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Protagonist Rehabilitation Programme

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The rest of the day was spent in a pleasant blur on Shen Yuan's bed, watching movies, passing a few words every now and then, until Shen Yuan couldn't take it anymore. He begged Luo Binghe to go to the corner store and buy some snacks, which he pouted about but went anyway. 

As soon as he was gone, Shen Yuan pulled his phone out and called Airplane Bro. 

 

"... Yeah?" 

"I need you to promise me something," Shen Yuan said immediately. 

"Bro! You're alive! Like for real!"

"Yes I'm alive! No thanks to you. No, I'm not going to let myself get side tracked. This is important."

Airplane Bro hummed. "What happened anyway? Why did the murder baby get so... murdery? Did you piss him off?"

"No, I... It's not important!"

"It is important, bro! He's insane! You don't need to be running around making him even worse!"

"Listen to me!" Shen Yuan snapped, raising his voice. "One day, soon, you might have to start writing PIDW again. And when you do, I need you to write in a character for me."

Airplane Bro was silent for a moment. "You... what?"

"A character! You're an author, aren't you? You know what a character is! But nothing like any of the other characters. You need to write in someone who Luo Binghe can trust explicitly, all the time, who will never ever betray him, who would rather die than lie to him or hurt him. But the character can't die! Give them invincible plot armour for god's sake!"

"Wh–"

"And make them nice! No secret knives, no tragic backstory, okay maybe a little tragic but in a sad and harmless way! And – you should probably make them quite powerful and rich so that they can spoil Binghe and buy him nice things and be on a more equal level with him. No helpless maids and no conniving jezebels!"

"Jeez, not asking for much, huh? You want them to be handsome and a martial arts expert as well?"

"Maybe!" Shen Yuan yelled. "But that's not the important part! Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, you better listen to me! Don't you dare just write in another cold and loveless marriage! This character needs to be – they need to be tough and firm with Luo Binghe, but also kind and indulgent, and they need to be patient, and warm, and he needs to be able to always rely on them, and c–count on them whenever he's upset, and know he can... that he can trust them with his life..."

"... bro... are you, like, crying?"

"No!" Shen Yuan said wetly. 

"Bro..."

"Shut up!" 

Airplane Bro sighed. "What you're saying is that when Luo Binghe goes back into the narrative, you want me to introduce a whole new Mary Sue out of nowhere. After 6000 chapters. With no build up. And no explanation. Just the perfect soulmate, who also might be your original self insert character."

Shen Yuan swallowed. "I don't think it sounds that strange."

"I'm already getting flayed alive by my readers for not updating in like, a month! I'm in deep shit here, bro! I can't just pull someone like that out of nowhere in the last few chapters!"

"... The last few chapters?" Shen Yuan repeated. "What do you mean?" 

"Ah, it's just... everything was wrapping up," Airplane explained, his voice oddly wistful. "I was beginning to tie things off. There are some plot holes that unfortunately will never be filled. You know, I had this whole plan with some of the Peak Lords of Cang Qiong, and there was the issue of Luo Binghe's parents... I guess they'll never be more than a plotbunny now. Nobody really wanted to read all that anyway. So I decided to end things as they were." 

Shen Yuan felt nothing but dread. Once, he might have heaved a sigh of relief that the story he wasted so much money on was ending, but now, his thoughts were foggy and unpleasant. "As they were?"

"I had a plan," Airplane Bro continued quietly. "But as time went on, I kept thinking... doesn't it make more sense for Luo Binghe to die?"

Shen Yuan's grip on his phone tightened so much that his knuckles creaked. "What?"

"What else is there for him to do? What to conquer? Who to take his revenge on? I was already planning it before he got dropped into this world and out of my mind. The only thing I was stuck on was how."

"You can't," he hissed, the venomous tone of it surprising him. "You can't. He's real. He's living under my roof. If you saw him – met him–"

"It doesn't matter anyway," Airplane said idly. "He's not going back. I've already started thinking about my next novel. I'll probably have to rush an ending for PIDW and tell everyone that I got sick or something. Anyway, it doesn't matter, because he isn't going back, right? You're just going to make him happy so he stays here."

Shen Yuan thought about the aching chasm between Luo Binghe's current Happiness Point Total, and the Happiness Points he needed to make him stay. He shook his head numbly. "I... I'm trying, but..." 

"You got this, bro. But even if he goes back, isn't that a good thing?"

" No . You can't do this. If you kill him I'll – I'll..."

What threat could he possibly act upon? What power did he hold over what happened to Luo Binghe in the fictional world? 

"Okay, okay," Airplane Bro said quickly. "I'm sorry. But you don't know what it's like when you're an author and you get this idea stuck in your head. Having to change it... it feels so wrong. I've already had to cut out so many things from my story. It's painful! That's my baby! Now people think I'm a shitty horny virgin author with no talent. Your reviews weren't kind, bro, remember? But I did have ideas. I had so many ideas." He sighed. "Sometimes, when you write stuff, it feels like the story is in control and not the other way around. I'll try and work something out, but bro, I genuinely can't promise that Bing-ge won't get chopped up if he goes back home. Sorry."

"You are a cowardly piece of shit," Shen Yuan spat, before hanging up. 

 

Fuck. 

 

He put his head in his hands and fought the urge to yell. The worst part was... he understood where Airplane was coming from. 

The Binghe from before did so many unforgivable things. Narratively, maybe he did need to die. Preferably in a blaze of glory, loud and glorious and unforgettable, a true anti-hero blazing through the sky like a comet towards an unforgettable death. 

But now... but now...

Now the thought made him sick. Luo Binghe, the man living in his apartment, didn't deserve to die. 

Shen Yuan was going to let him down. 

The sound of the front door opening made him shiver. He pulled himself into a fairly normal position as Luo Binghe re-entered the room, two bags stuffed full of snacks under his arms. He paused on the doorway, immediately picking up on Shen Yuan's bitter silence. 

"... Laoshi?"

"Binghe," Shen Yuan said, and gestured for him to come closer. "You..."

He trailed off. He wasn't entirely sure what to say. Every time he opened his mouth, a thousand things wanted to come out. Things like "I'm so sorry" and "I promise I will make you happy" and "I tried" and "when you go back, run", but in the end, all he could do was stare helplessly into Luo Binghe's shining black eyes. 

Luo Binghe stared back. "Laoshi," he repeated, much lower this time. With slow, deliberate steps, he wandered back over and knelt on the bed, grabbing Shen Yuan’s chin with his hand. 

“Something upset you.”

Wouldn’t you be upset too, protagonist, if someone else’s life depended on your ability to make them happy? An ability that, so far, you have failed miserably at? Shen Yuan shivered and averted his eyes, feeling the guilt wrack up. 

“Luo Binghe... what if you... never went back?”

There was a sharp intake of breath. “To my story?”

“Mn.”

The grip on his jaw tightened. Shen Yuan heard something like a warning siren going off in his brain as he found his face being turned towards Luo Binghe’s. “What a dangerous thing to say,” he murmured. “Does laoshi believe he can keep me here?”

“You may go where you wish. It’s just that. If you do return. Back to the palace.”

“Yes?”

Shen Yuan found it increasingly hard to swallow his nerves. “I just worry that somebody there will harm you. Maybe even try to kill you.”

Luo Binghe surged forward, his eyes searching over Shen Yuan’s face with an expression of fond disbelief. “You’ve been crying.”

He noticed?!? That was kind of mortifying! “I-”

“Could it be that laoshi worried so much for this lowly mongrel that he even shed a tear for me?”

Well, technically yes, but--

“What a pained expression,” Luo Binghe all but breathed, something feral and ecstatic in his eyes as he drew even closer forward. “Laoshi read my story and knows that there are kingdoms full of people who wish to serve my head on a platter, and saw what I did to deserve this bloodlust, and yet he still weeps for me like he thinks it’s unfair.”

Shen Yuan felt himself grow suddenly flustered and enraged all at once. So what if he cried! Stop making such a big deal out of it! 

“When I see laoshi like this, it really makes me...”

Luo Binghe was looming closer and closer, and Shen Yuan was instantly filled with the sense memory of being kissed like he was the last bubble of oxygen for a drowning sailor. He panicked and reached out with his hand to grab the nearest thing, putting it up against his mouth as a protective shield just in time to stop Luo Binghe’s lips from crashing into his own. 

Cursed progeny of a Heavenly Demon, Emperor of the Known World, found himself kissing the tiny, well sculpted face of a figurine of Sasuke Uchiha.

“I told you to ask!” he snapped loudly to hide the fact he was panicking. “You didn’t ask! It’s like you want to go to the hotel tonight!”

“I don’t,” Luo Binghe said mutinously as he separated himself from Sasuke. 

Then don’t just throw yourself lips first at any old man you live with! Just because you haven’t papapaed with anyone for like a month doesn’t mean you can use me as a stand in! Save it for the wives! 

Perhaps sensing that he had crossed a line, Luo Binghe pulled back and had the grace to look apologetic. "This disciple apologises sincerely for forgetting to ask. It's just that the sight of sh– Shen laoshi was a pleasant surprise. Learning that you were worried that someone in the palace seeks to kill me..."

"Aren't you worried?" Shen Yuan said, once he remembered why he had been crying in the first place. Not that he had been crying! He hadn't! "I know you're usually pretty untouchable, but this time... this time it could be..."

"Serious?" Luo Binghe curled up beside Shen Yuan, resting his head on his hand and leaning on his elbow. "Don't look so bullied, laoshi. I'm safe here, aren't I?"

After a moment, Shen Yuan nodded. "Of course. No matter what, you're safe here. As much as this crumbling fossil can look after you. I'm afraid I wouldn't be of much use in a fight."

Luo Binghe was practically purring like a cat as he nudged Shen Yuan's thigh with his knee. At least they were out of the kissing danger zone. Shen Yuan could allow a little leg touching, if only because he didn't think that anyone considered the knee an erogenous area. 

Ah. Wait. This man was the papapa emperor. He probably did get turned on by knees somehow, Shen Yuan just knew it. 

Packing away this train of thought into little boxes and shoving it away, Shen Yuan reached out and poked Luo Binghe's cheek. And just like that, his bad mood vanished. 

Mostly. 

Okay, he mostly repressed the dread he was feeling. But Luo Binghe had a very soft pokeable cheek. Like a steamed bun. He wanted to pinch it, but Luo Binghe was still a little too intimidating to bully like he would his sister. One day...

 

Shen Yuan didn't wake up early the next day, per se, but he did roll out of bed the quickest he had ever rolled. Luo Binghe was already out of bed, presumably in the kitchen making something incredible. 

His back... didn't hurt. 

Hallelujah! Miracles are real! His back didn't hurt! 

Protagonist, I take it all back! I'll let you chop off any limbs you like as long as you keep doing your demonic blood magic! Eat all of my tofu! I'm made out of tofu, eat as much as you like! 

Blissful, pain free tofu! 

He quickly got dressed, before practically bouncing to the kitchen. Just before he went in, he slowed to a more dignified speed, adjusting his expression so he didn't look quite so unhinged. 

Poking his head around the door, Shen Yuan coughed. "Is Binghe ready for our trip today?"

Luo Binghe looked at him in surprise. He was pouring something into his portable cup, the smell of coffee and caramel thick in the air. "Laoshi, you're up."

"I am. Thanks to your efforts yesterday, I am pleased to announce that today looks like it's going to be a good day."

"I'm glad." Luo Binghe passed him the cup with a smile. "Since we can't stop by the coffee shop before we go, I thought I would try and make your order instead..."

Shen Yuan took a sip. He felt tears springing to his eyes. It was good! It was really good! Did the protagonist somehow manage to take a barista training course while he was sleeping? 

"An acceptable substitute," he conceded with a sniff. Luo Binghe wasn't getting a compliment for this, considering how he got them both banned in the first place. But still. It was quite nice. And Shen Yuan was no good at holding grudges. 

Luo Binghe's face still turned as pleased as if Shen Yuan had called his coffee the ambrosia of the gods. "Good. This one is going to do his best to make up for the trouble he has caused before."

It was a good start. What a surprisingly well behaved demon lord! 

"Come along then," Shen Yuan said, pulling on his shoes and grabbing his cane. "Places to go, things to do."

 

Luo Binghe was clearly curious as they travelled, but he politely held back from asking too many questions. He seemed quite content to go wherever Shen Yuan placed him, watching him with a lazy smile, like a cat that had just caught a fat bird. 

Shen Yuan found himself chattering away as they rode the bus out to his Super Secret Location. Luo Binghe was actually very easy to talk to. He listened with such keen interest as Shen Yuan explained how the modern world worked, and what little history knowledge he had, and how buses ran, and why having the ability to fly on swords in this world would save so much time but probably get you arrested very quickly. 

He seemed absolutely enthralled by everything Shen Yuan had to say. What a star student! 

Finally, they arrived at their stop, and Shen Yuan hobbled out before throwing his arms wide. 

"Ta da!"

Luo Binghe looked up at the impressive building, reading the word "Aquarium" with a faint frown. Maybe he didn't know what an aquarium was. 

"It's a place where they keep a lot of rare fish and other aquatic animals," Shen Yuan explained, tugging him by the sleeve to the entrance queue. "I haven't been here in a while, but it's my favourite place in the city. If we're lucky, we'll get to watch them do one of their killer whale shows – those things are huge. I bet you've never seen one. I wish they had a blue whale, but I think they might actually be extinct now? At least they'll probably have a skeleton replica, but..."

Luo Binghe sounded amused as he waited in the queue with him. "Somehow, I didn't expect laoshi to be so enthusiastic about this kind of thing. Especially not the dangerous animals."

"What? Really? But the dangerous ones are the whole point." Shen Yuan pointed to a poster of a mantis shrimp. "That son of a bitch could turn your arm into mush with one punch. I'm serious. It could punch a chunk right out of your flesh. And that harmless squishy little jellyfish?" He laughed. "Neurotoxin. Deadly neurotoxin. Actually, that's an interesting question... I wonder if the venom would work on you...?"

At the welcome desk, he paid for two tickets, still rambling about deadly animals while Luo Binghe listened carefully. He raised his arms to allow a bored looking attendant to swipe him over with a metal detector, keeping his cane out of the way to avoid a false positive. He walked on, fully expecting Luo Binghe to be right behind him. 

There was a loud beep coming from the metal detector. Shen Yuan turned back to find a horrified attendant pulling a very large knife from Luo Binghe's sock. 

 

Outside on a bench, Luo Binghe tentatively inched forward. "Laoshi... I'm sorry."

Shen Yuan silently turned away again, his shoulders hunched, as he ignored Luo Binghe. 

"I really didn't know the wand would do that." 

That's not the problem! The knife is the problem, not the metal detector! But Shen Yuan did not say that, as he was steadfastly pretending that Luo Binghe did not exist. 

"I told you not to take any knives out the house. I don't even know where you got that one. What, did you think one of the fish was going to jump out and eat me?"

"I really wasn't trying to sabotage the trip. If it's laoshi's favourite place in the city, then I wish to see it. Anything that he wishes to show me, this lowly disciple wants to experience it.”

Shen Yuan sighed, and let his shoulders lower slightly. “It’s fine. They might forget all about us in a week or so. Or not.”

The silence reigned for a moment. Shen Yuan clapped his hands and stood up. 

"Well. I'll get over it soon. Shall we wander around and see if there's anything worth investigating?" 

Luo Binghe stood up too and came to a stop by his side with a quiet hum. Together, they walked away from the aquarium. Shen Yuan was determined not to ruin the first good day he had had for a while, and firmly pushed the matter out of his mind. 

"Hey, maybe this is a good thing. Now we have the chance to stop and get some food." He gestured over to a roadside van that was selling deep fried snacks. No, he was not eating his feelings! He just skipped breakfast! 

Luo Binghe sniffed the rancid oil and frowned. "This food is dirty. I have lunch in my bag for us both."

Shen Yuan stopped for a moment, intrigued. He pictured the protagonist getting up early to cook some lunch before stuffing it into tiny plastic boxes and hiding it in his backpack. How disgustingly cute. 

He still wanted doughy oily mush for breakfast though. "I'm sure that your cooking is as delicious as always, but we never get any take out anymore. My arteries are, perhaps, too clean. I need to grease them back up again.”

“...”

Luo Binghe sulked slightly as Shen Yuan bought two paper parcels of greasy trash and handed one over. He looked so wronged - it was kind of funny. 

They stood together in silence, chewing away as they stared up at a large billboard that was advertising the shark tank in the aquarium. Luo Binghe broke the silence after a moment. 

“So a-Yuan likes these kinds of things. Huge, terrifying beasts and terrible food.”

Shen Yuan shrugged to hide the fact that the protagonist had hit the nail on the head. “Perhaps.”

“Considering how rare it is for you to openly admit you like something, this graceless disciple apologises for ruining something you were looking forward to.” Luo Binghe turned to him, eyes sorrowful. What a seasoned actor! “I will make it up to you. I promise.”

Shen Yuan waved his hand. “There are other aquariums. Look, let’s stop thinking about it and do something else.”

“Like what?”

“Like...”