The survivors started arriving in the days after.
Soldiers, students, families, gang members, people of all kinds came to Lu Hao’s stronghold. The ones who were trustworthy stayed; the ones who were violent were taken care of.
Hong Sheng watched from the back, staring with hollow eyes as more and more faces he recognized arrived. There, that girl with her heart-shaped face and bright eyes, she was the fire-wielder that always called out “Hao Ge!” in a cute voice. And over there, that mature woman in a coat, she was the scientist who was as smart as she was beautiful, and who spent many hours discussing ‘research’ with Lu Hao.
The dancing twins who could heal people’s hearts as well as their injuries arrived, enchanting the entire stronghold. The mischievous beauty who attempted to infiltrate and steal their resources ended up defecting and joining them.
Countless talented and amazing people had come, just as Hong Sheng had always known they would.
And just like before, Hong Sheng had no chance of competing against them.
Hong Sheng watched Lu Hao greeting them, saw the sparkle in his eyes and his smile now directed toward someone else.
Oh well. At least this time, he had memories of those days when Lu Hao had treasured him like no other. Even if those days were over now, even if they would never come again, Hong Sheng could remember them deep in the furthest corners of his heart, where no one could ever touch.
They were throwing a party to celebrate a successful mission. Hong Sheng swirled the soda can in his hands. He didn’t feel like celebrating. It was too much noise, too many people.
He saw a girl stumble, giggling drunkenly into Lu Hao’s shoulder. Lu Hao turned his head and whispered something into her ear, then hoisted her up into his arms and carried her up the steps.
Hong Sheng sipped his soda and wondered if maybe he should try and grab some beer instead.
But he’d never liked feeling drunk. He might as well just go and wallow in bed, pretending that nothing was wrong, that nothing had changed. He was just pathetic enough that it might even work. Hong Sheng stood and quietly slipped away. The door to Lu Hao’s room was shut. He was glad that he couldn’t hear anything coming from there, not yet at least.
Hong Sheng entered his own room and padded toward the bed. He was tired, so tired. He collapsed onto the bed.
And someone was beneath him.
Before Hong Sheng could let out a shriek, an arm wrapped around his waist and the sound of a warm chuckle entered his ears.
“It’s just me,” came Lu Hao’s voice in the darkness. Hong Sheng froze, caught in the half-embrace, then pushed the arm away and scrambled off the bed. Lu Hao made a small noise of discontent, and Hong Sheng flushed.
“Lu Hao, you— why are you in my bed?”
“I put Qiu’er in my room. All the other beds are taken. I thought you wouldn’t if we shared… Hong Sheng?” Lu Hao sounded worried. “If this is too much, it’s fine. I’ll sleep on the floor.” Hong Sheng heard the ripple of bedsheets as Lu Hao sat up.
Hong Sheng didn’t understand what was happening. “Why… why aren’t you staying with Qiu’er?”
Lu Hao paused. “Hong Sheng, she’s drunk. That’s not… and in the first place, I wouldn’t.”
Hong Sheng knew he was overreacting. He drew in a deep breath and counted numbers. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, it’s fine. Let’s just sleep.” He could sleep platonically in the same bed as Lu Hao. That was fine.
“… All right.” Lu Hao laid back down, and Hong Sheng climbed in next to him, perched at the edge of the bed. Lu Hao rolled over automatically and drew Hong Sheng in until their bodies pressed together. Lu Hao nuzzled the back of Hong Sheng’s head, and Hong Sheng shivered.
This was just something that Lu Hao did, Hong Sheng reminded himself. He was this affectionate with everyone. Don’t think so much of yourself.
“Hong Sheng…” Lu Hao whispered, his lips brushing against the shell of Hong Sheng’s ear, his breath coming out in warm puffs. “I was thinking. We’re getting a lot more people now, and rather than building more rooms, we should also think about conserving our current space…”
“Yes, that’s - a good plan,” Hong Sheng agreed, voice strangled.
“That’s right,” Lu Hao said. “So, I figured, rather than taking up two rooms, I thought that maybe the two of us could just share one.”
“What,” Hong Sheng said.
And Hong Sheng saw it. Lu Hao bringing all of his women back, pressing them down on this bed, forcing Hong Sheng to watch, maybe, or to know that in his own room were all these women taking what Hong Sheng could never have—
“Hong Sheng?” Lu Hao gathered him up tightly. “Hong Sheng, why are you crying?”
Hong Sheng squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want Lu Hao to see, to know how much it hurt. “Please. Don’t be this cruel.” Lu Hao inhaled sharply.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Do you…” His grip on Hong Sheng loosened. “Do you not… want us to be together?”
Hong Sheng tried to regain control of his breathing. Smooth, even. Don’t cry. “Of course I want to,” he said, trying to speak calmly. “But I don’t want to see your… relationships.”
Lu Hao’s arms fully disengaged from Hong Sheng.
“My relationships.” Lu Hao’s voice was flat.
Hong Sheng felt a prickling at the back of his neck. Somehow, he sensed a rising dangerous aura.
“Y-Yes,” he pressed on. “Your… we can stay in the same room, but if you… with a woman, then please, do it somewhere else,” he conceded.
“If I what with a woman,” Lu Hao said. He took a deep breath. “Hong Sheng. You can’t be serious.”
“What?” Hong Sheng thought that was a decent proposal. There were so many other places Lu Hao could use. It’s not like it had to be in their shared bedroom.
A hand clasped Hong Sheng’s shoulder and flipped him around. Now, facing Lu Hao, he saw the tense expression on the man’s face. “Hong Sheng,” Lu Hao said lowly. “I’m not in a relationship with any woman. And I won’t be in the future.”
Hong Sheng’s eyes widened. “Oh,” he said.
“Do you want to know why?” Lu Hao continued, his voice deep with simmering anger. “Why I won’t be pursuing any women?”
Hong Sheng nodded slowly, unable to take his gaze away from Lu Hao’s glittering and furious eyes.
Lu Hao leaned forward until all Hong Sheng could see was him. “Because,” he said in a low tone, “I’m in love with you.”
Hong Sheng stared, open-mouthed.
“You didn’t notice at all, did you? Of course not. You’re so smart, but when it comes to emotions you can’t even figure out the smallest things.”
“What—” Hong Sheng looked away. This was — this was too much. This was unbelievable. Lu Hao liked women— there was no way, there was absolutely no way he would love— He turned back with a worried expression. “Are you drunk?”
Lu Hao narrowed his eyes. “Do I have to be drunk to love you?”
Hong Sheng hunched his shoulders. It was the most reasonable explanation.
Lu Hao sighed. His gaze roamed over Hong Sheng, the anger giving way to a sort of sadness. Lu Hao moved to pick up Hong Sheng’s hand, and Hong Sheng let him. Lu Hao held the hand preciously, sweeping a thumb over the pale skin. “Why do you think I can’t love you?”
“I don’t have an ability.”
“No one did until five months ago, and people still fell in love then,” Lu Hao said. “Try again.”
Biting his lip, Hong Sheng said, “I’m… I’m not a woman.”
“That’s not a problem for me,” Lu Hao said in a rough voice that made Hong Sheng shiver.
“Uh—” Hong Sheng quickly thought of something else. “I’m— not beautiful.”
Lu Hao paused.
He raised his eyebrows and swept his gaze up and down Hong Sheng’s body, an appreciative slide that made Hong Sheng want to either cover up or strip.
Hong Sheng swallowed.
He looked down. “I’m. I’m just.”
Hong Sheng didn’t know how to say the words.
‘I’m not worthy of you’— but that wasn’t enough to express everything.
Hong Sheng was very clear about his worth as a human being. It wasn’t enough to make his mother to stay. It wasn’t enough to make his father to keep him. It wasn’t enough to make a normal person love him, so how could it possibly be enough for someone like Lu Hao?
There were all kinds of people around Lu Hao, now. Scientific geniuses, professional fighters, miraculous ability users. Beautiful mature women, cute and blossoming girls. Lu Hao had brought all of these people under his wing, and they had all fallen in love with Lu Hao.
Compared to them, Hong Sheng was just an ant gazing up at a giant, wishing, ‘Look at me, please look at me’.
Hong Sheng knew that he wasn’t as important as everyone else. So when the time came where someone had to be sacrificed, Hong Sheng knew that the obvious answer would be him.
And so, he made the decision himself.
When Hong Sheng sacrificed himself to save the others, that was the only time that Lu Hao had really looked at him.
Hong Sheng had been content with that. Even when he was screaming from the pain and the horror of being eaten alive, he had thought that was the best that could have resulted from his life.
Hong Sheng was nothing more than cannon fodder that no one loved or cared for, and such an end was perfectly fitting for him.
What he hadn’t expected was for Lu Hao to remember him, to come back and search for him.
Even if it was dangerous, Lu Hao had still come back to find Hong Sheng.
Even when Hong Sheng had been turned into a monster, Lu Hao had still cried when Hong Sheng died for the second time.
For that kind of person who was so generous, who could show more compassion than even Hong Sheng’s own family, there wasn’t anything Hong Sheng could do to deserve him.
“Oh,” Lu Hao breathed. He laid down beside Hong Sheng and held him in his arms. “It’s alright. It’s alright. I’m with you. I love you so much.” Lu Hao kissed Hong Sheng’s cheeks, rubbing away the tears that had started falling. “I love you. I won’t leave you.” He kept repeating those words over and over, pressing kisses all over Hong Sheng’s face. Hong Sheng shook and sobbed between his arms helplessly. “I’m so sorry,” Lu Hao said, voice cracking. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have let you—” and Hong Sheng leaned forward and pressed his lips softly to Lu Hao’s mouth.
“You’ll really stay with me?” he asked.
Lu Hao’s mouth trembled against Hong Sheng’s. “I will,” he said hoarsely. “I promise. This time, I won’t ever let you go.”
He tightened his grip around Hong Sheng like he was desperately holding on, and Hong Sheng raised his arms and held him back.