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Raising the Protagonist

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It had been nearly two weeks since Shang Qinghua last saw Mobei Jun. Two weeks since Mobei Jun had last parked himself in the sanctity of Shang Qinghua’s Leisure House, claiming every inch of the bed for his own and leaving behind curled edges of moistened scrolls from days of settled frost and a stubborn layer of fur on his blankets that just won’t come off.

Those little annoyances were nothing compared to the souvenir the spoiled prince brought with him now, appearing in Shang Qinghua’s room with his signature blast of frigid air.

“Is that a baby?!” Shang Qinghua exclaimed, stumbling backwards as if the tiny creature held out before him would suddenly attack.

And an attack would be preferred. A snarling, toothy, flesh-eating demon spawn would be a far easier crisis to handle than this wide-eyed, curly-haired child held aloft by the cool, inexperienced hands of Mobei Jun, whose eyes narrowed in judgement.

“Of course it’s an infant.”

Shang Qinghua covered his face with his hands, taking a moment before he split his fingers to peek out between them. This can’t be happening. This couldn’t be…but it so obviously is! 

Those chubby cheeks, that fluffy hair, those sparkly eyes, and worst of all, that unignorable, undefeatable, awe-inspiring level of cuteness that could only belong to one individual—Luo Binghe! The protagonist of this story! The baby destined to grow into the most powerful cultivator this world has ever seen, blessed and cursed in equal measure by the demonic heritage that would lead him to conquer both realms and burn the Cang Qiong Mountain to the ground, the very place they all stood at this very moment!!

“But why?!” Shang Qinghua managed, unable to tear his eyes from the baby Binghe, who had evidently lost enough interest in his new surroundings to begin testing how far he could cram his own fist into his mouth. “Why is he--er, why did you bring him, them.... it! ” He groaned, stumbling over his thoughts. “Great prince, I really think you should return this where you found it.”

And where exactly was that anyway? Luo Binghe should be building up some angsty backstory points right now, before eventually finding his way here to the waiting tortures of Shen Qingqiu! A tinge of guilt prodded at Shang Qinghua’s heart as his own story unfurled in his mind, now that his number one “son” was here before him in the flesh.

Mobei Jun stared at Shang Qinghua silently. The moment dragged on as he gave careful consideration to the suggestion. At least, Shang Qinghua hoped he was giving it careful consideration, though the chances seemed slim after he’d already brought the baby here. How was this even possible?! This throws the entire story off-balance from the very beginning. How could the System, which has been a thorn in his ass for months about the lowly Shang Qinghua working himself to the bone to become head disciple in only three years, allow such a blatant disregard for the plot?!

“No.”

“What?” Shang Qinghua was yanked from his thoughts.

No. ” Mobei Jun repeated. He shifted his hold on Luo Binghe, no longer holding him outstretched like a dangling doll and opting to cradle him effortlessly in one arm instead. Luo Binghe immediately took advantage of the new position to claim a sticky hold on a gold tassel that hung from Mobei Jun’s robes.

Shang Qinghua’s ideal man—still soft around the edges with years ahead to firm and chisel him into the very essence of masculinity his creator had always envisioned—was standing in front of him holding a tiny baby and it was almost too adorable to bear.

Adorable? No. No. No! No!! Bad eyes! Rotten brain! This was clearly just the protagonist’s halo at work, activating itself to make Shang Qinghua want to poke his round little tummy or see how firm a grip he already had should he offer the baby a finger. This wouldn’t do! This couldn’t stand!

How and where did Mobei Jun even find Luo Binghe?! Shang Qinghua’s eyes darted back and forth like he was scanning his own memories, many gone dim and faded from the years he’d already been here in this world. He measured time between events in his head, slotting them, counting them—Shen Jiu’s arrival at the sect, a festival that only happens every quarter century, the elder Liu sibling’s promotion to inner disciple, another lunar eclipse, not to mention the recent silence from Huan Hua Palace that had become a recent source of gossip… He counted on his fingers. There was no doubting it, this was right around the time Luo Binghe should’ve been cast down a river by his dying mother—he muttered a silent prayer to Su Xiyan—destined to live on the streets before he’d be found by that kind washer woman who helps build the foundation of his pure heart. Does that mean Mobei Jun just--?!

Luo Binghe burst into tears, the tiny whimpers that heralded the action missed by the two teenagers lost to their own musings.

Waaaah! ” He cried, the sound piercing the air. Mobei Jun hardly seemed affected. Shang Qinghua was terrified.

“Q-quiet!” Shang Qinghua stammered, stepping forward to wave both hands in front of Luo Binghe, as if the baby would understand the absolute importance of a disciple not being found in his room with a demonic prince and a stolen baby!!

“He was not stolen .” Mobei Jun clarified harshly, as Shang Qinghua’s panic let words slip from his lips like well-oiled noodles. Mobei Jun swayed Luo Binghe in his arm lightly, a move so gentle it set off alarm bells in Shang Qinghua’s head that were definitely, absolutely not swooning and merely further palpitations of his poor stressed out heart! Either that move or Shang Qinghua’s wild flailing had momentarily appeased the pint-sized protag whose sniffles began to subside into hiccups, actions that proved distractions in and of themselves. “He came to me in a basket, cast out into a river.”

Of course he was in a river! A river that was supposed to dump him near a town where he would manage to fend for himself a little! What was Mobei Jun doing at the Luochuan River anyway?! He should be far away in the demon realm dealing with politics and family gatherings and being waited on hand and food by servants hoping to use him as a direct ass-kissing line to his father, not picking up stray children!

Come to think of it, the Luochuan River… Why does that sound extra familiar? Was Shang Qinghua near there recently...? That’s right, his mind sparked. He had been there just over a week ago with Mu Qingfang, to help with the purchase of medical supplies from a barge of traders. What are the odds that both he and Mobei Jun would be there at the same time that Luo Binghe came ashore? His halo must’ve really been in effect to save him from being injured when that huge river spirit attacked. That snake would’ve gobbled Shang Qinghua whole if it wasn’t for the…

For the…

Shang Qinghua blanched. Oh, shit. It’s his fault. This is all his fault!! He’d offered to go along on that stupid mission hoping it would gain him some more points of favour from his peak lord. He was the one who had stumbled and dropped that vial of who-knows-what into the river and sent that spirit into a frenzy. He was the one who had been slapped off the boat and almost swallowed whole before someone had managed an attack strong enough to sever the creature’s neck and allow the other cultivators to fish Shang Qinghua out of the suddenly very cold waters. It seems so obvious in hindsight!

He knew that Mobei Jun didn’t trust him and had been sending spies to follow him around, and maybe even help him out on occasion to ensure he was keeping his promise to serve, but Mobei Jun must have trailed after him himself this time—no doubt extra wary Shang Qinghua was up to something diabolical by leaving the mountain without telling him—leading to the accidental meeting of two demonic powerhouses way, way, way too early.

This was a disaster.

An absolute disaster!

And now Luo Binghe was crying again.

“Hold him.”

Shang Qinghua suddenly found himself with two hands full of baby—a wailing, squirming baby with clothes too large for him and lungs blessed by the gods.

“Shh! Shh! Shh!” Shang Qinghua repositioned Luo Binghe to be cradled in both his arms, rocking him back and forth and giving him the occasional bounce. This was what you did with babies, right?! “Have mercy on your papa, little one. There is no bullshitting good enough to explain the situation if someone hears and finds you here!”

He felt Mobei Jun’s eyes on him just then, a penetrating stare that only allowed Shang Qinghua to breathe when it finally moved elsewhere. It focused instead on a bag he hadn’t noticed hanging from Mobei Jun’s side before now. The prince wasn’t normally one to carry things around, opting instead to help himself to any and every meager thing that Shang Qinghua called his own. It was a strange sight to see his hand disappear into the treated leather satchel and rummage around.

When it finally emerged, Mobei Jun’s hand was wrapped around a small jar capped with paper and held together by a thick cord. Mobei Jun undid the tie and peeled off the seal, releasing a fruity scent into the room. He pressed two fingers together, dipping them into the jar and coating them in what Shang Qinghua could only assume was some kind of jam.

As he stepped towards them, with Shang Qinghua still rocking baby Binghe with middling success, Mobei Jun’s hand was met by two outstretched arms and a matching pair of pudgy hands that gripped around Mobei Jun’s wrist and pulled his fingers into Binghe’s waiting mouth.

The room went silent, crying replaced by the barely audible sound of Luo Binghe suckling on Mobei Jun’s fingers while Shang Qinghua held him still. He couldn’t help but adjust him into one arm so he had a hand free to move damp hair away from those tear-soaked cheeks. Shang Qinghua felt a smile tug at his mouth and let it free. This was the protagonist, so naturally he’s the cutest thing Shang Qinghua has ever seen in his entire life and makes him feel an urge to protect him that settles deep in his chest. That’s how it should be afterall—a totally, 100% halo-driven response!

Mobei Jun and Shang Qinghua stood there quietly, watching the pleased little bundle of predestined doom nestled between them, his little eyes hooded from the satisfaction of food.

“He is mine.” Mobei Jun finally spoke. Shang Qinghua snapped his head up only to find Mobei Jun’s eyes waiting for him. “And you will help me care for him.”

What?!

❆ ☀ ☀ ❆ ☀


Shang Qinghua couldn’t sleep.

The memory of Mobei Jun holding a mini Binghe in his arms was too much for his authorial brain to comprehend. It was wrong. It was all too wrong! What did this mean for his story? What did this mean for him?

The System had been eerily silent. No mission prompts. No warning bells. Either the System only cared if the new Shang Qinghua—a millennial who had just been forced to go through puberty a second time—screwed with the timeline, or it didn’t actually care about Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky’s original story at all.

“Well, they wouldn’t be the first…” Shang Qinghua grumbled, turning over again to try and find a comfortable position. Something crunched beneath his cheek. He grimaced. Dried baby spit-up. Dried baby Binghe spit-up. On. His. Bed!

Shang Qinghua sat up abruptly, grasping at his own hair. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! What if the System was just waiting to see what he did?! What if letting Mobei Jun play at being a demon daddy is the thing that makes Shang Qinghua lose all his points and drop dead?! He stared ahead into the darkness of his empty Leisure House.

There was still time to fix this. He just somehow had to convince one of the strongest and most intimidating beings in the world that he had to give up the sweet little baby boy he thinks came to him on a conveyor belt of destiny or else...what? Shang Qinghua would die? That means less than nothing. That Luo Binghe would grow up to become the strongest demon lord their realm has seen in centuries? That would expose Shang Qinghua’s knowledge of the future and likely just entice Mobei Jun further, so prideful that he’d want a chance to fight a grown Luo Binghe one day.

What made Mobei Jun even think he could take care of a baby? For that matter, why did he want to raise a baby? Shang Qinghua crossed his legs and pinched at his own chin as he thought. It is possible Mobei Jun could sense Binghe’s potential? Maybe even that he had Heavenly Demon Blood, in which case he could be a very important asset to the Mobei clan. Or the biggest liability known to demonkind. Though he’s only a baby now. He can’t even walk yet, or at least Shang Qinghua was pretty sure he couldn’t walk yet.

Check if baby Binghe can walk yet, he made a mental note to himself.

So why wouldn’t Mobei Jun have just killed Binghe then? And even upon deciding to keep him, why not hand him over to one of his many servants to look after? Mobei Jun was old enough to have fathered a child. Surely he could just claim Luo Binghe was his! Although…

Shang Qinghua frowned, that tiny feeling of guilt niggling at his insides. Demonic politics were no joke. Mobei Jun has years of assasination attempts ahead of him, many from his own family. His father was still alive but only for the next decade or so, and Mobei Jun is in line for the throne, and his power. If Mobei Jun had a child, then they’d be easy and obvious pickings for anyone seeking to butt in on the line of succession.

Hmm.

Okay, so, logically, Shang Qinghua could see why keeping baby Binghe in the northern palace was a bad idea. It still didn’t explain why Mobei Jun actually wanted him in the first place though. Not to mention why he brought him here to Shang Qinghua!

“You have to go, my king!” Shang Qinghua had begged hours before, all but physically pushing Mobei Jun towards the door. Normally he would just leave Mobei Jun there when he had to see to his An Ding Peak duties, but that afternoon was their weekly Leisure House cleanliness checks (a tradition he will immediately abolish once becoming peak lord himself one day). Even Luo Binghe’s halo couldn’t hide an ice demon and his baby just standing there in the open! What would they have done, hidden behind the privacy screen and hop if someone looked to where Mobei Jun’s boots were visible? Stupid!

Yes, stupid, that’s what this whole thing was. If Mobei Jun wasn’t here, and he wasn’t in the northern palace, then where was he anyway? Where would he hide a baby? Was that bag even big enough to hold more than a day’s worth of supplies? Babies need to eat multiple times a day, have different outfits for all the vomit and the dirt they accumulated like magnets, not to mention all the diaper changing! Not that they had diapers here as Shang Qinghua knew them, but maybe that was something he could put together to make things a little easier...

The idea of the haughty Mobei Jun holding little Luo Binghe, that arrogant you’re-not-qualified-to-speak-to-me look on his face, as urine dribbles down his cloak nearly sent Shang Qinghua into hysterics. He leaned forward to laugh into his blankets to muffle the noise. He could only play the fool card so many times before people got suspicious and he’d already used today’s up on a sudden baby Binghe outburst when the fruit jar had run empty and a knock at the door asked if he was alright.

As the shaking of his shoulders subsided, the reality of the situation fell back upon him. Whatever happened, Luo Binghe could not be allowed to die. Trying to get this plot train back on track was impossible without the main character there to head it.

So, one thing was for certain. If Mobei Jun was going to insist on taking care of baby Binghe, then Shang Qinghua would need to help him, for all their sakes.

As if the universe responded to his resolve, the door of his Leisure House suddenly swung open and a shadow lurched into the room. Mobei Jun’s eyes glowed brilliantly blue in the darkness, and Shang Qinghua fumbled to light the lamp kept at his bedside for late night writing.

“My king!” He exclaimed, before lowering his voice and adjusting his inner robes as he kicked the single blanket off his legs in an uncoordinated effort to get up from the bed. “Where is--” Before he could finish, Mobei Jun shifted a large cloak he was now wearing, which frankly looked far too warm for the climate, and pulled out a crying Luo Binghe. The infant’s cheeks were a deep red, his eyes were scrunched shut, and the sounds… The sounds! It was like he’d been crying for so long that his throat had gotten hoarse, the wails split up by cracks and coughs.

“He won’t stop,” Mobei Jun said, his voice betraying an exhaustion that his regal countenance did a convincing job of hiding.

Shang Qinghua, who had managed to get to his feet and pull an outer robe over his own shoulders, was immediately sympathetic. For which of the two, he wasn’t sure.

“You fed him?”

Mobei Jun nodded.

“Cleaned him…?”

Mobei Jun took a second, but nodded again.

“You...hmm...burped him?”

“What?” Mobei Jun looked disgusted, or maybe just confused.

“Ah, just...give him here! Before he wakes up the whole mountain,” Shang Qinghua whispered, as if speaking in low tones himself would somehow lessen the decibels of a baby’s shrieks. He reached out his arms and found himself handed that priceless screaming package without a moment’s hesitation.

His past life didn’t offer much experience with babies, nor did he find himself caretaker to any in this life before now, but he’d seen plenty of mothers and midwives caring for them in the little town he’d grown up in before joining the sect. Feed them, clean them, burp them, and the baby would sleep. Easy enough!

It took him a couple tries to position Binghe against his shoulder comfortably. He had to place a hand on the back of his head to guide it over his shoulder and move the tiny fists away from repeatedly rubbing far too hard against tear-swollen eyes. Shang Qinghua started gently patting him on the back. There were no burps, but Luo Binghe was quieting at least, thank the gods. Shang Qinghua found himself swaying a little, and as he so often did when performing errands, humming to himself.

Today it was a simple little tune from one of his favourite cartoons. It was a bit of an earworm, very repetitive, so he’d probably have it stuck in his head for the rest of the night, but it was a fun rhythm to work to and--

He had almost forgotten Mobei Jun was in the room but was abruptly reminded when his slow, subconscious rotations brought him back to face the young demon prince who had been watching very intently this whole time.

“Ah! T-this is--! I don’t proclaim to be an expert, my king, I just thought...” He stammered, unable to decipher the meaning behind Mobei Jun’s furrowing brow.

Suddenly, Luo Binghe burped.

Shang Qinghua felt it first, a little ripple against his shoulder before the sound bubbled out. It was like a hiccup, only wetter. Literally wetter. He could feel it against the thin fabric of his clothes, baby Binghe spit-up part two.

Mobei Jun stepped forward and placed his hand on Binghe’s back. For a moment Shang Qinghua thought he was trying to take him, but instead Mobei Jun began to very slowly, very methodically, pat Binghe the same way he’d seen Shang Qinghua do it.

For the second time in less than a day, Shang Qinghua found himself one part of a three-person sandwich—he and Mobei Jun, standing close enough that he could count Mobei Jun’s eyelashes if his lowlight vision wasn’t so awful, taking care of a baby together.

It was a far cry from the not-so-distant days Shang Qinghua had spent as prisoner to Mobei Jun, tending to his wounds in that inn, or the subsequent visits here that often left Shang Qinghua bruised and confused. This was nice, in a terrifying sort of way. At the very least, Shang Qinghua was making himself useful to Mobei Jun in a way that didn’t require years of “upward potential” to prove. It should secure his life for the time being, even if the plot was still in jeopardy. Staying in Mobei Jun’s good graces was step one. Setting the story right would come next.

Luo Binghe gave another little burp and a huff of air escaped Mobei Jun that vaguely resembled the start of a laugh. Something about it broke the last straw of resistance in Shang Qinghua’s mind.

“I’ll do it!” Shang Qinghua proclaimed, still holding baby Binghe firmly to his shoulder. “If my king says this child is his, then I will serve him just the same!”

A familiar chime rang out.

【Congratulations! New mission unlocked: “Raising the Protagonist”.】

Ah?

Luo Binghe yawned, one balled hand rubbing at his eye, the other pawing lazily at Shang Qinghua’s neck.

【New stats and bonuses have been applied to the account.】

Wait, I didn’t mean--!

Mobei Jun looked satisfied, adjusting part of Binghe’s robes. Shang Qinghua stood frozen like a statue.

【We wish you the best of luck!】