friend asked.”

Qi Qingqi nods, “And he was telling us so many interesting stories.”

Shang Qinghua whips his head towards Shen Yuan, “Bro-”

“I told, mmm, I told them the toothpaste one.”

“WHAT!?”

“Oh, Oh- oh wait, I was telling about- them about that one time you got mistaken-” He stops and laughs. “Mistaken for a homeless man in the library.”

“IT WAS FINALS WEEK, EVERYONE LOOKS LIKE SHIT DURING FINALS.”

Shen Yuan leans in to mock whisper to Mobei Jun, “I had to bail him out of prison.”

“One: It was a detention center. Two: you didn’t pay shit, and Three: it didn’t go on my record!”

Mobei Jun slings his arm around Shen Yuan’s neck, they both sway a little. He’s looking at Shang Qinghua though as he says, “I like this one. He, He looks after you when I can’t.”

Shang Qinghua puts his face in his hands as Qi Qingqi laughs.

_

There starts to be a routine to Shen Yuan’s life.

Monday’s become Me-day’s. No one comes by the estate to talk and after Shen Yuan goes through his morning chores it is his to enjoy and relax. This can be anything from a nice face mask, to catching up on weekly anime shows. The main rule for Monday is that aside from being on the farm, he doesn’t leave the estate. It’s his day for himself.

Tuesdays and Fridays are pretty much the same, beginning with a run through morning chores starting at 6 AM. He’s been working on and off on laying out a deck by the big pond while Shang Qinghua and his crew fix up his greenhouse and chicken coop. He ordered two nice big storage sheds online. He sets one up near the entrance to the farm, it will be storage for tools, construction, and seeds. The other gets set up along the cliffs of the west end of the farm, where he left a small grove of bamboo artfully growing. That one is going to house a project he’s decided to pursue.

He spends his days maintaining the newly set up fencing around the plains to prevent wild animals from getting in. The home improvement channel proves to be useful since he’s able to learn how to make basic wooden brazier to set up near each of the three entryways, the cave, and the back shed. The flame from these proves to ward off animals that aren’t fond of the smoke.

Wednesday's are either lesson planning days or researching for said project. Luo Binghe seems to think that his up to something, but he won’t confess what it is yet until the project actually yields results. He’s forbidden from touching the yeast that’s started fermenting in the back of the fridge, no matter how much he wrinkles his nose at it.

Thursdays are project days or school days. Lessons seem to be going well for the students with their sight-reading. True to his word, Yue Qingyuan gets the school music stands and new instruments. There’s a strict rule that only music students may touch them to prevent any damage being done.

Just as his first harvest is coming in, he gets cornered by both Ning Yingying and Qi Qingqi. Both of them want to reestablish their old contracts for his produce. They also both look as if they will kill him if he says no. It’s fine because he’s not exactly sure what else he would do with 65 heads of cauliflower among his 45 parsnips and that’s not even counting the green beans growing in the bunch.

He happily signs away his vegetables. Just because he grew it doesn’t mean he’s going to eat it all.

Midway through spring the town holds a spring festival, centered around eggs. It’s a unique event, mostly for the children of the town. Qi Qingqi happily supplies the event with the food, eggs provided by the Liu Ranch. At the event, he is introduced to Liu-shidi’s sister, Liu Mingyan. She appears to be lovely in appearance, with a fondness for decorative flu masks. It makes him think of old gangster girls in the city. Except her mask is way too cute for there to be anything threatening about it. Her eyes make him willing to bet that she’s just as capable of pain as her brother.

So does the beauty mark.

Shen Yuan eventually finds Luo Binghe during the big scavenger hunt for the kids. He asks Luo Binghe if he cooked anything for the event and gets a laugh.

“Farmer Shen, I like to live in peace too.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Qi-Shishu would kill me if she found out I was the better chef.”

It startles a laugh out of him.

The rest of the event passes without incident. Things settle down to a quiet routine.

Then his cousin fucks it all up.

Typical.

_

It’s pretty windy for a spring day when Shen Jiu arrives on Friday. It’s causing some of the flowers from the jasmine ivy growing around town the scatter into the wind. He sort of expects his cousin to arrive at the end of spring in his usual business wear as he steps off the train.

He doesn’t and Shen Yuan won’t lie, he’s a little disappointed.

Shen Jiu walks off the train in a pair of designer faded jeans, his long hair in beachy waves and a light green v-neck shirt. He could be a magazine model for summer casual.

He lowkey hates him.

Shen Jiu walks right up to him, “Wow, you actually look happy.”

He waits for the stinger.

“It suits you.”

Aw, okay, he loves his cousin. He grins at him.

“Oh my god I take it back.”

“No take backsies.”

“Fuck off.”

“Nah, it suits me.”

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes. Shen Yuan fake-out trips him as they walk.

All is well, they’re walking down that main street carrying Shen Jiu’s two bags (holy shit, it’s only two! He must be in a good mood.) It’s good, right up to the point Yue Qingyuan walks out of the general store.

Yue Qingyuan stops, then Shen Jiu stops, and it’s like a scene from one of Shang Qinghua’s cheesy romance novels.

Something something, eyes widen, a halo of sunlight, there’s probably a gentle breeze that makes their hair wave or whatever, some flower petals in the air nonsense. Shen Yuan was there and you could tell him angels were shitting rainbows in the background because it was so gay. He’d just shrug and say probably.

Anyway, it was apparently 'love at first sight'.

Yue Qingyuan made his way over to introduce himself. His cousin shamelessly flirts back, while batting his eyelashes. Then the head man flirts back and Shen Yuan has to take a moment because Shen Jiu is flustered? Excuse me?

The man carved from jade himself? Blushing.

The world has ended.

Shen Yuan all but drags his cousin by the arm away from the mysterious force that is Yue Qingyuan, saying something about long travels and resting.

Shen Jiu whispers, “thanks.”

Oh my actual god.

He needs a drink right now.

_

Things happen not long after that.

Things like his cousin having a whirlwind of a flirtation with the most influential guy in town. Things like his cousin going on dates where he’s not a whiny little shit and actually somewhat smiles. Things like everyone in town losing their minds over Yue Qingyuan falling hard for some city boy.

This all happens in the span of three days.

The teachers association as an emergency meeting on Monday, the day after Sunday where Shen Yuan had tried to see his cousin off at the station. Emphasis on tried because Yue Qingyuan had also come by and it turned into some weirdly reserved version of a ‘Call me by your name’ last goodbye bullshit.

You have each other's phone numbers!! Video chats are a thing! Chill!!

Yue Qingyuan isn’t at the meeting, because he’s currently being helped by the younger kids at the school. Apparently, the man has only owned an ancient Nokia phone his whole life. When Shen Jiu commented that he would be sad about being unable to snapchat him, the man had gone out of his way to upgrade to the latest model iPhone immediately. So, he was currently being taught all the in’s and out’s of smartphone 101.

Meanwhile, all of the teachers are holed out in the staff room office standing around the one desk in the room. It turns out no one is particularly fond of Shen Jiu for suddenly winning the heart of the town’s golden boy. Man.

Whatever.

Shen Yuan is trying to play devil's advocate.

“Listen, I have never seen my cousin fall this hard over another person before either.”

Liu Qingge frowns, “He’s a bit of an ass.”

“Oh, you’re not wrong. But I’m not gonna get in the way of their ... thing.”

Mu Qingfang holds up a hand, “We aren’t asking you to, we only wish to know a few more details about your cousin. It will help appease some of the other townsfolk in town who are less than pleased with your cousin.”

“Like what?”

“Like his occupation, his standing on specific policies-”

Qi Qingqi interrupts, “If he’s a gold digger.”

Mu Fang smacks her arm, “That’s crude but yes. If he’s just after his money.”

Luo Binghe speaks up at this point. “People’s real concerns are if Shen Jiu is only after Yue Qingyuan for his money, and he somehow gets it, how it would affect the coffee company. Their livelihoods are all dependent on their boss being able to pay them.”

It’s quiet for a moment in the room.

Shanq Qinghua, who has said nothing this whole time, realizes what’s about to happen the second he sees Shen Yuan take a moment to breathe. He sees the muscles in his neck relax and his face goes clean of any emotion. The Shen family, as he’s met them all, are known for two things. Their money and their temper.

Shang Qinghua has only seen this happen maybe once or twice before. One time it was on his behalf, another had been directed at him and the aftermath had not been pretty, leaving their friendship strained for a solid month. It was enough for him to memorize the signs. He shrinks behind Mu Qingfang.

Shen Yuan smiles. It sends fear through his heart.

“So, to get a better understanding, let me rephrase this. The town is worried. About some simple flirting from a stranger. Over a relationship, they have no business making theirs. Not for the concern of the well being of this young man who has lived in the town his whole life. But over his money.”

Qi Qingqi frowns, “well-”

“His family business that he was born and raised to take over. That, according to several past conversations, he spends all his free time on maintaining and looking over to ensure it’s run at a fair capacity to his employees. The same man, who maintains the entire village out his own funds for the town. Who started a school because he wanted to help his community because he cares for people so much. You’re telling me, that everyone is worried he would sign all of that away to a man he just met three days ago.”

Liu Qingge won’t look him in the eye.

Luo Binghe shifts, “Look we just don’t know-”

“Then allow me to educate you, we are in a school after all. My cousin has his pride but he’s no villain. He worked his way out of poverty when his parents passed, got shuffled around the foster system for years before my aunt was made aware her estranged sister had passed. Come to find out, he maintained two jobs during his entire middle school education to pay for tuition himself. The foster homes he had been assigned to used him as nothing but a welfare check. Even after he was reunited with us he stayed guarded, careful, and weary over being given the slightest item he didn’t feel that he had earned. Shen Jiu does not take handouts, he works for his dues.”

Mu Qingfang starts, “We weren’t aware-”

“No, you were all too worried about yourselves.”

Shen Yuan leaves the room.

_

He feels a little bad about blowing up at everyone. Shen Jiu maybe a bit of an ass, but having his character questioned right in front of him was something he would not stand for.

For better or worse he does love his cousin.

He expects this to drag on and goes off to the second shed to throw himself at setting up the beginnings of his new project. All the supplies have arrived and since summer is just around the corner, it means that once the hops, malt, and wheat are fully grown he can finally take a crack at brewing his own beer.

It’s something that’s always seemed kinda fun. He knew enough about plants to grow the right crops. College had been fun because he had taken a course on the science of brewing for an elective and had a blast. His old notes and textbook now reside in this little shed with him. He just has to make sure everything is properly set up for it.

The shed looks like some sort of science experiment slash construction site. It’s kinda funny to look at, but right now it’s his baby. And a nice distraction. He spends a solid 4 hours inside the room. It makes up for the lost time he missed when his cousin had been staying over.

By 1 pm Shen Yuan is making his way over to his place, deciding to warm up some leftovers for lunch. Instead, voices reach his ear, his walk slowing as he approaches the bridge.

He hears Luo Binghe’s voice before he sees him.

He really didn’t expect to see Luo Binghe since it is Monday. But as he’s walking over the bridge to the house he sees not only Binghe but the rest of the teachers sheepishly standing in front of the gate to his home.

Shang Quinghua is at the front of the pack shuffling his feet. “Look, if he doesn’t want to see us then we are not gonna force him to.”

Luo Binghe’s irritated voice rises. “But he’s not at the farm. What if Farmer Shen is hurt inside?”

Shang Qinghua runs a hand through his hair. “Dude, that’s a little extreme-”

Liu Qingge hangs up his phone, “Not in the mines or by the lake.”

Mu Qingfang wrings his hands, “No one saw him by the river bed either.”

Qi Qingqi starts stretching. “Okay, we break down the door.”

Shang Qinghua protests, frantically looking everywhere. His eyes land on him.

“Bro! You’re alive!”

Everyone turns around then, to see Shen Yuan standing there in his sweaty glory.

“Uh, hey?”

Luo Binghe’s face goes through several complex expressions before settling on livid. “Where the hell were you? We all checked everywhere!”

Shen Yuan points over his shoulder, dumbfounded. “The shed.”

“I ran inside the shed, you weren’t there!”

“Er, I was in the back shed, the one by the cliffs.”

“You...” Luo Binghe falters, “...there’s a second shed?”

“Yeah. It’s a mess.”

They all stand there as the wind picks up.

Shen Yuan dusts his hands on his pants. “So, uh, I’m gonna go inside now.....”

Mu Qingfang quickly steps forward. “No, wait. Shen Yuan, I need to apologize.”

Qi Qingqi moves to MU Qingfang's side, “So do I.”

Liu Qingge steps forward to his other side. “I’m sorry.”

Luo Binghe looks exhausted, “We didn’t mean to offend you, or your cousin. We jumped to some pretty harsh conclusions. I’m sorry Farmer Shen.”

Shen Yuan takes in their apologies then voices the thought’s he came to two hours ago. “You’re not the only ones at fault. I jumped to conclusions too and took things a little too far as well. I shouldn’t have gotten so defensive over your questions. I’m also sorry.”

Shang QingHua stands between the “Soooo, forgive and forget?”

Shen Yuan gives a tired smile, “Yeah, forgive and forget.”

Luo Binghe and Mu Qingfang seem to sink in relief, while Qi Qingqi and Liu Qingge stand a little straighter. It’s like watching a weight get removed from someone else’s shoulders, but Shen Yuan Feels it too.

Shang Qinghua pat’s his arm. Shen Yuan accepts it. Then something occurs to him: It’s Monday.

“Wait. Luo Binghe, if you’re here, who’s supervising the students?”

Luo Binghe frowns, “I left Liu-shixiong...” He looks over at Liu-shidi, who’s standing to his right.

Liu Qingge points to Qi Qingqi, “I left you in charge.”

Qi Qingqi looks towards Mu Qingfang, who in response looks at Shang QingHua

The adults stand there in silence.

A bird caws in distance.

No one is watching the kids.

All six of them sprint back to town.

Somehow, Shen Yuan is at the front of the pack when the group, sweaty and winded, reach the community center.

Inside the main hall is Yue Qingyuan, surrounded by a pack of teenagers.

“So, the smiley face is bad?”

“Yes, it’s passive-aggressive!”

Yue Qingyuan looks confused, “what if I type it you instead of using an emoji?”

“Sir, no offense, but that’s worse.”

“How is that worse?”

There’s a collective sigh of relief among the teachers.

Mu Qingfang sighs, “I only see one student here today.”

_

The argument gets officially put behind them all at the Spring Flower Dance.

It’s more of a formal festival than the Egg one was. This festival has historical ties to the Village's folklore. Where, apparently, many years ago a drought-plagued the valley all of spring. The lack of rain during the majority of the season had become so worrisome, that people were fearing starvation if this continued into summer. Unbeknown to the village was that this drought was being caused by a demon who lived under the nearby mountain.

Then as spring began to draw to a close, a lovely young woman decided to perform a rain dance, until her feet bleed, to appease the gods for rain. The smell of her blood was so intoxicating that it drew the demon out from under the mountain. When he saw the young woman, with looks as delicate as a pure blossom and graced the resilience of ivy his heart was stolen. He was so enraptured with her performance, her determination to bring rain to her people despite the pain that was surely being caused by the action, that he failed to notice how much time had passed.

The legend goes that once the sunset, the woman finally collapsed, and so did the will of the demon to hold back the water. Rain poured from the heavens as he drove forward to catch the dancer. The demon saw his negligence had caused her to dance until she was at death’s doorstep. The woman’s last words were that of thanks to the stranger as she passed away in his arms.

The demon, so moved by the thanks as he was the cause of the problem, used all of his magic to safeguard the woman's soul. Their energies intertwined and all that was left of the two of them was that of a Jasmine plant.

It is custom for the village, on the last week of spring, to perform a rain dance in honor of the young woman. Afterward, a feast is held in respect of the demon who learned mercy.

Mu Qingfang explains this all the one Friday evening, three days before the festival to Shen Yuan in his house.

The two of them are having tea on the porch after eating dinner together.

“So,” Shen Yuan starts. “Is that why there’s so much jasmine ivy growing all over the village?”

Mu Qingfang takes a sip of tea. “That’s part of it. Another part is that Jasmine is simply difficult to remove once it’s attached to something. Fortunately, it smells nice... and makes great tea.”

A cricket chirps in a bush nearby.

Another question occurs to Shen Yuan. “Will I have to learn the dance for the festival?”

“Oh no, considering you’ve never been to one before it’s best if you just attend to enjoy it this time. Maybe next year, if you wish, we can find someone to teach you the ceremonial dance.”

“So who performs the dance?”

“Well, all able-bodied adults draw lots for the right to perform.” He sighs, “This year will be Liu-shidi and I dancing. I will be performing the rain dance while Liu-shidi acts the role of the demon.”

“You don’t sound too excited about it?”

Another sigh, “Shen Yuan, can I tell you something?”

“Of course.”

“Liu-shidi can’t dance for shit.”

Shen Yuan barks out a laugh. “Oh no.”

“Oh yes. My feet have been wrapped in compresses this whole week. He keeps stepping on them.”

Shen Yuan cannot stop laughing, “Oh Mu-shidi no!”

“I know he doesn’t mean to do it, but this entire ordeal is very taxing on me. Trust the village brute to be the one to cause the doctor injures.” The sentence is said with humor, a smile on the calm man’s face.

Shen Yuan thinks for a moment. “You know, I bought a spa jet massager for my feet when I first started working in the fields. If you want I can let you borrow it.”

“Shen Yuan.”

“Yes?”

“You’re my new best friend.”

He laughs and sends Mu-shidi away for the evening, wishing him and his feet luck.

The next day, on a stroll to the lake to try his hand at fishing, he runs into Liu-shidi. He’s practicing the dance in a small grove, tucked away between the trees. He looks very frustrated.

“Good morning Liu-shidi.”

The man looks up at him for a moment and gives him a nod.

Deciding to leave him to it, Shen Yuan set’s up on a downed log nearby. After ensuring his bait is secure he gives it a good toss into the water. It lands a little on the shallow side, but deep enough for him to leave it cast out.

The morning continues, birds giving their morning calls in the distance. Small critters rustle in the brush, no doubt looking for their breakfast.t Some bushes still have salmonberries growing on them, no doubt the animals will pick them clean before summer starts.

Shen Yuan sits there for a time. There’s no bite on his line yet. Then he hears some rustling and feels someone drop next to him on the log. A quick glance reveals Liu-shidi, wearing a conflicted expression.

Shen Yuan waits.

Liu-shidi finally speaks a few minutes later. His voice is tight, “I keep hurting him.”

He doesn’t need to say who him is.

Liu-shid folds his hands in his lap. “I worked to be strong to protect. He worked to be smart to heal. We... we usually make a good team.”

Shen Yuan stares out at the lake. “You feel out of sync with him.”

“Yes.”

“Is this new?”

“It...” Liu-shidi hesitates. “No. It’s, it’s been happening more frequently. But it, we used to be so in balance. I’m not sure what’s happened.”

“Can I ask, when did you first start noticing this?”

“This past fall. A black bear was looking for food for hibernation. Got to close to town. I went out to scare it off.”

Liu Qingge moves, pulling the hem of his shirt up a bit. Shen Yuan looks over, then has to bite back a gasp. There are harsh, white scars- claw marks- stretching from his right pectoral, traveling down to his.left hip. He pulls the shirt back down.

“I’ve been hurt before. But I’ve never seen him so scared like when he saw the scratch.”

Shen Yuan feels very tempted to point out that’s no simple scratch.

“He yelled at me,” Liu-shidi continues. “Called me reckless. Stupid. We didn’t talk for a bit.”

There’s a bob on the fishing line and both their heads snap up to the lake. When no more movement occurs the two of them relax, slouching back onto the log.

Shen Yuan licks his lips. “The two of you have been out of sync since then?”

“Yes.” Liu-shidi frowns, “I hate it. I...”

Shen Yuan waits.

“I miss how close we used to be.”

Shen Yuan takes his time to think. Mu Qingfang very clearly cares for Liu Qingge’s well being. He’s willing to bet that they grew up together here in town. That Liu-shidi has always had a knack for collecting scrapes and bruises. Mu Qingfang has said so once, in one of their earlier conversations. If he was a betting man, he’d put money on the fact that child Mu-shidi became a doctor because his friend kept getting himself hurt.

It almost sounds romantic.

Then it occurs to him that it might very well be romantic.

He blurts out, “You miss him.”

“But I see him every day.”

Shen Yuan takes a gamble. “You know what I mean Liu-shidi.”

It’s quiet, out at the early morning by the lake.

Liu Qingge sighs, hanging his head. His voice is quiet as he murmurs, “I miss him.”

Holy shit it is romantic.

“I think you should tell him. Talk it out.”

Liu Qingge hesitates, “I’m not sure that would be best.”

Shen Yuan thinks for a moment then decides on his plan of attack. “You were fine fighting a bear, but you’re too scared to talk to your crush?”

Liu-shidi stiffens, “It’s not-!” Then he stops. Shen Yuan can practically see the cogs turning in the man’s head.

Then Liu-shidi blushes.

“Oh.”

Shen Yuan feels smug. “Mhmm.”

They sit there on the log for a moment longer. Then, Liu Qingge jolts upright. There’s a look of pure determination on his cherry-red face.

“I’m going to fix this.”

Shen Yuan nods, “Go get 'em, tiger.”

Liu-shidi nods in return, then stalks off into the woods.

He hears about it later from Qi Qingqi, who had been in Mu Qingfang’s office to buy some painkillers.

Liu Qingge had marched into the office, right up to Mu Qingfang who had been standing at the counter, grabbed his hands and basically yelled ‘I like you’ to the man.

There’s no misinterpreting a situation like that.

She goes onto say that Mu-shidi became incredibly flustered and started shouting stuff like: ‘Don’t just come into my office and say stuff like that!’ and ‘Have some tact!’ and a ‘You’re stupid’ before ripping his hands free and pulling Liu Qingge up by the shirt to kiss him.

Qi Qingqi wipes a fake tear from her eye as she leans on the counter of her bar. “It was the most romantic shit I'd ever seen.”

Shang Qinghua laughs next to Shen Yuan, who takes a sip from his whiskey cocktail.

Mobei Jun asks, “Then what?”

“Then when they stopped kissing, the dumbass goes ‘so does that mean you like me?’ and Mu Qingfang just pulled him into the back office.”

Mobei Jun nods, “They fucked.”

Shen Yuan chokes on his drink. Qi Qingqi roars with laughter.

Shang Qinghua pats him on the back but speaks to Mobei Jun. “Now come on, they’ve been pining after each other for years. They made love.”

“They fucked.”

Shang Qinghua sighs as Qi Qingqi continues to laugh.

The following day, at the Flower Dance Shen Yuan windes up standing with Granny as the rest of the town follow in with their own cliques. She leans on his arm as they slowly make their way to the glade where the dance is performed. There are lanterns strung up around the edges of the clearing, a buffet line is set up with food for after the performance (courtesy of the Inn once again), and several pots worth of jasmine tea to drink as well.

Mu Qingfang and Liu Qingge perform their dance, each wearing a mask to simulate the identities of the young woman and the demon. They are dressed in traditional Xianxia era robes, Mu-shidi’s is a deep forest green silk representative of the maiden’s resilience. Liu-shidi is in white silk that shines so much it might just be silver for the pure intentions behind the birth of the jasmine flower.

Liu Qingge only steps on Mu Qingfang’s toes once. There are probably some other minor mistakes, but the two of them flow together. The town’s protector and healer, once again in harmony.

As the dance ends with the sunset, and applause rings through the glade, Granny speaks up.

“You know, Shen-Shifu. There’s another legend about the Flower Dance.”

He looks down at her, “Really? Would Granny be willing to share it with this humble Shifu?”

She pats his arm with a smile. “It’s an old wives tale really. It goes that whoever ends up chosen to perform the Flower Dance, ends up finding peace in their romantic endeavors.”

Shen Yuan glances up. Mu Qingfang is gently removing the mask from Liu-Qingge’s face with a fond smile. Liu Qingge looks away, blushing, but leans his head on Mu Qingfang’s shoulder.

“Granny, I believe it.”

“That’s smart of you dear.”

Shen Yuan laughs.

_

Spring officially comes to a close with one last shipment of produce to the inn and general store.

Shen Yuan is leaning against the store counter, flipping through the catalog ordering his summer shipments of seeds.

Ning Yingying has taken his produce to the back for evaluation. The nicer the quality, the more money he gets for them. Luo Binghe is manning the counter, wiping it down.

“Farmer Shen?”

“Hmm?”

“I’ve been curious, what’s in the second shed you have on the farm?”

Shen Yuan looks up from the book. “Why do you ask?”

“You like to avoid talking about it.”

She Yuan purses his lips, “hmm, well, you got me there.” He considers his options for a moment. He comes to a decision, “Binghe, can you keep a secret?”

Luo Binghe stops cleaning the counter. They look at each other for a moment. Then the man walks out from around the counter, stalking down the shop aisles for a second.

Shen Yuan belatedly realizes he called Luo Binghe by his given name.

Luo Binghe locks the door to the shop, after confirming no one else is inside. He even flips the sign to ”On Break,” for good measure.

He joins Shen Yuan at the front of the counter, looking grave. “You can trust me Shen-shixiong.” His eyes are intense.

ShenYuan bops his head. “Silly, it’s not that serious.” He smiles, “but I appreciate you looking out for my secrecy. Well, I’ve decided to try my hand at crafting beers.”

Luo Binghe blinks, “beer?”

He nods, “Yes it’s always something I’ve wanted to try. Since I have the land for it, I’d like to grow my own grains and start the fermentation process. The second shed is my station for it. I’ve got everything set up to give it a good ol’ college try.”

Luo Binghe eyes glow, “oh that’s brilliant!”

“You think so?”

“Yes! There is plenty of opportunities for you to start up a brewery here. It would be cause for revenue and could be sold as a local delicacy in the surrounding area.”

“Well, your faith in me is moving Binghe.” He chuckles, “but I have to actually make a decent draft first.”

Luo Binghe considers this, then looks down at the catalog. “You know... we could special order some grains so you’re not limited to the ones we usually carry.”

Shen Yuan blinks, “really?”

Luo Binghe nods enthusiastically, “yes of course! After all the customer is always right!”

Shen Yuan laughs, an old habit coming back as he unconsciously raises a hand to cover it.

“Thank you, Binghe.”

“It’s my pleasure, Shen Yuan.”

Chapter Text

The cicadas singing in the early morning is the first sign of summer.

That and for some reason all the previously planted crops are dead. Oh well, it’s a Monday so he’s got the time to keep working in the field. What Shen Yuan doesn’t expect is Luo Binghe showing up to help out at 6 am sharp.

He’s mid-breakfast burrito when there’s a quick knock and a familiar, “Farm Shen?”

He swallows his food, “in the kitchen!”

Luo Binghe walks in a second later, he’s wearing an old v-neck shirt and faded pants. Shen Yuan is sitting at his table in leggings and an athletic tank top. He licks at the bit of egg stuck to the corner of his mouth.

Luo Binghe stares.

Shen Yuan nods at him, thinking Binghe probably hasn't eaten yet. “You want a breakfast burrito? It’s a western thing that’s pretty convenient for eating on the go.”

“Er, sure.” Luo Binghe sits down as Shen Yuan gets up. He heats the flour tortilla over the fire of the gas burner on the stove. Then he fills it with the leftover scrambled eggs and bacon.

“Binghe, do you like hot sauce?”

He turns back when he doesn’t get a response. Shen Yuan sees Luo Binghe’s eyes snap up to meet his.

“You alright?”

“I’m fine, you just have some lint stuck to the back of your leggings.”

Shen Yuan frowns, he sticks a leg back a bit further. There is some lint and a bit of dust on his thigh. He brings a hand down and rubs at it, his leg jiggles just a bit.

Hmm, should do more squats.

The lint flys off and Shen Yuan nods to himself. “Thanks. So do you like spicy?”

Luo Binghe doesn’t have a decipherable expression on his face. “I enjoy it.”

“Cool,” Shen Yuan turns back around, putting a bit of hot sauce on the eggs before wrapping it all up. He peals a paper towel and wraps it around the burrito before walking back to hand it off to Luo Binghe.

“Here you go.”

“Many thanks, Shen-Shixiong.”

He sits back down in his chair. “What brings you here so early?”

“Oh, there’s a bit of an ant infestation at the school, so it’s closed for the day. I was wondering if you could use a hand with the set up for summer crops.”

She Yuan shudders, “oh man, sucks about the bugs. But, that's sweet of you to come by, Binghe. Extra help is always appreciated.”

Binghe nods, “of course. When do you want to get started?”

Shen Yuan glances at the clock, “can you eat and walk?”

They pause to get their shoes back on, grabbing water bottles then heading off to the fields.

It’s a quiet trek to the field, the world around them still waking up. The weather report warned that there wouldn’t be a cloud in the sky for the week. Which means he needs to be done with the work by noon if he doesn’t want to tempt getting a heat stroke. Mother Nature is nothing to scoff at.

Shen Yuan once again thanks Binghe for his help as the two of them reach the first shed, where Shen Yuan stored the summer seeds. When they do something catches his eye as he is tying up his hair.

“Oh, Sunscreen.” He looks at Binghe, “I’ll get your back if you get mine?”

“Sure.”

Shen Yuan hands the bottle Lou Binghe, he hears the cap click open as he moves his hair off his neck.

A moment later a hand covered in cool cream lightly grazes the nape of his neck.

He holds back a shudder at the touch, probably just the chill of sunscreen, as the hand continues to cover the back of his neck. There’s a second more of rubbing, covering that back expanse of skin he can’t reach too well. Then the hand retracts.

“Would you like me to get your exposed shoulder blades?”

“Oh please. Shang Qinghua can tell you, my lobster impression isn’t the best.”

These a chuckle behind him has hands massage his shoulders. Both are done fairly quick, like his neck.

“Alright,” Shen Yuan turns around. “Your turn.” He coats his hands fairly well, then makes sure to cover Luo Binghe’s neck fairly well. Then they both take the time for them to cover their own limbs.

It’s only 6:15 AM by the time they step out of the shed, tools in hand. The temperature gauge reads 23.8 C already.

Between the two of them, they make quick work clearing out the dead plants. During the spring, Shen Yuan had only planted half of the field, not wanting to get ahead of himself since he had never grown produce before. This was great thinking on his part because now the grains he plans on planting for the beer production can go on the east half of the field. Everything still has to be planted in six by six grids to allow for the sprinkler systems to water everything for him.

Luo Binghe offers to hoe and fertilize the east field since he has more muscle strength to use on the firm ground. With that decided, Shen Yuan takes the west field. The ground is still loose from the previous seasons planting so it is the easier of the two tasks. It ends up taking a good two hours for both of them to get to the point to where the fields are fertilized.

They hunker back over to the shed to take a break in the shade.

There’s a ding as Shen Yuan receives a text.

8:03 AM

Airplane Hoe: Hey bro! I’m sorry to do this, but I got a call from Head-Boss Man saying some ants found their way into the School. I gotta go over and close up any gaps in the building once the exterminators are done.

8:03 AM

Airplane Hoe: I’ll be over tomorrow morning instead to finish the greenhouse!! Sorry for the delay, I'll give you a discount (ノ≧ڡ≦)

Shen Yuan puts down his water bottle to reply.

8:04 AM

Me: No prob, Binghe told me about the bugs. Go do what you gotta do Bro

8:04 AM

Airplane Hoe: Bro ・゚✧

8:04 AM

Airplane Hoe: Ah I was wondering what he would do today since he can’t teach

8:05 AM

Me: He’s here helping me get started on the summer crops

8:05 AM

Airplane Hoe: Bing-bro, such a nice young man!!!

8:05 AM

Airplane Hoe: Well, I’ll leave you to it! Make sure you don’t burn!!

8:06 AM

Me: Lol will do

He puts down the phone, then stands up with a stretch. “Well, it’s only getting hotter. Let’s get this done.”

Luo Binghe takes one last sip of water. “Sure thing, Shen-Shixiong.”

Another two hours pass before all the seeds are properly planted and watered. Thankfully today won’t get too hot but it will be bad later. Luo Binghe recommends changing the sprinklers timers, otherwise, the water will just evaporate in the sunlight, or even worse burn the plants. Making the morning one go off around 3-4 AM, giving plenty of time for the water to be absorbed before sunrise, then again after sunset just in case the heat gets to be too much.

Shen Yuan goes ahead to make the appropriate changes on the water meter. Luo Binghe then goes down to the sections of hops seeds, making sure that the support sticks he set up for the plants are adequate for them to grow up onto. He then heads over to check the same for the peppers.

The two of them then head back over to the shed. To prepare for the new field, Shen Yuan already made another two scarecrows to protect the grains. After setting them up at either end of the east fields the two of them go to say a quick prayer for a good harvest at the family shrine before heading back to the house.

“Since Shen-Shixiong made this one breakfast, I’ll return the favor with lunch!”

“Binghe you always make me lunch.”

“Yes, but not on Monday’s. This is a special occasion!”

Shen Yuan laughs as they kick off their shoes in the entryway. Well, he does; Luo Binghe neatly sets his off to the side.

Hey, it’s his house, he can be a slob if he wants to.

“Would you like to take a shower before you start cooking?”

“I’ll be honest, that sounds very nice. However, I’m not sure if you have any clothing that fits my size. I’m, um, a little broader than you.”

“I’ve got some oversized shirts and basketball shorts I use for lounging. If you're fine with that at least.”

“That sounds wonderful, thanks for your kindness Shen-Shixiong.”

“Oh come now, it’s fine.”

A quick detour to his room, he grabs a large grey shirt and some red basketball shorts, and a towel later sees Luo Binghe on his way to the spare restroom to clean up.

Shen Yuan takes a speedy shower himself. Not caring, he bends over so his hair hangs off his head. Then he drapes the towel over the base of his head, gathering his hair within the leftover length of the hanging cloth. A Quick twist later and he folds it back over his head as he stands upright.

He gives a tug to it to make sure the towel twist is secure on his head. Afterward, Shen Yuan dresses quickly in a loose cotton shirt and shorts himself. He walks back over to the kitchen, and somehow Binghe is already there.

He also has a towel hat on his head.

“Hey, Twinses.”

Luo Binghe chuckles then continues to rummage through the fridge for ingredients.

Shen yuan goes to the sink to wash his dishes from breakfast. “So Binghe, what’s for lunch?”

“Well, assuming it’s okay to use the leftover salmon in the fridge-”

“-It is.”

“-Then I’ll pair that with some cabbage and kale you’ve grown for a nice salmon meal.”

“Ahhh, sounds refreshing.”

“I aim to please “

Shen Yuan laughs, “Your cooking always does Binghe.” He watches Luo Binghe cook for a bit, washing and preparing the veggies before he starts to speak.

“Shen-Shixiong, how are your cooking skills- if I may ask, that is!”

“Oh, I like to think I’m decent at it. My cooking used to be horrible, but I learned some basic stuff during college at least.”

“Hmm, well I don’t mean to panic you... but the town holds a summer potluck once the public schools let out for a break and the children no longer have school.”

“Oh, that’s right, summer break huh... Wait, a potluck?”

Luo Binghe nods, shredding the kale. “Well, it’s more of a ‘welcome home’ feast. The children who attend schools out of town come home for the break. We also give the ones attending classes here a break too. The center stays open, of course, but there are no lessons held.”

Luo Binghe inspects the fish for a moment. After it meets his expectations, he sets two pans on the stovetop, turning on the burners. One gets drizzled with olive oil, the other gets a small cube of butter. As he waits for them to heat, Luo Binghe resumes speaking.

“It’s technically a feast to mark the start of summer. But regardless, I brought it up to let you know that you might have to cook a rather large dish to bring.”

Shen Yuan nods as diced onions and garlic go into the pan with the oil. They sizzle for a moment, the fragrant aroma seeping into the air.

“Well, what do you bring Binghe? You said that Qi-shijie would kill you for your cooking skills.”

“Oh, I’m in charge of supplying the plates, cups, napkins, and utensils with Ning-Shimei.” He turns back and grins. “Perks of being the owner of the only general store in town.” The rest of the veggies join the cooking onions and garlic, so does some salt and pepper.

“Hmm, I see. Well, my baking skills are decent. Could I get away with making a big platter of cookies?”

Luo Binghe nods, “Yes that would be doable!” The two slices of fish are laid in the pan that’s now evenly coated with melted butter.

Shen Yuan moans, “Binghe that smells divine.”

There’s another laugh as the man keeps cooking. He hits a button on the overhang of the stove to fan out the fishy smell. “At the moment yes.”

They share a laugh.

As it quiets down, Shen Yuan stares at his back. “So what happens to the teachers during the break?”

“Oh, we don’t have to go in if that’s what you’re asking. Most of us just treat it as a day off. Liu-Shixiong picks up shifts at the quarry since he can’t seem to sit still. Oh, don’t tell him I said that.”

Shen Yuan laughs, “He does seem the type. I wonder if Mu-Shidi will let him, now that they’re together.”

Luo Binghe fumbles with the fish.

“Binghe- you alright?”

The man in question whirls around to face him. “They finally hooked up?!”

Shen Yuan blinks, “Yeah, just before the Flower Dance... Binghe were you not watching? They were holding hands and everything during the feast.”

Luo Binghe looks pissed. “Those assholes.”

Uh, what???

“Binghe!”

“I won the bet and no one told me!!”

“...won a what now?”

“The bet! The- oh.” Binghe blinks at his confusion. “Right, apologies, Shen-Shixiong, you weren’t aware of it. The four of us, Shang-Shixiong, Qi shijie, Mobei Jun and I had a long-running bet on when they would get together.”

“You did?”

“Yes, it’s years old now.”

“Ah.”

“I told them that they would get together before the dance!”

“Wait, I thought that the dance was a lottery system?”

“Qi-shijie rigged it. Don’t tell Headman Qingyuan.”

Shen Yuan takes a moment to think about how all his friends are children. Binghe whips out his phone. He types out a message at furious speed then sends it out. A few seconds later, he is aggressively plating the food.

“Binghe?” He needs to change the topic.

“Yes, Shen-Shixiong?”

“You know, if you ever have a feeling of boredom on your days off, you’re welcome to stop by.”

Luo Binghe stops for a moment, he looks over at Shen Yuan. Then he lights up, a smile dispersing all of his previous tension. “Ah, I would love to Shen-Shixiong!”

Shen Yuan smiles in return.

_

There are another two weeks of the school held before the children out of town come back home. Classes are officially dismissed the day before the other students get back, ending the term with Mu Qingfang’s science class.

A few students were fussy about missing one last day of wilderness education.

Liu Qingge was quietly ecstatic about it.

In the meantime, Shang Qinghua got the rest of his greenhouse back to operational. Which was great news, because now he could grow the wheat for the beer year-round. He had debated on planting a fruit tree, but Binghe had politely pointed out that other families in the valley already had orchards for peaches and flowers. So he chooses to support the other locals rather than grow his own. The first round of strawberries, star fruit, blueberries, and melons were just about ready to harvest. The corn has been taking its sweet time, while the pepper plants were steadily producing spicy peppers already.

He has already commissioned his bro for a grain mill and purchased kegs online.

When the day for the potluck finally came around, there were many teary reunions at the train station in town. Shen Yuan ends up making a load of blueberry muffins, rather than cookies. They seem to go over with the townsfolk pretty well.

Qi Qingqi approaches him during the end of the evening.

“Heya Farmer Shen.”

“Good evening Qi Shimei.”

“I had a question about those muffins of yours.”

Shen Yuan remembers Binghe’s words and immediately feels fear.

It must show on his face for a moment because she throws back her head and laughs.

“Nothing bad at all Farmer Shen! Don’t worry. No, what I wanted to ask is if it would be alright to copy you and sell these for breakfast at the Inn. I take it the blueberries are from your summer harvest right”

“Oh, by all means, go ahead. If you’re worried about being seen as copying, may I recommend blueberries cooked within pancakes?”

She pats his back. “Oh, now that’s a good idea! Much obliged, Famer Shen.”

After she leaves him, Luo Binghe makes his approach.

“I was worried about you for a moment there.”

“Oh, I’m fairly certain I lost a year of my life.”

Luo Binghe bursts out laughing.

_

With school being out for the next three weeks, the town somehow turns lethargic. People can be seen lazing about in the suddenly sweltering hours. He’s made sure to get everything he needs to be done by 10:30 AM; otherwise, it’s simply too hot.

Luo Binghe starts to stop by earlier and earlier. It gives him an excuse to stay and relax under his high powered wind fan once noon hits.

But most days the man is at his store. Luo Binghe is still a responsible business owner.

The town sees an increase in tourism as well. People are mostly passing through to get to the mountain peaks where it is still snowing. A few folks though stop and stay in town for bird watching. Apparently, there’s a wide variety of flora and fauna to sightsee.

Shen Yuan is in town today, cursing himself for forgetting to deliver the produce earlier in the day. He’s got everything packed into a big wheelbarrow, simply because it’s too much to carry, The bottom of the wheelbarrow had been packed with ice, but he’s not so sure how much is left after the treck from his house. Having just gotten to town, he’s set a course for the Inn to deliver their portion of the food when he is stopped by a person.

“Hey! You, farmer!”

He glances over and nearly chokes.

This woman!! She’s scantily clad in a transparent crop top and jean shorts that hardly qualify as shorts. She seems to like for red if her makeup, lipstick, nail polish, and peony tattoos are any indication. Oh my god, it’s like being back in the city.

Shen Yuan shakes just a bit, “Y-yes? How can I help you?”

“There any place in town to get booze?”

It’s only 2 PM!! Far too early to be drinking!!

“Er- the general store sells bottles, but there is a bar in the Inn.”

She folds her arms with a nod, “I see. And where’s the Inn?”

“If- if you just follow me please.”

She pats his back with enough force to make him stagger, “Lead the way then, man!”

He doesn’t get to take her to the bar, because a second after they pass the general store, the door slams open.

Shen Yuan flinches violently, but the girl just glances over.

“SHA HUALING!” Luo Binghe is standing in the entryway.

The woman sneers, but it doesn't reach her eyes. “Ahhh, well if it isn’t Little Luo! Actually...” She looks him up and down, eyeing him like a juicy steak. Shen Yuan’s opinion of her drops. “I guess I can’t call you little anymore. Did you get buffer in five years?”

Luo Binghe ignores the question, looking between the two of them. “Why are you with Shen-Shixiong?”

“Oh, he’s taking me to the bar!”

Luo Binghe’s eyebrows fly up to his hairline.

Shen Yuan just sighs. He’s too old for this. “She asked where it was located, and I’m making a delivery to Qi-Shimei.”

Sha Hualing pouts, “Aw, let me at least ruffle his feathers a little. What’s the fun of having an Ex if you can’t patronize them.”

This time Shen Yuan’s eyebrows go flying.

Luo Binghe turns stony, “We never dated. Don’t go spreading false rumors about me in my home Sha Hualing.”

She looks around at the town, “hmm, it’s cozy I guess. Hey, are you ever gonna come visit the Hua Hua district again?”

“No.”

“Ahhhh, that’s a shame. Well, I’m only just passing through, but come join me at the bar!! Let’s catch up!”

Luo Binghe frowns, “you know I don’t drink.”

“Then don’t! Let’s just talk, it’s been ages.” Sha Hualing drags out the last word. She then winks at Shen Yuan, “You’ll drink with me right?”

“Uh-”

“I’ll buy.”

“Sure.”

Fuck it. It’s five o’clock somewhere.

She cheers while Luo Binghe looks somewhat harassed.

The three of them soon enter the Inn, Shen Yuan getting waves to the side entrance that leads to the kitchen by the receptionist. He hurriedly assures Luo Binghe that he will be back, he is very curious as to how he knows such a girl, before leaving the two of them to make their way to the bar.

As the staff is taking count of the food he’s brought, Shen Yuan takes off his sunhat and wipes the sweat off his brown. A part-timer he recognizes as a student at the community center comes over with an iced glass of water. He smiles his thanks at her before handing off his list of stock to her for the staff to cross-check.

After everything is all said and done, what’s probably 6-7 minutes later, the staff thank him for his hard work. Qi Qingqi digitally pays him per usual.

Shen Yuan chooses to take a detour through the kitchens, rather than go back outside. He takes off his work gloves (getting calluses would impede his ability to teach string instruments) and stuffs them into his back pocket, where they hang out just a bit from. The hat that was on his head is now hanging from his neck by the string looped around the front of it.

He probably looks very much like a farmer right now.

As he walks into the bar area, he sees Luo Binghe’s posture is much more relaxed than earlier. There’s a glass of water in front of him at the table the two of them are seated at. Sha Hualing is sipping from a martini as Shen Yuan gets spotted by her.

She yells across the empty room. “Farmer Shen! Go ahead and order, I opened a tab.”

He nods his thanks and does that. It’s strange to see another person aside from Qi Qingqi working the bar, but he usually comes when he knows that she’s working. After ordering the usual Whiskey Sour, Shen Yuan walks over to the table. He feels a little out of his element, used to sitting at the bar.

“So Farmer Shen,” Sha Hualing starts. “Little Luo was telling me you just moved to town too.”

He sets down his drink, taking his seat. “Yes, that’s right. My grandfather left me his land as an inheritance, and I decided it would be a nice change of pace from an office job.”

“Ahh, soulless corporate jobs. They’re killing us but somehow giving us the money to survive.”

“Oh, do you work one too?”

“Oh no, Little Luo used to work one too before he quit and moved here.”

That strikes his curiosity, but Shen Yuan can see the way Binghe’s fingers tightened around his glass. So instead he smiles at Binghe, “Ah, we are two peas in a pod then.”

Luo Binghe smiles at back at him. He starts to say something when Sha Hualing cuts him off.

“-So Farmer Shen what did you order?”

“Oh my usual, a Whiskey Sour.”

“Never had one, mind if I take a sip?” She’s already picking up the glass.

“By all means, you did pay for it.”

Thankfully she’s polite enough to use the small black stirring straw in the glass to sip from.

Sha Hualing smacks her lips, “Oh that’s tart- ooooh that burn of the whiskey.” Her eyes twinkle, “You have good taste Farmer Shen.”

A new voice speaks. “That’s what I told him.”

Qi Qingqi pulls out the last chair at the table and takes a seat.

Shen Yuan nods at her, “Afternoon Qi-Shimei.”

“Heya Farmer Shen, thanks for all the quality ingredients.” She shifts her focus back to Sha Hualing. “My girls said they saw Luo Binghe at the bar and, no offense, but you never come to the bar.” Binghe shrugs. “I had to see what dragged him over here.”

Sha Hualing stares at Qi Qingqi for a moment. Then she shifts, ever so slightly, from how she’s leaning on her forearm that’s resting on the table.

The effect is instantaneous.

Her cleavage is pushed up and together slightly more, her small top dipping to allow a better view of her breasts. She brings up her other hand, and with a perfectly manicured nail tip, taps at her lips. The action giving the illusion that her lips are plush. Maybe 2 seconds have passed.

Shen Yuan notices that two of her nails are cut shorter than the others.

When Sha Hualing speaks next, she downright purrs, “I’m just an old friend passing through. Who might you be?”

Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe exchange a quicked look, one that could be interpreted as ‘What the fuck just happened’ and by any passerby.

All eyes turn to Qi Qingqi, who just stares.

Then-

“Oh, Kitten.” Qi Qingqi smirks, “I would eat you alive.”

Sha Hualing flushes red enough to almost match her lipstick. It’s like watching a lynx realize it was hunting a Wolf.

Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe sit at the table awkwardly. Shen Yuan takes a sip of his drink.

Then Qi Qingqi sighs, leaning back in her chair. “So, Luo-shidi-” Luo Binghe involuntarily flinches- “your friend here from your old home?”

He nods, “Yes, we attended high school together.”

Qi Qingqi hums, “So you two and Mobei Jun in school together. Sounds like a disaster.”

Sha Hualing comes back to life, “What? Jun-Jun is here too!”

Binghe gives her a flat look, “This is his hometown.”

Qi Qingqi whips out her phone.

Sha Hualing throws her hands in the air, “He only said it once, how was I supposed to remember!”

Qi Qingqi puts the phone on speaker and sets it on the table to ring.

It’s picked up.

“Qi-shijie.” It’s Mobei Jun’s voice.

The look on Qi Qingqi’s face can only be described as predatory.

She smiles, “Jun-Jun huh?”

“...”

The call ends.

Qi Qingqi leans back in her chair, satisfied.

Shen Yuan takes a long gulp of his drink.

Not a minute later, Mobei Jun comes sprinting into the Bar, past shrieking staff members.

He freezes in the entryway.

Sha Hauling yells, “Jun-Jun!!”

Mobei Jun let’s out a long-suffering groan.

_

Sha Hualing ends up hanging around for the week. She lowkey wrecks havoc everywhere she goes. Loud laughter and the chimes of her bangles ringing with her every movement. One impromptu refresher lesson among the music students turns into a dance competition at her instruction.

Qi Qingqi makes the woman go as red as her ever-constant lipstick at every encounter. It usually goes something along the lines of Sha Hualing sauntering up to Qi Qingqi, swaying her hips. Qi Qingqi will listen to what she says to say. Then she will say her piece and leave the poor girl flush and flustered.

It’s pretty entertaining.

Meanwhile, Shen Yuan learns a little about Binghe’s past during the time.

The trio of him, Mobei Jun and Sha Hualing had gone to middle and high school together. Mobei Jun was a commuter from town to the school up until high school, when he and Binghe roomed in an apartment together. Each of them describes their school experience as a ’special type of hell’ and leave it at that. Somehow they had found each other, then stuck together out of convenience.

Mobei Jun won’t call it friendship.

Luo Binghe calls it a coincidence.

Sha Hualing says it was a gang, but Shen Yuan isn’t especially inclined to believe anything she says.

Her last night in town is a Friday night, so the usual group of drinkers is at the bar, sans Mobei Jun who is at a back table with Sha Hualing and Luo Binghe. Mu Qingfang is here on one of his rare nights off, taking Mobei Jun’s place at the bar. Even rarer, Liu Qingge is there, with one arm resting around Mu Qingfang's waist and the other holding the bottle of beer he’s nursing. The Doctor still looks tired, but the circles under his eyes don’t appear as bad as they usually do. He’s smiling as he starts his second Moscow Mule.

In honor of all the school throwbacks, Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua order a round of shots for their group. Qi Qingqi naturally joins in, tossing it back like a champ, as does Shen Yuan.

Yes, still got it.

Shang Qinghua doesn’t manage to quiet so the same and then suffers through all of their laughs and barbs.

Shen Yuan snickers, then orders them both an Old Fashion to finish.

As everyone is nearing the end of their drinks, and pleasantly buzzed, the trio gets up from their table and joins them at the counter.

Ever a man of many words, Liu Qingge nods to all of them.

Shang Qinghua spots Mobei Jun.

He grins, “Jun-Jun!!”

Mobei Jun glowers at him; but, being the lightweight he is Shang Qinghua just laughs. “N-now, now, now, Jun-Jun, ehehe, you understand!”

Mobei Jun keeps frowning, “Understand?”

Shang Qinghua nods. When Mobei Jun keeps frowning, he points to himself. “Scarecrow,” then he points at Mobei Jun. “Jun-Jun.”

A second passes and then somehow he seems to understand whatever the hell it is his bro was trying to get across. Mobei Jun’s expression clears like he just had an epiphany.

Shang Qinghua pat’s his face in his drunken stupor, then turns around to go for another sip of his drink.

Shen Yuan smiles at Luo Binghe, who maneuvers around their group of people to get to his side.

“Has Binghe enjoyed his time with his friends?”

Luo Binghe looks over at the people gathered in front of them. Liu Qingge still has his arm around Mu Qingfang’s waist but is also resting his head on the side of his shoulder. Mu Qingfang now has an arm resting around Liu Qingge’s shoulders while carrying a conversation with another person at the bar who is surprisingly Ning Yingying. Sha Hualing is enthusiastically explaining something to Shang Qinghua, who isn’t paying attention; but, actually tracing the patterns of Mobei Jun’s tattoo with his finger. Mobei Jun watches this happen.

Luo Binghe blinks. He almost looks surprised as he says, “Yes, yes I have.”

Qi Qingqi slides them both a glass of water, which they both graciously accepted. She beckons at Sha Hualing who immediately drops the one-sided conversation. The two of them begin talking about who knows what.

Shen Yuan licks his lips. “I know you said that you’re not fond of alcohol. You could probably have a juice, or soda if you asked. But... We all do our best to meet up here every Friday night.”

Luo Binghe stares at him.

Shen Yuan keeps going, “It’s nice to see Binghe here with his friends. Would you consider coming back again?”

Luo Binghe stares some more. Then a warm smile breaks out on his face.

“En.”

_

The weekend passes by quietly, which is why it catches the whole town by surprise when Monday’s weather report warns of a massive Thunderstorm coming Wednesday.

Shen Yuan double-checks the integrity of his home, the newly finished deck by the pond, greenhouse, and sheds. Everything seems plenty secure. He secures the entryways and closes the shutters tight over the windows just in case. He’s digging irrigation trenches to divert water around the crops in the field to prevent flooding when Luo Binghe arrives at 6:30 AM.

After explaining his plan, Luo Binghe grabs an axe.

“Shen-Shixiong, I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going, you just got here?”

Ah, he sounds a bit like a brat.

“Forgive my rudeness, I’m going to go check up the creek that runs through your property. If there are any blockages if could cause floods.”

Oh damn, he didn’t even think of that.

“Binghe, you’re brilliant.”

Luo Binghe blinks, “This one does not deserve such praise-”

“No, I give credit to where it’s due.” He smiles, “I’m thankful to have you with me.”

Luo Binghe blushes. He stutters something about being back, then takes off to the creek.

Shen Yuan smiles to himself, then keeps digging. After an hour or so Binghe is back and quickly gets to work on digging a tench on the wheat fields. They’ve already yielded one harvest worth of hops and he’s expected a second one any day now. He’s gotten himself a pretty decent trench dug on one side of the crop field when the sound of metal rattling catches his attention.

He looks up.

Shang Qinghua is pulling a big wagon behind him, full of metal poles and wires.

He waves as he reaches the gate at the north head of the property. “Hey Bro!”

“Hey Bro, what’s going on?”

Shang Qinghua lets himself in. “Well, you know with that big storm warning I was like ‘oh, better check my lightning rods, don’t want that hitting my house’ and then I was like ‘oh shit, does my bro have lightning rods?’ so I brought some stuff with me. Ya’ know, in case you don’t.”

He’s pretty sure he doesn’t.

“Crap, I don’t think I do.”

Shang Qinghua grins, “Then I’m glad a came by! I’ll put a couple on top of the buildings around the field, then head over to your house. Got a ladder I can borrow?”

Shang Qinghua spots Luo Binghe, who is watching the interaction from afar, and waves at him too. He gets a wave in return and smiles a little more.

Shen Yuan points to the shed. “There should be one in there. Don’t forget to put a rod on the second shed too.”

“No worries Bro, I gotchu.”

A warm breeze picks up as the three of them continue to work. Apparently, lightning rods are a little complex for set up. While Luo Binghe and he finished up the trenches within another hour, Shang Qinghua takes an additional two before he’s done at the field.

It’s almost 11 AM by the time Shang Qinghua is finally done with installing the last Rod on his house. Luo Binghe is currently in the guest room, grabbing some of the spare clothing he’s since left at Shen Yuan’s home.

Shang Qinghua then declines an invite to stay for lunch.

“No can do bro, got to do to my job and make sure the other main buildings in town are good too.”

They walk out of the estate to the main gate.

“Why did you stop here then?”

“Because you're my bro.”

Shen Yuan puts a hand over his heart, “Bro.”

“I’ll send you an invoice later.”

The emotion dies.

“Bro.”

Shang Qinghua leaves laughing, with a wave over his shoulder.

When Shen Yuan enters the house, he can hear water running, indicating the Luo Binghe is in the shower. A bead of sweat runs down his back. He makes his way over to his restroom to get clean as well.

Shen Yuan can‘t explain why, but once he steps out of the shower and sees his long damp hair in the mirror he decides he’s had enough of it.

It’s time for a haircut. A big hair cut.

His mother’s birthday is coming up, so he needs to go back to the city this weekend. After dressing, he sits on his bed for a few minutes to finalize booking an appointment with a hairdresser with a few taps on his phone screen.

A quiet knock on the door prompts him to look up.

Luo Binghe smiles at him, “Would Shen-Shixiong like to go into town for lunch?”

“Shang-shidi left.”

“Ah, in that case, I’ll get started.”

He laughs as Binghe leaves the room.

_

When the sun starts to set on Tuesday, Shen Yuan says a quiet prayer to whoever is listening that his farm stays safe. And the town, they’re important too.

The wind starts to pick up in the early evening. He has batteries, extra power banks for his phone, a radio, a landline, and candles just in case of, well, anything.

He’s woken up at 4:30 AM to the loud crack of thunder.

Shen Yuan jolts out of bed and hits the light switch. The lights flicker for a heart-stopping moment but stay on.

Rain is steadily coming down on the roof.

He goes through the halls, double-checking that the outside sliding panels that enclose the open halls are shut tight and secure. After going over everything, reassuring his paranoia that it’s all fine, he starts to head back to his room to try and go back to sleep. Maybe check twitter in bed.

Then he hears something. An inconsistency in the rain.

It’s easier to pinpoint near the main hall. He listens for a moment, there is nothing but rain for a moment. Then the vague noise is back again. Whatever it is, it’s loudest closer to the entrance.

He walks back to the front door and cracks it open just a little.

He hears it more clear now. It’s coming from a bush near the koi pond.

Barking.

There’s still no visible lightning, but another boom of thunder pierces the air.

The barks turn to whimpers and Shen Yuan doesn’t hesitate. He throws the door open and sprints out into the pouring rain. His bare feet squish into the mud; he’s getting soaked, but there’s a fucking dog out in the middle of the storm and neither heaven nor hell will stop him from saving the poor thing.

He can only see from the light stretching out the front door but it does enough. Crouching near the plant he looks under to see if he can find it.

There! A shivering small ball.

The bundle of fur does nothing to escape his grasp as he pulls it out from under the brush. Some branches scratch at his arms as he pulls, but it’s only superficial. Holding the small dog to his chest, he runs back inside and slams the door shut behind him.

The dog is shivering in his arms, still whimpering.

Shen Yuan marches to the guest bathroom, trailing mud behind him. He flips the water in the shower on to warm. Waiting for it to heat up, He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

His entire front is covered in a thin layer of mud. If he wiggles his toes, he can hear the mud squelch between them. His wet hair looks wild, there's a leaf stuck in it, and damp but sticking together in clumps.

It’s disgusting, but first things first.

Still fully clothed, Shen Yuan walks into the shower holding the dog. It doesn’t react, which is a little worry some. The water running down them both is brown. Grabbing the body wash, he gets to work cleaning the dog. After giving the dog a good lather and rinse, its a girl, Shen Yuan sets her down on a towel.

She hadn’t moved the whole time she was being washed. But just before she’s set down, her little legs start to wiggle just a bit until she’s on the ground. Then the dog gives herself a hearty shake.

Black fur puffs up, still damp, and she turns back to look at him. A little pink tongue sticks out.

Shen Yuan's heart squeezes.

She then lays down on the towel and watches him.

Wow, she’s such a good dog. Clearly, she has been trained, even though there is no collar on her. She probably belongs to someone in town.

Well, he’s still penalty dirty and it’s only a dog; so, he strips the soaked, mud-stained, pajamas off his body and washes himself.

The dog blinks at him once he steps out of the shower.

After a towel dry, Shen Yuan wraps the towel around his waist and pulls out the hairdryer.

It takes a few minutes, but once his hair is finally dry he’s feeling much warmer.

The dog is still laying on a towel watching him.

Shen Yuan switches the pressure to low, then points it at her.

She likes it because she sits up immediately and starts panting happily. Or what he thinks is happy.

He turns the air pressure back up to High. A little tail with long damp hairs starts to wag.

Oh my god, she’s adorable.

Once the little lady is finally dry, he can identify that she’s a tiny Pomeranian puppy. Which, by the way, do not belong in the wild at all. Why was she out there??

The puppy scampers up on the bathroom floor once fully dry. Shen Yuan slowly opens the door and she prances out it, then stops, turns as if waiting for him.

He makes his way back to his room, the little puppy trailing behind him. It’s just after he’s put on another shirt and shorts does the thunder boom again.

The puppy whines and curls in on herself. Shen Yuan scoops her up in his arms, holding her shaking body to his chest as he sits upon his bed. Crossing his feet, he sets her down between his legs and starts comforting her with gentle scratches behind the ear.

With his free hand, he picks up his phone. The screen says 5:08 AM.

How has it only been 30 minutes??

Opening up a web novel, he slouches back and reads. There’s no way he’ll be able to fall back asleep, so close to his usual time of waking up. He absent-mindedly keeps scratching the puppy, who falls asleep.

The thunder fades for a time, only rain continuing to pitter-patter on the rooftop. The world itself is quiet.

Come 6:58 AM, he’s a fourth of the way through the novel, a pirate tale with a twist. The undercover naval captain finally finds the renegade pirates who have been targeting the research ships; come to find out that the leader was his childhood friend who he believed was dead. Then comes the twist, said friend doesn’t remember their years of friendship, and the protagonist is, for lack of a better word, heartbroken.

Then a call interrupts his screen.

It’s Luo Binghe.

Shen Yuan picks up the call, “Good morning Binghe.” His voice is low to avoid waking the puppy and rough with disuse from a morning of reading.

There’s a sharp inhale on the other side, then a breathy, “Good morning, Shen-Shixiong.”

A pause.

“This one didn’t mean to wake you up, I apologize.”

Shen Yuan chuckles, his voice still low. “It’s quite alright. I’ve been awake for a while now thanks to an unexpected visitor.”

Another pause.

“A visitor?” His voice seems a little harder than before.

“Yes,” Shen Yuan scratches behind the puppy’s ears. “She’s in bed with me right now.”

Luo Binghe chokes.

Shen Yuan continues, “hold on, I’ll send you a picture.”

“Er, Sh-Shen-Shixiong, that’s not--”

He pulls the phone away, opening up the camera app and snapping a quick pic, then sends it.

It’s silent on the phone for a near minute.

Then Shen Yuan hears a woman’s voice coo.

“OMG, It’s a puppy!!”

He blinks, “Ah, hello Ning-Shimei?”

She laughs, “G’ morning Farmer Shen! Sorry, A-Luo passed me his phone because- hey!”

There’s some chaotic sounds from the other end and Luo Binghe’s yelling in the background.

“Um, hello?”

Ning Yingying yells into the phone, “A-Luo thought you sent a pic of a naked woman!”

Luo Binghe yells in the background.

Shen Yuan squeaks, “Excuse me?”

The puppy wakes up, she nudges her head against his hand.

“He was so distraught-” She shrieks and there’s a loud thud followed by a clatter.

Shen Yuan pulls the phone away from his ear just to stare at it. Then slowly brings it back up.

“Is anyone there?”

Luo Binghe’s voice comes through, as a rushed “YesI’llbeoversoon.”

Then the call ends.

He stares at the phone, then the puppy in his lap.

She yips at him.

“You’re much easier to understand, you know?”

Her little pink tongue peaks out as the tail wags, long hairs tickling his leg.

Oh god, she's so cute.

Deciding that it will just be a lazy day, Shen Yuan carefully unfolds his legs. The puppy then leaps off the bed for a heart-stopping moment but lands safely on the ground.

He then gets up and makes his way over to the kitchen. The sounds of the puppy’s footsteps follow him to the kitchen. After filling a shallow bowl with water and a quick google search, he sets a plate of very small banana cuts in front of the puppy.

Double checking that she is eating, he turns on the Keurig machine and after it’s finished warming up, makes a cup of coffee.

The rain has slowed to a drizzle outside.

He hopes that the crops are doing alright.

After pouring in enough sweet creamer to make the coffee only off-white. He stirs the drinks idly with a spoon; occasional metal clinks ring out during the process.

The puppy continues to munch on the banana.

Shen Yuan leans on the kitchen counter, taking sips of his warm coffee.

The puppy stops eating and perks up, ears flicking.

He stops mid-sip and looks at her. She trots out of the kitchen and Shen Yuan follows her, paralleling their earlier dynamic.

She comes to a stop at the entrance hall and sits there. Then barks twice.

The front door opens and Luo Binghe walks through the entrance closing his umbrella, pausing when he sees Shen Yuan standing there.

The puppy barks once more. Well, she yips.

Shen Yuan smirks, “Hows Ning-Shimei?”

Luo Binghe avoids eye contact, face flushing ever so slightly. “She was rather cross with me at first. But we’re okay now.”

“It would probably be best if Binghe returns with flowers, they’re an appropriate apology to one’s girlfriend.”

Luo Binghe laughs, “Ning-Shimei is just a friend and business partner. She’s like my sister Shen-Shixiong.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that flowers are a good apology present.”

“Ah, so wise Shifu.”

Shen Yuan bops Luo Binghe’s forehead as he bends down to take off his shoes. There a chuckle in response.

The puppy turns around and trots back down the hallway. Shen Yuan isn’t too concerned, so he stays to take Binghe’s jacket and hang it up to dry in the entryway. Luo Binghe rests his dripping umbrella beside his shoes.

They turn to walk to the kitchen.

“Well,” Shen Yuan starts. “A few things for future reference: One, I Don't Kiss and Tell, Binghe. My private life stays private.”

“This one is sorry for presuming such a thing.”

“That’s alright.”

They enter the kitchen, the puppy is drinking water.

“Two: I’m not one to send inappropriate content like that.” This excludes the ‘no questions, no comment rule’ that he and Shang Qinghua have when sending each other good porn. But, Binghe doesn’t need to know that.

He gets a nod at this one as he sets about getting Binghe a cup of coffee for himself.

“And three: I’m not interested in women. I play for the other team.” Shen Yuan smiles as he reclines against the counter again.

Luo Binghe accepts the cup of coffee, “Shen-Shixiong is interested in men? Not women?”

“After 29 years of living on this earth, I can safely say yes. Women do not hold my eye.”

“You’re twenty-nine!?”

The puppy barks at Binghe as if reprimanding him for shouting. Then returns to her banana.

Shen Yuan sighs, “yes, yes, I’m an old man--”

“No, no, Shen-Shixiong, I was presumptuous and assumed you were merely a year or two older than me is all.”

“Well, how is Binghe?”

“Er, this one is only twenty-two.”

Shen Yuan stares at him.

Luo Binghe fidgets.

“Oh my god, you’re a child.”

“Excuse me?”

“A literal Infant.”

“I’m an adult!”

“Baby.”

“Adult!”

“Baby Boy.”

Luo Binghe cracks and snorts at that one, causing Shen Yuan to break his mask and laugh in return.

The puppy yips again. She’s finished eating the banana, laying on her front paws, watching them from a distance.

There’s some banana stuck to the sides of her mouth. Shen Yuan tsks, then grabbing a napkin and wetting it, crouches down and wipes her mouth. She licks his hand in return.

“So, where did Shen-Shixiong find this puppy?”

Shen Yuan recounts the story for Luo Binghe, who starts moving about the kitchen to make breakfast. Still talking, he walks to a far cabinet to rest against and watch him cook.

Once he’s done speaking, Luo Binghe hums.

“Well, I’ll be honest. As far as I am aware, no one in town owns a Pomeranian.”

Shen Yuan stares, “Wait, really?”

“Yes, she doesn’t have a collar either?”

“No...”

Binghe hums again, “It’s odd that such a breed is stray in the mountains. And she seems well trained.” Luo Binghe pauses, and Shen Yuan can’t see his face. “It’s possible she was abandoned out here by a vacationing family.”

Shen Yuan looks down to the puppy, who’s head perks up and looks at him. Her pink tongue is still sticking out.

“Well, I’ve always wanted a dog.”

Luo Binghe looks back at him, “You’re going to keep her?” He seems surprised.

Shen Yuan points to the puppy. “I literally cannot say no to that face.”

Luo Binghe smiles, his eyes twinkling. “Shen-Shixiong is truly kind.”

Shen Yuan looks away, his face feels a little warm.

He clears his throat. “Dogs know when people are coming too. She knew you were at the front door. It’s an excellent warning system.”

Just before he finishes speaking, the puppy jumps up and yips; tail wagging so fast it looks blurry.

Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan blink at her.

Luo Binghe raises an eyebrow, “Was it something you said? Maybe an old command?”

Shen Yuan thinks over his words. Then tries, “System.”

There’s an answering yip, prance, and the tail continues to furiously wag.

Luo Binghe stares, “...huh.”

Shen Yuan tries again, “System.”

She yips twice at him, happily panting

It’s quiet.

Then--

“Who the fuck names their dog System?”

_

Luo Binghe cooks them the best congee he’s ever had in his life. It’s fluffy, light, and perfect blend of savory flavors.

System (seriously, what the actual fuck) hops up onto Shen Yaun’s lap to curl up and nap. The meal passes by with some small talk that eventually tapers off into a comfortable silence.

The rain begins to come down a little harder. Light fades as the room becomes a little darker, grey clouds settling over the valley.

A flash of lightning illuminates the room for a second. There’s a loud boom and he immediately covers the sleeping puppy’s ears with his hands.

System stays asleep.

“I believe it might be best if Binghe stays here until the rain lets up again.”

“En.”

Luo Binghe is quiet, watching the rain come down from the window.

“The guest bath is the quietest place in the house, I’m going to lay ... System down in there to nap.”

There’s another nod. Shen Yuan frowns a little but decides to come back to that once he lays the puppy down.

On his way back, he sees that Luo Binghe hasn’t moved much. Just staring down at his empty bowl.

He sits back down at the table and waits. The rain continues to thrum on the window.

“You know... my mother taught me how to cook. This town was her home.”

Shen Yuan blinks, “I thought you were from the city, Hua Hua district?”

Luo Binghe leans back in his seat. “No, my mother’s family is though. I was moved out to the city when my parents passed away.”

“Oh Binghe, I’m sorry for your loss.”

Luo Binghe smiles downward still, not meeting his eyes. “Shen-Shixiong is always so kind.”

There’s a pause, then he keeps going. “In my heart, this valley was always home. The city was cold and harsh with expectations. My grandfather ...” Luo Binghe chuckles, but it’s empty. “My grandfather was not the best man. He provided for me out of obligation, but it was not necessarily out of love.”

Luo Binghe takes a sip of his coffee. “I spent most of my life in the city, this valley whose name I had forgotten was nothing but a dream. I went to a trade school and learned business after high school graduation. Then one day, my old schoolmate comes into the office with this bubbly girl who is trying to open up a foreclosed store in the countryside.”

He looks up at Shen Yuan and it clicks. Mobei Jun referred Ning Yingying to Luo Binghe for help with the business.

“That’s how you made it back home?”

The wording seems to catch Luo Binghe off guard, but he smiles- a true one, this time.

“Yes, that’s how I found my way back here. Your grandfather, Shizun, was more of a grandfather to me than my own ever was. And a better teacher than any in the city. We met after Ning-Shimei bartered a deal for the produce on his farm, but he threw out his back.”

Shen Yuan smiles. He remembers that happening, his father sending a chiropractor for an at-home visit to his grandfather the second the family was told of it.

Luo Binghe sits upright, “it seems I’m very fortunate to continue to have ties to his family.”

“I’m grateful to have Binghe in my life as well. Without your help and advice, this would have been a much worse transition for me.”

Shen Yuan licks his lips, “but I must ask, why tell me all this now?”

Luo Binghe gathers his dishes, standing up. “Well, I realized over breakfast that I know Shen-Shixiong, but other details about who we are... We haven’t shared those yet.”

“Like our ages?” He stands up as well.

“Yes, exactly.”

They make their way back to the kitchen. Luo Binghe grabs a container from a cabinet to put the leftovers in. Once done, he passes it to Shen Yuan, who opens the fridge door to put it away.

“Hmm, well if that’s what Binghe wants let’s go sit and-”

There’s a crack of lightning that makes them both pause. As they wait, a minute passed before the deafening boom follows.

The light in the fridge flickers for a moment. But, it stays on.

“That was freaky.”

“You can say that again.”

A glance at the clock reveals its barely 8:15 AM.

Shen Yuan closes the fridge, “as I was saying, let’s go sit down in the common room. We can share more in there.”

He goes to check on the puppy first, still sound asleep.

After getting settled on either end of the couch, they start talking.

Shen Yuan reveals that he is the middle child in his family of three siblings. His father was the son of a socialite, while his mother was Shen Qingqiu’s granddaughter. He talks about how his brother was recently promoted to a partner lawyer at the firm he’s worked for years. Then how his sister just got out of high school, she applied to colleges and got into a decent one. He talks about Shen Jiu coming into his life around high school; the two of them initially not getting along, until they became as thick as thieves.

Then he talks about himself, how he loves to read novels and indulge in stories. His grandfather had dubbed him a ‘cloud walker’ since his head was always in them. How back in college he decided to pursue a degree in his passion for plants rather than law like his brother. How after he got his degree, he couldn’t find a decent paying job. Shen Jiu had stepped in and gotten him an office job at a business he managed. It had been decent, it paid well, but his family kept him at home.

Then his grandfather passed.

Luo Binghe listens with interest, nodding along and asking questions at certain points. A clarification here and there.

Then Luo Binghe starts his story.

His parents had eloped to live in the country. His father died in a freak landslide while hunting in the mountains. They never found his body. His mother eventually succumbed to illness after overworking herself to take care of Binghe, but not before she called her father to look after Binghe. His parents and he used to go on picnics in the forest, or hiking, but mostly swimming down off the river bank south of town.

After moving to the city, Binghe focused on his school work. In school, he met Mobei Jun and Sha Hualing, and the three of them were considered delinquents of sorts. The school wasn’t one to shy from punishments for discipline. So in short, the school had been hell.

They had all parted ways upon leaving it. Binghe mentions that instead of doing extracurriculars he had worked part-time to save his own money starting in middle school. He saved enough then moved out of his grandfather's home to room with Sha Hualing in an apartment while going to a trade school for business finances. After being accredited, he got a job at an accounting firm and absolutely hated it.

Then maybe a month into the job, Mobei Jin came into the building with Ning Yingying, who was hoping to buy a foreclosed building owned by the firm he worked at.

Ning Yingying had been enthusiastic about starting up a business but was short on funds. Then Luo Binghe bargained with her, he would personally pay off the missing half of the money if she let him sign on as a co-owner. He would use a good chunk of the money he had saved over time. She agreed, only after Mobei Jin vouched for him. He then quit his job and moved to the village in the mountains. Only to be shocked that it was his old childhood home. Granny, the music student, had recognized him as his mother’s son.

Luo Binghe ends his story by admitting he still felt a bit like an outsider to the town, despite becoming involved in the community.

“At least, until recently.”

“Recently?”

“Yes, Shen-Shixiong showed me that I may have been isolating myself. That I do have friends here in town.”

Shen Yuan smiles at Binghe, they both sitting so they’re facing each other on the couch. His right shoulder presses into the cushion as he leans into it. His long hair is flowing over his shoulders as he is slightly hunched over, posture as impeccable as ever.

Luo Binghe blinks twice, then looks away, flushing slightly.

Shen Yuan tilts his head to the side. “What’s wrong Binghe?”

“I didn’t, that is, I didn’t mean to occupy your time with such meaningless chatter.”

Shen Yuan frowns, “I didn’t think it was meaningless. It hurts me to hear you refer to our time together as such-”

Luo Binghe’s eyes snap back over to his, a horrified expression on his face. “I didn’t mean it like that! No, I’m so sorry Shen-Shixiong, I meant making you listen to me-”

“Binghe,” leaning forward, Shen Yuan puts a hand on Luo Binghe’s knee. “Listen to me, I like getting to know you better. It’s okay to talk about yourself.” He squeezes his knee for emphasis.

Luo Binghe flushed full red.

Satisfied, Shen Yuan withdraws his hand. In the blink of an eye, Luo Binghe catches it with his own two hands.

They both freeze.

“Then!” Luo Binghe is still blushing, “since we are closer! At least, I would like to ask permission to call you by your given name!”

Shen Yuan goes red now. “Um-”

BINGHE PLEASE, NO ONE OUTSIDE OF MY FAMILY CALLS ME BY MY NAME.

“You already call me by mine!”

Ugh, he’s got a point.

It's so embarrassing, but it’s only fair!

Shen Yuan steals his nerves, shoulders hiking up a bit. Then he nods.

Luo Binghe beams, “many thanks... A-Yuan.”

Shen Yuan looks away. God, that’s gonna take some getting used to.

“O-of course Binghe, we are friends after all.”

“Right.” Luo Binghe lets go of his hand. “I should head back while the weather is good.”

The thunder and lightning had passed during the duration of their talk. It’s not drizzling but the rainfall is lighter than before. To busy himself Shen Yuan checks the time on his phone. It’s 11:37 AM.

Luo Binghe stands up and makes his way over to the entryway, Shen Yuan trails behind him.

He gets bundled up and grabs his umbrella.

“Well then,” Luo Binghe grins at him. “Until tomorrow, A-Yuan.”

“See you, Binghe.” He feels a little awkward about it but Luo Binghe still smiles as he nods in return, then walks out the front door.

Once it closes, Shen Yuan waits for a beat before he sighs. Who knew this boy would turn out to be so sticky? How is he going to face Binghe armed with his name tomorrow??

He sighs again, before turning around to go check on System. He had left the bathroom door open, but still-

There’s a sudden flash of lightning followed by an immediate, deafening boom of thunder.

System starts barking.

The front door to his house flies open then shut.

A soaking wet Luo Binghe is standing in the entryway.

They stare at each other for a moment.

Luo Binghe clears his throat, “I forgot about lunch.”

His umbrella is inside out. Luo Binghe’s long ponytail is dripping water.

Shen Yuan can’t help it, he snorts. “I’ll have to impose on you to stay a little longer Binghe.”

“Many thanks, A-Yuan.”

_

The storm eventually does come to pass.

Luo Binghe hangs around for the day, his brief exit having cleared up any of Shen Yuan’s thoughts about the whole ‘name’ thing. He’s probably overthinking everything again.

The two of them start researching how to properly take care of a dog in the office, two chairs pulled up to the desktop setup. Turns out, a lot actually.

While the dog seems to have had previous owners, they have no records of her vaccinations or shot treatments. She also needs a collar, toys, a bed, proper food, exercise, and flea and tick treatments.

It’s going to be pricey, and Luo Binghe sheepishly admits that the general store does not carry much for dogs.

It’s at this point that Shen Yuan remembers he’s going home for the weekend.

Luo Binghe adamantly reassures him that the farm will be safe in his care while he is away. After texting Ning Yingying her thoughts on a puppy staying with them, and getting back a dozen heart emojis, it’s also decided that System will stay with Luo Binghe.

At this point, Shen Yuan realizes that he never got his mother a birthday gift and has three days to do so. While he does this, Luo Binghe cleans up the dirt tracked in from the 4 AM dog rescue that completely slipped his mind.

What’s supposed to be a lazy day-in turns into several hours worth of googling dog stuff and suitable gifts.

By the time the storm passes, it’s far too dark out on the dirt paths to send Luo Binghe home in good conscience; so, he stays the night in the guest room.

This ends up being the best scenario for Shen Yuan. The two of them wake up bright and early, and without having to ask for assistance, head out to the field to survey any damage done.

System initially tries to follow them out the door; but not wanting her to get muddy, Shen Yuan commands her to stay. There’s a small whine before she lays down again, head resting on her front paws.

There are some changes already, the deep creek that separates the farmland has reached max capacity and is flowing faster than the trickle of water he’s become accustomed to. Some water splashes up to hit the underside of the bridge, but it’s nothing concerning. The fields themselves just look very wet, the trenches that had been dug having worked like a charm and prevented flooding. The ground itself is mostly dry, save for the occasional puddle and water at the bottom of said trenches.

After checking that there is no leaking or damage at the tool shed, Luo Binghe wanders to check the grain mill and greenhouse, while Shen Yuan checks on the shed housing his beer project.

There isn’t anything wrong with any of them, and an invisible weight he hadn’t recognized is lifted off his shoulders.

So, the storm passes without further incident.

_

The days that follow mostly include clean up of stray debris here and there on the farm and around town.

Then, come Saturday morning, Shen Yuan takes the first train to the city.

The trip is dull and the sun has not risen yet, he’s the only one in the carriage and it’s pretty nice.

After two hours of travel, Shen Yuan gets off the train two stops ahead of his. One, to go eat breakfast at his favorite cafe in the area, and two to finally get his mother a gift. The store he saw the bracelet sponsored for online doesn’t open for another hour, so food is a good distraction.

Once he has the gift in his possession he finally heads home.

A driver is waiting for him at the station, and Shen Yuan takes a moment to pat himself on the back for having dressed somewhat formally earlier.

Once home, there are the usual polite greetings all around until he’s escorted behind closed doors to the family’s main house.

Then his mother pronounces. It goes something along the lines of: ‘Oh you’ve lost weight! Are you eating enough- Oh you’ve got muscle! Look at that tan, are you wearing sunscreen? Your hair has gotten much longer-- Oh, it’s lost its shine. You’re not doing keratin treatments are you?’

And it goes on for a few overwhelming minutes.

Shen Yuan knows his parents weren’t particularly pleased when he moved out. But for now, there’s nothing but smiles and it’s good to be home.

The birthday party isn’t until the evening and the staff is putting the finishing touches on minor details here and there. His father is overseeing everything while his sister takes his mother out for a spa appointment together as her gift to her.

When Shen Yuan mentions he’s made a haircut appointment, Shen Jiu suddenly appears behind his shoulder. Saying something about needed an expert, the two of them leave the manor in his personal car to the salon.

The car ride is quiet until Shen Yuan says, “Yue-Shixiong has been very busy this summer.”

Shen Jiu keeps his eyes on the road, “Oh, has he?”

It wasn’t the type of response he was expecting. It’s not a negative comment, so he keeps going.

“Yes, I’ve hardly seen him in town since the change of seasons. The company seems to need him more during this time. Must be tough, being the owner of a big business--”

Shen Jiu slams on the breaks.

“Ge-ge!” Shen Yuan has one hand on the center console and another on the ‘Oh-shit’ handle up on top.

Owner?” Shen Jiu’s voice is high in disbelief.

A car honks behind them.

Shen Jiu doesn’t move the car.

“Yes, yes company owner- um, you’re blocking the road--”

“What do you mean Company own-- he’s a CEO?” Shen Jiu’s voice hits a new pitch.

The car behind them hits it’s horn again and holds it down.

“If you get us out of the fucking road, I might tell you.”

His cousin scowls at him but drives quickly and efficiently to their destination in a matter of minutes.

He throws the car in park then glares at Shen Yuan expectantly.

Shen Yuan unbuckles then leans back in the seat. “Yue Qingyuan’s family is not only the overseers in town but the family that owns a majority of the valley dating back to feudal-era times. Their main income is coffee beans that are grown in the valley, which are sold to major companies to be packaged and sold in stores or coffee chains. Most residents of the valley work in for the coffee company.”

Shen Jiu stares at him. Then, “I thought he was just some country bumpkin.”

Shen Yuan raises an eyebrow, “No, he literally pays everyone in town.”

Shen Jiu leans back in his chair and shuts his eyes tight for a moment. When he speaks it’s barely above a murmur, and simply: “Fuck.

“What?”

“He’s perfect, god-” Shen Jiu’s voice rises again in volume, “How can one man, be-- be so perfect? He’s nice, he’s not bad to look at, he’s fucking rich-”

Shen Jiu cuts himself off, then pins down Shen Yuan with another glare. “I never said any of that.”

“Sure Ge-ge. I’m gonna get out of the car now.”

_

True to Shen Jiu’s earlier statement, Shen Yuan leaves the salon looking much more stylish than he did before.

His long locks are now a thing of the past. The sides and back of his head are now trimmed nicely short; not buzzed cut, but short. Most of his hair on top of his head is short in comparison to his past style, but long enough now. He’s got a curtain fringe that, combed forward, covers his forehead, with the hair length being just long enough to frame his face opposite to the part of the hair.

In short, it’s super trendy and stylish.

Shen Jiu waves some cash at the receptionist at the salon and is given a nice trim to make his long hair look neater.

Before they leave the salon, Shen Jiu grabs a few items off the shelf and pays for everything.

“Ge-ge please, I can pay for myself.”

“Nonsense, you’re a simple farmer now. And I know you won't buy these products to take care of your hairstyle yourself.”

Part of him wants to point out that he made 100K from farming alone in the spring season. But another part is like ‘hey, free shit’ so Shen Yuan just rolls his eyes.

The rest of the stay home is uneventful, even at the party, Shen Yuan makes himself a nice wallflower to avoid any awkward questions after all the obligatory introductions.

It feels odd, having to slip back on his socialite mask.

He hasn’t missed it.

The next morning he leaves with promises to call more often and well wishes.

And, while he does get on the train, he quickly gets off at another stop to buy some dog items he had marked for pickup for System.

He also stops to purchase a nice box of snacks to share with the teachers association once he gets back home, as well as individual presents for Luo Binghe and Ning Yingying for dog sitting.

It’s late afternoon by the time Shen Yuan finally arrives back in town. He feels a little bad, but the general store should still be open, it’s just before 5 PM after all. So he speed-walks over just in time to catch Ning Yingying as she’s locking the front door.

He waves at her through the window, and she stares at him with a frown before her eyes widen.

She’s glowing as she opens the door for him, “Farmer Shen!! Look at you! I nearly didn’t recognize you.”

He laughs a moment, shrugging off the duffle bag filled with his clothes and dog supplies. It lands with a thud and she rushes to give him a proper hug.

“Surely it’s not that drastic Ning-Shimei.”

“No, it is! Before your hair was properly elegant, er- sometimes at least, when you didn’t have it in a bun. But now!! Oh wow, you look downright handsome!”

Shen Yuan laughs again as they part, holding up a separate bag for her to take.

“That’s kind of you to say. Here, I brought some trinkets as a gift of thanks to you and Binghe for taking care of System-”

“-it’s such an odd name-”

“-not my fault, anyway. She wasn’t too much trouble, was she?”

“Not at all, a perfect little angel. She and A-Luo are upstairs. Here, let me finish closing up shop, and then you can come up to the apartment! Oh, you’ve never been over before! How exciting!!”

Following behind Ning Yingying, Shen Yuan does a double-take at the size of it all.

It’s more of a condo than an apartment. Considering the size of the store downstairs, he’s not sure why he’s surprised. There’s a nice kitchen that has a counter with bar stools on the left side of the room and a sizeable living area with a couch, coffee table, and a modest television. A hallway leading back shows a single door on either left and right wall. The door at the end of the hall is open, revealing a restroom. A pleasant warm grey and soft green color scheme is evident with the furnishings of the room; it looks very cozy.

“A-Luo! Farmer Shen is here.”

The door on the left opens a moment later, System scampers out already yipping. Shen Yuan laughs as he crouches down to say hi, only for her to launch herself into his arms.

She licks his face, her little tail blurring at how fast it’s waving.

“Ahaha- it’s good to see you too, girl.”

She practically vibrates him his arms from happiness and Ning Yingying is taking pictures of the whole thing, cooing right beside him.

Shen Yuan stands up, still holding her. As he looks up, he sees Luo Binghe standing just outside of the room.

He’s staring.

Ning Yingying laughs, “I brought him upstairs. Farmer Shen got us gifts!”

All he says is, “hair.”

“Yes, yes I got it cut. Here, I got the two of you something as thanks.” Shen Yuan sets the bag he’s still holding down on the counter.

Ning Yingying goes for it as Luo Binghe slowly walks over.

“A-Yuan cut his hair.” He sounds a little dazed.

Shen Yuan brings up a hand, moving it back and forth on the back of his head. Hm, maybe this style doesn’t suit him. He may still look young but he isn't. “Surely it doesn’t look bad?”

“NO!” Binghe shouts. It startles everyone in the room. “No, No not at all. You look hot.”

It's quiet.

Luo Binghe blinks, then full-on blushes. With a soft groan, he puts his face in his hands.

Shen Yuan decides to have mercy on him and laughs, patting his arm. “This one was just fishing for compliments. There, there Binghe.”

He gets another groan.

Poor guy, don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes.

Ning Yingying is smirking through the whole ordeal, but it changes to a soft gasp as she pulls out her gift.

Luo Binghe looks up.

Shen Yuan will be the first to admit he likes a lot of materialistic things. His collection of figures will attest to that. But he’s definitely got a taste, as his many artful prints in his office will also attest to this.

He’s gifted both of them individual, handcrafted and color dyed leather-bound notebooks. Ning Yingying’s is a soft mint with small flowers stitched into the leather cover. Luo Binghe’s is a nice maroon with autumn leaves scattered on his.

“It’s not much,” Shen Yuan starts. “But it’s practical, be it for work or personal use.”

They both look a little overwhelmed, then in seconds, he has two crying adults giving him words of gratitude, each of them clutching their books.

At their tearful insistence, he stays for dinner. He answers their questions about his visit home, while Binghe finally works up the nerve to look him in the eye again to tell him about the farm status. Which is to say that the crops are fine.

The fermentation for the beer is coming along nicely, it should be ready for a test run by fall. Their sample batches for pale ale are a little behind since the hops need to dry out after the rain. The malt has been processed and a few oranges acquired after being set aside from shipments to the general store.

Ning Yingying, as Binghe’s business partner, was made aware of Shen Yuan’s little project and offers to start ordering bottles for him to put the beer into.

Towards the end of his stay, around 7:15 PM, they start speaking about how the students will have to go back to school soon. Most of them are hanging around the community center.

Luo Binghe brings up that no one is allowed to go swimming in the riverbank anymore.

Shen Yuan sips at his tea, “oh, because of the rain runoff?”

He’s met with two blank faces.

Then Ning Yingying gasps dramatically. “Farmer Shen! Has anyone told you about the river migration?”

Shen Yuan blinks, “um, no?”

Luo Binghe smiles towards Ning Yingying, taking a sip of his own tea as she hypes herself up. “It’s a wonderful display of nature’s grand beauty, The Dance of the Moonlight Jellies! Once a year, a group of freshwater jellyfish migrate down the river and stop by the riverbank outside of town! We don’t know why, but they always do! Oh, oh! They glow at night too!! It’s so lovely!”

“Huh, I didn’t think there would be freshwater jellyfish out here.”

Luo Binghe nods, “they’re small but still pretty. The headman usually sends out a date that Mu-Shidi gives him, predicting when peak migration will be. The town then goes out to watch them.”

“Sounds lovely.”

Ning Yingying nods so hard it makes his own neck ache. “It is!! Oh, Famer Shen, you should join A-Luo and me for the viewing!”

“Only if you two are okay with this old man joining you.”

“A-Yuan, please.”

Shen Yuan laughs, “alright, thank you both.”

_

On their last week of no schooling, Mu Qingfang takes Shen Yuan down to the river bed. Both of them are surprised that Shen Yuan has never made it down there in the months he’s lived in town.

Mu Qingfang speaks, “I suppose it would make sense that you’ve stuck to the northwest of town. There’s nothing but houses and the library southeast of town.”

Shen Yuan shrugs in return, “I suppose so, but you don’t have to vouch for me Mu-shidi. Aside from farming, I’m known to be lazy.”

“Really? I had no idea.” The sarcasm is dripping from his mellow tone.

Shen Yuan gives him a soft nudge with his shoulder. Mu Qingfang doesn’t even budge, just laughs a little. As they walk through the neighborhoods, the two of them pass by a group of children playing soccer on the path. Makeshift goals made up of chalk lines on the ground, two older teens supervising the game with whistles around their necks. The game pauses as the let the two of them pass.

Mu Qingfang says hello to a few little ones. One of the teenagers, a handsome young man who reminds him of Binghe, approaches Shen Yuan

“Good day Farmer Shen, um, I was curious if there would be any more melon harvests?”

“Yes, there should be one more batch... Um?”

“Oh,” The teen smiles, holding out his hand. “I’m Gongyi Xiao, it’s a pleasure.”

Shen Yuan shakes his hand, returning the smile. “The pleasure is mine.”

Gongyi Xiao shyly glances down. “I have to tell you, your melons the best I’ve ever had. They’re so sweet and juicy, I don’t have to add any salt to them.”

Shen Yuan laughs, “Hearing you say that makes my day. Here’s to hoping the last batch will taste just as good.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will!”

The other teenager is speaking to Mu Qingfang. “Will Shizun be at the guild tomorrow?”

He gets a pat on the head, “I’m sorry to say he won’t be. The ranch is doing checkups on their cow’s health.”

The poor boy goes a little pale at that.

Mu Qingfang softly laughs, “Yes, I’m sure you remember it’s not a fun time.” At Shen Yuan’s confused look Mu-shidi explains. “They have to stick their arm up that cow’s anus to-”

Shen Yuan holds up a hand as Gongyi Xiao chokes on his spit.

Mu Qingfang just laughs. “Well, we will leave you two to the game.”

Gongyi Xiao tilts his head, “Where are you two headed?”

“Well, Shen-shidi hasn’t been to the Luo river yet--”

The other boy immediately turns to kids, “Game’s on timeout. We’ll be back.”

There’s a chorus of complaints.

Gongyi Xiao gives the boy a quick side-eye before smiling to the whining kids. “Be sure to drink water on the break. See if there’s any melon to snack on.”

At the mention of food, they all scatter to a few different homes on the street.

The second boy turns to Shen Yuan. “The name’s Yang Yixuan, I’m Liu Qingge’s disciple.”

Behind his back Mu Qingfang give Shen Yuan a look that screams ‘just go with it.’ Gongyi Xiao rolls his eyes. This results in Yang Yixaun glaring at him.

“So, uh, the Luo River yeah?” Shen Yuan catches Mu Qingfang’s now grateful look.

“Yes, let’s be on our way.”

They make it to the river bed with minimal antagonism between the two boys. Mu Qingfang starts to explain that the river has been flowing through the valley for centuries now as a result of runoff from the snow of the nearby mountains. The jellyfish seem to originate from a lake high in the mountains, drawn to the town by the lights in it. They migrate down for their breeding ground at the calm waters of the riverbank, then make their way back upriver to their home lake. They’ve been nicknamed by the locals as ‘Icicle Jellies’ due to their white coloring and sharp sting.

The river itself is huge, plenty wide with waters crystal clear, allowing you to see all the way down to the bottom. The banks of the river seem to naturally slope down to the water, the incline not being very steep. The water itself seems to slow down around the wide bend that curves around the small sandy beach, that shallows outright at the tip of the bend. After a certain point, the currents visibly pick up. A few floating, wooden piers tied off by buoys rest against the calm waters at various points of the bend.

Bamboo has overtaken the opposite side of the river bank. It’s lovely, and Shen Yuan says as much.

“Oh, this is nothing-” Yang Yixaun starts.

“What he means to say-” Gongyi Xiao cuts in. “Is that it’s truly stunning illuminated in the moonlight. It’s seen as very romantic, a lot of people come to the viewing with dates.”

“Yeah, so you won’t be coming then?” Yang Yixaun goads.

Gongyi Xiao sniffs, “I’m in charge of supervising the children. I don’t have time for a date.”

Yang Yixaun grins, bringing his arms behind his head as he grins. “That’s what they all say.”

Gongyi Xiao glares at him, “What’s your excuse then huh? Your Shizun has a date this year, you can't go with him again.”

Yang Yixaun freezes.

Shen Yuan and Mu Qingfang exchange an exhausted look. Mu Qingfang seems to brace himself to invite the youth to third wheel on his date.

During Yang Yixuan’s apparent crisis, Gongyi Xiao glances at Mu Qingfang and loudly sighs. “There are a lot of kids I’m in charge of.”

Yang Yixuan glances at him.

“Just sooo many.”

He stares at him.

Gongyi Xiao speaks through gritted teeth. “Too many. For one person.”

Yang Yixuan blinks twice, then all of his gusto comes rushing right back as he puffs out his chest a bit. “Don’t worry, I’ll naturally lend you a hand!” For some reason, the teen turns to the river bank and laughs loudly.

Gongyi Xiao looks at Mu Qingfang, his eyes dead. “I’m so grateful.” His voice is flat.

Shen Yuan and Mu Qingfang exchange another look.

Teenagers.

_

The night of The Dance of the Moonlight Jellies gets announced to be a Thursday night, the week that lessons resume, on the last week of the summer season.

In the spirit of the festival, once the usual music lessons are over, Shen Yuan holds the class back to play for them a romantic song he learned as a young boy. Granny seems to recognize the song, swaying to the music with a nostalgic smile. The other students listen, enraptured in the piece. Once he’s done playing a few of them make enthusiastic outbursts about practicing harder to become masterful at their instruments.

After a few motivational words to them, and a farewell to Granny, Shen Yuan leaves the center to find Yue Qingyuan waiting for him.

“I assume the others have told you about the festivities tonight?”

“Yes, that’s right. How have you been, by the way, Yue-Shixiong?” The man has some dark circles under his eyes that weren’t there before.

“I’m a little overworked, but summer is always so busy.”

“Is it really?”

“Oh yes, people overstock for the incoming fall season. We created a hazelnut roast for a fall brew the year before. It became a hit, and the company has been working overtime to get all the shipments out before the change of seasons.”

“No wonder you seem so tired. I hope you get some rest Shidi.”

Yue Qingyuan pats his shoulder, “You’re truly too kind Shen-Shidi. I just stopped by to make sure you were aware of the fun tonight.”

“Ah, I think it’s Yue-Shixiong that’s the kind one.”

They smile at each other for a moment before Yue Qingyuan removes his hand.

“Well, I’ll be off. Enjoy your evening.”

Shen Yuan spots Luo Binghe sitting on one of the side couches. “You as well, Shixiong.”

Luo Binghe stands up as Shen Yuan approaches, “How was A-Yuan’s lesson?”

“It went very well, thank you Binghe.” They make their way out of the building. “I trust it was a good day at the shop?”

Luo Binghe moves forward to hold the door open for him. Shen Yuan nods his thanks.

“A-Yuan is correct, today was a very good day! Many people came by to purchase picnic blankets and Tupperware for tonight’s viewing.”

“I do have a blanket we can use-”

Binghe gives him a hurt look, “A-Yuan, do you really believe this one would be so unprepared? Ning-Shimei and I invited you, it’s only right for us to prepare our dinner.”

Luo Binghe hesitates, “I forgot to mention that one more person will be joining us.”

Shen Yuan nods, “that’s fine by me. Is it someone I know?”

Luo Binghe nods in return, “Yes, Liu Mingyan. She usually accompanies her brother and his disciple, but as you know Liu-Shishu is going with Mu-Shishu.”

Shen Yuan laughs, recalling the ordeal that took place at the river as the two of them make their way to the general store. He recounts Gongyi Xiao’s noble sacrifice for the sake of Mu-Shidi’s date to Luo Binghe as they walk.

Binghe barks out a laugh, “oh poor Gongyi Xiao, he never catches a break.”

They make their way into the store, walking up the stairs into the apartment above. As the door closes behind them, Shen Yuan asks the question he’s been dying to.

“Do you think they’ll ever see eye to eye.”

Liu Mingyan is sitting at the counter in the kitchen, System is dozing off in her lap. She nods to Luo Binghe and then raises an eyebrow at Shen Yuan’s question.

Binghe supplies Shen Yuan with a glass of water as he answers her unspoken question.

“Gongyi Xiao and Yang Yixuan.”

“Oh,” she says. Shen Yuan notices that her printed mask is plain today. When he points this out she shrugs.

“It glows in the dark.”

“Oh, that’s clever.”

It’s much harder for him to make small talk with her than her older brother for some reason.

“About those two...” She starts. “They just need to bone.”

Shen Yuan chokes on his sip of water.

Maybe there’s a reason he can’t talk to her.

Luo Binghe shoots Liu Mingyuan a scandalized look.

She just raises an eyebrow, “Gongyi Xiao likes idiots.” She says nothing more as she picks up her phone, opening up an app.

Shen Yuan gives up on ever understanding her.

The two of them sit at the counter watching Luo Binghe cook for them lunch boxes to eat during the viewing party.

After a moment Liu Mingyan tells Shen Yuan he needs to rename the puppy. Something that he has tried, but she never responds to anything else. They spend some time going over names, trying to get her to respond to any of them. Luo Binghe providing additional comments now and then.

Once 5 PM rolls around, Ning Yingying drags herself up the stairs. She ends up flopping face-first on the couch in the living area with a groan. Liu Mingyan immediately gets up from her chair, passing System to Shen Yuan as she does so. She makes it to Ning Yingting and starts to give her a back rub.

Ning Yingying groans again, this time out of relief, the sound muffled by the pillow she faceplanted into.

Not looking up from spooning rice into a lunch box, Luo Binghe says, “I told you so.”

Ning Yingying murmurs something into the pillow.

Liu Mingyan looks up from a back rub, “she says ‘fuck off’.”

Luo Binghe huffs a laugh but does nothing more.

The viewing doesn’t start until 10 PM, but in an effort to get a good spot they leave at 8 PM. Putting System on a leash, she trots just slightly in front of their group as everyone carries something to the river bank. Shen Yuan is holding the blanket while Ning Yingying holds a bag with napkins and bottled teas. Liu Mingyan and Luo Binghe are cradling two lunch boxes each.

Surprisingly enough, they’re not the very first ones to arrive, but they’re definitely still early. Quickly setting upon an area that’s close enough to the water but still flat enough, they all tuck into their meal. There’s no worry about getting hungry later, as Luo Binghe also made them some desserts to snack on.

System chooses to sit on the blanket and sniff at the ground. She gets spoiled by pets every few moments or so.

Yue Qingyuan shows up with a few paper lanterns in tow. Some of the townspeople get up to help him set them down among the shore of the river as well as place a few on the floating piers.

Around 9:30 PM Ning Yingying dozes off, her head resting on Liu Mingyan’s shoulder. Shen Yuan isn’t quite sure how she can manage to sleep when Liu Mingyan’s flu mask is starting to glow in the dark of the night. Then he catches the soft look Liu Mingyan is giving Ning Yingying.

When Ning Yingying is awoken a good fifteen minutes by the sounds of more people arriving, Shen Yuan gets up under the guise of stretching his legs. Luo Binghe follows in suit. System stays behind, content to lay on the blanket.

They stroll aimlessly upriver, away from the noise and chatter of people. Soon enough, only the sounds of the water flowing and crickets chirping are all they’re able to hear. The moon is full and glowing brightly as it rises to its peak above them.

Shen Yuan’s voice is quiet when he speaks. “Are Ning-Shimei and Liu Mingyan dating?”

Luo Binghe sighs, “Those two are just as bad as Mu-Shishu and Liu-Shishu.”

“So pining?”

“Liu-shijie is her brother’s sister.”

Shen Yuan rolls his eyes with a smile.

Luo Binghe comes to a stop, then silently points out to the river.

Small glowing white lights are visible within the water, coming towards them. The numbers are few, but then larger ones about the size of one’s fist are visible in the deeper currents of the water. Numerous jellyfish lazily swim past them, in no hurry at all to reach their destination.

The two of them stand on the river bank side by side watching the spectacle pass them by.

After what feels like a while, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes pass, Luo Binghe gently nudges him.

“A-Yuan.” He looks up, and for a moment his breath catches.

It’s hard to brush aside that Luo Binghe is easily one of the most handsome men that Shen Yuan’s ever met. Even though most of the town is filled with unfairly beautiful people. But standing beside Luo Binghe, seeing his face aglow with the silver soft lighting of the moonlight is something else.

Binghe looks ethereal.

The light seems to catch on the angles of his face, enunciating his carved jawline and cheekbones. They bring light to his dark eyes, they almost seem to be sparkling. The shadows cast by the light only seem to bring out the muscle definition in his neck.

Then Shen Yuan realizes he’s checking out his friend and should probably knock that off.

He swallows around the lump in his throat. “Yes, Binghe?”

Luo Binghe stares at him for a second longer, he quietly murmurs. “We should head back.”

Shen Yuan nods, “lead the way.”

He seems to hesitate, but just before Shen Yuan can think of it, Luo Binghe starts to lead them back up to the gathering area.

Shen Yuan takes turns glancing at the ground in front of him and looking to the jellyfish they’re passing by on the trek back.

He fails to notice a rock in the path.

Shen Yuan trips on it with a gasp, but as he stumbles two strong arms grab him by the shoulders and steady him.

Shen Yuan sighs, “Many thanks Binghe.”

Luo Binghe licks his lips, then hurriedly looks down. Which is good because the action catches Shen Yuan’s eye and wow how has he not noticed Binghe’s lips are so full-

Abort, abort-- nope, he needs to knock that off right now.

Luo Binghe, still looking at the ground says, “A-Yuan should be more careful.”

“I--I'll do my best.”

Luo Binghe lets go of his shoulders, one hand drifting down his arm until he reaches his wrist.

“Please see that you do.” His voice is soft.

Then Binghe grabs his hand.

Shen Yuan freezes up a little bit before Luo Binghe says, “This one will guide A-Yuan.”

They walk back with Shen Yuan trailing just a bit behind Luo Binghe, who shows no intention of ever letting go.

Chapter Text

Fall leads to a surprising realization. That Shen Yuan really needs to go shopping for winter bed sheets. The cold that creeps in at night does not go away by morning light anymore.

On Monday, a few days after the Dance of The Moonlight Jellies, he wakes up to a chill permeating the air of his room and a slight shiver. System, despite having her own bed, is asleep by his feet, which are the only part of him that’s even remotely warm at this point.

Crawling out of bed proves to be a challenge, but his warmer pants and socks are calling out to him from the dresser.

It’s as if overnight, the scenery has changed.

The bamboo stalks, being evergreen plants, seems to have dimmed a shade or two of their brilliant colors, leaving them an olive green. The Birch trees around the area have attained a white color to their bark, while the leaves have transitioned to a vibrant yellow. Leaving the estate shows that the maple trees lining the path to his house are now a rich red.

It’s a breathtaking sight.

It will be such a bitch to rake up too. But that’s a problem for future him, once the leaves start to fall.

A quick peek in the tool shed shows that the rake he does have is missing a few teeth, so he throws it out without much hesitation. Summer provided him with nearly double what spring had in profits. The agricultural magazine he’s subscribed to tells him that fall is by far the most profitable season. He’s pretty excited about that, especially since he will be unable to grow anything in the fields come winter. Without crops to sell, Shen Yuan will be dependent on the money he’s saved during the offseason. Hopefully, once it’s done, the beer will be good to sell and start a profit there.

However, beer isn’t quite ready yet either. The shed that he’s got his little brewery going in isn’t exactly little in size. There is plenty of space for multiple kegs and variety, multiple bins of dried out grains sit sorted by variety form all the harvests over the summer. Not wanting to be a one-trick pony, he and Luo Binghe have set up a single type of different brews: a pale ale, malt, wheat, hop, and a barrel-aged based beer. It’s just that is has taken some time for everything to ferment well enough. They actually started the malt over again, after taste testing and discovering that it was fucking horrible.

Fall is still a season to continue to harvest and grow the grains, and that’s the plan. Better to stock up for future endeavors. The hops plants in the east field have withered way, being a summer-only plant, but the ones in the greenhouse should still be growing. The production of corn is also still going as well. In fact, he probably needs to harvest the corn soon.

The rest of the summer plants are no longer faring well, so Shen Yuan ties a bandana over his forehead to keep his bangs off his face and gets to work. He’s gotten used to his early morning routines of tending to these fields, despite not being an early riser. The plus side is that by tending to the fields, he can easily wake himself up with muscle work. He’s come a long way since starting out in spring.

It shows too when Shen Yuan can fully remove the dying crops, fertilize the ground, and plant the new harvest seeds all on his own. He works with a few breaks from 6:00 AM to 8:30 AM. His energy doesn’t feel nearly as depleted when he first took to fieldwork. The satisfaction at the realization is enough to make him still feel fully energetic.

System eventually makes her way out of the house. She yips at him as he finishes putting his tools away in the shed. Shen Yuan had Shang Qinghua install a doggy door for her as a precaution, not wanting her to cooped up while he was out of the house in the mornings.

She is wearing a mint green collar with her name and return address just in case she wanders off. The puppy still seems rather content to stick to his side though, and it’s not like Shen Yuan minds the company.

Still, despite it now being fall, the sun’s heat is rather oppressive. So, Shen Yuan makes the executive decision to go sit on his deck at the large pond on the south of his property to soak his feet. System trots along beside him, the lazy puppy content to sunbathe right next to him. The shapes of fish are only just visible deep within the pond. Lotus flowers that had bloomed in the spring have long since withered away, only lily pads sit on the surface. The wind picks up for a bit.

A fragrant, sweet smell in the air catches Shen Yuan by surprise.

System also perks up, the two of them exchange a look. A few minutes later, they’re leaving the property through the south gate, following the sweet smell of baked goods.

As they pass by the Liu Ranch, a few cows moo their way. But the scent doesn’t seem to be coming from the family estate there. Still wandering further south, Shen Yuan reaches the huge pond there. Qi Qingqi’s cabin is shuttered up, right on the water. She’s probably already on her way to the Inn for the morning check-in.

It’s not coming from her place either.

In fact, the smell seems to be coming further from the west, on the other side of the water. System continues by leading the way, walking fast on her tiny legs. Shen Yuan follows close behind, careful not to lose her.

The walk takes a while, but then Shen Yuan sees the source of the smell. A log cabin, deep in the woods, sitting atop a cliff.

He’s beginning to have second thoughts because no one he knows lives this far out here when System takes off at a full sprint.

Shen Yuan curses and runs after her.

She turns a corner around the side of the cliff and he follows, revealing some carved in steps supported by planks of wood leading up to the top. System, despite her size, is leaping up them.

Shen Yuan continues to run after her up a flight of stairs.

However, the puppy makes it to the door of the cabin before he can catch her. She barks twice at it.

The door opens as Shen Yuan makes it halfway to it.

A delicate-looking man with a warm look in his eyes opens the door. He’s dressed in long robes, the old fashioned kind but not out of date ones.

He looks at the dog on his step before crouching down to pet her. System’s tail wags a bit.

Without looking up the man speaks. “I was wondering when I would get to meet you, Shen Yuan.”

Shen Yuan blinks. He’s definitely never even heard of this reclusive man before.

“I’m sorry, I don’t believe I know who you are?”

“That doesn’t surprise me.” He gives System one final scratch behind her ears before standing up. “I tend to keep to myself. My name is Zhuzhi-lang.”

“It’s nice to meet you as well Zhuzhi-lang, I apologize for disturbing you.”

“It’s no disturbance.” There’s a slight smile on his face, “Although I must ask, any particular reason for the visit?”

“Er, well, It’s somewhat embarrassing but I followed my nose to your home.”

A slow smile stretches on Zhuzhi-lang’s face. “Ah, you smelled my Apple Turnovers.” He steps aside from the entryway. “Please, come in. I’ve only heard of you in passing, I consider this fate’s way of us getting to know one another.”

Hell, if fate was going to hand him fresh-baked apple turnovers, he isn’t gonna say no to that.

The inside of the cabin is certainly interesting. Despite the outside appearing to be log-based, the inside has smooth stones lining the walls. The cabin appears to be one big room with a stairway leading up to a back hall full of books. A kitchen is built along the entirety of the left wall, complete with a sink wall long countertop. There is a stone fireplace is burning near the upper right corner of the room. A cushy looking bench and a coffee table occupy the rest of the right side of the room. As does a giant terrarium along the same wall as the entryway, containing a large snake that’s sunbathing on a rock under a heat lamp.

Shen Yuan looks to Zhuzhi-lang, “You like reptiles?”

“Oh yes!” Zhuzhi-lang seems to hesitate a moment later. “You have nothing to fear with ZhengYang, she’s perfectly civil.”

“I’m not worried. My cousin, Shen Jiu, he owns a bearded dragon by the name of Xiu Ya. She used to run up and down my arms.”

Zhuzhi-lang grins a little wider. “Fate truly is kind to me today. Please come sit, I do wish to know more about you.”

They settle at the small kitchen table, the apple turnovers still needing a few more minutes to bake.

Zhuzhi-lang mentions he has some warm milk on the stove, asking if he would like some with a spoonful of wild honey. Shen Yuan graciously accepts, sitting in a chair while System hops up on his lap to doze.

This puppy is always sleeping.

Zhuzhi-lang takes a seat across from him, then they begin to talk.

Shen Yuan reveals the usual info about himself. How he got the farm, how he found System (“A unique name”, “I’m aware.”), and his business trade with the Inn and general store.

Zhuzhi-lang removes the turnovers from the oven while he speaks, letting them cool down on a wire rack. The sweet scent of baked apples coupled with the butter from the crust permeates the room.

Ten minutes or so into Shen Yuan’s talk, Zhuzhi-lang sets the pastry in front of him. It effectively shuts him up.

The crust of the puff pastry is buttery, flaky, but not too airy. It still has a slight density to it, the top of the turnover lightly coated in baked sugar. Inside, the apples are baked but not overdone, with just a hint of a crunch in the middle-- not a soggy apple all the way through. The apples are coated with a mixture of cinnamon and honey within, some of the syrup escaping as he takes his first bite.

It’s the perfect pastry.

Shen Yuan is sure to tell Zhuzhi-lang as much, who slightly blushes. He mumbles thanks as he bites into his own pastry.

After a moment Zhuzhi-lang speaks, “I enjoy baking as a hobby of mine.”

“I would say you have a talent for this.”

“You’re too kind.”

Then Zhuzhi-lang begins to talk about himself. He moved out to the countryside to follow his uncle a few years back, only to find that his uncle had long since passed away. Finding that he enjoyed living out in the woods, Zhuzhi-lang decided to cut off ties to modern society and live as a homesteader, directly off the land. He still has electricity, thanks to solar panels on the backside of his house, he directly uses that to power his landline (in case of emergencies) and his TV with the three cable channels (too keep an eye on the weather). That he had hired Shang Qinghua to build him a greenhouse as well, where he has his little garden for herbs, fruits, and veggies. His bro also dug him a well, so he didn’t have to trek up and down the cliffside to the pond to water his plants.

Zhuzhi-lang is also a beekeeper. During most of the year, he collects honey from the bees that keep his garden flourishing. He specializes in flavoring his honey and has even made bee byproducts such as soaps and chapstick to sell in town as income. He’s not by any means, ostracised from town or events. He simply doesn’t enjoy crowds and prefers to keep to himself.

Apparently, after living on his own for some time, Zhuzhi-lang had what one would call a spiritual awakening. He describes that he has sensed other presences around him, perhaps looking after his garden when he has occasionally fallen ill.

Shen Yuan recognizes bits and pieces of his tale to line up with the local folklore that his grandfather had once enticed him with. He explains to Zhuzhi-lang that the locals have stories of nature spirits called Jinumo, helpful little creatures that were the supposed guardians of the area, who warded demons away back in feudal era times. It became a popular tale to tell after children who became scared of demons returning to the valley after the events of the Flower Dance.

Zhuzhi-lang, who is lacking on information surrounding the local legends of the valley, listens intently to Shen Yuan. His own apple turnover sitting forgotten on his plate.

Shen Yuan eyes it for a moment when he’s done speaking.

Zhuzhi-lang slides the plate over to him

Shen Yuan starts eating it.

For his part, Zhuzhi-lang seems contemplative; sitting with his hands folded on top of the table. “Shen Yuan?”

He looks up from the turnover.

Zhuzhi-lang looks up from his hands as well. He’s smiling, “Thank you for enlightening me. It’s nice to put a name to the spirits I’ve been sensing.”

Shen Yuan doesn’t necessarily feel like pointing our that he doesn’t believe in fairytales anymore. But that would be far too rude.

Zhuzhi-lang continues, “I’d like to extend an invitation to you. Feel free to stop by my humble abode whenever you please-”

Hmm, that’s probably not gonna be often.

“- I’ll be sure to bake something for the occasion.”

“I’ll be back every Monday then.”

Yes!! Good eating shall continue even on Binghe-free days!!

Zhuzhi-lang chuckles, “That sounds delightful.”

_

Another realization comes to Shen Yuan in the days following the Moonlight Jellyfish viewing.

Luo Binghe is unfairly attractive. Not that he wasn’t before! It’s just... now he’s noticing it more often. And really that can only mean one thing.

That he’s sexually frustrated.

Yes, okay, it’s been a while since he’s felt the urge for some decent ‘me time’. He couldn’t bring himself to, ya know, do it, when he first moved in because in the back of his head there was always the lingering thought ‘this is grandpa’s house’ and that just about stopped any horny feelings. In the summer, the heat exhaustion from even leaving the house just killed any and all of his boners too.

Now that his dog is constantly following him everywhere, getting a moment’s peace is near impossible. Yeah, he could always just jerk it in the shower, but then it’s just going to clog the drain and turn into shower jellies. And not the good kind of shower jelly that you can buy at a luxury bath store. The bad kind that sticks to the rim of the drain and festers. No one wants to deal with that.

It’s nasty stuff, he’s not doing it.

Instead, Shen Yuan figures that if Buddhist monks can will away their sexual frustrations, then so can he.

Thankfully he’s already pretty into yoga as a form of mediation. Sure, he was slacking for a while but now’s as good a time to fix it back into his daily routines. He gets back into the swing of things, meditating regularly during yoga in the late morning after completing his morning chores.

Surprisingly enough it seems to be working. The day after he meets Zhuzhi-lang, he doesn’t feel an immediate ‘wow, my friend is hot’ towards Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan nearly cries with relief.

Thank god, definitely don’t want to make things weird by lusting after your friend.

Things once again seem to settle in town as the heat begins to subside and the brisk air of fall settles over the valley in the next two weeks.

Towards the end of the first month of fall, on a normal Sunday, one of the families in town put up a notice on the bulletin board in downtown. It’s an open invitation for everyone to come to pick their apples from their family orchard and pay for the bucket (because hey, everyone needs income.) The next day, Shen Yuan invites Zhuzhi-lang to come with him during his visit.

It turns out to be the perfect relaxing morning.

Most of the townsfolk are too busy on their Mondays to make time out of their schedule. With school on going and the rest of the teachers having 8 AM - 5 PM jobs, it’s not like Shen Yuan can ask any of them to accompany him either.

The orchards are blessedly quiet. The farmer who owns them let’s the two of them into the fields, saying that he will be around the corner when they’re done and ready to pay. A few trees appear to have apple blossoms still, but for the most part, the view is the fading green of the leaves dotted with vibrant, pinkish-red apples.

Shen Yuan takes a quick picture of it, then switches to video when System makes for a pile of leaves. She leaps in and immediately disappears into the depths of the foliage, not even making a dent in it. He and Zhuzhi-lang get a chuckle out of it, she barks (his little girl is barking now, can you believe it?) at the two of them as it to say ‘shut up’.

Apple picking goes smoothly until Zhuzhi-lang finds an apple that has a worm burrowed within it. The man yelps like System occasionally does, dropping it in a flash, immediately wiping his hand on his pants.

Shen Yuan does his best to hold back his laughter, but can’t keep the teasing smile off his face. “Don’t you garden Zhuzhi-lang?”

“Yes, well, I have gloves on and use a hoe.” He’s pouting, not meeting his eyes, cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

“It’s okay, we all have things we are afraid of.”

“Pray tell, what’s yours then?”

“Hmm, a painful death?”

Zhuzhi-lang shakes his head, “that’s reasonable, but not what I meant.”

“In that case... I guess beetles?”

“Really?”

“Yeah, they’re kinda creepy.”

“Then please, don't look two trees behind you.”

“...Why?”

“I believe a giant stag beetle is crawling up the other tree- oh it’s flying this way.”

“WHAT”

The quiet morning is pierced, seconds later, by Shen Yuan’s fearful shriek.

_

A few days later, on a Thursday that is Mu Qingfang’s turn to teach, Shen Yuan’s landline rings. It startles him out of his yoga mediation. Considering he’s only given it to two people: Yue Qingyuan and Zhuzhi-lang, he picks it up.

“Hello?”

There’s a pause before Zhuzhi-lang voice comes through, “Ah, um, Shen Yuan?” He sounds hesitant.

“Hey Zhuzhi-lang, what can I do for you?”

“If... If it’s not too much trouble, could I bother you for-- actually, nevermind-”

“Hey,” Shen Yuan puts on his ‘teacher’ voice. The same one he uses to soothe students who get nervous when he asks them to perform in front of the class. “You can ask me, it’s fine.”

It’s quiet on the line for the moment before he hears, “could I bother you for some oats and flour?”

Shen Yuan blinks, “Oats and flour?”

“Yes, please, this is rather embarrassing...”

He’ll have to run to town to get oats.

“Sure thing. It’ll take me a few minutes, but I’ll be over shortly.”

There’s a thank you before the line clicks, and dial tone comes in.

Shen Yuan checks that his loose tank top is long enough in the front before grabbing an athletic zip-up to throw on. He’s still wearing his leggings, but whatever he looks good in them-- especially now that he’s resumed his squats again. A quick check in the kitchen to confirm he has flour (whoops, he doesn’t), a command for System to stay, and then he’s off.

It’s a quick jog into town and to the general store. The day is breezy, the chill in the air cooling him down before he has the chance to start sweating. The bell above the door chimes as he enters. Luo Binghe has his back to him, throwing a wave over his shoulder as he messes with the items on the shelves directly behind the counter. Since he’s busy, Shen Yuan just heads to the aisles with the items he needs in it. Grabbing two bags of flour, he needs one too, and a container of oats he walks up to the counter, setting them down.

Luo Binghe continues to rummage with the items of the shelves.

Shen Yuan waits.

Luo Binghe fiddles with the labels.

Shen Yuan checks his phone, the minute changes.

Luo Binghe tsks and reaches for something on the top shelf.

Shen Yuan feels his eye twitch. “Binghe.”

Luo Binghe tenses mid-stretch. He rapidly spins around a surprised expression on his face. “Shen Yuan!”

Shen Yuan raises an eyebrow, “Your customer service skills are abysmal today.”

Luo Binghe blushes, “I didn’t- you never come-- what I mean is-” Luo Binghe closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, “this one apologizes for his rudeness.”

Shen Yuan shrugs it off, “It’s fine, Binghe looked busy.”

Luo Binghe scans his items in record time, ringing up his total. He’s still a little red, “That’s no excuse and this one sincerely apologizes.”

Shen Yuan's other eyebrow goes up, “Binghe, it’s just me. It’s fine, I’m only teasing you.”

He passes his card to him as Luo Binghe shakes his head, cashing out his purchase. “No, A-Yuan deserves to be treated with the respect that this one failed to provide.”

He can’t help himself, Shen Yuan pat’s his head. “Binghe it’s fine.”

Luo Binghe shyly looks down. Then he frowns, “Why does A-Yuan need two bags of flour?”

“Oh, one’s for me. The other two things are for Zhuzhi-lang.”

Luo Binghe’s head snaps up, “Huh?”

Shen Yuan blinks, “what?”

“Since when did you meet this one’s cousin??”

“... He’s your cousin??”

“Yes!”

“Oh, er, the beginning of fall? We met up on Mondays- oh, just this Monday we went apple picking together. I’m taking these-” Shen Yuan gestures to the flour and oats- “to him right now.”

Luo Binghe looks visibly shocked. “You’re friends with him?”

Shen Yuan nods, “I guess so yeah.”

Luo Binghe murmurs something that sounds suspiciously like ‘oh my god he has friends.’ Then he hands Shen Yuan his card back.

“Wait just one moment please.”

Luo Binghe quickly jogs over to the door that leads to the upper apartment. He throws it open, “Hey Ning-Shimei!”

“Whhhhaaaatttttttt?”

“I’m going to Zhuzhi-lang’s place. Man the shop!” He starts to close the door.

“A-Luo, you bastard! It’s my day off-”

The door shuts.

A moment later Shen Yuan is being pushed out the front door by Binghe, who hasn’t stopped saying ‘Go, go, go!’. Binghe pulls out a light jacket from out of nowhere. There’s thudding, stomping on the ceiling that quickly travels to the area where the stairs are.

Luo Binghe grabs Shen Yuan’s hand and books it out of the store.

Shen Yuan as all of three seconds to be flustered when the door to the general store flies open behind them.

Ning Yingying looks so angry that she might start spewing fire any second now.

Luo Binghe yells over his shoulder, “I’ll be back in a bit!” He’s got a rebellious smirk on his face.

Shen Yuan’s heart skips a beat.

Wow, he should really add jogging to his routine huh? It says something about his health if his heart is faltering at a run.

They run until the two of them hit the west entrance out of town, the one that leads to the forest out of town, right in front of the Liu family ranch. They stop there for a breather, mostly for Shen Yuan to catch is breath.

After a second, he tries to raise his hand to wipe some of the sweat off his forehead. Except he can’t because Luo Binghe is still holding it.

Shen Yuan looks at their hands and then Luo Binghe.

“Oh, um, apologies.” Binghe looks at their hands once more before letting go. “This one just didn’t want you to face the wrath of Ning-Shimei.”

“It looks like Binghe will when he gets home.”

Luo Binghe looks away, a shadow of dread lingering over his face. “Yeah...”

The wind picks up, scattering a few leaves off the trees.

“Well, let’s be off to your cousin’s home. Shall we?”

“En.”

The rest of the trek is unremarkable. Zhuzhi-lang is very surprised when he opens the door to see Luo Binghe as well. It turns out that he was trying to make some miniature apple crumbles to find that he was missing ingredients. He had called Shen Yuan because he didn’t want to leave his snake alone since she was shedding her skin.

Zhuzhi-lang quickly offers to pay Shen Yuan for his troubles, who declines saying there’s no need.

Luo Binghe chats for a minute or so with his cousin.

Watching the two of them, Shen Yuan can’t see much of a resemblance. But cooking good food must be a family trait, so Zhuzhi-lang’s baking skills make a lot more sense now.

As if sensing his thoughts, Zhuzhi-lang invites the two of them to stay for the Apple Crumbles once he is done.

They quickly accept.

_

The landline rings again when Shen Yuan arrives back at his place after his morning chores on Tuesday.

This time, when he answers the phone, it’s Yue Qingyuan who speaks.

“Good morning Shen-Shidi.”

“Good morning to you as well Yue-Shixiong. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I wanted to inform you about the Valley Fair. It’s a friendly competition of sorts that we have amongst the other villages in the valley.”

“That sounds interesting. Is it held here in town?”

“No, it’s held annually at the Tin Yi Overlook temple grounds. It’s about an hour’s train ride or so out of town. I close down the company and the townsfolk usually head over for a day or so. But, the main reason I called was to inquire if you would be participating or not.”

“Er, participating? Do you mean attending?”

“My apologies, what I mean to ask is if you would be setting up a stall at the Fair. To show off your goods, such as the best produce or any artisanal items, you can also sell them too. If not, I would put your name in the drawing of townsfolk to stay behind and keep an eye on the town. We want to discourage any robberies while a majority of people are gone.”

Shen Yuan almost impulsively says ‘no’, when a thought occurs to him. “How far out is the fair?”

“It will be next week.”

He can get everything ready in a week. “I’d like to sign up please.”

They speak for a little more, Yue Qingyuan asks some questions regarding the parameters of items that Shen Yuan will be bringing. When he confides in him his plan, there’s a moment of silence before the headman comments with ‘very impressive’ and agrees to sign on a helper at his stall if need be.

Half an hour later, when Luo Binghe arrives for lunch he finds Shen Yuan in the middle of a paper storm in his office.

He grins at Binghe, “It’s time to start promoting the beer.”

_

What happens over the next week or so is something that has been in the works for a long time coming.

Luo Binghe officially stops working at the General Store to work full time for Shen Yuan at his brewery business. He, Ning Yingying, and Shen Yuan have all talked this over a few times. Shen Yuan has never run a business before, whereas Luo Binghe knows a lot about starting one up. He has agreed to pay Binghe the same wage he makes working at the store, and while Ning Yingying is sad to see him go, she still agrees to it.

To prepare for this, Ning Yingying had hired the local student Gongyi Xiao as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts at the beginning of fall to shadow her and learn the tasks of the shop. Gongyi Xiao hadn’t been planning to go on to secondary education after high school, so he only occasionally attends classes at the community center. When Ning Yingying offered him the job, he accepted immediately.

When Shen Yuan had asked her about hiring Ming Fan instead, Ning Yingying had said no.

“Pretty boys bring in the money Farmer Shen. You’ll see.”

Luo Binghe still lives in the apartment above the store, only now he’s at Shen Yuan’s place every morning by 6 AM sharp. His skills in business and accounting are nothing to scoff at. They order samples of label stickers, featuring Ning Yingying’s design, for the beer bottles they plan on premiering at the Valley Fair. Luo Binghe runs cross-comparisons on prices, the cost versus income, to find a fair amount to sell the beer for that still provides them with revenue.

In the meantime, Shen Yuan begins the process of bottling the beer, capping them, and assembling the cardboard carriers for people who purchase more than one bottle. Then, once the vats are drained, start setting up the whole process over for more beer to brew.

The two of them work tirelessly. Shen Yuan acquires another landline specifically for their business calls. For awhile they work in the dining room because there is no room for both of them to properly work at the office desk. It gets to the point that, approaching 11 PM one night, Shen Yuan has had enough of it and fast orders an identical desk set up to put on the other side of the room from him.

Shen Yuan’s desk is a corner desk that has a shelving hutch, for more storage, on the side that is aligned with the left wall. Once Binghe’s desk arrives a day later (he cries profusely) the two of them take a break from the beer stuff to set it up.

Well, they try to set it up.

“I’m telling you Binghe, we’re missing a piece.”

“No, A-Yuan, we double-checked before we started assembly. Everything is here.”

“Then, tell me, where’s the fucking screw?”

“How should I know? You said you would keep an eye on all the small pieces.”

“And I put them all on the chair! Then you grabbed them and put them all down on the floor!”

“I can’t reach halfway across the room for a stupid screw!”

“You know what, screw you!”

“Screw me? You're the one who screwed up!”

“I didn't screw up! You did!”

“The only thing I've been screwing is the damn desk together!”

They glare at each other.

Someone clears their throat at the entrance to the office.

Mobei Jun is standing there, holding a bag with sandwiches Luo Binghe had asked him to pick up for the two of them.

“When you’re done debating on who’s screwing who-” the two of them choke- “the dog is chewing on something.”

System’s food bowl had been empty after breakfast.

Shen Yuan is out the door before anyone even breathes.

“SYSTEM DROP IT.”

It doesn’t turn out to be the missing screw, that was apparently under Shen Yuan’s ass where he had been sitting.

Mobei Jun leaves after Luo Binghe pays him back, and some meek apologies are exchanged before they finish quietly putting the desk and hutch together.

That night, when the winds pick up into howling speeds, Shen Yuan offers Luo Binghe the guest room to stay in for the night. He cooks the two of them a simple dinner: some chicken apple sausages sauteed with bell peppers, garlic, and onion on top of white rice. Luo Binghe praises it to the moon and back for some reason, but any remaining tension disappears soon after.

Probably because he yelled at her earlier, System follows Luo Binghe to sleep at his feet instead. Which, joke’s on her because it is super nice. So, Shen Yuan splays out like a starfish when he falls asleep that night.

Aside from the desk mishap, things for the beer’s debut goes smoothly. Luo Binghe makes his desk a little more home-y. A picture of a younger Binghe and Ning Yingying in front of what appears to be the grand opening of the general store that sits on his desk. The red leather notebook Shen Yuan gifted him rests in one of the shelves of the hatch, followed by a growing number of other books and binders. Calls are made, a lot of money Shen Yuan has set aside is spent in optimistic preparation of orders.

Then, on Tuesday morning, the day of the festival arrives. They loaded up the cases of beer the night before in Luo Binghe’s ancient pickup truck (‘ZhengYang may not be the best, but it’s reliable’ he had said at Shen Yuan’s doubtful look.) Now all they needed to do was drive to the site.

Since it was his truck, Luo Binghe went ahead and drove the way there along the dirt paths. The road to the temple is lined with telephone and powerlines, ensuring that one couldn’t get lost on the way to their destination. While a train ride is maybe an hour-long, the drive there was double that. Fortunately, the view is nice to look at in passing.

Shen Yuan ended up dozing off a little way into the trip, only to be woken up an hour or so later at an especially large bump in the road. He lifted a little out of the passenger seat. Luo Binghe had initially apologized, but seeing that Shen Yuan was fine, began to tease him about his fright.

Binghe gets a smack in the shoulder for it. He just laughs it off.

They still have some time before they reach the temple, but it’s nearing 9 AM not and hunger is making itself known. They pull over off the side of the road to stretch their legs, leaning against the truck eating some fruit Shen Yuan had packed for them to eat as snacks on the road. It’s a brief stop before they’re back in the truck.

At 10:36 AM they arrive at the Tin Yi Overlook temple grounds. Others are there already, assembling their stalls in either competition zones or the selling wares zones. The fair itself isn’t due to start until noon.

They sign in under the supervision of one of the disciples of the temple. Afterward, they are moved over to the selling area for representatives of the village of Cang Qiong. Luo Binghe moves his truck over to the designated parking while Shen Yuan assembles the ‘easy shade’ popup tent and two folding tables. Binghe brings him some of the rest of their set up: the cash box, the iPad they set up for a card scanner, table cloths, and custom printed Banner with their brand.

On it, in bold jade-colored font are the words ‘Qing Jing Brewery’ with two bamboo stalks on either side framing the words. Together, he and Luo Binghe had decided to keep it simple on the naming of their brewery business simply naming it after Shen Yuan’s estate. Plus, if they ever got big enough to the point where people would come to visit, then it would be easy to locate them.

Two laminated sheets of paper detailing the ingredients in each type of beer they brought with them are taped down to each of the table cloths. The pricing for one bottle verse a pack is also listed.

There is no one on either side of them yet. Luo Binghe comes back with their lawn chairs thrown over his shoulders and box in hand, blinking at how much progress Shen Yuan has made.

“Surely this one wasn’t gone for so long.”

Shen yuan gives him a teasing smile. “Mmm, you kinda were.”

Luo Binghe just smiles back at him, handing over the chairs. “Apologies, I still have a few more trips to make to grab actual merchandise.”

He passes over the box next. Within it are stickers, business cards, and their water bottles. This routine continues twice over again, but with Luo Binghe dropping off their ice chests full of beers.

The final time he comes over, he’s not alone. Zhuzhi-lang walks beside him pulling along a large wagon containing his numerous honey products. A rather harassed looking disciple hurriedly directs him to the empty space on Shen Yuan’s left before running off yelling something about doves getting loose into a walkie talkie.

Shen Yuan beams at Zhuzhi-lang, who nods in return with his own smile.

“Fancy seeing you hear Zhuzhi-lang.”

“Likewise Shen Yuan.”

Luo Binghe drops the last ice chest down behind their table. “A-Yuan would it be alright if this one helps his cousin setup? It’s already 11 AM”

“Binghe you don’t need to ask me for that.” Shen Yuan smiles back at Zhuzhi-lang, “I can watch your products while the two of you go back and forth.”

“Many thanks.”

Between the two of them unloading stuff and Shen Yuan setting up Zhuzhi-lang’s table and sunshade, they’re all ready to go by 11:15 AM.

“Say Zhuzhi-lang?”

The man in question stops fidgeting with his merchandise set up. “Yes?”

Oh wow, he even had honey candy.

“Why not sell your baked goods too?”

A look of unparalleled fear crosses over Zhuzhi-lang’s face. “The witch would kill me.”

Shen Yuan blinks.

“The who?”

A loud commotion echoes down as a group of girls sprint down the walkway they are stationed at. Each of them seems to be carrying something, setting them down in the large empty spots on Shen Yuan’s right, then running back to where they came from.

Qi Qingqi’s voice reaches them, “We only have 45 minutes to set up the food stall, come on! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! Hussle!!”

Shen Yuan glances back over to Zhuzhi-lang’ who is damn near shaking.

It clicks.

“Ah.”

“Yes, ‘ah’ is one way to put it.” Zhuzhi-lang’s voice quivers.

The group of girls plus Qi Qingqi manage to set up their grills, warming ovens, ice chests, and the rest of their display in only 30 minutes. Qi Qingqi is clearly a veteran at this, with a large printed banner of their menu and pricing hanging down from the top of their two shade setups. Condiments are set out, a napkin dispenser is placed next to them and three individual two-gallon beverage dispensers are set out for drinks.

Then Qi Qingqi notices her neighbor. “Well, I’ll be! Farmer Shen, good to see ya!”

“Hello Qi-Shimei--”

“You’re selling beer?” She looks, genuinely surprised.

Shen Yuan smiles, “Yes, this had been a secret project of mine for a while now.”

“And you didn’t set up a partnership with me?” She looks genuinely hurt for a moment.

Luo Binghe appears out of nowhere, wielding a paper and pen. “We were finalizing our terms and conditions. If you’re interested in putting some of the beer on tap at the bar or selling bottles at the Inn’s restaurant, please feel free to read over the contract and sign on.”

Qi Qingqi doesn’t read it but immediately signs it.

If Luo Binghe looks surprised then Shen Yuan looks floored. The two of them had debated for most of the evenings on how to get Qi Qingqi to accept their beer into her establishment. Throughout the year she gets a lot of business, be it from locals or people staying in the area for cheap lodgings than offered at the ski resorts up the mountain. They knew that with the partnership at the general store and the Inn would set the brewery stable, but had thought it would be a challenge.

Apparently, they were overthinking things.

Qi Qingqi grins, “How much for a bottle? After this morning, I desperately need one.”

_

The Valley Fair, as hoped, is a huge success for them.

Many people came by to purchase beer, lured over by the scent of food from Qi Qingqi’s stall. Those who didn’t want juice or tea with their meal bought a beer from Shen Yuan’s stall. He handled the immediate purchase while Luo Binghe’s looks lured over the many women in the area, tempting them for a drink.

Nig Yingying had been right, pretty boys do bring in a lot of money.

Zhuzhi-lang seems to be doing well for himself, parents buying their children honey sticks. Some returning customers of his buying his soaps and chapsticks as well. When Qi Qingqi’s stall ran out of sugar, they bought four jars of honey off him to make up the difference. When they amended the menu to sell honey glazed meat, his business picked up even more so.

Yue Qingyuan stopped by to check in on them and the other local stalls. After seeing the crowds they had gathered, he gave them all praise.

It kinda felt like getting a compliment from his dad.

Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe signed on four other partners. Two of them were from neighboring towns to Cang Qiong, one from a family bar near the temple grounds. Those three offered to run their own trips to pick up the beer for their businesses. The fourth as from a popular mom and pop shop near the Ski resorts up the mountain, who requested deliveries be made. Luo Binghe quickly agreed to the deal, later explaining that he could make the drive himself in the pickup truck to Shen Yuan.

Overall, the event turned out for the best.

Packing up was a bit of a pain. Qi Qingqi did a coffee run for all of them so no one would fall asleep on the drive home. While it was dark on the road, inside the truck Shen Yuan kept Binghe entertained by going on a rage-induced rant on the wasted potential of the newest webcomic he was reading.

_

With the success of their business launch, Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe decide to host a little party at the farm. They only really invite their friends over, so it’s just a nice little get together.

Throughout summer, Shen Yuan had hired Shang Qinghua to build projects on his farm. Some of these include the deck by his large pond, a small gazebo by the small pond, and some lighting here and there lining the stone pathways along the fields. He arrives early to give Shen Yuan an estimate for doubling the size of his current brewery set up. They end up shaking on it, with he and Luo Binghe offering their labor to help move the project along faster.

Then he and Binghe set up a picnic table on the deck as their friends being to arrive. Mu Qingfang is among the first to show up, having a relatively slow day at the hospital. Ning Yingying shows up with not only Gongyi Xiao but Liu Mingyan in a tow. Gongyi Xiao seems a little fidgety, being the youngest one at the gathering but Shen Yuan had thought it would be rude to exclude him and had invited the young man to join for the meal. Liu Mingyan is a surprise though, right up until Shen Yuan notices the girls are holding hands. He doesn’t outright congratulate them but both of them seem to be very happy together when he learns Liu Mingyan is now living at the apartment as well.

Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun end up arriving together, coming in from the north entrance of the hiking trails. Liu-shidi immediately gravitates to Mu Qingfang, who fondly rolls his eyes. Luo Binghe sets out the food that he instructed Shen Yuan in cooking, so it tastes good, but not Binghe levels of delicious.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Zhuzhi-lang arrives next. Luo Binghe had warned Shen Yuan that his cousin probably would not be inclined to appear. The man in question nods in greeting to everyone. Mobei Jun pulls along Shang Qinghua to speak with him. Well stand near him, the two seem quite comfortable with each other’s silence. Shang Qinghua looks like he’s sweating buckets.

The last time Shen Yuan saw him so tense was during a presentation back in college.

Yue Qingyuan arrives next, also coming from the north entrance. He explains that he had a few things at the office to wrap up. He breaks the silence between Mobei Jun and Zhuzhi-lang by congratulating the later on his success at the valley fair.

Qi Qingqi is the last to arrive, with some loud fan fair from herself and armed with a platter of cookies for dessert.

The meal begins with a toast to the (hopefully) long-lasting success of the Qing Jing brewery. Ning Yingying quickly takes a group photo of the table selfie-style, promising to forward it to all of them. Then everyone tucks into the food. Small talk is made all around the table, lesson plans, bratty students, how to conserve energy during the winter months of businesses. Qi Qingqi makes a joke about how if the food was any better, she’d have to kill Shen Yuan to eliminate the competition.

Shen Yuan awkwardly laughs while Zhuzhi-lang chokes on a spoonful of rice.

Luo Binghe just takes a long sip of his water.

Once the meal finishes and the sun starts to dip below the horizon-- and with it the temperature, the party migrates back to the house. Dessert is eaten and everyone present is sure to complement Qi Qingqi, mostly because they are damn good cookies. Not long after, Gongyi Xiao takes a few cookies home for his family and bids them all goodnight. Shen Yuan sees him off when his father comes to the door to pick him up, offering thanks to the older man and wishing them both a good evening.

The remaining group lingers for a little long, Shen Yuan breaking out a bottle of wine he got as a gift from his older brother. Everyone has a glass as the evening continues to wined down. It’s 10:30 PM when everyone is said and gone. Luo Binghe tried to linger, saying that he would help clean up. Shen Yuan had patted his head, then shoed him away with Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan.

System is tuckered out, fast asleep near the foot of the coffee table.

After loading the dishwasher and wiping down the surfaces in the kitchen and living room, something occurs to him.

He hasn’t been able to properly meditate in a week since the whole brewery thing took off.

Shen Yuan glances at his puppy. She’s out cold.

Could he...

He quietly creeps towards his bedroom, feeling a little like a kid trying to sneak out past his parents. Once the door is finally closed to his room, Shen Yuan pauses.

Pure joy is all he feels.

Finally!! He can properly get off!!!

_

Shen Yuan is in a completely calm, relaxed mood when he wakes up the next morning. Which is why it’s weird when Luo Binghe acts a little odd as he comes in for work. When asked what’s wrong, he stutters through an excuse saying something that he overslept a bit because he forgot his phone at the house after the party.

They find the phone tucked between the cushions of the couch and Shen Yuan happily continues with the rest of his day.

The brewery business gets its building expansion thanks to Shang Qinghua’s efforts. All the accommodations that Shen Yuan wanted to make, such as large copper vats for fermentation, are done and completed within a week and a half. They don’t produce any beer during this time, which is fine because there are plenty of backup kegs and bottles already filled from the rest of the fall and summer seasons.

Taking a page out of Zhuzhi-lang’s book, solar panels are installed over the new roofing, to cut back on electricity costs. Shang Qinghua adds a little of his own flair to the front of the building, making it look nicer-- less like a shed and more like a professional brewery.

It costs a pretty penny, basically the remaining amount of inheritance his grandfather left him. But it’s alright, thanks to past experience, Shen Yuan still has a good chunk of his own money; not to mention incoming profits from produce in town and the beer sales from the rest of their partners. He’s making money faster than he’s losing it, so it’s not a real concern.

The only hiccup in this is that Luo Binghe has to take a day to drive a few hours out to the ski resort to deliver the beer to their partner there. He can’t take the train since there’s no alcohol allowed on public transportation.

Shen Yuan would say he’s not worried.

But he is.

Shit always happens when Luo Binghe is away.

Case in point, during the day when Binghe is out for their first delivery to the restaurant, Shen Yuan gets a call from his cousin one early morning before noon.

Before he can even say hello he hears, “How long would it take to grow a pumpkin?”

Shen Yuan blinks, then does the mental math. “Thirteen days total.”

“And how much does one pumpkin cost?”

“Roughly 320, depending on the quality.”

“Excellent. I’d like to order twenty-one pumpkins then.”

“Excuse me?”

Shen Jiu sighs over the line, static picking up over the phone. “My boss has asked me to look into making the stores we manage to appear more festive for the season. It draws in customers. So, I need at least three pumpkins for each store, as well as some for the office.”

“I see... Well, I hate to break it to you Ge-ge, But I have no way of transporting these to the city. All my deals are local in the valley.”

“Doesn’t the headman own a regional company with delivery trucks?”

“Yes, he does. I certainly don’t.”

“Ask to borrow one, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

“I don’t have a license to drive a commercial vehicle.”

“So pay the driver, just get it done. Thanks!”

The phone call ends.

Shen Yuan stares at his phone and weighs the repercussions of throwing it to the ground in frustration.

He common sense pulls through. Instead, he roughly pockets the device and heads north of his farm.

The hiking trail is calm, a few wild blackberries are growing in bushes he passes. Shen Yuan makes a note to come to pick some on his way back. As he leaves the wooded area, he comes out to the mountain lake region, the hiking trail passing high around the back of Shang Qinghua’s home and shop. The Guild where Liu Qingge is stationed is visible on the far side of the lake, as is the entrance to both the mine and the quarry. Mobei Jun’s small stone cabin sits atop a hill overlooking the lake near Shang Qinghua’s home. Instead of continuing along the path, Shen Yuan takes a fork north, between two cliff faces.

Once he is though, a railway with empty freight carts sits in front of him. Behind that is the vast farmland and buildings that encompass the Cang Qiong Coffee Corporation.

Shen Yuan takes a moment to steel his nerves, then approaches the most professional looking building. Once inside, a few of the parents of the students at the school immediately recognize him. They give greetings and Shen Yuan is sure to sing praises about their children's work ethic. Eventually, one of them, figuring who he’s here to see, points him in the direction of Yue Qingyuan.

He gives his thanks and makes his way up some stairs to an office, that has large windows overlooking the production line floor. The door is marked ‘Manager’, propped open to a modest but modern office.

Yue Qingyuan is typing away at a desktop computer, reading glasses resting on his nose.

Shen Yuan knocks on the open door.

He looks up from the computer, then blinks. “Ah, Shen-Shidi, do come in.” He turns back to the computer, typing resuming. “I just need to get an email out and I’ll be right with you. There’s a coffee pot on the side counter if you’d like a cup.”

Shen Yuan nods his thanks, taking a disposable cup (the insulated kind, good choice-- oh it’s recyclable, very nice.) and pouring himself some coffee. To save face, because something about the head man strikes him as a person who drinks black coffee and can taste the flavors, he only adds one packet of sugar before taking a sip.

Yup, tastes bitter.

Sliding on his ‘I feel nothing’ mask, he turns back around to take a seat in a chair in front of the desk. The typing continues for a bit, Shen Yuan glancing around the office Yue Qingyuan runs his company from.

After a moment more, there’s a sigh as Yue Quingyuan leans back in his chair. One hand removes the glasses with the other pinches the bridge of his nose just for a moment. Then he sits back upright again.

“So, what brings you out to my humble office Shen-Shidi?”

Shen Yuan is starting to feel bad about coming to bother this man. Clearly, he has a lot on his plate.

“I hate to ask this of you Yue-Shixiong, but by chance do you have a spare delivery truck or driver that I could pay to make a delivery for me?”

There’s a thoughtful frown on Yue Quingyuan’s face, “It depends on your reason for asking: for what, how far out would the drive be, and when?”

“It would be two weeks from now, for a pumpkin delivery from here to the city.”

“I’m afraid that none of my current drives would probably be willing to take up a four-hour drive there and back. I’m assuming you don’t have insurance for the tuck, in case of an accident either?”

Shen Yuan slumps a little in his chair. “No, I definitely do not.”

“Mmm, then, I’m afraid I can’t help you Shen-shidi.”

“That’s quite alright, Yue-Shixiong. I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to listen to me.” Shen Yuan pulls out his phone, “I’ll call Shen Jiu to tell him to place an order with a department store-”

Yue Quingyuan sits up a little straighter, “Shen Jiu?”

Shen Yuan sighs, tapping his caller history on his cell phone. “Yes, he called me this morning for an absurd number of pumpkins to be delivered.”

“Now hold on a moment.”

Shen Yuan looks up from his phone to see Yue Quingyuan grab a walkie-talkie off a charging station behind him.

He radios in, “Hey, Wei Qingwei. Are you there?”

A second later the radio beeps. “Here Boss.”

Yue Qingyuan holds down the button again. “See if any of the boys would be willing to drive out to the city two weeks from now. Tell them it’s for double the pay.”

Shen Yuan blinks, “Er- Yue-Shixiong I don’t think I can afford that, not to mention the insurance-”

Yue Qingyuan shakes his head, “I’ll cover the delivery.”

Shen Yuan’s jaw drops as the radio beeps again, “Yeah, Ji Jue immediately offered himself as a sacrifice.”

Yue Qingyuan responds, “Goodman. Tell him I was lying about double pay, he’s getting triple.” He puts the device back on the receiver.

There’s a bit of a dreamy look to his smile as he asks, “So, how is Shen Jiu?”

_

Shen Yuan ends up having to clear a little more field than he’s used to in order to keep up crop production and grow all the pumpkins necessary. Which means Shang Qinghua is once again at his field that same day to help install more sprinklers to the main water line.

“Bro, I sincerely thank you for all your patronage.”

“Shut up.”

“I haven’t had this much of a steady income in years, your money is very nice.”

“Seriously, shut up.”

He only grew about 12 pumpkins in his first harvest, and they were a gold mine. Locals bought out the stock at the general store in two days for decorations. The baking pumpkins got swooped up even faster than the decorative ones. He’s got another twelve of those growing with the regular crops while the decorative ones now take up a new strip of land.

Since Yue Qingyuan would be losing money by helping him, Shen Yuan offered him a percentage of the profits. Only to be told ‘Shen Jiu’s happiness has no price’ and waved away.

Seriously, these two have been long distancing it for so long and already they are this devoted.

It’d be kinda weird if not for the fact that it was benefiting him in the long run-- so what’s he got to complain about.

Over the course of the week, Shen Yuan shifts his focus back to his farm while Luo Binghe manages the Brewery. He’s incredibly grateful for all of Binghe’s hard work, noticing that he’s stayed the night a few times due to working late into the evening. Having been there with him from the start, he’s more than capable of maintaining the beer they have in production. Inspired by Yue Qingyuan’s seasonal roast, they’ve decided to try to brew a holiday beer for the winter season. Luo Binghe has been investing his time in test runs of the beverage when not balancing the budget and responding to emails.

However, it’s becoming increasingly clearer that the two of them could use a little extra help. Someone to do all the menial work, like stapling papers, organizing files, making copies, running into town to get lunch for them when they both accidentally work through it.

Liu Qingge unknowingly gives them their savior.

The man shows up completely out of the blue one day, early into the second week of pumpkin growth. He just walks right into Shen Yuan’s house, where Luo Binghe and he are taking a coffee break in the living room. There are bags that could rival Mu Qingfang’s under his eyes, which is saying something.

“I’m not here,” is all he says by way of explanation.

Shen Yuan wordlessly gets up to get him some coffee while Luo Binghe shoots the man a concerned look over the rim of his cup. The two of them know better than to ask, Liu Qingge will tell them if and when he wants to.

He drinks his coffee with a little bit of cream, no sugar, as it turns out.

Their five-minute break turns into a fifteen-minute one when Liu Qingge finally speaks.

“I hate teenagers.”

Ah, it’s definitely an issue with Yang Yixuan. Thank god, Shen Yuan’s not sure what he would do if it turned out he and Mu Qingfang were fighting.

But...

“Liu-Shidi,” Shen Yuan starts. “I thought you got along fine with Yang Yixuan?”

“I do.”

Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan exchange a look.

Luo Binghe sets down his coffee mug. “May this one ask, what exactly happened? You seem exhausted Shishu.”

Liu Qingge grunts then takes a long drink from his mug. When he finally puts it down he sighs. “He’s been bugging me about becoming a full hunter for most of the season. We don’t sign on anyone not in their twenties. He’s only seventeen.”

Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan exchange another look. They’re both have a hunch.

“Shishu, would you say since early fall?”

Liu Qingge nods.

Yup, their hunch is correct. Ever since Gongyi Xiao got a job working at the general store, Yang Yixuan has probably been looking for a way to catch up to his ‘rival’. Since he got a job, he’s most likely been looking for a job himself, at the one place his ‘shizun’ works at.

Oh, poor Liu Qingge.

“Would it be correct in saying that Liu--shidi is... um, avoiding Yang Yixuan at the moment.”

His hand twitches.

Oh, he’s definitely hiding from him.

Luo Binghe crosses his arms, reclining back in his seat a bit. “Shishu, you like beer, don’t you?”

Liu Qingge blinks, “Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?”

Shen Yuan feels the metaphorical light bulb turn on.

“Oh, Binghe that’s brilliant!”

Liu Qingge’s eyebrows pinch together in confusion.

“Liu-shidi, we can hire him to help out around the brewery.”

“He’s far too young for alcohol.”

“No, Shishu, he wouldn’t be sampling the beer. He would be helping around the office and cleaning the facilities with me.”

“Would he really agree to that?”

“Liu-shidi, he hangs off your every word. Just say something to him like ‘ahhh, too bad I won’t get to have any beer. If only they had more help at the brewery’ you know?”

“That... that sounds so fake...”

“Oh, so Shidi will hire him--”

“When does he start?”

After another few minutes of talking Liu Qingge heads back to the Guild to set the plan in motion.

Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe go to the family shrine to pray for mental strength.

Not even thirty minutes later, Yang Yixuan comes sprinting into the farm through the north entrance.

The boy is practically glowing.

“Farmer Shen! Would I be able to offer any assistance to your beer business?”

Luo Binghe turns out to be surprisingly good with mentoring Yang Yixuan, who respects Binghe as the only man in town physically strong enough to rival Liu Qingge.

Despite his brash nature, the boy takes to the science behind brewing beer like a sponge to water-- soaking it all in naturally. After a crash course in the quality of the beer (Freshness, Color and Clarity, Foam, and Flavor) the teen accepts the job without even learning his wage. He asks all the right questions and doesn’t argue when asked to run to town to get more paper or ink. Everything he does is done properly; and if not, asks for how to improve.

Despite the initial thoughts, Yang Yixuan turns out to be a very good investment.

After Day 1 on the job is over, Shen Yuan gets a call from Yang Yixuan’s parents, enthusiastically thanking him for taking their son under his wing and out of a potentially dangerous profession. Turns out that the crash course in beer has motivated him to work harder at his schooling, to better understand the chemistry behind it. His mother is crying on the phone, thanking him for inspiring her son to work at his schooling. She didn’t think he would continue with schooling given how he had no motivation for it, ‘truly thank you’ and such.

It’s incredibly awkward.

After assuring her that he would be sure to schedule him only after school hours-- he will be coming in to help on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays day-- I promise, we won’t keep him late--- yes, we will be paying him-- Ma’am please, it’s my pleasure. It all eventually gets finalized and their new energetic employee is approved to start working for them.

After a day or so of a random kitchen chair in the office space, Shen Yuan orders another office chair and a desk (really it’s more of a small table) to put against the wall where Luo Binghe’s desk is. Yang Yixuan practically shakes out of pure excitement when it arrives later in the week. The two of them are sure to tell the boy that if they have no work for him on scheduled days, then he is free to just work on his homework and studies as well.

Really, they don’t need him too often. Yet, towards the end of the second week when Mu Qingfang and Liu Qingge drop by for brunch, both of them look a lot more relaxed than in days prior.

So it seems to be worth it.

It’s a fairly nice day out when it’s time to make the delivery to the city for all the pumpkins. It’s 5:30 AM when Shen Yuan helps out the driver when loading them into the delivery truck, and then he is off. Yang Yixuan, for some reason, also shows up to help despite it not being brewery business.

“You know it’s really not necessary-”

“It’s my absolute pleasure Farmer Shen!”

Turns out that the boy is a morning person.’’

Halloween isn’t that big of a holiday in China. At most, it’s used by businesses as an excuse for sales and decorative themes in stores. Baking pumpkins are more so for fall flavors in cooking. Decorative? Those are all just for looks, not festivities. Whatever he’s making a pretty penny off of all the pumpkins.

After shooting a message to his cousin, he goes ahead and makes a pot of coffee. The Keurig hadn’t been working out between himself and Luo Binghe drinking all the coffee. Adding Yang Yixuan into the mix, he just ordered a new machine online for all of them to drink from.

Admittedly, somehow Luo Binghe still makes the coffee better than him; so the afternoon pot is always the best tasting one.

After sending Yang Yixuan home with a cup so he can get ready for school, Shen Yuan flops back down on the sofa to catch a few more minutes of sleep. Which somehow becomes an hour and a half, because he wakes up a little after 7 AM to the sounds of System crunching on her health kibble. There’s a soft blanket from the storage closet tossed over him as well, which is probably why he ended up sleeping so late.

Getting up and wandering over to the office, he hears the clicking of the keypad of Luo Binghe’s laptop before he sees him.

Luo Binghe is furiously typing away on an excel sheet at his desk, just slightly hunched over. Soft blue colors of dawn are beginning to shine through the window, and suddenly, Shen Yuan is back at the night of the summer festival. Looking at Luo Binghe, bathed in the morning light with such a serious expression on his face-- it takes his breath away.

Then his heart skips a beat.

Shen Yuan unconsciously takes a step or two back away from the entrance of the room.

The typing keeps going

His face feels flush.

Holy shit.

Yes, okay-- Binghe looks hot, that’s nothing new. This- this thing where he’s blushing and for some reason hiding behind the wall?? This is new, he’s never done this before. It’s almost as if he’s got a... oh.

Oh no.

Ooooh no.

The typing stops, followed by the sound of Luo Binghe’s chair rolling back from the desk.

Fuck.

There’s no way that he can will away the blush from his face, so Shen Yuan swallows the lump in his throat and makes to walk into the room.

He ends up walking right into Luo Binghe’s chest.

“Oh! A-Yuan--”

Shen Yuan frantically takes a step back.“I’m so sorry!” He really can’t do anything about the deepening blush on his face. “This-- I accidentally overslept, I’m so sorry Binghe.”

Luo Binghe smiles at him-- oh my god, how did he never notice that one side of his smile pulls a little higher. Oh my god, it’s so cute.

Fuck.

Fuck, he’s screwed.

Wait, fuck Binghe said something.

Shen Yuan decides to pretend he heard what he said, “Still, I’m so sorry.”

You’re still blushing idiot! Cover your tracks!!

“I’m very embarrassed.”

Nice save!

“A-Yuan, like this one said, it’s perfectly fine.”

If only Binghe knew that it was very much not perfectly fine.

God. He’s a horrible friend.

_

The following week turns out to be a little awkward on Shen Yuan’s part. It’s probably pretty good that they hired Yang Yixuan to help out because it gives him the excuse to leave the two of them alone. Luo Binghe probably doesn’t notice.

And then goes to freak out in the tool shed.

You don’t just start crushing on your hot younger friend!! GOD!!!

This is this way the rest of the week goes until about Wednesday when Luo Binghe comes back one evening after leaving in the afternoon.

Turns out, without knowing he had arrived back home, Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan has started engaging in some... ah, rather vocal activities.

Luo Binghe confesses this is not the first time that this has happened. Usually, he just hangs out in the shop until a while after they’re done. But this time around they were being rather... enthusiastic is how he put it.

Then Shen Yuan proves himself to be an even bigger dumbass than he already is.

“Why don’t you just move in with me?”

Luo Binghe freezes and it takes all of Shen Yuan’s willpower not to punch himself in the face.

“A-Yuan, is it truly okay?” Oh my god, Binghe looks just like System when he pulls out the treats for her.

He...

He can’t say no to that face.

“Sure, you kinda usually spend the night here anyway. The guest room is yours.”

Luo Binghe grins and Shen Yuan says a prayer for self-control.

Because...

Shit.

He fucked up, didn’t he?

_

Binghe officially moves in the next day, returning to the shop to tell Ning Yingying, who immediately give his old room to Liu Mingyan to use as an art studio. Because it’s very clear that the two of them won’t need a second bedroom.

Shen Yuan isn’t there to help move since it’s a music lesson day. Yang Yixuan doesn’t attend music though and gladly helps Luo Binghe move into the estate.

By the time he gets back home, there are clearer influences of Binghe’s taste in the house. The two in question are in the actual brewery, but there’s just a hint of ‘Binghe’ everywhere now. A few more shoes by the entrance, reorganization of the kitchen cabinets, and a few extra dish towels. The guest room-- Binghe’s room, has a calendar up in it, some new shelves filled with books, an art piece the binghe recognizes from Liu Mingyan’s style in hanging on the wall.

Shen Yuan goes into his room and face plants on the bed.

Everything-- it all just feels so domestic!?

He screams into the pillow.

There’s a blush on his face as his heart races.

He really fucked up, didn’t he?

Rule One of being gay: Don’t fall for your hot straight friends.

Failed.

Chapter Text

Despite the blanket of snow on the ground, Shen Yuan isn’t really feeling too bothered by the chill. Sure, he misses his long hair now more than ever-- the back of his neck has never felt so cold. It had been a nice idea for the summer season though. Oh well, that’s what scarves and beanies are for.

At the moment, the fireplace that had been sitting in disuse for some time is now glowing with life. The warmth from it only blankets the living room, so System hardly ever leaves it-- he had to set up a grate around the fire to discourage System from getting close enough to be at risk of embers.

The night before he had been dreading dealing with the dying crops in the cold. The snow coming in the final night of fall was a blessing in disguise it seems. Now it looks as if that isn’t an issue. The snow on the ground is like Nature’s way of saying ‘don’t worry, I got this’ and it's a very nice gift. Thank you, Mother Nature.

He walks out into the cold, bundled up in a blanket draped over his figure.

The world is quiet. A puff of fog escapes his own parted lips as he looks around at all the snow. Shen Yuan pulls the blanket a little tighter. Then he sighs. If only he felt as serine as the world around him looks.

Luo Binghe has been nothing but the perfect housemate, having high jacked all the cooking and chores from Shen Yuan. It seems that Binghe’s a bit of a clean freak, which is fine considering how Shen Yuan tends to throw things into a half-hazard pile and call it good. He keeps the estate looking pleasant and clean constantly, it's very nice.

Then just the other day, he gave him a pair of snowshoes! It’s like he has perfect timing or something considering the snow everywhere now. Divine luck maybe.

The fresh powder crunches beneath his feet as he walks a little further from the doorway.

It’s fine, everything is going well.

It’s just...

He really needs to get over this damn crush.

Binghe moved in and it’s as if his heart decided that ‘yeah, anytime he smiles at you you’re gonna get giddy now!’ and it’s not good for his health. Or his blood pressure. Those old masks with calm smiles that he had left packed away were now his savior. It just kinda sucks, since he had thought that he would never need to use them again.

You know: ‘conceal- don’t feel, don’t let it show?’

Yup, that’s his life now.

Luckily Binghe just seems as happy as always.

“A-Yuan?”

Speak of the devil.

Shen Yuan turns, looking over his shoulder. “Hello, Binghe.”

Luo Binghe looks confused, he’s wearing a maroon turtleneck sweater that fits a little too tight, but just the right length. Shen Yuan determinedly keeps his eyes on his face.

“What are you doing outside in a blanket?”

Shen Yuan turns back around, taking in the snow-coated bare trees. “Just enjoying the first snow of the season.”

Pure thoughts, pure thoughts, pure thoughts!

There’s the sound of footsteps in the snow until Luo Binghe reaches his side. “A-Yuan has an eye for beauty.”

Shen Yuan just hums in response.

After a moment a shudder in the corner of his eye catches his attention. Binghe crosses his arms over his chest to stay warm.

Shen Yuan frowns, “Did you not grab a coat?”

“Ah, I might be more susceptible to the cold than I thought.” Luo Binghe gives him a shy smile. His face has developed a slight flush due to the chill in the air.

Shen Yuan frowns some more, then lifts an arm up and out.

“Get under the blanket with me, you’ll freeze.”

Binghe glows, “Many thanks, A-Yuan!”

Luo Binghe shuffles closer, just under his arm to get the blanket draped over his shoulders. Binghe is only an inch and a half taller than his own six feet of height. Shen Yuan draws his arm back as Binghe steps closer to his side. The man is as warm as the fire inside the house. No wonder he shivered, his body heat is escaping.

Part of him wanted to shuffle closer under the blanket, but... better not push his luck. He doesn’t want to make his friend feel uncomfortable. See, this was the issue with having a crush! You become hyper-aware of literally everything!!

Then Binghe wraps an arm around his waist.

Shen Yuan goes horribly red, it doesn’t help that the weight of it is comforting-- no, no, no stop that thought right there.

“Binghe--”

“A-Yuan.” Oh lord, he’s pouting. “This way we both fit under the blanket.”

“T-that’s...”

Well, they’re both tall and it is cold out.

“Fine,” Shen Yuan keeps his eyes firmly on the snow.

Luo Binghe hums in response but doesn’t say anything further.

The white flakes continue to drift as they stand there, watching the snowfall together.

_

Winter is a different kind of season, for multiple reasons that don’t have to do with Binghe now living at his house. First and foremost is that there are not one, not two, but three major events in winter. Two of them are town festivals between which is a three-day event-- actually, it’s more of a three-night event. Fittingly so it is called the Night Market, which occurs on the river bed in town. Folks from up the river travel down to sell their wares in town and, apparently, there’s always free coffee.

The first festival coming up is a local one that takes place the weekend after the first cold front hits, appropriately called The Festival of Ice. It’s also, you guessed it, all ice-themed.

The second festival takes place late winter after the calendar new year, The Lunar New Year festival. It’s the big one to prepare for and that’s clearly not exclusive to their own town. Shen Yuan will be going back home to the city for the first five days of the calendar new year, then come back to Cang Qiong for the remainder of it. He’s excited to view the town’s version of the Lantern Festival at the end of the Lunar New Year.

The second biggest difference with the Winter season is that there are no crops to be grown thanks to the snow-- excluding the ones in the greenhouse. Shen Yuan had looked into getting a second one built, but the cost estimate and the amount of time it would take made him wheeze in shock. Shang Qinghua had given him a sympathetic pat on the back during that meeting, saying ‘I figured’ with a solemn nod. He’s at the house an early Friday afternoon, showing up not long after Yang Yixuan dropped in for his short shift after school.

They had chosen to meet up to discuss the potential of the greenhouse (which can be summed up with a ‘ahaha, fuck that’ followed by his bro just patting him on the back) before Shang Qinghua gave Shen Yuan an update on his own personal project, launching into a rant about a book he’s trying to get published and his editor from hell.

“He’s a sleazeball of an editor!” Shang Qinghua slams a hand down on the coffee table, rattling their teacups. He’s on the verge of frustrated tears and Shen Yuan, usually composed, is right there with him.

“What the fuck, this isn’t even your novel anymore?”

“He’s trying to kill my baby!”

“He cut out all of the world-building!”

“Two months of research, gone--”

“What the fuck is this note ‘make it a harem’ but that-- whAT-- DID HE EVEN UNDERSTAND THE POINT OF EMOTIONAL LOVE FOR THE MAIN CHARACTER?”

“YES! YES, THANK YOU.”

The two of them are in the living room while Luo Binghe is toiling away at brewery paperwork in the office.

Well, he was.

“Are you two okay?” He is now standing in the entryway and looks concerned. Yang Yixuan’s head is sticking out of the door down the hall.

Two voices vehemently ring out, “No!”

Luo Binghe flinches.

System whines as Yang Yixuan disappears back into the office.

Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua then quickly apologize to Binghe. Shang Qinghua starts crying now.

“I’m sorry Bing-bro--”

Lou Binghe mouths to himself ‘Bing-bro.’

“I didn’t mean to yell at you, you’re great. I’m...” He pauses and sniffs, the mucus making a disgusting noise as Shen Yuan passes a tissue to him. “ I’m just-- I’ve poured so much of my time and effort into this book and this demon of an editor is killing it!”

This means Luo Binghe is then subjected to Shang Qinghua’s explanation of his fantasy novel- ‘with potential for a series’- that he’s been working on for most of his college career. Which means Binghe then asks to see the manuscript Shang Qinghua sent off. He sits down on the sofa to read, Shang Qinghua anxiously watching him, while Shen Yuan wanders off to make sure Yang Yixuan isn’t freaking out in the office.

Not even thirty minutes later Luo Binghe’s outraged voice fills the home.

“BUT REMOVING THIS CONTEXT ELIMINATES THE STEP UP FOR YOUR REAL PLOT INVOLVING THE PROTAGONIST’S PARENTS!”

“THANK. YOU. THANK YOU, BING-BRO!”

“THIS EDITOR IS SCUM!”

Shen Yuan leans into the hall, “HE’S ABSOLUTE SHIT!”

System starts howling, which reminds all the adults to use their inside voices. And, you know, be adults about the situation. Yang Yixuan closes the door behind Shen Yuan when he leaves the office; which is, again, saying something about the levels of maturity right now.

But his bro’s pride was one the line! ... well, okay, what little pride he had left was on the line. They’re all in the right to be outraged by it!

Luo Binghe is furiously tapping away at his phone. “You need a new editor.”

Shang Qinghua flops down onto the couch beside him. There’s a heavy sigh, “I can’t, this is the only publisher that even accepted the damn manuscript.” He rubs the tears away with the palms of his hands. “At this point, I might as well cave if I ever want to publish--”

“Sha Hualing’s company will do it.”

Shang Qinghua freezes, “What?”

“Well,” Luo Binghe doesn’t look up from his phone. “Mobei Jun says she owes him a favor, so she’ll do it if he asks her.”

Shen Yuan leans against the back of the couch. “Does Sha Hualing work for a publisher?”

“No, but she’s set to inherit the Hualing Industries once her old man croaks. Which owns a publishing department in Beijing.”

Shen Yuan nearly slips off the couch while Shang Qinghua wheezes.

Luo Binghe is still texting on his phone. “Mobei Jun just got back to me. He says she needs your email address and someone will be in touch with you from there.”

Shang Qinghua looks like he’s living a [404: error] screen right now, so Shen Yuan gives Binghe the email address instead.

“Great, they’ll get the rights from the current publisher you’re with and then you’ll be set.”

Shang Qinghua stares a Luo Binghe for a long moment. Then he flings himself at the man, shocking the hell out of Binghe.

“Bing-bro!” Shang Qinghua starts sobbing, arms wrapped around Luo Binghe who looks very uncomfortable with the whole thing.

Binghe sends a pleading look to Shen Yuan.

Shen Yuan just smiles at him. Luo Binghe pouts for a moment, then hesitantly pats Shang Qinghua’s head like he would System’s.

A minute into his bro’s teary cries of thanks, Shen Yuan decides it’s time to save Binghe from a snot-filled sweater.

“Bro, you should probably go thank Mobei Jun too. He did use his favor for you.”

Shang Qinghua is nearly out the door in a moment. “You’re totally right, thanks, bros!”

The door slams shut behind him.

Shen Yuan looks down at Luo Binghe, who’s splayed half-hazardly on the couch looking incredibly frazzled.

“You good there, ‘Bing-bro’?”

The look of pure offense Binghe gives him is enough to send him into a horribly embarrassing gawf of laughter.

Yang Yixuan comes out of the office to see Shen Yuan wheezing on the floor behind the sofa. Luo Binghe seems to be a thousand-yard staring at the ceiling.

“Sooo... Can I go home?”

It takes a moment or two but Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan eventually come back to themselves. Binghe takes Yang Yixuan back to the office to finish looking over the reviews left on their beers, much to the boy’s disappointment.

This leaves Shen Yuan to clean up the living room before the Friday night gathering at the bar tonight.

Around 5 PM is when Yang Yixuan usually takes his leave; but, tonight he is hesitating in the doorway.

“Farmer Shen?”

“Yes?”

Yang Yixuan looks at the ground, “If I was annoying, you’d let me know right?”

Oh dear.

Shen Yuan blinks, “Yang Yixuan, what brought this on?”

“Well, I know I can be loud. And earlier when all of you were yelling... honestly, it was annoying.”

That’s fair kid.

“But,” Yang Yixuan frowns. “I’m always loud. Do you think people in town...”

He doesn’t finish that sentence, and honestly, he doesn’t have to. Shen Yuan knows first hand that everyone he has spoken to gets irritated by Yang Yixuan’s brash attitude. Even Mu Qingfang, who as the patience of a saint.

But he’s not going to tell him that!

For one, that’s rude. Two, after working with the teen, he’s earned a soft spot in his heart. You can’t change someone else’s personality just because it inconveniences you. However, if that person wants to leave behind what they think is a negative trait, then Shen Yuan isn’t going to dissuade him.

But of course, as his grandfather once told him, there’s no such thing as a negative trait.

“Yang Yixuan.” The boy looks up at him, there’s concern reflected in his eyes. Maybe a bit of fear too. “You’re not annoying, don’t you ever think that.”

“But I get really riled up, I know that...”

“That’s because you’re enthusiastic.”

“I’m... because I’m what?”

Shen Yuan sits on the floor, Yang Yixuan copies him a moment later. “It means, once you see something that catches your interest, you devote your time and effort into understanding it. Then sharing that with others so they can enjoy what you’ve learned as well. Is that not what happened when you asked Liu-shidi to take you under your wing?”

“I... yeah, actually.”

“And, is that not what’s happening here when you’re learning about the finer points of a brewery?”

“I think so?”

“ ‘I think so’ he says. Aren’t you putting in an effort to learn more about the science behind the fermentation?”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t you focusing on your mathematics to get better at calculating sales?”

“...Yes.”

Shen Yuan smiles at him, “I would certainly call that enthusiasm. It’s not a bad thing to share about anything that you’re interested in for that matter. If you do feel that there’s a possibility that you’re, as you say, ‘annoying’ people. Then simply keep it short unless asked.”

Yang Yixuan stares at him.

Shen Yuan pats his head, “Being vocal isn’t a bad thing. Being curious about the world around you isn’t a bad thing. Your eagerness to grow is certainly not a bad thing Yang Yixuan. If you feel that you are getting out of hand, then you can always take a moment for yourself to breath.”

Yang Yixuan looks down at his hands, then looks up at Shen Yuan again. His eyes are shining as he nods.

Shen Yuan pats his head again before standing up. Yang Yixuan pushed himself up to his feet.

“I’m,” he clears his throat rapidly blinking. “I’m sorry for saying that the yelling earlier was annoying. You guys were just passionate about Shang-gege’s work.”

“That’s exactly right.” Shen Yuan smiles, “and apology accepted.”

Yang Yixuan stares at him again. Then he grins, eyes still a little watery. “You know, I think I understand why Shizun likes your friendship now.”

“Why’s that?”

Yang Yixuan doesn’t answer him, just opening the front door. “See you tomorrow Farmer Shen!”

Shen Yuan huffs a laugh and waves him off.

At 8 PM he and Luo Binghe find themselves at the bar which, despite the weather, is still lively as ever.

Qi Qingqi gets Luo Binghe a glass of warm, non-alcoholic, apple cider while Shen Yuan chooses to try the red wine hot chocolate on the seasonal menu.

It’s pretty darn tasty. The boozy taste from the red wine is there, but it’s balanced by the rich taste of the chocolate. A hint of fruitiness from the wine is also distinct, but because of the sugar from the chocolate, it’s sweet overall.

Mobei Jun wanders in a little past 8:30 with Shang Qinghua close behind. They arrange themselves at the bar, Mobei Jun getting his usual Gin and tonic and Shang Qinghua deciding to copy Shen Yuan after stealing a sip of his drink.

Luo Binghe frowns down at Shen Yuan’s glass afterward.

Shen Yuan glances down at it, then back up at Binghe. “Would you like to try as well?”

He licks his lips, “Would that be alright?”

Shen Yuan just holds it out to him, “Only if I get to try your cider.”

Binghe and him exchange glasses. After a quick sip of water, Shen Yuan tries Binghe’s drink. It's warm with a sharp taste of an apple to it. There’s a hint of cinnamon as well and some citrus undertones.

Shen Yuan looks over to Luo Binghe whose nose is scrunched up in distaste.

He smiles, “Not your preference?”

“Even with the chocolate, I still hate the taste of alcohol.”

There’s a bark of laughter from Qi Qingqi as she settles in front of their group.

“Then what the hell are you doing working for a brewery?”

“Logistics and paperwork.”

“So everything that Farmer Shen doesn’t want to do?”

“Exactly.”

“Hey!” Shen Yuan frowns at the teasing while the others laugh. He sets Binghe’s apple cider down on the bar counter, taking his drink back for a long swig.

Then it occurs to him this is probably an indirect kiss.

He freaks out for a single second.

You share drinks with your bro all the time, it’s fine!

He shoves down the feeling of butterflies in his stomach, letting the others mistake the blush on his face was a product of their teasing. Not mushy-gushy feelings towards their straight, younger friend.

Luo Binghe’s gaze feels heavy, but he ignores it. “So Mobei Jun, how exactly did Sha Hualing come to owe you a favor?”

“I helped her out in middle school.”

“She, wait-- hold on. She owed you a favor from middle school?”

“Yes,” Mobei Jun shrugs.

Shang Qinghua looks conflicted. “And you used that on me? Why?”

Mobei Jun takes another sip of his drink before answering.

“I want to see your book in my Library.”

It’s quiet amongst them as Mobei Jun’s words sink in. Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe exchange a look. Qi Qingqi slinks off to the other end of the counter, but not before shooting a smirk in Mobei Jun’s direction. Shang Qinghua misses it all, staring at Mobei Jun. Then he realizes he’s staring, blushes, and looks at the countertop.

“You’re far too kind to me,” is what he mutters in response.

Mobei Jun frowns a little at this, “Shang Qinghua you deserve to have your work published. It’s good.” There's a pause then, “I would know. I’m in charge of a lot of books.”

If anything Shang Qinghua turns redder at this proclamation.

Luo Binghe clears his throat, “Well, we are here to celebrate that fact.” He holds up his glass. “To Shang Qinghua getting his novel published.”

Qi Qingqi is suddenly skidding to a halt in front of them. “HOLD UP!” The volume of her voice attracts the attention of others around them. “Shang Qinghua, you’re gonna get published?”

Shang Qinghua shrinks in on himself for a second. Then Shen Yuan catches his eye, he motions him to sit up straight. He takes a deep breath and does just that. “Ye-” his voice cracks for a second. “Yes, I’m getting my novel published.”

Qi Qingqi breaks into a massive grin, launching herself across the counter to give him a noogie with a yell. “Oh my god, I’m so proud of you!” She traps him in a headlock, almost laying on the bar counter. “Hey everyone! My friend is getting a book published!”

Cheers and well-meaning congratulations fill the air in the bar from other townsfolk.

Luo Binghe stands up and raises his glass again. “To Shang Qinghua!” His voice is booming in the room.

A chorus of voices echo out in the bar ‘Shang Qinghua!’ but none of them are loud enough to cover the sound of laughter from the man they are cheering for.

Shen Yuan may or may not be the loudest cheering. Mobei Jun certainly gives him a run for his money.

Qi Qingqi is not done though. “Free round on the house!”

The cheers double in volume. No one is going home sober tonight.

_

The Festival of Ice starts at 9 AM sharp Saturday morning in the Bai Zen forest, the woods south of Shen Yuan’s farm where the Liu Family Ranch is located. Once the weather is cold enough, the large pond located there freezes over, allowing people to walk over it. A group of select people is already carving away at huge blocks of ice harvested from it for the sculpture contest, Mobei Jun among them. Shang Qinghua is sitting near him, chipping away at his own block of ice, referencing literal blueprints.

That’s probably not fair in any way, shape, or form; but no one is stopping him.

An ice fishing competition is set from 10 AM to Noon, where the winner is the person who catches the most fish in the two hour time. Shen Yuan is invited to participate, but once he sees that Liu Qingge, Liu Mingyan, Mu Qingfang, and Zhuzhi-lang are among the competitors he politely declines. He enjoys fishing as much as the next person, but would rather not have to seriously compete against his friends. He can get... rather absorbed with winning.

The Inn is once again providing refreshments, regular hot chocolate, and snacks for the event. Some tables are set up off the shore of the pond. Qi Qingqi looks somewhat regal in a black, fake fur coat; directing people amid all the hubbub. Ning Yingying is behind one of the tables helping out.

Yang Yixuan isn’t participating in any event, surprisingly. Shen Yuan figured with his competitive steak that this festivity would be made for him. It turns out he’s busy making an igloo, using spare blocks of ice to construct the little hut. Gongyi Xiao is not so subtly keeping an eye on him as he’s assisting some of the smaller kids with building snowmen. Well, a few kids are making snow ‘abominations’ really, since he isn’t exactly doing a great job watching them.

It’s so surprising that Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe exchange a glance. Then he makes his way over to Gongyi Xiao while Luo Binghe moves to assist Yang Yixuan.

“You kids are getting creative this year.”

Gongyi Xiao checks back into reality, nearly giving himself whiplash as he does a double-take at the snow-’men’ being built around him.

“O-oh, you know... just letting them expand their horizons, Farmer Shen.”

Shen Yuan gives a pointed look to a snowman that appears to have been made upside-down. It’s head on the lowest sphere while to branches meant to be feet stick out from the top.

Gongyi Xiao won't meet his eye.

A few of the little ones from his music class notice him standing near, eagerly showing off their in-progress lumps to him. He’s sure to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at appropriate moments during their presentation. Soon the kids ignore him again in favor of their construction.

Luo Binghe and Yang Yixuan are making quick work of his igloo as well. Gongyi Xiao is gazing on again and-- ah, he gets it now.

Shen Yuan smiles, “I can hold down the fort.”

Gongyi Xiao quickly looks at him, eyes wide.

The main difference between Gongyi Xiao and Yang Yixuan is, namely, ‘viewed’ maturity. Shen Yuan knows from working with him, that Yang Yixuan is very mature. He takes his responsibilities to heart and works hard. However, due to his ever going enthusiasm, he’s seen among the adults in town as immature. Ironically, this downside lets him act his age without any backlash.

As the mature one, Gongyi Xiao is instead saddled with responsibilities that don’t allow him to be a teen. He’s being forced to grow up in his position too fast by expectations thrust upon him. Watching Yang Yixuan doing his own thing-- the look wasn’t one of worry, it was envy.

“Farmer Shen?”

He just wants to have fun, even if he won’t allow himself to.

“Binghe promised he would spend the day with me, why don’t you see if you can swap with him for the time being. I’ll keep an eye on the... snowmen.”

Gongyi Xiao hesitates, “That, that’s alright I can--”

Shen Yuan pushes him in the direction of the igloo. “Tell Binghe not to keep me waiting.”

There’s a torn expression on Gongyi Xiao’s face for a moment. Then he walks off and Shen Yuan can’t help but internally cheer.

Yes! Go enjoy your youth, Gongyi Xiao!!

Sure enough, Binghe lets Gongyi Xiao take over his position at the igloo, while Yang Yixuan lights up when he sees his peer is there to help out. They start taking, Gongyi Xiao nodding along to whatever Yang Yixuan is saying, pointing at different parts of the wall and most likely giving suggestions.

Binghe just gives Shen Yuan a look when he walks over. One that says ‘you think you're so clever.’

Shen Yuan smirks at him. Yes, yes I do.

Binghe doesn’t get the chance to say anything to him through.

A snowball smacks him hard on the back of his head.

The offender turns out to be one of the grade school kids who yells ‘Get Shizun!’ and Binghe is suddenly being pummeled by the world's most pathetic show of snowballs. Seriously, they’re falling apart midair.

Shen Yuan stays back and takes pictures.

Luo Binghe is sure to put on a show of it, he makes exaggerated grunts and groans but he’s smiling the whole time. A few of the parents look horrified until Shen Yuan reassures them that it’s fine and all in good fun.

Soon enough the snowball war is stopped when one of the parents calls out for their daughter to come to eat. Then suddenly they’re all hungry. The kids abandon their prey, flocking towards the buffet tables.

It’s now Qi Qingqi’s problem.

Shen Yuan laughs as he approaches Binghe’s prone form, lying face-up in the snow. “You fought valiantly Binghe.”

“A-Yuan...”

“Yes?”

“That would mean more to me if there wasn’t snow down my pants.”

No.”

Yes.”

Shen Yuan wheezes a laugh for a moment, before covering it with a cough. Then he reaches down, extending his hand.

Binghe stares up at him.

“You’ll get colder if you stay down there you know.” The need to laugh is still there, so he smiles.

“A-Yuan,” Binghe starts; then he smiles in return. “I believe the damage is done.” Binghe takes his hand, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet.

“Well, it’s a good thing we live so close then huh?”

Binghe’s grip on his hand twitches for a moment. “What if, we went home?”

Shen Yuan blinks.

Binghe quickly keeps talking, “I mean, the festival will die down for a bit anyways during the sculpting and fishing. We... we could go home and come back for a bit.”

Shen Yuan looks around, a few of the younger children are getting carried home by their parents. Those sticking around are the adults that are competing. Qi Qingqi is actually walking over to her house in the distance.

It’s funny to think about but sure enough, there really isn’t anything for him to do. Literally, all of their friends are competing in something, except for Yue Qingyuan who’s overseeing the competitions to make sure there is no cheating. The ones who aren’t competing are helping man tables with foods. It actually looks like it would be a little boring.

“Alright, let’s go back home.”

Binghe lights up, “This one will make you a proper cup of hot chocolate as well.”

“See, you should have led with that.”

Luo Binghe laughs as they walk off in the direction of the farm.

They both forget they’re still holding hands.

Well, Shen Yuan does until Binghe lets go of his to open the front door for him. He mutters thanks as Luo Binghe walks off to go change his pants. Then he starts to freak out for a solid minute by himself in the entryway, fumbling with the latch on his snowshoes.

What the fuck, that’s so bad, why didn’t Binghe say anything! He probably didn’t want to make you feel weird about it. Ugh!

Shen Yuan clutches his head.

Ugh!!!

Of course, System somehow just knows when he’s not happy so she wanders over with a yip. Shen Yuan looks over at her as she jumps on his lap. Well, at least his dog will always love him. He rubs her little head as her tail beings wagging. The pets stop for a second while she rolls on her back for tummy rubs.

Oh my godddd.

Luo Binghe leaves his room to the sight of Shen Yuan in the hall, cradling his puppy like a baby in his arms, cooing at her. He looks up and sees Binghe standing in the hall staring at them. Shen Yuan grabs one of System’s little paws and waves at him with a cheeky grin.

Luo Binghe makes a show of stumbling in the hall, clutching at his chest.

Shen Yuan laughs as System licks the bottom of his chin, the panic completely forgotten.

They lounge about in the living room for the morning. An unspoken agreement to relax sets the mood. It’s a day off from the brewery paperwork and finances, neither of them talking about it while enjoying the hot chocolate Binghe quickly whipped up for them.

System goes a little nuts when Luo Binghe gives her a dollop of whipped cream before he puts a spoonful in either of their mugs. Shen Yuan get’s so many pictures of her losing her marbles-- posting videos to snapchat and Instagram. Binghe volunteers to clean up her snout, and he takes a few more photos.

There’s one, in particular, that stands out. Binghe is holding her to his chest, focused solely on her; a fond grin on his face. System has some whipped cream on her nose little tongue sticking out still looking ridiculously happy while wiggling in Binghe’s arms.

Before they leave to catch the end of the festival, he sets it as his new phone background.

Once back in the Bai Zhan forest the wind picks up again. There are ten minutes left in the fishing competition, and it looks like the judging for the ice sculpting competition is still going.

Yue Qingyuan looks pretty torn between two in particular. One is a delicately carved swan, it’s long neck perfectly curved into an ‘S’ shape as it looks down while the wings are outstretched. As they get closer, it’s easier to see the individually carved feathers on each wing, as well as the feathered texture on the neck.

The other is not a full-body animal, but a bust of a reindeer. The ice that makes up the antlers are wickedly curved, hell they look like they could possibly be used as a weapon. The face of the deer has expression, you could probably say it looks curious, with its mouth slightly parted and ears flicked backward.

The two of them clearly outclass the other ice sculptures. Shen Yuan isn’t surprised when he sees that Mobei Jun is standing by the deer and Shang Qinghua the swan. They both had to be fiendishly going at the ice when he and Binghe had left earlier.

Yue Qingyuan sighs, “You two have outdone yourselves this year.”

“Every year!” A townsperson has their hands cupped over their mouth. The comment draws a chuckle out of the crowd as his bro sheepishly smiles and Mobei Jun just shrugs.

Yue Qingyuan rubs a hand at the back of his head.

“It’s a tough call... But I would say that Mobei Jun wins this year.”

Shang Qinghua immediately starts clapping for him, while the winner himself doesn’t appear to physically react. But there’s a fire in his eyes that burns a little brighter. A ribbon is awarded to Mobei Jun, while people move around to look at the sculptures up close.

Shen Yuan wanders to look at some of the others. A few others tried their hands at the classic swan but none of them look as nice as Shang Qinghua’s. There’s a meager attempt at a dog, when he guesses a Shiba, the sculpture of it looks thrilled that he can recognize it and gives his thanks. One person just carved pictures into his block of ice. Although they weren’t really sculptures it’s pretty well done.

Near the pond, someone blows a whistle.

The crowd of spectators then slowly trickle over to the fisherman. There are fishing poles laid out on the ground, and piles of fish in front of each respective person. Yue Qingyuan then moves to each person to record and verify the number of fish caught. Certain species are worth more points than others, according to a difficulty rating.

It takes a moment to tally up, then the scores are announced from lowest to highest.

Most of the townsfolk come in at 1-4 fish with an average score of 26 points. Their friends come in a bit more in the top ten competitors. Liu Mingyan comes in just behind her brother in 6th place with 7 fish in the moderate to difficult point range. Liu Qingge is in 5th place, all of his catches coming it at good quality Pikes’s.

Gongyi Xaoi’s and Yang Yixuan’s fathers have own 4th and 3rd place respectively. Neither of their sons seems to care as Shen Yuan can hear their laughter coming from the direction of the completed igloo.

Second place goes to Zhuzhi-lang, who managed to catch ten fish, six of which were pikes, three tiger trout, and one sturgeon. Mu Qingfang takes home the ribbon for first place, with eleven fish-- just beating out Zhuzhi-lang in the count. But it’s what he’s caught that’s making all the elders crowds around him, losing their shit.

“By all my years, a real Glacierfish.”

It’s ugly as hell. But apparently, it’s rarity is so high that it grants Mu Qingfang the win. Yue Qingyuan takes a picture of him holding the fish with his medal before the doctor releases it back into the lake to help with species conservation. Liu Qingge looks extremely proud of him, even kissing him on the cheek. Which is a huge thing in their relationship, because both men are very private people.

Each fisherman is allowed to take at least two of the fish caught back home to eat. Between Mu Qingfang and Liu Qingge, there are four rather large fish between them.

Zhuzhi-lang talks to Luo Binghe about giving his fish to them, which Liu Qingge happens to overhear prompting him to just slap one into Shen Yuan’s hands. He shrieks, much to Qi Qingqi’s delight.

Somehow one thing leads to another, and Shen Yuan ends up hosting a small after-party of sorts for lunch featuring the fish caught. The kitchen fan is working full time to prevent the fishy smell from settling into the house, but it’s easily ignored over the laughter and talking from their group in the dining room.

Yang Yixuan pops in asking if he can give Gongyi Xiao a tour of the brewery, and they shove some of the leftover seared fillets at the boys. Which then turns into an adventure over to the actual brewery with a full tour of the building for everyone present.

It’s a relaxing evening for everyone.

_

He’s had the thought before, but with Yang Yixuan working at the brewery-- business is a whole lot smoother. This fact makes itself known again when they get a call from the mom and pop shop at the ski resort. The holiday brew is a big success, and they would like to order double if possible and are willing to pay for short notice fees for next day delivery.

Since winter is strictly a ‘no go’ on the crops (greenhouse plants are growing very nicely though) the three of them work furiously during the day to get the order ready to be sent out the next morning. After all, money talks.

Luo Binghe takes off early that Sunday morning to make the trip to the mountains. Later, Yang Yixuan shows up for his shift just short of 9 AM. Together the two of them spend the morning calculating the expenses for their last shipment. A ways into that, Shen Yuan leaves to go take stock and inventory of their bottles, brews, caps, and kegs. Which is perfectly fine by the young man, who keeps having to correct Shen Yuan’s statistical math.

When he said he was gonna study hard, he really must have meant it.

Shen Yuan is very glad that Binghe took over the snow shoveling duties after moving in as well. There hasn’t been any fresh powder in the past few days; which means the paths he’s cleared are still plenty visible. The trek through the snow to the brewery is quiet, save for the crunch underneath his feet. Old tracks of rabbit footprints litter the snow on the south side of the farm.

Realistically, the inventory duty is just grunt work that their youngest employee should be doing. But, here’s the deal, Shen Yuan hates math of any sort. Nine times out of ten, he would rather do the simple tasks around the shop than work on math of any sort. It breaks Luo Binghe’s heart as a math teacher, but he’s accepted this flaw and is now no longer trying to get him to see ‘the beauty of numbers in nature’ and that kinda stuff.

So here he is, unlocking the door to the brewery to blessedly do grunt work. After 25 minutes have passed, and he’s making final notes on a clipboard-- sending a picture of the numbers to Yang Yixuan for him to crunch up. There’s a text from Luo Binghe saying that he’s made it safely.

Shen Yuan responds to it before pocketing his phone and bundling up again when there’s an incoming call on his screen.

A photo of a plane at take-off, with the name ‘AirplaneHoe’ lights the screen. Shang Qinghua never calls, truly a man of written words; who would rather send emails and text than have a verbal conversation. Which means one thing.

Something happened.

Shen Yuan picks up the phone, with a frown. “Who am I fighting?”

“H-hey bro...”

“Whose ass do I need to kick?”

“... mine?”

The tension leaves Shen Yuan’s shoulders. “Just for freaking me out, I’m coming over to slap you.”

“That’s fair,” the tone of Shang Qinghua’s voice is absolutely miserable.

Shen Yuan frowns harder, “I’ll be there in ten.”

It takes a quick power walk to hit the path back to the house. He stomps on in, scooping up System into his arms. Shen Yuan quickly tells Yang Yixuan that he’ll be going over to Shang Qinghua’s place-- the look on his face convincing him that it’s a serious matter. The young man nods and tells him that he will stay to finish up the cost calculations. Just for that, Shen Yuan pats him on the head, telling him that he can hang around the house as long as he wants or head home once he’s done. The boy chooses to stay and switch to studying, giving him thanks.

Then Shen Yuan is off again, this time armed with his house keys and puppy. The Northgate on his property takes a bit of muscling to open, which he should totally get around to fixing. Snow has engulfed the hiking trail and the trees that rest along the path. His snowshoes keep him from sinking very far, the powder on the ground crunching with each determined step.

System’s head pokes out the top of his coat, zipped up and into his jacket. Her quick breaths come out like an endless cloud of steam in the cold.

The hiking trail opens to the mountain lake region of An Ding. Smoke is coming from the chimney of the Guild across the lake. It’s also coming from Shang Qinghua’s workshop and house. The neon ‘Open’ sign is off.

Shen Yuan doesn’t bother to knock on the door when he gets to it, just barging on in. He’s been over before too, it’s fine. There’s no one at the entryway desk, the lights are turned off as well. A quick glance into the wood workshop is just another vacant room.

He takes a deep breath, “You better not be dead!”

There’s a pathetic groan from the direction of the basement stairs.

Ah, he should have known.

Taking System out of his jacket, but still holding her, Shen Yuan makes his way down the stairs to Shang Qinghua’s writing den below. The room doesn’t look any different from the last time he was over. The wall facing the entryway and to the right is covered with multiple posters and art prints of fictional characters in various poses-- some action, some vaguely erotic. A custom-built wall-to-ceiling bookshelf is on the left wall; it holds various light novels, manga, and doushinji-- each category organized by genre and alphabetized.

His bro is sitting at his desk in the room, leaning back in his chair. There’s a soulless look to his eyes as he gazes into the ceiling. Shen Yuan makes his arrival known by dropping System right into his lap. That seems to reboot Shang Qinghua, no one is immune to cute puppies, who cradles her in his arms.

He moves to sit on the imported futon in the room. “So what did you do?”

Shang Qinghua just sighs.

“I think I have a crush.”

Ah.

“Well fuck.”

“I know!”

“No wonder you wanted me to hit you.”

“The offer is still on the table.”

“I’m not going to slap you for having feelings.”

“Why not? It’s horrible, how do people live like this!”

“Shh, so who is it?” Shen Yuan hopes it’s not Luo Binghe.

“... Mobei Jun.”

“... You like tattoos?”

“HAVE YOU SEEN HIS ARMS? It’s hot, okay bro.”

“This does explain that video you sent me last week--”

“Hey, what happened to the ‘Don’t Speak of It’ porn rule?”

“Right.”

Shang Qinghua sighs as the dog in his lap curls up.

“What do I do?”

“Confess?”

“Abso-fucking-lutely not. I’ve known the guy since childhood, what if it freaks him out?”

Shen Yuan gives him a flat look.

Shang Qinghua tenses, “What?”

“Are you this stupid?”

“Bro-”

“He totally likes you.”

Shang Qinghua chokes on his spit. “What!?”

“He does.”

“No, he doesn’t!”

“Yes, he does.”

“No, he really doesn’t!”

“If you keep this shit up, I really am going to hit you Shang Qinghua.”

His teeth clack as he shuts his mouth.

“Listen, Mobei Jun likes you. He used a decade-old favor-- that he was clearly saving, for you! He stopped calling you that absurd nickname you hated, once he realized just how much you hated it. Not to mention, the first time we met, the guy thanked me for looking after you! And!! That was after interrogating me, to double-check I wasn’t some Ex-boyfriend!”

Shang Qinghua’s jaw is on the floor.

“Do- Do you really think--”

Yes, I really fucking do!”

System leaps onto the floor and barks at him for raising his voice.

Shang Qinghua’s soul is visibly leaving his body.

“Okay, seriously, don’t die on me.”

There’s no response.

“If you die, I’m keeping all the royalties of your novel.”

“You bitch!”

There he is.

Shen Yuan just laughs. “If you still don’t believe me, I can ask him for you.”

His bro is suddenly standing before him, holding both his hands in his. “You would really do that for me?”

“Hey, what are bros for?”

Shang Qignhua’s lip wobbles, “Bro.”

Shen Yuan lets him have his moment.

“Okay, the moment’s over. Now let go of me.”

“Never.”

Dude.”

When Shen Yuan finally makes it back to his own home that afternoon, he resolves to get around to asking Mobei Jun about his feelings for Shang Qinghua by Friday. It will make his bro squirm for a few days at least. That’s always a little funny.

Also, he’s gotta work up his nerve about the whole subject too you know!

What if Mobei Jun turns out to be just a very concerned and helpful old friend only?

... Hmm, he’s starting to see why Shang Qinghua doesn’t confess.

Maybe this requires more thinking.

Which is how Luo Binghe comes back home that evening to see Shen Yuan laying out plans in the office.

“A-Yuan?”

Shen Yuan grunts back at him.

“What are you doing? Are those more plans for the brewery?”

“Binghe, how well do you know Mobei Jun?”

“...Er, This one would say well enough.”

Shen Yuan scratches out a line in his notebook. “What about his daily schedule?”

“Yes, can this one ask why you need that?”

“I’m trying to get a love confession out of him, help me out here.”

It’s silent.

Shen Yuan looks back to the doorway, where Luo Binghe is standing frozen. “Binghe?”

“You... A-Yuan likes-”

Shen Yuan’s eyes go wide. “No no no no no! God, no-- it’s about Shang Qinghua!”

Binghe sags against the door frame.

“Not me, I don’t, not at all, oh my god, there’s no romantic feelings toward Mobei Jun once so ever!”

Binghe laughs, but it sounds vaguely stressed. “A-Yuan, you nearly killed this humble employee of yours.”

“Binghe please.”

Luo Binghe just runs his hands down his face. “Why are you trying to get Mobei Jun to confess his feelings for Shang Qinghua to you?” His voice comes out slightly muffled behind his palms.

“Because he didn’t believe me when I told him that Mobei Jun does have a crush on him.”

“A crush? No, that level of devotion is not a crush.”

“What does Binghe mean?”

“I mean, and I hate to be blunt, but Mobei Jun has been pining for Shang Qinghua for as long as I’ve known him.”

“But that’s--”

“It’s a very long time. Those feelings only intensified when Shang Qinghua left for college too.” Luo Binghe sighs, “It’s not a crush, he’s in love with him.”

“Oh.”

Oh damn.

“Yes.”

It’s quiet in the room for a moment. Then Luo Binghe shuffles his feet.

“So, you don’t-”

“No, Binghe.”

Shen Yuan turns back to his desk, setting down his pencil. He stands up from his chair when suddenly there’s a presence beside him.

“Bing-”

Binghe rests his forehead in the nook of Shen Yuan’s shoulder and neck. An intense blush cascades from his face down his neck.

“What-”

“Just one moment.” Luo Binghe’s voice is tired, strained and he rests there leaning on him.

It occurs the Shen Yuan that Binghe is probably exhausted from the drive. Not to mention he just contributed to adding stress by asking about his friend’s romantic preferences. He doesn’t move, allowing Binghe to continue to lean on him, long hair tickling his exposed skin.

He can’t see Luo Binghe’s face from this angle.

Which means Binghe can’t see his right?

Right?

Secure in that knowledge, Shen Yuan allows himself to do what he always does to his students- and Yang Yixuan- and pats Binghe’s head. His hair is thick and soft. Shen Yuan resists the temptation to run his fingers through it, gently smoothing it down.

There's a moment of quiet before Luo Binghe hums.

It echos into Shen Yuan’s skin.

_

To be fair, Shen Yuan had fully intended on talking to Mobei Jun during the man’s free time on Friday.

He had gotten back from teaching music lessons feeling a bit more worn out than usual. Binghe worriedly had suggested that he go to bed early for the night, so he did.

Friday morning greets Shen Yuan with a foul taste at the back of his throat. It’s accompanied by a pounding headache, limbs filled with lead, and the inability to breath through his nose. A shiver rakes its way through his body, causing him to pull the blankets in tighter.

He’s totally sick.

An attempt to moan in dread dissolves into a wet cough that rattles his chest.

System is whining at the door, her little paws scratching at the bottom corner.

What could be anywhere between seconds and hours passes by until the door cracks open.

“A-Yuan?”

He can only cough, a lot, in response.

There’s a warm hand on his forehead that probably belongs to Binghe.

After some vague amount of time, a pair of hands are gently guiding him into sitting upright. A small plastic cup filled with purple liquid touches Shen Yuan’s lips. He drinks it; the medicinal taste of artificial sugar gliding down his inflamed throat. He glances up to the arm to its owner’s face.

Mu Qingfang’s hazel eyes stare back at him, the lower half of his face is covered by a flu mask.

He thinks he hears the doctor say something. Oh, Mu-Shidi’s hair is up in a messy bun. The look suits him. He should tell him. Oh wait, he is asking something of him.

“--idi, can you tell me how you feel?”

So Shen Yuan rasps out, “I feel like death.” Then he passes out in his arms.

Because sick him has no chill, apparently.

The next few hours are passed in a delirious haze of sleep, being forced awake to drink medicine, and the misery of illness settling into one's bones.

Shen Yuan is fully coherent again at 1:37 AM, Saturday morning to his bladder threatening the cleanliness of his sweaty sheets. His nightstand lamp is dimed onto the lowest setting, bathing the room in a warm yellow light. Luo Binghe’s sleeping figure is slumped over in a chair on the other side of the room. There’s a sterile flu mask covering the lower half of his face too.

As if he has supernatural hearing, Binghe wakes up just as Shen Yuan rustles the sheets.

Luo Binghe helps him out of bed, guiding him to the restroom. He does his best to stay standing during the duration of the time it takes to relieve himself. A glance over at Binghe shows that he’s looking away to help Shen Yuan maintain some small semblance of dignity.

He’s grateful for it.

Shen Yuan falls back to sleep as Binghe tucks him back into bed.

He wakes up again a little past six in the morning. Luo Binghe is no longer in the room with him. After vaguely slapping around on his nightstand, his hand eventually comes into contact with his phone.

There are a few text messages, most of which being ‘get well soon!’ wishes from his friends, Yang Yixuan, and a lengthy text from Mu Qingfang explaining that he came down with the flu and is not allowed to leave his room for at least 48 hours to avoid the contagious period.

Mu-Shidi Yesterday:

I’ve left your care instructions with Luo Binghe. He will be sure to take proper care of you during this time. However, I do ask that you refrain from saying ‘I feel like death’ again. It gave him quite a scare.

Shen Yuan squints at the text message for a moment. Yeah, saying that then fainting probably wasn’t a good thing. Oh well, he’ll be sure to try not to do that. No guarantees, after all, he hasn’t been this sick in literal years.

He goes ahead with a valiant attempt to clear airways, blowing his nose into a tissue from a newly placed box nearby. It does absolutely nothing for him.

It does, however, alert Binghe that he’s awake. There’s a soft knock on the door before Luo Binghe opens it.

Binghe, please, nooo. Having just woken up, he looks absolutely terrible!

“A-Yuan, how are you feeling?” Because he can’t read Shen Yuan’s mind, Luo Binghe steps into the room, still wearing a flu mask. “You... haven’t eaten in a day now. This one made some herbal chicken broth if you feel up to it.” His eyes look especially watery and red almost like he had been crying.

Ah, Mu Qingfang’s text makes sense now.

He probably scared the hell out of Luo Binghe. But it’s okay, at least he’s in good hands with such a concerned friend! In fact, didn’t Binghe mention that he took care of his grandfather when he initially got sick? He’s got experience taking care of sick people. Now that he thinks about it, he probably took care of his mother when she fell ill also...

Wait a minute.

Shen Yuan puts his head in his hands and sincerely regrets his words from his earlier delirious state. Just kill him now. Luo Binghe just makes a distressed sound, immediately coming over, babbling something about taking his temperature.

He pays it no mind because his earlier words ‘I feel like death’ are making Shen Yuan feel like emotional shit. As if feeling physically crappy wasn’t enough!!

No, he just had to go and make a death joke while he was sick to the guy who lost two people important to him to illness.

Good god.

He made Luo Binghe scared enough to cry.

“I’m a horrible person.” Shen Yuan’s words are muffled by the palms of his hands.

Luo Binghe hears it anyway. “Absolutely not. A-Yuan is a wonderful person.”

Shen Yuan looks up from his hands. Binghe’s earnest expression greets him. Way too close to his own face.

“Binghe,” a cough interrupts him. “I don’t want to get you sick too. Please be mindful of your distance.”

“But--”

“I’m still contagious, please Binghe; it would make me feel worse knowing I got you sick too.”

He visibly hesitates, but eventually takes a step back.

To make up for it, Shen Yuan hurriedly says, “I’m feeling a little peckish. If I could bother Binghe for some of the broth--”

Luo Binghe Brightens considerably. “This one will warm it up right away!”

In all honesty, he’s not hungry. But his mother had always insisted on making sure that he had plenty of nutrients when sick also. A few minutes later and Shen Yuan is staring into a bowl of chicken broth. It’s stunningly reminiscent of the broth his mother would make as well.

The thing with cooking is that every ingredient has a purpose. Just looking into the soup, he can tell Luo Binghe is truly doing his best to help him get better. Astragalus root to strengthen the inner energy and protect the immune system—especially if a body is under stress from work. Codonopsis root to help with everything from a tired body to stress to digestive problems. Goji berries to improve eyesight—especially from staring at computer screens for too long (hey, Binghe, you should probably be drinking some of this too then). Longan to promote restful sleep, slow down aging, and replenish qi, a traditional idea of the energy that flows through a person’s body. His grandfather, Shen Qingqiu, mentioned it to him time and time again in his stores. There's also some Ginger floating in the broth-- for body aches, stomach issues, and anti-aging. And red dates, a vitamin-packed fruit containing vitamins B, C, E, calcium, iron, and potassium, to protect your liver and central nervous system.

Shen Yuan is sure to drink every last drop of the sweet broth.

He doesn’t sleep for any absurd amounts of time like he did all day Friday. Shen Yuan just sits in bed, occasionally getting up to use the restroom, and reads. Luo Binghe refuses to let him near any work-related items. He also refuses to let him read any web novels since the stress from it could potentially set bad his body’s recovery.

He doesn’t even bother to defend himself from that one, Luo Binghe knows first hand just how much of a novel critique he is.

So Shen Yuan instead reads over some of his old books that he’s always enjoyed. Some covering mythology and folklore. Others covering some classical literature stories that Shang Qinghua had recommended to him back in college.

The weekend passes by just like this.

It’s not until Tuesday that he feels nearly human again. The stuffy nose is persistent, but the cough, fever, and chills are long gone. Luo Binghe’s mood improves as he gets healthier as well.

Shen Yuan is sure to give Luo Binghe a lot of praise for taking care of him in his time of need.

He completely forgets about Shang Qinghua’s favor as he gets back to work.

There’s a lull where winter continues to pass this way. Shang Qinghua quietly pines for Mobei Jun, who seems to be under the impression that he’s successfully flirting with the love of his life. There’s suddenly a bit of underlying tension during Friday Night drinks at the bar now.

It's just so weird to watch the two of them interacting now.

By that, he means that it’s physically painful to watch Shang Qinghua attempt to interact with Mobei Jun now. His bro can’t even carry on a simple conversation, so it’s up to Shen Yuan to do all the heavy work with talking constantly.

This goes on for about a month.

In between prepping batches of beer for the last stretch of winter, and the local students studying for their upcoming exams, moral in town just seems to fall lower and lower.

Which is why it’s a godsend when Shen Yuan wakes up one morning to a flyer taped to his front door advertising the upcoming Night Market.

In big, bold, calligraphy is written ‘Winter Star Night Market.’ An artful drawing of a traditionally inked Junk Ship, with its bright red sails, positioned below the header. Location is to be the bank of the Luo River, just south of town. The dates listed are between the 15th and the 17th of December, from 5 PM to 2 AM.

Wow, that’s a late night.

It still sounds like fun. He brings it up to Luo Binghe when he comes back in, suggesting that the two of them go together.

Then he sees Luo Binghe hesitate.

Shit, this is kinda like a date scenario isn’t it. Nice going, way to make the straight friend feel uncomfortable again!

“A-Yuan you just recovered from being sick...”

Ahhh, that was a month ago Binghe. Good god, he really does make him feel awkward. Perhaps he should start giving Binghe some space.

“This one understands Binghe, no need to say anymore.”

Luo Binghe blinks up at him. “Oh, that’s...”

Shen Yuan just smiles back at him then walks off to the kitchen to fill System’s food bowl. He can’t help the sinking feeling of disappointment. Oh well, this is what he gets for harboring hopes of a one-sided attraction.

This is probably for the best.

It can help him start setting up some distance between the two of them as well. That way, it works out well with setting some boundaries.

Remember living with Shang Qinghua, gotta do that all over again.

It’s just... he wishes his chest didn’t feel so tight thinking about it.

See, this is why crushes suck.

That night, instead of sitting next to Luo Binghe while they eat, Shen Yuan sits across from him.

He calls out a good night, instead of poking his head into his room to wish him pleasantries instead. Shen Yuan makes sure to no longer accept any accidental touches either, putting adequate personal space between the two of them.

As the Night Market draws closer, he can almost see Luo Binghe become more solemn as well. It’s a good thing they have this nice event to boost everyone’s spirits.

Maybe Binghe will take one of the cute girls from the inn on a date with him? It’s possible, there are plenty of attractive people there that would look nice on Luo Binghe’s arm.

Hm, that thought is a lot more depressing than it should be.

The first day of the Winter Market is a Monday evening, which means Luo Binghe is at school all day teaching mathematics for the kids.

Shen Yuan tries asking Zhuzhi-lang to come with him that morning during their bi-weekly brunch, only to be politely turned down.

“The Night Market draws a rather large crowd... and I don’t fair as well in the chill of the evening. But thank you for asking me to come with you. I appreciate the sentiment.”

Qi Qingqiu is busy managing her Inn, with the crowds that the Night Market draws out of their home. He doesn’t even want to touch whatever the hell is going on between Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun with a ten-foot pole. He figures that Mu-shidi and Liu-shidi probably have a date night planned out for it, only for Mu-shidi to mention that they’re both stuck working night shifts the entire duration of the market.

He’s at Mu-shidi’s practice to pick up some cough drops as a precaution when he learns of this from the good doctor himself.

“There’s no end to sick people in winter, Shen-shidi. And Liu-shidi always accepts the spare shifts... ahem, when he knows I won’t be home.”

Shen Yuan allows himself one second to coo at his friend's expense before getting a smack in the arm for it.

“I’m surprised though, I thought that you and Luo binghe would go together.”

A serine smile slips onto Shen Yuan's face as he laughs. “I can’t force my way into his whole life Mu-shidi. I did ask, but he declined my invitation.”

Mu Qingfang looks genuinely surprised at this. “Well, I can’t say I expected that.”

Shen Yuan just laughs again. “Was there anything you wanted from the Market, Mu-shidi? I’m still planning on going and can pick up a few things for you.”

“Shen-shidi, you are my best friend.”

This laugh sounds a little more natural than the other two.

In the end, at 5 PM, Shen Yuan ends up walking into the Night Market alone.

It’s a lovely sight to behold.

There are multiple miniature junk ships docked at the floating piers. Even though it’s sunset, there are white lanterns strung up from masts of the ships, connecting boats to each other. Additional small lanterns line the edges of the piers, to ensure everyone can see where they are walking despite the encroaching dusk of a winter’s evening. The lights almost look like they are dancing on the reflective surface of that river’s waters. No one ship is the same, each one is a different color than the other; some with intricate designs painted on the hulls, other’s simply solid colors. Gangways lay on the pier, inviting patrons to walk aboard the ships to pursue their wears from other regions.

There’s even a merchant for the valley’s coffee company, giving away free cups to passerbys.

Yue Qingyuan notices him as he approaches for a cup.

“Ah, Shen Yuan. Welcome to your first Winter Star Night Market. Would you care for a cup of coffee?”

He smiles back at Yue Qingyuan, “Many thanks Shixiong. Any recommendations for a first-timer such as myself?”

He gets a chuckle in return. “Yes, I would advise you to wander the wares on the first night, purchase on the second, and enjoy the third for treats.”

“Ah, Shixiong truly shows just how wise he is.”

Yue Qingyuan really laughs this time. “Please, enjoy the market Shidi.”

“I will, thank you.”

Shen Yuan takes his time walking on the pier, sipping at his coffee cup. It doesn’t take him long to finish it considering the fresh snow that’s begun lightly falling on all the bystanders.

Someone calls out his name. Now there’s a face he hasn’t seen in some time.

“Ming Fan, how are you doing?”

The young man grins at him. “Very well, I’m adjusting to my job duties at the guild quite nicely.”

Oh, he didn’t even know he was doing that.

“You didn’t know, did you, Famer Shen?” There’s a smirk on Ming Fan’s face and all Shen Yuan can do is sigh with embarrassment as he adjusts his scarf.

Ming Fan laughs, “It’s alright, with the farm and your alcohol business, I’m not surprised.”

“Still...”

Ming Fan falls into line beside him as they walk. “It’s alright. If anything you can help make it up to me right now Farmer Shen.”

“Oh?”

“You see, I have to work the other nights of the market so this is my one chance to shop.”

“Were you looking for something in particular? Because I must warn you, I haven’t had a proper look at all the wares here.”

Ming Fan scratches at his cheek looking vaguely embarrassed. “Ning Yingying says you have a good eye for stuff... and well, I was hoping you would help me pick out a gift for my girlfriend.”

“Oh my.” Shen Yuan pretends to be overly shocked and Ming Fan nudges an elbow into his side for it. Shen Yuan laughs at his grumbles. “How long have you two been dating?”

“It’s been long distance for some years now.”

“Oooh.”

“Farmer Shen please.”

Shen Yuan laughs again. “I’ll do my best to help. Does she have any hobbies? I’ve found useful gifts make better ones to give, no matter who the person is.”

“She likes stationary, actually.”

“What a coincidence, I love decorative stationery as well.” Shen Yuan loops his arm through Ming Fan’s, patting his hand. “There, there. This humble farmer was born to a picky mother and stuck up sister. He will help you find a great gift with a woman’s taste in mind.”

Ming Fan laughs, but the relief is evident on his face. “Many thanks, Farmer Shen.”

They walk like that for a bit down the pier, to a few boats. The two of them run into Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan as they pass by a boat selling bao. Liu Mingyan takes a quick selfie of all of them together in front of the ship. Ning Yingying starts to sing praises about the bao, earning the merchant’s hearty laugh and thanks. At that point, both of the men feel obligated to purchase one for the road as well. The cao siu bao smells so good, Shen Yuan can’t bring feel bad about spending money.

He buys Ming Fan’s too, telling him to save his money for his girlfriend. This immediately catches the girls’ attention, who start heckling the poor guy for information immediately. Shen Yuan distracts them by pointing out the artful sweets at the next eatery over, grabbing Ming Fan and making a dash for it two boats down.

Ning Yingying’s ‘you can’t hide from me, Ming Fan!’ making the two of them burst out into laughter as they go.

It gives Shen Yuan a flashback to when he and Binghe ran from Ning Yingying at the store, back in fall.

The thought somewhat sombers his mood.

Ming Fan, thankfully, doesn’t notice. Too nervous inspecting the calligraphy pens in front of him, determined to get his girlfriend the ‘right gift.’ They end up looking at a few other boats but eventually circle back to the pens again. After a few more questions, Shen Yuan suggests getting one that appears to have a silver head, a hallow marble handle with deep green ink.

It costs a pretty penny, but Ming Fan happily gives it to the merchant.

It’s only 8 PM but Shen Yuan is already feeling somewhat worn out. After they leave the boat, he and Ming Fan part ways, with Shen Yuan promising to do better to stay in touch. Ming Fan gives him a knowing look, then bids him a good evening with a laugh.

When Shen Yuan gets back home, Luo Binghe is in a foul mood sitting at the kitchen table. He’s glaring at the math assignments in front of him as if they personally offended him and his ancestors.

“I’m back.” Shen Yuan says, still unbuttoning his jacket.

Clearly.

His fingers freeze over the buttons.

That’s probably the most abrupt Binghe has ever been to him... since ever. Luo Binghe isn’t even looking his way, but the look on his face is... it’s terrifying really.

Shen Yuan swallows down the lump of fear in his throat. Don’t be ridiculous, it’s just Binghe. Obviously, he is in no mood to talk. The kitchen doesn’t look used yet either, meaning he didn’t cook. That’s good Binghe didn’t make anything; he’s still full from the bao at the market.

As the seconds pass, the atmosphere around Luo Binghe seems to grow darker.

Shen Yuan wants to ask what happened. Something must have during classes today, maybe even cheating. But he’s seen people get this way before, back in the city. He’ll only get his head bitten off if he tries to talk to Binghe. So, he decides to leave him be.

They can talk in the morning.

Except they don’t.

Trying to talk to Luo Binghe all morning is like trying to talk to a stone wall. He doesn’t get a response unless it’s paper being set down to his left or a yes/no question. The atmosphere is so suffocating that Shen Yuan mumbles some excuse and leaves his own house.

It’s bad.

Really bad.

He shoots a text to Yang Yixuan, asking if something happened during math yesterday. A few minutes later he gets a response that Luo Binghe had been in a pleasant mood all day. He had even let the class out early so the students could go and enjoy the first evening of the market.

Shen Yuan idly wonders if Luo Binghe got stood up or something. Some small, vicious part of him thinks ‘ha, serves you right for turning down my invitation’ but being bitter will only make the situation worse. So he tries to find a way to make the situation better.

It’s a quick walk to the library. He’s been before with Shang Qinghua, who needed help researching his novel, figuring a book on myths would serve as a better influence than another history textbook. But Shen Yuan isn’t going for a book this time. No, his main goal here is to talk to Mobei Jun, see if Luo Binghe’s best friend-- no matter how much either deny this fact-- has any clue about him being so upset.

Pausing to wipe his feet in the entryway, and hang his coat, Shen Yuan quickly looks ahead to the checkout desk. None is there, which means he has to hunt down Mobei Jun. There are only a few patrons in the building at this time, he even recognizes Granny’s shawl and purse at one of the cozy-looking corner seats in a lounge area.

According to his bro, Mobei Jun is very particular about where everything goes in the library. It’s fairly big, but he runs the entire thing by himself. There’s some history there, with a former employee helping Mobei Jun’s uncle; who was illegally trying to acquire the deed to the land it's on and attempt to sell it to a major retail store. Shang Qinghua had helped Mobei Jun concoct a scheme to keep his inheritance and maintain the town's only library at the tender age of sixteen.

It is a harrowing tale of two teens fighting the system that ends with the evil uncle getting locked away in prison and Mobei Jun using the money won in a lawsuit to pursue a Masters Degree in Library Science-- as well as building upgrades for the library.

Although, the first thing he did with the money was go get his first tattoo.

The library itself looks the same as the last time Shen Yuan was here. It’s a huge, single-level building, with the restrooms near the entryways. The interior of the building is shockingly modern in style compared to literally every single historic building in town. It kinda reminds him of a hip and modern coffee shop-- minus the coffee. The perimeter of the walls are filled top to bottom with rows of shelves.

He takes his time looking up and down the aisle until he sees a familiar bulking figure with a restocking cart.

Mobei Jun’s expression doesn’t change, but Shen Yuan can read the surprise in his eyes as he approaches.

Mobei Jun murmurs, “Shen Yuan, what can I help you find?”

“Actually...”

Shen Yuan takes his time explaining Luo Binghe’s temper the previous night and this morning. Yet, Mobei Jun only shrugs.

“I’m not aware of anything.”

“Ah, I see.”

“My apologies.”

“No, thank you for letting me take up your time Mobei Jun.”

Mobei Jun hesitates, “Maybe...” Shen Yuan waits, hoping that he might have a suggestion. Then Mobei Jun frowns and mutters to himself, “no... that’s next month.”

“That’s alright, really thank you Mobei Jun.”

He gets a solid pat on the shoulder before Mobei Jun turns back to his cart. Then lightning strikes Shen Yuan as he remembers his promise to his bro.

“You like Shang Qinghua right?”

Mobei Jun goes stiff.

Shen Yuan pats him in turn, “You should tell him.”

A novel slips out of Mobei Jun’s hand, hitting the floor.

Before things can get even more awkward, Shen Yuan flees the building.

In the end, he doesn’t learn anything new by going to the library. Shocking, right? So that leaves only one solution really-- talk to Binghe until he tells him what’s wrong.

He’s halfway home when a chime alerts him to a new text message.

Mobei Jun 1:45 PM

Thank you.

He smiles at his phone, liking the message before he resumes walking. There’s another chime shortly after that.

AirplaneHoe 1:49 PM

WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS MEAN???

It’s a screenshot of Shang Qinghua’s text messages with Mobei Jun; who messaged him at 1:46 that says: ‘I have received the family’s blessing. Let's go to the market on Wednesday after closing.’

No one is around to hear him yell in frustration to the sky.

Why does Mobei Jun consider him Shang Qinghua’s family!? Sure, his bro has no living family to speak of, but still! He never gave a blessing, or permission to date??? Just told him to confess-- what the hell!?

A little ticked off he responds ‘IDK man’ and resolves to never involve himself in his bro’s love life ever again. They need to talk to each other and figure it out themselves.

He spends the rest of his walk home cooling down the sudden flare in his temper.

Then, when he opens the door to the house actually remembers his new goal here: Get Luo Binghe to talk to him.

It doesn’t go well.

It doesn’t even look like he has moved from the office. Just... furiously working at any and all tasks. A solid hour goes by with no actual response except for grunts.

“Look,” Shen Yuan’s voice strains. “Clearly, you’re upset.”

Luo Binghe still doesn’t turn to look at him.

“And I legitimately don't know what made you angry but you can always talk to me about it okay? If you don’t want to talk we can just do something to take your mind off of it. I mean, we could walk around the market--”

Luo Binghe slams both his hands down on the desk.

Shen Yuan freezes, he can feel his eyes going wide as Luo Binghe finally looks at him.

He’s pissed, beyond angry, but he...

“No. I don’t want to go to the fucking market.”

“Binghe--”

“And you shouldn’t have either! You just got better!!”

Shen Yuan reaches out, “Bing--”

Binghe grabs his outstretched wrist. “You want me to talk? You-- Shen Yuan you don’t even listen to what I say!”

He also looks hurt.

It’s like a dam has broken, a raging current of Binghe’s emotions just rushing out of him.

“I asked you not to go out on a cold night because you could get sick again! Then you stopped talking to me first-- and you still went!”

Shen Yuan can only stare wide-eyed as the grip on his wrist tightens.

“You can’t just push me away like that! You! You, expect me to be fine, trying to act like you didn’t! And now you want to talk? To do things together? After all that!?” Luo Binghe’s voice is cold, “Don’t pretend this is all my fault.” The anger subsiding to just... exhaustion.

It’s quiet, the tight grip on him lessens.

Oh, oh he really didn’t understand what Binghe was talking about at all when they spoke about the market.

“I thought... I thought I was making Binghe uncomfortable, asking him to do everything with me.”

Luo Binghe stares at him. “When did I say that?”

“You...” He didn’t.

Then he just didn’t want him going to the market? It wasn’t some excuse to not hang out together?

Luo Binghe let’s go of him.

“Shen Yuan, please don’t assume things about me.”

He thinks he hears Binghe march down the hall to his room. After standing there for a bit, Shen Yuan can’t help but note that he is an idiot.

This whole thing is his fault, for not actually listening to what Luo Binghe was saying. Binghe has always been honest. Why was he trying to read into what was not being said? Binghe doesn’t do that, why... God.

The frustration is welling up in his throat. Shen Yuan’s vision blurs a bit with tears as he walks back to his own room.

He’s an idiot.

No one goes anywhere that night.

_

The next day is the winter solstice.

It lives up to its name as it’s the coldest Shen Yuan has ever felt in his life. But that might have to do with this chasm between himself and Bing-- Luo Binghe.

Ah, this is stupid.

Shen Yuan doesn’t want to leave his room. He gets dressed. He makes his bed. He stares at the door to his room.

Then he flops back down on the bed, staring at the ceiling in misery.

At 9:30 AM sharp, there’s a gentle knock on his door. Luo Binghe’s knock. Shen Yuan takes a deep breath, braces himself, then gets off the bed and opens the door.

Luo Binghe doesn’t look like he’s slept much. Shen Yuan doubts he looks any better.

“I think we should talk.”

Shen Yuan nods, then realizes that’s the exact opposite of talking. “Okay.”

The two of them make their way to the living room, sitting on opposite ends of the couch, facing each other.

The last time they sat like this was during their first heart to heart conversation.

He tries not to think that this could be their last.

Shen Yuan knows that this whole thing is his fault, for making assumptions. He’s had all night to reflect on how stupid he was acting. So he starts talking before Luo Binghe can even say anything.

“I’m sorry. I assumed that Luo Binghe meant one thing when he spoke, but I should have just listened to what you were truly saying. Word for word. I don’t know why I did that, I shouldn’t have put those words in your mouth. Especially when you never said them.”

Shen Yuan takes a deep breath. “I thought I was being too clingy, sticky, towards you. I didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable or be overbearing in our friendship. I thought that Binghe was just saying empty words as an excuse to not go with me. I didn’t think you were still worried over this one getting sick a month ago. So I tried to give you space because I thought that was what you wanted. Just because we live together, doesn’t mean we need to do everything together.”

It’s quiet when Shen Yuan finally finished his piece.

Then it’s still quiet, and he can’t bring himself to look at Luo Binghe. He fiddles with his hands instead, lacing his fingers together, scratching at the top of his fingers--

One of Luo Binghe’s hands softly covers his. Shen Yuan stops moving, finally glancing up at his face. Luo Binghe is gazing down at their hands, a sad smile on his face.

“A-Yuan thinks too much.”

A humorless laugh escapes Shen Yuan. “Story of my life.”

The corner of Luo Binghe’s mouth pulls up a bit. The hand covering his own curls a bit, Binghe’s thumb brushing over the back of his palm.

“This one also needs to apologize. Because A-Yuan is right, it was silly of me to be concerned about something that you have long since recovered from.”

“It’s not silly. It’s touching, it really is, that you were still looking out for my health. You have nothing to apologize for Binghe.”

Luo Binghe is still looking down at their hands. He nods, ever so slightly, then looks up.

“I also need to apologize for raising my voice at you.”

“Binghe was in the right.”

“That still doesn’t make it right.” Luo Binghe frowns now. “I scared you.”

“Well, I had never seen Binghe so angry before.”

“Still, I don’t... I don’t like thinking that you were frightened by me.”

“I wasn’t, really, only startled.” Luo Binghe doesn’t look convinced. “I am not scared of you. I know Binghe would never actually hurt me. Which is why I’m so sorry I hurt you when you were only trying to look out for me.”

Luo Binghe stares at him a little more. Then the tears start to swell up in his dark eyes.

Shen Yuan feels himself pull his hands out of Luo Binghe’s as the tears begin to fall. He brushes them away with his own hands.

“Can Binghe forgive me for being so foolish?”

More tears continue to fall as Binghe nods his head. Then his hands cover Shen Yuan’s again.

“I’ll forgive A-Yuan on one condition.”

Shen Yuan nods, “name it.”

There’s a wobbly smile on Luo Binghe’s face. “Let this one accompany him to the Night Market tonight.”

Shen Yuan smiles in return, “That’s all I’ve wanted.”

“This one is happy to provide.”

Shen Yuan snorts, an ungraceful moment; but, Luo Binghe smiles true for the first time in a long time.

He’s been stupid about this whole crush on Binghe; he started being someone he no longer had to be because he was scared of his feelings being found out. But, that fact that he can actually be himself, Shen Yuan, around Luo Binghe is part of what made him attracted to him. His attempts at self-preservation almost brought their bond to an end.

He’s fine with the way everything is, pining after this unattainable attractive man. Shen Yuan can settle for being friends with him instead. He’ll prove that he’s at least worthy of that, if only to himself.

There's a bark that interrupts his thoughts.

System, who had made herself scarce during their argument, pops up out of nowhere with her empty food bowl in front of her. She nudges it with a paw, followed by another bark.

It makes the two of them laugh, the atmosphere around them finally clearing up. Binghe gets started on building the fire in the living room, finally driving out the cold, while Shen Yuan prepares the coffee machine. Then he gets to work on breakfast.

He calls out “How does Binghe feel about Pancakes?”

All sound stops in the living room, “Uh...”

“It’s your cousin’s recipe!”

There are heavy footsteps as Binghe walks over to the kitchen just to give him a look that screams ‘I don’t trust you in this kitchen.’

“I won’t modify it again, I’ve learned my lesson.”

“... Would you allow this one to help out?”

“Of course.”

“Because those crepes--”

“Yes. I’m aware, it was like chewing cardboard.”

“Just checking.”

Shen Yuan throws a dish towel at him. “Some people just need practice.”

“Or to learn when to quit.”

Oy.”

“I’m only teasing A-Yuan.”

“No pancakes for you.”

Binghe pouts, “A-Yuan.” It’s totally crocodile tears shining in his eyes.

Shen Yuan’s will crumbles at the sight.

“Fine.”

The rest of the day is rather uneventful.

Shen Yuan double checks Luo Binghe’s work on finances that he meticulously (rage-worked) the entire morning through. Of course, regardless of the working conditions, everything is impeccable. He doesn’t pay Binghe just because he has a pretty face, there is brains there too. Still, once Shen Yuan tells him that everything is perfect, the man grins at him-- clear relief in his expression.

Huh.

Shen Yuan forgot just how much his eyes sparkled when he smiles. He pats his head. The effect is instantaneous; somehow, Binghe’s smile gets brighter. Shen Yuan can’t fight the chuckle that rises as he turns away to continue working.

Lunch passes without much flair and by the time 5 PM rolls around, they both need a break. Between Binghe focusing on maintaining the Brewery's standards and Shen Yuan beginning to shift his focus to the on-coming spring season, they both have a lot to do.

There isn’t much to say when they get ready to go out.

Realistically, Shen Yuan knows this isn’t a date. That doesn’t stop him from nitpicking at his coats, beanies, and scarves for the best color combination. Once he is satisfied with the way the beanie hugs his head, yet looks as if it’s loosely sitting there, and the scarf is snug on his neck; he smooths down his jacket and leaves.

After meeting Binghe in the entryway of the house, Shen Yuan is damn well glad that he took the time to look after his outfit. Luo Binghe is dressed in a thick, but form-fitting button-up coat; his long hair is loose-- no doubt keeping his neck warm as well. As Binghe slips a pair of gloves into his pocket, Shen Yuan can’t help but pinch himself because damn does he make casual wear look good.

As he approaches, Luo Binghe smiles his way (he ignores how his heart putters) and the two of them depart.

The walk to the market is quiet. It’s not like the previous silences that filled the air between them, suffocating and forcefull. No, this one is just... peaceful.

There must have been some fresh snow earlier, the muddy slushies that were previously present on Shen Yuan’s walk to town are gone. The surroundings are glowing in the white light on the moon. The lights and sounds from town grow as they approach.

The streetlamps for the Town Square illuminate the people milling about in the area. Qi Qingqiu’s bar and restaurant are overflowing with laughter and lights. The only other business with its lights on is Mu-shidi’s practice. It’s then that Shen Yuan remembers that he’s supposed to pick up a few things for him, otherwise he will lose his best friend card.

Still, the two of them keep walking, side by side.

As they get closer to the south of town, it gets a little harder to navigate as there are a lot more people present tonight than the first night when Shen Yuan was initially here. Nothing has changed about the setup, but for some reason, it feels a little brighter than before.

“Oh, A-Yuan you would like this store--”

Binghe’s excitement is tangible on his face and in no time Shen Yuan finds himself dragged from one boat to another. He doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he’s been to most of them before with Ming Fan. But somehow Luo Binghe is always able to point out something that he missed when he first came through.

The white flowers hanging in an apothecary boat is supposed to clear away negative energies. That art print hanging up is a replica of a Picasso piece. A glass sculpture of a wave that is infused with oils so it smells like driftwood from the ocean. Handcrafted soaps and perfumes at another seller’s boat have flower petals inlaid in them.

Like this, the hours continue to pass by as though in the blink of an eye.

Shen Yuan catches glimpses of people he knows as they continue to walk around. A group of teenage boys that have Yang Yixuan and Gongyi Xiao in their fold is sitting at the edge of the shore eating goodies from many merchants together. Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan are here again, this time looking at some art supplies together. During all of this, Shen Yuan is sure to pick up the few items Mu Qingfang listed wanting.

It’s a little past midnight, that he finally spots Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun. To no one’s surprise its at a small vendor seated on the pier that’s selling books. Shen Yuan nudges Luo Binghe and points to them.

Binghe, who has done most of the talking with his many explanations that night, makes to call out to them.

Then they witness Shang Qinghua tuck a hair behind Mobei Jun’s ear. Followed by Mobei Jun grabbing the same hand and kissing the back of it.

Binghe and Shen Yuan freeze.

Shang Qinghua’s painfully forced and awkward laughter reaches them. He says something then stiffly, quickly, walks in the direction of the temporary public restrooms set up on the shore. Mobei Jun purchases a few novels and follows after him a moment later.

As for the two of them, having witnessed the whole thing... neither are sure what to make of what just happened.

So Shen Yuan clears his throat.

“I-it, ahem, it’s getting rather late. What do you say about heading home Binghe?”

Luo Binghe blinks and looks back at Shen Yuan. “Ah, that sounds like a smart idea A-Yuan.”

And that’s the end of that.

Those two can sort out their own feelings.

_

The next day is just like any other winter day. Time continues to slowly creep forward in the freezing chill of the season. Mu-shidi thanks Shen Yuan for purchasing items for him and reimburses him for his troubles. Luo Binghe cuts down more firewood for them to use after they run out. Things just keep moving forward.

It seems like, if anything, the events at the Night Market have only added to this weird tension between Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun. It’s not exactly good.

But it’s not bad either.

It’s like watching a bad rom-com movie unfold in front of him. That or one of those bad porn openings that Shang Qinghua occasionally sent him for shits and giggles-- where the premise is stupid and the acting even worse.

Shen Yuan feels like he’s just waiting for one of them to snap.

No one is surprised when Qi Qingqi makes a new betting pool.

Meanwhile, Yang Yixuan becomes noticeably more depressed as finals begin approaching. The Night Market gave the students a small relief, but for those that are hoping to transfer away, it’s just hell.

There’s only so much studying that one can do on their own, so Shen Yuan takes the initiative to propose the idea of study groups to the other teachers at their next faculty meeting. It functions a bit like college office hours, but it’s mostly volunteer time after class for the teachers to stick around and answer any questions about concepts taught in class.

Some of the kids take the initiative themselves and manage to come together and arrange their own study groups by academic year. Yue Qingyuan permits them to stay late in the building after hours to continue studying, once a group of them approaches him with the idea.

The townsfolk continue along in their own merry way.

During all of this, Binghe seems to be... testing him. Not in an academic way, but in terms of personal space, ever since the two of them had their Big Talk. At first, he thought he was just imagining things since Binghe had reassured him that he’s only ever felt at ease with him. So all their casual little touches resumed. It felt right, and he’ll never admit that it was painful to not interact like that.

But then Binghe keeps pushing that boundary-- getting closer.

He’ll hug Shen Yuan now in the mornings, stand right next to him while working in the brewery, thighs touching when they sit side by side on the couch. None of this was normal for them, but he accepted it because honestly, it’s taking way too long to kill this crush and... Shen Yuan is a little pathetic. So, he’ll take what he can get.

The issue is that Binghe just keeps going over those limits-- it’s driving him insane.

There’s only so many casual touches he can take Binghe!!

It’s pretty embarrassing just how flustered all this new contact is making him.

A small part of him is ashamed to admit it, but he's relieved when the Lunar New Year starts to creep closer. He needs a break from Binghe’s stickiness. A heart can only take so many pulse racing moments before it starts to have negative effects on his blood pressure.

Shen Yuan is thankful that Binghe had persuaded him to purchase his train ticket back home earlier. He took a look online just the other day to see how much room was left on the train, only to be told individual tickets were no longer being sold online. Having lived at home, the New Year commute to visit family was never something that he had to deal with. Now it seems that he will have to deal with so much traffic just to get back to the city.

In the days leading up to the new year, the two of them meticulously clean the entire estate top to bottom. After that is done, they work on cleaning up the brewing facility as well. Then Shen Yuan breaks out the dried red peppers he set aside from the summer harvest. The two of them work on making long chains, stringing them up in the doorways of the house for good luck alongside other red decorations.

Since it’s bad luck to get a haircut once New Year’s Eve comes around, Binghe trims Shen Yuan’s now shaggy hair into something much more manageable; because of course he’s good at that too. Now his mother won’t give him too much grief about his haircut again. The boyband buzz cut is now a thing of the past, but it’s still a lot more manageable than long hair... and personally, he thinks that Binghe did a better job than the stylist.

System will be staying with Binghe while he is out of town since Shen Yuan did neglect to purchase the permit required for her to be on the train. As well behaved as she is, the laws do exist and there is nothing he can do about it.

Binghe did take a moment to ask Shen Yuan if he would be alright if Zhuzhi-lang came over for New Years while he was out of the house.

Shen Yuan had laughed, saying that this is Binghe’s home too and that he doesn’t need permission to invite his cousin over. Binghe had gotten oddly emotional over the statement, he could see it, but waved it off saying that it was Shen Yuan’s name on the deed.

The morning that he takes off, the day before New Year’s Eve, both of them walk over to Shen Qingqiu’s stone family shrine to burn incense and say a prayer of thanks and good fortune in the coming year. Then they say their goodbyes. Binghe attempts to go and see him off, several actually-- he even gets close to begging, but Shen Yuan manages to convince him to stay home. It’s a good thing too because the usually barren train station is packed.

Several members of the Guild are present to help in directing foot traffic on and off the train. Liu Qingge isn’t among them, but Ming Fan is. Shen Yuan makes sure to wave at him and gets a friendly nod in return before Ming fan’s attention is drawn away to an arriving family in need of directions. It seems that a lot of young families are equally traveling to the city to reunite with their families or to the country to stay with retired heads of the family.

This, of course, means that a little ways into the journey that there is a screaming infant in Shen Yuan’s train carriage.

Just his luck.

This is why he never wants kids.

The commute takes even longer than the previous time he traveled to the city due to delays thanks to the mass migration to get home before the holiday begins.

By the time that he finally gets off the train station, to the snowless dreary city, Shen Yuan is hungry, cranky, and a little sweaty thanks to the masses of bodies he was surrounded by in that damn sardine can called a train. It’s a crappy feeling and not exactly the mood he wants to arrive home in. So, a detour is decided on.

It’s a fifteen-minute walk from the station to the cafe he used to frequent. One warm Earl Grey Latte later, accompanied by soft music in the quiet store, and his mood is already leagues better than before. Sure, he probably looks silly with his duffle bag-- but there’s also a woman with a suitcase sitting near the door so he’s not the only traveler looking for a break.

After this, Shen Yuan finally goes home.

Per New Year’s tradition, all the staff has been granted the week off to go home for their family visits. The house is dressed in red from head to toe. If a building could have a head and toes, that is. There are hugs, the typically ‘are you seeing anyone?’ questions, and inquires about how his farm is doing.

Dinner is a simple affair to hold down one for the feast that is to come tomorrow, on New Year’s Eve.

His older brother is stagnant in his law career, the partners in the office are working him to the bone. So, he’d rather not talk about work; and is incredibly grateful when Shen Yuan complies with this.

His younger sister is both having the time of her life in college, while also rapidly losing motivation to maintain her efforts. She’s drained, social life lacking, and needs a nice vacation. The two of them step away to play their violins together just like the old days-- taking a minute to throw barbs at each other for silly little mistakes that get progressively worse for comedic effect until Shen Yuan’s father comes into the room asking them to stop making dying cat noises.

Shen Jiu is doing well as the overseeing manager for a group of small businesses in the surrounding area. He seems bored with the work though, tired because there is no competition to give him a challenge. There’s room to move up-- but why bother when he makes a better salary and fewer restrictions at his current position.

The gist of it is this: Home, for once, is pleasant.

His parents are very surprised when he mentions that he started up a brewery on the farmland. Shen Yuan talks at length that it was something he wanted to try his hand at growing the grains himself and such. Luo Binghe is mentioned as a critical player in the business aspect of it as well. He brings out the two single litter glass bottles he snuck onto the train of the holiday brew and the popular pale ale for them to have.

His mother chides him a bit for this, but his father just looks incredibly pleased.

They decide to drink it at the reunion dinner tomorrow night, on New Year’s eve.

The following day, New Year’s Eve is a fantastic feast made by his mother’s hand and assisted by Shen Yuan, his sister, and Shen Jiu. All three had been skeptical of letting him into the kitchen, but after attesting that his cooking skills have improved, he was finally let in. His mother insisted that she make the new year’s cake herself, so the three of them are delegated to dumpling assembly.

After a little while, his sister taps out to make some Fa Gao to eat for dessert as well.

Then Shen Jiu drops to oversee cooking all the other dishes.

Shen Yuan makes so many dumplings that he’s not sure he even wants to eat any of them.

Come dinner time, the six of them gather around the table to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The beer is cracked open and Shen Yuan’s father makes a joke like ‘I knew you were my favorite kid’ after taking a sip. His mother thoroughly chastises his father for it, but his dad looks like he could care less going by the laughter his comment gets.

His older brother makes the same joke, but more along the lines of ‘I knew you were my favorite sibling.’ His mother flat out smacks him up the head for that one, but they’re all still laughing.

His sister and Shen Jiu just comment that it's a miracle his dumplings are actually edible.

Midnight comes by when a bottle of beer is gone and with a toast for prosperity and good health.

The remaining five days that Shen Yuan spends at home are pleasant and relaxing. There are no firecrackers allowed in the city due to pollution laws. That doesn’t stop their neighbors though, so they all watch them from the upstairs windows.

Tradition is followed where they all eat dumplings at every single meal (and Shen Yuan is right, he does get sick of them). He uses WeChat to send out ‘red envelopes’ to his little sister, who rolls her eyes but says thanks, and a few other people.

An absurd amount of wine is consumed by his father and older brother too. Which results in some excellent drunk videos.

Following a recipe given to him by Luo Binghe, Shen Yuan makes some Osthmanthus jelly for dessert one night. He does give credit to where credit is due once he gets actual praise for it.

He doesn’t however, like the soul-piercing gaze his mother gives him everything Luo Binghe gets brought up. There’s only one thing in the expression. It’s a simple ‘She Knows;’ but if mother isn’t saying anything, then neither will he.

However, she is his mother. So she eventually does ask him.

It’s his last night at home, and Shen Yuan is being a good son and washing dishes when she comes in to make some tea to wind down the evening with.

The two of them quietly do their own thing in the kitchen until she speaks.

“This Luo Binghe of yours sounds like quite the charming young man.”

“I am convinced there isn’t anything that Binghe can’t do.” Shen Yuan then speaks of Binghe’s cooking skills and how he even trimmed Shen Yuan’s hair.

“A-Yuan, you speak fondly of this Luo Binghe.”

Ah, see. Mother knows everything. Lying is futile.

Still, he can’t help but blush as he replies, “I am fond of him.”

There is a pat on his arm as he looks at her expression. A soft smile on her face. “Your father and I have always supported you no matter what. Be it that plant degree, your preference to men, or the farm. That’s because they made you happy. The happiness of our children means everything to us.”

She squeezes his arm for a second. “If he makes you happy, then I hope you continue to find happiness together.”

If he gets teary and they hug-- well that’s between his mother and him, now isn’t it?

“I’m just,” Shen Yuan starts after he gets his emotions back under control. “I don’t know if he likes men either.”

“Well, ask him. Then if he says yes, ask him out.”

“Mother--”

“Honesty is the best policy.” It’s their household motto, so Shen Yuan can’t help but be a little shit and add on the secret, unspoken bit.

“Except in Law.”

She pats his arm with a laugh, “Except in law, yes dear.” She adds the tea leaves to the boiling water now. “I am curious though, what does he look like?”

“Well...”

“Oh come now, I won’t judge.”

Shen Yuan has to fight down a smile. Really, there aren’t any words to describe Binghe’s handsome body and beautiful face, so he pulls out his phone.

His home screen is still that same photo of Luo Binghe smiling gracefully, abet slightly disheveled in a stylish way that only someone with his looks can pull off, holding their puppy in his arms.

His mother does a double-take and Shen Yuan can’t help but feel a little smug.

After a minute, she gives him a serious look, “You two better make me some beautiful grandchildren.”

Shen Yuan chokes on his spit and sputters, “Mother, we are both male!”

“Science is amazing nowadays dear.”

_

Going back home to the village of Cang Qiong is a much smoother journey.

He sends Luo Binghe a text to let him know that he is on his way back that morning and gets multiples happy emojis and hearts in response.

Maybe it’s the conversation he had with his mother, but after staring at the hearts in the message, he goes ahead and sends a smiley face and a heart back.

The promptly turns off his phone.

Whyyyy.

He wants to die.

After an intense internal struggle, ten minutes have passed when he finally turns back on his cell phone. A message from Binghe is waiting for him.

What is probably half a dozen red hearts is the response back.

Shen Yuan can’t help the giddy laughter that bubbles up inside him. He finds himself wishing that the train ride would go a little faster.

When he finally steps off the train and leaves the station, there is a small group of people waiting at the front of it.

Mu Qingfang, Liu Qingge, Qi Qingqi, Shang Qinghua, Mobei Jun, and Luo Binghe all greet him with a bright and loud happy new year.

Shen Yuan blinks, then bursts out laughing. “Guys I was only gone for a few days!”

Qi Qingqi is the first one to reach him, throwing her arm over his shoulders. “So? Ringing in the New Year without you was just weird! Come on, Luo Binghe says that he and his cousin cooked up a mini feast for all of us to celebrate with you.”

He looks at Binghe, who takes up his other side-- an arm sliding around his waist. “It’s nothing special, but I know A-Yuan’s friends mean a lot to him. This is just our way of making up for the lost time.”

Shen Yuan is blushing as Qi Qingqi removes her arm but Luo Binghe’s stays where it is. But he can’t find it in himself to complain. “Then what are we all doing here? Let’s go eat-- I’m starving.”

Luo Binghe does remove his arm to grab Shen Yuan’s bag, but he stays at his side as their group migrates over to his house.

System loses her marbles the second Shen Yuan walks over the threshold. He can’t even hear Zhuzhi-lang’s greeting because her whines and scampering is just so intense. She refuses to be set down for a solid hour, and Shen Yuan can’t bring himself to feel even remotely inconvenienced about it.

The food itself is good, but not Luo Binghe’s best work. That’s probably intentional with Qi Qingqi also eating at their table. Also must be what he meant when he said ‘nothing special’. How clever.

New Year’s stories are traded and laughs are had well into the night.

Even when everyone goes back to work at the beginning of the week, there are still New Year’s traditions to uphold until the last day of the celebration: The Lantern Festival.

It turns out that firecrackers aren’t illegal out in the country, in fact, they are encouraged as the loud sounds scare the larger animals that are coming out of hibernation away from the town.

The snow is still going strong out here in the countryside and despite it being much colder... Shen Yuan doesn’t mind it. Not when Luo Binghe is always carefully tending to the fire and sitting so close to him.

It’s getting late into the evening one night, some firecrackers are going off in the distance, and the two of them are sitting together on the sofa. Their respective books sitting forgotten on the coffee table.

Luo Binghe is telling a story of his time with his cousin the first few days of the new year. Something about his snake having the same name as Binghe’s truck and them laughing about it.

But Shen Yuan is getting sleepy.

A little way into it, he leans his head on Luo Binghe’s shoulder. Binghe stops talking immediately.

“A-Yuan?”

“Mmm.”

“Are you getting tired?”

Shen Yuan pulls the throw blanket that was on his lap up to his shoulder. “Mhmm.”

It’s quiet again, but Shen Yuan’s sleep-addled brain sees nothing wrong with their situation. Binghe is super warm, and despite the muscles, is a surprisingly comfortable human pillow.

Luo Binghe wraps an arm around him, “Go ahead and rest then. This one will stay up to put out the fire.” Shen Yuan’s eyes close not long after.

He sleeps soundly through the night.

Morning finds him still on the couch, and still in Luo Binghe’s arms. They are both laying down vertically on the cushions. Shen Yuan is laying on top of Binghe, the throw blanket pulled over the two of them. One of Binghe’s arms is trapped between the back of the couch and his own body; the other is slung over Shen Yuan’s waist, resting there.

Shen Yuan processes this all like a loading screen with bad wifi, his head rising and falling with the deep breathing from Binghe’s chest.

When their arrangement finally sinks in, his face blooms into a vibrant blush.

He didn’t agree to this!?

Okay, he agrees with it, but still!!

Looking anywhere but at Binghe, which is hard to do since he is-- ya know, laying on top of him, Shen Yuan notices something. The fire has been put out and grate pulled closed. This means Binghe definitely got up and did that before he fell asleep.

This also means that this may not be an accident.

His blush gets darker.

So does his need to use the toilet though. No matter how badly Shen Yuan wants to think on this a little longer, take advantage of resting on Binghe’s chest (holy fucking shit) but he actually needs to get up and go badly.

Gently, quietly, he pries himself out of Binghe’s touch and walks down the hall to the restroom.

Binghe is awake and in the kitchen when he walks back, making a pot of tea.

“Good morning, A-Yuan.” His voice is rough with disuse.

Shen Yuan stares at Binghe’s broad back. He pauses a moment to steel his nerves and takes a deep breath. Then he walks right up to Binghe, wrapping both arms around his waist, hugging him from behind.

“Good morning Binghe.” His voice is muffled into the back of Binghe’s shirt that he fell asleep in.

Luo Binghe goes tense and doesn’t move.

Shen Yuan takes a chance, looking up from where he is hiding his face.

Binghe’s ears are bright red.

Shen Yuan hides his face again.

Oh my god, he’s so cute.

Then he lets go of Binghe, making a hasty retreat, with a flimsy excuse thrown over his shoulder.

“I’m going to freshen up, I’ll be back.”

It’s a wonder his voice doesn’t crack.

A quick shower followed by a clothes change later finds Shen Yuan feeling a lot cleaner but not any less embarrassed. He’s pretty sure there is still a faint blush on his face when he finally leaves his room.

Binghe looks the same, having used the time to get cooking a warm batch of congee for breakfast.

Shen Yuan doesn’t get to surprise him this time, as Luo Binghe promptly turns around quickly pouring him a glass of fragrant tea. Handing it to him, Binghe smiles. It gives his heart palpitations. “I decided to make breakfast for the most handsome man here.”

Shen Yuan blinks. “Oh, decided to treat yourself?”

Luo Binghe stares at him.

Shen Yuan takes a sip of tea, it’s as delicious as always.

“Yeah,” Binghe’s voice cracks.

“Well, let me know when breakfast is ready then Binghe.”

“Sure--” He clears his throat. “Sure thing.”

He leaves Binghe to it.

Midway through the week, Shen Yuan gets a text from Shang Qinghua. Luo Binghe, Yang Yixuan, and himself are all working in the office early in the evening when his phone chimes.

AirplaneHoe:

It’s time.

Me:

Oh god.

AirplaneHoe:

It’s Tradition

Me:

Fuck yeah, I’ll be over later

AirplaneHoe:

Cool, I’ve got the munchies and frozen potstickers. Bring PJ’s

Me:

Oh man this is gonna be so bad

AirplaneHoe:

I know, I'm so excited bro

“Hey Binghe, Don’t make any dinner for me. I’m gonna stay over at Shang Qinghua’s tonight.”

Luo Binghe stops typing on his computer. “Staying the night?”

“Yeah, it’s movie marathon time.”

This catches Yang Yixuan’s attention. “Movie marathon?”

“It’s a tradition we started in college. We sit down and binge-watch the worst movies that came out the previous year.”

Yang Yixuan grins, “Oh man, that sounds amazing.”

“It is, trust me.”

Luo Binghe returns to his work. “Well, have fun tonight then.”

“I’ll return with high blood pressure.”

Binghe laughs at that one.

He leaves for Shang Qinghua’s place around 5 PM, just before dusk. Inside of a bag are his evening routine, cell phone charger and a ratty t-shirt that he wears with plaid patterned pants to bed. The second he opens the front door, the smell of buttery microwave popcorn greets his nose.

He walks over to Shang Qinghua’s living room, where his laptop sits plugged into the TV and a spread of junk food awaits on the coffee table.

His bro is already in his pj’s. There’s a manic grin on his face. “You ready for this?”

It’s gonna be a fun night.

The first movie doesn’t disappoint, it’s acting is subpar at best but the terrible special effects and plotline do away with the movie’s immersive experience. Not to mention, the props are all obviously plastic.

The two of them loudly talk critiques throughout the entirety of it.

By the end of it, the popcorn has been exhausted, a bag of chips as been opened, and half a liter of soda gone. There’s a brief bathroom break before they start the next one.

Shen Yuan gets a text message.

Binghe:

How are the movies?

Me:

Pretty good. By which I mean the first movie was absolutely awful. Never watch The Wheel of Time.

Binghe:

Noted, I’m glad A-Yuan is enjoying himself.

Shen Yuan likes Binghe’s message as Shang Qinghua comes back into the room.

“You ready for round 2 bro?”

“Bring it on.”

The second movie is just lacking in plot. It’s not as bad as the first one, however, three of the background plots concerning side characters end up completely brushed aside for the stale love story between the female main love interest and male lead.

They don’t turn off the movie, but they do stop watching it in sheer irritation.

It’s a little after 8 PM, and it’s only because he’s an old man but Shen Yuan yawns.

He can’t help it! He’s a tired adult!!

So Shang Qinghua offers him either sugar or coffee to stay awake.

“What sort of sweets do you have?”

“Ice cream?”

“Why the hell do you have ice cream in winter? Normal people eat warm baked goods.”

“I am normal!”

“You’re as normal as I am.”

“...did you just slam yourself--”

“Shut up.”

Shang Qinghua laughs at his expense but still gets up to go get the ice cream. He’s got the individual serving cups, both of which are creamy vanilla. Muffled background noise from the terrible movie fills the air as they dig into the dessert.

Around a mouthful of ice cream, because really, Shang Qinghua is the only person he can be an outward slob around Shen Yuan asks the question he’s been dying to know.

“So, how are things with you and Mobei Jun?”

Shang Qinghua hesitates the little plastic spoon that came with it sticking out of his mouth.

“Well...”

“Well?”

“Well, we went to the Night Market together.”

“I know, I saw the two of you. It looked like a decent date.”

Shang Qinghua throws his head back and groans. “That’s the thing! That’s the damn thing! I didn’t realize he had asked me out on a date!”

“What?”

“You saw that text!” He throws his arms up in the air, “How the hell does that sound like ‘hey wanna go on a date’ Because let me tell you! It doesn’t!”

“...That’s fair.”

“Right!? Then! To make things worse--”

“Oh no--”

“I realize it‘s a mother fucking date when he keeps buying me all this shit-- it’s not shit, it was all really nice and pretty expensive, BUT, then he buys me these really nice foreign books! And goes--” Shange Qinghua clears his throat. “‘Being in the snow with my lover immerses me in a special feeling.’

Shen Yuan chokes on his ice cream.

Shang Qinghua’s voice hits the hysterical levels of high. “Then he kissed the back of my hand! Like some gentleman! And He is!! So, I panicked and ran to the bathroom and had a mini-meltdown in one of the stupid smelly plastic out-houses.” Shen Yuan just stares at him and Shang Qinghua keeps plowing on. “And then I realized, fuck it if this is date and I didn’t know it’s a date I need to explain myself to avoid any misunderstandings!”

He knows where this is going. “And you panicked.”

“And I panicked! So I didn’t do that, instead, we went to the bar to drink and yeah that’s how I ended up sucking his dick in the bathroom at the Inn.”

Shen Yuan lied.

He didn’t know where this was going.

“I’m sorry-- you,” Shen Yuan laughs, “You fucking what now?”

“I sucked his dick.”

“Were you drunk?”

“No, I only had the one drink...”

Shen Yuan doesn’t know where to go from here. Luckily Shang Qinghua can’t shut up when he’s nervous so he just keeps going. “But yeah, that happened. And I was like, ‘hey this was great- I’m tired I’ll see you tomorrow.’ and left.”

“You just left him in the bathroom?”

“Yeah... he didn’t wanna move? Not to like, toot my own horn... But I partially sucked the soul of his dick.”

Shen Yuan puts his head in his hands.

“At least, the noises he was making definitely sounded like I was--”

“Please stop.”

“--stopping.”

Shang Qinghua mercifully gives Shen Yuan a few minutes to gather up his wits and process everything that he was just told. He sighs and looks back up at him.

“So are you a thing now?”

“See, I don’t wanna be a thing!” Shang Qinghua once again throws his hands up in the air. “I want him to be my man. Not some ‘thing’!”

“You really do need to talk to him then.”

“I know...”

“Tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow?”

“Because it’s been a while! We are already in the new year!”

“Oh, yeah huh...”

“Yes! Don’t leave him hanging. Go make sure you’re dating!”

“Okay, your right.” Shang Qinghua is more so talking to himself at this point. “You’re totally right. I should. Tomorrow?”

“Yes, it’s already late.”

Shang QInghua blinks, “Bro it’s not even 8 PM.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s still early.”

“Please--”

“I’m going now.”

Shen Yuan blinks, “Wait, you’re what?”

“He should be home!” Shang Qinghua stands up, “He doesn’t sleep early, I’m just gonna pop on over and talk.”

“Dude, it’s snowing.”

Shang QInghua is already throwing a jacket on over his PJ’s, “I’ll be back in a sec!”

At 9:45 PM, mid-way through Shen Yuan’s foray into Shang Qinghua’s save file of Nier, he gets a text message.

AirplaneHoe:

Yeah I won’t be back tonight.

He stares at it as an eggplant emoji comes in a second later. Shen Yuan rolls his eyes so hard his head hurts.

_

The end of winter is nearly upon the valley. All of the farmers are already preparing for the spring season. Which means that the end of the new year’s festivities is also upon them. The town is getting ready for one last ‘hurrah’ with the Lantern Festival that is to take place at the end of the coming week.

Just after the final exams at school.

Shen Yuan formally gives Yang Yixuan a break from work for a solid two weeks-- one the week before and the other the week of exams. The boy cries because he’s so grateful. He does still come by to study since the estate is now the quietest building in town with wifi. After asking permission, Gongyi Xiao also began showing up with him since he’s still in school for his high school education. The boys stay at the dining table to avoid disturbing Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe as they work in the office. Yang Yixuan knows where everything is too, so he has free reign over the house. Occasionally one of them will walk into the office to ask a question or borrow one of Shen Yuan’s old books for literature references.

Then the week of exams finally arrives.

Luo Binghe is gone all day Monday to proctor his, his aura looking positively demonic. Shang Qinghua asks Shen Yuan for help proctoring his Literature class on Tuesday; for both the writing and essay portions. Wednesday is a practical exam and a cooking demo, a simple recipe that Qi Qingqi gives the students that lack some instructions-- seeing how well the students can modify the instructions to taste good. Thursday morning is the Science exam and while it’s not as long as the others it’s the most comprehensive out of all of them. In the afternoon are the solo music performances for Shen Yuan’s class, to demonstrate progress and sight-reading.

Friday is Liu Qingge’s practical, which means he takes the kids into the snowy woods and tells them to set up traps. If he can’t find them, it’s a B. If over the weekend they trap something, it’s an A. All the teachers are on standby at the school as a safety precaution, but Liu Qingge takes some guild members with him to observe the surroundings and keep the students from hurting themselves. Shang Qinghua and Mu Qingfang are sharing the large desk in the teacher’s office grading their exams. Qi Qingqi had wandered to the kitchen in the meantime to make something for them all to snack on during the wait.

Which leaves Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan in the corner of the main hall, near the fireplace. Shen Yuan’s exam was a ‘grade on the spot’ situation so he doesn’t need to worry about papers. Binghe’s had been on Monday so he was finished with the papers by Wednesday. So the two of them are relaxing, each reading a book off the shelf when Binghe clears his throat.

Shen Yuan stops reading and looks up. He would dare say that Binghe looks a little nervous.

“A-Yuan,” He must be getting warm from the fire, Binghe’s face is a little red. “This one has been thinking about it... and would like to properly ask this time if you would like to go to the lantern festival with him.”

Ah, see it’s a good thing that they are working on listening to each other! Better to directly talk about plans than have it accidentally blow up in your face later down the line.

Shen Yuan smiles, “And this one would love the company.”

Luo Binghe returns his smile. It’s a bit blinding with happiness.

It’s good that they are talking about this sort of thing now. Hopefully, the festival won’t be the same fiasco as the ‘Silent’ Night Market event. That’s at least what he has dubbed it in his head.

Qi Qingqi yells down the hall, “Who wants to lick the batter spoon?”

Shen Yuan has to race Shang Qinghua for it.

With exams out of the way, the atmosphere in the town finally returns to an uplifting one. The snow can’t dampen their spirits.

Saturday passes by in a flash and by the time Binghe and him head out in the evening, most of the town is already celebrating in the square. Red lanterns seem to have migrated all over the air, hanging all around connecting the rooftops of adjacent buildings. There’s a group of older men from the village playing instruments in the middle, just for the fun of it. A gathering of small children are making snow angels in a pile nearby, while their mothers look on and take photos.

The loud snaps and cracks of firecrackers are audible down many nooks, crannies, and streets.

Drums are being set up for the Lion dance later that evening; a few performers already milling about in their festive outfits, eating the sweet yang xiao dumplings being served and sold from a stall nearby.

Shen Yuan waves to Mu Qingfang and Liu Qingge, walking arm in arm on the other side of the square. They each wave back but stay to themselves.

Shen Yuan laughs, “They’re much more bold with their affections now.”

“True,” Luo Binghe hums. “Both are much more forward in the public eye now.”

Shen Yuan sighs, “I could never do that.”

Luo Binghe turns to face him a little more as they continue to walk. “What does A-Yuan mean?”

He doesn’t want to necessarily tell Binghe that he’s got a paper-thin face when it comes to affection. He can blame his parents for that one.

“I have always thought that affection and such is a personal thing. A private or indirect way of showing someone that you care. Grandiose public displays just don’t fit with me, personally. Other people have no place in my relationship.”

Luo Binghe has an enlightened look on his face. “This one had no idea A-Yuan felt this way.”

He shrugs then playfully bumps into Binghe, “PDA just isn’t for me.”

Luo Binghe grins at him, then bumps him back. They keep walking until they find a few people selling lanterns for the festivities later. After hmming and hawing at a few designs, Shen Yuan purchases a diamond-shaped one with the printing of bamboo shoots on it. Luo Binghe takes a little longer, but ultimately picks one of a similar shape yet with a lotus print on it instead.

Shen Yuan purchases his as well. With a laugh, he comments, “Look we both picked plants.”

Luo Binghe passes his off to Shen Yuan before pulling out his phone. “A-Yuan, let me get a quick photo.”

“Just don’t get me in it.”

Binghe snorts, “You’re holding them A-Yuan.”

One photo later, they make their way to the river. Since the town is in such a forested area, it’s not safe for everyone to release their lanterns into the air. Instead, to lessen the chance of fires, the lanterns are released on the river, floating down it.

The guild members are overseeing the process. To avoid too many people on the floating piers at once, they are only allowing groups of twenty at a time on and off of them.

As fate would have it, they somehow run into their friends at this time. None of their lanterns have the same design, each of them holding one that looks individual to them. Qi Qingqi manages to get on the guild’s men nearby into taking a photo of their group all holding their lanterns on her phone.

It’s a heartwarming photo.

When they are finally allowed onto the pier, their group plus a few others all excitedly walk down the planks. Shen Yuan kinda feels like he’s in high school, except now he’s an adult and is enjoying himself. Two women in their group hold an extra lantern, one meant to symbolize luck with having a child. Another family is carrying their little girl so she won’t accidentally fall off the pier.

Once everyone is ready, there's a moment of anticipation, where the sounds of the festivities from the town are muffled noise in the distance. Then the lanterns are set on to the water, the current quickly snatching them away from the group.

The lanterns floating away from them can either represent wishes for the coming new year while letting go of the ‘bad’ from the previous year. Had Shen Yuan thought about it, at the start of winter he had wanted nothing more than to go into the new year letting go of his crush on Luo Binghe.

Now he looks on at the river, where the bamboo lantern never leaves the side of the lotus one.

_

It’s the last big delivery for the brewery to make to the Ski Resort this winter season.

Luo Binghe double-checks the chains on his tires at 11 AM. He grins, “Well, this one is all set.”

Shen Yuan is holding System, so he lifts one of her paws and waves it. “Have a safe trip.”

Luo Binghe laughs, his cheeks flushed from the cold. “I’ll call A-Yuan before I make the two-hour trip back.”

“Sounds good Binghe.”

Then he’s off, once again.

Shen Yuan does some chores around the house, cooking some soup to stay warm in the cold, snowy weather. The TV is on for background noise.

Around 2 PM he gets a text from Luo Binghe, saying that he made it to the restaurant. A picture of a meal from the menu is sent a few moments later. It’s a delightful looking bowl of spicy beef stew if the red broth with pepper flakes is any indication.

Shen Yuan sends back a photo of his vegetable soup paired with a slice of buttered toast.

Luo Binghe sends back a few drooling emojis and hearts.

He laughs.

At 3 PM Luo Binghe sends a text saying that he’s on his way back.

At 4:06 PM the TV cuts to an emergency news broadcast. Heavy snow, a last-minute winter storm--

‘An avalanche has just occurred on the mountain pass.’

‘This just in-- the road to the Ski Resort is completely closed off.’

Shen Yuan’s entire body goes cold.

Luo Binghe doesn’t answer the first call, or the second, or the third, or the--

The call to the restaurant tells him what he already knew. That Binghe had left almost over an hour ago, after finishing his meal. He would have been on the road when the avalanche happened. Binghe not answering his phone (straight to voicemail each time) isn’t helping the panic- fear constricting his throat.

Shen Yuan’s vision blurs.

He tries to tell himself that Luo Binghe is not buried alive under an avalanche. That his truck didn’t get swept up and over the side of the road by the force of the snow.

Shen Yuan feels like he's gonna be sick.

System hasn’t stopped whining, seeing his distress. She persistently wiggles her way into his lap- then his arms. Her little paws on his right shoulder as she lets herself be held against his chest.

He cries into her fur as 5 PM passes.

They stay like that on the couch the fire having long since died.

The house feels cold and as night begins to fall at 6 PM.

It feels empty.

The shadows around the home stretch as the light fades.

Shen Yuan doesn’t notice.

The sun then sets.

System’s head suddenly perks up, looking towards the door.

She barks and Shen Yuan doesn’t breath.

It opens.

“A-Yuan,” Luo Binghe’s voice is filled with exhaustion. “I’m home.”

He doesn’t remember getting off the couch. The next then he knows is that he’s got his arms around Binghe, still in the entryway of the house-- and really nothing else matters.

Luo Binghe goes stiff for a moment. Then Binghe is saying something, ‘I’m sorry I'm late, it started snowing very badly-’, right up to the point where a second later the relief overtakes Shen Yuan, who just starts sobbing.

A second passes.

Before another can, a pair of strong arms wrap quickly around him and Shen Yuan just lets himself cry into Luo Binghe’s chest.

It’s comforting.

He manages to get a hold of his emotions after a few minutes.

Shen Yuan loosens his grip when Luo Binghe only tightens his.

“I missed the avalanche by ten minutes.” Binghe’s voice is low. “It hit the pass not long after.”

Shen Yuan tucks his head in the crock of Binghe’s neck. “Why didn’t you call?” His voice his horse.

“My phone died.”

“I was worried sick.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I thought you were...”

“I’m sorry.”

Shen Yuan pulls back a bit, looking Binghe in the eye. Binghe is still holding him tight, arms having slowly drifted down to his waist.

“I can’t imagine my life without Binghe in it.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes go impossibly wide. “A-Yuan,” Binghe’s breath catches and god-- Shen Yuan is so glad to hear him say his name again. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“A-Yuan--”

Shen Yuan rests his head back against Luo Binghe’s chest. He listens to the heartbeat within, fast much like his own.

Binghe lets him, one hand moving up to the small of Shen Yuan’s back.

They stay there, holding each other as long as they can.

The exhaustion from... everything starts to kick in. Luo Binghe is probably tired from the long drive to and from the Ski resort as well.

In their sleep-addled heads, together they make their way down the hall with Luo Binghe’s hand intertwined with Shen Yuan’s.

Shen Yuan pulls him along, into the master suite. Right towards his bed.

Neither of them talks as they remove their outer layers, getting under the covers of the bed. Shen Yuan falls asleep with his arms around Luo Binghe. In the morning, he wakes up with their positions reversed.

Neither of them says anything about it when they get up in the morning. Nor do they when night falls and they find themselves settling into the bed together again.

_

The phrase ‘What’s Mine is Yours’ comes to mind whenever Shen Yuan thinks about their home.

When he lived with Sang Qinghua in college there were rules, boundaries, and personal spaces.

When he is living with Luo Binghe, none of those really matter.

Somehow, Binghe’s room is now once again, the guest room. They haven’t slept in separate beds since the avalanche, only four days ago.

Shen Yuan knows he’s being clingy, but Luo Binghe doesn’t seem to mind it.

It's almost as if something between the two of them seems to have clicked into place. Something that he didn’t know needed to be lined up. Yet, everything stays the same.

But at the same time, it’s different.

Binghe no longer pouts or fake cries to get Shen Yuan to go along with his whims because he doesn’t need to. When he suggests something, Shen Yuan nods along and just lets it happen. At first, Binghe goes along with it just because it’s a nice change. Then he starts to hesitate after suggesting some ideas. Now he looks somewhat concerned.

“A-Yuan, you can say ‘no’... you know that right?”

Shen Yuan just laughs. “Of course I do. Did you think that my previous attempts were just trial runs or something?”

“Well, you just don’t always have to agree to my whims you know.”

“I know, I just enjoy spoiling Binghe.”

Luo Binghe blushes with surprise.

“Oh.”

“Yes, now what did you have in mind for the color scheme?”

Luo Binghe clears his throat, “This one was thinking of maintaining the cream, jade, and silver... But these other colors also caught my eye.”

Shen Yuan shuffles closer, “Which ones?”

“Well, I thought the black and silver with hints of red would look more modern. Especially if we decide to rebrand ourselves.”

They continue talking about their business late into the night; voices low as they sit next to each other at Binghe’s desk. Shen Yuan's knee touching his leg, Binghe's shoulder pressed against his own. Somewhere in the background, System is breathing deeply in her sleep, on a little bed she has beneath the window in the voice.

Despite it still being winter, Shen Yuan feels undeniably warm.