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The Tragic Mortal Human Way

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Running to get a package at the door, tripping over a power cord, falling down the stairs, and breaking a leg in three places... it could happen to anyone.

Airplane lives on his own, works out of cafes or at home as a writer, and realizes for the first time how much of a shut-in he is when he has no one to call when he goes in for surgery to get his tibia re-aligned. Mom is too busy watching her grandkids to drive into the city and see her idiot clutz of a son. She says she’ll pick him up when he’s discharged, but when Airplane remembers the state his apartment is in, he panics and backpedals and tells her not to come. He can figure it out, he says, says his goodbyes, and ends the call.

"Excuse me," says a pretty girl as she enters Airplane's shared hospital room, passing with a smile to the bed closer to the window. "I didn't want to interrupt."

Airplane waves a hand dismissively and she nods, turning her attention to Airplane's roommate.

"Are you awake?" The girl croons to the other resident.

A weak voice grunts back.

"Don't let me keep you up, then. I brought your old phone, like you asked," she says, folding the little thing into the frail palm of Airplane's dozing neighbor. She does some arrangements between cords and a power bank before leaning over the person in the bed, whispering a quiet message, and giving them a kiss on the forehead. 

She leaves the way she came, with a sweet smile and light steps, and Airplane busies himself with his phone so he can't be accused of eavesdropping. Once he hears the girl's footsteps proceed down the hall, he peers at the person in the bed next to his. In the brief glimpses afforded by a rippling curtain, Airplane sees a man younger than him, skin ivory pale and hair silky black, wearing a green hospital gown. He appears to be sleeping, his face turned away from Airplane and toward the window. The cast of the sun makes the fine line of his cheekbone glow. 

Cords run from between him and an IV bag, as well as a monitor showing the pulse of his heart.

___

After Airplane's surgery, his roommate is livelier.

"Xiao Yuan, let me know if there's anything I can bring when I come back tomorrow."

"A new roommate would be ideal. This one snores."

"Shh! You know I'd hit you for that if we weren't in a hospital!"

"I wouldn't mind going home. It's quieter."

Airplane's roommate has the back of his bed lifted to bicker fondly with his brother, an interesting example of how two related people could grow up to look so different. One pale, thin, weak, and the other large, round, and balding.

"I have to get back to work, but take this, in case it's too warm," the brother says, pressing a portable electric fan into Xiao Yuan’s palm.

"Thanks," says Xiao Yuan, accepting another kiss on the forehead without complaint. As his brother leaves the room, Xiao Yuan rocks his head across the pillow to meet Airplane's curious eyes. "He's married."

“I...” Airplane gapes. “Okay?”

“He’s rich, but he’s not into men.” Xiao Yuan’s blink is slow. He struggles to open his eyes again.

“Well, neither am I!”

“Fine,” says Xiao Yuan, slowly, as he rolls his head back toward the window, and falls asleep.

Who falls asleep just like that? Is he a cat?

___

“What did you do?” Shen Yuan asks, his eyes on the metal contraption pinned into Airplane’s leg.

Airplane flashes vividly back to the moment when his toe hooked onto a cord and he went ass-over-teakettle down the stairs.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Airplane replies.

“Did you trip over some wires and fall down a stairs on your way to accept a shipment of ramen cups?”

Airplane gives a start in his bed. “How did you know?”

“You look like the type,” said Shen Yuan, the quirk of a smile on his lips.

“Quid pro quo, then. What’s wrong with you?”

Shen Yuan turns serious again. “Everything.”

___

Airplane is as exhausted as he is restless. The doctors have him on antibiotics in addition to his saline drip, and the food they give him is tasteless. He wants to walk up and down the hall, flirting with cute nurses, but even going to the bathroom is such a frustrating experience with the contraption on his leg that he always returns to bed and accepts defeat.

Shen Yuan doesn’t move at all.

“I haven’t seen you take a piss the entire time you’ve been here,” Airplane points out in an attempt to banter playfully.

“I’ve got a catheter,” Shen Yuan replies.

Airplane laughs. “Gross.”

Shen Yuan’s expression sours and he doesn’t respond to Airplane again for some time.

___

On your fourth morning in the hospital, Airplane awakes to catch Shen Yuan on his phone, reading. Scrolling.

“Catching up on Weibo?” Airplane asks, a little sleepy.

Shen Yuan’s dismissal is in a dart of his eyes. “Zhongdian Literature.”

Airplane's heard of it. "That website where people write trash at the speed of light and get paid for it?"

Shen Yuan's smile is reluctantly given. "That's the one."

Finally, something Airplane can talk about with this man who appears a little younger than him. "You read a lot?"

"It's all I do," he replies, hyperbolically.

"What kind of novels do you like?"

Shen Yuan puts his hand down, phone against the green hospital gown on his chest. He considers his answer. "Xuanhuan," he says, "and transmigration."

Airplane picks up his phone and goes to Zhongdian Literature to make an account. "Which ones are your favourite?"

Once Airplane has verified his email, he types in the titles that Shen Yuan recommends and bookmarks them, one after the other. By the time he's starting in on Domination of the Emperor (title explains what it is but not the unique selling point of the story, 3 stars out of 5), Shen Yuan's eyes are closed.

"Sleeping again?" Airplane teases. "You just woke up an hour ago. You really are a cat!"

Shen Yuan's only reply is a hum, and he sleeps.

___

It finally occurs to Airplane how much Shen Yuan sleeps, now that he's dozing while Airplane wants to make fun of the typoes in Domination of the Emperor . He counts the hours until Shen Yuan rouses, annoys Shen Yuan with his nitpicks of the narrative while Shen Yuan eats the cardboard hospital food, and laments when Shen Yuan goes back to sleep. He was only awake for twenty minutes! How lazy is this guy?

Domination of the Emperor is a pretty fun read, although the prose is an embarrassment. According to the comments, readers are fascinated by the characters and the protagonists’ many wives. Each comment is one complaining that their beauty of choice hasn’t gotten enough screen time, totally ignoring the plot unfolding in front of their eyes.

“No respect for an author’s integrity,” Airplane grumbles to no one in particular.

As a writer, Domination of the Emperor is an interesting read. Each chapter is about one thousand words, ending on a manipulative cliffhanger, with the comments screaming in frustration at having to wait to see what happens next. Airplane can tell that the writer is working mostly -- if not, completely -- off the cuff. This person probably didn’t have an outline or any direction in the plot except for the various exploits of this no-good Emperor who things work out for miraculously time and time again. About halfway through the novel, curiosity gets the better of Airplane and he looks up top payouts for Zhongdian Literature’s authors.

“Thirty million yuan?!” Airplane barks, without thinking, and slaps a hand over his own mouth. Airplane's books have been bought with fifty thousand yuan advances, plus royalties on a single book!! These people are making thirty million yuan per year?!

Airplane puts down his phone to let the new reality sink in.

I knew these people were making a lot of money, I guess I should have looked it up earlier. Thirty million yuan just for posting a thousand words a day. Airplane raises his phone to look at the numbers again. I could do better than that!

Airplane is looking up guides on marketing webnovels as a beautiful woman steps into the room -- the woman from the first day that Airplane was there. She smiles at Airplane. He nods back.

"He's asleep?" She asks, her voice just loud enough for him to hear.

"Yeah," Airplane replies, not bothering to temper his volume. "This kid sleeps non-stop. He's really living the dream."

Shen Yuan's sister looks slightly wounded by Airplane's words. "Xiao Yuan is very weak. I'm sure he'd spend more time awake if he was able."

"Weak?" Airplane echoes, not understanding.

The sister's eyes dart across the room to Shen Yuan."I'll come back later."

___

"Where do you go to school?"

"I don't."

"Oh? You look young to be a graduate."

"Because I'm not."

"Then, are you working?"

"Does it look like I'm working?"

Shen Yuan is deferential in his speech, and polite as is expected, but bitterness and sarcasm lashes out against Airplane from time to time. It's like Shen Yuan is a dog that seems patiently friendly, but spins on a dime to bite the hand that touches it.

Airplane, eager to connect with him on some level, soldiers on. "Then what do you do?"

"Mostly?" Shen Yuan looks at the opposing wall of the room, eyes half-lidded and staring miles ahead. "I do this."

"Read?"

"Die," says Shen Yuan. "I lie in beds, at hospitals or at home, try to keep the strength to hold up my phone while my body gives out here and there and I wait to die."

Airplane's heart hammers in his chest. "That's not funny."

"No, it's not," says Shen Yuan, his voice tight with tears. "So stop asking me what my life is like! I don't get to have one. My life has been and always will be sitting around and waiting to die while everyone else tries to keep me alive."

Airplane is speechless as Shen Yuan cries quiet, powerless sobs in the bed across the room. Shen Yuan looks away from Airplane and raises one hand to rub across his eyes. It moves in slow motion, like he's tired. Like he's weak. Like he has to move his hand in just the right way to avoid causing himself pain. Airplane realizes he's never seen Shen Yuan stand up, or even raise his head from his pillow without assistance.

Airplane always assumed there must be a reason for it, but it hadn't occurred to him that Shen Yuan might just be that weak. Could it be true that the young man sharing a room with him has nothing to look forward to but death?

He couldn’t deny the possibility.

"I'm sorry," says Airplane.

"Shut up," replies Shen Yuan.

"I uh... I got to the siege of Phoenix Tail Keep in Domination of the Emperor ," Airplane says, switching strategies. "Qing Zhe's betrayal was really good. It totally caught me by surprise."

It works. Shen Yuan sniffs. "But it all makes sense if you remember his character motivation from the Heavenly Springs scene in the early chapters."

"Yeah, it was good."

"Did you get to the wedding at the Cloud City Palace yet?"

"They just got there."

"Keep reading," said Shen Yuan, with one more sniff. "I've got to rest my eyes."

___

The ensuing quiet is uncomfortable for Airplane as he has to accept that death is a reality some people have to face every day. Something that Shen Yuan looks in the eyes every minute. No wonder he likes xuanhuan stories about immortals, and transmigration stories about crossing out of the modern world after death. He probably reads them, imagining the possibilities for himself. When death looms in the certain future, why not entertain the thought of what could come after?

As Airplane read, ideas were percolating. Now, it comes together in front of him. He’ll write a novel. An excellent novel, thoroughly outlined and planned. A xuanhua story, one that takes advantage of everything that’s good about the genre, and subverts the stupid crap. Go whole hog with a tragic protagonist that will make readers cry, and--he can be a demon! Demons are cool--and if he’s a demon he can go down a path of evil and revenge and turn at the last moment to become someone righteous and good, regardless of his heritage!

Airplane switches his phone from Zhongdian Literature to a note-taking app. He writes down everything he has.

Demon protagonist. Pitiful and easy to love before he has his big turning moment and then goes on a rampage for revenge. Xuanhua. Maximum coolness. Makes like a revenge story and then turns into a moral vindication and world-saving type.

“I’ll be rich,” Airplane mutters to himself. But first, he has to do more research. Neither xianxia nor xuanhua were ever his genre of choice.

___

Before Airplane can get to know Shen Yuan by much more than name, the pins are removed from his leg and replaced with a normal cast. With crutches, he’s free to go from the hospital. Airplane is not looking forward to taking the stairs up to his shoebox apartment, but he is excited to get back to his computer to start outlining the new novel in detail.

“Hey, Xiao Yuan.”

Shen Yuan looks up from his phone at Airplane. He’s got some colour in his face now, after several days of IV fluids and carefully watching his pulse on a heart monitor. His hair is billowing from the little portable fan he has pointed at himself. “What?”

“What’s your handle? On Zhongdian Literature?”

“Why should I tell you that?”

“So we can be friends there,” says Airplane with a smile. “I want to show you something later.”

“I’m not telling you,” Shen Yuan says, returning his eyes to the window.

Airplane rests his eyes on the battery-powered fan. “Why not?”

“It’s private,” he replies. “And I never agreed to be your friend.”

“You’re so cruel,” Airplane sighs. “Even though I’m leaving today? You won’t give me your email?”

“I won’t.”

But how will I show you the novel I’m writing for you? Airplane accepts defeat, knowing already that Shen Yuan can be stubborn. “I’ll just have to guess.”

“Good luck,” Shen Yuan says, flippantly.

Airplane stands at the door, backpack hooked over one shoulder and crutch tucked under the other, knowing he’ll probably never see Shen Yuan again. This boy, pretty, fragile, and dying, helped to wake him up. But no matter what Airplane could do, his body was already betraying him. If Airplane could trust the way Shen Yuan spoke about himself, this boy was doomed to die.

“Well,” he mutters, “bye.”

“See you,” says Shen Yuan.

Airplane’s heart leaps with joy. “See you,” Airplane echoes, and walks out with a smile on his face.

___

“Hey, Cucumber-bro,” Airplane asks, sitting in a chair across from Shen Qingqiu in the kitchen of the house he shares with Luo Binghe. “You were in the hospital a lot, right?”

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes dart toward the door, checking for Luo Binghe. Bing-ge’s hearing is abnormally good, of course. Airplane knows all about it, as the author.

“Yeah,” Shen Qingqiu confesses. “But that doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

“Did you ever share a room with a guy, and get him hooked on webnovels?”

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. “How the hell should I remember? I spent the better parts of every year in hospitals. It sucked, and then I died. I don’t make a habit of thinking about it.”

“Ah,” Airplane says. “Didn’t you say, back when we were making a new body for you out of the sun-moon dew mushroom, that Shen Qingqiu’s face kind of looks like the old you?”

“What does it matter?” Shen Qingqiu says, losing patience. “That does remind me of something though: why were your names for everything so terrible?”

“They were just supposed to be placeholder names, but I forgot to come up with other things, so I just published them.”

Shen Qingqiu sighs and shakes his head. “You’re hopeless.”

“Why are you always so mean to me? I made you this beautiful world to be reborn into, didn’t I?”

“At least you could have made it so I didn’t need to take carriages everywhere. And if you knew what the Nascent Soul Stage even was.”

“I’m going to go home,” Airplane says, climbing to his feet.

“Good, get out, and stop eating my food.”

“Same time next week?” Airplane inquires, pausing at the door to the house.

“I’ll think about it,” Shen Qingqiu sighs.

“You’re so tsundere.”

“I thought you were leaving, or should I call for Binghe?”

“Fine,” Airplane says, grinning on his way out the door. “See you.”

“See you.”