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Raising the Protagonist

Chapter Text

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?!

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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!】

Chapter Text

It was less difficult than Shang Qinghua would’ve thought, hiding a baby in a sect full of astute and intelligent disciples all vying for immortality and brownie points from their individual peak lords. Then again, Shang Qinghua was well aware that the IQ level of the average disciple was only as high as required to function as a nameless background character when he’d first populated this world, so maybe he never should’ve worried so much in the first place.

At least not yet.

Mobei Jun didn’t leave that first night. Nor the next. It took a little negotiation—negotiation in that Mobei Jun did whatever he pleased and Shang Qinghua did his best not to anger him or upset baby Binghe—and eventually they fell into a subjectively comfortable routine.

While Shang Qinghua attended to his An Ding Peak duties during the day, Mobei Jun stayed in the Leisure House with Luo Binghe. He fed him, cleaned him (debatable), and spent most of the day napping with him. How, one might ask, does Shang Qinghua know this? The answer is simple—the terror of not knowing what fate could at any moment befall this story’s protagonist who, for all he knew, was the linchpin of this world’s existence, left Shang Qinghua scrambling back to his Leisure House and checking on the pair every spare moment he could find.

Who in their right mind would trust Mobei Jun, a shoot-with-ice-first-ask-questions-never kind of demon with caring for a baby? It’s not like he had the backstory to imply a lot of experience, let alone the interest! Then again, it’s also not like Shang Qinghua really had a choice. His king made a demand, and his servant must comply, at least until he could figure this whole mess out.

Most of his check-ins were the same—slowly pushing the door open and creeping inside with his best attempts to be quiet and unseen, only to be met with an icy stare from where Mobei Jun lay on his bed, head propped up on an elbow and a dozing infant sprawled out in front of him. Sleeping all day—he was going to make Luo Binghe as lazy as he is! Those moments were at least more pleasant than entering only to have dirty laundry thrown in his face. Shang Qinghua had fashioned some old cloth into diapers for baby Binghe, but the thing about reusable clothing was it frequently required cleaning. Does a single baby really need to pee so often?

Shang Qinghua quickly volunteered himself for the task of laundry collection on An Ding Peak, in an effort to hide his constant need for washings. Even so, it didn’t take long for him to develop a reputation. Rushing back to his Leisure House throughout the day, and always leaving with armfuls of soiled laundry, looking around like he’d been caught committing a crime, red-faced and tired… The An Ding Peak Lord even complimented him on his “youthful energy” one day.

So, clearly everyone thought Shang Qinghua was spending hours ‘flying his airplane’ everyday, but who cares? No one should act like they’re so special, a whole mountain of teenagers suddenly given their own private quarters—don’t act like we don’t all know what you’re doing! Really, didn’t it say more about Shang Qinghua that he could keep up with his duties with such a healthy libido? Fortunately the rumor came with the added benefit of no one disturbing him.

Well, no one except for Mobei Jun, of course, self-appointed roommate and ruler of the roost, and the ever watchful Luo Binghe. Shang Qinghua has some shame! He took to bathing in the exceptionally cold springs from then on, because contrary to the new popular belief, there would be little privacy for Shang Qinghua and his airplane anytime soon.

The only times he knew for sure that Mobei Jun wouldn’t be there was the day of weekly inspections. Where exactly Mobei Jun was whisking Luo Binghe away to those mornings, Shang Qinghua had no idea, and frankly was too afraid to ask.

The evenings were just as consistent. Shang Qinghua would return to his Leisure House, Mobei Jun would deposit Luo Binghe in his arms, say absolutely nothing—not even a ‘hello’ or a ‘thank you for looking after this baby I found and totally didn’t rip from destiny’s hand’—and then vanish into the shadows. His absence was always marked with a flurry of expletives from Shang Qinghua at first, giving little care to the fact a baby was present and probably soaking up every insult like a super-powered sponge.

Fortunately, Luo Binghe was a very good baby, as far as Shang Qinghua’s experience with babies went. After being fed and changed—draining Shang Qinghua of his last scraps of energy—Luo Binghe was content to sleep through the night.

Eventually.

For the first couple of weeks Shang Qinghua was awoken every couple of hours to tend to his crying, working through his own panic with soothing sounds and fumbled jars to avoid waking his neighbours. He eventually learned that what Binghe wanted more than food and fresh clothes was to be as physically close to someone as possible, so Shang Qinghua gave up putting him to sleep in the small, very comfortably laid out basket that Binghe clearly didn’t appreciate the efforts required to make, and instead just placed him in the bed. The evenings got considerably more peaceful after that.

All well and good, except this author has no memories of writing a protagonist so sticky!!

It was obviously all Mobei Jun’s fault.

Shang Qinghua was very grateful that Luo Binghe slept so well through the nights, because every single day, at the crack of dawn, Mobei Jun would reappear with a fresh supply of food and drink, and occasionally a new robe or toy from who-knows-where. Shang Qinghua very quickly updated his usually lax internal alarm clock, because to do anything but rise with the sun would mean waking up to find Mobei Jun staring down at him, or being roughly thrown from the bed onto the cold morning floor. On Mobei Jun’s good days, Shang Qinghua would then get a whole ten minutes to get dressed and do his hair before being booted, sometimes literally, out of his Leisure House like an unwelcome guest.

And the daily cycle would begin again.

“Ahh, my virginal son, how am I going to survive a dozen years of this?” Shang Qinghua groaned, pulling out his hair piece and slumping onto his knees, arms sprawled out over the bed. Luo Binghe laid there belly-up, right where Mobei Jun had left him that night. He was currently entertained by trying to catch his own kicking feet. A weary sigh escaped Shang Qinghua, who rested his head just far enough away as to not fall victim to one of those halo-powered kicks.

“Maybe I can convince Shen-shixiong to take a disciple early…” He mused, going over the steps in his mind again. Help care for Luo Binghe until he was of age to be a disciple. Hand him over to Shen Qingqiu. The story continues as normal. Easy. Right? Right.

Shang Qinghua frowned, lips distended in a pout that matched the concentration on baby Binghe’s face over an especially troublesome left toe. His mind wandered to the amused sneer on Shen Qingqiu’s face earlier that day when Shang Qinghua had stumbled over a step while sweeping.

What an asshole. If someone handed him a baby, he’d probably have them tethered on a leash of immortal binding cable and left outside with a bowl of water. Or just punt them off the mountain.

Baby Binghe let out a string of garbled sounds that fell somewhere between squeaks and like he was drowning in his own spit. Best that Shang Qinghua could guess, Luo Binghe was about a year old now, having been in his and Mobei Jun’s surprisingly efficient care for several months. Things getting eerily close to words were starting to form in his tiny mouth so Shang Qinghua had decisions to make.

What was Luo Binghe supposed to call him and Mobei Jun?

Brothers? No. Uncles? Maybe. He couldn’t very well have Luo Binghe calling Mobei Jun ‘my king’—he’d be Mobei Jun’s lord one day! He also couldn’t really refer to them as teachers either, since he was destined to be a part of Qing Jing Peak where he would imprint on that walking-stick-up-his-ass, Shen Qingqiu, like a baby chick unaware of what eventually happens to chickens in a coop.

Just something simple and respectful would do. Luo Binghe needed basic manners, of course, but lines had to be drawn. Shang Qinghua was only helping take care of him for the sake of the story and his own neck, with Luo Binghe his “son” by authorial ownership only. It wasn’t like he was raising Binghe. He and Mobei Jun weren’t suddenly his parents or something equally saccharine. There would be no “Ba” or “Ma” here, absolutely not!

“Luo Binghe…” He muttered aloud, earning a messy giggle in response. Shang Qinghua pushed himself up on his elbows to look down at baby Binghe. “Yes, you’d better like that name, I spent weeks coming up with it, you know. You’d best get used to it, too, because you’re going to hear it all the time when--”

F***!

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“Luo Binghe,” Shang Qinghua said, with as much courage as he could muster in Mobei Jun’s presence the next morning. He had managed to be awake and ready before his co-not-parent arrived by simply not sleeping in the first place.

“What?” Mobei Jun questioned, already looking impatient as he dropped a bag onto the ground with a thud.

“His name.” It took all of Shang Qinghua’s mental fortitude to keep any kind of eye contact, using the topic at hand as an excuse to give cursory glances to the sleeping baby on his bed instead. Clutched between both his hands was a piece of parchment with Luo Binghe’s name scrawled in still damp ink. He hoped it would have the added benefit of directing Mobei Jun’s intense glaring away from him, and a quick look confirmed it was true as Mobei Jun stared at the three characters. “Luo Binghe.” Shang Qinghua repeated. “That...that’s his name.”

“Oh? And who decided that?”

A cold sweat prickled Shang Qinghua’s skin. How do you explain this to someone? You can’t! It’s impossible! He’d be lucky to leave this house with only a broken jaw just for the impertinence, but he couldn’t risk ‘game over’ on the off-chance Mobei “my family just refers to each other by their titles” Jun named his pet already!

“It’s--!”

“Fine.”

“Ah?” Shang Qinghua was stunned.

“That name. It’s fine.”

It is? Shang Qinghua could cry. He very nearly did out of relief if he hadn’t been so startled by Mobei Jun advancing towards him first. Eyes squinted shut in preparation for some kind of retaliation, none came as Mobei Jun passed him and simply shoved the blanket off Shang Qinghua’s bed and took his place there instead.

Mobei Jun then proceeded to stare at him, long and hard. Shang Qinghua stood in place, fidgeting, left wondering if he was supposed to be doing something.

The demon’s eyes narrowed. “You suddenly seem to have a lot of time to waste. Scram. ” He ordered.

Squeaking a “Y-yes, my king!”, Shang Qinghua scurried from the room, one disaster averted.

It was a short-lived relief when only a week later the first “Ba!” escaped Luo Binghe’s oh-so-innocent lips as he reached out to the pair. Shang Qinghua was horrified and Mobei Jun looked strangely satisfied.


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Tightening his grip on Luo Binghe’s little hand, Shang Qinghua sighed. Crawling had been alarming enough, but only a couple months later Luo Binghe was walking. As soon as he’d figured out what those legs of his could do, he didn’t want to stop. It was for the best though, really. Baby Binghe wouldn’t have his future Bing-ge stamina for a long while yet and it served Shang Qinghua’s shoulders well that he didn’t need to carry him the entire time they were in town. The length of time he could leave Luo Binghe on the ground increased with every outing.

Shang Qinghua had realized early on that hiding Luo Binghe away in his Leisure House and leaving only the occasional mystery trip with Mobei Jun was not going to cut it for building his protagonist up to where he needs to be. He was supposed to be out on the streets right now, scraping to get by and learning how to survive. He needs to see the world! So, Shang Qinghua added yet another responsibility he did not have time for, repeatedly taking on the task of going into nearby towns throughout the week to fulfill shopping requests for items that their regular supply runs to Cang Qiong Mountain couldn’t provide. Medicines, spices, ink stones, custom fabrics… whatever was on the list the head disciple handed him. Fortunately it wasn’t hard to sneak Luo Binghe out before everyone else was awake, especially when he tended to sleep like a corpse after eating.

With a bag slung over his shoulder, and a toddler at his side, Shang Qinghua made his way down the quiet streets, the crowds having yet to fully swarm the day’s open market as stalls were still being set back up and wares put out for display. The sun was still low in the sky and a cool crispness hung in the air.

“Uncle Hua...” Shang Qinghua corrected wearily for what felt like the hundredth time, after another cry of “Ba!” was used to get his attention.

He had tried to confront Mobei Jun about it, he really did, but that went about as well as he expected it to. Something about Mobei Jun holding a child made him a little more approachable, but in the way that a dangerous beast seems less likely to chomp off your head if it’s already eating.

“Baba... Ahh..are you sure that’s appropriate? Perhaps there is something better suited to--”

Mobei Jun was quick to interrupt. “Why should he not use it?” He cut Shang Qinghua a displeased look, those shapely eyebrows taking a worrisome slant. “Unless you have some grievances you’d like to air?”

“N-no, of course not! If that’s what my lord and king thinks is best, then this servant can only agree...”

It was so strange.

It’s almost as if Mobei Jun was serious about this whole parenting thing!

But it’s still okay. There was no need to panic just yet. You can still be lord over your own father, right? Shang Qinghua is living proof. Everybody in this world treats him like dirt, holding themselves above him like superiors, and he’s daddy to them all!

Luo Binghe stumbled, held upright only by his grip on Shang Qinghua’s hand that required his ‘Uncle’ to walk at an awkward angle. The hem of Binghe’s gray robes just barely missed skimming over the ground. It was the simplest outfit that Mobei Jun had brought for him to wear, perfect for some inconspicuous days out alongside Shang Qinghua and his disciple uniform. Trying to find out where Mobei Jun was getting these baby-sized clothes, however, went over just as well as trying to find out the source of his pocket snacks and servings of milk.

Shang Qinghua had nearly pissed himself from the glare that came with the “What makes you think you’ve the right to ask me anything?” reply.

And that was that.

As they reached the first stall of the day, Shang Qinghua released his hold on Luo Binghe’s hand, letting the toddler fall on his butt in a little puff of dirt. Shang Qinghua resisted the urge to pick him up and dust him off.

“Bing-er, you play, okay?” He said, sounding about as confident in the request as Luo Binghe was momentarily confused looking up at him. That he was consistently responding to his name now was more endearing than Shang Qinghua wanted to admit.

Deciding how to address Luo Binghe wasn’t as hard. As long as he knew his name, no harm no foul to the plot. Shang Qinghua had briefly considered A-Luo, as baby Binghe will grow up and one day be referred to as that by his first wife—the fan favourite, Ning Yingying. It was a great romantic set-up, wasn’t it? ‘Ah, just like my parents used to call me...’, Luo Binghe would think nostalgically, as he and his first love lock eyes, hearts swooning, pulses pounding and--

Not that Shang Qinghua is his parent, of course. Obviously. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that Shang Qinghua had to do whatever he could to set things up right. This is very important groundwork!

Nonetheless,‘Bing-er’ had just slipped out one day during a particular moment of weakness when he scolded a literal baby for dragging an unfurled scroll off his desk and having a lick of it. Eh, what did it matter really? Bing-er would one day become the blackened Bing-ge after all, and he had a ways to go yet.

In the meantime, little Binghe never wandered far, usually content to reach out at passing legs or pick up especially tasty looking rocks. It was surprisingly hard to leave a toddler to their own devices, but it was for the greater good!

That was what Shang Qinghua kept telling himself as he fought the urge to check on Luo Binghe every second while haggling down the price of dried fish and oils.

In true protagonist fashion, Luo Binghe attracted attention wherever he went, and though Shang Qinghua was running out of excuses for whose child he was looking after, he couldn’t deny the benefits that came from having a very cute baby in tow. Women stopped and swooned over Binghe with their flowery perfumes and decorative hair pieces, both within pleasing distance of Shang Qinghua’s senses, and merchants seemed much more willing to accept lower bids on goods when a baby was clinging to their customer’s ankle.

A baby was pretty useful, actually.

【 Warning: Protagonist is outside of suggested distance parameters. Point deduction may occur!  】

Then there was the System, butting in like a nosy mother-in-law. Getting points for “raising the protagonist” was as easy as it was the most infuriating process he’d experienced yet from this strange new overseer of his life. The “Care” points were given frequently and freely. Fed Binghe? A point. Washed Binghe? A point. Caught Binghe by the back of his robe before he rolled off the bed? A point. But that was the problem! A point. One point! The highest he’d ever received was when he held Binghe’s hand for his first steps and even then it was only five. How was he supposed to get anywhere with those minuscule additions? Especially when he lost points just as easily, like testing how well sticking his fingers in his own ears blocked out Binghe’s crying, or delaying a diaper change so he could foist the stinky problem on Mobei Jun in the morning.

Negative ten points for diaper denial? Really? Have some mercy, System!

【 Protagonist is no longer within acceptable range of a registered guardian. -20 Care points. 】

That was a new one. Shang Qinghua pocketed his change and took a rolled package of dried eels before turning to look around. The street was getting busier now, all stalls open and his line of sight filled with heads, banners, and smoke from rising cooking pits. His gaze wandered down to the ground as he bit onto a piece of the freshly purchased jerky (flavour test!). No Binghe.

He looked left. No Binghe.

He looked right. No Binghe.

Shang Qinghua felt a strange pit starting to form in his stomach yet the corner of his mouth twitched with the prelude of a grin. Luo Binghe was gone. Really gone, based on the warning prompt. Probably not too far, but still…

Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe the plot was finally righting itself on its own. The original baby Binghe survived on the streets, after all, he could do it again.

Couldn’t he...?

Of course he could! Shang Qinghua wrote it that way!

Raising a boot from the ground, he pivoted on his other heel and faced away from the last place he’d seen him. With the sun at his back and the path home at his front, Shang Qinghua snickered to himself and took a few steps forward. Freedom! No more needing to take care of a baby on top of everything else the System and his duties demanded. So what if he loses some Care points, what good were those anyway? Give it a good ten years, and Luo Binghe should waltz back onto Cang Qiong Mountain anyway and everything would be fine. 

Shang Qinghua beamed, a half chewed piece of eel still protruding from his mouth. This was great! He’d get his sleep back! Some free time to himself! And maybe now Mobei Jun would finally get bored of sitting in his Leisure House all day without Binghe there to entertain him.

Mobei Jun… Shang Qinghua froze mid-step, a swallow caught in his throat like a heavy stone. Suddenly ‘Oops, I went to market and lost the baby’ felt more like a death sentence than an escape route. Dread crept up his spine and he found himself glancing around nervously as if a spy lay around every corner.

Even if Mobei Jun was just playing around with this whole situation, he’d very clearly staked a claim on Luo Binghe. To lose that which had been entrusted to him, Shang Qinghua might as well have spit in the prince’s face. Pei!

Mobei Jun would murder him for sure.

Shang Qinghua spun back around, his eyes returning to the dusty road, looking for that familiar round face among the crowd. The longer his eyes fell on nothing but strangers’ feet, the more he felt his insides lurch and a different kind of panic began to rise within him.

What if Luo Binghe hadn’t just wandered away? What if someone had kidnapped him? What if he’d fallen into some irresponsibly open well? Or been dragged away by a hungry dog? More disturbing mental images came to Shang Qinghua, so unwelcome and vicious that he wanted to vomit. His mind reeled as he tried to picture nicer things instead—Luo Binghe waving his chubby arms at nothing, sucking on the edge of his blanket, eyelashes moving just slightly as he slept, and bursting into giggles when Shang Qinghua begged his king’s pardon. Somehow remembering how ridiculously cute Luo Binghe was only made him feel worse, which really wasn’t fair!

The half chewed eel fell from his mouth as he dashed into the crowd, looking around with movements increasingly more frantic.

“Bing-er…?” Shang Qinghua called out, tentatively, before worry won over reason. “Bing-er!” His voice was louder as his feet carried him down the natural subtle slope of the street. How far could one toddler have waddled?

System, if you can deduct points for distance, can’t you just tell me where he is?!

【 User Care points are not high enough to unlock this feature. 】

Dragonshit!

Shang Qinghua asked a few people if they’d seen a baby only to be met with wary or pitying looks. He dropped to the ground to peek under tables, he lifted up hanging fabrics, and he followed the sugary smell of sweets even though Binghe was months away from being able to enjoy them. Could someone with legs that short even come this far in such a short period of time?!

Shang Qinghua gripped at his face, feeling the panic boiling over into something much worse, something overwhelming. He turned. He second-guessed. He paced. He stumbled. He felt himself pass through a cloud of cold air.

Oh.

Assumptions rewarded, he whipped his head around to see Mobei Jun standing not five steps away, with Luo Binghe in his hand. Literally. He was hidden in the shadows of a building, the small bit of sun that reached him glinting off his pupils, and baby Binghe held in one hand like he’d lifted a dog by its scruff. It painted an all-around terrifying picture, never mind what it said about Mobei Jun’s baby carrying methods. Shang Qinghua would have screamed if not for the relief that revitalized his earlier urge to throw up.

In contrast, Luo Binghe looked delighted at the situation. He didn’t have a care in the world as he hung nearly three times his height from the ground in a hold more appropriate for a bagged lunch. Mobei Jun lifted baby Binghe a little higher as he acknowledged Shang Qinghua’s attention, which in turn directed Luo Binghe’s gaze as well.

“Baba!” He cried, hands enthusiastically reaching out.

Shang Qinghua swallowed some escaping bile and stepped forward, then paused, foot hovering in the air. He looked to Mobei Jun for permission and felt that telltale prickle of hairs raising on the back of his neck.

“Aha...my king...it seems he perhaps missed you?” Shang Qinghua said with a smile so forced he felt his cheeks quivering over gritted teeth.

Mobei Jun broke their eye contact first, looking away like the whole affair bored him and stayed unnervingly silent. Still, excuse accepted, it seemed. Curious as Shang Qinghua was about why the prince was here and not enjoying his day off somewhere cold and subterranean, he was also completely unwilling to risk any questions about why Luo Binghe was wandering the streets by himself. Or maybe that was normal for demons? Shang Qinghua didn’t exactly spend much time on that part of his story.

“Ba!” Binghe called out again, getting nowhere near the attention he was used to for every minor action.

“Yes, yes, your Baba’s here.” Shang Qinghua acquiesced with a newfound sense of exhaustion . As he reached out to take him from Mobei Jun, his own head suddenly exploded into song and he nearly recoiled back in shock from the screen that appeared in front of him.

【 Congratulations!! Side mission complete: “Accepting Your Role”. +200 Care points! 】

‘Accepting his role?’ What role? What two hundred points?!

【 Please continue to do your best! 】

Shang Qinghua simultaneously felt too old and too young to deal with this. His head throbbed.

Luo Binghe clapped enthusiastically, his fingers dirty and damp.


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More months passed.

Time felt like a blur and every day bled together for Shang Qinghua with his combined role as An Ding peak disciple and Baba to Binghe. If it wasn’t for his cultivation, meager as it was, he was sure he’d have died from exhaustion. Never before had he enjoyed cultivating so much, the hours set aside for meditation and sword practice the only time he found for himself.

And yet, he didn’t really hate it, this extra busy life. Sure his disciple duties were thankless, the days were long, and Mobei Jun’s regular appearances were still a shock to his nerves (even if he didn’t really have to spend that much time with him), but there was an undeniable sense of satisfaction that came from the routine and having time measured not by the System’s warnings, but in progress of Luo Binghe’s growth.

His little protagonist was almost three years old now—two and a half years closer to being handed over to Shen Qingqiu, fixing the plot, and letting Shang Qinghua go back to worrying about death-by-boss one day and not a shut down by the System.

Fate even smiled down upon Shang Qinghua for the first time he can remember since being born in this world. After over two years of early mornings, extra duties, and a half dozen instances of someone sabotaging the peak’s flat cake deliveries, Shang Qinghua found himself promoted to head disciple almost a year earlier than expected.

The new title came with all sorts of new responsibilities, not least of which being a lot more time working alongside the An Ding Peak Lord, so the chances Shang Qinghua had to run back to his Leisure House dwindled with each passing day. But, as he peeked in one afternoon, to see Mobei Jun seated on the floor with Luo Binghe on his lap, engrossed in whatever Mobei Jun was telling him in demonic dialect and overflowing with curious questions he could barely articulate, Shang Qinghua really did feel like he had nothing to worry about.

Maybe more years of this wouldn’t be so bad.

Wait.

Mobei Jun is speaking to Luo Binghe in demonic dialect?

They were still years away from the heritage reveal plot line!

System, is it possible to delete data from a baby’s brain? System?! System!!

Chapter Text

“Just as the Black Moon Rhinoceros Python was about to turn her into bloody paste, she clutched a hand over her quivering bosom and cried for help—Junshang! My Junshang!” Shang Qinghua’s voice pitched higher. “Come save me so that I may become your wife!”

“Rescue her!” Luo Binghe shouted. He rocked back hard on Shang Qinghua’s lap, forcing a breathy cough from his eager storyteller.

“Yes, yes, just like that. You have to rush in!” Gripping one of Luo Binghe’s wrists in his hand, Shang Qinghua pushed it forward in a mock punch. “Wu Mingxia is going to be the 262nd love of your—er, someone’s life, and a real man never keeps a damsel waiting. She even comes with a very nice little summer home in the mountains and--”

“Do you really believe in such a thing?” Mobei Jun interrupted, revealing he was awake from his cross-legged position on the floor, head dipped and eyes closed for the past hour.

“Believe in what, my king?” Shang Qinghua asked without turning to face him. He lightly bounced Luo Binghe on his lap, noting with every press of weight how much he had grown since being brought here years ago.

“A love of one’s life.”

The elaboration was dismissed with a hand wave. “Eh, of course not. No one of any sense would swear their life away to one person, let alone someone they had only just met. It’s merely something authors use to shill books and pad poetry.” Shang Qinghua chuckled, remembering just how well his own readers had lapped it up hundreds of times before, regardless of its insincerity. He cleared his throat. “But he’s just a baby.”

“I’m not a baby!” Luo Binghe protested, looking back only to be lightly shushed. His cheeks puffed in a pout.

“Young minds love romance, and our Bing-er has to grow up innocent and pure-hearted.” Shang Qinghua nuzzled his face into the fluff atop Luo Binghe’s head where his hair was already settling just above his shoulders. You can’t blacken a heart that doesn’t exist after all, he added to himself, then flinching from a sudden twist in his gut. It had become something of a common occurrence recently, clearly a sign of overworking. Could a cultivator get ulcers? He pushed the sensation down like he always did and looked to Mobei Jun for distraction.

He was met with a sour face.

“If you’re going to spend so much time telling him these stories, then teach him something useful with them.” Mobei Jun’s tone was cold for someone who hadn’t voiced any concerns before. Everyone’s a critic!

The demon heir’s nightly presence was nearing a regular thing now, as he opted to stay an hour or two after Shang Qinghua returned to the Leisure House. He rarely did much, usually just sitting in the same corner somewhere between meditation and sleep. He allowed Luo Binghe to use him as furniture, and was a surprisingly silent audience to Shang Qinghua’s habitual ranting about his day, which until recently had been a Binghe-only show.

Tonight he had stayed long enough to make a crowd of two for storytime.

“I like Baba’s stories but I am not a baby,” Luo Binghe argued again. “Binghe is...ah…” He looked down at his hand, moving his fingers like they were suddenly new to him.

“Not a baby, yes, my mistake.” Shang Qinghua admitted, closing both his hands over Luo Binghe’s to stifle the train of thought about his age. “Where as I am already old, your poor Baba. Time for sleep.” He provided a helpful start by sliding Luo Binghe off his lap and onto the bed.

“Okay…” Luo Binghe agreed, his voice so laden with sadness that Shang Qinghua would’ve fallen for the blatant manipulation if he hadn’t already built up some tolerance. He watched as Luo Binghe carefully let his slippers drop onto the floor neatly by the bedside, and pulled back the blanket to squiggle beneath it.

Satisfied bed time was in progress, Shang Qinghua stood up and stretched until he felt the satisfying pop of his spine. Old as he may feel mentally, he couldn’t deny his body was finally starting to settle. His coming of age ceremony had passed only a few months prior and, while not an exceptionally grand affair for sect disciples, he was pleased to say goodbye to his second-go at being a teenager and rather liked the new hair piece gifted to him by his Peak Lord as it actually managed to survive most of his daily chores without needing to be redone.

“With all due respect, my king,” Shang Qinghua started. “Bing-er is unlikely to learn much from tales of cleaning, sewing, and account keeping. What else do you expect of this servant?”

“I know how to clean!” Luo Binghe chimed in before a sharp look from Shang Qinghua had him pulling the blanket up under his nose.

A faint snort escaped Mobei Jun. “He cleans?”

Luo Binghe swiftly took the inquiry as an invitation to sit back up. “I sweep everyday!” A smile brightened his already glowing features as he spoke with an enthusiasm that only somebody with a brain still growing could muster for such mundane tasks. “And I put Baba’s boots away too. I help clean the brushes, and...hmm, sometimes I prepare the bed!” His little fingers then began to fiddle with the edge of the blanket. “But I’m not very good at that one. The folding is hard...”

A shame too great had settled over his tiny shoulders and Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but reach over to pinch his plump little cheek. “Ah!” Luo Binghe squeaked.

“You have him minding your messes?” Mobei Jun asked, his voice deep and displeased. It gave off the impression of a storm cloud moving in, threatening to unleash it’s wrath.

Shang Qinghua suddenly found himself waving his hands in denial. “Ah! No, no, no! It isn’t so much that he cleans, my king, as he...uh...” His words trailed off before an excuse could form.

It wasn’t as if Shang Qinghua was forcing Luo Binghe to clean his room. What a ridiculous idea! The soon-to-be super powered protagonist of his career-defining stallion novel dirtying his hands with housework for a mere An Ding Peak disciple? Absolutely not!

...unless he wanted to.

Luo Binghe himself had volunteered. He used to watch Shang Qinghua tidy up their living space with what seemed like a normal amount of toddler curiosity, until one day his expression was not unlike how he looked at toys at the market. Worse even! So who was Shang Qinghua to deny him? He wasn’t sure where Luo Binghe got this workaholic attitude from—it really was a terrible waste of his best lazy years—but maybe children just came with some pre-installed features.

Besides, was it really so unreasonable that Luo Binghe did a little cleaning now and again? Must Shang Qinghua be a slave to everybody both outside and inside his home? Nevermind how much of the mess was often Mobei Jun’s—muddy boots and damp robes!

Silence settled before Shang Qinghua finally snapped, “Why shouldn’t he clean?” in a tone he immediately regretted.

Mobei Jun glowered and his arms uncrossed. Shang Qinghua shrunk back on instinct. Unexpectedly, Mobei Jun smirked. “ Mmn. To discover my ward is not only made to clean but his caretaker feels fit to challenge my concerns...” As he stepped towards them, Luo Binghe was pleased with the attention, while Shang Qinghua became increasingly more concerned for his own health.

“Challenge? Who would challenge? This servant would nev--AH!” Shang Qinghua squawked as Mobei Jun’s nails dug into his cheek, a harsh mimicry of what Shang Qinghua had done to Luo Binghe only moments before. The grip lingered several beats too long to be anything but painful, with Mobei Jun staring at Shang Qinghua like… Shang Qinghua squeezed his eyes shut tighter. He didn’t want to know!!

These random ‘attacks’ were becoming more frequent. While he never saw Mobei Jun raise a harsh hand to Luo Binghe, Shang Qinghua continued to be his personal punching bag—a target for unprovoked aggression that began from the day they had met. Shang Qinghua could stand there doing nothing and suddenly find himself on the receiving end of a cuff to the back of his head or a flick to his forehead. If he bothered to ask why, he’d simply be reminded of his “stupid expression” or “being too idle”. This was clearly just harassment! He had no illusions about Mobei Jun’s violent nature—having already witnessed the remorseless murder of his fellow disciples—but who knew it also made him little different than a schoolyard bully?!

The pinch was released before his face popped like a freshly ripe grape.

“I’ll return in the morning.” Mobei Jun stated, as if it wasn’t something he did everyday.

“Good night, Father.” Luo Binghe chirped to the darkness. The last remaining candle was extinguished by Mobei Jun’s flourishing turn as he vanished into shadow.

Shang Qinghua made an obscene hand gesture towards the empty corner, his other fingers rubbing ruefully at his swollen face.


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Now years into their arrangement, Luo Binghe was an energetic and talkative little boy. He was no less adorable either—round cheeks, bright eyes, oddly noticeable eyelashes, and an angelic voice he could wield like a weapon—but with his size and his curiosity growing in equal measure, concerns about his secrecy grew with him. Silencing talismans between each wall of the Leisure House offered some comfort, but even the low IQs of An Ding Peak disciples could only be counted upon for so long—nosy and gossipy as they were—and Luo Binghe needed much more than a few random visits to town could provide him.

It turns out parenting on the sly is a permanent work in progress.

Shang Qinghua’s role as head disciple included much more frequent outings, often being sent away on missions that extended well beyond those an outer disciple could be trusted to manage and survive. Often it would involve teamwork, providing unique and unnecessarily stressful chances to get to know people from other peaks, such as the quick-to-stab Liu Qingge or the quicker-to-insult Shen Qingqiu. If asked to pick a favorite, it would definitely be the more level-headed Mu Qingfang, though rarely was Shang Qinghua so lucky in his group assignments.

Of course for reasons no one would outright say, there hadn’t been a caravan of only An Ding Peak disciples since a particular mission went very poorly some years ago. Alas another blow to the reputation of logistics!

Solo missions were Shang Qinghua’s favourite. There were always the supply runs large enough to require a carriage, or leading a flock of terrified disciples into battle to provide something resembling support, but most things he was trusted to do on his own.

For many reasons, he intended to keep it that way.

With Luo Binghe harder to sneak out unseen, Mobei Jun began using his progressively more powerful portal abilities to transport him off An Ding Peak in place of their baby-in-a-bag method. Shang Qinghua would still leave the old-fashion way—making a show of hopping up on his sword and taking to the skies for his fellow disciples to see off with a wave or a jealous sneer—then quickly meet the pair at the base of the mountain where they’d be off via more convenient methods. Distances that would take hours by sword were covered in mere seconds by shadow.

There were some limitations however. Shang Qinghua had only ever written the barest of lore for Mobei Jun’s abilities, so was surprised to learn that Mobei Jun could only portal directly to a place he had been before, unless there was some significant source of power to latch onto. As such, their first few outings as a group made for some long awkward flights to new places, with Mobei Jun standing behind Shang Qinghua on his sword—one hand on his shoulder and the other holding Luo Binghe. Only a demon’s natural sense of balance avoided more awkward travel touching.

Shang Qinghua still felt goosebumps at the thought. The fewer claws near his fleshy bits, the better!!

Nowadays most of their destinations were repeats, and cutting down on travel left Shang Qinghua with more free time than he ever had back on An Ding Peak. For example, if they expected him to be in flight for six hours, it meant he had six hours to spare! Most often they were spent writing his reports for Mobei Jun like a dutiful spy, and then trying to make sense of the Qian Cao Peak shopping list, cursing himself for ever thinking it was funny to give healers in this world such stereotypically poor handwriting. It was all still work, but doing it from a comfy patch of shade beneath a tree—a bag of melon seeds at his side and a catchy tune on his lips—really felt like a vacation in comparison.

It was during these days that Mobei Jun had taken to teaching Luo Binghe some hand-to-hand combat. Often Shang Qinghua would take breaks to watch Mobei Jun showing him basic forms and Luo Binghe doing his best to copy them. Naturally he picked everything up with unnatural speed, and the very rare slap to his back or light kick to his leg to correct his posture didn’t motivate him nearly as much as the simple nod Mobei Jun would give when he did one just right.

For a demon raised to hold all those beneath him in contempt—and doing that very successfully on a regular basis—Mobei Jun struck a surprisingly good balance in dealing with someone so young. He treated Luo Binghe with a sternness that spoke of great expectations, and a cautiousness that showed he knew how easily a child could be broken. He verbally snapped at him now and again, in the rare instances Luo Binghe managed to provoke his temper, but they both always moved past it quickly, one trailing after the other as if nothing had happened.

Of course Mobei Jun found ways to twist his care to Shang Qinghua’s disadvantage. When it came to certain types of training, Shang Qinghua would be called over to be used as a practice dummy. Arguably it was to avoid hurting Binghe, but the entertainment Mobei Jun got from humiliating Shang Qinghua was obvious. There was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye as he calmly explained a technique before abruptly grabbing a hold of Shang Qinghua and slamming him into the ground. Mobei Jun would then twist his arm or set a foot on his back until Shang Qinghua wailed for mercy.

And wail he did!

Shang Qinghua had not suddenly forgotten he was a cultivator, trained in forms of defense himself, but it took barely a twitch of his nose for him to be eating dirt. It was thus only sensible that his energy was better spent on healing the bruises than attempting to prevent them. A prince with his ego freshly stroked was easier to deal with anyway. Where better to hug a thigh than from the ground?

He only drew a line when Mobei Jun suggested that Luo Binghe try the moves on him instead. Shang Qinghua was smart enough to know an insult when he heard one, and the joke really would be on him if he was stupid enough to allow it. This was the protagonist, halo-fresh, so there was no way Shang Qinghua was going to risk his dignity by potentially being taken out by somebody who just barely came up to his waist!

On these days Shang Qinghua’s pride quivered but survived, even when Mobei Jun plucked blades of grass from his hair with a smug look and Luo Binghe hung from his arm, asking if he was okay. Who was training who here?!

Still, it all made for a decent enough trade-off, Shang Qinghua thought. Mobei Jun did protect his investment in other ways. No matter what his mission was, Shang Qinghua would still walk away from even the most high-peril of situations with barely a scratch. Tales of An Ding Peak’s head disciple and his unnaturally high dumb luck was added to the sect’s growing list of rumors.

The best outings were when Mobei Jun simply dropped them off in a nice meadow, and then left for “important business”. Shang Qinghua would spend hours watching Luo Binghe explore the area, talking out loud about everything he saw, before they both sat down for reading lessons and a little practice meditation. Shang Qinghua had to get his cultivation in somewhere after all, even if the latter often resulted in Baba and Binghe nap time. Neither had any complaint.

Visits to different towns and cities were now with enough regularity that Luo Binghe had made friends with groups of children in each. He was quick to scamper off with them while Shang Qinghua saw to his work. Fortunately the System had eventually awarded enough Care points that he was able to upgrade the guardian proximity allowance. It worked out well, not only for the purpose of socializing someone who would one day be overseeing a harem of hundreds, but also the frequency with which the An Ding Peak Lord’s requests brought Shang Qinghua to a brothel were a part of the equation little Bing-er was not quite ready for.

Other than receiving a prepared bag of goodies, and inspiring some thoughts he did not wish to have about his sect boss, Shang Qinghua found the brothel a pleasant place to linger—the food was decent, everyone treated him well, and it was overflowing with gossip. There were few locations better to gather useful information than the place where even the most powerful of cultivators, lords, and ladies let their defenses down. If ever there was something extra juicy that friendship and a bit of wine didn’t let slip organically, a few coins from his personal savings would seal the deal.

Overall, everything was under control.

But two potentially big problems loomed. One was that when it finally came time for Luo Binghe to officially join Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, he was going to be noticeably more advanced than a boy his age should be with no rich family backing—and two, he was old enough now that when Mobei Jun told Shang Qinghua he wouldn’t be able to look after him every day anymore, it was much more worrisome than it would’ve been back when Luo Binghe was asleep most of the time and wasn’t tall enough to open doors.

Shang Qinghua supposed he could convince his Peak Lord to let him do more paperwork in his Leisure House, but it didn’t solve the problem of every other responsibility that would leave Binghe unattended for hours.

Spoken with the confidence of someone he suspects has never known the meaning of the word ‘babysitter’, Mobei Jun insisted Luo Binghe would be fine left alone. Shang Qinghua was less sure. Thinking back to when he was very young in this world, he could rarely recall being alone, practically glued to the hip of a parent or sibling in the little village he was raised in. Memories of his first childhood came to him less clearly but with disproportionate emotional clarity. He remembers being alone, or at least the dull ache of loneliness, but it was just as likely his parents were still there, arguing in the background while he pretended the TV was loud enough to drown them out.

Shang Qinghua really missed TV sometimes.

Like many things, concerns about the disciple trials and Luo Binghe’s ability to look after himself were repeatedly pushed to the back of his mind as a tomorrow problem.


❆ ☀ ☀ ❆ ☀


It was during an otherwise peaceful afternoon that a different hurdle came upon them first, almost spoiling the special occasion of Shang Qinghua treating them to a fancy meal in town. Normally he was much more frugal with his money, opting to squirrel away his savings in a dozen secret burrows, but today his pouch was heavy with the An Ding Peak money he had left over after a very successful day of bargaining. He couldn’t waste what wasn’t his! And so it was here—seated in front of a table covered in dishes with more flavour than you could squeeze from a month’s worth of lunches in the sect—that Mobei Jun told him he would be taking Luo Binghe away and didn’t expect they’d be back for several nights.

This was clearly not the first time young Binghe was hearing of it because instead of getting excited and spilling more greasy duck fat over the front of his robes, he instead stared at Shang Qinghua with pleading eyes wider than the tea cup he had clenched between his fingers. It was the strongest he had ever felt the power of protagonist pressure. It was like saying no would somehow be worse than doing so to Mobei Jun! It didn’t help Shang Qinghua had yet to build up any resistance to Luo Binghe’s tears and avoided them at all costs.

So to preserve his sanity, Shang Qinghua put up only the mildest of protests, repeating back the length of time before simply asking, “Where?”.

Mobei Jun lifted a cup of tea to his lips and took an annoyingly long sip, his eyes closed as if he was actually enjoying it and not prolonging the wait to make his servant suffer.

“What business is it of yours?” He finally responded, a question for a question. Typical! And excuse me... business? You asked this lowly human to look after Luo Binghe, but he can’t very well do that if the child’s not here!

It wasn’t uncommon for Mobei Jun to take Binghe places, but never overnight. Certainly never for days! Shang Qinghua stuffed his mouth with more of the perfectly cooked vegetables that Mobei Jun kept dropping into his bowl like the picky eater he was. Every chew was a silent protest.

Luo Binghe shrank back from the tension as his eyes moved between them.

Moments later, Mobei Jun exhaled slowly. “You will survive a few days without our presence.”

Shang Qinghua choked on a piece of bamboo shoot.

That wasn’t the issue!!

Only after Luo Binghe started patting him on the back, assuring him he would come home quickly, did Shang Qinghua sputter out his approval, regardless of the fact he knew Mobei Jun had no intention of seeking it. These two spoke as if Shang Qinghua was suddenly incapable of living by himself! To be thought of so poorly by both of his sons, it really was too cruel...

True to his word, Mobei Jun took Luo Binghe away two days later. Shang Qinghua’s room was empty when he returned to it that evening. He grinned ear-to-ear as he stretched his limbs across the bed, all his for the first time in ages.

The excitement must’ve been a bit too much. After the initial charm of an empty bed faded, he found it difficult to actually fall asleep. When the ceiling got too boring and his snacks ran empty, he worked on Luo Binghe’s calligraphy practice sheets until he eventually passed out.

Unfortunately his body was too used to waking up early to let him sleep in, but the absence of his royal roommate meant he had plenty of time to drag himself through the process of dressing. He finished by cleaning his face with the unpleasantly warm water in his wash basin, which was as useless for waking him up as it was likely just a sign of how hot the day would be.

He was late to An Ding Peak’s weekly budget meeting. Shang Qinghua sought to make up for it by suggesting smaller beds when it came time to order new ones, suddenly feeling their current ones were simply too large for one person. The Peak Lord did not take kindly to his words, and it had been so long since one of his ideas had been so thoroughly trounced that he stared at the man as if he had ten heads.

Snickers nearby were not nearly as quiet as their owners thought they were. Shang Qinghua assigned every disciple double the work quota they would normally have in a single day, thinking it best to make good use of the extra time he had, and pointedly ignoring background grumblings about somebody having spit in his congee.


❆ ☀ ☀ ❆ ☀


Five days later, considerably longer than Shang Qinghua had expected—and definitely not spent frequently opening the System to ensure he hadn’t missed any alerts—Mobei Jun returned. He deposited a rosy-cheeked and high-spirited Luo Binghe onto the floor, beating home even the sun.

The jolt awake was welcome. Shang Qinghua wasn’t really enjoying another weird dream about spiky cucumbers and having his delicate parts strangled by a power cord.

Quickly calming from the initial shock, Shang Qinghua’s hand covered a wide yawn as he brushed back his loose hair and looked to the successful travelers. Luo Binghe was wearing a thick cloak that matched Mobei Jun’s apart from size, and the two made such an adorable pair, that Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but comment.

“How am I expected to handle a sight so cute this early? Wearing my king’s clothing, Bing-er will save us so much money.”

Eventually Mobei Jun’s magical supply of baby clothing had dried up, and as Shang Qinghua couldn’t very well have Luo Binghe parading around naked, he could only smile through the pain of spending his meager earnings on multiple sets of robes for a boy who outgrew them every year.

Luo Binghe giggled, pressing his face into the still damp fur of his outfit. Mobei Jun seemed to be in a hurry, offering unexpected mercy when he left briskly without retort and only a light pat on Binghe’s head. Shang Qinghua would have thought it odd, but opted instead to be grateful he wasn’t starting the day with a fresh bump on his own.

Having no interest in sleep, Luo Binghe carefully took off his outer wear and boots before he pounced on the bed with all the finesse of an overstimulated puppy, eager to tell Shang Qinghua about his adventures.

Somewhere between ice beasts and catacomb mazes, Shang Qinghua must’ve dozed off because he awoke some time later to the sound of Binghe coughing, standing nearby with a broom in hand nearly twice his height. The cloud of dust that a single sweep kicked up left Shang Qinghua feeling a little embarrassed despite himself. With so much to do, it was only natural that he had no time to clean! Who could judge him?!

Substandard living conditions. -20 Care Points

...

As soon as Luo Binghe caught movement from the bed, he wiped the dirt from his nose and flashed Shang Qinghua a grin wide enough to show off an awkward gap left by the recent loss of a tooth.

Shang Qinghua fetched water for a bath, while Binghe poked at his breakfast and continued his earlier recollections without taking any offense to Shang Qinghua’s sleep.

Being cleaned, clothed, and fed was finally enough to tire Luo Binghe out, because by the time Shang Qinghua was ready to leave, his little head was bobbing where he sat at the table. Clearly Mobei Jun wasn’t going to be around today— something he’d failed to mention, thanks —but Shang Qinghua felt it was probably fine to leave Binghe by himself since he would be sleeping off days of travel.

“Bing-er is going to be well behaved, isn’t he?” Shang Qinghua asked, intentionally mussing Luo Binghe’s hair after coaxing him back into bed. “No one will be pleased if I’m forced to call over one of those Bai Zhan Peak beasts for punishment. Sword drills until your arms pop off!”

He was only half-exaggerating and would gladly be sent against a dozen high-level spirits than face Liu Qingge’s workout routine again.

Luo Binghe laughed, delighted at the whimsical threat about people he had only met through stories. His small hands held Shang Qinghua’s palm on his head just a few moments longer. His expression softened. “Binghe will be good.” 

The trust was rewarded as Luo Binghe obediently saw to his chores after resting for most of the day. He squeaked in surprise when Shang Qinghua popped in to check on him mid-afternoon, apologizing for reading in bed and not at the table as if he wasn’t speaking to a repeat offender. Of course all was forgiven.

By the evening, things began to take a turn. A few sniffles didn’t seem like cause for concern at first, but during dinner Luo Binghe let loose a flurry of coughs that sounded much deeper. Could Luo Binghe actually get sick...? Shang Qinghua thought back to his millions of written words, recalling only cheap tricks like poisons and curses that left Bingge in the care of his doting wives for the sake of pulling a few readers’ heartstrings.

Just to be safe, he put Binghe to bed early, but hours later, that handful of coughs had become dozens.

This was progressing a little fast, wasn’t it?!

Shang Qinghua sat up, accepting the loss of sleep, and placed a hand on Luo Binghe’s shoulder. “Bing-er?” He shook him lightly. When all he got was a wheezing inhale, he moved his hand to his forehead instead. The heat collecting there was definitely not normal, and definitely not good!

“Sorry, Baba,” Luo Binghe said through a sleepy haze, followed by a disgustingly wet sniffle. “Binghe can get up.” Believing that he’d slept in despite the heavy darkness that still enveloped the room, Luo Binghe made a valiant effort, but those little arms hadn’t struggled so much to lift his weight since his head was disproportionately too large for them.

Shang Qinghua insisted he stay laying down as a familiar jingle rattled his brain.

New protagonist status updates: Cough. Congestion. Fever.

System… Aren’t some of your updates coming a little too slow? Perhaps you’re the one who needs an update, hmm?

Current objective: cure the protagonist or consequences may be severe. Advance warning: Point deduction may occur!

What’s severe? Isn’t it just the flu?

On cue, Luo Binghe moaned. His brows knitted as if in pain before his whole body shook from the force of the following coughs. “Baba...I don’t feel well…” He whimpered, looking up at Shang Qinghua with glassy eyes.

Correct. Protagonist Luo Binghe has contracted *ding* Frost Flu. Symptoms include--

Shang Qinghua harshly shooed the windows away. He already knew what the symptoms were, being the one who wrote them. Frost Flu... It was an illness that someone could only catch in the frigid cold of the Demon Realm’s northern territories, the Mobei clan’s home base. For local ice demons it was rarely more than a bad cold, but for other kinds of demons, who rarely spent much time in that environment, the outcomes could be a lot worse because of their low-resistance to the strain. If a human caught it? Well, it was known to non-locals as “Winter's Widowmaker” for a reason.

He rubbed at his face. Another plot device back to bite him in the ass. It had been such a successful one too, where Bingge was forced to abstain from papapa with a prospective wife, a distant cousin of Mobei Jun’s, to see if Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky could blueball more readers into a subscription on the promise of a celebratory orgy later. (He could.)

The good news was that it meant the cure wasn’t sex. That got him partway to recalling what it actually was.

Shang Qinghua slid out of bed, adjusting Luo Binghe more comfortably before he started to pace. It’s probably something that grows in the North. Bitter Ice Poppy? Thorned Wolfberries? Arctic Roseweed? Shang Qinghua bit his nail nervously, stealing glances to the bed as he tried to remember. If little Binghe was already Bingge, the Frost Flu might pose a risk, but he wouldn’t have to worry so much about giving him the wrong medicine with his body able to counter any side effects.

“Baba…?” Luo Binghe called out, finally realizing Shang Qinghua wasn’t next to him.

Shang Qinghua gave a little shush and moved closer, taking the small basin of washing water with him. He dipped in a clean towel and wrung out the excess. For now he had to stop this from getting worse, grateful that the telltale rash resembling snowflakes had not yet appeared on his skin.

But, as his fingers shifted the damp strands of hair from Luo Binghe’s forehead, they revealed something he did not expect to see for many years—a demonic seal!

It was faint, but it was there, a little red indicator of Shang Qinghua’s beautiful plot continuing to spin wildly out of control. It pulsed in time with Binghe’s heartbeat.

Shang Qinghua slapped his palm over the glowing mark. Hiding it from view didn’t make him feel any better as the energy thrummed beneath his skin.

Luo Binghe scrunched up his nose.

This was bad.

Really, really, really bad!

Luo Binghe could not survive the seal being released at this age, and certainly not while he’s sick. There was also still the matter of discussing Luo Binghe’s unique lineage with a certain someone who is very difficult to strike up a serious conversation with when simply making eye contact makes his bladder quake! He tried, okay?!

Shang Qinghua bit back a string of colorful curses. This was all Mobei Jun’s fault! Again! Not an ounce of sense! He removed his hand from Luo Binghe’s head, quickly replacing it with the towel before storming a few steps away.

“Ahh! Stupid, spoiled prince!” He furiously pulled at his own hair. “Who takes a child to play in that icy hell?! You think everyone’s like you?! Mobei Jun, this servant ought to teach you a lesson and send you right to hell!”

If Mobei Jun was here, he would definitely give him a real lashing this time!!

“I invite you to say that again.”

The temperature of the room sharply fell—a temporary relief for someone fighting a fever, but a harbinger of death for one Shang Qinghua.