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Courting of the Consort

Chapter Text

The week of the Demonic Alliance Conference had finally arrived.

Preparations had been ruthless countless hours over untold months shaving years off his life. Shang Qinghua was eager for the relief that would follow it finally being over. One more week and he could dive into his bed, curl up with his latest manuscript, and flip the bird at anyone who dared ask him to do otherwise.

It’s been a couple years since the Demon Realm’s Northern Territories had become Shang Qinghua’s full-time home. While he still returned to Cang Qiong Mountain upon occasion, the purpose was now almost entirely sentimental and the time spent brief. He was proud to see how well his Head Disciple had kept the place running in his absence, and looked back at his days as An Ding Peak Lord with awe, fondness, and a shit ton of stress. It was good to only be overseeing the ins-and-outs of one organizationally stunted society for once, especially when events like these were suddenly dropped in his lap.

It was a shame that the Demonic Alliance Conference wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as its namesake though. Anyone who had attended previous Immortal Alliance Conferences left with at least half a dozen good stories to tell. Yet despite the fact that this current event was almost exclusively attended by demons, there would be no competitions, no hunts, and no fights. At least not scheduled ones. The purpose of this gathering was to foster alliances with the smaller clans from across the Demon Realm, those whose stature and power was too lowly to earn them a place at more exclusive gatherings.

In short, there would be lots of boring, repetitive, snarl-infused meetings.

In hindsight, the name choice was rather stupid, but as Shang Qinghua was the only one who thought there was a point to naming a span of time in the first place, it didn’t seem important to dwell.

The location was Mobei Jun’s palace, there in the frozen tundras of the North, and would take place over two weeks. For those two weeks, the palace would serve as a temporary home to dozens of delegates made up from all manner of demonic subspecies, at least the sentient ones. Shang Qinghua swore his sides still hurt from the day he tried to explain the distinction to Mobei Jun. Demons who could manage speech were hard enough to reason with, you want to try and discuss treaties and dues with creatures whose entire existence is just to eat and f***? His King had stoically questioned if there was any difference, and Shang Qinghua laughed for a solid five minutes. Do you think anyone else knew Mobei Jun was so funny?

Mobei Jun, the overseer of the North, second in command to the great Luo Binghe who held dominion over the entire Demon Realm. Mobei Jun, the one Shang Qinghua had long ago sworn to serve. Mobei Jun, the most perfect man or demon alive in this world, all chiseled muscle and icy stares. It was an irrefutable fact. Shang Qinghua made him that way afterall.

It was day two of the Demonic Alliance Conference.

Now late in the afternoon, the largest of today’s assemblies was wrapping up. Shang Qinghua had been allowed to skip most of this one. Mobei Jun had been insistent that his services would not be required. He knew that meant it would be more posturing than discussion, an extended meet-and-greet where everyone would grandstand and flaunt themselves before more meaningful conversations could occur the next day. Or there were individuals there who couldn’t resist a walking human nugget. Whatever. He welcomed the exclusion. Afterall, with so many strangers now staying in the palace, there was no shortage of disasters to manage.

Everyone had to have their needs met, and it was of the utmost importance who was placed in what room, in what wing, and by what other clan. Don’t even ask about the eating arrangements. Or how important it was to ensure their individual cultures weren’t disrespected in a manner that would throw everything into chaos over the tiniest perceived slight. Even the scheduling of meetings had to be meticulously overseen to ensure the smoothest possible results. Information and decisions from one gathering had to be collected and presented to the next and given due process by all parties involved when they were all second guessing each other’s motives with the scrutiny of ten generations worth of paranoia. And of course they couldn’t all just meet at once.

In short, these demons were a bunch of immature children, too pissy to get along with one another without kicking up fits and arguing over who’s toy belongs where. More than a few refused to be in the same room together, but insisted on their inclusion all the same. It was enough to drive anyone crazy. Naturally it fell under the broadstoke of responsibilities for Shang Qinghua, the one saddled with keeping the palace running smoothly. Playing nanny to all these grown-ass demons, like toddlers fighting for the role of parent’s favorite in hopes of getting an extra cookie with dessert. What about Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky? Was he not their true parent? Why not come grovel at his feet for a change?!

Shang Qinghua sighed, wiping his hand on the front of his robes to remove any remaining traces of dust and ink from a morning of toil. He had been summoned to the great hall by his King, no doubt to present the arrangements made for the days to follow. A few scrolls were gripped under his arm, containing his notes on the delegates in attendance and a meticulously rendered schedule that would in all likelihood be rendered moot by whatever went wrong first.

Such is (his) life.

Two servants parted the way as he came up to the large double doors that separated the palace’s south wing corridor from the great hall. Inside was a congregation of some of the Demon Realm’s most eclectic individuals. He pushed the doors open himself and made his way in with all the nonchalance of someone who had done it dozens of times before. This group was nothing compared to the war councils that saw the likes of Luo Binghe and his generals in attendance. He barely broke a sweat.

“Shang Qinghua, stand at my side.” Mobei Jun ordered without pause, as if the whole room had been waiting for him.

“Yes, my King.”

Shang Qinghua walked forward and dutifully stood next to Mobei Jun as instructed. He took a moment to scan the room. Most there were faces and names he’d already learned, but there were still some he hadn’t seen before. He felt the twinge of an oncoming headache just thinking of all the memorization still left to do. Why couldn’t every clan send just one delegate? Things were so much easier when this information was all coming from inside his head.

It didn’t take long for him to become keenly aware that most eyes in the room were on him. A dozen individuals seated around a table headed by their sovereign, and Shang Qinghua was the most interesting thing in the room? They were acting like they’d never seen their King’s advisor before, as if the very sight of him doing anything other than taking notes suddenly removed some veil of invisibility. If he hadn’t checked before entering, he’d think his robes were inside out. Did he smell? Or maybe they were just hungry. Shang Qinghua crinkled his nose. But seriously, shouldn’t they be paying better attention to their King while he spoke? Demon priorities really were a mess. If he ever had a chance to rewrite them, he’d make so many changes, not least of which being

this King’s betrothed.”

Huh?

The cultivator turned his head as his eyes snapped to Mobei Jun, where a pair of brilliant blue eyes were waiting to meet him. The murmurs of the hall’s occupants barely registered as background static, buried under the thrumming of his own heartbeat. Who was his King’s betrothed?

Mobei Jun stared back as if waiting for something. Shang Qinghua was too stunned to even consider what it could be. His handsome King didn’t seem unprepared for this result. In fact, what could almost be perceived as the beginnings of a smile flickered at the corner of his lips before he turned back to face the crowd.

“As such, this one expects that his royal consort will be treated with all deference befitting one of his position.” His demeanor showed no change, but the air around them felt like it lowered a degree. Shang Qinghua suppressed the urge to shiver. “Any actions in opposition to this would be taken as defiance against this Mobei Jun and all whom he governs and allies with. Shang Qinghua’s needs and wants are his, one and the same.”

Apparently Shang Qinghua was the King’s betrothed.

The room went silent in unchallenged recognition, and it didn’t take long for the tittering of excitement to fill the palace as word spread.

-------------------------------------

“You could have given me some warning, my King!” Shang Qinghua wailed as the two made their way towards the royal bed chambers. Mobei Jun looked over to him, questioningly.

“Our relationship has been very clear.” His eyes narrowed. “Does the matter of being wed to me displease you?”

“What? No, my King, that’s not it,” Shang Qinghua felt his cheeks warm under the pressure, his attempt at holding a frown failing. Isn’t the problem obvious?! “I meant warning me you were going to just announce it like that.” His lips tightened in a pout as his gaze fell, along with the volume of his voice. “It wasn’t exactly a very romantic way to propose……”

It still didn’t feel that long ago that the two of them had been awkwardly straddling the line between master and servant, and...whatever they were now. Labels are weird. And hard. Regardless, Shang Qinghua would never forget those long, confusing months of “courting”, where apparently he had been flawlessly following the very playbook he’d offered to Luo Binghe on how to win over another man (as a kindness to his bro, Shen Qingqiu, btw). Pathetic, sticky, protectable. In response to his “advances” Mobei Jun had started sending him gifts like only a demon could. The smell of an especially rancid kill still lingered in his old room back on An Ding Peak. Why couldn’t his King have just stuck to his frequently failed, and hopelessly endearing, attempts at making noodles?

Still, the first time that Mobei Jun had told him he was cute even though they were his own words repeated back to him Shang Qinghua had nearly died on the spot. He never thought he’d be the blushing maiden type, but in the hands of Mobei Jun, his heart was putty. The powers of lead characters should never be underestimated!

And, yes, Mobei Jun was a lead character, okay?! The story and the readers just didn’t know it, but the author did! Even if he did kill him off...and then considered doing it again with a rock. Life was funny that way.

These days Shang Qinghua had no doubts as to what they were to each other, labels aside. His promise to serve Mobei Jun forever with unwavering loyalty had not diminished, and in fact only extended further to matters of both his heart and body. Mobei Jun had offered the same in return. It was all a little embarrassing!! Once the two began sleeping together both varieties, your mind may stay in the gutter Shang Qinghua’s small servants’ quarters in the palace became nothing more than an inconvenient pit stop because he’d always end up in Mobei Jun’s bed. So, as a matter of efficiency befitting someone from Logistics, his meager belongings and personal writing desk had been moved to Mobei Jun’s more than large enough chambers.

Marriage however, was something they hadn’t talked about. Not really. Not that Shang Qinghua remembers. He had thought about it though, sort of. Mobei Jun had never married before, and as King, whispers in the palace expected him to take a wife and produce an heir. It wasn’t as if Shang Qinghua could pop out any mini-Mobeis so the formality of marriage seemed kind of pointless, and he definitely didn’t have any interest in being “Queen” . Was that even how it worked? Details aside, it was obvious now he was the only one who didn’t think it was important.

“You were expecting something else?” Mobei Jun asked, pausing to let Shang Qinghua enter their room before him.

“I don’t know! Maybe.” Shang Qinghua clapped back, a little harsher than he intended as he let the scrolls in his arms tumble to the surface of his desk. “Everyone always wonders how they’re going to be proposed to. It’s not really something you discuss. It’s something that just happens, and then you’re supposed to tell other people, and usually that’s friends and family first. I mean, who would that even be for us? Cucumber Bro and Luo Binghe, I guess. My disciples at An Ding Peak. Your Uncle? Blech. Pass. But really who just skips over the most important part of the proposal and tells a room of strangers instead? Not that I was expecting some grand gesture like my name spelt in clouds or some stupid fancy restaurant with flowers and a ring or

“You wish to have your name in the clouds...?”

“No, my King!” Shang Qinghua cried, rubbing his own face in his hands. “ Ugh, please just forget I even said anything.”

Mobei Jun advanced quickly and grabbed his wrist. Shang Qinghua squeaked, old habits dying hard as his nerves turned to jelly. “You are displeased,” he glowered. Shang Qinghua flinched.

...

“How would humans have done it?”

“What?”

Mobei Jun did not repeat himself, but did release his grip.

“Oh. Well, uh...ah...lots of different ways, I think. Depends on the person, er, people, really. You see...” Shang Qinghua started, rubbing at his wrist. “Something like —” and the floodgates opened, releasing a veritable feast of ideas ranging from proposals he’d seen in movies and TV, to plots he’d used in his original draft of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way . He babbled as Mobei Jun watched on in silence, swallowed up in his own colorful narratives as he recounted examples that left him sighing, groaning, and laughing incredulously. Who cares if he didn’t get some cheesy, romantic proposal? That’s not how most humans did things in this world, anyway, let alone demons! It was stupid to even think about. Can you imagine Mobei Jun doing any of those things? Shang Qinghua couldn’t. Nope. Couldn’t imagine a single one, and they definitely didn’t leave a little ache in his heart.

He may’ve given this more thought than he realized.

Oh well.

-------------------------------------

That evening there was a large banquet. It was the first time that all representatives had been invited to attend a single event at once, and surprisingly most seemed willing to attend. Many long tables had been fitted into the great hall, covered in all manner of substances to consume. Subjectively one might call it food. Shang Qinghua typically would not. Yet while the smell of the room’s curated assortment of rotted meats threatened to curl the ends of his hair, the sight of the room overall was amazing to behold.

There were dozens of demons in the room. The variety in their appearance made for an impressive display, so much so that Shang Qinghua hardly knew where to safely settle his eyes. It was times like these where he truly felt humbled as an author. Though he’d written more words than he could ever recall about this world, there were limits to what he described and holes that were filled without his input. It was moments like this where he really felt a sense of appreciation for how vast this world was, and how many things were left for him to experience. As much security in his own story gave him, he couldn’t deny the thrill that came from feeling like he’d stepped into somebody else’s.

Across the assortment of demonic subspecies, there were horns of all shapes and sizes, with skin colors across the spectrum, and every manner of scale shape and model-worthy bone structure one could imagine. Fangs and fur stood out from outfits of leather and fabric, some covered head to toe, and others barely dressed enough for public viewing, by human standards here anyway. Was that an ankle showing?! Scandalous!

It was impressive how few design choices had been reused, and not everyone had strictly humanoid body shapes either. One table housed a trio that looked like someone had scaled down dragons just enough that they could reasonably fit in a pair of pants, while another group forgoed use of any chairs as their snake-tail bottoms trailed sinuously across the floor. They admittedly looked a bit more familiar than most.

Despite some nasty stares and the occasional jeer, everyone seemed to be getting along rather well. The alcohol flowed freely—the effects of which were debatable, but still enjoyed—and it was obvious that nothing that wasn’t locked down would be wasted.

Shang Qinghua sat in a chair next to his King, pleased at the arrangement that saw their table much more accommodating to his palate. Less raw meat, and even some vegetation. Hail to the Kings of old that dating one didn’t mean he had to eat like one. Those were days better left in the past. Cultivation did about as much for food poisoning as it did for horniness, which in this world was absolutely nothing (and way fewer potential perks).

The joy of edible food was wasted on Shang Qinghua however. It wasn’t like he had any time to eat it. Every few minutes another unfamiliar face would come over and introduce themselves like this was some sort of impromptu job interview. He wasn’t sure if they were trying to suck up or strong-arm half the time. It was probably both. Mobei Jun didn’t seem to care , a fact he made abundantly clear by not being bothered to even spare most of them a look. It left Shang Qinghua to take the brunt nodding his head to each one, feigning a smile, locking away their details in his mind, and cursing himself for not grabbing a snack beforehand.

“Lord Shang Qinghua,” a soft voice cut through the chatter. He looked up to see a delegate he recognized from a similar looking group near the back—pale-skinned and lithe, with long golden hair held back by a series of intricate braids and strikingly bright purple eyes. Neat! What really stood out though was that this demon was the first one to address Shang Qinghua directly. Everyone else introduced themselves to Mobei Jun, with varying degrees of upset when “the human” was the one who reciprocated.

Shang Qinghua nodded his head in acknowledgement, earning a smile in return.

“Qu Shiying comes to pay respects to the Lords of this castle. It is a great honor to have this one’s clan invited.” The demon steepled his fingers together near his chin and bowed.

“Mobei Jun and this one accept your respects and welcome you,” Shang Qinghua recited, a tad less dry than the last dozen times. Something about the guy struck him as quite friendly, probably the lack of utter disdain for talking to a human. That was nice. Something about him seemed familiar though. “Sorry if this is rude, but what territory do you come from again?” Shang Qinghua asked. A prickle on the back of his neck indicated Mobei Jun had glanced his way, likely a reminder that his humility was unnecessary, and probably offensive to him by proxy.

“Qu Shiying” did not seem deterred. “This one comes from the East, one of the valleys at the base of Zi Jing Mountain. It is unlikely his Lordship has been, but could be assured of a very warm welcome should he grace us with his company.”

Ah...is this what respect feels like? The author would like seconds of this dish, please! As for the answer, it sounded about as vaguely familiar as the character’s name. Like so many things, it sat in a corner of his brain under a layer of dust, there but untouched for so long that it’d take some digging to get to.

“Maybe I’ll visit someday. I have heard many things about the herbs that grow around Zi Jing Mountain. Not many places grow anything in the Demon Realm, and definitely not around here,” Shang Qinghua replied in earnest.

“This one imagines Lord Shang Qinghua will not have much time to himself should the wedding plans begin. There has been much talk about it being a grand affair.”

Funny how it’s the first I’ve heard of it! Shang Qinghua hid a small cough in his hand.

The delegate continued. “The timing of this assembly feels very propitious, to come before such grand affairs. Such an important time, to allow those such as this one and his kin to share a table with others of similar minds and seek such opportunity. It is truly an honor indeed.”

Somebody’s had good results so far, Shang Qinghua had to assume as the other bid him a courteous farewell.

Over the next few hours, Shang Qinghua lost track of how many pleasantries he had to dish out to considerably less kind visitors. At some point Mobei Jun became involved enough to snarl at anyone who came close, finally allowing time to eat. Shang Qinghua helped himself to anything that still looked chewable when cold, followed by a few small cups of some sharp tasting wine that left a pleasant burning sensation in his stomach. He really hoped it was wine anyway. It was a 50/50 shot drinking any liquid served at a demonic banquet that wasn’t clearly identifiable as water, and even then… Shang Qinghua grimaced at the memories.

Eventually things started getting a bit too rowdy for his taste, as many of the demons caught their second wind after digesting and the nocturnal among them caught their first. It was already getting rather late, so Shang Qinghua excused himself. Mobei Jun looked positively pouty about it (by his standards), required, by the few in the room who could still make their lives difficult, to stay longer for some sort of something involving the heart and lower shanks of a monster Shang Qinghua couldn’t identify.

Shang Qinghua resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at him smugly, if only because of what that might accidentally communicate to the room. He didn’t want to chance being pulled into the middle of a fight. Or an orgy. Or a plate, for that matter. Better to leave with his faculties and limbs intact and call the whole thing a success.

Making his way out of the great hall and down into the adjacent corridor, he realized how warm the room had been with all those bodies and torch fire. Outside was positively chilly. His poor King must be so uncomfortable in there. He felt a little bad, just a tiny bit, but not enough to go back. Taking a moment to tighten shut his robes as he walked, Shang Qinghua found himself facing a hallway he didn’t expect. It wasn’t one unfamiliar to him, just not the shortest route back to his room.

I guess that really was wine , he thought to himself, both grateful and annoyed. He did feel a little bit tipsy actually. Maybe. Just a little. Mostly sleepy. Turning around to reorient himself, he was confronted by the sight of someone several meters back in the direction he’d come from.

Qu Shiying was there, alone as he had been when they’d met at the banquet. The demon made eye contact and bowed from the flickering shadows.

“Lord Shang Qinghua, this one bids you a more personal welcome. How fortunate we were able to meet like this.” He said with the same smile as before. With both of them standing in the open hallway, Shang Qinghua could get a better sense of him notably that he was probably about a head taller than Shang Qinghua, though so thin he likely weighed the same, probability of super dense demon bones aside. His gray, well-fitted robes were surprisingly thin for someone from Zi Jing Mountain, which he was sure was a warmer climate compared to the snowy North.

“Are you lost?” Shang Qinghua asked, still walking towards him. As he neared, Qu Shiying turned to join his stride until the pair were walking side by side.

“Hmm, yes and no.”

Well, which is it?

Shang Qinghua glanced at him.

“This one could have been considered lost in that he didn’t know where Lord Shang Qinghua had gone, though as his intent was to speak with the human Lord, it must be said that he has in fact found himself where he wished to be.”

After a few moments to register, Shang Qinghua finally looked dumbfounded. “You were looking for me?

The other simply nodded.

Shang Qinghua groaned, a string of curse words just barely held at bay. “Okay, okay...ah...how to say this… There’s nothing I can do for you. If you have grievances or requests, you need to take them up with everybody else during the meetings. I can’t just talk one on one with anybody who happens to find me, and unless you want your breakfast order changed, there’s nothing else I can do.”

When no immediate response came, he looked to Qu Shiying directly, who was simply staring back at him, arms behind his back, and that airy smile never leaving his face. His golden eyelashes caught the torch light and almost seemed to sparkle this close up. Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but think how much better dark lashes over firm brows looked.

“Okay...?”

“This one was waiting for the Lord to finish speaking. He wouldn’t dare interrupt.”

Respect again! Too weird.

Qu Shiying suddenly stopped walking, and without thinking, Shang Qinghua did as well.

“Although, this one does wish to speak and clear up possible misunderstandings, before Lord Shang Qinghua comes to any wrong conclusions of this one’s intent for being here.”

Shang Qinghua chose to play the fool and recycled the tactic of staring back. Something about this was starting to feel...off.

Qu Shiying steepled his hands near his face again, his faintly clawed fingertips lightly touching his own lips as they had in the great hall before. He bowed once more. His pupils shone like amethyst in the flickering lights as he met Shang Qinghua’s gaze.

“Qu Shiying of Zi Jing Mountain wishes to formally court the Lord Shang Qinghua. This one believes he is the most suitable mate for one such as himself, and has come to the Northern territories with intent to persuade.”

Everything in Shang Qinghua froze.

No, seriously, even his heart likely stopped beating. Then suddenly like a machine revving back to life, all he could hear was the pounding of his own heart as blood raced from his face. Or was it to his face? Simultaneously blanching to the point of wanting to faint, and blushing in confused embarrassment, had left him dizzy. Or it was the wine. Whatever it was, he was definitely standing there too long doing nothing.

Then Shang Qinghua laughed. “I don’t think I heard you right. You want...to court me? Like, me, right here, this one?” He pointed at himself.

“Yes.”

“Even though I’m, uh…” Saying it out loud the first time was unexpectedly hard. “...engaged to Mobei Jun?”

“Yes.” Qu Shiying’s smile brightened, as if proud of the little human cultivator.’ Look at him, connecting the dots. So cute’, he’s probably thinking.

Nothing here was cute!!

Wait, was he technically being proposed to twice in one day? And worst of all this guy was kinda, sorta doing a better job at it. In some people’s opinion, were you to ask , he thought. Probably.

Shang Qinghua was struck with the nostalgic urge to just roll back his eyes and play dead. He barely swallowed the temptation. Demons weren’t as easy to fool as the likes of his fellow Peak Lords had been, nor was the stupidity of making himself prone in front of someone who just made some very specific intentions known lost on him. Bad idea.

“You...can’t be serious,” Shang Qinghua found himself laughing again, though considerably more nervous. Was he being pranked? Cameras don’t exist in this world but that didn’t stop him from expecting them to pop out of the ceiling. Wait...what if this was a test? Did Mobei Jun not trust him and wanted to see how he’d respond to somebody else? Was a decade of servitude and years of papapa not enough?! Or maybe this was some kind of scheme by others in the Mobei Clan. They were definitely mad about the whole engagement thing. Were they trying to get Shang Qinghua out of the way? When did straight-up murder fall out of fashion? That would be so much simpler to deal with!!!

Qu Shiying seemed to be looking him over, then gave a little nod as if agreeing to something.

“The evening is late, and this one understands the many duties that Lord Shang Qinghua has in hand. Perhaps this is a conversation best saved for a future encounter.” He gently placed a hand on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder as he went to pass, and gave it a little squeeze.

Shang Qinghua jolted, as if suddenly waking up. He went to smack the hand away but only hit air.

Forward much?!

Qu Shiying’s looked no less pleased as he took back his hand and bid a polite farewell, making his way back towards the distant bustle of the banquet.

Shang Qinghua was stunned, watching the retreating figure as a cocktail of emotions flooded his mind.

And then he really did faint.

Chapter Text

The counter for ‘how many days since Shang Qinghua woke up in bed not remembering how he got there’ was rolled back to zero.

He turned over to curl deeper into the blankets as his eyes slowly opened, cringing at the light that snuck in to stab at his eye sockets. What he saw through the clearing haze was Mobei Jun’s collarbone. He tilted his head up and made immediate eye contact.

“Oh, my King,” he managed with an awkward smile. “Good...ah...morning?”

Mobei Jun simply stared back at him. Then, apparently satisfied, he proceeded to get up. As he dressed at the bedside, Shang Qinghua sat upright. He was nursing an awful headache, and rubbed hard at one eye.

“Are you going to be sick?”

“What?”

Mobei Jun repeated it back, but very slowly.

Jerk! Shang Qinghua was hungover, not concussed! It wasn’t the same thing...

Stupid wine.

“You were sick last time,” he added.

Shang Qinghua groaned in concession to the memory. “I’m okay, my King. My head just hurts a little.” He reached up to rub at his temple only to then realize that his hair was down. Then he noticed his outer robes were off, and that his boots were placed neatly on the floor. And he was in bed. In their chambers.

He took several stiff glances around the room, as if his memories were floating around him like something tangible he could grab onto. When did he…?

Eventually his gaze fell back to Mobei Jun, who had been patiently waiting. Sort of. He didn’t look mad, but he definitely didn’t look impressed.

“You passed out in the hall last night.”

Mobei Jun paused. Shang Qinghua twitched.

“I had to retrieve you.”

“Is that so...” Shang Qinghua trailed off with a nervous laugh. “My King is most generous. How did you...ah...find out?”

“Does it matter?” Mobei Jun’s mood was darkening. He stepped forward. Shang Qinghua hugged a pile of furs to his chest and scrunched up his face defensively.

“Ah! Ah! My King! I’m sorry!!” He squawked as Mobei Jun grabbed his ear, giving it a less than friendly pull. He held that position until Shang Qinghua’s whining subsided into barely a whimper.

Then let him go.

“If you feel unwell, tell me. I would’ve brought you to bed,” He admonished, though his tone was no more heavy handed than his methods.

“Yes, my King…” Shang Qinghua said through a sniffle, rubbing at his ear.

Stupid Shang Qinghua.

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Was this old wind bag still talking?

It took every ounce of Shang Qinghua’s willpower not to just slump over the table, turning his growing pile of notes into a pillow to rest his head. His bored, achy head. But like a good scribe—one of his many job titles—he sat at his King’s side and continued to write any pertinent information down. He didn’t even fill the sides of the scrolls with story ideas or crude doodles. Well, not too many. There was still enough room to write whatever the current speaker was going on about.

There hadn’t been much time to get ready that morning. A servant had bravely come knocking to inform them that their morning’s first assembly was waiting. Then they walked away with both of their legs intact, which spoke to Mobei Jun’s fair mood. Not wishing to press his luck, Shang Qinghua got dressed quickly, begrudgingly downed a cup of bitter tea he was handed, and followed after his King as they made their way to the first of several meetings scheduled for that day.

So here he was.

It was a couple hours in, and despite the minor hangover, most of the discussions had been pretty interesting. He’d fleshed out so little of the Demon Realm in his story that it never ceased to amaze him that this many settlements even existed out there, let alone that they’d have so many of their own customs and goods to export. It was weird how many demons were really good at sewing and general craftsmanship too, and Shang Qinghua could not for the life of him remember why he’d given them that particular trait.

Three different clans were represented at the table this time—two groups from the Eastern territories and the other from the Borderlands, whom Mobei Jun often used as lookouts when things in the area got testy. The purpose of this specific get-together was to open a bartering system with humans, something that had only recently become an acceptable practice. Or perhaps popular was a better way to look at it. All the cool demons were doing it, and Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe were considered the experts.

One human each and professionals in the field! Not that someone who wrote hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of sex scenes with no experience to his name could really argue with their logic. But it’s not like he was trying to influence an entire society’s infrastructure when he did it!

Not on purpose.

“Getting your goods across shouldn’t cause any problems, but it’ll be harder to get what you’re proposing in trade back through the Borderlands.” Shang Qinghua chimed in. “The herbs you want to barter are great for humans to turn into potions and what not, but it’s barely useful as itching powder for other demons. They won’t care. But the Yesheng Clan can’t resist the smell of fermented foods and wine, so any convoys you try to get through their territory would just be attacked. It’s pointless to even try.”

A growl came from somewhere further down the table. “Then what does this Lord suggest?”

It was a testament to Mobei Jun’s presence that Shang Qinghua was able to converse with little argument. The ice demon was the ultimate forum moderator, protecting its author from trolls. As someone used to taking critique like a worn out punching bag, Shang Qinghua reveled in the opportunity to flex his knowledge behind such a dependable shield. Plus, any problems he averted now were problems he didn’t have to deal with later.

“It’d be smarter to just bring the raw materials back along with someone who specializes in the process to prepare it there.” Shang Qinghua didn’t even look up as he spoke, continuing to brush ink across the scroll in front of him. Silence was his invitation to continue. “So invite some skilled humans back with you. They can even check what you have to give you a better idea of what’s actually valuable and save you from blindly sending crap nobody wants.”

“Bring humans back with us? Ridiculous!” The ‘wind bag’ from before huffed.

Mobei Jun, meanwhile, had his chin resting on his hand, a clawed finger rubbing slowly across his lower lip. It was unlikely he was putting much thought into the conversation, but Shang Qinghua didn’t doubt he was listening. He made this experience-driven assumption without looking because after weeks of late nights and early mornings, the sight of his King caressing even his own lip was enough to make this meeting feel even longer.

“What Lord Shang Qinghua suggests seems very sound.” A familiar voice interjected. This actually made Shang Qinghua look up, and he immediately regretted it.

Qu Shiying was near the end of the table. How he hadn’t noticed him before was a testament to how low Shang Qinghua had kept his wine-addled head when the new group had entered. Suddenly last night’s little meeting returned to him like a taut elastic let free, snapping him alert so much so that he sat up straight.

Mobei Jun glanced down at him.

“We have already seen the effect that importing certain substances has had on our trade routes. It is a wise alternative to only bring in raw materials and provide less temptation,” Qu Shiying continued. The others in his group nodded, coming to varying levels of agreement. “This one also gives his personal assurances that any human would find our home most hospitable.”

His smile widened just enough to crescent his eyes, his gaze focused directly at Shang Qinghua. To everyone present, he was just responding to the one who spoke. To Shang Qinghua, he was walking a razor's edge! Was he serious about what he said last night? There was no way those robes were hiding balls that big!!

He barely remembered the rest of that meeting.

-------------------------------------

Future assemblies were varying degrees of stressful. Between all the arguments and proposals came long stretches of banal back and forth that left Shang Qinghua’s desk full of notes and his mind full of mud. Dense, suffocating, why-does-everybody-have-so-many-names-and-rules-and-territories mud. He could barely surface from it, desperate to go back to managing things from a distance farther than the width of a table.

The Qu Shiying problem persisted as well. Sometimes. He hadn’t met him alone since that night, now almost a week ago, but he participated in enough of the meetings to never be far from mind.

To his credit, Qu Shiying was one of the smarter ones there, and were it not for his “courting”, Shang Qinghua would’ve been thrilled at his presence. Calm and articulate, he spoke more gently than most yet still somehow commanded the attention of the room. He also clearly held the most power among those of his clan present, even if no status was obvious through other means like titles or dress. At least not ones Shang Qinghua could figure out right away, although he did find his eyes lingering on their hair braids and bead work one morning. An author’s mind never rests!

What really stood out though, was that Qu Shiying was in the habit of giving compliments, which was a rarity among demons who thought of them little and expressed them less. So basically never. His words teetered on the edge of ass kissing, which made some amount of sense from a clan whose physical prowess seemed low for their race. But there was a difference when he praised others, versus when he complimented Shang Qinghua—the eye contact, the hidden context, and soon, the expectation. Shang Qinghua found himself meeting those violet eyes with angry ones in advance, as if daring him to do it again.

And Qu Shiying always did.

Shang Qinghua had debated with himself about it for days. In the end, he decided not to tell Mobei Jun about the other “proposal”. He knows, he knows, lying to his King is a stupid idea. But it wasn’t lying if it never came up, and as long as Qu Shiying behaved and didn’t make things any weirder, then it never needed to. The Demonic Alliance Conference was going to be over in just a few more days, and the last thing he needed was some political drama when things had been going so well.

Besides, if something did happen, he could just call for Mobei Jun and watch him appear majestically from one of his portals and flatten any troublemaker like a bloody pancake. Shang Qinghua loved watching him do that.

It was after an especially busy day—two brawls and four broken marble tables later—that Shang Qinghua was forced to confront that thorn in his side for a second time.

The golden haired nuisance was standing in the hallway, his hands folded delicately behind him and his eyes closed, head tilted towards the floor. He was ignoring the bustle of servants and other delegates who came and went around him. He almost seemed to be in a state of meditation. Or he was sleeping standing up.

Shang Qinghua weighed his options. Walk past with his head held high and ignore him, or turn around and flee like a coward.

The answer was obvious. He was Shang Qinghua Mobei Jun’s consort, a powerful cultivator, and the (ex) Lord of An Ding Peak!

He turned around and headed back the way he came.

“Lord Shang Qinghua.”

Shit.

He walked faster.

“Master Sh--!”

He heard the servant before he saw them, but that didn’t stop Shang Qinghua’s shoulder from colliding with them as he tried to pass. Scrolls fell from both their arms, clattering to the floor. Oh what he wouldn’t give for email!

“M-master, this one is sorry, they didn’t see

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Shang Qinghua interrupted with a raised hand and a resigned sigh. He knelt down to retrieve the fallen items as the skittish servant bent to do the same. Others walked by them with no interest. One even kicked a scroll away ‘by accident’.

Shang Qinghua grumbled. Just a light bump against someone walking the halls and his shoulder throbbed. The differences between demons and humans was laughable. Although to be fair, the same servant probably would’ve imploded on impact against someone like Bai Zhan Peak’s Liu Qingge, so biology could only be blamed for so much. We didn’t all have time to spend everyday doing crunches!

The servant excused themselves abruptly, scurrying down the hallway before Shang Qinghua could really appreciate someone who actually seemed intimidated by him. It was a strange feeling, and one he’d been having more often since news of his engagement to Mobei Jun had spread. It wasn’t everyone, but it was getting there. Maybe he did want to be Queen.

“Are you alright?”

Shang Qinghua looked up and made too-close-for-comfort eye contact with Qu Shiying, who held the last scroll in his outstretched hand.

“I...I said it was fine,” he snapped, grabbing the scroll and standing up. A bit too quickly perhaps, as he stumbled back a step to adjust all the scrolls he held along with his balance. He immediately felt a hand clamp around his upper arm.

Physical contact was a rarity in this world, once you were no longer considered a child. In Shang Qinghua’s old life, going weeks if not months without touching another person didn’t feel so strange, when he would go just as long without seeing anybody at all. But in this world, where he was constantly surrounded by disciples, servants, and dare he consider it friends, a society that puts so much importance on never touching each other made the instances rare and special.

Shang Qinghua would never admit to anyone how often he used to feel starved for touch. When the only times he got it was when treating others’ injuries, having his own looked after, or simply being hurt, his association with it became complicated. He wanted it, yet at some point, began to fear it. Even now, years later after his relationship with Mobei Jun had changed, and touch became a common, casual thing between them, the connotations were still there.

Being touched always startled Shang Qinghua, and when he was startled, he froze.

It didn’t help that this guy wanted to marry him.

Double startled!

The hand on his arm was warm. It felt so foreign. Mobei Jun, despite his best efforts to make Shang Qinghua comfortable, was always cold. Qu Shiying’s hand also felt oddly soft through his robe, gentle even, and…

Was still on his arm.

Wait, why was it still on his arm...? Why was he letting it still be on his arm?!

Shang Qinghua went to pull away, but the grip tightened just enough to stop him. And Qu Shiying was suddenly leaning in close. Way too close.

Oh.

Oh.

Oh hell no!

Yanking his whole body to the side for enough momentum, Shang Qinghua pulled himself free. Qu Shiying raised both his hands, open palmed, as the other backed away.

“Are you serious?! Were you...I mean, really?!” Shang Qinghua, his voice shrinking to a whisper as he glanced nervously at the others walking near them. This guy must have a death wish!

Qu Shiying chuckled into his hand. “Lord Shang Qinghua misunderstands. This one was only ensuring he was well. After this one saw you collapse, he has been concerned about your well-being.”

Collapse? Hold on… Come to think of it, there was nobody else in the hall that night. Was Qu Shiying the one who told Mobei Jun? That was unacceptably embarrassing!!

“You’ve got your genres all mixed up if you think I’m some halo-wearing heroine you can just coincidentally meet in hallways and get friendly with!” Shang Qinghua pointed accusingly with a free hand. “It’s weird enough during the assemblies when you’re being so...so…” 

“Cordial?”

“Bothersome!” He snapped. Is that what he calls teasing him everyday? So annoying! There were too many other things to deal with! Some of us have jobs!

Shang Qinghua took a deep breath, and hardened his face into a competing smile. “Since you seem to keep forgetting, I am engaged to Mobei Jun. This is his palace. And there are rules. I’d be happy to ask my King to explain them to you.” He said in his most diplomatic, get-off-my-ass voice he had mastered from years of pushing all his true feelings way, way down.

Qu Shiying looked like he was considering something, and one of his fingers started twirling around a piece of his own long hair.

“There are no rules to say that someone engaged cannot be pursued. Perhaps if the Lord was already wed, things would be gone about in a different fashion, but this one sees no need to resort to such barbarous tactics. From what he’s learned about Lord Shang Qinghua, he would not prefer that either.”

“Barbarous tactics?” What barbarous tactics?!

Maybe it was the way the hallways’ torch light flickered over his features, but something about Qu Shiying looked a little...well, not quite sinister, but there was something akin to hunger in his eyes that wasn’t there before. Like a sleeping beast emerging from its den, it chose to reveal a tiny piece of itself as both a warning and hello.

Even not-scary demons can be sort of scary after all!

“Shang Qinghua.” A very familiar, very welcome, very attractive voice boomed from behind them.

“My King!” Shang Qinghua exclaimed, before spinning around. Oh, he could cry with joy right now!! He ran to meet him.

“This is wrong,” Mobei Jun said sharply, pushing a single scroll into his already burdened arms. Shang Qinghua looked at him, confused, then down to the scroll.

“Ah...it must’ve been a mix-up, my King.” He flashed back to the servant he’d collided with earlier. Did their scrolls get shuffled and it prompted Mobei Jun to personally come find him for the right one? Not that his King needed to do such a menial task on his own, or else why have servants in the first place? Shang Qinghua felt his heart warm. His King was too cute!

When tilting his head to look back up, he saw that Mobei Jun was looking past him. Turning to follow the direction, he saw Qu Shiying still standing there, patiently waiting.

The two demons stared at each other with Shang Qinghua between them. What was the weird atmosphere all of a sudden? Okay, sure it was warranted but wasn’t there still some important unknown context here? Did his King already know?!

“Who are you?” Mobei Jun asked bluntly.

...

My King, you really need to pay better attention!!!

Qu Shiying flashed his mastered smile, entirely unperturbed by the slight. He effortlessly moved into a respectful bow. “This one is but a humble delegate in passing. When he saw Lord Shang Qinghua required assistance, he came to offer. This one acknowledges the unnecessity and apologizes for his presumption.” He looked up from his bowed position. “If this Lord would allow…?”

Mobei Jun answered with a curt nod. Qu Shiying rose, gave a shallow secondary bow, and excused himself. He passed them both, and made no effort to look at Shang Qinghua as he did.

There was a heavy pause in his absence.

“Do you know him?” Mobei Jun asked, looking down to his consort who was near weeping with relief. “And why would he think you needed assistance?”

There was an unmistakable weight to the questions, one that Shang Qinghua acknowledged, and for the sake of keeping the peace, chose to ignore. Just for now. Hold that suspicion, my clever King!

“A small accident, my King. Too many scrolls for one human’s arms. Aiyah, I’m so overworked…” He groused with needless theatrics. “But in answer to your first question, I don’t, but—” He paused, eyes unfocused before he lit up like a lightbulb. “Oh! I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before! Ahh , I really am working too hard. My brain’s all gone to slush!”

In the enthusiasm of his own idea, Shang Qinghua stood on his tiptoes just the amount needed to peck a kiss on Mobei Jun’s cheek. It had the added benefit of soothing back his King’s incoming grumpy face.

The whole situation had officially progressed beyond Shang Qinghua’s pay grade. If he was going to deal with this mess, he needed some advice, and he knew just who to go to to get it...

-------------------------------------

“He flirted with you?” Shen Qingqiu repeated back.

“Yes!” Shang Qinghua confirmed quickly.

“And you actually noticed?” A single eyebrow raised on the face otherwise obscured by a fan.

“It's not funny, bro!”

“Few things ever are with you,” Shen Qingqiu replied with a sigh, giving his fan a few comforting waves. The two were seated at the small table in Shen Qingqui’s bamboo courtyard. “I assume you're not here to ask me how to refuse a demon's advances.” A slight curve of his eyes betrayed a grin hidden beneath the otherwise unyielding expression. “We both know you're quite naturally gifted at that.”

Well past the point of propriety with his fellow transmigrator, Shang Qinghua had draped his exhausted body over the table with a heavy groan. “Cucumber bro, why are you like this...” He turned his head to bury his face in the crook of his arm, mumbling into it. “You know my King and I worked things out...”

Shen Qingqiu closed his fan with a distinctive clack , eager to move this conversation along. “Well if that’s the case, why come to me about this at all then? Surely your Mobei Jun can--”

“No! I mean, this is something only you can help me with.” Shang Qinghua interrupted, ignoring the twitch from his friend’s perfectly tweezed brow. “I can't quite…I mean, this new guy seems familiar, but...ah...you know how it is.”

“You can't remember what you wrote in your own story. Again .”

The two shared a familiar silence.

...

“Idiot.”

“Bro!”

“Get on with it then. Tell me about him.”

So Shang Qinghua did, explaining everything he could remember from his first encounter with Qu Shiying, to what he knew of the demon's territory, and what little he could gleam from their brief interactions. Shen Qingqiu listened without comment. He was no stranger to Shang Qinghua's unique brand of exposition—there was probably no one in either lifetime more familiar with it—but by now it could be said the two were good friends and beneath the sidetracking and hyperbole he could feel the others' legitimate concern and embarrassment about the whole situation laced between every word.

“Qu Shiying...” Shen Qingqiu repeated aloud, tapping the fan against his upper lip, his eyes turned upwards as he often did when trying to recall something. He returned his gaze back to Shang Qinghua. “He barely played any role at all. It's no wonder you couldn't be bothered to remember him. He appeared in one of the late chapters and attempted to steal one of Binghe's wives before their wedding. If I recall correctly, he was engaged to her before she fell for Binghe.” His voice shifted to one inarguably filled with pride. “He failed miserably, of course.”

“I don't know how you remember all this stuff.” Shang Qinghua looked legitimately impressed. “You really did love my work, huh?”

Shen Qingqiu clicked his tongue dismissively. “Ridiculous.” He paused a moment, his fan snapping back open to cover his face as he looked away, eyes narrowed. “The only reason I remember this particular awful plot line, one barely worth its screen time, was because of that godawful OOC line.”

“Which one?”

A visible flush tipped the cultivator's ears. “It doesn't matter.” He cleared his throat, eyes turning back to Shang Qinghua. “Anyway, what's interesting about Qu Shiying and his fiancée are their race. It's the only time you wrote those particular demons into the story. They had the power of adaptation.”

“That's vague even for me.” Shang Qinghua had straightened up as the conversation carried on, his chin now resting on his hands and elbows propped on the table. “Adaptation...adaptation...”

Shen Qingqiu waited.

“Oh!”

Bingo.

“I remember! They, uh, what was it… Right. Their bodies changed to adapt to their surroundings. Someone tries to stab them, their skin could turn to stone. Hide against a wall and they’d change color. Fall in the water and they'd grow gills. That sort of thing.”

“Yes, and so original of you at the time, too.” Shen Qingqiu interjected, taking no care to hide the judgment in his voice. “Where the imaginative Airplane managed to find all his ideas, one was left to wonder. Almost Darwinian in nature.”

“Come on, bro, it was a really popular movie at the time...”

So maybe Shang Qinghua needed to pull a few ideas from other sources now and again. What author didn't? Besides, how else could he justify going to the movies on a web author's income if not for ideas. In hindsight he's grateful he only plucked a few tasty morsels of inspiration from his dalliances with Hollywood. Too many things were already exploding, feeling eachother up at inopportune times, and coming back from the dead around here as it was.

“Regardless, and fortunately for you, this race of demons aren't particularly strong.” Shen Qingqiu continued. “It makes for an interesting parlour trick but it's hardly worthy of notice. There's a reason they require diplomacy and seclusion to keep themselves alive. Frankly I don't see why you're making such a big deal about it.”

“Easy for you to say,” Shang Qinghua groaned. “You might be used to people throwing themselves at your feet and coming after you all the time, but—”

SMACK!

That earned his head a strike from the fan, and an incensed “Whose fault is that?!”.

Ow…

This kind of situation might be normal for Shen Qingqiu, as the solitary person taking the role of Luo Binghe’s entire harem (and the weight of its lingering plot lines), but this was new to Shang Qinghua. Give him a break! We don’t all have protagonist halo run-off to rely on! Be grateful for that at least, Cucumber-Bro!

Shang Qinghua sighed, not even bothering to rub the sting from his head. “I just don't understand why he's pestering me of all people.” He'd given it a lot of thought over the past week, trying to come at this from all different angles. Was it political? Impossible, when Shang Qinghua held no office that would transfer through marriage. Riches? He had none to speak of for himself. Territory? Shang Qinghua didn’t own any land. To threaten Mobei Jun? It’s not like he’d been kidnapped or threatened, though it wouldn’t have been the first time. And it wasn’t like it could be for his good looks.

“Come now, you're not...unattractive.”

Shang Qinghua perked up, unaware of when he started speaking out loud. He looked at Shen Qingqiu expectantly, in equal measures curious about his words and anticipating another hit.

“I meant by this world's standards, you fool. Nobody's that unattractive here. Don't let it go to your head.”

“Ah...”

He wasn't wrong, even if Shang Qinghua’s feelings might’ve been a teeny bit hurt. While not everyone could be as handsome as Shang Qinghua’s carefully crafted lead characters, it was true that you'd be hard pressed to find many who would count as especially ugly, outside of one’s personal taste. Some just might be a bit more dirty or deformed by life's cruelties than others, that’s all. It was quality world-building!

Shen Qingqiu exhaled slowly, a touch of remorse on his breath. Most things resembling compassion between the two were often wordless, especially from Shen Qingqiu with his obsession with saving face. He really needed to loosen up.

“It's not as though looks are all someone would be interested in. It's no secret why Mobei Jun kept you at his side for so long, even if at this moment you’re not making the most convincing display of it.”

“Bro, if Qu Shiying needed someone to push around, he wouldn’t need me. I’m pretty sure he's got his own servants, and he's not attractive only by our old world's standards, if you know what I mean.”

The cultivator’s brow had become noticeably clenched before something in Shen Qingqiu snapped. He slapped the table, his palm making an audible clap against its surface. Shang Qinghua jumped. “Listen to yourself, for f***'s sake. It's your intelligence. You know things. Demons aren't stupid. They may think you weak and ugly, but there's plenty of chatter about the information you feed to Mobei Jun. You're his most trusted advisor and far be it for me to stuff any more fluff into that brain of yours, but you are very good at it.”

From Shen Qingqiu, that was obscenely high praise for someone who wasn't Luo Binghe.

“Cucumber Bro, that might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me.”

Shang Qinghua was touched.

“See if you still feel it’s a compliment when you're tortured beyond the point of madness and left begging for death once another clan gets a hold of you. It's a miracle you're even still alive with your complete lack of subtlety.”

Shang Qinghua blanched. So much for a bonding moment.

“Demons covet more than just land and blood, is all I'm saying. Value your own talents at least enough to keep yourself from getting in trouble and inconveniencing the rest of us with your snivelling damsel routine. As for your new demon suitor, he's probably just looking to extract information out of you. Don’t let him.”

Shen Qingqiu carefully tidied a few stray hairs that had come loose, immediately regaining back the sliver of decorum lost to a moment's frustration. Shang Qinghua couldn't help but look him over—the perfect cultivator. That scientifically flawless face, his flowing ebony hair held up by a jade hairpiece that sparkled in the sun, and the layered green robes of his Sect fitting every inch of his slim, toned body without a single crease out of place. Shen Qingqiu was smart, beautiful, and married to Luo Binghe. How could Shang Qinghua not feel like a potato in his presence?

The self-proclaimed spud's eyes widened as his subconscious latched onto a thought, like a computer's background process finally finishing its task and sending out a little chirp. “I think I remember that line you were talking about. It was what Luo Binghe said to his wife after he killed Qu Shiying and took her for their first...you know.” Shang Qinghua made an unneccessarily crude gesture with his hands. “ 'Everyone is beautiful when I'm inside them.' I don't really remember why he said it, but it's kinda romantic don't you think?”

“Disgusting.”

“Oh, come on, Bro. People really liked that one! And it's not OOC, at least not for the OG...”

“It's shameless! Honestly, how you could even write those sorts of things is frankly

The familiar sound of the door to the bamboo courtyard opening drew both their attention. As if summoned by his name, Luo Binghe entered. In his hands was a tray with a delicately crafted teapot with steam wafting from its spout, and a plate of assorted treats. There were two cups.

“Shizun, this one knows his husband has been socializing a great deal this afternoon and thought he would benefit from refreshment.” Luo Binghe said with a smile. That perfect, attentive, husband-loving smile. Shen Qingqiu returned it faintly with one of his own, a plethora of private words shared between them in silence.

Shang Qinghua knew when he was being told to leave.

Standing up, he straightened his robes out best he could with the dishevelment of travel still on him. It didn't take too long to get here from Mobei Jun's palace by sword, but even five minutes of high altitude wind would do a number to anyone with less than near-immortal levels of cultivation. So naturally while someone like Shen Qingqiu could disembark from a few hours' flight looking immaculate, Shang Qinghua is lucky if his hair remains up and his cheeks not too badly scratched by errant debris.

“Leaving so soon?” Shen Qingqiu asked, his eyes full of mirth. Who was he trying to fool?

Shang Qinghua sighed. “Yes, well, the demon clan's conference is still going on. Lots to do. My King may start to wonder where I am if the little imps looking for me get too annoying to ignore. It’s a disaster over there.” He was so tired just thinking about it.

“We’re so sorry to miss it,” Shen Qingqiu replied without an ounce of sincerity.

While normally these sorts of affairs would be Luo Binghe's responsibility to attend, these were a far cry from the grandiose meetings consisting of the higher clans and noble bloodlines that discussed matters of war and rule. It was all smaller clans with their smaller problems. Simply put, they were beneath him. At most he might appear at the end to make a simple show of force, but otherwise the mundane task of overseeing lesser settlements was a job easily left to his second, Mobei Jun.

Shen Qingqui’s gaze briefly scanned the ground from behind his fan before he returned his attention forward. “Shang-shidi...” he started, slipping back into more world appropriate naming habits with his husband present.

Shang Qinghua glanced back, his sword already hovering in preparation to leave.

“Congratulations. On your engagement.”

Shang Qinghua looked genuinely surprised. Word really did travel fast, wow. He hadn’t even said anything about that yet! And in the face of his friend’s blessing, he couldn’t stop from beaming as he thanked him.

Shen Qingqiu coughed, a slight blush to his cheeks. “That now said, what are you waiting for?” He waved his fan dismissively. “Shoo. Go now before you find some other reason to come crying to me for help.”

Over his shoulder, Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but notice the tiniest frown on Luo Binghe’s face. That rarely meant anything good, so you’d be stupid not to watch for it. What did he have to be crabby about?

You’re already married! To Shen Qingqiu! Who’s right in front of you!

Actually, trying to figure out what went through the head of his favorite son —favorite only because he refused to refer to Mobei Jun as his son anymore (because of reasons)— had long since become a fool’s errand. It really was just safer to leave and let his bro sort things out!

Thus Shang Qinghua bid them both a hasty farewell, taking to his sword and flying out of the bamboo courtyard, back towards his home in the North.

-------------------------------------

Once Shang Qinghua had left, Luo Binghe sat down in the seat across from Shen Qingqiu, proceeding to serve the tea. “It looked like there was something else Shizun wanted to say to Shang-shishu,” he commented, mildly curious. Luo Binghe's care for the clumsy cultivator typically extended only so far as it affected the wellbeing of his spouse. And perhaps Mobei Jun.

Shen Qingqiu sighed, closing his fan and laying it gently on the table next to him. “It's nothing. I'm sure he'll remember it on his own eventually.” He carefully picked up a fresh bun from the tray, marvelling at the perfection of its supple dough, and pushed any lingering concerns to the back of his mind.

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun came to their room later than usual that night.

Poring over a stack of papers at his desk, Shang Qinghua was somewhere between seasonal import overflow and payroll for the stableman. Considering the Demon Realm barely had seasons, and the palace didn’t have any horses, both seemed equally ridiculous yet still somehow needed to be done. He scratched at his head with the end of the brush, accidentally catching it in the loose bun and setting loose stray hairs. He let out a puff of air to move them from his eyesight.

“Shang Qinghua.”

He looked up, his expression suddenly brighter. “My King! You’re back!”

Mnn. You make it sound as though I’d gone far.” Mobei Jun shrugged off his large fur lined cloak, letting it drape over the back of a chair as he’d done a hundred times before. “Why are you working in here?” He frowned, more curious than cross.

Shang Qinghua set the brush down and went to stand, pleased as punch to find a cold, inviting hand waiting for him to grasp. Mobei Jun pulled him to his feet with no effort. His clawed hands reached up and just as easily removed the ornament that kept the remainder of Shang Qinghua’s hair in place. It fell down over his shoulders, releasing along with it the mounting tension in his neck from a long day.

“It was only a few more things to finish, my King. The office fire had gone out, and I thought to myself, why waste the energy to relight it when I could just come back here where my nice, warm bed is.” He explained airily, rolling his shoulders and feeling the satisfying crack as he stretched. “Besides, if I stayed there any longer, somebody definitely would’ve come asking me for something, and I’m done taking requests! Well, except from you of course.” He looked up at Mobei Jun and was pleased to see an agreeable nod. Almost a smile.

As Shang Qinghua spoke, he had begun undoing the clasp that held Mobei Jun’s deep blue robe closed around his chest. He moved as if on autopilot, but not so much that he couldn’t appreciate the smoothness of the rich fabric and the firm body beneath it. He’d often complained to Mobei Jun about how many layers of robes he himself had to wear to combat the cold, but never once had an issue with Mobei Jun wearing so few. You don’t cover perfection!

The scent of the winter, the smell of spice, and something new, almost smoke-like, enveloped his senses. Even more than ink and parchment and tea gone cold, Mobei Jun smelled like home.

The two of them had long since fallen into a routine. While their responsibilities often didn’t allow much real time together during the day, they were always together in the evening. Sometimes it was so late, and the weariness so heavy, that they wordlessly curled in bed together to sleep with half their clothes still on. Some nights involved joining each other for a bath, or leaning against the other while reading, before sleep eventually won. Other nights , any and all remaining energy was put to more vigorous use, often heralded by heavy stares and eager fidgets that left them both greedy for the day’s end.

And then there were nights like tonight, where they simply helped each other out of their clothes amidst conversation about their day and prepared for bed at a leisurely pace, enjoying each other’s company.

It was all delightfully domestic.

It was also a far cry from the harsh treatment Shang Qinghua used to expect from their every encounter. Even now the author couldn’t help but feel some responsibility for that. He had made his proverbial bed, writing Mobei Jun as he did, and had spent years sleeping in it, black and blue.

Shen Qingqiu once told him that thinking that way was “toxic idiocy”, even though he held Shang Qinghua to task more than anyone else. It was a funny thing, coming to terms with your own creations having autonomy, while also still blaming yourself for their faults. It came much more naturally to him than taking credit for their positive traits, especially since it made one of them falling in love with him feel disturbingly artificial. It was hard enough on some days believing he really did hold such a special place in Mobei Jun’s heart, and nearly insurmountable to accept he deserved it. We’re talking the Mobei Jun!

When viewed that way, maybe it didn’t seem so weird that someone was trying to “steal” him. If Shang Qinghua had trouble understanding it at times, then it wasn’t strange to think someone else would be curious about what could possibly be so valuable to someone so important. Maybe they thought Shang Qinghua’s blood could heal all wounds or that his **** worked like a fountain of youth...

He was in a really weird place when he wrote that chapter, okay?

Although, what Shen Qingqiu had said wasn’t totally crazy either, he supposed. Shang Qinghua was kind of smart. He had to be, right? He’d come up with this whole world afterall. But if that’s the case, why aren't there more people lining up for his magnificent mind? Just because he’d been reborn here as a throw-away side character and not some halo-blessed teacher with a fetish for pampering, nobody could pay him enough mind to appreciate his value beyond that of a workhorse?!

Where’s the justice in that?!

“What troubles you?” Mobei Jun’s low voice snapped him out of his wandering thoughts. The two were now in bed together, Shang Qinghua facing Mobei Jun’s chest as the others’ arm laid overtop of him, loosely tugging at his hair. He couldn’t remember when he’d stopped talking, his recap of the day eventually petering away to nothingness as his musings turned inwards. The silence had only been apparent after his King had broken it.

“Ah, it’s nothing, my King,” he sighed, allowing himself the joy of nestling his face between Mobei Jun’s lovingly sculpted pectorals. “Any problems this servant has he can manage. It’s nothing to worry about.”

A low growl accepted the answer, temporarily. Cold hands shifted down to rest on Shang Qinghua’s lower back, fingers curling around his waist until it was held in a pleasantly gentle grip. He shivered from the touch, letting out a faint, comfortable moan. The coolness of his lover’s skin was such a perfect balance to the warmth of a thick blanket. He felt every stress of the day melting away.

“You would tell this Mobei Jun if there was something he should manage in your place?” It was a demand posed as a question. Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but be impressed at how skilled Mobei Jun had become at catching little hesitations in his voice, even if it did leave him feeling a tad exposed. He never liked to lie to his King , yet did occasionally miss when it was easier to pull off.

And don’t think the whole ‘this Mobei Jun’ phrasing was missed. You have tells of your own, my King!

Patience was still something of an inconsistency with Mobei Jun however, because upon receiving no immediate reply, those pointed fingers abruptly pressed into Shang Qinghua’s tender skin, eliciting a high-pitched yelp.

A-ha ! My King!! Of course! Of co-o-ourse!!” Shang Qinghua squealed, his voice pleading as those fingers pulled giggles from his throat.

There are some things Shang Qinghua never would’ve expected from Mobei Jun before, not in a million AUs, but now and again this sneaky demon wielded yet another of his weaknesses against him without shame. Whether because the occasional tickle was a more sustainable method of punishment than backhands, or just that he didn’t like to go a night without hearing Shang Qinghua laugh at least once, was a truth known only to the demon himself.

Shang Qinghua jokingly assumed the first and lovingly preferred the second.

For now he just squiggled in his lover’s embrace, lulled into sleep by his own playful laughter and cool breath in his hair, content in the knowledge he really had nothing in the world to worry about.

-------------------------------------

Shang Qinghua had everything in the world to worry about.

It was only coming to midday, and already one delegate had gone missing, the food for this afternoon’s banquet was woefully behind in its preparation, a store room fire seriously, who catches a room on fire in a palace made of stone and ice?! had the servants running around like headless imps, and to make matters worse, Shang Qinghua had forgotten to have his favorite outer robe cleaned after a meeting earlier that week had gone poorly (depending on who you ask), and left it splattered with the blood of at least four minor clans.

So here he was, storming down the hallway in his second favorite robe, which was considerably less warm than the first, meaning he was stressed out and cold. It made for a cranky Shang Qinghua indeed.

This wasn’t the route he would normally take to get from one wing of the palace to the other. It was rather roundabout, made up of long stretches of hallway that realistically served no purpose other than providing a never ending supply of shadowy corners in which any manner of unscrupulous behaviors could happen uninterrupted. They proved very convenient for a number of plot points, not least of which were a couple of fan-favorite sex scenes which Shang Qinghua did his best not to think about. They starred his best friend’s husband after all, or a version of him anyway, so that was just rude!

Normally a winding hallway that left his legs sore and his arms weary from clutching books and scrolls would have Shang Qinghua cursing himself for the stupidity of such a layout, but he’d long since come to enjoy using the nonsensical architecture as a way to give himself some breathing room. He was less likely to be complained about, stared at, or handed another tedious task when he was here and often a single incense’s worth of time was all he needed to right his mood, at least enough to not punt the first minor demon he came across.

Shang Qinghua muttered under his breath as he walked, seeking to untangle the day’s mess in his head before dealing with it in person. He failed to notice when he suddenly wasn’t alone anymore. Despite years of cultivation, and nerves that lived on the precipice of snapping from years of paranoia, he was still just a human, and this was a dimly lit hallway and he had a lot on his mind. Cut him some slack.

“Lord Shang Qinghua,” a cheery voice greeted him.

Shang Qinghua screamed.

Qu Shiying laughed, and stepped out from one of said plot corners. His whole body briefly appeared to be covered in an inky blackness that blended into the shadows, and faded away as he stepped into the light. He gave a bow. “This one extends his apologies to Lord Shang Qinghua. There was no intent to scare.”

AGAIN?! And why else would someone be skulking around in an empty hallway?! Might as well have yelled ‘boo!’ while he was at it!! A string of curse words flew through his mind.

The presence of another person suddenly makes the hallway feel more empty and the silence settles on them quickly. With a cough, Shang Qinghua regained what existed of his composure. 

But seriously, to meet this guy like this for the third time? Shang Qinghua resisted the urge to wave a hand above his head and check for a literal ‘halo’ of his own.

“Qu Shiying,” he offered curtly, taking little care to hide his grumpiness. Of anyone to meet, this would be the last person he’d want to come across today, excluding parties that explicitly wanted him or Mobei Jun dead. The upside to a morning of incessant headaches was the matter of outside courtship had been sidelined as a ‘later’ problem.

Later had caught up.

Although, this was his first time seeing Qu Shiying since his conversation with Shen Qingqiu, so Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but take a second go at sizing up this nearly forgotten creation of his. In truth, he’d never given that much thought to him while writing, just a disposable character whose only purpose was to sate readers who were angry he’d written too much back-to-back papapa and they wanted a fight. Apparently, Luo Binghe seemed too “soft”.

That’s not what his wives were saying...

Anyway, what resulted was the tiniest of subplots about a demoness using her abilities to get close to Luo Binghe, only to have her fiancé chase after her and challenge him. A fight that could barely be considered a scuffle ensued, and the fiancé, Qu Shiying, was easily killed. Shang Qinghua did recall having fun writing the fiancé’s sad attempts at intimidation at least. This one’s skin can be harder than diamond! Flesh unharmed by fire! Lungs unhampered by air! Yadda, yadda, yadda. Turns out his insides didn’t react fast enough to counter sheer muscular force. Qu Shiying wasn’t the series’ first ‘demon stick’.

Shang Qinghua almost felt bad, looking at him now. He hadn’t even given him enough care to design this appearance. The pale skin and unnaturally golden hair made for a surprisingly good combination alongside the colourful beadwork threaded through small braids that covered the crown of his head and joined the remaining long hair down his back. He had purple eyes, and matching lips. His outfit was made up mostly of shades of grey, but detailed patterns around the cuffs, collar, and hem gave the cheaper fabric a more posh appearance than it deserved. His overall slim body shape made him look more like what Shang Qinghua would’ve written for an elf from some western inspired fantasy than a demon, though his face did have an odd resemblance to Luo Binghe’s. Probably that layered smile, or just laziness on the System’s part filling in the blanks. All in all, however, not bad, even if he couldn’t take credit for it.

“Shizun?”

The term snapped Shang Qinghua back to attention.

“What...?”

“This one tried calling to you in a number of ways just now. You seemed lost in thought and this one only wished to rouse you, but perhaps he has found the title you most prefer?”

Shang Qinghua blushed despite himself. Shizun? Him? Ridiculous! Well, sort of. He was a peak lord for a long time. He did have disciples. So...technically? But hearing it said by a strange demon with questionable motives and all the context that now saturated his stallion-novel-turned-BL, sent an uncomfortable shiver down his spine. Absolutely not! And definitely not by this rando!

Tch, do I even look like a Shizun? And certainly not yours!” He retorted, trying to sound insulting by channeling a certain friend, but painfully aware he probably just sounded silly. Still, something struck him as odd here. “Why...would you even think to call me that in the first place?”

Qu Shiying’s head tilted slightly. “Are you not a Peak Lord of the human’s Cang Qiong Mountain? This one thought it appropriate taking into account your position.”

“That’s…” Shang Qinghua stalled. Frankly he wasn’t used to someone else casually dropping more knowledge than they should realistically have. Is this what he was doing to people all the time? It was kind of annoying! “How do you know that?” 

“This one knows a great many things. It wouldn’t be proper to court someone without doing them the respect of proper research. As someone famed for his knowledge, would this Shizun not agree? This one feels he has much to learn from him in that regard so the human term seemed appropriate.”

“L...Lord was fine.” Shang Qinghua corrected. Even giving Qu Shiying a title request at all felt wrong somehow. People were just supposed to know these things, not make him spell them out!

“This one understands.”

Do you?!

“Shang Qinghua deserves all appropriate levels of respect.”

Ugh, why did he have to keep getting such nice words from this guy of all people? Even his old disciples failed to slather it on this thick, and rarely did he get tittering ‘‘Shizun! Shizun!’. Was this part of his ongoing punishment as author? First beaten up by the person who would eventually love him, and now loved by the person he’d eventually have to beat up? Not that Qi Shiying actually loved him. This whole thing stank of something else. Still, the idea of beating him up was playing very nicely with his crabby mood. Well, someone beating him up.

Still, Shang Qinghua couldn’t help the gnawing in his brain.

“It’s not common for demon clans to pay much attention to human affairs. Is this some...ah...hobby you have, or does your whole clan make a habit of knowing those sorts of things? Is it part of your whole ‘adapt’ powers? It’s not just a physical thing, but cultural as well?” His curiosity won the best of him. Shang Qinghua didn’t put this many details into Qu Shiying’s demonic race, and very little information ever came from their side of the Demon Realm. If he had to be honest, it was unnerving knowing so little, both from the position of creator and advisor to Mobei Jun.

Qu Shiying looked pleased.

“This Lord would be correct.” He took steps forward, causing Shang Qinghua to automatically take matching steps backwards to maintain the distance. His back suddenly bumped against the stone wall— when did that get there?! —halting his retreat, and Qu Shiying closed the space between them easily. “Along with our abilities to alter and improve one’s body, it is very advantageous to be informed of the world outside the boundaries of our homeland. Strength is important to all races, but this one’s kin believes to change and learn is to survive. As is to keep knowledge of ourselves lessened to outsiders. Thus, Lord Shang Qinghua honors this one greatly by knowing so much about him.”

Shang Qinghua was becoming painfully aware how close they were. His personal space had officially been invaded! He could even feel heat coming off of Qu Shiying’s body. Unnaturally so. It contrasted with his appearance, which didn’t really strike him as one similar to fire demons.

“Why are you so hot?”

Qu Shiying’s eyes crinkled in glee.

That’s not what I meant!!

And how would Qu Shiying even know what it meant that he didn’t mean?! Slang was lost on the best of demons! Shang Qinghua had to stop himself from reading into things. And and! Qu Shiying was not even hot in that way he didn’t mean. All thin and stringy and creepy. It was actually a small blessing, really. Not that Shang Qinghua honestly believed anybody could be more attractive than his literal perfect man, Mobei Jun, but it would’ve made the situation a bit more complicated. Not in a tempted way, but like in a distracted way. He’s only human!

“Where this one comes from is much warmer than the North, so to acclimate to the cold, his body has become warm.”

Shang Qinghua raised an eyebrow. Was his authorial knowledge of evolution really this bad? “Shouldn’t your body get, you know...colder?”

“This one did say changes were intended to improve one’s body.”

What, like having a cold body was some kind of anti- improvement? When said like that, it was almost like…

Shang Qinghua felt a rush of anger on his King’s behalf.

“Tha !” His words sharpened to a squeak. Qu Shiying had suddenly leaned in, pressing his forearm against the wall next to Shang Qinghua’s head, all bluster caught in the shorter one’s throat.

“Lord Shang Qinghua, however, often seems cold. Perhaps this one could help warm him, as a show of his good faith and how well he could care for this Lord should he accept this one’s offer.”

Shang Qinghua had never hated being warm more in his life. In fact, nothing would be more perfect than for it to get colder. Much colder. Like right now!

...

...

Seriously?! For a world based on his writing, this is the exact moment his lover should show up and find him in a compromising situation and scare off the competition! Right? Who’s writing this garbage now?! Up your game, System!

Some part of him did worry about just how mad Mobei Jun would get. His King was, to put it mildly, a little prone to jealousy, and the optics here weren’t great. Though they’d been pretty happy together for the past few years, a part of Shang Qinghua didn’t think he’d ever fully lose his fear of repercussions. He also suspected that same hardwired survival instinct was why his body’s response right now was to just seize up.

Qu Shiying’s very warm hand was suddenly caressing the side of his face.

Optics be damned .

“My Ki mmf! ” That same hand clamped over his mouth, the force pushing Shang Qinghua firmly against the wall. The only thing bigger than the shock itself was the widening of his eyes in response to it.

Qu Shiying leaned his face in closer, his eyes still curved in amusement.

Was this guy ever not smiling?! Shang Qinghua felt a pit in his stomach.

“There's no need, Lord Shang Qinghua. This one admits he was a bit too forward just then.”

As if you're not being “too forward” just now?!

Shang Qinghua didn’t dare move, all too aware how quickly the actions of a demon could escalate. To suddenly find himself held against the wall with a hand covering his mouth was already ten steps way, way, way into dangerous territory. He held tightly to the scrolls in his arms like a tether to the world, his mind desperately wanting to be anywhere but here. His brain blared profanities and pleas to Gods he knew didn’t exist. He regretted not writing any.

Qu Shiying's eye contact was as unwavering as his grip, which was surprisingly strong for someone with his build. His pupils moved just slightly, as if searching in Shang Qinghua's eyes for something. For what, the human dared not even try to guess. The moment held far too long, until Shang Qinghua realized he wasn’t breathing. Or couldn’t breath. He couldn’t even tell anymore, and tears crept into the corners of his eyes from the deprivation.

My King…!

“Ah, this one apologizes.” Qu Shiying said as he moved his hand away, a thin line of saliva connecting them before he took two steps back. Shang Qinghua gasped for air, and harshly wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. He mustered whatever adrenaline wasn’t busy just sending tingles down his limbs to shoot his meanest, most affronted glare at that...that...

Qu Shiying was still looking at him, and without breaking eye contact, brought the hand that had seconds ago been on Shang Qinghua's mouth up to his own, and licked.

...PERVERT!

Shang Qinghua looked aghast.

Now, Shang Qinghua has seen some things. Many things. So many things, in this world. Not to mention the fact he wrote most of them into existence himself. But somehow this —some strange hallway-skulking demon licking his spit —crossed too many lines.

Gross! Yuck! What the hell?! Was that supposed to be hot?! Total failure! Zero out of ten!!

A little flirting was weird, more than a little confusing, and definitely very stupid when you were talking about the soon-to-be-husband of the great Mobei Jun, but this was getting way out of hand!

“Forgive this one. With our forum coming to an end, there is a certain amount of pressure to win this Lord’s affection. But this one does not wish any disrespect, nor wish to involve those who may misinterpret his intentions.”

Misinterpret? Shang Qinghua’s head spun. What’s there to misinterpret about saying he wants to “court” him, and then not wanting Mobei Jun to show up for the ass whopping he deserves? Come to think of it, isn’t it a demon thing that he should waltz right up to Mobei Jun and make his intentions clear? The rule breaking some of these side characters dared to flaunt in front of their creator was insulting. This is too OOC! System, where are you?!

“This one suggests a new proposal. If courting is not possible before his delegation must leave, then he shall withdraw his intent to pursue. This one knows when to admit defeat.” Qu Shiying's posture was calm, exuding an overall image of being very proud of himself. His hands were now clasped behind his back and he leaned forward just slightly as he spoke. The posture almost seemed playful, yet Shang Qinghua felt no less intensity than when he'd been pinned moments ago. “Though he hopes that Shang Qinghua will remember fondly his words for long to come.”

The dizzying combination of anger, embarrassment, and awe at the sheer audacity of this guy had left Shang Qinghua momentarily tongue-tied, and he could feel himself starting to shake with frustration. There was still a feeling of heat on his skin where Qu Shiying had touched him.

“Master Shang Qinghua,” a meek voice broke the tension, coming from further down the hall. Shang Qinghua answered the call with a quick head snap in its direction, desperate for the save. There couldn't possibly be any request worse than dealing with this!

As he eyed two short stature ice demons making their way towards them, it suddenly occurred to Shang Qinghua how foolish he was being. He's still standing mere steps away from a powerful—not anywhere near Mobei Jun levels of powerful, but still—demon who was clearly jonesing for him—for some reason—and he was stupid enough to turn his back?!

Rookie mistake!!

Scrolls still clutched firmly to his chest, Shang Qinghua spun back to face an empty hallway. Qu Shiying was gone, leaving behind only the nerve-shot cultivator and two pestering attendants.

-------------------------------------

The two attendants bore the brunt of Shang Qinghua’s frustration, which fortunately for them simply meant holding his scrolls and bearing witness to his current tirade. It was a raving, rambling mess that included every curse word they knew, and undoubtedly some that they didn’t, in languages only the strange human was known to utter. He pulled at his own hair, randomly stopped to stomp his foot, and repeatedly changed his walking pace, so much so that the two took to walking several paces behind him and just letting him go wherever his madness led.

Which, it seems, turned out to be the royal bed chambers. To the servant’s great relief, it was empty. Shang Qinghua was disappointed, but not surprised.

The attendants had been tasked with getting new clothing measurements for him. It took some convincing, but eventually he allowed it moving where he was told, raising his arms this way and that, and otherwise being a silent but obedient mannequin as different lengths of ribbon were used to mark off the various widths and heights of his body.

He tried asking them what it was for, but only received nervous confessions that they didn’t know, wouldn’t dare to ask, and were only doing as they were told.

Despite his less than charitable mood, Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but appreciate that Mobei Jun had chosen them specifically for the job. He wouldn’t have done well with the usual manhandlers who took his measurements with all the finesse of bears pawing through garbage. It didn’t help that Mobei Jun would usually be there, poorly hiding an amused smirk as he watched his human whine about it pitifully and fretting over what new ornate outfit he’d be forced to wear later.

Okay, maybe it did help a little.

Mobei Jun used to refuse anyone else measuring Shang Qinghua, but he’d since been forced to relent on the matter after Shang Qinghua was presented with robes entirely the wrong size, and even once sporting four sleeves and no place for his head.

As soon as the attendants left, Shang Qinghua slammed the door shut, and found satisfaction in the sound of the latch falling in place. Collapsing in front of his desk, he did the only thing a sane person would do after the morning he’s had.

He worked.

That’s what sane people would do, right?

Right.

Taxes. Tributes. Inventories. Scheduling. Anything to keep his mind from spiralling wildly, a very new kind of anxiety settling in his gut. Let the bumblers out there figure out their own shit for a while! Every curse word he knew from this world and the last flew through his head like a swarm of Corpse Vultures.

Shang Qinghua really didn’t like to think about his experience with “love” from his previous life, simply because, well, there hadn't been any. He didn't expect it'd come as much surprise to anyone who read his magnum opus of bromides and ill-advised physical parlays that he didn't have much practical know-how in that area.

Why couldn't Qu Shiying want to broker some new trade agreements? Or just try to take over the palace or something? Something easy. That at least Shang Qinghua had ample knowledge of, and a King who could solve those problems without breaking a sweat.

Shang Qinghua slammed his hands down on his desk. That's right, his King! Why shouldn't he bring this matter to him? Qu Shiying wasn't that big a deal. It wouldn't cause a war if he were to mysteriously vanish one day (though who was he kidding, it'd be anything but mysterious if Mobei Jun knew what was going on). The thought did bring a comforting clarity to his mind. Mobei Jun would be furious, wouldn't he, to find out someone was trying to take what was his?

What was his.

The very idea still brought butterflies to Shang Qinghua's stomach and despite the situation he couldn't help the unabashedly wide smile on his face that barely quelled a giggle. He'd gone from thinking nobody could ever want to befriend him, to suddenly being in a relationship with the perfect specimen that was Mobei Jun, and now even another demon sought to seduce him away.

It was almost like being a main character for a change!

Shang Qinghua slapped his own cheeks like a wake-up call, cementing his resolve. It was late afternoon by the time he left his room, after a few cautious glances. This whole thing felt unnervingly similar to watching out for assassins, though honestly he'd gladly take one of them instead.

The palace was like any other day but on overdrive, no shortage of servants seeking his input or sparing him a judgmental glance as he hurried past, but he had no time for them. No, sir, he had one goal and one goal only—to find his King and have this matter sorted!

Better informed of his King's schedule than anyone else—he wrote it after all—Shang Qinghua didn't hesitate to push open the large doors of the council hall, knowing full well that no meeting was happening right now and that Mobei Jun would be here gathering himself before work resumed.

“My King, I—!”

He froze.

Qu Shiying was there.

He was standing next to Mobei Jun who was seated in his chair at the end of the long table. In front of them, spread across the dark marble, was an assortment of maps and papers, with Qu Shiying leaning down to splay long fingertips across them. He was speaking to Mobei Jun, about what Shang Qinghua couldn't hear. Or at least didn't care to.

His appearance in the room brought a sudden silence. Mobei Jun lifted his gaze to meet him.

...

...

“What is it?” Mobei Jun asked with some impatience.

Why is he here?! Shang Qinghua wept internally.

“Lord Shang Qinghua, this one was providing further information about the matters we discussed this morning. If his Majesty's betrothed requires his attention, then...” Qu Shiying trailed off, passing a smile over to Shang Qinghua. His other hand came to rest on the back of Mobei Jun's chair.

His hand.

On the back.

Of Mobei Jun's chair.

Who the hell does this guy think he is?!

“Shang Qinghua, what is it?” Mobei Jun asked, a hint of concern in his voice. Or impatience. Shang Qinghua’s King gauge felt all foggy. Mobei Jun looked ready to stand up.

“Uh, I...that is, ah...m-my King...” He started, mind reeling with where to even begin.

Qu Shiying continued to smile at him. Shang Qinghua felt his heart suddenly beat rapidly in his chest and his gaze dropped to the floor like a stone.

Say it!

Just say it!!

That guy's a pervert and he's trying to--!

Trying to....

What? Steal him away?

From Mobei Jun?

Shang Qinghua felt his confidence melt away. Now in the presence of both his King and the “pervert”, the whole situation felt silly. Embarrassment overcame him and he could feel his face flush under the pressure of their stares. This whole thing would sound so dumb to say out loud. To his perfect, beautiful, muscular, powerful King. To tell him that some two-bit demon from some backwater alcove was going to win his lover’s hand? It wasn't like Qu Shiying had actually tried to force himself, per say, or physically steal Shang Qinghua away. He was just flirting.

Okay, flirting a little aggressively, but still.

Was Shang Qinghua so pathetic he had to come crying to Mobei Jun just for this? He was a grown man! He could handle the workload of an entire peak and the incessant demands of palace politics, but be felled by one person's advances? Really it said a lot worse about Shang Qinghua than it did of Qu Shiying…didn’t it? After all, he hadn’t really outright told Qu Shiying it was never going to happen and to back off...did he?

Suddenly Shang Qinghua felt like he was the one who had to save face.

Qu Shiying's expression continued to taunt him. His crescent eyes felt like they were boring right into his soul, like he knew exactly what was going through his head. Like he’d anticipated this whole thing happening. Why else would he have come here? Why was he alone with Mobei Jun so casually?

And why did Shang Qinghua suddenly find himself feeling strangely betrayed by that fact?

“It's...it's...ah...”

...

“It's nothing, my King. It can wait.”

He thanked the System that Mobei Jun didn't press the issue as Shang Qinghua excused himself and hurried from the room.

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua was laying face down on the bed when Mobei finally came to their room that night—his hair still tied up, his body fully dressed, and his boots still on. His King was late again , something not uncommon but still woefully ill-timed tonight of all nights.

Shang Qinghua was not upset about it.

The sound of Mobei Jun removing his heavy cloak, and maneuvering his way through the mess of paper and ink supplies left to spill on the floor, was not enough to stir a reaction from the lump on the bed. Not even when Mobei Jun sat down next to him.

The air above his back felt cold, as if Mobei Jun’s hand hovered there, preparing to jostle him awake, but a few moments passed and no contact came.

Still Shang Qinghua didn’t move, even when he felt the weight beside him eventually leave.

Then minutes passed in silence.

And now it was getting awkward.

“My King…” His voice was muffled into the blankets. “In theory...just thinking out loud, really...nothing you have to answer...but just say...if someone was trying to—”

The sound of rustling papers reached his ears, and Shang Qinghua turned his head to look.

Mobei Jun was standing next to Shang Qinghua’s desk with his back to him. In his hands was a small stack of loose sheets, the ink still damp.

Shang Qinghua leapt from the bed like it had been doused in liquid fire. Half-tripping over the blanket, he collapsed against Mobei Jun’s back, gripping his robes to catch himself.

“My King, you don’t want to read those!” Shang Qinghua sputtered. “T-they’re not finished and really nothing you need to concern yourself with!” He stretched out a hand to snatch them away.

Mobei Jun simply lifted them higher than Shang Qinghua could reach, leaving his consort to flail.

“Ahhhh...it’s really nothing of interest, my King!” Shang Qinghua pleaded. Why did he have to make demons so tall?!

Mobei Jun stared down at him, wordlessly. Then, with a slowness that aired on the side of cruel, turned to continue reading.

Shang Qinghua’s mouth hung open in shock.

Tall and mean!!

Normally he didn’t care if Mobei Jun read his writing. Or tried to, anyway. Though Shang Qinghua had begun his new life in this world from infancy, he maintained most memories of his old one. That included language, which had always been both a boon and a curse. While speaking in a mish-mash of modern Chinese and English had in the past resulted in him being accused of demonic possession or too many hits to the head, more often than not he brazenly took advantage of the fact he could say whatever he wished without being understood. It was especially useful when his mouth had a tendency to move before his brain gave it permission.

Let’s just say he’s muttered some things in the face of his old Peak Lords, and even Mobei Jun, that probably would’ve meant the end of his days if the same sentiments had slipped out in either of this world’s main dialects.

Writing was much the same. While any notes pertaining to his An Ding Peak responsibilities or Mobei Jun’s affairs were written in a way that presumed someone other than him might actually lift a damn finger and read them someday, his personal writing was usually an indecipherable mix of languages, shorthand, slang, and memes. Well, indecipherable to anyone but Shang Qinghua of course.

And Shen Qingqiu. Sometimes.

When he’d come back to their room earlier that evening, his mind had been a mess. He tried to work and, well, it didn’t work. Why was it suddenly so hard to talk to Mobei Jun? And about a complaint no less. Shang Qinghua loved to complain! He was really, really good at it, too! And there was no one he liked to complain to more than Mobei Jun.

At least it turns out that a heart in turmoil was an excellent motivator for fiction.

Not just any fiction, either. Melodramatic, get-a-hanky-ready, angsty romance kind of fiction. The sort of thing that Shang Qinghua had only dabbled in during his past life based on regurgitating what’d he’d seen in dramas and movies. Lingering too much on those things in his web novels just got him lambasted by his readers for the attempt.

Well, sorry if some people don’t think papapa is a magical cure-all for everyone’s problems!

...so what if he wrote it that way?

Now—and clearly with no obvious cause—mushier stories seemed to come to him a bit more naturally, and today, as a wonderful, thank-you-brain bonus, written entirely in one language that Mobei Jun could understand. He’d read his work out loud to Mobei Jun before, and even given him some finished drafts of specific chapters to read, but this...this was just…

He really didn’t want Mobei Jun to read this stuff, okay?!

Shang Qinghua buried his face into Mobei Jun’s side, waiting, while his king read in silence.

That is, until Shang Qinghua realized his hands were sticky. And wet. And a little smelly. He looked down where his fingers were still clenched around a part of Mobei Jun’s robe, and only then saw the blood that soaked the entire side of it.

“M-M-My King!! Shit! Your bleed—your blood—your...ah…ah?!” He panicked, pulling his hands away with an unpleasant squelch. The offending fluid, though already starting to congeal, was still fresh and thick.

Mobei Jun looked down at him. “It’s not mine.”

Shang Qinghua stared back incredulously. “I...I see… Not yours...well...that’s good…”

He paused.

“Well then WHY are you just standing there wearing clothes covered in blood?! Now my hands are covered in it and I have no idea whose this is, or where it’s from, or why it’s on you for that matter! What if it’s poison or toxic or stains me r— eh?!

Shang Qinghua was abruptly hoisted up by the back of his robe, and unceremoniously dragged across the room.

“W-wait!” Shang Qinghua stammered as he struggled to find a way to steady himself without plastering messy handprints everywhere.

It was a short-lived experience as Mobei Jun deposited Shang Qinghua back onto the bed with an effortless toss. He landed on his butt with a graceful ‘oof!’.

Mobei Jun stood in front of him, pulling off his robes with his usual far-too-sexy-to-be-by-accident nonchalance. He let the dirty clothing fall to the ground with the same apathy. Wearing only a thin pair of pants and exposing all the rest of himself to be seen, he got onto the bed as well.

Before Shang Qinghua could gather his wits after the quick throw and (strip) show, those same strong arms wrapped around his waist and pulled him in so he was seated between Mobei Jun’s legs, his back to the others’ chest.

“Uh...My King…?” He asked cautiously. Mobei Jun’s arms stayed around his middle as his chin came to rest on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder. 

And then that awkward silence came back.

Shang Qinghua laughed nervously, holding his hands palm up in front of himself. “Before we, ah, talk...or...whatever it is you want to do...could I maybe...wash myself first? It’s just that I know way too much about way too many things that bleed to feel okay with having my hands covered in it. I really don’t want to get sick and die. Not to say you would knowingly bring poison to the bedroom, my King. I know demons aren’t all known for being the—”

“I will clean you.”

“You will?” Shang Qinghua squeaked. For some reason. It’s not like Mobei Jun hasn’t helped him wash plenty of times before, and usually with far fewer clothes than this.

Mobei Jun reached over to the table next to their bed and grabbed a small cloth from the bowl of their evening’s washing water. Wrapping one hand around Shang Qinghua’s wrist, he began gently wiping away the blood from his hand with the other.

“My King, you don’t need to... ” Shang Qinghua started before the sensation lulled him to silence.

Slowly and tenderly Mobei Jun wiped each individual finger on Shang Qinghua’s hand, leaving no inch of skin without caress. Those strong clawed fingers paying such delicate care to each his own, when they could just as easily snap them from his clammy palms without an ounce of effort.  It tickled a little, but that’s not the sensation that sent a shiver down his spine. Watching as Mobei Jun lingered on each finger, pinching them lightly between his own, smoothing the cloth up and down every surface, like he was mapping every knuckle, every crease, every tip, before massaging soothing circles around his palm.

One hand was cleaned three times over before Mobei Jun finally spoke.

“She was upset.”

“What, my King?” Shang Qinghua answered through a daze. He had melted back against Mobei Jun, his whole body relaxed to a state of mush.

Mobei Jun moved his attention to Shang Qinghua’s other hand.

“The human in your story.”

Oh, right.

Shang Qinghua let out some noise indistinguishable from a moan or a groan, slouched comfortably in Mobei Jun’s arms, but not wanting to dissect his recent catharsis.

"Well, yeah...she was upset. It was an upset kind of situation. Anybody would be upset.”

“She was crying.”

“Ah...was she?” Shang Qinghua played dumb. Of course she was crying. What do you think ‘upset’ means? She was crying during the whole thing. It was a goddamn waterpark! Page after page of sappy angst and misunderstandings of a woman being harrassed by some stranger and longing for her lover…

Shang Qinghua would bury his face in his hands if Mobei Jun wasn’t still giving a very lovely impromptu massage to one of them.

All things considered, it wasn’t the worst thing he could’ve written as a pathetic attempt to compartmentalize his own issues. At least nobody would be able to make any connections to them, since he made the main character a secretary and her lover a powerful CEO who had inherited his Father’s business from a scheming uncle only to find herself at the mercy of some stranger during a company retreat. Complete anonymity!!

Plus he saw Mobei Jun everyday. How could he be “longing” for him all of a sudden? It’s not like there’s some weird tension between them that he created or anything.

Not that Mobei Jun would notice.

He probably overreacted to Mobei Jun reading it.

Mobei Jun has many, many skills, but reading comprehension wasn’t one of them. Or comprehension in general, sometimes. Mobei Jun wasn’t...not smart, he just doesn’t usually have patience for overly complicated thoughts, that’s all! It was both an endearing trait and probably why Shang Qinghua remained so gainfully ensla— employed for so many years.

“She found her mate’s proposal poor. It would not have been unwise to consider the others’ offer.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Shang Qinghua replied automatically. “Wait, wh— ouch!

Mobei Jun’s hand stilled, feeling Shang Qinghua flinch after he’d pressed too hard, one of his claws having cut through the fabric. He finished one last stroke, and tossed the cloth away.

“That’s not how any of that works, my King. She doesn’t even like the other guy!” Shang Qinghua protested, rubbing at his own hand. How had such an obvious part of the plot been missed? Did his King just skip around? Why even bother with all that flowery exposition and the flashback to the main couple’s first meeting? Wasn’t it romantic? Weren’t they the obvious couple?! So what if the other guy was richer? He was a dick! Shang Qinghua was almost offended.

Mobei Jun was silent. There was a certain weight in the air whenever he was giving something extra consideration.

The finger fondling should’ve been an indication it was a ‘patience’ kind of night. Come to think of it, a lot of recent nights have felt that way. Quiet and almost docile. Maybe all the meetings were wearing Mobei Jun down, too. His king had been sitting through a lot more of them than Shang Qinghua had expected him to tolerate.

“Humans care a great deal about such things.”

“Huh? Of course they do. I should think it obvious, my King.”

Demons might think it’s all about the stronger mate and who makes the better offer, but humans tend to favor things a bit more deeply than that, thank you very much! Actually liking somebody really shouldn’t be that high a bar! Though in real life, he supposed you couldn’t entirely blame a person marrying for money or power... Sometimes it was worth it! Not that Shang Qinghua was marrying Mobei Jun for money and power. Gosh, he really was marrying Mobei Jun someday though, wasn’t he?

Shang Qinghua suddenly felt himself shoved forward. Not enough to launch him from the bed, but a less than friendly indication he should move.

“Undress.”

Wow, rude.

He looked down at his still boot-covered feet.

But fair.

Shang Qinghua slid off the bed and did as he was told. Boots first. Hair ornament second. Then he undid his robes and stripped down to his thinnest inner layer. The room was chilly as ever, even if Mobei Jun did keep it at a temperature that could be considered a compromise. He quickly climbed back onto the bed to escape the cold stone floor nipping at his toes.

Mobei Jun seemed to be in a fair mood tonight, if not a little pensive. He didn’t make any big deal about the story, helped clean him up, and was already undressed and waiting in bed…

Shang Qinghua felt Mobei Jun’s eyes on him as he crawled closer, and couldn’t help but reflexively looked away, blushing a bit under the stare.

“My King, seeing as how we’re both already here...” Shang Qinghua trailed off, mustering years of practiced confidence to rest his hands on Mobei Jun’s shoulders. He was kneeling at a height that brought their faces close together. He leaned in slowly, his eyes hooded, his lips parting, and—

“No.”

Pardon?

“Uh...my King?” Shang Qinghua said with a weak smile, leaning himself back as his fingers stayed resting on the other’s cool skin. Maybe he didn’t hear him right. He scooted his legs a little closer.

Mobei Jun made eye contact. His expression was stern, and not the smoldery kind.

“No.” He repeated.

No? No?! When and why ever no?! This is the part where you start ravishing me so all I need to think about is how uncomfortable sitting in a chair will be tomorrow!!

“Am I just supposed to have sex with someone else then?” Shang Qinghua muttered in the wake of his mounting humiliation. Not his wisest move, he realized too late.

Mobei Jun growled. “No one else would dare. ” The temperature of the air around them swiftly dropped several degrees.

“Y-yeah? Well—what if someone did dare?!” Shang Qinghua retorted, rising to a challenge that wasn’t his to meet.

Mobei Jun stared back at him, holding it a second too long to be comfortable before replying, his eyes narrowed dangerously. “Then I would tear the flesh from their worthless bones and lay waste to the very land that spawned someone foolish enough to think they can take something from this Mobei Jun.”

That...was a lot of words. By Mobei Jun standards anyway.

Shang Qinghua tried to keep a stern expression in response to them, but felt himself crumbling under the magnitude of those piercing blue eyes. He looked away as he finally pulled his hands back from Mobei Jun’s shoulders. He felt too many things at once—tension because this feels half-way to an argument over something, embarrassed because wow, possessiveness was hot coming from Mobei Jun, and shame, because he had this stupid ‘secret’ that really never needed to go on as long as it did and was venting out in the worst possible ways.

Still, despite it all, he really didn’t want a whole species wiped out over him, and didn’t have a single doubt in his mind that Mobei Jun meant every word and could absolutely back them up.

The chilling feeling of a hand touching his face drew his gaze back. Mobei Jun was still looking at him, but it was different now. Less mad. Softer. Maybe...sad? No, he definitely wouldn’t be sad. That’d be crazy and way too OOC. This scene definitely didn’t warrant a sad face either!

Mobei Jun’s hand caressed his cheek, fingers sliding up into his hair. It felt so nice, Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but lean himself into the sensation of those demonic nails trailing on his tender scalp. Maybe tonight could be salvaged after all...

Until those clawed fingers clenched.

Mobei Jun gripped a hold of Shang Qinghua’s head, his hands broad enough to encompass it with an ease to hold and the strength to crush. Shang Qinghua’s eyes widened and a squeak escaped him.

“M-my King, I didn’t mean anything by it! This servant was just thinking out loud in his frustration and would never even entertain the possibility of— mmf! ” He grovelled, before his face was abruptly shoved down hard onto the bed.

Shang Qinghua’s cry of protest was smothered by the impact. All further protests were smothered by the fact Mobei Jun didn’t let go, firmly holding him in place as he maneuvered himself into sleeping position next to him, leaving Shang Qinghua to slap futilely at his immovable arm. Only once satisfied with his own comfort did Mobei Jun finally let Shang Qinghua go, who wrenched his head up with a gasp for air.

“What is wrong with you tonight?!” Shang Qinghua cried, pushing himself up on his arms. He was legit mad! What the heck?! First Mobei Jun gets him all relaxed, and then suddenly it’s ‘no sex’ and ‘hey, eat mattress’?! Well maybe Mobei Jun should eat shit!!

“Go to sleep.”

Shang Qinghua sucked in a breath.

He was gonna…!

He was gonna…!!

...pull a blanket over himself with needlessly dramatic flair and a loud huff! Shang Qinghua fumed beneath it, his face flush red with anger and embarrassment. Not that he was facing Mobei Jun to show it off.

“Will you at least tell me where the blood came from?”

“No.”

The room felt colder than usual the rest of the night.

 

-------------------------------------

 

The next morning, Shang Qinghua refused to get out of bed. He stayed cocooned in his blankets, holding them shut even when his King attempted to pull them off. Eventually after some babbling about not feeling well and everyone needing too much and all the meetings being pointless and his tummy hurting, Mobei Jun gave up.

Before he left the room, Mobei Jun said he didn’t need to attend the meetings today if he wasn’t feeling well. It didn’t make Shang Qinghua feel any less weird about last night, but he was sure as hell going to take him up on the offer.

Why did you have to try and be nice to me today, my King…?

He wanted one less moment of guilt. One less moment to look his King in the eye and not say what he really wanted to say. The longer he kept it a secret, the worse the situation seemed, and now he felt he’d stuck himself between a rock and an icy place. Who knew who Mobei Jun would be more angry with at this point. Not that Shang Qinghua doubted who would be torn to shreds over it, but still.

Mobei Jun didn’t know. He couldn’t know, but things were already apparently so weird between them that now they weren’t even having sex, and Shang Qinghua couldn’t figure out why!

He screamed into his pillow, the sound of his legs frantically kicking the firm bed reverberating in the empty room. His private tantrum went on for some time.

There were only two days left of the Demonic Alliance Conference.

With his newfound “free time”, Shang Qinghua discovered that laying in bed was leaving him too much time with his own thoughts, and he and his thoughts weren’t on great terms right now. Dressing himself in less formal robes than he’d been wearing in recent days, and only bothering to tie up his hair with a simple green ribbon, he left his room.

Shang Qinghua could hear the distant shouts of demonic diplomacy in the great hall, and made a point to go in the opposite direction. It sounded like another day of bloodshed over who killed what Thornback Rock Worm in whose territory. He was grateful his presence wasn’t required and well aware it was a poor idea to go even if it were. He opted to go somewhere where the palace’s guests and attendants would be out of his hair for a while.

Today also gave him the opportunity to choose one of many projects marked with the calendar date of 'whenever the hell there was time'. For that, he picked the ongoing job of reorganizing the palace's library, which is where he found himself now.

The stack of books he was carrying was dropped to the table with a satisfying thud that echoed off the room's tall ceilings. Rarely did anyone come in here, which made it both a sanctuary for Shang Qinghua and also a mystery how it managed to keep getting so disorganized. Sometimes he honestly believed demons were coming in here and messing things up just to inconvenience him. Despite the modicum of respect gained from being Mobei Jun's consort, it was probably true.

Shang Qinghua opened one of the books and breathed in deep. Ahh, nothing like the musty smell of an old book. He hadn’t really appreciated it in his previous life. The smell of his overheating computer never evoked the same feeling. He ran his fingers over the open page, skimming the contents until he was pleased with what he found, and reached to grab another. This process went on for some time, pulling stacks of books and scrolls from one place, looking them over, choosing the proper spot for them to go, rinse and repeat. It was tedious. It was repetitive. It was quiet. It was wonderful. He was able to let his mind focus and his hands work as hours passed.

Trying to look at this whole Qu Shiying issue as a soon-to-be-distant memory, Shang Qinghua realized it might actually make a good plot point for his next novel, when he finally had time to write a real one and not just blow off some steam. He’d never really dabbled in NTR—who could steal from Luo Binghe?!—but knew it had quite a following. Not that there was any actual cheating here , obviously, but inspiration is inspiration. Would demons be into that, he wondered. It seemed like something demons would be into, as long as it wasn’t their property being taken anyway.

Property.

Thinking of himself in that way with Mobei Jun...it gave him the shivers. The good kind. The very good kind. The literal kind in fact.

“Are you cold, my Lord?”

Shang Qinghua almost died on the spot when he looked up.

There in the doorway of the library was Qu Shiying, like the very thought of him summoned the demon from the depths of hell and placed him here just to ruin an almost miraculously problem-free day.

How did this guy keep finding him?!

And why did he look so...nice? Something was different about the demon today.

Qu Shiying invited himself inside as the heavy doors to the library closed with a firm thud behind him. He didn’t look any different from yesterday. Not really. Not in a way Shang Qinghua could logically identify, but there was… It was just something.

The cultivator was not interested in finding out. He slammed shut the book he’d moments ago been pleasantly immersed in and went to move past Qu Shiying. His nerves were steeled. His mind was focused. He was going to walk right past him. No words. No contact. Shang Qinghua was a cool, in control man who would take no shit today!

As soon as he went to pass by, Qu Shiying grabbed a hold of his upper arm.

Shit! Shit!! Shit!!!

Against all better judgement, Shang Qinghua turned to look at him.

Was Qu Shiying this tall yesterday...? He feels taller. And broader. Maybe? His face seems sharper too, like his jaw was more defined. And he smelled nice. Like, really nice. Like fur, and spice, and cold…

Those fingers, gentle but firm, wrapped around his arm tighter. Shang Qinghua could feel his pulse quickening beneath the grip.

“Is my Lord sure he wishes to leave so soon?” Qu Shiying asked. Even his voice sounded lower. He leaned in to look at Shang Qinghua’s face more closely. Too closely. Shang Qinghua felt his heart race and knew he was blushing furiously.

What the hell?!

“I...ah…” Shang Qinghua looked away and shook his head like a dog trying to cast off water. Bad thoughts out!! He pulled his arm free, taking a step back. Qu Shiying let him go without any resistance.

You have to stop.” He suddenly pointed at Qu Shiying accusingly. “You can’t ‘court’ me. I’m not interested. Not into you. Spoken for. Happy here. Going to get married. Happily ever after, probably . So stop... this! ” Shang Qinghua gestured wildly, at nothing in particular.

Qu Shiying smiled, his hands behind his own back. If he had a tail, Shang Qinghua was sure he’d see it swaying, like a contented cat.

Shang Qinghua didn’t want to think about what that made him in this scenario.

“This one admits he has not done an admirable job of courting. There have been...obstacles.” Qu Shiying’s gaze looked to the floor for a moment, uncharastically breaking eye contact. One of his hands came up to trace two fingers lazily over an exposed part of his own neck.

Were those...bruises? 

For a moment, Qu Shiying wasn’t smiling. And it wasn’t sadness that replaced his usual simper.

Shang Qinghua had to leave.

Now.

So he went to move past again.

Not that he made it any farther.

Finally the System played its cliche-card, an errant scroll having unfurled its way across the floor right in the path of the cultivator’s ill-timed boot. He slipped on the loose parchment, and in an attempt to right his balance, caught his other foot on the base of his (now officially least favorite) robe, tripping himself. His hands and knees made hard contact with the stone floor.

Neither impact hit as hard as the blow to his pride.

Yes, Shang Qinghua has pride! And it hurts really, really bad right now, okay?! He was supposed to be ‘cool guy’ today!

Stupid, System! Stupid plot contrivances!! Stupid scrolls!!!

He turned over so he was seated on his ass instead. His mind prioritized seeing what Qu Shiying was doing. Purely for self-preservation reasons! Keep your eye on the enemy! The weirdly sexy enemy walking towards you like you’re prey to be devoured.

Wait, what? Sexy?!

Where was the sly, stringy creepy version of Qu Shiying? Objectively still there. Definitely still creepy. And he didn’t really look that dissimilar from yesterday and yet...

The System had long since gone quiet for Shang Qinghua after he cancelled the return home prompt a hundred times—no more quests, no more points, no more poorly timed interruptions—but that didn’t stop what felt like literal alarm bells blaring in his head.

Qu Shiying leaned over him with a hand extended to help him up. Or so that guy thought, not that Shang Qinghua was going to touch that hand. Absolutely not!

Taking the hint quickly, Qu Shiying instead kneeled down until he was on the floor as well. One of his hands came to rest on a piece of Shang Qinghua’s robe, pining it in place. His upper half leaned in the space above Shang Qinghua’s legs. Between Shang Qinghua’s legs.

Danger! Danger!!

And that’s when he remembered.

Shang Qinghua’s mind flashed back to himself furiously typing notes on his phone after leaving the movie theatre, then pouring over an open word document on his computer, and scrolling mindlessly through forum posts. How could he forget the most important plot relevant thing about this species?!

As part of their ability to adapt, if these demons ingested the bodily fluids of another creature, they would become irresistibly attractive to them. Their body would physically change in subtle ways, but most importantly they would secrete a powerful pheromone that was custom made, down to the very essence of their being to appeal to the person whose whatever they had swallowed. It was a demonically powerful aphrodisiac administered in custom wrapping.

It was a pretty clever plot point, actually. What was more important in a stallion novel than being completely irresistible to the lead character so you could become one of his many, many wives and bear his one of his many, many babies? If he wasn’t currently at the receiving end of it, Shang Qinghua would definitely be patting himself on the back.

Unfortunately he was at the receiving end of it, and it was not good. Shang Qinghua isn’t the kind of character likely to find himself in “sex pollen”-esque situations, but his original story had long since been remixed beyond recogntion. Yet again he was getting a glimpse of what it was like to be a main character, and here in a situation originally designed for Luo Binghe of all people! Granted it was supposed to be a demoness and not this guy but still.

“D-don’t come any closer!” Shang Qinghua stammered, trying to shuffle back as if it made any difference. That smell and feeling of heat still emanating off Qu Shiying was doing obscenely quick work on Shang Qinghua’s body. Understanding what was happening and why didn’t make it any easier to fight against.

Shang Qinghua then realized to his further embarrassment that it wasn’t actually heat from Qu Shiying’s body he was feeling this time. It was his own. He felt hot. Really hot. And Qu Shiying, well, today he felt cool. Really cool.

“Lord Shang Qinghua…”

Even that voice! Why was it deeper?! Totally unfair!

“Y...you can’t do this! I did not make you like this! You’re just some two-bit, half-rate canon fodder character who's supposed to show up and die just to get a bunch of internet trolls off my back for five freakin’ seconds based on a wasted character in a movie that I’ll never get to see the sequel to!! And don’t you have a fiancée?! You were meant to be some whining man-child chasing on some girl’s heels to stop Luo Binghe from adding her to his collection and here you are going after someone else’s guy—oh god, everyone here is gay or a raging bisexual now aren’t they?!—and now I have to—what are you doing?!”

Shang Qinghua had his eyes clenched shut as he rambled, opening only at the sensation of two hands cradling his face.

“My lord seems anxious,” Qu Shiying spoke softly. “Does he fear this one would do him harm?” His touch felt cool, bringing a wonderful but entirely unwelcome relief to Shang Qinghua’s fire-red cheeks.

Damn it, Mobei Jun. Shang Qinghua was never this quick to horniness before he met him. Sure this slinky demon might be using his natural magic musk to look and smell like the walking embodiment of sex but Shang Qinghua knew it wasn’t real. He knew he wasn’t attracted to him. In fact, he feels fairly confident that if Mobei Jun hadn’t made his body so damn thirsty for his icy ass, that some two-timing spit licker wouldn’t have been able to just appear here and get him all riled up!

And what was with all the “my lord” stuff all of sudden?!

Now he understood the context of that line of dialog his friend hated so much. Shang Qinghua wrote Luo Binghe to be more suave in action than in words, but to tell a woman who used a trick to look more attractive, as if she couldn’t seduce him otherwise, that everyone was beautiful as long as he was who-knows-how-many inches deep in their **** was pretty smooth, right?

Focus, Shang Qinghua! Focus!!

A sensation on his lips brought everything crashing back to reality.

Shang Qinghua’s eyes dilated as they locked onto the demon who held his face in his hands, and his lips on his own. The kiss was soft and cold, but he could feel a hunger behind it. It might be his own. He hates this. He hates this!! Why isn’t he immediately slapping this fool off of him?!

He whimpered into the kiss.

My King!!

Qu Shiying leaned into him further. Shang Qinghua was still seated on the ground, his upper body propped up and supported on his arms. His legs were bent up and parted, creating a space that Qu Shiying seemed keen to slide further into.

Shang Qinghua grabbed onto one of the demon’s wrists, but unexpectedly found he couldn’t hold his balance with just one arm. His other arm buckled at the elbow. Qu Shiying followed the momentum, keeping his knees on the ground between Shang Qinghua’s legs with the rest of him bent over the other’s body. The demon somehow hadn’t relented on his lips for a moment, his hands still firm around the other’s jaw, guiding him where he wanted him flat against the floor.

The kiss was a different kind of aggressive than Mobei Jun’s. Less biting and a lot more sucking, like he was trying to pull Shang Qinghua’s very essence out of him. Shang Qinghua couldn’t even tell at what point he opened his mouth to let the other inside, but hoped it was the surprise of the fall and not something more willing. He could feel Qu Shiying’s tongue, pressing and exploring, running over his teeth and almost pushing his own tongue aside when he didn’t reciprocate its motions. Tears stung the corner of his eyes.

Finally Shang Qinghua managed to tear his head away. He gasped for air, his chest heaving for relief, saliva dripping from his mouth.

“Get...ah...get off…” he managed, wishing he sounded more convincing. Qu Shiying’s hands slid down his neckline, coming to rest on his shoulders. The full weight of his upper body now rested on Shang Qinghua. The force wasn’t overwhelming, letting his mass alone do the work, but as with most demons, his appearance likely didn’t do justice to the actual strength of his arms if he really wanted to hold him down.

“This one is happy to serve my Lord however he requires. Whatever he desires ,” Qu Shiying crooned, massaging the palms of his hands over Shang Qinghua’s collarbone. “This one’s race adapts to all things, in all ways. No one’s body can service my Lord better now that it’s attuned to his.” One of Qu Shiying’s knees shifted and Shang Qinghua’s breath hitched.

Shang Qinghua was getting hard. There was no way he wasn’t. Through no touch, he felt it and he’d never been so upset at his own body. Who cares if it falls broken from a single hit or tires from weak magic, he could stomach that and move on—they were weaknesses he was used to—but not this. At least not for anybody but Mobei Jun.

Qu Shiying moved with the confidence of someone sure he was one stroke away from victory. Aiming to prove this point, one of his knees pressed up between Shang Qinghua’s legs, confirming what both of them already knew when it lightly pushed against the firming shape. 

Tch! S-stop!” Shang Qinghua gasped, biting his lower lip as the knee actually began to grind against him. It sent jolts through his body, a barrage of sensation that started and ended in the same place. It felt like he was a pool of heat, one that his mind flailed in while his body desperately wished to drown.

Shang Qinghua bit down so hard he felt the skin of his lip break. Blood followed the trickle of saliva down his chin. The metallic taste was a jolt to his senses, offering a brief moment of clarity from the haze.

He took it.

Shang Qinghua fumbled a hand over the cold stone floor until his fingers grazed the top of a metal-capped scroll. He grabbed it and he swung.

It made hard contact with the side of Qu Shiying’s face.

Qu Shiying was caught off guard, if evident by the lack of defending himself. He pulled back from Shang Qinghua as he clutched his own head with a hiss.

Shang Qinghua dared not look at him again, instead turning over and scrambling to his feet towards the library entrance. He flung the weighted doors open, finding them inexplicably lighter than he ever had before, and stumbled out into the hall.

“M…” He tried to speak while running, but his begging lungs stole the breath from his words. He felt dizzy, making his way by muscle memory in the direction of his bed chambers. Towards somewhere safe. Towards…

Mobei Jun.

A familiar, desperately comforting chill cradled his senses as he saw him, his King, standing in the hallway up ahead. He was talking to someone, the identity of whom couldn’t possibly have been less important to Shang Qinghua at that moment.

Mobei Jun turned to face him as if sensing his approach. Realistically, it was a wonder he hadn’t been running to meet him. He could only imagine how he must smell right now.

“Shang Qinghua...?” Mobei Jun opened his arms in time to catch the small human who collided into his larger body without a single effort made to slow down.

“Haa— ah— my...my King...” Shang Qinghua pleaded, clinging desperately to his robes. His cheeks were flush and wet, and his hair at some point had come loose, hanging messily around his shoulders.

Mobei Jun’s face darkened. Without question, he wrapped his cloak around Shang Qinghua and picked him up, cradling him close to his chest on one arm. His other hand rested on the back of his head, which had been immediately buried into Mobei Jun’s neck.

“Later.” Mobei Jun growled, deep and threatening, at the figure next to him who was dumb enough to consider speaking more. He cut the air with a mere thought, his power unmatched in his own home, as he opened a shadowy portal to carry himself and Shang Qinghua the remaining distance to their chambers.

Mobei Jun quickly moved to bed, laying Shang Qinghua down onto the blankets and furs. Shang Qinghua refused to let go, his arms now tight around Mobei Jun’s neck. He released only after his forearms were gripped in those cold, clawed hands and extracted. The demon's eyes flashed a threatening blue as he stared down at him.

“Shang Qinghua!” His hand gripped the man’s chin. “What—” The demonic symbol on Mobei Jun’s forehead glowed dangerously bright as he looked him over, his voice earth-shatteringly low. “Who?”

“In the library, my King, please, but just...just stay with me! To— haa!— touch me, okay? A-anywhere’s good!” Shang Qinghua weeped. As long as Mobei Jun held him and brought that much needed relief to his trembling body, he’d get on his knees and grovel if he could. The slightest touch to his skin sent rippling shocks through his nerves. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before but every inch of his body knew the solution. “I’m so— ah —my King… Mobei... It...it kinda...hurts…” His voice trailed into a whimper.

Concern tempered the demon’s rage, and gave way to a different urge. He pulled Shang Qinghua in and kissed him, fangs tugging on his lips as his tongue was welcomed hungrily inside the other.

Shang Qinghua’s need was as insatiable as Mobei Jun’s—gripping, kissing, and begging for more. The two were entangled and inseparable as they sated each other’s hunger until Shang Qinghua found himself at the threshold of consciousness, spent from the combination of drug and pleasure.

When his body’s stamina finally hit its limit, Shang Qinghua was beyond exhaustion. Beyond thought. The last thing he saw before his eyes slid shut into sleep was Mobei Jun getting up from the bed and storming to the door, a frigid blast of air in his wake.

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun did not understand why Shang Qinghua was upset.

That day he had done him the proper honor of announcing their intent to wed to the gathered delegates. He had requested Shang Qinghua’s presence to introduce him as the man who would soon be his spouse. He had planned to repeat both actions until every demon worth his lineage in this kingdom knew the same.

What else was the point of it all?

Now, as they walked back towards their chambers after the meeting had ended , it was clear that Shang Qinghua was not happy. His face was scrunched up, his gait was stiff, and he was clinging to the rolled up parchment in his arms so tightly that they crackled beneath his fingertips.

Mobei Jun waited, counting down the seconds until

“You could have given me some warning, my King!”

There.

It had gotten easier over the years to tell when Shang Qinghua was about to “freak out”. Knowing when it was coming also made it easier not to lash out in response, even if Shang Qinghua’s behavior did upon occasion leave a sour taste in his mouth.

Tonight was getting to that point.

“Our relationship has been very clear.” Mobei Jun replied before a momentary pause, a question clinging to the tip of his tongue. Only Shang Qinghua could make Mobei Jun hesitate to ask a question, as only Shang Qinghua could make him care about the answer. He steeled himself in that familiar space between anger and concern.

“Does the matter of being wed to me displease you?”

Shang Qinghua’s response was comfortingly swift. “What? No, my King, that’s not it! I meant warning me you were going to just announce it like that.”

Mmn. Shang Qinghua’s face reddened to a near-blush. Mobei Jun was looking so closely at his expression, trying to figure out what he was thinking, that he nearly missed what he was saying.

A romantic way to propose.

...

What absurdity...?

The two of them had moved well beyond basic courtship! Mobei Jun had long since taken Shang Qinghua as his mate, there was no doubt in this. He’s provided for him. He’s confided in him. He’s marked him. Repeatedly. Mobei Jun had even learned many things about ‘romance’ in an effort to please him, but what did that have to do with marriage?

“You were expecting something else?”

“I don’t know! Maybe.” Shang Qinghua snapped, clearly getting angry. That was often something Mobei Jun liked—his human looked very attractive when he was angry—but these were still his early phases and it could still go many ways, not all of which were entertaining.

Mobei Jun had no wish to deal with tears tonight.

Shang Qinghua prattled on about friends and family and whom to tell about a marriage. Tell Luo Binghe? Of course he had already told his Lord of his intentions. Tell Shang Qinghua’s whining babes back on the mountain? Honestly, he’d hoped them forgotten. Tell his Uncle? Mobei Jun felt his mood instantly frost over and held back a snarl only by his continued efforts to pay attention.

He regained his focus in time to hear something about Shang Qinghua wanting to have his name in the clouds…?

Ridiculous.

...but he asked him about it anyway.

Which only served to make Shang Qinghua more upset!

Mobei Jun instinctively grabbed Shang Qinghua’s arm in an attempt to close the intangible gap he suddenly felt between them.

He needed to know more and let go of Shang Qinghua feeling assured he’d oblige.

When it came to Shang Qinghua’s monologues, Mobei Jun listened to every word, comprehended about half, and made an effort to retain about a quarter, but he never missed a single detail about how Shang Qinghua looked when he was lost in the midst of one. How his arms moved around dramatically to pantomime whatever he was describing, and how he almost seemed to forget that anyone else was in the room with how freely he exposed his thoughts, and let his clothes and hair become disheveled under the effects of his enthusiasm. How he would sometimes find moments between breaths to make fleeting eye contact with Mobei Jun before spinning off to another facet of the topic, just to make sure he was still paying attention.

Humans had many different ways of commencing an engagement. They all seemed pointless and overindulgent, but so were many things that Shang Qinghua enjoyed. Mobei Jun felt like he understood a little better.

Regardless, the moment had passed. Their engagement was set. What worth was there in dwelling on it?

None, Mobei Jun told himself, fully intending to put such thoughts behind him.

-------------------------------------

Banquets frustrated Mobei Jun. There was no pleasure to be had in rooms this crowded. Too much noise. Too much stink. Too much heat. It all grated on his nerves.

Fortunately, Mobei Jun’s mere presence was enough to appease those to whom any of this mattered, and Shang Qinghua was well-practiced at greeting their guests. As expected of one intended to be his spouse—his equal—and so none would take issue.

None were allowed to take issue.

Only one instance drew his attention among the ongoing stream of ne'er-do-wells. Shang Qinghua had asked one of the delegates a question, as if to invite conversation. Mobei Jun turned his head just enough to look at him, satisfied by how his human’s shoulders straightened under his gaze, his priorities intact.

The discussion was fleeting. Mobei Jun hadn’t bothered to look at who Shang Qinghua had spoken with, only taking in bits of their exchange. Not that it mattered. None here were worth their time after this function came to an end, a fact proven by the mere act of being invited for the…

...

...whatever this was that Shang Qinghua had called it.

Still, Mobei Jun felt his mood worsening. Eventually it gnawed at him enough to inspire an especially icy stare at a group who approached bearing more gifts and false humility. No more.

As the two ate, Mobei Jun pulled forward the dishes that had been prepared for Shang Qinghua. The table was large and his human’s arms were short, but his eyes made no secret of what foods he was craving. It was always a satisfying task to retrieve them before Shang Qinghua was forced to ask, or make a fool of himself stretching across the table to reach them on his own, as tantalizing as the sight of him taut over a solid surface could be.

It was a short-lived peace.

Shang Qinghua had gotten into the wine and the room had gotten louder. Mobei Jun was not surprised when Shang Qinghua excused himself. He wished to follow, but had already become embroiled in some idiotic task to appease one of his distant relatives for whom he was required to offer at least a little familial fealty.

How tiresome.

Shang Qinghua leaving produced the usual effect of a dull ache in his chest. Mobei Jun wasn’t so ignorant as to not know its meaning now, but the first time he was struck with the sensation—on some otherwise forgettable day when the little cultivator had scurried from the Leisure House at the behest of his Sect—Mobei Jun had opened the front of his own robes to check for the source of the offending pain. He had come a long way since then, in some ways.

Would marriage to Shang Qinghua lessen the effect? Mobei Jun desired that it would, with no illusions that it could, but it had given him a greater understanding about Shang Qinghua’s preference for physical “stickiness”.

Time to ponder such things was as equally short-lived, Mobei Jun realized, as he plucked a piece of bloody sinew from beneath his nail. An attendant hurried to his side, informing him with a great deal of trepidation that Shang Qinghua had fallen ill.

Mobei Jun was at his feet in an instant, leaving the table with a flourish of his cloak and not a word to his guests.

As he approached the doors, someone stood in the frame, at risk of blocking his path—light hair and reedy features—but the obstruction moved aside with a bow. Mobei Jun didn’t spare him a second thought, or arguably a first, as he rushed to his consort’s aid.

When he finally came upon Shang Qinghua some brisk steps later, he was seated on the stone floor in the middle of a hallway. Several servants crowded him as he stared forward in a daze.

It was a daze that Mobei Jun recognized, and he would hardly call it “ill”.

Crouching to his level, Mobei Jun gave Shang Qinghua’s forehead a sharp flick with his fingers. The servants scattered as Shang Qinghua’s head merely tilted back and a pleased little grin made its way across his face.

“Myking-mmbei…” He slurred, leaning forward to rest his head against Mobei Jun’s knee, nuzzling like some pampered pet.

Which wasn’t too far off a description, perhaps.

Mobei Jun’s brow knitted into a frown, softened only by the exasperated sigh that followed. He placed one arm behind Shang Qinghua’s back and the other hooked beneath his knees. He lifted him as if he weighed nothing, craning his neck only to pull free the hair that Shang Qinghua had started pulling on in attempts to busy his hands.

Shang Qinghua’s face was flush with drunkenness. It was as fascinating as it was infuriating how he could repeatedly manage to find himself in such a state. He wasn’t prone to frequent drinking, but was always quick to forget its effects. Shang Qinghua placed his confidence in the strangest of things. He’d wander somewhere thinking himself perfectly sober and find trouble, or stay in place to drink more thinking himself yet to be drunk and pass out.

Mobei Jun did not enjoy the outcomes of either. Even on the occasions he was greeted with a glazed look in Shang Qinghua’s eye and sweet words on his tongue, it rarely made up for the outbursts of crying and sickness that followed. It was unpleasant. Why Shang Qinghua ever felt he needed to put himself into a further stupor to “let loose” Mobei Jun would never understand.

Mmm ...the courting, my King...” Shang Qinghua muttered, the few decipherable sounds amidst a string of what Mobei Jun assumed were all supposed to be words. “...don’t wanna marry...on from the...ah… Hmm. Stupid mountain…”

Shang Qinghua rubbed his face into the fur of Mobei Jun’s cloak as he began to walk with him still cradled in his arms.

“Right in the hall...ehh...like a soap ope—... umf?!”

Shang Qinghua suddenly clamped a hand over his mouth as all the color washed from his cheeks. His face stilled in shock before he realized a few tense moments later that he was not in fact about to vomit all over Mobei Jun’s chest, before sinking back into the demon’s arms in another near-faint.

Mobei Jun stared down at him. He watched Shang Qinghua’s features soften into something more resembling sleep, garbled words still trickling from his mouth, before he turned his gaze down the darkened halls ahead and continuing carefully to their room.

-------------------------------------

Meetings bored Mobei Jun. Unfortunately that seemed to be his lot in life right now. With the roster of each gathering in frequent rotation, there was a constant need for repetition that only ate away at his patience that much quicker. Worse off, Mobei Jun couldn’t end them early with a well-timed execution or even just speed things along with a chilling demand for silence to free himself of their pedantic natterings!

...

Well, he could, but Shang Qinghua would be displeased and it could risk this entire affair requiring a second take and “months of work flushed down the toilet”.

It was some comfort that things had been going well. There were not nearly enough fights and a regretable lack of outright murder as a means of problem-solving for a demon’s taste—this a personal request from Shang Qinghua—but they were making due.

Shang Qinghua, to his credit, performed admirably as always—efficient, clever, and passionate. Meetings such as this one were a testament to how comfortable he’d become with speaking up, and speaking out, without retreating behind Mobei Jun in fear of consequence.

All would do well to listen to him, and yet…

Some chose not to.

That was lapse in judgement Mobei Jun would abide no longer.

Now was the time to wed Shang Qinghua and let it fall to politics to show what the ignorant refused to see—that Shang Qinghua was worthy to share the throne with Mobei Jun, a force in his own right. Shang Qinghua was not to be dismissed as merely some servant or concubine.

Everyone across all realms would know of his station, and Mobei Jun had no doubt Shang Qinghua would rise well to the role.

Still, the decision was a fairly recent one. Mobei Jun had watched for years as his Lord Luo Binghe’s mate was hunted, attacked, and whisked away by all manner of ill-wishers. He was at least a powerful cultivator, by human standards, and acquiesced to the demons’ way of handling matters with a subtle bloodlust that Mobei Jun had come to respect. Shang Qinghua, for all his years of similar experience, continued to be much…...softer.

It wasn’t safe.

Other demons’ ignorance towards humans had kept Shang Qinghua in a precarious yet relatively protected position at Mobei Jun’s side for many years. To make their relationship a formal thing, however—to tie Shang Qinghua to the Mobei name—would be to place a target on his head more inviting of a challenge than a demon’s sigil.

Mobei Jun was pulled from his wandering thoughts by Shang Qinghua suddenly jolting upright in the seat next to him. He spared him a look to see what it was about rotten food and broken carriages that had him so riled up.

Shang Qinghua was staring ahead with abnormal intensity, one hand clenching tightly around his brush, and the other on his own sleeve. Nothing about the conversation struck Mobei Jun as especially bad, but then again, Shang Qinghua always seemed to find new things to upset himself with. Surely there were more important things to spend one’s time thinking about...

Such as how pleasing Shang Qinghua would look with a demon mark of his own at times such as these. One that matched Mobei Jun’s own. If only it were possible. Its light would cast a soft blue hue over those tinted cheeks and creased eyebrows. It was too easy to imagine one there as he stubbornly drew the attention of a room full of those who thought themselves his superior, or those times when he held his trembling sword in battle with a tenacity for life and a skill to protect it that bordered on hilarity (but it was admirable).

Then there were the moments when Mobei Jun required aid, very rare as they were, for those were when a fiery competence would be lit within his mate—one of skill, and touch, and reprimand—that left even the Demon Realm’s most powerful ice demon entranced by its heat. Drawn to it. Driven to clutch it close, and never let it go out. To never let anyone else feel such warmth pressed beneath their...

...

Mmn.

Perhaps Mobei Jun’s thoughts were wandering a bit too much this time.

All matters aside, the decision to marry him was unquestionable. Now was the right time. They were both strong enough and others in his retinue amenable. It was appropriate.

Shang Qinghua’s reaction to the announcement, however… It continued to weigh on his mind. Whatever response he had received was not the one he had been expecting. Mobei Jun didn’t even realize he had been expecting something until it had not been received.

Doing little better for his increasingly distracted thoughts, was Shang Qinghua’s behavior since then, which has felt…

What?

Mobei Jun wasn’t sure.

“...don’t wanna marry...”

But he was sure this meeting was lasting far too long.

-------------------------------------

Days of dwelling had not served him well.

Mobei Jun appeared at Luo Binghe’s home without invitation. This would normally be of little consequence, but a request to speak with his Lord’s husband, Shen Qingqiu, however, came with considerable risk. To do so without the presence of Shang Qinghua, even more so.

Fortunately, Luo Binghe’s mood today was fair. A murderous glint in his eye was tempered simply by casting it over Mobei Jun’s face. Whatever he saw there, Mobei Jun did not wish to consider. He hated to think his thoughts could be read so easily, yet those close to him proved it to be a growing weakness.

It was discomforting.

The three were in Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo courtyard, a stiflingly pointless little patch of foliage that reeked too much of greenery and incense, a smell that lingered on Shang Qinghua whenever he came to visit.

Shen Qingqiu was seated at a small table with two chairs, while Luo Binghe stood behind him with a hand on his shoulder. Mobei Jun remained standing as well, his boots resting uncomfortably on the small white stones that made up a pathway beneath him. He stood equal paces between the table and the exit—close enough to speak freely, while acknowledging his right to stay was tenuous.

“This Mobei Jun’s intent to wed Shang Qinghua has been made formal by presentation.”

“Oh? And how did Shang Qinghua respond to this?” Shen Qingqiu asked, waving a fan gently in front of himself. There was a very specific smile on his face, one that Mobei Jun had come to learn meant he had already decided upon an answer to the question he had asked.

It was very annoying.

“He was not as...enthused as this one had expected,” Mobei Jun admitted, before explaining what had transpired.

“I see…” Shen Qingqiu trailed off. His attention for a moment seemed elsewhere. Then he sighed. “Well, you fucked that one up.”

WHAT?!

Mobei Jun was stunned by the blunt assessment. It was the kind of brash speech he had only ever heard between this human and his own. It angered him in its audacity! How dare he?! To suggest that he —!!

Luo Binghe’s thumb lightly massaged against the base of Shen Qingqiu’s neck.

Mobei Jun held his tongue.

Shen Qingqiu lowered his fan, and looked to Mobei Jun with a more direct stare than he would normally deign to. “Did I not explain to you before about grand gestures? Why do you insist on ignoring my teachings at the most important of moments?”

“This o— I did not think it was important.” Mobei Jun retorted through gritted teeth.

Luo Binghe stifled a chuckle.

“Yes, well, obviously our Shang-shidi does not share your feelings on the matter. I warned you he’s a hopeless romantic under that oblivious exterior. You should be aware that for some there are few times in their lives considered more important than that one.” Shen Qingqiu gave his fan a few demoralizing flutters. “Such a pity.”

An inkling of shame settled over Mobei Jun. He already knew that Shang Qinghua had cared, to some extent, but he didn’t realize the moment of engagement held that much significance. For most of his life, he couldn’t possibly have cared any less for what humans did or didn’t do, but now it felt foolish to not at least know their most common practices.

Even his Lord was amused at his expense, and Mobei Jun did not take well to being mocked.

Eyes cast to the ground, the air around him began to chill as the blades of grass near his feet stiffened under ice crystals that formed in sync with his clenching fists. He suspected it wasn’t always his face that was easy to read, but in these moments he didn't care.

“Such an error can be rectified, however.” Shen Qingqiu added, “but I expect you to listen this time.”

Effortlessly, he had regained Mobei Jun’s full, undivided attention.

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun mused over what he’d been told. Nothing seemed too complicated, yet behind the simplicity came a weight he couldn’t fully account for. It would require much thought.

His absence from the palace had not been planned. As brief as it was, the relief of his servants upon his return could not be understated. He spotted a familiar one, and demanded from them the details of the next assembly before being handed a scroll of gibberish. It was a familiar gibberish, one meandering in its topics and punctuated by little doodles—Mobei Jun’s ears were not that big—but gibberish nonetheless.

The scroll was useless.

The attendant looked appropriately horrified, realizing that they had handed him the wrong one, and were prepared to throw themselves at his feet and beg for their measly life. The drama was unnecessary. Mobei Jun dismissed them with a wave of his hand, both uncaring and merciful. He would sort this himself.

Which meant Shang Qinghua would sort this. It would be efficient to find the proper information and sate his desire to see him at the same time.

Fortunately, Mobei Jun did not need to go far.

“Bothersome!” A familiar voice echo in the hallway ahead.

“Shang Qinghua.” Mobei Jun announced as he neared, rewarded with a response he’d long since come to treasure.

“My King!”

His King .

...

He shoved the scroll into Shang Qinghua’s arms. Maybe a little too hard.

As Shang Qinghua examined it, Mobei Jun caught movement in his line of sight. One of the delegates stood waiting nearby. He recognized him, and to have such a familiarity meant he had already seen him too many times if his subconscious had cared to make note.

The delegate also looked strangely...pleased. It wasn’t dissimilar to Shen Qingqiu’s hidden smiles. Like there was something those around them didn’t know.

It annoyed him in much the same way.

As did the feeling he had walked into something to which he wasn’t expected, or welcome.

“If this Lord would allow…?”

That voice.

Now Mobei Jun remembers. This is the one who speaks so much during the meetings and is so quick with honeyed words to seek his consort’s approval. Word had spread quickly of their engagement, and any one seeking to curry favor with his spouse-to-be proves themselves wiser than those still foolish enough to look down on his humanity.

But there were still limits to these allowances.

Though he dismisses the delegate quickly, Mobei Jun would not forget this one’s face again.

He asks Shang Qinghua what had happened, but it only garners babbling in response. It’s entirely unhelpful, but circumstantially acceptable, despite a nagging in the back of his mind that warned him to keep pressing.

Too many strangers in his home were making him paranoid.

Shang Qinghua wouldn’t lie to him, and Mobei Jun receives the warm press of lips against his cheek as a reward for something he’s quite sure he didn’t do. Then Shang Qinghua is scurrying down the hallway, and the ache in Mobei Jun’s chest returns.

-------------------------------------

Once their conversation had ended, Mobei Jun vanished as silently as he’d arrived, leaving only a crispness in the air that dissipated in his absence.

Their quiet time was a brief affair, by Luo Binghe’s measure.

Within the same afternoon, the sensation of something else breaching the energy barrier surrounding the courtyard drew Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe’s attention. This time, upwards.

Shang Qinghua descended from the air on his sword in a sad state of fluster, sporting air-battered cheeks and something vaguely resembling a hairstyle. He landed on the immaculately maintained walkway, now trampled by another set of uninvited boots, and, with a complete lack of reverence, stumbled in front of Shen Qingqiu with his hands slapping rudely on the table.

“Cucumber-Bro, I need your help!”

Luo Binghe sighed. He never felt any threat to his husband from this one, but it didn’t stop him from being saddened at any lost opportunity for privacy. He excused himself as the two began to talk.

Perhaps he’ll prepare the tea.

-------------------------------------

That evening, Mobei Jun went to the forge. It was in the deepest part of the palace, second only to the rarely used dungeons and long buried storerooms.

He hated it here. The fires were stoked so hot that he could hardly stay conscious. The air was heavy and oppressive. The smell of smoke, and stone, and metal invaded his senses and caked the inside of his lungs. Sweat pooled on his brow. It was a nightmare for an ice demon, a literal hell in his own basement.

“Something that small? En, this one can do it.” The blacksmith replied. They were a burly ice demon with hair partially cropped short and bare arms proudly displaying years of layered burn scars that were intentionally allowed to pattern their forge-tanned skin. How they had come to find comfort in this environment was a testament to the tenacity and skill that had long since earned them a legacy as one of the Demon Realm’s finest artisans.

Mobei Jun’s family had demanded many things from this blacksmith over their years of service, from weaponry to crowns, but this was the first time Mobei Jun had requested something of such size and finery.

He had no doubt they could do it.

Mobei Jun reached into the sleeve of his robe and pulled out a dark stone that fit neatly in the palm of his hand. It looked like a fragment that had broken off a much larger piece, and it glistened in the flickering light as he held it up. “With this.”

He tossed it to the blacksmith, who caught it with ease. They brought it close to their face, inspecting it as they turned it ‘round in their fingers, before giving an affirming nod.

Mobei Jun watched the reflection of fire dance in the stone’s surface. He remembered the last time he’d seen it whole, when the protective circle from Shang Qinghua’s spell held LinGuang Jun at bay, and the fortress’s columns of ice and magic-infused marble were left split and crumbling, threatening to collapse. It was the day Mobei Jun had earned his title. It was the day Shang Qinghua had saved his life at the greatest risk to his own.

It was also, by no coincidence, the day that Mobei Jun finally admitted he needed Shang Qinghua at his side for reasons beyond what he’d convinced himself were simply pragmatic.

Now the same marble stone that had nearly killed them, would serve—as Shen Qingqiu had phrased it—“as a beginning”.

Being a demon, Mobei Jun had no issue marking Shang Qinghua, but now he intended to mark him as a human would. Or at least humans where Shang Qinghua was from, a place markedly odder than most, he’s long-since surmised.

“The stone needs time to be prepared, my Lord, but with the proper sizing, this one can do as you ask.”

Mobei Jun nodded in understanding, the first of his tasks now set in motion.

As he left the forge, his body trembled with relief as the cool air hit his skin. Only upon leaving the lower levels altogether could he properly breath again, even as a sense of weakness lingered.

The night was getting late. Mobei Jun turned towards his bed chambers, sweeping past those still traversing the torchlit hallways. They bowed in his presence, allowing a wide berth and respectful distance.

Among the many unfamiliar faces that filled his palace in recent days, a light-haired individual standing near the left side of the hall caught his eye.

Again.

“My Lord,” The delegate greeted, having moved to the side as everyone else did, bowing in a manner customary to his people.

Mobei Jun stopped.

“You.”

“My Lord honors me with his notice.”

“You assume much.”

The delegate did not raise his head to meet Mobei Jun’s eyes, but a tiny smile crept along his jawline all the same. “This one admits his fault in doing so.”

To see him twice in a single day...

The stink of intent was all around him.

Earning a place in Mobei Jun’s mind was dangerous for most, and once someone did, few things past, present, or future would escape his notice. This delegate frequently voiced his support during the assemblies, but also lingered after they concluded, and he walked through the palace without the escort of his clansmen, a risk few would take.

And this was not the wing where guests were housed.

Mobei Jun was not a fool.

But Shang Qinghua was, in many ways, too naive to notice such things. This demon’s eyes were not the only ones set upon Shang Qinghua since news of their betrothal spread. It took his human a pitiful amount of time to become aware of Mobei Jun’s advances when he had initiated the process, despite the fact that Shang Qinghua himself had clearly been courting him first. To expect him to be aware of others’ intent for such a thing was a wasted effort. It was simply another of Shang Qinghua’s blindspots, a gap in his defenses.

In some ways this was easier. He would protect Shang Qinghua as he always had, without his human complicating the situation with self-aware prattles that would only draw more of the wrong attention. Let him focus on the calls for trade and negotiation and “pigshit accommodations”—Mobei Jun would handle other things. 

“Ambitions do not go unseen,” Mobei Jun growled, staring fixedly. “Pray they are not acknowledged.”

Indignation fueled his words, and a promise to Shang Qinghua spared his actions, but he felt restless and impatient. The sigil on his forehead flashed.

“Go.”

 A single word—from him, none here could misread it and would die if they defied it.

“Of course, my Lord. This one is simply unaccustomed to the layout of such a grandiose estate. Truly befitting of one such as—”

Mobei Jun backhanded him.

The force was enough to send the other against the nearby wall, crumpling against it with an impact that echoed off the palace’s stonework.

Someone of demonic heritage could survive such a blow, but they would not soon forget it.

Vaguely satisfied, Mobei Jun walked past and any others nearby wisely moved out of sight. He needed rest for the days to come as this “Demonic Alliance Conference” resumed tomorrow. He had no energy to waste elsewhere.

Meetings still bored Mobei Jun, but those hungry for more than petty politics ensured he never missed a single one.

Shang Qinghua was sitting at his little desk when Mobei Jun finally made it to their room. He was scratching at his head with the end of a still damp brush, his nose scrunched up in thought. His once tight bun of hair had become lopsided and loose, leaving strands to fall upon his face. His sleeves were bunched up around his elbows, and his skin bruised red from leaning against the table’s surface.

It was cute, and a welcome sight for Mobei Jun’s eyes only.

“Shang Qinghua.”

“My King! You’re back!”

Mnn. You make it sound as though I’d gone far.” Mobei Jun replied as he peeled the cloak from his body, feeling the stick of sweat trapped between robe and skin. He draped the fur-trimmed piece over the chair and returned his attention.

“Why are you working in here?”

Mobei Jun didn’t like it when Shang Qinghua brought work to their room. He had made peace with the mess of paper and ink for the sake of his human’s “hobby”, but he could tell the difference.

He reached down to pull Shang Qinghua to his feet, and gently removed the hair piece from his head, letting his clawed fingers gently guide the hair down over his shoulders. It released the lingering scent of oils from a recent bath and the unmistakable smell of sweat. A low rumble escaped Mobei Jun’s throat, buried beneath the sound of Shang Qinghua’s lively chatter.

It was nice.

As they helped each other undress, Mobei Jun marvelled at how his human could speak so many words and still function. How Shang Qinghua effortlessly worked to undo the clasp on Mobei Jun’s robes, and moved his own body to allow Mobei Jun the same access. How Mobei Jun could rest a hand on Shang Qinghua’s hip to guide him towards the bed, or intertwine their fingers without Shang Qinghua making note of it, still off in his own world.

There was a time when any show of affection going without notice was a great source of frustration for Mobei Jun, but now he appreciated how comfortable Shang Qinghua had become with his actions. How these were everyday things. How he could do whatever he wished, and Shang Qinghua would welcome it. Anticipate it. Ask for it. Even beg for it…

Shang Qinghua had gone quiet.

They were laying in bed next to each other. Mobei Jun pushed aside the growing heat within himself as he laid an arm over the other. He could feel Shang Qinghua’s teasing breath against him, but also the tenseness in his shoulders.

Shang Qinghua was clearly bothered by something, and Mobei Jun found himself oddly afraid to ask why.

But a King fears nothing.

“What troubles you?”

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun did not like puzzles or complicated matters, but he was not immune to the sense of satisfaction that came from solving them. He had given much thought to Shen Qingqiu’s instructions, and after a sleepless night, he had made the last of his decisions.

He left the morning’s first assembly early to speak with the kitchen staff. They were all shocked to see him enter—terrified he was displeased at the work they’d provided, and equally terrified he was displeased with work they had yet to do. The sight of Mobei Jun in the kitchen was one best approached with a single strategy: leave.

Mobei Jun stopped them dead in their tracks with a stare, before pulling out a piece of parchment. It was a list of ingredients. Flour, salt, sesame, sugar, eggs—from chickens of all things—melon seeds...the list went on. It was a fairly lengthy list and all items normally stocked exclusively for Shang Qinghua’s consumption. But, with the palace’s guests currently in such abundance, the storerooms were filled with more demonic appropriate fare. To find all of these things was time they simply didn’t have, one dared to claim.

It was a momentary mistake.

To think they had almost tried to tell him what was or wasn’t available to him in his own domain. Perhaps their Lord needed to visit more often, to ensure priorities remained in order...

Mobei Jun stayed in the kitchen for almost an hour, ensuring everything he required was there. If it wasn’t, he sent someone to procure it. He even gave basic instructions to a group of them, ignoring their horrified expressions as his hands, those coursing with the power of the Mobei Clan, moved clay bowls and tools around their work stations as if he’d done it before.

Which he had, of course, but certainly not in the presence of those who would get in his way, or dare to find amusement at his efforts.

He left only when he was satisfied.

Next Mobei Jun went to the clothiers—those responsible for making, mending, and cleaning all manner of fabrics in the palace. A daunting task, he assumed.

Shang Qinghua often complained about the cold. Even if he didn’t verbalize it as much anymore, it didn’t change the fact that Mobei Jun could still see every shiver, every clench, and every chatter. He’d given his little human numerous robes and cloaks to layer, but now he intended to have one tailored for him to replace them all. One suiting of royalty.

Well-timed, he thought, as Shang Qinghua spent much of their morning complaining about the absence of “decent detergent”.

During Mobei Jun’s recent visit, Luo Binghe revealed that he’d found the lair of a Frostborn—the existence of such a rare beast a topic between them in the past. The creature’s unique fur could be fashioned into a silk-like fabric that was impervious to the cold, without the need to regulate one’s own energy to achieve it. At least that’s what the records said. A Frostborn had not been seen in their lifetime.

Shang Qinghua’s comfort and appearance were important on their own, but Mobei Jun greatly looked forward to the additional benefit of not being forced to peel away layer after layer after layer of clothing during the times when his body screamed for haste but his lover begged for care.

As if Mobei Jun did not have the means to simply order new clothes made for him.

Absurd.

Not that such intimacies had occurred as of late. Not since this showboating event had begun. Not since their engagement was made public. Not that he hadn’t thought about it.

Mobei Jun growled in frustration, tossing aside another of the sheets he was handed. An attendant quickly hurried to present him another.

Recent days have been busy. Shang Qinghua has been busy. That was reason enough, surely. But Mobei Jun could see something festering beneath the surface of Shang Qinghua’s meandering dialog and it bothered him more and more as the days went on.

Only one thing had changed. Was it because they were now engaged…?

...

Ridiculous!

What reason was that?!

“This one.”

In his hands, Mobei Jun held a rich blue fabric. It was soft and expertly dyed, a shade not too dissimilar to the accents of deep blue woven into his own clothing. He was no expert on such matters, but it pleased him to look at. He decided quickly that Shang Qinghua would like it as well, which lightened his mood. The lightly-colored Sect robes that Shang Qinghua still habitually wore were fine enough, but seeing him wear them always made it look like he was preparing to leave, like his time here was finite, even so many years later.

This blue was a color befitting Mobei Jun’s kingdom.

He handed it back to the attendant. “Prepare the materials. This Mobei Jun will bring the pelt himself.”

“Of course, of course, my Lord. It shall be done as you’ve instructed, down to every stitch!”

Mobei Jun recalled the night before, Shang Qinghua’s waist in his hands. For the time being, scolding his human’s poor eating habits would need to be secondary to ensuring these robes were tailored perfectly.

He sent two attendants to find Shang Qinghua and get his measurements—small, mousey little things who wouldn’t dare put their hands where they were not welcome.

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun sent a summons to the delegates from the Zi Jing Mountain. For that reason alone, he should not have been as surprised when that same too-familiar delegate was there at the business hall, waiting for him with his yellowed-hair and dusty robes. This was the first he’d seen of him today, and was forced by circumstance to forgive the coincidence, though a part of him was loath to ignore it.

“Come with me,” Mobei Jun ordered, as he entered the hall first. There was a flash of hesitation in the others’ eye.

Good.

Mobei Jun swiftly crossed the room, coming to his place at the head of the long table. He sat, and motioned for the other to follow.

“Zi Jing Mountain.” He began, recalling earlier conversations. “Plants grow there.”

The other demon, having stopped several seats away, tilted his head in interest.

“Yes, my Lord. A great many varieties. Some quite rare. If this Mobei Jun requires some, then surely this one c—”

“No need. Show me.” Across the table in front of Mobei Jun were a series of maps and charts, remnants from the previous meeting. Several were covered in hastily scrawled lines that marred otherwise delicate drawings as the result of trade routes finally being set. They signaled the impending end of this event with the promise of a palace finally returned to peace.

The other moved to his side and leaned over the table just enough to place his hand on one of the parchments. When Mobei Jun asked about a specific species, he was able to show him where it grew without a moment’s hesitation. Mobei Jun allowed him to be useful as he freely offered more details about the surrounding area.

Then the doors of the business hall were pushed wide open.

“My King, I !”

They both went quiet, and looked to the interruption.

It was Shang Qinghua. He had frozen, mid-sentence. His mouth hung open like he would be gasping for air but his body had stilled.

Something was wrong.

“What is it?” Mobei Jun asked, trying to coax it out of him. For someone who could be so difficult to silence, Shang Qinghua had a poor habit of clamming up at inopportune moments, and this was no exception. Spit it out , he wanted to yell.

“Shang Qinghua, what is it?” He repeated instead.

All that came were stutters as Shang Qinghua retreated into himself. His fingers were clenching and unclenching on his robes, his eyes were cast down the floor, and he was biting his lower lip.

Was he…going to cry...?

Shang Qinghua suddenly excused himself and fled the room. Incensed, Mobei Jun rose to follow.

“Ah, my Lord, humans can be such handfuls can’t they?” Came a chuckle from behind him, the voice of someone failing to ingratiate himself, and stupid enough to place his hand on the back of a King’s chair.

Mobei Jun slammed his palm against the others’ throat.

With his claws wrapped firmly around that thin neck, he watched as those purple eyes widened in shock.

“Do not speak of him in such a way, nor presume yourself an equal here,” Mobei Jun growled, his grip slowly tightening.

“My Lord, this one would never deign to ” The delegate sputtered, not daring to try and force his freedom. His feet arched as he was lifted.

Mobei Jun felt the skin under his hand firm up, like the sensation of ice coating a surface but in the absence of cold. The pale skin on the demon’s throat began to turn an ashen gray. It was transforming to stone, a natural armor creeping out to defend him.

It did a poor job.

Mobei Jun clenched and felt the stone crack.

“Your life remains only by his mercy. Not. Mine.” Mobei Jun managed through sheer force of will. Every fibre of his being wanted nothing more than to pop the head clean off, leave his body bloodied on the floor, a lesson for those who came after, but…

...

With a guttural exhale, he let him go.

The other demon stumbled back, rubbing at his neck. “Mobei Jun...My Lord...this one apologizes. He did not intend

“Enough.” Mobei Jun cut him off. “This Mobei Jun expects he will find what was discussed.”

The delegate bowed deeply, averting his gaze as he swallowed a cough. “This one assures...my Lord will find what he seeks.”

Mobei Jun silently stormed past.

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun was in no mood to untangle what had transpired with Shang Qinghua. He was frustrated. Too frustrated. He returned to Luo Binghe and demanded they leave at once to hunt the beast. His blood cried out in thirst, desperate to sate itself, and Luo Binghe’s agreement to leave despite the manner in which he’d been “asked” was a miracle that went unquestioned.

The Frostborn lived in the furthest reaches of the North, where constant storms of hail and wind made for an environment unsuitable even for Mobei Jun. The temperature was pleasing, but visibility was nigh impossible. Any path forged was immediately buried under the dry, blowing snow. It was not somewhere Mobei Jun had been often, but it was still a simple task to get there with the power of two demon lords.

Freestanding caverns hollowed out by centuries of icy wind dotted the landscape, only visible once close, and only one housing their quarry. Ice demons had no need of a Frostborn’s fur and hide, but they were an invaluable resource to those who lacked immunity to the cold. Mobei Jun’s predecessors had often hunted them simply for the sport. Being dwindled to low numbers, slow to mate, and secluded in harsh environments, made them a very rare sighting.

Not that such things mattered to Luo Binghe or Mobei Jun as they passed the time in conversation.

“Then just kill them.” Luo Binghe replied, his disgust at even needing to say it ill-disguised in his voice. The howling of the wind did little to inconvenience them talking.

“It would be all of them,” Mobei Jun replied darkly. “And I cannot.”

Luo Binghe looked ahead smugly. “Mobei Jun has grown weak for his little Shang- shishu then.”

Mobei Jun grunted.

Luo Binghe was in a teasing mood, a worrisome thing. “Do you think he would be unfaithful then? Your groom-to-be?”

“No.”

“Yet you still don’t dispose of the problems for his sake?”

“It would be...an inconvenience.” Mobei Jun paraphrased.

“But not for you.”

“No.”

Hail disintegrated in front of Luo Binghe’s face, creating a pocket of clear air around him. Only the wind was allowed to pass through as it whipped his long hair about. “My Shen Qingqiu has given similar pause in the past, but what he doesn’t know can’t muddy the waters.”

“You lie?”

Luo Binge smirked. “My husband knows not to ask and I trust him just the same.” The cracking of clenched fingers could be heard over the buffeting storm. “There,” he pointed ahead.

A dark patch came into view through the snow, an opening to one of the larger structures they’d come across.

Good timing, as Mobei Jun was tired of waiting.

He dashed forward, with Luo Binghe quick to follow. Silence fell as they were temporarily shielded from the maelstrom outside by ice-covered walls. Anyone unprepared would’ve been granted no mercy as an earth-shattering screech shattered the fleeting calm. The cave was shallow and the beast already upon them.

Mobei Jun caught the open maw before it took his head. The Frostburn was only roughly the size of a large carriage, if tightly curled in upon itself, but it boasted a near unmatchable speed and was strengthened by the frantic way in which it moved. It’s elongated body was like that of a serpentine dragon, while it’s head and multiple sets of legs were more like those of a wildcat. Two large crystal horns protruded from its head, while ice-white fur stood near-vertical on its back. Its bottom half whipped around like a frenzied snake.

The icy floor offered no resistance, and Mobei Jun was pushed back outside the cave as his claws remained pierced in the skin of the creature’s jaw. He was not concerned. When his boot hit textured ground, he tensed, breaking the frozen soil to anchor himself and forcing them to a stop.

Stupid beast.

Wrenching his arms to the side, he slammed the creature’s head to the ground. The Frostborn’s bottom half whipped towards him, forcing a retreat, and Mobei Jun leapt back defensively.

His vision was blocked by Luo Binghe sliding in front of him, the Heavenly Demon’s claws appearing as if extended and the glow of his demonic mark illuminating the fractals surrounding him in a halo of red.

Luo Binghe slashed at the Frostborn, a spray of crimson blood streaking across the snow, with another high-pitched shriek to follow.

Mobei Jun closed back in, unwilling to miss the opportunity for a much needed outlet. The Frostburn was thrashing wildly, its own body twisting and folding around itself, throwing up snow and releasing spurts of gore and steam from the wound Luo Binghe had inflicted.

Luo Binghe laughed. “My mistake. I’d almost forgotten we were here for the fur.”

Doubtful.

Mobei Jun snarled, resisting the urge to simply shove Luo Binghe aside. He stalked past him all the same. The Frostborn’s wailing was a horrible sound but he ignored it as easily as he did the striking blow of a furred appendage against his side. And another. He hardly flinched, striking out a hand in return, his claws easily passing through its pelt-covered muscle.

It was unexpectedly hot inside, steam escaping from the fresh wound. It seared his skin but he kept his hand rooted inside, stopping the blood from gushing out. His fingers were clenched around bone and sinew. Mobei Jun’s other hand rose to match a retaliatory thrash, gripping the furry exterior of a leg.

The Frostborn’s erratic movements continued—writhing, contorting, and now trying to wrap itself around Mobei Jun’s body in a desperate attempt to strangle him beneath its crushing weight.

Luo Binghe strode forward, the force of his step sending a small shockwave through the ground as he thrust an arm forward and effortlessly caught the creature’s neck. Pulling it towards himself, he grabbed a hold of one of the sharpened horns, and twisted.

A sickening snap, and the Frostborn’s body went limp. Slabs of dead weight fell around them, enough to slouch Mobei Jun’s shoulder where part of it landed before he shrugged it onto the snowy ground. Mobei Jun pulled his hand free in the same motion, dousing a line of blood across his own robes.

Luo Binghe put a boot on the creature’s head, jostling it playfully as if inspecting his handiwork. The broken neck moved with no resistance.

“That was barely worth the trip...” Luo Binghe commented dryly, flicking blood from his hand. “For one of us, I suppose.” He added, looking to Mobei Jun who was already bundling together the still twitching mass of fur and flesh for the journey back home.

-------------------------------------

Reading Shang Qinghua’s writing had become a reliable way to decipher his feelings, on the rare occasion he wasn’t wearing them on his sleeves. The look of his calligraphy alone could say plenty, which suited Mobei Jun, who often found his patience for Shang Qinghua’s “novellas” rather lacking.

That was why when he returned to their room to see a stack of papers that looked as though Shang Qinghua had qi deviated with brush in hand—a sloppy, haphazard spread of characters going from sheet to sheet— Mobei Jun took it upon himself to investigate with an apprehensive curiosity that surprised even himself.

He started where his eyes fell first, never understanding Shang Qinghua’s insistence about “spoilers”. It was a woman weeping alone while thinking about her mate. Far as he could tell, between frequent comparisons to flowers and the weather, she was lamenting “her days of romance wilting like a winter rose on a withered vine” after what Mobei Jun could infer was an ambiguous marriage proposal preluding her being set upon by a new suitor. That too seemed to inspire sobbing, to which the writing paid particular attention.

Drivel.

How could one person cry so much?

...

In consideration of the author, Mobei Jun reconsidered his judgement.

A little.

The contents of the story however...

Shang Qinghua, who had finally given up his poor act of sleeping, was holding onto him in a weak-willed protest, pressing blood-soaked fabric into Mobei Jun’s skin. It was unpleasant, and came as a relief when the other finally noticed.

“What if it’s poison or toxic or stains me r— eh?!

Mobei Jun hoisted Shang Qinghua up and dragged him to their bed. The coppery smell of blood had long since become as stimulating as the congealing was unpleasant, and he wished to remove his clothing faster than Shang Qinghua’s ministrations would allow.

Depositing Shang Qinghua atop the blankets, and his robes on the floor, he joined him on the bed. Mobei Jun lingered a moment to look down at him. So small, so panicked. It was a familiar sight, but now the urge to shield his little human overshadowed the need to bully.

Most of the time.

He pulled Shang Qinghua against himself, resting his chin on the others’ shoulder. He smelled nice and Mobei Jun let himself enjoy the aroma as it chased away the tang of Frostborn blood.

The offending substance was still present however, coating Shang Qinghua’s outstretched hands. Mobei Jun took a cloth from the nearby basin and went to work carefully removing it. Much like Shang Qinghua as a whole, his fingers felt so slight and delicate in Mobei Jun’s hands. While in reality, he wasn’t that much smaller than Mobei Jun overall, everything about his physicality just screamed ‘tiny’ and ‘protect me’ anyway.

It did nothing to diminish the fact that this one pair of hands had accomplished so much. So much more, he suspected, than any normal human could do in a lifetime.

He committed every facet of Shang Qinghua’s hands to memory.

The pair were leaning against one another, sharing a slow conversation that moved in dangerous directions.

Don’t ask about it, a voice in his mind said.

It’s irrelevant.

It’s meaningless.

But Mobei Jun wanted to know.

“She found her mate’s proposal poor. It would not have been unwise to consider the others’ offer.”

It didn’t come out sounding nearly enough like a question, and Shang Qinghua replied without hesitation. “Yeah, I guess.”

Mobei Jun’s fingers clenched, feeling his claw rip through the cloth with a momentary loss of control.

He’d be blind not to realize Shang Qinghua was still dwelling on the matter of their engagement—what else explained his behavior?—but it was, perhaps, to an extent Mobei Jun had not considered. Could he be…? Shen Qingqiu hadn’t mentioned such a thing, and yet...

“Humans care a great deal about such things.”

“Huh? Of course they do. I should think it obvious, my King.”

At that moment, for the first time in a long while, Mobei Jun suddenly found himself feeling almost…

Cold.

-------------------------------------

That Shang Qinghua did not wish to get out of bed the next morning didn’t upset Mobei Jun as much as it normally would. The incessant whining aside, it came as some relief to simply leave on his own without any fuss. Mobei Jun felt uniquely...vulnerable. Like he had done something wrong and erred too close to doing something wrong again, and that time was running out to fix it.

He wanted to be angry at Shang Qinghua instead, it’d be the easiest thing, but the comfort of deflection escaped him. He cursed Shen Qingqiu’s words. How was he to have known?!

Mobei Jun found some solace in the day’s tasks, or at least a mind-numbing distraction. He visited the blacksmith, the clothier, and the kitchen to ensure everything was in order. He attended a meeting between the Western delegates who droned on about encroaching clans and plagiarized patchwork. (Though any requests for aid that could be solved by simply giving permission to wipe out the offenders was a good one in his books.)

By the time the afternoon had come about, his mood was almost amiable. Tomorrow all of this could be put behind him. No more planning, no more secrets, no more wondering if Shang Qinghua was—

All of his faculties twitched in unison.

Quickly tuning out the person in front of him, Mobei Jun looked down the hallway and saw Shang Qinghua stumbling towards them. He barely had time to open his arms before he was collided into.

Shang Qinghua’s face was flushed and moist with tears. His hair was loose, sticking to his sweat-slicked skin and shifting over his shoulders as they heaved under desperate gasps for air. The smell of arousal was all over him, an instant assault to Mobei Jun’s senses. Were it any other circumstance, Mobei Jun would struggle not to simply take him right here and now, but…

He looked terrified.

Mobei Jun picked him up, wrapping Shang Qinghua in his cloak. He dismissed the envoy, before swiftly tearing the air open, slipping into the shadow it created and exiting the other side in their bed chambers.

He placed Shang Qinghua on the bed and made an effort to examine him, but Shang Qinghua clung stubbornly to his neck. Mobei Jun gripped his forearms and gently pried them off, to much mewling protest. Keeping a hold of his arms, Mobei Jun looked him over. He was blushing furiously, panting, crying, and his lips were red and swollen. He was still fully clothed and seemingly unharmed except for a thin line of blood that trailed from his mouth.

Mobei Jun pressed a thumb to his chin, tilting his head up. “What.. .who?

“In the library, my King, please, but just...just stay with me! To— haa! —touch me, okay? A-anywhere’s good!” Shang Qinghua cried as he squirmed in Mobei Jun’s grasp.

This was...

He hesitated. Shang Qinghua being forward wasn’t uncommon when the “mood” was appropriate, but this…

Mobei Jun’s mind raced through a flurry of possessive anger, dire concern, and raging desire. Some part of him still tried to cling to reason, grounding himself in the moment, trying not to blindly give into the temptation that left his own heart thrumming and his mouth dry.

“I’m so— ah —my King… Mobei... It...it kinda...hurts…” Shang Qinghua whimpered as his hips made little thrusts towards him, dashing whatever self-restraint Mobei Jun had mustered.

Mobei Jun pulled him forward and pressed their lips together. Shang Qinghua greedily met the kiss with equal fervor.

Tearing away the sash from Shang Qinghua’s waist was an easy thing, but removing the rest of his clothes was made difficult by his ongoing attempts to cling. Mobei Jun slipped a hand beneath his robes, gripping his hip and keeping him raised on his knees as he cast off the layers until Shang Qinghua was bare save for his pants.

“Mobei...please...stop...stop taking so long!” Shang Qinghua suddenly cried out, slapping a hand repeatedly against Mobei Jun’s shoulder. “If you don’t— ahh! —hurry up, I’m gonna—”

“What?” Mobei Jun growled into his skin, pressing his fangs against Shang Qinghua’s neck. It elicited a sharp cry as he adjusted their bodies so Shang Qinghua was flat on his back, with Mobei Jun above him.

Getting his pants off was a much faster process and they joined the rest of his clothing abandoned to the floor. Mobei Jun removed the belt from his own waist, letting his robes hang open and sliding a hand between Shang Qinghua’s legs.

Working only as gently as Shang Qinghua would allow, Mobei Jun stroked him to release.

But the feeling of heat and stiffness in his hand did not abate. Mobei Jun stilled his movements, watching his lover’s body tremble in the aftershocks of its first orgasm while simultaneously finding no freedom from whatever fueled his need to grind against any part of Mobei Jun he could reach.

This would take time, and Mobei Jun was prepared to give him an eternity.

-------------------------------------

As Shang Qinghua’s gasps faded to slow, steady breaths, Mobei Jun rested a hand on his back. He watched as the sweat settling on his skin caused him to shiver. Mobei Jun stood up to free a large blanket and draped it over his body. Shang Qinghua finally seemed okay...which meant Mobei Jun was free to focus on the rage that flared at the edge of his consciousness.

What had sent Shang Qinghua to him in such a state? A curse? A poison? A person?

Three knocks shattered the silence. 

Whoever it was had a sense of timing akin to self-slaughter.

Mobei Jun felt his blood boiling as he left the bedside, a gust of icy wind sending papers swirling messily behind him. He grabbed the door and nearly wrenched it from the wall as it opened to reveal a servant standing in the hall, their head bowed.

“My Lord, forgive this one’s interruption. There is a matter of some importance,” The servant began, his words clear. “Lady Sha Hualing has requested Mobei Jun’s presence…” They trailed off, making the wise decision not to move their gaze from the floor.

Mobei Jun stared at them as if answers could be carved on the back of their head. What was so important that Sha Hualing could be bothered to send someone to fetch him? For that matter...why was she even here?

“Where?” He demanded.

The servant replied quickly with, “The library, my Lord.”

Every muscle in Mobei Jun’s body tensed. He looked back over his shoulder at Shang Qinghua, now asleep on the bed. He didn’t want to leave him. Even pushing aside the memories of an irate Shang Qinghua— “what am I, a one-night stand?!” — when he’d left while he was sleeping, this was different. There was a danger here.

But he would find out what it was.

Mobei Jun turned back to the servant and stepped forward, forcing the other to retreat. As he closed the door, sigils etched discretely along the framework glowed a vibrant blue that matched the mark on his brow.

“You stay here. Nobody is to enter this room but this Mobei Jun.” He ordered with a voice that could send shivers down even the stone walls surrounding them.

The servant was surprised but immediately straightened up in loyal deference. “Yes, my Lord!”

Mobei Jun took a steeling breath and advanced down the hall, taking the time to do up his robes. He forgoed the use of a portal. He needed to conserve his energy. Not only was he unaware of what awaited him, but his own body gave strength to the wards that protected key parts of his stronghold.

Long strides got him to the library in little time. The doors were open and the few servants present gave him wide room for entry. Sha Hualing sat on one of the larger tables. Her legs were crossed with one foot swaying impatiently, filling the air with chimes from the bangles around her wrists and ankles.

Sha Hualing was someone on the very short list of people Mobei Jun would, if under some form of great duress, be persuaded to consider, for lack of a better word, a friend. The two both served under Lord Luo Binghe as his closest Generals, and had known eachother since before the time of his rule. She was a mouthy and reckless demoness, but also loyal and strong. He respected her, most of the time, and the two got along well as long as they avoided intentionally stepping on the others’ proverbial toes. They had a relationship that, for all intents and purposes, worked.

He still didn’t know why she was here.

“Took you long enough,” she chided without even sparing Mobei Jun a glance. His own eyes moved to the floor where a single figure lay, deceased. Beneath the corpse was a pool of blood, and on its neck, a fresh open wound. Though only a single strike delivered to the body’s throat, it spoke of viciousness—torn, pussy flesh protruded from flaps of folded skin. A failed beheading, perhaps. It wouldn’t normally be enough to end a demon’s life.

Dead, glazed eyes looked back at him between strands of black hair trailing over whitened skin.

Mobei Jun thought he seemed vaguely familiar.

He looked back to Sha Hualing. “Who is this?”

And why should I care? Hung unsaid in the air.

Sha Hualing hadn’t shown an ounce of notable interest since Mobei Jun had arrived, but upon finally being spoken to, something in her face lit up. “Why should I know? I just thought you’d want to see for yourself what trouble brews on your own doorstep.” Her voice was annoyingly chipper. She raised one of her hands and pinched between two fingers was a long, green ribbon.

The only color Mobei Jun saw was red.

“A dead body in a stuffy old library and this clenched in his nasty fingers. Makes one wonder wh—”

Mobei Jun was on her in an instant, tearing the ribbon away. Her expression instantly soured. “No need to be rude. I’ve done you a service, Mobei.”

“Get out.”

Sha Hualing met his intense stare with one of her own, before breaking the air between them with a resigned sigh. She hopped off the table in a flourish of crimson silk, and moved towards the doorway, but, instead of leaving, turned around to lean against the wall with her arms crossed and a smile curling at the corner of her lip. “I didn’t kill him, just so you know.”

Mobei Jun spared the body on the floor one last look before he ripped it to shreds.

By the time he was done, the library was marred in gore and the air stank of copper. Bloody streaks painted the walls with no care for what scrolls or books were stained with the spray. 

“Your little human’s still no shortage of trouble, is he?” Sha Hauling chided, one of few who could speak in such a way and leave intact. “He’s been hanging around so long now that even I’d know his smell anywhere. Disgusting.”

“Clean it.”

“Excuse me…?” Sha Hualing was clearly more offended that her words hadn’t reaped more entertaining results. As little time as Mobei Jun had for her games on a normal day, today he had absolutely none.

To think that someone may have laid their hands on Shang Qinghua in such a way…

No, Mobei Jun would’ve known. He would’ve smelled the stink of another if they’d gotten that far. But what had happened? Was this the result of Shang Qinghua defending himself? It was too good a death, but still something didn’t fit.

Regardless, one thing was clear: Conspirators, aggressors, and jackals had been invited into his own home.

“Send them away.”

Sha Hualing was not amused. “Are you just going to bark orders at me? I’m not one of your pets.”

Mobei Jun was unmoved. “Send. Them. Away. All of them.” By now a cluster of servants were hovering at the door, too hesitant to go in but too curious to stay away. When their King bellowed orders, they all knew better than to feign ignorance in such close proximity.

“When this Mobei Jun returns, he expects his Realm clean.

One of the servants piped up. “M-My Lord, the convoys were not scheduled to leave until tomorrow. If perhaps Lord Shang were informed, he c—”

The room erupted into a cloud of frost and ice, and no one dared question him further.

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun moved swiftly. He couldn’t afford to be away from the palace any longer than was necessary. With Shang Qinghua unwell, he had left affairs in Sha Hualing’s hands. Though she was rarely willing to do him any favors, she’d never turn down the opportunity to boss around his subordinates. For that, he could trust her.

The strength of his portals, limited as they could be outside his own domain, still allowed him to cross what should’ve been hours of travel in an instant. For the sake of haste, he could spare the effort.

Appearing in an unremarkable patch of barren field, he could see the mountain he sought sprawling on the near horizon. The very sky above him was a lighter shade than most of the Demon Realm, clearly a space that shared more in common with the lands in which humans presided.

He left a burst of air and a crater in the ground as he shot ahead, propelling himself forward in a blur of speed. His boots only touched the ground when necessary to maintain momentum and he cleared the remaining distance quickly. He knew he didn’t need to go far up the mountain, only to find the area where greenery grew in abundance.

Fortunately it was impossible to miss what had been described to him—a massive indentation in the mountain side, as if at some time a great object falling from the sky had grazed it in passing. It was there, in the space below it, where the sun was given access to the abnormally fertile soil, that what he sought was growing.

Mobei Jun felt the ground beneath him softening as he ascended. Soon, his boots hit grass, and he stopped. The area was alive with all manner of plants—some familiar, and some so abnormal it was as if he’d stepped into an entirely different world. He had no time to admire it, and frankly no interest, but he couldn’t help but think Shang Qinghua would love it here. It was too easy to imagine him scampering from shrub to bush explaining in great detail about all these things he’d never seen but somehow had exhaustive knowledge about.

A small mossy hill jutted from the larger rock face, and atop it was a cluster of flowers. Mobei Jun found what he was looking for. The blossoms were bright violet, the petals sparkling under the light that nourished them. Small yellow dots speckled their surface, and little thorns protected the slender stems. Mobei Jun walked over and grasped several at once, snapping them from the base.

A snarl catches his attention.

He calmly turned, greeted by the sight of three massive dog-like creatures slowly advancing. Sharp fangs and powerful limbs weren’t nearly as noticeable as the stench, their fur caked in half-dry mud and who knows what else.

Abyss Wolves.

A small alcove was visible in the furthest corner of his vision. Bones littered the entrance, and the ground—leading into what he suspected was a cave—was clearly worn down by years of weight and claws. These wolves weren’t just hunting here—they lived here, and Mobei Jun had unwittingly shown up on their front door.

Despite the context of neglected intel, Mobei Jun was not concerned. These were just a few Abyss Wolves. Nothing anyone worth a damn couldn’t handle, and he intended to make quick work of them.

With an effortless swipe, he knocked one from the air as it leapt at him, while his other hand held the flowers as delicately as his demonic hand would allow. He narrowed his eyes as a leaf fell from its stalk during the quick movement. He maneuvered himself away long enough to place them gently within the lining of his cloak. The skirmish would need to end quickly to avoid him coming here being rendered pointless.

He caught another by the throat, as the third circled him in a wide, cautious arc.

It had taken time, effort, and a great deal more talking than Mobei Jun typically preferred, but everything had been prepared just as Shen Qingqiu had described to him, and he wasn’t about to have it ruined by a pack of mutts. He would return to his palace as swiftly as the shadows could carry him, and correct what he’d come to accept was an error on his part.

With hands still deep in matted fur and putrid muck, a private smile graced his features.

Tonight he would ask Shang Qinghua to marry him.

And that’s when he felt the protective wards on their bed chambers activate. Distracted by the pulse as it rippled through his body, his footwork faltered, and the last wolf lunged, sinking its fangs deep into his unprotected neck.

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua woke up much earlier than his body would’ve preferred.

Pulling the blanket tightly around himself, he curled into a ball and shivered from the cool air that still managed to sneak its way into his little pocket of warmth. It was a different and all around lacking kind of chill compared to the one he felt when their bed was shared.

“Mobei…?” Shang Qinghua muttered, releasing one hand from his cocoon to paw at the space around him. Feeling it empty, he made the effort to push himself up on his arms to look around with bleary eyes.

Ah, that’s right. Mobei Jun had left.

Tch! Shang Qinghua let his head drop back onto the bed. He pressed his face into a bunched up pile of furs with his cheeks deeply flushed. He was abashed, afraid, and frankly, a little annoyed. He frowned. How could Mobei Jun just leave?

Unless…

Shang Qinghua vaguely recalled saying something about the library, but he was pretty sure most sounds after that didn’t count as speech. At least not speech conducive to anything other than what they were doing. For at least an hour. Or more. He definitely lost track somewhere in the middle. What time was it now? Sunlight didn’t reach them here, so it was never as easy to reorient himself as during his days back in his Leisure House.

A renewed commotion in the hall drew his attention, likely what had woken him in the first place. He could hear the clamour of boots and voices passing by but none so clear enough to parse. At least they didn’t sound panicked in a ‘the world is ending’ kind of way. Obviously something had happened, but if Shang Qinghua didn’t know what, then bed was probably the best place to be while it sorted itself out. Bed was good like that.

Know what else was good, his thoughts prodded. That sex with Mobei Jun.

In a deliriously coerced sort of way.

Shang Qinghua groaned into his pillow. Still, how could he have been so stupid? To forget that one ridiculously huge, totally plot relevant, best-thing-about-them trait for one of his own characters as if it wasn’t an obvious trick someone would use when “courting”? Dumb, dumb, dumb Shang Qinghua!

Is that what he’s been putting so many people through with sex pollen and cursed items and succubus blood that somehow got on everything ? Sure, being horny as hell is great if you’ve got a preferred partner or two conveniently nearby, but otherwise…

He clenched his eyes shut in a futile attempt to stop the invading memories of that afternoon before he’d found his way to Mobei Jun. Being held down and teased, and forced to feel himself losing control of his own body and—

Shang Qinghua turned his head to the side and slapped the exposed cheek.

He let the sting settle.

Back to Mobei Jun. That had been very...satisfying.

...

Okay, understatement of the century—it was like no other sex they’d ever had before. His memory was a little hazy though. It had been like a dream, or maybe more like being drunk, except instead of feeling sick, his body now feels… He squirmed. Actually, laying here on the bed, his body feels really good. Intact even. Which is a sign of success in Shang Qinghua’s books! Achy hips, a thrashed ass, and a fresh collection of bruises are all well and good for momentos sometimes, but honestly Shang Qinghua prefered spending his days in as little pain as possible. A perfectly sane personal preference, he thought, not withstanding some specific inclinations during sex to which Mobei Jun was usually more than accomodating.

The amount of care Mobei Jun had shown him today though, left him feeling so very, very...loved. Shang Qinghua covered his face. It was embarrassing in hindsight! Mobei Jun could’ve just pressed him against the bed and gone at him like a beast in heat (irony noted), but he didn’t. To be fair, Shang Qinghua’s not convinced he would’ve had any issue with that at the time, but the facts remain!

Facts like that although the sex had been physically amazing, it didn’t quite make up for the reality of Shang Qinghua thinking his heart was seconds away from giving out, or the fear that came from not being able to draw in enough air to breathe, leaving him feeling suffocated. Or how his whole body had been pushed to such a state of oversensitivity that at one point he was flinching away from Mobei Jun’s touch instead of pressing into it.

It turns out being that horny isn’t much fun when you think you’re actually going to die. Been there, done that, and Shang Qinghua has spent most of this life doing a very good job of avoiding it.

Mortality aside, Mobei Jun had taken really, really good care of him, so much so that Shang Qinghua was left here to crave an eighth round where he could better appreciate his King’s well-practiced skills, now that the aphrodiasc’s effects were just a boon to his stamina and not a blow to his sanity. How far he and Mobei Jun had come since that disastrous first time...and second time...and third time...and…

He sighed. “Where are you, Mobei...?”

Was his King really choosing now of all times to be responsible, like there was anything more important than being here when he woke up? Was that not at least a bare minimum requirement after sexing your lover to unconsciousness? Spare a mercy for this lowly servant! Unfortunately Shang Qinghua’s well honed nerves told him it was likely something less innocuous that had pulled his King away.

Two sharp knocks came at the door, both equally unwelcome.

He peeked in that direction. Nice try, but there was nothing important enough to warrant him getting out of this bed, because the only person worth getting out of bed for wouldn’t be knocking.

Shang Qinghua pulled the blanket over his head.

Twice more the knocking persisted.

Nope. Not gonna answer.

Three knocks.

Knock.

Fine!

Shang Qinghua managed to escape the blankets and half-rolled himself off the bed. His toes curled against the cold floor. It was a minor thing in comparison to the shock of attempting to stand and finding out he had limbs made of jelly. His arms scrambled to find support as his noodle legs gave out beneath him.

At that moment, naked and seated on the ground, Shang Qinghua became very aware that the results of his “treatment” was still all over his body, now an unpleasant combination of accumulated sweat and release that was both cold and crusty.

Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but laugh himself nearly to tears.

Someone continued rapping on the door, this time more insistent. Seriously, was there nobody else who could do whatever it was they wanted him to do? Who says it’s always nice to be needed?! Although, with all that racket earlier, he did actually want to know what was going on, and years under Mobei Jun’s protection had successfully worn down much of his aversion to fulfilling such curiosities.

Using the bed as leverage, Shang Qinghua pulled himself up. With a shaky exhale, he found his balance. It wasn’t so bad. He picked up his inner robes and pulled the loosely fitted fabric over himself as he crossed the room. Pausing to tie his robe shut, he gave himself a quick lookover to ensure anything especially indecent was hidden before he opened the door.

A servant was standing there. It was one he recognized but not one who’d normally be sent to fetch him. He was pretty sure they typically serviced the east wing? Shang Qinghua tried to remember their name and failed, opting instead for a half-smile when he realized the other hadn’t greeted him first.

His smile vanished when a sword slid atop the servant’s neck, and sliced it open.

Shang Qinghua, mouth agape, stared as the servant’s throat was torn apart, horror made only worse by the vacant expression on their face, eyes glazed and elsewhere.

The servant was pushed forward, barely giving Shang Qinghua enough time to stagger backwards. As soon as the body crossed the threshold of the open door, the air rippled and the servant instantly became encased in ice, the crystalline statue of their form crashing to the floor at Shang Qinghua’s feet and shattering into incalculable pieces.

Shang Qinghua gawked at the shards of ice that were seconds ago another person, before his eyes snapped back to the doorway.

Qu Sh—

No, it wasn’t him. The demon standing there had a similar hair style and robes, but he was thicker and a little shorter. The sword in his hand was a nasty looking thing with a wooden hilt, two serrated notches in the metal, and somehow not a drop of blood.

The stranger went to walk towards him before a voice cried out, “Wait,” and he did.

Then Qu Shiying stepped into view, his hand calmly held out in front of the other. He moved to replace him as the one facing Shang Qinghua from the hall.

“Lord Shang Qinghua, this one is so pleased to see you here. To ignore a servant’s call for so long, we were beginning to get concerned.”

Shang Qinghua felt what little confidence he’d gotten back in his legs starting to fail. Only sheer force of will was keeping him up, or it was the debilitating fear.

Stepping closer, Qu Shiying looked over the door frame and hovered his fingers near the invisible barrier that separated them. He studied it for what felt much longer than it probably was.

“Why not go ahead and try it?” Shang Qinghua goaded as he worked to regain his senses. He wholeheartedly meant it too. Please, please try it.

Qu Shiying smiled, because of course he did. Then he closed his eyes, and took a very slow inhale, and stepped through.

The barrier shimmered, and Qu Shiying flinched as a visible shudder overcame him, but, after a moment to compose himself, he was there, in the room, and completely unharmed. He raised his hand again to stop his partner from following.

It was just enough time for Shang Qinghua to summon his sword. It flew from its scabbard against the wall, knocking a stack of books off a cabinet and clanging off a hanging lamp, but still reached his hand in an instant. His fingers clenched around it tightly and he swung.

For the first time since he’d met him at that banquet, Qu Shiying looked shocked. All his usual decorum vanished in that fleeting moment. Too bad it was the only thing lost, because the demon angled his body just fast enough to avoid the sword taking his arm.

The sound of clashing metal reverberated off the walls as Shang Qinghua took another swing, only to have his sword connect with one suddenly in Qu Shiying’s hand, the man in the hall having thrown it to him in time to block the second blow.

Qu Shiying separated their blades with a downward swipe.

Of course he had to not fail at using a weapon.

Shang Qinghua put more space between them and braced himself, gripping the hilt of his sword in both hands. It had been years since he needed to fight. It wasn’t for lack of violent conflict—demons thrived off it even more than humans do, surprising no one—but it was rare he’d find himself in a situation where seeking a safe place to hide wasn’t the more practical option. He preferred it that way and it suited him just fine, ask anyone!

Even back on Cang Qiong Mountain, arguably his prime, fighting had never been Shang Qinghua’s forte. Sure, he’d spent countless hours over those years cultivating and working up a gross sweat on his sword forms, defending himself from all manner of beasts when it was needed, and sparring when he was forced to, but it still felt like a matter of course by the System that he’d made it as far as he did. Even he only really went so far out of deference to the original Shang Qinghua, something he hadn’t even considered being totally optional until Cucumber Bro came and blendered whatever existed of his plot! Of course he understood that a healthy amount of ass kissing, errand running, and a natural talent for bookkeeping was ultimately what secured his status as Peak Lord, but still , when it came to fighting prowess, being one of the weakest among a group of the strongest was nothing to sneeze at!

He never expected to need those skills here in the room he shared with Mobei Jun.

It was really rather awful.

Shang Qinghua lunged forward again. Two strikes, both blocked. Damn it! He could practically hear Liu Qingge telling him how slow and clumsy his attacks were. Even the voices in his head refused to cut him some slack! Adrenaline can only do so much for a body this sexed-out tired, okay?! Even the act of stepping backwards sent tremors through his legs.

“The spell cast upon the door was quite impressive,” Qu Shiying spoke. He pushed aside a pile of ice with his boot, acting as if they hadn’t just crossed swords. “Had this one not been granted Lord Shang Qinghua’s gift, he would’ve shared the same fate.”

Having finally wised up to Qu Shiying’s power set—even if it was a little OP compared to what he’d originally written—it didn’t take Shang Qinghua long to put two-and-two together.

While there was the slightest possibility their race could adapt an immunity to magic in general, he knew that wouldn’t be enough for wards that Mobei Jun had infused with his own power. There was no way! Qu Shiying’s ability to adapt must’ve allowed his body to actually fool the wards instead. After today, he had more than enough “source material” ( gag ) from Shang Qinghua in his system, which meant the door probably recognized Qu Shiying as Shang Qinghua, and simply let him through.

But what kind of ward was that? Shouldn’t it work with souls or energy or something? How, in a world overflowing with magic and spiritual power, did their security system rely on something like DNA?! Though that would explain why Mobei Jun had made Shang Qinghua smear a cut palm on the stonework just after he’d officially moved in… At the time, he assumed it was just some territorial thing and was too busy being grateful Mobei Jun hadn’t asked him to piss on the wall instead to really give it much thought.

The science was no help now though. Qu Shiying was here, Mobei Jun wasn’t, and Shang Qinghua wasn’t going to let this play out like last time.

It was a small blessing that Qu Shiying didn’t look—didn’t feel —the same way he did earlier. Shang Qinghua could still vaguely smell it, that strange odor that puts butterflies in his stomach, but it wasn’t affecting him the same way. Could it really wear off that quickly? Or is it simply that these demons can only adapt their bodies one way at a time? Either gimmick sounds like something he would’ve written, to force someone to move quickly and not bog down the plot. Good job, Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky!

“Much as this one is impressed to see the rumors of Lord Shang Qinghua’s physical prowess challenged, time is short. All delegates are being asked to leave on rather short notice in their King’s absence and we must depart.”

Absence?

“Wh...where is Mobei Jun?!” Shang Qinghua demanded.

“Occupied, this one hopes. Unlikely for long.”

Qu Shiying reached into an unfamiliar bag at his side and pulled something out. He extended his hand to Shang Qinghua. Clasped between two thin fingers was a single black petalled flower.

“A gift.”

Nope!

If anybody knew to stay away from all forms of petalled plants, it was the one who wrote them into existence. Shang Qinghua had long since stopped tracking how many plots he'd pulled from his ass using pollens for this and pollens for that. You could always rely on someone to stumble upon the wrong plant at the right time to kick a plot forward. Usually a very sexy forward, and he was not looking for a repeat event.

No thanks!

Despite his best efforts, Shang Qinghua did a very poor job at hiding his very legitimate concerns as he answered with the confidence of someone who had just been presented with a swarm of bees. “I don’t want it, so just, ah, keep it!” His hands remained steadfast on his sword but now he was extra hesitant to make any foolhardy moves.

Qu Shiying’s momentary confusion faded quickly into intrigue. “This one is surprised Lord Shang Qinghua appears to recognize such a thing. It only grows at the base of the mountains this one was raised on.” That same sly smile crept back on his features like he couldn’t help himself but continue. “Though perhaps it is this one who has made an error in judgement. Is this not how humans court? This one supposed he should try something more traditional for your kind.”

“This one knows when to admit defeat”, my ass!!

With Qu Shiying standing in front of him, flower in hand, he may as well have been holding a loaded gun as far as Shang Qinghua was concerned. He didn’t even trust his legs to safely move him any further away.

Five long petals, all a velvety black with white speckles, and a stamen that seemed to glitter with a pearlescent dust. It was very pretty in that ‘look but don’t touch’ sort of way. But which one was it? The Obsidian Coils? The Twelve Li Perennial Passion? Oh god he hoped it wasn’t The Blossom of Bursting Bosoms. That was a black flower wasn’t it? There’s a reason it never got out of the draft stage. Sure he’d considered playing around with the

Pfff.

Qu Shiying blew. The pollen was light and airy, clearing the distance easily as it made contact with Shang Qinghua's face. He coughed and batted at the air, trying to cover his nose and mouth with his sword arm. Both actions did little more than smear the powdery substance over him further and immediately the world began to spin.

Well, at least it wasn’t The Blossom of Bursting Bosoms, a vague relief as he felt himself stagger back.

W
  h
  e
    r
    e
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To say Shang Qinghua came to would be a gross exaggeration. The world was a blur and no amount of blinking could bring it back into focus. Where was he? The chill in the air, the tapestries on the walls, the servants running past… This was still Mobei Jun’s palace, but since when was he in the hallway?

“Come along, Lord Shang.”

Who was that? The voices around him were faint and distorted, like they were speaking through water. Fingers grazed his own before sliding against his palm, gently guiding him forward. Was he...walking?

Shang Qinghua became vaguely aware of the existence of his legs.  He could only watch in a state of half-consciousness as everything moved past him. So cold. Was he even dressed? Where was his sword? His free hand twitched around emptiness.

“Ah, Master Shang!”

“Master Shang, if you could—”

Two smaller individuals briefly made appearances in his line of vision, and he was sure he’d feel relieved to see them if he could muster much feeling at all. He walked past them. In a failed attempt to look back, Shang Qinghua caught a glimpse of the cloaked figure to his left. From this angle, he could see it was the demon who had killed that servant, which meant he could guess who was on his other side—the one lightly holding his hand and whispering words in his ear. They were words of comfort, praise, and a constant gentle persuasion to keep moving forward.

Forward, past the walls of his home and past his own coworkers and further and further from his room. A few others tried to get his attention—scheduling, carriages, baggage... Why was everyone in such a rush? Why wasn’t anyone paying attention?

Why wasn’t anybody helping him?

Soon the number of people they came across dwindled and they arrived at a room he hadn’t seen in a couple of days. It was one of their store rooms, specifically the one that had caught fire. His demon escorts opened the door, and the smell of charred wood flooded his senses as his boots came down upon coarse ash. It was the first time he noticed he was even wearing anything on his feet.

After the fire, everything that could be salvaged had been moved out of this room, leaving it empty until it could be restored after the conference had ended.

So what was that weird trunk doing against the wall?

As the pair gently urged him on, one of them opened the trunk to reveal a nearly bare interior save for a rumpled blanket covered in flower petals. The smell was overpowering.

“The body?”

“Moved to the library, my Lord. Qu Cheng saw to the details.”

“Superb. Now, Lord Shang—yes, that’s right. Come this way...”

A hand came to rest on his lower back as he realized to muddled horror what was about to happen.

He really should’ve done more. Knocked more things over, left a note, a sign—anything. All those servants who saw him just walking past. Could he really not get their attention? Did he try hard enough? What would Mobei Jun think when he got back? Would he know what had happened? Could he find him in time? Would he know where to look?

Or might Mobei Jun think, for even just a second, that Shang Qinghua…had just left?

It was all he could think about as his body lifted a leg to step inside, before the intoxicating smell robbed him of what little coherent thought he had left. As the padded bottom met his back, Shang Qinghua’s already weak hold on consciousness gave way. Surrounded by the velvet touch of petals and the suffocating scent of their sweet poison, a satisfied smile and strands of golden hair were the last things he saw before the cover closed.

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Shang Qinghua knew what a hangover felt like. It felt a lot like this. He groaned, his eyes still closed as he felt the softness of blankets beneath him and a sweet smell in the air. What was that? Mobei Jun hated any new incense in their room. Light pressed against his eyelids, trying to break through and he stubbornly rolled over to escape it.

“Ouch!” He cried out, as his hair caught under his shoulder. The pain was just jarring enough to bring some clarity. Since when did he tie his hair back like that, all in one low-hanging piece? He pulled it free and peeled his eyes open to see a white ribbon laying over the palm of his hand along with his hair.

What…?

He pushed himself up. The ‘remember how I got here’ counter was rolled back down to zero, the second such occurrence in far too little time. Although, as his eyes began to focus, he had to wonder…

Did it count if it wasn’t his own room?

The place Shang Qinghua now found himself bore little in common with the thick stone and heavy draperies of the Northern Ice Palace. Aesthetically it had more in common to his home back at An Ding Peak, except with darker woods and less delicate craftsmanship on the furniture. He was clearly in a bedroom, betrayed by a simple layout that included a table with a single chair, a wardrobe, room divider, and of course, the bed, where he currently sat.

Don’t panic.

Don’t.

Panic.

Shang Qinghua looked down at himself. He was wearing a single layer, off-white robe with a red sash tied around his waist. Bringing his arm up, he smelled the back of his hand to confirm that that sweet smell was in fact coming from him. Hesitantly, he next lifted the blankets and looked down, relieved to see himself wearing a matching pair of thin trousers. While waking up fully clothed was nice, he could tell that he had been very thoroughly cleaned before someone had dressed him. How...considerate.

Except not at all!! Shang Qinghua cursed wildly in protest for his host’s oh so gracious hospitality. Kidnapped? Kidnapped! How?! He would never hear the end of this from Mobei Jun. Or Cucumber Bro, who, by the way, has been kidnapped at least six times so is not one to talk!

The walls must be thin, because his verbal outrage garnered swift attention. The door he’d neglected to notice before now—an instant failure of Held Captive 101—opened. Through it walked Qu Shiying and two individuals who looked like they could only be in their teenage years. From their demeanor and dress, Shang Qinghua had to assume they were servants. One held a tray of food and the other a tray with what looked like a small stack of books and an ink set.

Qu Shiying bowed to him with all the candor of a venomous viper. “Lord Shang, it pleases this one to see you’re finally awake.”

Shang Qinghua erred on the side of silence. His eyes shifted around the room in a bid for escape. There were no windows and no other door but the one currently blocked.

“This one hopes you’ve found everything as accommodating as promised.”

“Is that what you call it? No view and not even a chocolate on my pillow?” Looking at that stupid, totally-not-scary smiling face made Shang Qinghua’s stomach curl. “This place stinks.

Qu Shiying didn’t skip a beat. “The oils used during your washing are extracts of the same floral family used to mask your scent in coming here. The smell is rather pleasant, would you not agree?”

Masked his scent… Hmm. The trunk, those flowers—come to think of it, it did seem awfully familiar. Oh! Despite an audience, Shang Qinghua bopped a closed fist against his open palm. Demonic funeral rights! Clans would store their bodies in caskets with a specific flower strong enough to cancel out the rotting odors. It made a world of difference for demons whose senses were often maxed.

So that was how they’d managed to actually get him out of the palace—sealed away in a trunk, no sound, no smell. He had just become another piece of luggage. The idea that Mobei Jun’s own servants had likely put him in the back of a carriage, dooming him to be carted away right under their noses, was almost enough to make him laugh.

It seemed like an awfully convenient amount of prep for someone who showed up with the goal of bartering a trade route and flirting with a taken man. There were still other holes in his story, too, but Shang Qinghua could feel it. He was getting close to the one thing you could always count on when dealing with this type when they thought they had the advantage, at least those who didn’t just want you dead on the spot—the villain’s monologue!

“All right, I understand the trunk then, very clever...but why torch the store room? I get to blame you for that one too, don’t I?”

“It was simply an envoy who overheard a conversation that wasn’t his to hear. Efforts to defend himself caused a bit of...unintended damage.” Qu Shiying explained. “Fortunately, he was kind enough to keep our belongings warm for their intended purpose those few days in recompense.”

The implication was another thing added to Shang Qinghua’s list of grievances. Was he saying Shang Qinghua had been squished into a trunk that someone else had been trapped in for days before him? That was more than a little unsettling, but it did address one gaping plothole from his week. Surprise, surprise, every damn thing was this guy’s fault! Did he harass the kitchen staff too?! Maybe he’ll blame him for ruining his favourite robe just to keep things orderly.

The case of the missing delegate had reopened itself.

“And, ah, where is he now?”

Qu Shiying looked amused that Shang Qinghua wanted to continue this line of conversation. “Concerned? You needn’t be. He’s dead, though it had been put off somewhat.” He took a moment to pluck a piece of fruit from the tray and rolled it between his fingers. It was very villainy. “Let this one ask you a question. What does Lord Shang suppose one would assume if they found a body in the library that day with a green ribbon in his possession?”

Shang Qinghua subconsciously reached up to touch his own hair. Understanding crept over him, but he saw the goading for what it was. He shifted himself into a cross-legged position on the bed.

“So cocky!” He spat with an accusatory point. “There’s no way you covered your tracks as well as you think. They’ll figure out it was you, and your subtly about Zi Jing Mountain was amateur at best. Pah! If you think you can hide me here, then you’re dumber than I thought. Better to let me go now and see how you fare!”

He crossed his arms petulantly.

If Qu Shiying was concerned, he hid it remarkably well.

“Even if that were true, what makes Lord Shang believe we are at Zi Jing Mountain in the first place?”

Shang Qinghua’s stomach dropped. What kind of plot twist was this?! The art of foreshadowing truly was dead. In dismay, he bluntly asked “Where are we?”

Qu Shiying looked back at him and let his simper fill the silence.

Finding that going nowhere, Shang Qinghua just outright addressed the elephant in the room. “Why am I here? You know I’m never going to be your...mate—” Ugh, just saying that out loud was unbelievably wrong! “—so what could you possibly want?”

Qu Shiying sighed. “This one’s afraid he has misled Lord Shang somewhat. Having you here as our guest was always the intent. There were simply some deviations from the original arrangements.”

Were all guests brought here in coffins, oiled up, and locked in?

Shang Qinghua bit his tongue and simply repeated, “Deviations...?”

“It was always our intention to bring back Mobei Jun’s strategist if we were not able to procure the support we needed. However, word of your engagement offered a unique opportunity to welcome you to our home without resorting to theft. When it failed, we simply held our course.”

Qu Shiying had started to pace as he spoke, coming to a stop next to the table and letting his fingers trace over the back of the chair. He gave off the distinct feeling of someone who wanted to say something else, but chose not to. Well, a cut-up, half-monologue was better than nothing, though Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure if knowing he was always intended to be a kidnap victim was better than someone crossing a continent to flirt with him.

Actually, on second thought, the original reason was way easier to understand. He accepted it gladly.

Still, the quiet that followed his captor’s little spiel was getting him nowhere. Even as a prisoner, it seems Shang Qinghua has to do everything himself!

“So, what now? You say you wanted a strategist but...for what?”

“It no longer matters. That particular issue has resolved itself.”

Ah? Well then why was he even here?! Shang Qinghua wanted to claw his own ears off to suddenly hear such conflicting nonsense.

“However, it would trouble this one greatly for someone as wise and prone to task as the Lord Shang Qinghua to be left idle.” He gestured with his hand, and the servants—who this entire time had simply been standing there holding those trays—came to his side, and placed them both on the table.

“A simple agreement. Your care in exchange for your knowledge.” Qu Shiying lifted one of the books and flipped through the pages, revealing it to be blank. “One filled book a day will ensure you are fed and that nothing untoward will befall you.” He turned and flashed a smile. “This one assumes that is simple enough to understand?”

-------------------------------------

Shang Qinghua was no stranger to being locked away in a room expected to toil over paper and ink, but despite all that came with managing the affairs of two separate societies, this was the first time he could recall being held at near-literal knifepoint to do it. This new job sucked.

That first day, he had refused. A silent protest anyway. The servants came at the end of the day to collect the empty books and took all the writing supplies with them. To further make his point, Shang Qinghua even left the food tray untouched. Okay, mostly. He stole a couple of grape-like fruits and a sip of water, but that was it! Weirdly they seem to be vegetarian here, or at least they think he’s one.

The second day was much the same, lacking only a visit from Qu Shiying. One servant came in the morning, this time only with the tray of empty books and writing supplies. They returned at night to take them away having found them untouched again. Try as he might, Shang Qinghua couldn’t get them to speak to him on either occasion. They simply acted like he wasn’t there. As promised, no food came, but fortunately neither did anything else. No one even told him what he was supposed to be writing! ‘Knowledge.’ What did that even mean?! It would serve them right if they got his first and last snuff novel starring a certain someone!

Day three showed no improvement. Servant came. Servant left. This time, Shang Qinghua wandered from the bed over to the table and idly ran his hands over the wooden brush. Maybe just a little writing couldn’t hurt. Just to pass the time. He sat in the chair, and pulled his hair up in a quick bun, secured with the same white ribbon that had lazily kept his hair tied back until now.

The smell of prepared ink leavened his mood somewhat. He hovered the brush over a blank page and let a single drop of dark ink fall before he pressed it down.

To the most powerful Mobei Jun,

Hello, my King!

Mobei Jun,

How have you been?

Your loyal Shang Qinghua hopes this letter finds you well.

Please don’t be dead.

Please forgive this servant if things have been troublesome in his absence.

There are some things that should’ve been said, and perhaps some things that should’ve been done. If the great Mobei Jun could come retrieve me at his earliest convenience, this servant would most appreciate it and would be happy to discuss!

The food here is really very bad. 

I don’t

When I return ho

I’m sorry.

I miss

Another single droplet hit the page, leaving only a clear spot of wetness. Shang Qinghua furiously wiped a sleeve over his face before ripping out the ruined page and tossing it crumpled to the floor.

Day four was a repeat. Boredom might kill him before anything else. Most of his days had been spent remembering how to properly meditate when he wasn’t shoving furniture around in hopes of finding a hidden passageway or a trapdoor. Regrettably he hadn’t written this specific room into existence, so it was entirely free of his usual conveniences. He did find a decent red robe in the wardrobe, which after an especially chilly night allowed himself to indulge in by wearing it over his shoulders.

Shang Qinghua wasn’t too concerned about the lack of food. He may not be the most well-practiced at inedia but he supposed he could last until he figured out how to escape or Mobei Jun came to rescue him.

Which he undoubtedly would, eventually. There was a time he wouldn’t have thought himself worthy of the effort, but he wasn’t so bogged down in self-pity these days that he didn’t know his own King! Of course Mobei Jun would come get him, and he’d kick everyone’s asses so hard they’d never have to worry about attending another conference again. Shang Qinghua was claimed property!

Whether Mobei Jun knew where he was, however, was a different matter entirely.

It was because of that nagging concern that on day five, Shang Qinghua decided to take matters into his own hands. When the lone servant arrived in the morning, bearing the same tray, he was waiting. Behind the door in fact, like a real classy warrior. He held in his hands one of the small wooden doors he’d pried off the wardrobe.

He spoke a little prayer on the servant’s behalf before he brought it down on their head, met with success in the form of a heavy crack and a falling body. Can’t adapt to what you don’t know is coming! In hindsight, he probably should’ve waited until they’d actually come into the room and put the tray down. As the servant fell, the contents of it scattered across the floor in a mockingly loud display.

Too late now.

Dropping the impromptu weapon, Shang Qinghua glanced outside the door to ensure it was clear. This was the first time he’d seen anything outside his room and he was greeted with a narrow hallway extending to the left and right. Everything was wooden, the same dark lacquer look as everything else. What didn’t match was that the hallway was well lit with natural light from open panels that lined either end, as opposed to his room which had no windows for him to see outside. Or escape from, probably.

So much for that!

Shang Qinghua took off to the right, cautious to check around any corners he came across before continuing onward down that straight line to freedom. Even without a sword, he figured he could make due with the window. All he needed was an awning, a tree, or heck even a well placed bush. He wasn’t picky! The upside of knowing he wasn’t on Zi Jing Mountain gave him hope it wouldn’t be a mile long drop to his death in anycase.

All he got for his efforts was a hard palm to the chest.

The force sent Shang Qinghua back nearly half the distance he’d come. He landed on the floor hard, the air punched from his lungs.

Giving himself a minute to appreciate the unique feeling of breathing through rice crackers, Shang Qinghua propped himself up with a wince, one hand over his heart. He looked up to see someone new looming above him. He suspected that knowing who it was wouldn’t have changed anything. Before Shang Qinghua could even muster an appropriate grovel, the lightly armored demon grabbed him by his robe and dragged him down the hallway. What was it about his appearance that just screamed ‘ragdoll’? He can walk perfectly fine!

A sentiment he shared out loud with gusto. He was caught anyway, might as well give anybody in ear shot a rotten couple of auditory moments!

Seconds later, he was tossed unceremoniously into that frustratingly familiar room where the servant still laid unconscious on the floor. The demon, who Shang Qinghua decided was a guard,  didn’t look especially thrilled with the additional hassle.

“Is Consort Shang displeased with his accommodations?” came a soft voice from behind him, almost too melodious for the double-edged bite of its words. Having already gotten to his feet and dusted himself off, Shang Qinghua was met with the disapproving stare of someone he never actually thought he’d get to meet—Wu Mingxia. A father always knows! She was one of Binghe’s wives, number…ah... Well that part wasn’t important. What was important is that she was Qu Shiying’s fiance in the original story, and the feeling of seeing one of his own creations come to life had yet to get boring.

Shame it wasn’t under better circumstances.

“Oh, they’re fine,” He responded, rubbing at his still aching chest. “For a prison.” The clobbered servant was dragged out of the room.

Wu Mingxia was really quite beautiful. She wore a red robe lined in silver with a matching hair ornament in the shape of some kind of bird, and a long braid of golden hair that reached past her hips. In one of her hands was a closed fan that she rolled between the fingers of the other. She was not someone he suspected would need any help seducing somebody. The original Luo Binghe was a bit of shit like that, playing his leading man version of hard-to-get, say nothing for increasing evidence that he may never have been as straight as Shang Qinghua intended him to be for the sake of a vocal readership.

She looked him over, making no secret of the judgement in her eyes. Then her lip quirked upwards just enough to twist the knife of the words that followed. “Tells of your literary intelligence must bear some weight. Surely you haven’t the looks or the common sense to earn a place as second spouse to this one’s husband.”

Ah. Insults. Shang Qinghua smiled out of reflex.

And second spouse? Shang Qinghua wanted to laugh. From consort to concubine. It was hardly a step-up. He can see why Qu Shiying didn’t lead with that.

“It’s as you say, Madam Qu.” Shang Qinghua replied with an accepting shrug. He risked using her married name. As far as timelines go, it should make sense. If the opportunity to seduce Luo Binghe hadn’t arrived, or happened and failed—he made a mental note to ask Shen Qingqiu about it later, assuming the chance arose—then it would only make sense that Wu Mingxia’s original marriage had happened. Though even if it hadn’t, it was still better not to slip that he knew her birth name, since it was much less likely to have been picked up in passing. A parlour trick for some was cause for great suspicion to another, and he’d rather not get on anyone’s bad side if it could be avoided.

Wu Mingxia didn’t correct him.

“My servants say you’ve refused to write.”

Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but spare a glance at the table before giving a resigned nod. “Ah, that is also as you say. However in my defense, the request was rather vague. Perhaps if your Qu Shi—” 

“Our Lord isn’t here, if you’re seeking leniency.” She interrupted. “And this one is the master of the estate irregardless of his presence. While anything you do may reflect on him, anything you do remains on me to act upon.”

“Ah...no, I’m really not seeking anything. This lowly...consort...would just rather not be here at all.”

Wu Mingxia was unmoved. “Apparently so.” Her hand holding the fan did a singular twirl, and the same guard from earlier returned, followed by another behind him.

“H-hey, hey! ” Shang Qinghua protested as the guards approached him quickly, each grabbing an arm. Despite his attempts to pull away, they forced him backwards onto the bed. One of them easily held him down, flat on his back. The other lowered themselves out of his line of sight. He felt a warm hand grip onto one of his ankles, followed by the very unwelcome sensation of his legs being pulled apart. He panicked.

I’m really not ready to join a harem!!

“Ah! Ah! Stop!! I’ll write in your stupid books! I’ll write! I’ll write!!” Shang Qinghua cried, trying to squirm out of their hold to no avail, his free leg kicking wildly into empty air.

Click.

They both let him go. As the adrenaline wore off, Shang Qinghua rolled to his side and sat up. A metal cuff was attached to his ankle, connected to an anchor ring on the floor by a thick chain. As he stared at it, brain blank, one of the books was tossed at him. It thumped dully off his chest and landed on his lap.

“See that you do,” Wu Mingxia said dryly. “Your leaving soon doesn’t absolve you of uselessness in the meantime.”

“Of course not,” Shang Qinghua sighed wearily. Leave it to him to try a daring break out and end up worse than before. He was no better suited to field work now than he was when it was actually expected of him, and that at least was—wait. “Leaving soon?” He parroted, daring to hope. Maybe they’d finally decided to just take the normal kidnapping route and ransom him back? Finally he could go home! Hello, his own clothes! Hello, noodles! Hello, M—

“The arrangement had been made before you’d even arrived. Our end of the bargain is simply being held. Now it’s just a matter of him arriving and we can finally return home.” Wu Mingxia said as she swept stray hairs back behind her ear. Her voice held a hint of forlornness under its persistent veil of anger. Somehow, Shang Qinghua was sure under better circumstances she’d be a very kind person, or at least be able to sound like one.

“I see. So, then Mobei Jun, he’s…?”

Wu Mingxia shot him a look that would make any man with his dignity still intact fold like a paper crane.

“Mobei Jun? Don’t be foolish. In two days time, you’re to be claimed by Linguang Jun.”

Shang Qinghua didn’t bother waiting for them to leave the room before he began to furiously pull and curse at his shackle.

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun grabbed the beast by its scruff and ripped it off himself without a care for the resulting damage. He felt the flesh of his own neck torn away with it as the smell of blood overwhelmed the putrid rot of the Abyss Wolf’s fur.

One of the wolves he had knocked away lunged again. Mobei Jun kicked it back just in time for his body to be struck with another tremor, the magic-infused protections of his palace draining him at such a long distance. He could only feel the sensation of its use and not tell what had woken it. The ward would not activate if Shang Qinghua tried to leave, so someone must have entered. Yet the spell should’ve killed anyone who passed through it, so why did it thrum not once, but twice? The not-knowing bore at him more fiercely than the pain of his lacerated neck, but only one of them threatened his hold on consciousness. Poison from the wolf’s bite was seeping into him and while his own demonic blood could eventually flush it out, it was a long term solution to a short term problem.

He threw the wolf still in his other hand towards the one who had bitten him, offering a momentary reprieve from the three attacking at once. The kicked wolf returned to circling, lavishing in the smell of his injury as saliva oozed from its open maw.

There was no time for this, and his sword technique, powerful as it was, was too much of a risk with multiple enemies and his senses dulling. Adrenaline surged from his frustration and he braced himself in the softened ground, letting the power coursing through his veins well up—a cold that burned within him, collecting, expanding, threatening to erupt…

“My King, please, but just...just stay with me!”

Until he let it.

An explosion of frost blasted outwards from the ground beneath his feet, covering the surrounding area in a sheet of ice. A single Abyss Wolf cried out, as the ice encased the plant life in crystalline cocoons, and left all three wolves as if statues in a garden, their last moments frozen in icy tombs.

Mobei Jun fell to one knee. He heaved as his lungs struggled to pull in enough air to give him the strength he needed. Every movement, every breath, sent a shock of pain through what remained of his neck as it slowly attempted to stitch itself back together. Few demons could heal their own bodies in an instant, but adrenaline was as powerful a thing for coveting life as it could be for dealing death, as was his body’s want to keep his head attached. At the very least, he shouldn’t bleed out, though it did little to encourage him.

He could no longer feel anything from the wards, but whether it spelt disaster or calm was something he wouldn’t know until he got there. It drove him to his feet, and he staggered forward until he was able to steel himself with a shuddering gasp. Until his body could eliminate more of the Abyss Wolf’s poison, he wouldn’t be able to muster the energy needed for a portal at any distance.

But he couldn’t stay here.

He left the same way he came—making his way down the sloping mountainside in a series of leaps and lunges, weaving past obstacles, stumbling over nothing, and ignorant to anything but the horizon ahead of him. As his boots hit even ground, another blast of strength propelled him forward.

The setting sun at his flank served as both guide and timekeeper as he forced his body across the open plain, ever closer, yet still so far, from his home.

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun collapsed from the shadows onto the floor of his bed chambers, moments before the curdled contents of his stomach erupted. It splashed across the stonework in a slurry of blood and bile.

“Qinghua…” He coughed, his weariness leaving him to languish in the nostalgia. How many times before had he been hurt, only to seek out that same strange little human who was always willing to help him? Who always knew the cure to any ailment, and always managed to put him back together even as his smaller hands shook and his mouth sputtered nonsense?

The silence that greeted him now was far removed from the panicked cries and stumbling footsteps of his memories.

“My King!”

Clutching a hand over his neck, he looked to the bed. Empty. It had been many hours since he’d left, nearly a day. It was so much longer than intended, but Shang Qinghua should be here—if not asleep, than waiting. He growled.

Mobei Jun dragged himself up and observed the room. Nothing else seemed out of place, save for a single stack of books on the desk. Shang Qinghua knocked things over too easily to leave himself easy targets that low to the ground. Perhaps he’d gotten up to read? Or he’d gotten hungry and left, or gone looking for Mobei Jun... No, it was doubtful any of those things could rouse an exhausted Shang Qinghua from his bed. He suspects nothing short of the palace’s collapse could have, and even that was more likely to inspire him to hide beneath it.

Something didn’t feel right.

Mobei Jun undid the clasp of his heavy cloak, letting it fall to the floor. He went to the door, reaching to open it when he felt the slightest slip of his boot. Looking down, he saw the floor was coated in a thin layer of ice, a reddish hue to its color almost indistinguishable from the floor in how finely it was diluted. His eyes followed the shape as it spread out from where he stood.

Something had come through the wards, and paid for it. Where was the servant he had left?!

With a growl, he wrenched open the door, and bellowed, “Shang Qinghua!!”. He grabbed the first person he saw, who barely managed to swallow their scream. “Tell me where he is!”

“I-I… Th-this one doesn’t know!” The servant stammered. Useless! Mobei Jun threw him aside as he stormed down the hallway.

Shang Qinghua’s office was empty.

The kitchen had only the weak-willed staff who panicked at the sight of him.

The main meeting hall was only servants skittering about with concerns of decor.

The hallways were bustling with familiar staff but none he was looking for.

The throne room—

He burst into it with a flurry of frost and rage. “Sha Hualing!!”

Sha Hualing was seated on his throne, one leg hanging over the arm of it. “What?” She replied haughtily, lowering a scroll in her hand. “...happened to you?” followed after she looked him over.

Mobei Jun knew he made quite a sight with a visible wound on his neck and his robes covered in blood and muck. He didn’t even spare a thought for the strands of hair that hung over his face. “Where is Shang Qinghua?!”

“How should I know? Wherever you keep him.”

He narrowed his eyes, moving no further from the door. “Do not play with me.”

“Believe me, I would never. Can’t you even fix yourself up first? You shame our Lord walking around like that, crying for your human.” Sha Hualing chided. She righted herself so she was sitting in the throne proper, crossing one leg over the other. After a moment spent in consideration, she sighed, looking away with her chin propped on one hand. “Both of you. I don’t understand it in the slightest,” she muttered.

By then, a senior attendant had entered the room, no doubt following the storm their King had left behind him as he tore through the palace. Mobei Jun demanded to know what was going on.

“It is as you requested, my Lord. All the delegates and their convoys had been made to leave. The last of them are on their way now. It...it was as quickly as was possible, this one assures,” The demon explained, making a small motion towards the open door and the thinning parade of scurrying servants and manhandled luggage.

They hadn’t seen Shang Qinghua either.

Mobei Jun didn’t stop calling for servants until he found those who had. Their recollections were few, lacking useful details, and none could agree on exactly where he had gone, but they did all agree on a few consistent facts—that wherever he had been going, he went under no discernible duress, several hours after Mobei Jun had left, and was accompanied by two individuals none could name.

No one would outright say what their words inferred, no doubt trying to clear themselves of whatever the line of questioning was suggesting. Mobei Jun refused to hear it. It was inconceivable that Shang Qinghua had simply left. Not today, not with how Mobei Jun had last seen him, and not without sending word to him first.

Mobei Jun would tear his entire stronghold apart to prove it.

“Any problems this servant has he can manage. It’s nothing to worry about.”

It was late into the evening when still no sign of Shang Qinghua had been found. Mobei Jun’s mood only darkened further as he was forced to tend to his festering wound. He was there, seated in his throne, with a healer tightening the last portion of bandages, when Sha Hualing returned and personally confirmed what he did not wish to hear—Shang Qinghua was no longer in the Northern Ice Palace.

-------------------------------------

By early morning, Mobei Jun had summoned all who had worked alongside Shang Qinghua in planning the conference. It didn’t take long to learn the identity of the library corpse as an individual from the Zhangchu Clan, a settlement east of the Borderlands who found themselves with a surprise visit from their sovereign's right-hand that very afternoon.

Mobei Jun arrived before their caravan of delegates could have reasonably made it back. The trip would take at least several days for anyone without his abilities and a treasury of artifacts providing all manner of conveniences to boost them. That the individuals he sought weren’t there didn’t save their homes being ransacked by the ice demon who took out his frustrations on the residing inhabitants who had no idea what they had done to incur his wrath, and were in no position to defend against it. But Mobei Jun was cruel by design and not nature. Everyone survived the encounter with only minor injuries and a few buildings collapsed under the sudden appearance of stationary glaciers. They were offered as warning to any who would touch that which belonged to their Lordships.

It took Mobei Jun the better part of the next day and a half to find the caravan mid-way between the two locations, which was promptly torn apart with no sign of Shang Qinghua. Despite his desperation for an enemy to name, there were enough facts he could corroborate that their claims of innocence did not fall on entirely deaf ears when interrogated. He killed only three.

For his efforts, he was still no closer to finding out where Shang Qinghua had gone, but if he had to pay a visit to every cavalcade and domicile of those who had been his guests mere days before, then so be it.

-------------------------------------

Three days later, Mobei Jun returned to the North. Not for the rest, the food or the clean clothes he sorely needed, but to see if Shang Qinghua had returned. Still there had been no word. He took his place on the throne as the heads of his personal council recounted the going ons of recent days—from the banality of rule, to the rumblings of Mobei Jun’s carnage that had already reached their ears.

Knowing nowhere else to go that served a purpose beyond aimless fury, Mobei Jun sought solace in his regular duties. A realm requires no less rule in the face of its’ Lord’s own problems. Shang Qinghua had often left for days, weeks, even months at a time in the past, and Mobei Jun was not a weak King who could not govern without another to do his job for him. The servants took to his return with equal relief and trepidation. Mobei Jun made no secret of his foul mood, however, and only those who absolutely had to seek an audience with him dared to do so as he holed himself up in the main hall.

He could scarcely remember the last time Shang Qinghua had been gone as long as this. Since Mobei Jun had asked him to live here, it could not have been more than a few days at a time when Shang Qinghua felt compelled to call on old companions or visit human towns for goods. The dull ache of being apart from the one person he held such affection for was nothing compared to the sensation of dread that gnawed at him now.

Shang Qinghua did not leave.

Mobei Jun was certain of this, regardless of the whispers that said otherwise and the provocations of Sha Hualing whose continued to spend her time idling in his home.

Or at least that was what he told himself, over and over, when the more sobering thoughts crept in. The ones that reminded him that Shang Qinghua had a habit of running away when under pressure. The ones that remembered his silhouette against a backlit door of his ancestral temple. The ones that recalled weeks of muttering about “functions” and “returning home” that used to leave Shang Qinghua staring wistfully into empty air. And most recently, the nagging reminders he had erred in his proclamation of marriage that had not even prompted a single question of rites or process from Shang Qinghua since.

“My King, please let me follow you the rest of my life!”

But Shang Qinghua did not leave.

Shang Qinghua would not leave.

But then where was he? Who had taken him? Why did he appear to go with them willingly? The questions plagued Mobei Jun between every scroll presented or request made in the day that followed—a puzzle he couldn’t solve and a blame he couldn’t place. Had Shang Qinghua been threatened? Tricked? How had no one seen him taken outside the palace walls?

His claws deepened old groves before he rose from his throne, work of the day long since concluded.

That evening was the first he went back to his room. The faint smell of iron lingered in the air despite a servant’s best efforts to clean it. The bed sheets had been changed and what had remained of soiled clothing on the floor was gone.

Sitting atop the table were the flowers he brought back, wilted and dead. He stared at the petals that no longer shone and the leaves that now curled in on themselves as dry brown husks. Mobei Jun couldn’t bring himself to discard it, useless as it now was, its medicinal properties lost. He took the most intact and he placed it between the pages of a book from the stack on Shang Qinghua’s desk.

Days without sleep should mean nothing to Mobei Jun, but he found himself weary. Maybe there was still poison lingering in his veins, sapping his strength and clouding his mind.

He didn’t remember laying on the bed. That he had slept at all was only evident by the fact that time had a way of moving forward in his absence. But no sooner had he awakened, did he wish for sleep to take him once again.

Mobei Jun does not dream. He knows he must have, as a child, with faded memories of crying to faces he couldn’t place and hiding from shadows where the monsters dwelled. Now sleep was the only place that neither could reach him. It was here, in the dark waking hours, where his mind wandered unfettered through the depths of his fears, so raw and exposed that even fury couldn’t quell them.

It was only worsened by laying in their empty bed, in the room they shared—a room that smelled so much of Shang Qinghua, his useless trinkets and worn out robes. Every inch was a reminder of him, yet none enough a distraction from the visions of torture and abuse at the hands of demons unaccustomed to dealing with a human’s fragility and reveling in its failures. The thoughts invaded unwelcome and unkind, preying on the knowledge of things Mobei Jun himself had done and the worse things he had survived, overlaying them in the cruelest of ways. He knew that anyone who would go to such lengths to steal Shang Qinghua would not seek his immediate death, though it provided only a meager comfort. Nothing beyond pretending he had never been taken in the first place could calm the shaking in his hands from an anger barely curbed.

“I-i-it's no problem, I can bear it. I'm used to it…”

He did not sleep again that night, every footstep outside the door a misery.

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun was in the clothier’s workroom the following morning when a servant found him with a simple message—Lord Luo Binghe had come to call.

He was currently waiting in the main hall, to the immeasurable alarm of the servants unprepared for his arrival. Mobei Jun dismissed them all. Sha Hualing was already there, seated on the long table with her legs dangling off the side. Across from her—in an actual chair as chairs are intended—sat Luo Binghe, adorned brilliantly in robes of black and red, and next to him, Shen Qingqiu, his comparatively delicate form draped in white and green.

To say it was strange to see the cultivator here did not do the sensation justice. Much as that little carved-out world of bamboo bothered him, Mobei Jun could not deny how intrinsically tied to Shen Qingqiu it was in his mind, so much so that seeing him here among stone and ice felt erroneous at best.

Shen Qingqiu offered him a simple nod from behind his signature fan, a basic courtesy for being in Mobei Jun’s home despite it all falling under his own husband’s authority.

“Mobei,” Luo Binghe greeted with levity. “You’ve been busy.”

It wasn’t as though Mobei Jun had made any attempts at being subtle. He spared the same in his reply. “Shang Qinghua is missing.”

Their conversation was brief. There was nothing in the Demon Realm that could escape his Lord’s notice should he care to extend it, and the discussion was more a formality. Despite this, Luo Binghe spoke as one with no new information to offer, and Mobei Jun’s feelings on his presence began to sour. If he was here to make a request, then do so. If he was here to reprimand, then punish. It was unlikely he spared any concern for what Mobei Jun had inflicted in his search, so then he had no reason to come here. Shen Qingqiu however…

“And none actually saw him leave?” The cultivator cut in, having only listened up until now.

Mobei Jun shook his head, his gaze staying to the table. “He was seen walking without force. In the presence of others, but none could say who. He did not leave the palace of his own choosing.” No one argued the conjecture.

“And then we sent all those pests back home so you have no idea who took him, and you’ve been running about blindly ever since,” Sha Hualing added. Mobei Jun spared her a frigid glance.

“Blindly…” Shen Qingqiu repeated quietly. “You’ve no suspects? No one you hold in suspicion above others?”

Mobei Jun frowned. “There are many who would benefit from his absence or who could use Shang Qinghua against me. I should not have spoken of my intentions.” If I wasn’t strong enough to bear their weight, he bit back.

Shen Qingqiu was making a notable effort to keep his face hidden behind the fan, but even Mobei Jun caught a flash of hesitation. “We had heard tell of a particular delegation in attendance.” Luo Binghe looked to his husband as the word ‘we’ was dropped like a buffer Shen Qingqiu rarely deemed necessary. “Individuals from Zi Jing Mountain.”

“They were here,” Mobei Jun confirmed, sensing the tip of an iceberg had just shown itself from beneath the human’s willowy exterior. The image of that one demon came to mind, but his memories recent—a stormed caravan, a pathetic apology, a dead guard, a shattered arm.

“I confronted the group, and found no sign of Shang Qinghua among them. Their leader was urged for information, thoroughly.

Shen Qingqiu pressed, “You went to Zi Jing Mountain as well then?”

Mobei Jun felt his nerves wearing thin, tired of Shen Qingqiu dancing around whatever he really meant to say. “Why are you asking these things?” He should get to the point. He was worse than Shang Qinghua—all words and no meaning, but this one steeped in arrogance.

The delegates from Zi Jing Mountain were in truth one of the first he had sought out, spurned by the recollection of that demon’s attentions on Shang Qinghua and a lingering anger about the Abyss Wolves. The latter he didn’t bring up to avoid the weakness it would infer, but taking an arm felt like an exchange he could live with. Mobei Jun found no evidence of Shang Qinghua’s presence—he could not smell him, sense him, or see any indication he or anyone else beyond Qu Shiying and his own retinue were present in their small group.

Yet now Shen Qingqiu’s words made him reevaluate. They had too. Too many years of experience would make him a fool to ignore them, but for all the growing need to storm back up that mountain and turn it inside out, he was fiercely distracted by the matter in front of him—namely, what was Shen Qingqiu hiding as he chose to respond to Mobei Jun’s question with pretentious silence.

“It's nothing, my King. It can wait.”

“What cause do you have to suspect?” Mobei Jun rephrased. Shen Qingqiu met his stare from behind the fan, locking their eyes, but in an uncharacteristic show of an emotion Mobei Jun couldn’t place, he looked away. Mobei Jun did not like what it insinuated. “Who told you?” He stood, hands splayed across the table, no care for the accusatory tone towards his Lord’s spouse.

The fan in Shen Qingqiu’s hand stilled. “Shang-shidi may have mentioned some things recently, in passing.” He admitted. “Of one who goes by Qu Shiying.” Shen Qingqiu’s eyes then narrowed, sharp and decisive like whatever hurdle had been holding him back had passed. “You know of him, correct?”

Shang Qinghua had spoken of someone who could be involved in his kidnapping...to Shen Qingqiu? In what context?! Mobei Jun felt a twisting in his gut and couldn’t tell where to direct the verbal venom he wished to expel.

Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua’s relationship had always been close. It became abundantly clear early into Mobei Jun’s courting of Shang Qinghua that it extended well past their overlapping years on Cang Qiong Mountain, though Mobei Jun did not discount the importance of two men rising through militant ranks together. What the two humans shared had on more than one occasion gone well past the point of propriety, to such extent that Shang Qinghua had felt compelled to screech that the two were “not a thing” and that he didn’t even like cucumbers, a fact that seemed both irrelevant to the conversation, as well as entirely false when he’d excitedly come across a patch of the vegetation later that same month and made very clear he was fond of the taste.

But Mobei Jun had made peace with their friendship, for the most part. He could never fully cast off a sense of shame in regards to how Shen Qingqiu so perfectly filled the gaps that Mobei Jun had in regards to Shang Qinghua. The two had a shared wealth of knowledge, “inside jokes”, and surprisingly similar food palettes considering how inexplicable their requests could be. The number of times he and his Lord had found them in states of minor undress with each other—where simply alcohol or heat was all that was needed to bypass the boundaries between them—numbered more than he could reliably count. Nothing ever seemed sexual in nature, but he could not deny it had more than once felt, to him, rather intimate.

Mobei Jun would never forget the day he had walked in on the pair to find Shang Qinghua shedding tears that were nothing like the well-practiced dramatics he wielded to defend himself with normally, ones that Mobei Jun had been at the receiving end of for so many years. The scene left him feeling hollow in a way nothing short of presuming Shang Qinghua dead had done before.

That memory was fresh in his mind the day he went to speak with Lord Luo Binghe of his intent to wed Shang Qinghua some months ago. When a gift was offered, all Mobei Jun asked was that should anything happen to him, that Luo Binghe take Shang Qinghua as a second husband so that his demonic protection and Shen Qingqiu’s familial care would be extended to his widower.

(Although it had not been the first time Mobei Jun witnessed Shen Qingqiu choke on his tea, it was the greatest distance he had ever seen it expelled. He had to admit it was a rather impressive, albeit shameless, skill.)

Regardless, he would be lying to say he did not feel something akin to envy about Shen Qingqiu, in his connection to Shang Qinghua and, perhaps, in smaller part, towards his Lord Luo Binghe as well. Mobei Jun had never been a possessive person, or so he had believed, before it became apparent he simply hadn’t had anything he truly wanted to keep for himself before them.

Still, these were not matters that would normally color his actions, too inconsequential in the life he now led with Shang Qinghua at his side, and his services—perhaps even his companionship— to Luo Binghe irreplaceable. But sometimes, these times, he could choke on the vinegar.

Shen Qingqiu’s personality did not make it easier.

“Anything spoken to me was done in the strictest of confidence,” Shen Qingqiu amended. “However, in light of recent efforts , it appears I was not wrong in my belief the situation was lacking context. While I’ve no strict evidence of Qu Shiying’s involvement, reconsidering it would be…” He made deliberate eye-contact. “...wise.” So help him if Mobei Jun had to hear that—

Clack. The fan snapped shut, along with Mobei Jun’s last nerve.

“Y-yeah? Well—what if someone did dare?!”

Icy palms slammed on the stone surface before them. “What did Shang Qinghua tell you that he could not tell this Mobei Jun? What matter is it of that lowborn—?!”

Luo Binghe appeared next to Mobei Jun with inexplicable speed and clasped a firm hand on his shoulder. He flashed a brilliant, if not layered, smile. “Excuse this one, Shizun. He would have words with Mobei in private.”

Shen Qingqiu gave the slightest of nods. “Of course, Binghe. This husband understands.”

Leaving no room for argument, Luo Binghe pulled Mobei Jun away from the table, letting go only when Mobei Jun fell in step beside him. The two moved a distance away that could only just barely be considered “private” in comparison, but Mobei Jun understood the intent to de-escalate, recounting with some unease past occurrences. Still he felt relegated to the corner like a punished child, maintaining himself only in the presence of his Lord whose expression teetered in that dangerous minute space between intrigued and incensed.

“Surely this realm’s Mobei Jun was about not about to disrespect this one’s husband, who has come such distance for his benefit?” Luo Binghe inquired, going so far as to smooth down a portion of fur lining Mobei Jun’s cloak that had become mussy under his hand.

Mobei Jun tightened his jaw and took the scolding. “No, my Lord.”

Luo Binghe accepted and the air around them felt distinctly more tepid. “I assumed correctly then. Mobei, did you not tell me once that the way to another man's heart is to beat him three times a day?”

Mobei Jun was not one prone to pouts, but were he, the expression would not have been unjustified. Why would his Lord find it appropriate to bring up such things now... “I was wrong about that.”

“Yet you still did it.”

“I was wrong about that for a long time.”

Luo Binghe chuckled, “And you think your Shang Qinghua who weathered such affections would be felled by the likes of lesser beings?”

Mobei Jun blinked. Was Lord Luo Binghe trying to...lighten his mood? He doubted it was any form of compliment. He answered as honestly as he felt he could with a simple “No.”

“Then Mobei needn’t worry—about his lover or any inconveniences . You will retrieve Shang-shishu and continue to bestow your affections as you please, and ensure you do not anger my husband further by not heeding his advice. He is very sensitive about—”

A cough cut him off. “Binghe, that’s enough,” Shen Qingqiu spoke, clearly no longer interested in maintaining the illusion they were out of earshot. Though he felt no pity, Mobei Jun could understand the man’s impatience—he was seated with only Sha Hualing for company, and the two had never fared well in the others’ presence. “Shang-shidi will indeed be brought home. Mobei needn’t concern himself on that matter. He’s far too pampered here not to return. Surely nowhere else would have him.”

Mobei Jun looked to Luo Binghe for any indication he wished to say more, but his Lord’s attentions had already returned to Shen Qingqiu. Even now to see that soft smile on his face left Mobei Jun feeling like he was witnessing something private, no matter how openly it was shared. Nothing dulled Luo Binghe’s senses however, and he turned to face him and offered a knowing nod as his smile changed to one born of confidence.

If there was a meaning in it, Mobei Jun did not understand it.

“The East then,” Shen Qingqiu commented, readily moving the conversation forward. Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun made their way back towards the table, the tension in the room significantly less than it was mere minutes ago. Though it embarrassed him to admit it, Mobei Jun was...relieved.

Sha Hualing groaned. “Borderlands, the South, mountains... If you’re going to keep making a habit of running around like fools, then I’ll impart my own wisdom and say the Western gulches.”

“West...?” Mobei Jun looked to the demoness, who had been uncharacteristically quiet during their conversation.

“That’s where your Uncle’s been playing lately, so I’ve heard.”

Mobei Jun loomed above her. “You had such information and said nothing?”

“Why else would I be hanging around this dank old place? I was cur— what?! ” She snapped, now suddenly aware she was being stared at by everyone.

Luo Binghe, who had returned next to Shen Qingqiu, crossed his arms as his face appeared to brighten with the revelation. His response garnered more reaction from Shen Qingqiu than the topic at hand, as he peered curiously to his husband from behind his now open fan.

Sha Hualing mocked offense. “You’ve hardly even been here to speak with. Besides, why should I be left to track what another’s blood is doing? Bad enough we’re all here because Mobei lost his—”

“Sha Hualing,” Luo Binghe said in a mild tone. “Be nice.”

If Mobei Jun wasn’t finding himself distracted by a new target for his impatience, he’d almost think his Lord was enjoying himself.

Sha Hualing looked away petulantly, her fingers clenching the delicate fabric of her clothes.

“Say what you know,” Mobei Jun pressured.

“There isn’t much. Only that your Uncle has been amassing his own little army of demons too weak or stupid to command themselves. Seems it’s gotten too large to just wander aimlessly and he’s taken to squatting in occupied territory. It’s been ongoing for some time, but some factions seem particularly upset about it these days. Too big for his own good,” She gave a dismissive hand wave, the bangles on her wrist letting off a delicate chime. “He’s been keeping his head low, but not well enough. Those under my command could easily tell he’s preparing to be something of an inconvenience.”

Mobei Jun had to think. His Uncle, after so many years. Linguang Jun. His late father’s younger brother. To be making a move again now. To be drawing this much attention to himself. It was careless. It could mean nothing or everything.

“Never trust a coincidence, my King!!”

“Had you heard this?” Luo Binghe inquired.

“I had,” Mobei Jun admitted. “In part. I have…kept an eye on him, though it has been some time since he had been given this one’s consideration.” He turned quickly. “I will see to it,” was all the explanation he offered. No one seemed keen to follow as Mobei Jun saw himself out, heedless of permissions or protocol.

Sha Hualing’s voice echoed behind him as the distance grew between them. “My lord, I was not! It was simply a matter of seeing how Mobei had gotten so lax!” For a moment there seemed a hint of embarrassment in her voice though Mobei Jun failed to see why. Clearly this was just another of Sha Hualing’s games.

-------------------------------------

Mobei Jun moved briskly towards his destination, a massive open room of pillars and sparse decor, punctuated by a vast circular basin in the center. Around its edges were a series of runes and symbols, aged to smoothness. The remains of old magic hung in the air like a fine mist as torches that never required lighting danced shadows across the floor.

This was a room used for generations as both a tool and a shelter. Here energies could be wielded with abandon, any excess absorbed into its walls and the palace spared their results. For that reason many also used it as a place to test their own abilities, while others simply when privacy was preferred. Shang Qinghua had once said it would be ideal for cultivation, though no demon required such a thing, nor did he make use of it that way himself.

Now it was primarily used as the place relics were taken by conquest or discovery to be examined. Shang Qinghua came here often for that purpose, tinkering excitedly with old diadems and incense burners, tittering in glee about the effects he knew about or hiding behind Mobei Jun as he egged him on to test those he didn’t. Though this space had seen centuries of immeasurable power and consequence, memories of a Shang Qinghua flipped ass over head by a harmless explosion or laughing hysterically as Mobei Jun found himself coated in bright pink powder from a mishandled sachet gave the space a fonder place in Mobei Jun’s memories than it deserved.

There was none of that fondness in what he came here to do now.

It was at the basin’s edge that Mobei Jun placed his hands, gripping the rim and staring into the blackened water that filled it, shallow and unmoving. His own reflection looked back at him. He wondered for a moment what the other saw. Foolish.

Lifting a tight fist, his claws broke skin and blood dripped from between his fingers onto the surface below. As it rippled, he sent his own demonic qi along with it. The water was immediately replaced by a thick coat of ice, covered in sharp-angled designs that stretched out from the center.

It was worrisome how little he needed to wait.

A face that was not his own appeared over his reflection in the polished ice, their similar features overlapping in a way that brought more unease than comfort. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to do this.

“Uncle.” He spoke to the empty room, and a voice replied.

“Nephew.”

Linguang Jun stared up at him with a lazy smile. It was a face Mobei Jun had not seen in years, not since he had thrown him into a ravine and hoped him wise enough to stay there. Though his power paled in comparison to his own, Mobei Jun still held his Uncle in high enough regard to expect more than a self-imposed exile. To that end, he had tracked him through the gossip of family and the employ of spies to ensure he always knew what he was doing. It would be idiotic not to, his Uncle being the next who could receive the Mobei clan’s power should Mobei Jun fall.

“To what do I owe the sudden attention?” Linguang Jun leered. “Is this lowly demon suddenly worthy of his Lordship’s recognition?”

Mobei Jun despised the face before him, and himself even more for not hating him even further. Buried deep beneath the lessons of betrayal that his Uncle had etched into his very bones still laid the trembling hopes of a child, starved for love, and believing that family could be trusted to provide it. Even a child should’ve known better, he thinks, born to demons and destined to rule them.

“Shang Qinghua.”

“Hmm? Should I know the name?” Linguang Jun tapped a finger to his chin. He did not deserve a response, nor, Mobei Jun knew, did he need one. A familiar laugh filled the space between them. “Still as foolish as ever Mobei, though perhaps not as naive. A coward knows to watch his back and I’ve watched you look over your shoulder for decades. I know you’ve observed me quite closely, at least until your attention waned. How is ruling our family’s clan these days, Mobei Jun? Does the title fit yet or does it still slip from you like a robe you’ve yet to grow into?”

Mobei Jun was never well suited for mind games but he knew when he was being drawn into one. His mind flooded with memories of the past merely at the sound of his uncle’s voice. The insults, the lies, the neglect—what he attacked himself with first could not be wielded against him in surprise and he prepared, however unwittingly, before he came here.

“I’ve no wish to speak with you of such things.”

“Oh? That seems an odd thing to say now. Though to use such old magic to reach me, my dear brother would surely be moved by your faith.” The summoned specter let out a hollow sigh. “I’ve little time to waste with you either, nephew, if all you intend to do is glare at me with eyes of one long dead.” A long crack appeared in the ice as Linguang Jun’s face grew larger, his own energy pressed into the spell. “Yes, Mobei, of course I know of your Shang Qinghua. That the name belongs to your bitch. He introduced himself to me so passionately, do you not recall? Speak nothing of the rumors since.”

To hear that name from his lips...

More ice splintered as Mobei Jun’s measured hold on the magic waned. Too much or too little and the connection tethered by blood would not hold. “What have you done?” His voice was guttural, and he knew to his own disgust that fear painted it as brightly as rage.

“What reason would I have to do anything?”

“You would still take my power for yourself had you the chance.”

“Perhaps. As you’ve taken a dog to bed, the pure Mobei bloodline ends with us. Unless of course you were to join your father in early death and undo the sins he created with your birth.” The surface of the vision shimmered. “But really, what business is it of mine who you intend to wed? Were you intending to invite me for celebration as I attended your last one?”

Resentment and disgust curled in his stomach. To even hear his uncle speak of his engagement felt intrusive, even though it was news Mobei Jun himself had made public. He realized the absurdity of his past self, to think such things could be kept away from those who soured their every interaction. Even Shang Qinghua had brought it up as if inevitable.

Linguang Jun continued to offer himself freely. “Spies have many uses, don’t they? You’re not the only ones with them. All loyalty is bought. One of my favorites had a very interesting conversation with someone in your palace recently after bringing me such news.”

At that moment Mobei Jun finally knew his instincts had rewarded him. He also knew time was short. This type of magic was beholden to efforts on both sides, leaving too much power in Linguang Jun’s hands. He threw his cards on the table.

“Qu Shiying.”

Linguang Jun hummed. “Did you know I had been living on Zi Jing Mountain for so many months? You came to visit too late to pay your respects, still hurting this demon’s feelings.” His uncle paused to watch Mobei Jun’s expression, and though he hoped there was nothing to see, Linguang Jun seemed pleased all the same. “In truth, I’ve no want to deal with demons who take human names and weak allegiances, squirreling themselves away on hilltops. They had resources I required and kowtowed themselves to me before I had the chance to simply leave. They offered me something for nothing, who would I be not to take it?”

“What do you want?” Mobei Jun finally brought himself to ask. In exchange from me.

“You? Nothing. I am glad you’ve reached out to me though, nephew. There shouldn’t be misunderstandings between family. I wouldn’t want you to believe that I murdered your consort out of anything so meaningless as politics or a grab for power. No, when I tear the limbs from his body and hurl them piece by piece down a rotten cliff side for the worms to chew on, that I do so only for my own satisfaction.”

“Linguang!!” Mobei Jun’s claws cracked the basin’s frame, centuries of survival moot to his strength.

“Care to witness it?” Linguang Jun smirks, “Then run, boy.”

“My King——!!”

Mobei Jun smashed his visage into jagged shards.

-------------------------------------

Linguang Jun’s words repeated through his mind in a cackling loop, but Mobei Jun stripped them away to what mattered. If he had Shang Qinghua already, then he had not yet killed him. His uncle would not have found any meaning in such a lie.

Zi Jing Mountain.

Mobei Jun had to go now. Linguang Jun would not wait, knowing Mobei Jun was seeking him. His body still ached from his injury, bloody bandages peeking from beneath the stiff furs of his cloak, and the taxing cost of expending his energy to matters beyond healing it left him feeling sluggish. It didn’t matter. Moving swiftly to leave, he was surprised to find the trio he left behind standing at the main gate. All three make subtle shifts to acknowledge his arrival.

“I have to—” He started, before Luo Binghe raised his hand with a silent command to stop.

“We know where your Shang Qinghua can be found,” Luo Binghe stated, before proudly adding, “My Shizun being as wise and knowledgeable as he is.”

Shen Qingqiu quietly cleared his throat. “Binghe is correct. All things taken into account, there is only one place that comes to mind. This Qu Shiying, he was engaged to a young woman who had a dwelling in the Western gulches. I had not considered it until…” He tapped his closed fan lightly on his palm and allowed a very subtle glance in Sha Hualing’s direction. “...new information. Regardless, it is not heavily fortified, but rather well hidden. It’s unlikely they’d believe any outside their own circle would know of it, so there is an advantage to be had.”

Mobei Jun felt a welcome, familiar calm in being delivered information with no source that made sense. It was...comforting, allowing himself over to that faith instead of simply groping at possibilities. How did Shen Qingqiu know such an otherwise inconsequential thing? Mobei Jun couldn’t begin to guess, care, or assume the cultivator would enlighten him, but the situation being as it was, it didn’t mean he believed it any less.

Shen Qingqiu turned ever so slightly to face Mobei Jun’s direction, snapping open his fan. “And of course, we will be accompanying you.”

Chapter Text

One day left to live.

Shang Qinghua tilted his head back until he was staring up at the ceiling, swaying a brush through the air in lazy strokes as if he could paint himself a skylight.

It could be worse. One day was still plenty of time for Mobei Jun to find him. Everyone knows that the hero doesn’t arrive until the very last moment. Not that fate had been playing fair with the rules of proper storytelling lately. Who brings back an old mini-boss this late into an existing story arc anyway? It’s such a cheap ploy for drama!

Of course it wouldn’t have been possible if Mobei Jun had just killed his uncle back then, that day on the roadside. Not that Shang Qinghua could blame him. Not really. Linguang Jun was family, and sadly thanks to someone’s shitty writing, he was the only real family he had left. That Mobei Jun couldn’t bring himself to dispose of someone who had treated him so horribly in the past, and even tried to kill Shang Qinghua, said way too much about his life up to that point.

Mobei Jun should never have to live like that again, standards so low, and Shang Qinghua put all his bookkeeping, all his bed warming, and all his outright stickiness to make sure of it! Maybe it was a little bit out of guilt, but who wouldn’t want to make it up to someone if you gave them a backstory so angsty even the trolls couldn’t hate him?

Though his chances to do that were pretty much over now.

Naturally he had spent a couple of hours attempting to break the shackle after Wu Mingxia had left. It barely gave enough slack to take two steps from the bed. Whatever it was made out of, even mustering up his energy and sending it into the chain didn’t do a damn thing, nor affect the wood flooring it was attached to. That at least he’d already learned a few days earlier in another failed attempt at finding escape routes. The room wasn’t fancy, and probably wouldn’t pose a problem for a high-level cultivator to bust out of it, but Shang Qinghua? Apparently it suited him as a prison just fine.

Shang Qinghua sighed, looking down at the book that laid open on his lap. The servants had brought the tray of writing supplies back as usual, though this time to the bed, and today he decided to take Qu Shiying up on his luxurious offer. He didn’t set out with anything specific in mind to write about, but once the brush hit paper, words came as they always did.

He began with the topic of a small grove of trees that he routinely passed when flying his preferred route between realms. It always stood out because the leaves glowed in the dark. Want something lit up at night? Smear some of the tree’s sap on it, and you’re all set. That part Shang Qinghua had learned after a crash landing in one of them—the bird came out of nowhere!—resulting in the first time Mobei Jun had outright laughed at him for something that wasn’t related to him hurting himself, if you ignored Shang Qinghua’s injured pride. It was more of a chortle, really, but at that point in their servant-King relationship, Mobei Jun may as well have been doubled-over. The resulting bath had been equally as entertaining. Speaking of hot water, you could even turn the tree sap into a tea that was surprisingly good for hangovers, though your mouth would light up the room for the next few hours.

After describing it in great detail, Shang Qinghua’s words naturally moved onto the surrounding flowers and herbs, and even a legend or two about them. The Lost Lovers’ Lotus was a particular favorite after a little subplot about reincarnated soulmates tossed into his story on a whim actually got him some nice comments. Seriously though, with how many flowers in this world existed for the sole purpose of being betrothal gifts used to rope in another wife for Luo Binghe, it was a wonder anyone was still single. He doodled a few petals in the corner of the page.

Shang Qinghua couldn’t always tell if these were things he’d actually written before, and were now facts in this world, or something new he’d come up with on the spot. It all blended together sometimes. Right now he hoped part of it was the latter and a conflicting piece of information would inspire one of his kidnappers to grind down the Tameable Engorgement Root, and instead of providing “support” for their nightly endeavors, it would leave them with an uncontrollable itch for the rest of their lives. It would serve them right!

The book was nearly full when he finally took a break. As the ink dried, Shang Qinghua’s mind began to wander.

He hoped that Linguang Jun was vindictive enough to tell his nephew that he’d killed him. Honestly, Shang Qinghua didn’t write enough about him to really know for sure. He was pretty confident about the murder part happening. The vindictiveness just seemed plausible. The worst thing that could happen is Shang Qinghua simply disappearing and Mobei Jun never knowing what happened. He really hoped Mobei Jun wouldn’t just think he left. They knew each other better than that now, didn’t they? What reason would Shang Qinghua have to even leave in the first place?! It’s not like anything has changed recently.

Shang Qinghua chewed on the end of the brush. Okay, so maybe suddenly going missing right after being told you’re going to be someone’s spouse without your input could be construed as a motive, but it’d be a dick move! Mobei Jun wouldn’t assume that of him.

Would he?

No! No, he wouldn’t, and the ex-Lord of An Ding Peak and boyfriend of the strongest and coolest demon in this entire world was not about to start wallowing about the possibility just because he was probably going to die tomorrow! Sure, he only had himself to blame for some past instances of fleeing, like after he left Mobei Jun in that inn the first time they met, or after Mobei Jun’s ascension ceremony, or after the first time they had sex, or after Mobei Jun asked him to move to the North permenantly, to name a few...

Damn it.

For all his past groveling and apathy, Shang Qinghua had to admit there might be a slight chance he had some commitment issues.

Shang Qinghua really did want to marry Mobei Jun though! The idea of a big wedding, hilariously expensive red robes and the requirement to socialize out of personal obligation didn’t exactly send Shang Qinghua’s heart aflutter, but having more political power to support Mobei Jun would be nice. Having the whole realm know that Mobei Jun held him above everyone else would be great! Just knowing that Mobei Jun wanted to marry him, silly old Shang Qinghua...well, that would be the best. It wasn’t about some unrealistic fairy tale like being together forever because who knows what tomorrow might bring—irony noted—but the idea of someone wanting to be together with him forever?

Maybe they both needed that.

Why doesn’t his relationship feel as ‘for sure’ as Cucumber Bro and Luo Binghe’s? Is it really dumb to be jealous of your best friend’s marriage? It sounds really dumb. Even though Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun had been “together” for years now, there’s still that really annoying little voice in his head telling him that Mobei Jun would find someone better. That Shang Qinghua was just a filler, a placeholder, someone that Mobei Jun would swap out when he met someone with brains, beauty, pedigree and the ability to bench press his weight tenfold. Shang Qinghua didn’t think it was unfair to say he only had one such feature.

When he thinks about it, it makes sense that writing millions of words about Luo Binghe and his obsessive nature was why he had so much faith in their relationship from an outsider’s perspective. He was even the one who put the very idea of stickiness in Luo Binghe’s head in the first place, no web novel required! While Mobei Jun was his character originally too, he hadn’t written nearly as much about him, and certainly not in a romantic or sexual way. If he was being honest, Shang Qinghua liked Mobei Jun too much even back then to ever put him in scenarios that were too risky, so without the protagonist halo to protect him, it just meant he was rarely there. If he was being really honest, Shang Qinghua had probably spent more hours thinking of features he’d ascribed to Mobei Jun while laying in his bed at night with his trusty right hand and a box of tissues than he ever did in front of the keyboard.

But who needs that kind of honesty?!

It turns out that being on death’s door makes for long, depressing brain tangents. Would it surprise anyone to learn that Shang Qinghua was never very good at meditation either?

Time to clear his thoughts. Mind empty. No problem.

...

What will Mobei Jun do when he dies?

Shang Qinghua slapped the book shut in frustration, moving to put it aside before the question stalled his hand. He tore out the remaining blank pages and used the tray as a makeshift table to place brush to parchment once more.

Mobei Jun,

If you are reading this, then something unfortunate has befallen me. Please know it was not this ser my intent to leave you. I was kidnapped and met an untimely end entirely due to my own weakn shit luck conspiring forces. How embarrassing!

I hope the following can help.

He filled every bit of available space with anything useful he could think of. Nothing that would be especially useful if it fell into the wrong hands of course. Mobei Jun could rule all on his own just fine, so there was no need to write down any of the broader details, just some of the things Shang Qinghua knew would make his King’s life a little easier. Things like where next season’s tariff lists were stored, or when the last inventory of the south wing’s storeroom was taken, and definitely the priority list for accepting audience requests to avoid a repeat of last year’s courtyard scuffle. (They were still finding bone fragments and blood splatter from that disaster…) Oh, and he couldn’t forget to mention what cabinet the servants stored Mobei Jun’s favorite off-season cloaks in, or where the next volume in the series of books he’d been reading to him was shelved (it was a cliffhanger!), or the proper ratio of berries to get that one snow cone syrup flavor Mobei Jun really, really liked.

Nothing actually important.

The brush hovered over the sheet until it dried too much to use. He swirled it back on the ink stone for several dragging moments before he continued, writing as small as he could with the fraying ends of the cheap writing utensil.

You’re really angry but it’s not your fault. You’re really sad, and I wish I was there to help. Remember when I got my butt stuck in the melon seed barrel? I know I made you promise never to joke about it again but you have my permission now.

I always used to think I was unlucky but now I feel like the luckiest man in the world. Lots of weird shit happened but it was enough to bring me to a place where I met you. Maybe it could happen again? Don’t wait for me though, or sleep with my body for five years. I didn’t make myself a spare plant body but maybe I should h

Mobei, you are a great King.

Mobei, you do your ancestors proud.

Mobei, you are the strongest there is!

Mobei, you treated me very well.

Mobei——-

Shang Qinghua wrote until his view of the paper became distorted by tears welling up in his eyes. Why was he still such a crier?! He should be saving those in case weakness to weeping happens to run in the Mobei family.

He skimmed what he’d written before he flipped over the pages and scrawled across the backs as well. Maybe tomorrow he’ll try to get more poetic, if Linguang Jun wasn’t an early riser who did his killing before lunch. After the pages dried, Shang Qinghua folded them into neat little shapes and tucked them under a pillow.

The servants came right on time—or at least it felt like they did, since they were the only way he had to track it. They took away the writing supplies and his first filled book. As promised, they returned shortly after with another tray, this one with a serving of rice, a small bowl of bitter soup, a tiny plate of weird looking fruit, and a single cup of wine.

They didn’t even have the courtesy to ask him what he wanted for his last meal. How cruel.

-------------------------------------

The next morning, it wasn’t servants who came to visit first. The door slammed against the wall as Qu Shiying burst into the room. The sound startled Shang Qinghua upright, the borrowed red robe hanging loose around his shoulders.

How fun to wake up with a heart attack. At least it wasn’t Linguang Jun. A little longer to live! Maybe , he reconsidered upon taking in the scene.

This was a new look for his captor. Qu Shiying was breathing heavily, his hair only partially done up, and sweat trickling down past pinched brows and red cheeks to frame an overall frantic expression. He was also missing an arm. That probably should’ve stood out first.

Shang Qinghua blinked. “Ah...good morning?”

Qu Shiying strode towards the bed and Shang Qinghua instinctively tried to scramble away, his back pressed against the divan’s decorative frame.

“How does one fix this?!” Qu Shiying demanded. He was making no efforts to hide his desperation.

Shang Qinghua replied dumbly, “Fix what?”

Qu Shiying’s remaining hand rose to grasp at the air around his other shoulder. His fingers were tense and clawed, shaking from whatever exertion he was under. “ This! This wound, it will not heal ! I t will not close! Tell me how to fix it or our arrangement is forfeit!”

Our arrangement? Shang Qinghua snorted. Qu Shiying was close enough for him to see the injury. Wrappings had been torn away—by his own nails from the look of it—to reveal a fresh stump.  Sure was a missing arm alright. But more than that, he could see leftovers of the attack still infused in the wound. Ice crystals crept over the exposed muscle and skin, trying to spread its way over to his collarbone, before retreating like a melting frost, then reappearing seconds later. Watching it ebb and flow was mesmerizing.

"Qi poisoning,” Shang Qinghua stated matter of factly. He looked at Qu Shiying’s face. He was still sweating and Shang Qinghua could feel the heat rolling off him. He understood. Qu Shiying’s body was increasing its temperature to compensate but wasn’t strong enough to subdue the cold altogether. Based on his appearance, not to mention the smell, he’s been fighting it for at least a couple of days. Whoever had taken his arm must be very strong.

Shang Qinghua didn’t need more than a single guess to know who. Pride bloomed in his chest, right alongside a kernel of hope.

Qu Shiying pressed for more. “This one knows, but what cures it?!”

Honesty would hurt much more than any lie Shang Qinghua could concoct. “No cure. It will feed off your own qi until there’s nothing left to take,” He shared. It was mostly true. If Qu Shiying were the protagonist, there would always be a cure, but someone who scarcely makes the cut as an NPC? Good luck!

Qu Shiying grabbed Shang Qinghua by the front of his robes and wrenched him closer. “You expect this one to believe you wouldn’t know better of your own Lord’s power?! Tell this one or—”

“Or what?” Spoke a new voice. It had been so long since he’d heard it and served as irrefutable evidence that Shang Qinghua would never forget it.

Two villains at once?! Have a little mercy, System!!

Linguang Jun stood in the open door way. He was just as handsome and just as terrifying as Shang Qinghua remembered—a weak imitation of Mobei Jun in features granted to him only by virtue of being written as a blood relative. As Linguang Jun walked towards them, he quietly hummed a familiar tune that sent shivers down Shang Qinghua’s spine.

Qu Shiying immediately let him go. Not that it mattered. Shang Qinghua’s legs had lost the strength for anything but a kneeling position.

Shang Qinghua remembered when Mobei Jun could make him feel like this—like his very presence could fill an entire room, making terror and unpredictability feel tangible, leaving him desperate to find a hole to hide in where there was air to breath. Even as a teenager, barely that much taller than Shang Qinghua, Mobei Jun had the aura of someone you did not want to piss off.

Still, his fear of Mobei Jun had always been mixed with pride and awe, before it quickly evolved to honest admiration, and eventually became nearly indistinguishable from relief and excitement. Now any fear he held for Mobei Jun was for upsetting him not because he thought there’d be retaliation (okay, maybe a little), but because he didn’t want Mobei Jun to be upset at all. He didn’t want him to be unhappy. Mobei Jun could manhandle him all he wanted—and he does—but Shang Qinghua knew he was in no real danger at all.

Linguang Jun was like being all the way back at step one, only worse. These two had history and it wasn’t good.

“My Lord...” Qu Shiying was clearly caught off-guard. “This one had not expected… It is only the—”

“Yes, yes, I’m early. Now move aside,” Linguang Jun said, walking towards the two. Each boot step matched a half dozen beats of Shang Qinghua’s heart. “I’ve no desire to draw this out.”

Qu Shiying moved aside.

“L-Linguang Jun…” Shang Qinghua stuttered, feigning no deference to the demon in his address as he had in the past. What was the point of it now? He’d hug no other thighs for the rest of his life, and that included all remaining ten seconds of it.

This was fine.

It was fine.

Hell no! It was not fine!!

Shang Qinghua didn’t want to die.

He pulled out that handful of papers, babbling an incantation to infuse them with power. The hastily scrawled writing along the back lit up as the talismans came to life. The symbols glowed a brilliant red. They worked!! The spell wasn’t that strong but it should immobilize a demon even of Linguang Jun’s strength for a few seconds, which was all he needed to—

A hand slammed against his throat. Shang Qinghua gagged, and his crude creations burned up harmlessly in his own hand, a light singe against his fingertips.

Linguang Jun sneered. “You think I would let you fool me again with the same trick?”

Shang Qinghua felt compelled to point out it wasn’t the same trick, but the tight grip around his neck made it impossible to speak.

Easily holding Shang Qinghua with one hand, he pulled him closer. “You don’t need to scream this time,” Linguang Jun mocked as his other hand pressed against Shang Qinghua’s chest. He resumed that haunting tune, a spell woven into the song.

Shang Qinghua only mustered enough strength to wrap his fingers around the sleeve of Linguang Jun’s robe. A familiar ache began to form in his chest, like a rock had suddenly appeared in his ribcage, and all too quickly he realized what was happening. The pain intensified as a biting cold took route around his heart, stealing the breath from his lungs and replacing the pink of his lips with a deathly purple. His skin felt brittle as his entire body began to freeze from the inside out.

It was all happening so fast. Considering the alternatives, maybe the System was having some mercy on him after all. Shang Qinghua could only cough once as his eyelids grew heavy. He wanted to close them before he lost the ability to.

Oh wow...I really am going to die… He didn’t even get a cool montage of his life or anything.

..

.

“Wait!” Qu Shiying cried out, grabbing onto Linguang Jun’s wrist. “You can’t! Not here! ” Panic laced his words and Shang Qinghua felt the icy tendrils working through his bloodstream pause.

“Oh?” Linguang Jun’s voice spoke of amusement, but the glare he gave Qu Shiying’s hand spoke of something else entirely.

Qu Shiying pulled his hand back and attempted a feeble one-armed bow. “My Lord, you can not kill him here. If Mobei Jun were to find this place, if he was to see…!”

“See what exactly? Do you still believe my nephew is unaware this is all your doing?”

Shang Qinghua let his eyes roll limp in his head so his gaze fell towards Qu Shiying. Villain team ups never work out. His lip twitched in its attempt at a smirk.

Qu Shiying looked horrified. “H-he suspects, but he does not know—”

Linguang Jun laughed loudly. “He knows. Although I suspect…” He pulled his hand away from Shang Qinghua’s chest to tap a single finger to his own chin. “...if he’d known the extent of your betrayal before I spoke with him, you would not have been granted these last few days.”

“You...you…” Qu Shiying unravelled before their eyes. He had so far survived getting on Mobei Jun’s bad side, but for Mobei Jun to know the truth of everything he had done, that he had been the one to steal Shang Qinghua away, Qu Shiying had to know he and his own were done for. “You would go back on our deal?! Our clan was to be protected. Our mountain—!”

“When did I say such things?” Linguang Jun scoffed. “You offered me this—” He squeezed and Shang Qinghua choked on a gasp for air. “—and I offered you my forces’ withdrawal. I had no need for those paltry resources any longer. My honor is well intact.”

“M-maybe you both...c-could, ah, s...ettle your d-d-differences...elsewhere?” Shang Qinghua chattered, frost clinging to his eyelashes. Their argument had allowed just enough time for his insides to start thawing. Linguang Jun looked to him with an expression that read ‘why are you still talking’, and Shang Qinghua immediately regretted not playing dead.

Linguang Jun smashed his head against the wooden bed frame.

Barely conscious and hating every second of it, Shang Qinghua couldn’t make out what Qu Shiying and Linguang Jun were saying. His ears rung as white spots danced in his vision. It’d been a really long time since he’d taken a hit that hard, and it was as awful as he remembered. At least the hand around his neck was gone. Granted it had been replaced by a horrible throbbing in the back of his head and his body still felt like he’d been turned inside out and hung in a meat locker, but beggars can’t be choosers. He laid limp on the bed as the two blurry shapes exchanged heated words above him.

The bed abruptly jostled and he could vaguely hear voices shouting from somewhere else. A third blur came through the doorway. Shang Qinghua blinked. Ow. He blinked again. Wu Mingxia? 

“—gotten past! My Lord, please!” She pleaded, her lovely face matching Qu Shiying’s in being far less composed than Shang Qinghua had gotten used to. The bed jostled again. Could we all stop kicking the bed please? One of us has a really horrible headache, thank you.

After a brief back and forth, Qu Shiying allowed himself to be pulled from the room, leaving only Linguang Jun and Shang Qinghua behind.

“Faster than I thought, that damn boy.” He heard Linguang Jun curse.

Another impact shook the bed. Or it shook the room. Shook the building? Shang Qinghua felt his brain begin to settle. He sat up quickly to alleviate a sudden need to vomit, clutching the back of his head with both hands. Shit, that really hurt!! The door of the room was still open, revealing the narrow hallway on the other side. A heavy fog was rolling in low to the ground.

Shang Qinghua’s eyes widened, but a familiar thrum of magic demanded his attention elsewhere. Linguang Jun had opened an inky black portal in the corner of the room, not dissimilar to Mobei Jun’s. Can he even do that...? Shang Qinghua didn’t remember giving him that ability. Maybe it was an ice demon thing, in which case he should count himself lucky their servants aren’t popping in and out of every shadow scaring the crap out of him on a regular basis. Not to mention Mobei Jun’s distant relatives. Yikes! But if that was the case, how could he not know before now? That didn’t make sense! It couldn’t be an ice demon thing. Not that it was a very strong portal anyway. He could tell just from the look of it that it paled in comparison to one Mobei Jun could make—its uneven edges and rippling surface made it impossible to blend in with the surrounding shadows.

“Who do you think taught him?!” Linguang Jun snapped. “Certainly not his father."

Inner monologues stay on the inside, Shang Qinghua.

...though that answer did make sense, even if it served as a bitter reminder of how many things he’d yet to learn about Mobei Jun. How many more things he wanted to ask him. So many more things he wanted to tell him.

Linguang Jun raised an open palm to Shang Qinghua, who waved his hands insistently. “No, no, no, no! Very unwise to kill me now!”

Too many things happening at once! A man needs time to think!! 

“And why is that? I’ve no more use of you now than I did before my nephew promoted you from dog to whore.” Linguang Jun retorted, a large, very deadly looking shard of ice with Shang Qinghua’s name written on it forming in front of his hand, pulled from a basin of washing water. There wouldn’t be enough Shang Qinghua left to bother scooping into a cart if that hit him.

“Are you sure? That portal can’t take you very far. If you kill me, and leave nothing to the imagination, then you’ll only have yourself to blame if it’s shoot on sight!”

Linguang Jun actually appeared to be giving the idea some thought. “Do I look like a demon shameless enough to use a human as a shield?” He asked honestly.

Shang Qinghua quickly answered, “You do.”

“Perhaps you’re right.”

“Ah?”

Linguang Jun returned to the bedside and grabbed Shang Qinghua by his upper arm, dragging him off. In a panic, Shang Qinghua failed to grab onto anything and simply tried to brace his bare feet on the wooden floor to little success.

Not good! Not good!!

“Wait, wait, wait! I didn’t mean take me with you! I’d just slow you down! You know how weak my legs are... Why not just—”

The two were suddenly jerked to a stop by the chain on Shang Qinghua’s leg going taut.

Oh.

Linguang Jun gave an immature yank before letting out a frustrated, “What is this?!” before he spotted the offending attachment. His other hand went to seize Shang Qinghua’s leg, the aim being—one could only imagine in graphic detail—to make him one leg lighter!

Shang Qinghua made a desperate grab for Linguang Jun with his free hand, nearly throwing himself off-balance in the process as he was stuck between the shackle on his ankle and the demon’s hold on his other arm. Just how long did Linguang Jun think a meat shield could last with that kind of blood loss?! Shang Qinghua was a firm believer in blood staying on the inside, and the memory of Linguang Jun trying to twist off his arm like a drumstick was forever fresh.

The fog from the hallway had crept its way into the room as small fractals of ice worked their way up the door frame like vines of ivy. It caused the portal’s stability to worsen. Linguang Jun looked between it and Shang Qinghua. Then again. Then a third time, increasingly more angry. “Oh, fuck! ” He spat, before harshly shoving Shang Qinghua aside and stepping into the shadow alone. The portal instantly curled around itself and vanished.

Shang Qinghua hit the side of the bed, landing hard on his knees. After a moment to realize he was not in fact dead, he began to frantically paw at his own chest, patting and prodding, looking for a wound, looking for some horrid gaping hole—the kind that was so painful it transcended sensation and someone would only notice it was there just as the throes of death overcame them and—!

There was nothing.

Nothing but the tinkling of bells.

...bells?

“Found him~” A voice called out, accompanied by the sound of settling chimes. There was an undeniable sense of boredom to the words despite the cheery pitch. Shang Qinghua had never, ever, in the entirety of both of his lives, been so relieved to hear it.

Sha Hualing was leaning against the door frame. The demoness gave him a skeptical glance, before looking down at her nails like this was the most casual of meetings. Time dragged on just long enough to make Shang Qinghua consider the possibility she was planning to leave, then Sha Hualing made eye contact and said, “You are in so much trouble.”

Her approach to the door had been mostly silent. She was always light on her feet, her presence only announced by sound if she wished it to be, despite her preference for accessories. The owner of heavy boot steps behind her, who crushed the icy floors and parted the dense fog, was normally no different, but today stealth was not something anybody gave a damn about.

Mobei Jun stepped past her into the room.

A better writer could no doubt come up with a beautiful paragraph of baroque descriptions for the feelings that overcame Shang Qinghua, waxing poetic with not a single word wasted or an emotion missed. It would be a timeless ballad, a song of the soul, a transcendent experience akin to those penned only by the most prolific of writers who had ever lived...

Shang Qinghua’s mind was just a series of screeches.

Mobei Jun walked towards him and their eyes met.

...

Say something.

Say something, dummy!

“Y...you...you’re uncle!!” Shang Qinghua spat, clutching the robe tight around his chest to keep his heart in place. “He only just left, he...he’s still here somewhere.”

Mobei Jun stopped and turned his gaze to Sha Hualing. “Can you find him?”

Sha Hualing stared back, searching for something in Mobei Jun’s frozen expression, and replies with a question of her own, “You know what it means when I do?”

“Do whatever you want,” he replied with no discernible hesitation.

“Just what I like to hear, Mobei,” Sha Hualing grinned, her full lips going thin as they stretched across her face in what could only be described as murderous glee. “This will be fun then.” She pushed herself off the door frame with a flourish of the silks that draped between her arms, and left the room.

The air stilled as attention returned to him. Mobei Jun approached until Shang Qinghua was encased in his shadow, pinned by a stare so heavy he may as well have sat on him.

Silence.

With the way Mobei Jun was staring at him so intently, one had to wonder what he was seeing. Shang Qinghua could safely assume he was a little disheveled. Certainly not ‘greet your King’ worthy! There was no way his skin looked nice, and his hair hung loose from sleep. A ring of marks was definitely starting to show around his neck, he was chained to a bed, and wearing some stranger’s clothing. He can only imagine how strange he must look in red for how twisted Mobei Jun’s expression got when his gaze moved down to see it.

Mobei Jun lifted a hand and Shang Qinghua promptly burst into tears.

Okay, burst was a bit of an exaggeration. It was just that whatever bit of restraint remained to keep his body’s water content inside where it typically belonged had finally gotten enough cracks in it to crumble, letting the tears escape from his eyes in a steady stream down his cheeks. He didn’t burst. He was a grown-ass man! He just...fell apart.

Shang Qinghua was feeling too many things at once. How was he supposed to just keep it all in?! Impossible! Who did he think he was, Shen Qingqiu, who could fit his emotional range in a teaspoon?!

Why was Mobei Jun looking at him like that? Why wasn’t he saying anything? Was Mobei Jun angry? Oh shit, he looked sort of angry. If he was here, then he has to know about Shang Qinghua being (arguably) courted by another man, (arguably) lying about it, and then getting himself (unarguably) kidnapped because he didn’t have the balls to do anything about it first. If you put anything like that, of course it would sound bad!!

“M-my King, I…”

Mobei Jun broke their eye contact first. He reached into his cloak, and after appearing to fish around, pulled out a single outer robe. It was a rich blue color and laced with shimmering silver trim, decorated to match with intricate designs along the bottoms of the arms and dress. It was only after noting all that, that Shang Qinghua realized Mobei Jun had held it up just long enough to allow the chance, before he tossed it over top of him.

“Change your clothes.” Mobei Jun said as his throat bobbed with a visible swallow.

“O...okay…” Shang Qinghua replied nervously as he pulled the new robe off his head. Holding it in his hands, the quality was immediately apparent. It felt heavier than the robes he’d worn back in his Sect, but nothing like the thick robes he layered in Mobei Jun’s icy desert. He recognized the silky fabric from their own collection too. They had been saving it for an important occasion. Did Mobei Jun have any idea how much those were worth?! Shang Qinghua couldn’t deny how nice it looked with the silver detailing though. Up close he could make out the different shapes of the Mobei clan insignia, matching the tapestries and war flags back at the palace. The inside of the robe was lined with some kind of thin, white down that may have been the softest thing he’d ever touched. It even felt a little warm.

It was beautiful, and—he would learn as he pulled off the red robe to replace it with the one Mobei Jun had gifted him—it fit him perfectly.

What a waste to wear such a fancy outfit with his puffy face and his hair a mess!!

“Thank you…” He whispered all the same.

Shang Qinghua had to stand up to dress himself. It didn’t take long, replacing a single layer above the inner robes he still wore. He didn’t have anything else to go with it. Suddenly he felt himself pulled forward, a simple sash wrapped around his waist and used to reel him in. He stumbled and his nose collided with Mobei Jun’s chest.

Looking up felt like being struck by a bolt of electricity (and Shang Qinghua would know).

Mobei Jun was gazing down at him, his brows turned up and his lips making a shape Shang Qinghua could hardly recognize on that chiseled face. One wouldn’t call it a smile, nor would they call it something entirely sad. It fell somewhere in the middle and had it not stopped Shang Qinghua breathing, he was sure he’d have some out of date thoughts about character continuity as if he couldn’t see years of loyalty and passion pooling in those perfect eyes.

Strong, attentive hands tied the sash around his waist before sliding past his ribs, over his arms, across his shoulders, and up to hold his face between them. Mobei Jun’s thumb wiped away a tear and Shang Qinghua couldn’t help a breathy giggle from the sensation of it freezing beneath his gentle touch. All the while Mobei Jun kept staring at him, like he hadn’t seen him for a week. Shang Qinghua felt himself blush under the intensity. Even with all his own feelings about the situation, to be looked at like that...by those eyes...on that face...even after all this time...it was still a little overwhelming!!

Mobei Jun pulled him into a hug, burying his face in his neck.

“Never again.” Mobei Jun nuzzled into him. His breath was so warm against Shang Qinghua’s skin. “You are never to leave this one again.”

“Ah…” Those words were a knife to his conscience. “It was...that is...an accident... Er, that’s not quite right. I had no intention to leave you, and things had gotten…Well, it really was just a huge mess. Believe me that I am very, very sorry. I should’ve told you or dealt with it properly but there was a lot going on and I didn’t want to bother you with such things. And the conference, ah! I left you to deal with it all! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you, my King, and—” Shang Qinghua knew he was rambling but couldn’t stop. Apology after apology punctuated his sentences as Mobei Jun said nothing in reply to Shang Qinghua’s attempts to untwist the knot of guilt that had settled in his stomach for weeks, one that had led him to being here and Mobei Jun with that look on his face.

Mobei Jun bit his neck.

Shang Qinghua shrieked. "Ahh! My King—!” He squirmed, but dared not pull away with fangs piercing his tender skin. It hurt!! Yet quickly the pain gave way to relief, stealing attention away from the bruises forming around them. “What’re you…” The heat from Mobei Jun’s lips was like fire on Shang Qinghua’s throat. Warmth blossomed in his chest, chasing away the remnants of Linguang Jun’s spell. He felt his knees begin to weaken. “This really isn’t…” His fingers grasped at the back of Mobei Jun’s cloak.

Teeth slid out from the tiny holes they left behind. Mobei Jun’s tongue licked away the trickle of blood before moving to slow, hungry kisses, each and every one a proclamation of ‘mine, mine, mine’ They made their way down towards his collarbone as Mobei Jun’s hand slid up to expose it from beneath the robe Shang Qinghua had just so carefully put on.

It really wasn’t an appropriate use of their time, but hell if Shang Qinghua was going to suggest they stop now.

“M...Mobei... ah …” Shang Qinghua wriggled enough freedom from the embrace to maneuver his hands up beneath the fur that lined Mobei Jun’s broad shoulders, his fingers splaying over the robes and the firm muscle beneath it. He pressed his chest into Mobei Jun, eager for whatever touches he could get. He felt the back of his legs brush against the bed frame as those fervent kisses returned upwards, lips against his jaw, his check, his li—

Shang Qinghua’s finger grazed the bandages peeking out from his very generous kisser’s clothing. Mobei Jun growled in disapproval as Shang Qinghua abruptly pulled himself back to get a better look. He didn’t need to move the cloak much to see the extent of the injury and the blood that was trying to work its way through the layers of cloth. He frowned, Mobei Jun’s grip around his waist loosening as Shang Qinghua made quick work unraveling the unsightly mess.

Most of the wound had healed but crude, swollen edges and the smell of rot betrayed what a horrible injury it had been. Did something bite him?! Shang Qinghua trailed two fingers over the puffy skin and Mobei Jun clicked his tongue. “What were you doing when I was gone, fighting giant Turgid Bog Rats?!” Shang Qinghua exclaimed.

Who treated this wound?! There’s not even a hint of medicinal ointments or Restoration Grass left on it! Did they want Mobei Jun’s head to shrivel up and fall off?!

His exploring fingers felt something hard beneath them, small but foreign. “My King...one more apology I’m afraid,” Shang Qinghua didn’t wait for a reply before he dug a single finger into the shallow laceration. Mobei Jun hardly flinched. What a champ! Second laters, he pulled out a shard from a broken tooth nearly the size of his own. WTF?! Pinched between two fingers, he held it up between them. “Did you do this to yourself?! Because you’re the only person I can’t demand you exile for this shitty excuse for treatment!”

Mobei Jun stood up straight and took a slow, deep inhale. He cracked his neck, looked back down, and he grinned. Shang Qinghua flinched.

That was its own brand of scary!!

“Come, we’ve no reason to stay here any longer.” Mobei Jun said, literally smacking the tooth fragment out of Shang Qinghua’s hand before grabbing his wrist and pulling him towards the door. Shang Qinghua was immediately struck with a sense of very recent nostalgia. Like Uncle, like nephew , he thought, to his own disgust a moment later, before he made the important connection—

“W-wait!” He yelled, pulling back on Mobei Jun, who looked to him with annoyance.

“Why?”

“It’s just...my leg?” Shang Qinghua offered an awkward smile as he lifted his bound appendage off the floor. Mobei Jun’s eyes trailed down Shang Qinghua’s body, to the metal chain that still held him captive. Going down on one knee, Mobei Jun hooked a single finger between the shackle and the sensitive skin of his ankle. A shiver rippled through Shang Qinghua’s body (from the cold!) as the metal was encased in ice, and then promptly shattered.

Mobei Jun tugged at Shang Qinghua’s pant leg until he was satisfied with its placement, but instead of getting up, he remained kneeling before him. Shang Qinghua looked down and was met with the eyes of someone clearly trying to make a decision. Much as he loves any opportunity to look at that beautiful face, what could be more important than leaving?!

“My King?”

“Will...” Mobei Jun hesitated, pivoting his words. “I don’t blame you.” He said in a low voice. Shang Qinghua caught the change, but found too much relief in what was said to chase a different truth. Mobei Jun stood up, taking a light hold of Shang Qinghua’s hand. “You will pay for it, but you do not need to apologize to me again.”

Ah? Shang Qinghua laughed nervously. “O-of course…”

“Now follow me,” Mobei Jun finished as he released his hand and moved to the door, dazzling as always.

A smile crossed Shang Qinghua’s face, even as his fingers twitched at the loss. “For the rest of my life, my King!” He promised and trailed after him.

-------------------------------------

It didn’t take long to weave their way through iced up corridors and unfamiliar hallways. Shang Qinghua hopped over the occasional body and whined as his toes stuck to frozen patches of the floor before Mobei Jun pried a pair of boots off one of the guards and made him wear them.

After passing numerous windows, openings to small gardens, and a spattering of decor, Shang Qinghua could make out enough details to wager a guess where they were. This must be Wu Mingxia’s home in the Western Gulches. He hadn’t written much about it. Really it was just a place that Luo Binghe had taken his newest wife for some privacy as he proved to her with a week of endless papapa how she didn’t need to use her abilities to please him. Oh, hey, there’s the altar where Luo Binghe… … Oh, that could not have been comfortable.

But how did Mobei Jun know about this place?

The sound of clashing swords welcomed them to a large exterior courtyard. It was a flurry of activity, dozens of individuals brandishing a variety of weapons. Shang Qinghua squinted in the sunlight. They were all fighting...Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe?!

“You brought them?” Shang Qinghua asked incredulously.

Mobei Jun crossed his arms. “I brought Sha Hualing. Lord Shen came of his own choosing and my Lord followed.”

Shang Qinghua stared agape before he turned back to the pair fending off attackers with ease. He couldn’t help the grin that curled up his cheeks—or at least it would’ve been a grin, if he wasn’t another second away from crying, the two overlapping expressions fusing together into something that more closely resembled constipation.

Cucumber Bro really does care, doesn’t he?

And to a much, much, much lesser extent his “son”, but still!

Sha Hualing he assumes is here out of boredom. It’s not like she’s Mobei Jun’s subordinate, and to say she tolerates Shang Qinghua’s presence would be a vast overstatement. At least he’s pretty sure. Frankly she terrifies the hell out of him and he’d rather not be in her presence long enough to really get a read on their relationship. The idea of being liked by Sha Hualing felt just as scary as the alternative. He’s seen how she plays with people on both sides. At the very least he’s confident that he counts as Mobei Jun’s possession, which warrants him at least a sliver of worth.

Pushing aside thoughts of demonic hierarchy and his place somewhere between tableware and royal stooge, Shang Qinghua had to appreciate the martial display in front of them. Shen Qingqiu fought like grace incarnate. Not a single movement was wasted as he blocked incoming attacks with his sword, his other hand behind his own back, and his smooth footwork keeping him close to Luo Binghe as they orbited around each other. A perfect complement, Luo Binghe’s form was very similar to Shen Qingqiu’s but with a sharpened edge that made blocks harder and attacks more frequent. His movements matched the smirk on his face in contrast to Shen Qingqiu’s unwavering passivity. One could easily make a case for Luo Binghe’s skill fighting blindfolded as he was obviously looking at Shen Qingqiu just as much as the people they were fighting. Not out of concern, quite the opposite, and Shen Qingqiu spared his own gazes in turn.

The ultimate power couple! Shang Qinghua felt proud. Not that he could take all the credit.

Those they were fighting were a mix of Qu Shiying’s retinue, evident by the clothing they wore, and the rest a scattering of individuals who didn’t seem to have much consistency to their appearance or allegiance, aside from the fact they were all demons of some sort. Not a human in the bunch that Shang Qinghua could tell.

Shen Qingqiu finally noted their arrival. With another smooth parry, he let his sword arm fall to the side and casually walked over to them as if they weren’t still surrounded by enemies. Luo Binghe filled the gap without missing a beat, stopping anyone from approaching his spouse and taking the lot of them on himself.

“Shang-shidi appears well,” Shen Qingqiu commented dryly after giving him a top-to-bottom lookover. A quick look exchanged between Shen Qingqiu and Mobei Jun preceded the latter stepping off the wooden terrace and joining the fray. Shen Qingqiu sheathed his sword and replaced it with his fan, unfurling it to provide himself a few comforting waves of air. Not that Shen Qingqiu did something as barbaric as sweat, or so people thought. Shang Qinghua has seen the pit stains.

“Thanks?” Shang Qinghua responded, fiddling with his hair in attempts to tie it up and flinching when he grazed the swollen lump on the back of his head. Shen Qingqiu pursed his lips slightly and Shang Qinghua leaned in closer.

“You wouldn’t happen to feel guilty about something, would you, Cucumber Bro?” Shang Qinghua inquired slyly.

Shen Qingqiu moved his fan higher, as he blatantly averted his gaze. “ Tch, what reason is there?”

“Oh, I dunno...not telling me about the you-know-what with you-know-who?”

Shen Qingqiu scoffed. “It’s your story.”

“Bro, I told you I forgot!”

“Well since when did a little horniness result in getting kidnapped?! Whose fault is that?! ” Shen Qingqiu hissed, snapping his fan shut across his palm. An instinctual flinch hiked up Shang Qinghua’s cheek, but it only further stretched out his satisfied grin when no strike came. Shen Qingqiu coughed. “I am not here because I felt any such thing. I simply wished to fulfil my curiosity about Qu Shiying’s race. That is all. They are very unique.”

Shang Qinghua nodded in mock agreement. “ Mm-mn. Okay, okay,” before the two watched Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun make quick work of the remaining chaff.

Finally, it was time to go—

“Stop!”

Qu Shiying’s voice carried remarkably well as he come into the courtyard from an adjacent hall. He was out of breath and his cheeks were still flushed. Did the fever send him into some kind of delirium? He could’ve been long gone by now. He should’ve been long gone by now.

Although Qu Shiying was already dying, that was an unavoidable truth. With Mobei Jun now knowing his clan’s involvement in the whole debacle, there was definitely going to be retaliation once they left here. Considering how much of this whole mess seemed to be for Qu Shiying’s clan in the first place…

Shang Qinghua actually found himself feeling sorry for the guy.

Your Father would have treated you better if he’d known!

Ten others flanked Qu Shiying, all wearing light armor that Shang Qinghua recognized from the guards who had harassed him before. This group was likely a little stronger than those currently littering the ground, but he had to assume they were no less fodder-y.

Qu Shiying raised his one arm to Mobei Jun, a sword pointed at the demon king’s head. “You and your Lord Luo Binghe left this one and his people to suffer at the hands of your kin. Our pleas to Lord Luo Binghe were dismissed and our missives to you unanswered. We had no choice!”

“With flesh unharmed by fire and lungs not bound by air, we shall not be felled by the ice!” Cheered one of the others. Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu grimaced in unison. Put that one in the long list of things that were a lot less cheesy to read than they were to hear.

Still, Shang Qinghua stifled a laugh. Qu Shiying thought he could kill Mobei Jun? Talk about a hopeless cause! That doesn’t even address the fact that Luo Binghe was here—main character and ruler of the entire demon realm. The guy you just mentioned, sound familiar? It’s not like they were the only ones Luo Binghe considered too small-time to manage, and did Qu Shiying have any concept of how many messages go past Shang Qinghua’s desk any given day? Give a guy a break! This whole mess had gotten really personal even before the whole kidnapping thing.

Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe answered the accusations with nothing but engagement in combat as all ten descended upon them in the foolhardy assault.

Putting his fan away, Shen Qingqiu gave Shang Qinghua a prepared scowl. “As I doubt you packed your sword nor have developed some kind of physical prowess without my knowing… Stay. Here.” He pointed at the porch like he was scolding a child.

Shang Qinghua held up both his hands in immediate submission as he watched Shen Qingqiu return to the fight. That was a surprise. Not the submission part of course—Shang Qinghua was happy not to squander his rescue, thanks—but that Shen Qingqiu joined in such a skirmish when Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun were already there. He wasn’t kidding about being curious about Qu Shiying’s race. A nerd after his own heart!

It turned out to be a good decision pragmatically too. This battle seemed less one-sided than before as Qu Shiying’s hand-picked group were remarkably talented with their weapons. Most wielded swords but one guy did have an interesting mace-like club. For fighters with considerably less imposing figures, they fought with an odd sense of abandon, and it became clear why when Luo Binghe sliced across one of their chests resulting in nothing but a torn shirt, the skin beneath a hard indistinguishable stone. Even a flash of fire didn’t seem to have any effect beyond damage to clothing, allowing them to press forward with attacks when it was expected they would block or falter.

There was no way in hell they could beat that trio, but they’ve been promoted from inconvenience to obstacle.

Things dragged on like that for some time, with Shang Qinghua hunkered down on the porch, lamenting he had nothing to snack on, and marveling at the opportunity to just watch these three powerhouses do their thing. Just look at how Mobei Jun moved—all flashes of ice, black crackling power, and sharp claws. His cloak billowed behind him when he turned and his beautiful black hair shifted just enough to reveal more of the glowing sigil on his forehead, which was only minorly distracting from how much of his chest was exposed because of the low cut he’d worn today to accommodate for his injury. Perfection! Go get ‘em, my King!

It was almost enough to make Shang Qinghua forget why they were here in the first place. Within the hour he’d been seconds away from death and now—

Where was Linguang Jun, anyway? Had Sha Hualing really killed him off-screen, just like that?

Think of the in-law and the in-law arrives! Movement caught his attention nearby when a figure stumbled out from a shadowy corner. Shang Qinghua opened his mouth to shout but Mobei Jun was faster, spinning as he raised a cloak-covered arm to block the incoming attack. A wave of blue energy crackled against the black of his own aura before being cast aside like rain on a windshield.

So cool!!

Linguang Jun sneered from his position. He had seen better days—his robe was torn open on one side, his hair was in tangles, there were whip-like gashes across his cheek, and his mouth was spouting all sorts of obscenities, not least of which about a “spoiled bitch”. The mouth on that one!

Mobei Jun knocked away another attack like it was child’s play as he stormed towards his uncle, pushing past any warm bodies in his way. The air around him darkened as he summoned forth his array of swords, dozens of black blades made entirely of his own demonic qi manifesting around him and prepared to strike at any target of his choosing. This is what one would call a ‘special occasion’ attack. Shang Qinghua could count the number of times he’d seen it on his hands and it was never short of spectacular.

Shang Qinghua wanted to call out a cheer but the moment was too bittersweet. Nephew against uncle, who for all intents and purposes, was like a surrogate father to him. Or maybe more like a big brother? Details! What matters is there’s some serious baggage, and as comforting as Linguang Jun being dead, gone, and never coming back would be, Shang Qinghua thought that continuing to deal with that ever present fear of death at his hand was worth not seeing Mobei Jun being the one to do him in.

Shang Qinghua wanted to look away but knew he couldn’t. He has to see this th—

Snake in the grass! Qu Shiying was moving his way through the crowd, his sword held tight in his remaining hand and his eyes dead set on Mobei Jun’s back. He moved slowly to avoid being seen but wasn’t the only one whose eyes were locked on the northern monarch.

All sympathy gone!

Shang Qinghua’s legs moved before his brain could concoct a plan and his mouth could shout anything useful, settling for a few harsh words of his own. He didn’t have a weapon so he’d just have to settle for warning Mobei Jun, or worse-case a tackle with little faith he was strong enough to pull it off.

“Airpla—Sha—what did I tell you?!” A voice cursed in passing. Someone else collided into him and he shoved past, ignoring how close he’d just come to losing an ear. My King! My King! My King! His mind shouted, at least one actually making it to his lips, he thinks, but his target doesn’t turn around.

Mobei Jun’s display of power was immense as he continued towards Linguang Jun, unknowingly positioned between Shang Qinghua and Qu Shiying. His swords circled around him in an impressive ring and anyone in close proximity was giving him a wide berth to avoid becoming targets. His weapons were poised to attack, but they were facing the wrong way! Why are they beholden to Mobei Jun’s eyeballs and can’t just attack for themselves?!

Behind you, you stupid swords!!

Magic in this world was a funny thing. Shang Qinghua had written it based on years of accumulated media knowledge, pulling from any and all sources for inspiration to ensure that the world of PIDW never got boring or was held back by things as unimportant as ‘rules’. If something needed to happen, it would happen, and the reverse was just as true if it suited a scene for dramatic purposes. It was this kind of unapologetic writing that made a god’s level of know-how about this world only go so far. Magic had cause and effect, but very little in the way of explanation in the middle.

So Shang Qinghua didn’t consider the finer details before he did what he did—grabbing onto a construct made entirely of demonic qi as it hovered in the air before him, nor what would happen when he thrust it into the chest of someone who could deflect any weak blow by virtue of built-in body armor.

The effects were instantaneous.

Just as Qu Shiying raised his arm to stab into Mobei Jun, the sword broke past his hardened flesh like it was made of eggshells. The power that gave the ebony blade form traveled like lightning from the point of impact, drawn towards the same energy that had already made its home there, wreaking havoc. The sword slid between ribs, tore past muscle, and burst out the other side with an abrupt lack of resistance.

Qu Shiying screamed, a maddened declaration of wordless shock, as his own weapon fell from his hand with a clatter. He twisted away, the sword pulling out with a sickening squelch with Shang Qinghua’s hand held tight on the base. The demon’s eyes fell on Shang Qinghua, his grasping hand failing to reach him as he staggered forward.

“Y...you...” He coughed, an eruption of blood with the consistency of slush narrowly missing Shang Qinghua’s borrowed boots. The qi poisoning that Qu Shiying’s body had barely managed to hold back finally overtook its host, stiffening his limbs and hardening his skin before he even hit the ground, not with a shatter but a cold, dull thud in a bloodless heap.

Adapt to THIS!! would’ve been a cool thing to say in hindsight. A shame that Shang Qinghua was rarely one to get the show stopping lines with writing chops like those...

When the shock of the moment had passed, Shang Qinghua looked down at the sword in his hand. Should he have been able to do that...? This was pure demonic power—it should’ve fried him on the spot! Or turned his meridians into pretzels, disrupting his cultivation beyond repair. Where was the pain? Where was the penalty? This was a classic sacrifice play, not that he intended it that way…nor was he complaining! He tilted his head up and his gaze met Mobei Jun’s who seemed just as lost as he was at the sight, mouth open in surprise.

“My King…” Shang Qinghua gasped. “He was, so I... Are you alright?”

Mobei Jun snapped out of his trance and dismissed his own spell with a wave of his hand. The swords in the air around them and in Shang Qinghua’s possession melted away to black swirls of mist. He took one long stride towards Shang Qinghua and abruptly cradled his head between his hands.

His King stared at him intensely and Shang Qinghua stared back, too confused to do anything else.

With his thumb, Mobei Jun began to trace around the center of Shang Qinghua’s forehead. The movements felt too careful, too intentional, to simply be cleaning off the sweat and dirt that clung there. Whatever he was drawing left a cool tingling sensation behind. As he finished, Mobei Jun closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Shang Qinghua’s, his demonic mark connecting where his touch had been moments before.

Shang Qinghua’s whole body shivered from the contact, like a bit of Mobei Jun’s power had wiggled its way inside him. He heard Mobei Jun’s breath catch, and only then realized he’d closed his own eyes at some point too. When he opened them, Mobei Jun was already lifting one of Shang Qinghua’s hands and slipping something small and hard onto one of his fingers. Was that a…?

“Shang Qinghua.”

“Ah,” He looked back up. “Yes, my King?”

Mobei Jun grasped both of Shang Qinghua’s hands between his own. “Shang Qinghua,” he repeated. “Will you marry me?”

Alarms went off in Shang Qinghua’s head. System warnings? Wedding bells?! What just happened? Mobei Jun was proposing?? Weren’t they already engaged? But with a ring? Was this Hollywood?! Do they even do the ring thing in this world? Demons didn’t care for little trinkets, right? The ring was so pretty. Why’d he have to go and cover it with his hands? Light had danced off it, multi-layered rainbows like oil on freshly laid asphalt…It felt sort of warm. All of Shang Qinghua felt warm. Was his face on fire? It felt like his face was on fire. Except for that one spot on his forehead. Refreshingly frosty. What did Mobei Jun even draw there? The lingering feeling reminded him of Mobei Jun’s gentle kisses, not the sexy kind, he doesn’t usually put those on his forehead, but the other kind, the kind that say ‘I lo—’

The hold on his hands tightened. “Qinghua...this one needs you to focus.” Mobei Jun spoke with unbearable softness. Shang Qinghua shook his head to dislodge the tangled web of thoughts. He was focusing! Of course he was focusing! He’s always focusing! Focusing on...

“Will you marry me?” Mobei Jun asked again, his eyes boring into Shang Qinghua who became keenly aware just now that the fighting had continued around them in a frenzy of clanging swords and thrown spells. Mobei Jun’s hair whipped behind him in a sudden updraft of wind and his demonic mark shone a brilliant blue. His body did not flinch and his gaze did not falter.

He was so, so, so, so, so, so cool.

And waiting.

“Yes, my King—ah, Mobei! I'll marry you, I'll marry you, of course I'll marry you!” Shang Qinghua cried as he jumped up and wrapped his arms around Mobei Jun’s neck—one part concern for the chaos around them and ninety-nine-parts overwhelming, uncontrollable affection. He pressed his lips against the demon’s cheek, hanging for a moment before his feet touched back to the ground.

Mobei Jun pinched his chin between finger and thumb and pulled him in for a kiss. A good kiss. A great kiss. Shang Qinghua’s hands clenched in Mobei Jun’s cloak while the others’ hand found its way onto his lower back, pressing their bodies together. Shang Qinghua moaned. Mobei Jun smirked and his tongue did something in Shang Qinghua’s mouth that even a master of PWP scenes couldn’t begin to describe.

“Binghe, what are you—? We’re already married!!”

By the time Mobei Jun released Shang Qinghua from what was undoubtedly the best damn make out session of his life that didn’t result in lust-drunk fondling—though Mobei Jun did slip in a very enticing hip squeeze because he’s evil like that—the fighting around them had almost completely stopped. They stood there together, surveying the area, hands still placed on the other and Shang Qinghua reteaching himself how to breathe.

Luo Binghe had decided he was done playing around and made swift work of the remaining guards leaving a courtyard covered in blood and bodies—most were dead, with a few still twitching with no want to present themselves as anything different. He sheathed his sword and his gaze traveled elsewhere.

Shen Qingqiu was fighting Linguang Jun near the farthest wall, no doubt cutting off the demon’s escape at some point. How thoughtful! Linguang Jun was making an impressive show of it, attacking the cultivator with numerous small projectiles of ice, yet hopelessly unaware that he was using that ability against someone who had a lot of experience with just such an attack style. To see Shen Qingqiu struggle at all though, stepping to the side to dodge one moment, and missing a sword strike the next, gave Shang Qinghua a teeny, tiny bit of admiration for his future uncle-in-law. He wasn’t ‘make Luo Binghe shout ‘Shizun!’ strong, but he wasn’t dead.

Yet.

Mobei Jun’s hands slid away from their very welcome place on Shang Qinghua’s sides as he stormed towards the pair, a flurry of different emotions overtaking his regal face. Shang Qinghua followed closely behind, almost tripping over Qu Shiying’s body in the process. Creepy!

Shen Qingqiu saw their approach and disengaged, swatting away the last ice bullet with his fan in a move so perfect that Shang Qinghua knew his friend was gloating inside. It was very nice though—two thumbs up, Cucumber Bro. Linguang Jun had been confused by the action until he saw Mobei Jun’s approach.

“Ah, nephew. I was wondering if you had any intent to greet me. One could become concerned you had gotten too good for such things.” Being in such a sorry state, Linguang Jun kept up airs remarkably well. Where’s your potty mouth now, ah?

Mobei Jun raised an arm which Shang Qinghua promptly bumped his head into. “There shouldn’t be misunderstandings between family.” He said, darkly.

Misunderstandings? Shang Qinghua peeked over Mobei Jun’s arm to look between the two.

Linguang Jun hummed. “Yes, it would be a pity. We’ve none though, yes? Nothing harmed today. Nothing maimed.”

“When I tear the limbs from his body…” Mobei Jun started, walking forward. Linguang Jun’s eyes widened. His pupils made an obvious dart to the side in search of an exit, finding only the stone wall of the courtyard.

“Rotten youngster, you dare to mock me?!” Linguang Jun spat and Mobei Jun shot forward like a beast released from its cage. One hand grabbed Linguang Jun by the neck and lifted him up.

“And hurl them piece by piece…”

“M-Mobei—” Linguang Jun choked, failing to bat away Mobei Jun’s other hand that wrapped around his thigh. There came a sickening snap. Linguang Jun coughed up blood. Shang Qinghua winced.

“For the worms to chew on…” Mobei Jun twisted his wrist and the flesh and muscle beneath his fingers contorted and stretched. He pulled slowly, agonizingly, until in one fluid motion, he tore Linguang Jun’s leg from his body.

“This I do so only for my own satisfaction.” And with that he hurled Linguang Jun like he weighed little more than a sack of flour, up and over the wall of the courtyard.

Shang Qinghua shielded his eyes from the sun as he watched Linguang Jun’s leg thrown after him. He could’ve sworn he heard a curse among the sound of rippling robes, followed by silence. Mobei Jun walked over to a large round window and Shang Qinghua jogged up behind him, scooting just far enough to see the cliff on the other side. Who knew the building was sitting only several long strides from the edge? Good thing Shang Qinghua didn’t test his ‘I’m not on a mountain’ theory earlier in the week...

He looked to Mobei Jun. “Did you mean to do that?”

Mobei Jun said nothing, but satisfaction was still woven into the scowl on his face.

“Well, next time then, ah? A bit ironic… But at least that’s a gulch this time, not a ravine.”

“They’re the same thing.”

“No they’re not.” Shang Qinghua retorted, wagging a finger. “A gulch has water at the bottom.”

“Both of you shut up.” Shen Qingqiu spoke sharply from behind them, a hint of fluster in his voice. “We’re leaving,” he added with a reserved huff. Luo Binghe slid his hands off Shen Qingqiu’s waist and kicked aside a body impeding their path. The two groups met at the courtyard’s entryway. Three groups, really, if you counted Sha Hualing seated above them on the archway.

“All done?” She asked, making a point to look down at Shang Qinghua who returned her blatant judgments with a tiny wave. “Good.” Sha Hualing hopped down, her gauzy shawl settling around her and completing the picture of a fashionable demoness who had for sure been spreading hell in that building and probably helping herself to a snack or novel while the party happened outside. She excused herself to Luo Binghe, offered Mobei Jun a little sneer that was somehow very endearing and didn’t spare Shen Qingqiu so much as a look before she was gone.

Not that Shen Qingqiu would care, even if he had been paying attention. Shang Qinghua glanced over to see Shen Qingqiu was instead staring at him. At what? His sloppy hair? His beautiful robe? (Don’t be afraid to comment on that one, bro!)

“You’ve got a little something here.” Shen Qingqiu said instead, motioning to his own forehead with the tip of his closed fan. “It’s red, so I almost didn’t recognize it at first.”

Red? Shang Qinghua hovered a finger over that spot Mobei Jun had touched him. Did he smear blood on his head?! Some kind of demonic ritual probably, so he really shouldn’t be surprised. Why was it always blood?

“Mobei Jun’s symbol. It… Well, it suits you.” Shen Qingqiu added with a sense of finality before snapping open his fan to block anything else nice from sliding out by accident. “Come, Binghe. This master is tired.”

“Of course, Shizun.” Luo Binghe replied proudly, leaving Mobei Jun’s side where the two had exchanged brief words, and sidling up to Shen Qingqiu. A series of vague nods, subtle looks, and subtler smiles, and the two took to their swords and left, leaving only Shang Qinghua, Mobei Jun, and a small field of bodies.

Kudos to those still doing a very good job at playing dead and praying for them to leave. It was harder than it looked!

Shang Qinghua let out a sigh, drooping his shoulders. He was tired, and hungry, and dirty, and not really interested in any of the things required to solve them. He was also just kidnapped, nearly died, and killed a guy but oddly it didn’t weigh on him that much. Not anymore. Not in this crazy world. He looked up at Mobei Jun only to find him already looking back. Who cares about those other things when he was otherwise healthy, happy, and engaged to this man before him, soon to be his—Shang Qinghua smiled—“husband.”

Mobei Jun looked shocked, and then he blushed. He blushed!! Shang Qinghua resisted doing a little victory dance. “Soon…”

Shang Qinghua was unbearably delighted at the newly acquired ammunition. “How does it sound though, my King? Good, ah?”

"Mnn. ” Mobei Jun smiled softly. “It sounds good.”

Skipping closer, Shang Qinghua clung to his arm. “Did Shen-shixiong tell you about all that? Proposing with a ring?” He stretched out his arm to show off the stone ring on his finger, polished so smooth and catching the sun. Only now did he notice how it fit just as flawlessly as his new robe.

“He did,” The other replied, as the two began walking, leaving Wu Mingxia’s home behind them and following the dirt road as it wound down the hillside. Neither had explicitly said they wanted to walk. Neither of them had to. It was nice. Besides, Shang Qinghua could definitely use the fresh air! “Though I admit I wasn’t able to accomplish all that Lord Shen had shared.”

“Oh?” Shang Qinghua perked up curiously, before leaning his head on Mobei Jun’s bicep. “Like what?”

“I did not find the ‘perfect place’.”

“I think we could make that argument.”

“I did not have flowers.”

"Pfft! Not needed.”

Mobei Jun frowned a little at that response.

“I did not kneel.”

That actually caused Shang Qinghua to look up, offended on his behalf. “Never necessary, my King!” How dare anyone ask Mobei Jun to kneel?! Luo Binghe didn’t count.

“A kneel relinquishes little to one who already has a King at their call.”

It was Shang Qinghua’s turn to blush. “Ahhhh, okay, okay, okay. Anything else? I need to know how many trials our Lord Shen attempted to put my King’s honor through.”

"Mnn, there was one more thing.” Mobei Jun stopped walking, the two of them standing beneath a grand tree that cast a shadow across the empty road. He placed his hands on Shang Qinghua’s shoulders, holding him firm as if he would find reason to flee. “Qinghua…”

“Yes, my King?” Shang Qinghua was all smiles.

“I love you.”

Mobei Jun knew well to hold him there because all Shang Qinghua’s body was screaming to do was cover his own face and vibrate into the soil. Instead when his legs threatened to give out under the sudden rush of blood to other places (like his face, his face!!), Mobei Jun’s experienced hands slid down to his upper arms with just enough force to keep him upright. It wasn’t the first time Mobei Jun had said it—though Shang Qinghua definitely beat him on usage count—but still...but still!!!

“H-he really told you to say that…?”

Were they talking about the same Shen Qingqiu?!

Mobei Jun smirked. “It was implied.” He adjusted his cloak to tuck one half back over a shoulder, reminding Shang Qinghua of the discomfort a warmer climate could cause. Honestly he was craving a little frostbite himself and felt oddly compelled to rub at his own neck. “Now, don’t you have offerings for me in return?”

Huh?

“Ah...offerings, my King? Like what?”

What did you tell him I was supposed to do, Cucumber Bro?!

“Another promise.” Mobei Jun’s tone was suddenly a bit more serious. One has to wonder what could be more important than to promise someone lifelong servitude and now marriage, but Shang Qinghua could admit the former might’ve gotten a little repetitive. “Should one feel foolish enough to seek your attentions again,” He lifted Shang Qinghua’s hand to place a possessive kiss atop his knuckles. “You tell this Mobei Jun. No matter how frivolous. No matter how ‘busy’. I will take care of it.”

Agreed! This entire incident was not something Shang Qinghua wanted a repeat of. Politics be damned—let his King stomp on the troublemakers!

“Absolutely, my King! Your faithful ser—husband, will gladly leave such a role to you from now on.” Shang Qinghua slipped his hand away to raise it in oath. “Though please let me save some face. Today was not my first attempt to stab him.”

Mobei Jun pet him on the head. “That pleases me.” He moved his arm in a large arc, opening a portal in the deep shade beneath the tree and extended his other hand to Shang Qinghua. “Follow me.”

Shang Qinghua took it. Mobei Jun’s hand was cool and strong and made him feel indescribably safe as the others’ thumb traced over the ring on Shang Qinghua’s finger.

“Mobei…” He swallowed, his mouth dry and his heart still racing. “You do know that...I would never, ever leave you, right? Not for any reason. It’s...ah...really important that you remember that.”

Mobei Jun simply gazed at him fondly, offering a gentle pull forward into another apparent hug, before abruptly yanking Shang Qinghua up over his shoulder instead.

"Ah! My—M-Mobei!” Shang Qinghua squeaked, his arms floundering for balance before Mobei Jun’s hand came to rest on his ass.

“Time is up,” Mobei Jun commented. Shang Qinghua could only laugh between cries of ‘Spare me, my King!’ as Mobei Jun carried him through the portal and back towards their home. Fortunately it was the only direction Shang Qinghua had any interest in going, no courting of the consort required.

THE END